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Time of the Season
[wip - modern/PG13]

Chapter Six

In September Elizabeth heard rumours through industry grapevines that something was up with the SOD issue again. She spent her evenings cruising the various internet sites devoted to Phytothera ramorum and discovered that government action was heating up. The Americans were putting pressure on the Canadian government to take regulatory action - they wanted all plants going through the border into the States to come from certified SOD free nurseries. If not, trade between nurseries in the two countries would be shut down.

"But it originated with them, not us!" Elizabeth yelled at her computer. "Why should our businesses take the fall?"

Even in her anger, though, she could see that something needed to be done. The list of host plants had been growing. And she knew there were one or two mainland nurseries still under quarantine because of problems with positive test results. Not all growers were taking the initiative she was to institute programs aimed at curbing the possible spread of disease.

In October, Phytothera ramorunm was put under government regulation and a voluntary program for the certification of BC nurseries came into effect. The message was very straight forward. Any nursery that wanted to keep exporting plant material to the United States would find certification in their best interests. And none of those exporters would buy plants from an uncertified facility. It went so far down the line that even small growers who had no host plants would still need inspections if they wished to keep their major customers.

For Elizabeth it was more than not wanting to lose contracts with the larger nurseries Glacierview supplied. The threat of the spread of the disease was reason enough to join the certification process. Prevention was the only sensible course of action.

Samplers were to be sent out again, but this time it was not the FHA who would be doing the sampling. The Nursery Trades Association, which had assisted the FHA with the camellia recall program, was taking charge of the certification program, training their own inspectors and using the lower mainland provincial lab for testing the samples.

Glacierview was one of the first nurseries to sign up for the program.

"It's the only thing that makes sense, dad," said Elizabeth.

"I don't see how they're going to manage to get all the wholesale nurseries in BC inspected before the deciduous trees drop their leaves."

"It's the NTA's logistics problem, not mine. I hear the FHA is assisting them by having regional workers sampling all the interior nurseries. The NTA's only responsible for the lower mainland and the island."

"So the government goes to all this fuss and bother to find out that the situation is uncontrollable anyway."

Elizabeth sighed. "We can't give up without trying, We don't want BC to end up in the same situation as California and Oregon. They have serious problems both in the wild and in their larger nurseries. What would happen if the arbutus here on the island became infected? Or the garry oaks? Or what about the Douglas firs? Think of how it could affect our forests and the forest industry as a whole. Not to mention all the decorative, landscape material like we specialise in. Some customers are shying away from buying anything that's on the host plant list. Think of what that could do for business. Being able to say that Glacierview is certified disease free will help keep our customers' confidence."

"You're right, of course, my dear. You've got a good head on your shoulders. That's why I put you in charge."

"You put me in charge because you didn't want the aggravation of running this place anymore," said Elizabeth with a grin.

"That too," her father responded. "So, any idea when we can expect more white coats?"

"It's not the loony bin, dad. White coveralls."

"Well it's all pretty crazy to me."

"I got a call from the project co-ordinator that we'll be sampled some time next week. An inspector should contact me soon and set up an appointment."

~ * ~

Elizabeth was sitting in the office looking out the window through a sheet of almost solid rain. She had no wish to go outdoors, even as far as the propagation house to check on the progress of her cuttings. Sometimes autumn weather really sucked. Her phone rang and she reached over to pick it up.

"Hello, is this Elizabeth Bennet?"

"Speaking."

"George Wickham here from the NTA. I'll be coming by to sample your nursery today for the certification program, if that's okay with you."

"Well you picked a good day for it!"

"Nothing like our west coast liquid sunshine!" he said with a smile in his voice.

"Is there anything you need from me?"

"A site map would be great for starters. I'm on the highway now. I should be there in about half an hour."

"Great. Stop in at the office and I'll give you a map and find someone to show you around."

"Excellent," he said, and rang off.

As Elizabeth put the phone down she reflected that he sounded a lot easier to work with than Fitzsnobbiam. A nice voice and a friendly manner. She was looking forward to her day a bit more than she had been earlier. She was debating calling Mary in to drive George and his team around when the phone rang again.

"Elizabeth - I was hoping to catch you."

"Yes?" she said, her voice wary. "How can I help you Mr Fitzwilliam?"

