As she turned her key in the lock, Elizabeth smiled in anticipation of finally being able to pull off her damp clothes. The fact that Fitzwilliam Darcy was standing at her elbow was merely icing on the cake. So was the fact that she was wearing a coat of his over her damp clothes, and the scent of his aftershave cologne very pleasantly filled her nose, allowing her mind to give way to private fantasies simultaneously inspired by her previous perusal of his wet physique.
She took his coat off first as she entered the apartment and carefully laid it on an armchair. Next, she quickly kicked off her heels whose rubbing against her wet stockings had already raised some blisters on her aching feet. Sighing contentedly at the end of that particular annoyance, she told Darcy to make himself at home and called over her shoulder, “I’ll just be a moment,” unbuttoning her shirt as she entered her bedroom.
She hastily pushed her door closed with the back of one stockinged foot and did not notice that it failed to shut. Eager to remove the itchy, damp clothes, she sat on her bed and peeled off her blouse with another contented sigh. She spent a moment massaging her neck before flipping her hair into a loose, soggy ponytail. Leaning back, she carefully pulled the black stockings from her legs to avoid putting any runs in them.
All the while humming Katy Perry’s new single to herself, she didn’t notice that she was clearly visible to Darcy where he sat on her living room sofa. Had she known, she might have been amused that he seemed to try to look in every direction except the bedroom, all the while failing completely.
When she stood, he saw her stretch her arms above her head, her toes curling, before lazily reaching a hand back to unclip her bra. With a strangled sound, he called, “Elizabeth, your door is open,” while staring pointedly at the ceiling.
Startled, Elizabeth jumped and turned. She remembered her bra and reached back to secure it. Darcy had gotten to his feet, his hands shoved into his pockets, a pained look of concentration on his face as he continued to look upward. His skin had flushed to a tint approaching a juicy red apple, and Elizabeth had to remind herself that she couldn’t necessarily eat him although he looked adorably delicious to her.
She quickly looked down at her own state of undress and gasped before quickly shutting the door.
Leaning against it, she exhaled slowly and reflected upon the absurdity of the situation. Here she was, alone in her apartment with the father of her child whom she had seen gorgeously naked a half hour or so ago before after joining him in his own shower, albeit accidentally, and now she was bashful that he had seen her without a shirt on.
Sliding down to the floor, she gave in to a fit of soft giggles that she hoped he did not hear. If she had any talent for musical composition, she would write the entire absurd scenario into a production for Jane. A frown marred her face briefly. Not that she was speaking to Jane, she chastised herself, before her thoughts happily returned to the man on the other side of her door.
After a few minutes, she emerged from her room, still laughing to herself, and dressed in a loose shift covered with a long cableknit coat-sweater that reached to her knees. Not quite able to meet Darcy’s eyes, she mumbled, “Sorry about that,” before rushing into the kitchen. Had she looked, she would have seen him admiring her nicely toned calves.
“Is there anything I can help you with?” he asked as she glanced at the clock, noticing that it was four in the afternoon.
“Hmm?” she said as she made her way over the fridge. Darcy expected her to open it, but instead he saw her grab a chair, stand on it, and retrieve a box of penne pasta. “Do you like pasta and marinara?”
Darcy hesitated before replying, his own thoughts caught up in the half smile on her sensual lips. A fantasy of pulling her from the chair and kissing her fully on the mouth floated briefly through his thoughts.
He managed instead to nod in response to her question. At that moment, nothing sounded more divine than pasta and marinara.
“I know it’s not grand, but I developed a fondness for this dish when I went off to college,” she apologized. “Plus, it’s simple and I happen to have all of the ingredients.” Uncharacteristically for a woman usually as unflappable as she, Elizabeth felt embarrassed for the meagerness of her hospitality. For the first time in her life, she wished that she had the prowess of a 1950s housewife in the kitchen.
“Not at all,” Darcy smiled back at her, happy that she felt comfortable enough with him to not stand on ceremony. “I love pasta.”
Opening the fridge, Elizabeth realized that she didn’t have a beverage to offer him. Usually, she just drank disgusting New York City tap water and put a brave face on it or went to the nearest Starbucks. Charlotte must have a stash of wine somewhere, but she wouldn’t dream of nicking her friend’s liquor reserves. Finally, after a few seconds deliberation, she grabbed two juice boxes. “Courtesy of Mae,” she explained at his surprised expression.
Darcy nodded wistfully. He wanted to be with Elizabeth every second of every day and never leave her side or Mabel’s. However, he had to remind himself calmly, he was lucky that she was speaking to him at all. He would simply have to take this one small step at a time. And by everything holy, he intended to one day have this woman in his arms until the day he died. Failure was not an option.
“You never really spoke of your family or home much when we met,” he said softly, looking intently into her eyes. His eyes moved to take in her body including her bare lower arms, her sweater pushed up to elbows—in his mind they were gorgeously adorable elbows. Then, realizing that his statement had been slightly absurd, he added, “I guess we didn’t have much time.”
