Silver Dust

Chapter 21

Riding into Reno alongside Wickham, Elizabeth took the opportunity to look around furtively. She had no real expectations of seeing either Will or Charles, of course, given the size of the bustling city, but it couldn't hurt to be on the lookout. Being thus occupied, she found her concentration shattered when Wickham unexpectedly said,

"We'll be stopping at my house first, Miss Elizabeth. I haven't been home in weeks, and I have a few things to discuss with my housekeeper before we head over to Amanda's. Hope you don't mind."

Elizabeth nodded, although her agreement hardly mattered in this situation. She was in a strange town, hours from home, entirely dependent upon a promise given by a known liar and gambler. Ironically, this was precisely the foolishness for which she had berated Lydia.

Wickham's house was impressive both in stature and appointments, though it was far too garish for Elizabeth's taste. She much preferred the casual elegance of Pemberley, but kept this opinion to herself. The housekeeper, Mrs. Gibbs, bore a startling resemblance to Mrs. Reynolds, though without the latter woman's warmth and geniality. This similarity, Elizabeth thought, could not be a coincidence. While Wickham made the proper introductions, it was clear to Elizabeth that Mrs. Gibbs had seen many women - not all of them ladies - pass through the house and therefore had little interest in greeting this latest one. Her cheeks burning at the thought, she stood aside and listened only half-heartedly at the open door as the housekeeper efficiently listed the issues that required her master's most immediate attention.

If she thought she might by being inconspicuous escape further humiliation, Elizabeth was mistaken, as the very next voice she heard cried out, "Betsy! Is that you?"

"Horace?" But there was no question, as the lanky young man had practically stumbled into her while passing through Wickham's doorway, his arms laden with a large, flat bundle that could only be a framed painting. He put the package down carefully in the foyer, then moved with enthusiasm to embrace her, but the last experience he had had with Elizabeth was still fresh in his memory, and restraining himself, he whipped off his hat instead.

"Gosh, Betsy, it's awful good to see you again." Then, remembering that there were others in the entryway, Horace turned to address them, "'Scuse me, Mr. Wickham, Miz Gibbs. I just came to deliver that painting you ordered."

Wickham looked on bemusedly. "You two know each other?"

As usual, not allowing Elizabeth to get a word in, Horace effused, "Oh, yessir, we're old friends, Betsy and I are. Knew each other back East. I came out here with the Bennet family, 'til I...moved on." Then, addressing Elizabeth again, he exclaimed excitedly, "Hey, Betsy, guess who else is here from Gold Hill! Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley! I saw 'em just yesterday, and they treated me to a real fancy dinner. They said they're looking for your sister Lydia, is she here too? Gee, what a surprise to see all of you. It's like some sort of party or something."

Elizabeth's heart sank. She had hoped to keep Will's presence in Reno a secret from Wickham. To her further horror, Horace took her hand and continued, in a more subdued manner, "Mr. Darcy told me that you and he are engaged, Betsy. Can't say as I blame you, him being such a rich man and all. I had kinda hoped to win you back, but I guess it's too late for that. He sure looked happy, Betsy." He couldn't help the morose note that crept into his voice. Elizabeth was afraid he might cry. "I hope you're happy, too."

"Thank you," she whispered.

What she could see, that Horace could not, was Wickham's smile, a grin so broad it could barely be contained by the confines of his face. He had just received the confirmation that Elizabeth had been reluctant to give. Pregnant or not, it hardly mattered now; the engagement was no secret, and if Darcy was announcing it with joy to every Tom, Dick and Harry, the pompous fool was really in love with the Bennet girl. So much the better.

"Well, Crabtree," Wickham announced in good humor, "let's see that painting you brought. Your friend is one very talented young artist, Miss Elizabeth, but I reckon you knew that already."

Unwrapping the parcel, George gave a nod of approval, even admiration. The painting, Elizabeth saw with a shock, was an odalisque almost identical to the one in her own image that had hung in the Silver Dust. Though this woman was a redhead, she still unmistakably bore Elizabeth's own nose and green eyes. She prayed that Wickham wouldn't notice the resemblance. For now, at least, it appeared that he hadn't.

While Wickham gave Mrs. Gibbs instructions for the hanging of the artwork at the Lone Wolf, Horace explained quietly to Elizabeth that after his ill-fated visit to Gold Hill, Mr. Darcy had generously purchased all his current artwork and offered to set him up with his own studio, provided that it was farther away from Gold Hill than Virginia City. He had therefore settled in Reno and had found plenty of employment painting family portraits and the like. Mr. Wickham, seeing some promise in his work, had hired him to create several paintings for his properties, including the saloon. "You're my muse, Betsy," Horace said sotto voce. "Sometimes a little of you comes through in a painting. But don't worry; no one's going to recognize you any more."

The house's owner returned to the foyer just then, before Elizabeth had a chance to ask Horace to get a message to Will. Instead, Wickham amiably asked the younger man, "So did Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley say where they're staying while they're in town?"

"Sure did, Mr. Wickham. They're guests of Mr. William Marsh at his new mansion at the corner of California and Virginia.*"

"Excellent, excellent. Well, Crabtree, you've done a fine job here." Wickham withdrew several bills from his wallet, and pressed them into Horace's hand. From Crabtree's astonished expression, it seemed that he was being excessively compensated, no doubt for Elizabeth's benefit. Escorting Horace outside, Wickham said, "How 'bout we keep Miss Elizabeth's presence here just between you and me, Crabtree?" Smiling wickedly back at the object of their discussion, he added with a wink, "We're trying to surprise Mr. Darcy."

"Whatever you say, Mr. Wickham. And thank you kindly for your generosity." Waving sadly to Elizabeth, the young artist said, "So long, Betsy. Hope to see you again real soon."

Elizabeth waved back and watched him go with dismay. The situation had certainly gone from bad to worse in a hurry. Wickham now knew for a fact that she and Darcy were engaged, and worse, he knew where to find Will - but Will still had no idea that she was there in Reno with this dangerous man.

"Well, then, Miss Elizabeth," Wickham said with a brisk clap of his hands, "Let's go to see your sister now, shall we?"

They remounted their horses, and on their way, George pointed out the Lone Wolf. Even at this hour of the afternoon it was buzzing with activity, and he smiled with satisfaction. "Want to stop by and have a look?" he asked, chuckling as Elizabeth glared her response.

Mrs. Younge's house was clear on the other side of town, and Elizabeth was not surprised that Will had not been able to locate Lydia if he had expected to find her close to the saloon. The house itself was very modest, exactly the sort of home one might expect a widow to own. Elizabeth grew hopeful.

Wickham strode into the house without knocking, and hung his hat on the coat rack by the door. "Amanda!" he called.

"Well, you certainly took your time getting here, George," a cultivated voice purred. Elizabeth glanced up the stairs to see a very attractive, very voluptuous red-haired woman, just past her prime, wearing a bright yellow dress of the latest fashion, though lower cut than was strictly proper. She sauntered slowly down the staircase.

"My apologies, Amanda. I've been unavoidably detained."

