Content advisory: You already know that Elizabeth had a bad experience in college involving a classmate named Michael; some of you have probably guessed the traumatic nature of what happened. In this chapter and the next, we will learn more about it. She tells her story in Chapter 65, but the events leading her to tell it begin here. My beta team and I have done our best to tell her story in a sensitive manner; however, those who might be triggered by her reactions and/or her story may wish to skip the final section of this chapter. Stay with the chapter until then, though, or you’ll miss an important and positive development.
Tiny beads of sweat glistened on William’s forehead, the product of the hot stage lights and the exertion required by the boisterous finale of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto. Both he and the orchestra were in excellent form tonight, operating as a seamless unit, the energy flowing between them a palpable force hovering over the concert hall at the Sydney Opera House.
He ignored the summons, his brow creased in single-minded concentration as he and the orchestra rocketed through the final bars of the concerto, ending in a crashing fortissimo.
The stage lights were abruptly extinguished, replaced by the more congenial lighting of the penthouse’s dining room. Sonya, who sat across the table from him, spoke again. “Did you hear what I said?” Her elevated eyebrows punctuated the impatience in her voice.
William adopted a haughty air to conceal his befuddlement. “Obviously not, or I would have answered.”
“I asked if we were done for the evening. But I think I have my answer; you’ve already checked out.” She collected the papers on the table front of her into a neat stack. “On the plus side, we got a lot done today.”
William hadn’t intended to spend his Tuesday evening reviewing grant proposals with Sonya, but Elizabeth had called that morning to cancel their dinner date because she was needed at rehearsal. Again. Nine days had passed since their idyllic Sunday morning breakfast, and since then the Fates had conspired to keep them from having time alone together.
Elizabeth’s job was the chief culprit. She was serving as the vocal coach for an upcoming student production of South Pacific at the conservatory. To William’s increasing displeasure, these additional responsibilities were consuming nearly all of her spare time.
“Tell the director that you’ll make yourself available once or twice a week, and that they’ll have to plan accordingly,” he had suggested, doing his best to keep any hint of pleading out of his voice.
She had shaken her head with obvious regret. “When Dr. de Bourgh hired me, she made it clear that I was expected to participate fully in things like this. She said it was the main reason I’d been given such a generous bonus beyond the usual salary they pay someone with my background.”
William had nearly worn his teeth down to stumps since then, irked by Catherine’s duplicity. He found himself in an unprecedented position: deprived of what he wanted most by his own money.
When Elizabeth hadn’t been busy, there had been another obstacle, one residing in the penthouse’s spare bedroom. To William’s surprise, Richard hadn’t fallen into his New York pattern of late-night debauchery, returning home each morning with a mild hangover and a sated smirk on his face. Instead he had developed a genius for being underfoot along with a taste for Jane’s company.
Richard’s interest in Jane, who was far too sedate for his usual tastes, continued to mystify William. There was no question of romance between them; it was clear that they enjoyed each other’s company strictly as friends. Richard had deflected William’s curiosity with a dismissive wave of the hand. “I came out here because I needed a change of pace. Stop worrying about it, old man.”
The history book on William’s nightstand, a study of the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars, included a discussion of press gangs, roving groups of sailors who abducted able-bodied men and forced them into naval service. During recent lonely nights with no solace but this volume, William had harbored dark fantasies of handing Richard over to just such a band of ruffians. Then he’d be gone at sea for months and William could have some privacy with Elizabeth … if she ever finished up at school.
They had been alone together last Saturday for the first time in almost a week—If you can call it “alone” when you spend most of the evening in an auditorium with three thousand other people. William had hoped for some private time with her afterwards, but Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was a lengthy production, with a third act longer than some complete operas. By the time it had ended they were both yawning, and he had simply taken her home and kissed her goodnight.
Worst of all, William was scheduled to return to New York in just four days. As the clock in the den chimed the half hour, it occurred to him that he could literally hear his remaining time with Elizabeth slipping away.
“Where did Richard go?” Sonya asked. “I was on the phone when he left. Is he out with Jane again tonight?”
“They were meeting some of her friends for dinner, but he said he wouldn’t be late. Jane has a big day in court tomorrow, a difficult child custody case.”
