Rolling over, Joe Denny groaned and spit the dirt from his mouth.
"Aw, what did y'have to go and do that fer?" he cried, fingering the little cut on his lip that had started to bleed.
"You've got a lot of nerve coming back here," Will said by way of reply. He held the other man firmly by his shirt collar, his fist cocked and ready in case Denny tried anything.
Though powerfully built, Denny was at a disadvantage. Yet he didn't even seem to want to fight. "Lemme go. I'm not up to anythin', I swear."
Peering at Joe's face to discern his intentions, Will was suddenly persuaded that the man, for whatever reason, was telling the truth. Maybe he was swayed by the black eye Denny already sported. Darcy let him get up and watched as he brushed himself off.
"All right," Will demanded, still wary, "tell me. What are you doing in Gold Hill?" Quickly, he glanced around. "Is Wickham with you?"
"Naw," he replied, spitting into the dirt, his tone bitter, "that sonofabitch is still in Reno." Will's eyebrows rose at the slur. Denny had been Wickham's right-hand man; it was uncharacteristic of him to speak with such venom about his friend.
"I came to return this." Denny dug into a pocket and held up a gold pocket watch. "I nabbed it from Mr. Bennet's dresser drawer right 'fore I left with Miss Lydia."
Darcy's curiosity, piqued at Joe's insult of Wickham, grew even greater. He examined the watch and saw the initials "T.B." engraved on the case. Though a little battered and worn, it was a fine piece, clearly valuable and perhaps a memento of better days. "Mr. Bennet never mentioned missing it."
Joe shrugged. "He prob'ly wouldn't, seein' as it's too fancy for everyday wear. No doubt he wouldn'ta missed it till he got all dressed up for Miss Jane's wedding." He ventured a crooked, yellowed smile. "Or Miss Elizabeth's."
Ignoring the attempt at camaraderie, Will persisted, "You got away with it. So why return it now?"
"I got to feelin' bad," Denny said, frowning. "Seems like the only respect I ever got was from Mr. B. Treated me fine, paid me on time, even when things was tight. He even tol' me I was like the son he never had. Me!" His face took on a pained look. "Then I went and took his little girl away, and stole his watch, t'boot."
Will was now thoroughly perplexed. "What about Wickham? He's always been good to you, hasn't he?"
The frown turned to a sneer. "Oh, sure, for a while he treated me real good, got me jobs an' all that...I thought he was a real prince. But y'know what I finally figgered out? He was only my pal when it suited him. See, he made sure I made a livin', but only just, so I'd need him, and owe him favors. This last time, when I went to find him at the surgeon's after your gal plugged him... Oh, yeah, I know all 'bout what happened at the Lone Wolf with you and Miss Elizabeth, the whole town does. Sheriff musta thought it was mighty funny, 'cause it looks like he's the one what spread it around, but you can imagine that Wickham wasn't happy 'bout everyone knowin' how he got his ass whupped by some girl. Well, sir, when I saw him, Wickham was hotter'n a bull in a pricker bush. He blew up at me, said I shoulda warned him 'bout Miss Elizabeth or somethin', as if I'da known she'd likely be armed and had a mind t' shoot him. Just 'cause I'd spent some time with her on the ranch. He called me worthless, and spit at me! And blackened my eye for good measure." Unexpectedly, he shook his head and chuckled. "I tell ya, Mr. Darcy, that little gal o' yours musta really got under his skin. Never seen him so pissed off. Guess he likes his females a little more accommodatin'." Growing serious again, he went on, "Anyways, I'd had enough. I wanted out of the Lone Wolf and Reno an' all of it. Then I got to thinkin': I been treated like a real person at the Bennets', I had a home there. And so I wanted to 'pologize, and see if..." There was a pause, and he mumbled with little conviction, "and see if mebbe they'd even take me back, if I asked real nice."
"Well, well," Darcy said, bemused, "we'll just have to see about that."
Out in the field with the sheep, Elizabeth looked up and spotted two riders heading toward the Bennets' homestead. As pleased as she was to see that Darcy was one of them, she was astonished to discern that his companion was none other than Joe Denny. She fingered the gun in her holster, wondering whether her fiancé might be in any danger. But the two men appeared to be chatting affably, so she settled back in the saddle, knowing her questions would have to wait until she returned to the house.