"That's what you always say." Mrs. Younge looked at Elizabeth up and down with curiosity. "Is this what detained you?"

Wickham laughed heartily. "Mrs. Amanda Younge, I'm pleased to present Miss Elizabeth Bennet."

The older woman's eyebrows arched in interest. "Bennet? Would you be any relation to Miss Lydia Bennet?"

"I'm her sister," Elizabeth said, raising her chin a notch, her eyes aflame, "and I demand to see her immediately."

Amanda giggled. "Oh, George, I like this one a whole lot more than that other girl. She's got spirit."

Elizabeth opened her mouth to retort, but then she heard a familiar shriek.

"Lordy, George!" Lydia cried, charging noisily down the staircase, "I thought you'd never get here!"

The girl threw herself into Wickham's arms, pressing kisses on his face, much to Elizabeth's chagrin. Thankfully, the man received Lydia's attentions with his arms wide and smoothly peeled her away from him.

"Mrs. Younge wouldn't let me go out at all," she complained, "and I've been so bored waiting for you."

"Look who's here to see you, Lydia," he said, turning her around.

"Lizzy! Whatever are you doing here in Reno?" She looked happily from her sister to Wickham. "George, did you bring Lizzy to be my bridesmaid? Did you? Oh, you thoughtful man! But if you'd asked me - and I'm not complaining, you understand - I think I would have preferred Kitty instead." She grinned spitefully. "Just to see her jealous that I was getting married first!"

"Lydia, there's not going to be any wedding," Elizabeth said tightly. "I've come to take you home."

"What! No wedding!" Lydia refused to believe such an outrageous untruth. "George, tell her she's wrong. Tell her now!"

Wickham cleared his throat and suggested, "Why don't we go get comfortable in the parlor? Miss Elizabeth and I have had a long ride"

Mrs. Younge leaned back into a plush parlor chair, relishing the scene to come. Elizabeth, exhausted from both her travels and emotional strain, also took a seat, suddenly optimistic that perhaps Wickham could make Lydia see reason, and that things would turn out for the best after all.

Lydia immediately spun toward George. "Well, George? Tell her we're getting married." At his silence, she insisted again, her voice rising in both pitch and volume, "Tell her!"

"Now, Lydia," he said, pouring himself a whiskey and taking a sip, "I think if you look back at our last conversation, I never actually said the word 'marriage'."

"You told me you wanted to be with me, that you were going to take care of me," she whined. "You said we'd have an exciting life in Reno."

"Yes, to be sure, that's what I said. But I never said anything about a wedding, or about marrying you, did I?"

"Well, I assumed..."

"Did I ever propose?"

"No, but..."

"Then the only thing that can be concluded is that I never actually promised to marry you. Isn't that right, Lydia?"

"But...but, I love you, and you love me..."

"My dear, be sensible. We had fun together, you and I. Quite a lot of fun. But that doesn't mean I..."

"I can wait!" It was one last, desperate, pathetic attempt. "Maybe you don't know you want to marry me yet. I'll give you time! You'll see!"

He shook his head "Lydia, I'm a very straightforward sort of man who knows precisely what he wants. If I had wanted to marry you, I wouldn't have dropped subtle hints and hoped that you would pick up on them. I'm sorry, my dear, but you seem to have taken my invitation to share the thrills of Reno to be something else entirely."

For a moment there was silence, but it was an ominous one. Lydia's heart might have been broken, but it was her pride which would protest the loudest.

"Oh!" Lydia stamped her foot, and her cry was earsplitting. "Oh!" Mrs. Younge's eyes rolled; it was obvious that she had heard the sound many times before. "You horrid, horrid man! What do you take me for!" Looking at Elizabeth, she burst into noisy tears. "Lizzy, I want to go home."

Elizabeth jumped to her feet to embrace her sister. "And you will, honey," she soothed. "We'll go right now." Looking at Wickham, Elizabeth was unexpectedly grateful. She nodded her thanks.

Wickham nodded back and downed the last of his whiskey. "Amanda, will you please ask the maid to get Lydia's things packed up?"

"My pleasure, George." Mrs. Younge appeared relieved as she gave instructions to the maid, and Elizabeth could understand how she felt. As much as she loved her sister, Lydia could be trying sometimes. And a bored and lonely Lydia could be completely impossible.

When Lydia, still sobbing, ran up the stairs to clean up her face and get ready for the ride home, Elizabeth felt it was time to work out the details of how they would return to Gold Hill.

"I'm glad that's settled, Mr. Wickham. Now I have to find Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley, and let them know that Lydia will be coming home with us."

"Of course, Miss Elizabeth," Wickham said smoothly. "I'll send my man right away."

"I appreciate that, sir, but I'm sure I can find Mr. Marsh's home myself."

"No doubt you can." Giving her a thoughtful look, Wickham suddenly withdrew a knife from seemingly nowhere and before Elizabeth could protest, nicked the fabric at the collar of her dress and dragged a large slash across front of the fabric from the neckline to the waistline. As Elizabeth, gasping, clutched her hands over her ruined bodice, Wickham took a moment to appreciate the view, then holstered the knife in his boot and said calmly to Mrs. Younge,

"Oh, my. Amanda, it would appear that our guest has damaged her dress and requires a new one. Would you see that she gets one, please?"

"Certainly, George," the woman said with a smirk, pulling Elizabeth upstairs by the elbow. "Come along, now, Miss Elizabeth."

At the Marsh mansion, Will drummed his fingers on the table in frustration. He had been all over Reno the past couple of days, spoken to dozens upon dozens of people, and none could remember having seen anyone matching Lydia's description. Several visits to the Lone Wolf, both the saloon and the brothel, had turned up nothing but a few revolting offers. Bingley had had no luck, either. Not even Denny had made an appearance; it was as if the two had simply vanished. He stared into his brandy. It was unlike his hunches to be wrong, but Will had started to doubt the certainty with which he had made this trip. Maybe Reno wasn't Lydia's destination after all. But if that were the case, there was no hope for the girl.

"Hey, Will!" Charles called cheerfully as he entered the room, brandishing a note written in a feminine hand. "This just arrived, addressed to me. I think our troubles are over."

Mr. Bingley, Darcy read, I hear tell that you are seeking one Lydia Bennet. My friend Joe dropped her at my boarding house a couple of days ago, under an assumed name. Said her lover would be coming for her, but the man never showed. I'd be much obliged if you'd come right away and take the little ninny off my hands. Sincerely, A. Younge.

"Well, that's our Lydia," said Bingley with a laugh, sitting down and resting his boots on a footstool. "All's well that ends well." He took a deep drink from his beer. "Oh, another note arrived addressed to you, by the way."

Will took the note and froze. He'd know that handwriting anywhere. Ripping open the envelope, he read:

Darcy, I've got your girl right here at the Lone Wolf. Room 312. Come and get her - alone. G. Wickham

"Lydia can't be in two places at once. Charles," Darcy said grimly, getting to his feet, "looks like this is where we part ways."

*This house, called the Lake Mansion after its sale in 1879, was built in 1877 and is one of the oldest surviving structures in Reno. It's still in use as a museum, albeit at a different location.