“I have to hand it to her. So many of her cases sound heartbreaking. I don’t think I could do it.”
William nodded absently, sitting back in his chair. Through increased exposure to Jane on their evenings together, he had developed a grudging admiration for her. He was increasingly bemused by her behavior where Charles and his money were concerned. It seemed inconsistent with the kind, unassuming woman he had come to know, a point upon which Richard continually hammered. But money, at least in large amounts, could make people behave strangely.
Sonya collected a group of file folders from the table. “What are you going to do with the rest of your evening?”
“I’m going to practice.” He pushed his chair back from the table and rose to his feet.
“Then I’ll say goodbye now. I have a few more things to clean up in here, and then I’ll be on my way.” Everyone in his inner circle knew that William’s practice sessions were sacrosanct. No one dared to disturb him except in an emergency, and even then they did so with some trepidation lest the flames licking at their feet be judged insufficient cause for interruption.
He stopped in the doorway to the living room. “Thank you for staying late.”
“No problem. In fact, we’ve gotten so much done over the past several days that I might fly back a little early, if that’s okay with you.”
“How early?” William had expected Sonya to return to New York with him on Saturday morning.
“What about Thursday? That still gives us tomorrow afternoon to finish up, after our morning meeting at the conservatory. I’d like to be home for the weekend; Brad’s planning to come down, and I haven’t seen him since he left for Boston.”
“Then you should definitely go.” Brad was Sonya’s son, away at law school. “Anything we don’t get done tomorrow, we can finish in New York next week.”
“Thanks, boss. See you tomorrow.”
William nodded and moved toward the piano, already absorbed in planning his practice session.
In a remote corner of his subconscious, William heard the chime of the doorbell. He filed it under “unimportant noises” as his fingers flew over the piano keys. His mind whirled through a landscape of vivid colors, strange shapes, and blind corners that, once traversed, revealed entirely new vistas. To an ordinary person, these mental images might have seemed a form of madness, and perhaps they were, since artistic genius is often said to be tinged with insanity.
Mad or sane, William played on, immersed in his fantasy universe. He never tired of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata because of its sweeping emotional arc, from the contemplative opening theme to the fiery third movement which presently cascaded from his fingertips, its shimmering arpeggios and passionate chords swirling around him.1
The final chord echoed through the shadowy living room. William lifted his hands from the keys in a hesitant, almost regretful motion. He flinched at the unexpected sound of applause, and his head jerked toward the source of the interruption. Sonya ought to know better. But he saw Elizabeth standing there instead.
“Bravo!” she cried. “I know I’m breaking Darcy’s First Law, but there was no way I could hide in the kitchen and pretend not to hear something as wonderful as that.”
Despite two decades of public performing to constant accolades, her praise had the power to unsettle him. With an awkward smile, he crossed the room to greet her. “I didn’t expect to see you tonight.”
“We got done early for a change, so I thought I’d come by and surprise you. Sonya let me in on her way out; I hope that’s okay.”
“Okay?” He chuckled. “Oh, I’d say it’s okay.” His arms enfolded her.
“Even though I’m interrupting a practice session?”
“I hope you realize that you’re the only person on earth who could get away with that.”
“Oh, I doubt that. I suspect your grandmother could get your attention. Georgie too.”
“Allow me to rephrase. You’re the only person on earth who could make me happy by interrupting me.” He kissed her, filling his senses with her.
“Your mood must have improved once you started practicing. Sonya said you were quite the curmudgeon today.” Elizabeth stroked his cheek. “I told her that I think you’re kind of cute when you’re grumpy, but she didn’t seem to agree.”
William set his jaw. “I’m not sure I like being called cute or grumpy, and clearly I need to have a discussion with my soon-to-be-ex-secretary about calling me a curmudgeon.”
“I can’t imagine what made her say that.” Elizabeth pulled away from him, a mischievous gleam in her eye. “Maybe I’d better go home and let you sulk in peace.”
“Don’t you dare.” He hauled her back into his arms, stifling her laughter with a long, deep kiss. By the time he raised his head, her eyes held the soft, languorous look he loved. “You know,” he said, “with a steady diet of your company, I could be a saint. The problem is, I’ve been on starvation rations lately. How much more coaching do you have to do?”
