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Silver Dust

Chapter 6

Before long, Elizabeth realized with regret that she had better head home for supper. She hated leaving her sister again, but Jane surprised her by saying that she would no doubt be well enough to travel in the morning, and in fact Mr. Bingley had offered her his carriage to bring her home. Giving her sister a relieved kiss on a much cooler forehead, Elizabeth went downstairs in search of Caroline Bingley.

She found Miss Bingley preparing to go out to the Silver Dust. Although she had deliberately refused to dress to impress the woman, Elizabeth found herself making a particular effort not to slip into the easy manners that usually accompanied her boyish attire. Instead, she stood up straight with her hands politely clasped in front of her as if she were in her finest evening dress, keeping her chin up in an effort to look the much taller Miss Bingley straight in the eye. The two ladies spoke in cold but civil tones as Caroline promised that Jane would be served a light meal in her room that night and be home before noon the following day, and Elizabeth thanked her once again for her kindness.

Waiting in the background was Darcy, who, hat in hand, apparently was also headed down to the Silver Dust. Out of the corner of her eye, Elizabeth could see him leaning lazily against the door jamb, staring at her in a way she found difficult to read. She was determined to ignore him, since he could have nothing to say to her of a positive nature. It was maddening that she couldn't make out what was going on behind those dark eyes. What was he thinking? That she was wearing those unflattering boy's clothes again - but at least they were clean this time? That she was a slut for posing for the painting, and a liar for saying she didn't? That if it weren't for their connection to Mayor Lucas, her family would be less than nothing?

Elizabeth was indeed the subject of deep contemplation on the part of Will Darcy, but she was wildly off the mark as to his thoughts. He was, in fact, considering how commendably she held her own against the force of nature that was Caroline Bingley. He was comparing the figure before him with the one he had admired once again late that morning as the painting stood leaning against the desk in Charles's office awaiting its fate. And he was pondering her jeans, wondering what talented seamstress had tailored those boy's denims to fit both her rounded hips and tiny waist, and further wondering what great enjoyment there might be in unbuttoning Levi's that were not his own.

When the ladies had finished their conversation, Elizabeth nodded briefly in acknowledgment to Darcy and, taking her hat and coat from the butler who offered them, hastened out the door. Darcy was perplexed by her coolness, disappointed with her apparent lack of gratitude toward the service he had rendered her. Then he immediately felt foolish. Of course, she could hardly thank him properly in front of Caroline! After all, it had been Caroline's decision he had challenged on her behalf. He nodded to himself. Another time, perhaps.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, rode back to the ranch as fast as her mount would take her, relieved in the knowledge that Jane would be home the following day, and life could get back to normal.

Jane did arrive home on schedule, well enough if not yet completely healthy, and to her mother's delight was full of stories about the charms of the Bingleys in general and Mr. Charles Bingley in particular. Unfortunately, though, life was about to take another turn, and Elizabeth's wish for normalcy was to go unheeded.

"I've just received a most extraordinary letter, Fanny," Mr. Bennet said to his wife with a chuckle one evening soon after Jane's return. "It seems that my cousin Matilda's son, a man of the cloth, has headed out in our direction, and Matilda asks if we would kindly put him up for a week or two before he completes his intended journey to his new congregation in San Francisco."

"And why would we do that?" Mrs. Bennet asked irritably. "It's hard enough to feed all our girls; why would we take on another burden?"

"If it were just me, my dear, I would say for the entertainment value alone, to see how the callow young man fares in the Wild West. But if you recall, less than a year ago Cousin Matty was kind enough to lend us the last of the money that we needed to buy the wagon to get us here to the Promised Land." He squinted at her. "Or have you forgotten already?"

"Of course not," she huffed. "How could I? Oh, you know how I hate to be beholden to anyone, especially that wealthy fool Matty's married to. To have that hanging over us...it's odious!"

"Well, we can take in young Billy and she'll consider that particular debt settled." After a pause, he added, "You may be interested in hearing that he is twenty-five years old, and unmarried."

Mrs. Bennet's frown turned into a slight smile. "A young, single clergyman? With a flock in San Francisco? Well, this certainly could be an opportunity for our girls, couldn't it?" Her smile grew wider as she considered the possibilities, then settled on the one that pleased her the most. Yes, a nice, upright young man with good character could be just what Lizzy needs to tame that wild nature of hers. "I suppose he is already on his way, is he?"

"Should be here some time next week."

"Well then, we have no choice." She sighed, but in reality the wheels were already turning in her head. "But I'll make sure he will have no complaints about our hospitality."

That is how, a week later, the Bennets came to have a houseguest, the Rev. Billy Collins, late of Philadelphia. He was a tall, heavy looking young man, dressed severely in black, and with a large collection of serious-looking books among his luggage. The girls had been told that they were to expect a male visitor, but if their expectations included someone to dance with at the next hoedown, they were badly disappointed, for they quickly discovered that despite his youth, Rev. Collins frowned on frivolity of all kinds.

And when Elizabeth came in from the stables and washed up quickly to meet the newcomer with her usual welcoming smile, he only glanced at her with raised brows and said gravely, "Miss Elizabeth." Then, after glancing with a shocked expression at her work clothes, he shook his head and quoted, his voice heavy with disapproval, "'Woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abominations unto the Lord.'" He nodded sagely at the family, who stood in astonishment at hearing their Lizzy thus remonstrated. "Deuteronomy 22:5."

While Elizabeth struggled to restrain her first inclination, which was to jam a booted heel sharply into the man's instep, Mrs. Bennet declared herself glad to hear the preacher's words. "Well, now, the Reverend has certainly expressed himself eloquently, hasn't he, Lizzy? Maybe there'll be some changes around here now."

As her mother left the family to lead Rev. Collins to his room to wash up and change out of his travel-dusted clothes, Elizabeth glared at his departing back. Her father patted her on the shoulder.

"Easy, there, Lizzy," Mr. Bennet comforted her, recognizing the fire in her eyes. "We can all see that the man's a fool, but he'll only be with us for a little while. Then we'll send him off to San Francisco, and I'll let you be the one to drive him to the railroad station." He bit his lip mischievously. "At whatever speed you deem appropriate."

Nevertheless, it was an ominous sign of things to come. Having nothing else to do, and declining to offer any assistance with actual ranch work, saying his energy must be reserved for more spiritual exertions, Rev. Collins passed his days following the girls around with his Bible during their chores, spouting what he decided were appropriate lines of Scripture. Only Jane, who had started to teach at the Gold Hill school, was spared; Mary, of a studious bent herself, was able to tolerate him well enough. The Reverend's most particular attention, however, was saved for Elizabeth, who, he thought, needed the greatest guidance and therefore presented the greatest challenge. He took issue not only with her clothes, but also with what he considered to be her unforgivably independent nature, certain it would lead her down the path of folly, and he was convinced that he was the only one who could save her from that dangerous path. It was fortunate indeed that Elizabeth could laugh in the face of such stupidity, because she was now confronted with it on a daily basis. Her only escape was when she rode out with the sheep, as the man couldn't follow her there.

After several days of Collins's unwanted company, Elizabeth found the necessity to go into town for provisions, and her sisters clamored to come along. To the disappointment of all, Mrs. Bennet insisted that Rev. Collins join them in Gold Hill, as he had not yet visited the place. She, too, was beginning to find his constant sermonizing wearing, but would never admit it, for she was still hopeful that he would someday become her son-in-law.

Rev. Collins, Bible at his side, insisted on taking the reins of the buckboard, so, rather than be squeezed next to her cousin and endure further lectures, Elizabeth rode her gelding beside the vehicle into town. Once there, she was pleased to be able to narrate what her guest was seeing, which had the effect of keeping him silent...for a while. At the first opportunity, Kitty and Lydia ran off to the milliner's look at the latest bonnets - though money was tight and no purchases would be made that day - while Mary chose to peruse the sheet music at the music-seller's. Elizabeth was therefore once again left alone with the dour reverend, and she headed into the general store with a resigned sigh.

Their purchases made and loaded onto the wagon, their next stop was Bingley's Dry Goods, and the moment they crossed the threshold, a voice called out:

"Miss Elizabeth!"

As her eyes adjusted from the bright light of the street, she looked up to see Charles Bingley waving at her from behind the counter, where he had been consulting with the manager. Giving him a sincere smile, she approached with the reverend in tow.

"Good to see you, Mr. Bingley. May I introduce my cousin, Reverend Collins? He's visiting with us on his way to San Francisco."

"How d'ye do, Reverend," Charles said, shaking the man's hand.

"Mr. Bingley owns this store as well as several other fine establishments in Gold Hill, Reverend," Elizabeth explained. "His father was one of the founders of the town."

"Pleased to meet an upstanding member of the community, sir," Collins replied.

"I hope you'll let me buy you a drink at the Silver Dust. Why don't we head down there now and give Miss Elizabeth a little time to do her shopping?"

"Yes, do!" Elizabeth could not wait for some time away from her cousin. "I'll meet you in front of the saloon when I'm done here."

"The Silver Dust is a saloon?" the reverend asked, his brows flying upwards like two startled caterpillars.

"Best place in town," said Bingley proudly. "My pa started it, but I've made it into the Gold Hill institution it is today."

