Elizabeth awoke to find her face pressed against the cool glass of the train’s window. She turned her head slowly and peeked at William through her eyelashes. He was, of course, absorbed in a book, his unaccountably sexy reading glasses perched on his nose. She spread the fingers of her left hand and studied her ring, a habit she would have to break before returning to San Francisco or else endure endless teasing from Charlotte.
She leaned over and rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. He kissed the top of her head. “Hi,” he said softly. “Have a nice nap?”
“I don’t know why I fell asleep. I wasn’t that tired.” She blinked to clear her vision.
“It’s just as well,” he replied with a sly grin. “You’re going to be awake most of the night.”
“Is that so?”
“I told you I’d make you pay for callously forcing me to sleep alone for the past week.” He grinned at her. He had been much more relaxed since their night at the W Hotel, and despite some occasional teasing, had clearly conceded defeat on the question of the sleeping arrangements.
“I know; I’m so cruel.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Though if you’d be willing to arrange a repeat of the other evening, I could see my way clear to forgiving you.”
“I think that was a one-night-only performance.”
Elizabeth couldn’t think about that evening without blushing. She had intended to meet William at the townhouse and suggest a room service dinner at the Four Seasons. But Sally had proposed a bolder scheme that day at lunch, when Elizabeth confessed her curiosity about one-night stands. “I’ve never had one,” she had said, “and I guess I never will. I mean, I don’t want to have one, but talking to Richard has made me wonder what it would be like. Just, you know, hypothetically speaking.”
“Why not have a one-night stand with William?” Sally had suggested. “Pretend you don’t know him, and seduce him.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t. I don’t mean to sound like a prude, but I’m not that kind of girl.”
“Lizzy, you’re an actress. You can be any kind of girl you want to be.”
Sally had helped with the arrangements, from the borrowed black dress to the hotel room quietly allocated by a friend on the front desk, a room Elizabeth had used only to change into the dress since William had rewritten the script by getting a room of his own.
It had been exhilarating to step outside of herself for an evening, to become a woman who had never had a bad experience with a man, one who could stroll into a bar provocatively dressed and seduce a handsome stranger—yet not a stranger, which had made it both possible and enjoyable. Her face grew warm at the memory of just how enjoyable it had been. William had been different, too, less solicitous and more forthright in pursuing his own pleasure. She wouldn’t want a regular diet of frantic coupling on the bathroom counter, but it had been the perfect remedy for their mutual frustration.
They had spent the rest of the evening and most of the night nestled in each other’s arms, until Elizabeth had dragged him into a taxi and back to the townhouse in the misty hours just before dawn. Then she had performed the even more difficult task of sending him off to bed alone, when she would have much preferred drifting to sleep in his arms.
The hotel room had offered an alternative to the unthinkable: making love to him in that house, where she couldn’t banish the image of curious housemates listening at doors or overhearing incriminating noises through the heating vents. She would somehow have to accept this risk once they were married if they were to live in the townhouse, and she knew how much he wanted that. But she had months before the wedding; perhaps she would feel differently by then.
She pressed a hand against her cheek. “When are we due into Washington?”
“In about an hour.” He hesitated, glancing around them. The car was sparsely occupied; it had gradually emptied since leaving New York. “There’s something we need to talk about, and I’ve been putting it off for long enough.”
“Did the President find out I didn’t vote for him and kick me off the guest list for the luncheon?”
“Very funny.” But his smile died only half-realized, and a muscle twitched at the corner of his eye. “It’s about a meeting I had with Gran a few days ago … well, with Gran and our lawyer.”
“I asked you about that, and you said it was nothing.”
He licked his lips. “I know. Like I said, I’ve been putting it off.”
“Then it sounds like you’d better just blurt it out.”
“It’s …” He shook his head and started again. “Gran arranged the meeting to discuss …” He sighed. “A prenuptial agreement.”
She almost laughed, but restrained herself in sympathy for his obvious dismay. “Is that all?”
“You’re not upset?”
“I knew we were going to have this conversation eventually. Why should I be upset?”
“I was.” He removed his glasses and slipped them into his breast pocket. “It was an ambush. Gran didn’t tell me what the meeting was about. When the attorney pulled out the draft of the prenup, prepared without any input from me, I nearly walked out of the room.”
“It wasn’t nice of them to spring it on you.”
