William shifted his book-crammed briefcase from one hand to the other and strode from the jetway into the terminal. How long had it been since the last time he had arrived in San Francisco for Charles Bingley’s wedding? Some quick mental arithmetic supplied the answer: just over eight months. Eight months that had profoundly changed his life.
Outside the security area, he looked for Charles. To his delight, he saw Elizabeth hurrying toward him instead. He barely had time to drop his briefcase before she flung her arms around him without a word. He held her tightly, closing his eyes and savoring the feel of her in his arms. “Lizzy,” he whispered.
“Hi.” She reached up to smooth his hair off his forehead and then drew his head down to hers for a kiss.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you till this afternoon.” He thought with a pang of his first sight of the green-eyed girl at the airport, all those months ago.
“I swapped some things around,” she explained. “Traded lunchroom patrol duty, stuff like that. Luckily there’s a lot of teamwork at the school or I could never have worked it out.”
“Then you’re done for the day?”
“I wish! I have to be back by twelve thirty. I have just enough time to deliver you to the house.”
The trip from the airport to the city was much too brief to suit William. Elizabeth, who treated speed limits as rough guidelines, zipped along Highway 101, weaving in and out of traffic and glancing frequently at her watch. All too soon, she pulled into the driveway of Charles’s Victorian house.
Noting the “For Sale” sign on the lawn, William shook his head and sighed. Elizabeth must have guessed the reason for his frustration. “Now, remember,” she said, “you promised you wouldn’t try to give Charles the house as a wedding present again.”
“I know. But it seems ridiculous for them to move back to the condo when—”
“Stop right there.” She jammed the car into park and seized his hand. “You are the most generous man in the world, and it’s one of the many things I love about you. But when you try to force your generosity on unwilling recipients, people get hurt, yourself included. I don’t need to give you any examples, do I?”
“No,” he muttered. She was right, of course, but he couldn’t understand why the people he loved found it so difficult to accept his help.
“I know it’s going to drive you crazy, but trust me, it’s for the best. Yes, they love the house, but they’re not going to stay here if it means accepting charity from friends. And neither would you, in their position.”
He sighed. “Okay.”
“Thank you.” She leaned across the car and kissed him. “Have fun with Charles this afternoon.”
“Aren’t you coming in?”
“I can’t. I’ll barely make it back to school on time as it is. Could you tell Jane that I have a meeting after school, but I’ll be here as soon as I can? Oh, and by the way, she has her hands full right now, so it would be great if you and Charles could give her some help this afternoon.” She fixed him with a stern but loving glance. “And I’m talking about setting the table or running to the store for ice, not flying in the top caterer on the West coast.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he grumbled.
She kissed him again. “You’re cute when you pout. I’ll see you later.”
He stood at the curb, watching forlornly as her car zipped around a corner and disappeared from view.
Jane and Charles had evidently been watching for him, because the door opened before he was halfway up the walk. Both greeted him warmly: Charles with one of his bear hugs, and Jane with a kiss on the cheek.
“Did Lizzy head back to school?” Jane asked, glancing out the front door.
William nodded glumly.
“She knew she’d be cutting it close,” Charles said. “In fact, we tracked your flight all morning to make sure it wasn’t delayed. I was standing by, just in case.”
“I’m glad it worked out,” Jane added. “Lizzy wanted so badly to meet you at the airport, even though it meant doing everything but standing on her head to rearrange her schedule.”
Shame flooded William. Seeing Elizabeth at the airport had been an unexpected treat, yet he’d managed to turn it into a disappointment because she couldn’t stay. “She said to tell you that she’d be here right after school.”
“Oh, good. I still have so much to do before tonight.” Jane glanced at her watch. “In fact, I have to get over to Lesley’s.”
“For the last time,” Charles said, “will you please let me come with you? I don’t want you exhausting yourself hauling tables around.” He glanced at William. “Jane is running herself into the ground with all the wedding arrangements, and she insists on doing it all herself. I think she’s trying to outdo Martha Stewart.”
“I’m fine, Charles, and I can handle it,” Jane said firmly. “Besides, you can’t just go off and leave William alone all afternoon.”
“I bet Will would be happy to come along and help.”