"No, thank you, sir!" exclaimed Collins, to the shock of his companions. "I would not dream of setting foot into such a den of iniquity! For the Good Book says: 'Wine is a mocker, strong drink is a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.' Proverbs 20:1, my good man."

"Reverend Collins!" Elizabeth cried. "Mr. Bingley is a friend of our family's!" She turned to Charles, pink with mortification. "Please excuse my cousin, Mr. Bingley. He has some rather...strong opinions."

"That's all right, Miss Elizabeth," Charles replied, his gracious smile unchanged. "The Reverend Collins here isn't the first man of the cloth who has taken issue with the Silver Dust. I've even let some of 'em come inside to preach. " He winked at Elizabeth. "Never changed anyone's mind, though." Tipping his hat to the two of them, he added, "If you should change your mind, Reverend, please feel free to stop on by. You're always welcome. 'Afternoon, Miss Elizabeth." And he left them standing at the counter as he walked out the door, whistling.

"Imagine the nerve of that man, inviting me to partake of strong drink in a place of such wickedness." Collins straightened himself and brushed off his sleeves as if feeling unclean.

"He was only being hospitable, Reverend," Elizabeth replied wearily. Why must her every contact with the Bingleys bring humiliation? "Besides, I've heard that the Silver Dust is rather reputable, as saloons go."

"Reputable?" the reverend snorted. "You have been misled, then, my dear cousin, for you have never been inside one of these establishments. One would hardly expect a virtuous young lady to know aught of the evil of such places."

If you only knew... she groaned to herself.

Fortunately, a clerk soon offered to help Elizabeth with her list, and she was able to finish her business quickly. While she paid for her cloth and notions, her cousin wandered up the street looking for Lydia and Kitty, no doubt anxious to chasten them for their vanity. It was her poor luck, then, that she had no assistance when the packages she added to the back of the wagon caused an avalanche of parcels falling to the dusty street. With a disgusted sigh, Elizabeth flung her hat into the buckboard and crouched down to begin re-loading the wagon.

Before she knew it, a strong pair of hands had intervened, and Elizabeth found herself looking gratefully into a pair of the bluest eyes she had ever seen. These eyes were set in a face so handsome it might have almost been called beautiful, were it not for the slightly crooked nose attesting to some earlier break and a small scar high on his left cheek.

"Thank you so much, sir," she said, slightly flustered, standing up.

"It is always my pleasure to help a lovely lady in distress," the man smiled, his teeth white and even under a thin, neatly-trimmed mustache. When he straightened to his full height, Elizabeth could see that his clothes were well-tailored and immaculate, a pleasing contrast of deepest black suit against snowy white shirt, finished with a fashionable string tie. He swept his hat gallantly off his head, giving her the opportunity to admire his thick, wavy blond hair.

"I'm much obliged, Mr...?"

"Wickham, ma'am. George Wickham."

Chapter 7

"And may I ask to whom I have the pleasure of speaking?" Wickham asked. Elizabeth was not inclined to deprive him of that pleasure.

"My name is Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Wickham."

"Well, Miss Bennet," Wickham smiled, placing his hat back on his head, "I must say then that it was my good fortune to happen along here at the right time."

"The good fortune is all mine, sir," Elizabeth said with a grin. Then, before she could be misinterpreted, she added, "That is, your assistance with my parcels was greatly appreciated."

Down the street, another man had been caught by the sight of Elizabeth tossing her hat into the wagon and crouching to retrieve her packages. He was entranced by the way the afternoon sun lit her hair, highlighting reds and coppers amidst the dark brown, and the energetic and yet somehow graceful way she attacked her task. As he approached, he could see that a tall man had already assisted her, and, cursing his poor timing, he urged his horse to her side.

"Why, Mr. Darcy!" Elizabeth exclaimed. She had hardly expected to see him; after all, Gold Hill was no small town, and she'd already seen Mr. Bingley alone this afternoon. But why was she surprised that Will Darcy had appeared just when she had made a most amiable acquaintance?

"Miss Elizabeth, I..." Will began, but got no further, as with a start he saw her companion. His face grew red.

"Mr. Darcy, may I introduce Mr. George Wickham?" she said. Wickham, his blue eyes suddenly gone cold and wary, raised his hand to his hat, barely touching the brim in the paltriest of polite greetings.

"We've met," Will said flatly. "Excuse me, Miss Elizabeth." His jaw grim, he turned his horse, and rode back the way he came.

"Well, I've known the man to be rude, but this takes the cake," Elizabeth remarked as the two watched Darcy ride away. She would not make excuses to Mr. Wickham for his behavior!

"I take it you and Will Darcy are acquainted, Miss Bennet?"

"Oh, I've spent a little time in his company...enough to find him arrogant and essentially humorless." Elizabeth peered at Wickham and thought she perceived a hardening in his handsome face directed at Darcy's departing back, but it quickly passed as he turned his warm gaze back upon her. "It seems that you know him, Mr. Wickham."

"If we had more time, I would tell you the whole, sad story." He bit his lip and with a wicked little smile, said, "But it may interest you to know he gave me this." He gestured to the break in his nose, then added, "And this," pointing to his scar.

"Oh, my!" she gasped. "Whatever for?"

"Let's just say it was a bit of nonsense over a woman...nothing for your delicate ears to hear, Miss Bennet." At this point, he withdrew a watch from its pocket, checked the time, and said with real regret, "I'm sorry to say I must be on my way. But I plan to be in town for at least several weeks and I do hope we'll meet again. Do you live here in Gold Hill?"

"No, my family owns a ranch just outside of town."

"May I call on you?"

"I'm hardly in the habit of inviting men I meet on the street to my home, Mr. Wickham," Elizabeth said, blushing. "I don't think..."

"I'll do it all right and proper, I promise," he tilted his head and smiled, and the effect make her weak in the knees. "I'll introduce myself to your Ma and Pa right off. What do you say?"

She couldn't help smiling back, but nevertheless she shook her head. "I imagine we'll run into each other in town sooner or later. There'll be plenty of time for introductions then."

"Then I'll wait impatiently for my next opportunity." Wickham lifted her hand to his lips and gave it a quick kiss. "Mighty glad to have made your acquaintance, ma'am."

"Likewise, I'm sure."

From his position in front of the Silver Dust, Will Darcy watched the two distant figures in conversation, wishing he could know what they were saying, seething as Wickham brought Elizabeth's hand to his lips. He pounded his fist into his hand, mute with frustration, and turned to push angrily through the saloon doors. It was still early, and the crowd was sparse. Caroline noticed him approaching the bar with a determined gait and waved away the bartender.

"Brandy, Will?" she asked, reaching for a glass.

"Whiskey, Caroline," he growled. "Make it a double."

Taken aback, she provided the drink, which Darcy downed in an instant, indicating immediately that he wanted another. Caroline obliged, but she was concerned. In all the time she'd known him, she'd never seen him take more than a brandy or two, always sipped and enjoyed. Well, there was that one glass he had tossed down at Mayor Lucas's party, but she could hardly blame him for that...such an embarrassing situation! But if all her customers drank the way Will usually did, the Silver Dust would go out of business.

Maybe she should call Charles out of his office. "Is there something else I can do for you?" she asked tentatively, as she watched Will swallow the second glass in one gulp and order a third.

"No, thanks, Caroline," he replied, taking his third whiskey with him to a table. He threw himself into a chair, staring at the glass. Wickham, that son of a bitch, here in Gold Hill! Well, he had known that it was only a matter of time before their paths crossed again. But did the bastard have to make a point of finding Elizabeth Bennet, the woman who...

Whowhat, Darcy? Declining to answer his own question, Will instead took a mouthful of his whiskey and brooded about whether to warn her away from Wickham. He was dangerous, but she was no fragile flower - she was a woman who needed nobody's protection, as she had proved to him at their first meeting.

No, no fragile flower, but a lot of other things. For a few minutes, he considered what he knew about the woman, besides her obvious physical attractions, and was surprised. Her choice of reading Roughing It for an hour over playing cards, for instance - how many other ladies of his acquaintance could appreciate Twain's wry humor? Her insistence on seeing to her sister's comfort despite the foul weather she had had to ride through spoke well of her compassion; he couldn't imagine a woman like...well, like Caroline Bingley braving the elements on a mission of mercy. And while he was on the subject of Caroline, yes, the woman seemed to have met her match in Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy chuckled. Then he thought of how elegant Elizabeth had looked at the Lucas's party despite her outmoded gown, how well she had comported herself in company despite her mother's gaffe and her sisters' flirtations, how her every conversation was filled with wit and intellect instead of self-promotion or flattery. Tough, yet feminine...she was, in fact, be the first woman he had ever met who would be equally at home at both his beloved ranch in Nevada and his mansion in San Francisco. A warmth began growing within him that had nothing to do with the whiskey. Angry with himself now, he drank the rest in one swallow and got to his feet. "I'll see you at supper," he called to Caroline, and left the saloon, restlessly wondering what in the world he could do with himself until then.

Usually at this hour there was nothing for the ladies of the dance hall to do except exchange gossip while they awaited their customers. But now there was a chorus of giggles and murmurs as the dancers noticed the fine-looking man walking into their midst.