To her further amazement, when Elizabeth finally did come home, she found Denny seated comfortably in her parents' parlor, her father engaging him in cheerful conversation, his good gold watch inexplicably dangling from his fingers, and Will smiling his approval. The gentlemen all got quickly to their feet when Elizabeth entered, Darcy hastening to her side. "Let's go outside," he said, "and I'll explain everything."
Elizabeth listened as Will repeated Denny's tale and shook her head in disbelief. Who'd have thought the man could be so easily redeemed?
Finding themselves out of view of the house, Will took her in his arms. "You know what this means, don't you, sweetheart?" he whispered intimately. "Your father has someone to help on the ranch now. We're free to get married and head off to Pemberley." He placed a kiss behind her ear, giving her a little shiver of pleasure. "Unless you'd like to come with me right now and elope."
The offer did have merit. Will's hands had hand crept downward and were even now eagerly groping her denim-covered bottom, while his lips continued to trace a path down her neck. Nevertheless, she laughed and responded, "I think a week will do, Will. Mama sent a telegram off to Mary and Mr. Collins first thing this morning. Did you send for Georgiana and your cousin yet?"
"Not yet. I got sidetracked by Denny. I'll head back into town and take care of that...and one other thing." He flourished a slip of paper. "Here's the name of Caroline's seamstress. I understand that a week's notice for a wedding gown won't be beyond her capabilities. If you're finished with your chores here, why don't we both go into Gold Hill now and see what she can do?"
Darcy had been right: given the amount of money that he was willing to pay, the modiste was not only amenable to creating a lovely white lace gown for Elizabeth (the very latest pattern, he was assured, just arrived from New York) but a pretty new dress for Jane, who would act as bridesmaid.
The next week passed quickly for the two. Will spent nearly every day with Elizabeth at the ranch, as much to keep an eye on Denny as to be near his fiancée, though within a few days he was satisfied that Joe had indeed turned over a new leaf. The two lovers passed many an idle hour talking about their future together, and stealing kisses and occasionally more whenever the moment presented itself.
When the day of the wedding arrived, Mrs. de Bourgh was not among the guests. She had announced her intention to return to San Francisco immediately after Will had presented her with the details of the upcoming ceremony, and made good on her threat by leaving for her train just hours before the happy event, refusing to speak to Will at all, even to say goodbye. Though he regretted her stubbornness, he was unmoved, considering what was at stake for his happiness.
The wedding was a small one, but those who attended were of the utmost importance to the bride and groom. All the Bennets were there, of course, wearing their Sunday best, such as it was. Mr. Bennet proudly displayed his gold watch, which had been a wedding gift from his wife's family, the Gardiners; they had been dear to him, but a house fire had tragically claimed the lot of them a decade earlier, rendering the watch, as Will had surmised, the last remnant of happier times. Adding to the Bennets' excitement was the arrival of Mary, and it appeared that being in charge of her own household had done wonders for her personality; she was confident and assertive in a way she had never been before. She did bring her husband, to the surprise of some, though it must be said that the good reverend remained blissfully unaware of his patron's chilly relations with her nephew until it was too late, which is to say, just as the ceremony was about to begin and he finally realized that Mrs. Lewis de Bourgh would not be gracing the festivities with her presence.
On the other side of the aisle, Georgiana glowed. She would finally have the sister she always wanted, one worthy of her brother, someone to complete their little family. Had it not been inappropriate, she would have whooped with joy and turned cartwheels across the room. Instead, she smiled at Mrs. Reynolds, who smiled affectionately back. Caroline Bingley, though, sat expressionless. She was there for Charles's sake, of course, since he was standing up for Darcy and would be marrying into that wretched family within a few months. Grudgingly she allowed to herself that her seamstress had done an adequate job on Elizabeth's gown, considering the person filling it; disappointed, she could find nothing to criticize: not the lace, which was imported and exquisite, nor the cut, which was the height of fashion - its bustle, she noted, having been reduced to almost nothing - and certainly not the tiny, cinched waist of the bride, who was clearly not carrying a child. But did her sister Louisa have to volunteer to play the organ for the ceremony? It could only have been to curry favor with Mayor Lucas, whose plain-faced daughter beamed as her best friend recited her vows. Caroline looked around in boredom and misery until she managed to catch the eye of Darcy's cousin, the colonel. He had arrived in town too late for anything more than the briefest of greetings, but now Caroline considered the possibilities of renewing their brief acquaintance. She smiled coquettishly, and Fitzwilliam grinned back. Perhaps the day would not be a total loss after all...
