Lunch in the park had turned out to be the perfect antidote to the tension caused by William’s earlier episode. Elizabeth planned to ask more questions about his health later, but for now she was content to simply enjoy the afternoon.
A canopy of tree branches shaded their blanket in a quiet nook in the Golden Gate Park arboretum. They had just finished a leisurely lunch of shrimp salad served on croissants, accompanied by a green salad and heaping plates of fresh fruit and raw vegetables. They had also found an excellent bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, carefully wrapped in cooling packs to keep it chilled, in the picnic basket.
After finishing his lunch, William had made good on his threat, opening his new San Francisco history book and finding interesting snippets to share.
“Please thank Mrs. Reynolds for this wonderful lunch,” Elizabeth said, reaching for a carrot.
He looked up from his book, swallowing a bite of the pear he held in his hand, and arched an eyebrow. “Here’s a great idea. You could come over for dinner on Monday and thank her yourself.”
“You’re relentless.” She chuckled, shaking her head.
“I can be, when something really matters.”
His steady gaze seemed to envelop her with warmth, and when he leaned forward slowly, her eyes drifted shut. He touched his lips to hers, lingering in a kiss so sweet that the rest of the world seemed to fade away. She was intoxicated by his nearness: the caress of his fingers on her cheeks, the faint tang of his cologne, the quiet sigh that resonated in his chest, and above all, the warmth of his lips against hers. She expected him to deepen the kiss, but instead he released her and sat back on the blanket.
“It’s going to be funny seeing you around school,” she said.
“I’m going in on Monday, mostly to inspect my studio.”
“Would you like me to show you around campus after my morning class?”
“Yes, I would.” He paused to pour himself a glass of Perrier, which had been chilling in the basket along with the wine. “Although … I hate to say this, but we should try to be discreet about our relationship when we’re on campus.”
“Oh, I agree.” She plucked the last blueberry from the plate of fruit. She had eaten so many that her fingers were tinted purple. “I’m sure people will find out that we’re spending time together, but the details are nobody’s business.”
“I meant that it would be better if people at the conservatory thought we were just casual friends.” He fell silent, staring at the blanket.
Elizabeth bit her lip. Maybe he had a reason. It didn’t automatically mean that he was embarrassed to have his name associated with hers. “Sure, that’s fine,” she answered, maintaining a cool and impassive tone. “No problem. In fact, if you want, I’ll pretend I don’t even know you.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. Let me explain.”
“You don’t owe me any explanations. The last thing you’d want is a photo of us on the Society page of the paper.”
He shifted toward her on the blanket. “I don’t like it when my private life becomes public, but that’s not what I was thinking about.”
He hesitated, and she saw that he was studying her intently.
“Lizzy, I hope you’re not still remembering the ridiculous things I said the day we met.”
Her lips twitched. “Like that I wasn’t at your social level?”
He sighed. “I was a conceited ass that day. I’m amazed you gave me a second chance. But I suppose you still consider me arrogant enough to think of you that way.”
His self-deprecating tone coaxed a smile from her. “Well, I must admit, your arrogance can be kind of sexy sometimes.”
“Oh?” His eyebrows levitated. “That sounds like a good topic for further discussion.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have said anything,” she retorted.
Smiling, William leaned back on the blanket, resting on his elbows. His eyes scanned the landscape surrounding them. “This is a beautiful place.”
He closed his eyes. “We should visit it together someday.”
“Speaking of doing things together ….”
“Going back to what you said about keeping our relationship under wraps, I want to be sure I understand. Were you strictly referring to our behavior on campus? Or are you worried that you’ll be recognized in a restaurant when we’re out together, or even here in the park?”
He opened his eyes and sat upright. “Catherine’s reaction is the only thing that worries me.”
“Catherine de Bourgh? Why should we care what she thinks?”
“Because she’s determined to have me marry Anne.”
“And you’re afraid of what she’ll do if she finds out you’re going out with me instead?” Elizabeth smiled at the mental image of William, who had at least a foot of height advantage over Catherine, shrinking from her in quivering terror. “Unless she shows up at your door with a sawed-off shotgun—or in Catherine’s case, I guess it would be a jewel-encrusted sword—she can’t force you to marry Anne.”
“I can handle Catherine,” he said, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture. “She maneuvers me into spending time with Anne once in a while, but only because I allow it. I know how lonely Anne is, so I don’t mind taking her out to dinner or to a party occasionally.”
“Then I don’t understand.”