"I wanted to let you know that your nursery didn't get put onto our FHA survey so you'll be sampled by the NTA."

"FHA survey?" Elizabeth couldn't figure out why Fitzsnobbiam felt the need to phone her about a thing like that when she'd never expected the FHA to be doing her sampling.

"Yes. The federal government is doing some spot checks, but we're mainly concentrating on nurseries we felt were more likely to have issues. I tried to get Glacierview on the list but I got overruled."

"So in your opinion my nursery does have SOD issues?"

"That's not what I'm saying. It's simply that any nurseries we sample will come under the FHA budget and since we 're passing the results of our testing over to the NTA, you would have been saved the cost of the inspection."

"Thanks for the thought," Elizabeth said, still wondering why he was telling her all this. "Actually, I've got George Wickham coming from the NTA today. He should be here any minute."

"George Wickham. They're sending him?"

"Why? What's wrong with that?"

"I was just . . . no - nothing. Have a good day, Elizabeth. I hope things go well for you."

Elizabeth shook her head as she hung up the phone. What in the heck was that all about? And why had he gone all weird when she'd mentioned George's name? She didn't have much time to contemplate Fitzsnobbiam's strange behaviour because a moment later the door opened and a figure dripping rain walked into her office.

He pushed back his rain hood and smiled. "Hi."

The smile alone made Elizabeth change her mind about calling Mary to take George Wickham around the nursery. She held out her hand. "I'm Elizabeth Bennet."

"Excuse me for coming in here like a drowned rat and dripping water all over your office."

"Think nothing of it," she said, her eyes twinkling. "I'm always tracking water and mud into here. It goes with the territory. Would you like a coffee before heading out into the monsoon again?"

"Love one."

"Take off your jacket, then, and stay a while." She indicated a coat hook and then went to the back of the office to pour two cups of coffee. "Cream and sugar?"

"Just sugar. I like it hot and sweet."

Elizabeth returned and passed him a steaming mug. "What about your team? Would they like to come in for coffee too? I can put on another pot."

"Team?"

"Yeah. When the FHA were here in the spring, they had five people."

"You're not dealing with the feds now. All you've got is me."

"Just you? But it took them five days to get all their samples last time."

"Exactly how big is your place?"

"Ten acres. Just a sec - I'll give you that map you wanted." Elizabeth brought up the map on her computer and clicked the print icon.

"It took five people five days to do ten acres!" George snorted. "Don't you just love to see your tax dollars at work? I'll be out of here in three hours - four max. And that's just because the bad weather'll slow me down."

"I don't believe it! We had Mr Fitzwilliam and his crew getting in our way for days and you can take all the samples you need in a few hours?"

"Fitzwilliam? He was here?"

"Yeah."

George must have caught something in Elizabeth's tone because the next thing that he said was, "What did you think of him?"

Elizabeth eyed him speculatively. First Fitzsnobbiam and now George. What's up with the guys? "Well . . . he was rather . . . highhanded."

George let out a bark of laughter. "You are a master of diplomacy. Admit it - the man is a pain in the ass."

"Okay, he was totally obnoxious." Elizabeth gulped down the last of her coffee and looked at the time. "You'd better get your jacket on again and I'll take you out and show you around."

"I've got to sport my stylish white suit too." He passed his empty cup back to her. "I'm really supposed to spray my boots as well, but in this rain it seems sort of futile."

"No need. I've got a foot bath set up at the gate. No one can go in or out of the nursery without sanitising first."

"That's awesome. Do you know this is the first place I've been that understands the problem enough to set something like that up?"

"It was in the recommendations. I thought everyone was doing it."

"Nah. You wouldn't believe some of the things I've seen."

"Well I'm all for prevention. The landscapers have to spray their tires before driving onto the grounds too. Here we go."

They'd reached the gate. Elizabeth opened it and gestured for George to go through and into the little hut where the foot bath was. Elizabeth went in after him and then they walked down the roadway. She had put the map on a clipboard and put both inside a plastic bag.

"This is where we are," she said, pointing to the markings on the map. "Here's the potting shed and the propagation house. Then the greenhouses start. They're all numbered. Beyond them are our container blocks and the field stock is in the back. We've got host plants growing in almost every area."

"Thanks." George grinned at her through the drips that were trickling off the peak of his hood. "I'll take it from here. I'm sure you've got important work to do in your nice, dry office."