She looked down at the tiled floor and replied quietly. “I rarely speak about my family, to be honest.”
Darcy smiled and, giving into temptation, walked to where she stood facing the counter and covered her hands briefly with his. He liked the way her body fit against his, and as she glanced over her shoulder at him, he had the feeling that she liked the fit, too. After a moment, she reached for a utencil and Darcy backed away to give her more space.
A companionable silence fell over them as she strained the penne and heated up the marinara sauce on the stove. Darcy chuckled when he found himself drinking from a child’s juice box a few minutes later— oh! how the mighty have fallen, he thought happily to himself. He knew his sister G would pay thousands for a picture of him at this moment. Well, he’d just have to make sure she saw it first hand some time in the future.
“So,” Elizabeth began tentatively, grabbing the parmesan, “how much longer are you planning to stay here in the Big Apple, now that you have settled a contract for using Hayworth’s book for the movie? Any other fish to fry here?”
Darcy took a spoonful of pasta and chewed thoughtfully. “That wasn’t the only reason for this business trip. Actually, I could have delegated that meeting. I wanted to get away for a bit, and G—my kid sister—is in boarding school in New England, and she asked me to visit—said she was homesick.” He smiled when he spoke of his sister, and Elizabeth found herself smiling along with him. “It’s been just the two of us for six years. We’re all the family we have left—I mean, we have cousins, but really, it’s G and me. So, I probably spoil her a little.”
He bit his lip as he realized his next admission might raise some unpleasant memories. “Plus, there was Charles. He always gets himself into trouble if someone doesn’t watch out for him.”
Elizabeth flinched slightly at the insinuation. Darcy grimaced but plowed forward, trying to make her understand. “Caroline with her pretentions to gradeur just encourages him, to be honest. She’s as bad as any hanger-on and she’ll do anything to grab a bit of his limelight. She often gives him bad advice. Without some sort of guiding influence, Charles would stay out all night at parties—he tends to drink too much . . . and sometimes other things.” Elizabeth had the uncomfortable feeling that Charles had already been in trouble in some way that his good friend had taken care of—hence, the effort to keep a closer watch on him.
Incredulous, Elizabeth said, “Are you serious?” She had never seen Charles Bingley be anything other than charming, well-behaved, and entirely sober. Then again, Jane had always been out with him. Oh no, she thought darkly to herself. Had they been up to anything? Those times when Jane left Mae alone. . . She shook herself mentally and decided not to go down that road, even in her mind.
Darcy continued, “Unfortunately. Charles is still in a kind of college kid phase. Not that he went to college, mind you. But he has money, fame and a rather underdeveloped sense of responsibility. He’s no worse than many movie stars and better than many—I mean, he’s no four-star party boy like Colin Ferrell.” He paused. “It’s not even all the time. Just when he’s in a new place, situations like that. He likes to have fun and just takes it a bit too far.” A faraway look crossed over his face, as if he were remembering something in particular.
“He sounds a bit like Charlotte,” Elizabeth confided and then regretted that she felt so comfortable with him. With a stricken look on her face, she added quickly, “Don’t tell her I said that. Plus, she only goes dancing maybe once a month and then stays quietly locked in her room for the rest of the weekend.” She felt defensive as she wondered what her admission might mean to Darcy if he considered Elizabeth lax in whom she allowed to be around Mabel.
Darcy merely smiled. “I got that impression that night at the club.” His eyes brightened at a secret memory. “Yours seems an odd friendship, though, to be honest.” He finished his apple juice, crumpling it in his large hand.
Elizabeth laughed softly. “That it is. We were roommates first year and she—well, despite her wild side and her bad taste in men, she’s an angel. She got me through the pregnancy.”
Darcy reached out tentatively and she let him clasp her hand again. He took a deep breath before saying, softly, “I am so sorry, Elizabeth.”
She looked down at their hands and, without consciously meaning to, found herself entwining her fingers in his. Everything had changed so quickly in a matter of days. Just that past Friday, when Darcy had proposed to her, all she could think was how she despised him—and hated him all the more because she could not help finding him attractive. Now, half a week later, she could feel herself slowly softening to him. It was more than his generous gesture with the check. She felt safe with him. Part of her knew she always had. She wasn’t certain if she had ever felt safe before he had held her in his arms. And that thought terrified her.
“Do you want another juice box?” she asked, trying to push her emotions under more mundane concerns.
At the change in her tone, Darcy tried to look into her eyes, but she evaded his gaze. One step at a time, he reminded himself. One small step at a time.
“Is there grape?” he asked lightly, without removing his hand.
“Mae’s a bit picky. She only likes apple juice. I could get you a glass of tap water, though.” Elizabeth glanced up at him and he nodded.
Taking another bite of the meal she had prepared for him, Darcy watched Elizabeth affectionately as she got his water. He chewed slowly and fought the urge to take her small, perfect hand in his again.
“So did you ever tell me how long you are staying?” she inquired, blushing.