“I wonder if Gran guessed how I’d react? If so, I give her credit, because I surprised myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve always known that the woman I married would have to sign a prenup. I considered it the sensible, responsible thing to do. But as I sat looking at the paper, my first thought was, ‘We don’t need a prenup. We’re going to be together for the rest of our lives.’ And my second thought was, ‘If I ask her to sign this, she’ll think I’m expecting the marriage to fail.’” He shook his head. “Ironic, all things considered.”
“Why? Is that what Charles said to you last May?”
“Almost word for word, but I brushed it aside and told him he was being irresponsible.”
She couldn’t help smiling. “Talk about your chickens coming home to roost.”
He nodded. “I deserve that.”
“I don’t mean to tease you. Well, yeah, I do,” she continued, flashing him a mischievous grin. “But go on with your story. You said you nearly walked out of the room?”
“I was halfway out of my chair, but then I forced myself to look at it from Gran’s perspective.”
“She’d never be comfortable if we got married without a prenup.”
“It’s not that she doesn’t trust you.”
“Yes, it is,” she retorted with a little laugh, “but I don’t blame her. If I decide to run off with the mailman some day, she doesn’t want me taking your trust fund—and the silver tea service—with me.”
“But it isn’t personal. She wants the prenup because I’m getting married, not because I’m marrying you.”
“I know.” She grasped his hand. “Look, I agree with you: I think we’re going to have a long, happy life together. And in that case, the prenup is a non-issue. So what’s the harm in having one, if it means your grandmother can sleep at night?”
“I should have known you’d understand.”
“Yes, you should have. And, by the way, if Charles had approached Jane in the same way, she would have been just as understanding. But neither of you gave her the benefit of the doubt.”
His eyes narrowed, a change of expression so subtle that only someone who knew him intimately would have recognized it. “I know that, and so does Charles. And we’ve both apologized for our mistakes.”
She leaned over and planted a kiss on his cheek, and his eyes softened. They sat quietly for a minute, and then she returned to the subject of the prenup. “Did you bring the dreaded document with you?”
“No. I insisted on some changes; I didn’t think it was generous enough. But there’s plenty of time.”
“Of course I’ll have to let Jane look it over. If I signed something without having it reviewed, she’d kill me.” She laughed softly. “Well, no, she wouldn’t, but she might raise her voice half a decibel.”
He grinned. “We wouldn’t want that. Incidentally, I’m also having my will revised. If something happens to me, even before the wedding, you’ll be well provided for.”
“I don’t want to think about that.”
“Neither do I, but it’s important.” He didn’t have to explain that he was thinking of his heart. His cardiologist was pleased with his condition, and he hadn’t shown signs of dizziness or undue fatigue since returning from Australia, but the worry was always there.
The conductor’s voice sounded weakly through the speakers above their heads, announcing Baltimore as the next stop. Two people sitting near the front of the car stood up and collected their luggage and coats. “I used to get off the train in Baltimore when I visited Aunt Maddie and Uncle Edward,” Elizabeth remarked.
“It’ll be good to see them again.”
“I know they’ll say this themselves, but it was so nice of you to offer them the extra tickets.” The Gardiners were attending the New Year’s Eve Concert for America gala, using the VIP tickets William had originally obtained for Richard.
“I owe them a debt I can never repay,” he said, his tone painfully earnest. “If they hadn’t invited you to Barbados, I might be here alone right now.”
She shook her head. “We’d still have found our way back together somehow. But it was perfect, having our reunion in paradise.”
“Which reminds me. I thought we’d go to Pemberley for our honeymoon.”
“And I don’t get any say in the matter?”
He stared back at her, his chin jutting out, but humor glinted in his eyes. “Just like I don’t get any say about the wedding.”
“Touché. Anyway, I’m just teasing. I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather go.”
“And let’s stay for two weeks. I think my calendar is clear, but I’ll double check with Sonya next week.”
“That sounds heavenly.”
He smiled. “I wish we were on our way there now.”
She brushed a rebellious curl off his forehead. “But a White House luncheon and a nationally-televised gala concert aren’t too shabby, as New Year’s Eve celebrations go.”
Elizabeth glanced out the window, smiling, as the train glided to a stop at Baltimore’s Penn Station.
