William followed Elizabeth into the living room of her apartment. They had been silent on the way upstairs, a tense, dangerous silence. He had no idea what to say to her, or how to explain his complicated stew of emotions.
He stood with his arms folded across his chest and drew himself up to his full height; standing tall had always given him more confidence when he needed it most. Then he arranged his face in his practiced dispassionate expression, the one behind which he felt safest in threatening situations.
She wore a gaze almost as cool as his. “What’s wrong with you tonight?” she asked.
“I thought you wanted to go first.” He raised his eyebrows, challenging her in a weak attempt to gain the upper hand.
“I am going first. And I want to know what’s going on in your head.”
“So many things. I wouldn’t know where to begin.” It was the most honest answer he could offer without more time to compose his thoughts.
“In other words, as usual, you’re going to lock your feelings away and refuse to share them.”
“Why don’t we start with your feelings? Why are you so angry with me tonight?”
She glared at him briefly but then answered. “I want you to explain how you can find me even remotely worthy of your attention when you’re so contemptuous of my friends.”
What was she talking about? He shook his head and exhaled a loud sigh. “That’s absurd.”
She planted her hands on her hips. “It is not. You’ve spent the evening acting like everybody has some disgusting disease you don’t want to catch.”
“I was in a room full of strangers.” He lifted his chin. “I talked to the people I knew.”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, and of course it’s impossible to meet someone new at a party, as we have discussed in the past.”
He dug his hands into his pockets and fastened his eyes on a print of Monet’s water lilies hanging over the sofa. “And as I’ve told you before, I’m not good at making small talk with strangers.”
“You seemed to do just fine at the Juilliard reception, and at Catherine de Bourgh’s party. You were chatting with everybody in the place. You weren’t walking around with your nose so far in the air you couldn’t make eye contact with anything but the chandeliers.”
He wrenched his eyes away from the painting and stared at her. “And you can’t see the difference? I had no idea you understood me so little.”
“Oh, I can see the difference, all right. The people at the reception and at Rosings were the cream of society, with money and jewelry and designer clothes. They weren’t starving actors, like my friends in New York, or grad students, like tonight. They weren’t beneath you, like we are.”
He wasn’t sure which hurt more, her insulting accusations or her complete failure to understand him. “So you’ve already made up your mind that you’re right and I’m wrong. But you don’t know—” He shook his head and his gaze returned to the water lilies as he struggled to find the words that would explain how he felt.
Elizabeth suddenly stepped toward him and grabbed his arms. “Stop doing that!”
Startled, he nearly lost his balance. “Stop doing what?”
“Stop hiding from me. Stop pretending there’s nothing wrong.” She took a deep breath and continued in a calmer tone. “What are you so afraid to say to me?”
Something snapped inside him and he began to speak with no idea what he planned to say. “All right, if that’s what you want,” he growled. “Tonight you’ve been treating me like I’m a … like I barely exist. Like I mean nothing to you. Like I’m less than a man.”
She rolled her eyes. “Are we going to do this again? You, whining because I haven’t been spending every second of my time with you?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.” He raked his hands through his hair. “But you’ve been angry with me ever since I got here, and you’ve been avoiding me. The one time you walked up to a group I was standing in, you barely acknowledged my presence except to glare at me.”
She didn’t answer, and he sensed that he had scored a hit, so he continued. “I remember the same thing at the party in New York—you avoided me then, too. And even at the rehearsal dinner. Am I such dull company that you can’t bear to be around me? And in that case, why do you keep inviting me to things?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t, since you obviously hate attending parties with me.”
“No, I don’t. Lizzy, I’m always glad to be with you. But tonight you obviously don’t want to be with me.”
She didn’t deny the assertion, and his hurt deepened, but he continued. “And after spending the evening ignoring me—except when you were giving me angry looks—you sang that song.”
“What about the song?” She stared at him.
“You got up there looking so beautiful, so sexy, like a goddess, and I had to watch while you sang that song and flirted with every man in the place. Except me.”