Darcy tried to contain his happiness at her interest and shrugged his shoulders, failing to appear disinterested. “I’m flexible, especially since I’ve discovered how easy it is for me to run Grendel Films from here.”
“You still didn’t answer my question,” Elizabeth pointed out as she started sipping from her second juice box.
Darcy only responded with an intense look, hoping to convey all he felt. When she responded only with a blank expression, however, he replied, “Probably until Christmas.”
Elizabeth blushed as she finally began to realize what his schedule hinged on.
Her vibrating cell phone was a welcome escape from the moment. “Excuse me,” she said before reading a text message Charlotte had sent her. “That didn’t take long,” she muttered quietly to herself as she looked at a picture of Jane and some hot guy that Char had spotted together at their favorite Starbucks, just a block or so from the apartment. The man in the photo looked oddly familiar. Elizabeth shook her head, unable to remember where she had seen him. Glancing up at Darcy, who was respectfully inspecting the parmesan cheese with a curiosity it did not deserve, Elizabeth sent a quick response. How different this must be from his customary meal, she thought.
As soon as she set the phone down again, it vibrated and Darcy looked up. “Would you like some privacy?” he inquired considerately.
She shook her head. “No, it’s only Charlotte.” She hesitated and looked at Darcy questioningly then glanced down at the text message: model n diva making out. she more inta him thn him her. wanderin hands. eww. covert mission. char.
Elizabeth laughed at the last part of her friend’s message. “Her trip to Starbucks before picking up Mabel has turned into a covert mission.”
Darcy looked confused but did not question her.
Smirking, Elizabeth explained, “Char accidentally spotted Jane and sent me a photo text.”
With another buzz, Elizabeth looked down and her brow furrowed. Pressing a button, she lifted the phone up to her ear. “Hi, Char, yeah.” She paused, glancing at Darcy before getting up to standing near the sink. “You should just hang at Starbucks instead of rushing back here only for twenty minutes.”
Darcy couldn’t hide the smile that was playing on his lips. Elizabeth didn’t want her best friend to come back to the apartment. She wanted to be alone. With him.
“If I promise to tell all later, will you do this for me?” She bit her lower lip and glanced at Darcy again. “Okay. Perfect. Thanks.”
Thinking he should not overstay his welcome and floating on cloud nine, Darcy slowly made to leave after insisting that he washing their dishes. Elizabeth smiled as she watched the outline of his strong shoulders as he scrubbed the plates with an intensity she had never before seen in a household chore. And, as an added bonus, he looked quite cute in her plaid apron and yellow gloves.
“Darcy,” she began tentatively, leaning her back against the counter and trying to catch his eye.
He looked at her and smiled.
Elizabeth couldn’t help but blush. Looking down, she focused her mind and just let the words she needed to say tumble out. “I really appreciate the check but I really can’t accept. It’s—it’s just too much. It’s a truly beautiful gesture, but I can’t—” She sighed and then glanced up to see him looking intently at her.
“Think of it as back pay on child support,” he said succinctly before returning to the dishes.
She inhaled deeply. “But, I just can’t—” She glanced up and was mesmerized by his disarming eyes. Elizabeth couldn’t speak, couldn’t even breathe. All she could do was look into those beautiful eyes that were beginning to hold the spark she had dreamt about for the past five years.
“Elizabeth,” he pleaded quietly. “There are no strings attached. Please. Let me do this for my little girl.” His voice was raw and yet so beautiful.
After a brief hesitation, he looked up at her again and she nodded slowly before moving away to the other side of the fridge.
As he stood by the door to leave, Darcy hesitated before turning to Elizabeth again. “May I see you again?” he asked softly, not looking directly at her. When she didn’t answer, he looked at her to find her thoughtful. He surmised that she was uncomfortable with his seeing Mabel at this stage in their tentative relationship.
One small step at a time. Do it right, man. There won’t be a fourth chance.
“I could take you to dinner one night, perhaps somewhere new, and I’ll even pay for a babysitter for Mabel,” he suggested.
He waited and when she didn’t refuse—he took this as a good sign, rather than a bad one since she hadn’t accepted his invitation, either—he continued. “We can do whatever you’d like. I could get tickets to a basketball game—”
Elizabeth laughed happily and Darcy smiled at this small encouragement.
“Maybe tickets to a show, or we could head down to an Irish pub. We could even be cliché and get dinner before we see some new flick at the movie theatre.”
“Are you asking me out, Mr. Darcy?” she asked sweetly, and he saw a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
“Y-yes,” he stammered.
“I haven’t been on a first date in years,” she said and paused dramatically, “so you better make this memorable.”
His face broke into a wide smile. “I take it that’s a yes?”
“Is Wednesday too soon, or would you prefer to wait until the weekend?”
“Let me see if I can find a sitter and then I’ll get back to you tonight.”
After Darcy left, Elizabeth picked up her phone again. Staring at the picture of Jane and her mystery man, she was beginning to wonder if Darcy had actually been right in separating her sister from his friend.