KoL Cover and Blurb

The Keys for Love

by Wendi Sotis

The Keys for Love copyright © 2014 Wendi Sotis

Cover art by Matthew Sotis Copyright © 2014

Chapter 1

Elizabeth Bennet struggled to grab hold of the ties of what she thought of as her tanning-only-when-alone bikini top, with no success. She huffed. Lifting her head, she looked around at the Smiths’ private stretch of beach. Nobody was in sight—not even a sailboat or jet ski was in the water—and that was the only angle from which anyone could see her, except from the Smiths’ house, which she knew was empty. She looked around for her towel. It was on the chair, just out of reach, of course.

This had better be quick, just in case a jogger comes along on the beach.

As she started pushing up from the lounger, she remembered the tall bush that she had replaced for the Smiths last week, leaving a considerable gap in the privacy hedge. Even though Georgiana had said she and the Reynoldses were going out to dinner, and even though she knew that they should be long gone by now, Elizabeth glanced up at the Darcys’ house.

Elizabeth gasped. A stranger stood at the window in the office! The man backed away from the window and quickly disappeared from view. She snatched up her towel and held it against her upper body. Grabbing her cell phone, she speed dialed Georgiana’s cell as she hurried into the house. It rang three times before Georgiana picked up.

“Hi Lizzy! What’s up?”

In a rushed tone, Elizabeth asked, “Georgie, are you still at dinner?”

“Yes, we’re at—”

“I just saw a man in your house,” Elizabeth interrupted. “I’m calling the police—”

“No, Lizzy, wait! It’s my brother, Will. He had a conference call scheduled, so he couldn’t come out with us.”

A wave of relief passed over Elizabeth. “Good thing I called you first, then!” She chuckled. “He’s a couple of days early, isn’t he?”

As Georgiana explained finding her brother at the pool when the two young ladies had returned from Key Largo earlier in the day, the scene that had just occurred at Elizabeth’s poolside repeated itself in her mind. Elizabeth groaned. “I think I gave him quite a show. I was half off the lounge chair before I noticed him at the office window.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“I was lying on my stomach… Oh, Georgie! Not only am I wearing that bikini I showed you—”

“Oooo, the yellow one with the polka dots? The one your younger sister gave you to ‘catch men’?” Georgiana giggled.

“Yes, that one!” Elizabeth blushed from her toes to her scalp. “Well, I had a bad feeling about untying the bikini top without you here to help me tie it again, but I did it anyway. Turns out, I was right. It was too awkward, so I just got up. That’s when I saw your brother looking out the window!”

At first, the only response was Georgiana’s laughter. “Don’t worry, Lizzy—I know for a fact that Will appreciates fine art.”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “That sounds like something your cousin Richie would say.” She sighed. Not much I can do about it now. “Ah, well. C’est la vie. Enjoy dinner. I’ll see you tomorrow, Georgie.”

~%~

Will turned over and looked around, feeling a little disoriented. Everything was white-white: white marble floors, white walls, and white bedding. The high ceilings were covered in very light natural wood. All the furniture was white wicker or the same wood as the ceiling. The decor might have been considered inhospitable; for some reason, here it worked. The atmosphere was airy, cool, and welcoming.

Finally remembering where he was—his house in the Florida Keys—he thought back over what brought him here two days earlier than expected. After having been disgusted by the most recent predatory behavior of a particular social-climbing shrew who showed up at his office yesterday morning uninvited, unannounced, and decidedly unwelcome, he chose to avoid seeing her at last evening’s charity auction and left New York City early.

Unwilling to waste any more time mulling over that subject again, Will closed his eyes and reviewed the very pleasant dreams he had enjoyed during the night, instead. After several minutes, his eyes snapped open, and he sighed. I hate to admit it, but Richard was right. It really has been way too long since I’ve had a date if an accidental glimpse of a half-naked girl affected me like this!

Turning his head, he glanced at the clock and quickly bolted upright. It was almost noon! Gads, how long has it been since I’ve slept in? It must be at least six years—yes, it was the last time I was here.