"Actually, I have to go to the propagation house. If you need me for anything, that's where I'll be."

"Sure thing. I'll look in on you before I leave."

Elizabeth watched him as he headed towards the greenhouses, then she turned and walked the short distance to the propagation house. Once inside she took off her wet jacket and hung it on a peg. She shivered at the damp and cold, reaching for a plaid shirt from a hook by the door. Why had she changed the subject back in the office? Sure, George needed to get his sampling done, but she'd gone and let him know how she felt about Fitzsnobbiam without getting any information out of him. Obviously he didn't like the man either and she was dying to find out why.

She looked over the flats of cuttings and checked the heating cables. The cuttings were rooting well and new little leaf buds were opening. She went over to check an older batch - soon they would need to be transferred to four-inch pots. And the flats at the very end were ready right now. She pulled on her gloves and was soon filling flats of pots with soil mix, carefully separating the young cuttings, and pressing them down into the soft earth. The repetitious actions settled into a rhythm that overtook thought.

Three hours later the door opened and brought her out of the zone. George put his cooler bag on the bench and pulled his hood back.

"All done - 40 lovely samples."

"Thanks. How did everything look?"

"In this rain I couldn't see anything," he joked. "Elizabeth, your plants all look great. You've got a ship-shape operation here."

"You had no trouble finding everything you wanted?"

"I got turned around once or twice, but your helpful employees got me back on track."

"Oh - did you run into Mary and May?"

"No - I think they said they were Lynnie and Kath. Nice girls"

"Liddie and Kate - my little sisters. I hope they didn't bother you - they can be a bit . . . friendly."

"Not at all. They were quite sweet. Like their older sister."

Elizabeth blushed. "Hardly," she said.

"I've never felt more welcome at a nursery. Some places it's like the Spanish inquisition - as if I'm somehow to blame for this whole SOD mess."

"Well I'm thrilled that you were able to come in such terrible weather and do the job so quickly. I really appreciate it. Do you have any idea when I'll get the test results?"

"They tell me it generally takes about three weeks, but I'll get them to put a rush on yours." He fumbled with his cooler bag as he picked it back up and slung it over his shoulder. "I've put ribbons on all the blocks I took samples from. Try not to move things around too much - but if you have to, please make sure the ribbons are left on till you get the results."

"I know the drill from last time."

"Good. If you have any concerns call me at the NTA office and I'll get back to you right away."

"Will do."

"See you," he said as he backed out the door.

Elizabeth waved. She was left thinking of his warm smile and honey coloured eyes. Damn, why did the good ones have to come and go so quickly while creeps like Fitzsnobbiam took forever to get the job done? It wasn't fair.

Elizabeth finished off the flat she was working on and watered all the four inchers she had potted up. She hung the shirt on its hook and pulled her jacket back on. As she took one last look around the propagation house she noticed a flash of red on the bench. A shiny pair of clippers lay there, half hidden in a pile of vermiculite. She grabbed them up with a quick smile and ran out the door.

~ * ~

"That was some hot guy taking samples today," said Liddie as she sauntered into the office and pulled her timesheet from the shelf. "I'm glad I came to work, even if it was raining."

"How could you tell he was hot, with all that gear he was wearing?" asked Elizabeth, though she'd noticed George's good looks too.

Liddie tossed her head. "I can spot the hot ones a mile away. I think he liked me too. When's he coming back?"

"Forget about it. He took all his samples so he doesn't need to come back." Elizabeth wasn't going to tell her sister about the clippers, which she was hoping he'd stop in for at the end of the day. If not she'd have to give the NTA office a call, but she preferred to think he'd come by on his own. She didn't think she'd imagined that spark, like electricity, between them.

"That stinks. Anyway, I'm outta here." Liddie tossed the filled out timesheet down and headed through the back where stairs led up to the house.

Elizabeth sighed and got up from her desk. When would Liddie put things back where they belonged? She was putting the sheet of paper into the correct basket when the door opened behind her.

"Hi again."

She turned, and there was George, no longer in his rain gear, his athletic build looking better than she had expected in faded jeans and a leather jacket.

"Looking for your clippers?"

"Don't tell me you found them! Thanks. I thought I was going to have to search all over your nursery."

"They must have fallen out of your bag when you came into the propagation house. I found them on the bench in a pile of dirt."