Chapter 22

Waiting for Darcy's arrival at Room 312, Wickham sat tipped back lazily in a chair, his legs stretched out before him, feet on the table. His left hand held a glass of whiskey, and his right, a pistol, casually pointed in Elizabeth's direction.

Though Wickham's assault on her clothing back at Mrs. Younge's house had been a nasty shock, nothing that had passed afterward had much surprised Elizabeth: not the scandalous dress that the woman had handed to her in a small bedroom upstairs - almost identical in style to Lil's costume, albeit of a shoddier construction and even shorter in length - nor the door that had been firmly locked behind her. Once her relationship to Will Darcy had been established, it was a forgone conclusion that she was now nothing more than a pawn that Wickham would use to get to his old nemesis.

So Elizabeth had then suffered the indignity of riding through Reno's streets tarted up like a dance-hall girl (or worse), and endured the catcalls and lewd suggestions of the Lone Wolf's patrons as she was hauled up to the last room on the brothel's third floor. She breathed a sigh of relief that he seemed to think it unnecessary to go so far as to tie her up, as his revolver was potent enough a deterrent against any troublesome behavior.

"Might I ask what has happened to my sister?" she said, as calmly as her current situation would allow, keeping a wary eye on the gun.

"I 'spect she's on her way back to Gold Hill right about now, Miss Elizabeth, just like I promised."

"Really? And how would she be getting home?"

"I sent for Mr. Bingley at the Marsh mansion. How convenient to have him in town." He laughed. "But I don't envy him the ride back!"

"How do I know you're telling the truth? You haven't had much of a reputation for it up 'til now."

"You wound me to the quick, Miss Elizabeth!" Wickham said, with feigned hurt. "Well, you can believe me when I tell you that I don't need an albatross like Lydia hanging around my neck. Once you told me she had her heart set on marrying, well, that took all the fun out of having her around. Look at that ruckus she made at Amanda's house! She would have turned the saloon topsy-turvy. Besides, I had more important things to do once I found out about you and Darcy."

"To be sure," Elizabeth said dryly. "What makes you think Lydia won't tell Mr. Bingley that I'm in Reno?"

Wickham shrugged. "What if she does? While you were changing into that very flattering new frock," he said, his eyes dancing across the bountiful flesh exposed by the extreme décolletage of the dress, "Amanda told her that I was showing you around town and that I'd be taking you straight home afterward. Lydia seemed to swallow it whole; she's not the most discerning girl I've ever met, I'm sorry to say."

There was a leaden silence, which was broken when Elizabeth asked:

"What exactly to you hope to gain from this, Mr. Wickham?"

"What do I hope to gain?" he mused in reply. "Well, for one thing, I've got a score to settle. Last time I had an intimate little meeting like this with Darcy, he beat me within an inch of my life and spoiled my pretty face. But I've got bigger fish to fry: see, I like to indulge in a little poker and faro myself from time to time, and my luck hasn't been holding lately. I need money, and Darcy's got an awful lot of it, in case you haven't noticed. Now he's going to have to learn to share."

"It seems as if you have a very profitable venture right here at the Lone Wolf. I'd hardly think you'd need to resort to kidnapping and extortion."

"Yeah, it sure looks good, doesn't it? But I also like to maintain a certain standard of living, and it doesn't come cheap. Isn't my house grand? Well, keeping it up, and the servants and everything..., you know, I've got expenses. And there's always problems running a saloon, all costly," he added, ticking them off on his fingers: "employees that'll rob you blind, furnishings that get wrecked in fights, girls who run off and need replacing, sheriffs who want bribes..."

"Bribes?" she asked innocently. "Isn't gambling legal here?"

"Legal? Well, Miss Elizabeth, you ever hear of 'An Act to prohibit the winning of money from persons who have no right to gamble it away'? No? Didn't think so. Well, the fools in the Nevada legislature passed that law last March. Covers men with families and men with debts, which kind of puts a crimp in the number of available patrons, if you get my drift. All a feller - or his wife, or his buddy - has to do is provide a letter with his sad circumstances, and all of a sudden it's going to cost me as much as $500 and maybe even some time in jail if he has the bad luck to lose money in my establishment. You can imagine that it might be cheaper in the long run to grease the palms of the local constabulary." Wickham winked at her, then resumed in a more serious vein. "After all that, there's not so much profit as you'd think. Plus, and it could be just a fluke, there seems to be a lot less silver coming out of the mines these days, and I'm thinking that maybe I oughta have a little set aside for a rainy day."

"And you think Will is just going to give it to you."

He looked her over again with a thorough gaze and a crooked smile, and she blushed. "Darn right, I do. The last time, I thought I had a sure-fire plan: I had his sister along with me, and I thought he'd be reasonable and play nice. Too bad I let my guard down." Wickham's pleasant mood turned sour, and he gestured at her with the gun. "Well, it won't happen again. I got better insurance this time."

The response that Elizabeth was about to make about Georgiana was interrupted by the sound of footsteps walking up to the room. The empty whiskey glass skittered across the table as Wickham got to his feet and motioned with his revolver for Elizabeth to sit on the bed. Complying, she climbed atop the bed and sat back on her heels, gripping her skirts tightly to still her hands. Then, with his gun pointed at the door, Wickham opened it, stepping deftly behind so Darcy's view would be unimpeded. The move had its desired effect.

"Elizabeth!" Will exclaimed, his face pale. Without thinking, he lowered the weapon he had drawn upon entering. "What are you doing here? Are you all right?"

"She's just fine," Wickham said quickly, moving to his side and cocking his pistol at Darcy's temple, "and she'll stay that way as long as you cooperate. You can start by putting your gun down on this here table."

Complying, Will stood warily in the middle of the room, full of concern for his fiancée and seething with rage at the man who held her.

"When you said you had 'my girl' at the Lone Wolf, Wickham," he said, his voice low and even, "I had assumed you meant Lydia."

"Yeah, but I have something even more valuable instead, don't I?" Wickham laughed as he backed away and retrieved Darcy's pistol. "Your beauteous fiancée. Tempting, isn't she? Especially dolled up like that." He grinned wickedly and smacked his lips. "I may have to try her myself."

Enjoying Will's helpless anger, Wickham said, "Have a seat," indicating the chair he had recently vacated. Keeping both revolvers fixed on Darcy at the table, he said, "Now here's what you're going to do for me, old buddy. I'm a little short of funds right now, and I figure you owe me for that piece of land you stole from me. You're going to pay me in full."

"You mean the land I bought from you, George? I gave you more than the market value for it, remember? And you and I both know you didn't want that property."

"Yeah, well, I want it now, and since I can't have it, I figure that it's worth, what? $20,000? That sounds about right to me. And I need it right away."

Will folded his arms across his chest. "And if I don't agree to give it to you?"

"That's an easy one. I get myself a nice steak dinner, and I have your girl here..." he waved one of the guns in Elizabeth's direction, "as dessert."

"Always trying to use a girl to get your way, eh, George? Just like you did with Georgiana."