A sheer curtain billowing in the breeze caught his attention. Crossing the room, he pulled the curtain behind a tie-hook on the side of the sliding glass door. He was greeted with a breathtaking view of the pure white sand of his private beach and the clear blue sea beyond it. The cloudless sky was broken only by a triangle of white from a sailboat in the distance.

Stepping through the door onto the second floor balcony, Will inhaled the heady scent of the orchids blooming all around his house. The sounds of the waves lapping at the shore and the caw of a single seagull were almost hypnotizing.

All this he had taken for granted as a child and a younger man, but after being surrounded by steel, concrete, smog, and noise for so long, it made him feel as if he had stumbled onto a piece of heaven on earth.

Maybe this vacation wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

~ ~ ~

After showering, Will opened the door to the hallway and hesitated.

When did Georgiana or the Reynoldses start listening to that kind of music?

Curious, he made his way down the staircase and followed the sound. At the door to the living room, Will stopped in his tracks. Dressed in one-piece bathing suits and shorts, Georgiana and Mrs. Reynolds were belly dancing! Another woman stood behind Georgiana guiding his sister’s arms and instructing her how to move properly. Judging by their uncoordinated, jerky movements, it was obvious that both his sister and Mrs. Reynolds were beginners.

The teacher said something that Will couldn’t hear, and a miracle occurred. Georgiana laughed! Will attempted to keep his shock from showing on his face in case Georgiana looked over at him. The girl standing before him, giggling happily, barely resembled the one he had sent on ahead of him to the Keys.

His sister had increasingly withdrawn into herself since her horrid experience with a man named George Wickham. Aware that if Will had known about the relationship, he would have made sure it ended immediately, Wickham had convinced Georgiana to surprise him with the news later. Will remembered quite vividly his panic when he saw Mrs. Reynolds’s 911 text message come up on his cell phone, interrupting a business meeting. He had been thankful that he had been in California, not too far from Las Vegas, or he might not have been able to find Georgiana and Wickham before they married. After Wickham’s reaction to Will’s arrival at their hotel, and Wickham’s ridicule of Georgiana as she tried to defend her lover, Georgiana had become extremely depressed.

But now, Georgiana’s joy radiated from every pore. He wondered what had happened to bring about this change in the six weeks she had been here.

The sound of Georgiana’s voice snapped him out of his memories. “Can you show us one more time what this is supposed to look like?”

The instructor agreed and, after a few moments, she stepped out from behind Georgie and Mrs. Reynolds.

Will gasped quietly. It was the bikini girl from next door; the dark-haired goddess who had kept him company in his dreams all night!

Today, she wore a low-cut, black and white tankini. The splash of red at the center of each tropical flower in the fabric’s design was placed perfectly to draw the eye to the lady’s attractively generous curves. The top half of the tankini ended an inch or two above a matching bikini bottom, revealing a glimpse of bronzed skin stretched across her tiny waist. Wrapped low on her hips was a sheer skirt bearing the same design. As she moved with much more grace than her students, one shapely leg peeked through the slit running down one side.

With a flip of her hand, the dancer swept the length of her wavy dark hair over her shoulder to her back as she crossed to the CD player to reset the song, and then faced the other two ladies. When the music began, Will found it impossible to look away. As those long legs stretched, her hips swayed, abdomen rolled, and arms weaved intricate patterns with amazing ease. An arch of her back flowed provocatively into an entire body shimmy that made his mouth go dry. She was absolutely intoxicating.

Georgiana’s voice calling out his name snapped him out of his trance. The instructor stopped dancing and turned to look at him. Thinking of when he got caught spying the day before, he expected her expression to become angry; instead, she blushed. Curious.

“We had the music on low so we wouldn’t wake you, Will.” Mrs. Reynolds turned scarlet.

Georgiana said, “We thought we’d have a lesson before Mr. Reynolds came back from the village.”

Will tore his eyes away from the teacher and shook his head. “I couldn’t hear it from my room.” He smiled. “Since when have you been taking belly dancing lessons?”

Georgiana replied, “I finally talked Lizzy into teaching us. Lizzy?” She turned and waved her over. “Come meet my brother, Will.”

Lizzy? The girl Georgiana hasn’t stopped talking about since she’s come to the Keys?