"What a relief. You don't know how stupid I felt when I got to Rivervalley and realized I'd lost them. Luckily I was able to borrow a pair and get my samples taken."

Elizabeth went back to her desk and retrieved the clippers. She walked over and held them out to him. "Take care of them - you might not get so lucky next time."

"Speaking of getting lucky," he said, a hopeful smile shining in his eyes, "I was wondering . . ."

"Yes?"

"I know this might seem a little presumptuous of me - I mean you barely know me, but . . . you do eat don't you?"

Elizabeth laughed. "Of course I eat - it's sort of obvious, isn't it?"

He looked at her appreciatively. "What I meant was, here I am in town by myself and I hate eating alone. I usually pick up take out and go back to my hotel room with it - eat in front of the TV all by myself."

"Is this where the violin starts playing?"

"It's a sad, sad story I know. But here's what I was thinking - since we've established that we both eat - and it's no fun eating alone - why don't you join me for dinner? You know the best restaurants and I'd really enjoy your company."

"Well . . ." Elizabeth hesitated.

"Please say yes. You'll be saving me from clogging my arteries with another meal from Burger King."

"If you put it that way," she conceded. "How hungry are you?"

"Starving."

"Do you like Chinese?"

"Does it rain on the west coast?"

"Okay, I'll meet you in an hour at the Dynasty - it's an all you can eat buffet. Do you know Cliffe Avenue in Courtenay?"

"I haven't got a clue. What if I pick you up in, let's say, forty-five minutes and you can give me directions."

"Fine." Elizabeth smiled in agreement. "I'll be up at the house."

"I'll see you then."

As Elizabeth climbed the stairs to the house, she wondered at herself for agreeing to go out with George. After all, what did she know about him besides the fact that he was incredibly good looking and overflowing with a sort of boyish charm? He did work for the NTA, though. It wasn't as if she'd picked him up on the street. They checked everyone's credentials when they hired them. The NTA would hardly send someone untrustworthy around to all the nurseries. Besides, she was a pretty good judge of character, and he had the kind of open personality that was easy to trust. She had to face it - she liked him, and she didn't expect to find her confidence in her decision challenged that evening.

Chapter Seven

"You're going out with him?" cried Liddie. "You lied to me! Just because I said he liked me."

Elizabeth was fluffing her hair out in front of her mirror. "I didn't know George would come back. Anyway we're just going out to eat. It's not a date or anything."

"So why are you putting such an effort into looking good?'

"I had a shower and now I'm wearing clean clothes and drying my hair. Was I supposed to go out in my work clothes?"

"I see mascara and lip gloss."

"So?"

"You never wear makeup."

"You can hardly call mascara and lip gloss makeup," said Elizabeth, ignoring the fact that what Liddie said was true.

"Next thing you'll put on fancy earrings."

Elizabeth slid her dresser drawer closed and got up. "Nope - I'm ready." The earrings she had chosen would have looked great, but she'd had enough of Liddie's comments. She wasn't trying to impress anyone - sometimes it just felt good to dress up a little.

Kate came running into the room. "That hot guy that was at the nursery today is here to pick you up for your date, Beth! How did you get him to ask you out? Liddie and I were trying everything we could think of."

"It's not a date," said Elizabeth, grabbing her jacket and purse. "Anyway you're both too young for him, and I've told you a million times not to try picking up men at the nursery."

Liddie wasn't listening. She'd already gone to the living room to try her luck with George. Kate just rolled her eyes at her older sister and followed her out of the bedroom. Liddie was standing close to George, who was just inside the front door. She was talking animatedly and twirling the fingers of one hand in her hair. He appeared quite attentive, but he looked up as soon as Elizabeth came into the room and caught her eye. Liddie turned to see what had distracted him and broke off in mid sentence, changing to, "Looks like Beth's finally ready."

"Sorry if I kept you waiting," said Elizabeth.

"Barely a moment. Your sister Liddie has been doing a great job of entertaining me." He held out his hand. "Shall we go? You'll be glad to hear it's stopped raining."

"Good," said Elizabeth, zipping up her jacket.

Once they were in the car, George turned to her and said, "You look great - but I knew you would." His honey coloured eyes warmed as he spoke.