"Never you mind about that," Wickham said with a disagreeable look. "You gonna give me the money or not?"

"I will, for Elizabeth's sake. But if you want money, you'll have to come back with me to the Marsh house. I don't carry that much cash, and I certainly didn't bring my checkbook with me to the Lone Wolf. I had thought that," he added, pointing at his gun in Wickham's hand, "would be sufficient."

Wickham shook his head. "Well, you thought wrong. And I'm not going anywhere, Darcy. Knowing you, you've got an entire posse from Gold Hill waiting for me back at Marsh's. No, thanks. I'll just wait here with Elizabeth till you get back."

"How will I know that she'll be safe in the meantime?"

"You'll just have to trust me."

Suddenly there was a loud bang, and Wickham crumpled to the ground, releasing his grip on both firearms as he grasped his right leg. "I'm hit," he gasped in surprise. There was indeed blood blossoming from his thigh. He lay on the floor, moaning.

The two men stared incredulously at Elizabeth, who was holding a still-smoking Remington .41 Rimfire derringer. She shrugged. "I didn't like the odds."

Taking advantage of Wickham's distraction, Will immediately retrieved both his own gun as well as his opponent's. He grinned at Elizabeth and shook his head in amazement.

She grinned back. "I told you I could take care of myself." He watched appreciatively as she blew on the little stocking pistol and holstered it in a garter high on her silky thigh. Then quickly, to his disappointment, she rearranged her skirts more modestly.

"I should never have doubted you," he replied, leaning down and placing a warm kiss on her lips. Elizabeth would have been content to stay in a similar posture for the duration of the day, but she spotted something moving out of the corner of her eye.

"Look out!" she cried.

Darcy's quick reflexes saved him from being slashed by the same knife that had ruined Elizabeth's dress, plucked from its place in Wickham's boot. The man's injury, though painful, was not fatal, and apparently insufficient to keep him from making one desperate last attempt at salvaging his plan. He had staggered to his feet and swiped violently at Will, missing by mere inches. Fortunately, that single exertion was the most Wickham could manage and, with an easy movement, Will knocked him out with the butt of his own pistol.

"He'll be better off like that while we find him a doctor," Darcy said, kneeling on the floor and pressing his handkerchief to the bloody wound. He was irritated at finding himself in the disagreeable position of playing nursemaid to his most bitter enemy, but nevertheless he glanced around the room for something to use to bind the injury. Before he could instruct Elizabeth to tear a strip from the bed sheets, she said:

"Here, take this," and she ripped a length of material from her petticoats. Handing it to Will, she added, "The dress doesn't suit me, anyway."

"Oh, I don't know about that, Elizabeth" he said as he tied off the makeshift bandage. "I often recall very fondly the way you looked in Lil's dress at the Bingley house." Standing up and brushing off his hands, Darcy added with a lascivious smile, "Very fondly. I nearly made a spectacle of myself over you."

Despite herself, Elizabeth colored. She remembered thinking how offended the pompous Mr. Darcy had been to see her dressed in a dance-hall girl's costume at dinner, and was just now discovering that perhaps her attire had had quite the opposite effect. The room turned unusually warm.

Will cleared his throat. "Well, I'd better get this lowlife to a doctor," he sighed, heaving Wickham over his shoulder. "Lock the door, will you, sweetheart?" he said on his way out of the room. "I know you're a force to be reckoned with, but that derringer only has one shot, and I'm not taking any chances."

Laughingly reassuring him, she followed him to the door, gave him a quick kiss as he departed, and locked the door to await his return.

Not more than a half-hour later, he did return, and Elizabeth threw herself into his arms. For several minutes they engaged lips and hands in a mutual expression of relief and passion, but when he realized that they had backed up against the bed, Darcy found it prudent to disengage himself. "We'd better not, darling," he breathed, reluctantly removing his hands from her lithe, satin-covered body and untangling her arms from around his neck. "This isn't the time or the place." He be damned if he'd introduce her to the rites of love in Wickham's stinking brothel!

Sitting down on the chair, he pulled her gently onto his lap (discouraging fresh overtures from her that under any other circumstances he would have been delighted to pursue) and explained that he had delivered Wickham to the surgeon and notified the sheriff. Of the latter, however, Will expressed his doubts, not knowing whether or not the man was in Wickham's pay. "So I suggest we head on back to Gold Hill as soon as possible." He stopped abruptly and smacked himself in the forehead with his palm. "Oh, no! I had forgotten the moment I saw you here: what about Lydia?"

"Actually," Elizabeth said, "I saw her. She's at a private home across town, with a woman named Amanda Younge. Or at least she was. If Mr. Wickham can be believed, though I realize that we have plenty of reason to doubt him, she's headed back home with Mr. Bingley."

Darcy let out a long breath. That was the same intelligence on which Bingley was operating; it was a promising sign. "All right, then, Elizabeth. Let's go visit this Mrs. Younge and make sure Lydia isn't still there."

Elizabeth was greatly relieved to be leaving the Lone Wolf with her fiancé's arm protectively around her and his threatening glare shielding her from the kinds of remarks she had heard on the way in. Though she was none too happy about having to appear once again on the streets of Reno in her current attire, Darcy reminded her that - other than Horace, of course - no one in the town knew her. He promised to find her something more appropriate before anyone from Gold Hill saw her.

As it happened, Will was unable to keep that promise.

Chapter 23

There, on the dusty street just outside the Lone Wolf, gathered about a dozen men on horseback, among whom Elizabeth immediately recognized the sheriff and deputy of Gold Hill, as well an assortment of ranchers and shopkeepers. But what were they doing here?

Her brief musings were cut off by the sound of several revolvers being cocked. They were all pointed at Will. "You might just want to step away from the young lady, mister," snarled a man whom Elizabeth knew from a neighboring cattle ranch.

"No, no!" she gasped at the misunderstanding, pushing to stand in front of Will. "Gentlemen, this is my fiancé, Will Darcy."

"So it is," nodded Sheriff Silas Wilkins, a grizzled and burly old-timer who had met Darcy at the Bingley house. "It's all right, fellers. Miss Elizabeth seems to be okay." Wilkins, a big chaw of tobacco in his cheek, tipped his hat to Elizabeth. "We've come to bring you home, ma'am."

Elizabeth might have been less distressed at her untimely exit from the town earlier that day had she known that Charlotte Lucas, just inside the door of the confectioner's, had been witness to the entire exchange with Mr. Wickham. Immediately after Elizabeth's forced departure, Miss Lucas had hastened home to tell her father, who in turn reported to the sheriff. In no time at all, Wilkins had rounded up some volunteers and headed straight for the Lone Wolf. A posse! In this regard at least, Wickham had been right.

Though Elizabeth was mortified to be seen by so many of her Gold Hill acquaintances - and leaving a brothel at that! - she was grateful for the concern the townsfolk had shown her. The men themselves seemed largely embarrassed on her behalf, and several who knew her and her family well tried to avert their eyes, though it must be said that a couple of the rougher types stared openly and approvingly at her daringly low neckline. Seeing this, Darcy pulled her behind him, shrugged off his jacket and wrapped it closely around her.

