Exhaustion closed in around him, thickening the air until his head swam and he thought he might tip forward and fall off the bench. He had been awake for most of the past 24 hours, but the turbulent emotions of the day had exacted a far greater toll. He felt himself beginning to crumble under a crushing weight of loneliness.
Ordinarily he didn’t mind solitude. It was an old acquaintance, comfortable in its familiarity. He had grown up as the only child in a house of adults, and for most of his adult life he had traveled constantly, usually alone. Even in a room full of people, he preferred the protection afforded by his impenetrable wall of reserve. But tonight, something was different. Maybe it was the wedding, and wondering if he would have a chance to find his perfect match before … before it was too late.
And what if Elizabeth was ‘the one’? What if that was the reason she had unsettled him so completely?
The thought startled him. He quickly summoned a flood of excellent reasons why it was impossible, absurd, even laughable, starting with the Bennet family. He imagined, Lydia, the loud-mouthed Hooter’s Girl, lounging on the terrace at Pemberley, gulping down rum and laughing like a hyena.
Not that the others were much better. Kitty was a watered-down version of Lydia. Mr. Bennet was unobjectionable on his own, but he seemed content to take refuge in ironic remarks instead of controlling his wife and daughters. And Mrs. Bennet, with her shrill voice, her uninformed opinions, and her ignorance of proper behavior, was a walking disaster. He envisioned her at tea at the Plaza, babbling to Gran and her Opera Guild friends about Placido Flamingo, the famous operatic tenor.
Besides, he hadn’t even known Elizabeth for a day yet. It was much too soon to be thinking of anything so serious.
No, he was not in love; he was in lust. She had walked up to him outside the church looking like a goddess and had given his deprived system a shock. And why wouldn’t he want her? Any man would. To see those beautiful eyes grow dark with passion, to feel that luscious body writhing beneath his ….
It was happening again. He grabbed the reins of his self-control and yanked his thoughts down another path. He replayed her insulting song, performed for the express purpose of mocking him. His ideal woman would be sensitive to his feelings. She would respect and support him. She would never expose him to public ridicule.
But he had to admit, she had performed well. The song provided a fine showcase for an agile soprano voice, and Elizabeth had sung it effortlessly while investing it with character and humor. And despite the disrespect it showed and the level of discomfort she had caused him, he couldn’t help but admire her wit and spirit.
A reluctant smile flitted across his face. It was a little more than lust. She was smart and talented, and she sparkled with a light that brightened the world around her. But his smile faded as he remembered the freezing disdain in her eyes before she began to sing. It didn’t matter that he was drawn to her. She obviously hated him.
Heaving a sigh, he closed his eyes again. In his imagination, Elizabeth approached him, a warm smile lighting her face, and took a seat beside him on the bench. He saw himself slide an arm around her shoulders and felt himself warmed by her presence. Her eyes glowing, she caressed his cheek; he answered by touching his lips gently to hers. She pressed soft kisses along his throat and—
He had to put a stop to these fantasies. She was never going to be in his arms, or anyplace else he had imagined her that day. And that was for the best.
What was it about William Darcy? She wasn’t usually upset by the remarks of egotistical boors, nor did she enjoy inflicting emotional distress on others. Yet every time William opened his mouth, she seemed to end up hurt, angry, or both. And she had gotten her revenge—oh, yes. Mission accomplished.
She had promised to be polite to him, yet every time they had any sort of contact, dangerous sparks flew. The only solution was to keep as much space between them as possible for the rest of the weekend, dealing with him only when the wedding events required it.
This sensible plan had one gaping flaw. As she had told Charlotte, she was intrigued by fleeting glimpses of a different man, the one who had poured his heart into his music a short time ago. That man, she longed to know better. He seemed to speak a language her heart understood. Yet every time he emerged, he vanished again almost immediately, replaced by a haughty aristocrat who considered her beneath his notice.
She briefly considered Charlotte’s theory of his baffling behavior. Charlotte possessed rare insight into men and their motivations, but in this case she had lost her mind. William could have any woman he wanted: a model, a movie star, an heiress. What possible reason would he have to be interested in an ordinary music teacher, especially one he had just met?
There was only one answer to that question. Any attraction he felt after an acquaintance of just a few hours had to be related to her body, not her mind. And the last thing she needed was a lust-crazed man trying to scratch an itch.