Feeling a little awkward, Elizabeth turned her head away. "It's probably best to turn left at the top of the drive. Back road will take you to Ryan, then you drive down to the Fifth Street bridge. I'll show you where to turn."

"Sounds good."

Elizabeth was able to relax on the drive to the Dynasty as the conversation returned to a discussion on the SOD issue. George entertained her with his experiences in the camellia recall program. He had a knack for telling a story and making it amusing.

"So there I was in that stupid white suit, the hottest day in May, digging up camellias on the patio of this place and the people have invited all their neighbours over to watch. I swear there were twenty of them leaning over the side of the deck and asking me when the mother ship was landing. I gave them their reimbursement package and thanked them in the best Martian I could come up with."

"You didn't."

"I swear. Not one legible word passed my lips the entire time I was there."

"I bet you're glad it's over."

"I met some crazies, but most of the people were great. But you know, I really wonder if we accomplished anything. To hear the FHA talk, it was a big success, but do you know how many diseased plants we actually recovered?"

"None of my contacts have ever divulged that top secret information."

"What difference does it make if anyone knows? I think they take the secrecy too far - it makes people like Darcy Fitzwilliam feel important."

Elizabeth interrupted George for a moment, indicating that he needed to turn left for the restaurant. As he drove into the parking lot and stopped the car, she urged him to go on.

"Eleven. They recalled fifteen hundred plants and came up with eleven positives."

"But . . . that's a good thing. It shows the problem wasn't as bad as they thought. That most of the diseased plants were caught before being sold and spread out into gardens all over the place."

"Seems like a big waste of money for eleven plants."

They walked up to the restaurant and George opened the door for her. When they were seated, Elizabeth looked at him and said, "Do you really think the program was pointless? Think what could have happened if those eleven plants hadn't been found."

"You're right," he conceded. "It smells great in here. Let's go fill up our plates."

When they came back with their food, Elizabeth still wasn't prepared to leave the matter alone. She cut off George's small talk and asked him straight out what she most wanted to hear. "What is it with you and Mr Fitzwilliam?"

"Darcy Fitzwilliam? I don't want to bore you with my problems. It's all in the past now anyway - I've risen above it."

"Now I'm even more intrigued. Tell me."

"I used to work for the FHA . I was at the Victoria office. Darcy was my boss. To make a long story short, he screwed me over. Got me fired to cover up his own mistakes."

"He did what? I knew he was a jerk but I never thought he was such a total loser."

"After I got my degree, I was hired by the Victoria office. My first boss was great. She respected my abilities and appreciated the effort I put into the job. She helped me rise through the system until I got a permanent position. The problem was, the new position put me in Darcy's department. He resented me from day one. He'd wanted them to hire a friend of his."

"Not Charles Bingley?"

"Yeah - that's him. A nice guy but he does whatever Darcy tells him to do, kinda like a pet spaniel."

"You got that right," Elizabeth muttered.

"Hey - let's talk about something else. I was out of work for a year or two because of Darcy, but the good people at the NTA gave me a break and hired me - first for the camellia program and now for this - and it looks like it's going to be a full time gig. Who knows - he might have done me a favour in the long run. After all, here I am having dinner with you."

Elizabeth reached across the table and patted his hand. "You've got a great attitude. I don't know if I could be so forgiving."

"Yes you would. Enough talk about me - I want to hear your story. How did you become the amazingly competent manager of a nursery at such a young age?"

"It helps having a father who was sick and tired of running the business."

"Don't be modest - there's much more to it than that." He leaned forward and gave her his full attention as she told him about growing up at the nursery, falling in love with plants, and leaving home to study horticulture.

They sat over their food for a long time, talking about a variety of subjects. Afterwards they went for a walk in the cool of the evening. The river trail was easily accessible from the parking lot. They strolled along, all the way to the small air park, and leaned against the railings of the little marina where a few boats were moored. The water rippled black in the night, highlighted here and there by the moon.

"Look," said Elizabeth, pointing to a rounded shape breaking the surface. "A seal."

"How cool is that? Thanks for bringing me here," said George. "I don't know when I've had such a good evening."

"I think I'm getting a bit cold," said Elizabeth at last, after watching the seal's antics for some time. "Do you mind if we get back to the car? I've got another early morning tomorrow."

"So do I." George pulled her arm through his. "Do you want my jacket?"

"Thanks - that's sweet of you, but I'm not that cold. When we start walking I'll warm right up."

