“You haven’t dozed off on me, have you?” William glanced at Elizabeth, whose head rested against the back of the reclined passenger seat. He hadn’t heard a sound from her side of the car for several minutes.
“No, I’m just marveling at the stars. Lake Tahoe is the only other place where I’ve seen a sky like this.”
“I know what you mean.” Bajans called the sparsely populated region around Pemberley the Scotland District because of the topographical resemblance. On clear nights on the deserted hilltops, the night sky seemed immense, an inky black expanse teeming with brilliant shards of light.
He pulled the car to the side of the road and stopped, leaning back in the driver’s seat to savor the view. He enjoyed walking or running outdoors under any circumstances, but at Pemberley he derived special peace from the beauty of nature. The music of the planet seemed to ring in his ears as he wandered in the garden or stood on the beach or stared in awestruck silence at the starry sky. He reached for Elizabeth’s hand, his contentment multiplied a hundredfold because she shared it with him.
“Thank you for agreeing to stay for dinner,” she said, twining her fingers with his. “It meant a lot to Aunt Maddie and Uncle Edward, and to me, too.”
“I enjoyed it,” he answered, surprised to realize that it was true. Their passionate and playful afternoon had left him in a benevolent mood. Besides, the Gardiners were congenial company, or at least they had been after a few awkward minutes. “But what was going on with your uncle? He seemed upset with me at first.”
“He was. I should have warned you but I completely forgot.”
“Why? He kept eyeing me as though he expected me to steal his wallet.”
“Not his wallet,” she said with a quiet laugh. “His niece’s virtue. I got busted this morning trying to sneak back to my room.”
“Aha. That explains why he glowered at me the first time I rested my arm behind you on the sofa.”
“I’m sorry. I could tell he was making you uncomfortable.”
“It’s all right. I can see why he was upset.”
“Well, I can’t. I’m not a child anymore.” She blew air through her nostrils, her eyes still trained on the sky. “But I admit, in a way it’s sweet of him. He’s always treated Jane and me like surrogate daughters. The problem is, he’s a strict, protective father.”
“That’s why I understand him. Not that I’m her father, but I’m dreading the day when young men start chasing after Georgie. Thank heaven there’s been none of that so far.”
“That you know of.”
“No. She’d tell me.”
Elizabeth coughed. “Oh, please. You expect your 15-year-old sister to spill her guts to you or any adult about a crush, or a boyfriend? Well, of course, how silly of me. Because it comes naturally to Darcys to share their innermost thoughts.”
“Georgie has always confided in me.” William pressed his lips together. Elizabeth didn’t seem to understand his bond with his sister.
“Sure, when she was six or seven and wanted Santa to bring her a pony,” Elizabeth retorted. “But she’s turning into a woman. I promise you, there are all sorts of things she’s not telling you.”
It wasn’t the first time they had debated the subject of Georgiana, and William’s jaw tightened, a prickle of annoyance creeping up his neck. He sat up straight and steered the car back onto the road, gravel crunching under the wheels. They drove the rest of the way to Pemberley in uncomfortable silence, neither wanting to spoil their perfect day with an argument. William was relieved to finally turn up the drive and see the house looming ahead, a glowing beacon on its solitary cliff.
He had barely hefted Elizabeth’s suitcase out of the car when the front door swung open. A tall, broad figure stood silhouetted in the light spilling out onto the front steps. “Good evening, Mr. Darcy.” Her voice was warm and rich, flavored with the piquant lilt of the Caribbean.
He led the way through the door. “Elizabeth, I assume you’ve met Mrs. Shepherd?”
“Of course,” Elizabeth said, giving Pemberley’s housekeeper a warm smile. “She fixed me the most magnificent breakfast this morning while you were asleep, and her husband gave me a ride back to the hotel.”
Mrs. Shepherd grinned broadly. “You got yourself a sweet girl here, Mr. Darcy. Can I get you anything? Dessert, or coffee maybe?”