Generously, Charles had offered to hold a reception for the newly married couple at the Bingley hotel, a far more elegant establishment than the Bennets could have afforded on their own. The food was sublime, and the little party feasted in a manner befitting the station of the groom, if not that of the bride. But to Will and Elizabeth, it was Bingley's other gift, a wedding night in the hotel's finest suite, that was topmost on their minds. After a suitable time mingling with their guests and eating very little, they stole away at the first opportunity. Only Charles and Fitzwilliam noted their departure, exchanging a wink and a silent toast with each other before breaking into boisterous laughter.
Elizabeth giggled at her first sight of the room. Decorated in shades of deep burgundy, it was trimmed with an excess of gilt, hung with heavy velvet and satin draperies, and populated by white marble cherubs. The suite exuded the sort of ostentatious luxury that appealed to neither her nor her new husband. Yet atmosphere was the least of their concerns; having first let loose their passion in a haymow, they required only a little privacy.
No sooner had Will locked the door behind them than she was in his arms. Lips locked, tongues tangled. Her gown, however, with its tightly molded bodice and yards of material, was a formidable barrier to their passion. It would certainly have to go. But before he set himself to the onerous task of unbuttoning it, he knelt before her, sliding his hands under her voluminous skirts along the length of her slender legs. Grinning broadly, he withdrew the new pearl-handled, double-barreled Remington derringer that he had given her as a wedding present, the one he had himself tucked lovingly into a lacy garter high on her thigh just before the ceremony, taking what liberties he could before they were rudely separated by the demands of the day. He carefully set it aside.
Then, having literally disarmed her, Darcy set about doing the same thing figuratively, undoing her gown with the utmost care, kissing each inch of skin as it was revealed. When at last he was finished and the gown removed, and Elizabeth was down to her corset and drawers, he led her to a waiting bath and, oddly, gave her a kiss and absented himself.
Shrugging her bewilderment, she shed the rest of her clothes, taking a deep, relieved breath at being freed from the severe strictures of her foundation garments, and slid into the bath. A bar of soap and a sponge had been thoughtfully left on a stool by the tub, and Elizabeth immediately employed the two to wash herself vigorously. Tempting as it would be to luxuriate in the warm water, she preferred not to waste precious time that would bring her closer to a reunion with Darcy. But just as she was considering this, the man himself re-entered the room, wearing nothing more than a loose-fitting robe which he promptly discarded.
Elizabeth had mere seconds to gape at her husband's chiseled body and its significant endowment before he slid into the bath behind her. The water threatened to overflow, but just remained barely contained; the same could be said of her anticipation. Though she tried to turn to look curiously at him, he gently but firmly grasped her by the shoulders and faced her forward again, instead leaning her back against his chest.
Once she had relaxed against him with a contented sigh, Will retrieved the soap from her hand. Eschewing the sponge, he tossed it carelessly onto the floor, and began assiduously to soap her body with his hands. His attention to detail could not be attributed to any requirement for cleanliness, however, as he spent an inordinate amount of time lathering her breasts, spreading the suds across the slippery expanse of her flesh again and again from every possible direction and skillfully taunting the pink peaks with his fingertips. She gurgled with pleasure and, to his delight, shifted against him, settling her derriere tightly against his privates, testing his resolve. He almost stopped right then, but Will had a mission, and would not be distracted or dissuaded; he had been selfish before, and would not be so again. Pressing kisses against her ear and her neck, he slid his hands down her sides, and back up again, returning time and again - he couldn't resist! - to the perfect, heavy roundness of her bosom.