"Or I could do this," he said, putting his arm around her.

Elizabeth was sure that his next step would have been to lean in and kiss her, but she wasn't ready for anything like that yet. She let his arm remain around her shoulders, but began walking faster and he had to do the same to keep pace with her. She kept up a light stream of conversation until they got to the car and he seemed content with it. When they finally pulled into her drive, all he did was kiss her lightly on the cheek.

"Let's do this again. Are you free tomorrow?"

"Yes." She knew she ought to have demurred, put him off for a day or two, but he was only in town for a short time, and being with him close like that in the dark car made her feel all fluttery inside.

He walked her to the door, holding her hand all the way, then gave it a squeeze as he turned to go. "Pick you up at six tomorrow."

"Six" she echoed, and slipped into the house. She closed the door behind herself and then leaned back against it. She couldn't help but feel that it would have been nice if he had kissed her.

~ * ~

Elizabeth went out to dinner with George the next three nights. Since coming back home from college she hadn't had a boyfriend or even gone out very much with her friends. She'd thrown herself too deeply into her work and was on the verge of becoming a recluse. The change of pace was fun. Plus the company.

They talked less and less about work related topics, but if they did speak of the certification program, the conversation usually came around to Darcy Fitzwilliam. George had nothing good to say about him, and everything he told her seemed to back up the impression Mr Fitzwilliam had already made upon her.

"Have I told you my nick name for him?" she asked one evening when they were sitting by the fireside at Serious Coffee, drinking lattes.

"I hope it's repeatable. The one I call him can't be used in mixed company."

"It's pretty lame really. I call him Fitzsnobbiam because of his incredibly superior attitude."

George laughed. "I think I'll use that one from now on." He took a sip of his coffee. "You know what surprised me about you at first?"

"What?"

"That you could see through him. He has all the woman in Victoria trying to get into his - trying to get a date with him."

"That girl Carrie, from his office, was alwayss trying to impress him. I don't get it. He's got no charm and no conversation. He may be good looking, but his attitude and expression are such turn offs - what do they see in him?"

George made a gesture with his hand, rubbing his thumb against his fingers. "Money. He's loaded."

"The FHA pays that well?"

"His father was a millionaire - made his money off real estate way back when. Darcy and his sister inherited quite a fortune when the old guy croaked."

"His sister. She's a student, isn't she? Do you know her?"

"I've met her a few times."

"What's she like?"

"I wish I could say something nice about her, but she's just like her brother."

Elizabeth thought of her sister Jane; how Charles had dumped her and was probably going out with the little rich b**ch now. A troubled look spread across her face.

"Did I say anything to upset you?"

"No - it's just . . . I can't understand how someone as nice as Charles Bingley could be friends with them."

"Darcy acts different with people he thinks are worth knowing. Hell, he even sets himself up as a philanthropist in Victoria's high society. Charles' family has money. That kind of friendship is valuable to him. I'll bet Charles has never seen his dark side."

"But Charles is nothing like that - he's so down to earth and unpretentious."

"Charles is a great guy, but he's a bit gullible." He eyed Elizabeth. "What's this all about? Do you have a thing for him?'

She laughed. "No, not me." Then she sobered up again quickly. "But when he was here, working on Fitzsobbiam's team, he met my sister Jane and they were going out together for a few months. I'll swear he was in love with her . . . and she - well she hasn't been the same happy person since he broke up with her."

"I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"And you know what I think? I think Fitzsnobbiam orchestrated the whole break up because he wanted Charles to go out with his sister. He transferred Charles from Parksville back to Victoria and somehow he convinced him to break it off."

"I wouldn't put it past him," said George. "That's just the underhanded type of thing he's good at."

"I'm so worried about Jane. She's trying to put up a good front, but all I see is the sadness in her eyes."

George reached out, took Elizabeth's coffee mug from her hand and put it on the table, and cupped both her hands in his. His warm, honey glazed gaze held hers - his eyes brimming with empathy. "She's lucky to have a sister like you who cares so much for her. With you to comfort her she'll soon get over him."

Elizabeth was feeling lost in the spell of his eyes. His head was bending closer but his eyes never gave up their contact with hers. She knew he was going to kiss her, and this time she didn't want to stop him.

"Elizabeth! Long time no see!" boomed a voice from across the room.