“No, thank you, I think we’re fine. We’ll call you in the morning when we’re ready for breakfast.”
“There’s plenty of coconut syrup left.” Mrs. Shepherd winked at Elizabeth. “Night, Mr. Darcy, Ms. Elizabeth.”
William waited until Mrs. Shepherd vanished into the kitchen. “You had her coconut syrup this morning?”
“On waffles. It was to die for. And she taught me some Bajan expressions, too.”
“Really? I’m surprised. I’ve always found the dialect interesting, but she rarely uses it around the family.”
“I’d been hearing it around the island, so I asked her about it and she taught me a few phrases. She said I probably shouldn’t try to speak it, but I don’t know if I can resist the temptation to work ‘cheese on bread’ into a sentence.”
William chuckled. ‘Cheese on bread’ was a colorful local exclamation of surprise. He led the way upstairs. Once in his bedroom, he dropped Elizabeth’s suitcase with a thud. “Is this thing lead-lined?” he asked.
“I was packing for two trips, one here and another to New York, just in case.” Elizabeth wandered to the balcony doors. They were partway open, the sheer white curtains on either side fluttering in the ocean breeze “Not to change the subject,” she said, “but Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd certainly took it in stride when I materialized in the kitchen this morning. Apparently they’re used to feeding breakfast to strange women and then driving them home.”
He stepped close behind her and caressed her shoulders. “That’s because of Richard. He rarely spends a night alone.”
She turned to face him. “But Richard isn’t here right now, and they weren’t the least bit surprised that you had an overnight guest.”
“Lizzy,” he said, brushing a curl off her cheek, “I told you a few weeks ago that you were the only woman who has ever slept in any of my beds, and that includes Pemberley.”
“I remember. But you were being sweet and reassuring, and you knew I needed to hear that to make me feel more comfortable.” She sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry; I’m being an idiot. Your past relationships are just that—the past.” She drew away from him before he could decide how best to respond, flashing him a quick, awkward smile. “I should unpack my clothes. I can hear them wrinkling in my suitcase.”
He caught her hand to stop her retreat. “I wasn’t just saying what you needed to hear. It was the truth. You still seem to think that before I met you I was some sort of Don Juan. A slightly more principled version of Richard, perhaps.”
“I don’t think that. And I’m not saying you’ve done anything wrong. But you’ve obviously had plenty of opportunities, and … well, let’s just say you wouldn’t make a good monk, assuming it required an oath of celibacy.” She pressed her lips together, a smile lurking there that faded almost immediately. “I know it’s irrational, but I hate thinking of you with another woman in your arms.”
“You still don’t understand, do you?” He rested his hands on her shoulders, his thumbs stroking the sides of her neck.
“What?” She slid her hands up his chest.
“That I’ve never experienced anything like this—us, I mean.” He bent forward and brushed a soft kiss over her slightly parted lips. “It scares me sometimes how much I want you. You can’t infer anything about my past from the way I turn into a panting, drooling beast every time I’m within a mile of you.”
Her quiet laughter and his answering grin dissolved the tension in the room. She draped her arms loosely around his neck and rose up on tiptoe to kiss him, still smiling. “I surprised myself more than once today, the way I couldn’t keep my hands off you.”
He chuckled and wrapped his arms tightly around her. “You won’t hear me complaining.” Their kiss lingered this time. Then he led her to over sit on the edge of the bed and took her hands in his. “Cara, please believe me. I haven’t been with anywhere near as many women as you seem to think.”
“I know. Like I said, I know I’m being irrational.”
“But I think I understand. If you told me you’d had twenty lovers before me, I’d tell you it was fine, that I didn’t care about your past as long as I was the only one from now on. But the truth is, I’d want to kill every one of them.” He paused and shook his head. “No, that wouldn’t be enough. I’d want to go into the past and wipe them out of existence. I’d want to be the only man who had ever laid claim to any part of you—your body, your heart, and especially your soul. It’s not rational, but that’s how I’d feel.”
