Chapter 116

Elizabeth flipped onto her side and blew an aggressive stream of air out her nose. She hadn’t slept at all, too busy punching her pillow into shape, pulling the blanket up to her neck, and then flinging it away to pool at her feet. Every sound—a car squealing up the steep rise of Buena Vista Avenue, a dog barking somewhere nearby, even the sound of her own breathing—seemed to spin up to the ceiling and hover there, taunting her. She even imagined that she could hear a soft click once a minute, when the digital display changed on her alarm clock. She had officially lost her mind.

She yanked the covers up again. A blast of cold air washed over her toes as the bottom edge of the sheet came loose. Exhaling an indignant sigh, she flounced out of bed to make repairs. A cold draft wafted over her, courtesy of the loose seal around her bedroom window.

Something creaked in the hall and she froze, listening for another sound. It came soon enough: a soft knock and a hesitant voice. “Lizzy?”

She dove under the covers, evaluating her options. The door creaked open and William’s silhouette filled the doorway, made visible by the night light in the bathroom down the hall. “Lizzy, may I come in?”

She didn’t answer, feigning sleep. William, treating her silence as assent, padded across the room. “I know you’re awake,” he said softly.

“How could you tell?”

The bed dipped as he perched on the edge of the mattress. The sleeve of his tuxedo shirt glowed red in the faint light of her alarm clock’s display. “Other than the fact that you just answered me?”

She coughed in lieu of a response.

“I know what your breathing sounds like when you’re asleep.” He lifted a lock of her hair from the pillow and curled it around his finger. “I’ve held you in my arms at night, memorizing the sound.”

Tears sprang to her eyes, but she blinked them back ruthlessly. She refused to succumb to his gentle charm. She would hold out for an apology. And not just any apology, either. It had to be heartfelt and sincere; nothing less would do.

“Lizzy, I’m sorry, so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”

All right, then. She would hold out for an apology plus an unqualified admission of guilt. “You were horrid.”

“I know. I should never have said those things.” He had left the bedroom door open, and the faint light trickling in from the hallway allowed her to read the remorse in his eyes. His fingers—the same long, slender fingers that had produced heart-stirring music just a few hours before—brushed her cheek.

“Then why did you say them?”

“I don’t know.” He sighed. “I was exhausted and mad at the world.”

“Including me?”

“I think I was mostly angry at myself. If I’d listened to you about Georgie, none of this would have happened.”

That was possibly true, but there was no way to be sure. Besides, piling on more guilt about Georgie wasn’t what he needed now. “If a teenager is looking for trouble, nothing is going to stop her from finding it.”

“But why would she look for trouble? And why would she steal?” His head drooped and he rubbed his forehead. “She knows it’s wrong, and she has money to buy things. Why would she do this?” His voice faltered.

Sympathy welled up in Elizabeth’s heart, elbowing her anger and hurt aside. “You must be cold.” She pulled the covers back. “Let’s get comfortable, and then we’ll talk.”

“Does that mean I’m forgiven?”

It didn’t, but she was helpless against his plaintive expression, like a basset hound without the wrinkles. “Not yet, but it’s a start. You’re lucky I love you so much.”

“I know.” He pulled off his shirt, leaving him clad in nothing but his boxers, and then he hesitated. “I left my pillow in the living room.”

“You’d better go get it. I’ll share the bed with you, but I’m not ready for joint custody of my pillow just yet.”

A rueful smile touched his lips, and he rose from the bed. He returned a minute later, his pillow tucked under one arm, and she rolled sideways to allow him to slide into bed beside her. His body brushed against hers, a glancing blow from a human iceberg.

“Were you cold out in the living room?” she asked, rolling her eyes at the idiocy of her question.

“I managed to spill the rest of your water on the blanket. Don’t worry, I cleaned it up.” He stretched, groaning softly. “But I was twisted up like a pretzel, trying to fit under the corner of the blanket that was still dry.”

Her lips twitched. “You deserved it.” But she shifted toward him and rubbed her warm feet against his icy ones.

He brushed a curl away from her face and caressed her cheek. “Lizzy, I’m sorry. I would never have made it through the evening without you. The last thing I should have done was to take my frustrations out on you.”

“Was that it? I was just a convenient target?”

“No. I think somewhere in my malfunctioning brain I knew you were the one person who’d forgive me if I behaved like an ass.”

“You weren’t afraid I’d tell you to get lost?”

