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Silver Dust

Chapter 11

Rev. Collins began his attempts to court Elizabeth the very next day. Having missed her at breakfast, he caught up with her mucking out the stalls, and stood with her in the cold and noisome barn, his boots fouled with manure, reading from The Song of Songs. Elizabeth was forced to marvel at his fortitude, but she was unimpressed with his reading style; he was clearly more comfortable with fire and brimstone than he was with earthly love, and for lack of a better notion of how to proceed, he simply droned nervously and nasally through the erotic passages. Concentrating on her work, then, she was able to reduce the sound of his voice to just another annoyance like the buzz of the flies in the stalls.

The rest of the day continued in the same fashion, the reverend following Elizabeth from chore to chore, not at all disheartened by her apparent lack of interest. It was only when she rode out with the sheep that she had some privacy. When they finally sat down to dinner, Mrs. Bennet gleefully made sure that they were sitting side by side. This suited Rev. Collins's purposes beautifully, and he took every opportunity to compliment his cousin on her selections at the table. But it completely ruined what was left of Elizabeth's day, and, pleading exhaustion, immediately after dinner she retired to her room, where she could at least read in peace and solitude.

The following day was a repeat performance of the last, and Elizabeth could see that simply ignoring the fellow was going to be insufficient to dissuade him. Yet she knew that her family was indebted to his and wondered how best to turn him away without causing an irreparable rift in the clan.

Fortunately, Elizabeth's salvation came the next day, and from a most unexpected source.

Although she had once again managed to avoid him at breakfast, Rev. Collins had made the mistake on that third morning of braving the chill air and trotting after her while she tended the sheep. It was at this juncture that the reverend encountered Elizabeth's sheepdog, King, who endeavored to do what all good sheepdogs do, that is, herd his flock. Collins was, as far as King was concerned, just another sheep to be put in his place, and when the reverend tried to avoid the nips that served to keep King's recalcitrant ovine charges in line, he fell over one of the herd and landed directly and painfully on his right knee. For the rest of the week, Rev. Collins was destined to remain inside on the Bennets' threadbare parlor sofa, and King was to get a surreptitious helping of bacon in his dinner.

With her sense of freedom restored, Elizabeth paid several afternoon visits to Gold Hill with no other goal in mind than perhaps catching a glimpse of Mr. Wickham. On her third attempt, her gamble paid off, and she saw the man rocked back in a chair on the porch in front of the Silver Dust, his boots, remarkably clean despite the dust of the street, resting casually on the porch railing. She fleetingly thought that he must know that Mr. Darcy had left town; otherwise he never would have dared to station himself at Mr. Bingley's saloon. The moment this uncharitable idea crossed her mind, Mr. Wickham spotted her and leapt gracefully to his feet, a broad smile creasing his handsome face, his hand removing his hat in welcome. It was impossible to think otherwise but kindly toward him when he greeted her so warmly.

"Miss Elizabeth Bennet!" he cried, and Elizabeth was inordinately pleased that he had remembered her name.

"Sir," she responded demurely as she dismounted, allowing him to hold the reins of her horse.

"Don't you remember me? George Wickham."

"Oh, of course."

"Mighty unfair of you not to tell me where I could locate you, ma'am. I fully intended to pay a call on your family, but, alas, I had to wait for this chance meeting."

Elizabeth pinkened at the thought that this meeting was not so chance as he made it out to be, but she responded lightly, "Well, here we are, after all."

"This is hardly the place for a young lady to have a proper conversation," he said, gesturing at the saloon. "Dare I ask you to accompany me to the confectionary for an ice cream?"

Ice cream! her mind fairly squealed with delight. It was a treat Elizabeth never tired of, and her family's relative poverty ensured that she had it infrequently. She briefly weighed the multiple pleasures of enjoying such an indulgence in Mr. Wickham's company against the possibility that some local gossip might take their tête-à-tête amiss, but then brushed her own concerns aside. After all the humiliation she'd suffered at the hands of her family, Horace Crabtree and Miss Bingley, she felt entitled to some succor. So, although the weather was entirely too chilly to be considered ideal for the enjoyment of a frozen confection, she said:

"I'd be delighted."

It was only a short walk down the street to Johnson's Confectionary, where, after tying Elizabeth's horse to the hitching post, Mr. Wickham ordered them each a dish of vanilla ice cream. As they sat together by the warmth of the wood stove, Elizabeth felt as if she'd died and gone to heaven; she couldn't decide which made her happier: the ice cream or the companionship. Mr. Wickham turned out to be every bit as agreeable and amusing as she'd thought he'd be, and she exulted in the envious stares of several young ladies.

Finally, as they each scraped at the last sweet drops of melted cream in the bottom of their dishes, Elizabeth asked,

"So what is it that you do for a living, Mr. Wickham?"

"I'm a businessman."

She smiled at the disingenuousness of this answer. "In what sort of business, sir?"

Wickham sighed theatrically. "You have found me out, ma'am. I am the proprietor of a saloon up in Reno. Now despise me if you dare."

Laughing, Elizabeth shook her head. "As you could not have failed to learn after being in Gold Hill for several weeks, Mr. Charles Bingley owns the Silver Dust, and I have nothing but the highest opinion of that fine gentleman."

"Yes, Mr. Bingley and I actually spent an entire afternoon together talking about our saloons. I found him a very friendly chap. In fact," Wickham added casually, "I had high hopes of being invited to that big shindig of his; I was so looking forward to dancing with a certain lovely young lady." He winked at Elizabeth, causing her to blush with pleasure. "Well, he certainly would have invited me if not for his friend..."

"Mr. Darcy."

"Yes." He paused and bit his lip. "Did you know that Will Darcy and I grew up together at his ranch, Pemberley?"

Elizabeth couldn't hide her astonishment. "No!"

"I'm not surprised he hadn't mentioned it. After all, I'm hardly in his social circle. I'm merely the humble son of his foreman."

The son of a servant. It was so like old-fashioned Mr. Darcy to want to separate himself from such a man, even in the so-called classless society of the American West, where men of far lower social standing transformed themselves into tycoons. "Even so, I can't imagine that this would cause him to dislike you."

"No, as a matter of fact we played together as children. It wasn't until my pa died some twelve years ago and the elder Mr. Darcy let me stay on at Pemberley that things began to go sour." He dropped his spoon into his empty dish with a loud jingle and frowned. "Will was jealous of the attention his father paid me, and was worried that Mr. Darcy would leave me too generous a bequest in his will. The old man promised me as much, bless his soul."

"And then?"

"Well, when old Mr. Darcy senior passed on five years ago, Will simply kicked me out. Said there was nothing for me at Pemberley, that his father hadn't left me anything at all. I was left to fend for myself, and that's how I ended up in Reno."

"How awful!" Elizabeth's tender heart was filled with righteous indignation.

"I'll admit I learned to gamble, just to keep myself alive during those tough times, you understand. Eventually a saloon-keeper took me in, and after working hard for him for a few years, I took over the business when he moved to California. I've done pretty well for myself since then, as you can see."

"And the, ah,...?" She gestured delicately at the break in his nose.

"A fight, as I said, over a woman. Our paths crossed last summer, and Will felt I was stepping out of my place with a lady who was, as he put it, 'far too good for the likes of' me." He laughed ruefully. "I guess I was reluctant to hit an old friend, and I got the worst of it."

"Oh, I am so sorry for your misfortunes!" Elizabeth cried. "But you bear them so well!"

"Well, there's no sense living in the past, Miss Elizabeth, when there's so much to be enjoyed in the present. And look, I've taken up enough of your time with my tale of woe. Why don't you tell me about your family?"

So for the next fifteen minutes, Elizabeth told George Wickham about her parents, her sisters, their life back East and their trip out West. He was a good listener, and asked pertinent questions in all the right places, and Elizabeth began to feel as if she had known him for a very long time.

"Now will you tell me where I can call on you?" he asked when she had finished.

"I don't see why not," she smiled. "We're at the old McIntosh place, just southwest of town. Anyone will be able to direct you there."

"Thank you, Miss Elizabeth," he said as they got to their feet and walked outside. "I look forward to meeting your family." Elizabeth mounted her gelding, and Wickham bowed gallantly. "And, of course, to seeing you again."

She waved as she turned the horse to ride away, leaving him smiling on the front porch of the confectionary. He watched her figure grow smaller and smaller, then, whistling, walked back to the Silver Dust.

Elizabeth's mood at dinner that evening was vastly improved. She was even able to tolerate Rev. Collins's prattle, which continued not only unabated, but in stronger force, as if he had been saving it up all day. Although she didn't want to encourage him by smiling, she just couldn't help herself. The day had been altogether very satisfying.

In the next few days, Elizabeth's world became even more satisfying. True to his word, Mr. Wickham paid a call on the family, enchanting Mrs. Bennet with his good manners and the girls with his exceptional good looks and genial personality. Even Mr. Bennet, ever the cynic, was taken with the polite young man, though he, like Charlotte Lucas, remained wary of Wickham's gambler's attire. Only Rev. Collins and Mary were completely unimpressed, and the two of them separated themselves from the rest of the family, preferring to discuss a religious tract rather than gossip about the denizens of Gold Hill.

This visit proved a welcome distraction for Jane, who was suffering silently the loss of her love. While it was far too soon to expect any sort of letter from Charles, she had nevertheless taken to furtively checking the mail as it arrived for anything bearing a San Francisco postmark. None arrived.

Within a week Elizabeth had an additional source of joy. Mr. Wickham introduced his friend, Joe Denny, to Mr. Bennet, and explained that Denny had been looking for secure employment as a ranch hand. After ensuring that the man knew his way around horses and sheep, Mr. Bennet hired him on as a replacement for the absent Horace Crabtree, hoping that his presence would free Elizabeth from her more strenuous activities. True, it would be far more costly to feed and pay another employee than to allow Lizzy to continue doing the work, but to Mr. Bennet, who had felt all the injustice of his daughter's disproportionate contribution to the ranch, it was worth it. He would rather that she spent her time improving her mind, which he did not doubt she would do. Mrs. Bennet heartily concurred with the decision, though it meant she had to stretch her meager provisions even further, because she thought that Elizabeth would finally leave off wearing those dreadful boy's clothes as well as have more time to spend with Rev. Collins.