“It’s what Catherine might do to you that worries me. As Dean of the conservatory, she has power over you. I’m afraid she might punish you for ‘stealing’ me from Anne.”
“And you think we can keep it a secret from her? She seems like a busybody.”
“We should try. That’s why I was distant when I spoke to you in the receiving line last night. I didn’t want her suspicions aroused.”
“I wondered what was going on. It almost seemed like you were sorry to see me.”
He set down his glass, shaking his head. “I’d been watching for you all evening. I wasn’t even sure you’d come.”
“The thing is, Catherine already hates me. I don’t know what I did, but every time she sees me she practically sneers.”
He hesitated, frowning. “Perhaps she senses my interest in you.”
“But she’s been giving me dirty looks ever since my interview in May, and the first time she could have seen us together was last night.”
William brushed some invisible blades of grass, or perhaps a wayward ant, off the blanket. Finally, his eyes still fixed on the ground, he said, “I recommended that she hire you.”
“You did? When?”
He looked up, tension evident on his face. “Back in May. The weekend of the wedding. I went to see her before I flew home and I told her that you were a first-rate candidate for the job.”
Elizabeth didn’t understand his embarrassment. “That was sweet of you, especially since you barely knew me then.” Then the pieces fell into place. “At the interview, she accused me of exploiting my influential friends.”
“I know. You told me about it the night we had dinner at my house.”
“At the time I thought she meant Bill Collins, which didn’t make sense ‘cause he’s not influential, but she was talking about you.” His obvious discomfort touched her heart, and she impulsively reached out to grasp his hand. “It’s not your fault,” she said fervently. “It was a lovely gesture, and I appreciate it. She has no right to behave as though somebody coerced her into hiring me.”
He seemed, if anything, even more uncomfortable now, so she tried again to soothe him. “Okay, I understand why you don’t want her to know we’re seeing each other, and you’re sweet to worry about me. But does this mean we’ll be reduced to clandestine meetings in dark alleys?”
“Of course not, but it might be better for you in the long run if we’re careful where we go in public.”
“No. I want us to enjoy our time together.” She squeezed his hand. “If someone sees us together in a restaurant and Catherine de Bourgh hears about it, that’s just the way it is. I don’t want to be constantly looking over my shoulder.”
“Neither do I.”
“But we’ll behave professionally on campus, of course. It’s not as though I had planned to throw myself at you in the hallways.”
He favored her with a crooked grin. “Let’s not be hasty. I’d rather not limit the places where you might throw yourself at me.”
“I would never have guessed that you could be such an incorrigible flirt,” she replied, laughing.
“Why not?” He stretched out on his side, propping up his head with one arm. He had never looked more irresistible than he did at that moment, lounging casually on the blanket, wearing a small, delicious smile. She licked her lips reflexively and swallowed.
“Lizzy? Why not?”
She started, and realized that she had been gaping at him. It took her a moment to remember what they’d been talking about. “Um, well, I don’t know exactly,” she stammered. “Whenever I’ve seen you in concert or being interviewed, you seem so quiet and serious.”
“I am quiet and serious, most of the time. But there’s something about being with you that brings out a different side of me.”
“So you’re saying I encourage you to be frivolous.”
She had expected him to laugh at her retort, but his expression was heartfelt and he spoke softly. “All I know is that when I’m with you, I’m happy.”
The wistful note in his voice tugged at her heart. It continually surprised her to discover pockets of vulnerability in his psyche, after years of foolishly assuming that his poise and command on the concert stage reflected his inner self. Even more unexpected was that, as much as she admired the public figure, the private man was turning out to be even more attractive and interesting.
“That’s because you’re so tired. A bed of nails would feel good to you right now.”
“Mmmm. You might be right,” he murmured, closing his eyes with a contented sigh.
Elizabeth sat hugging her knees to her chest and scanned their surroundings. The sun was shining in a perfect blue sky, but the secluded hollow where they rested was an oasis of dappled shade. A fresh breeze carried the warm, earthy scent of growing things and rustled the leaves in the trees. The muffled sound of traffic was the sole reminder that the park was in the midst of a bustling city.
Her mind drifted until a craving for something sweet reminded her that they hadn’t had dessert. “I think it’s time to try Mrs. Reynolds’s cookies, don’t you?” she said.