She took a step toward him, looking bewildered. “I knew the song made you angry, but—”
He knew he should stop talking, but the words spilled out in a passionate torrent. “Isn’t it enough that you’re never out of my thoughts, that my day isn’t complete until I hear your voice and see you smile, that being with you brings me more joy than anything else in my life? Do you have to bewitch every other man in the room, too?”
Acting on instinct, he pulled her into his arms, and his mouth came down on hers.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening; they were supposed to be talking, working out their differences. But that was hard for Elizabeth to remember when her senses were filled by the fierce heat of his kiss. She wasn’t sure why he was drowning in need, but she instinctively wrapped her arms around his neck, her anger submerged under a powerful wave of desire.
“You’re driving me mad, Lizzy,” he muttered, dragging his mouth away from hers. His hands roved down her back, and his flaming kisses burned a path along her throat. She sighed as his lips found a particularly sensitive spot at the base of her neck.
He drew her over to the sofa and lowered them both to lie there. Her brain sent up warning flares, but her heart and her body snuffed them out. His body seemed to envelop her in its strength and heat, and she answered the urgent demands of his hungry mouth with her own rising passion. William shifted onto his side and pressed her firmly against him, letting out a long, low groan that made her shiver. He began to spread sultry kisses down her throat and across her bare shoulder, igniting little fires along the way.
When at last he raised his head, his eyes were dark wells of passion. He brushed her hair away from her cheek and spoke in a husky voice. “You smell like a tropical garden. Sweet and warm and exotic.”
His open shirt collar afforded a glimpse of his chest, seeming to dare her to explore further, and before she knew what she was doing, she had opened another button and buried her nose in that triangle of warm flesh, inhaling deeply. His scent filled her nostrils, clean and spicy and male in a way that she couldn’t explain but that her body understood.
He murmured her name, and his wandering fingers brushed across her breasts, his caresses slow and deliberate. Tingling from head to toe, she pressed her parted lips to his. As the kiss deepened, his hand slipped under her blouse and drifted upward, the stretchy fabric offering no resistance. She was propelled back to the night at her apartment in New York, the last time he had touched her in such an intimate way.
She pulled her lips away from his. “William ….” she began, doubt trembling in her voice, “I don’t think we should do this.”
“I think we should,” he whispered, his mouth slanting across hers again. His hand slipped inside her bra and captured her breast. She moaned deep in her throat, the desire pouring through her overwhelming logic and caution.
William was beyond thought or reason. To have her in his arms was a balm to his wounded heart and his bruised ego. The frustrations of the party melted away as she engulfed his senses: her eyes clouded with passion, the soft moans that encouraged his caresses, the scent of her perfume, the taste of her lips, the intoxicating feel of her breast filling his palm. The maddening temptress on the stage downstairs had vanished, leaving behind a passionate woman whose eager responses were sending his desire spiraling to dizzying heights.
Her skin was like silk, or perhaps satin, smooth and soft and warm against his fingertips. Her eyes drifted shut as he explored the slopes and curves of the firm globe with the rapt appreciation of a true connoisseur. He longed to feast his eyes and lips on her, and with an uneasy sense of déjà vu, he grasped the hem of her blouse and began to lift it.
Elizabeth’s eyes opened and she grabbed his hand, stilling it. “Wait,” she breathed.
She sighed and shook her head. “We have to stop.”
“Why?” He did as she asked, a wave of fear seeping into his passion-soaked brain. Their terrible argument in New York had started in much the same way. Any second, he might find himself shoved to the floor.
Instead, she touched his cheek tenderly, an expression on her face that might have been regret. “Because … well, for one thing, Jane could walk in any minute, to get a serving dish or something like that.”
“We can go to your bedroom,” he murmured, relieved that it was no worse. “She won’t bother us in there.”
She struggled into a sitting position, which required him to do the same. “No, really, we can’t do this. You know that as well as I do. We can’t go where this is headed—not yet, anyway—and if we don’t stop now, I’m afraid we might not stop at all.”
He leaned forward and buried his head in his hands. It took a few moments before he could curb his frustration sufficiently to comprehend her argument; after all, he hadn’t told her about the doctor’s restriction. Then guilt washed over him. He had sworn to himself that he would let her take the lead in amorous encounters, and he had just broken that promise.