“Charles Bingley, shame on you! William is our guest, besides which, he hasn’t even had his lunch yet. I can’t believe you’re trying to put him to work.”
William had never heard Jane raise her voice before, which probably explained Charles’s wince. But it was hard to feel any sympathy for Charles. Even at Jane’s current level of stress, she was a purring kitten compared to Elizabeth on an average day. He grinned to himself. “I’ll be happy to help,” he said. “I can eat later.”
“Don’t be silly,” Jane replied briskly, leading the way into the gleaming, modern kitchen. “There’s chili on the stove, and I made some sandwiches. Charles will show you where everything is. I’m sorry I have to run.” She grabbed her purse and keys.
“Charles, you’re sweet to worry about me, but I’m fine.” She kissed him and hurried from the kitchen. Charles watched her go, his face contorted into a deep frown. Then he sighed, shook his head, and smiled weakly at William.
The savory aroma rising from the steaming pot of chili bumped William’s appetite into the red zone. Charles must have seen him eyeing the pot. “Here,” he said, “let me get you some of that.”
“No, I can do it.” William ladled chili into a bowl sitting beside the stove.
“Okay, then I’ll get us something to drink.” Charles pulled two beers—Anchor Steam, of course—from the refrigerator and joined William at the table. “I thought small weddings were supposed to be more relaxing, but I don’t think that applies when you try to do everything yourself.”
“Let’s go over the schedule for the weekend,” William said. “Lizzy told me about it, but it’s been mixed in with things related to our wedding. I don’t know about you, but I can only handle two minutes of wedding talk before my eyes start to glaze over.”
Charles grinned and nodded. “All the endless details that don’t make any difference. Like, what color should the napkins be on the cake table? How many varieties of cheese should we serve? Will the aunts expect corsages? You’d think the fate of civilization depended on the answers.”
“Exactly. And I’m getting it from both sides of the continent, because Sonya and my grandmother are involved, too.”
“Wait till the date gets closer. You’ll barely recognize the girl you fell in love with. You’ll think she’s been possessed by an evil spirit. My married buddies all say it happened to them, too.”
“But everything goes back to normal afterwards, right?”
“I sure hope so.” Charles pushed back his chair. “Jane made some roast beef sandwiches. Want one?”
“Sounds good.” William picked up his spoon. “I’m surprised Jane would be affected. She always seems so calm and capable.”
Charles pulled out a large plate out of the refrigerator. “I know, and it’s different this time. For a lot of reasons.” He sighed. “It’s my fault we have to be so careful of the wedding budget.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s just the way things are.” If anyone deserved the blame, it was Mr. Bingley. “Lizzy said the reception is at someone’s house?” That much, he had managed to remember.
“Right.” Charles set the plate on the table. “A friend of Jane’s from the bar association owns a big place up on Russian Hill. It seemed like such a great idea when she offered the house, but it’s made things harder on Jane. You know, at a hotel or a restaurant there’d be staff to help with things. And Jane is worried sick that she’ll impose on her friend without meaning to, so she’s bending over backwards to make sure she hasn’t forgotten anything.”
“Is that where she went just now?”
“Yeah. She wants to get everything set up this afternoon, because we’ve got the dinner tonight.”
“That reminds me. What time is the wedding rehearsal?” William reached for a sandwich.
“Wasn’t the church available?”
“The ceremony and the reception are both at Lesley’s house. Jane knows some clergy through her pro bono work, and one of them agreed to marry us at the house.”
It took William a minute to swallow his first bite of the sandwich, piled high with rare roast beef. “But you said there was a rehearsal dinner tonight.”
Charles grinned and leaned back in his chair, cradling his beer bottle in both hands. “I think Richard was the one who christened it the rehearse-less dinner. It’s just a relaxed get-together here at the house. Nothing like that three-ring circus last May. But it’s still extra work for Jane, and there doesn’t seem to be much I can do to help.”
William thought of Elizabeth’s request in the car. “There must be something.”
“You heard Jane. I offered, and she said no. That’s the way it’s been. I mean, I helped her with some of the cleaning, and she’s putting me to work on the grill later, but other than that ….” He shrugged. “Unless you’re volunteering to do dishes, that is. And I bet those million-dollar hands have never been sullied by dishwater.”
“You’d lose that bet. Though my expertise is more in drying dishes than in washing them.”
