Elizabeth hung up the phone and returned to the living room. Jane looked up from the book she was reading. “How’s William?”
Elizabeth plopped down on the sofa. “Sleepy, but otherwise fine He talked me into taking my schoolwork over to his place tomorrow evening and working there instead of here.”
“You’re absolutely glowing, and that’s just from talking to him. Are you ready yet to admit that you’re falling in love?”
“There are still things that confuse me. Other sides of him, things he’s holding back … like I told you the other night.”
Jane set her book on the coffee table. “You can’t expect to know everything about him at this point. After all, there are things you haven’t told him, too.”
“I’m not talking about knowing the name of the first girl who broke his heart, or how he likes his eggs. It’s more fundamental than that. He seems to keep parts of himself locked away.”
“And you’re afraid of what he might be hiding. I know.” Jane nodded. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s trying to mislead you. I think he’s just slow to open up to people. Charles once told me that, as close as he and William were in college, he never felt like he completely knew him.”
“Exactly. And until William shows me at least some of what’s hidden, I can’t fully trust him.” She paused and took a deep breath. “But in the meantime, I’m working on dealing with the flashbacks.”
“I’m proud of you,” Jane said. “I know it’s not easy to confront all of that.”
“I don’t want them to interfere every time William and I get close. Besides, I’ve been blowing things out of proportion. What happened was my fault, and it happened a long time ago. It’s time to let go of it and move on.”
“I don’t agree with the way you’re characterizing it.”
This was an old argument. “But you weren’t there. I was. I have only myself to blame.”
“Lizzy, please don’t say that.”
Elizabeth decided it was time to change the subject. “I talked to Roger today. He and the guys are going to handle the drinks for the party.”
Charlotte’s birthday was Friday, and Jane and Elizabeth were hosting a party. “The guys” were the male members of Golden Gate Jazz, whose primary connection to Charlotte was through Roger, their drummer. Elizabeth was continually surprised that Charlotte and Roger were still dating—or whatever they would have called it. For Charlotte, three months with a man was tantamount to a lifelong commitment.
Jane smiled. “Of course, you know what ‘handling the drinks’ means to them. Several cases of beer, a few bottles of tequila, and maybe a couple of bottles of cheap wine. We’d better plan on getting more wine, and some non-alcoholic drinks, too. I’ll take care of that.”
“I ordered the party platters today, and the cake, too.”
“Thank you; that’s great. William’s coming, isn’t he?”
“Yes, I asked him last night. I just wish … well, I don’t like the way he acts around you.”
“He’s probably uncomfortable because of everything that happened with Charles,” Jane said mildly. “I’m glad Charles has such a loyal friend. And, by the way ….”
“What?” Elizabeth noted Jane’s anxious expression.
“He’s flying up for the party.”
“Charles is coming? You’re kidding.”
“Charlotte said he heard about it from the guys, and they invited him.”
“That sounds encouraging.” Elizabeth’s eyes gleamed. “He doesn’t know Charlotte that well, so he must be coming to see you.”
“It’s probably just a chance for a jam session with the guys; I’m sure he’ll bring his saxophone. You know, I’m in the mood for a cup of tea. Would you like one?”
The sisters went into the kitchen. “Besides,” Jane continued, “as I said the other day, nothing has changed between us. But, Lizzy, there’s a problem.” Jane set the teakettle on the stove. “I invited Jordan to the party.”
“The guy you met at Rosings.”
“He called yesterday and asked me out to dinner on Friday. I explained that I was busy with the party, and he said it sounded like fun.”
“So you felt obligated to invite him.”
Jane nodded. “I didn’t know then that Charles was coming. But maybe it’s just as well. Charles will see that I’ve moved on, and so it’s fine that he’s moved on, too.”
“More likely he’ll be jealous, like he was at Rosings,” Elizabeth mused.
“Then you think I should ask Jordan not to come? But I don’t see how I can do that; uninviting him would be terribly rude.”
“Heavens, no! A little jealousy might be just what the doctor ordered.”
“That’s what Charlotte said, too, but I don’t want to upset Charles. Not that he’d necessarily be upset. After all, he has Elena now.”
“Oh, come on, he couldn’t care less about her. He’s still crazy about you.”
“How on earth did you miss all the signs last week at Rosings? Elena bored him to death, and he wanted to knock Jordan out cold with that bust of Mozart on the hall table.”
Jane, who was gazing at the wisp of steam just beginning to emerge from the kettle, smiled in spite of herself.
Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled. “I swear, I saw Charles staring at Mozart, and then at Jordan, with an evil look in his eye.”
