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Times of the Season
[wip - modern/PG13]

Chapter One

Elizabeth stood on the deck and looked out, beyond the nursery, across the flats, to the sloping hills, all treed and dotted with houses. Rising in the distance were the mountains. The focus of her vision was on the two peaks that cradled a saddle of ice and snow. The Comox glacier. She laughed at herself for acting like a tourist, gazing at the glacier, but oh, how she'd missed the view. It was clear and bright, and being home was heaven, but at 7:00 a.m. in mid-April it was still chilly out. She pulled her sweater tightly around herself as she shivered, and took five more minutes to stand and stare before going in for breakfast.

"Liddie you're wearing my top! Mom make her take it off."

"It goes with my earrings and you weren't going to wear it today anyhow." Liddie tossed her hair back to show off the dangly pink creations as she opened the fridge and grabbed a yoghurt.

"Very pretty," said Mrs Bennet appreciatively, glancing up from her magazine. "Do you believe it? Britney and what's-his-name have split up."

Katie stared up at the ceiling and groaned.

Mary, who was sitting quietly at the table eating muesli, looked over to Elizabeth and said, "Aren't you glad to be home?"

Elizabeth laughed. "I think I'll move in with Jane. I'd forgotten what mornings were like here."

"Mornings, afternoons, evenings - it's all the same. The only way dad survives is by hiding in his office with an unending supply of coffee."

It sounded like a good idea to Elizabeth too. She grabbed a banana and headed out the door, followed by Liddie's screams that Katie had to drive her to school, no matter whose top she was wearing, and their mom's recounting of some Hollywood scandal

~ * ~

"Hey there, Dad." Elizabeth leaned over and kissed him on the forehead on her way to his coffee maker. She busied herself with pouring the coffee and adding cream and sugar, then turned back to her father.

He was looking up at her with an uncharacteristically troubled expression. "Did you hear about this Sudden Oak Death scare while you were at Kwantlen?"

"A bit. One of the instructors seems very involved in some program that's being implemented, but I don't know much about it. To tell you the truth, I was more concerned with graduating."

"There's a recall of all camellias sold in BC since last fall - look." He indicated his computer screen. "I don't understand how they expect to manage that."

Elizabeth took a sip of her coffee and then set it down on his desk. Leaning over his shoulder, she began to read. "Infected camellias shipped from Belgravia Nursery in Oregon. We don't buy from them, do we?"

"No, but I did get some plants in from Hamilton's the other day and they buy a lot of stock from both Oregon and California where the disease seems to have originated."

"So, we could potentially have diseased plants?"

"Potentially," he affirmed. "The Federal Horticulture Agency is going to be throwing their power around slapping quarantines on nurseries left and right, and destroying entire blocks of plants without any thought to how small growers will survive."

Picking up her coffee, Elizabeth walked over to the window and surveyed their nursery. The ten acres under production were laid out before her. The parking lot for the retail garden shop was just beyond the hedge that divided the house and garden from the family business. Behind the half acre of retail area were the potting shed, propagation house, greenhouses and shade houses. Further back was block upon block of container beds, and further still the field stock: an assortment of trees and then unending rows of hedging cedars.

What she had remembered as an orderly, well-maintained enterprise now looked disorganised and, in some areas, weed choked. Even from her distant vantage point she could see that the deer fence had come down in more than one place. Was it simply that over the past few years while she'd been on the mainland getting her horticulture degree at Kwantlen College, that she had carried a rose-coloured image of the nursery with her, or had things slipped that badly in her absence?

As she stared out the window the phone rang and her dad took the call. Elizabeth didn't let it distract her. She was planning out her morning in her head, swiftly coming to the conclusion that a thorough walk through of the entire nursery was in order, rather than the quick drive around she had earlier intended. Gone was the picture of herself spending most of her time on the propagation of less commonly cultivated species. It was a good thing that her field of study had put a great deal of emphasis on business practices as well. She just hoped she wouldn't find herself stuck doing a lot of the grunt work.

"That was the FHA."

The ominous tone to her father's voice cut through her ruminations. "What's up?"

"There's a team coming on an inspection tomorrow. I don't think I can face them - might say something I'd regret. Could you, Bethie?"

He always called her Bethie when he knew he was asking more of her than he should. Dealing with the FHA was the last thing Elizabeth wanted, but she smiled into her father's face, noting how the lines of worry accentuated his age, and said, "Yes."

~ * ~

"Jane!" Elizabeth cried into her cell phone. "You have to come and save me."

"But I love my florist job - I'm not going back to the nursery."

"All I'm asking for is a week of your time - two at the max - until I can hire someone dependable. I'll settle for today, if that's all you can give me. God! I've got the damn FHA coming tomorrow and the place looks like a disaster area. Mary's doing her best but Chamberlayne is worse than useless. And dad's out in the field digging a rush order of thuyas for Forster's."

"What about Katie and Liddie?"

"Have you ever known them to leave the retail area for anything that doesn't involve helping hot young landscapers? Anyway mom says she can't manage without them."

Elizabeth could hear Jane waffling, even over the bad cell connection. "It's turning into a beautiful day - think of the tanning opportunity."

"But it's my day off, and you know there's nothing worse than a farmer's tan."

"Tank top weather - I guarantee it."

"Oh, all right - I'll see you in an hour. But I can't help you all week - I've got a job - remember?"

"Lunch is on me," said Elizabeth before ringing off.

After she'd found out that a team of inspectors would be running the nursery through their fine tooth combs for the next few days, Elizabeth realised that the full scale analysis she had planned needed to be shelved. All that could be managed in a little over a day that was at her disposal was a bit of immediate cosmetic surgery. She'd sent Chamberlayne out with the brush-cutter to chop back the blackberry canes along the nursery's perimeter, but soon replaced him with Mary, who attacked the wildly growing plants with a sadistic grin.

"You take the rake instead, Chambe. I want all this stuff on the garbage heap as quickly as possible."

"The prickles go right through these gloves." He pulled one off and showed a red spot on his thumb. "Ouch! And I'm sure my arms will be torn to shreds in no time."

"I'll look for some leather gauntlets to protect your lily-whites." Elizabeth could barely restrain herself from rolling her eyes. "Until then get over it and get something done - I'm desperate."

After talking to Jane, Elizabeth ran into the garden shop and grabbed a pair of fancy gardener's gloves from a display rack. She ignored her mother's cries of complaint and went back out to her truck. She drove to where Chamberlayne and Mary were working and tossed him the new gloves without stopping, all the time wracking her brain for someone to call to help her deal with the mess.

"Charlotte!" Who better to call in times of trouble than one's best friend? She dialled the number hurriedly and then groaned when she got an answering machine. "Char! I'm offering you a chance of a lifetime, gourmet lunch included. Suntanning with Jane and me - some weeds may be involved. Get your butt over here as soon as you receive this message."

'Hope like hell that works,' she thought to herself as she parked beside a container block. She pulled on her gloves and hopped out. As she passed by the back of the truck she grabbed herself a hoe and then set to work moving pots aside so that she could hack away at the biggest of the weeds that were taking over the gravel. Afterwards the plants would need to be weeded too and put back into rows.

When Jane arrived she was halfway down the bed. She waved and indicated the back of the truck. Jane nodded, grabbed a hoe and started on the neighbouring bed. After working steadily for another hour she went back to the truck and wrestled a wheelbarrow off it. She stretched her aching back and looked up the roadway. A beat-up car was trundling towards her. The horn blasted twice as it pulled up behind her truck. She laughed as Charlotte jumped out with a pizza box.

"I knew you would lose track of the time so I thought I'd better bring lunch or we'd end up eating KD at about five o'clock."

"You're the best, Char!"

"Don't you know it!"

Jane came over, smiling and pulling off her gloves. "Should I go and get Mary and Chamberlayne?"

"What?" asked Elizabeth. "Share our pizza with them? All I had for breakfast was a banana. Those two are on their own."

"Doesn't seem fair for poor Mary," said Charlotte as she placed the pizza box on the hood of her car and opened it. "But I got the Italian special and it's loaded with capicollo and salami so Chambe wouldn't eat it anyway." She leaned back into the open window of her car and emerged with napkins which she passed around. "Eat."

Elizabeth ate three pieces of pizza almost without stopping, except to take deep swigs from a water bottle. All three girls sat on the open tailgate of her truck - laughter interspersed their conversation in loud bursts.

"Just like old times," said Jane, leaning back upon a bag of fertiliser as she wiped her hands and face with her napkin.

"The best part of the job always was lunch," said Charlotte.

"Speaking of work," said Elizabeth, "you haven't even done any yet,"

"I was hoping you wouldn't notice."

Elizabeth looked at her watch. "Time to get back to it."

Charlotte sighed. "Me and my big mouth. So, what exactly are we doing?"

"Giving this place a facelift before the FHA gets here tomorrow. Nothing but the biggest weeds. Get the rows nice and straight and all the pots standing."

Charlotte looked around. "You do realise that we haven't got a hope in hell of getting more than a fraction done before tomorrow?"

Elizabeth nodded grimly, threw her napkin into the empty pizza box, and started down an aisle, filling her wheelbarrow as she went.

Charlotte looked at Jane. "Party's over."

~ * ~

That night Elizabeth lay in her bed, her body aching as it hadn't in years. They had worked unstintingly until dusk fell and it was too dark to distinguish the weeds from the plants. Charlotte had refused the offer of supper but promised return at eight in the morning. Elizabeth had hugged her - it hardly measured up to the gratitude she felt but it had been all she was capable of at the time. She and Jane went up to the house and ate spaghetti and meat sauce, reheated in the microwave. Then Jane had showered and dragged herself to her old bedroom to sleep while Elizabeth had soaked in a hot tub with a cup full of Epsom's salts. Even so, all her muscles now unaccustomed to physical labour were screaming at her. Finally fatigue overcame pain and she drifted off to sleep.