He didn’t answer, and on closer inspection she saw that he was breathing in the easy rhythm of sleep. She moved closer, able for the first time to study him at close range without feeling self-conscious. Her eyes slid over his shoulders and chest, admiring their breadth. She had felt the lean strength of his body on those occasions when he had wrapped her tightly in his arms, and she had seen a hint of his upper chest the day at Crissy Field, but the rest of his torso remained a tantalizing mystery. The open neck of his shirt revealed a few crisp, dark hairs, and a liquid warmth filled her as her imagination supplied the hidden details.
The breadth of his upper body tapered gradually to his slender waist and hips. His jeans fit him snugly, and she paused, her cheeks reddening when she realized that she was studying a bulge around the inseam. She forced her eyes to continue their downward journey, appreciating the way his jeans accentuated the length of his legs.
The more time she spent with William, the more she was forced to admit that her body, mind, and heart were locked in a struggle where he was concerned. There was no question that she and William shared a powerful physical attraction, an insistent heat like nothing she had felt before. But her mind continually interrupted, sounding strident alarms, as it had done last night on the windy hilltop. Her heart was the third member of this warring triad. Something elemental seemed to draw her to him, especially in quiet moments like this one, but she didn’t trust the instinct. The result was a perplexing brew of desire, yearning, and doubt. The only reasonable solution was the one she had adopted: to be cautious, allowing the relationship to advance only in small steps until she could find the answers.
Her attention returned to his face. The reserved, slightly melancholy expression he often wore had melted away, replaced by calm contentment. “Sleep well,” she whispered, smoothing his hair off his forehead.
She reached for William’s history book, and then rummaged through the picnic basket until she found the package of cookies. Hmm … I wonder what kind of wine goes best with chocolate chip cookies? Smiling to herself, she refilled her glass, leaned against a tree trunk, and opened the book across her lap.
An hour later, William was still napping, and Elizabeth thought she should wake him. She would have been content to spend the rest of the afternoon in the shade of the tree, guarding him while he got some much-needed rest, but she doubted that he would share her view. She had ostensibly been reading his book, but in reality she had spent most of the time watching him sleep.
An ant began the long march up his chest, heading for the open collar of his shirt, and she scooted closer in order to foil the insect’s plans. “I doubt you’ll find any food in there,” she told the ant quietly as she brushed it onto the grass. “He’s much too neat to spill crumbs into his shirt.”
She was about to return to her place at the foot of the tree, but she paused, her gaze captured by William’s face, especially his mouth. It was the sexiest mouth she had ever seen, especially when shaped into the lazy smile he wore when drawing her into the circle of his arms. Operating on instinct, she bent forward, brushing a gentle finger over his lips.
His eyelids opened slowly, and his half-lidded gaze gradually focused on her. Her initial embarrassment at having awakened him dissolved as his mouth curved into a blissful, drowsy smile. He reached up, brushing an errant lock of hair off her cheek. In a dreamlike state, she lowered her head and touched her lips to his.
“Hi there, Sleeping Beauty,” she whispered.
“Hello,” he murmured in a husky voice, stroking her cheek. “If this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up.”
“It’s not. You’re awake. Here, I’ll show you.” She kissed him again. “See?”
He shook his head, his eyes still only half open. “It’s going to take more than a little peck on the lips to convince me that I’m awake.”
“I see. Well, I think this is the traditional method.” She bent down as though to kiss him again, but instead she pinched his arm.
“Ouch!” he yelped, sitting up abruptly. He scowled at her, rubbing his arm in mock distress.
“Don’t be such a big baby. I barely touched you.”
“But I was anticipating something much more pleasant. And you’ve left me no alternative but to retaliate.”
He grabbed her by the waist, and she burst into helpless giggles, squirming in an attempt to escape from his grasp.
He raised his eyebrows speculatively. “You’re ticklish?”
“No, I’m not,” she lied. “You just startled me.”
“Let’s see about that.”
She tried to escape his grasp, but he was too quick for her, leaving her trying in vain to pry his hands from her waist. “Unhand me, you brute!” she commanded, her shrieks of laughter completely derailing her attempt at a haughty air.
He stopped tickling her, but left his hands resting on her waist. “I’m stopping,” he assured her as she tried to wriggle away, “but just remember, you started it.”
She knelt beside him, vividly aware of his body close beside hers. Their broad smiles gradually softened. Desire kindled in his eyes, and he lifted a hand from her waist. Sparks seemed to arc between them as he dragged his thumb slowly across her lips. The heat of his gaze enveloped her, and she leaned forward, pressing her lips firmly to his and wrapping her arms around his neck. He tightened his arm around her and lowered her gently to lie on the blanket, his mouth still on hers. At another time she might have resisted, but the delicious warmth of their embrace crowded out rational thought, silencing her mind with its myriad of warnings. She threaded her fingers through his thick hair, sighing softly, and gave herself up to the passion building between them. Time seemed to stop as they explored each other’s mouths with a slow thoroughness that melted her bones.
