The sun’s belated appearance was helping to counteract the chilling effect of the breeze blowing off the water. In fact, with the heat generated by his physical exertion, he felt almost too warm. He unzipped his jacket and brushed his hair off his forehead.
Had things been different, William might have made the cross country team himself when he was old enough. But his mother would not have allowed it. He would never forget the day Mrs. Reynolds found his running shoes hidden in his closet. He could still hear his mother berating him for his recklessness in the nearly incomprehensible jumble of English and Italian she invariably used when she was upset.
William had continued to run; by then it was almost an addiction. But he had taken care that his mother would not find out, his new running shoes safely stashed in Richard’s closet at the Fitzwilliams’ Fifth Avenue apartment.
Almost twenty years later, Richard and William still ran together in Central Park on occasion; however, most days William preferred to run alone. It was his time to recharge his mental batteries. Sometimes he rehearsed music for upcoming concerts, envisioning his fingers moving over the keys. At other times, he worked on problems related to his family’s arts foundation, evaluating courses of action and developing strategies.
On this particular morning, he had two problems to solve. The first was sprawled, semi-conscious, on the couch in his suite. Charles had a wicked hangover. William, who had sipped a single glass of scotch, had begun to water down Charles’s drinks as soon as his friend’s taste buds were numb enough that he wouldn’t notice. All the same, Charles had consumed a prodigious amount of liquor in a short time.
William had left for his run after handing Charles some ibuprofen tablets and a large glass of water. He had ordered Charles to stay where he was and to get additional rest. Charles’s only response had been a weak groan.
Before the day was out, William intended to have a serious talk with his friend. He wished he could invite Charles to return to New York with him, but he would be traveling extensively for the next few weeks. A trip to Pemberley, perhaps, as soon as Georgie’s school year ended.
Now, less than halfway through his usual running distance, his breathing was labored, his headache was returning, and his heart was racing. But on three hours of sleep, compounded by jet lag, what else could he expect?
Summoning his remaining strength, he resumed his usual pace. The promenade ended, depositing him on a road leading to Fort Point, nestled beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. He silently coached himself. Regular, deep, slow breaths. Smooth, easy strides. You can do this.
Had William’s mind been more at ease, he might have enjoyed the wildflowers blanketing the hill to his left, or the surf crashing against the rocks to his right; however, he had other things to ponder … which led him to his second problem: Elizabeth Bennet.
After Charles had finally fallen asleep—or perhaps just into an inebriated stupor—William had retreated to his bedroom. His head had barely made contact with his pillow when a tantalizing vision of Elizabeth filled his mind. She stood beside the bed in a diaphanous nightgown, holding out her hand to him in wordless invitation, her eyes alight with passion. And when he finally succumbed to sleep, she invaded his dreams, teasing and tempting him yet remaining just out of reach, driving him to fresh agonies of frustrated desire.
William reached the fort. He stopped briefly to survey the scene, breathing hard. Then, turning a wide circle, he began to run back toward Crissy Field.
Elizabeth stood on the Golden Gate Promenade at Crissy Field, twisting a lock of hair around her finger while her eyes restlessly scanned the walkway. She had located William’s red Z3 in the parking lot, so he had to be nearby. But after fifteen minutes of waiting, she had developed a case of nerves regarding her plan. How was she going to keep a straight face while claiming to have accidentally bumped into him?
Maybe honesty was the best policy after all. She could simply explain that Jane was concerned about Charles. She didn’t want William to know how upset Jane was, not after Jane had worked so hard to maintain outward calm last night. But after breaking the engagement, especially so close to the wedding, Jane would have to be heartless not to care about Charles’s welfare.
She drew in a sharp breath when she saw a tall, dark-haired man running toward her along the Promenade. As he neared her, he slowed his pace and finally stopped, staring out at the bay and breathing hard, his hands on his hips. His damp white tee shirt clung to his chest, and a light sheen of perspiration glistened on his arms. For a moment, all she could do was stare.
Before she could collect her faculties sufficiently to call out to him, his eyes fell on her, widening in surprise. He quickly covered the short distance between them.
“Hi, William,” she said, in her best attempt at a nonchalant tone. Why did this seem so familiar?
“I wasn’t expecting—that is … it’s good to see you.” He pressed his lips together and glanced down at himself, frowning slightly. He ran one hand through his hair, his chest heaving from his exertion.
His jaw was covered with dark brown stubble, and his hair had been ruffled by the wind. A bead of moisture traveled slowly down his throat, tracing a path over his Adam’s apple. She licked her lips reflexively as she had an improbable memory of kissing his warm, salty skin. But that had never happened.
She cleared her throat and took a deep breath. “I hope you don’t mind my coming here this morning.”