Laughing, Jane fetched two mugs from the cabinet and set them on the counter. “Thanks for cheering me up. Isn’t it funny how we’re so sure about each other’s love lives, but so uncertain about our own?”
“Good thing we have each other, or we’d be completely hopeless.”
The following evening, the clock in the den chimed ten times, breaking the silence in the penthouse. Elizabeth and William were sitting close together on the sofa, tending to their respective responsibilities. Or, at least, Elizabeth was tending to her responsibilities, working on lesson plans. William had ostensibly spent the evening reviewing paperwork from Sonya, but Elizabeth knew that she had claimed much more of his attention than had his contracts and letters.
She rubbed her eyes, which were getting tired from staring at her laptop all evening. “I heard that Charles Bingley is coming up for Char’s birthday party,” she remarked.
William nodded. “I invited him to stay here for the weekend.”
“Sounds dangerous,” she teased. “A swinging bachelor pad and two hot bachelors.”
He grinned, but his smile faded fast. “I’m afraid it means we won’t see much of each other this weekend, except at the party. I’d been hoping we could try out that drive-in movie theater.”
“Don’t worry; we’ll get there eventually.”
Elizabeth deposited her laptop on the coffee table, stretched, and rolled her head in a slow circle, her muscles stiff from hunching over the computer. William reached over and began to massage her neck and shoulders. When he brushed her hair aside and pressed his lips to the back of her neck, she barely suppressed a sigh. Afraid of what she might do if he continued, she jumped to her feet.
“The music ended,” she explained awkwardly. “I’ll put on another CD.”
He stared at her in speculative silence for a moment, but when he spoke he didn’t mention her frantic leap from the sofa. “I have a wonderful recording of Don Giovanni, if you’re interested.”
She crossed the room and inspected his CD collection. “Not right now. I was thinking of some Bill Evans … or maybe even some William Darcy.”
“You can have all the William Darcy you want, but you’ll have to come over here to get it.”
Elizabeth whirled to face him as he lounged on the sofa, his eyes gleaming. “You, sir, are bad.”
“No, I’m good,” he replied softly, raising his eyebrows in such a way as to leave no question of his meaning. He was ordinarily so proper that his occasional bold remarks had the power to unsettle her.
She did her best not to blush, responding in as breezy a tone as she could manage, “If you do say so yourself.” She turned away and resumed her inspection of his CDs, feeling his eyes burning into her from across the room. Finally she grabbed a jazz CD at random and loaded it into the player. As she turned back to face William, the plaintive strains of John Coltrane’s saxophone filled the room.
“Excellent choice,” he said. “Coltrane for Lovers, isn’t it?” He rose to his feet. “Would you do me the great honor of dancing with me, Ms. Bennet?”
She stepped into his arms, and they began to move together to the music. “I must say, I’d enjoy working in the evenings a lot more if they all ended with a handsome man asking me to dance.”
They fell silent after that. She had always noticed that they danced well together, their bodies attuned to each other’s movements and rhythms. I wonder if it will be that way when we …. She shivered, overwhelmed by the image provoked by this unbidden thought.
“Are you okay?” He tightened his arms around her.
She tilted her head up to meet his concerned gaze. “I’m fine.”
He lowered his head to hers and their mouths met in a soft kiss that was followed by another, and then another, and still another. They nipped and brushed each other’s lips playfully, tasting each other only fleetingly. Soon, though, passion overtook play, and they abandoned all pretense of dancing, clinging to each other, their mouths fused together in a hungry contest of exploration and surrender.
A deep groan rumbled in William’s chest and his hands strayed down her back, grasping her hips and molding her tightly against him. She realized with an odd mixture of regret and relief that they’d have to stop soon.
But not yet. She twined her arms around his neck and kissed him deeply, allowing herself to express some measure of the profound desire she felt, and absorbed the shudder that vibrated through him in response. He began to take small backward steps, drawing her along with him, until he dropped onto the sofa, pulling her down with him so that she sat sideways across his lap. “I’ve wanted to have you sitting here like this all night,” he whispered in her ear, nibbling the sensitive lobe while little sparks zipped through her body.
Kissing him in this semi-reclining posture seemed far more hazardous. She heard the clock strike the half hour and pulled her lips away from his. “It’s getting late,” she gasped.
“It’s only 10:30.” His words were muffled; his lips had begun tracing a slow, insistent path of fire along her jaw.
