“Oh, the serpent, definitely. You haven’t convinced me to eat forbidden fruit, but you’ve tempted me in lots of other ways.”
She curled her hand into his and they continued down the path, his unabashed pleasure in sharing his home tugging at her heart. Rarely had she seen him so relaxed and—she paused for a moment to summon the right word—peaceful? Fulfilled?
“Exactly. When I was a boy, I used to come out here when I wanted to be alone. I’d sit here and read, and they’d find me hours later.”
“We could do that if you want. Insects can be a problem in the evenings, but I’m sure Mrs. Shepherd could arrange for some citronella candles.”
They sat on the low stone wall beneath the roof, still holding hands. “I can see why you love it here,” she breathed. It seemed important to speak in hushed tones, as though they had stumbled onto a serene, leafy chapel.
“My best childhood memories are from Pemberley. My mother loved to come here. She could relax and be herself and not Mrs. Edmund Darcy, society matron.”
“And your father? Did he enjoy it too?”
William swallowed and pressed his lips together. “He was too busy. I don’t remember ever being here with him.”
Sensing his discomfort, she stepped back into more comfortable territory. “I bet your mother loved this garden.”
“She did. I knew the names of most of the exotic plants by the time I was six or seven.” His smile was wistful. “And later I taught Georgie, since she never had a chance to learn from Mamma.”
The catch in his voice made her ache for him. She released his hand and began to rub his back gently. “Georgie was just a baby when your mother died, wasn’t she?” He had occasionally spoken of his mother, but Elizabeth knew little about the circumstances of Anna Darcy’s death.
“She was about three months old.” He closed his eyes, relaxing under her ministrations.
“The poor girl, to have no memories of her mother. How did it happen?”
“A car accident. I thought you knew that.”
“I meant, how did the accident happen?”
“It was late in the summer.” He looked away from her, staring into the distance. “She was at a house in the Hamptons with a … friend. She’d spent a lot of time there all summer, and of course she always took Georgie with her, but I stayed in the city to work with my tutor, finishing high school so I could start at Juilliard in the fall.”
“So the accident happened in the Hamptons?”
He nodded, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his thighs. “They were on their way back from a party late at night, and another car broadsided them.”
“Was your mother driving?”
“No.” His jaw tightened, and she felt the tension in his back muscles.
“Her friend was driving? Did she survive the accident?”
“Yes. He was only slightly injured.”
“He?” Elizabeth had noticed the hesitation in his voice when he mentioned his mother’s “friend.”
He sat up ramrod straight, his eyes hard and cold. “He. My mother’s ….” He shrugged. “I don’t know what to call him.”
“They were lovers?” she asked gently, still stroking his back.
He sighed. “When I was thirteen, I started performing more, with symphony orchestras and in competitions. It consumed most of my mother’s time. She always traveled with me, and in effect she was my agent, handling all the contracts and other arrangements. She didn’t have time to run the foundation and manage my career, so she hired a director for the foundation. He and Sonya handled day-to-day operations, and Mamma and Gran made the big decisions.”
“And your mother and this man ….”
He sighed. “It took me a while to notice; teenaged boys aren’t particularly observant about things like that. But about a year after he started the job, I walked in on them kissing in her office.”
“You must have been so embarrassed. And I’m sure they were, too.”
“Mamma was horrified, but he didn’t seem to care; he just gave me a cocky grin. I wanted to rip that smirk off his face.”
Elizabeth became aware of the scent of rain, and then she heard the sibilant whisper of the droplets bathing the dense foliage. “Did she talk to you about it later?”
“She tried. She said she was lonely, that she’d been alone ever since Father left us. She tried to say more, but I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to forget what I’d seen.”
“Your father left you? I didn’t think they ever got divorced.”
“They didn’t, but they lived separate lives. Father had an apartment a few blocks away, overlooking the park. On Sundays he usually went to church with the family and had brunch at the house afterwards. That’s Gran’s weekly command performance, and apparently a failed marriage wasn’t an adequate excuse to opt out.”
“So you only saw your father once a week?”
“If that. Once I started traveling to perform, we missed plenty of Sundays. But he also came to the house on ceremonial occasions: Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays, and the like. And he made appearances at social events where his absence would have been remarked on. I’m sure everyone knew what was going on, but the public façade had to be preserved. Gran insisted on that.”
“I’m surprised he moved out of the townhouse,” she remarked. It mystified her that Edmund, whose birthright included the house, had been the one to leave instead of Anna.
“That’s how much he wanted to get away from us. And I suppose it gave him more latitude to live as he chose. He had more than his share of affairs over the years. Discreetly, of course, at least in theory, but the gossip mill always found out.” He leaned forward again, staring at the ground.
She longed to smooth the harsh lines from his face. “You poor thing. I knew your parents had problems, but I had no idea ….”
After a moment he raised his head and turned his searching gaze on her. “Are you sure you want to be with me?” he asked. “The Darcys are short on models of domestic bliss.”
