“I miss you,” she whispered as she perched on the edge of the bed.
“And I miss you, more than you could possibly imagine.” He captured her hand and drew it to his lips. “Please, love, come back to me.”
He reached up to pull her into his arms, but she proved insubstantial, his fingers clutching at nothing but air.
He gaped at her phantom form, wondering why the pitch of her voice had suddenly plummeted.
“Will? Wake up.”
The voice, a hint of impatience woven through its core, pierced the fog of William’s dream. His eyes creaked open and he saw an oddly fuzzy Charles looming over him. “Sorry to wake you,” the out-of-focus figure intoned, “but it’s getting late and I’m starved.”
William grasped at the receding wisps of his dream, but she was gone. “What time is it?” he croaked, pulling himself upright with difficulty, the lure of the plush comforter nearly holding him in its thrall.
“Almost seven. How long were you asleep?”
William frowned, massaging his forehead. He had left the patio for his room shortly after four and had stretched out on the bed with his book. That was all he remembered. He shrugged and rose unsteadily to his feet. “Give me five minutes, and I’ll be ready to go.”
“We’ll probably have to wait a while for a table,” Charles said as he stopped the car. “This place is a little too popular for its own good, and they don’t take reservations. In fact, I’m going to drop you right here. You can get our name on the list while I park.”
The restaurant was as busy as Charles had predicted, but William secured a table almost immediately. The manager happened to be weaving her way through the packed lobby just as William offered his name to the hostess. Assisted by his last name, the manager recognized him from his concert at the Hollywood Bowl in early June. She personally escorted him to a recently-vacated booth, the warmth of her smile suggesting that her interest wasn’t limited to his keyboard technique.
“Nice to see you haven’t lost your touch,” Charles remarked, smirking. “The service here can be kind of rushed, but I have a feeling we’ll get the royal treatment tonight.” He poured the sake into the boxes and raised one. “To my future, though heaven knows what it’s going to look like.”
William tapped his masu box against Charles’s in an awkward gesture and drank. He preferred warm sake, but the slightly chilled brew was light and smooth. “How is your mother handling everything?” he asked.
Charles poured himself another serving of sake. “Pretty well. At first she tried to convince me to go back to Father tomorrow and try to work something out.”
“But you’re not going to?”
“I think it’s a little late for that.”
William nodded, taking another sip of the sake. Its light floral scent held a hint of jasmine, and Elizabeth’s face floated before him.
“She finally agreed that I have to make a clean break. I tried to get her to leave with me, but she refused to even discuss it. That’s the only thing. I hate to leave her alone with him.”
“She’ll still have Caroline.”
Charles raised a skeptical eyebrow. “She’d never take Mom’s side.”
“Does your father usually treat your mother that way?”
“He’s always been hard on her, but that was the worst I’ve ever seen. She was right about one thing; he’s had an unusually short fuse since he’s been in the hospital.”
William poured himself more sake and took a long, slow drink before he spoke again. “So what now?”
“Damned if I know. Maybe I’ll move to New York and we can put a jazz group together.”
William didn’t have time for an active jazz group, and Charles knew that, but it was too soon to expect Charles to have a serious career plan prepared. “If you come to New York, you’d be welcome to stay at the townhouse for a while. In fact, Mrs. Reynolds would probably be insulted if you stayed anywhere else.”
Charles chuckled. “And we all know she’s the real boss of the house. Thanks. I might take you up on that.”
The waiter arrived to take their orders. William deferred to Charles, who ordered a variety of his favorite small plates to be shared while William yawned behind his hand, still fighting the remnants of his unplanned nap. Once the waiter had departed with an order that seemed sufficient for a family of six, William asked Charles, “When are you moving out of the house?”
“Friday at the latest. They expect to release Father from the hospital next weekend, and I want to be gone by then. I’ve got a buddy from high school who’ll probably let me crash on his sofa till I figure out what to do next.”
“What about going back to San Francisco? You seemed happy there.”
Charles looked stricken. “I was, but ….” He ran a finger over the surface of the sake pitcher. “Well, you know.”