She pulled his head down to hers, her lips claiming his with sudden passion. “How can you be so inarticulate sometimes, and then say something so perfect? That’s exactly how I feel. I don’t like to imagine you calling another woman ‘cara,’ or crying out her name in that desperate tone you get in your voice when you’re on the verge of—” She pressed her lips together and glanced at the floor. “Or mumbling, ‘I love you,’ and then falling asleep with your head on her shoulder.”
He raised her hand to his lips. “I haven’t done any of those things with another woman. Sex has been something my body craved from time to time, but that’s all. But with you … there’s no comparison. I want to make love to you all the time; I can’t get enough of you. Sometimes I worry that you’ll start to think it’s all I want from you, like you did that night back in New York. You know that’s not true, don’t you?”
She nodded. “I feel it, too. Do you think it’s because we’ve spent so little time together as lovers? We waited a long time, and then we only had two nights together, until last night.”
“I’m sure that’s part of it, though I also think we have something special, a sort of passion that not everyone gets to experience. Plus, we have a lot of lost time to make up.”
“And we couldn’t have picked a more perfect place for a romantic reunion.”
He sighed in utter contentment and flopped back on the bed, staring at the ceiling fan turning lazily above them. She joined him, snuggling close. “Please, cara,” he said, “don’t worry about women in my past. You are the only one who’s ever set me on fire.” He nuzzled her neck and breathed her in, the tantalizing scent of jasmine enveloping him.
She unbuttoned his shirt slowly, her smile provocative. Her hands slipped inside to stroke his chest, her touch heating his blood. “Should I get a fire extinguisher?” she purred.
“I’m willing to risk it.” He kissed her, charging eagerly into the flames.
Elizabeth woke to the distant thunder of the ocean blended with the sonorous tones of a piano. She reached for William, but her hand found nothing but cool sheets and an empty pillow.
He had mentioned his bouts of insomnia and his tendency to use the piano as a sleep aid, but he’d said it usually happened in times of tension or sadness. The William Darcy who had drifted into an exhausted slumber in her arms had seemed as peaceful and contented as she’d ever seen him.
Elizabeth rummaged through her suitcase, found her satin nightshirt, and slipped it on. Occasional creaking boards announced her progress as she tiptoed downstairs, but the music never stopped. A small brass lamp on a side table in the foyer offered half-hearted illumination to guide her progress. Once downstairs, she followed the sound of the piano, trying to remember which room held the instrument.
William still hadn’t given her an official tour of the house. On her first visit they’d eaten on the patio, after which he’d led her directly to his bedroom; tonight the result had been the same. But she had made her own inspection of the first-floor rooms that morning before breakfast, and had begun to understand William’s deep connection to the historic mansion.
Although stately and elegant, Pemberley was not the imposing monument to Darcy family pride she had expected. It was true that the rooms were large and airy, with lofty ceilings and plenty of windows framing magnificent vistas of the lawn, the gardens, and the sea beyond. The architect had used curved lines wherever possible, from the circular foyer to the ever-present arches above doorways and windows, framed in polished woodwork. The overall effect was graceful and serene and somehow reinforced a sense of history.
But although the house had no doubt undergone major renovations in the more than 200 years since its construction, the hardwood floors bore the faint scars of thousands of footsteps, a mute testament to its heritage. The furnishings, while elegant, had been chosen for comfort as well as style. In short, it was a home, not a bastion of ostentatious splendor like Rosings, best viewed from behind a protective velvet rope.
She found William in a parlor at one side of the house. He sat at the piano, bent slightly forward, every line in his body communicating absorption in his music. Faint moonlight shone in the large windows along one wall, supplying the sole illumination, but his hands knew the keyboard with an intimacy that made eyesight redundant. She smiled as she thought of those hands playing over her body in the darkness, his touch commanding yet exquisitely gentle.
He finished the Rachmaninoff prelude1, his fingers still resting lightly on the keys as the final chord drifted into the darkness. She tried to speak but couldn’t, her voice stilled by his palpable concentration. Instead she took a tentative step toward him. Before she reached him he began to play again. A sweet, plaintive melody2 filled the room. Again she stepped toward him, compelled to touch him.