She knew she should pull away, but she couldn’t find the will. Instead she spoke plaintively. “My first class is at eight tomorrow morning, and my last one doesn’t end till ten at night. I need a good night’s sleep or I’ll never survive.” With a sigh, he released her, and she jumped to her feet.
William looked befuddled by the suddenness of his retreat, but he didn’t comment. He followed her into the kitchen, where she had left her purse. “Before you go,” he said, “I have a present for you. I meant to give it to you earlier but we got talking about other things and I forgot.” He lifted a medium-sized box from the counter and handed it to her.
She opened the lid to find another box inside, this one marked with the brand of a prominent cellular telephone company. She opened the second box and found a cell phone inside, along with a set of accessories.
“You didn’t have a cell phone,” he said. “Now you do. It’s all paid for: the phone and two years of service. I even charged the battery this afternoon.”
She hated to deflate his enthusiasm, but she had to do it. “William, I’m sorry, but I can’t accept it.”
She struggled to explain. “It’s the type of present. If you tried to make my car payment or pay my rent, you’d understand why I’d say no, right?”
“If you didn’t have enough money for those things, I hope you’d accept my help.”
“But you wouldn’t offer them as gifts out of the blue, right? You’d only consider making an offer like that if you knew I really needed the help.”
“But this isn’t a car payment or rent.”
“To me, a cell phone is pretty much in the same category. It’s the sort of thing that, if I need one, I ought to pay for it myself.”
“But it’s a good idea to have a phone in case of emergencies, especially driving at night. And if you had a cell phone, it’d be easier for us to reach each other. Like the other day, when you were at lunch and didn’t get my message.”
“But it feels the same as if you offered to pay my regular phone bill.”
He folded his arms over his chest, lines of tension evident on his face. “Why can’t you just take the phone, like any other woman in the world would do?”
“Maybe you should find one of those other women, since apparently you’d be much happier with one of them.”
“I didn’t say that.” He fell silent, staring at her.
She was about to snatch her purse off the table and stalk out the door, grateful that her car was parked downstairs so that she could escape. But as she turned to go, she saw something in his eyes that made her take a closer look. His anger was only a thin veneer at the surface. Beneath it she saw that he was hurt, and she forced herself to calm down and consider the situation from his point of view.
This was the first gift he’d given her, aside from his various floral offerings, and her immediate response had been to reject it. Further, he had offered it hoping it would help them to grow closer as a couple. Perhaps it seemed to him that her rejection extended to that idea as well. And it wasn’t quite the same as rent or a car payment, regardless of her claim to the contrary.
Elizabeth had always, even as a small child, protected her independence. Having left home for boarding school at the age of fourteen, she had been at least partially on her own for almost half of her life. During her years as a not-quite-starving actress in New York, she had refused help from her father, her grandmother, and even Jane.
Now that she had achieved a small measure of financial security—if one overlooked her mountain of debt from school loans—her pride was no longer as vulnerable, but there were other reasons to be wary. William, with his almost limitless wealth, could go overboard if not checked early and often. First, the phone. Next he would think her car wasn’t reliable enough and would buy her a new one. Then he’d want to get her an apartment of her own. And then she would feel like a kept woman.
He was watching her in wary silence. She stepped close to him, moving slowly to see if he would retreat, but he stood his ground. “I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I shouldn’t have said that. I’d hate it if you found some other woman.” She ran her hands along his arms, which were still crossed over his chest.
After a moment, his eyes flickered and he uncrossed his arms. His hands came to rest on her waist. “I don’t have the slightest interest in other women,” he replied gruffly. She saw warmth creeping into his eyes. “And besides, what I like best about you is that you aren’t like every other woman, no matter how maddening that can be sometimes.”
She smiled and stroked his cheek. “Be careful what you wish for, huh?”
He nodded, chuckling softly. “Exactly.”
She next embarked on the trickier part of her plan. “Has Sonya gotten you a new phone yet? You said you were going to ask her to, because of the voicemail fiasco.”
“Not yet. She wanted to do some investigating first.”
“Well, then, why don’t you take this phone for yourself? And I’ll go out tomorrow and get one of my own. I like the idea that it’ll be easier for us to stay in touch. You’re right; the other day it could have saved me a couple of hours of worry if you’d been able to reach me. And when I’m driving at night, I’ll be glad to have a phone, just in case.”
“Why not take this one, then?”
“Because I’m annoyingly independent, not to mention stubborn. And it’s important to me to do this for myself.”
He shook his head ruefully. “I can’t say that I really understand, but since it’s important to you ….” He bent his head and kissed her.
“Thank you,” she said. “Walk me to my car?”
“Try to stop me.”