Gold Hill, Nevada
The room was alive with music, smoke and raucous conversation, and Charles Bingley took it in with a satisfied smile. The Silver Dust was the finest saloon in Gold Hill, no doubt about it, and it was all his. It might not have a fancy cut-glass chandelier like the ones that gave that Crystal saloon in Virginia City its name, but it sure had everything else. The bar, all sixty feet of it, was rare Circassian walnut, the most expensive wood available, its richly curving grain attesting to its lofty price. Behind the bar, the huge gilt-framed mirrors and elaborate oil paintings had set him back substantially, too. But Charles wanted the best of everything for the Silver Dust. And he felt it had been well worth the small fortune it had cost him to outfit the place: despite competition from dozens of other saloons, it was jumping seven days a week, and the crowd was as civilized as you could get out here.
He looked over at his sister Caroline, who stood alongside one of the bartenders, amiably chewing the fat with the customers. Although running a saloon was, strictly speaking, no job for a respectable woman - and Lord knows they'd fought about it plenty when the subject first came up - Caroline had insisted on managing the place personally. It turned out to be a shrewd move; she had a surprisingly keen head for business. What's more, while she was tough as nails, she was also tall, well-formed, pretty... a darn sight easier on the eyes than your average bartender, and the novelty of having their drinks served up by an elegant, fine-looking lady attired in the latest European fashions was enough to bring in more than their share of customers. Indeed, tonight she was dressed in a gown of bright yellow silk taffeta - its striped, long-waisted cuirass molded tightly to her narrow figure, its long, gathered skirt sweeping the sawdust-covered floor - and she seemed to glow brighter than the gas lights that illuminated the room.
They did have a half-dozen saloon girls, of course - not the soiled doves that other places offered for sale, but clean, hard-working waitresses treated with respect by the clientele - in addition to twice that number of dance-hall girls. All wore colorful dresses that were both tantalizingly low in their fringed bodices and shockingly short in their ruffled skirts, revealing well-turned ankles as well as a froth of petticoats and an enticing glimpse of lace stockings. Despite those attractions, Charles had to admit that it was Miss Caroline whom many of the men came to see. Charles caught her eye and smiled, hoisting his beer in her direction, and she returned his grin with one of her own and a wink. She was in her element here, chatting and flirting and not-so-subtly encouraging the men to part with their cash, but all in good fun. From the drinks they served to the Faro and poker tables, the Bingleys were known for their honest operation.
It was a reputation they had built over many years. Bingley's family had been among the founders of Gold Hill, which had sprung up about two decades prior in the wake of the discovery of the Comstock Lode*. To be sure, Gold Hill wasn't as big or as famous as its sister, Virginia City, but the Bingleys had been exceptionally clever merchants, catering astutely to the hordes of men who swept into Nevada hoping to make their fortune in gold and silver. Mr. Bingley senior had started out in dry goods, but before long, the family had used its considerable profits not only to expand the store but also to build a posh hotel, a restaurant, a saloon with a dance hall, and a glittering theater. His father having died several years before, Charles now owned all five, plus a substantial stake in a thriving silver mine as well. He was, then, just about the richest man in town, and also one of the handsomest. But he didn't put on airs. Everyone liked the Bingley boy, as the old-timers still called him. The women especially.
As Charles's gaze flicked back to Caroline, he saw her own eyes widen as she took a deep breath, smoothed her hair with in a self-conscious manner and excused herself from the customer she'd been chatting with. There could be only one reason for that reaction, and as Charles turned toward the entrance, his face was already lit with a broad smile. Yep, there he is.
"Will Darcy!" Caroline exclaimed as she approached the newcomer with what she hoped was her most elegant walk. She was mighty proud of that walk; it had been cultivated at one of the finest finishing schools back East. And indeed, men's eyes followed her appreciatively across the room, but she ignored them all. "'Bout time you got here!" she said with a pout. "I'd begun to think you'd deserted us for home ready."
Bingley met his friend at the entrance and shook his hand with gusto. "I thought by having you stay with us here in town, I would see more of you. What's your excuse tonight?"
"Business, Charles, don't you know that?" Darcy sighed. "It's always business. But you needn't fear that I'll leave early - I promised I'd stay in Gold Hill for a few weeks, and I'll keep my word." Darcy tipped his hat politely to Caroline, unnecessarily, as she had already laid claim to his arm and, she hoped, his full attention. "'Evening, Caroline."
Caroline Bingley had set her cap for Will Darcy years ago, when he had first become friends with her brother. Oh, it's not as if she lacked for masculine companionship in Gold Hill; there had to be twenty men for every woman in this godforsaken town. But Darcy was special. Sure, he was the handsomest fellow she had ever set eyes on: tall, leanly muscled, broad-shouldered, with a face to die for - just thinking about his physical attributes was near enough to make her swoon. But there were, after all, good-looking men aplenty in Gold Hill. And he was clean - oh, yes, spotlessly, relentlessly so - well-groomed, a rarity in a place where the dust from the streets and the mines lay thick upon everything and everyone, and many of the local men didn't often think it necessary to part with their precious coin to buy a bath.
But it wasn't just his looks or even his ancient bloodline and elegant breeding that made Will Darcy so damn attractive. It was Pemberley - the ranch he owned a-ways south of here, named for his ancestral estate in England and whispered to be over half a million acres - not to mention a magnificent mansion in San Francisco, plus a fortune made in gold, silver, lumber, and cattle...you name it, the Darcy family had the Midas touch. The Bingleys' wealth, which was certainly not insubstantial, was nothing to Darcy's. Will was everything Caroline thought she deserved, and she intended to have him.
Charles watched his sister ruefully as she flirted in earnest with Darcy. Could the woman be more obvious? She was so intent upon setting her hooks into him that she couldn't see he had no interest in her at all - never had, never would. Sighing, Charles suspected it was going to be a long night.
"Where's Louisa?" Darcy asked, once his hostess let him get a word in edgewise.
Caroline would only harrumph, "Her majesty!" as she went off to pour Will's drink personally. Charles led his friend to a reserved table, where Darcy sat, grateful for the interruption.
"Caroline's miffed because Louisa won't come into the saloon any more," Charles said.
"What? Why not?"
"Ever since she married Hurst, she thinks it wouldn't be proper." Charles's younger sister, Louisa, had, two years prior, become the wife of the bank president, Virgil Hurst. Charles smiled crookedly. "It didn't seem to concern her much when she played piano here, but now...."
"Well, that was before she had hooked the biggest fish in town."
"And now she's quite the grand dame of Gold Hill. You'll see Louisa soon enough, though; we'll have her and Hurst over for dinner tomorrow night."
Darcy surveyed the surroundings with a keen eye and grinned approvingly at his friend. "You've done a great job with this place in the past couple years."
"Thanks. It's my pride and joy." Leaning forward eagerly, Charles nodded toward a large oil painting hanging in a prominent place on the wall behind the bar. "That's my latest acquisition. How do you like it?"
Will turned his head and his eyes widened in pleasure. The usual "Saturday night art" held no interest for him, but this painter was clearly talented, and did justice to his subject. The painting featured a nude odalisque stretched languidly across satin pillows, facing away from the viewer to expose a bare expanse of back, long, shapely legs and an attractively rounded bottom not at all concealed by the silk scarf draping her. Her arm lifted her hair, and she peeked coyly over her left shoulder, turning just enough to reveal the sumptuous curve of one naked breast. Darcy gave a low whistle. "She's a beauty, Charles."
"Yeah," Charles laughed, "Caroline kept pestering me to get something more 'tasteful' than the ol' horse-faced goddess who'd been hanging up there since my father's day. But the gents like her so much, sometimes I think that Caroline is jealous of the attention she gets."
The men shared a laugh, and Will added, "Well, your waiter girls are mighty handsome, too." He smiled at a particularly good-looking one who gave him a wink as she passed their table, and let his eyes follow her briefly. "Where do you find them out here?"
Charles shrugged. "They find us. Word gets around that they can make a good living here, and that the Silver Dust doesn't require them to...uh, entertain the clients in private."