Elizabeth walked toward him with her hand extended. Will took it. Her grip was firm as she shook his hand. “Elizabeth Bennet. It’s nice to finally meet you, Mr. Darcy.”

Her name sounded very familiar, but he couldn’t place it. “Will,” he said abruptly.

“Okay… Will.” Elizabeth smiled. “You can call me Elizabeth or Lizzy, if you’d like.”

He nodded, unable to look away from Elizabeth’s brilliant green eyes. “You dance very well. I thought you were a professional instructor.”

“Thank you.” She blushed. “I dance for the exercise and usually don’t perform for strangers, but I couldn’t resist Georgiana’s begging any longer.” She broke their shared gaze, glancing down at their hands.

His eyes widened—he still hadn’t let go of her hand. He pulled his hand away quickly. What was wrong with him? “I’ve, uh… heard a lot about you from Georgie and Mrs. Reynolds.”

The music and air conditioning system shut down. A few seconds later, the lights on the CD player turned back on.

“What happened?” Georgiana asked.

“Once in a while, there’s an island-wide power spike,” Elizabeth answered. “Your air conditioning system is very sensitive. It needs to be reset.”

Mrs. Reynolds said, “Mr. Reynolds knows how to fix it, but he probably won’t be home for a while.”

Elizabeth turned to Will. “Do you know how to do it?”

He shook his head. “It’s been years since I’ve been here—I don’t even know where the controls are—but I’m sure I can figure it out.”

“I’ll show you all how to do it, just in case Mr. Reynolds isn’t around next time, either.” Elizabeth walked toward the main entrance and opened a closet door. Along the wall were both the control panel for the air conditioner and the fuse box for the house. She showed them all the steps necessary to reset the cooling system.

“Elizabeth, I’m confused. How did you know how do that? Do the Smiths have the same system?” Will asked.

“Mr. Gonzales showed me a couple of years ago.”

“My property manager?” Will furrowed his brow. Since he hadn’t used the house in years, Will had done what most of the homeowners on the island do—rented the house to vacationers when it was not in use by the family. Mr. Gonzales kept an eye on the house, hired landscapers, and took care of repairs. Mrs. Gonzales cleaned the house. “Why would Gonzales show you how to reset my cooling system?”

“Well, it was easier to show me how to do it than it would have been to describe the steps over the phone if it happened that the system went out.”

Will shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I feel like I’ve come in on the middle of a conversation. I’m missing something. Aren’t you a relative of the Smiths?”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “OH! I thought you knew… the copy of the letter of recommendation you sent to the Smiths last year had your signature…” She hesitated a few beats, waiting for any sign of his understanding, but there was none. She continued, “For the past three years, when the Gonzales family goes to Mexico for two months to visit their daughter during the off season, you’ve hired me to house-sit.”

“Ah, so you are an employee?” Will cleared his throat as his back stiffened. “I do remember my assistant telling me that Mr. Smith called…”

“Charlotte?”

Will raised an eyebrow and nodded.

“I grew up with Charlotte—which is how you found me.” Elizabeth pressed her lips together as if she were trying not to smile at his surprise. “By the way, I know your cousin Richie, too. When I worked for the Smiths last winter, he was staying here.”

Will’s eyes tightened with suspicion. The tension in the air was almost palpable. Out of the corner of his eye, Will saw Georgiana shift uncomfortably.

“I didn’t realize you were staying at the Smiths’ home in that capacity,” Will stated in a voice full of disdain.

Both of Elizabeth’s eyebrows raised high on her forehead.

Mrs. Reynolds stepped forward and placed a hand on Will’s arm. “Why don’t you two continue with the lesson, and I’ll get Will’s breakfast?”

Elizabeth smiled warmly at Mrs. Reynolds and then at Georgiana. “Actually, I’ll be going. If you’d like to hang out later, Georgie, let me know.”

Elizabeth grabbed her purse and shoes, and Georgiana walked her to the front door.

Mrs. Reynolds gestured toward the kitchen. Her severe expression spoke volumes.

Will waited until they were both in the kitchen to speak again. “What’s wrong?”