In her dreams Elizabeth couldn't escape work. Weeds loomed up to be pulled aside, but more weeds took their place. Inspectors came and ordered huge blocks of plants destroyed as her mother served coffee in hand thrown pottery mugs and Liddie and Katie cavorted about in their bikinis. At one point her father walked up to the white clothed officials and issued a diatribe on the government in general and the FHA's practices in particular. When Mary came along with the brush cutter, cutting a swathe through everything in her path and advancing on the inspectors, Elizabeth awoke with a start.

Her head was throbbing. She peered out from her tangled covers to see watery light seeping through her blinds. The clock on her dresser read 6:25. Damn! She had to get up though she barely felt rested. She hobbled to her bathroom and after one look at her haggard, dark-circled face, she ignored the mirror completely.

By 7:30 she was out in her truck, driving the roads through the nursery, checking to see what area needed the most attention. She hoped the inspectors wouldn't arrive too early - she'd not even had time to go back to the website to read up on Sudden Oak Death. If they were coming from Victoria she had at least three, if not four hours to work with. That was small consolation, but it was all that she had.

At 8:00 Jane joined her in the field, looking fresh and well-rested, and very pretty in a faded pair of jeans and powder blue t-shirt.

"Look what I found in my old dresser! Mom doesn't throw anything away, does she? I think I wore these clothes in grade ten."

Elizabeth had just pulled on the same stained jeans she'd worked in the day before, and an old plaid shirt of her dad's that was torn at the elbow. Not that how she looked mattered anyway. What was the point of ruining nice clothes? She'd change at ten, when the dirty work was done, then have a coffee while she researched the disease on the computer. That would be well before the inspectors arrived.

Charlotte arrived with a box of timbits and a coffee for each of them.

"You can never have too much coffee and doughnuts," she grinned.

"You're just buttering me up so I'll give you some slack," said Elizabeth, leaning against Charlotte's car with her face held towards the morning sun.

"Works every time," said Charlotte, popping a timbit into her mouth and dusting the powdered sugar off onto her sweats.

Elizabeth drained her coffee and reluctantly went back to work. She let her mind wander as her body took over the mechanics of the job. The sun became hot as it rose in the sky and when she finally stopped to rest again sweat was trickling down her forehead. She wished she'd had the foresight to wear a tank top under her shirt, but all she could do was roll up the sleeves. She checked her watch and realised it was 10:00 already.

"I'm going in to do research on the computer," she yelled over to the others.

"Yeah, leave us to do all your dirty work!" shouted Charlotte.

Jane just smiled and continued ripping out weeds. Elizabeth marvelled at how her sister still looked neat and clean. She knew that her own hair had weeds tangled in it and the dampness under her arms told her that her deodorant wasn't working.

She hopped into the truck and headed back up to the office. As she passed one of the shade houses she noticed a deer trapped inside, bounding against the mesh, too confused to go back through the gap it had come in by. She parked and ran to free it, hoping that not too many plants had been damaged in its struggles. She shooed it through the gap and then herded it across the road to where the deer fencing had been flattened to the ground.

The deer bounded safely into the bush and she inspected the fencing. A couple of posts had rotted and would need to be replaced. She'd have to get Chambe to do it right away. She hoped he could manage the post holer.

Back up in the shade house there was a trampled block of plants to straighten up. They were mostly ferns, only just unfurling their fronds. A few broken fiddleheads, but no damage of any consequence. She was almost finished setting all the pots upright and back into rows when she heard voices. Two white clothed figures were walking up the road.

"I told them we'd be here this morning, so you'd think someone would be in the office to meet us."

"They probably didn't expect us this early."

"It's ten-thirty. I wanted to be here by ten! It's a small wonder this place is such a shambles if they aren't even up and around by now."

"They might be out working in the back field. Look - here it says there's ten acres altogether. See - Glacierview nursery." He held out a clipboard.

The first man snorted. "What an original name."

"There's someone working over there," the other man said, pointing to Elizabeth. "We can ask her."

Elizabeth wiped her hands on her jeans and walked to the shade house door. "Can I help you?"

"We're the FHA inspectors," said the taller of the two men. "Where can we find Mr Bennet?"

Elizabeth held out her hand. "I'm Elizabeth Bennet, the nursery manager. You can deal with me."

He looked her up and down, his eyes lingering on the baggy plaid shirt and stained jeans before his hand came out and gingerly shook hers. "I'm Mr Fitzwilliam - director of this project." He let her hand go quickly and reached into the satchel he was carrying.

As Elizabeth shook hand with the other man, who introduced himself as Charles in a friendly voice, she noticed Mr Fitzwilliam squeeze hand sanitizer on his hands and rub them together.

"Where are most of your host plants located?" asked Mr Fitzwilliam.

"Host plants?" Elizabeth was inwardly cursing herself for not having checked out the website yet.

"The plants that can carry and be affected by SODs," said Charles helpfully.

Mr Fitzwilliam just eyed her with scorn.

"We have camellias in greenhouse number two," said Elizabeth. "Come with me to the office and I'll print you out a map of the nursery."

"We're not only interested in camellias," said Mr Fitwilliam. "Aren't you even aware that there are over thirty plants that are on the host plant list?"

"I'm sorry, I haven't had time . . ." Elizabeth faltered as Mr Fitzwilliam turned away. "Would you like a ride over to the office to get a map?"

He turned back to her. "We'll draw our own maps as we go. I have three other inspectors on this team. We shall be here at least four days, depending on what we find. The plants we take samples from will be marked with orange flagging tape. Under no circumstances remove it until we tell you it's all right."

"If there's anything I can do to help . . ."

"I would suggest you acquaint yourself with at least the basics of this disease, if you want to be taken seriously in the nursery business." He nodded to his companion and started to walk away.

"See you later." Charles smiled at her before following his supervisor.

Elizabeth stared after them, seething.

Charles' voice carried to her as he caught up with Mr Fitzwilliam. "That was a bit harsh, Darcy."

"I can't tolerate these small businesses that operate in complete ignorance of proper nursery practices and no knowledge of horticulture. That brainless girl is the manager here? It's no wonder this disease is threatening to run rampant."

"My God," said Elizabeth under her breath. "What an arrogant jerk!" She hopped into her truck and drove back to the office at a speed she would have complained about had it been anyone else. She pulled into a parking spot outside the office and braked so sharply that she sent up a spatter of gravel and a big cloud of dust billowing over to where the other three inspectors sat waiting. She grinned as she heard the two women coughing.

Inside, she logged onto the computer and got on the internet. Soon she was reading furiously and taking notes. He wasn't going to call her ignorant again, not if she could help it.

Chapter Two

Three hours later Elizabeth pushed back from her computer. She was in that dense fog that comes from information overload. Beside her on the desk were a sandwich and a glass of juice. She had no idea where they had come from, but she devoured them ravenously. Then she looked down at her notes. Sudden Oak Death - common name for Phytophthora ramorum - a fungus - spread by wind driven rain, water, plant material, or human activity . . . It was serious stuff.

Elizabeth printed out the most up to date host plant list she could find, grabbed a highlighter, and marked off all the plants on the list that were in stock at the nursery. Some she had to put question marks beside. She was rifling through the desk drawers when her father came into the office.

"How'd it go with the FHA?"

She made a face. "Don't ask."

He sat on the corner of the desk and waited.

"This place is a shambles, I'm an ignorant backwater bozo, and if the disease doesn't run rampant in six weeks it'll be no thanks to us."

"The nursery may be a bit overgrown, but our plants aren't diseased."

"I know Dad - the guy was on a big power trip, and he took one look at me and . . . well, look at me!"

Elizabeth stood up and twirled around.

"You look just fine, Beth. You can't dress like a model and do an honest day's work."

"Tell that to Liddie and Kate."

Mr Bennet grinned. "Have you ever known either of those girls to work?"

"True." Elizabeth sat back down and began going through the drawers again. "Anyway, Dad, the inspection team's going to be here most of the week, getting in our way. It'll be a major pain in the butt."

"I'll be digging thuyas all week."

"Good thinking - they're not host plants so you won't be bothered. Check this out." She handed him the host list. "When you came in I was looking for a copy of the inventory so I could cross-check the list, and mark areas on the nursery map where the host plants can be found."

"Inventory?" Mr Bennet scratched his head. "I can't remember the last time we did one. Should be in the old filing cabinet, but it'll be way out of date."

"Dad! You can't run a business like that! That Fitzsnobbiam guy is a big jerk, but he was right when he said this place is a shambles."

Mr Bennet put on his reading glasses and perused the list. "Print out a copy of our map, Beth. I may not have a written inventory, but I've got everything in my head. I'll mark the areas where any of these plants are. You sit and relax for a bit. They are making a big deal of this now but it'll pass, and we'll be able to mosey along quietly like we always have."

Elizabeth sighed and turned to the computer. She loved her dad dearly but his 'don't worry be happy - why do today what can be left for tomorrow?' attitude was dragging the nursery down and holding the business back. It didn't help, either, that they were understaffed, or that the staff they did have knew very little about plants. Take Chambe, for example. Her dad was too kind to fire him, but he was more of a liability than anything else. And Mary - who desperately wanted to go off to a cabin in the woods and write the great Canadian novel - when her mind was on task no one could top her energy and drive, but too often she drifted off into daydreams. If their mom had her way the retail garden shop would be filled with kitschy knick knacks and silk flowers, and all Liddie and Katie did during the small amount of time they actually turned up at work was to flirt with the landscapers from Forsters.

For as long as Elizabeth could remember, the busy season had seen an unending steam of unskilled labourers pass in and out of the gates of Glacierview. When she was a teenager her father gave summer jobs to any of her friends who asked. But the low wages and nature of the work didn't breed commitment on the part of employees. Besides family, the only people who had stayed on the job were Chambe and Charlotte. Elizabeth often asked her dad why he kept Chambe around, considering the quality and volume of his work, and he always responded that as far as he knew no one else would hire the guy, and he couldn't live with the idea of Chambe having no other option but welfare.