"We were just heading to the home of a Mrs. Younge to make sure that Miss Lydia has gone home with Charles Bingley," Will said, untying his horse from the hitching post.

"Would that be Amanda Younge?" asked Wilkins thoughtfully.

"First initial 'A.' Could be."

The sheriff spat some tobacco juice into the road and shook his head. "I know an Amanda Younge that's got a history of hangin' 'round with some unsavory characters. She's had plenty of run-ins with the law, that one has. Wouldn't be surprised at all if she's got her hand in this."

After Will helped Elizabeth to mount his horse, he swung up behind her, and the whole group made its way across town. Sheriff Wilkins did the honors of knocking on Mrs. Younge's door, and when the lady herself opened it, she initially was taken aback by the show of force in front of her. But Amanda Younge was nothing if not resourceful, and unusually accustomed to dealing with men. Immediately her tone became sultry and welcoming.

"Why, Silas Wilkins! This is a pleasant surprise. Won't you and your friends all come in for a drink?"

Several of the younger men removed their hats, eager to follow her inside, but Wilkins was having none of it. A single squinting glower from him was sufficient to cool their enthusiasm. "No thanks, Miz Younge," said the Sheriff. "We're here on business. We'd like to know the whereabouts of Miss Lydia Bennet."

Just then Amanda spied Elizabeth wrapped in Darcy's jacket as well as his embrace, and her brows went up, but only a little; she was extraordinarily self-possessed. "Well, you're too late, Sheriff," Amanda said, as much to Elizabeth as to Wilkins. "Miss Lydia left over an hour ago with a Mr. Charles Bingley, proprietor of the Silver Dust saloon in Gold Hill. Delightful man, a handsome fellow," she added with a little pout, "though a little too single-minded for my taste. Wouldn't even stay for refreshments...insisted on leaving for that dreadful little backwater right away."

"Sounds about right," Wilkins said, crossing the threshold. "But just in case, the deputy here and I will just look around a bit." The two disappeared into the house.

"Help yourself," Mrs. Younge said, her voice growing harder. It was clear she was uneasy that Wickham was nowhere in sight, but she wasn't about to voice her misgivings. Instead, she said to the younger woman, "Your sister took that old nag you came in on, Miss Elizabeth," adding with a sly wink at Will, "but it looks to me like you've found a stallion to ride."

Hoots and snickers from the posse answered her remark. Elizabeth's eyes narrowed, and for a moment Will thought he would have to restrain her. He quickly decided that he had better step into the fray. "Will Darcy, ma'am," he said, tipping his hat with far more deference than Mrs. Younge deserved. "You'd might like to know that your friend George has been unavoidably detained," he continued with a slow and significant nod, and the change in the woman's expression revealed that she understood exactly what he meant. "But I'm sure if he were here, he'd want you to be extra sociable to my fiancée. Now, I think you can agree that as lovely as she looks in this dress, she can hardly wear it to go home to her ma and pa. So perhaps you'd be so kind as to find her something more appropriate to wear?"

"Of course," Mrs. Younge replied sourly. "Right this way, Miss Elizabeth." She invited Elizabeth within, but Darcy stepped inside first.

"If you don't mind," he said, his tone brooking no disagreement, "I'll accompany Miss Elizabeth and wait while she changes."

This time, Mrs. Younge did find a dress proper for a young lady. It was ill-fitting, ragged and unflattering in the extreme, and to Will's mind, it was perfection itself: the posse found Elizabeth's new appearance disappointing. There was some muttering, and some spitting into the dirt, but there were no more unseemly looks in her direction.

When Sheriff Wilkins was satisfied that no evidence of Lydia remained in the house, the entire group mounted their horses, with Elizabeth once again sharing the saddle with Darcy. As they rode away, Will chanced to look back and spotted Mrs. Younge hurriedly locking up the house and hastening down the street. He smiled. No doubt Wickham would soon have a visitor...if he were conscious enough to appreciate it.

"I've never so much looked forward to going home," Elizabeth declared once they were well on their way.

"Not even when you were in San Francisco?" Darcy teased.

"When I left San Francisco, I was running away from some feelings I didn't know how to handle."

"And now?"

"And now," she smiled, "I'm running toward them." The arms that enfolded her on the horse squeezed her even more tightly.

"Have you thought about when you'd like to have the wedding?" she asked in a more serious vein. "Jane and Charles are getting married at the end of the summer."

"Sorry, but I can't wait that long," Will replied. "I'd marry you tomorrow if your father would let me. But I think you should have some time to get a trousseau prepared."

"A trousseau? Really? I thought that you like my Levi's and would prefer me to arrive at Pemberley with nothing more than the clothes on my back."

"Sweetheart," he said, bringing his lips right up against her ear, "I think you know I would prefer you in nothing at all." Elizabeth's indrawn breath told him that her mind had wandered in a similar direction. Giving her a quick kiss, he laughed. "But in deference to your parents, I suppose we can wait a month. How would you feel about that?"

She sighed. "I suppose that will have to do."

Leaving the Sheriff and his posse behind in Gold Hill with many thanks, Darcy took Elizabeth the rest of the way alone. As she expected, the house was once again in an uproar, but to their immense relief, Lydia and Charles had already arrived.

"Oh, Lizzy! Thank the Lord you're home!" Mrs. Bennet cried in great dramatic fashion, clutching her breast. "First dear Lydia disappeared, then you! What would we have done with the sheep if you hadn't returned? You know your father is hopeless with them, especially the lambs! And that infernal dog has been running in circles all day; no one could comfort him. Have none of you any respect for my nerves?"

"Sorry, Mama," Elizabeth replied with some humor as she gave King a scratch behind the ears. "I didn't mean to be so much trouble."

Mr. Bennet, uncharacteristically pale, greeted his daughter with tears in his eyes, holding her for a long time. His hand he extended most gratefully to Darcy, who shook it warmly. Lydia had clearly been crying, but whether out of fear for her sister or her own disappointed hopes, Elizabeth was unsure. Kitty, eager to hear the details of their adventure, found vast satisfaction in a tale which horrified her parents, not the least part of which was the explanation behind the ghastly dress she was wearing. Only Jane appeared typically serene and confident, but she had two reasons for her composure: first, because Charles had assured her that Darcy would never let anything happen to his beloved, and second, because only Jane knew that Elizabeth never went out alone unarmed, and the absence of the little derringer from its polished wooden case in her room had confirmed this.

Dinner that night took on the air of a celebration as Elizabeth and Darcy announced their intention to marry within the month. Lydia, however, still pouted; though the youngest, she had truly thought that she would be one of the first in the family to marry, and it had come as a rude shock when Mary of all people had wed the preacher. It would be a while before she reconciled herself to being the fourth or - heaven forbid! - the last to wed. Truth be told, Mrs. Bennet also mourned the loss of what she had considered a perfectly good son-in-law, but she comforted herself with thoughts of the exceptionally prosperous lives Elizabeth and Jane - and by extension, perhaps, she and Mr. Bennet - would soon lead.