"Looking for someone, sweetheart?" purred one of the ladies hopefully, smoothing her hands down her bright yellow dress to accentuate her figure. "Me, maybe?"

"Which one of you is Lil?"

Chagrin was evident on the faces of all the dancers save one. Catching sight of the gentleman who was asking for her, Lil was sure this was her lucky day. She had spied the fellow on several occasions accompanying the owners of the Silver Dust, and he was clearly an important - and wealthy - guest. The fact that he was easy on the eyes was just icing on the cake. She licked her lips.

"I'm Lil," the woman said in her most seductive voice as she sauntered over to him, her hips a-swing. "What can I do for you, hon?" Her stance made it obvious that there wasn't much she wouldn't do.

Darcy's face remained impassive, but inside he felt deflated. The young woman was not unattractive, but was wearing far too much makeup, including a painted-on beauty mark just above her lip. And she had evidently taken advantage of the recently discovered cosmetic benefits of hydrogen peroxide, as her hair was an unnaturally yellow blond that did not match up with her unremarkable brown eyes and dark brows. She smelled of tobacco and whiskey. Worst of all, the red dress which had set his imagination afire was filled to overflowing, not just on top but on the sides as well, and its short skirt revealed unattractively thick calves and ankles. Aside from her height, then, Lil bore no resemblance at all to Elizabeth Bennet. Damn. There was no comfort to be had here.

"Sorry," he said coldly. "My mistake." And he headed out the door.

Frustrated beyond his limits and with nothing else to do, Darcy mounted his horse and took it for a long, mindless ride. For a brief, crazy moment as he pounded along the open countryside, he regretted that the odalisque wasn't still hanging in the Silver Dust. Then he immediately snorted his disgust at all that implied. As if I would I waste the whole afternoon mooning over a picture of that little country bumpkin!

But all that was forgotten as he saw at some distance below him a rider in a familiar long, buff leather coat traveling alongside a buckboard driven by a tall figure dressed in black. Darcy's stomach clenched. Surely she's not taking Wickham home with her? The little fool! Squinting through the dust the wagon created, he could just make out three female passengers, no doubt Elizabeth's sisters. Wickham in a houseful of young ladies...Elizabeth's house!

Darcy suddenly realized that he was actually a little closer to the Bennet's place than Elizabeth was, as she had to travel by road to stay with the wagon. Without considering what he might say or do once he got there, he spurred his horse down the hill and raced in the direction of the Bennet ranch.

"Mr. Darcy, what a pleasant surprise," greeted Jane as she opened the door. Darcy was immediately relieved. He had had a short but genuinely cordial conversation with her at the Lucas party, and again the morning she left the Bingley house for her own home. Her stunning looks aside, he could see why Charles found her so appealing. She was demure, gracious, unassuming. His relief, however, was short lived.

"Mr. Darcy? Honoring us with his presence, is he?" came Mrs. Bennet's shrill voice from the kitchen, where she was seeing to dinner. "Well, let him in, Jane, and have him sit in our humble parlor. He can hang around if he wants to, but I can't spare the time to talk to him right now."

Jane colored slightly as she moved aside and let their guest enter. Wanting to relieve her discomfort, Darcy cleared his throat and said, "I took a long ride and found myself out your way, so I thought I would stop by and say hello."

"That's very kind of you, sir," Jane said, leading him to the empty parlor. By way of explanation, she offered, "My father is out talking with the foreman, and my sisters are in town, but I imagine they'll be home any time now. Can I offer you some lemonade?"

"That would be nice, thank you."

While Jane went off to fetch the drink, Darcy stood uneasily in the meagerly furnished parlor, gripping his hat tightly in his hands. What was he to do when Elizabeth showed up with Wickham? How could he get the man out of the house without causing a scene?

Darcy found the lemonade refreshing, not only after his ride but after the unusual amount of alcohol he had recently imbibed. Jane gestured to a seat and he took it. She sat down opposite him, perched on the edge of the chair as if afraid to appear too comfortable. Casting about for something to say, Darcy recalled that Jane had lately started teaching school in Gold Hill.

"How do you find your new school, Miss Bennet?"

Her face lit up. "Oh, it's wonderful, just wonderful. I have students of all ages, of course, but most of them are pretty well behaved, so I think we'll get on beautifully."

"I'm very glad to hear that."

"Mr. Bingley has been very generous supplying the school. Brand-new primers, slates and chalk, desks with inkwells for every student, a nice stove in the corner..."

"He really believes in the value of a good education." And, no doubt, in the benefits of impressing the pretty schoolmarm!

"How lucky for Gold Hill that he does!"

Another awkward pause ensued. Darcy thought perhaps it would be best to come straight to the point.

"Speaking of Gold Hill, I saw your sister Elizabeth there earlier today."

Jane's smile was warm and genuine. There was obviously deep affection between the sisters. "Yes, another trip to buy provisions. She does so much around the ranch," she added as her voice turned wistful, "more than her share, I think."

"While she was there, I saw..."

All at once there was a commotion outside, and a young voice Darcy took to be Lydia's called, "Ma? Pa? Lordy, where is everybody?" Steeling himself for the confrontation to come, he got to his feet.

"Oh, they're home," Jane declared, rising. "I'd better go lend a hand."

"Could you use some help?"

"That would be lovely."

He downed the rest of his lemonade as if it were the last of his whiskey and followed Jane out of the room. When they reached the porch, he could see that Elizabeth had dismounted and was looking quizzically at his horse, tied up at the post in front of the house. For a moment, Wickham was forgotten as Darcy watched her run her hand admiringly over the stallion's flank, suppressing a deep quiver of pleasure as if her fingers moved in a gentle caress over his own flesh.

All of a sudden, as if she felt Darcy's gaze, Elizabeth looked up and stared with surprise at him.

"Will Darcy," she blurted out, "whatever are you doing here?"

He had already started eagerly down the steps toward her when he remembered the reason for his visit. Glancing cautiously back toward the wagon, he could have laughed out loud. Why, it wasn't Wickham at all, but some other tall fellow in black! Had his view from the ridge been better, he would have known right off: Wickham was lean and lanky, while this man was rather thick-set. Before Darcy could say a word to Elizabeth, he found himself interrupted,

"Did you say Will Darcy? Of the Darcys of Philadelphia and San Francisco?"

"Yes, that's right," he was forced to admit.

"Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said, "this is my cousin, Rev. Collins. He's on his way to San Francisco."

"Mr. Darcy!" exclaimed Rev. Collins, hurrying toward Will. "This is indeed an unexpected honor. Cousin Elizabeth, do you have any idea who we have here in our midst?"

"Do enlighten us, Reverend," Elizabeth replied, leaning comfortably back against the stallion, her arms folded across her chest.

"Why, this is the nephew of my esteemed patroness, Catherine de Bourgh, widow of the illustrious Lewis de Bourgh of Philadelphia. Mr. Darcy's father, who married Mrs. de Bourgh's lovely sister Anne, was one of the leading lights of Philadelphia society before he headed West."

Elizabeth smiled at Will's discomfiture. "Oh, was he?"

"Oh, indeed," Collins nodded vigorously. "And his aunt, Mrs. de Bourgh, is, in fact, the very personage who arranged for my move to San Francisco. I shall never forget her words: 'Reverend,' said she, 'you must go West and minister to those heathens on that distant coast. Bring them to heel, do you hear? And when the local populace is tamed, and your congregation well established, I will come to see your good works for myself.' She is having a magnificent church built, at great expense, and it awaits only its humble pastor," he concluded with a low bow.

"Lizzy, are you helping or not?" whined Kitty as she moved toward the house, her arms laden with packages. Relieved to have an excuse to leave the obsequious reverend, Darcy and Elizabeth both hastened to help empty the wagon. Not to be left out, Collins joined them, carrying only so much as he could lift with one arm, so as to leave the other free to carry his Bible.

The procession moved into the house, and for several minutes there was chaos as packages, bundles and crates were sorted out to their appropriate locations. Having disposed of her burden, Elizabeth hung up her hat, coat and holster and was just about to collapse into a chair when her mother dispatched her to the root cellar to fetch some carrots and onions. Sighing, she trotted outside with a basket, her repose deferred yet again.

She had just descended to the cool depths when she heard a scraping on the stairs behind her and saw Darcy ducking his head to come through the entrance.

Oh, what could he want? "Can I help you, Mr. Darcy?"

"I would speak to you for a moment alone, if you don't mind."

"Go ahead," she responded absently as she gathered up the produce. Lord, but she was tired!

"About the man you met in town today..."

"Mr. Wickham?"

"Yes," he sighed, "Mr. Wickham. I just thought that you should know that he..." Ah, how could he put this without revealing too much? "...That he is not always the charming gentleman he appears to be." Well, that was pathetic, man, absolutely pathetic!

"Oh, really?" As if I would value your opinion on such things! "All right then, thank you. I consider myself duly warned." Elizabeth turned to leave the cellar with her basket but found her way blocked by Darcy. "Is there something else?" she asked with irritation. All she wanted to do was get back to the house and take a bath. "Look, Mr. Darcy, you of all people should know that I can take care of myself."

"So I've discovered." Which reminded him: "Why didn't you draw your gun on Wickham?"

"Why should I have?"

"Well, you pulled it on me."

"I felt threatened."