Her resolution to keep him at a distance confirmed, she shoved away a wave of regret, squared her shoulders, and turned onto a pathway that would take her back to the Terrace Room.
A figure sat hunched forward on a stone bench ahead of her. At first she paid no attention, but her feet froze when she recognized William. She turned instinctively to follow another path, but something about the slump of his shoulders stopped her. Instead, she took a tentative step in his direction.
“William?” she said softly, but he didn’t respond. She walked closer, stopping beside him, and touched his shoulder.
He flinched and peered up at her. “Elizabeth?” After a moment, he began to struggle to his feet, but she placed her hand on his shoulder again, gently restraining him.
“No, don’t get up,” she said softly. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
He nodded slowly, still eyeing her with doubt. “I’m just resting. I’m … so tired.”
“It’s been a long day, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, it has. You must be tired too.”
“A little, but I’m used to surviving on almost no sleep.”
“So am I.” His voice was so soft she had to strain to hear him. “But this day has been exhausting.”
They fell silent, both staring at the path in front of them.
Just when Elizabeth thought she couldn’t bear the awkward silence anymore, William asked, “Would you like to sit down?” He slid over on the bench and looked up at her expectantly.
She wanted to refuse, to return to the familiarity of the crowd in the Terrace Room, but she couldn’t resist his wistful expression, visible even in the dim light. She sat beside him, staring into the darkness, their shoulders almost touching.
“Your playing was incredible,” she said softly. “But of course it always is.”
“Always? Then you’ve seen me in concert?”
She nodded. “When you played tonight, I was remembering the first time I saw you perform.”
“When was that?”
“At Interlochen, ten years ago. You came up for a few weeks during the summer. I went to every recital and concert you gave. I even attended one of your master classes, despite the fact that I wasn’t a piano major.”
“Did we meet?”
“Sort of. I waited in line for almost an hour to get your autograph.” She cringed, wishing that she hadn’t just placed herself in the ranks of his ‘giggling fans.’ She stole a glance at him, expecting to see derision on his face. Instead, he was smiling. His eyes crinkled slightly at the corners, and dimples adorned his cheeks. He looked boyish and charming, and she couldn’t help but return the smile.
“Hmmm.” He nodded. “Ten years ago. I would have been twenty then. That was about a year after I graduated from Juilliard.”
“I know; they told us when they introduced you. I was surprised you were able to finish your degree so young.”
“I started at Juilliard when I was fifteen. I’d been in their pre-college program for a while, so the faculty knew me. And by then I was giving recitals, and I had started appearing with orchestras a couple of years before. So they knew I was ready.”
“What about the academic side of it? At fifteen, you had a few years of high school yet to go.”
He hesitated. “I skipped a grade in elementary school, and I had been taking accelerated courses. When Juilliard offered me admission, I was near the end of my junior year, but I was taking mostly college-level courses. I had a tutor over the summer and finished my senior year that way.”
She stared at him. He was a genius in more than just musical terms. His eyes dropped to the path beneath his feet, and she saw him lick his lips. Belatedly realizing that her scrutiny had embarrassed him, she looked away and searched for something to say. “You must not have gotten to play much baseball that summer.”
She had intended her remark as a gentle tease, but he took it seriously. He shrugged. “I wasn’t allowed to participate in sports.”
“Why not? Did your parents chain you to the piano?”
He stared at the ground for a long moment before answering. “I didn’t need to be chained, but, yes, practicing took up most of my time.”
“It must have been strange to start college at fifteen, so much younger than the other freshmen.”
“I’m used to being different from other people.”
She had never considered this darker aspect of his talent and fame. “You must get lonely sometimes,” she said softly.
“Sometimes,” he echoed, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
Music floated out to them from the Terrace Room. “I guess the band is starting,” she said.
He sat up straight and sighed. “I didn’t mean to keep you out here. I’m sure you’d rather be inside with your friends.”
There was some truth in his statement, but she had promised Jane that she would apologize. “I don’t think I’m quite ready to go in. Unless you’d rather be alone.”
“No. Please, stay.”
She nodded. “It’s such a lovely evening. A bit chilly, though, for this sleeveless dress.” She rubbed her bare arms to warm them.
He shrugged off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. “Better?” he asked.
His shy half-smile touched her heart. She returned the smile and pulled the lapels of the jacket together, enveloping herself in it.