After dinner, the two engaged couples left the house at the same time, only to head in opposite directions - as if there had been some sort of tacit agreement for maximum privacy - despite the gentlemen's horses both being hitched at the exact same post. Endearments and kisses were exchanged, and promises were made: chief among these was an agreement that Darcy would visit the very next afternoon. In the seclusion provided by the shadows of a sturdy pine tree, he and Elizabeth pawed at each other in a way that would have shocked her more staid sister Jane, because nothing thrilled Elizabeth so much as her man's skilled touch and nothing thrilled Will so much as his fiancée's curvy body. Too soon, however, just as Will had Elizabeth pressed against that friendly pine, his hands wandering beneath her dress far enough to encounter her little pistol, they could hear Charles loudly clearing his throat from across the yard, and Will regretfully gave Elizabeth a final kiss that started at her lips and ended at the base of her throat, a pledge of much more to come.

The following day, at precisely three in the afternoon, Darcy entered the Bennet's barn and found Elizabeth grooming her gelding, in much the same attitude as she had just days ago at Pemberley. And just as he had done then, he walked up behind her and pulled her into his arms, and with a happy sigh she leaned back against him. As they stood for a moment, enjoying the warmth of each other's company, a thought struck him.

"Why did you take the old mare to Reno, Elizabeth? Why not Juliet or the gelding?"

"Juliet's not mine, Will, remember? And I had worked poor Pippin awfully hard yesterday morning. The mare was the only other choice, really. She should have been fine; I had no idea I was going any further than Gold Hill."

"Hm. Well, when we're married, you'll have a whole stable of horses at your disposal."

"When we're married, Mr. Darcy," she purred in her best imitation of Mrs. Younge, turning around to face him, one finger teasingly sliding down the front buttons of his shirt, "I plan to spend most of my time with just one stallion."

"Is that a fact?" Wrapping his arms around her, he grasped her shapely bottom, fondling the soft denim. They kissed, first slowly and tenderly, then with the furious passion that always ignited when they were in each other's arms, their hands clutching, stroking, caressing.

But once again she pulled away from him. Ignoring his puzzled look, she scrambled, giggling, up the worn wooden ladder leading to the hayloft. At the top, she sat down in the opening and, with a saucy grin, pulled off one boot, then the other.

"Well?" she said, getting to her feet and poking her head out the doorway. Locking eyes with him, slowly Elizabeth began unfastening her shirt, button following button, until all were done and she stood with her old camisole revealed, pulling the tails of her shirt out of her Levi's.

Surprise had immobilized Will, but now he sprung into action. As Elizabeth disappeared into the loft with a sultry laugh, he dashed after her, taking the rungs two at a time.

On his 16th birthday, in a hayloft at Pemberley very similar to the one in which he found himself now, Darcy had become a man, courtesy of a buxom girl three years his senior, the daughter of one of the ranch hands. The sweet scent of hay overlaying the pungent smell of animals had always stirred something in the back of his mind, but now that memory came to the forefront as he watched Elizabeth lie back in the hay, undoing the threadbare corselet.

His head buzzing, his eyes were drawn inexorably to the thin strip of bare skin now coyly revealed between the two parted sides of the garment. And when with an adroit movement Elizabeth pulled all the material completely aside and allowed her perfect breasts to glow golden in the afternoon light, his mouth grew dry. But it was when her hands slid down her own silky torso to the buttons on her jeans that he felt nearly ready to explode with longing for her. She smiled alluringly. "Will? Would you like to do the honors?"

This invitation, so long awaited, hit him with the force of a shotgun blast. Dropping to his knees between her legs, he summoned the strength to speak.

"Elizabeth," he said, his chest constricted, his voice little more than a pained whisper. His efforts to control himself were visible. "We'll be married in a month. Are you absolutely sure you don't want to wait?"

She shifted her body then, a little ripple of movement from the small of her back to her shoulders that sent his gaze ricocheting from her hips to her bosom and back again. A choked groan escaped him. "Will," she replied, a finger hooked provocatively on one of her fly buttons, "we'll be married in a month. I don't see any reason to wait."

A better reason he did not require; besides, he felt that he might have died had she changed her mind. Brushing aside her hands, he deftly undid each button and then, heart pounding, he slid the jeans off her hips and down her legs, tossing them carelessly aside. His holster immediately met the same fate. Leaning above her on one hand, he allowed his other to travel the length of her, from her lips, where her teeth gently bit his fingertips, to her neck, arched in anticipation, to her glorious breasts, their already-hardened peaks taut against his fingers, to the waist of her drawers. These drawers, cotton and unadorned, were not the most glamorous garment or even, to be honest, barely attractive, but he would not remove them. To him they were as arousing as silk: their open center seam, designed for heeding Nature's call, would serve a different purpose this afternoon. Without hesitation he slid his fingers tenderly into the opening and was rewarded with a long, sibilant sigh of pleasure at his touch. He sat back on his heels and paused, both astonished and delighted to find that she was already well ready for him.

Elizabeth took this opportunity to sit up and begin unbuttoning Will's shirt, a task he scarcely allowed her to complete before seizing her shoulders and pulling her toward him for a blazing kiss, his tongue entering her mouth in impatient imitation of what would soon follow. Breathless, she dropped back onto their makeshift bed and watched as he eagerly pulled off his shirt, admiring the muscled expanse of his chest as he did so. But her seductive smile, her tongue just touching the corner of her passion-swollen lips, so inflamed him that from the moment he began unbuttoning his fly he knew he would not waste additional time shedding any more clothes. As it was, he could barely contain himself long enough to release himself from his drawers.

There was, then, no stopping as he propped himself on his elbows and pressed into her. Too late her gasp reminded him that she was a virgin, but then it hardly seemed to matter; her lifetime of labor and riding had apparently reduced the need to proceed cautiously. Now, thankfully, she grasped his head and kissed him over and over, crooning her love for him. As they moved in unison, Will, too, moaned his eternal devotion, though less in actual language than in bits and pieces of syllables and sounds. Much sooner than he would have liked, however, her groans of pleasure and her body's moist, tight embrace proved too much for his overheated state, and he climaxed, crying out her name and shuddering in release.

There was little time to bask in satisfaction: almost immediately Will was aghast at his own thoughtlessness. Thinking, it would seem, had not occurred to him at all in the blessed heat of the moment. Here his darling was so generously and wondrously giving herself to him, and he had done nothing at all to ensure her pleasure. Nothing! Indeed, she had no idea of what she had missed! He brushed the tousled hair from her face, but even her beatific smile seemed to rebuke him. Haltingly, he began to apologize.

"Elizabeth, sweetheart, I'm so sorry...I couldn't wait...I shouldn't have..."

She grew perplexed, and her smile faltered just a little. "Why? It's what I wanted." She kissed his cheek. "And you wanted it, too." Slowly she became wide-eyed with alarm. "Will, surely you don't regret it?"

"No. Lord, no!" he reassured her, kissing her violently on the lips and cradling her in his embrace. "You're the answer to my every dream! No, what I mean is, it should have been better for you. It can be better for you."