“No, of course not,” William answered quickly.
“We—Jane and I—were concerned about Charles. I tried to called you at the hotel to ask if you knew how he was doing, but I couldn’t reach you.”
“I’m registered under my secretary’s last name.”
“I figured it was something like that. I remembered our conversation about running, and I thought I might find you here.” She silently congratulated herself; that had sounded reasonable. “How is Charles?”
“He spent the night on the couch in my suite. I don’t know his state of mind this morning, but he has a bad hangover; he was barely awake when I left.”
“Oh. Well, I’m glad you’re keeping an eye on him. I feel sorry for him, even if he did screw things up with Jane.”
William frowned at her remark.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I know he’s your friend.”
“No, you’re right. He was wrong to lie to Jane and his parents. He thought he could make everyone happy, but that’s not how the world works. I told him that he was making a mistake with his lies.”
“You knew what he was doing?” Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed, her voice cool. She hadn’t suspected that William was Charles’s co-conspirator.
His frown deepened. “He told me at lunch yesterday, but he wouldn’t listen to reason. And I couldn’t betray his confidence by telling anyone,” he said in a clipped tone, lifting his chin.
“No, of course not,” she agreed quickly. “It wasn’t your place to tell Jane. That was Charles’s job.”
William nodded slightly, and the tension between them abated. “Once I found out that Caroline knew about the prenup, I knew she wouldn’t let it rest. I was warning Charles when Mr. Bingley overheard us. I should have taken Charles somewhere else, where no one could eavesdrop. So what happened was partly my fault.”
“No, it wasn’t!” She was surprised at the vehemence of her rebuttal. “Like you said, you were just being a good friend and trying to give Charles a chance to fix things before it was too late. You couldn’t have known that Mr. Bingley would overhear.”
He looked at her, his eyes warm with gratitude. “Thank you.”
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to interrupt your run.” She had the strangest impression that some time in the recent past, he had stood in much the same place and asked her to go somewhere with him.
“I’m done running for today.”
“Are you sure you have time for a walk? You don’t need to get back to Charles?”
He checked his watch. “It’s only 9:30. I think he’ll be asleep for a while yet.”
“Then I’d love to.”
He inclined his head in the direction of the water. “Shall we?” Together, they strolled toward the beach.
When they reached the sandy strand, Elizabeth slipped off her flip-flops. “I love walking barefoot on the sand.” She sighed happily, wiggling her toes. “Do you like the beach?”
“Yes, I do,” he answered quietly. After a moment’s hesitation, he removed his running shoes, placed them on the ground beside her flip-flops, and set his neatly folded jacket on top of his shoes.
“By the way, thank you for recommending that I come down here to run,” he said. “It was the perfect choice.”
“I love the waterfront. There’s something about it that’s calming and energizing all at the same time.” She sighed blissfully, relishing the sound of the water lapping against the shore.
They fell silent again, watching a cargo ship steam under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the bay. “Were you here early enough to see the bridge engulfed in fog?” she asked.
“Wasn’t it an incredible sight?”
William chuckled. “Yes, though I must say that driving on the bridge through that fog was a bit disconcerting.”
Elizabeth eyed him with a sly smile. “Oh, so you ended up on the bridge, huh? Don’t tell me you got lost on your way here in spite of your ‘excellent sense of direction’!”
He pressed his lips together and looked away.
“I knew it! And I tried to warn you!” She laughed, her eyes alight with mischief. The wind whipped her hair into an unruly mass of locks. He reached out and smoothed her hair back from her face, his hand lingering in her curls.
“I think it’s hopeless,” she said, suddenly self-conscious. “I was pretty stupid to come here with my hair down. I must be a mess.”
He shook his head. “You look beautiful,” he murmured, his voice husky. He stepped closer to her, touching her cheek in a soft caress.
Elizabeth felt herself melting under the heat of William’s steady gaze. His hand moved from her cheek to stroke her jaw, tipping her chin up as his head descended slowly toward hers. As she gazed into his dark, hungry eyes, her dream flooded back into her mind in a disconcerting rush of detail. She gasped and stepped backwards, stumbling slightly. She had dreamed about him? And they were going to—
Her hands flew to her cheeks as she struggled to regain her composure. She felt a rush of sympathy when she saw a mixture of confusion and guilt on his face.
“I’m very sorry,” he said, his eyes directed down at the sand. “I shouldn’t have assumed that you—”
“No, William, that’s not it.” Elizabeth, though still flustered, instinctively stepped forward and grabbed his hand. “I just—well, I had a strange dream last night, and I’ve been trying to remember it. The details came back to me in a rush and startled me.”
He glanced down at their joined hands, and for a moment she expected him to pull away. But then the tension seemed to drain from his body, and he wore a hint of a smile. “It must have been quite a dream,” he remarked. “Do you want to tell me about it?”
