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Silver Dust

Chapter 16

Elizabeth buried her nose into King's fluffy black and white fur. Odd as it seemed, she just loved the smell of her dog, even when he came in from the herd stinking of sheep. Today as she sat in the barn and brushed the mats out of his coat, she thought of how much she had missed his ever-cheery disposition while she was in San Francisco. Looking up, she saw Jane smiling at her affectionately from the doorway, and with some embarrassment withdrew her face from the dog's pelt.

"So, Lizzy, I think that went rather well."

Snorting her disagreement, Elizabeth replied, "Dear Jane! How can you say such a thing? Papa practically laughed me out of the room, Mama accused me of trying to find something wrong with yet another eligible bachelor, and Kitty and Lydia think I'm just jealous because he'd been spending time with them while I was away."

"Yet you have to see their side. Mr. Wickham has made himself so very agreeable to the entire family, and that's quite a claim you made against him. It's no wonder they all find it hard to believe he could be such a...a villain. Is it possible," she continued gently, "that Mr. Darcy, or his interpretation of the events in question, could be mistaken? After all, we know the two men have reason to dislike each other."

"No, I'm sure of it." Elizabeth could not reveal that Mr. Darcy's sister had been the particular victim of Wickham's treachery, and her warnings to her family had been necessarily couched in terms of information that Mr. Darcy had obtained 'from a most reliable source.' It was frustrating enough that the rest of the Bennets didn't believe her, but to have Jane doubting her was too much. "Jane, I realize that there is no love for Mr. Darcy among the members of our family, but I have good reason to believe what he tells me. Mr. Wickham is a scoundrel who uses his charm against unsuspecting females. He runs an infamous brothel and has on at least one occasion held a young woman against her will. I wish Papa had accepted my warning. It just won't do to let Mr. Wickham continue his connection with our family!"

Impressed by Elizabeth's passionate response, Jane nodded gravely. But there was something that was still troubling her. "Lizzy, why the change of heart about Mr. Darcy? I mean, you've never thought very highly of him; why give credence to anything he says?"

Elizabeth pressed her face against King's body again so Jane could not see the warmth rising in her cheeks. "I had occasion to see a lot of him in San Francisco," she said, her voice muffled by the dog's fur, "and I would have to say that he...improves on acquaintance."

Jane was not so easily satisfied. "What do you mean?"

Her sister's response was lost in the dog's coat, so Jane persisted. "I asked, Lizzy: what do you mean?"

"I mean," an exasperated Elizabeth replied, looking her sister straight in the eye, pink cheeks and all, "oh, for heaven's sake! The man is in love with me, and asked me to marry him."

"No!"

"Yes." Without meaning to, she sighed.

"Well?" Jane waited, but an explanation was not forthcoming. This was very unlike her sister. "Come on, Lizzy, what did you say?"

"I said 'no,' of course."

"Oh!" After a long wait, seeing that Elizabeth was unwilling to provide further details, Jane said only, "How dreadful for Mr. Darcy, to be refused like that! I suppose he took it badly?"

Elizabeth grimaced. "You could say that."

"Tsk. Yet somehow you have a new respect for him?"

"I do. He wrote me a letter, explained some things...it all made perfect sense." She smacked her hand against her forehead. "Oh, Jane, I have wronged him in so many ways, and he didn't deserve any of it. I'm so ashamed!"

"He's a good man, Lizzy," Jane said, stroking a comforting hand on her sister's hair. "Charles says so, and I believe him. I'm sure he'll forgive you."

"I'm not so sure of that. Words were exchanged and... Oh, I'd like to apologize, but I'm hardly likely to see him again."

Jane looked down at her feet, a shy smile spread over her face. "I don't know about that. There's always the possibility that Charles and I..."

Elizabeth's head snapped up. "Jane...have you heard from Charles?"

Nodding happily, Jane said, "I did. He finally wrote. Oh, Lizzy, he's coming back next week! And he says he wants to talk about the future! Isn't that wonderful?"

Elizabeth smiled, though inwardly she was a bit nervous. Charles Bingley's future had been precisely what had separated the two to begin with. Still, Charles seemed to be a strong man with his own ideas, and she doubted that Will Darcy would attempt to stand in his way again.

Charles did return the following week, and to the delight of everyone in the Bennet household, set about to court Jane in the most proper fashion. Throughout the next two months, he was a frequent visitor to the ranch house, and in return the entire family was often invited to dine at his home. Caroline, however, remained conspicuously absent.

When asked about his sister, Charles would only shrug and say, "There seems to be something keeping her in San Francisco."

Or someone, Elizabeth thought, a little sadly. She recalled thinking once that Darcy and Caroline deserved each other, but she had long since changed her mind. Now that she knew better of him - and every story Charles told of his friend added to this improved estimation - she was reluctant to envisage Will marrying a superficial shrew like Caroline Bingley. Yet as the weeks went by and Caroline stayed in California, signs seemed to point more and more to an alliance between the two. After all, Darcy's own aunt seemed to favor the match, and perhaps after Elizabeth's brutal refusal he had decided to turn his attentions to someone more amenable. The idea did not sit well with her. In quiet moments she would replay their last conversation and its aftermath, dwelling particularly on their shared ardor and its cruel conclusion.

Of George Wickham they now saw very little. Although he was still in Gold Hill, it appeared to Elizabeth that Charles had, in his own diplomatic way, warned Wickham away from the Bennet girls; Bingley respected Darcy's word above anyone else's, and he had no trouble accepting his friend's caveats. Although Kitty and Lydia persisted in inviting Wickham to the house, he always politely declined. Elizabeth was relieved. It would have been awkward, if not downright unpleasant, to have to make lighthearted conversation with the man, knowing what she now knew of his true character. From time to time Elizabeth would spot him in town, but when they made eye contact, there was nothing from him but an easy smile and a tip of his hat, without any attempt to approach. Without mentioning Darcy's sister, Elizabeth also shared what she knew with her friend Charlotte, and although Mayor Lucas declined to exercise his authority and ask Mr. Wickham to leave town, from then on he kept a wary eye on the man during the duration of his stay.

The arrival of lambing time promised to keep Elizabeth too busy to mope over her mistakes, but this year Joe Denny's able help left her with more time on her hands than she would have liked. But it was a successful season, and the entire family breathed a sigh of relief that perhaps the worst of their financial troubles were over. And there was even more good news.

By the end of the school's winter term in April, Jane and Charles announced to the family that they were engaged and planned to marry after the conclusion of the summer term in August. They would then have several months to find a new schoolmarm, since it was considered inappropriate for a married woman to continue teaching.

The whole town was in a celebratory mood, and Charles threw his fiancée an engagement party the likes of which Gold Hill had never seen. All the ladies of Gold Hill the town sparkled in their finery, but only Jane truly shined, in a simple but elegant new gown and a smile that only grew brighter as the evening wore on. There was still no sign of Caroline. Elizabeth had been hopeful that Darcy would be at the party, so that she would at least be able to put her conscience to rest, but he too sent his regrets. He did, however, also send news of a gift for his friend's future wife.

"Lizzy," Jane said excitedly the following day, "Will Darcy has offered me a most generous engagement present. He invites me to come to his ranch, Pemberley, and choose myself a horse from his stables!"

"That is a very generous gift," Elizabeth replied, once again feeling a twinge of guilt for having so misread the man. "From what I've seen, he has an excellent eye for horseflesh."

"And you must come with me."

"Me? Jane, I haven't been invited. And after...well, after the way I behaved towards him, I doubt he wants me anywhere on his property."

"Please, Lizzy, you have to go! I have to go now, before the next school term starts. You know I'm helpless around horses, and Charles can't spare the time right now. Oh, please, Lizzy, for me!" Seeing that her sister was relenting, Jane added the coup de grace: "And besides, Charles says that Will isn't at home anyway. You needn't worry that he'd see you on his land."

"Oh," Elizabeth said, with a combination of relief and disappointment. "Of course, then, Jane, for you."

So within the week the two young ladies were packed up and sent south to Pemberley in Charles's coach, complete with several well-armed men to ensure their safety. After a bumpy, dusty drive, they reached their destination late in the morning the second day, and both gasped at the splendor and breadth of the land that encompassed Pemberley, covered in pines, junipers, sagebrush...and the beautiful Desert Peach newly in bloom with pink blossoms. It took them some time, after passing through the gate, even to reach the ranch house, and when they finally did, the greeting they received there relieved the burden of the trip.

"Welcome, welcome!" a wiry elderly woman sang out, wiping her hands on her apron. The two Bennet ladies took this bundle of energy to be Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper, and they soon found themselves spirited into the house as she gave the servants orders for the proper arrangement of their things. The house itself was grand in size, but modest in appointments. As she admired the hewn wood floors, scarred from years of use but clean as a whistle, Elizabeth could find fault neither with the functionality of the building nor with the taste of the person who had furnished it. It was a home suitable for a landowner who valued natural beauty above frills and gewgaws, and she was immediately impressed.