Hand in hand, they crossed the room to sit on the sofa. “As a matter of fact, I don’t need to attend any more rehearsals till this weekend.”
William sat back, draping his arm around her shoulders. “When you say ‘weekend,’ you don’t mean Friday night, I hope?”
“No, I mean Saturday morning. They asked me about Friday, but I told them I had plans.”
“Good, because a great deal of planning has gone into the evening.” Their private celebration of Elizabeth’s birthday was set for Friday evening.
“You’ve been keeping Sonya busy making the arrangements, then?”
He lifted his chin. “I should say not. I planned every detail myself.” That was no exaggeration. He had never before put half this much effort into a dinner date, not even their dinner at the New York townhouse in June.
Elizabeth’s smile softened. “I can’t wait.”
William closed his eyes, smiling. He would have predicted that in his first time alone with her in days, he would have been instantly seized by ravenous hunger, but he was filled with contentment just sitting with her. He brushed her hair away from her cheek, his fingers trailing along the line of her jaw as her head drifted to his shoulder.
Elizabeth sighed happily, listening to the muffled thump of his heart. “I’ve needed this so much.”
“Mmm. Me too.”
She hated that her job had kept them apart so much lately, but she was determined to develop a good reputation at the conservatory despite Catherine de Bourgh’s antipathy for her. She owed it to herself and even to William, whose recommendation had undoubtedly helped her to get the job. The timing of the rehearsals was unfortunate, falling as they did in the midst of his all-too-brief return to San Francisco, but nothing could be done about that.
Her smile faded. “I wish you didn’t have to leave Saturday.” He was performing at a benefit recital in New York on Sunday afternoon, and would miss her birthday party on Saturday night.
“Are you sure you can’t take a red-eye and come to the party for a little while before your flight?”
“I considered it, but what if the flight were cancelled? A Sunday morning flight wouldn’t get me to New York early enough for the recital. I’m taking a chance as it is; I should have booked a flight on Friday to be doubly sure of being there in time.”
“And I know you’re staying the extra day for me. At least I get you all to myself on Friday night.” His Saturday departure wasn’t the worst of it. Foundation meetings would keep him in New York for most of the week. He planned to fly back to San Francisco the following Friday and depart on his Australian tour just four days later.
He sighed. “Would you like a glass of wine? I’m sorry, I should have asked earlier.”
“That sounds good.”
He rose slowly to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”
“No, I’ll go with you. Wouldn’t want you getting lost in there.” Elizabeth loved teasing him about his ineptitude in the kitchen, though in reality he’d developed what he called “survival skills” during his stay in San Francisco. If it’s possible to survive on toasted bagels, decaf coffee, and herbal tea, that is.
“Come on, funny lady,” he said, extending his hand. “Help me pick out a good wine.” Hand in hand, they proceeded to the kitchen. “Red or white?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “Red, I suppose.” She leaned on the counter and watched as he surveyed the freestanding wine cellar.
“Good. I have what ought to be an excellent Merlot that I bought with you in mind.” After a brief search, he extracted a bottle and set it on the counter.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course.” William halted his search for a corkscrew, meeting her gaze.
Summoning her courage, Elizabeth plowed ahead. “What happens next? With us, I mean. Your time in San Francisco is almost over, and we still haven’t talked about the future, beyond agreeing that we want to keep seeing each other.”
“I’ve been giving it a lot of thought.” He located the corkscrew and went to work opening the wine bottle.
“So have I. How is it ever going to work? You’ll be on the road a lot, and when you’re not, you’ll be three thousand miles away. So I suppose we’ll talk on the phone, and you’ll stop by to visit when you’re performing on the West coast. Occasionally I’ll visit you in New York, and maybe sometimes you’ll invite me to join you for a day or two wherever you’re performing. Is that what you envision for us?”
William set down the corkscrew. She could read uncertainty in his eyes.
“I know I’m putting you on the spot,” she continued. “But it’s been on my mind a lot lately. In fact, that’s why I stopped by tonight, so we could talk about it. I hate to say it, but phone calls and a couple of days together every now and then ….” She sighed and shook her head. “That’s not enough for me. I’d miss you too much. I think I’d just end up being unhappy most of the time.”