Now Jane had deserted them for flowers and Charlotte had a nice clean job in her father's real estate office, so two of the people they had been able to count on the most were only available when pressed, in an emergency. Her father had been carrying the brunt of the work for a long time, and it was beginning to show. Elizabeth was glad that she could take over management, something he had little inclination for, but she wanted to be able to relieve him of the heavy physical labour as well.

"Dad, I'm putting an ad in the paper for experienced workers," she said.

"You do what you think best, Beth. It's your ball game now."

"I'm going to offer a considerably higher salary."

"I'd advise you to check the books and our financial statement before you get too generous."

"I'll make up for it by hiring less casual staff."

"As you can see, we're already going down that road, and we're struggling as it is."

"Yeah, but . . ." She didn't want to tell him that poor management had led to their financial straits.

Mr Bennet looked up, took his glasses off, and reached out to pat her hand, smiling. "I know, Bethie, I know. I trust you to make the right decisions." He picked up the map he'd been working on and handed it to her. "It might not be completely accurate, but it'll do for now."

She grinned and thanked him. "I'll make up a bunch of copies for the feds."

~ * ~

Elizabeth drove out into the nursery to look for the inspection team. They weren't hard to find, dressed as they were in their white disposable coveralls. The two women were with the hotshot supervisor in one of the greenhouses. The third man she spied behind a hedge having a cigarette break. Finally she saw the one she was looking for - Charles. He was in a block of rhodos, not too far from where Jane was weeding. She parked her truck and walked up the aisle, sheaf of papers in hand.

"So, how's it going?"

Charles straightened and grinned at her. "Sunshine and fresh air - beats being closeted in a stuffy office."

"Are you finding anything?"

"Well . . . you know how it is."

"I'm glad you think so, but actually I do have a much better idea now than I did a few hours ago. You can't really tell anything definite without a lab test."

"That's right. We take samples of leaves that are showing symptoms - but there could be any number of other causes for those symptoms that are no threat at all."

"So I really shouldn't worry if you spend four days taking samples here."

"We just like to be thorough, but we do get a lot of flack about the amount of time we take - you know, government workers wasting taxpayers' money and all that."

It was exactly what Elizabeth has been thinking so she couldn't do much more than smile sheepishly. "I've brought you some maps of the nursery. My dad marked the spots where you should be able to find most of our host plants."

"That's great! Thanks." Charles reached for the papers, then looked at his latex gloves and took them off before taking them.

"Don't tell me they need to be sprayed with disinfectant!"

It was Charles' turn to look sheepish. "No, it's fine. I was touching the plants so I have to be careful of potential contamination. Sometimes it's all a bit confusing."

"I guess it's best to be on the safe side."

"Well after the avian flu fiasco, we can't be too careful."

Elizabeth remembered hearing about how the government workers had been a big part of spreading the disease from one chicken farm to another because of poor decontamination procedures. "I'm grateful. And you all look so very stylish in your white suits."

Charles laughed. "Tell that to Carrie and Lou. You should hear them moan about it."

Elizabeth was about to walk away and let Charles get back to work when he motioned to her.

"Can you take them their copies of the map? I don't think I'll get back to where they are for a while." The whole reason Elizabeth has searched out Charles was to avoid talking to his supervisor, but she could hardly refuse his request. She went back to her truck, maps in hand, and felt tension rising through her body. She sat in the drivers' seat and took a few deep breaths. She couldn't let the very thought of dealing with him get to her. Why spoil an otherwise beautiful day? It was well on into the afternoon and the sun was shining. Birds were twittering in the hedges, and in the distance the glacier gleamed bright white against a vivid blue sky. She had so many sources of happiness - her family and friends, her love of plants, the beautiful part of the world she lived in - why let one snarky individual ruin her upbeat lookout on life?

She studied her refection in the rear-view mirror. Her hair was sticking out messily from her ponytail and there was a smudge of dirt on one cheekbone. She was about to wipe it away when she reconsidered and laughed. Who cared what he thought of her? The way she looked right now had nothing to do with who she really was, but if he chose to think differently, then it was his loss.

She found Mr Fitzwilliam in greenhouse number two, inspecting the pieris. The two women were still working close to him.

"I've brought you maps of the nursery with the location of the host plants," she announced at large.

"Oh good!" said one of the women. "Does it say what these plants are? I can't find a label."

"Yeah," said the other. "You really should put more signage up around here. I've got bag labels to write and I don't know which greenhouse I'm in or if these camellias are japonica or sasanqua."

Or if they are even camellias, thought Elizabeth.

"They sure are pretty, though," said the first woman.

"Those are Pieris japonica Mountain Fire," cut in Mr Fitwilliam as he approached, his hand reaching out for a map. "I already told you what to write on the label, Carrie."

"I thought we were looking for camellias," answered Carrie.

Mr Fitwilliam groaned.

"I thought it was only camellias at first, too," said Elizabeth with a slight yokel twang, "but I went on that World Wide Web thingy and there's enough of them fancy sounding plants on that there list to make your mind boggle."

"Oh - you mean botanical names? All you small time growers would do well to use them rather than the common names - it gets much too confusing."

"I know," said Elizabeth. "And here I've been calling camellias camellias all these years."

"Well they are called camellias," said the other woman, her expression slightly confused. "Aren't they?"

"She's just having Carrie on, Lou," said Mr Fitzwilliam as he studied his map. He looked up and gave Elizabeth a level stare. "You can drop the act. I met your dad earlier and he told me you have a degree in horticulture from Kwantlen."

Irrelevantly, she noticed that his eyes were grey, light with a dark circle around the iris. Almost stunning against his tan. "I'm sorry about the lack of labelling - things got a bit out of hand here in the last couple of years. I'll do what I can to get things labelled properly as quickly as possible."

"You don't have to bother," he replied shortly. "I know my plants."

"Yes, but your two assistants here don't appear to. And what about the other guys?"

"They are field people," Lou answered for Mr Fitzwilliam. "Carrie and I usually only work in the office, so we know names well but when it comes to connecting them with the actual plants, we're at a loss."

"Oh, God I wish I was back at my desk," said Carrie. "My back hurts, this hand sanitizer stinks, and I think I just broke a nail!"

"Trim it with your clippers," said Elizabeth as she walked away.

Carries voice floated after Elizabeth.

"Who does she think she is?"

~ * ~

At the end of the day Elizabeth, Jane, and Charlotte sat on the deck eating burgers and catching the last rays of the sun as it sank behind the glacier. The air was tinged with the mingled scents of barbecue and the osmanthus which was glowing in a large planter near the table.

"Today is It for me," said Charlotte. "Dad's stressing about not having me in the office answering his precious phones."

"You've been a Godsend." Elizabeth glanced over at Jane. "What about you? Flowers calling?"

"I'm going to try and see if I can get off after lunch for the next few days and come help." She blushed lightly and bit into her burger without looking at either of them.

"How many days? As long as the inspectors are here?" teased Charlotte.

"What's this all about?" asked Elizabeth.

"Jane was hanging out with that stud from the FHA all day!"

"Fitzsnobbiam?"

"No - not the hot head honcho. Charles Bingley with the piercing blue eyes and goofy smile."

Jane jumped to his defence. "His smile's not goofy!"

"See!" giggled Charlotte. "She's got a crush on him already."

Elizabeth was still pondering what she'd said before. "You think Fitzsnobbiam is hot?"

"Duh! Did you see him? 6'2", dark hair, pale blue eyes."

"They're grey," said Elizabeth before she could stop herself.

"So you did notice!"

"Just because a guy has attractive eyes it doesn't make him nice. He's an arrogant ba . . ." Elizabeth stopped herself in time with a reminder that she had sworn not to let annoyance spoil her attitude.

"He is serious," admitted Jane. "Charles says that Darcy always gets like that when he's on the job, and this SOD thing is potentially very dangerous so he's even more extreme."

"Darcy?"

"Jane's on a first name basis with him already. What did he do to get you so upset?"

"I'm not upset," said Elizabeth. "But I don't appreciate being blamed for this whole epidemic. Or being called ignorant"

"Sounds like you two got off on the wrong foot," said Charlotte. "If I were you I'd try to get on his good side. He's pretty high up in the FHA."

"And he's hot!" giggled Jane. "Even if he was rude."

"I'm going to do my job, and he can do his," said Elizabeth. "If he doesn't like the way I run my business, it's his problem. Now tell me all about Jane and Charles - that's much more interesting."

"I don't know what you're paying her, but I don't think she earned half of it today," said Charlotte. "The way they were always just standing around and making googly-eyes at each other."

"We were not! He was explaining about the disease and the sample taking and I was helping him find the variety names of the plants. That's all there was to it."

"But you want to work here the next few days to spend more time with him."

Jane nodded and hung her head, cheeks flaring.

Elizabeth leaned close and gave her a hug. "Go for it. He seems like a really nice guy, and trust me, some of the other guys you've fallen for weren't worth it. Anyway, if it gets you here working for me, I'm all for it."

Liddie sauntered out onto the deck, still wearing the revealing tank top and shortie shorts she'd chosen to work in. "Did you see me in Forsters' new truck?"

"How could we miss you?" asked Charlotte. "You were hanging out the window waving at everybody."

"Dennis says he'll let me drive it next time! Red trucks are so sexy!"

"You're not driving it," said Elizabeth. "You don't even have a licence."

"Dad lets me drive the tractors," pouted Liddie.

"That's different."

"You're no fun at all," said Liddie. "Hey - did you guys see those people in the dumb white suits? What was that all about? I was like, 'Hey! Nice outfits!' And this one cute guy smiled at me but the girls - woah - they gave me the evil eye. And the tall one he was all, like, whatever. Then when they left I saw them in the parking lot getting changed and the short fat one was all sweaty and gross. Kate says she saw him smoking in the bushes all the time. And Sandy said he thought there was some plant disease and maybe they shouldn't buy any of our plants yet but I told him that was a load of bull and that if there was a problem with the plants I'd be the first one to know about it. Is there a problem with the plants?"

"There's no problem with our plants," said Elizabeth. "They're just doing routine tests - it's happening at all the nurseries."