"Oh," Elizabeth said, taking a moment to try to absorb this new information. Will watched her, realizing that she had no idea what he was talking about.

"There's no time to show you now, but soon, darling, soon," he promised. Her smile returned and she nodded contentedly. Then, getting unsteadily to her feet, she sought out her jeans.

A short time later, the couple headed back toward the ranch house, Will's arm about Elizabeth's shoulders, hers around his waist, exchanging kisses and whispers.

"Your shirt is buttoned wrong," he said, poking his finger between the offending fasteners at her belly. She looked down and saw that he was correct. Laughing, she repaired the error and then retorted gaily,

"And you have straw in your fly," allowing her fingers to brush against him as she pulled out a stray stalk from between the metal buttons. His blood boiled anew. Their playfulness came to a crashing end, however, when they heard a stentorian voice declare,

"William, I am seriously displeased!"

Chapter 24

Never in Will Darcy's life had such a delightful mood been so quickly soured.

"Well, howdy, Aunt Catherine," Will drawled, the deep relaxation brought on by his recent pleasurable experience still enabling him to retain an unruffled demeanor in the face of the unexpected appearance of his aunt, who was standing stiffly on the Bennets' front porch, an untouched cup of tea growing cold on the railing. He tipped his hat. "What brings you out this way?"

"Don't you 'howdy' me, young man!" Mrs. de Bourgh exclaimed. "You know I find that expression insufferably vulgar." When her nephew merely stood with his head cocked to one side, smilingly refusing to make a more decorous greeting, she straightened her spine and continued, "Surely you can be at no loss, William, to understand the reason for my journey here. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I've come."

"I'm afraid you're mistaken, ma'am," said Will, keeping his arm tightly about Elizabeth despite her attempts to remove herself, her mortification great under the disapproving glare of Mrs. de Bourgh. "I haven't a clue why you might have traveled all this way."

"A report of a most alarming nature reached me three days ago via telegram." Thanks to Caroline Bingley, no doubt! Will thought with a rueful grimace. "I was told that you were engaged to Miss Elizabeth Bennet," she continued. Her voice dripped disdain at the name, and Darcy could feel Elizabeth's body tighten now in anger rather than embarrassment. "Though I thought it must be a scandalous mistake, I instantly resolved on setting off for this dismal place, that I might make my sentiments known to you. Now I realize I have arrived just in the nick of time"

"If you mean for the wedding, Aunt Catherine, then I'd say you're about a month early. But I'm sure Caroline would be happy to put you up at her hotel in town."

"Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which this...this hussy has the presumption to aspire, can never take place. No, never."

"With all due respect, Aunt," Will said coldly, the remnants of his good humor fading quickly, "please remember that this is my fiancée you're speaking of."

"Call her what you like, William, there will be no wedding!" She raised her hand to stop the retort that was on his lips. "Think before you protest, nephew, think! Honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid this marriage. Yes, William, interest. If you willfully act against the inclinations of all, you will be censured, slighted, and despised, by every one in our family and our circle. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us."

"Well, these are heavy misfortunes," replied Darcy with sarcasm. "But having Elizabeth as my wife will provide such extraordinary sources of happiness that, on the whole, I doubt I'll have any cause for regret."

"That's easy for you to say now," the great lady sneered, her scornful glance sweeping over the couple's disheveled clothes and flushed faces. "It's obvious to anyone with eyes what your particular sources of happiness consist of, and they're disgraceful." She walked down a couple of steps and picked a piece of hay out of Elizabeth's hair, flicking it away. "Apparently this girl's arts and allurements have, in a moment of infatuation, made you forget what you owe to yourself and to all your family. But now that you've had your fun, William, and enjoyed your romp with your little tramp, it's time for you to grow up and remember that you are a responsible member of a distinguished family."

"Aunt Catherine!" Will began angrily, but he was interrupted by an even more irate voice.

"Tramp!" Elizabeth surged forward; rage, humiliation and a frustration for which she had no name giving her additional strength, she yanked herself out of Will's embrace. Her fists clenched, she walked up onto the porch steps, standing one above Mrs. de Bourgh so that she was almost nose-to-nose with the taller woman. "Just who do you think you are?"

For a moment, Will entertained the very real possibility that his fiancée was about to take a swing at his aunt. He didn't know whether to be amused or horrified. "Now hold on a minute, there..."

Not giving an inch, Mrs. de Bourgh responded, "I am almost the nearest relation William has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns."

"That may be true," Elizabeth said in a low, tight voice, "but my relationship with him has nothing to do with you."

"Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! Are you, in your scandalous lust, lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy? Heaven and earth! - of what are you thinking? Are you so determined to ruin him? For ruined he shall be, Miss Bennet, if he marries an immoral little gold digger like you!" Again ignoring Will's outraged interjection, she plunged ahead. "You will have no claim on him, do you hear me? None!" She narrowed her eyes and glanced at Elizabeth's belly. "And if there should be some... issue from this misalliance, rest assured that our family shall compensate you for your trouble, but only on the condition that you never see him again."

"And these are the words of a lady!" Elizabeth burst out. "Mrs. de Bourgh, you can now have nothing further to say. You have insulted me in every possible way." Glaring at her shocked fiancé, she spat, "You deal with her, William. I've had enough of both of you. I'm going inside for a bath." And with a bang of the front door, she stomped into the house and left the two family members alone. But not for long.

Mr. Bennet emerged from his house with a glower that Will had never seen cross the man's face before. "I think, ma'am," Bennet said, addressing Mrs. de Bourgh with the barest measure of courtesy, "that it would be best if you and Will left right now."

"Well, I have no desire to stay in any case," she answered. "I have accomplished my goal. Come, William," she added as she headed toward her waiting carriage. "Let us return to the comparative comforts of Gold Hill. Dear Caroline has promised us a delightful dinner."

"Forgive me, Aunt Catherine," Will said slowly, "but I'm not going anywhere right now; I'm staying here to talk to Elizabeth."

"Tsk. If you must," his aunt sniffed, waving her hand dismissively as she departed. "Though I think it wholly unnecessary at this point. I will see you at the Bingleys' later, then. But we will not wait supper for you."

Will made an attempt to head toward the front door, but Mr. Bennet blocked his way. "As I said, I think you'd better leave, son," the older man repeated, his tone frosty. "Elizabeth's plenty burned up, and I'm not feeling kindly disposed toward you right now myself. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't get my rifle and run you off my property right now."

"Because, sir," Will said, folding his arms determinedly across his chest, "I'm in love with your daughter, and I'll do anything to make her happy. And I mean anything." At his full height, he was easily half a foot taller than Mr. Bennet, and half again as broad, and he used his imposing stature to his advantage. Looking down on Mr. Bennet, his face deliberately forbidding, he continued, "I'm prepared to wait here all night if necessary."

Even a furious father was no match for a determined Darcy. Pursing his lips, Bennet replied, "Suit yourself. But have a seat out here on the porch. I won't have you causing a ruckus in the house at dinnertime."