With his sister's approach, Charles changed the subject to something more appropriate for a lady's ears. "So what's going on at Pemberley?"
Caroline handed Will a brandy. "Your favorite, Will," she simpered. Most patrons of the saloon drank straight whiskey or beer, of course, but she kept a supply of wines, brandies and other liquors for the rare customer with a more discriminating palate. Darcy favored her with a smile, but immediately responded to her brother's question.
"Not much, just the same old problem. Having trouble keeping good ranch hands. No matter how much I pay 'em , or how well I treat 'em, once they get the notion that they can make their fortune in gold or silver, they take off without so much as a good-bye. My foreman just wrote me to say we lost another two this week."
"That's a scandal!" Caroline exclaimed indignantly, in an effort to direct Darcy's attentions back to herself. "Where's their loyalty? Their sense of honor? Why, everyone knows that Will Darcy is the best boss that ever lived!"
While Charles snorted into his beer, Will tried to find a way to accept the compliment graciously while indicating that it was neither deserved nor desired. Failing that, he toasted Caroline with his brandy, and sipped it appreciatively. Then he quickly asked her about business at the saloon, a sure-fire way to re-direct the conversation, and soon she was off and running, requiring little in the way of reply by Darcy.
As Charles had predicted, it was a long night. Will finally said goodnight to the Bingleys sometime around two in the morning, knowing that his friends wouldn't be joining him back at their home until much, much later. Consequently, when Darcy rose as was his habit early the following day, his hosts were still heavily asleep. So he had his horse saddled and took himself a ride outside of town, choosing a high road to have a better view of the environs. While he wasn't particularly interested in the scenery, he did need to clear his head after a night spent in the saloon. He shook his head in wonder. How could Charles and Caroline spend so many hours in all that smoke and noise, and then go back and do it all again the very next day? The Bingleys seemed to thrive on the hustle and bustle of the town; Darcy would take his ranch any day.
Some activity just below him caught his eye, and soon he was watching in fascination as a young ranch hand expertly took control of an large and unruly herd of sheep. The rider, despite his small stature and obvious youth, was clearly at ease on a horse. He wheeled through and past the herd, his hat jammed tightly on his head and his buff leather coattails flying. With the aid of a clever sheepdog, he quickly had the reluctant critters turned around and heading into a pen. Will nodded in approval.
A kid with skills like that sure would be useful at Pemberley, especially now. Squinting as the boy disappeared into a cloud of dust toward a nearby farmhouse, Darcy wondered if the rider was a local rancher's son, or just a hired hand who could be enticed away with the right pay. He made a mental note to ask Bingley about the boy later.
But it was already noon by the time the Bingleys made their appearance, yawning and sluggish, and it wasn't until Charles was walking his friend around Gold Hill later that afternoon to show him the improvements made to the town in the past few years when Darcy remembered the young ranch hand. For the same boy, recognizable by his long buff leather coat and dark hat, had just dismounted in front of Bingley's Dry Goods and tied his horse to the hitching post. With a purposeful tread, he headed toward the entrance.
"Just a second, Charles," Will said, "I need to talk to this kid. Hey, there, son!" he called out as sprinted toward the boy, who continued on his way without a pause. "Wait a second, will you?"
"Will, you're making a mistake!" shouted Charles in half-laughing alarm, but his friend paid no heed.
Will's long strides quickly outpacing the youth's, he grasped the boy's shoulder. "Hold on, dammit; I want to talk to you."
The youth spun around, and Will was shocked to find himself faced with a pair of very amused, very feminine green eyes, as well as a cocked six-shooter.
"Hands off, mister," the young woman said easily, "'less you want to have something in common with my gelding over yonder."
*The Comstock Lode was an enormous deposit of silver ore discovered in Nevada in 1858. It enriched many, though, sadly, not its discoverers, who had no idea what they had found while searching for gold.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," Will said, withdrawing with alacrity. As an afterthought, he politely removed his hat and stood awaiting the girl's pleasure. He'd faced down road agents, angry Indians, and drunken miners with nary a tremor; there were precious few things that could unnerve Will Darcy. But a female with a loaded firearm was one of them.
Finally catching up with his friend, Charles could no longer contain his mirth. "Will Darcy, I'd like to introduce Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Miss Bennet's family bought the old McIntosh place, and we've just hired on her sister Jane as our new schoolteacher." Turning to the young lady, Charles grinned, "The Darcys are old friends of mine, ma'am, and I can vouch for Will. He's completely harmless; he's just been away from town for a while and seems to have forgotten his manners."
"Well, seeing as he's a friend of yours, Mr. Bingley," Elizabeth said with a twinkle in her eye as she expertly holstered her gun, "I'll excuse him this time."
Her casual attitude rankled Darcy; just a moment before, she had threatened his life, and now she wanted to make light of it! He hated this feeling of being off-balance, on the defensive. He would, then, only offer stiffly in reply, "I beg your pardon, Miss Bennet. I hardly expected a young lady to be riding and herding." He stared disapprovingly at her well-worn Levi's. "Or wearing britches."
Elizabeth's eyes now flashed with disdain. "With five daughters and no sons, Mr. Darcy, my father needs someone to help around the ranch," she said coolly. "We figured out pretty darn quick that I'm not cut out for kitchen chores and the other things that proper young ladies do. Besides," she added, some vestige of good humor returning - for no one in Charles Bingley's presence could stay angry for long - and a dimple appearing in her cheek, "I've found that it's hard to ride properly in calico."
Not a man who could laugh at his own foibles, Darcy refused to soften at Elizabeth's more relaxed demeanor; his sense of humiliation was too keen, the embarrassment too recent. Instead, he stood stonily, unblinking, as if she still held her gun on him.
With a shrug and a bright smile for Charles, she said, "Gentlemen," touched her hat in farewell and headed once again for the store.
Watching her walk briskly away, Darcy shook his head in wonder. "Don't that beat all."
Charles chuckled. "Some spitfire, eh, Will?"
"You could say that. I could think of a few other words."
"Yes, and I'll let you in on a little secret: she gelded that horse herself."
Darcy grimaced. "Charming."
"What did you want with her, anyway?"
"I was," Will responded through a set jaw, "going to offer her a job."
"A job? Where, at Pemberley?" Bingley's unrestrained laughter was beginning to attract attention, and Will scowled at him. "You were! You were going to offer her a job as a ranch hand!"
"Oh, for the love of --- ! Charles, I didn't know she was a girl! It was an honest mistake."
Choking back his amusement, Bingley conceded, "You're right, Will. An honest mistake." But his smile lingered as Darcy asked with some irritation:
"So I take it you've already met her family?"
"Most of 'em. I went over to their place when they first arrived, just to be neighborly and welcome them to Gold Hill and all. At the time, I met Mr. Bennet and his wife, and three of their daughters: Jane, Elizabeth, and Mary. I've met up with Miss Elizabeth in town a couple times since, so now I'm kind of used to the way she dresses when she's working. I could've warned you if you'd given me a chance." Charles laughed again at his friend's glare. "There are two other sisters I haven't met yet, the youngest ones, Kitty and Lydia." Then he paused and cleared his throat. "But the one you really should see is the eldest, Miss Jane."
"The new schoolmarm?"
Charles blushed, clear up to his hair. "Pretty as a picture, and sweet as molasses."
"Oh, no, you're spouting romantic nonsense now!" Will's brows shot up. "And you've got that look on your face! The family just moved here, Charles, don't tell me she's worked her wiles on you already."
Shaking his head, Charles said, "I barely know her, Will. Only spoken to her once or twice. She's just, well, she's just not like the other ladies around here."
"Certainly not like the ones you hang around with."
"True. She's not like them at all." Bingley's blush grew deeper, and Darcy was worried. It wasn't like his friend to get flustered over a woman. And a schoolmarm, yet - as dowdy and prudish a creature that ever walked the earth! What could Charles want with her? "In any case, you'll get to meet the whole lot of them on Saturday. Mayor Lucas is having a little shindig over at his place, with all the best families in town..."