As the days passed, however, Collins, while fully healed, no longer pursued Elizabeth. Although she was thrilled at this turn of events, and spent the bulk of her time happily immersing herself in her long-neglected books, her mother was incensed. Mrs. Bennet was convinced that they had missed what she considered to be their one opportunity to marry off their headstrong daughter Lizzy, who was, furthermore, still wearing her work clothes to go out with the sheep on a consistent basis, just because she liked it. His zeal having apparently spent itself, the reverend now focused his attentions firmly elsewhere.

Yet to Mrs. Bennet's astonishment and delight, she found that she would indeed marry off a daughter, just not her second eldest. For it was, in fact, Mary who had persuaded Collins that his intentions toward her sister were folly, as Lizzy was clearly not destined to marry, or at least certainly not to a gentleman of his lofty standing. Appealing to both his vanity and his theology, Mary flattered him with praise for his godliness, discussed Scripture with him by the hour when the rest of the family ignored him, and played hymns on the piano for him while he recovered on the sofa. It seemed natural, then, for Rev. Collins to propose to the Bennets' middle daughter, acknowledging to himself with some relief that she would make a much better - and infinitely more manageable - wife than her untamed sister.

Plans were quickly made for the nuptials, which would take place just after Christmas. It was understood that Mr. and Mrs. Collins would then leave for San Francisco right away to start their lives together with the reverend's new congregation. Kitty and Lydia whined that they, too, wanted to see San Francisco, and begged their parents to let them go with Mary, ostensibly to help her set up house, but both Mr. and Mrs. Bennet agreed that Elizabeth would travel with them instead, staying for two weeks in the Collins home, offering an extra pair of capable hands if needed. Mr. Bennet intended the journey as recompense for the difficult autumn his favorite daughter had endured on the ranch; Mrs. Bennet thought of it as a reprimand, to show Lizzy all she had lost by not securing the reverend herself. Either way, Elizabeth was pleased, as this would likely be her only chance to visit the grand city she had heard so much about, and she was to have a new dress with which to make the trip.

Christmas came and went, and the wedding, so agreeable to all concerned, took place in the little church where the Bennets worshipped on Sundays. Just two days before the happy couple and their sister were due to leave for California, Jane finally received a piece of mail from San Francisco, which Elizabeth delivered with trepidation. Jane tore it open eagerly, but all it contained was a tintype photograph of Mr. Bingley, Miss Bingley and Mr. Darcy, and a short note from Caroline. Without speaking, she read the note, then wordlessly passed both to Elizabeth and left the room. A few seconds later, Elizabeth could hear the quiet click of their bedroom door closing.

She looked at the photograph. Miss Bingley, very stylishly dressed in what surely must be one of many new gowns, sat stiffly in front on a plush, high-backed chair with Mr. Bingley standing just behind her left shoulder and Mr. Darcy to her right. Although they all bore the solemn look that was typical of the subjects of such photographs, Elizabeth was sure that she could see triumph gleaming in Caroline's eyes and regret clouding Charles's. Mr. Darcy, as always, was a total mystery. The serious expression he wore in the tintype was the same that he might display while talking business or while waltzing at a party. If she hadn't already seen him smile, she might have thought the man incapable of it. Turning her attention to the note, she read:

Dearest Jane,

You will, of course, forgive me for not writing sooner, as there has been much to do in San Francisco - the theater, the parties, the shopping! Oh, my dear, I thought I should go mad with the sheer variety of it! We are all enjoying ourselves so much, in fact, that we have no idea of returning to Gold Hill any time in the foreseeable future. Dear Will has helped us procure a fine house in the most fashionable part of town, Nob Hill, and we are settling in nicely. I suspect that in a matter of months, Charles will decide to make our move permanent. Wouldn't that be wonderful!

We do hope you will call on us if you are ever in the vicinity.

Your friend, Caroline Bingley

Poor Jane! Elizabeth's ire grew hot on her sister's behalf. It seemed obvious that Caroline and Mr. Darcy were conspiring to keep Charles away from Jane. Well, while it might not be in Jane's power to take Caroline up on her hollow offer, it certainly was in Elizabeth's.

The Bingleys of Nob Hill, San Francisco, would have a visitor.

Chapter 12

The Bennets were understandably nervous sending two of their daughters across the Sierra Nevada range at that time of the year. Raging snowstorms were not uncommon, and gruesome tales were still told about what happened to the Donner Party during the winter of '47. Yet the train ride from Reno to San Francisco was now a mere 12 1/2 hours*, and the skies looked promising. So early in the morning, the entire family - along with a trunk containing a handmade quilt, two new dresses and a set of dishes, all that the Bennets could provide in the way of a trousseau - bundled into the buckboard for the ride to Virginia City, where they put Elizabeth and Rev. and Mrs. Collins on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad for the first leg of their journey. The travelers would go west to Carson City and then head north, changing at Reno for the Central Pacific to San Francisco. Elizabeth had taken a couple of good books with her, prepared to pass the time reading rather than having to engage in conversation with her sister and new brother-in-law. But she ended up looking out the window for almost the entire trip, entranced by the passing countryside and the majesty of the Sierra Nevadas.

The little party arrived in San Francisco at around 7:30 in the evening, but to their dismay, the carriage that they expected to meet them at the station never arrived. Rev. Collins was certain that he must have communicated his travel plans inadequately to Mrs. de Bourgh, as there could be no question of an oversight on the part of his esteemed patroness. After waiting a full hour, they took a hired cab instead, and arrived late and fatigued at the house that would serve as the parsonage.

To their further chagrin, the maid that was supposed to be in the Collins's employ was also not in evidence, and apparently had yet to make an appearance, as the house was a mess of dust and debris from the previous inhabitant. The travelers thus spent the next hour making two bedrooms barely habitable, with the understanding that the maid would certainly arrive the following day. They then repaired to their rooms and fell into an exhausted slumber.

It was clear to Elizabeth that someone would have to take charge of this abysmal situation, and she thought that she was perhaps the best qualified of the three, as both her sister and cousin were unaccustomed to the sort of hard work which she accepted without hesitation. So the following day, she rose and dressed early and, having discovered the previous night that there was also no food in the pantry, found her way to a local market. The weather in San Francisco proved much milder than in Gold Hill, although, as she quickly discovered, it was quite a bit wetter. By the time she returned to the house with her purchases, Elizabeth was soaked through. She was surprised to find Rev. and Mrs. Collins awake and already dressed.

They were both far more profuse in their thanks than Elizabeth could tolerate (Thank heaven they've found each other! she thought wryly). Then, with some discomfiture, Mary took her aside and explained that Rev. Collins thought it incumbent upon them to visit the church as soon as possible to gauge the progress of the work being done there. They would, therefore, quickly partake of some bread and jam and be on their way, and would unfortunately not have the luxury of waiting for Elizabeth to change and sit down to breakfast with them. Mary promised in a low voice that she would leave the reverend at the first available opportunity and hasten back to the parsonage house to help clean the house. Elizabeth encouraged the two (very charitably, they thought) to do whatever they needed to do without concern for her, and hurried upstairs to dry off and change her clothes. When she heard the door close behind them, Elizabeth sighed with contentment. Alone, at last! Much as she loved her sister, the companionship during this trip had been somewhat tiresome.

Assured of her privacy, Elizabeth put on a soft flannel work shirt and a well-worn pair of Levi's, both of which she had packed without her mother's knowledge. She eschewed the too-small camisole she generally wore to bind her bosom while riding, reveling in the freedom of movement it gave her to go without. Her hair pinned up atop her head, her shirt sleeves rolled up, she was now dressed for labor. Returning to the kitchen, she started to sweep.

And sweep she did...also dust, scrub, scour, wash and polish. When she was finished with the kitchen, Elizabeth proceeded to the small but handsome parlor, where she repeated the process. A good two hours had passed since her sister and brother-in-law had gone, and she was well satisfied with her progress so far, but it was hot and tiring work. The unfamiliar humidity, too, was beginning to take its toll on her, and the perspiration began to trickle down between her breasts. She undid a button of her shirt. Mischievously, she undid a second. Then she pulled out her shirttails and tied them together in a snug knot just below her bosom. The cool air felt refreshing against her bare skin. Thus invigorated, she headed upstairs.

She had nearly finished scrubbing the wood floor of the master bedroom when she heard Mary return. No doubt Mrs. Collins was surprised at the extent of the improvement her sister had made in her absence, and she did not immediately seek out Elizabeth but instead wandered through the kitchen and parlor. It wasn't until Elizabeth heard footsteps on the stairs that she called out to Mary,

"I'm in the bedroom, dear!"

Sitting back on her heels to survey her work with satisfaction, Elizabeth did not at first glance up when her sister reached the door, but added, "I think I've got this place almost livable; what do you think?"

But when she finally did look up, she saw to her shock that it was not Mary in the doorway, but Will Darcy, who stood with his hat in his hands gawking stupidly at her.

"What are you doing here?" they both blurted out simultaneously.

Elizabeth was not inclined to be the first to answer, and sat with lips pursed and arms akimbo awaiting an explanation, but Darcy seemed incapable of speech. It wasn't until some moments had passed that she realized that his gaze had drifted away from her face and was now fixed considerably lower. It then occurred to her that her buttons were still undone and her shirt gapped open almost halfway down to her waist, leaving her cleavage, and indeed a substantial portion of her breasts, shiny with perspiration, exposed to his gaze. Likewise, her midriff was completely bare. With gritted teeth, she decided on the spot not to allow this most recent in a long line of humiliations disconcert her. Refusing, therefore, to make the expected concession to propriety and scurry to adjust her shirt, Elizabeth resolved to act as if her audacious appearance were the most normal thing in the world. She raised her chin a notch and cleared her throat slightly, and Will's eyes reluctantly returned to her face.

As if pulled out of a pleasant dream, and consequently somewhat disoriented, Darcy at last displayed a set of keys and answered, "Ah, my aunt - Mrs. de Bourgh - asked me to come by the parsonage to, ah, determine whether the place was ready for the arrival of Rev. Collins and his...wife."

This last word fell with an almost audible thud between the two of them, as Darcy came to the obvious conclusion as to Elizabeth's presence in the house.

"I suppose," he said, his mouth appearing to move with effort, "that I must offer you my congratulations, Mrs. Collins."

Elizabeth couldn't contain a Lydia-like snort. "Good Lord, no!" she laughed. "Rev. Collins married my sister Mary. I'm just along to, well, as it turns out, to help them clean up this mess."

A strange look passed over Will's face and was quickly gone. "Good. That is, it's a good thing that they have you along. It's clear you've already done a great deal for the place. I will apologize on behalf of my aunt; she wasn't expecting you, that is, Rev. and Mrs. Collins, until next week. Where are they now?"