The next morning, Elizabeth and William indulged themselves with a late room service breakfast. Elizabeth stayed in the bedroom while William dealt with the waiter in the foyer of their suite. He returned with a tray laden with covered dishes and set it on a table beside the bed.
“You put on a bathrobe?” He frowned at her, almost pouting.
She fingered the sleeve of the plush robe provided by the hotel. “Well, so did you.”
“Call me crazy, but it seemed like a bad idea to answer the door naked.”
“I guess you’re right, though the waiter’s reaction would have been worth seeing.”
He bent over and retrieved her filmy black nightgown from the floor. “If you insist on getting dressed for breakfast, why not wear this? You didn’t have it on for more than ten minutes last night.”
“And whose fault was that?”
He grinned and kissed her. “Yours, for being so sexy. You were a tantalizing Christmas present, and I simply had to unwrap you.”
Then, clutching cups of hot chocolate purchased from a street vendor, they had admired the brightly lit White House behind its sturdy iron fence, and had then wandered down to the National Mall, circling the Washington Monument and admiring the views of the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. At last they had returned to their suite, their noses red from the cold, and she had modeled the nightgown, to William’s obvious enjoyment.
They ate their breakfast lounging in bed, feeding each other an occasional morsel and chatting about nothing in particular. Elizabeth returned their empty plates to the tray and then slid back under the covers, her head propped on his chest as he leaned against a stack of pillows. He wrapped his arms around her waist.
“Mmm.” He lifted a hand to tangle lazily in her hair.
“I love this suite. It’s so romantic and secluded.”
“Originally it was booked, but the hotel had a last-minute cancellation and Sonya found out about it.”
“She’s a miracle worker.”
“There’s something I’ve been thinking about.”
He raised his eyebrows in a silent query.
“It’s about us living at the townhouse. After the wedding, I mean. What if it just won’t work?”
“Are you worrying about not having privacy?” The hand caressing her hair moved to her cheek. “I think I understand why you’re uncomfortable about that now. But once we’re married, it’ll be different.”
“What if it’s not? What if I can’t get past the feeling that I’m living in a fishbowl?”
“Gran and Georgie and my aunt and uncle are arriving in a couple of hours, and they’re all staying at the hotel. Does that mean you’re going to get your own room and refuse to sleep with me?”
“That’s entirely different.” She sat up and scooted around to face him. “They’re not going to be in the room next door. And nobody’s going to walk in unannounced.”
“No one will be next door at home either. And no one comes into my bedroom without permission. Gran always taught us to respect the privacy of others.”
“Maybe so, but I feel like the walls have ears, and I don’t know if a wedding ring is going to change that. I’m surprised you don’t feel the same way, considering how particular you are about your privacy. And, you know, it’s not just where we sleep; it’s … having a space that’s just ours.”
“But that’s just it,” he replied, stroking her hair. “The house is the most private place I know, after Pemberley. And the third floor is entirely my space. After the wedding it’ll be ours.”
“Maybe that’s the difference. The house doesn’t feel private to me. Besides, newlyweds have to make adjustments and compromises, and learn how to live together. But in our case, we’ll have extra people to worry about, and extra adjustments to make.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to live at the townhouse?” His frown and the tension in his eyes communicated his feelings on the subject.
She hesitated for a second and took a deep breath. “Not necessarily. But what if I find that I can’t be happy there? After giving it a sincere try, I mean.”
“The townhouse is my home, my heritage. My family is there. That’s a lot to give up.” He stopped and took a breath.
She glared at him. “Wait just a minute. If you want to talk about giving things up—”
He grasped her arm lightly. “Lizzy. Please, let me finish.”
“Living there is important to me, so I’d like us to try to make it work. But, as I was about to say, yes, of course we could live somewhere else, if that’s what we need to do.” He brushed his knuckles tenderly against her cheek.
“Thank you.” Her shoulders relaxed, and she took his hand in hers, toying with his fingers. “I won’t ask unless I have to, I promise. For one thing, I know your grandmother would never speak to me again.”
“I’d be more concerned about Georgie’s reaction.”
“Just to clarify, I’m not talking about moving across the country. Just a place of our own, somewhere close by. We could be at the townhouse every day.” She sighed. “But I suppose it still might look like desertion to Georgie, and she’d blame me. Heaven knows she dislikes me enough already.”
“No, she doesn’t. Why do you think that?”