"And exactly how do these Bennets merit inclusion in that category? As I recall, the McIntosh place isn't much to speak of."
"Maybe not, but Mayor Lucas grew up with Mr. Bennet back East, and their families have always been tight."
"And we're committed to going, are we?"
"Of course." Charles looked at his friend with some sympathy as a sigh escaped the man. "Look, I know how much you hate these things, Will, but our family is one of the most prominent in Gold Hill; it would be a real slap in the face to the Mayor if the Bingleys didn't show, and only slightly less of an insult if our 'illustrious guest' declined to attend."
Chortling, Bingley said, "Yes, that would be you, Will. Everyone in town's dying to entertain Will Darcy of Pemberley, and it's just your poor luck that Mayor Lucas got to you first."
That night as they all sat at dinner in the Bingley's exquisite dining room, Charles regaled his two sisters and Virgil Hurst with the story of Darcy's encounter with Miss Elizabeth. The object of their hilarity, though rather offended, remained determinedly impassive. Sensing his discomfort, Caroline refused to be amused at Darcy's expense, and leapt to his defense at the first opportunity.
"Well, how could he know that she's a female? Look at how she dresses! Why, I've never seen the little tomboy but she's been in those dirty old blue jeans with that hat pulled down over her ears." She leaned toward Louisa and added in a loud whisper, "Maybe if I were that flat-chested, I'd dress as a boy, too!"
"Ooh, Caro, you're such a scandal!" cackled Louisa Hurst.
"Caroline!" her brother chided.
Caroline remained unabashed. "Well, we'll see them all Saturday night, and then you'll tell me if I'm not right!" She turned solicitously to Darcy. "Never you mind about those Bennets, Will. They aren't worth your notice."
"I happen to find them delightful," Bingley said with annoyance. "Some of them, anyway."
"Charles fancies the new schoolmarm, Miss Jane Bennet," Caroline explained to Darcy with a sly smile.
"So I gathered," he replied dryly.
Pursing her lips thoughtfully, Caroline mulled this last remark. So he's already mentioned the girl to Will, has he? While Caroline had great ambitions for Charles's future - mostly involving marriage to a wealthy heiress - she had to admit that it would be better for him in the meantime to keep company with demure schoolmarm Jane Bennet than the girls down at the Silver Dust and the other saloons. Despite her brother's popularity with those ladies, Caroline knew they were hardly appropriate companions for the gentleman she wanted him to become - someday, she hoped, in San Francisco. And having met Miss Jane herself, Caroline found her pleasant and tractable enough; perhaps she could be a useful friend. At the very least she provided some novelty. Finally, Caroline pronounced, "Well, she is a sweet girl, and one whom I wouldn't object to knowing more of." Louisa as always nodded in agreement, and Charles looked pleased.
Some miles away, in a dining room considerably less grand, another, far different conversation centered around the same chance meeting between Elizabeth Bennet and Will Darcy.
"My Lizzy, a boy?" exclaimed Mr. Bennet, greatly amused. "Does the man not have eyes in his head?"
"Indeed he does, and that's the problem if you ask me," fretted Mrs. Bennet. "If I've told her once, I've told her a thousand times that dressing in those hideous clothes would cause her trouble. For heaven's sake, she's never going to find herself a husband and settle down if every eligible man she meets thinks she's a boy!"
"Mama, Will Darcy, is hardly 'every eligible man'," Elizabeth replied with an exasperated sigh and a roll of her eyes for her father's benefit.
"No, he's only the most eligible man you're ever likely to meet," her mother retorted, in high dudgeon. "Why, I'll have you know he owns nearly half of Nevada, and a good part of San Francisco, too."
"It's true, Lizzy," nodded Lydia with enthusiasm. She was just 16 and unmarried males were her favorite topic. "Everyone's talking about him, everyone! He's got this ranch, he calls it 'Pemberley' - some highfalutin name, huh? - and it's about a million acres or something. And they say he's got his own gold and silver mines, and at least a dozen mansions in California and Lord knows what else. I hear he's gorgeous, too," she added, winking at 17-year-old Kitty. "Maybe he'd go for a different kind of girl...like me, for instance!"
Elizabeth huffed in disgust. "From what I've seen so far, Lydia, he's far too much of an old stick-in-the-mud for your taste."
"But is he as good-looking as they say, Lizzy?" Kitty persisted.
Thinking back to their brief encounter, Elizabeth had to admit to herself that he was. In fact, Will Darcy was a spectacular specimen, physically flawless. But at the moment, his displeased glower and haughty demeanor made far more of an impression on her than his fine, tall person and handsome features. So she shrugged and replied only, "I suppose so."
"Well, we'll all see this Mr. Darcy for ourselves Saturday night at the Lucas's," Mr. Bennet announced to squeals of delight from his youngest daughters. "Mayor Lucas has told me that he has specifically invited Charles Bingley and his distinguished visitor."
"Mayor Lucas, indeed!" scoffed his wife. "It was just plain William Lucas in his shop back East. Now that he's got himself elected mayor of Gold Hill, he's all high and mighty."
As their mother clucked and flapped her displeasure like an irritated hen, Elizabeth sat down next to Jane to help her wind her yarn. Jane's lovely face was pleasantly pink, and her sister knew why.
"So," Elizabeth said impishly, "Charles Bingley will be there Saturday night."
"Yes," Jane replied, her color deepening. "How nice."
"'How nice,' my eye!"
Laughing, Elizabeth whispered, "You may be able to fool Mama, Jane, but I know your moods better. You like Mr. Bingley."
"And what if I do?"
"Then I highly approve of your choice."
After a pause, Jane ventured with a shy smile, "He is just what a young man ought to be, Lizzy: sensible, good humored, lively; and I never saw such happy manners!"
"He is also handsome," replied Elizabeth, "which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can."
"Yes, but his friend Darcy is also handsome, as you say, and that doesn't seem enough to please you."
"No, it certainly is not. Well, if he is going to be at Mayor Lucas's party, maybe he'll find a way to redeem himself."
But even as she said it, Elizabeth doubted the possibility of any such miraculous transformation. She was not, then, among those who looked forward eagerly to seeing the man at the Lucas soiree, although she thought with a degree of amusement that it wouldn't be difficult to surprise the arrogant Mr. Darcy once again.
That Saturday night, as she mingled among the Lucas's guests, Caroline Bingley noted with a smile of supreme contentment that there was not a single lady present as stylishly attired as she was. In fact, the final fitting of her gold satin gown had just been completed the day before, with a pattern that had come from Paris by way of New York. Even the few others who attempted the latest, figure-defining styles were simply not of the right build to carry off the look. She was the envy of the entire female population of Gold Hill, and she reveled in it.
"Tedious company, isn't it, Louisa?" Caroline said with a theatrical sigh as she met up with her sister. She nodded with pity over to the fireplace where Will, looking magnificent but plainly unhappy, was standing stony-faced as the young ladies of the town nearly fell over themselves trying to attract his attention. "Poor Will, how ever will he make it through the party? And, alas, here I am, hardly able to abandon my own role to remain at his side the entire evening."
"What role, Caro? You're not the hostess here!"
"Nonsense. I might not be the lady of the house, but what man of Gold Hill would prefer the company of that old biddy Mrs. Lucas to my own?"
There was a commotion at the door, and the entire party turned to observe the arrival of the Bennets, who, with their large number and vocal enthusiasm, could not enter a room without attracting notice.
"There they are, Louisa," Caroline said with some distaste, "the Bennet clan." Very particular in her choice of society, Caroline could tolerate a great deal in the way of rough behavior at the Silver Dust, where she felt it was expected, but she could not abide a lack of refinement in any of her other associations. In her opinion, the Bennets - save lovely Jane - were too coarse to be of her sphere.
"So, my dear, enlighten me: whom do we have here?" Louisa, who circulated only with the cream of Gold Hill society - such as it was - was unacquainted with the newcomers.