“No, it would probably just bore you. I’m sorry to be such an idiot.”
“You’re not,” he answered gently. He turned his hand in hers so that their fingers were intertwined, and they resumed their progress down the beach.
William was perplexed by her reaction to his attempt to kiss her, but judging from her frequent smiles as they wandered along the shoreline, she hadn’t intended to reject him. He began to relax, relishing the warmth of the sun, the fresh breeze off the bay, and the gentle pressure of her palm against his.
“It’s sad, isn’t it?” she said, breaking the companionable silence.
“That we don’t even need Caroline Bingley to interrupt us. I can do it all by myself!”
“I don’t know. From what you’ve said, she’d do just about anything to stake her claim on you. I half expect to see her rise up out of the bay in a wet suit, snorkel, and mask, and storm over here like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
William’s shout of laughter startled some birds feasting at the water’s edge, and they dispersed in a flurry of scampering feet and flapping wings. He smiled in sheer delight, feeling an ache in his heart even stronger than the one in his body. She was a vital life force, sparkling and laughing and so alive, and he had to kiss her. He stepped forward until their bodies almost touched, barely restraining himself from drawing her into his arms.
He half expected her to retreat, but instead she stood her ground, smiling up at him. “You have a great laugh and a wonderful smile,” she said softly. “You should use them more often.”
“Yes,” he murmured, cupping her face in his hands. “I think you’re right.”
Her eyes shone softly, but her smile faded. Undaunted, he lowered his head inch by inch, anticipating the moment when he would finally know the taste and feel of her mouth. At last his lips brushed hers in a tentative, feather-light caress.
He wondered how such a soft kiss could make every nerve ending tingle with unfulfilled longing. Elizabeth seemed affected as well; she placed both hands on his chest, sighing softly. But before he could kiss her again, she stepped away, biting her lip and staring in the direction of the water.
His body and brain were making contradictory, and equally urgent, demands. He ached to crush her in his arms and kiss her again, this time in an unhurried exploration of her mouth. But his brain warned him that this was not another heated fantasy in which Elizabeth yielded to him willingly, even eagerly. This was reality, where her reactions were anything but predictable.
“It’s getting warmer, isn’t it?” she asked in an unsteady voice. She removed her denim jacket.
He barely suppressed an agonized groan when he saw what she wore under the jacket. Her snug white blouse clung to her body, revealing curves even more voluptuous than those prominently featured in his fantasies. This is absurd. I haven’t been like this since … I’ve never been like this.
Swallowing hard, he forced his eyes to return to her face. “Elizabeth?”
“May I call you when we get back to New York? Perhaps we could go to dinner, or a concert?” He could no longer pretend that he would forget her once he returned home. He had to see her again, if only to get her out of his system.
She was silent for a moment and then nodded, unsmiling. “Yes, I’d like that.”
“Good. Excellent. Good.” He snapped his mouth shut before he could make an even more complete idiot of himself.
She gazed off into the distance. “I suppose I should be getting back to Jane.”
“I need to check on Charles, too. But would you have time for a quick cup of coffee first?”
“That sounds nice, but I think I’d better get going. Jane wants me there when our parents arrive, and I don’t know exactly when that will be.”
“I have my cell phone in the car. You could call Jane and see if she needs you yet, and I’ll check on Charles.”
Elizabeth considered this idea. “All right, I suppose that would work.”
She turned and walked across the sand to the place where they had left their shoes, with William trailing behind.
When they reached his car, William unlocked it and handed Elizabeth his cell phone. “I’m going to be optimistic and assume that you’ll have time for coffee,” he said. “And that means that I need to clean myself up.” He glanced down at his clothing with a self-deprecating grin.
“You look fine.” Better than fine, but she couldn’t say that. She caught herself licking her lips and stopped abruptly. “We could go to a place that has sidewalk seating if you want. You’d probably feel more comfortable.”
She nodded. “That’s Crissy Field Center. It’s mostly a nature center, but you know what? I think they have a little café in there.”
“So we could have our coffee there.”
“Yes. I was going to suggest that we go to The Grove1, but it would be faster to stay here. Also, no parking hassles.”
“In that case, let’s walk over now and take the phone with us.”
He retrieved a hotel towel and a small bundle of clothing from the car. “Ready?” he asked, flashing the same boyish, dimpled smile that had touched her heart last night in the courtyard.
Elizabeth felt a tingling in the pit of her stomach. As they followed the boardwalk across the marsh, she considered his question. On reflection, she realized she wasn’t ready for whatever was happening. Not at all.
1 For those who care about San Francisco locations, The Grove’s Marina district location closed in 2013 due to a dispute over rent.