"So you are Miss Jane Bennet," Mrs. Reynolds said, shaking Jane's hand, her blue eyes crinkling with delight. "There could be no mistake. I've heard that you're the beauty of the entire county, and that praise has not been exaggerated."

Jane blushed violently at this, as she had never grown comfortable with open admiration of her own good looks. "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

The housekeeper then turned good-naturedly to Elizabeth and offered her hand. "And this is your lovely sister Elizabeth." There was a pause as Mrs. Reynolds blinked and peered at her second guest a little strangely, and after a while Elizabeth began to grow uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, dear," the elder lady said, "but have we already met?"

"No, I'm afraid not," Elizabeth replied with a confused smile.

Mrs. Reynolds shook her head in bemusement, and patted Elizabeth's hand. "Well, never mind! Perhaps you just remind me of someone. I'm sure you'd both like to freshen up after your trip, so I'll show you to your rooms."

As they headed upstairs, Elizabeth stopped at the sound of a piano being expertly played. Noticing her interest, Mrs. Reynolds said, "That would be Miss Georgiana having her lesson with the piano master. I don't want to interrupt her; there'll be plenty of time to make introductions after your baths."

A hot bath was just the thing Elizabeth and Jane needed after their long, grimy journey. Meeting up in the hallway afterward, considerably refreshed, they remarked to each other on the coziness of their rooms. Despite the simplicity of the architecture and furniture, the bedrooms weren't lacking anything in the way of creature comforts.

Just as the ladies had sat down in the parlor for a light lunch, Georgiana Darcy bounded into the room with a bright smile.

"I heard you come in," she said breathlessly, "but Mr. Prescott wouldn't let me stop playing long enough to say hello." Suddenly realizing how over-anxious she appeared, she cleared her throat, gave a little curtsey to Jane and said quite properly, "How do you do, Miss Bennet."

Jane reached out for her hand, immediately putting her at ease. "It's lovely to meet you, Miss Darcy."

It was Elizabeth's turn next, and she said, "It is so kind of you to have us, Miss Darcy."

"And Miss Elizabeth, you..." Georgiana stopped, mid-greeting, and cocked her head to the side. "You look so familiar! Could it be that we've met before?"

"I must have one of those faces!" Elizabeth laughed. "Your Mrs. Reynolds said the very same thing."

"Oh, well, I'm sure I'm mistaken; I don't get out in society very much at all. Now, let's have our lunch, and I'll show you around a little bit."

In fact, Georgiana spent a good part of the unusually warm afternoon showing her guests around the ranch, or at least the parts of it that could be seen on foot. Jane and Elizabeth were enthralled: there was nothing pretentious or artificial; everything they saw was beautiful, harmonious, well-kept. She couldn't imagine anything more interesting, until they came to a large corral in which about twenty horses stood, their tales swishing lazily.

"Here are the horses Will says you're to choose from. I hope you like them."

"Oh, my." Elizabeth stood in awe as the gate was opened for them, then moved with barely controlled excitement among the horses, running her hands over their shining coats, prying open their mouths to peer at their teeth.

Although she immediately eliminated some of them from contention merely by their size, every horse was a stunning specimen, exceptionally healthy and youthful. There wasn't an old nag among them. Elizabeth was impressed anew at the expense Will Darcy was willing to go to for his best friend. His largesse did not injure him in her eyes.

After making the rounds of the horses several times, Elizabeth singled out a palomino mare with a "newly-minted gold" coat that matched the highest standard of the breed.

"That's Juliet," Georgiana said approvingly, "one of Will's favorites. He named her himself. After, you know, the play."

Elizabeth smiled as she stroked the horse. "I never thought of your brother as a romantic."

"Oh, he'd never admit to it, but he is. There's a lot about Will that people don't know." The girl frowned. "I wish he were here right now with us. He's always running off on business somewhere. And now he's in San Francisco with my aunt Catherine."

And Caroline Bingley, Elizabeth thought, her smile fading.

The mare seemed to be docile enough for Jane, though with enough energy to keep up with whatever mount her sister's future husband might be riding. But there was only one way to be sure.

"Could I," Elizabeth asked tentatively, "take her out for a bit?"

"Of course." But as Georgiana gave the order for the ranch hand to saddle the mare, Elizabeth interrupted.

"Not sidesaddle, please, Miss Darcy. I'll be riding astride."

It took mere minutes for Elizabeth to change into her work clothes, and while Jane was secretly embarrassed by such attire, considering it inappropriate while they were guests at the Darcys', she couldn't fault her sister for wanting to get the most out of her ride, and for that Elizabeth needed to wear her Levi's.

"Just keep the stream to your right and follow it down to where it takes a sharp turn," Georgiana instructed. "That should give you a good twenty-minute ride in each direction. Is that enough?"

"Oh, yes." Though Elizabeth suspected it wouldn't be nearly enough for her taste, she was, after all, only a visitor here, and had no desire to overstay her welcome.

Riding Juliet away from the corral and onto the trail Miss Darcy had pointed out, once again Elizabeth gazed in amazement at the variety of the flora at Pemberley, just beginning to show its beauty in the spring. And all this could have been mine! she mused, surprised by the degree of her regret.

After experimenting with trotting, cantering, and galloping, Elizabeth was satisfied that Juliet was indeed the right horse for Jane. Far too soon, they arrived at the bend in the stream. It was a particularly lovely spot, Elizabeth thought, the sagebrush and high grasses creating a picturesque and protected cove. She sighed with contentment, then wiped her brow and scowled up at the sun. Of course she hadn't brought along her hat! And in her pleasure in the ride she had not realized how hot the day had grown, unseasonably hot for April, especially in long sleeves and denim. She dismounted and led Juliet to the stream for a much-needed drink.

As the mare drank her fill, Elizabeth unbuttoned her cuffs and rolled up her sleeves. Then an idea hit her, and she bit her lip impishly. Surely it wouldn't hurt anything if... She examined her surroundings carefully, squinting at the horizon in every direction. Just five minutes, that's all. And I'm sure I haven't even been gone twenty minutes yet.

Elizabeth tied the horse's reins to a low tree and sat down on a large boulder near the stream. With an exaggerated groan, she removed her boots and stockings and wiggled her toes in glee. Giving another quick look around, her hands moved to unfasten the buttons on her jeans.

She had no way of knowing, of course, that she was not alone.

Chapter 17

Darcy stared at his aunt in disbelief.

"This is why you dragged me out here?" he asked in annoyance. "Why, your letter would have me believe that you were at Death's door! 'Hurry,' you said, 'there isn't much time.'" He snorted his disgust. "I should have known if the state of affairs were so dire, you would have sent a telegram instead."

"Well, William," Mrs. de Bourgh sniffed. "I still believe that there is some urgency to the situation."

"I beg to differ."

"Nonsense. If you don't act quickly, Caroline might just go and marry someone else."

"Well, then, by all means, let her!" Will snapped out. "As I've told you before, I have no interest in marrying the lady. Had I known what you were up to, Aunt Catherine, I would have never have come."

The old lady's voice became placating. "Come now, nephew, be generous. Caroline and I have seen so little of you in the past couple of months. After you left for Nevada, you were off to Philadelphia, then Chicago."

"Yes, I've been away on business, and that is exactly why I'm so angry that you called me out here now. I fully intended to spend Easter with Georgiana at home, at Pemberley."

"You have a home here in San Francisco, dear," Mrs. de Bourgh said, waving away his objections. "Just bring Georgiana with you next time. It would do her good to get out of that backwater and into society. Spending some time with Caroline will be an education for her."

Yes, I have no doubt that Caroline Bingley could teach Georgiana a few things, none of which I care for her to learn! "She prefers Nevada."

"Then you should exercise your authority and insist that she come out here. I know that Caroline is just dying to see her."

"Then Caroline can just come visit us at Pemberley. I would be happy to extend her an invitation." Darcy continued firmly, "Aunt Catherine, now that I'm in California, I will spend Easter and the remainder of the week with you, but I'm heading back home immediately after."

Intending to be as good as his word, Darcy did spend Easter Sunday with his aunt, and, to his great consternation, Caroline Bingley. The fawning he had endured from her previously was nothing compared to her behavior toward him now; all the self-sufficiency which had been her personality's one redeeming feature had faded under months of his aunt's influence and her instructions on how to be the perfect Darcy wife. It would have been amusing had it not been so irritating. Every moment in the woman's presence reminded him of how superior Elizabeth Bennet was in every way (save - he admitted - her wardrobe): her strength both of body and mind, her wit, her dignity, her deep affection for her family, her complete lack of artifice. In contrast, behind Caroline's pretty face he saw nothing but ambition.

Busying himself with other engagements on Monday, Darcy managed to avoid both his Aunt Catherine and the woman she was attempting to foist upon him. On Tuesday he instructed the servants that he would accept no visitors, even his relations, no matter how loudly they might protest. While he was sitting alone, considering the best way to settle this argument with his aunt once and for all without forever earning the enmity of his best friend's sister, there was a knock at his study door, and Will called for his butler to enter.