There would never be a better opportunity to mention Jane. William opened his mouth to speak, but Charles was faster. “Mom asked me the same question. And I still own the house. I couldn’t bring myself to sell it.”
William thought of the diamond ring hidden in his dressing room at the penthouse. “Hasn’t Caroline been living there?”
“Yeah, but after what just happened, I think she’s back in LA for good. Anyway, I’ll probably sell it. I don’t think I could stand to live there alone, even if I could afford the mortgage payments.”
“Mortgage payments? I thought you bought it outright.” He could still hear Mrs. Bennet crowing about Charles paying cash for the house.
Charles sighed. “That’s what I told Jane. She’s so sensible about money, it would have horrified her to know how much I had to borrow to get it. I wanted us to have someplace beautiful to live where we could raise a family, and making the payments wasn’t a problem back then.”
“But surely you had access to enough cash to buy the house without needing a mortgage.” Pacific Heights real estate was toward the high end of the pricey San Francisco housing market, but well within reach of the Bingleys.
“Not without alerting Father, and I didn’t want him to know we were buying it.”
Now it made sense. “If it would help, I could assume the mortgage payments temporarily, or even pay off the loan. You could reimburse me later.” William didn’t care if Charles ever repaid him or not, but he knew his friend wouldn’t accept a gift of that size.
“Thanks, Will, but Father was right. I can’t let you finance my flight into the unknown. Besides, like I said, I don’t think I’d want to live there alone.”
The first of their selected dishes arrived with a promptness that raised Charles’s eyebrows. “We’re definitely getting special treatment,” he said. “I think the manager must want to be more than just your fan. Did she put her cell phone number on the back of the card?”
In fact, she had, but William ignored the question and transferred some of the hot chili-crusted calamari to his plate. He tasted it gingerly, finding it delicious despite the small thermonuclear explosion in his mouth. “There’s something I need to ask you,” he said, when he could speak again.
Charles looked up expectantly, his face slightly pink as he chewed the calamari.
“Why didn’t Jane sign the prenup?”
Charles swallowed, gulped some water, and frowned at William. “Why bring that up now?”
“I have a reason for asking.” William was counting on the fact that Charles was too polite to tell him to mind his own business, as might have happened had their roles been reversed. “I assume she explained why she wouldn’t sign it.”
Charles nodded, spooning the last pieces of calamari onto his plate. “Father insisted on having her signature that night, and she wanted to wait till the morning so she could consult with someone. But that wasn’t the main problem.”
“Oh?” William was careful to maintain a noncommittal expression.
“She said she didn’t respect me anymore.”
William remembered Charles telling him that. “Did she explain why?”
“It was mostly the insane stunt I pulled with the prenup. I don’t know what I was thinking, but at the time it seemed reasonable. And it bothered her that I wouldn’t stand up to Father about … well, about anything.”
“She wanted you to stand up to him?” William’s chopsticks froze on their way to his mouth.
“Yeah. That’s the best proof that she wasn’t in it for the money; she said we didn’t need it, we’d be fine on our own. Though what she really wanted was for me to argue for some sort of compromise.”
A second dish arrived, but William didn’t take any, his stomach churning. He dragged a hand through his hair, pushing it off his forehead. “Why didn’t you ever tell me any of this?”
“I thought I did.”
“No. All you said was that Jane refused to sign the prenup, and that she’d said a lot of very harsh things to you. You wouldn’t talk about it beyond that.”
“That night, in my suite.”
“Give me a break, Will! If you’d just lost the woman you loved, would you be in the mood for a chat?”
The discussion had just taken a turn that brought it uncomfortably close to home. “I just wish I’d known,” William mumbled, emptying the contents of the sake pitcher into his masu box.
Charles looked up from his plate, his brow furrowed. “Why bring this up now?” he asked. “Seems like a moot point.”
William had heard that confession was good for the soul, and could only hope it was true. “I gave you some bad advice about Jane, and I owe you an apology.”