"Thank the Lord!" cried Liddie, giggling. "I was sure I'd lied to them and all their plants were going to die. That would have been hilarious."

Elizabeth sighed. The last thing she needed was Liddie spreading rumours about infected plants. Everyone would be bringing back plants they'd killed by over-watering or under-watering and expecting refunds. Regular customers might begin to look elsewhere. She couldn't stand to lose her landscapers. What she needed was some sort of proof that the nursery was not contaminated so she could reassure anyone who asked. The best thing she could do was get the place looking good and follow all the correct procedures that were outlined in the online sources she'd been researching.

The next thing to do would be to get involved in the camellia recall program. She'd have to talk to Fitzsnobbiam about it, but that was a necessary evil. She sat back, ignoring the rest of Liddie's jabbering, and concentrated on finishing her burger. She relished every bite as she watched the changing hues of the sky - delicate pinks and lavenders tinted the scattered clouds as the blue deepened and the first pricks of starlight appeared.

Chapter Three

Rain greeted Elizabeth as she opened her eyes to the morning. She lay in bed and sighed. This was the one thing that she didn't like about outdoor work. Rain meant cumbersome rain gear, rain hoods that acted like horses' blinkers, and water dripping down one's nose and up one's sleeves. Then she thought about the government inspection team and smiled. They'd be much less used to working in the rain than she, especially those two office girls. Maybe they wouldn't even come. The break from dealing with them would be worth putting up with any amount of rain.

Unfortunately, the rain had done nothing to deter the inspectors. When Elizabeth left the office to get into her truck, the FHA van was already in the parking lot and the individual team members were in the process of pulling their disposable coveralls over what passed as rain-suits. As Elizabeth watched them she decided that this was almost better than not seeing them at all.

Carrie and Lou were wearing something floral and trendy, and very, very shiny but not at all serviceable, and complaining about having to cover up with the unstylish coveralls. Charles was struggling to zip up his coveralls over a PVC raincoat and Hurst was swearing as he tried to tuck in a voluminous yellow plastic rain cape. Only Fitzsnobbiam seemed to be having no problem. He'd apparently managed to get extra large disposable coveralls that were sized correctly to fit over his Helley Hansen rain suit. A rain suit that could have been a twin of Elizabeth's own, only it didn't have worn cuffs and mud spatters half-way up the legs.

Elizabeth drove off gleefully imagining all the trouble they would have trying to write their precious labels in situations where keeping anything dry was impossible. She decided to wait until they broke for lunch to approach Fitzsnobbiam about the camellia recall program. Her morning was spent writing tags in the comfort of the cab and then running out into the driving rain to stick them into the corners of the beds of each different plant variety. At eleven she was interrupted by the ringing of her cell phone.

"Hello?"

It was her mom at the other end, begging her to get over to the retail area to help sort out a major problem she was having with one of her customers.

"I'll be right there, Mom." She flipped her phone closed and turned her truck around. She didn't relish the interruption to her routine or having to deal with a customer that her mother had probably already thoroughly confused.

When she entered the garden shop her mother called out. "Beth, tell this man our policy on returns! I see no reason why we should give him his money back when he killed the plants!"

Elizabeth hurried forward as the man turned towards her.

"I killed them because of the disease! I didn't want it to spread to the rest of my garden, especially my prize hydrangeas," he explained as he held up a handful of branches covered in glossy green leaves. Behind him on the counter was a jumbled pile of branches and roots.

"Get him to take his mess away!" said Mrs Bennet. "How can I sell people things with dirt all over the counter?"

"I'll take care of this, Mom," said Elizabeth. "Why don't you move a few things over on the other side there and use that space instead?" 'Not that there are any other customers in here right now, luckily.'

"Just give me a refund and I'll be out of your hair for good," said the man. "I'm not coming back to a place that sells diseased plants."

Elizabeth crossed her arms and regarded him. "What makes you think those plants are diseased?"

"They're camellias! Don't you people know anything? There's this disease that camellias have that kills oaks and all kinds of other plants. I don't understand how you can be in business and know nothing about it. And then you have the gall to sell the damn plants without any consideration for the environment. I guess it would suit you if all my plants died because then you'd be able to turn around and sell me a whole bunch more."

"Sir," said Elizabeth, "I am fully aware of the disease, Phytothera ramorum, and if you will give me a moment I'll try to explain it to you to set your mind at rest."

"This lady knows nothing about it," he said, pointing to her mother. "You should educate your employees."

Elizabeth caught the seething glare her mother sent the man behind his back and thought it best to steer him away from her proximity before she exploded.

"We are in the process of getting the facts about the camellia recall program so that we can inform all of our employees as well as our customers." She went on to explain the details of the disease to him, how only certain plants were at risk, and how the likelihood of the plants they had sold him being diseased was negligible, but that even so, proper procedure had to be followed to be on the safe side. "There is a hotline number you have to call if you've bought camellias within the past six months. Then you get scheduled for an inspector to come to your home to take leaf samples and destroy and remove the plants. Afterwards the inspector gives you a coupon that can be used at certain garden centres to replace your plants."

"So I shouldn't have brought the plants in here?"

"No, because even though the possibility is minute, they are potentially contaminated and the last thing we need is to have contaminated plants on our premises."

"So, am I supposed to take them home again and have potentially contaminated plants spreading dangerous spores all over my garden until some inspector comes along to remove them?"

Elizabeth was just about to tell him that was exactly what he should do, when they were suddenly interrupted.

"I think I can help you."

It was Fitzsnobbiam. Elizabeth had no idea where he had come from or how long he had been standing there, listening to her conversation with the customer. She sucked in her breath and said stiffly, "This is Mr Fitzwilliam, an inspector with the FHA who is handling all the inspections regarding this issue."

He nodded to her and addressed the man. "Bringing the plants back to the nursery was the wrong thing to do, but now that they are here the best thing is for me to take them from you and dispose of them properly. Just give me a moment to get some equipment from my van."

"Seems it's my lucky day." The man beamed as he watched Mr Fitzwilliam go out the door. "Do these inspectors just drop in all the time like this?"

"They are doing some routine sampling," said Elizabeth, not wanting the man's level of concern to escalate again.

"He can give me some of those coupons you told me about, right?"

"I imagine so. If not we'll be happy to give you a credit for replacement plants."

Elizabeth watched as Mr Fitzwilliam came back armed with heavy plastic bags, a spray bottle, wipes, and a sheaf of papers. The first thing he did was put on a fresh pair of rubber gloves and then rub his hands with sanitizer. He deftly took leaf samples from the pile of destroyed plants and slipped them into a Ziploc bag. After sanitising his hands once again, he collected all the roots and branches and put them into one of the heavy-duty plastic bags and cinched it closed with a fastener. He sanitised his hands a third time and put the bag into another. Then he took the wipes and swept any remaining dirt from the counter into the bag and tossed the wipes after it. He sprayed the counter with the disinfectant from the spray bottle, wiped it with fresh wipes, and threw them into the bag as well. He followed them with his gloves, sanitized his hands a fourth time, and finally cinched the outer bag closed.

"There," he said to the man. "I'll have these samples sent to the lab and take the plants for disposal. I just need a bit of information from you." He looked over at Elizabeth. "Don't go yet Miss Bennet. I'd like to speak to you once I've finished with this."

Elizabeth gave a barely perceptible nod and stood in stony silence as Fitzwilliam dealt with the man. She didn't appreciate the way he'd taken the situation over from her and the way he was now giving her orders. It was her nursery, damn it, and she had everything under control before he'd come and shoved his nose in it. Now what was he going to do? Ream her out for something a customer had done - something she had no control over, and something that wouldn't have happened if the FHA had done a better job of getting the camellia recall information out to the public? And he expected her to just stand around, wasting her time while he put on the big benevolent environmentalist act with her customer.

"That was very accommodating of you," she said when the man left and Fitzwilliam rejoined her.

"How could you let something like that happen?" he asked. "Do you know you were this close to getting shut down? I'm not supposed to do what I just did."

"Then why did you do it? I was about to ask him to take it all back home with him."

"Because it was the only thing that made sense to me at the time." He stood staring at Elizabeth for a few moments and then continued. "You explained the recall program to him very well."

"I guess I'm not completely ignorant, then," she muttered under her breath. "I was going to ask you about Glacierview getting involved in the recall. I'd like pamphlets to hand out to customers and if it's not too late I'd like to be registered to accept the reimbursement coupons."

"I can set that up."

"Was there anything else you wanted from me? I need to get back to work - we're not all on the government payroll, you know."

He half-smiled. "I just wanted to say that if anyone else tries to return camellias, make sure that if they do bring them into your nursery you take the same steps to contain them as you saw me perform right now, and disinfect the area. In the meantime I'll make sure that the local radio stations and newspapers get a new press release emphasising the importance of calling the hot line and not returning plants to the stores where they were purchased."

"Do you have any idea how much longer you're going to be here, taking samples?"

"This rain has slowed us down - I'd say if the weather gets better again tomorrow it'll only be two more days. The plants you got in from Hamilton's will have to stay under quarantine until we get the test results, however."

"But everything else is okay to sell as usual?"

"Unless you hear otherwise, but you need to keep sales records in case we get a positive result and need to do trace forwards."

"Don't worry about our records. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got work to do." Elizabeth walked away from him to where her mother was making a show of adjusting a display of watering cans and hose nozzles.

"He really took charge, didn't he?" her mother said, her voice rich with admiration.

Elizabeth glanced back at Fitzsnobbiam's retreating figure. "The pompous jerk!"

"I hear he's a rich pompous jerk," said Mrs Bennet.

"That doesn't give him the right to act like he owns the place."

"No dear, but it doesn't hurt to try to impress a man. I wish you'd pay more attention to your appearance. Look at you! Your hair all wet and straggling down, that disreputable looking rain gear! Helley Hansen makes a very pretty rain suit in powder blue you should order. If you put your mind to it you can look quite pretty."

"Mom, what has that got to do with anything? Why should I be trying to impress that guy just because he's rich?"