"Telegram for you, sir," the servant said, presenting a tray.

Darcy stared at the piece of paper, his eyes flicking down to the bottom for the name of the sender, and his heart grew cold. Mrs. Reynolds! If something has happened to Georgiana while Aunt Catherine had me wasting my time here in San Francisco...

But then he read:

All is well STOP Wished to inform you that Misses Bennet will be arriving Thurs Apr 25 to select horse STOP Will depart Mon Apr 29 STOP Georgiana sends love STOP C Reynolds

Misses Bennet! The breath caught in his throat. It could, of course, simply be a typographical error from the Western Union office. Or... Was it truly possible that Miss Jane was planning on bringing a sister with her to Pemberley? Jumping up from his chair, he began to pace the room excitedly. Jane Bennet was far too sensible to take those ridiculous girls Kitty and Lydia on such an excursion; if she needed help with a horse, then surely she would bring Elizabeth!

Will stopped in his tracks and did some quick calculations in his head. If he caught the train to Reno the following afternoon...stayed on the train south to Columbus rather than getting off in Virginia City...picked up a horse from there... Why, he could be at Pemberley by late in the morning of the 25th, perhaps even before Elizabeth arrived. Smacking his fist into his palm, Darcy let out an uncharacteristic whoop! that had his valet poking his head worriedly into the room. The servant's timely appearance gave Darcy an opportunity to set his plan in motion.

To be sure, during the long train ride that would take him back to Nevada, Will had plenty of time to worry that he could be mistaken: mistaken that Elizabeth had even read his letter; mistaken that the letter, even if she had read it, had improved her opinion of him to the point that she would want to see him; mistaken that it was, in fact, Elizabeth traveling with Miss Jane.

But he hadn't built his fortune by worrying. All his moves, even the riskiest ones, were built on some kind of solid foundation. And he was confident that this was no exception.

Despite his careful planning, however, Darcy did not reach Pemberley by the morning of the 25th. He had found that procuring a horse of sufficient quality near the Columbus station to be more difficult that he had expected. Nevertheless, he did reach the boundaries of the ranch by early afternoon, and entered through an infrequently used trail at the far end. He was filthy from the road, bone-tired from the journey, overheated from the unusual warmth of the day, and discouraged to think Elizabeth might see him in this state before he had had an opportunity to clean up.

So when he spotted the familiar turn in the stream, he rejoiced. Years ago, he and George Wickham used to find this a particularly enticing spot: part swimming hole, part terra incognita to explore. They used to play at being Indians here, hiding from each other among the tall grasses, plotting ambushes from around the bend, wrestling in the water, whiling away the hot summer days the way only young boys know how.

After both he and his horse had enjoyed a long, cold drink, Will tied his mount to a scrubby pine. Then, in rapid succession, he tossed off his hat, untied the sweat-dampened bandanna from around his neck, dropped his holster, peeled off his shirt, removed his boots and socks, shucked off his trousers and drawers, and without hesitation, plunged into the brook.

The icy mountain water was a shock to his body, at first. But as he grew accustomed to it, he reveled in it as he had as a boy. Taking a big gulp of air, he submerged himself and swam along the rocky bottom. As he surfaced slightly downstream, his reverie was shattered when he heard a noise that could only have issued from a female throat, from just around the turn in the stream. Dear Lord, Georgiana! She can't see me like this! He quickly pulled himself near the sharp bend in the brook, keeping his head low in the water, and peered out from beneath an overgrown tuft of grass.

Not Georgiana, but Elizabeth! And she was standing barefoot on the shore, undoing the button fly on her Levi's.

Will's eyebrows shot up as he realized what she was up to. A thousand thoughts raced through his mind. She's here after all! She believed me!...I shouldn't be spying on her like a naughty schoolboy - or like that fool Crabtree! It's just not right...What does she think she's doing, in broad daylight? Well, same as me, after all - why is that so surprising on such a hot day?...If I were really a gentleman, I would turn my head, go back to my clothes, leave her, give her some privacy...

But he couldn't leave, and he couldn't tear his eyes away. Instead he watched in rapt fascination as Elizabeth wriggled out of her jeans, then some cotton drawers. She should have silk! Her strong but shapely legs lay bare to his gaze, yet the tails of her shirt covered her like a short dress, teasingly hiding away something far more precious.

His eyes were immediately drawn to her nimble fingers at their next task, unbuttoning her shirt. Mildly disappointed when she turned out to be wearing something beneath, he realized that the corner of lace he had once been privileged to glimpse appeared to be part of an old, outgrown, little-girl boneless corset, a seemingly curious choice for a well-developed young woman. But once she had discarded her shirt and unfastened the undergarment, its purpose became clear, as her breasts were now freed of the binding material. She took a deep breath and sighed in relief, and silently, he sighed too, at the tempting display now before him: Elizabeth, her clothes scattered about her, stretching her naked body in now-unconstrained pleasure. He let himself enjoy every inch of this splendid sight, from her sensually defined muscles to the rounded bounty of her breasts to the mass of dark brown curls that crowned the juncture of her thighs. The cold water may have slowed his growing ardor, but it did not completely thwart it.

A moment later, she jumped in with a splash, followed by a shriek of both delight and dismay at the chill of the water. Darcy watched guiltily for another few minutes as she frolicked happily and noisily in the water. It was his intent to make a soundless exit, but just then a shift of the wind brought the scent of the mare to Darcy's horse, which whinnied its interest.

Elizabeth stiffened. "What's that?" she called, looking about her in alarm. "Who's there?"

If she had felt threatened when he had accosted her on the street in Gold Hill, fully dressed and fully armed, Darcy could imagine how vulnerable she must feel now. Unwilling to leave her in such a panicked state, Will decided it was best to reveal his presence, as gently as he could.

"Easy, Miss Elizabeth," he said, allowing his voice to precede him as he swam toward her, carefully keeping most of his body submerged. "It's just me."

"Mr. Darcy!" she exclaimed, her arms clutched modestly (if marvelously ineffectually!) over her body. "What are you doing here?"

"I might remind you that I own the place," he said cheerfully, his spirits - and his passion - high.

"I know that!" she replied, rolling her eyes. "But I thought you were in San Francisco."

"I had been, until I heard that you and Miss Jane were coming. What kind of host would I be if I didn't greet my guests?"

Her voice took on an edge. "Well, you could at least have greeted us properly at the house!"

"You're absolutely right," Darcy said, his face falling. So he had misjudged her change of feelings. "I'm sorry. I should go," he added tersely. "I'll see you back at the house." He turned, reluctantly, and began to make his way back to the bend in the stream where his clothes lay.

"No, wait! Mr. Darcy!" She seemed to come to a decision. "Will!"

He was stopped short by her first mention of his given name, and turned back to her. Having apparently decided it was a hopeless case, she no longer sought to cover herself but stood and faced him frankly.

"No, Will, I'm the one who's sorry."

"For what?"

"For everything. For trusting Mr. Wickham over you. For saying all those horrible, insulting things." Her voice grew quieter. "For the way I treated you when we last met in San Francisco." Now it was almost a whisper. "I'm so sorry."

"There's no need to apologize, Elizabeth," Will replied gently. "What did you say to me that I didn't deserve? I've never given you any reason to trust me. I was arrogant and insensitive; I insulted your family; my proposal was offensive. I hope you'll forgive me."

Her shy smile was everything he could have wished for, and he dared hope that it constituted an invitation of sorts. Tentatively, he leaned down and - so as not to frighten her, for he was all too aware that they were both stark naked - withheld his body and just barely touched his lips to hers. It was a kiss as light and tender as a hummingbird's sip from a desert flower, and for the moment it sufficed. But just for the moment.

With a muffled moan, Elizabeth threw her arms around his neck and pressed herself entirely against him, her mouth seeking his hungrily, all of her reserve gone the way of her modesty. Will's momentary astonishment at her boldness was easily overtaken by his joy. From the first contact of her bare body, she completely eradicated whatever composure he had been trying to maintain, and he kissed her ferociously back, his arms twisting around her, his tongue dancing against hers.

His hands roved freely, madly, across her supple, wet skin, as he fulfilled his longtime desire to explore all of her curves and valleys and peaks. He was not disappointed. Judging by her sighs and groans, she too, appeared satisfied with the terrain she was discovering, fingers sliding impatiently over his well-muscled torso. Or perhaps she was simply reacting to the particularly sensitive spot his lips had just located at the base of her throat.

Still unsatisfied despite this feast, Darcy grasped her tightly and lifted her up out of the water, slaking his thirst on the rivulets that ran down her breasts, sipping off peaks hardened by the cold and her ardor. In mindless response, she wrapped her legs around his hips, and his few coherent thoughts now had but one focus: finding a place nearby where he could lay her down, to consummate their love. The soft grass would be their mattress, the sky their canopy. He would blanket her skin first with kisses and then with his own body. So obsessed was he with this idea that he at first did not understand why she had pulled away from him, until he, too, heard the voice calling out in the distance, "Miss Elizabeth!"