Finally, forgetting the soap and any pretense of washing entirely, he massaged his way down to Elizabeth's hips, her thighs, kneading the soft skin and lean muscles, and from time to time allowing his fingers to barely graze her most sensitive area. When her breathing became irregular, and her happy purrs turned to groans, Will knew it was time to move on to a new phase of his seduction. And so with his left hand continuing his tender assault on her breasts, he slid his right hand between her legs and used a delicate yet focused touch to drive her into a frenzy of pleasure. Soon enough Elizabeth realized that she was on the verge of discovering what she had missed during their rendezvous in the hayloft, but could only briefly register this new understanding, because the ever-building tension had reached a breaking point and she gave a wordless cry, convulsing her thighs around his fingers as her body throbbed out her satisfaction.
Once the storm had abated, Will held Elizabeth in his embrace as the water cooled, letting her lean lazily back against him and muse over this novel experience. When he was content that she had recovered sufficiently, he exited the tub and toweled himself dry. Then, with very little assistance from his still-breathless wife - dizzy and depleted as she appeared to be, he didn't want to chance that she could stand on her own - he lifted her easily from the water. Setting her down next to him, he took a moment to admire her flushed and glowing skin - all of it - before employing another towel on her with both the utmost care and the greatest eagerness, occasionally capturing with his tongue the drops of water that ran from her curves, that dripped from her nipples. His mouth stayed there to play, and she swayed with the heady feeling it produced. It was uncertain which of the two more enjoyed his thorough work with the thick terrycloth, as the towel traveled slowly around her breasts, down her back and up between her thighs, certainly at least once more often than was strictly necessary. Finally, when she was not only completely dry but also completely under his power once again, he plucked out the pins that were holding her hair in place and combed his fingers through the freed tresses, giving her a final, ardent kiss before sweeping her up into his arms. He carried her the short way to the bed, gratified that her enthusiasm for him appeared to be undiminished, as she locked her arms around his neck and bit his earlobe, whispering her appreciation.
His intention had been to place her gently upon the bed, but Will's impatience finally overtook him, and the two fell together onto the soft feather mattress. Awash in giggles, Elizabeth raised herself up on her elbows and grinned invitingly at him. She had meant to say something saucy, but he silenced her with a fierce kiss and rolled atop her, immediately positioning himself between her legs. That he had already been there once before did nothing to lessen the thrill; in fact the memory of that first wild coupling in the hay inflamed him all the more. "Elizabeth," Will mumbled hoarsely, and without further delay slid his entire rigid length into her.
With even her brief experience, Elizabeth could now appreciate how completely Will filled her empty spaces, and she considered that sense of fullness with both awe and sensual delight. In her desire to bring him even closer she drew up her knees and wrapped sinewy legs around his hips, noticing how doing so increased her own pleasure as he glided slowly in and out of her. She groaned anew and rocked herself insistently against him, digging her fingers into his powerful shoulders.
Here at last, Darcy thought deliriously within Elizabeth's total embrace, was a woman who could match him movement for movement, whose physical stamina and lust for life were nearly as great as his own. She was no delicate, swooning blossom - not his wife! No, she was totally unafraid and unashamed of her body and her own responses, and he needn't fear that she might break under the force of his passion. The notion made him quicken his rhythm, and he began to move more aggressively. Gripping her hair with one hand and her bottom with the other, he sank his lips against the base of her throat, recalling exactly the spot that had most affected her in previous encounters, and was rewarded with cries that became ever higher pitched. Amidst all the heat and motion, the last of his consciousness noted that she appeared to be close to another completion, and so withheld himself long enough to provide her with the opportunity to know that she could and in fact would again reach a climax. It was only then, after she had declared herself with a throaty moan, that he allowed himself the same pleasure, sealing the moment with a deep, fervent kiss.
When at last they parted, their breaths finally slowing, returning to normal, Elizabeth rolled over with a sigh to look at Darcy, a smile curving her passion-savaged lips.
"You were right, Will," she breathed.
"About what?" Though he well knew the answer.
"It does get better, much better."
Smiling back, he kissed her nose. "Sweetheart, you have no idea."
"Show me." But he could tell that this wasn't the time, as the long day had begun to take its toll on her, and she stifled a yawn.