It would never have happened if she hadn’t sung that song. Why had she stood in front of him, taunting him with what he couldn’t have? But even as the words formed in his mind, he was ashamed of himself. Whatever her reasons for singing the song, she hadn’t done it to torture him.
He took a deep breath and raised his head, meeting her anxious gaze. “You’re right. And I didn’t mean to push; I’m sorry. It’s been a difficult evening, and I got carried away.”
She nodded. “I understand. So did I.”
He kissed her softly and resolved to do a better job of controlling his libido. “I need to remember that good things are worth waiting for.”
“Yes, they are.”
“And in the meantime, patience is my new watchword. William ‘Patience’ Darcy, that’s me from now on.”
“I think you’d better wear a name tag; nobody will recognize you.”
He grinned, and much of the tension between them melted away. “There’s that smart mouth of yours, acting up again. I can only think of one possible response.” He captured her lips in a long, slow kiss.
After that, they sat quietly on the sofa together, his arm draped around her, her head on his shoulder.
“I guess we’d better finish our conversation,” she said after a few minutes of silence.
“Our fight, you mean?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I think we can talk calmly now, don’t you? And then we need to get back to the party.”
“Are you sure? I’d rather just stay here.” His eyes gleamed. “Maybe I’ll pick another fight so we can make up again.”
“You are incorrigible, Mr. Darcy.”
“I do my best.” He was trying to prolong their gentle banter in order to extend their time alone together.
But Elizabeth wasn’t that easily distracted. “We have to start doing a better job of talking about things that are bothering us. This isn’t even the first time we’ve had this conversation, but we’re still struggling with it.”
“It’s not easy for me. I’m not used to talking about my feelings.”
“But it’s important. We get in trouble when we start trying to read each other’s minds. We’re not good at it, and then we end up mad or hurt or frustrated. I think that’s what happened tonight, to both of us. What do you say? I’ll try harder if you will.”
He nodded. He knew she was right; besides, when she looked at him with that sweet, coaxing smile, he couldn’t refuse her anything.
“Good,” she said, stroking his jaw.
“I need to ask you something. Something that’s been bothering me.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows and nodded. “Go ahead.”
“As I said earlier, tonight you seem to be avoiding me. So I’ll repeat my question. Am I such dull company that you can’t bear to be around me?”
“Of course not.” She took his hand. “But I didn’t want to spend too much time with you because of Bill Collins. If he saw us together all evening, it would feed the suspicions he already has. Remember how he reacted, just seeing that you were here?”
He shrugged; it was only half of the answer he sought. “Okay, I didn’t think of that. But you were the same way at your farewell party in New York.”
She was silent for a moment, biting her lip and studying him. When she spoke, her voice was gentle. “I have to admit, you’re right. When you get all silent and disapproving at parties, I’m not sure how to deal with you, so I end up leaving you alone.”
“But, Lizzy, you’re misinterpreting the situation. It has nothing to do with disapproval. I’m not a … party sort of person.”
“But you go to parties all the time.”
He sighed. “And I loathe them.”
“But like I said before, you seemed fine at the Juilliard reception.”
“Because I forced myself to be the genial host. It’s hard work for me, but I had a responsibility to my family and the foundation. Besides, most of the guests were patrons of the arts. They wanted to talk about the recital, or about a concert they attended, or about music in general, and I can handle that well enough. Occasionally, I even enjoy it.”
“But a room full of strangers … or even people I’ve met but don’t know well.” He shuddered. “My idea of hell would be a series of rooms, each one with a noisy party I had to attend. I’ve never learned to make small talk.”
“But you don’t even seem to try. You’re a talented, intelligent man. Don’t you suppose that with practice you could master that skill, like you did the piano?”
He hesitated. “Those people downstairs all know one another, but I don’t know them. Do you know what they were talking about? A party they went to last weekend. A professor they think is an idiot. A research presentation they all attended yesterday. How would I join the conversation when they’re talking about those things? And if I did walk up to them, wouldn’t they resent me for forcing them to change the subject?”