"Who's that?" she whispered anxiously into his ear.

The voice rang out again. "Miss Elizabeth! Where are you?"

"That," Darcy said, with a frustrated sigh, "is my foreman, Parker. No doubt Georgiana sent him out looking for you. From the sound of his voice, I'd say you have about five minutes, tops, before he finds us here." Giving her a kiss on her forehead, he unwillingly released her. "You'd better get going."

"All right." But before Elizabeth made a move to leave, she seized Will by his damp hair and yanked him to her, kissing him violently on the lips. Releasing him with a wicked smile, she turned and clambered onto the bank of the stream.

And that's when he saw it.

The other birthmark! Darcy grinned broadly, finally knowing for a fact that Horace Crabtree had never laid eyes - or anything else - on his beloved's unclothed form. For there, high on Elizabeth's lovely round left buttock, was a mark, pink and pretty, in the perfect shape of a heart. No one seeing such an unusual natural mark would have been able to resist including it in a painting! He imagined pressing his lips against it, outlining it with his tongue, but that would, alas, have to wait for another day.

The spot, however charming, did not engage him for long, though, since he was soon distracted by how Elizabeth was hurriedly drying herself with her old camisole. Will would not have thought he could be jealous of a worn piece of cotton, but as the cloth moved intimately up her legs, around her breasts and between her thighs, he held his breath in admiration and lust. So when she spoke, it barely registered.

"There's just one more thing, Will."

Difficult as it was, he forced himself to form a reply. "And that is?"

"Why is it that your sister and Mrs. Reynolds think they know me?" A thought occurred to her, and she looked horrified. "Will, they haven't seen that painting, have they? Oh, tell me they haven't!"

Darcy smiled. It was nice to know he could put her mind at ease so simply. "No, they haven't. But it's not surprising that they recognized you: there's a likeness of you in almost every room in the house." At her baffled look, he explained, "The odalisque Horace painted was not the only artwork you appeared in. He had a collection of charcoal drawings, watercolors and oils in which you were featured, sometimes prominently, sometimes just in the background - always decently clothed, by the way. I bought the lot of 'em. Horace is very talented, Elizabeth, and I persuaded myself that I was making an investment in fine art. The reality, of course, is that I couldn't bear to share you with anyone else."

Smiling in relief, Elizabeth mounted her horse. Just before she rode off, she paused and, looking back at Will, gave a wink and blew him a kiss. He watched until she was out of sight, and with a yell threw himself down into the water with as big a splash as he could produce, the way he used to do in competition with George. Then he immediately swam back to where his clothes lay. He wouldn't waste another valuable minute while Elizabeth was so close. And their time together at Pemberley would indeed be precious, for as it happened there would be little of it.

Chapter 18

"There you are, Miss Elizabeth!" said Parker, his weathered face relaxing in relief. He was a sturdy man of about fifty, his salt-and-pepper hair just beginning to thin. "Miss Georgiana was mighty worried about you!"

Once Darcy's foreman was in sight, Elizabeth kept her pace on Juliet to a moderate walk. Not only did she need the extra time to compose herself, but she also no longer had the supportive benefits of her sodden camisole, which now was wedged under the cantle* of the saddle.

She smiled as dispassionately as she could. "Sorry to have caused any concern, Mr. Parker. I just stopped to cool us down at the stream. I'm sure my sister Jane could have reassured Miss Georgiana that I can take care of myself."

"Well, so she said, Miss. But while Mr. Darcy's away, I'm responsible for everything that happens on the ranch, and that includes lookin' after the womenfolk. I couldn't forgive myself if some varmint had gotten to you."

Some varmint, indeed, laughed Elizabeth silently, willing herself not to blush. She pondered whether she should inform Parker that his employer was, in fact, back at Pemberley, but decided against it. There would be too many questions about how she happened to come by that knowledge. So instead she said, "Well, you find me safe and sound, Mr. Parker. And very impressed with everything I've seen here. You certainly have been doing a wonderful job."

She had said precisely the right thing. His chest swelling with pride, Parker smiled. "I've been the foreman 'bout a dozen years, Miss." Ah, she thought, he must have taken over after Mr. Wickham's father died. "I'd like to think I've had a lot to do with keeping Pemberley running as smooth as it did in old Mr. Darcy's day, Lord rest his soul."

"I'm sure you do."

They rode on companionably for the next fifteen minutes, until they arrived back at the ranch house, where Georgiana stood pacing nervously on the porch while Jane sat unconcerned in a rocking chair, enjoying the fine weather.

"Miss Elizabeth! Thank heavens you're all right," cried Georgiana.

"She'd just been refreshing herself and Juliet a bit at the stream, is all," Parker said, stroking the horse as Elizabeth dismounted. Discreetly grabbing her undergarment from the saddle, she crumpled it into her fist. The foreman took Juliet's reins and, with a tip of his hat, walked the horses off back to the stable.

"Did you have a good ride, Lizzy?" Jane asked mildly, her eyebrows just slightly raised at the wet cloth in her sister's hand and the damp tendrils of her hair where they had escaped her coiffure.

"Oh, it was lovely," Elizabeth said, careful not to enthuse too much, lest she begin to recall in too great a detail the reason for her pleasure. "Juliet is the perfect horse for you, Jane, I'm satisfied." Turning to their hostess, she continued, "If you'll excuse me, Miss Georgiana, I'd like to go get out of my riding gear." She was anxious to change into something more presentable before Will arrived, though with a giddy thrill she understood that he hardly cared what, if anything, she was wearing.

Graciously, the girl nodded. "Of course."

By the time Elizabeth had dressed, she heard a ruckus coming from downstairs. Curious, she hastened to join the others, and saw Georgiana wrapped up in her brother's arms. Spying Elizabeth, the girl wriggled out of Darcy's embrace and dragged him over to her guest.

"Miss Elizabeth, look who's here! It's Will! He came back early from San Francisco!"

Elizabeth arranged her face into what she hoped was an indifferent yet pleasant smile. "How very nice to see you again, Mr. Darcy."

"I found out that my aunt didn't really need me after all," he said with a dimpled grin, as Elizabeth felt the heat rise in her cheeks, "and there's no place I'd rather be than right here."

"Lucky you came home while Miss Jane and Miss Elizabeth were visiting," chirped Georgiana, with eyes only for her brother.

His eyes, however, were only for another lady. "Yes, very lucky."

Jane observed with interest the way Darcy and her sister gazed at each other, and the blush that pinkened Lizzy's face before she abruptly turned away. Then, with some surprise, Jane took in their host's wet hair, and, like any schoolmarm worth her salt, ably put two and two together. She bit her lip to keep from laughing.

For the remainder of the day Elizabeth fought hard just to maintain her equanimity and keep from coloring whenever Will glanced her way. His every gaze filled her with memories of what had recently passed between them, and she didn't trust herself to remain unaffected while in company. To distract herself, she searched out Horace's artwork in each new room she was shown. Every time, she easily recognized herself in yet another painting or drawing. While it still disturbed her to have been the object of such particular attention, she had to admire Horace's craft. The man was gifted. Yet her presence in these works was most often very subtle, and she could understand why Miss Georgiana and Mrs. Reynolds could not quite put their fingers on why she seemed so familiar.

After a simple but hearty dinner, they were treated to Georgiana's excellent performance on the piano. Will stretched out his legs and sighed in contentment. He was home, his sister was playing magnificently, and, most important, not ten feet away from him sat Elizabeth, her eyes closed, absorbed in the music. It was a picture of domestic bliss he had given up ever hoping to experience.

Elizabeth's thoughts were not, however, so tranquil. While she had returned time and time again to their tryst in the stream, always with delight, now a new, disagreeable thought had intruded, poisoning the clean, cold water. Certainly, Will wanted her; he had made that abundantly clear. Perhaps, despite the way she had treated him, he even still held some affection for her. But he had made no declarations of love, not one. Nor had he reiterated his desire to marry her. He had said only that he hadn't wanted to share her with anyone. Well, he could say the same thing about a prized horse! Elizabeth was unaccustomed to self-doubt and usually found it abhorrent and pathetic, a weakness she had no use for, but now, once she had begun, she couldn't stop.

With these doubts arrived regret, regret that she had been so free with her physical affections. Why, he must think her the worst kind of hussy, an easy woman trolling for carnal pleasures! She could not believe that she had behaved so wantonly, and her embarrassment added to her discomfiture. By the time the hour had arrived to retire, Elizabeth had, most irrationally, persuaded herself that Will was toying with her, that he wanted to lay with her but had no intention of marrying her, that he would instead ultimately marry Miss Bingley, with whom he had apparently spent an unusual amount of time in San Francisco after she had rejected him.

The idea terrified her, as it came on the heels of a sudden realization: she was in love with Will Darcy. At what should be the most exhilarating moment in her life, she was paralyzed with fear. It was an unfamiliar sensation, against which she could not arm herself, against which all her wit and bravado and even her trusty Colt were useless. She could hardly look at him, sitting there, so smug and satisfied. Preoccupied and miserable, she pleaded exhaustion, bid a hasty goodnight to the Darcys and her sister, and, blind to their looks of surprise and concern, rushed out of the parlor, intent on going straight to her room.