The music exploded in a torrent of passion, as though William was crying out in agony, and she froze in place. But the tempest soon exhausted itself, giving way to the first melody, now tinged with regret. And so it continued, serenity battling with distress, introspection with desperate frenzy. At last it ended on a note of quiet pain that seemed to thicken the air around her, filling her eyes with sympathetic tears.
He flinched when she touched his shoulder; it seemed that he had heard neither her footsteps nor her voice when she spoke his name. She couldn’t see his expression clearly, but she sensed the tension in his shoulders. “I woke up and you weren’t there,” she said softly. “And then I heard you down here.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. The reply sounded mechanical. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“What’s wrong, William?”
He rose to his feet, tightened the belt on his silk bathrobe, and switched on the small lamp on the piano. “Nothing. I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I came down here.”
“If nothing’s wrong, why were you playing those stormy pieces?”
“I’m thinking of using them in a recital next month.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “You can’t judge my emotional state from my musical selections.”
She brushed aside his evasive reply. “You told me once that when you play late at night, you play for yourself, and you pick things that match your mood. Were you telling the truth then, or are you telling it now?”
“You’re calling me a liar?” His voice was soft, but steel flashed in his eyes.
She didn’t rise to his bait, certain that it was an attempt to deflect attention from himself. “I didn’t mean it that way,” she said in a soothing tone. “I’m just worried about you. Please, tell me what’s wrong. Whatever it is, let me help.”
His expression was unreadable, his dark eyes hooded, but after a moment he stepped closer and his body brushed against hers. He muttered her name and cupped her face in his hands, his thumbs stroking her cheeks as he stared long and deep into her eyes. He sighed once, a ragged, shaky sound, his body seeming to deflate with its force. Then, with no warning but a flash of heat in his eyes, his mouth came down on hers, insistent and seeking, its urgency making her gasp. The dark, ravenous lover who had appeared briefly on their first night at Pemberley was back, hungrier than ever.
He dragged her into a tight embrace, his kisses fiery and intense. William had never kissed her like this before, but someone else had, and the excitement rising inside her was tempered by a wave of fear. Her mind flashed to that long-ago dormitory room, but she heard her therapist’s voice: Use your senses to anchor you in the present. She inhaled William’s warm scent and skimmed her hands over his shoulders, seeking details that would hold the ghosts of her past at bay. Soon the fear dissipated, replaced by awareness of William, his body radiating heat, his kisses incendiary.
His touch was different from his usual caresses, too. He seemed intent on conquest and not on the tender sharing of pleasure. To her surprise, her blood simmered in response, awakening a primal hunger that shocked her. She shuddered when he gripped her hips and pressed his body against hers, and she moaned fiercely in response. If he sought to escape the demons pursuing him by setting himself ablaze, she would throw herself on the pyre with him.
He walked her toward the sofa, his mouth never leaving hers, and yanked open the buttons on her nightshirt. The garment tumbled to the floor, his robe following immediately. He pulled her body against his with feverish haste, his embrace nearly driving the air from her lungs, and then stole her remaining breath with an all-consuming kiss that left her head spinning. She clung to him, the frantic rhythm of her heart seeming to shake her entire body.
Her legs bumped the edge of the sofa. Understanding his purpose, she allowed him to lower her down onto her back; he followed her down. A chill washed over her when she found herself pinned in place by a powerful male body in the throes of fierce passion, but again she used her senses to keep her in the present. Her hands gripped his shoulders: William’s shoulders. He raised his head and she stared into his hot, dark eyes: William’s eyes, two bottomless wells of desperate need. She had nothing to fear from William. He might teeter on the edge of control, driven there by forces she didn’t understand, but he would never hurt her.
“You’re mine,” he rasped through gritted teeth.
She nodded, her fingers digging into his shoulders, her breaths quick and shallow.