They sat together quietly, and this time the silence felt more comfortable. It was like a bizarre dream, to be sitting beside William Darcy in the moonlight, wearing his jacket. Why not? Things like this happen every day.
To other people.
William broke the silence. “Elizabeth?”
“If I offended you earlier with my remarks about your career, I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention. I think you’re very talented, and I … I apologize.” His remorseful gaze held hers.
“I was angry, but I got the chance to work off my anger, didn’t I?” It was true; between her performance and his apology, she wasn’t angry anymore. “I need to apologize too. I shouldn’t have said what I did before the song. That was unfair to you.”
“I didn’t like it,” he said glumly, “but I suppose I earned it.” He paused, pressing his lips together. “I know you heard what I said to Charles this afternoon, before I met you. I owe you an apology for that too. I don’t like having women forced on me; it happens too often. I was trying to discourage him.”
She nodded. “Jane mentioned that she and Charles decided to play matchmaker. I didn’t ask them to do it.” Elizabeth could sympathize on this point; she had been the target of similar unwanted attempts by friends.
“This isn’t the first time Charles has tried to fix me up with someone. I sometimes wonder what he thinks of me, considering the horrid women he picks.”
She stared at him in disbelief. “Why, thank you,” she said, her diction crisp and precise.
He studied her for a moment, frowning, and then he winced. “Oh, God, I’ve done it again. I meant that he usually picks horrid women, but not this time. I don’t think you’re horrid, not at all.”
“Just not at your social level.”
He sighed. “I never intended for you to hear that.”
“But it’s true. I’m just an ordinary grad student living in an apartment the size of a broom closet in a rundown neighborhood, while you must have either a mansion on the Upper East Side or a penthouse with incredible views of the park.”
He stared at his shoes in silence.
“Well, which is it?”
“A house on the Upper East Side. Not a mansion, though. A townhouse.”
“How many stories?”
“Sounds mansion-y to me. Do you know how much the subway costs?”
He remained silent, still staring at the ground.
“You’ve never been on the subway, have you?”
“Not that I can recall,” he answered. He sat up straight and looked at her, frowning. “May I ask where you’re going with all these questions?”
“Just pointing out that what you said to Charles was right. Not everything you said, but we are from entirely different worlds.”
“I suppose so. But maybe—”
He stopped speaking abruptly. She looked at him, eyebrows raised. He shook his head slowly. “Never mind,” he said, looking away.
“I have a suggestion,” she said firmly. “We’ve both behaved pretty badly today. Let’s put that behind us and make a fresh start.”
He nodded. “I’d like that.”
She stood up and offered her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Darcy. I’m Elizabeth Bennet.”
He rose as well, a tentative smile on his face. “The pleasure, Ms. Bennet, is mine.” He took her hand in both of his and pressed it gently, looking deep into her eyes.
She felt herself drowning in his warm gaze. Abruptly, she pulled her hand from his grasp and sat back down.
He resumed his seat beside her. “Incidentally, I noticed that your apology didn’t extend to the song itself.”
“You bet it didn’t,” she said with a mischievous grin. “You deserved the song, just not the public dedication.”
A half-smile curled his lips. “In the interests of a fresh start, I’ll agree with that. And I admit, it was well done. But, you know, you proved my point with the vocal pyrotechnics. Your classical training showed.”
She pursed her lips and glared at him in mock annoyance. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?”
He quirked an eyebrow at her, his grin smug. “Why should I quit when I’m right and you know it?”
Her feigned anger was on the way to becoming genuine, but then she saw a flash of merriment in his eyes. Obviously he enjoyed teasing her.
Silence fell between them again, but this time it felt relaxed instead of awkward.
“It’s supposed to be a beautiful day for the wedding tomorrow,” she said. “Does Charles have you fully scheduled starting at dawn?”
“Not so far. In fact, I’m hoping to go running in the morning, maybe down by the Marina.”
“You’re a runner?” She hadn’t imagined him having any life outside concert halls, as though between performances he lurked backstage like a young, handsome Phantom of the Opera.
“It’s good cardiovascular exercise, I can do it almost anywhere, and it doesn’t require any special equipment—just a pair of running shoes. As much as I travel, that’s essential.”
“Do you run in the park when you’re at home?”