About an hour later, having passed her time lying awake in full self-pity, Elizabeth heard a scratching at her door. This she had expected: it would be Will, no doubt eager to resume where they had left off at the stream. Well, she'd have none of it! With a frown, she approached the door warily.

"Elizabeth!" she heard Darcy say in a low voice. "May I come in?"

"No!" she retorted petulantly, hating herself, and him. "Go away!"

"What's the matter?"

"You know darn well what the matter is. Now go away!"

There was a brief, puzzled silence. Then the voice came again: "It's going to be awkward tomorrow morning explaining to Mrs. Reynolds why I've spent the night in the hallway, Elizabeth. But I'll do it if you don't let me in."

Elizabeth had no doubt that he meant what he said. But inviting him into her room was out of the question; she knew she would be far too easily swayed by his blandishments and kisses, and she had no intention of winding up in bed with him. The very thought made her uncomfortably warm. So instead she hissed, "I'll meet you in the library in ten minutes."

After a pause, he said, "All right," and she listened to the sound of his boots against the wood floor as he walked away. She then hurried to get dressed.

In the library ten minutes later, Will found Elizabeth examining a tiny charcoal portrait of herself, one she had previously overlooked. Upon hearing him arrive, she sat down in the nearest chair and folded her hands in her lap. Will took the chair opposite hers, and for a moment he just peered at her curiously. Then he leaned forward in his chair and said gently:

"Tell me what's wrong, Elizabeth. Is it Pemberley? Don't you like it here?"

"Of course I do." Refusing to return his gaze, she instead examined her fingers, which were now twisted together nervously on her lap, and added with no little irritation, "Who wouldn't?"

"Well, you had me a little worried. It is my home, after all, and not everyone appreciates its singular beauty. I had hoped that we'd be spending most of our time here."

"We? What time?"

"I see." Will looked chagrined and stood up. "I'm sorry; it seems I've gotten ahead of myself again. I thought that...well, never mind."

He walked the room bemusedly, unable to figure out what had precipitated this radical change in her demeanor. As a last resort, he returned to kneel by her chair and said, his voice filled with tenderness, "Elizabeth, I want you to know that... what I said to you in San Francisco still applies. All of it." He cleared his throat slightly. "Except maybe that unfortunate part about your family."

Her head snapped up, and he could see that her eyes were glazed with tears. "What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that I love you." His hand reached up to touch her face, and the tears spilled over. "I've never stopped loving you. And I still want to marry you. Desperately. I won't be happy without you, not here at Pemberley, not anywhere. I hope someday you'll be able to get past whatever it is that's still bothering you and tell me that you'll marry me."

"What about Miss Bingley?" she said in a small voice.

"What about her?"

"I thought that you and she were..." She couldn't bring herself to say it.

"Is that what this is about?" He laughed with relief. "Caroline Bingley?"

"Maybe."

"Elizabeth, as much as my aunt Catherine would like to think otherwise, there's never been anything between Caroline and me."

"You've spent months in San Francisco with her!"

"I don't know what Caroline's been up to - probably seeing a lot of Aunt Catherine - but I've barely been in San Francisco. I left California shortly after you did, and I've taking care of business all over the country the past few months. In between I would spend as much time as I could at Pemberley. I hadn't even seen the lady at all until just last week." Taking a chance, he leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on Elizabeth's lips. He was rewarded with a smile. "Admittedly, had I been a better correspondent with Charles, he would have been able to let you know where I was all that time. Then again, he hardly would have had any reason to mention it to you, would he? I never told him how I feel about you. But whatever it is that Caroline's been telling her brother, I can promise you that it's made of whole cloth. I never gave her any reason to think I was interested in her."

A long sigh escaped Elizabeth, and she slid her arms across Will's shoulders and tightened them around his neck. "In that case," she whispered into his ear, causing a tremor to travel through him, "my answer is yes."

"Yes?"

"Yes, I will marry you." She kissed his ear, and added, "and yes, I will live here at Pemberley with you." Impetuously she jumped up and flung herself into Will's arms.

Darcy would have said something, but he found that he preferred to kiss Elizabeth instead. So he did. Repeatedly, and with ever-increasing passion. But as much as his body urged him to take her directly upstairs to his bed, or hers - he was not particular which - his common sense won out, and he decided that their understanding was still too new to risk ruining with an excess of enthusiasm, should it be ill-received.

Yet as happy as he was, there was still one thing nagging at him, and he wouldn't leave her until he resolved it. Finally, Will said, "You know, I'll take your acceptance of my proposal any way I can get it, but... Do you love me, Elizabeth? Maybe a little bit?"

"Of course I do." She giggled. "Can't you tell?"

"Well, I can tell a lot of things based on your reaction, but I'd like to have it from your own lips."

What her own lips said, then did, satisfied him so completely that he was content to let her return to her room alone, though first he had to extract from her a promise to go riding with him the following morning at dawn, when he could show her all the splendor of Pemberley without interruption.

Just as the sun crept over the horizon, Will bounded down the front steps of the ranch house and walked quickly out toward the stable. It was all he could do to keep from running; he was anxious to be out in the stable waiting for Elizabeth so she couldn't imagine that he had, for some inexplicable reason, changed his mind about her. He needn't have worried: when he reached the doorway, he saw her, and it was a vision that made his heart leap. Her back was to him and she was, as he expected, clad in her work clothes. Standing in Juliet's stall grooming the horse with a currycomb, Elizabeth hummed gaily. It was exactly as he had always pictured her when he thought of the happy life they could have together, enjoying the rustic joys of Pemberley. Sensing his presence, she looked over her shoulder at him and smiled, but turned back to the horse and continued with both her brushing and her humming.

Will walked up behind her and slid his arms around her, pressing himself close. As he kissed her neck, the tune Elizabeth was humming became a wordless, contented purr. Forgetting Juliet, she promptly dropped the curry. Pleased with her reaction, he continued his tender assault on her skin. It hadn't been his intention to start anything in the stable, but now it seemed like a good idea. After all, the hour was early and no one else was about. Playfully, he undid a button of her shirt. When no objection came, he unfastened the next one. Then the next. When his hand encountered her old camisole rather than skin, he undid that as well. Finally unobstructed, his fingers caressed the soft flesh of her breasts, playing and teasing, and the breath caught in her throat.

It troubled him at first when she pulled away, but it soon became clear that she only did so in order to finish the job he had started. Turning to face him, she smiled mischievously and unfastened the remaining buttons on both her shirt and camisole, then tugged the tails out of her jeans. Though being undraped in this way would have been enough for him, she went further, sliding the shirt just off her shoulders, leaving the material draped like a shawl across her back and arms. It was a fetching display, one he had no intention of resisting. With a growl, he grabbed the waistband of her Levis and, giving her a fierce kiss on the lips, undid each of those precious fly buttons one by one as he had long wanted to. It was every bit as exciting as he had imagined. So was the scent, the taste of her skin as he fell to one knee and kissed and nibbled his way across every inch of the bare expanse down to her navel.

"Mr. Darcy?" They heard Parker's voice a short distance from the stable. "You in there? I'm lookin' for Miss Elizabeth. She there with you?"

Smothering a pained groan, Darcy got to his feet and complained, "That man is entirely too efficient." With a laugh, Elizabeth withdrew hastily behind Juliet. "Remind me to fire him," he continued, only half-joking, as Elizabeth hastily buttoned her shirt and jeans.

Parker entered the stable just as Elizabeth, fully dressed and almost completely composed, was retrieving the abandoned curry. Set on his mission, he betrayed no surprise at seeing the boss and his guest alone in such intimate proximity. "'Scuse me, Mr. Darcy, but there's a telegram arrived from the Bennet family addressed to Miss Jane Bennet, and seein' as she's still asleep, I thought Miss Elizabeth might be able take care of it." Handing her the envelope, he touched the brim of his hat and departed.

Elizabeth was mystified. Telegrams were an unnecessary expense to a family of such limited means, and she and Jane would be home in a few days anyway. Unfolding the paper, she quickly read the short message, then read it again. Her jaw dropped, and she paled.

"Elizabeth?" Will asked, concerned. "What is it, darling?"

"We have to go home right away." Confusion plain on her face, she looked up from the telegram. "My sister Lydia has apparently run off with our ranch hand, Denny." She shook her head. "It's so strange. She never said a word about him, and he certainly didn't seem to be her type."

"Denny? Not Joe Denny?"

"Yes," she said, the skin on the back of her neck beginning to prickle. "Why?"

"Talk about the fox guarding the hen house!" Darcy left her side and started to pace agitatedly about the stable, causing the horses to shift nervously in their stalls. "Elizabeth, Joe Denny's in with Wickham, and in deep. Wickham paid Denny's way out of jail in Virginia City, and he's been George's errand boy ever since. He was there in Reno with Wickham when I went to retrieve Georgiana. And near as I can tell, he acts as Wickham's...procurer for the brothel."