“I’m impressed.” Charles gulped his beer. “With Lizzy, not with you. Obviously she has you well trained.”
“Hardly,” William growled, fixing a mocking stare on Charles. “Besides, I’m not the one sitting here drinking beer while his fiancée moves heavy furniture, just because she told him to stay home.”
“Ouch!” Charles clutched his chest in mock agony. “And if Lizzy told you to stay put, you’d ignore her and risk the consequences?”
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t want her wearing herself out with heavy lifting.”
“Amen, brother. Don’t want the little woman doing man’s work.” Charles, who had been eyeing the sandwich plate since bringing it to the table, finally grabbed one. “I feel like we should do something macho right about now. A belching contest, or maybe arm-wrestling?”
William chuckled. “I don’t need to prove my masculinity. I do that every time I stand up to Lizzy.”
Charles clapped William on the back. “Better you than me, my friend.”
A brief silence fell as they bit into their sandwiches. William picked up his untouched beer and sipped it. He had to admit that it went well with the food, though a good Cabernet would have been an even better choice.
“You know,” Charles said, “you’re right. Let’s finish lunch and go over to Lesley’s house. I bet Jane will be glad to see us. And if not ….” Charles raised his eyebrows, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.
“If not, we’ll head over to the penthouse and pick up the Ferrari.” William had revoked Richard’s temporary custody of the car for the duration of his visit.
“See? That’s why we get along so well. Two great minds, one great idea.”
Grinning, William attacked his food with renewed purpose.
Elizabeth’s heart surprised her by accelerating as she pulled into the driveway of Jane and Charles’s house for the second time that day. She would have thought that by now the prospect of seeing William wouldn’t set a million pixies whirling through her stomach. Well, okay, a thousand. Let’s not exaggerate.
Despite her impatience to be with William, she sometimes thought it best that her temporary teaching job had prevented her from relocating to New York in December. At that time, she would have left California with a measure of ambivalence. But as much as she loved San Francisco and her new job, and as much as she would miss Jane, her father, and her friends, she was looking forward to starting her new life. And she knew, with a measure of clarity that astonished her, that she would never regret choosing a future with William.
Sooner or later, when their brief intervals together were more than just punctuation marks on interminable pages of time, it might be possible to take each other’s presence for granted. But she hoped that would never happen, that they would always remember how hard they had worked to build the bond that kept growing stronger, even across the miles.
Jane’s pansies, planted in meticulous rows of purple and yellow blossoms along the front walk, smiled up at her as she passed. She found herself smiling back, imagining that they shared her enjoyment of the cool but sunny afternoon. Her nose began to itch, no doubt the result of the sharp green scent of freshly-cut grass that enveloped her. Just as she reached the steps, she let out an explosive sneeze.
To her surprise, no one answered her “Hello!” when she let herself into the house. She called out again, the single word a question this time, and again received no response. Then she heard the distinctive sound of muffled laughter at the rear of the house. She followed the sound through the living room and found the doors to the deck open. The distinctive scent of burning mesquite tickled her still-sensitive nostrils.
She stepped onto the large cedar deck and found Charles hovering over the grill, wielding a pair of tongs. William leaned on the railing, gazing out at the back yard and sipping a glass of white wine. His hair looked more tousled than usual, and a small dark smear sullied one arm of his sweater. The late afternoon sun slanted across his face like a golden spotlight, highlighting his aristocratic nose and his strong chin. She didn’t move, didn’t speak; she just absorbed the sight of him.
“There you are.” He reached her in two long-legged strides. Then she was in his arms and his lips were on hers.
At last she reluctantly dislodged herself from his embrace and kissed a grinning Charles on the cheek. “What’s so amusing, almost-brother-in-law?”
“My pal William Darcy, the Prince of Privacy, the Duke of Dignity. If I’d told him a year ago that he’d give a woman that kind of kiss in public ….”
“This isn’t public,” William retorted haughtily, grabbing Elizabeth’s hand and pulling her back toward him.
“Maybe not, but once upon a time you wouldn’t have kissed a woman in front of anyone, except maybe on the cheek. Don’t you remember how you used to lecture me about public and semi-public displays of affection?”