Darcy was dumbfounded. "Threatened?"

"You grabbed me."

"I was just trying to get your attention." Gripping her shoulder lightly in a soothing imitation of that action, he looked down into her eyes. His voice was unexpectedly tender, caressing. "Do you still find me threatening, Miss Elizabeth?"

Elizabeth looked up at him in the muted light and was momentarily stunned by the look in his eyes. She thought she knew their expression, but unlike Miss Bingley, she was too naïve to define its nuances. All she saw was desire, and it frightened her. So when his eyes flicked downward, severing their connection, she took the opportunity to shake off its effects, as well as the weight of his hand on her body. The truth of the matter was, she now felt more vulnerable than ever.

Though she would never tell him so, she hadn't felt threatened by Mr. Wickham because he was not so physically imposing. Tall, true, but sinewy, whereas Darcy was broad, muscular, powerful, just like his horse outside - and possessed of a raw animal sensuality that was almost tangible. The giddiness Elizabeth had felt when flirting with her new acquaintance in town was nothing to this sensation. Her head swam, and suddenly there was far too little air in the root cellar.

"My mother is expecting these," she mumbled, brushing by him and nearly running up the stairs toward the safety of the house.

Darcy was grateful for a few minutes alone in the cool dimness of the cellar, as this encounter had shaken him as well. His hand on Elizabeth's shoulder had perceived both the lean musculature of her form as well as its warmth, and in the moment when he had torn his eyes from her own he had seen the tiniest edge of frilly lace peeping out from the open neckline of her workshirt. The combination of the two created a powerful urge within him to slide his hand from its resting place down to that tantalizing V, to discover what manner of undergarment such a woman would wear beneath her masculine clothes and to savor the heated silk of the breasts that had so enticed him that night at Bingley's house. The struggle to restrain himself was draining, and he was actually relieved when she broke their contact. The day had been far too frustrating already, and he wanted nothing more than to get back to Bingley's, away from the impossible temptation of her presence.

Allowing sufficient time to recover his senses, he walked slowly back to the ranch house to make his goodbyes. He was able to thank Jane for her hospitality, and to give his regards to the rest of the family, who all but ignored him, but Elizabeth was nowhere to be seen.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Darcy," said Jane, "but Elizabeth's gone off to take a bath." Realizing how late the hour was becoming, she added graciously, "Would you care to join us for dinner? I'm sure Mama would be pleased to have you."

He thought Mrs. Bennet would be nothing of the kind, but more than that, the last place he wanted to be in his current overheated state was in a house in which he knew Elizabeth to be reclining naked in a tub of water. So with a fine attempt at controlling his composure, he said, "You're very kind, Miss Bennet, but I'm expected at the Bingley's house for dinner, and I suspect I'm already late. Perhaps another time." And with a tip of his hat, he was out the door and once again in the cool evening air.

The ride back to Gold Hill was almost unbearable. Every time Darcy would focus his thoughts away from the Bennet house, they would return to that unknown room where Elizabeth would be bathing by the light of an oil lamp, her head tipped back in pleasure against the rim of the tub, her soapy hands gliding languorously across her glistening breasts...no, no, his soapy hands gliding languorously across her glistening breasts, as, sighing, she nestled her naked body back against his, her shapely bottom pressed intimately against his awakened groin. Her beautiful bosom now well lathered, little bubbles gathering like posies around the hardened peaks, he proceeded lower, sliding his hands down across her firm belly to caress her hips, to stroke between her thighs...her sighs becoming moans and...Aw, hell and damnation!

Caroline Bingley was startled as Darcy rushed past her in the foyer without so much as a "Good evening."

"Will!" she exclaimed as her guest made his way upstairs, leaving a small trail of water behind him. "Good heavens! What happened to you? You're soaked!"

"I went for a swim in a stream!" he snapped.

"In your clothes?"

But the bedroom door had already slammed, and Caroline was left to wonder what could possibly have caused Darcy's uncharacteristic bad manners. Shrugging at the vagaries of male behavior, she ordered a servant to clean up the mess, then went to tell Charles that dinner would be a few minutes late.

Chapter 8

It was a full week before Elizabeth could once again escape the house and Rev. Collins's fulminations and head into Gold Hill. She had a mind to ask Charlotte Lucas, whose family missed nothing that went on in the town, what she knew about Mr. Wickham, and perhaps even see the man himself, if she was very lucky.

Despite her surreptitious glances as she rode toward Charlotte's house, however, she caught not even a glimpse of the handsome gentleman. She therefore was forced to settle for an animated discussion of him which, to her delight, her friend initiated almost immediately after pleasantries had been exchanged.

"You mean you've already met him?" Charlotte exclaimed in amazement. "And here I thought I would have the pleasure of introducing you."

"Sorry to disappoint you," Elizabeth laughed. Leaning forward, she added with exaggerated smugness, "What's more, after he helped me load up the wagon, he...kissed...my...hand!"

Charlotte feigned a swoon. "Oh, you have all the luck with men, Lizzy!" she pouted. "First Mr. Darcy, now Mr. Wickham."

"Mr. Darcy! What on earth do you mean by that?"

"I saw the way he was looking at you at our party."

"Oh, certainly, after I first embarrassed him in front of Mr. Bingley and then, thanks to my mother, in front of the whole town. I'm sure he was looking at me the way a man looks at something disgusting that he just found under a rock."

"Not exactly," her friend said, giggling. "After your mother's - ah, little faux pas - for the rest of the evening, whenever our dear Miss Bingley wasn't watching, his eyes were following you around. He seemed like a man who was mighty interested in a woman."

With a little shiver Elizabeth recalled the look she had seen in Darcy's eyes in the root cellar. But she shook her head emphatically.

"I'm sure you're mistaken, Charlotte. At first he thought I was a hopeless tomboy, and now he's got this idea that I might be, well, a...a...woman of loose virtue."

"What!" Charlotte cried. "Where would he get a ridiculous idea like that?"

Blushing deeply, Elizabeth told her friend about Horace Crabtree's painting, its tenure in the Silver Dust, and Miss Bingley's gleeful discovery of the identity of its model. She was relieved that the mayor's daughter, to whom everybody ran with gossip, had heard nothing of the affair before and was appropriately horrified.

Hoping to change the subject to something more pleasant, Elizabeth asked, "But what do you know of Mr. Wickham?"

Charlotte's face took on a dreamy look. "Oh, he is delightful, isn't he? He met Father down at the general store, and they got to talking. You know Father, he'll talk to anyone about anything. Anyway, I happened along, and Father introduced us right away even though..." she stopped abruptly, her brow furrowing.

"Even though what?"

"When you met Mr. Wickham," Charlotte said tentatively, "did you happen to notice what he was wearing?"

"A black suit, I guess. Why?"

"Lizzy, those clothes... That particular kind of suit...well, it's practically a uniform for professional gamblers."

"Are you certain?" Her heart sinking, Elizabeth cursed her lack of worldly knowledge; despite her very proper upbringing, Charlotte seemed to know so much more about life.

"Not entirely. I mean, he doesn't seem the type, does he? So good-looking, so easy-going." She sighed. "So charming."

"Oh, yes." Elizabeth sighed too. So charming. But the word called up an unpleasant recollection: "He is not always the charming gentleman he appears to be."

"Well, I could be completely wrong. I just want you to know, Lizzy, in case it turned out that he..."

"Of course," she said with a small smile. "It would be a pity, though, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, a terrible pity," Charlotte replied, grinning.

Several blocks away, Will Darcy was contemplating the paperwork in front of him, drumming his fingers on the desk. Ever since the previous week, when the twin distractions of his burgeoning interest in Elizabeth Bennet and Wickham's presence in town had assaulted him, he had turned his attention to business...a nice, safe alternative to thinking about either of those other things.

He frowned. While a great deal of his fortune had been inherited, he was proud that savvy business decisions - and unerring instincts - had grown it considerably. His investments in the Comstock Lode, for example, had been a tremendous boon to him. In fact, the mines' production numbers for this year looked to be the best ever. Yet somehow, numbers notwithstanding, he couldn't shake the feeling that the glory days of the Lode were coming to an end.* Darcy had no concern for himself, of course. If the Comstock collapsed tomorrow, it would have little effect on him: he would still have Pemberley and his holdings in San Francisco, not to mention a fortune in art and precious metals. He, and his descendants, would never want for anything.

But Bingley! His whole life was invested in Gold Hill, its businesses and its people. If the mines went bust, folks would move on, and there'd be no more Gold Hill. No more Silver Dust, no more Bingley's Dry Goods. It was time for Charles to start thinking about his prospects, perhaps a move to San Francisco.

Darcy resolved to broach the topic with his friend that night at dinner, but he expected resistance. Bingley considered himself a vital part of the town, and would be loath to leave all that he had built here, including the respect that had come with his achievements. And then there was the matter of the schoolmarm, whom Charles was now finding an excuse to visit every couple of days. Will quickly found, though, that he had an ardent supporter in Caroline.

"Charles," said Darcy as he started on his soup, "I'd like you to take a trip to San Francisco with me. As soon as possible."

Bingley put down his spoon, looking puzzled. "Well, this is rather sudden, Will. What for? You know I couldn't be away from Gold Hill for too long."