"They're at the church. But I expect Mrs. Collins home shortly."

"I see. Well, I'll have the maid sent in right away. I promise she'll be here before nightfall."

"Thank you," Elizabeth said, getting to her feet.

Will made a move as if to offer his assistance, then thought better of it. Try as he might to restrain them, his eyes inevitably returned to her open shirtfront. He was apparently fighting a losing battle. "Is there anything else I can do for you at the moment?" he asked, his voice strained, his gaze still somewhat south of her collarbone.

"Having the maid come as quickly as possible will be a huge help, I assure you."

He nodded. After a brief but supremely awkward moment during which neither one spoke a word, Darcy said, "Good day, Miss Elizabeth," and hastened down the stairs as rapidly as he could while still maintaining his dignity.

Once the door had closed behind him, Elizabeth sat down on the bed and swiftly buttoned her shirt, letting out a long breath. She was at the moment too unsettled to resume her work, but even so, she smiled as she tucked her shirttails back in; recalling how uncomfortable he had frequently made her, there was some satisfaction in having discomfited the great Will Darcy to the extent that he seemed anxious to leave her presence.

In fact, Will thought it best for both of them to remove himself as quickly as possible, and he had never been so relieved to be within the safe confines of his carriage. He needed to get control of himself, and in a hurry. The image of Elizabeth, her shirt tantalizing open, her breasts gleaming, on her knees in the master bedroom like some exotic concubine, was enough to drive him into a frenzy of desire. He had wanted nothing more than to kneel down on that floor with her and push that soft flannel shirt aside the last couple of inches to reveal the full glory of her breasts, to hold their heated weight in his hands, to trace with his tongue the path of that divine little trickle of sweat between, to engulf the salty peaks with his mouth. If he had thought she would be the least bit willing, he would have lifted her onto the bed and made violent love to her then and there. He was certainly ready, as the still-persistent pressure against his trouser buttons attested. His mind, his body, his entire being was totally wrapped up in her. And he thought San Francisco was a haven that would shield him from this obsession!

But it hadn't happened the way he had planned. Everywhere he went in the city, at every party he attended, he met available women, none of whom could hold a candle to Elizabeth Bennet. Oh, some of them were pretty enough, several were actually far more beautiful than she, but they were all weak, vapid, cosseted things accustomed to having everything handed to them. None of them read anything beyond the society columns of the newspaper, none knew the value of a good day's work but, worse, none could grasp the concept of spending any time in the "great outdoors" that their families had in some cases only recently abandoned for town. The idea of bringing any one of them to Pemberley was ridiculous; they were creatures of the city. And there was barely an ounce of passion, of joie de vivre, among them.

Even Caroline, who, he admitted, worked plenty hard at the Silver Dust, did not really care for the country and would prefer to pass her entire life among the mansions of San Francisco with her society and her servants. She did feed him a good line about how much she loved Pemberley, but during her visits there it was easy to see that she felt isolated by its remoteness, uncomfortable with its animals and rustic charms (despite its considerable luxury, for a ranch), and unhappy with its absence of entertainments. The idea of passing evening after evening alone in front of the fire with a good book was beyond her comprehension.

Such were the women he considered his so-called equals.

For the moment he would return to his mansion on Nob Hill, but what then? Now that he knew Elizabeth was in town, and, thankfully, not married to the absurd Rev. Collins - well, give her a little credit for taste and intelligence! - would he make an effort to see her? He could always make excuses for stopping by the parsonage, but could he - should he - invite her to his home? The unpleasant idea crossed Will's mind that perhaps she did not have any clothing appropriate to a visit to Nob Hill. As of now, he had only seen her dressed in her work clothes...barely dressed in those work clothes... Fighting down the immediate physical reaction that reflection had caused, he acknowledged that as much as it would please him to see her thus scantily attired at all times, it was hardly suitable for a walk on California Street. Further, and more disturbing, she hadn't given him any indication of the presence or absence of the rest of her family: the giggling girls, the insufferable mother, the oblivious father...the older sister who was still, despite the time that had passed, the single object of Charles's affections. Not to mention that blathering reverend and his mousy wife! Would he be forced to invite them all and suffer their company? He shook his head in consternation.

Mary Collins arrived back at the parsonage before lunchtime and was truly touched by the amount of work Elizabeth had managed to accomplish in her absence. Together, the two of them spent the rest of the day setting the small house to rights so that when the maid finally arrived, as Mr. Darcy had promised, by the end of the day, the girl was free to prepare dinner. It was at that time that Rev. Collins finally returned from overseeing the work at the church, and was delighted to report that the magnificent structure was lacking only a little paint, and that he would start holding services there that very Sunday.

Privately, Mrs. Collins confided to Elizabeth that the "magnificent structure" about which her husband had raved was in reality only a modest little church just down the street from the parsonage. To Mary's disappointment, Mrs. de Bourgh had apparently exaggerated both the potential size of the congregation as well as her investment in the building itself, but Rev. Collins was adamant that it was a glorious edifice that wanted only a spiritual leader who could fill its commodious pews.

"Fortunately," Mary added with a smile, "while we were there, a handful people already stopped by to ask about joining the congregation. I suppose one has to start somewhere."

Elizabeth smiled back, with a new respect for her sister's ability to see the best in the situation.

When he discovered that Mr. Darcy had already been to the parsonage - Elizabeth having given the two a very abbreviated version of his visit - Collins insisted that they repay the gentleman's call with one of their own the very next day. Elizabeth cried out in opposition to this plan; the five minutes that Mr. Darcy had been in the house hardly constituted a formal call, especially since he hadn't known at the time that the place was even occupied, and it far was too soon in any case for her to feel comfortable in his presence after their unexpected meeting. But Rev. Collins was adamant, and having no excuse to offer that would get her out of what her cousin deemed an obligation, it was decided that the three of them would indeed visit Nob Hill the following day by cable car. It was bound to be a very trying morning.

Any surprise that Darcy might have experienced when the butler told him the names of his visitors was not apparent on his impassive face by the time they were shown into the spacious and elegantly furnished parlor. But Will had other guests as well: the Bingleys, whose own new home on Nob Hill was just two blocks away. To Caroline, to whom Darcy had mentioned nothing of his visit to the parsonage and the presence of Elizabeth in town, the appearance of the trio obviously came as a nasty shock; she had thought she had left all these very unpleasant people behind in Gold Hill, and was therefore hard pressed to present much more to the guests than a forced smile. Fortunately, Charles Bingley's grin was genuine, and his greeting warm.

After the initial salutations were exchanged, and congratulations issued to the Collinses on their marriage, no one spoke for several moments, all at a loss for something to say. Then, the reverend, who abhorred a silence the way nature abhors a vacuum, broke the quiet.

"I must say, Mr. Darcy, what an honor it was having you, the esteemed nephew of my most beneficent patroness, as the first visitor to our simple parsonage. It pains me deeply that I was not present for your visit, and I most humbly beg your pardon."

"Think nothing of it," Darcy said, meaning it most sincerely, as he could easily forgo Rev. Collins's presence at any time. Before Collins could start in again, Will took the opportunity to direct an inquiry at Elizabeth. "Are your parents well, Miss Elizabeth?"

"Thank you, yes, they are in good health."

"And," he continued, getting to the point of greater interest to him, "are they and the rest of your family all here with you in San Francisco?"

Elizabeth was compelled to smile at such an idea. "Unfortunately, the rest of the family couldn't be spared from the ranch, Mr. Darcy. There is far too much work to be done. And of course, Jane's students depend on her."

"And how is dear Jane?" Caroline asked, though it was clear from the way she examined her impeccable fingernails how little she cared.

"I'm afraid Jane has been out of spirits lately," Elizabeth responded. Although Jane was far too shy to reveal her true feelings to the world, and would no doubt have been horrified to know how her sister was exposing her emotions especially in such company, Elizabeth was a woman who tended toward bold action. She felt that there was nothing to lose in uncovering the truth one way or another, and now was as good a time as any. "I rather think she is missing her friends," she added pointedly.

"Well, then," Caroline said, "do tell her how devastated we are not to have her charming presence visiting here with us in San Francisco."

"I believe your note told her everything she needs to know, Miss Bingley," Elizabeth replied, looking Caroline straight in the eye.

Charles was too sharp to miss the significance of this exchange. "What note, Caroline?"

"I sent her one of those lovely tintype photographs we had taken here."

"And," Elizabeth interrupted, "explained how you did not think you'd ever return to Gold Hill. You see, Mr. Bingley," she continued to Charles, her tone softened, beseeching, "if you were planning to abandon Gold Hill, I think Jane would have preferred to hear it from you directly."

Bingley seemed confused. "But we have every intention of going back, and soon. Don't we, Caroline? Darcy?"

"Really, Charles, we don't need to discuss this in front of them, do we?"

"I don't believe anything has been settled yet, Miss Elizabeth," Mr. Darcy interjected in his usual solemn manner.

"I see." Elizabeth was satisfied, for now, for having stirred the pot. "Well, I will send Jane your regards."

Charles stood up. He was clever enough to see that it wasn't Gold Hill that Jane had feared he had abandoned. "You will excuse me. I believe I have a letter to write." And he left the room, leaving Elizabeth smiling in his wake.

Caroline was none too pleased at this outcome. It would be just like that little chit to upset all her plans for Charles! She cast about for something to say in retribution, and finally pretended to notice Elizabeth's apparel for the first time.

"Why, Miss Elizabeth, I see you are wearing a new dress!"

"Thank you for noticing, Miss Bingley."

"It's a lovely shade of blue, and certainly a current enough style for Gold Hill," she said, with another artificial little smile, "though a little behind the times here in San Francisco."

Elizabeth saw through Caroline's blatant attempt to disconcert her. "Well, as you say, it's good enough for Gold Hill, and therefore suits my needs perfectly."

"What a shame, then, that the seamstress was so clumsy in her measurements, and used such inferior materials."

This barb did, however briefly, have its intended effect, as Elizabeth was painfully aware of the limitations of the local dressmaker her family had employed, especially in Caroline's stylishly attired presence. She looked down and smoothed her skirt self-consciously. Nevertheless, she found herself defended by an unlikely champion.

"On the contrary, Caroline," Darcy said mildly, without any indication of whether he was serious in his appraisal or was merely saying what he thought might most irritate Miss Bingley, "I think she has done a marvelous job."