He stopped abruptly and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Don't you see, Elizabeth? Your sister is headed for The Lone Wolf!"

* the rear, upward-curving portion of a western-style saddle

Chapter 19

It was a fortunate thing that Elizabeth was not a female prone to fainting, as she surely would have swooned after this assertion. Still, she was understandably horrified. She recalled her uneasiness about Denny the day he brought her back from the train station, and cursed herself for not having pursued her suspicions. Of course Lydia was going to see Wickham! The girl, in her naïveté - or, to call a spade a spade, just plain old stupidity - never believed what Elizabeth had told her about the man, and defended him at every turn. Why, she must have been meeting him on the sly. And now, thinking she was in love with George, she was unwittingly on her way to a notorious bordello.

"Oh!" Elizabeth shrieked in frustration and anger. "I knew it! I knew there was something fishy about that man. Not at first, of course - I didn't think anything of it when Wickham first brought him to the ranch. But after you wrote me the letter, telling me all those awful things about Wickham, I asked Denny some questions about their relationship, and he was very evasive." Crushing the telegram in her fist, she cried, "Oh, why didn't I ask Papa to kick him off the ranch?"

"Look, it's not your fault," Will said, putting his arms around her. She leaned her head against his chest and found its strength and warmth reassuring. "I never said a thing about Denny, did I? For all you knew, he was just some down-on-his-luck laborer Wickham was trying to help." He tightened his grip around her and she sighed. "Did you tell your parents about George?"

She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "I tried! You can't imagine how much they all liked the fellow! They'd rather believe that I was acting out of spite, or a broken heart, or jealousy - you know, 'a woman scorned,' and all that - than to think that their precious Mr. Wickham was a dangerous cad."

"He has that way about him," Will interjected bitterly.

"Never mind that he had done them a huge favor by bringing them Joe Denny, who, I have to admit, was the best ranch hand we'd ever had."

"Yes, it's a shame - if the man had stayed on the straight and narrow, he could have made himself a good life."

"He was such a big help, and worked for so little, that Papa thought he was a godsend."

"Then your father would have hardly let him go just on your say-so."

"I suppose not. Will, Jane and I have got to get home. My house is chaotic under the best circumstances; I hate to imagine what's going on there now...and, oh, for heaven's sake, they don't even know the half of it!" Though she was loath to leave the comfort of Darcy's embrace, she pulled herself away out of sheer irritation with her family. Standing in the middle of the stables, her arms wide, she declared, "They think Lydia's just eloped with the ranch hand. They have no idea that Wickham is involved at all, never mind that Lydia's in danger." She squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingers, her mortification complete. "My parents...they're just calling me home to help with the sheep now that Denny's not around!"

Will shook his head in sympathy. He hadn't quite figured out how this sharp woman and her equally intelligent sister Jane had even come from the Bennet family. "Why don't you go wake Jane. I'll have Parker get the carriage ready."

Jane was, naturally, surprised when Elizabeth told her about the telegram, but her surprise quickly turned to alarm as her sister spelled out the ramifications of Lydia's thoughtless behavior. While Jane dressed, Elizabeth had the lady's maid pack their things. Despite having much to discuss with her sister - why, she had barely had the opportunity to tell Jane that she was engaged! - she had already decided to stay in her work clothes and ride Juliet home rather than fidget impatiently inside the carriage for the duration of the trip. She hoped that Jane would understand; Elizabeth always tended more toward activity than contemplation, especially during a crisis. And if she rode, she and Will could discuss...

But Will hadn't said a word about coming with them. This wasn't after all, his problem. They weren't married yet - and who knew whether he would agree to that now! Her stomach lurched unpleasantly. Would his previous experience with Wickham cause Will to turn away from a family that had acted so imprudently toward the man?

Elizabeth needn't have worried. Darcy wouldn't dream of sending the ladies home unaccompanied, and he was unwilling to spare any more time away from his fiancée. To Elizabeth's relief, he greeted her with both his own horse and Juliet saddled for travel. With the luggage stowed and Jane safely ensconced in the carriage, the little party set off.

Yet there wasn't a great deal of conversation on the ride back to Gold Hill. Darcy seemed lost in his thoughts, and Elizabeth was deep in her misery and concern. They would from time to time gaze longingly at each other, but neither was ready to speak anything of substance. Words of encouragement would occasionally rise to Will's lips, but he squelched them, knowing Wickham too well to want to give Elizabeth false hope.

Their overnight stay at an inn along the road brought little comfort. In the room she shared with Jane, Elizabeth lay awake, wondering what Will was thinking: whether he was regretting their engagement, what he would do once they reached the ranch. Briefly, she considered seeking him out in his own room, but knew that would be a mistake, as her need for reassurance and their desire for each other was a combustible mixture that would quickly flare out of control. The night seemed interminably long.

The following day, as they neared Gold Hill, Darcy decided that there was one thing, at least, that needed to be said. "I'm going to go after them, you know."

Elizabeth was so grateful for these words that she smiled for the first time since reading the telegram. Will's decision was not entirely unexpected, but he was not under any obligation to the Bennet family, and it warmed her that he was willing to assume the unpleasant task of retrieving her foolish sister. Nevertheless, she couldn't let him take it on alone. "Take me with you."

"Don't be ridiculous." The words were out before Darcy could stop them, and he immediately regretted them.

"Why?" Elizabeth snapped. "Don't you think I can take care of myself?"

Will held back a sigh. "Of course you can, Elizabeth." He'd never met a braver woman, even out here in Nevada, and that was one of the many things he loved about her. But she had never dealt with Wickham, didn't know what he was capable of, and there was no way he would risk his sweetheart's safety while remedying Lydia's folly. Fortunately, he could give her a good reason to remain on the ranch. "But your family needs you at home, now more than ever. You've got the sheep to look after, and Lydia's chores won't get done on their own."

She was forced to admit that this was true. Still, she added unhappily, "Lydia's not going to listen to you, let alone leave with you. She doesn't even like you."

This caused a small smile to appear on Darcy's lips. Clearly, he didn't much care for Lydia, either. "How about if Charles comes with me? She'll listen to him, right?"

Grudgingly, Elizabeth nodded. There was silence for a few moments, and then Will broke it to ask, "Elizabeth, what should we tell your parents about Lydia's elopement?"

The question nearly stopped her dead in her tracks. She hadn't much considered what she would say once she got home. Would her parents believe her that Lydia's aim was not to elope with Denny, but to meet Wickham in Reno? And even if they did, would they understand that this was no innocent flirtation, but a perilous situation for a girl just shy of 17 years?

"I honestly don't know."

When they reached the Bennet ranch, Elizabeth was prepared for the worst. And yet, there was less pandemonium in the household than she had been accustomed to, probably because there was but one Bennet daughter still in residence. In fact, the primary source of any uproar appeared to be disappointment from Mrs. Bennet at having been deprived of planning a wedding, and indignation from Mr. Bennet at the absence of a darn good ranch hand. Kitty was relieved that Jane and Elizabeth had returned, since, alone in the house, she had borne the brunt of her parents' complaints. And she, too, had something on her mind.

"Lizzy! Jane!" Kitty whispered hoarsely to her sisters while Mr. and Mrs. Bennet admired Juliet. "Thank heavens you're home. Why, I'm fit to burst!"

Elizabeth was immediately suspicious. Her sister looked entirely too pleased with herself. "What is it, Kitty?"

Keeping one eye on her parents, Kitty said, her words rushed in her excitement, "Ma and Pa think Lydia's run off with Denny. Only I know the whole truth! Me! She told me to keep it a secret, least until you got back, but now I can tell, and guess what? She's actually eloping with George, I mean, Mr. Wickham! Isn't it romantic?" Kitty paused, disappointed in her sisters' lack of reaction. "Well, aren't you surprised?"

"Not in the least," Elizabeth said.

Kitty's jaw dropped. "How did you know?"

"We figured it out. Kitty, it's very important that we tell Mama and Papa right now. Lydia's in danger."

"Pfft!" the younger girl scoffed. "Lydia knows what she's doing. She's been keeping company with George for months. You're just jealous that she'll be so happy."

Leaving Jane to deal with Kitty, Elizabeth ran over to her parents, who were thanking Will for his generosity and hospitality with something less than complete enthusiasm. She put her hand on his arm, and he covered it with his own, causing her mother's eyebrows to rise. But she gave Mrs. Bennet no opportunity to ask questions. "Mama, Papa, there's something urgent you need to know about Lydia." Taking a deep breath, she continued, "She didn't really elope with Denny; he was just her transportation. She's really going to Reno to be with George Wickham." She gestured at her younger sister, who was sulking at having her good gossip spoiled as well as being scolded by Jane. "Kitty can confirm it."

This information did not have the effect Elizabeth expected. Instead of taking on a look of dismay, Mrs. Bennet's face lit up in unabashed delight. "Well, I'll be!" the woman declared. "Lydia's made a good match for herself after all. Why, I'll bet the man's as rich as Charles Bingley, and he's certainly better looking. Imagine the clothes she'll have, and the jewelry, and the carriages! Oh, Lydia, you sly girl!"