"I think it's time you saw the city for yourself. There's plenty of opportunity for a man with vision to make his fortune there."

"But I've made my fortune in Gold Hill, and I'm perfectly content here," he said with some finality, going back to his dinner.

"Oh, Charles, Will is right!" interjected Caroline. How fortunate for her that Will was of the same mind! She had been unsuccessful in her past attempts to get her brother to listen to reason, and she couldn't have planned it better if she had asked Darcy to bring up the subject. "The future is in San Francisco. We're completely dependent on the mines here, you know, and what if something should happen?"

Charles waved her concerns away with characteristic sanguinity. "Production has been up in the past couple of years, Caroline. I wouldn't worry about it."

"But I'm worried about it," Darcy said with a gravity that caught his friend's attention. "Really, Charles, I've studied trends like this before. Nothing lasts forever, and it's dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket. It's time for you to think about your next step."

Putting down his spoon again, Charles considered Darcy. "You're serious. You actually think that I should consider leaving Gold Hill."

"I do."

"And so do I," added Caroline, doing her best to hide her satisfaction. What a life she could have! Now, if only she could persuade Darcy to spend less time at that old ranch of his and more time in the city, she might actually make some progress toward becoming his wife. After that, they could live wherever he pleased. At the very least, she could look forward to several more weeks in his company, and she could show him how happy she could make him. She almost purred with contentment.

Nodding thoughtfully, Charles said, "All right, then, if you feel it's important, I'll take your little trip to San Francisco. When do we leave?"

"Ideally? Within the week." Speaking only for himself, Darcy would be relieved to be leaving the town behind him. He was accustomed to being in control of his life, and his apparently unmanageable feelings for that shapely little tomboy had turned his world topsy-turvy. He'd already wasted too many hours thinking about her, daydreaming about her, imagining her in various states of undress and getting himself so worked up he could hardly breathe...or walk. It was intolerable! The sooner he removed himself from her influence, the better.

"A week? Impossible! What do I do about the Silver Dust and my other affairs?"

"Think about it, Charles. Don't all the businesses pretty much run themselves these days? As for the Silver Dust, have that bartender - what's his name, Cooper? - who's been with you since your father's day take over for Caroline for the time being, and hire another bartender to take his place."

Charles nodded, seemingly content with Will's answer. Suddenly, his face fell. "But what about Miss Bennet?"

Darcy froze. Although Charles was speaking of another lady, the mere mention of the name was sufficient to cause a flush to come over his face. Fortunately, Caroline's gaze was focused on her brother.

"What about her, Charles?" she asked lightly, but her face grew hard.

"I can't leave Miss Jane now. Not when things had just started to get...interesting."

Caroline rolled her eyes in exasperation. "You're not leaving forever, Charles, just going on a little tour. I'm sure she'll understand. Remember, she'll be busy with the schoolhouse anyway." She added, with a reassuring smile, "Besides, you'll be back before she knows it," though secretly she was already planning how she might eventually get him to turn their sojourn into a permanent residence.

Bingley lapsed into a brief silence and then, because his temperament was not suited to melancholy, he brightened. "Then we must have a party before we go away, Caroline, a big one, with music, so that I can finally dance with Miss Jane."

"Done," said his sister with equal cheer. "I'll make all the arrangements." Before Charles could say another word, she continued, "And don't worry, Charles, I know exactly whom to invite." For indeed she did.

The next week passed in a whirl of preparation, both for the party and the journey to come. Darcy told himself that he was fortunate not to have run into Elizabeth in town during that time, though he continued to watch for that buff leather coat whenever he was out and about. He did, however, spot Wickham on various occasions, usually in front of one saloon or gambling hall or another. The man was - damn him! - always impeccably dressed, and he always seemed to be surrounded by friends or at least admirers, some of them female. Laughter and high spirits followed in his wake. From time to time Wickham would meet Darcy's eyes, and would, with a sardonic grin, tip his hat in greeting. He was becoming accepted here, and it irked Will that the people of Gold Hill had no real idea whom or what they were dealing with.

There was a great deal of excitement at the Bennet ranch when the invitation arrived, mostly because the girls all claimed - with good reason - that they had "nothing to wear." In fact, the dresses they had worn to Mayor Lucas's house had been their "second-best," and now their selection of formal wear was exactly one well-aged ball gown apiece, such impractical clothing having been deemed a luxury that they could ill afford when they left their old farm to head West. Having seen far more up-to-date fashions gracing stylish women such as the Bingley sisters at the Lucas soiree, Kitty and Lydia in particular were self-conscious about what was available and complained loudly of the injustice of it. Mr. Bennet sighed with regret, and Mrs. Bennet clucked in disapproval, but there was no help for it. They would wear what they had and make the best of it, or not go at all.

And so, amid the feminine complaints, the girls all struggled to look their best for the big night, paying particular attention to their hair in an effort to distract the viewer from their garments. Elizabeth had been dismayed to discover a large, irreparable tear in the train of her best pale pink gown and resigned herself to wearing the same green silk she had worn to the Lucas's. She, too, dressed with care, nursing a secret hope that Mr. Wickham would be in attendance, although given Mr. Darcy's antipathy toward him, she thought it unlikely that he would be invited by the Bingleys. Of one thing, however, Elizabeth was sure, and she whispered into Jane's ear as they departed the ranch, "Mr. Bingley will have no idea of what you are wearing, dazzled as he will be by the radiance of your face."

Rev. Collins, who had also been invited, had spent the better part of the week trying to decide whether he could, in good conscience, attend a party where there would be alcohol, music and no doubt all manner of sinful behavior between men and women. After much tormented soul-searching, he elected to go, reasoning that he had best keep his eye on his cousins, to make sure they did not give in to the temptations of the flesh.

The Bingley mansion was alive with music and a crowd of Gold Hill residents in their finest attire. Charles Bingley, who had apparently been waiting impatiently for Jane's arrival, greeted the family with genuine warmth and then immediately whisked her away for a dance, leaving a bemused Elizabeth to search about for an escape from her vigilant cousin. She was grateful when she spotted Charlotte, and immediately excused herself from the Reverend to head over to her.

"Some gala affair, isn't it, Lizzy?" Charlotte laughed. She wasn't considered pretty, and she knew it, but tonight she glowed in a rich magenta silk ball gown of the latest fashion, a benefit of having a family of sizable wealth. Elizabeth felt a small twinge of envy, which she quickly suppressed.

"And will we have the pleasure of a certain gentleman's company?" Elizabeth replied with a smile, looking around.

"I don't think so. Father tells me that Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy don't get along, and I suspect that Mr. Wickham has decided to stay away."

"Or Mr. Darcy has asked Mr. Bingley to exclude him." Elizabeth sighed with disappointment. "I was afraid of something like that. What have you heard about the matter?"

"Well, I do know they got into a fight which resulted in a broken nose for Mr. Wickham."

"Yes, he said it was over a woman. Do you know anything more about it?"

"Not any more than you. But Mr. Wickham laughed the whole thing off. It doesn't seem that he bears any ill will toward Mr. Darcy."

"What a shame, then, that Mr. Darcy can't be equally forgiving."

On the opposite end of the room, Miss Bingley was smiling, for there was much to enjoy tonight. While she little liked the open affection Charles was showing Jane Bennet, she knew at least that would be all over tomorrow when they departed for San Francisco. Once Charles got a taste for living in California, Caroline was certain he would forget all about his simple schoolmarm and find himself someone more suitable.

And as for Elizabeth Bennet, Caroline had good reason to hope that tonight would see the little chit put in her place. She saw Elizabeth chatting with Charlotte Lucas, and noted with satisfaction that she was wearing the same old outmoded green gown she had worn to the Lucas party. It became her, true, but she was hardly dressed to recommend herself to a society gentleman like Will Darcy.

In this conjecture, Caroline was badly mistaken. Darcy, who had stood woodenly near the fireplace mantle for the past half-hour, had been - against all his best intentions - watching for Elizabeth's arrival, and her appearance took his breath away. Certainly, he recognized the gown. But as he cared little for the minutiae of ladies' fashions, he only admired once again the way it clung to her stunning curves. And tonight, he was particularly fascinated by the way she had woven tiny late wildflowers into her upswept hair, giving her the irresistible appearance of a woodland nymph. He wondered if the flowers smelled as lovely as they looked, and without even realizing it, he started toward her to find out for himself.

At that moment, Charlotte was also commenting on Elizabeth's clever coiffure. But their lighthearted banter was interrupted when the current dance ended and a voice cut through the applause and chatter:

"Betsy?"

Elizabeth whirled around, her heart in her throat. "Horace?"

*Author's note: The Comstock Lode's peak year was, in fact, either 1876 or 1877, depending on the source consulted. Its production declined precipitously through the end of the decade, bringing an end to the boom years of the surrounding towns.

Chapter 9

Striding up behind Elizabeth, Will stopped cold. Horace Crabtree, the artist? Here? How in the world...?

His eyes flicked over to where Caroline was standing, grinning with immense satisfaction, and he shook his head in distaste. He should have known; once he had persuaded her to take down the painting, Caroline had, uncharacteristically, never brought up the subject again. And all the while she had been plotting something like this! Why?