"Well, the matron with the high, grating laugh is, of course, Mrs. Fanny Bennet, and that gray-haired man greeting Mayor Lucas is her unfortunate husband, Thomas. The plain, mousy-haired girl with the spectacles beside them is the middle daughter, Mary."
"And where is Charles's new inamorata, the schoolteacher?"
"There, just beyond Mary: the statuesque blonde in the deep blue."
Louisa cooed her approval "Oh, she is beautiful, Caro."
"Yes, she certainly is. Charming, too, ladylike and suitably docile. She'll be an attractive addition to our little circle of friends, don't you think, Louisa?" Her head cocked to one side, Caroline examined the young woman critically. "A pity her gown is at least three years behind the times - entirely too short-waisted, and, heavens, would you just look at that bustle! - but perhaps you and I can advise the dear girl."
A series of girlish giggles erupted in the room, and Caroline clucked her tongue in disapproval.
"Those two are the youngest of the Bennet litter: Kitty and Lydia. Lydia, the one in lavender, is only 16 but has already developed quite the reputation in town as a hopeless flirt. I'm sure her sister won't be far behind."
"So where is our little tomboy?"
"Out watering the horses, no doubt!" Caroline snickered.
"Wait, who's that?"
Stepping out from behind Jane, a seventh individual made her appearance. She was petite and pretty, attired in green silk that matched her eyes, her deep brown hair swept up in a simple but stylish chignon. She didn't have the exaggerated bottom-heavy hourglass shape considered the ideal in those days, but her waist was appropriately tiny and her bosom shapely, her shoulders strong and confident but by no means masculine. Her gown, like those of her sisters, was clearly outdated by several years, with the fullness too high in back among other glaring gaffes, but the general effect was elegant and tasteful - its bodice was low-cut enough to be interesting, but not too low as to be vulgar. Most importantly, she moved with an easy feminine grace that announced her comfort in her attire and with the company in the room.
"Surely that can't be Elizabeth Bennet!" exclaimed Louisa.
"So it is." Caroline responded, her eyes narrowed.
"She appears to have a chest after all, Caro," her sister laughed. "And a lovely little figure, to boot. She certainly doesn't look much like a boy now!"
"Indeed," Caroline said sourly. "Well. Shall we go say hello?"
The two made their way over to where the Bennets were gathered. Charles, who had swiftly appeared at Jane's side, made the introductions for Louisa. Caroline was grateful, for Jane was clearly occupied with her brother, and she did not care to spend too much time with a family she considered common and uninteresting. Fortunately, she soon found several young men of her acquaintance claiming her attention and, making her apologies, wandered off to more pleasant company.
Satisfied that she had made a suitable first impression, Elizabeth scanned the room for a friendly face and was surprised to find Will Darcy's eyes on her. She smiled archly and nodded in acknowledgement, but he merely inclined his head slightly, his lips pressed severely together. Chuckling to herself - for a young man, the fellow's quite an ol' crosspatch! - she went off in search of Charlotte Lucas, the mayor's oldest daughter, a few years Elizabeth's senior and her best friend since childhood.
The crush in the room did not facilitate her progress, however, because there was a dearth of women in Gold Hill, particularly young and attractive ones, and Elizabeth's merry personality soon made her all the more in demand; she frequently had to stop to chat with an eager would-be swain. At length when she removed herself from another group of admirers to resume her search, she turned suddenly and ran headlong into Darcy, who, with some amazement at her changed appearance, had been following her movement across the room.
"Pardon me, Miss Bennet," he said, smiling slightly and taking a step back.
"You needn't be afraid of me tonight, Mr. Darcy," she quipped gaily, her spirits high. "I come unarmed."
"So I see," Will replied, his smile fading, as he drew himself up to his most intimidating height. Was she laughing at him? And damn if she hadn't thrown him off balance the minute he saw her arrive by appearing so unexpectedly pretty and, yes, womanly. Gone was every trace of the hoydenish Elizabeth Bennet he had first met. Lord, she even smelled delicious! He scowled to hide his discomfort as well as his growing attraction.
"Are you enjoying your visit to Gold Hill, sir?"
"I am, thank you. Charles has been an excellent host, as always."
"From the little I know of him, he appears to be a good man."
"He is among the very best of men."
Elizabeth smiled. Her sister had chosen well! "Do you intend to stay awhile?"
"Perhaps a few weeks. I don't like to be away from home for long."
"Ah, yes. Pemberley."
"What of it?" Oh, here they came - the inevitable rude questions about the acreage of his ranch, the head of cattle, the value of its timber, the need for a woman's touch... Darcy stiffened even more in anticipation of the impertinent inquisition that was sure to follow.
"It seems an unusual name for a ranch," Elizabeth said, her brow furrowed in thought, "especially around these parts. I can't make heads or tails of it. It's not your family name, not the name of a mountain or lake or a kind of tree or a breed of cattle, and it's certainly not one that's easy to brand like The Circle P or Flying D. It's almost...I don't know, poetic. How did you come by it?"
This was the last question he expected, one young ladies in particular never seemed to ask. "Pemberley was the name of my ancestors' estate back in England. My grandfather was the last of our branch of the Darcys to be born there, and my father was rather sentimental about it." He added, as an afterthought, "Though yes, we do use a more prosaic Circle P as our brand."
"How interesting." They lapsed into silence. Having initiated whatever conversation had been between them thus far, Elizabeth was determined that Darcy would be the next to speak. When he didn't, she excused herself politely and once again went looking for Charlotte, this time with more success.
Forever uncomfortable with social niceties, Darcy silently cursed himself for not finding something more to say. He was confounded by the fact she didn't fawn over him, didn't seem interested at all in him or his money. And how did I ever mistake her for a boy? Gazing bemusedly after her departing figure, admiring the gentle swing of her hips as her train swished against the polished wood floor, he had only a moment to recover his equilibrium when Caroline sauntered up to him and laid a possessive hand on his arm.
"I hope that wasn't too awful, Will."
Too busy watching Elizabeth's happy reunion with Charlotte Lucas, Will barely acknowledged Caroline's presence. "Hope what wasn't too awful?" he asked absently, his gaze still on the other two young ladies.
"Why, being set upon by Elizabeth Bennet."
Darcy glanced briefly at Caroline, his mouth twisted in a wry smile. "She hardly 'set upon' me, Caroline. We bumped into each other, literally, and exchanged a few words, that's all." His attention went back to Elizabeth, whose pleasure in being with her friend lit up her already sparkling green eyes. They were fine eyes, at that: uncommonly intelligent and beautifully defined by long, dark lashes.
"Certainly cleans up real nice, doesn't she?" Because Caroline meant the question in a sarcastic vein, she was much taken aback when Will replied,
"That she does, Caroline. That she does."
To his companion's vast relief, Darcy regained his senses almost immediately. "Now. What does a man have to do to get a drink around here?" he asked smilingly. Caroline, who prided herself on her bartending skills, was only too happy to oblige.
Charlotte shrieked with pleasure when she spotted Elizabeth, and the ladies hugged each other tightly. "Well, you're a sight for sore eyes, Lizzy! Where have you been hiding? I haven't seen you in weeks!"
"I'm sorry, Charlotte," said Elizabeth, her arm still about her friend's waist. "This ranch is a lot bigger than our last place, and I've got enough chores to keep me busy dawn to dusk. But, then," she teased, "not everyone can be a lady of leisure like the mayor's daughter."
Waving off her friend's joke, Charlotte asked, "Are you happy here, Lizzy?"
Elizabeth nodded. "Oh, yes. Please don't misunderstand, I'm not complaining at all. I love it out here. It's certainly a lot drier than I'm used to, of course, but, oh, the mountains, the desert...it's all so beautiful, and there's room to breathe."
"I'm so glad. How is the rest of the family adjusting?"
"Well, you can see for yourself how Jane is doing," Elizabeth said, nodding toward her elder sister, who stood in quiet conversation with Charles Bingley.
"I'm happy for her," Charlotte smiled broadly. "He's quite a catch. How about the school?"