He shook his head. “We made each other a promise at Pemberley. We agreed that if we had problems, we’d try to fix them, not just give up and walk away.”

“So you thought, ‘Oh, what the heck. She promised not to leave, so I might as well attack her for a while’?” Elizabeth shot a freezing glare at him. “Gee, thanks.”

“Of course not. You make it sound like I purposely set out to make you angry. I wasn’t thinking. I was just ….” He shrugged and shook his head.

“Overwhelmed.” She had already figured this out.

He sighed. “Yes. And blaming myself for not taking your advice. But that’s no excuse, and I know it.”

“Good, because, as I said earlier, you don’t get to speak to me that way.” She allowed her expression to soften. “You need to remember that I’m on your side. Always.”

“I know, and I’m grateful. I wouldn’t want you as an adversary.” He gave her a long, appraising look, his lips curving into a smile so tentative that it seemed the slightest breeze might blow it away. He must have found what he sought in her eyes, because he lowered his head and brushed his lips against hers. Had he asked permission first she would have refused, not yet ready to capitulate, but she couldn’t find the will to push him away. The kiss was exquisite: gentle and warm, an offer of his heart that demanded nothing in return. Without a doubt, the man knew how to kiss.

She heard herself make a small noise somewhere between a sigh and a whimper. No. It was too soon for this. She pulled away, earning a perplexed frown from him. “Speaking of promises,” she said, “what about other the one we made? No more walls, no more hiding things?”

“You think I’m hiding something?” He propped his head up on one arm.

“You refused to tell me what your grandmother said on the phone.”

He shook his head. “I didn’t refuse to tell you. I just wasn’t ready to talk about it. Besides, don’t I get any credit for insisting that you stay to hear Aunt Eleanor’s news, when I didn’t even know what it was about?” He pulled the blanket up over his bare shoulders.

“Yes, you do. But then we got home and you shut me out again. You wouldn’t even sit next to me on the sofa.”

He sighed. “When something bad happens, I need time to think things through before I can talk to anyone, even you.” He clasped her hand, stopping her from restlessly plucking at a loose fiber on the blanket. “I know you don’t understand, cara. It’s different for you; you’re so much more articulate than I am.”

“No, actually, I think I get it.” She couldn’t believe she had never made the connection before. “Dad is like that. If something bad happens, he’ll go off to his den and sit and … well, just sit. Or he’ll go for a drive alone.”

“I like to go running. And there’s the piano, of course.”

“It drives Mom crazy, because she wants to start fixing the problem right away. So she fires questions at him and she won’t stop, and it just annoys him.” She grimaced. “Yikes. Something I have in common with my mother.”

His lips twitched but he didn’t respond.

She inched closer to him and rested her hand on his chest, over his heart. “I never stopped to think that I might be pushing you deeper into your shell. And finally I pushed hard enough that you kind of snapped.”

“But underneath it all, I knew you were just concerned about me.”

“You were so upset, and I wanted so badly to do something to help.” She paused. “I take it everybody at the townhouse knows to leave you alone when you get quiet like that?”

“I guess so,” he murmured. “I never thought about it before, but they do. Even Gran.”

“And now I know, too. But from now on, if you need to retreat into your bubble for a while and I’m trying to pop it, just tell me, okay? Ask for some space and tell me that we’ll talk a little later. Don’t come out swinging.”

“I will, and I apologize again for behaving like an ass.” He kissed her softly. “And once we’re together most of the time, maybe my bubble will get bigger, so there’s room for two.”

“I would love that,” she whispered. “As for tonight, I guess I should have just taken you to bed and held you in my arms. Or would you have let me do that?”

“When we first got here, I might have resisted. But that’s what I want now, more than anything, if you’re still willing to do it.”

Elizabeth reached for him and drew him toward her, sighing softly as his arms snaked around her. She buried her face in his neck and inhaled the comforting scent of Eau de William. After a time she raised her head and gave him a tremulous smile. “How’s this?”

“Perfect,” he whispered. They kissed slowly, gently, the air around them laced with contentment. Then he rolled onto his back, taking her with him. They settled into a position that already felt familiar, with Elizabeth’s head cradled on his chest.

“Have you slept at all?” he asked.

“No. I was too mad at you.”

“I was hoping you were missing me.”

“That too,” she grumbled. “I can’t seem to sleep without you, even when I’d like to smack you into next week.”

“You have quite a bloodthirsty streak. All this talk about smacking me around, and earlier you threatened the ‘family jewels.’”