“That was different.” William wrapped his arms around Elizabeth from behind. “Every time the jazz group would be playing at a club and we’d take a break, Charles would vanish. We’d usually find him outside the back door plastered against yet another utterly inappropriate woman with whom he’d supposedly fallen in love.”
Elizabeth winced. “An image designed to warm the heart of a future sister-in-law.”
“That was a long time ago,” Charles retorted, shooting an annoyed glance at William. “I was nineteen, with an overactive libido and an under-active brain. Meanwhile, Will spent every band break sitting alone, mentally composing new piano arrangements. He was so intense it was scary.”
“I was … focused back then.”
“What do you mean ‘back then’?” Charles teased.
Elizabeth leaned back against William, her head on his shoulder. He and Charles continued their good-natured banter, but their words receded from her mind. The sun slipped behind the house, leaving the deck in shadows, and she was grateful for his warmth surrounding her. She closed her eyes, her hands clasped with his at her waist, and inhaled slowly. Her nose twitched. Something was different about him besides his unusually disheveled appearance. She identified extra scents blending with Eau de William: a hint of sweat, a dollop of … gasoline? And—
She sneezed, confirming the identity of the final scent: freshly cut grass. As improbable as it seemed, there was only one reasonable explanation. “Did you mow the lawn?”
He nodded, looking supremely proud of himself. “Front and back.”
“Wow. I don’t even need to ask if it was your first time.” She turned to Charles. “How did you get him to do it?”
“The Tom Sawyer method.” Charles closed the lid on the grill. “I made using the lawn mower look like so much fun that he insisted on trying it. But it took him so long to finish that, for all I know, he could have been out there cutting each blade to a precise height with his nail clippers.”
“Excuse me for wanting to make it look perfect,” William retorted, and Elizabeth could tell that his pride was wounded. “I had to learn how to handle edges, and at first I was leaving some long grass between rows.”
“Well, it looks wonderful,” she said in a soothing tone, patting the hand at her waist.
“I did my best,” he said with a depth of sincerity that was both comical and touching. “After all, you asked me to help Jane if I could. Charles and I helped her set up for the wedding, and then we came back here. I mowed the lawn while Charles did some chores in the house.”
Elizabeth pulled his head down to hers for an enthusiastic kiss. “My hero.”
“Hold on.” Charles pointed the tongs at William. “After all that tough talk about how I should ignore Jane’s instructions, the only reason you wanted to go over there and help was because Lizzy told you to?”
William grinned sheepishly. “It wasn’t the only reason.”
“I was right!” Charles hooted. “Thoroughly whipped.”
Elizabeth felt William squaring his shoulders, no doubt preparing an appropriately haughty retort, but Jane’s arrival pre-empted him. She looked serene and ravishing in a violet blue sheath dress, the silky fabric floating gracefully around her as though stirred by a faint breeze. Elizabeth glanced with envy at the deep vee neckline, which on Jane’s sleek body looked only a tiny bit daring. Jane had always been able to wear anything and look fantastic.
“Private Bennet, reporting for duty,” Elizabeth said. “Whatever you need, just put me to work.”
Jane smiled. “I think the guys and I have everything ready. I’m sure I’ll need your help later, but not right now. Why don’t you and William go upstairs and change? The guests are due in about half an hour. Besides, you should come inside; it’s chilly out here.”
Elizabeth led William upstairs to a cheerful guest bedroom at the back of the house.
“Alone at last.” He pulled her into his arms so tightly that it nearly drove the air from her lungs.
“Not that being alone makes that big a difference,” she gasped, gulping in a breath when he loosened his hold. “Charles was right. You’re usually not that demonstrative in front of other people.”
“I knew Charles would understand. Besides, I couldn’t help myself. I got that tiny glimpse of you earlier today to tantalize me, and then I had to wait all afternoon to see you again.”
“I know. I thought the school day would never end.” She pulled reluctantly out of his arms. “I think we’d better change. We don’t have much time, and I assume you’re planning to shower.”
He grasped her shoulders, a wicked glint in his eye. “Half an hour, Jane said. You’re right; that’s not much time. Do you think she’d mind if we were late?” He lowered his head, pressing kisses along her neck. “And I mean very, very late.”
Her skin prickled with heat wherever he touched her. “Yes, I think she’d mind.” He found a particularly sensitive spot, and a shiver coursed through her. “Besides, since when are you late for anything?”