Finally he raised his head. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered.
She had been considered pretty since her mid-teens, but “beautiful” was an adjective for Jane, not for her. However, bathed in the intense heat of his gaze, she felt like the most beautiful woman on the planet. She wanted to thank him for this gift, but instead she tightened her arms around his neck, pulling his face down to hers for another kiss.
Passion flared again the instant their lips met, and as they kissed with growing hunger, he moved partially on top of her, the weight of his body pressing her into the ground. A ripple of panic threatened to seize her, but he shifted onto his side and her fear dissipated. She buried her fingers in his hair as his lips traced a fiery path from her jaw down the contours of her neck.
He kissed the hollow at the base of her throat, and at first it seemed that he might continue his descent to the vee neckline of her shirt. Instead, he lifted his head and gave her a rueful smile. “I think we’d better stop this before I forget that we’re in a public place in the middle of the day … not to mention the fact that I promised you last night we’d take things more slowly. You are entirely too kissable for your own good, Ms. Bennet.”
“So are you, Mr. Darcy,” she murmured, stroking his jaw.
He covered her mouth with his once more, this time in a gentle, leisurely kiss. Then he released her. Reclining on his side, he propped himself up on his elbow and stared into the distance.
Elizabeth sat up and self-consciously busied herself with repairing her ponytail. She was disconcerted to realize that she had been lying in his arms in, as he had pointed out, a public place in daylight. But it wasn’t as bad as it sounded; they were alone in their corner of the park and probably hadn’t been observed by anyone. Besides, there was an unwritten rule when picnicking in the park: you ignored activity on nearby blankets.
William’s voice interrupted her reverie. “How long was I asleep?”
“About an hour.”
He sighed loudly. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me.”
“It’s okay. I had your book and the wine to keep me company, not to mention Mrs. Reynolds’s cookies. And it was entertaining watching the squirrels try to steal our leftovers.”
He smiled briefly, but then his expression saddened. “But I shouldn’t have left you sitting here alone while I slept.”
“I was relieved that you got a nap. I was worried about you earlier, when you had your attack, or whatever you’d call it.”
He sat up, his jaw set in a tense line. “I am so damned sick of this,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Please tell me what’s wrong,” she said in a gentle tone. “I’d like to help if I can. Perhaps it would help you to talk about it.”
He paused, regarding her with an expression she couldn’t interpret. Then he nodded and said, “You may be right. But first, what was that you said about Mrs. Reynolds’s cookies?”
She reached for the packet, which wasn’t quite empty yet, and passed it to him. “You were right, by the way. They’re fantastic.”
“She used to have cookies, fresh from the oven, waiting for me every day after school. Her kitchen was one of my favorite rooms in the house, and not just because of the cookies. It was such a warm, happy place.” He bit into a cookie, looking up at the trees towering above them.
Elizabeth filed away the implication that other parts of the house might not have been warm and happy. “Okay, you have your cookie now. Tell me what’s wrong.”
He leaned back, resting on his elbows again. “How much did you find out when you visited the hospital?”
“Almost nothing, because I wasn’t a family member. Later, I saw in your press release that you had a problem with a blocked artery. But when I researched arterial blockages on the Internet, I wasn’t sure what kind of blockage it was.”
“You researched my medical condition?”
“I was worried, and your public statements were so vague.”
“And you cared enough about me to want to know more, even though you thought I wasn’t interested in you.” His dimples blazed, causing her heart, as usual, to skip a beat.
Come on, Lizzy. It’s just a smile. Get a grip. Besides, there was a hint of smug triumph in his eyes that demanded a response. “Yes, I did,” she retorted, “but don’t go getting a swelled head.”
He pursed his lips, his eyes brimming with wry amusement. “Somehow I don’t think that’s going to be a problem, with you around to puncture my ego on a regular basis.”
“Well, somebody’s got to do it.”
“That’s exactly what Sonya says.”
“I knew I liked her. But you still haven’t told me anything about your health, and you’re not getting off the hook.”
He explained his constricted aorta, his hospitalization, and the treatment he had received. She listened carefully and said little, except for an occasional question.