She looked into his eyes, studying him, and he thought he saw a dawn of understanding.
He went on. “It was more or less the same at your party in New York. When I’m an outsider, I don’t know what to say to people.”
“But if you’re not willing to talk to them, the situation can’t improve. And people stay away from you because your manner discourages them.”
“Nonsense.” William jutted his chin out. “Charlotte’s friend Roger came over to talk to me and we had a great conversation about jazz.”
A smile warmed Elizabeth’s face. “Roger is a sweetheart. But can’t you see why most people would be reluctant to just walk up to you and introduce themselves?”
“No. Enlighten me.” He hadn’t meant to sound so haughty.
She pursed her lips, a faint gleam in her eye. “The rumor mill is grinding away, and I’m sure everybody knows who you are by now. Imagine that you’re one of them, and you look over and see William Darcy, Rich and Famous Person. And in case that’s not enough to scare you away, he’s standing apart from the crowd, looking bored and unapproachable. Would you go over and introduce yourself?”
“I don’t intend to look that way.” He paused, reflecting. “But I do retreat inside myself when I feel awkward.”
“Like a turtle retreating into its shell?”
It was an apt, if undignified, analogy. “I suppose so.”
“That’s not what you project. You can be very intimidating, Mr. Darcy, whether you mean to be or not.”
He sat up straight and directed a quizzical glance at her. “Do I intimidate you?”
“Not a chance,” she said in a flippant tone. “When someone tries to intimidate me, it just stimulates my competitive instincts.”
They shared a smile. “I don’t disapprove of your friends,” he said. “But I’m different from you. You’re bright and lively and fun, and people naturally flock to you. It’s harder for me. I don’t know what to say, and even if they show an interest in me, it’s usually because they want something: a contact to boost their career, or a donation to their charity, or sometimes just to brag that they met me. They rarely have any interest in knowing me.”
The sympathy in her expression was a balm to his soul, helping to release the last of his wounded feelings. She leaned forward and planted an exquisitely gentle kiss on his lips. ”I wish I’d known that you felt this way. I would have introduced you to more people and helped you to connect with the ones you’d have the most in common with. But I always thought you didn’t want to meet my friends, that you considered them beneath you, and I thought you’d be annoyed if I forced you to talk to them.”
“It’s all right. I should have said something sooner. But it would help me in future if you’d make some introductions.”
“Sometimes I forget that not everyone enjoys parties the way I do.” She kissed his cheek, but then sat back and gave him an appraising glance, her smile fading. “However, none of this explains how you treat Jane. It upsets me when you’re not friendly with her.”
Now they were in dangerous territory. It would be disastrous to admit that, while he didn’t disapprove of Elizabeth’s friends, her sister was another matter. He decided to offer a half-truth. “It’s awkward, because of Charles.”
“That was Jane’s guess when we talked about it. She said she was glad Charles had such a loyal friend.”
This was consistent with William’s earlier impression of Jane as a peacemaker. He nodded but kept silent.
“Anyway,” Elizabeth continued, “could you try a little harder with her, for my sake? I really wish you two could be friends.”
He wanted to ask why Jane had flaunted a date under Charles’s nose, but the last thing they needed at present was something else to argue about. “I’ll try harder. So, have we covered everything?” If so, he thought some more kissing sounded like a perfect plan.
“Not quite. You said something earlier about my song.”
“Don’t worry about that. I was overreacting.”
“We said we weren’t going to push things aside anymore. Tell me.”
He studied the ceiling, rehearsing a response, and then spoke in a measured tone. “When we’re alone, you’ve shown hesitation, even reluctance, when it comes to sex or anything approaching it. So I didn’t expect you to sing a song like that.”
“Because if I sing a song like that, it means that I’m that sort of woman?”
“No, of course not. But you turned yourself into a different woman in front of my eyes. I know it was acting, but it was intoxicating, and unsettling, too.”