"Betsy, are you ever a sight for sore eyes!" effused Horace, grasping Elizabeth's hands. He was a very young man, barely out of his adolescence, tall and reedy, with a thick shock of sandy-brown hair. His large brown eyes and earnest expression gave him the look of a pleading puppy. It was not an unappealing look, and several of the younger ladies stared at him with great interest, but he only had eyes for Elizabeth. "Miss Bingley told me you'd be here tonight, and sure enough, here you are! And looking awful pretty, too!"

"Yes, Horace," Elizabeth said with a weak smile, pulling her hands from his, "here I am."

"Miss Bingley said you missed me, Betsy. Gosh, I had no idea! It sure does my heart good to hear it. I missed you plenty!" Ignoring her look of horror, Horace took Elizabeth's hands again. "You know I would have come back right away if I thought I stood a chance with you! I wasn't far away at all, just in Virginia City!"

Realizing that this conversation was becoming the center of attention among several people nearest the couple, including an amused Charlotte, Elizabeth indicated the French doors at the end of the ballroom and said, "Why don't we go out into the garden for a few minutes?"

"Whatever you say, Betsy!" And putting her hand proudly in the crook of his arm, he escorted her outside.

Feigning an air of supreme indifference, Darcy followed the two at a distance, then took a seat just inside the garden doors. He knew it was wrong to eavesdrop, but he told himself that he was doing it for Elizabeth's own good, in case Crabtree got carried away and foisted unwanted attentions upon her. In reality, of course, Elizabeth was more than capable of handling the fellow, but Darcy needed to hear what she had to say, wanted to hear if she would welcome Horace back - or if she truly was an unwilling model for his painting. His curiosity was eating him alive.

"Horace," Darcy heard her begin, "what are you doing here?"

"Don't worry, Betsy, I got an invitation, just like you, straight from Miss Bingley herself. Gee, what a swell lady she is! She said she was very partial to my work, and that her brother had bought one of my paintings. He's the one who told her where my studio is."

Elizabeth groaned inwardly. "Yes, about that painting, Horace..."

"It was one of my best, Betsy," he said with no small degree of pride. "It was darn hard for me to part with it. I thought it was very like you."

"A little too like me! Horace, how could you... Didn't you think of who might see it? And I never posed for that painting! How did you..." She couldn't bring herself to continue.

Darcy held his breath, the better to hear the answer. There was an unusually lengthy pause from the garrulous young man. When the response did come, it was in a much smaller voice.

"Promise you won't be mad?"

A sigh. "I'll try."

"Well..." another pause ensued. "You know that stream back East where you used to go swimming?"

"Oh, no, Horace, please tell me you didn't..."

"I didn't see much, honest! I only peeked a little. The rest I kind of...guessed at."

In his seat by the door, Darcy was assaulted by a number of emotions, each following rapidly upon the heels of the others. First, he felt immense relief that Elizabeth had been telling the truth about the painting. Then, he became incensed that Horace would invade a lady's privacy in such a way. Soon, however, his ire turned to envy that that young buck had seen Elizabeth as nature had made her...which precipitated a far different sort of feeling, settling somewhere below his belt, as he absorbed the knowledge that Elizabeth was in the habit of swimming naked and imagined with a thrill the delicious sight that had inspired the artist. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

"Horace, surely you understand that that painting caused me no end of embarrassment. Mr. Bingley hung it in his saloon, for all the world to see! You had no right..."

"I know that, Betsy, and I sure am sorry. Really, I am. I'd never hurt you for the world. But an artist can't help painting what he loves the most. And you know how I feel about you, don't you?"

Crabtree was in love with Elizabeth! Will almost burst out laughing. Why, that callow youth, who could barely be called a man, couldn't possibly hold his own against that fiery little vixen! She needed a real man, like...well, like... He wouldn't allow himself to finish the thought. But what if she returned the boy's affections? Once again Darcy burned to hear her response.

"We've been through this before, Horace," Elizabeth said slowly but forcefully. "You and I have been good friends for a long time, and I've always been...very fond of you. But we're just not right for each other. I hate to disappoint you, and I apologize if you got the wrong idea, but Miss Bingley was...mistaken. While I do miss our friendship as it used to be, when we were children, I never told her I missed you. Especially after I found out about that painting you made of me. And now that Mr. Bingley has done the gentlemanly thing and removed it, there's really nothing more for us to say to each other. I'm sorry."

Darcy watched Elizabeth march quickly past him back into the ballroom, her face flushed, her eyes focused straight ahead. She therefore missed Horace's last plaintive remark at her departing back: "But what will I do with the other ones?"

When Elizabeth reached the spot where Charlotte had been, she was unhappy to see that her friend had moved and was now nowhere to be found. Instead, she was accosted by Kitty and Lydia, both in very high spirits.

"Well, Lizzy," Lydia said coyly, "I see that Horace came back looking for you. What did he want?"

"You know what he wanted, Lydia," Kitty interjected, her voice full of mirth. "Did he kiss you, Lizzy? Did he? On the lips?"

"Kitty!" exclaimed Elizabeth hotly. "You know he did nothing of the kind!"

Undeterred, Kitty continued in a sing-song voice, "Lizzy's got a beau, Lizzy's got a beau!"

Lydia was greatly amused. "Now that he's back, Lizzy, are you going to get married?" she giggled. "Oh, this is rich! Can I be a bridesmaid?"

"Please keep your voice down, Lydia!" Elizabeth pleaded. What a nightmare this party was turning out to be! First Mr. Wickham's absence, then Horace's unexpected reappearance. And now her sisters were determined to expose their family once more to ridicule. What else could possibly happen?

"Miss Elizabeth, did someone mention marriage?"

Elizabeth clenched her jaw. Rev. Collins was just about the last person she wanted to see right now.

"That's right, Reverend," Lydia simpered, while Kitty hid her snorts of amusement behind theatrical coughs and Elizabeth tried in vain to interrupt. "Lizzy's childhood sweetheart, Horace Crabtree, showed up and surprised her tonight. Isn't that the sweetest thing? We were just planning the wedding."

"Well, Miss Elizabeth," Rev. Collins said, puffing himself up with self-importance, "it is indeed fortunate, then, that I am still at your ranch, for it would be my pleasure to officiate at your nuptials. I am certain my revered patroness, Mrs. de Bourgh, would understand if I delayed my departure for San Francisco a few weeks, despite the urgent need for my presence there. She is so very thoughtful about such things, you know, especially considering the importance of the holy rites. I'm sure she wouldn't mind if I..."

"NO!" Elizabeth finally burst out. "No, Rev. Collins, there will be no wedding!"

Collins first looked puzzled, then angry. "Do you mean to tell me that you intend to live in sin with this young man without the blessings of the Lord upon you?"

Lydia and Kitty, unable to contain themselves a moment longer, burst into loud gales of laughter. Just when Elizabeth thought she might do something violent and wholly unlike herself, her sisters were suddenly silenced by a voice that said,

"Miss Elizabeth, I do believe this is the dance you promised me."

Darcy moved in smoothly between the sisters, and, without waiting for a stammering Elizabeth to collect herself - which would, no doubt, have resulted in a vocal refusal - escorted her somewhat more forcefully than she was accustomed to onto the dance floor.

As the music started, Will grasped Elizabeth's right hand firmly and put his own right hand at the middle of her back. Out of long habit rather than conscious thought, she put her left hand upon his shoulder. They began to waltz. For several moments neither of them spoke, as Darcy waited for Elizabeth to regain her composure. It did not take long.

"You realize, Mr. Darcy," she began acerbically, "that I promised you no dance."

"Of course. But I thought a waltz might be preferable to the inquisition you were suffering at the hands of your relations."

"Officious of you, don't you think?"

"Perhaps. Would you rather return to your family?"

"Not yet." She glanced at Kitty and Lydia as she glided by, and was pleased to see that their mouths were still agape. "For now I'd just like to enjoy the rare sight of them rendered speechless."

Without realizing it, and much despite herself, Elizabeth had also begun to enjoy the waltz. Darcy was an expert dancer, his lead confident and effortless, and his strong arms guiding her were not without their own pleasures. Stealing a glance up at him, she smiled tentatively, but only for a moment. He was not smiling; in fact, he wasn't even looking at her, but somewhere over her head, and his expression was as grave as she'd ever seen it. She quickly looked away, the color rising in her face. So much for Charlotte's theory that he was attracted to her!

Elizabeth kept her gaze determinedly off to the side. Her partner remained silent, and so did she. How foolish of her to think that Will Darcy might be enjoying himself in her presence! Rather, she guessed that he saw his role as some kind of enforcer of appropriate behavior at his friend's party, and her cousin and sisters had not risen to his idea of proper conduct. The thought lessened her pleasure in the dance considerably.

Yes, it is gratifying to see those silly girls speechless! Will thought as he whirled Elizabeth around the floor, watching the youngest Bennet daughters blinking in disbelief. How can they treat their sister so unkindly? But he would not waste precious time thinking of Kitty and Lydia, not while Elizabeth was in his arms, willing if not entirely enthusiastic, the flowers in her hair giving off an intoxicating fragrance. He glanced down at her hopefully but was disappointed to see that she was not looking at him; it would have been wonderful to look into those fine green eyes at that moment. The tip of his thumb was just touching her where the neckline of her dress left the upper reaches of her back bare, and he drew it across her skin in a slow arc. Concentrating on the dance, or perhaps the foolishness of her sisters, she did not appear to notice, but the contact, slight as it was, left him weak with longing. If only he could hold her closer, know more of that tender skin, explore it with his lips! His departure for San Francisco, though scheduled for the next day, seemed very far away. His motive for leaving Gold Hill, to escape from the power she had developed over him, seemed equally distant, even absurd.