Not for the first time, Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut with the indignity of having such a mother. Keen to her distress, Will immediately stepped in to clarify. "I'm sure you misunderstand, Mrs. Bennet. I've known George Wickham for years, and I can pretty much guarantee you that he has no intention of marrying your daughter."

When Mrs. Bennet turned her gaze on Darcy, it was with a look of cold disdain. Forgotten was her appreciation just moments before for the generous engagement gift he had bestowed upon Jane. "Yes, I've heard about your relationship with our George, Mr. Darcy. And I have nothing to say to you about the dear man, after the way you've treated him." Mr. Bennet, who loved a good row -so long as he wasn't involved - simply stood back and watched as his wife delivered her coup de grace: "He's going to be our son-in-law, and what are you to us, mister high-and-mighty?"

Elizabeth had had quite enough of her mother's rudeness. "Actually, Mama," she said serenely, putting her arm around Will's waist and having the satisfaction of having his own placed protectively around her, his hand caressing her shoulder, "Will and I are engaged, and he's going to be your son-in-law."

"With your permission, of course, Mr. Bennet," added Darcy, in a tone that implied he didn't give a fig what Mr. Bennet thought.

Fanny Bennet was uncharacteristically speechless for a moment...but not more than that. She quickly calculated the benefits of being mother-in-law to the richest man in Nevada, and recovered brilliantly. "Lizzy! Why, I had no idea that the two of you...! Oh, Mr. Darcy - or should I call you Will? - you are very welcome to our family." She suddenly realized that they were all still standing outside the house, and that she, as lady of the house, had certain responsibilities. "Come in, come in," she trilled, "you must be tired after your journey. Let me fix you something to eat."

Mr. Bennet had not yet found his voice. Somehow it troubled him less that Lydia had run off with some ne'er-do-well than that his Lizzy had become engaged without his knowledge or his blessing. And to that hoity-toity Will Darcy, the one who had mistaken her for a boy! Was it just that he was afraid of losing her? She had grown up so competent, so smart, so hard-working, her father had fooled himself into thinking that she would always be around the ranch...mostly because no man could possibly be her equal. Is it possible that she actually cared for Darcy? It certainly appeared that way; his money had never held any attraction for her. Bennet frowned. He had always respected her judgment...

So why not now? Why did he dismiss her worries that Wickham was bad news, that Lydia had bitten off more than she could chew? He looked at his favorite daughter as she entered the house, perfectly composed, holding hands and exchanging affectionate looks with her fiancé. Maybe he needed to find out more about Lizzy's misgivings. And the only way to do that was to talk to Darcy, man to man.

It was with a great deal of satisfaction that Elizabeth noted her father and Will deep in conversation while she helped her mother prepare some refreshments. Finally, it appeared as if Mr. Bennet was willing to give credence to their story, and she was proud of him. What there was to be done about Lydia, well, that was another issue entirely.

By the time the family had finished eating, Mr. Bennet seemed to have warmed to his future son-in-law for reasons superior to his wife's. Jane wisely removed Kitty and Mrs. Bennet to another room to discuss all she had seen at Pemberley, leaving Elizabeth alone with the two men.

At first, Mr. Bennet claimed he would go and retrieve Lydia on his own, but it was soon obvious that this would be entirely impossible, as he wouldn't leave the ranch and his family without protection. He was equally reluctant to accept Darcy's offer to retrieve her - like Elizabeth, he doubted that Lydia would be willing to leave on Will's authority alone - but Will's suggestion that he enlist Charles was deemed acceptable. Agreeing now that there was little time to spare, he encouraged Darcy to leave at once for the Silver Dust and thence to Reno, and he shook the younger man's hand with genuine warmth as he welcomed him into the family.

Elizabeth was not happy that Will would be leaving immediately, but knew it was a necessary evil. In an unexpectedly tactful move, the entire remaining Bennet family left the two alone as they silently walked outside to Darcy's horse. Admiring the quiet confidence her fiancé wore, as well as the way his belt holster, studded with bullets, hung around his narrow hips, she watched as he settled his hat on his head and checked his saddle. When he turned to her it was with an encouraging smile.

"Your father was a lot more receptive than I'd hoped," he said, pulling her into his arms and placing a gentle kiss on her lips. "Let's hope Lydia feels the same way."

"Be careful, Will," Elizabeth said, suddenly fearful for his safety. She kissed him back, full of emotion. She couldn't bear it if something happened to him.

"Don't worry, sweetheart," he replied, then added, teasingly, "don't you think I can take care of myself?"

She swatted him lightly, and he laughed as he mounted his horse. As she watched him ride away toward town, she was buoyed by the knowledge that this amazing man loved her, and would be her husband. She squared her shoulders and headed back into the house to face the inevitable questions about her implausible relationship with a gentleman she had previously detested.

Caroline Bingley couldn't believe her eyes when she walked out of the back room of the Silver Dust and saw Darcy seated at a table having a drink. She had all but given up hope when he had left San Francisco in such a hurry the previous week, offering his aunt the lamest of excuses. Having nothing left to do in California, and no longer trusting Mrs. de Bourgh to give her an honest assessment of Will's feelings or intentions, Caroline had decided to come back home. She had only arrived in Gold Hill the day before and now considered her good timing a lucky omen, especially when Will smiled with obvious relief upon seeing her. "Caroline!"

"Why, hello, Will," she said in measured tones, determined not to overplay her hand by appearing too excited at his return. Perhaps that was where she had gone wrong in the past; perhaps she had been too aggressive. Yes, she thought, it was best to let the wayward boy come to her. "I didn't think I'd be seeing you in Gold Hill so soon." She pointed to his near-empty glass. "Can I refresh that for you?"

"No, thanks." He leaned forward and said eagerly, "I'm really glad you're here."

Glad I'm here! Well, now, that's better! Caroline slid languidly into the chair opposite him looking, she hoped, unruffled and uninterested. "So, what can I do for you?"

"Can you tell me where to find Charles?"

Taken completely aback, she choked out, "Charles?"

"Yes, I need him right away on urgent business. I've been chasing around town for a half-hour: I came here first, but neither of you were around, so I looked for him at the store, then at the hotel, and finally I came back here again, figuring one of you would show up eventually. So, do you know where he is?"

"Charles?"

"Yes, Charles," Will said, a little impatiently.

"He's with Mayor Lucas," Caroline said, defeated. For now.

"Thanks, Caroline." Smiling, Darcy got to his feet and gave a little sigh of relief. "I have to go off to Reno for a while, and I'm asking Charles to come with me. I hope we...I hope we won't be long." He turned toward the door.

Almost immediately, though, he hesitated and turned back toward her, biting his lip in an endearingly boyish way. Her heart melted. "Oh, just one more thing, Caroline." With a fluttering in her breast, she held her breath for what would come next.

"I think you ought to hear it straight from me: Elizabeth Bennet and I are engaged." And with a tip of his hat Will was gone.

It was probably fortunate for business at the Silver Dust that there were few patrons present at that time of day, so no one was hit by the glass that Caroline sent flying at the door through which all her hopes had just departed.

Chapter 20

Will had only been gone two days, but to Elizabeth it felt like weeks. They had agreed that he would send the family a telegram the minute he located Lydia, but so far she had heard nothing. So she went through her routine - busier than she had ever been, now that she had to share Lydia's chores with Kitty as well as take care of the sheep - alternately worrying about him and sighing over him. Now that she had satisfied the family's curiosity about Will and how she came to love him, there was little excuse to bring up his name with anyone but Jane. And she didn't really want to burden her sister with either her anxieties or her raptures. After all, Jane's fiancé was also away, and she had a new semester of school for which to prepare. So Elizabeth kept to herself, and became increasingly silent, unable even to appreciate the spring blooming of the land around her.

Mr. Bennet looked on his daughter with a new understanding. As he had expected, she hadn't given her heart easily, but at least it was to a man worthy of her. Nevertheless, it wounded him to see his lively Lizzy pining like this, and he approached her late in the morning of the third day of Darcy's absence, while she was sweeping out the house.

"Put down the broom, Lizzy," he said tenderly. She opened her mouth to protest, but he insisted, "The dust can wait." Handing her a few coins, Mr. Bennet continued, "You work harder than all of us put together; you put us to shame! I want you to go into town and get yourself something sweet, some candy or ice cream. You deserve it."

Elizabeth's eyes sparkled, and she smiled as brightly as the little girl her father remembered so fondly. He congratulated himself on having done a good deed. "Oh, thank you, Papa!" She gave him a quick peck on the cheek and ran to get her hat and holster.

"Where do you think you're going, missy?" Mrs. Bennet shrieked.

"Papa says I can go into town." Elizabeth replied, steeling herself for an argument. Surely her mother wouldn't deny her this rare treat!