She nodded, the tension in her face dissolving. “Okay. At first I thought you were objecting to my singing the song. It’s not as though it’s indecent; in fact, sometimes it’s sung for comic effect. It’s just ….” Elizabeth paused, frowning slightly, and stared across the room.
“Provocative?” he suggested.
She nodded. “And teasing. As for the contradiction between the song and my attitude toward sex, that’s what I like about singing it. It’s a chance to become someone I’m not, someone who’s uninhibited and seductive, and to see what it feels like to be her. I don’t know if that makes any sense.”
“It does.” William’s music helped him to escape into imaginary worlds; she was talking about the same idea. “My problem was that you were so convincing.”
“And the teasing got to you, considering what’s been going on between us?”
“Or not going on,” William muttered before he could stop himself.
She looked down with a small, rueful smile, her lips pressed together. “Back in May, at the rehearsal dinner, I used the song I sang to make you uncomfortable. But that was before I knew you. I would never do that to you now.”
Crooking a finger under her chin, he coaxed her head up to meet his gaze. “I know. I was just suffering from temporary insanity.”
“Well, then, you’re my favorite nutcase.”
His eyes narrowed. “I said temporary insanity.”
“Okay, then, my favorite temporary nutcase.” She smiled. “‘Naughty Baby’ is the guys’ favorite of the songs I sing with them, so it was automatically the one they chose. We perform it a lot, and audiences respond to it.”
His fingers combed gently through her hair. “Of course they do. Lizzy, you don’t have any idea how sexy you are when you sing it.”
Her smile held a hint of embarrassment. “It never occurred to me that you’d have such a powerful allergic reaction to it.”
He grinned. “Not allergic, precisely. Just very strong.”
“Okay, so we’ve covered the song, and that you felt out of place. And of course you overheard Lydia. I’m so sorry about that.”
It wasn’t Elizabeth’s fault that her family was disgraceful; in fact, it did her credit that she’d risen above their level. He pushed aside his indignation at Lydia’s shameless behavior and sought to distract her with humor, raising his eyebrows suggestively. “I wish you were half as interested in my anatomy as she is.”
She laughed softly, a wicked sparkle in her eyes. “What makes you think I’m not? I completely agree with her assessment of your rear view.”
He answered her smile with one of his own, running a gentle finger down her cheek and along her neck. Unable to resist the soft, yearning expression in her eyes, he leaned over and kissed her, gently at first, but soon they were embracing with renewed hunger.
She finally pulled away with a rueful smile. “We can’t start this again; we have to get back downstairs. And I’d better fix my hair and make-up. I must be a mess.”
“You look beautiful, but if we went downstairs right now, nobody would need to ask what we’ve been doing.”
“That’s what I figured.” She inspected him closely. “Hold still for a second. I’m not the only one who’s not quite ready to be seen.”
He raised an inquiring eyebrow as she rubbed her thumb against his cheek. “Lipstick,” she explained.
He chuckled. “I’m sure it looks much better on you.”
She kissed him quickly and then straightened up. “I’ll be right back.”
When she returned, her hair and make-up restored, he was in the kitchen inspecting the cell phone she had purchased that morning.
“Are you going to start using the one you bought?” she asked.
“I think so. It seems like a good idea. For one thing, Caroline Bingley got my number somehow. She called me a few times over the summer and Sonya blocked her number. But she must have figured out what we did; she’s started calling from a different number. And then there’s the continuing voicemail problem.”
“You’re still having trouble?”
He looked up at her and nodded. “I didn’t use the phone much this summer, but since I arrived here I’ve been noticing odd things. I’ve had a few messages come in from Richard and Sonya that I didn’t notice till later because the phone never told me there was a new message. The voicemail system acts like I’ve already heard the messages.”
“Does Sonya ever check your messages? That’s what it sounds like—somebody else is checking your voicemail.”
“Sonya has the password, but only for emergencies. My voicemail is private, and she knows that. After all, some lovely green-eyed lady might want to call and leave me an intimate message.”
The gleam in her eyes suggested that she might do precisely that some day; he could hope. “Well,” she said, “this green-eyed lady needs to get back to the party she’s theoretically hosting, so let’s go.”