"Do you want to slave away in this nursery all your life, losing your looks? I want a better future for all you girls than this drudge of a life I'm living. You have to find yourself a rich man!"

Elizabeth had heard it all before. Her mother enjoyed complaining about her lot in life almost as much as she enjoyed ordering faux neo-classical statuary for the garden centre, which was her pride and joy. But it never ceased to nettle Elizabeth that success, in her mother's opinion, was not achievable unless there was a man in the picture.

"What I really came over here to talk to you about, Mom, is the camellia recall program so you know what to tell a customer the next time to avoid problems like the one I just had to deal with."

Mrs Bennet stuffed a spray of silk roses into the spout of a cute ceramic watering can. "Beth, you can't expect me to learn all that plant stuff! Tell Liddie and Kate about it, if you want, but I'll just call you on your cell if something comes up again."

Elizabeth groaned, and headed for the door.

"Don't forget to put your hood up, dear," her mother called after her. "And please do something about your hair."

~ * ~

"Beth, you have to say yes. I don't want to go alone."

Jane looked at her imploringly. For some reason, when she really wanted something her eyes always became a richer blue and very appealing.

"You won't be alone when you get there if you are meeting Charles and all the rest of them."

"I can't walk into the Black Fin by myself, besides you'll have fun if you come."

"With Fitzsnobbiam there?"

"I wish you wouldn't call Darcy that. He's Charles' best friend, and he's really not so bad."

"He's a priggish cold fish and he's annoying."

"Anyway it's not as if it would only be you and me and Charles and Darcy. Carrie and Lou and Hurst will be there too, so you can talk to them if you don't want to talk to Darcy."

"Oh joy!"

"Give them a chance. They're all nice once you get to know them."

Elizabeth threw herself on the couch and laughed. "Jane, when have you ever thought someone wasn't nice?"

"Well, there was that guy in grade eight . . . um . . ." She giggled. "Please, Bethieeee. Do it for me."

"Fine," said Elizabeth, giving up under that lucid blue gaze. "But you are going to owe me."

"Me? Owe you? After all I've done working for you the past week?"

"I think we're even - if I never made you work for me you wouldn't have met Charles."

"Oh Beth! Isn't he great?" Jane twirled around the room with her arms outstretched and ended in a dizzy heap on an armchair.

"Well, let's see. He's good looking, friendly, funny, and kind. He does have one major flaw, though."

"What flaw?" asked Jane, jumping to his defence.

"Bad taste in friends."

"Stop it! C'mon - let's get ready. We're supposed to meet them there at 7:00."

~ * ~

Elizabeth took a long look down the road towards the Comox Harbour before turning up the walkway and following Jane into the pub. She hoped they would have a table with a view so at least she could have the water and the boats to pay attention to, rather than just the boat that dangled from the pub's ceiling and the ubiquitous Brian Scotts hanging on the walls. She didn't plan on counting on the company to entertain her.

As luck would have it, Charles had got a table in the bright, airy end of the room where window stretched the length of one wall. He waved them over. For an hour, at least, Elizabeth would be able to enjoy the view, after that she could watch the stars flick on in the darkening sky.

"This is a nice place," said Charles to Jane. "Thanks for recommending it."

Jane smiled and sat in the chair he'd pulled out for her. Elizabeth was left with no choice but to sit beside Hurst, which in her estimation was the best of all evils.

"I'm relieved," said Carrie. "In a small town like this the pubs are usually dark and seedy, or quaint in a tacky, Olde English style. This place is actually clean and . . . nautical."

"There's a boat suspended from the ceiling!" said Lou. "What will they think of next?"

"And art on the walls!" Carrie nudged Mr Fitzwilliam who was sitting beside her. "I never expected anything so avant guarde in a town like this. I'll bet you didn't either, Darcy."

"The Comox Valley is known for its artists," he said somewhat dismissively.

Elizabeth almost choked. "Avant guarde? They're bright and bold, but hardly ground-breaking."

"You appreciate art?" asked Darcy.

"I know what I like," said Elizabeth. "There are nice enough, but his style is so distinct that really once you've seen one, you've seen them all."

"Are we going to talk about art all night?" asked Hurst. "Or are we going to watch the hockey game?" He swivelled in his seat for a better angle on the TV screen.

"Why don't we order some appies?" asked Charles, beaming around the table at everyone. "I could go for a large plate of nachos."

"Hot wings," grunted Hurst.

"I can't eat any of that spicy stuff," said Carrie. "Want to share an order of calamari, Darcy?"

"I think I'll help Charles with his nachos." He looked over at his friend. "Extra guacamole, okay?"

When the waitress came to the table, Elizabeth asked for sweet potato fries and sangria, then gazed out the window at distant white sails, glad that Hurst had no interest in conversation. She could hear Jane and Charles talking softly together and she smiled. At least Jane was having a good time, and that was what counted the most. It was easy enough to put up with listening to Carrie and Lou dissect the other patrons of the pub, and Fitzsnobbiam's occasional cryptic comment.

"Take a look at who just walked in," Carrie hissed. "He thinks he's all that in his black leather."

"His hair is right out of the fifties," Lou giggled.

"It's the Fonze!" Carrie snorted. "Oh my God - he's put on a pound or two since the show was cancelled."

Elizabeth glanced over to see who they were talking about and then abruptly looked away. Sadly, she wasn't quick enough.

"Elizabeth Bennet!" His voice boomed across the room and he made a beeline for their table.

"A friend of yours?" said Carrie, her shoulders shaking with barely suppressed laughter. "Sorry, but I guess I should have know."

Elizabeth choked back an angry retort and grimly turned towards the newcomer. "Mr Collins - how's the fertiliser business?" Out of the corner of her eye she noticed Fitzsnobbiam smirking.

"Bill, Elizabeth, Call me Bill." As Elizabeth only looked at him, rather than take him up on his offer, he continued. "I was going to come by the nursery and tell you about our new line of environmentally friendly products. Green up with Green! That's our slogan."

"Why don't you do that, then? I'd rather not talk business on my free time."

"Of course! No - I didn't come over here to sell you anything - just to get reacquainted. Haven't seen you since last summer. We've got so much to catch up on."

"We do?"

He pulled a chair over from an empty table behind him, and tried to wedge it in between Elizabeth and Hurst. "I hear you have your degree now and are taking over from your dad - which is something I, for one, am really looking forward to."

"I don't think there's room at the table," said Elizabeth, glancing over at Hurst who was straining to see around Bill Collins. "And you are blocking the TV screen."

"Well, why don't we move the chairs around and add another table?"

"There's room for a chair here," said Charles, shifting even closer to Jane.

"No, really, it's not necessary," said Elizabeth.

"Your friend must join us," said Carrie. "I insist! Darcy won't mind if I crowd him a bit." She jammed her chair up right against his and smiled up at him.

Elizabeth groaned as everybody made room and Bill Collins pulled his chair in right beside her. He talked loudly all the while, as if he were a long lost friend. She hadn't thought the company could get any worse, but she would almost have preferred changing places with Carrie rather than having to put up with Bill's conversation. At least Fitzsnobbiam would have ignored her as much as she ignored him.

"Beth, Jane!" A familiar voice greeted Elizabeth. She looked up to see Charlotte weaving her way between the tables just as the waitress also arrived with a laden tray.

"Char!" Elizabeth got up and pulled her over to her chair. "Sit down. Have you met Bill?"

"No - hi Bill!" Charlotte turned a smile on him and then glanced back at Elizabeth. "But what about you? Isn't this your seat?"

"Do me a favour and take it. I'm going to move this other table over to that end and then everyone can spread out again."

As she turned to get the table, Mr Fitzwilliam was there before her, smoothly sliding it across the carpet to where his chair was pulled back. All that was left for her to do was bring a chair of her own and sink quietly into it.

"Your fries and drink, I think," he said, passing them over to her.

She thanked him, took a long sip of the sangria, and gazed out the window. The sailboats had all returned to their berths. The sky was lightly blushed with rose; the blue had faded to a dusky grey. A great blue heron took off from the shore like a shadow moving across her view of the estuary.

Elizabeth picked up a fry and nibbled at it.

Two places away, Carrie was no longer laughing. Instead she stared at Elizabeth with a calculating look upon her face, before turning to Darcy and sliding her plate over to him.

"Calamari?"

Chapter Four

Elizabeth had become used to seeing the five white suits wandering all over the nursery. She'd come to accept that no day would be complete without meeting up with Fitzsnobbiam at some point. Happily, these meetings were brief: a nod in greeting, a brusque sentence about the team's progress, an oblique reference to new developments in the program.

Charles brought all the brochures for the camellia recall to her office along with the papers she needed to sign to be registered to honour the plant replacement coupons, so she was saved having to deal with Fitzsnobbiam on a more in-depth level.

"The recall is running much more smoothly than expected," Charles said. "I hear inspectors will be sent up island next week so you should be getting people in wanting replacements soon."

"Can't wait to see their smiling faces."

"Won't your mom be the lucky one?"

"Knowing her she'll call me in to the garden centre to deal with them all. Anyway, I'd better get these flyers to her. The least she can do is make sure all the customers get one." Elizabeth got up from her desk, picking up the stack of flyers as she did so.

"Hey," said Charles as they left the office together. "We'll be finished taking all our samples here today, so we're going to the Atlas for dinner to sort of celebrate. I asked Jane to come and I hope you can come too."

Elizabeth was caught off guard by the look of eager entreaty on his face and agreed to join them. 'Damn,' she thought as she walked the short distance to the garden centre. After convincing her mother to give the pamphlets out to the customers even if she wasn't about to read one herself, she drove over to the production area to see how Chambe was getting on with the potting. The four-inch rhodos were all going into gallon containers. She got there to find that he'd mixed up about five different varieties and spent the rest of the day sorting out his mistakes and staying on to complete the job with him so there would be no more screw ups.

It was so effective at taking her mind off the coming dinner get together that at the end of the day, when she rounded a corner behind a greenhouse and almost bumped into Fitsnobbiam, his sudden smile and "See you later on" really took her by surprise.