"She starts in two weeks. A little nervous, I think. But it's going to be fine: who could help but love Jane?"
"Lizzy Bennet!" Mrs. Bennet's voice carried across the room, causing several people to pause and stare. Elizabeth groaned, but there was no escaping her mother.
"There you are, young lady! What are you doing wasting your time talking to your friend when there are so many eligible men to meet here!"
"Mama!" Elizabeth wished Mrs. Bennet's speech did not carry so well, but all her subtle efforts to get the woman to lower her voice were frustrated
"I noticed that Will Darcy wasn't particularly glad to see you. Though I can't hardly blame him, considering what you did when you first met him!"
"Why, Mrs. Bennet, what did she do?" Charlotte asked, mischievously eager to hear of her friend's exploits, for she considered Elizabeth a shining example of what she herself was not, and what a young woman ought to be: bold, forthright, unafraid.
"Some friend you turned out to be!" Elizabeth muttered.
"I'll have you know that our Lizzy here drew her gun on Mr. Darcy!" Mrs. Bennet's exclamation cut through an unfortunate lull in the general conversation, and Elizabeth thought she would die of shame as the party guests began to buzz in amusement. Even Charlotte, her dearest confidante next to her sister Jane, gasped incredulously. "That's right, Charlotte, the man mistook her for a boy - no great surprise, the way she dresses - and she took offense and actually pulled her Colt on him. And now he won't give even Lydia or Kitty the time of day, and you know that they're great favorites of the gentlemen."
"Perhaps he has other reasons for that," Elizabeth said with irritation, trying valiantly to maintain her composure. All her pleasure in the party had fled. While it was true that Elizabeth had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous, and that she had in fact told the story to her family with some relish, she drew the line at public humiliation, and she knew that Will Darcy would not take the embarrassment lightly. Sure enough, she saw him out of the corner of her eye, and his eyes bore a look that could freeze Lake Tahoe. She was immediately sorry, but there was nothing she could do at the moment to spare him, no explanation she could offer the room at large to ease his embarrassment. Besides, she couldn't imagine that he could possibly think less of her than he already did.
But though Elizabeth could not know it, Darcy's glower was not for her. It was her mother who had earned his disapproval, for, to his own surprise, he was less embarrassed than he was angry that the woman would berate her daughter so openly in public. Elizabeth herself had only risen in his esteem this evening, and he thought it very unfortunate for her prospects that she should have such a mother, as she seemed to be a rare sort of woman. He took the glass of liquor Caroline offered him, and without knowing or caring what it was, downed it in one fiery swallow.
When the invitation arrived two days later, Elizabeth was astonished. Her surprise was not, of course, that anyone would want to have lunch with Jane, but that Caroline Bingley and her sister would want anything at all to do with the Bennets after the Lucas party.
Following Mrs. Bennet's ill-considered pronouncement, Charlotte had kindly offered to escort her friend upstairs to her own room to let the general hilarity die down, but Elizabeth had declined. She was determined to wait out the reaction to the story of her initial meeting with Mr. Darcy, putting on a show of good humor as the best remedy against the scorn of the townsfolk, and it had worked. Several young men had even ventured to add that Miss Elizabeth was welcome to pull a gun on them any time she pleased, and would she be interested in doing so next Saturday night?
But Miss Bingley, ever the guardian of her houseguest's sensibilities, was irate that his name was being bandied about in such a manner, and seemed prepared to snub the entire Bennet family. Her demeanor when they took their leave was decidedly frosty, and Elizabeth assumed that their nascent relationship with Gold Hill's most sought-after family was already over. Yet something - perhaps it was the force of Charles Bingley's budding interest in her sister - was sufficient to salve the wound. For Jane's sake, Elizabeth hoped it was so.
So when Jane rode off in the buckboard to visit with Caroline and Louisa, Mrs. Bennet was in ecstasies. Of course she had no idea of the damage her loose tongue might have caused their standing in town had it not been for Elizabeth's quick thinking and fortitude. All she could see at the moment was that her eldest daughter was well on her way to securing the affections of the handsome and wealthy Mr. Bingley. If only her other daughters would be as active in pursuing a prosperous husband, and as successful.
It wasn't until Jane was staring at the blancmange* at the conclusion of a lengthy lunch that she started to feel truly unwell. The entire meal had been a bit of a strain, as Carolyn and Louisa had taken the opportunity to quiz her extensively on her family history and associations. But the headache which at the start of the meal had been merely an annoyance had grown unendurable, and nausea soon set in. The appearance of the blancmange, pale and jellied, was sufficient to send her excusing herself from the table, and before long the sisters determined that poor Jane had developed a fever. The idea of a ride back home in increasingly ominous-looking weather was immediately vetoed, and Caroline, ever conscious of her reputation as the finest hostess in town, insisted that Jane stay as her guest, at least for the night. A rider was sent back to the Bennets' ranch with the news.
"How clever of Jane to contrive an illness to keep her in the Bingley household!" said Mrs. Bennet. "I thought lunch with Mr. Bingley's sisters would be advantageous, but it is nothing to being an actual houseguest! Now he can't help but see what a delight it is to have Jane around, and I'll bet he'll be ready to propose before she's ready to come home!"
"I hardly think it was Jane's idea to develop a fever, Mama!" Elizabeth exclaimed hotly. She paced the drawing room, still wearing her work clothes. Her opinion of her mother's lack of sense hadn't improved much since the fiasco on Saturday. "Aren't you concerned at all?"
"Not one bit. She'll be well taken care of, and will have Mr. Bingley to comfort her."
Peering outside at the building clouds, Elizabeth made a decision.
"You may not be concerned, Mama, but I am. I'm going to the Bingleys, now, before it rains, to see Jane for myself and bring her a few things. I should be back by dinner, maybe a little later. If the weather worsens, it may take me longer."
"Are you sure, Lizzy?" Mr. Bennet asked, apprehension for his favorite daughter filling his voice. "I'd hate for you to get stuck in a downpour...or in a house where you feel unwelcome."
"Never mind that, Papa," she said, kissing his cheek. "I can take care of myself."
"But your clothes, Elizabeth, your clothes!" her mother cried. "You should at least change into something decent before you go. Really, haven't you learned anything at all? And you should take a bath first, you smell like sheep."
"I don't have time for that," said Elizabeth impatiently. "I've got to get going before the skies open up." And with that she left the room.
Not five minutes later, a satchel full of clothes and personal effects for Jane tied to her horse, Elizabeth was galloping toward Gold Hill. Rain had already begun to sprinkle when she set out, but soon it was coming down in earnest, pouring, saturating then oversaturating the hard, parched earth. It wasn't a long ride, especially at the speeds Elizabeth was accustomed to traveling, but by time she had reached the edge of town, she was drenched to the skin, her leather coat weighed down with water, her entire person splattered with mud. The dusty streets of Gold Hill were now rivers of foul muck, and her horse spent the final few minutes of their journey picking his way delicately over deep puddles and uncertain ground.
Finally arriving at the Bingley's, Elizabeth dismounted and gratefully handed the reins to a stable hand, who, assuming she was a messenger of some sort, directed her to the servants' entrance. She did not disabuse him of this notion, feeling it was wise to avoid the front door anyway, on the chance that Caroline would not be happy to have her spotless foyer soiled.
Her arrival, however, caused hardly less a fuss at the back of the house than it would at the front, as the mistress was summoned to deal with the filthy stranger, dripping mud, who looked like a boy but talked like a fine lady.
"Miss Elizabeth!" Caroline declared in shock. "What brings you all the way to town in weather like this, and in such a state?"
"I've come to see my sister, Miss Bingley," Elizabeth said. "I've brought her some of her things, and I just wanted to make sure she's comfortable."
"I'll have you know that she is receiving the best of care," Caroline said stiffly, taking some offense.
"Of course, I had no doubt of that. But Jane's constitution is somewhat more delicate than mine, and I thought that having a family member by could be of use."