Despite his casual tone, doubt clouded his watchful eyes. She stretched an arm around his shoulders and kissed his cheek. “Oh, no, you don’t. You’re not getting rid of me that easily. Besides, my parents aren’t much of an example either. Well, not unless you want to know what happens when two people share nothing in common but their species. If tomorrow my mom were to vanish into a crack in the earth’s crust—which isn’t as improbable as it might sound, considering where they live—I think it would be several days before Dad even noticed.”
His rueful smile faded as quickly as it appeared, little more than a twitch of the cheek muscles. “We’re quite a pair.”
“We’ll just have to figure this stuff out together.” She brushed a small insect away from his cheek. “Thank you for telling me about it.”
Despite his solemn expression a hint of amusement glimmered in his eyes. “I’m glad you didn’t run off screaming at the news that the Darcys have skeletons piled to the rafters.”
“Well, I would have,” she declared with a deadpan expression, “but it’s raining pretty hard.”
His smile came out of hiding at last and he pulled her close. “Afraid you’ll melt?”
“I’ll get you, my pretty,” she cackled. “And your little dog too!”
“Please don’t turn green,” he said, flashing a sweet, dimpled grin. “I’d have a problem with that.”
“Did your grandmother know about … the man?” She didn’t know what else to call him, since William hadn’t mentioned his name.
“I assume so. Gran doesn’t miss much. But of course we’ve never discussed it. If she found out, I’m sure she had plenty to say in private, but her public position would have been ignorance.”
“What about your father? Do you think he knew? How did he react?”
William shrugged. “He must have, but I have no idea how he felt. Considering his own behavior at the time, he was hardly in a position to criticize.”
Elizabeth opened her mouth to ask an important question, but she bit back the words when the indelicacy of her thought struck her full force. He had shown unprecedented trust by sharing painful details of his childhood. Although he had omitted a key puzzle piece, she would not press him beyond his comfort zone. At least, not yet.
A fresh breeze swirled through the garden, dislodging a blizzard of fragile pink petals from a nearby tree and floating them into the gazebo. She brushed them from his hair, and he returned the favor with his usual courtly grace.
She cleared her throat. “I have a question, but I’m not sure quite how to put it.”
“I’d have expected, when your parents separated, that your father would have been the one to stay; after all, it was his family home. And then later if your grandmother found out about your mother’s affair ….” It wasn’t the question she wanted to ask, but she hoped it might elicit further confidences.
“Ah. You’re wondering why Gran would willingly shelter the woman cuckolding her son.”
Elizabeth grimaced. “I’m not passing judgment on your mother, but it seems odd.”
“Gran was fond of Mamma. They got off to a rough start when we first arrived from Italy, but they bonded not long after when a crisis arose.”
In a flash of insight, the pieces fell together. “Because of you, and your illness.”
He nodded. “It took Gran a while to warm up to her new daughter-in-law, but apparently I won her over at first sight.”
“Of course you did.” She covered his clasped hands with one of hers. “I bet you were the most beautiful child she’d ever laid eyes on. And Mrs. Reynolds told me once that you were a sweet little boy.”
“Whatever the reason, I’ve always been special to Gran. So it was hard for her—and my mother too, of course—when I was hospitalized. After my surgery when complications arose, Gran and Mamma leaned on each other while they waited to see if I was going to live or die.”
“You mentioned once that it was pretty serious.” She tightened her grip on his hands. “It must have been excruciating for them. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to wait and watch, with your child at the brink of death. For them to know they might lose you ….” She shook her head, feeling a small measure of Anna’s distress.
“When Father asked for an official separation a few months after I came home from the hospital, Gran told him he’d have to be the one to leave; I was staying, and she couldn’t separate me from Mamma after all we’d been through. Apparently he and Gran had a bitter argument; he thought living in a house full of women was turning me into a weakling. But Gran held firm. At least, that’s the way I heard it from Sonya, years later.”
“So she chose you over your father.”
“Perhaps she thought if she issued an ultimatum he’d change his mind and stay, but instead he called her bluff. Besides, I think Gran knew my mother needed me as much as I needed her. Gran has a tough exterior, but when she loves someone there isn’t anything she won’t do to protect them from harm.”
“In that way, she sounds a lot like her grandson.” Elizabeth smiled up at him.
“Regardless of her feelings, if Gran had known about Mamma’s affair, she would have been upset. And I think she must have known, or at least suspected. It would have been difficult to deceive someone living in the same house, especially since it must have gone on for a while.”
Something wasn’t adding up. “For how long?”
“I can’t be certain, of course, but I was about fourteen when I walked in on them kissing, and fifteen when she—when the accident happened. And he was with her that night.” He stood up, smoothing the wrinkles from his tan shorts. “Shall we move on? You haven’t seen the lily pond.”
The pond came into view around the next turn, a profusion of lily pads floating on its placid surface. She heard a faint meow and turned to see a slender cat at the edge of the path, eyeing them warily. She bent over and extended her hand. The cat stretched forward, sniffing her fingers. It allowed her to scratch its head, but then it trotted away. She straightened and turned to William. “Is the cat yours?”