Waving away Darcy's objection, Caroline continued, "Men can have no understanding of such things, Miss Elizabeth. How could Will possibly know how long a woman like you must make a single new dress last? If you like, while you're here, I must introduce you to my modiste. She uses only the finest cloth and trim."

"I appreciate the offer, Miss Bingley," Elizabeth responded, eyebrows raised to show that she, in fact, did not appreciate it at all, "but I will hardly be in San Francisco long enough to have dresses made."

"Really?" Darcy asked, to Elizabeth's further surprise. "How long will you be in town?"

At this point, Rev. Collins, who had been frustrated not to have had more of a share in the conversation, added, "My dear family, the Bennets, have been so generous as to part with my sister Elizabeth for two weeks so that she might help Mrs. Collins and me settle in to our new home, which," his voice turned even more unctuous, "your venerated aunt has been so gracious as to provide."

The visit was soon concluded, the guests not wishing to overstay their welcome, and the host not urging them to stay. Charles came back into the room long enough to say goodbye, and give Elizabeth a reassuring wink. For her, the visit to San Francisco had already served its purpose, and she no longer cared when she was to go home.

But Darcy did. It suddenly occurred to him as he watched the party leave that he had but two weeks to decide just how important he would allow Elizabeth Bennet to become to him.

*The Donner Party, a group of wagon-train pioneers on their way to California, had arrived in the Sierra Nevadas rather late for the onset the 1846-47 winter season. They found themselves snowed in for months, and notoriously, some resorted to cannibalism to survive. The 12 1/2 hr trip length comes from my interpretation of an 1881 Central Pacific timetable.

Chapter 13

After their sole social call to Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth found herself totally involved with helping her sister get launched in her new life. Although she marveled at the capable woman that the Bennets' timid middle daughter was becoming, beginning a new household in a bustling city was a task that Mary could not handle on her own; daily Mrs. Collins thanked Elizabeth most sincerely for her assistance. Elizabeth would have done as much for any of her sisters, but after three days had passed she began to grow weary of not only the unvaried company in the parsonage house, but also of its stuffy confines. Some small degree of homesickness assailed her, and a hunger for the open air. She missed her horse, her dog, even her sheep. On the afternoon when she sat staring at a length of material she had been trying for an hour, without success, to turn into a curtain, Elizabeth knew that she had to get outside.

And so she took a long walk, up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco, marveling at the cable cars, the lovely homes and especially the stores. With little money to spend, she hesitated to enter any of the shops, no matter how alluring the wares, and had to content herself with examining at length whatever was displayed in the windows. Finally, though, she did permit herself the indulgence of an hour in the largest book store she'd ever seen, and after reluctantly putting aside her own selections, she bought a recently published book she knew would delight Mr. Bennet.

Finding herself on Jackson Street, she halted abruptly and stared wistfully through the windows of the Ghirardelli chocolate shop. She longed to sample the tempting confections she could see inside, but luxuries like those were simply out of the question, so instead she watched as customers went in and out of the store and occasionally inhaled the intoxicating scent of fine chocolate as the door opened and closed. Sighing, she wondered wryly where a generous man like Mr. Wickham could be at a time like this, then bit her lip in amusement at her train of thought. She hadn't given the handsome gentleman much thought at all since her trip began, and here she was summoning him up when she wanted to indulge her sweet tooth! What a fickle female she was! Smothering a giggle, she hugged her package to her breast, and, taking one final, yearning look at the sweets, headed back to the parsonage.

Just down the street a gentleman was strolling with a smartly attired lady on his arm. The lady stopped to expound on a fine hat featured in the window of an expensive milliner, but the man's attention, already lagging, was caught instead by a familiar figure lingering in front of Ghirardelli's. So when his companion excused herself to go into the store, he remained outside.

Elizabeth! Darcy's mood, made gloomy by the tedious afternoon he had spent escorting Caroline around town, suddenly brightened. Although wearing a frayed dress that was clearly several years old, Elizabeth looked radiant to him, her face glowing pink with the exertion of her walk. He stood and watched in puzzlement as she hovered around the door of the shop. Why doesn't she just go in and buy something, for heaven's sake! But the answer came to him quickly, that she couldn't afford the extravagances that he took for granted, and he was ashamed of himself.

He had, in fact, wanted to call on Elizabeth, and had spent the past couple of days deciding how best to do it without having to endure the company of the reverend and his wife, so he was glad for the opportunity to see her out on the street unencumbered by her relations. As he took a step toward her, however, he remembered with a suppressed groan that Caroline was just inside the milliner's and would no doubt be out momentarily. He couldn't tolerate the idea of exposing Elizabeth in public to Caroline's snipes, which would be plentiful given the state of Elizabeth's dress and her inability to make the purchases she so obviously desired. In lieu of speaking to her, then, he was forced to merely watch her as she paced outside the store. Finally, some thought seemed to amuse her, and with a little grin and a last glance at the windows, she headed on her way.

A warm, almost paternal feeling welled up within Darcy, a wish that he could take her in his arms, kiss her forehead and invite her into the store with instructions to buy whatever she pleased. Only his sister had ever had this effect on him, and he wondered at the ache it left in his chest.

"Can you imagine how much they wanted for this hat?" Caroline exclaimed as she breezed outside with a hatbox, naming a figure that would have kept Elizabeth in bonbons for two months. "But I'd simply die without it!" She looked at Darcy quizzically. "Will, dear, are you all right?"

"Oh, yes," he replied, having assured himself that Elizabeth had melted into the crowd and was now too far away to be recognized. "I just thought I saw someone I knew."

"Well, I think we should head home. It's almost time to dress for dinner, and I'm exhausted."

"Just one more stop, then."

The following day, Elizabeth was determined to make another afternoon excursion, but Mrs. Collins kindly suggested that she might want to take advantage of the particularly fine weather and go out immediately after breakfast. This she did gratefully, taking a book and an apple in hand, and wandering down to a park with a lovely view of the bay. She thus passed a delightful morning in the unparalleled luxury of reading, and headed back to the parsonage the most content she had been since her arrival in San Francisco.

When she returned for lunch, Mary told her, with a voice full of wonder, that Mr. Darcy had paid a call to the parsonage, complimented her on her excellent housekeeping, and left a housewarming gift: a large box of Ghirardelli chocolates. Elizabeth eyed the box greedily. Rev. Collins didn't care for chocolate (Elizabeth suspected her cousin thought anything that could give pleasure that profound had to be some kind of sin), so it was left to Elizabeth and Mrs. Collins to share the treat, which they vowed to do sensibly over the course of several days. That evening, as they sampled the fine confections after dinner, Elizabeth pondered the significance of this generous present.

"No doubt we are meant to be in awe of his largesse and the enormous Darcy wealth that made it possible," she said lightheartedly.

"That's uncharitable of you, Lizzy!" her sister cried, all earnestness. "Mr. Darcy asked after you, you know. He even seemed disappointed that you weren't at home."

Helping herself to another chocolate, Elizabeth shrugged. "Well, then, you can tell him the next time you see him that I appreciated the gesture."

"You can tell him yourself," Mary said with an uncharacteristic glint in her eye. "We've been invited to dine at his house on Sunday evening."

Elizabeth knew a moment of panic. She had not been prepared on this trip for a series of social visits, and her selection of evening attire was therefore desperately lacking. Her only new dress, the blue one, was more suitable for daytime wear, and she'd already worn it on their earlier call on Nob Hill. Under the assumption that Caroline Bingley would also be at dinner, she wondered whether she should wear one of her better, but older, gowns, or make do with the inferior new dress that was not truly appropriate for a dinner party. Not caring at all for her choices, she told Mary,

"Maybe I just won't go."

"Oh, Lizzy, you can't do that to us!" squealed Mary. "We're very dependent on the approval of Mr. Darcy's aunt. I wouldn't want her to take a dislike to us for snubbing Mr. Darcy!"

Sighing, Elizabeth took her sister's hand. "Of course, my dear, you're absolutely right. I wouldn't dream of jeopardizing your position here. And after all, I hardly have the reputation for being a fashion plate. No one is going to care what I wear...as long as it's not my Levi's." Then she smiled wickedly. "On the other hand..."

Mary gasped in horror. "Lizzy! You wouldn't dare!"

Elizabeth laughed. "No, Mary, you're right. I wouldn't dare. But it would be fun to see the look on Caroline Bingley's face, don't you think?"

When it came time to dress for dinner on Sunday, Elizabeth settled on the best old gown she had brought with her. She comforted herself with the notion that she had never sought the good opinion of Mr. Darcy and Miss Bingley, and their likely censure could do nothing more than make her mildly uncomfortable for one evening. With some private amusement she realized that they had both seen her dressed far worse - in Lil's dress, for example - and that she could easily tolerate anything that they could dish out, if only for Mary's sake. It was, then, with a much lighter heart that she accompanied Rev. and Mrs. Collins back to Nob Hill.

But as it happened, the Bingleys were not Mr. Darcy's only guests that evening for dinner. Also waiting in the parlor were a dashing officer, who was introduced to the group as Mr. Darcy's cousin Col. Richard Fitzwilliam, and a fierce-looking older woman: the formidable Mrs. Lewis de Bourgh. The colonel immediately set Elizabeth at ease, bowing gallantly over her hand and saying, "I had no idea that my cousin had such enchanting acquaintances, Miss Bennet."

But Elizabeth had barely thanked him for his gracious compliment when Mrs. de Bourgh, looking down her patrician nose at Elizabeth, took in the young woman's ancient attire with a calculating eye, and said,

"Do they not receive the fashion publications in Nevada, Miss Bennet?"

This question was met by a gay laugh from Caroline, who had not yet had the opportunity to comment on Elizabeth's dress.

"On the contrary, Mrs. de Bourgh," said Caroline smoothly, "those of us who care enough to make the effort can easily keep up with the latest styles, even in Gold Hill."

Blushing, Elizabeth sought a clever rejoinder, but was prevented from doing so by the call to dinner. Col. Fitzwilliam immediately offered her his arm, and she took it with gratitude. Darcy escorted his aunt, and Caroline to her disappointment was left to walk in beside her brother, followed by the Collinses.

When they sat down to eat, Elizabeth found to her surprise that she had been seated at Mr. Darcy's left, but was pleased when Col. Fitzwilliam took the seat on her other side. He was a delightful raconteur, and more than once their laughter drew Darcy's attention. Their host, however, was unable to join in their repartee, being completely occupied in conversation with his aunt on his right.