"Yeah," she mumbled.

"I hear it's a good restaurant."

"A bit pricey - gourmet styling doesn't come cheap."

He grinned. "Small, carefully arranged portions, the sauce drizzled in designs to make Picasso envious, topped with a fresh sprig of some rare herb imported from the Amazon?"

"Sorry, I forgot. You probably eat at places like that every night in Victoria."

He gave her a quizzical look. "Right. Later." Then he turned towards the parking lot.

Elizabeth hit her forehead with her palm. 'Dinner is going to be torture - why did I say I'd go?'

Still, even though she didn't want to go she took pains dressing, trying on three different outfits before Jane arrived to pick her up.

"Does this top make me look . . .?" she asked as she tried to guide a silver hook through her earlobe. "Damn! I don't know when the last time I wore earrings was - the stupid hole has grown over."

"I'll get it," said Jane, steadying Elizabeth and sliding the earring through expertly. She held her hand out for its mate. "And to answer your question, that top makes you look foxy."

"Foxy is not the look I was going for," said Elizabeth, starting to undo the buttons. "Besides I was asking if it made me look fat."

Jane grabbed Elizabeth's hands. "I was only teasing. The top looks fine. What are you so worked up about? I thought you didn't want to come."

Elizabeth sat on the bed and redid the buttons. "I don't, but I . . . well . . . I didn't want any attitude from Carrie. She's always on about what a hick I am and how this town has no style."

"So, we'll show her," said Jane. "You sure that's all it is? Don't want to impress anyone?"

"Who would I be trying to impress?" Elizabeth scorned. "I don't even know why I let Carrie get to me, stupid cow! Let's go and get this over with."

"Cheer up. You're going to have fun - trust me." Jane smiled sweetly and headed out of the room. "Come on. The reservation is for 7:30 and it's twenty past already."

~ * ~

Green vines climbed the walls of the patio where they'd been seated by their waitress.

"What's that, Darcy?" asked Carrie. "Grape vines? Passion fruit?"

"Kiwi," said Elizabeth and Darcy at the same time.

"You don't miss a chance to show off, do you?" Carrie sneered towards Elizabeth.

"I guess that means I was showing off too," said Darcy.

"No. I was asking you." Carrie smiled at him sweetly. "Though kiwi doesn't sound quite so romantic as passion fruit."

Elizabeth picked up her menu and tried to ignore them both.

"Sorry," whispered Lou. "Carrie was P-Oed that you were coming to dinner too - she's doesn't like you on her turf."

"Her turf? This is my town."

"I was referring to the man she's after."

Elizabeth glanced up at Carrie and Darcy. "She's welcome to him."

Lou just smirked.

"Isn't this nice?" said Jane who appeared to be completely oblivious to what had just happened. "I'm so glad it's a warm evening - the patio is the best place to sit."

"Are you sure you'll be warm enough all dinner?" asked Charles. "We can ask to move inside if you'd prefer."

"I love it out here," said Jane.

"What we need," said Hurst, "is a waitress." He waved his hand in the girl's direction. When she approached the table he called out. "Two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon!"

"I want Merlot," said Carrie.

Darcy glanced around the table. "Is everyone fine with that? Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot?"

"Are you happy with that?" Charles asked Jane.

"Oh yes!"

"A bottle of each then," said Darcy.

"And I'll have a sangria," said Elizabeth. "And a glass of water, please."

As the waitress left with the order, Hurst began complaining that he'd ordered two bottles of a particular wine for a reason and as he wasn't going to drink any merlot they should have just ordered three bottles of wine. Darcy was reminding him that they all had to work again the next day even though they'd finished with Glacierview. Carrie was tapping on the table with her red fingernails and Lou was quietly giggling. Charles and Jane were busily discussing the menu, shutting everything else out. Elisabeth sighed. It was going to be a long night.

As it turned out, after such an unpropitious start, the evening was a lot better than Elizabeth had anticipated. The meal was delicious rather than pretentious. She ate her medallions of pork undisturbed as conversation swirled about her. The air remained balmy as the sky darkened and she sat back and sipped her sangria under the canopy of leaves as stars began to blink on. The only thing that bothered her was Fitzsnobbiam staring at her every now and then. Besides that, she was left in peace. She let her mind drift, thinking of the next day and the interviews she had scheduled with prospective employees.

"Dessert?"

"Pardon me?" She looked up to see Darcy regarding her with a question in his eyes.

"I was asking if you'd like dessert?"

The waitress was standing by the table anticipating her response.

"Well, I . . . what's everybody . . .?"

"We're all having dessert," said Jane, laughing. "There's crème brûlée with lavender - it sounds delicious."

"And chocolate pecan pie," said Lou.

"I'm having the bread pudding," said Charles.

"I'm having pistachio sorbet," said Carrie, "but you might want the death by chocolate cake."

"I'll have the crème brûlée," said Elizabeth quickly.

"Good choice," said Darcy. As the waitress walked away he continued, "What took you so far away?"

"I've got interviews tomorrow for a production manager."

"Good, you need more help there."

'So now he's criticising how I run production?' thought Elizabeth. "Well you don't have to put up with us any longer, lucky you."

"It was never a question of us putting up with you, but you putting up with us," he responded. "But it's not completely over yet, remember. The samples have to be tested and your results have to all be negative for the nursery to get an all clear. You'll be hearing from us in a couple of weeks."

"I know. Don't worry; I'll keep those plants you're so concerned about in quarantine until then."

"Sorry. I didn't mean to talk business tonight. I was going to call you tomorrow."

"Well, now you've got one less annoying thing to do tomorrow, don't you?" Elizabeth answered with a grin that took the edge off her words.

He smiled and changed the subject, asking her if she'd enjoyed her meal and talking about his impressions of the restaurant until dessert arrived.

The crème brûlée was superb and Elizabeth savoured every spoonful. She noticed that he had ordered the same thing, and was glad when Carrie drew his attention away, asking to taste his dessert and offering him a spoonful of hers.

Snippets of their conversation came her way. Even though she had no interest in anything either of them had to say, she couldn't tune them out.

"Your sister must be dying for you to finish this sampling up and come home."

"It's not as if she doesn't have a life, Carrie, but I probably miss her just as much as she misses me."

"It's so nice that you're close."

"Yes."

"And that she likes your friends - especially one certain friend. And that he likes her"

"She's pretty young to set too much in store by that," he said, "but yeah, it's great that they get along so well."

"And I simply love her too. We should all go out together sometime - just the four of us. It would be so much fun."

"Maybe - but she'll be busy with exams when we get back and I'll be doing overtime at the office."

"I could do overtime too."

"That probably won't be necessary. Excuse me - there's the waitress." He waved the girl over. "Could you bring me the bill please?"

When Elizabeth and Jane argued that they should pay for their meals, he shrugged their protests aside. "This is a work dinner - it's going on the expense account."

"We don't work for the FHA," Elizabeth pointed out.

"No," Darcy admitted, "but you and Jane are our guests, and we have inconvenienced you at the nursery all week."

Elizabeth realised that he was not going to back down, so she grudgingly accepted it. "So - this is where our tax dollars go?"

"Sometimes," he said, a smile flickering at the corners of his mouth. "But we rarely live up to our terrible reputation."

~ * ~

On the way home Jane talked happily about Charles.

"You know he doesn't work out of Victoria like the rest of the team, he's stationed in Parksville."

"Yes - you told me before."

"When they finish sampling the other Courtenay nurseries they'll be going to Campbell River. There's really nothing further north than that. The rest of them will return to Victoria but Charles will still do other FHA work in the area. He says he'll probably be up every week or so with one thing or another. He's planning on coming to see me whenever he has a chance. And I can drive down to Parksville - it's only an hour away. Oh Beth! I'm so glad you made me come and help you, or I might never have met him. He's so . . I've never met anyone like him! So kind. So interesting. So much fun!"

"He's great. I'm so happy for you both."

"Well we aren't really an item."

"You could've fooled me. You two don't talk to anyone else. You don't get any work done when you're both in the same block of plants, and you're always in the same block of plants. I'd say there's something going on between you."

"Well I really like him."

"Duh!"

"But I'm not sure how he feels about me. We're just friends."

Elizabeth almost choked on a giggle. "You're hilarious. The guy is clearly over the moon about you."

Jane smiled. "D'you think?"

"I know," said Elizabeth. "And so does anyone who's seen you two together."

~ * ~

The applicant for the production position was a friendly looking woman of about forty, May Gardiner.

"You've got some good references," said Elizabeth, glancing over May's resume. "Most of these nurseries you've worked at are much bigger than ours - we're just a small, family run operation. With all your experience and training you could do better than this."

"Actually," said May, "a family operation is exactly what I'm looking for. I'll tell it to you straight. My husband and I have wanted to live on the Island for quite some time. Our dream has always been to own our own nursery. We've researched and searched quite extensively from Victoria all the way up to Campbell River, and we've found a nursery in the Victoria area that we're negotiating to buy. If we get it, we'll take over at the end of the year. So you see, I'd only be able to work with you for one season, and I'd be stealing all your top ideas." She laughed. "But I'm a hard worker and very energetic and I'd be committed to working with you to the best of my abilities."

"I knew there had to be a catch," said Elizabeth with a wry grin. "But to have someone with your level of experience even for just a season would really help me out. We've suffered by having too much casual labour for too long and not enough workers with any level of expertise." She was thinking that whoever worked with May would get some valuable training and maybe be able to take over once she'd gone. "I'll take you on a tour of our nursery and then you can tell me if you still want to work here."

"You've got it backwards," said May.

"There's no question that I'd like you on my staff," said Elizabeth, as she led the way to her truck.

They spent half an hour driving and walking over the ten acres. Elizabeth discovered that May not only knew her stuff, she was cheerful and had a good sense of humour.

"Does your husband have a job in Courtenay?" asked Elizabeth as they walked between rows of field stock on the way to find her father and make the introductions.

"Nothing has come up yet," said May. "This is the first decent nursery job that's been posted. Most places only want unskilled workers at minimum wage."