Honestly, the girl smells like farm animals, and has enough dirt on her to be one! "Well, you can hardly visit with her in this condition," sniffed Caroline. Turning smoothly to the housekeeper, she ordered that a hot bath be prepared for the new guest, and her garments washed immediately.
"That was all very gracious of you, my dear," said Louisa to her sister once she had been apprised of the situation, "but you know that Miss Elizabeth will need something to wear while the staff tries to make those nasty clothes presentable. You're taller than her by at least five inches and I, well, much as I hate to admit it, I must outweigh her by twenty pounds."
Twenty pounds? Louisa, you have thirty-five pounds on her at least! But... "I hadn't thought of that." Caroline chewed her lip. "You're right, of course: you and I can't be expected to loan her anything." Her eyes gleamed. "But I know someone who can." She summoned a servant and sent him briskly on his way.
And that is how an hour later, to her mortification, Elizabeth came to be attired in the costume of a Silver Dust dance hall girl named Lil.
"Well, Jane, this is quite the pickle I've gotten myself into. I knew I should never have trusted Caroline Bingley's hospitality!"
"You look lovely, Lizzy," murmured Jane, her dry lips breaking into a weak smile for her sister as she shifted with effort among the pillows in the guest bed. "Miss Bingley is only trying to help. After all, from what you tell me, you couldn't really come upstairs in your work clothes."
"But I can hardly go downstairs in these!" Elizabeth regarded herself in the mirror for the fourth time, and she was still appalled. Her bright red dress was low-cut in the extreme, its tightly boned bodice further defined with black fringe and jet beads, its snug confines pressing Elizabeth's bosom upwards most immodestly. Her shoulders were completely bare. The dress was also far too short for a proper young lady, coming to just mid-calf and exposing several inches of lace stocking. Her only comfort was that her knees didn't show. But still, she was conscious that when she sat down...! - why, the dress rode up even further, supported from beneath by a spray of ruffled petticoats. "She's trying to make a fool of me, to finish the job Mama started at the party. And now I'm expected to stay for dinner, perhaps even for the night!"
"You really must stay, you know. The weather has only gotten worse." A howl of wind punctuated her words, and torrents of rain lashed the window. "It would be too dangerous for you to leave now."
"Oh, Jane, I came to comfort you, and now I must turn to you for comfort!" Elizabeth said, dropping herself onto the bed and tenderly touching Jane's cheek. "Maybe I act a little too impetuously sometimes. But I just had to come see you - I couldn't wait till tomorrow to assure myself that you were in no danger."
"And now that you see that I am not, you must make the best of the situation. You are the same girl who faced down the entire town Saturday night and came out smelling like a rose, Lizzy. You can certainly handle Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst."
Elizabeth smiled and helped her sister to a sip of water. "You're right, of course. Well, if it's for one night, and it's certainly too foul outside for them to invite the rest of the town, I suppose there's no harm in it."
The two whiled away the afternoon together, but eventually the call came for dinner. With Jane's assurances that she intended to go straight to sleep, Elizabeth kissed her on her hot forehead and made her way downstairs. At her approach, Caroline smiled.
"There, you see, Miss Elizabeth. I have a great eye for these things. Lil's clothes suit you beautifully."
"They fit me well enough, but whether they suit me is another story entirely," Elizabeth said wryly. Then, remembering her manners, she hastened to add, "I thank you most sincerely, Miss Bingley, for your efforts and your hospitality."
"You're welcome, I'm sure. Well, then, shall we join the others?"
Elizabeth, to her chagrin, discovered that the gentlemen, who had been out looking at a property Mr. Bingley was considering buying, had arrived during her bath and were now preparing to enter the dining room. She had hoped against hope that they would be out all evening, freeing her from the embarrassment of encountering them in her current attire, but it was not to be. At least Mr. Hurst was not in attendance, business at the bank and then the fearsome weather having precluded his coming for dinner. Recalling Jane's advice, she walked toward them with a confidence she did not feel, and said warmly, "Good evening, gentlemen."
Bingley and Darcy looked up from their conversation and were immediately struck dumb. They had known Elizabeth to be in the house, but they obviously did not expect her remarkable appearance. After an uncomfortable silence, Bingley, as always, was the first to regain his composure.
"Good evening, Miss Bennet." Pause. "Say, Caroline, isn't that Lil's..."
"You're very perceptive, Charles," Caroline said. "Miss Elizabeth got caught in the rain on her ride over and her clothes were hardly fit to be seen, to say the least. Louisa and I are both the wrong size, so I borrowed an outfit from Lil. It looks very well on her, don't you think?"
"Oh, yes," Charles said, as the two men nodded their agreement, but slowly, as if they could still not believe what they were seeing. Elizabeth, knowing full well how ridiculous she looked, did not take offense at this, but instead chose to accept the absurdity of the situation with whatever humor she could.
Dinner was a subdued affair. Only Caroline and Louisa seemed up to conversation, as Charles was thinking morosely of the young lady above stairs and Darcy seemed more brooding than usual, speaking only when a question was asked of him. Noticing that he appeared to be stealing frowning glances at her, Elizabeth could only surmise that he disapproved of her attire, which wouldn't have surprised her in the least, since she disapproved of it herself. The bodice was so restrictive that she could hardly enjoy her meal, tasty as it was, and she was immensely relieved when the meal was at an end and she could excuse herself to check on Jane.
Once she ascertained that Jane was asleep, however, Elizabeth could find no excuse to stay above stairs, it being too early to retire. So she went downstairs once more, confident in the knowledge that the evening was at least half over, and found the rest of the party assembled in the drawing room.
"So, who's playing tonight?" asked Louisa, who was seated at a table, shuffling a deck of cards.
Charles and Caroline immediately sat down with Louisa. "Would you care for a game of poker, Miss Elizabeth?" Caroline asked.
Spying a selection of books on a side table, Elizabeth declined with a smile. She picked up a copy of Mark Twain's Roughing It and, reading the first page, wandered over to a seat by the fire.
"So you prefer reading to cards, do you?" Louisa asked. "That is singular."
Elizabeth shrugged. "I hope you'll excuse me tonight, Mrs. Hurst. I do play, but I haven't had the opportunity to read this book yet, and I'd really like to."
"Suit yourself. How about you, Will? A friendly game of five-card stud?"
"No, thanks, Louisa. I have a letter to write to my sister."
"Oh, how is Georgiana?" said Caroline.
"Very well, thank you."
"Will, do send the dear girl regards from Louisa and me. We're so very fond of her."
Conversation was now at an end as Louisa expertly dealt out the cards, and the three players bent their heads in concentration and made their bids.
Elizabeth, too, was deep in concentration, devouring Twain's tale of travel in the West. For the first time since she arrived at the Bingley home that day, she had begun to relax.
Only Darcy was distracted, too distracted to write coherently. In fact, only lines, squiggles and unconnected words filled the page in front of him, as he watched from lowered lids while Elizabeth read her book. Would she always find new ways to disrupt his equanimity? There were apparently many sides to this woman, all disturbing. He had seen first the tomboy, then the elegant lady, and now - willingly or not - the temptress. The satin flesh of her beautifully displayed bosom rising and falling in the firelight, the short skirt revealing a shocking amount of lace stocking over shapely limbs, the soft lips curved in an impish smile as she read - they all conspired against him.
His mind drifted until it settled upon a vision of her in that crimson dress, poised seductively cross-legged atop one of the worn wooden tables in the Silver Dust, leaning back on one elbow, a provocative smile on her full pink lips, her breasts all but exposed by the daring cut of her décolletage. They were quite alone, he and Elizabeth, and she took advantage of the situation by slowly raising her skirt and petticoats inch by tantalizing inch above her well-formed knees, her slender thighs encircled by black lace garters...until she uncrossed her legs and revealed herself completely to him: warm, wet, welcoming. His hands went quickly to the buttons on his fly as she sighed his name impatiently.
"Hm? What's that?" Darcy asked, jolted uncomfortably back to reality.
"I asked," Caroline said, "if you wanted a drink."