True to his word, Will sat outside in a creaky old rocking chair all evening. When the front door finally opened to reveal a Bennet daughter, however, it was Jane, not Elizabeth, who came out bearing a dinner tray. Will took it gratefully.

"She's still mad?"

Jane smiled. Not for the first time, Will marveled at the placid beauty his friend Charles had won. But although the Bingleys' marriage would surely be considerably less fiery than his and Elizabeth's, he wouldn't trade their one passionate afternoon in the barn for all the merely pleasant days in the world. Their recent rendezvous, he suddenly acknowledged to himself, could be at the root of what was vexing Elizabeth... just as he had feared.

"I suspect she's as mad at herself as she is at you," Jane confirmed with a knowing nod, and was rewarded with seeing the impressive Mr. Darcy blush. "But don't worry. Elizabeth never stays angry for long; I imagine she'll come around soon. That is," she added, her brows up and questioning, "if the wedding is still on."

"Allow me to assure you, Miss Jane, my aunt's reprehensible behavior notwithstanding, there's nothing I want more than to marry Elizabeth as soon as possible. She knows that. Tell her that if she wants, I'll grab my horse and Pippin and we'll elope right now."

Laughing, Jane responded, "I'm sure that won't be necessary. But I'll tell her just the same."

Sure enough, not ten minutes after Jane had returned to the house, Elizabeth came outside, looking wary. Will set the dinner tray down and leapt to his feet. When she did not immediately come to his open arms, he dropped them to his sides, resolving to be patient.

"So," she started, biting her lip. He waited. "So your aunt seems pretty unhappy with me."

"No," Will smiled, "she's unhappy with me."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "I mean, with me as your choice. Does that bother you?"

"Not in the least."

"Why not? You're obviously very close. And you've spent plenty of time in the past several months catering to her every whim."

"Almost every whim. For instance, I completely ignored her pressure to marry Caroline Bingley, and I plan to ignore her now."

"You don't care if she never speaks to you again?"

"No. Though for the record, I believe it's an empty threat. Aunt Catherine loves talking too much to restrict herself strictly to those who agree with her."

"What about the rest of your family? She practically said they'll disinherit you." She scuffed her foot along a cracked plank on the porch. "You yourself said your family would think you mad."

Grimacing slightly as he remembered the circumstances behind that remark, Will said, "Elizabeth, the only family member whose opinion matters to me at all is Georgiana, and she adores you. My cousin Richard admires you greatly, and my only worry with him is that he'd try to steal you away from me. Don't laugh, he's practically said as much to me...though at the time, I thought I had very little chance of ever winning your favor. As for his parents and whatever cousins might have an opinion, well, they're no concern of mine. And as far as disinheriting, I think I've made it pretty clear that I'm my own man, with my own fortune, and I'm beholden to no one. I've got everything I need, Elizabeth, as long as I have you."

This time when he extended his arms, she came willingly into them. For a while there was no further discussion, as their mouths were more agreeably engaged. All too aware, however, of their proximity to the front door and the entire Bennet family, Will ended the kiss early, before it had a chance to chase all reason from him. Still, leaning against the porch railing and pondering the delicious weight of Elizabeth in his arms, he sighed against her hair, "Maybe we shouldn't wait for next month." At her questioning glance, he explained, "Your father seems to think I've sullied you, which, of course, I have," this drew a gasp and a playful smack from Elizabeth, "and he seems concerned that I might not do the right thing by you. So what do you say to proving everyone wrong and getting married next week? I could send for Georgiana and Richard, and you could send for your sister in San Francisco, and we could have a little wedding in your local church. And if Aunt Catherine would care to grace us with her presence, well, she'll have her chance. If not, it's her loss. What do you say, sweetheart?"

Elizabeth's eyes sparkled. "And my trousseau?"

"Unnecessary, as far as I'm concerned. I intend to keep you naked most of the time anyway."

Laughing, she added, "But I don't even have a wedding gown."

He smiled at her tenderly. "You'd be surprised at how quickly a seamstress can work when given enough financial motivation."

Everything seemed so beautifully settled that Elizabeth felt she could at last relax, until she had one final thought, and her face fell. "Will, how am I to leave my father without any help on the ranch? At least if he had a month to look, he might be able to find someone." She bit her lip again. "But it's too soon. I can't just leave him in the lurch."

Acknowledging this to be a problem, Darcy nevertheless said, "You just leave it up to me." There was no way he would allow such a detail to stand in the way of his marrying Elizabeth sooner rather than later. He'd just have to think of something.

So despite Mrs. Bennet's strident protestations that a week was not long enough to plan a proper wedding - to which Mr. Bennet responded that it was quite long enough, and indeed waiting a moment longer would be highly improper - it was decided that the nuptials would take place just as soon as Georgiana, Mary and Mr. Collins could be sent for. Though Darcy privately felt that Mr. Collins would not risk his patron's wrath by attending the wedding, he was certain that Mary would not dream of missing it, and the Bennets agreed to send a telegram to San Francisco the following day.

Will returned that night to sleep at Bingley's house, and the next morning, despite the early hour, he found himself at breakfast with not only his friend Charles, but Caroline and his aunt as well. Though he was certainly unhappy with the latter two, it was against Will's nature to be outright uncivil to either a hostess or a relative. Further, he had good news to convey, so his spirits were high despite the company.

"Aunt Catherine," he announced, "you will be pleased to know that I will not be marrying Elizabeth Bennet next month."

"What?" Caroline Bingley, who had risen unusually early anticipating a colorful exchange between Darcy and his aunt, very nearly spilled the coffee she was pouring at this unforeseen but most welcome news. It seemed as if her telegram had wrought exactly the result she had hoped. Mrs. de Bourgh straightened in her seat, her bony nose raised at her triumph, her hands clapped together in satisfaction. "I knew you would see reason eventually, William. You are, after all, a Darcy."

"Oh, I have absolutely come to my senses," Will replied. "And I have you to thank for that, Aunt Catherine."

"Will, have you gone completely insane?" Charles shot to his feet as Mrs. de Bourgh chuckled her delight. "You love Elizabeth, have from the very beginning. Why would you give her up?"

"Oh, I never said that, Charles," Darcy said pleasantly, "I only said I wouldn't be marrying her next month." Staring straight at his aunt, he added, "We've decided to move the wedding up to next week."

"Outstanding!" Bingley hooted, clapping him on the back and shaking him heartily by the hand. Dashing 'round the table to retrieve the cup of coffee that threatened to fall from his sister's grasp, he passed it to his friend. "Let me know the time and place, buddy, and I'll be there."

Having rendered his aunt and Caroline speechless, Will smiled at his hostess over his coffee and said, "I'd be much obliged, then, Caroline, if you could recommend a good seamstress in town who could make up a wedding gown in a hurry."

Greatly satisfied with the day so far, Will wandered out onto the street in front of the Bingley mansion with a slip of paper containing the name and address of Caroline's modiste, pried from her hand by her amused brother. He was about to mount his horse when a familiar figure caught his eye.

"You!" Darcy exclaimed, and, taking off after the man, tackled him in a cloud of dust.

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