Caroline, seated between Mrs. de Bourgh and Rev. Collins, was not enjoying the same sort of pleasant banter. Nevertheless, she sought to turn the evening her way by paying particular attention to the exchanges between Will and his aunt. When at length Darcy turned to address a comment to Elizabeth, Caroline saw her chance to ingratiate herself with Mrs. de Bourgh and quickly turned the conversation to the society of which Caroline longed to be a part, engaging the grande dame with her quick wit, flattery, and intimate knowledge of the latest gossip.

"You were not at home when I visited the Rev. and Mrs. Collins this week, Miss Elizabeth," said Darcy.

"Yes, I was out enjoying a magnificent view of the bay, as well as a good book."

"Did you also enjoy the chocolates I brought to the parsonage?"

"A little too much, I admit, Mr. Darcy, but I thank you most sincerely," Elizabeth said. Turning to the Colonel, she explained, "Your cousin brought my sister and her new husband a lovely box of Ghirardelli chocolates, Colonel. Mr. Darcy would not know this, but I have a weakness for sweets, and I've already eaten far more than my share. Without the activity I'm accustomed to on the ranch back home, I'm afraid I'm liable to grow quite stout."

"I doubt that your routine has changed very much since you've been in San Francisco, Miss Bennet," replied Fitzwilliam with a smile.

"You do not know Miss Elizabeth, Richard," retorted his cousin.

"Will's right, Colonel," added Charles. "Why, Miss Elizabeth tends the horses, herds the sheep, helps keeps the equipment in good repair, and Lord knows what else. I've never seen a more accomplished woman!"

"'An accomplished woman'! Surely you can't be serious, Mr. Bingley," interrupted Mrs. de Bourgh. "Are you saying that Miss Bennet works on her family's ranch like a common laborer?"

"I've seen her myself, Mrs. de Bourgh," Caroline confirmed in her most refined voice, wrinkling her nose, "dressed just like a boy to muck about with the animals."

"But when do you have time for needlework and piano?" Mrs. de Bourgh asked, aghast. "How do you learn French or Italian?"

"I know none of those things, ma'am," answered Elizabeth, a touch of defiant pride in her voice. "There are other skills I've found to be more useful."

"Why, then, you could hardly be called accomplished," scoffed Darcy's aunt. "How can you expect to find a proper husband?"

"Miss Elizabeth has already turned away two very eligible suitors, Mrs. de Bourgh," said Caroline with a malicious glance at Rev. Collins. "I suppose that she doesn't believe she needs a husband."

"What! Not need a husband! Why, I have never heard such nonsense!"

"I have never said that, Mrs. de Bourgh," Elizabeth countered, her cheeks burning. "I simply have a different set of...requirements."

"Balderdash. I can conceive of no situation in which a lady should not have the advantages of a proper education." She turned to the lady on her right. "Now, tell me, Miss Bingley, do you play piano?"

"Of course, ma'am. I will play for you later if you like."

"Splendid! And are you conversant in the Romance languages?"

"Mais naturellement, madame."

"Excellent. You see, Miss Bennet," she said, "you should be more like Miss Bingley here. She is all that I consider to be an accomplished woman, from a certain something in her air and manner of walking, to the tone of her voice, her address and expressions...right down to that absolutely exquisite gown."

"Oh, Mrs. de Bourgh," Caroline simpered with a false modesty familiar to all but the newcomers. "You are far too kind."

"Since my nephew no longer has the advantage of parents to give him direction in such things, I consider myself responsible for advising him on choosing a suitable bride." She nodded at Miss Bingley and patted her arm in what could only be called an affectionate manner. Caroline glowed, having apparently won a valuable ally. Then Mrs. de Bourgh turned with narrowed eyes to Darcy. "And high time for it, too, William!"

"I will marry when and whom I please, Aunt Catherine," Darcy replied. His voice was even, but his stony countenance made it clear that this issue had caused some tension before. "There is no need to bore my guests by rehashing this topic. The discussion is over."

There was an uncomfortable silence. Then Charles cleared his throat, asked Mrs. Collins a question, and the rest of the table resumed conversation, albeit in a more subdued manner, about less controversial subjects.

After dinner, Mrs. Collins, at her husband's insistence, offered to entertain the party on the piano and received Mrs. de Bourgh's reluctant approval. As Mary sat down and began to play, Colonel Fitzwilliam leaned over to Elizabeth and whispered,

"By the way, Miss Bennet, my opinion of you has only increased. As a cavalry officer, I can appreciate a woman who knows her way around a horse."

"There are many who can't, Colonel," Elizabeth whispered back.

"Then they are hardly worth knowing," he concluded.

Elizabeth cocked an eyebrow at him. "Does that include your own aunt and cousin, sir?"

Fitzwilliam laughed heartily, briefly drawing the attention of the two in question before Mary's performance claimed it again. He continued in a low voice, "My aunt, I'll grant you, is very old-fashioned, and her notions of what constitutes suitable female behavior tend to be very limited. But Darcy grew up on a ranch, and has a healthy regard for anyone who can carry his own weight."

Admitting herself quite surprised, Elizabeth said, "I was under the impression that I had earned his disapproval."

"Really?" Now it was the colonel's turn to be surprised. "I understood it to be quite the opposite."

"What do you mean?"

But she did not receive an answer, as Mary's song had finished, and Mrs. de Bourgh loudly and forcefully insisted on hearing Miss Bingley play. With an elegant curtsey toward Darcy's aunt, Caroline took her place at the piano, sending Elizabeth a look of triumph. Her attention fixed on Miss Bingley, Elizabeth missed another look of an entirely different nature that was sent her way. It did not, however, pass completely unnoticed, and Col. Fitzwilliam couldn't help but chuckle to himself.

Chapter 14

That night, Mrs. de Bourgh dominated every conversation, having apparently decided that Miss Bingley would make an ideal mate for her nephew, and pushed the young lady's advantages at every turn: "How well Miss Caroline plays, William!" (For it was the more familiar 'Miss Caroline' now, not 'Miss Bingley.') "Don't you think Miss Caroline has superb taste in gowns, William?" "How cleverly Miss Caroline has arranged her hair, don't you agree, William?" Mrs. de Bourgh clearly was a very important influence in Darcy's family, and Elizabeth wondered how much weight her opinion would carry. Thinking with some amusement that Will Darcy deserved Miss Bingley, she pictured them married and living in this mansion in San Francisco: she, cheerfully spending his money and attending party after party, each day growing more shrill and demanding; he, hiding his displeasure behind the daily newspaper, each day becoming more severe and irritable. But odd as it seemed, Elizabeth almost felt sorry for him. He didn't appear to be the type of man who wanted anything decided for him, much less something of this magnitude, and indeed he seemed very annoyed by Mrs. de Bourgh's persistence, yet too polite to insult Miss Bingley by asking his aunt to cease.

As for Rev. and Mrs. Collins, they were too intimidated by the presence of Mrs. de Bourgh to say much at all, though they hung on her every word. Thankfully, Elizabeth did have Col. Fitzwilliam and Charles Bingley to speak to, and she was much entertained as well as horrified by the colonel's stories of the Indian Wars.

Soon, however, Fitzwilliam was summoned to speak to his aunt, and Elizabeth was briefly left alone with Bingley. He seized the opportunity to say,

"Well, Miss Elizabeth, it seems you will have to endure my presence in Gold Hill once again, as I hope to return within the month." He smiled boyishly. "I think there's a lot to like in San Francisco, and I'll probably buy a house here, but don't think I'm ready yet to be a society gentleman in California. There's too much I miss of Nevada," he added with a significant nod.

The smile that Elizabeth returned was sincere, and she clasped his hand in gratitude. "Oh, Mr. Bingley, I'm sure I speak for everyone in Gold Hill when I say that we will gladly welcome you back." She couldn't ask if he had written to tell Jane, but if her sister didn't know yet, upon her return Elizabeth would be pleased to inform her. "Will Miss Bingley be joining you?"

Bingley's brow furrowed as he watched his sister's attempts to engage Darcy in conversation, which the latter returned with monosyllables. "I don't know. She has made it clear she'd rather stay in San Francisco...but that could depend on whatever Will's planning to do."

Elizabeth followed Charles's eyes across the room, and at that moment Will turned his head and looked directly at her. Feeling strangely unsettled by his piercing gaze, she glanced away quickly. "You certainly put great stock in Mr. Darcy's wishes. You came all the way to California at his urging."

"Yes, he said I needed to think about my future, and that I could do better than Gold Hill."

"Oh, did he, now?" Elizabeth saw this remark as a veiled criticism of Jane, and anger burned beneath her cool surface.

"He meant well, I suppose, but in the end, only I know what will make me happy."

"Naturally. And how did he react to your decision to go back?"

"Well, you know Will's a man of few words. But as far as I can tell, he doesn't think I gave it enough of a chance here. Thinks that I'm reacting with my heart rather than my head, which, of course, he considers foolish."

"Of course." Elizabeth looked upon the subject of their discussion with flinty eyes, wondering if Mr. Darcy had a heart at all.

But she didn't have much time to muse on this topic, as Mrs. de Bourgh pronounced herself fatigued and declared the evening to be at an end. She invited Miss Bingley to escort her to the front door so they might have the opportunity to talk for a few minutes more, and Caroline responded with alacrity. Darcy watched the two depart and then apologized to his remaining guests for the lack of time he had spent in their company. He invited them to stay on a while longer, but no one seemed of a mind to remain, least of all Elizabeth. The sooner she left the man's house, the happier she'd be.

If Elizabeth thought that her social obligations were at an end, however, she was sadly mistaken. On Tuesday morning, Darcy and Col. Fitzwilliam - thankfully sans their aunt - paid a call on the parsonage. Elizabeth, having grown up in the relative isolation of a ranch, was unaccustomed to so much visiting. Further, she had only a few days left in San Francisco and would rather have taken another long walk than be seated across from these two gentlemen making idle conversation. At least Col. Fitzwilliam was making conversation. Mr. Darcy was silent as the grave, sitting uncomfortably next to Rev. Collins, who was expounding on the honor it had been to be called to dinner with Mrs. Lewis de Bourgh herself.

"I was surprised when Aunt Catherine decided to make the trip," said the colonel to Elizabeth. "I thought she'd at least wait until the congregation was established before traveling all the way across the country to see it." Then he smiled, a very attractive smile, Elizabeth thought, like Mr. Darcy's, his teeth white and straight, lacking only his cousin's dimples. "But I suppose she couldn't resist the opportunity to direct everything herself."