“That makes sense. I’d never take you for a cat person.”
“Definitely not.” He plucked a pink hibiscus bloom from a nearby bush and tucked it behind her ear. “Though there’s a certain lady whose eyes are a bit cat-like, and I’m very fond of her.”
“Even if we hadn’t met on the beach, I would have found you.” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.”
“Me, too. It’s been a while since brunch. I’ll ask Mrs. Shepherd to pack a picnic basket with a bottle of wine and some snacks.”
They found Mrs. Shepherd dusting in one of the upstairs bedrooms. At William’s request for a snack suitable for a beach picnic, the housekeeper smiled. “I know just the thing,” she said genially. “Won’t take me but two shakes.” She set down her dustcloth and made her ponderous way down the hall toward the stairs.
William drew Elizabeth into his bedroom. “Why does she have to be so efficient?” he grumbled. “Two shakes isn’t much time. If she’d said ‘a little while’ ….” He lifted an eyebrow, his grin rakish as he ran his hands down her bare arms in a sinuous motion.
Goose bumps rose up on her arms. “You, sir, are insatiable.” She almost snickered at her involuntary thought: Pot, kettle.
“With you, I am,” he murmured, his voice husky. “Have I mentioned how sexy you look today?”
“In a tank top and shorts?” Her protest sounded weak but she wasn’t sure where she found the will to argue with him at all while his body surrounded hers with insistent heat and his lips flitted across her cheek.
“Absolutely.” His warm breath tickled her ear.
She lost track of time after that, absorbed in the mindless thrill of his kisses, until a voice in the hall recalled her to reality. “Mr. Darcy? I assume you want some wine with your picnic, but I wasn’t sure—” Mrs. Shepherd’s words ceased abruptly. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Elizabeth flinched and yanked her hands from William’s bare chest, easily accessible through his half-unbuttoned shirt, as though the touch of his skin burned her palms. Her face aflame, she tugged down the hem of her tank top and crossed her arms over her chest.
William met the housekeeper’s amused gaze with imperturbable dignity. “We’ll be down in a minute, and I’ll choose a wine then.”
“I’ll be in the kitchen.”
Elizabeth ground her teeth until Mrs. Shepherd was out of earshot. “How do you do that?” she spat out in a taut whisper.
“How do I do what?”
“Take it in stride when we’re practically caught in flagrante delicto?”
He shrugged. “You never have complete privacy when you live in a house with staff. Believe me, she’s seen far worse during Richard’s visits. But we should be more careful about shutting the door when we want privacy.” He stepped toward her, his hands skimming her shoulders. “Now, are we going to the beach, or shall we stay here and pick up where we left off?”
“Definitely the beach.” Elizabeth extricated herself from his embrace, her amorous mood drowned in a sea of humiliation. She doubted she’d ever be able to make love to William again with Mrs. Shepherd, or anyone else, within a mile of the house.
“I figured as much. Let me find my sunglasses, and then we can go.”
“I think I left mine in the front hall. I’ll meet you down there.”
The sight of the empty table in the front hallway filled her with dismay. Based on their earlier path through the house, she must have left her sunglasses in the kitchen. Her mind raced to find an alternative to facing Mrs. Shepherd again so soon. Finding none, she adjusted her ponytail, lifted her head high, and strode into the kitchen assuming a counterfeit air of breezy confidence.
Mrs. Shepherd greeted her with a rueful smile. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I interrupted something, didn’t I?”
Elizabeth felt the blood rising to her face but she willed it away. “We’re the ones who should be apologizing.”
“Not at all. You’re supposed to be enjoying yourselves.” Mrs. Shepherd’s small, wide-set eyes gleamed with interest and her generous mouth turned up at one corner. “No wonder you two are hungry. You’ve been burning calories the best way there is.”
Elizabeth resisted the urge to dive under the table. Mrs. Shepherd must have noticed her distress, because she wiped her hands on a towel and patted Elizabeth’s arm.
“Don’t be embarrassed. Of course you want to make the most of having a handsome man like Mr. Darcy around.” She shook her head. “But there I go again. It’s like Winston always says. Every thought that pops into my head falls right out of my mouth.” Winston, the laconic Mr. Shepherd, had responded to Elizabeth’s friendly remarks in polite monosyllables yesterday morning while driving her back to the hotel.
It was impossible to imagine this forthright woman building a comfortable working relationship with Rose Darcy. With a mental shrug, Elizabeth retrieved her sunglasses and slipped them into her pocket. “Thank you for fixing us a picnic.”
“I’m happy to do it. By the way, I’ll ask him myself when he comes downstairs, but do you think Mr. Darcy would mind if Winston and I went to Holetown tonight after I fix dinner? Our daughter has three sick kids and I think she could use some help. I’ll be back in time to fix breakfast tomorrow, of course, but we’d be gone all night.”
Even without the overt emphasis on those last two words, Elizabeth would have guessed from the mischievous glint in Mrs. Shepherd’s eye that this was merely a pretext. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.” No, William wouldn’t mind at all.