“Why would you be so rude to that nice girl, William?”

“I have my reasons—you’ll understand after I speak to Richard.” He grabbed an apple from a basket on the counter and headed toward the stairs.

~%~

When Richard picked up the phone, Will growled, “Why didn’t you tell me you knew her? That she’s my employee?”

“Who?”

“Elizabeth Bennet.”

“Ohhhhh… so that’s who’s next door?” Richard chuckled. “Oh, man; I really would have liked to see her in a bikini so small that it had you humming Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini during our web meeting yesterday!”

“I told you yesterday that seeing her like that was an accident! All I did was look out the window…” William’s voice trailed off. He shook the memory from his thoughts. “Never mind—Rich, this is important. Georgiana’s been hanging out with that woman.”

Richard asked with amusement in his voice, “And that’s not good because…?”

“When I saw her next door, I assumed she was a relative or guest of the Smiths, but now I know better. She’s probably a parasite, Rich, with no ambition other than leeching off those of us with money.”

“Are you absolutely sure this is the same Elizabeth Bennet? Long, dark brown, curly hair, green eyes, and a killer body?”

“Sounds like her. She told me she met you last year, and she knows Charlotte. I just found her—in my house—teaching Georgiana and Mrs. Reynolds how to belly dance!”

“When is the next lesson? I might be able to catch a flight—”

“Richard! Be serious!”

“I am perfectly serious.”

Will was the first to break the silence that followed. “You promised to take care of business in New York while I was here.”

“Yeah, but that was before I knew about the belly dancing—”

“I’m staying here to protect Georgiana from this woman. If I’m here, you’re staying there.”

Richard sighed heavily. “Listen, if it is Elizabeth Bennet, then this parasite stuff is all in your imagination. Lizzy isn’t like that—”

“Why else would a young, beautiful woman be house-sitting for a living unless she’s got the intelligence of a gnat? From what Georgie and Mrs. Reynolds have said about her, she doesn’t. I’d bet anything you could want that the only reason she admitted to being a house-sitter was because she assumed I’d recognize her name. Since there aren’t any available men around to pay her way, I’m sure she’s latched on to Georgie so she could get her to pay for everything.”

“Geeze, Will, you are one stuck up pain in the—”

Will interrupted, “I’m not surprised you fell for her, Rich… Did she take you for whatever she could while you had a bit of fun with her before you turned her down?”

“Stop talking about Lizzy like that, Will!” Richard was livid. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Will could hear the sound of a file cabinet drawer being closed and paper rustling in the background. “I hope you didn’t act like this in front of her.”

“Act like what—protective of my family and possessions?”

“Give me a break! Did you even talk to her before jumping to conclusions?”

“Yes, I talked to her—she was in my house.”

“I don’t mean ‘Did you talk at her?’ We all know how well you do that. Did you talk to her? Find out anything about her? Have a normal, everyday conversation, just like everybody else?”

Will’s mumbling was answer enough for Richard.

“Don’t you think she was investigated? You refuse to breathe the same air as anyone who hasn’t been checked out in depth by my father’s security firm. Do you honestly think she would have been approved to keep an eye on one of your precious houses if she was what you suspect her to be?” Will’s portable fax machine came to life as Richard continued, “You saw the file and approved her, but it’s obvious you’ve forgotten what you read. I’m faxing the summary of Lizzy’s file right now so you can see that you’re making a fool of yourself. Read it and call me back.”

Richard disconnected the call.

Chapter 2

As Will slid the phone into his pocket, he started reading the pages coming through the fax. Although he knew he must have seen Elizabeth’s file before hiring her years ago, he didn’t remember one word of it.

Hiring a house-sitter involved entrusting the person with his property, so he had asked G. F. Security to investigate her background. Gerald Fitzwilliam was semi-retired, but he was the best; therefore, Will always asked that his uncle handle his requests personally. Uncle Gerry would have picked up on any shady activity in her life, but assigning her to care for his house was a lot different from trusting the woman with his sister, especially after what had happened with Wickham.

At a glance, Will he could see she was no gold-digger, as Will had assumed. After about an hour of studying the documentation, Will called Richard, and he answered on the first ring.