"Oh, no thank you, Caroline. I'm fine."
Caroline realized with a start that she had badly miscalculated. Her goal tonight had been to highlight to Darcy the difference between her own sophistication and Elizabeth's vulgarity. He had been far too interested in the little chit Saturday night! But as proprietor of a popular saloon, her knowledge of men's moods was better than that of just about any other woman in town - save the fallen angels - and she would know the look on Will's face anywhere. It wasn't just lust, though that was certainly present in abundance. No, there was something more dangerous in that look: something much like longing. She'd seen in it in the faces of lovelorn swains attempting to drown their sorrows down at the Silver Dust. And she didn't like it one bit. For now she was at a loss as to rectify the situation, but she was clever, and she knew she would think of something, sooner or later.
As it happened, her opportunity came much sooner than she expected.
After about an hour or so of poker, Charles, who had been playing badly and losing much, perked up and said,
"Hey, Will, can I interest you in some billiards instead?"
"Oh, that's a marvelous idea!" Caroline exclaimed. "We ladies could join you! Or doesn't Miss Elizabeth know how to play?"
Darcy's jaw set into a grim line. For one terrifying moment, he imagined himself in the billiards room, watching Elizabeth prepare to take a shot: bending low over the table, her lovely breasts threatening to spill out of her dress, her full skirts rising up in back to reveal her garters, hinting at the womanly treasure just beyond...and he feared that he would surely embarrass himself by becoming as rigid as his cue stick. He was on the verge of declining when Charles, misreading Will's scowl and thinking his friend had had enough of his sister, said quickly, "No, I think it will be just the gentlemen tonight, Caroline. We will bid your ladies goodnight and see you in the morning." And the two men departed the room.
As disappointed as Caroline was, Elizabeth was thankful for this turn of events. She did, as it happened, know how to play, rather well, in fact, but felt it was not in her interest to compete in any way with her hostess. Besides, her current attire hardly lent itself to such a game. She glanced over her shoulder at Caroline and found the woman looking at her through narrowed eyes; for whatever reason, it appeared as if Miss Bingley was displeased with her presence. So, rising, Elizabeth said,
"Miss Bingley, I would rather like to retire now, if you don't mind. I was up very early this morning and hope to get an early start tomorrow."
"Of course, Miss Elizabeth. I hope you - ..." She stopped abruptly.
Elizabeth suddenly had the unpleasant sensation that something was about to go very wrong. Her hostess had dropped her frown and was grinning like a Cheshire cat, almost as if she had been given a surprising and valuable gift.
"How well do you know Horace Crabtree, Miss Elizabeth?" Caroline asked pleasantly. She was gratified to see a look of confusion cross Elizabeth's face.
"Our families have known each other for several years," Elizabeth said, "and he made the trip out West with us. My father had intended to employ him as a ranch hand, but Horace...Mr. Crabtree...never felt he was suited for the work. He had other...aspirations. He left us right after we established ourselves here, and I haven't seen him in a month or so." She eyed Caroline suspiciously. "Why do you ask?"
One might have thought there was nothing unusual in the sight of a boy striding through the bat-wing doors of the saloon very early the next morning. After all, the only occupants were a bartender busy mopping the mud off the floor and a couple of regulars who had gotten caught in the downpour the night before and were still asleep with their heads on the table, snoring loudly. The boy disturbed no one. Seeing the way the kid had his hat pulled down low over his eyes, a person might rightly think that it was probably the peach-faced youth's first time in such a place. And if, when the lad stood before the large painting of a voluptuous odalisque hanging on the wall, his face first turned pink, then bright red, well, it could be construed as embarrassed excitement at his first glimpse of a naked female. In fact, there would have been nothing at all unusual in the presence of this figure in a long, buff leather coat had it not it been the self-same individual whose likeness hung in all its unclothed glory upon the wall, the signature H. Crabtree in the lower right-hand corner, the name "Betsy" engraved upon the frame.
*A popular dessert at the time, made from milk and gelatin and formed in a mold.
Although she did not ordinarily rise so early, and in fact was more inclined to lay abed until noon, Caroline was awake and downstairs that morning before the gentlemen, and they looked at her quizzically as they entered the breakfast parlor. "Good morning, Charles, Will," she trilled. "And how are you this beautiful day?" She smiled brilliantly at Darcy and offered, "Coffee?"
The men were at a loss to explain her complacency, but shrugging at each other, they accepted the coffee gratefully and sat down to eat. Noting the absence of his other sister, who had passed the night at the Bingley house in lieu of braving the inclement weather to go home, Charles asked,
"Is Louisa still asleep?"
"She is indeed."
Of greater interest to him was the condition of another guest, and he asked, "And how does Miss Jane do today? Is she any better?"
"She still has a bit of a fever, but I'm pleased to report that she had some tea this morning, and I hope that she will take some broth a little later."
"Excellent! Do you think she might venture downstairs today?"
"Now, Charles, I think it's a little soon for that. She's still very weak."
There was another absence which had yet gone unexplained. It fell to Darcy to ask, "Where is Miss Elizabeth this morning, Caroline? Has she already gone home?"
This was precisely the question she had been waiting for. "I sent her down to the Silver Dust," she said casually.
Both men stopped eating and stared at her incredulously, but only her brother spoke. "That's no place for her, Caroline, and you know it! Especially dressed in Lil's duds."
"Don't be such an old lady, Charles," Caroline sniffed. "Besides, she's wearing her boy clothes. I doubt anyone will notice her at all."
"What were you thinking? What could she be doing there?"
"Why not ask her yourself? Here she is now."
Sure enough, Elizabeth, attired in her customary jeans, work shirt and leather coat, had just handed her hat to the butler. Her face was decidedly flushed, but Darcy thought the color became her.
"Well, then, Miss Elizabeth," purred Caroline. "Or should I say, Betsy."
"What are you talking about, Caroline?" Charles demanded, increasingly annoyed that his previous questions had gone unanswered.
Elizabeth approached the table. "Good morning, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy," she said with a polite nod, her voice subdued. Turning to Caroline, she said quietly, "I do hope you'll do the right thing, Miss Bingley, and take it down."
"I will do no such thing."
"What is this all about?" Charles fairly shouted in frustration.
"We have a celebrity in our midst, gentleman. You have here before you the model for the Silver Dust's very popular new painting."
Charles gaped. "Our odalisque?"
"One and the same," Caroline said with excessive satisfaction and a broad wink. "Apparently Miss Elizabeth here is an old friend of the artist, Mr. Crabtree."
Darcy's mind reeled; conflicting emotions were warring within him. On the one hand, he recalled with great pleasure the sensuous curves of the woman in the picture and was stirred to discover that it was a representation of a lady whose physical attributes he already found enticing. On the other hand, he was bitterly disappointed that Elizabeth had turned out to be a common tart who would pose naked for a painter, without regard to where the canvas might end up and who might see it...such as the entire male population of Gold Hill!
Almost as if she had read his mind, Elizabeth blurted out, "I didn't pose for it!" Her hard-won composure slipping, she endeavored to explain. "I've known Horace...Mr. Crabtree for a very long time. He has spent a lot of time with my family and even traveled West with us, as favor to his parents. He was a bit of a dreamer, and they were hoping some hard work would "toughen him up," as they put it. But he didn't like ranching, had dreams of becoming an artist. So he would sketch me sometimes while I was reading or playing the piano or making a mess of my needlework." She bit her lip. "He never told me he planned to paint me. Well, certainly not like that!"
"How would he know about the little strawberry birthmark just below your left shoulder?"
"You saw it for yourself, Miss Bingley: it shows whenever I'm wearing clothing that exposes my shoulders."
"And do you frequently wear such clothes on your ranch? When? While you're tending sheep?"
Elizabeth's eyes snapped with fury over this inquisition. "I owe you no explanations, Miss Bingley. I will only say that there was nothing untoward about my friendship with Mr. Crabtree. And I certainly never posed for that painting." She lifted a defiant brow. "Besides, if he had painted me from life, he would have certainly showed my other birthmark."