Elizabeth smiled back. "So I gathered."

"She can be...a bit too forthright, Miss Elizabeth, but please don't allow her rudeness to put you off our entire family."

She responded reassuringly, "How can I, when you ask me so nicely?"

Darcy, having had enough of the reverend's effusions, stood up and addressed Elizabeth directly.

"I understand you will be going back home soon, Miss Elizabeth," Will said.

"Yes, Saturday afternoon."

"Have you had your fill of San Francisco, then?"

"I've enjoyed my time here, but I do miss the ranch."

"And how did you happen to meet my cousin, Miss Elizabeth?" interrupted Fitzwilliam, tired of this politely empty exchange. "Was it through Charles Bingley?"

"Actually," she said puckishly, glad to have the opportunity to embarrass Darcy in front of his family, "he accosted me on the street in Gold Hill."

"He what?"

"It was quite all right, colonel," she continued, near giggles at the redness creeping into Will's face, "because he took me for a boy."

"A boy!" Col. Fitzwilliam gave a hoot of laughter that startled Rev. Collins and his wife. "Oh, I have never heard anything funnier!"

"Ask her," Will interjected defensively, "what she was wearing at the time."

"True," Elizabeth acknowledged, "I was wearing a pair of Levi's, a work shirt, a leather coat and a hat." She bit her lip. "He only saw me from behind; it was an understandable mistake."

"Ah, so you say that now," Darcy said, "but at the time you weren't so forgiving." He turned to his cousin. "She pulled a Colt revolver on me."

"No!" Tears of laughter now ran down Fitzwilliam's cheeks.

"Yes, I'm afraid I did, Colonel. But he did grab me, and at the time, I had no way of knowing that Mr. Darcy was so harmless."

"Trust me, Miss Elizabeth," Col. Fitzwilliam said, with a little wink at his cousin, "Will is anything but harmless."

The following day, to the surprise of everyone at the parsonage, Mr. Darcy showed up at the door for a call just as the family was stepping out to go to the church. Elizabeth was not sorry that there would be no visit, since she couldn't imagine what would draw Darcy to such dull company without his cousin to act as a buffer, and could envision an exceedingly tedious call during which only Rev. Collins had anything to contribute to a conversation. To the further astonishment of the little group, however, Darcy accompanied them to the church, falling into the space beside Elizabeth as they walked down the street but saying very little. As she refused to bear the entire burden of the conversation, there were lengthy periods of silence.

Once at the church, Elizabeth admitted herself impressed with what her cousin and sister had accomplished in such a short period of time. She also marveled at the inspiring light cast through the lovely new stained glass windows and was awed by the beauty - if not the stature - of the place. It positively glowed. Darcy's awe was caused by a beauty and a glow of an entirely different nature, but of this Elizabeth was completely unaware. She knew only that he was characteristically taciturn, and she was relieved that he stayed only for a few minutes, taking his leave with apologies for having interrupted their day.

Thursday passed uneventfully, giving Elizabeth an opportunity to take one more tour around the city. On Friday, she considered her departure from San Francisco the following afternoon with mixed emotions. Certainly it had been exciting being in a big city, but with limited money to spend, she could not enjoy everything it had to offer: there could be no shopping, no opportunities to visit a theater or eat at a fancy restaurant. Further, she had had quite enough of the confines of the parsonage, her sister's sycophantic husband, and especially the forced society with people who considered themselves so far above her. Only the company of Charles Bingley, whom she was now guaranteed to see back home, and Col. Fitzwilliam gave her any pleasure. She was very sorry that she would be seeing nothing more of the latter, but she thought it was fair recompense for not having to endure his dreadful aunt and his somber cousin.

Still, organizing the parsonage attic with so little time left in her visit would not have been her first choice of activity. But Mary and her husband would be out visiting new parishioners most of the day, and it was raining, so doing this favor for her sister seemed the only sensible thing. Dressed in her work shirt and Levi's once again, she headed up to the attic.

Elizabeth had hoped to discover some unexpected treasures in the topmost floor, but the previous occupants had apparently been diligent about the removal of their personal effects when they moved. She did find a couple of old maps and several dusty books, though nothing that merited her immediate attention, and her only task, then, was to make the place fit for storage. This she did with a considerable raising of dust and cobwebs, then headed downstairs, her clothes and face covered in grime.

She carried her finds downstairs to the kitchen with the intention of cleaning them to ascertain their worth, but was startled when she found Mr. Darcy standing in the foyer.

"Forgive me for using my key to get in, Miss Elizabeth," he said, "but I rang the bell several times and the maid didn't answer."

"She's out at the market," Elizabeth replied, still breathless from her surprise. She recovered herself sufficiently to say, "Do come in."

Although she would have preferred that he would have taken the hint, created by the filth that covered her, that she was not in a condition to entertain callers, Darcy proceeded into the parlor. Excusing herself for a moment, Elizabeth went into the kitchen to wash her face and hands, and returned to the parlor still drying them with a dishcloth. She found that her visitor had already removed his overcoat and hat and placed them neatly over a chair.

"May I offer you some refreshment? Would you like a cup of tea or perhaps some coffee?"

He declined politely.

"Please sit down," she said, then, after a moment's thought, spread the dishcloth on a chair to protect it from her dirty Levi's. She sat, but Will remained standing, and, curiously, began to pace the small room. Finally, in an apparent state of agitation, he turned to her and said,

"Miss Elizabeth, I know you're leaving for home tomorrow. When I found out that the Collinses would be out this morning, I knew it had to be now...I couldn't let you leave without telling you...that I love you. Utterly, passionately and completely."

An announcement of this nature was the last thing that Elizabeth expected from Will Darcy, and she was stupefied into silence. Taking her apparent calm as sufficient encouragement, he blazed ahead:

"I suppose you've been expecting me to declare myself, wondering if I would speak up before you left town. I regret that it's taken me this long to make my feelings known." He paused and gave a little laugh. "'Make my feelings known'? Good Lord, if it were any more obvious how I feel about you, it would be a front-page headline in The Chronicle. But ever since I met you, you've consumed me. I thought maybe that leaving Gold Hill for San Francisco was going to cure me, but it never did. I thought about you constantly. And then you showed up, and my last defense broke down.

"It had never been my intention to fall for someone in your social circle, of course. My family - of whom my aunt is an extreme example - believes, as you've seen, that I should marry someone like Caroline Bingley, someone with money and all the right connections. That sort of thing has never been important to me, but I'm sure that Aunt Catherine, as well as Col. Fitzwilliam's family, will think I've gone completely mad and refuse to acknowledge our marriage. I've decided that you're worth it, and if it takes them all a while to come around, it's their loss.

"Your family was another issue. I had barely gotten past considering whether I could deal with their inanity, their lack of decorum...and then your sister married my aunt's minion. People are going to talk, no doubt about it - marrying you will certainly damage my standing in San Francisco society, and in Philadelphia as well. But I don't really care about that, either; I don't care if we ever mingle with that crowd again. We'll live quite happily together at Pemberley: you, me and my sister, Georgiana. I can't wait for you to meet her, Elizabeth. You're just the kind of lively influence she needs, to draw her out of her shell. She'll love you as much as I do.

"I'll give you everything, Elizabeth; you know I'm a rich man. Just name it and it's yours. I can't bear to see you in those frayed old gowns while someone like Caroline parades around in the latest fashions. Not that I put any value on a woman's wardrobe, and I assure you there is no one who looks better in a pair of Levi's," his voice deepened sensually, and his eyes raked her form, causing a frisson to run up her spine, "but you deserve the best. You'll never want for anything again. You'll never again have to work the ranch, unless it gives you pleasure. You'll never again have to pass up things you want because you don't have the money for them. I saw you outside Ghirardelli's, Elizabeth. I saw how much you wanted those chocolates. It broke my heart that you couldn't buy them, so I bought them for you - not for your sister, for you. And I'll spend the rest of my life making up for all those things you couldn't have before.

"Tell me that you will, Elizabeth, tell me that you'll marry me, and come back to Pemberley with me. I'll order a Pullman car to take us back to Nevada in style, and we can marry whenever you want. Say yes, Elizabeth." And to punctuate his request, he extended his hand to her, and waited, smiling, for her to take it.

For a long moment Elizabeth was unable to bring herself to reply. Her high color led him to believe, prematurely, that he had succeeded. But still she did not take his hand. Then, carefully, slowly, Elizabeth said, "Well, you certainly had it all figured out, didn't you."

Darcy was startled by the tone of her voice; this was not the reaction he had anticipated. Withdrawing his hand, his voice wary, he said, "What do you mean?"

"I mean," Elizabeth spat, enumerating the points on her fingers, "you thought you could invade my sister's home, insult me by saying I'm not good enough for your family, insult my family by saying they're not good enough for you, express your pity for my destitute state, insinuate that my affection could be bought with the luxuries your money can buy...and still think, after all that, that I would marry you." She got to her feet, her eyes shooting daggers. "Have I missed anything?"

He unconsciously took a step back. "I didn't intend to..."

"Certainly you didn't intend to make me an offer in the most offensive way possible, but somehow you managed it beautifully." Taking a deep breath, she added, "And if you couldn't already tell, my answer, Mr. Darcy, is no." With that, Elizabeth folded her arms across her chest and compressed her mouth shut. There was an ominous silence.

"That's it?" he asked incredulously, "That's all you have to say to me?"

"No, not exactly," she said. "I'd like, for example, to know how you could possibly encourage Mr. Bingley to leave a promising relationship with my sister Jane in Gold Hill with the assurances that he could 'do better' in San Francisco. Have you considered the misery you'd cause on both sides?"

"Look, I have nothing against your sister. I find her pleasant, intelligent company. But Charles is my best friend, and I have to look out for him. Mining booms don't last forever; he can't be tied down to Gold Hill."

"Or my sister."

"Your words, not mine."

"But she has the same inane, indecorous family as I do, Mr. Darcy."

"True," he said, his brow darkening. He steadfastly refused to lessen the sting of the word by adding any more to it.

Elizabeth flinched, but she pressed on. "And since we're on the subject of friends," she said, changing tack, "how about Mr. Wickham?"

Darcy's face grew red. "What about him?"

"Oh, he told me all about you, how you turned him away from Pemberley, where he grew up, left him destitute and without direction, against the wishes of your late father. Well, I know a little bit about being poor, Mr. Darcy, and I can't say that I have a whole lot of respect for someone who'd treat a friend that way. Thanks to you he had to lower himself to become a gambler just to survive, and it's only through good luck that he has managed to overcome his troubles to run a business of his own.