“It’s not enough for me either. As a matter of fact, there’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask you.” William took a deep breath. “Would you ever consider moving back to New York? So we could be together?”
Although she had pondered this question at length, she hadn’t known if he would ask, unsure of her place in his life once his time in San Francisco ended. His question had resolved those doubts, and she answered him, her eyes shining. “Yes, I would. I love living here, and being with Jane, and seeing my dad. And I love my job. But ….”
“But?” he repeated gently.
“But I also happen to love you.”
His eyes flared. “Cara.” He cupped her face in his hands. Their eyes locked and held, and although he had not yet spoken the words, the naked adoration in his gaze stole her breath. Then his lips came down on hers, hot and sweet, filling her with rapture, and also with a sense of destiny, as though the universe had just whispered in her ear, “This is what you’ve been waiting for your whole life. Don’t screw it up.”
Had she not been overwhelmed by emotion, she would have scoffed at the notion of destiny, or the universe, or any other disembodied voice whispering in her ear. But such considerations were swept aside when William, who was anything but disembodied, murmured, “I love you, Lizzy. I love you so much.”
It wasn’t the first time she had heard those words from William, but this time she could feel that they were true, that she was loved by this man who had somehow burrowed through her defenses. She tipped her head back and met his searching gaze.
“You have tears in your eyes,” he said softly. “What is it?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. I don’t know. You ….” She shrugged. “Just kiss me.” She drew his head down to hers, eagerly pressing her parted lips to his.
His mouth opened against hers, and with a little rumbling sigh he tightened his arms around her. He felt so strong, so warm, so wonderfully male, and she melted against him, every nerve ending alive and tingling with need, their kiss growing deeper and hotter and more rapturous than she had thought possible. The kiss was followed by another, and another, and still another, each more enthralling than the last, as passion ignited between them with a force that made her tremble. They clung to each other, swept along on a dizzying tide of pent-up need that had been released at last.
He dragged his mouth from hers and embarked on a scorching journey along her throat, nibbling and nuzzling and tasting until she shuddered with desire. He raised his head, his dark eyes full of emotion. “I want you so much, cara,” he whispered.
Elizabeth wasn’t interested in words. She pulled his head back to hers, kissing him hungrily, wringing an impassioned groan from him. She had felt desire for William before, but never had it surged through her in shuddering waves, threatening to consume her. They continued to kiss, evenly matched in their hunger. His hands were at the neckline of her blouse, opening the buttons with unsteady fingers. Her own hands lifted to the buttons of his shirt, driven by an instinctive desire to feel the warmth of his skin.
He raised his head again, his eyes nearly black. “Yes, love. Please touch me.”
She pressed a line of kisses just below his neck. Burying his hands in her hair, he claimed her mouth in a ravenous kiss that nearly sapped her strength. She brushed his half-open shirt aside to explore his chest. He shuddered and groaned, and felt his heart hammering out a frantic rhythm not unlike her own.
“Stay with me tonight, cara.” His hoarse voice held a desperate edge. “Let me make love to you.”
Every nerve ending in her body seemed to contract. “Yes,” she whispered. She nearly gasped; had she just said that?
They both froze, except for the rapid rise and fall of their chests, and stared at each other. William was the first to recover. “My darling Lizzy.” He lowered his head to hers.
She evaded his kiss, practical concerns flooding her mind. “What about Richard?”
William seemed momentarily befuddled by the question. “I suppose he’ll be home before long, but he won’t bother us. We’ll have all the privacy we need in my bedroom.”
“What about … do you have any—” She felt like an idiot, stumbling over a perfectly reasonable question.
Fortunately, he understood. “Yes, in my room.”
She nodded slowly, and with a small, exultant sound, he kissed her. As he led her down the dark hallway, she tried to douse the fear flickering inside her. It was natural to be nervous their first time together. But she loved him, he loved her, and they had waited long enough.
William shut and locked his bedroom door. Elizabeth stood with her back to him, gazing at the view through the glass doors to his small balcony. After months of wishing for this moment, it was difficult to believe that she was here. He half expected her to vaporize, a product of his fevered imagination.