"Would he consider working here too? I couldn't pay him more than what you'd be making, but if he'd like to work digging field stock and helping the landscapers it would reduce my father's load considerably. I worry about him doing such strenuous work at his age."

"Sam'll be coming to pick me up as soon as I call him. You could ask him then and see what he thinks."

That evening Elizabeth sat at her desk going over her plans. Sam had taken the job, and that freed her dad for a more supervisory role outdoors as well as dealing with all the wholesale customers, and doing whatever buying was necessary. Mary would be the head shipper, putting together orders with Sam helping her with the field stock and heavy loading. May would handle all areas of production with the two part time college students Elizabeth had also hired. Chambe could do the weeding and watering and general maintenance. That left her free to work in propagation, along with all her managerial duties. Now this Phytothera scare was almost over things were sure to settle down. Because they imported only a small percentage of their stock, and had no dealings with the American nurseries where the problems had originated, Elizabeth didn't expect any positive results from the testing.

The best thing was that there were no more white suits wandering all over her nursery getting in everyone's way. Sure, they were still in town, but she didn't have to see them, and in a week or so they'd be heading up to Campbell River. Gone and not missed. She smiled and clicked open the propagation file she'd recently started. Soon her head was full of plant names and projecting production numbers. Fitzsnobbiam and his gang were completely forgotten.

~ * ~

"Hey there Elizabeth - I'm here just like you asked me!"

Elizabeth looked up from her cuttings to see Bill Collins beaming down at her. 'How did he find me? I'll kill whoever told him where I was,' she thought. "I asked you?"

"Yeah, that night we were out together at the Blackfin, Remember?"

"I've already placed my yearly order - you know that Mr Collins. So you see, you've wasted a trip."

"We are good enough friends that you can call me Bill, Elizabeth."

"Anyway, time is money so hadn't you better get after customers who need your services?"

Instead of taking his leave, as Elizabeth had wanted him to do, Bill Collins sat on a stool and pulled some brochures from a bulging briefcase. "We always appreciate your timely orders, Elizabeth - Glacierview is one of our most valued customers. And customer service is what Dubarry Fertiliser is all about. Did I tell you about our new environmental line?"

"Yeah, green up with Green. I heard."

"Isn't that an awesome slogan?" Collins slid a brightly coloured brochure along the cutting bench to Elizabeth. "See - it's one hundred percent environmentally friendly. We've had a great response to it. And it just kicks those little plants to life."

Elizabeth gave the paper a cursory glance. "What I've ordered has all the same properties and is just as enviro-conscious, without all the hype. I could probably use another sack of rooting hormone, but that's about it. I was going to order it online and save you an unnecessary trip."

"No trip is unnecessary. Especially to see you. I have to tell you how impressed I am with what you've done to this place. Hardly recognised it. But I knew how it would be from the first time I met you. You've got the talent and the drive. With you in charge I see Glacierview growing to be one of the biggest and most highly respected nurseries on the island."

"That's not my goal. I like the idea of small, family run places that put quality and service first, and grow specialty plants."

"Exactly! If it's rare and unique you're bound to have it. Anyone who asks, I always recommend Glacierview. Just last week someone was looking for one of those ones that has those purple leaves and I said you could supply them with whatever they wanted. See - I've got your interests at heart. But then, we have always been more than business connections, haven't we? I like you Elizabeth. I like you a lot."

"Thank you, but I really do need to get these cuttings into vermiculite before they dry out."

Collins drew his stool closer. "I've been meaning to ask you out," he said. "That night at the Blackfin I really felt the chemistry between us and it's just as strong today."

'Chemistry?' thought Elizabeth. 'I palmed him off on Charlotte as quickly as I could.'

"There's a new little bistro on Comox Avenue I want to take you to. Very intimate atmosphere - set us up for the evening, if you know what I mean."

"Let's just stick to a business relationship, okay? I'm not interested in going out with you."

"Don't be shy, Elizabeth," Collins leaned closer. "We'd be so good together."

"Never, Mr Collins. I think you should leave now." Elizabeth edged away.

"Bill," he whispered. "Say it."

"What will it take to get through to you?" Elizabeth yelled as she stood up. "One step closer, and I'll kick you where it hurts."

Just then her cell phone rang. As Elizabeth fumbled around in her pockets for it, Collins put his papers back in his briefcase and snapped it shut. His face had gone from a suggestive leer to an angry red. "You don't know what you're missing," he hissed as he turned to go.

Elizabeth finally pulled her phone out and flipped it open. "Hello?"

"Hi, Elizabeth? Did I catch you at a bad time?"

"No, your timing was perfect," she said, trying to make out the voice coming through on her cell.

"Oh, good. You sounded a little flustered or something. Must be the connection."

'Damn.' The voice suddenly registered. 'Out of the frying pan and into the fire.' "What can I do for you, Mr Fitzwilliam?"

"I just wanted to let you know that with the volume of samples the lab is having to process, we won't be getting your results for at least a month or more."

"So those quarantined plants will be hanging around in Limbo for even longer?"

"Limbo doesn't exist anymore, hadn't you heard?"

"Yes, I've heard." 'Screw the arrogant jerk.' "This is no time to be facetious. I'm losing money because of your quarantine. My customers aren't going to wait - they'll find another supplier."

"Sorry." There was a slight pause on the other end of the connection. "Look - there's nothing I can do to change things. All the nurseries caught up in this are in the same boat as you, or worse. Just be patient, please. I'll keep you posted."

"I know how busy you are," said Elizabeth. The last thing she wanted was to field calls from Fitzsnobbiam. "I'll go online and save you the trouble."

"It's no trouble," he said, and rang off.

Elizabeth felt like hurling her phone across the propagation house. Instead she returned to her cuttings, dipping them into hormone powder and shoving them into flats of the vermiculite mix she was using. She broke quite a few of the innocent little twigs before she calmed down again.

Chapter Five

Elizabeth did have to field a couple of phone calls from Fitzsnobbiam during the next couple of weeks. He really didn't have much to say, except to tell her that the backlog in the lab was astronomical, what with the camellia recall samples and the FHA samplings of nurseries and their environs all going to the same Ottowa lab.

"Don't we have a lab we can use here in BC?" she asked.

"Not the federal government. The provincial department of Forests and Agriculture has a lab in the lower mainland, but it hasn't been cleared for our use in this project."

"Seems to me it would only make sense to use it."

"We are hampered by so much red tape. I really can't go into the issues with you, but we have to answer to the Americans and their protocol is different from ours yet again."

"What can they have to say in any of this? They caused the problem."

Elizabeth heard a sigh from the other end of the phone.

"Look, I've probably said too much about this to you as it is. Just rest assured I'll let you know your results as soon as they're available."

Elizabeth shut her phone with an angry click and stared across the office at her father.

"Too much government double speak?'

"It's so ridiculous that we have to hold those rhodos and pieris when it's obvious there's nothing wrong with them. Forsters have already finished that job they wanted those special varieties for. They found them in a small nursery in Victoria that hadn't been inspected yet. We're stuck with the lot of them now."

"Something will turn up. Anyway Bob Forster said he'd use as many as he could on other jobs once they were out of quarantine. And you can take cuttings from them so we can propagate them ourselves."

"You can bet I will. The less we rely out outdoor suppliers the better, with this kind of scare going on. Who knows what'll happen next? Pyracantha's been added to the list now."

"I hate those spiny little beggars anyway," said her dad with a grin.

"Maybe, but they're one of our bread and butter sellers."

"So, how's the camellia recall going?"

"You know the FHA are treating the whole thing like it's top secret. I asked Fitzsnobbiam if it's almost completed and all he could say was it's going according to plan. Luckily Charles isn't quite so close mouthed. He says that the level of response surprised everybody but that, all things considered, the program has gone much more smoothly than anyone anticipated. He even told us some hilarious stories about what some of the samplers have had to face when going to people's houses. More than one inspector dug up and destroyed plants at the wrong address, and in one instance they weren't even camellias."

"He's seeing a lot of our Jane, isn't he? Your mother is starting to count her chickens."

"Oh God! I wish she wouldn't. It was so embarrassing the other day when Jane brought him home for dinner and mom was grilling Charles about his favourite food and continually talking about next time he comes and summer barbecues and if he prefers turkey or duck at Thanksgiving. She could scare the poor guy away - that is if he weren't so besotted with Jane. I think he missed half of what mom said, just gazing into Jane's eyes."

"That was the point I left the room," said her father. "There's only so much of that lovey-dovey stuff I can handle. He's a nice boy with a good head on his shoulders, but he's a bit too moonstruck for my liking."

"Speaking of moonstruck - Dad, you've got to talk to Liddie and Kate about the way they run around after all the young landscapers from Forsters."

"Yes," he said meditatively. "They should be setting their sights higher shouldn't they? And how about you my dear? No more bites since you tossed Bill Collins back into the pond?" He smirked.

"Don't even remind me! But you know that's not what I meant about Liddie and Kate, Dad. People are going to think that they're cheap."

"I'll get your mother to put higher price tags on them."

"Dad! It's not a joke."

"Teenagers will be teenagers, Bethie - and your sisters are two of the silliest teenagers around. Fortsers' boys know better than to get involved with them. They're little more than children."

"They look nothing like children in their skimpy tank tops and push up bras. And those young guys aren't much older. They're full of raging testosterone, too."

"I'll speak to Bob - make sure he tells his guys the girls are off limits."

"Thanks. But it's their behaviour I'd like to see change too."

"That's your mother's department."

"Arrghh - she practically encourages them!"

"Then what makes you think they'd ever listen to a thing I say? Your mother doesn't."

Elizabeth could see she was going to get nowhere with her appeal so she gave up and discussed the SOD issues again.

A few weeks later they'd honoured the last of the replacement coupons at the nursery and Charles had come by to pick up all the receipts and thank them for their cooperation with the program.

"Did you know a total of 1500 camellias were processed?" he said. "Though we can't be sure all the ones from Belgravia were turned in, and of course a percentage of those that did get turned in were Canadian grown."