He nibbled her ear and then whispered, “For you, I’m willing to spoil my perfect record.”
Summoning her remaining self-control, she wriggled away and stepped out of reach. “We can’t. The house is going to be full of people.” Noting his frown, she changed tactics and continued in a wheedling tone. “If you can find a little patience, I promise to make it worth your while.”
“Is that so?” he asked, tipping his head slightly to one side and studying her.
She nodded slowly, her smile as seductive as she could manage. His eyes flashed, their predatory expression making her feel like she wore a red hooded cape and carried a basket of goodies for Grandma. Too late, she realized that “seductive” might not have been her best choice in that moment, not with over six feet of hot-blooded male strolling toward her with lascivious intent.
“The problem,” he murmured, his arms snaking around her waist “is that I don’t think I can wait.”
He lowered his head slowly, and her brain rapped out instructions: step away, and remember that Jane might knock on the door seeking assistance in the kitchen. But her body had other ideas. So did William, who covered her mouth with his in a sultry kiss. A sly, knowing voice in her head assured her that she and William could be discreet, that no one would find out, that Jane and Charles would understand. She wrapped her arms around his neck, leaning into him. He groaned low in his throat and pulled her closer, deepening the kiss until she felt dizzy.
Then he lifted his head. “I don’t need to tell you how much I want you,” he said, his voice low and husky. “And unless I’m seriously off base, if I carried you over to the bed right now, you wouldn’t say no.”
In lieu of a response, she pressed her lips to the hollow at the base of his throat, where his pulse throbbed.
He tipped her chin up until their eyes met and then dragged an unsteady breath into his lungs. “But I know you, Lizzy. Afterwards, you’d worry that someone might have heard us. If we showed up late for the party, you’d be afraid that people would guess the reason. If anyone made a comment about what we might have been doing, you’d be mortified. And then you’d regret making love with me.”
Slowly, reluctantly, she nodded. Much as she wanted him, the thought of the aftermath chilled her. She could see herself, cheeks flaming as she tried to slink downstairs unnoticed, only to be greeted by Charlotte’s knowing smirk or an off-color quip from Richard.
“I don’t ever want that to happen.” He bent down and kissed her so tenderly that it brought a lump to her throat. “So I’m going to look for some of that patience you asked me to find.”
“You really are my hero,” she said in a wobbly voice, brushing a finger along the stubbly edge of his jaw.
“I try.” He gusted a loud sigh. “Though I have to admit, it’s not entirely for your sake. I wouldn’t be comfortable either, if I thought people were speculating about what we’d been doing.”
“Especially since we both know Richard would do his speculating out loud.”
“Right. I wasn’t thinking clearly, in my pathetically deprived state. What was it Charles said earlier? Overactive libido, under-active brain?” He kissed her again. “But you know what this means.”
“It means that I’m going to spend the entire evening fantasizing about scooping you up, tossing you over my shoulder, and finding someplace where I can ravish you in complete privacy.” He arched one eyebrow. “And as the night wears on, I suspect that privacy will become less and less of a concern in my scenarios.”
“Poor William. Sometimes that imagination of yours works against you.”
“Tell me about it,” he grumbled, but a wry grin curved his lips. He tightened his arms around her again, and she nestled against him in a warm, comforting hug.
“Okay,” she said at last, raising her head from his shoulder, “we need to get moving.” She began to disentangle herself from his arms.
“Not so fast,” he said. “My heroic sacrifice comes with two strings attached.”
“First, I’m going to hold you to your promise to make the wait worth my while.”
“Absolutely. My pleasure.”
“Mine too, I hope,” he retorted, smirking. “And second, is there another room where you could change?”
She nodded in sympathy. “Better to have temptation out of reach?”
“Exactly. Hero or not, I’m only human.”
“Wow,” she breathed in a tone of exaggerated awe. “William Darcy admits that he’s human, and here I am without a recording device.”
He swatted her lightly on the rear end and released her. “Get out of here.”
She grabbed her bag and left the room, pausing at the threshold. “You do know how much I love you.”
He nodded. “Even if sometimes you don’t know why.”
“Right this minute, I do.” She opened the door. “I’ll see you downstairs.”