"And that broken nose you gave him...for stepping out of line with a woman not of his class!" Elizabeth shook her head in disgust. "What gave you the right? What did he ever do to you?"

"What did he ever do...? Miss Bennet, you have no idea what you're saying."

"Don't I?" She stepped toward him, until they were nose-to-nose...or would have been, had she not reached only shoulder-height on him. She tilted her head back defiantly and poked an accusing finger in the middle of his chest. "I would never marry you, Mr. Darcy. Never. I think you're a cruel and inconsiderate man, who only considers what's best for himself."

He looked at her, first incredulously, then, as he realized that his hopes had been completely dashed, with cold anger. With a taut smile he said, "Well, then. Might as well be hung for a wolf as a sheep." And before he even had the last word out, he had already snaked one arm around her waist and gripped the back of her head, drawing her to him. He kissed her then, hard and insistently, not at all in the way she had always imagined a lover would, his lips driving hers apart, his tongue penetrating her mouth.

The result was akin to throwing a lighted match onto dry prairie grass.

Though he had expected fierce opposition, and, in fact, a hard slap across his face, instead Will received equally fierce acquiescence. He quickly found her hands wrapped around his neck and twisted into his hair, her tongue meeting his, not shyly, but with a brutal passion that matched his own. He could not imagine what had prompted such a reaction, but he was grateful to follow her lead.

So this is lust, Elizabeth thought vaguely. Inveighed against by preachers like Rev. Collins, whispered about by flirts like Lydia. But oh! Better than ice cream, better than Ghirardelli's. Once Elizabeth had decided that she would have this experience, there was no longer anything to think about, no benefits to weigh, no downside to consider. Despite her dislike for the man, then, she let her hands wander the impressive width of his shoulders, and, sighing her pleasure, pressed the length of her body eagerly against his.

Buoyed by her enthusiastic response, Will slid his hand from where it rested on the small of her back to the well-worn material of the jeans below, enjoying the extraordinary feel of a shapely derriere encased in soft denim. Gripping her bottom, he lifted Elizabeth upwards to crush her hips even more tightly to his, letting her feel the growing evidence of his need for her. And then, without releasing his mouth's hold on her own, he sat the two of them down on the sofa, pulling her completely astride him for the most intimate contact he could generate while they were both still fully dressed.

This posture, so shocking in theory, felt completely natural to Elizabeth, though the mild gelding which she was accustomed to straddling did not prepare her for the power she now felt surging between her thighs, or for the sensation that her entire insides were melting down like hot wax and concentrating in one torrid spot. Knowing full well that her behavior was beyond the pale, Elizabeth ignored the warnings of her conscience and threw herself into this heady new feeling. Seeking, in fact, to intensify it, she instinctively ground herself against Darcy's lap and had the satisfaction of hearing his quick indrawn breath and feeling the unyielding bulge beneath her grow larger and even harder than before.

Elizabeth hadn't even realized that Will had unbuttoned her work shirt and slipped his hands inside until his fingers made contact with her bare breasts and left her gasping. Cupping her warm silken flesh with greedy hands, his thumbs circled and teased the sensitive peaks as he slid his lips slid down along the length of her throat. Elizabeth's head spun with the bliss of it, and she grasped his head closer to her as it made its way lower. His mouth, his tongue, his teeth soon replaced his hands on her bosom, and the guttural groan that issued from him could just as easily come from her. She had never known such an exquisite feeling, and she was inclined to let it go on forever.

But it was at that moment that her apparent compliance caused him to push his luck too far. When he undid the top button of her Levi's, and then reached for the next, Elizabeth was rudely brought back to her senses.

With all the force she could muster, Elizabeth pushed off him and, slightly drunk with her waning passion, got unsteadily to her feet. Will sat unmoving, breathing heavily, incapable of reacting as she stood before him in a state of delicious dishabille: her shirt completely open, displaying both lovely breasts - which had just a moment before been his playthings - in all their naked glory, their peaks hardened, erect with her desire for him. He held out his hands as if to take her back into his arms, but she took a step back away from him. For one dizzying moment as she reached down for her Levi's, he thought she was about to finish unfastening them and offer herself up to him, and the blood pounded in his ears. He had never been so ready for such an invitation. But no. Locking eyes with Will, Elizabeth made a show of first fastening the button of her jeans, then each shirt button in precise, workmanlike fashion. Then, fully covered, she picked his discarded hat and coat and, dropping them onto his still throbbing lap, said crisply, "Get out. Now!"

It was clear there would be no arguing with her. With difficulty, Will stood up and, shrugging into his overcoat, strode wordlessly to the door, opened it and stepped outside into the rain. Just before she slammed the door behind him, Elizabeth snarled, "You are lucky, Mr. Darcy, that today I'm not armed!"

"On the contrary, Elizabeth," he said softly to the closed door, "I do believe you are."

Chapter 15

Looking back later, Elizabeth did not know how she occupied herself for the remainder of that day. To be sure, somehow she cleaned the materials she had found in the attic (finding, as she had suspected, nothing of value), had a bath, packed her trunk for the next day's journey, and managed conversation with Mary and Rev. Collins when they came home for dinner. But the spaces in between, how were they filled? More often than she cared to admit, she re-lived the pleasurable sensations generated by her encounter with Mr. Darcy, and, face flushed, experienced the same hot, hungry feeling that had earlier driven her shocking behavior. Elizabeth told herself that she did not regret a thing: rejecting his offer, telling him precisely what she thought of him, and, above all, allowing herself the sublime feelings that had engulfed her body while in his arms. Smugly, she considered her little experiment a success, and was proud that she had not only had an enjoyable physical interlude but also gotten the better of that detestable man without losing complete control of herself. But always in the end, she would remember the stricken look that had briefly flickered across his handsome face when she had ordered him to leave, and - more devastatingly - that, after all, the man loved her, and much of her self-satisfaction drained away.

That night as she slept, Elizabeth had dreams the likes of which she had never known, ones that left her perspiring and panting, and yearning for something, or someone. This, she assured herself pragmatically upon wakening, was a side-effect of the new carnal knowledge she had acquired, and it could easily be put to rest by finding herself a man she could love, respect and, eventually, marry. Perhaps even Mr. Wickham. But even as the man's name crossed her mind, she knew it would not be him. No, no matter her delight in his attentions, she had to admit that he had never caused the kind of tremor in her that Will Darcy had created.

The next morning, Elizabeth was packing some last-minute gifts Mary had purchased for the family when the doorbell rang. Her heart gave a lurch, and her hands shook slightly as she closed the trunk. But as she headed downstairs, she heard Col. Fitzwilliam's familiar voice, and it was plain that he had come alone. Whom did you expect? a snide voice rang in her head. She shooed away the unpleasant thought and greeted the colonel with a smile that was not entirely natural.

"I've come to say goodbye, Miss Elizabeth," said Fitzwilliam. "My aunt sends her regrets, as she is entertaining callers this morning." This was not entirely true, since Mrs. de Bourgh had entertained but one caller every morning since Sunday, and that was Miss Bingley. Mrs. de Bourgh had taken it upon herself to give the young woman advice on how to best entice her nephew into marriage, and Caroline was only too happy to oblige by doting upon the old lady. The colonel had watched some of it with disgust, and much of it with amusement, as he was certain that his cousin's affections were otherwise engaged. This morning, in fact, part of Col. Fitzwilliam's sacred mission, as he saw it, was to deliver a letter from Darcy to Miss Elizabeth that he hoped would ensure his cousin's happiness.

Will had been a mess when the colonel had seen him last evening, his usually immaculate trousers, jacket and shirtfront speckled with dust, his hair wild, his visage gloomy, but he had declined to explain his condition. They had planned to dine together, but it had been obvious that Will would not be eating, at least until he had completed the document that he had been scribbling at like a man possessed. Despite Fitzwilliam's pleas, his cousin had refused to be interrupted until, with an exhausted sigh, he had signed the last page, folded the lot carefully and placed it into an envelope. On this envelope he had written, "Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

Col. Fitzwilliam had tried to pry out of Darcy some evidence of the contents of this missive, but his cousin had been tight-lipped. He had asked only that Fitzwilliam deliver the letter the following morning to Miss Bennet with a request that she read it on the train ride back to Nevada. Although Will had been slightly more talkative the remainder of the evening, the colonel knew him well enough to recognize when his cousin was not quite himself. And it did not take someone as astute as Fitzwilliam to figure out that something had passed between Miss Bennet and Darcy that had left the latter in an uncharacteristically troubled state.

So in presenting the letter to Elizabeth just before he left the parsonage, the colonel was hopeful that the young lady might reveal something that could explain Will's agitation. Alas, she did not. Her deep blush upon taking it did, however, indicate to him that there could be something of a romantic nature involved, though he was too much of a gentleman to ask what it might be. She thanked him coolly, and said nothing more about it. As a result, he left disappointed.

That afternoon, at precisely 4:30, Elizabeth waved goodbye to Mary and her husband as the eastbound Central Pacific Railroad departed for Reno. Once she settled into her seat, she withdrew the letter from her reticule and stared at it. Several times she put it back into her bag, only to bring it out again a few minutes later, weighing it in her hand, turning it over and over, and, at one point, self-consciously bringing it to her nose to see if it might retain the seductive scent of its writer. (It did not.)

Finally, as the skies grew too dark to make it possible to see the passing scenery, Elizabeth sighed and reached once again for the envelope. Smoothing out the folded sheets, she first grudgingly admired the neatness of the strong, masculine hand and then, having run out of ways to put off the inevitable, read:

Dear Miss Bennet,

No doubt you will be unpleasantly surprised at receiving correspondence from me, but let me assure you at the outset that there's no need to be alarmed - I have no wish to rehash what was said, or done, during our last visit. But for my own peace of mind, and ultimately, yours, there are a couple of issues between us that should not remain unresolved, and I beg your patience while I explain them.

The first, of course, concerns your allegation that I urged Charles Bingley to leave Gold Hill, and your sister Jane, because my grand ambitions for him did not include a schoolmarm whose family and circumstances I hold in contempt. While I will readily admit that your family is not what I would choose for Charles, or myself for that matter, it had nothing to do with my advice to my friend. He may marry whomever he pleases; it is where he intends to settle down which concerns me. Although the Comstock has been producing well, one day, perhaps soon, the Lode will be played out. The Bingleys have their entire lives invested in Gold Hill, all their holdings are there, and should something happen to the mines, it would be devastating to Charles and Caroline. In encouraging Charles to look beyond Gold Hill, it had never been my intention to separate him from your sister, who I think is a fine woman. If, however, such a separation had been an effect of my recommendation, well, I would consider it to be the price Charles would have to pay for ensuring his future, and I cannot regret it. I was only thinking of him.