"So, how many diseased ones were found?" asked Elizabeth.

"Results aren't all back yet, and if they were, you know that's privileged information."

"Come on - we're friends. I'm just curious. I'm not going to plaster it all over the net with names and addresses."

"Even I will never know the locations when the results do get out," Charles responded with a laugh. "Is your sister around?"

"Which sister?" asked Liddie with a giggle as she sauntered by, a small pot of groundcover in each hand."

"You know Jane works at Roses Plus," said Elizabeth. "Why would she be here at the nursery?"

"She said something about getting off early and meeting me here - that's why I left Glacierview last on my schedule."

Just then Jane appeared at the doorway and she walked up to them, smiling shyly. Charles put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her cheek.

"His sweetie."

"Hi yourself," she said, her voice hardly above a whisper.

Elizabeth knew she wasn't going to get any more information out of Charles on this visit so she said goodbye to him, gave Jane a wink, and went out to see May about a problem with the potting machine.

~ * ~

It was almost summer by the time Elizabeth finally got the call from Darcy Fitzwilliam that all the tests from Glacierview had come back negative, She was free to take the plants from Hamiltons out of quarantine. She thanked him sarcastically and rang off as quickly as she could, though he had seemed inclined to keep talking, asking questions about how things were going. She couldn't imagine why he was interested, unless he wanted to find some kind of flaw in the way she was running her operation. She assured him that she was keeping up to date on all the suggested disease prevention precautions and sighed in relief as she hung up.

That was the last time she'd be hearing from him.

Summer brought the usual slow down in sales, but they were busier than ever re-potting, spacing plants, and keeping everything weeded and watered. July and August were hotter and dryer than typical Island weather - everyone was attributing it to global warming. If it wasn't one thing it was another making the life of a nursery owner difficult.

Liddie and Kate spent more time tubing on the Puntledge with their friends than at the nursery. Elizabeth was glad because the sight of those two in their bikini tops was testing the landscapers to the limits, not to mention the college students she'd hired for the summer.

"Don't even think about it," she'd warned them when she'd noticed the direction of their gazes.

A few more plants were added to the host list at the SOD hotline website, but other than that the situation with the disease had calmed right down. If it wasn't for those plants from Hamiltons that Elizabeth was still trying to unload, she might have thought she'd dreamed the whole thing. And then there was Charles, of course. He and Jane usually went out most Friday nights, and on Saturdays Jane was in the habit of taking a road trip to Parksville.

"Would you like me to bring you something back from Coombs?" Jane asked over the phone. "I'm on my way to meet Charlie there for lunch."

"You can't get enough of the goats on the roof of the Old Country Market, can you?"

"You know me too well. I've always been a sucker for them, ever since dad used to take us there for ice cream when we were kids."

"Have fun!"

"So don't tell me what you want - I'll surprise you."

"I just know it's going to be one of those silly toys."

"We'll see," laughed Jane. "What are you up to today?"

"I'll call Charlotte and ask if she wants to do something tonight. I haven't seen her for a while."

But when Elizabeth phoned Charlotte, all she got was her voice mail. She left a message and went back to work. At six, when she left the nursery and walked up to the house to shower and change, Char still hadn't returned her call. 'I'll just have to go out on my own,' she thought.

After her shower Elizabeth was tempted to simply sit on the desk and bask in the warmth of the evening, enjoying the view, but she'd been too much of a hermit lately and she knew she'd better get out and do something. A nice meal and then a walk along the river by the dam sounded like a plan.

"I'm heading to the Union Street Grill and then going for a walk after, want to come?" she asked Mary.

"Sure."

They found parking on the road just down the street from the restaurant and were walking up the sidewalk when Mary nudged Elizabeth. "Isn't that Charlotte? Look, she's going into the Golden Carriage with a guy."

Elizabeth turned her head. She couldn't see Charlotte, but there was no mistaking the man who had just walked through the door into the shadowy interior of the Chinese restaurant. "Is that the guy you mean?"

"Yeah - I think I've seen him somewhere before."

"Are you sure it was Charlotte?"

"I think so - she was wearing that green dress she likes so much."

Charlotte in her green dress with Bill Collins? That was the dress she always wore when she wanted to impress someone she had a thing for. But, Bill Collins? No! The very idea was revolting. "It couldn't have been her."

"Do you want to go across the road and check? We could eat there - I wouldn't mind Chinese food."

"No. I don't want to stalk her if she's on a date - if it is her."

"So, don't believe me," groaned Mary.

"It's not that I don't believe you think you saw her - it's just that it doesn't make any sense. What would she be doing with Bill Collins?"

"That's who the guy is?" asked Mary. "The Bill Collins? The fertiliser guy who hit on you that time? Gross!"

"You said it," said Elizabeth. "Now let's go get something to eat."

The meal was good, but Elizabeth found she'd lost her appetite. She took most of it home in a doggy bag. Mary talked away on their walk about the novel she was writing in her spare time, expounding on the plot at length. Elizabeth nodded at appropriate intervals, but she was only half listening. All she could think of was the possibility that it really was Charlotte whom Mary had seen. What could possibly have induced her to go out to dinner with Collins, of all people?

~ * ~

The next morning Elizabeth woke to the sound of her cell ringing. She wondered who would be calling her so early on a Sunday morning, when she noticed the time. It was 9:00am. She'd had a rough night, sleep-wise, and hadn't fallen properly to sleep until nearly four in the morning. She was still feeling a bit groggy when she flipped open her phone and answered.

"Beth!"

"Hi Jane. What did you get me in Coombs?"

"Get you? Oh! I totally forgot."

"That's okay. You were with Charles - you had other things on your mind."

"Yes, I did. Beth, can you do me a favour and come over right now? I really need to talk to you."

"What's up?" asked Elizabeth, her head quickly clearing. But Jane refused to say any more.

Elizabeth showered and dressed and was out the door in ten minutes, grabbing a cheese bagel as she ran through the kitchen. A five minute drive brought her to Jane's Comox apartment. She found Jane still in her pyjamas, her hair a tangled mess, and her eyes sooted with dark circles.

"You look like you had a worse night than me. What's the matter - you sick or something?"

"It's over." Jane choked back a sob.

Elizabeth felt a chill go through her. It couldn't be what it sounded like. "I'm making coffee," she said. "I think both of us could really use some."

"Oh Beth!" said Jane, and she threw herself into her sister's arms, hampering her progress to the small kitchen nook.

Elizabeth shifted Jane so that she had one arm tightly around her shoulder, and almost dragged her into the kitchen. She filled the coffee maker, put in a new filter and a scoop of coffee, and then switched it on. "Come on - sit," she said, pulling her to the kitchen table. "Tell me what happened."

"Charles has been transferred to Victoria," Jane whimpered.

"Okay - he'll be farther away, so you won't see as much of him - but it's only a three hour drive - it's not as if he was going to Prince George or something."

"Charles says - he says it's too far. He says that long distance relationships never work. That we'd be better off saying goodbye and . . . and . . . and being free to see other people."

"He said what?' Elizabeth couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"He wants to see other people. He's not in love with me - I told you. But you said . . . and I believed you." Jane crumpled onto the table and started crying in earnest.

Elizabeth crouched down beside Jane and held her closely. "Slow down, Jane. Slow down. You can't tell me that Charles actually said he's not in love with you."

"He didn't have to. It's sort of obvious when a guy tells me that he doesn't want to see me anymore that he's not in love."

"He said he didn't want to see you anymore?" Elizabeth was incredulous. "I thought he was a nice guy but he's just as big of a jerk as the rest of them"

Jane held up her tear stained face and looked imploringly at Elizabeth. "He didn't say it like that. He was very sweet and kind and he looked very sad, but - it meant the same thing. He is a nice guy, Beth. He let me down gently. But he let me down and I don't know what I'm going to do." She grabbed a napkin from the holder in the middle of the table and wiped her eyes. "I love him so much. What am I going to do, Beth? I feel like I've died inside."

Elizabeth grabbed a mug and poured the coffee, strong and black. "What you are going to do is drink this. Then you are getting dressed. Then I'm taking you out somewhere to eat. I'll lay odds you didn't eat anything since that lunch in Coombs."

"I can't go out! Look at me!"

"Yeah - you look terrible. But staying inside in your pyjamas with yesterday's mascara running down your cheeks isn't going to make you feel any better. Drink!"

Jane valiantly gulped at her coffee then reluctantly headed for the shower when she realised obeying her sister would be the easiest course of action. It was a wan face that peered through the bedroom door after all Elizabeth's orders had been followed, but at least she was dressed and her hair tidied.

"We'll pick up a sandwich and eat it at the beach," said Elizabeth. "My treat."

They spent the better part of the day walking along the sand, sitting on logs, and throwing rocks into the waves. And as they talked, Elizabeth came to realise that Jane's feelings went even deeper than she'd even expected. She gave up cursing Charles outwardly, because Jane always rose to his defence, but inwardly she wished he were around so that she could wring his pitiful neck. She found it hard to believe that a guy who'd been as googly-eyed over a girl as Charles had been could let a little thing like an extra hundred and fifty kilometres get in the way of continuing a relationship. There had to be more to it than that.

And then the thing that had been evading her all day came in a blinding flash. Fitzsnobbiam was the head of the program. He was the one who said who worked where. If Charles had been transferred, it was his doing. And if he'd transferred Charles, he'd done it for a reason. But why would he purposefully separate Charles and Jane? What on earth could he have against Jane? Unless - it wasn't so much who Jane was but who she wasn't. That conversation at the restaurant between Fitzsnobbiam and Carrie came back to her. What was it Carrie had said? How great it was that his sister liked his friend and vice versa? And according to Jane, Charles was Fitzsnobbiam's best friend.

Nothing else made sense - that had to be it. He didn't want his sister hurt, so he transferred Charles to Victoria where he could keep an eye on him, and convinced him to stop seeing Jane.

Elizabeth swore she'd never forgive the contemptible snob for the pain he'd put Jane through.

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