He nodded. “My house is just off Fifth Avenue, so the park is close by. Do you run?”
“I get my exercise mostly from dance classes.”
“Oh, that’s right, I forgot that you’re a dancer as well as a singer.”
“Don’t you remember? I’m the under-employed chorus girl.”
He grimaced. “Elizabeth—”
“Sorry. Fresh start and all that. It was a momentary lapse.”
“I knew almost nothing about you when I said that,” he said earnestly. “I was wrong. You’re so much more than that.”
They fell silent again. The band began to play a slow song which she quickly identified as “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”1 She began to hum along.
“Sing it for me.”
She shook her head, mortified at the idea of singing to him—especially that particular song—in a shadowy garden. “The key they’re playing it in isn’t good for me,” she lied.
“Then dance with me.” He stood up and extended his hand.
“You mean you want to go back inside?”
“No. Dance with me here.”
“Here? In the courtyard?”
He smiled. “Why not?”
After a moment of hesitation, she nodded her assent and rose to her feet. He stepped closer, taking her hand and drawing her toward him. His jacket began to slip from her shoulders, so she removed it and placed it on the bench.
“Will you be warm enough without it?” he asked as they began to move together to the music.
“I’m fine.” His presence enveloped her in gentle warmth, at once comforting and exciting. When he reached up to brush a tendril of hair away from her face, his touch vibrated through ever fiber in her body.
“I love this song,” Elizabeth said softly.
William smiled but didn’t answer. For his part, he would have been happy with any song the band played as long as it gave him the opportunity to hold her in his arms, but the sentiments of this one suited him perfectly.
She sighed. “So you’re not talking?”
“I’m sorry. I was enjoying the music. Are you sure you won’t sing it for me?”
She smiled and shook her head, and he decided that it was probably just as well. The night had taken on a dreamlike quality as his fantasies merged with reality. She had approached him on the heels of his fantasy of kissing her as they sat together on the bench. At first, he had thought her another figment of his imagination, but instead the real Elizabeth had shared his bench … and his solitude. And now the band played the song he had earlier imagined her singing for him as he accompanied her. He thought of the heated ending of that fantasy, and a wave of desire flashed through his body.
He wondered what she would do if he kissed her. Probably punch me in the jaw, or worse yet, give me a knee in the ….
He closed his eyes, resting his cheek against her hair, and drew her closer. He could no longer remember all the reasons why she was the wrong woman for him. He only knew how right she felt in his arms.
The music stopped, followed by scattered applause and the soft hum of voices, but he continued to move slowly in time to the music that was no longer playing.
His eyes remained closed. “Shhhh.”
“But the music stopped.”
“No, it didn’t,” he murmured, gazing at her through half-lidded eyes. “Can’t you hear it?” Closing his eyes again, he began to hum the tune. He smoothed her hair away from her cheek and felt her tremble.
“Are you cold?” he whispered. She breathed a gentle sigh and her body melted against his, her head nestling on his shoulder.
He was beyond thought, overwhelmed by pure sensation. The pressure of her soft body against his was driving him mad. In his mind, they were transported to his hotel room, just a few floors above the shadowy courtyard. He saw himself lift her into his arms and carry her to the bed, and he shuddered with desire, moaning deep in his throat.
“William?” She looked up at him, concern etched on her features.
He gazed down at her, passion flooding his veins, and whispered her name. She glowed in the moonlight, cool and beautiful, and he ached to possess her. His fingers brushed her cheek, and his eyes dropped to her lips, lingering there until at last reason and caution were overwhelmed by desire. He cradled her head in his hands and lowered his face to hers.
“William, darling! There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”
His mind fogged by potent desire, he turned slowly, only to find Caroline Bingley standing behind him. Her lips were twisted in a homicidal rictus, her eyes filled with cold fury as she glared at Elizabeth.
1 This wasn’t a performance by William or Elizabeth, but if you’re not familiar with “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered“ and would like to hear it, you can view it on Youtube, performed by the great Ella Fitzgerald. The song was written for the Rodgers & Hart musical, Pal Joey, and the lyrics were controversial due to some not-entirely-subtle sexual references (here are the original lyrics). Ella changed the lyrics, as do many singers. There are many recordings of the song, including a much more recent one by Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, and a rather intriguing one pointed out by a reader featuring Cher and Rod Stewart.