"Later," he promised.
Not very much later that night, Will was startled awake from a contented slumber when his wife reached for him in a most intimate fashion. "Show me," she repeated in a husky whisper. And he did. Oh, he did.
The next day, despite their lack of sleep, Will and Elizabeth rose at dawn, anxious to be on their way to Pemberley without encountering anyone who might delay their departure. The hotel and saloon, nocturnal creatures, were - thankfully - silent. When the couple called at the stable, to Elizabeth's surprise it was Joe Denny who appeared, tipping his hat in greeting and leading two horses. Will watched with a satisfied smile as Elizabeth exclaimed over another wedding gift from her new husband: a spirited Darcy mare, one she had considered for Jane but had regretfully passed on because her strength and youthful energy would have been too great for her sister to control. He was rewarded by a warm kiss that held the promise of a much more assertive thank-you at a later time. With a half-jest about staying out of trouble, Will shook Joe's hand and heartily clapped the man on the back, waiting for Elizabeth to mount her horse before doing the same.
Then, assured that the rest of their belongings, as well as beloved King, would follow by carriage with Georgiana and Mrs. Reynolds, Elizabeth and Will rode off - not, alas, into the sunset - but into the dawn of a new life together.
"Georgie, are you tired?" This question, from Elizabeth to her sister-in-law, was wholly unnecessary. The fact was, Georgiana could barely keep her eyes open over dessert, and was even now dozing on the sofa in the parlor as Will read Roughing It aloud to his little family. In the month since Will and Elizabeth had married, Georgiana had, in her endeavor to spend as much time as possible enjoying the effervescent company of her new sister, found her days filled to the brim. She discovered that Elizabeth, who had no talent or patience for music or embroidery or anything else that could be called "women's work," preferred to rise early and be outdoors for as much of the day as she could: riding her new mare, romping with King (who had settled in nicely once he had been provided with his own sheep to herd), exploring Pemberley with Will. Georgiana, having previously passed much of her time sitting with tutors or endlessly practicing piano, was unaccustomed to this level of activity, and thus was thoroughly exhausted by evening. So, kissing her brother and sister-in-law goodnight, she dragged herself straight to bed as she had done for so many nights previously, at barely 9 o'clock.
Darcy watched her go with tender amusement. Upon beginning their married lives, he and Elizabeth had quickly discovered that in order to have any privacy for nocturnal intimacy, they had to tire out Georgiana during the day and put her to bed early, as they might do with a small child. Smiling, Elizabeth closed the door behind the young girl and sauntered over to Will where he sat in his favorite leather chair, settling herself cozily on his lap. He kissed her forehead.
"I got a letter from my cousin today," he said unexpectedly.
"Richard?" Elizabeth turned to look at him, her eyebrow arched. "Well, that's a surprise. I thought you said he's a terrible correspondent."
"Usually, he is. But in this case he had a few things to tell me. First off, he said he heard from Aunt Catherine."
"And she was curious about the wedding and how we're getting on here." Feeling Elizabeth stiffen, Will cradled her closer. "Richard informed her that we are the happiest of newlyweds, and that somehow Pemberley and the family fortune have managed to survive unscathed despite your presence." He laughed at her disgusted huff. "You'll see, sweetheart: Aunt Catherine will come around eventually and welcome you into the family."
"I'd settle for a little respect, Will."
"Don't you worry. I give her six months at the most."
Sighing, Elizabeth rested her head against his chest and played idly with the buttons on his shirt. "You said there were a few things?"
"He said to tell you that he's been keeping an eye on Denny both at your old homestead and in town, and apparently the man's been as good as his word. When he shows up in a saloon, he has just a couple of beers. Hasn't gotten into any scrapes with the law, not even a barroom brawl, nothing. No one's seen any of his old associates, least of all Wickham. Your pa's pretty pleased with him."
"I've heard as much from Papa, but it's a relief to know that Richard is watching out for us. Please thank him for me. Anything else?"
"Yes." Will cleared his throat. "He also wanted to let me know that he has developed an understanding with a certain prominent young lady of Gold Hill. Says that he expects they'll be engaged soon."