The room was dimly lit by two small bedside lamps, which supplemented the reflected glow of the city lights. He crossed the room and wrapped his arms around her waist, drawing her backward against his body. “I love you,” he whispered. She sighed as he anointed her neck with a trail of gentle kisses. Placing his hands on her shoulders, he exerted gentle pressure until she turned to face him. “Are you having second thoughts?” He hated to ask the question, but the tension in her shoulders was unmistakable.
“No.” She threaded her arms around his neck. “I’m kind of nervous, but this is where I want to be.”
William wrapped her in his arms and brushed her lips with his in a feather-light kiss. “I’m nervous too.” It was true, and it surprised him. He remembered feeling anxious before sexual experiences as a teenager, but he couldn’t recall a more recent time when nerves had factored into an amorous encounter.
His admission seemed to have relaxed her. Her eyes softened, and she slipped her hands inside his open shirt, resting her palms on his chest. “I’ve been wondering what you look like without a shirt on,” she said.
“Why don’t you find out?” He raised an eyebrow. “I’m completely at your disposal.”
She accepted the challenge, slipping his shirt off his shoulders.
“Well?” He felt oddly vulnerable standing bare-chested before her, awaiting her verdict.
Her eyes widened and she drew her lower lip between her teeth. “You’re perfect,” she breathed.
He watched with rapt attention as she caressed his torso. Her hands were cool, but they seemed to spread fire as they skimmed over him, the flames fanning out through his body.
Finally, he could remain passive no longer. “It’s my turn.” He opened the last few buttons on her blouse and she slipped it off. She was lovely, pale and smooth-skinned, smelling faintly of jasmine. He kissed a leisurely path across her soft shoulders and up her neck while she stroked his hair, sighing softly when his lips finally captured hers in a heated kiss.
Then he slipped her bra straps off her shoulders and, after a glance to gain her tacit permission, reached behind her with practiced hands to release the hooks.
The sight that awaited him nearly brought him to his knees. “Oh, cara,” he whispered. Her breasts glowed like pearls in the dim light. They were perfectly formed, round and full and tipped with delicate pink. “You’re even more beautiful than I dreamed.” Gently, almost reverently, his fingers traced the slopes and curves of one warm, pale globe. She watched his hand in silence until he began to toy with the soft pink peak. Then her eyes closed and she buried her face against his neck.
He pulled her tightly against him, soft moans coming from both of their throats at the exquisite sensation of flesh meeting flesh. Their lips fused in a kiss of slow, melting hunger, her hands sliding over his back, his pressing her lower body against him. His mouth still melded to hers, he moved slowly backward until his legs bumped the bed.
He silently cursed himself for not preparing the bed for their occupancy on first entering the room; it was awkward to stop and handle housekeeping details now. He released her and yanked back the spread and the covers. Then he drew her back into his arms and kissed her again.
Together they sank onto the bed, exchanging greedy kisses while their hands roved over each other’s bodies. William shuddered at the exquisite feeling of her hands exploring his torso. Her lips danced along his neck and across his shoulders, and then her mouth was on his, nibbling and sucking and tasting and finally coaxing his lips apart with her tongue, not that any coaxing was truly required. He pressed her onto her back and leaned over her, kissing a path down her neck and then traversing the valley between her breasts. His mouth reached her nipple and he lapped at it gently, his tongue circling the delicate bud.
William raised his head, staring intently into her passion-drugged eyes. “You taste so sweet, cara.” And she did, delicious and enticing. He lowered his head to her breast again, this time drawing its pink tip between his lips and suckling gently, inflamed by her soft moan as her hands stroked his hair.
He unzipped her skirt and, with her assistance, slipped it off. Again he was overcome by the sight of her, naked except for a pair of plain white cotton panties and lovely beyond his wildest fantasies. He burned with impatience to feel her legs entwined with his, and he sat up, yanking off his trousers and socks. Clad only in his boxers, he lay back down beside her and gathered her to him.
The rapture of holding her near-naked body against his nearly overwhelmed him; every cell in his body seemed to be vibrating. “My beautiful Lizzy,” he groaned, his voice thick with passion. He rolled on top of her and pressed his lips to hers, planning to kiss his way from her head to her toes.