"Well, then," the older woman said, with an indulgent smile rarely bestowed upon her second eldest, "you can just get yourself cleaned up and put on a dress. It's high time you acted like a lady. I'll not have the future Mrs. Will Darcy walking around Gold Hill like some ragamuffin!"

With a gay laugh, Elizabeth ran to get ready. She had to admit that for once her mother had a point. While Will liked her Levi's, and in fact appeared to have an inordinate fondness for them, they were hardly appropriate attire for the fiancée of such a wealthy and prominent man. Her mother had no doubt already managed to tell the entire town of their engagement, and Elizabeth didn't want to embarrass Will in any way. So, shucking her work clothes, she bathed herself quickly, shivering in the cold water, and put on a dress. For good measure, she put a ribbon in her hair. There! she thought, At least I'm presentable!

Riding their old mare sidesaddle into town was an uncomfortable experience that Elizabeth hadn't had in months, but nothing could dampen her enthusiasm. In her mind she considered the possibilities. Gold Hill had no chocolatier as fine as Ghirardelli's, but there were at least two stores that carried confections that were quite delightful. Then there was ice cream. Ah! She hadn't enjoyed that particular luxury since she had shared a table with Mr. Wickham. At that thought, dark cloud passed over her sunny mood. But Elizabeth refused to succumb to it. She would make new memories, ones that did not include that awful man. Ice cream it would be!

She had just tied her horse to the hitching post in front of the confectioner's when an unpleasant voice reached her ears. "So if it isn't our beloved Betsy."

Calmly, Elizabeth turned to face Caroline Bingley. "Good morning, Miss Bingley. Lovely day, isn't it?"

"For some, maybe," she sneered. As usual, Caroline looked disdainfully at Elizabeth's attire. "I almost didn't recognize you without your boy clothes. But then, I'd know that dress anywhere. Lord knows how many times I've seen it on you."

Elizabeth shrugged. There was no way Miss Bingley and her predictable insults were going to ruin this afternoon for her. Thinking it wise to change the subject, she asked, "Did you enjoy San Francisco?"

Never one to miss an opportunity to brag, Caroline said, "Oh, I did, I did. Why, you should see the dresses I brought back, the hats, the jewelry...everything I could possibly desire, and all in the latest styles! What a shame you weren't able to avail yourself of the opportunities there, Miss Elizabeth."

Pursing her lips, Elizabeth thought wickedly to retort that Miss Bingley had been unable to bring back from San Francisco the one thing she had desired most, but she saw no purpose in antagonizing the woman with such a daring statement. And rightly so, because after an awkward silence, Caroline added:

"Will Darcy told me that he's engaged to you." Ignoring Elizabeth's astonished look, she continued, "Congratulations are in order, I suppose. I must say it came as quite a surprise to me, and no doubt will to all his other acquaintances, seeing as he always seemed to prefer more attractive, more feminine companionship." Her voice took on a darker tone. "But there are other reasons to get married, aren't there? Men are weak creatures, after all. Perhaps you offered him something he found himself unable to resist, resulting in an...unexpected consequence?" She glanced pointedly at Elizabeth's waistline, which remained, as always, narrow and trim, and tilted her head as if considering the possibilities. "Hm. Nothing yet. But time will tell, time will tell. Good day, Miss Elizabeth." Smiling with satisfaction, Caroline walked away.

Once again Elizabeth was left incredulous at the impudence of Caroline Bingley. To imply that she was with child, and had thus trapped Will into marriage! Fury built up inside her. But after a difficult moment she composed herself. With a deep breath and the recollection that she, not Caroline, was the woman with whom Will had chosen to spend the rest of his life, Elizabeth realized that she could afford to pity the woman. Her pleasant mood revived, if not entirely restored, she moved toward the door of Johnson's, but was stopped a second time, by another familiar voice.

"Did I hear correctly, Miss Elizabeth? Are you and Will Darcy engaged?"

Elizabeth spun around in horror. George Wickham! What was he still doing in Gold Hill?

"I don't see that's any of your business, Mr. Wickham," she replied brusquely, a chill going down her spine. If he was here in Gold Hill, where was Lydia?

"Maybe not." He let his appreciative gaze roam down Elizabeth's form. "But I can't help but wonder if there's any truth to what Caroline Bingley said."

"If I were you, I wouldn't listen to anything that woman says." Elizabeth wanted desperately to leave the man's presence, but feared this might be her only opportunity to establish her sister's whereabouts. So she cut directly to the point. "Where's Lydia?"

He smiled. "How should I know?"

"You don't fool me for a minute, Mr. Wickham. I know Denny was taking her to meet you somewhere."

"She's with...a friend, being well taken care of, I assure you."

"Well, I insist you bring her back to the ranch. She's young, and has no idea what she's gotten herself into. She thinks you intend to marry her."

"Marry her!" Wickham shook his head in mock dismay. "Tsk, these girls and their romantic notions. I can't imagine where she might have gotten that idea."

"I'm sure you can't," Elizabeth responded acerbically, her hands on her hips. "Well? Are you going to bring her back to Gold Hill?"

"And why would I do that? She left of her own accord, didn't she? It's not my fault that the little fool thinks I aim to marry her."

"Then what is it exactly that you aim to do?"

"Why, just what I promised: to introduce her to the excitement of life in Reno."

A tremor ran through Elizabeth. Will was right - Lydia was bound for the Lone Wolf! It was all she could do to keep her equanimity under the burden of this knowledge.

"But," Wickham continued, "if you think she'd rather go home to your boring little ranch, then by all means, take her home."

"Me? But I..."

"Look, I'll bring you to see Lydia, but it will be up to you to persuade her to leave. I'm not going to drag her back here kicking and screaming. I can't abide those female tantrums."

"All right, then." She set her teeth. "I'll go get Papa."

"No, you won't. I'm ready to go now." He folded his arms across his chest. "Just so you know, Miss Elizabeth, your little stories have made things mighty uncomfortable for me here the past couple months. Mayor Lucas was cold to me, and so was a large portion of the general public, if you catch my drift, and as a result it took me a lot longer than I'd like to get my business done. I could have been out of this Podunk weeks ago. No, there'll be no more delays. You'll come with me from here."

Gasping, Elizabeth cried, "I can't just leave here with you!"

"Why not? Reno's only 'bout 30 miles from here. At a nice fast canter, we could make it in 2 hours. Unless you'd prefer to gallop."

Looking sadly at the Bennets' old mare, Elizabeth wished she had borrowed Juliet for the day. She doubted that a gallop was within the mare's capabilities.

"It's not quite noon, Miss Elizabeth. If we leave now, we can be back to Gold Hill long before sunset." He squinted at her. "What's it going to be?"

Elizabeth weighed her options. She didn't trust George Wickham, of course, not at all. But if Will and Charles hadn't been able to find Lydia after spending two days in Reno, she must be well hidden, and not at the Lone Wolf. It seemed to fall to Elizabeth herself to bring her sister home.

"All right," Elizabeth said, not hiding her reluctance well enough.

"Don't sound so gloomy," Wickham said in his usual charming manner, shrugging off Elizabeth's refusal of his help to mount her horse. "I think you'll find me good company on the road. I'm a much better conversationalist than that old fogy Will Darcy, that's for sure." Retrieving his own horse a short distance away, he continued with a wily glance at her, "Although apparently there's something he does better'n me." He received no response.

Sitting stiffly and warily in the saddle, Elizabeth refused to be drawn in by Wickham's lively chatter. She answered his questions with monosyllables. Undeterred, he told her about his father, about Reno, about Denny. To listen to him, one would think he led a blameless life. It was easy to see how an entire town, never mind a nave young girl, could be taken in by him.

True to his word in one regard, however, they made good time on the road once they left the city limits and began to canter. As they approached Reno, Wickham checked his pocket watch and informed Elizabeth that it was just past 2 o'clock.

She nodded. "Then you'll be taking me straight to Lydia?" It was less a question than a demand.

"Naturally. She's been staying with a widow friend of mine, a Mrs. Younge. I'm sure Amanda has kept her well entertained. We go back a-ways, Amanda and me." Wickham chuckled. "My, my, the stories she could tell! Not all of it fit for a young lady's ears, of course. But just as I promised, I'll have her get Lydia ready to leave as soon as we arrive."

And Wickham fully intended to let Lydia go. He had found her a pleasurable distraction while in Gold Hill, but if she was going to get all moony on him and insist on being married, well, he didn't need that sort of trouble. She was just the type of girl to make a loud fuss and call attention to herself at an inopportune moment.

But Elizabeth...that was another story entirely. Wickham examined her furtively out of the corner of his eye. Despite the well-worn dress that spoke of her relative poverty, there was much to admire in this woman: a pretty face, a shapely body, an intelligent mind, a passionate temperament. And as icing on the cake, she was finally without her ever-present Colt revolver.

He put on his best poker face, as he could hardly believe his luck and had no wish to betray his inner euphoria. A man in his profession was always dependent upon the luck of the draw, and to his delight, George Wickham had just been dealt the Queen of Hearts. A pregnant fiancée! Ha! Will Darcy wouldn't know what hit him.

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