“I’ll admit that my opinion may have been formed… hastily.” Will ran a hand through his hair.

“Wow! That’s the closest I’ve ever heard you come to admitting you were wrong.” Richard’s smile could be heard in his voice. “It’s a good thing I didn’t take you up on that bet you offered, or you’d be signing over the pink slip for Darcy Corp. right about now.”

Will ignored his cousin’s statement. “This information isn’t based on hearsay or from what she told Charlotte and you, is it?”

“You know better than to ask that question,” Richard answered brusquely. “Please don’t tell me you’re suspicious of my father now, too—”

“You, of all people, know I have good reason to be cautious,” Will replied. “And in case you don’t remember, you used to be worse than I.”

“I’ll remind you that the reason I left my father’s firm was because I hated the fact that I could never shut off that constant pessimism and suspicion. Keeping up that attitude 24/7 is unhealthy.” Rich huffed. “You’ve got to let go of the past at some point, too, cuz. It’s not good for you to let a few bad experiences ruin your entire life. “

“And you know better than to categorize what happened as a few bad experiences.”

From the sigh Will heard, he could tell Richard wanted to avoid talking out that topic again. Richard changed the subject. “I assume you want a summary with my personal observations, as usual?”

“You know I do, Rich.”

“Elizabeth Bennet, twenty-seven years old, born and raised in Longbourn, upstate New York. Smart kid—skipped a grade in high school. At age twenty-two, after graduating from Cornell University with an MS in Engineering at the top of her class, she stepped into a fantastic position at the company where she interned. She was promoted twice in quick succession and earned a six figure income. Unlike most that age, she invested wisely. Between that and a small inheritance from her paternal grandmother, she is now sitting on a healthy nest egg. She resigned her position after three years and started house-sitting. Interview results of former co-workers are impressive. There is a note in here of one exception, but other staff members witnessed several instances of sexual harassment aimed at Lizzy, and so this man’s statements to our investigator were discredited. Letters of reference from other homeowners are impeccable, as are interviews with acquaintances.

“My personal observations: Lizzy doesn’t need your business, Will—she actually has more offers than she can handle, and she can pick and choose which ones to accept,” Richard continued. “Between what I’ve heard from Charlotte, and the lady herself, Lizzy became so disillusioned with Corporate America during her short tenure that she swears she doesn’t miss the excitement one bit and would not subject herself to that kind of life again.”

“So, she’s lazy.”

“Absolutely not—it’s just that deep down, she was never like you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Hey, I know you well. Do you want a breakdown of your life, as if I were investigating you?”

Will hesitated for a few moments. Part of him was afraid to hear his cousin’s honest appraisal of his life, but part wanted to know what image he projected to others. The latter won out. “Yes.”

“All right… but don’t blame me if you don’t like what you hear.” Richard let out a deep breath before beginning to speak in the same detached manner as before. “Fitzwilliam Darcy, age thirty-one, work-a-holic and perfectionist. Graduated Harvard Business School top of his class at twenty-three. Inherited Darcy Corp. at age twenty-five. Until yesterday, his shortest workday since taking over the company was ten hours long. Works weekends whenever possible. Eats meals at his desk unless he’s attending a business meeting at a restaurant. After spending some time with his sister, if she’s home, he continues working from his home office. Barely sleeps—”

After Will mumbled under his breath, he said out loud, “I slept late this morning.”

Richard cleared his throat, stifling a chuckle. “I got a text from Georgie a minute ago. It sure sounds like you woke up grumpy and took it out on Lizzy,” Richard said. “It would do you good to hang around with Georgie and Lizzy while you’re there. Have some fun for a change.”

“I know how to have fun,” Will grumbled. “I play sports, don’t I?”

“You participate in sports. Believe me—the way you play is not fun. Most people think it’s impossible for you to do anything for the sake of simple enjoyment. You push yourself and everyone else way too hard, Will. For your information, the reason I quit your teams is that you’re too much of a stickler—professional coaches are more lenient than you are. Most people on the Darcy teams only show up because they’re afraid they’ll get fired if they bow out.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Will argued. “You know I would never do such a thing!”