Yet he could think of nothing to say to her. Several times he opened his mouth to speak, only to close it again. Why did she leave him so tongue-tied? What was it about her that drove away all his reason?

Kitty and Lydia were not the only ones who watched their dance in astonishment. For while Charles Bingley was far too occupied dancing with his own Bennet sister to be aware of his friend's activity, Caroline Bingley's partner was not so interesting as to distract her from the handsome couple circling the floor. Likewise, the Reverend Collins, convinced as he was that Elizabeth had an understanding with one Horace Crabtree, watched the dancers with a brow furrowed in both bewilderment and righteous indignation. Horace himself stood sullenly against the wall of the ballroom, downing drink after drink, oblivious to the attempts of a pretty young girl to make conversation with him.

Too soon for Darcy's taste, and not soon enough for Elizabeth's, the dance ended, but he did not release her. In fact, he now held her rather closer. He would not leave for San Francisco without having said something of substance to her.

Elizabeth looked up at him inquiringly, uneasy with their nearness now that the dance had ended. Biting her lip, she said in a low voice, "It is time to let me go, Mr. Darcy."

Indeed. Yet how can I?

"Hey, Mister!" Darcy felt an impatient tap on his shoulder. "I believe that's my girl you're holding."

Will turned his head to see a livid and inebriated Horace Crabtree at his side, clenching and unclenching his fists. Sighing in irritation, Darcy reluctantly released Elizabeth and began, "Now, see here, Crabtree..."

With a cry, Horace flung himself toward Will, sweeping his fist in a wild roundhouse punch.

There was a collective gasp from the guests, but Darcy ducked easily, coming up behind Horace as the younger man's momentum carried him around. Then, in one fluid movement, Will pinned his assailant's arm expertly to his back and wrapped his own arm around Horace's throat. Understanding immediately that there was no way for him to recover from this maneuver, never mind make any headway against such a strong and clever opponent, Horace gave up, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

Two servants rushed to Darcy's side, but he waved them away, indicating in a low voice that he would remove the young gentleman from the ballroom himself. There were murmurs and stares as the crowd parted to let the two men pass. "I know how the lady can get under your skin," Darcy whispered to Horace as he hustled the compliant young man out of the room. "Let's take a little walk, shall we?"

"Oh, Horace," Elizabeth said to herself as she watched them go, embarrassed, yes, but relieved that Darcy had handled the situation with a minimum of fuss. Even the party guests, seeing that a fight had grown increasingly unlikely, had merely shrugged and resumed their festivities. It did not, however, stop Rev. Collins from hurrying to Elizabeth's side and remarking,

"Don't you think you should see after your fiancé's welfare, Miss Elizabeth? I would think you'd be distressed at watching him being manhandled for coming to the defense of your virtue!"

Enough was enough! Incredulously, Elizabeth wheeled to face her cousin. "I hardly know where to begin with your mistaken solicitude, Reverend," she said fiercely. "I suppose I could clarify for you that Horace Crabtree and I are not engaged, nor do we have any sort of understanding at all. On the contrary, he has already caused me enough grief and mortification to last a lifetime. Furthermore, I am not in the least apprehensive of his well-being at the moment, as I think Mr. Darcy has handled the situation with admirable restraint. And I might add that my virtue is none of your concern!" And with that, she turned on her heel and left him.

Watching Elizabeth storm off, the reverend shook his head sadly. How foolish of the girl to refuse a potential suitor, a fine young man who had known her since childhood! If anyone needed the restraining hand of a sensible husband, it was Elizabeth Bennet. She was entirely too hot-tempered, too passionate, and it was bound to get her into the worst kind of trouble. In fact, though he would never say so to his benefactor's esteemed nephew, Collins did not care for the ease with which Elizabeth had accepted Mr. Darcy's embrace on the dance floor. No good could come of such intimate contact, he was sure of it; dancing in that manner could only lead to sin of the carnal variety. It had already nearly led to violence.

Rev. Collins began to walk the length of the ballroom, staring at his feet, oblivious to the music and laughter swirling around him. Since his arrival at the Bennet ranch, it had frustrated him that none of his preaching seemed to make an impression on Elizabeth at all. Old Testament, New Testament...nothing he offered had any effect on her wild, independent ways. If anything, she seemed to be almost deliberately provoking him with her stubbornness. Of course, it was a trial, but toward what grander purpose? Collins thought hard for a moment and then a light suddenly dawned. Raising his hands to the heavens, he declared buoyantly, "Lord be praised!" to the amusement of several nearby guests. He finally understood his mission: it was not merely to see his cousin safely married and out of harm's way. No, he was destined to marry her himself, and bring her with him as his helpmeet to begin his new congregation in San Francisco. It was right; it was fitting. And it was the Lord's will.

"As of now, dear cousin Elizabeth," the reverend said in a soft voice, "your virtue is my concern."

Chapter 10

Regardless of his intentions, however, Rev. Collins found it all but impossible to exercise any control over Elizabeth's behavior. His sudden and inexplicable shift from tedious moralization to awkward and persistent flattery, coupled with an attempt to be constantly in her presence, made her redouble her efforts to avoid him. When she discovered that his odd change in demeanor did not extend to his dislike of dancing, she resolved to accept all invitations proffered by the young men of Gold Hill out of sheer expediency rather than genuine interest in her partners. At first, Collins had attempted to prevent her from venturing out again on the dance floor, but she sent him a look so violent, so ferocious, he felt a sudden kinship with Daniel in the lion's den, and immediately withdrew with a mumbled prayer on his lips. Elizabeth had no idea, nor did she care, who her partners were or what they had to say, only that they kept her from having to socialize with her cousin.

As a result of her tactic, Darcy, returning to the party after leaving a chastened Horace Crabtree sleeping off his liquor at the Bingley hotel, found with dismay that he could not rejoin his former partner. Whenever he sought to speak to Elizabeth, he discovered that dance after dance was promised to a succession of gentlemen, and either Caroline or the redoubtable reverend made it impossible for him to approach her between sets. He gritted his teeth. While he was well accustomed to Caroline's sort of intervention, dealing with Collins was something new and unpleasant. Above all, he didn't care for the almost possessive way the reverend was now fretting over Elizabeth, though he was forced to admit to himself that there wasn't anything he could say about it. Like it or not, Collins was a blood relation, while Will was - and could be - nothing at all to her.

To make matters worse, as several dances passed without an opportunity to speak with Elizabeth, Darcy had the misfortune to pass closely enough behind Mrs. Bennet to overhear the conversation she was having with Mrs. Lucas:

"Do you see that, Minerva? My Lizzy is finally behaving as a young woman ought: making herself available to potential suitors."

"She's looking very well tonight, Fanny."

"And so she is. Lord knows up till now she seemed to have no interest in attracting a man. Why, look how she put off that Mr. Darcy, the wealthiest fellow she's ever likely to meet! The girl has no idea how to make herself appealing to such a gentleman!"

The man himself would have differed with her, but whatever amusement he felt at the moment faded with Mrs. Bennet's next comment.

"But do you know what pleases me the most? The particular attentions being paid to her by our cousin Collins! Ever since his arrival I had hoped that the young man might take notice of Lizzy. I'll admit that up until now his interest has seemed purely spiritual, which is to say, not exactly what I had in mind. But I think he has finally gotten the idea: it's clear that he's well on his way to considering her proper material for a wife!"

A wife? Will frowned. Good Lord, first that boy Crabtree and now the ridiculous clergyman! Can nobody in that family of chuckleheads see what sort of husband would be right for Elizabeth? He glanced up at the object of their discussion, who seemed little pleased with her current partner. In fact, despite her apparent popularity and the smile she kept frozen on her face, she hadn't appeared to be truly happy with any of the gentlemen with whom she had danced. If he hadn't known better, he would have guessed that she was dancing less to enjoy the company of any particular fellow than to steer clear of the company of another. The idea that Elizabeth might be trying to avoid him occurred to Darcy, and it left him with a bitter taste in his mouth.

"Maybe so, Fanny," said Mrs. Lucas doubtfully. "But the reverend does seem a serious type, and Lizzy is so lively. Are you sure she'll have him?"

"You just leave it to me, Minerva. With any luck at all I'll have her packed to go to San Francisco with him in a matter of weeks. Lizzy's always been a difficult child, obstinate and headstrong. I tell you, it would be a load off my mind to have her married at last."

She sighed dramatically. "Ah, but look over there," she went on, pointing shamelessly toward her eldest daughter, who was deep in conversation with Charles. "See how our dear Jane has enchanted Charles Bingley? Did she not listen to her Mama when I told her to go out and snag herself a rich man? Oh, good girl! What a match that will be!"