“You mean about her being after my money?” Charles waved his chopsticks at William. “I never believed that. She’s not her mother, any more than Lizzy is. Plus, like I said, she didn’t care if we had the family’s money or not. But you were right on target at the airport, when you said she’d gotten over me. It was obvious the weekend of Lizzy’s party.”
William discovered a tiny spot of chili sauce on his shirt. Muttering an oath under his breath, he dipped his napkin into his water glass and tried to clean it. Then he ordered himself to stop stalling. “I don’t know what went on that weekend, but Lizzy says that Jane still loves you.”
Charles’s eyes widened briefly, but then he shook his head. “No. I’ve seen her with that other guy, Jordan. She’s moved on.”
“I told you I didn’t think that was serious, any more than you were serious with the woman you brought to Catherine de Bourgh’s party.”
“So you think she ….” Charles’s chopsticks clattered as they hit his plate. “Are you sure?”
“Lizzy seems sure.”
“Then why did you keep telling me Jane had gotten over me?”
“I have information now that I didn’t have then.”
Charles stared at him, frowning. “But you even said she was dating Richard.”
William shook his head. “No, I told you her relationship with Richard was platonic.”
“But it seemed like you didn’t think she cared about me anymore, and then when I saw her she seemed so quiet and awkward, so I figured maybe there was stuff going on that you hadn’t wanted to tell me.”
“I merely told you what I had observed, that I didn’t see any signs that Jane was pining away for you. But I warned you that I wasn’t a person she would confide in. And the main thing was what I overheard her mother say, at her apartment, about the money.”
Charles sat back in the booth, his eyes icy blue as they bored into William. “So are you saying that the main reason you were still warning me away from Jane ten days ago was because you still thought she was a fortune hunter?”
“Well, I ….” William sighed. “Yes. Because of what you said—or didn’t say, apparently—back in May. And because of her mother.”
“I can’t believe this. I told you from the start that she wasn’t like that.”
“And how many times had I heard that before? Remember Amanda York, your sophomore year? And the redhead you dated the next year, the one who almost convinced you to elope on Valentine’s Day? Shall I go on?”
Charles scowled, folding his arms across his chest. “No, you don’t need to go on. But don’t you think I’ve learned a few things since college?”
“You’re too quick to give people, and especially women, the benefit of the doubt. And besides—” William stopped himself.
“If you’d told me more the weekend of the wedding, I would have drawn entirely different conclusions.” William glowered at Charles, aware for the first time how angry he was with his friend.
“No, you’re not going to blame this on me. I know you think I’m gullible, but I’ve never understood why you’re always in such a rush to think the worst of everyone. You were questioning Jane’s motives before you even met her, before you knew anything about the prenup.”
The men glared at each other across the table until at last William dropped his eyes to his plate. They sat in uneasy silence, avoiding eye contact, their table an enclave of tension and stillness in the midst of the busy restaurant.
Two more dishes arrived at the table. Charles glanced at the food and made a face. “I’ve lost my appetite. You going to eat anything else?”
William shook his head.
“Then let’s get out of here.”
The grandfather clock announced that it was midnight, its deep tones echoing in the cavernous foyer and drifting up the staircase to William’s room. He glanced at the bedside clock to verify the time and then returned to his book, only to realize that he’d been “reading” the same page for the past hour. Concentration was impossible with so many unsettling thoughts darting randomly though his mind, like arrows fired by inebriated archers. It was going to be a long night; in fact, it had already been a long night.
Charles had said nothing on the drive back to the house, his anger obvious in the frosty quality of his silence as he stared straight ahead, his jaw set in a firm line. Ever the conscientious host, he had invited William into the library for a drink on their return home. But instead of providing an opportunity to mend fences, what little conversation they had shared had been stilted and pointless, and William had escaped to his room claiming fatigue as soon as politeness allowed. It astonished him that in the course of four days he had managed to rouse the wrath of both the woman he loved and his closest friend.
His attempts to lose himself in his book had been thwarted by occasional waves of rationalization as he sought to absolve himself of blame. These had alternated with intervals of self-recrimination. Sensory traces of Elizabeth crowded his mind and heart: the dazzling smile that greeted him each time they met, the comforting pressure of her hand in his when they walked side by side, the scent of jasmine that would forever haunt him … and the pain and anger clouding her eyes just a few days ago.