“I don’t know how you can be so blind. She uses me as a human scratching post.”
“That’s rather melodramatic.” He got out of bed to refill his coffee cup. She heard the tightness in his voice and saw the firm set of his jaw.
“Will, she’s taking her frustrations out on me. She does it to everyone, but I get an extra dose of it. I’ve put up with it so far, and I suppose it’s gotten a little better in the past few days. But long term, something has to change.”
“Richard mentioned it to me the other night.” William set his coffee cup on the tray and sat on the edge of the bed. “I know Georgie hasn’t been herself, but I assumed he was blowing things out of proportion.”
She slid across the bed and sat beside him. “He’s not. You just don’t want to see it.”
He dragged a hand through his hair and sighed. “I wish you’d said something sooner.”
“I did. On your last night in San Francisco, after the recital.”
“I don’t remember, but that night is a blur.”
“Like I said, Georgie and I have made some progress, especially the other day when we went shopping.”
“Do you want me to talk to her?”
“If you see her do or say something specific, absolutely. Otherwise, I’m afraid it would backfire.”
“I’ll try to be more aware of it.”
“You know what else you could do? Tell her things about our relationship; talk about our future plans, things like that.”
“I already do.”
“Not always. By the time you got around to telling her we were engaged, she’d already overheard you and your grandmother discussing the wedding.”
“I waited because I didn’t want to upset her.”
“Upset her?” Elizabeth jumped off the bed and grabbed her coffee cup from the night table. “Don’t you see what a negative message that sends, that you thought the news of our engagement would traumatize your fifteen-year-old sister?”
“You’re taking it out of context. She’d just been arrested.”
“And I wouldn’t have expected you to blurt it out the instant you walked in the door.” She stared at him. “But you waited almost a week. It made it seem like you didn’t care enough about her to want to share the news.”
He glanced up at her, frowning. “Is that what she thinks?”
“Either that, or maybe she thinks you didn’t consider it such good news after all.”
“There’s no way she could think that. Sonya and Richard are constantly going out of their way to mention your name, just to watch me smile. Oh, and they also told me that I’m not nearly as big a pain in the ass—their words, not mine—as I used to be.”
She couldn’t help but snicker at that. “All right. So you’re a grinning idiot and everybody knows it. But Georgie still could have assumed that you didn’t care whether or not she knew what was going on in your life. Plus, if you’re keeping secrets like that from her, it doesn’t encourage her to open up to you.”
“It’s just that she’s so fragile,” he said softly, as though to himself.
“That’s the problem. You all treat her like she’s made of blown glass, and it makes her feel patronized and pushed aside. You didn’t even tell her we were going to live in New York after the wedding. She assumed you were moving to San Francisco.”
“She did?” He slumped forward, elbows propped on his knees. “I had no idea.”
She set her coffee cup on the tray and knelt behind him on the bed, pushing his robe off his shoulders so she could massage them. His skin felt hot beneath her fingers. “I know it’s hard to figure out what’s going on with her. To make matters worse, she doesn’t know how to talk to you right now. She thinks you and your grandmother are ashamed of her.”
“I’m worried about her, not ashamed.”
“You need to tell her that.” She bent forward and kissed his neck just below the ear. “Why don’t you take her out to dinner tonight, just the two of you? Not a stuffy, fancy place. Someplace fun that she’d enjoy.”
“What would you do?”
She shrugged. “Don’t worry about me. I may skip dinner anyway. The way I’ve been eating, I’ll need an extra seat on the flight home.”
He leaned back against her. “That’s a good idea. Georgie and I haven’t spent much time together lately.” He rolled his head from side to side and she took the hint, kneading the tight muscles in his neck. He groaned softly, a low, rumbling sound she often heard under more passionate circumstances. She leaned forward, slipped her arms around his neck, and nipped his ear.
He twisted around and lunged at her. “I have a better idea than skipping meals. Let’s burn some calories.”
“When is your rehearsal?”
He didn’t seem to hear the question, too busy untying her belt and pushing her robe open. Elizabeth decided to let him worry about the time; she doubted he had ever been late for anything. Besides, alone in their private hideaway with his lips forging a steamy path down her neck, clocks seemed unimportant.
1 This is a photo from the White House Archive of the actual 2001 National Christmas Tree, as lit by George W. Bush in his first year in office.