“Yeah, I might know that, but what I know doesn’t matter; your behavior is intimidating to those who don’t know you as well as I do. You’re too intense.” Richard let that sink in for a few moments. “Listen, Will, your drive for success in all areas of your life is admirable, but you’ve been going full steam since your parents died. That’s why all the people who care about you united to convince you to take this vacation. We’re worried about you.

“There’s something about that island—or maybe it’s the Keys in general—that will force you to take a break. Even the Beach Boys agree… Kokomo’s the place for taking it slow,” Richard quipped. He sighed when he received no reaction from Will. “Really, Will; you need to learn how to let go of the competitiveness of the rat race and relax, unwind. Life’s too short for it to be all about work.”

~ ~ ~

“Relax?” Will wondered if he could remember how.

He looked around him. The office jutted away from the house on the second floor with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. When standing on the beach, one could see directly through the office to the huge flowering tropical plants and palm trees that grew a few yards away.

Will walked over to the window facing the beach and let out a long breath. Although he had a wonderful view from his office on the top floor of the Darcy Towers in New York City, he was glad it wasn’t as nice as this one. He’d never get any work done if he was constantly tempted by beauty such as surrounded him now in the Florida Keys.

If I’m supposed to slow down, I guess this is the place for it.

Through the years, he had worked in almost every department of his family’s company so that he would learn the workings of the business inside out, beginning even as a little boy with emptying the trash whenever his father brought him along to the office on his days off from school. But taking up the reins had proved to be much more difficult than he had expected.

Almost immediately, Will had become a slave to the company, afraid to let his guard down in any way or someone might think he couldn’t handle it. There was no doubt the incident with Catherine Debourgh caused him to increase these efforts. After the business meetings, charity events, and a limited number of social events he allowed himself, his time was spent with the other huge commitment he had inherited—guardianship of his young sister.

Georgiana had taken many vacations without him, accompanied by their trusted housekeeper and her husband, who were more like a beloved aunt and uncle than they were employees. But this time, Mrs. Reynolds had convinced him to accompany Georgiana for at least part of her two-month-long visit to their house on Lower Matecumbe Key, Florida, and not only for his sister’s sake. She had voiced her opinion much like Richard just had—it was long past time he took some time to rest. When he resisted the idea, Mrs. Reynolds recruited others to help persuade him that her plan was a good one.

Will’s assistant, Charlotte Lucas, obviously agreed with Mrs. Reynolds, since she had worked hard to clear his schedule for the next month. Except for a limited number of unavoidable meetings he could take as web conferences from anywhere in the world he happened to be, Charlotte had removed all reasons for him to remain in New York.

Now here he was, and he’d already made a mess of things. His cousin Richard, Georgiana and Mrs. Reynolds were angry with him; he had insulted their friend, and he had only been here a few hours. What would he accomplish after a few weeks of “unwinding”?

Will sighed. Maybe Richard was right—he was too negative, too demanding. Almost everything in his life revolved around work. He was so completely caught up in proving himself that he’d forgotten to live.

With too much pent-up anger at himself to stay still, Will had to get out of there.

Changing into running clothes, he grabbed his gear and went in search of Georgiana or Mrs. Reynolds to let someone know he was going out. He found them both in the kitchen, going over a shopping list, and made his apologies for the way he had acted toward their friend.

“I am more disappointed in your manners than angry with you, William.” Mrs. Reynolds had a hint of recrimination in her voice. “You should know better than to behave like that.”

“Of course I’ll forgive you, but please don’t do that again, Will. I really like Lizzy.” Georgiana kissed him on the cheek. “It seems this vacation has come just in time. You’re too used to being boss around the office.”

Will sighed. “I promise to apologize as soon as I see Elizabeth.”

Both Georgiana and Mrs. Reynolds seemed satisfied.

Will turned down their offer to join them at the shops. “Next time. I was just going out for a run along the beach.”

He pocketed his keys and cell phone and, as Will left through the back door, he saw Elizabeth walking along the water.

No time like the present.

Will jogged up to the beach and headed in the direction Elizabeth had gone.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Keys for Love is available at:

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