Darcy's frown became a scowl. So Jane's Mama told her to snag a rich man? He didn't want to believe it, wouldn't have believed it of her if he hadn't just heard it from her mother. He had liked the girl, thought she was different from the gold diggers that usually surrounded Charles. Was her sweet, demure schoolmarm demeanor in fact just a well-crafted façade?

The next day's trip to San Francisco rose again in his mind, but this time he felt the benefit of its timing. Bingley would be well-served by a break from this relationship, to give him the opportunity to see the truth behind Miss Jane's motives. And maybe Darcy would be better off after all removing himself from the frustrating conundrum that was Elizabeth Bennet.

Dinner gave Elizabeth no relief. Despite the unquestionably exquisite quality of the meal, she found that she could eat very little. The reverend had parked himself next to her and was bending her ear with all manner of obsequiousness which seemed calculated to aggravate her. She could only think of one reason for the change in his personality, and it made her nervous. Meanwhile, Kitty and Lydia were flirting outrageously with a couple of willing young men, and from the fellows' sly grins, Elizabeth could swear that they had taken liberties. Mary had managed to bring a book - a book! - to the affair and had already rudely abandoned her seat at the table in search of a place to read. Her mother was no help at all, having apparently had entirely too much to drink; she was laughing loudly with her mouth full, to the disgust of the people around her and, worst of all, their hostess. Mr. Bennet, enjoying the company of Mayor Lucas and several Gold Hill swells, ignored it all.

Elizabeth's only comfort was the tender intimacy of the discussion Jane was having with Mr. Bingley, although as the evening drew to a close, she could see that something had changed. By the time the hour had arrived to bid goodnight to the Bingleys, it was plain to Elizabeth that Jane was unhappy, though someone less familiar with her sister would be hard-pressed to notice anything amiss, so carefully did she conceal her distress. This further dispirited Elizabeth, and she was greatly relieved that the party was over and that they were all going home, where she could find out what was troubling Jane.

Will realized with dismay that the Bennets were planning to leave, and he still had not spoken a word to Elizabeth since their dance. Fortunately, Rev. Collins's effusive and unnecessarily lengthy farewell expression of gratitude to their hosts gave Darcy the opportunity to draw her aside. The look on her face, clearly perplexed and perhaps even a little annoyed, gave him pause, but he plunged ahead regardless.

"Miss Elizabeth, I wanted to say..." To say what? "...that I very much enjoyed our dance."

"Thank you, Mr. Darcy." She waited for him to continue. He certainly seemed to have something else on his mind, but he just stood and stared at her, his hands clasped behind his back, his countenance unreadable. When he didn't proceed, she asked, somewhat tiredly, "Is that all?"

"No. No, I..."

"Well, then!" broke in Caroline Bingley, with the cheer that came from knowing that not only would she very soon be rid of a houseful of unwanted guests, but also that she would the next day be embarking on a lengthy trip in the company of Will Darcy. She thought her entrance exceedingly well-timed - who knew what Will was about to say to Elizabeth Bennet? - and it concerned her not at all that he seemed greatly irritated by the interruption. He would forget about it once they were on their way to San Francisco; she would see to that. "It was wonderful, simply wonderful to see you this evening, Miss Elizabeth," Caroline said, with all the practiced insincerity of a good barkeeper. "I hope you had a good time?"

"I did, thank you," said Elizabeth mechanically.

"And where is our delightful Mr. Crabtree? I had hoped that once you had found one another again, you two lovebirds would let bygones be bygones and plan a happy little future together."

Elizabeth was stunned by the nerve of the woman. Yet it seemed useless to argue with Caroline Bingley, especially in her own home, in front of so many people. "I have no idea where Horace is, Miss Bingley," she said crisply, "nor do I care."

"Mr. Crabtree is asleep in his room at your hotel, Caroline," Darcy interjected. "He was creating a disturbance, and I didn't want him ruining your party."

"I see. Thank you, Will." Unable to use the artist further to ruffle Elizabeth's composure, Caroline took a different tack. "I suppose Will has told you that we won't be seeing you all for a while."

"No, he hasn't." Elizabeth looked at Darcy quizzically. She couldn't see how this was any of her concern.

"I was just about to tell Miss Elizabeth..."

Miss Bingley would not let him finish. "Well, then the pleasure falls to me, doesn't it? Charles, Will and I are leaving for San Francisco tomorrow. Isn't that exciting?"

Ah. Which would explain Jane's melancholy. "How nice for you."

"What a shame you don't travel more, Miss Elizabeth," Caroline continued, ignoring Darcy's growing agitation. "It would do wonders for your sense of style. You know, keep you more up-to-date."

Will drew breath to defend Elizabeth against what he felt was an entirely unwarranted - and, indeed, inaccurate - attack, but he didn't have the time, as Rev. Collins made another inopportune appearance at Elizabeth's elbow.

"Mr. Darcy, Miss Bingley, it pains me to interrupt you, as you know I hold you both in the very highest regard, but I do hope you will excuse me, as I have been told by Mr. Bennet that it is time for us to depart, and have been charged with the vital task of collecting my fair cousin." He offered his arm to Elizabeth. "Come, dear, dear Cousin Elizabeth. Let us join the family"

For once Elizabeth was not unwilling to comply; at the moment, Collins was the lesser of two evils. "Well, thank you for a lovely time, Miss Bingley." She gave a little curtsey. "Good evening, Mr. Darcy. Enjoy your trip." And, ignoring the clergyman's proffered arm, she walked away to find her parents. With a hurried bow, Rev. Collins hastened after her.

"Well, well, well," Caroline said, her eyebrows raised in amusement. "'Dear Cousin Elizabeth' it is now. Ha! Well, I can see why Horace Crabtree is no longer in the picture. This is a much better match for Miss Elizabeth, don't you think, Will? Will?"

But Darcy had already turned on his heel and strode away.

The Bennet family was mercifully silent as they headed back home. It wasn't until the two eldest daughters were alone in their room getting ready for bed when Jane said, "He's leaving tomorrow, you know."

"Who is?"

"Charles, of course. He's leaving for San Francisco. He told me so tonight." As she sat down on the bed, her face remained impassive, but her quiet voice betrayed her gloom.

"Yes. I heard it from Miss Bingley."

"He said he'd only be gone a few weeks, and he even promised to write...although he's already warned me that he's a terrible correspondent."

Elizabeth smiled sadly. She could easily see Charles Bingley as the impetuous type who might make a promise that he fully intended to keep, but was unlikely to follow through. "I'm sure he'll be back soon. Did he say why he was going?"

"It was Mr. Darcy's idea. Charles said Mr. Darcy wants him to think about his future."

Of course, Mr. Darcy's idea. "What does he mean by that?"

"He didn't say. But I have a terrible feeling that he means to leave Gold Hill!"

"Nonsense! Mr. Bingley's whole life is here. His father practically built the town. Why would he go running off half-cocked and throw away all that he's accomplished?" Elizabeth sat down next to Jane and, putting her arms around her sister, said, "Charles Bingley would be a fool to give up what he has in Gold Hill. Especially you."

But that night as she listened to the muffled sound of Jane's quiet crying, Elizabeth was worried. She could easily imagine that, to Mr. Darcy's mind, Gold Hill would fare poorly in a comparison between either the vast expanse of Pemberley or the glamour of San Francisco. Well, if he wanted the best for his friend, who could fault him? On the other hand, was Mr. Bingley so easily swayed that he would drop everything, including a lifetime invested in Gold Hill and a promising relationship with her sister, on his friend's whim? And was it truly a whim, or was planning for "the future" specifically designed to entail separation from all that constituted the past, including precious, lovely Jane?

Unable to sleep, Elizabeth turned to the increasingly alarming behavior of Reverend Collins. She could not be mistaken: he had decided, in his own gauche fashion, to woo her. Though she couldn't imagine his motivation, as her dowry was non-existent, the disgust which this thought engendered rippled through her. It would be best to stay out of the man's way at all times. If that meant waking up even earlier to breakfast alone, stay out longer with the sheep and the horses, or inventing other chores, she would do it. She would also try to escape to Gold Hill at times when the reverend was sure to be occupied elsewhere. Her thoughts wandered along the streets of the town until she met up with Mr. Wickham. Sighing at the memory of their meeting, his piercing blue eyes, and the warm kiss he had bestowed on her hand, she regretted again that he had been excluded from the party and that she had not seen him in any of her forays into town. She vowed that she would be more attentive, if not actually on the lookout for him, during her next visits. It irked her not to know what had passed between him and Mr. Darcy.

Mr. Darcy... Without meaning to, Elizabeth's reflections had shifted to that gentleman's handsome face and admirable physique, and her heart gave a little leap which she quickly suppressed. She grudgingly admitted that he had been exceptionally good-looking that night in his formal attire and that their dance together had been distinctly pleasurable. Once, his thumb had inadvertently stroked the skin of her back, and the touch had sent tremors deep within her, calling up memories of their encounter in the root cellar. Nevertheless, she had refused to react outwardly. It wouldn't do to let the man think he affected her; it would only cause him to look on her with amusement or disdain, and her pride forbade it. Let him go to San Francisco! Let him take his ideas of decorum and proper ladylike behavior, and good riddance! Yet as she drifted off to sleep, her last thought was of the moment just before Horace had separated them, and she had the outlandish idea that Mr. Darcy would have liked very much to kiss her.

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