Almost immediately, he could tell that something was wrong. She stilled beneath him, and although she made no attempt to escape his kiss, neither did she participate in it. Then she turned her head away from him. He heard her gasp, and her entire body tensed beneath him. Her breathing became shallow and rapid, and she began to tremble. Then she began pushing at his chest and crying. “Please, stop,” she implored him. “Get off me—please! I can’t … I can’t!”
He rolled off her immediately. “Lizzy, what’s wrong?”
She didn’t answer, but he could see her body shaking. He touched her shoulder, intending to draw her into his arms, but she jerked away as though his hand were a hot coal. She turned away from him, curled up in a ball, and pulled the sheet tightly around her.
William lay on his back in miserable suspense for what seemed like hours. The only sounds were the occasional noises of traffic on the street below and her labored breathing.
Finally, he sensed that her trembling had subsided. “Lizzy? Please, love, tell me what's wrong.”
“I’m … okay. I just ….” A sob escaped her throat. “I’m sorry … I’m so sorry.”
“What happened? Did I hurt you? Did I do something to frighten you? Was I too heavy, and you couldn’t breathe?”
“No. No. It wasn’t … wasn’t your fault. It was me. It was all … me.” Her words were punctuated by sobs.
“Please, tell me what’s wrong. Whatever it is, maybe I can help.”
“You can’t. Nobody can.”
“How can you be so sure? Tell me what it is. We’ll find a way to fix it.” It was almost physically painful to restrain himself from drawing her into his arms.
She took a deep breath. “I’ve already ruined your night. I should go home.”
“You’re in no condition to go anywhere. And you have to tell me what I did to hurt you, so I won't ever do it again.”
She still hadn’t looked at him, or even moved. “You didn’t hurt me. But you’re right, you deserve an explanation. And after that, I need to go home.”
“I’m going to make us some tea, and we’ll sit quietly and talk, and then we’ll see how you’re feeling.”
She shook her head. “I’m fine, really.”
“No, you’re not. Let me help you, Lizzy. I love you, and earlier this evening you said that you loved me. Please trust me.”
“I should go. Richard will be home soon, and I don’t want to see anyone.”
“I’ll call him. He won’t mind having a nightcap somewhere.”
Finally she turned her head and met his gaze. “I guess you’re right; I shouldn’t get behind the wheel of a car until I’m calmer. But I want to get dressed now.”
William ignored her reference to driving herself home and pressed his temporary advantage. “If we’re going to sit and talk for a while, wouldn’t you be more comfortable in something besides the clothes you wore all day?”
“What other choice do I have?”
“I’ll lend you something to wear.” She pressed her lips together, frowning. Fortunately, during the past two months he had learned some helpful skills when dealing with her more stubborn moods. “Just so you can relax while we talk. It’ll only take you a few minutes to change back into your clothes when you’re ready to go home.” That he hoped to convince her to stay the night was a detail he kept to himself.
He saw capitulation in her eyes and jumped to his feet to follow through on his plan before she changed her mind. “I’ll be right back.”
In his dressing room, he searched until he found the perfect choice: a pair of silk pajamas with a matching robe, purchased by Mrs. Reynolds during his hospital stay and worn only once. The pajama bottoms were too large for Elizabeth, but the top plus the robe would be comfortable and would offer enough coverage to satisfy her modesty.
He glanced down and realized that he needed more clothes, too. He stepped into the pajama bottoms and retrieved his favorite robe from the closet.
When he returned to the bedroom, Elizabeth still lay in the same position, the covers clutched around her neck.
“Here are some clothes,” he said gently, laying them on the bed beside her. “And you’re welcome to use my bathroom. It’s right through that door. When you’re ready, meet me in the kitchen.”
She nodded, regarding him with tear-filled eyes. As he left the bedroom, gently shutting the door behind him, he was gripped by remorse. Regardless of her assurances, he must have done something terribly wrong. Whatever it was, he would find a way to atone.
1 Piano Sonata No. 14, Op. 27, no. 2, in C-sharp minor (“Moonlight”), third movement. Performed by Daniel Barenboim on Beethoven: The Sonatas, © 1999, Deutsche Grammophon. Available on Amazon and iTunes Store. See Daniel Barenboim perform it on Youtube; movement 3 starts at 9:15.