His hands glided over her, mounting a new assault on her senses. “Say it.”
“I’m yours.” Her words trailed off in a breathy moan as his touch found its mark.
He laid siege to her body, one part of her after another surrendering to the shuddering heat of his touch. He groaned his pleasure when she reciprocated, his breath coming in uneven gasps. Soon she felt him probing between her legs, rubbing himself against her. She cupped his buttocks, pressing him toward her in silent encouragement. He felt wonderful—thick and hard and smooth-skinned. And warm, so warm. Too warm. She plummeted back to earth. “William, wait. We can’t.”
He didn’t seem to hear at first, his eyes shut tightly, his face contorted with pleasure. Then he stared at her in glassy-eyed confusion. “What?”
“We need a condom,” she said. “And as usual, we don’t have one.”
He shut his eyes again, his jaw muscles working. Then he hauled himself off her and perched on the edge of the sofa. “Damn it!” He hunched forward and buried his face in his hands, his shoulders heaving.
“It’s okay,” she said quickly, shaken by his vehement reaction. “We can go upstairs. Or if you want to stay here, I’ll go up and get one ….” Her words trailed off, silenced by his lack of response.
It was difficult to stifle her astonished questions, to give him time to calm himself. But she forced herself to wait, the silence broken only by the ocean and the staccato rasp of his breathing. As the seconds stretched to minutes, she found it an increasing challenge to lie on the sofa completely exposed and not lunge for her nightshirt. Her eyes darted repeatedly to its resting place just out of reach on the floor, but she lay still, one arm draped over her chest and the other covering her abdomen. Finally, she sensed from his slower breathing that he had regained his composure. She sat up and snuggled behind him. “Are you okay?” she asked gently, kissing his shoulder.
He pulled himself from her embrace and rose to his feet. “I’m sorry, Elizabeth,” he said in a hoarse voice. “My behavior was inexcusable.” He bent down and snatched up his robe, shoving his arms through the sleeves.
She stared up at him, bewildered and even somewhat offended, but her worry on his behalf dominated her other feelings. “It’s okay, Will.” He didn’t seem to notice her intentional use of his nickname. She continued, adopting a breezy tone. “We just got carried away and forgot. We have a tendency to do that, don’t we?”
He swallowed and met her gaze, but he didn’t answer.
“Why don’t we go back upstairs?” she said with a coaxing smile. “I could give you a backrub. It might help you to relax.”
He belted his robe with hands that seemed to be shaking. “I need some air.” He strode toward the door.
“No, please, wait.” She jumped to her feet, struggling into her nightshirt.
He stopped in the doorway and turned back. “Please, Lizzy, just let me go. I’m not fit company for anyone right now. I’ll be back.” And he was gone.
A door creaked open and closed in the foyer and the house fell silent, save the distant pounding of the surf against the shore. She shook her head, dazed. First he had flung her onto the sofa and practically ravished her. Then, faced with the prospect of a quick dash upstairs for a condom, he had flown into a rage. William wasn’t the most tolerant of men when things didn’t go his way, but she had never seen him so … what? Angry? Overwrought? She wasn’t sure.
Elizabeth rose and walked to the windows. He wasn’t on the patio, but she could see no further than that in the darkness. She could give him time alone to cool off as he had asked, or she could follow him outside and force him to talk to her. It took her only an instant to decide. Something had cracked him open, perhaps his music, and she had caught a glimpse of something dark and troubling, something he preferred to keep hidden. She needed to find him now, before he sealed the vault encasing his soul.
1 Prelude for piano No. 8 in C minor, Opus 23, No. 7, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Performed by Van Cliburn on My Favorite Rachmaninoff, (c) 2000, BMG Entertainment. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.
2 Ballade No. 2 in F major, Opus 38 CT3, by Frederic Chopin. Performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy on Chopin: Four Ballades, Four Scherzi, (c) 1964, 1967, 1999 Universal Classics Group. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. Hear on Spotify. Hear on Youtube.