"Where?" asked Caroline suspiciously.
Yes, where? echoed Darcy silently.
"Where he could not have seen it, because he never saw me unclothed!" Elizabeth replied hotly. "Now, I ask you again: will kindly you do the right thing and take the painting down?"
"We will not," she said with finality. "It cost us a lot of money and is a great favorite of our clientele."
"Nonsense," said Charles with equal determination. "We certainly will take it down. I have no desire to embarrass Miss Elizabeth. We can just put ol' Aphrodite back up there where she's spent the last ten years."
"I run the Silver Dust, Charles, and I say it stays."
"I own the Silver Dust, Caroline, and I say it goes."
It looked as if the argument between the siblings was at an impasse, until an interruption came from an unexpected quarter.
"Caroline," said Darcy, "you do have your reputation to consider."
"Dear Will, it's hardly my reputation at risk here."
"No, no, hear me out," he said. "Keep in mind that the Bennets are good friends of Mayor Lucas, and Mayor Lucas is a good friend of the Silver Dust. Have you considered the ramifications for the business if the mayor of Gold Hill took offense at your treatment of Miss Elizabeth? Come on, Caroline, it's a simple thing she's asking, isn't it? After all, to you, it's only a painting, but to her, well, not only is it an embarrassing intrusion into her privacy, it also opens up serious questions about her character." He smiled, a dazzling grin that could melt any woman's heart. "What do you say?"
Only a request from Will - and, oh, that smile! - could have made Caroline concede, and so she did, with a little moue and a sigh. "Oh, all right, if you say so, Will. I suppose we can put the old goddess painting back up there for awhile until we get something else."
"There we go!" beamed Charles. Though he was the kind of man who would always stand up for a lady's honor, especially when that lady was Miss Jane's sister, he disliked arguments, and so he was pleased that the whole thing had ended amicably.
"Thank you," said Elizabeth tonelessly. She should be relieved, but instead she was furious on many levels. What was Horace thinking, painting her like that? Why in the world was Caroline Bingley so obviously determined to humiliate her? And Will Darcy...he did, after all, achieve the desired result of getting Miss Bingley to take the painting down, but to do so did he have to drag her family's connection to Mayor Lucas into it? And worse, did he have to imply that her character was somehow lacking? She wished she had never met the lot of them! She turned to a servant, requesting her hat, and received it promptly. "I'll be on my way, then."
"Leaving so soon?" Miss Bingley asked sweetly. "Won't you stay for breakfast?"
"Thank you, no. I have chores to do, Miss Bingley. Besides, I never made it back home last night, and my parents are no doubt worried about me. Please tell Jane I'll be back to check on her later." With a brisk nod, Elizabeth jammed her hat down on her head and left the three to their breakfast.
Upon her departure, Charles immediately called a servant and instructed him to take down the odalisque and replace it with its predecessor. Caroline was peeved, but determined not to show it. Let Will think I've given in if it makes me appear better in his eyes. But I'm not done with our Miss Betsy yet!
Darcy, having watched Elizabeth go with some bemusement at how that leather coat could hide such womanly curves, was still in the throes of some turmoil. The painting would come down, the damage to Elizabeth's good name would be minimized. But he still had his doubts, and the tantalizing questions remained: was she telling the truth, or did she in fact pose for the picture? Were her delicious curves, then, accurately depicted? If so, did she possibly even have some kind of intimate relationship with this Crabtree fellow? A flood of envy surged through him as he imagined the artist painting Elizabeth from glorious life, accompanied by anger that she would permit such a thing.
But what if she wasn't lying? This thought was far more appealing, and soothing. She could be an innocent victim of an overzealous young man with illusions of grandeur. Would she not be grateful, then, for his interference with Caroline? His chivalrous rescue of her reputation? Will smiled inwardly at an image of Elizabeth throwing herself into his arms and bestowing upon him a grateful - and exceedingly passionate - kiss. They had certainly gotten off on the wrong foot when they first met, but he could be willing to ignore that. If only she didn't come from such an unfortunate family...
Elizabeth took the buckboard, with her horse tied up behind, back to the ranch. Her parents had indeed worried about her, but, sensibly, understood that she would not ride home in the downpour of the previous evening. They were enormously glad to see her, though her mother had an unusual way of showing it.
"Well, Miss Lizzy, I'm glad you're home. Finally. Those chores don't do themselves, you know. And we've been waiting for news of your sister for hours! Tell me, how is Jane? Are they treating her well? Does Mr. Bingley appear to be in love with her yet?"
"She is feeling somewhat better, Mama, but she still has a fever," Elizabeth said, giving the only answer she could. "I doubt if she'll be well enough to come back home for a couple of days."
"Better and better!" Mrs. Bennet fairly clapped her hands with glee. "She's on her way to being part of the family already."
Having nothing at all to say in reply to such a comment, Elizabeth headed out to do her chores. She alone among the sisters didn't mind the hard work on the ranch or the dirt that came along with it. Jane, of course, worked hard in her own way, but teaching was a far more accepted activity for a female. And like her younger sisters, Jane did pitch in with the sewing, cooking, canning and cleaning. But Elizabeth wanted none of it. She would rather muck out the stalls than try to make sense of that sewing machine Mama was so fond of. She was hopeful, though, that as soon as they got themselves another ranch hand, she would have more time to read and explore. Horace had certainly left them in the lurch when he took off.
Horace! Elizabeth put all the energy of her anger into her work. How dare he! He took her friendship and her unguarded moments and turned her into a spectacle! If she ever saw him again, she would give him a piece of her mind! It wasn't likely that they'd ever meet, though, as he had made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with the ranch, and she was not in any position to travel. Fortunately for him, Elizabeth thought with much rancor.
After lunch, her chores complete, Elizabeth took a long, hot bath and prepared herself to face the next ordeal: returning to the Bingley house to visit Jane. She thought briefly about wearing an appropriate dress and riding the buckboard back, but something inside her rebelled against such an expectation on the part of Caroline Bingley and dressed instead in a clean pair of Levi's and her best work shirt. There was no one in that household she cared to impress, so her work clothes would do just fine.
This time when she arrived at the Bingley house, she went through the front door. When Miss Bingley came to meet her, the conversation between the two was brief and cool, and Elizabeth was pleased to be shown immediately to her sister's room and left alone with Jane.
"Honestly, Jane, you would not believe what's happened since you went to sleep last night."
"I heard, Lizzy," Jane said sympathetically.
"What exactly did you hear?"
"Caroline Bingley told me that there's a rather...indecent painting of you hanging in the Silver Dust."
Was. Was hanging in the Silver Dust. Mr. Bingley, the dear man, ordered it taken down." Elizabeth sat on Jane's bed. "Can you believe Horace Crabtree painted me in my natural state? And then sold it to hang in a saloon?" She sighed heavily. "I severely misjudged him. I thought he was my friend."
"Lizzy. You know how...fond of you Horace was. He would never have intentionally done you harm."
"Fond of me? Don't you think that's a bit of an understatement?"
"All right, so he was madly in love with you. You can't blame him for that, can you? He was heartbroken when you refused his suit, so I suppose to console himself he painted what I've heard is a rather flattering representation of you. Of course, he should never have sold it." Jane paused then asked delicately, "Tell me, Lizzy, is it...very like you?"
Elizabeth laughed mirthlessly. "Most of it is, right down to the birthmark below my shoulder, which is how Miss Bingley made the connection. The face is unmistakably me - in profile, thank goodness, so I'm less likely to be recognized. As for the rest," she grimaced, "well, you know, Horace had to use his imagination. I think he was overly...generous with my hips, but he got a remarkable amount right, considering."
"And your...other mark?"
Jane nodded in satisfaction. "Well, let us hope that is the last we'll hear of the painting. Where is it now?"
"I hardly know. I will count on Mr. Bingley to make sure it stays out of sight, but other than that..."
As a matter of fact, the painting, packed up with extreme care, had at that moment reached the outskirts of Gold Hill on its way to its new location.
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