She reached down and squeezed him gently through his boxers. “Yeah, and don’t you forget it, mister.”

He grabbed her hand in feigned, or perhaps genuine, alarm. With a soft laugh, she covered his chest and neck with kisses. He emitted a little growl and rolled her partway beneath him, kissing her with gusto.

When he raised his head, she reached up and smoothed his hair. “I hate to get serious again, but a couple of things came out during our fight—”

“Let’s call it an argument.” He rolled onto his back, his hands laced together behind his head.

“I think it qualifies as a fight if one person threatens to neuter the other.” She turned onto her side to face him. “I know I backed you into a corner with my questions, but that didn’t entitle you to say such nasty things.”

“Please forget what I said. I didn’t mean any of it.”

“You meant the part about Lydia. You may not have meant to say it, but you’ve made your attitude about her, and also my mother, clear on several occasions.”

He opened his mouth and took a breath, but then he paused, meeting her frank gaze. “I guess that’s true. I’m sorry.”

“Will, you don’t have to love them, or even like them. I have no illusions about them, especially not Lydia; she’s lazy, she’s crude, and she isn’t too bright unless you count street smarts.”

Again he opened his mouth as though to speak, but he shut it again and waited for her to continue.

“But we’ve talked about this before. I can say those things because she’s family. If anybody else says them—well, as the saying goes, them’s fightin’ words. Isn’t it the same for you?”

He nodded. “I understand.”

“I hope so.” The flutter in her stomach graduated to a full-fledged knot. “Because when you look down your nose at my family, it feels like you’re looking down your nose at me.”

“But I’m not.” He grasped her shoulders and tried to pull her closer, but she resisted. “You couldn’t be more wrong. I was so proud of you at the reception. You were warm and beautiful and charming, and I would never have made it through without you.”

However sincere, his speech couldn’t soothe away the sting of his earlier words. “I’m just telling you how it feels.”

He reached for her again, and this time she allowed herself to be gathered into his arms. “I’m sorry, cara. I never meant to make you feel like you had to apologize for your family.”

“Maybe not, but you’d understand if you put yourself in my shoes.”

He sighed. “I need you to teach me to do that more often. Sometimes I wonder why you put up with me.”

She considered responding with a joke, but decided that he needed a dose of reassurance. “Because when you’re not being all self-absorbed and arrogant, you’re gentle and romantic and sweet.” She pressed her lips to his cheek. “Not to mention a bunch of other wonderful things. But you need to get past the idea that the universe revolves around you and your family. It’s fine to be proud of them, but not to think that they’re superior to the rest of us.”

His expression hardened. “Especially not after tonight.”

Elizabeth cast about for an appropriate response, but could think of none. A siren wailed in the distance and then faded, leaving behind only the sound of their breathing. She molded herself against him and kissed his jaw. Her eyelids drifted shut as she surrendered to fatigue.

“Georgie is probably going to be charged with a felony.”

“What?” Elizabeth’s eyes flew open.

“That’s what Gran told me when I called.” His voice was low and strained. “Because of the dollar amount involved, it could be a felony charge. Lizzy, a felony conviction could ruin her life.”

“But I bet your lawyer can negotiate and get the charge reduced. And shouldn’t it make a difference that she’s a minor?”

“I don’t know. Gran said there were no guarantees.”

She struggled into a sitting position. “Let’s call Jane, like I suggested earlier. She’s helped other kids in trouble.” She reached for the phone.

“Lizzy, it’s the middle of the night.”

“She’ll be happy to help, and you’ll sleep better if you have some answers. The only thing is, we’ll have to tell her about Georgie. Is that okay?”

William shut his eyes, and when he opened them she could see even in the dim light that they were damp. “What if they sentence her to prison, Lizzy? I guess it would be Juvenile Hall. What if ….” His voice stuck in his throat, and he closed his eyes again, his lips pressed tightly together.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around him. “Everything’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”

He clung to her tightly, as though he feared he might drown if he let go. She cradled his head against her chest and stroked his hair, shaken by the fierce protective instinct surging through her veins.

At last he raised his head. “This is my fault,” he said softly.

“Your fault? Why?”

“First, because I was so damned arrogant. You tried to warn me, but I refused to even consider the possibility that a Darcy, especially my sister, would ever get into trouble.”

He wasn’t wrong, but he needed comfort, not brutal honesty. “You’re being too hard on yourself,” she said firmly. “We’re all short-sighted about the people we love the most.”