It magnified his pain to realize that he had helped to sentence Charles to the same hell. It was tempting to argue that it wasn’t the same, that Charles’s love for Jane must be shallow compared to his devotion to Elizabeth or Charles would have brooked no interference in pursuing his heart’s desire. But even if that were true, it made no difference. Charles loved Jane above any other woman, and William had done his best to separate them.
An indecorous groaning noise interrupted his thoughts. It was his stomach, uncharacteristically immune to his emotional upheaval. Their aborted dinner had been insufficient to last him until morning, and obviously his stomach intended to voice its discontent.
Mindful of Caroline’s presence in the house, he belted his robe securely over his tee shirt and boxers and crept downstairs to the kitchen. When he switched on the light, a shrill noise drove his heart into his throat.
“Good God, you scared me!” Charles sagged against the refrigerator.
“I noticed.” It had been evident from Charles’s shriek, or perhaps “shout” was a more manly description. “I take it you’re hungry, too?”
“Yeah. Should have brought the rest of our food home. I could go for some chicken satay right now.”
William leaned on the counter, watching Charles inventory the refrigerator. The kitchen was ruthlessly contemporary, all gleaming black and white and stainless steel, smelling faintly of cleanser. Sterile. Yes, that was the right word. An uncharacteristic wave of homesickness washed over him as he thought of the apples-and-cinnamon warmth of Mrs. Reynolds’s cheerful domain in New York.
“How about a sandwich?” Charles asked. “Looks like everything we need is here.”
“That sounds good.”
Charles worked efficiently, setting out ingredients and inviting William to assemble his own snack. Soon they were seated at the small kitchen table, munching away in silence, a companionable silence entirely without the earlier tension.
“I owe you an apology,” Charles said after swallowing a bite of the thick sandwich.
“No, you don’t.”
“Yeah, I do. I shouldn’t have gotten so bent out of shape. Granted, you were wrong about Jane, and we could debate how much is your fault for jumping to conclusions, and how much is mine for doing such a crappy job of explaining things. But you’re right that my judgement where women are concerned has been dubious at best, so of course you were on your guard. I say, let’s call it a draw and move on.”
“That’s generous of you. I’m truly sorry for my role in what happened, and for the unhappiness I caused both you and Jane.”
“Thanks, Will. But the thing is, didn’t I just tell Father, about twelve hours ago, that I wanted to make my own choices? Any time I wanted, I could have told you to cram your opinions where the sun don’t shine.”
William smiled as best he could with his mouth full.
“And besides that, I was overlooking the most important point,” Charles continued. “Lizzy thinks Jane still loves me. You did say that, right? I wasn’t hallucinating?”
“You weren’t hallucinating.”
“That’s the best news I’ve heard in ….” Charles shrugged, chuckling softly. “It’s the best news I’ve ever heard.”
It was good to see the broad smile on Charles’s face. “What are you going to do about it?” William asked.
“Fly, drive, or, if necessary, run up to San Francisco as soon as possible and try to win her back.” Charles rose to his feet, his empty plate in his hand. “Of course, the first thing I have to win back is her respect.”
“You took a big step in that direction today.”
Charles seemed to expand, stretching taller, as he absorbed this thought. “I’m still hungry. Want some ice cream, or maybe a piece of pie?”
“No, I think I’m going to turn in.” William carried his plate to the sink and rinsed it.
“You don’t need to do that, Will; the housekeeper will handle it in the morning.”
“Lizzy’s influence,” William explained.
“I’ve said it before; she’s quite a girl.” Grinning, Charles rinsed his own plate.
“Yes, she is. Except—”
William hesitated. He was tempted to pour out the entire sad story. But where to begin? No, he wasn’t ready. “Nothing,” he said. “Good night, Charles. And again, I’m sorry for interfering. I should have minded my own business.”
“I know you meant well.”
If only Lizzy felt that way. With a deep sigh, William climbed the stairs, wondering in what form she would visit him tonight.