"Tsk." Elizabeth shook her head. "So he's already succumbed to the charms of Caroline Bingley? I thought he was smarter than that. Well, I suppose shouldn't be surprised. Jane says that Caroline pursued him quite aggressively at our wedding, and that Charles tells her Richard's been a frequent visitor to the Silver Dust. At least your aunt Catherine will be pleased, but I hope you'll warn him what he's getting into." When Will didn't respond, once again she turned to look at him, and found that this time he had an unusually puckish smile gracing his face.
"It's not Caroline. As it happens, our Miss Bingley felt Richard was a little too rough around the edges, and he thought she was just looking for a ticket out of Gold Hill and into San Francisco society, in which case she was sadly mistaken in her choice of beau."
Darcy grinned. "Miss Charlotte Lucas."
"What?" She sat up violently on his lap. "Charlotte and the Colonel? No, it's simply not possible!"
"Why not? To be sure, she's not particularly handsome..." Will began.
Elizabeth frowned. "No, that's not it at all. It's just that...well, she's always been so sensible, not the kind to fall in love at the drop of a hat. It's only been a month since they met. And she hasn't written me a word about him, nothing at all, in any of her letters!" Elizabeth scowled. "Some best friend!"
"Don't be too hard on Charlotte, sweetheart. It all happened so suddenly, they decided to keep their relationship discreet. Although I had introduced them, I frankly thought Richard would be a little too superficial to see Charlotte's finer qualities, but he says he was taken immediately with her pluck, her brains and her taste for the simple things in life. So count me just as shocked as you."
As Elizabeth pondered this news, Will said casually, "Something else arrived from Gold Hill today, my love." He started to rise from his chair, and she slid off his lap onto her feet. Leaving her waiting in the parlor, he departed the room only to return a short time later with a large, flat box wrapped in brown paper and string.
"What is it?"
"A little gift for our one-month anniversary." He handed it to her. "Open it."
Burning with curiosity, Elizabeth yanked off the string, ripped apart the paper and lifted the lid of the box. At her first glimpse of the contents, she immediately burst out laughing. Will smiled and bit his lip. "Do you like it?"
He was answered by another laugh. "I'll be right back," she winked.
When Elizabeth returned fifteen minutes later, her appearance took Darcy's breath away, for she was now clothed in an exact replica of Lil's dance-hall dress, complete with fringe, beads and lace stockings. The only difference was that this dress was sewn of the finest satin, and made completely to order for her, for a more precise fit. The low cut of the bodice, however, remained every bit as daring as Lil's was - perhaps, Elizabeth had judged with some amusement as she had tugged fruitlessly at the garment in her bedroom, even somewhat lower.
"Well," she said coyly, turning around Will could admire the entire effect, "what do we do now?"
To her complete surprise, he responded, "Why, we play pool."
Elizabeth had ventured into the masculine confines of the billiards room but once since she had arrived at Pemberley, as other activities had easily distracted the young couple on lazy evenings. Nevertheless, she was immediately and disagreeably aware of a new addition to the room: the "Betsy" odalisque now hung prominently along the rich, dark walnut of the main wall.
Her face flooded with pink as she stood before the painting, embarrassed to think how it came to be hanging there, and who among the household might have seen it. Will immediately corrected her misconception.
"It's been in its packing case until yesterday," he explained, standing behind her and regarding the artwork with affection, "and it was completely draped when Parker helped me hang it. The room's been locked since. No one's been allowed in, not even Mrs. Reynolds. So, rest easy, sweetheart. No one's seen your delightful...assets but me." He kissed the birthmark on her bare shoulder. "And I'll have it taken down tomorrow. Now," Darcy continued, handing her a cue, "you break."
Smiling to herself, Elizabeth complied. The game would not last long, of this she was certain. For during their brief marriage she and Will had never been alone for any length of time without one of them initiating some sort of intimacy. Besides, her devoted husband was as yet unaware that she had declined to wear the abbreviated silk drawers that he had ordered specially to accompany this dress. More to the point, she had eschewed drawers entirely.
Indeed, once she leaned over to shoot, the game was quickly at an end.
The night, however, was just beginning.
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