William didn’t answer at first. When he did, his voice was low and halting. “Georgie thinks I don’t love her.”

“But that’s crazy. Anyone can see how much you care about her.”

“She told Gran that we don’t love her and we don’t want her around. And what else would she think? I’m never there, and when I am I’m usually getting ready to leave again.”

He lowered his head to its resting place on her shoulder with an unsteady sigh. She caressed his hair, whispering words of comfort as though he were a child. She should have guessed that he was drowning in guilt, that bitter self-recrimination lurked beneath his outburst. She wondered briefly if he had lashed out in a perverse attempt to bring down her wrath. If so, it was a novel way to provoke the punishment he felt he deserved.

She sniffed. That was enough armchair psychiatry—or pillow psychiatry, perhaps. She had no business trying to analyze other people when she couldn’t figure herself out half the time.

They lay together in silence for a while longer, and then she shifted upright, plumping the pillow behind her. “Don’t worry too much about what Georgie said. Teenagers just say things like that sometimes. I can remember telling my parents I hated them when I was thirteen, because they told me they couldn’t afford to send me to Interlochen.”

“But you went to Interlochen. Did they change their minds?”

“I won a couple of scholarships that covered most of it, and my grandparents helped with the rest. But that wasn’t my point. I didn’t hate them. I was just frustrated and upset. Think how humiliated and frightened Georgie must have felt by the time she got home. Maybe your grandmother started to lecture her, and Georgie lashed out because she couldn’t handle hearing it.”

“Just like I did to you.”

She couldn’t suppress a wry smile. “Except that at least she has a partial excuse: she’s fifteen.” She drew his face to hers for a conciliatory kiss. “My point is, of course you need to talk to her about it, but don’t automatically assume that she means it.”

“All right.”

“Do you want me to call Jane?”

“Not now. Maybe I’ll call her tomorrow evening, after I’ve talked to Georgie’s lawyer.”

They nestled together again. After a long, drowsy silence, she murmured, “Do you ever feel like a ping pong ball?”

“Excuse me?” He opened one eye.

“I mean the way you have to bounce back and forth between coasts. Or maybe it’s more like a bizarre tug of war, with me at one end and Georgie and your grandmother at the other. The problem is, we all love you so much that it’s hard to share.”

“So you’re saying that the real problem is that I’m irresistible to women.” He said the words with a deadpan expression, but mischief glittered in his eyes.

Laughing, she flung her arms around his neck and pulled him to her so that his body covered hers. “I can’t believe I forgot the rule about not feeding the ego.”

Chuckling, he kissed her, but the kiss was interrupted by his yawn.

“Am I boring you?” she asked, pursing her lips.

He yawned again. “It’s been a long day. And I didn’t get any sleep out in the living room.”

“Guilty conscience?”

“Feet sticking off the end of the sofa.”

She poked him in the side as hard as she could.

He fended her off, chuckling. “Okay, okay! Guilty conscience! Just don’t hurt me.”

She ran her hands up his arms, savoring the warm skin and solid muscles beneath her fingers. “Why did you wait so long to come in here and talk to me?”

“I was afraid you’d do me bodily harm. With good reason, as you’ve demonstrated.” He gave her a crooked grin. “Seriously, it didn’t take long to realize what an ass I’d been. But I had to get up the courage to face you.”

“I bet it had more to do with your pride than your courage.”

“No comment.” He grinned. “Either way, what a waste of time, when I could have been in here with you.”

“Well,” she murmured, “you’re here now.” She ran her hands over his chest, tracing a meandering path through the dark hairs sprinkled across its surface, her lips trailing behind. Would she ever tire of the steady drumming of his heart beneath her palm or the salty tang of his skin? Probably not, especially if the universe kept conspiring to separate them. “I’m going to miss you so much. I thought we were going to have three weeks together, and you’re already leaving me.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” he murmured, passion thickening his voice. He captured her mouth in a hungry kiss.

All the emotion of the night—Georgie’s predicament, their argument, and their imminent separation—suddenly swirled around them, heated and volatile and darkly exciting.

“Don’t you think we should get some sleep?” she gasped. Her hands ignored her own words, shoving his boxers down over his hips.

“We can sleep any time,” he rasped, tearing open the buttons on her nightshirt. “But there are other things we can only do when we’re together.”

“Such as?” She pulled her arms out of the nightshirt and flung it to the floor.

His arms closed around her. “I believe in showing, not telling.” And he gave her a vivid demonstration.

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