As you might have gathered, Charles has apparently decided to head back to Nevada. I had rather wished that he would spend more time in San Francisco, but Charles is an adult and I cannot stand in his way. If he decides to marry your sister, I will wish them both joy, but I will continue to make an effort to persuade him to diversify his investments, specifically outside the Gold Hill area, and hope that, in time, he will see reason.

What is more important, though, is that I have apparently been too subtle and have failed in my attempts to warn you against letting down your guard around George Wickham. It's clear that he has been spreading the sort of lies he is known for wherever he goes, and I think before you return to Gold Hill you should know the facts.

The elder Mr. Wickham was indeed my own father's foreman, and George and I did grow up together at Pemberley. George was, in fact, my father's godson, and as boys we were the best of friends. But when George attained adolescence, he began getting into trouble. They were inconsequential lapses at first: stolen eggs, small fires, horses let out of the barn. Out of respect for his trusted foreman, my father overlooked the son's faults. A couple of years after George's father died, though, he became very wild, and the transgressions grew more serious: drinking, gambling, fighting, philandering. My father tried to help him, offering to pay for school, even to buy him a parcel of land to start his own ranch. George wasn't having any of it. Yet my father had promised the late Mr. Wickham that he would look after George, and he cared for him too much to have him removed from Pemberley.

Just after Father died early in '72, George came to me demanding to know what he had been bequeathed in the will. It wasn't money, but the beautiful piece of property up near Reno that Father had offered George earlier. A very valuable gift which George threw back in my face. He became very angry, said he had no use for (I believe his exact words were) "a worthless plot of dirt," and demanded the value of the land in cash instead. So I gave him $1,000, far more than the land was worth at the time, and had him sign away his rights to it. George was foolish: if he had taken the land then, he would have seen its value increase exponentially as the Virginia and Truckee Railroad came through Reno that same year. But he left Pemberley after he got his cash, and I believe the money was gone within a month. After that, from time to time I would hear news of him, none of it good.

I suppose he told you about his saloon, The Lone Wolf. He's pretty proud of that place. Perhaps he told you that he bought a failing business from the previous owner and fixed it up, or perhaps that worked his way up by sweeping floors and rousting drunks and was given ownership by a grateful old man who retired to California. No matter; the reality is far uglier. In fact, George won the saloon from its owner, a man who indulged a bit too much in his own wares, in a rigged game of faro. He cheated, Miss Bennet. He cheated a drunken old man out of his life's work and sent him packing to California in shame. The poor fellow was never heard from again.

Certainly, The Lone Wolf is a successful saloon now, thanks to George. It's also one of the busiest and most notorious brothels in Reno. I'm sorry if that shocks your sensibilities, but for your own protection you have to know the whole of it. There is no way to prove it, of course, but I have heard that many of George's trips outside of Reno are for the purpose of acquiring new girls for the bagnio, which has the reputation for unusually high turnover of its 'talent' due to the demands placed upon them, the details which are far too offensive to recount to a lady. You should, however, be sure to warn your younger sisters away from Mr. Wickham, as he has a taste for girls of a tender age. Explaining how I know this involves revealing a painful secret, but I know I can count on your discretion.

My sister, Georgiana, who is nearly 12 years my junior, had always been fond of George, and, as a mere child of 10, had been distressed into tears when he left Pemberley. Unbeknownst to me, they carried on a clandestine correspondence all the while he was gone, and by the time she turned 16 last summer, she was convinced that she was in love with him. With the help of her governess, who was, as it unfortunately turned out, overly susceptible to flattery and bribery, George persuaded Georgiana to elope with him while I was away in San Francisco. Fortunately, my housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, who has been with my family since I was four years old, got wind of the plot, and I was able to head them off in Reno. By the time they reached the city, Georgiana had reconsidered the marriage, but it was George's idea to keep her there until he could cajole or bully or bribe her into marrying him. I guess he figured he would have Pemberley - or at the very least Georgiana's substantial dowry - one way or another. Failing that, he threatened to bring her into the brothel, where she would have fetched him a high price. Though the threat proved an empty one, my blood still freezes at the very thought.

You can imagine the unpleasant scene. Georgiana was practically hysterical in her relief at seeing me, and I wanted George dead. I arrived armed, naturally, and I had my gun drawn before he could reach for his own. I might have killed him, too, but for her entreaties; she didn't want his blood on my hands. No legitimate judge would have convicted me, of course, but if George had enough friends in high places, I would surely be hanged. So instead I hit him, hard. Bruised him badly, cracked a rib, broke his pretty nose and opened up his cheek in the bargain. I had hoped that I had ruined his looks, so he could never seduce another innocent, but I see now that I failed. I wanted never to see the scoundrel again, but he turned up in Gold Hill...with you.

Miss Bennet, if you believe nothing else in this letter, I hope you will now understand my antipathy toward George Wickham and steer clear of him.

I never meant to offend you with anything I said yesterday, and I hope that I have been able in some way to set the record straight. We will, no doubt, not be seeing much, if anything, of each other again. I want you to know that I wish you only happiness.

Yours truly, Will Darcy

Elizabeth read the letter two, three, four times. She felt nauseated; the number of ways in which she had been mistaken made her head spin. Her righteous anger at Mr. Darcy's high-handedness had evaporated, as she now understood his that his motivation was based on a desire to protect Mr. Bingley's financial interests - not from dear Jane, or even more plausibly, their family, but from the unavoidable end of the Comstock boom. It was embarrassing to admit that she had so quickly jumped to the wrong conclusion. But that situation, at least, seemed headed for a happy ending. The second part of the letter, on the other hand, left her nearly trembling with distress at her own willful misunderstanding. She had been taken in, far too easily, by George Wickham's good looks and disarming manners, and she was heartily ashamed of herself.

Now that she knew Mr. Wickham to be the worst sort of human being, Elizabeth wished futilely that she could take back all the hurtful things she had said to Mr. Darcy. Chewing on the tip of her finger, she considered her options. Should she write back to him, apologize? No, she couldn't. It seemed far too painless a penance for the offense she'd committed. He had every right to be angry, spiteful, abusive, and yet he wished her "only happiness." With a sigh, Elizabeth concluded that she owed him an apology in person. But this could only happen, of course, if Charles and Jane got married. Mr. Darcy would surely attend the wedding, and then there would be no avoiding it.

And didn't seeing him again hold its own perils? She would have to stand before him, humbled, expressing remorse, while between them hung the specter of their last encounter, not only the bitter words that had been exchanged but also the electricity that had crackled between them, and the inescapable memory of their powerful - not to mention highly improper - physical contact. Oh, how he must despise her for using him that way! How could she face him? Yet, she argued with herself, he had known exactly what he was doing. He was a man who had lived in the world, and had plenty of experience with women. After all, there had been sensual expertise in the way he had kissed her, in the way he had unbuttoned her shirt... Elizabeth felt her face grow hot as the memories flooded her again. She fanned herself with the sheets of Darcy's letter.

Well, then, it's fortunate that we're unlikely to run into each other, isn't it? Uncomfortable with the trend of her thoughts, Elizabeth tried to brush off her recollections in a businesslike manner. It was time to focus on warning her family away from Mr. Wickham, and restoring Jane to Mr. Bingley's affections. There would be time to worry about seeing Mr. Darcy if and when Jane became engaged to his friend. She refused to think about it further.

Still, think about it she did, all the way back to Nevada. The sixty stops made by the train, one every few minutes, made sleep impossible. Briefly, she recalled that Darcy had offered to take her back home in a Pullman car, and she smiled wryly. At least she would have gotten some sleep! By the time she reached Reno at 6:15 the next morning, she was sluggish and irritable, filled with guilt and burdened by a headache. And she still had to catch the Virginia and Truckee train to Carson City, then on to Virginia City.

Elizabeth's disappointment was vast when she reached her final destination and found that her family was not there to greet her. In their stead, they had sent Joe Denny. Although her mood was foul, she couldn't help but be relieved at how Joe took command of the situation, handling her trunk with ease and helping her into the wagon. He nodded knowingly at her weary state, and didn't insist on making small talk on the ride home, for which she was grateful.

It wasn't until they were almost back to the ranch, with Elizabeth dozing pleasantly in her seat, when she was startled into full alertness. A vision of Mr. Darcy's letter had intruded into her drowsy thoughts, and she suddenly recollected Joe's association with George Wickham. She peered at the man warily as he drove them along the road leading to the ranch.

"I appreciate your coming to get me at the station, Joe."

Joe Denny was as different from his friend as one man could be to another. Where everything about Mr. Wickham was smooth - from his manner of speaking to his handsome features to the skin on his hands - everything about Joe was rough, as if his Creator hadn't quite finished with him yet. Unlike his lean and lanky friend, he was square and solid, like a block of wood. While his skin was brown and coarse from the sun and hard work, his hair was so blond as to be nearly white, and his eyes were an unnerving, almost colorless pale blue. Even his speech was unpolished.

"Jus' doin' my job, ma'am," he smiled, showing teeth yellow from chewing tobacco.

"Still, I know you've been a great help to my father, and we all appreciate it." Then she added, carefully, "Mr. Wickham did us quite the favor recommending you."

"I'm much obliged to him myself. He hooked me up with a darn good situation."

"How long have you known Mr. Wickham, Joe?"

Denny squinted into the distance as he considered his answer. "Lessee. Well, I reckon it's been one or two years at the most. I first met him in Virginia City, then we ran into each other again in Carson City a few months later."

"Really? I thought you two were old friends."

"Naw. George is like that with everyone, though: don't take long for him to consider a feller a buddy. But let me tell you: he's one righteous hombre, George is. Helps me out with work whenever he can."

"Have you ever been to his...establishment in Reno?"

"Why, lookee here!" Joe said as he turned the wagon into the front gate of the ranch. "Everyone's done come out to greet you. Home, sweet home, Miss Elizabeth!"

And then there was no more time to think, as the entire Bennet clan descended on Elizabeth with hugs, shrieks and questions. Denny carried her trunk into the house, and with a tip of his hat, disappeared to the barn. Happy to be home, and exhausted from her journey, Elizabeth never realized that Joe had not answered her question.

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