“So, your problem today. Doesn’t it mean the constriction is still there, and they didn’t fix it?”
“No, that’s taken care of, at least for now.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
He sighed. “My heart was under stress due to the constriction, and it’s not working as efficiently as it should.”
“Oh, William, I’m so sorry.”
He sat up. “Don’t worry. The damage can be reversed, which is why I’m taking this break. If I take care of myself, I should be back to normal soon.”
“So you’re definitely going to be okay?”
“This is why I didn’t want to get into the details; I didn’t want to scare you. But it means a lot that you’re worried about me.”
“Of course I am. But shame on you for letting me drag you up Telegraph Hill this morning! I don’t think that qualifies as taking care of yourself.”
He sat back, his brow furrowed, though his eyes held a glint of amusement. “Mrs. Reynolds is going to be thrilled to hear that you’re already scolding me.”
“Well, you deserve a scolding for taking an unnecessary risk like that! And so do I, for suggesting it. We could easily have gone another time, when it wasn’t so crowded and we could have parked up there.”
“I know,” he sighed. “But I’m tired of feeling like an invalid. I’ve done nothing but rest for the past two months, and I hate it.”
“Did the doctors give you any idea how long your recovery might take?”
“At first the doctor wanted me to stop touring completely for six months, but that was out of the question.”
Elizabeth began to understand the source of his frustration. Here was something that not even William Darcy, with all the resources at his disposal, could control. “But if that’s what you need in order to heal, isn’t it best to take the time?”
“She was being too cautious. We agreed on a three-month break.”
“Till the end of November, then?”
“No, the end of October. The three-month period started in late July.”
“I thought you were going to be here for the entire semester.”
He shook his head. “I start touring again in November.”
“Assuming you’re better by then.”
“I will be.”
She felt a flash of amusement at his haughty declaration of sovereignty over his health, but it was quickly submerged beneath a wave of unhappy thoughts. She suspected that he was intentionally making light of his condition for her benefit. In addition, she was reeling from the discovery that he would be leaving San Francisco in just two months, when even the full semester wasn’t long enough.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, his dark eyes locked on her face.
“I don’t know. It’s a lot to digest.”
“I have a talent for spoiling our dates, don’t I?”
“Nonsense. I’m glad you told me. Do you have problems frequently, like you did this morning?”
“No. I feel light-headed sometimes, and I need more sleep than usual. But the main problem is everything I’m not allowed to do.”
“Like running, I imagine?”
“Right. I’m seeing a cardiologist on Monday, and I was hoping he’d clear me to start running again, but after what happened this morning I guess I’m not ready. I miss running; I’ve been walking, but it’s a poor substitute. I’m going to have to rebuild my endurance from scratch.”
“And of course there’s the traveling.”
He nodded, his expression grave. “I hate that I’ve had to cancel so many performances..”
Reviewing his various deprivations was a gloomy topic; she looked for a way to cheer him up. “There are some good things about taking time off, aren’t there?”
“Like extra time to do the New York Times crossword puzzle?”
She ignored his sarcasm. “You have lots of time to practice your music. That must be wonderful.”
“That’s true. I’ve taken the opportunity to expand my repertoire in some new directions.”
“You see?” she replied in a cheerful tone. “And the Bay Area is a great place. I think you’ll love it here.”
“I like it so far,” he admitted, his expression warming. “But that’s mostly because of my tour guide.”
She smiled, self-conscious under the microscope of his intense gaze. “Speaking of the tour, shall we get moving?”
Together they cleaned up the remains of their picnic and folded the blanket. As they followed the path to his car, she checked her watch. It was already almost four o’clock. “What time are you meeting Charles for dinner?” she asked.
“That’s when I’m meeting Jane and Char. Okay, then, we have time to finish the drive if we don’t make any more stops. I’d planned to take you for a ride on a cable car and a walk on the beach, but we can do those things another time.”
“I hate that I wasted so much of our afternoon sleeping.”
“Are you feeling better now?”
They arrived at the car, and he stowed the picnic basket and blanket. “Yes, I am.”
“Then it wasn’t a waste. Besides, we have plenty of time for sightseeing.”
He opened the car door for her, and she slid into the passenger seat. Plenty of time? Not exactly. Two months.
“Are you all right?” he asked. “You look sad.”
“I’m fine. But let’s squeeze in that cable car ride after all.”
She did her best to seem her usual, animated self, but beneath this mask, one thought repeated itself, parrot-like, holding fast despite her efforts to banish it.