Jumping back in her chair, Elizabeth watched as Bill Collins and Charlotte made their way across the floor towards them. Bill was beaming, but Charlotte looked a little shamefaced.

With an apologetic shrug to her companion, Elizabeth made the introductions. Bill pulled over a chair for Charlotte and then found one for himself and set it close to George.

"Have you known Elizabeth long?" he asked.

"It's hard to remember a time when I didn't know her," George said smoothly.

That seemed to almost satisfy Bill. "You do appear to know her quite well."

"We're getting to be good friends."

"I noticed that." Bill winked suggestively. "Charlotte and I are getting to be good friends too, and I have Elizabeth to thank for that. She introduced us."

As the men talked, Charlotte said to Elizabeth in a low voice, "Damn, girl! You've been holding out on me."

"I could say the same."

Charlotte blushed. "Beth and I need to go to the little girl's room," she said, addressing the Bill and George. "We'll be back in a mo."

As the girls headed downstairs to the washrooms, Bill said to George. "They're going to talk about us."

When the door was closed firmly behind them, Charlotte sat on the small counter beside the sink and said, "I can explain."

"You'd better. Way back in April I get you to sit beside him, to save me the aggravation of talking to him, but I never imagined it would lead to you going out with him. What are you thinking? I told you how he came on to me in the propagation house. He's such a slime ball and he's so full of himself, and boring."

"Elizabeth . . ."

"Wait. One time in the summer Mary saw you going into the Golden Carriage with him. I'd invited you to go out with me that day and you never returned my call. Since then you've never mentioned him so I thought Mary'd made a mistake, but I realise now that you've been avoiding me."

"I knew you wouldn't like it."

"Wouldn't like it? It's beyond comprehension. He's such a . . . dipwad!"

"He's okay when you get to know him - you just have to give him a chance. Anyway, I'm not like you, Beth. I don't have guys falling all over themselves to get to know me."

"Me? I haven't had a boyfriend in a couple of years."

"What about George?"

"He's not my . . . we've just met."

"From the looks of things you're getting off to a pretty quick start. If I'm not mistaken, Bill and I just interrupted a very intimate moment."

"I was feeling upset about Jane, and George was comforting me. I've known him for a week. He took samples at the nursery and he asked me out to dinner with him a few times because he doesn't like eating alone."

"I'll bet he doesn't," said Charlotte. "Don't you see, Beth? Guys are drawn to you. That other guy who came to the nursery in the spring couldn't keep his eyes off you."

"Fitzsnobbiam? Give me a break. He liked me about as much as I liked him."

"And Bill. He had the hugest crush on you. But he felt intimidated too, because he knew you were out of his league. That's why he came on so strong - to compensate. He's really not like that. Besides, he's got a good, stable job which he is dedicated to. He's not a big drinker, or into drugs, and he doesn't have anger management issues. Behind his swagger he's a decent man. A family man. He'll make a good husband."

"Husband?' Elizabeth's voice reflected all the shock she felt.

"The clock's ticking, Beth. I'm not as young as you. I've always wanted to have kids - well he's my chance. I'll be happy with Bill, and I'll make him happy too. I understand him, and I know how to manage him, so please, not another word against him. I want us to stay friends, and if you want that too, you'll have to accept the fact that he's my fiancé."

"Your fiancé?"

Charlotte waved her left hand in front of Elizabeth's face. A gold ring with a tiny diamond flashed on her third finger.

"You should have told me sooner."

"You didn't give me a chance."

"When did this happen?"

"He popped the question last week."

"Congratulations."

"That didn't sound very sincere."

Elizabeth wanted to say that she couldn't be sincere because she thought Charlotte was making a big mistake. Charlotte was such a special person she shouldn't have to settle for the likes of Bill Collins - she could do so much better. But she didn't want to alienate Charlotte. "Give me some time and I'll try my best to feel good about this, Char. It's been a bit of a shock."

"I guess we'd better go back out there or they'll think we've drowned ourselves."

Elizabeth giggled and took Charlotte's arm as they walked back through the coffee shop to the spot by the fireplace where the guys were.

"Our ears are burning," said Bill when they returned.

"And so they should be," said Charlotte. "I just wanted some privacy to tell Beth about your proposal."

Bill turned to Elizabeth. "What did you think? The karaoke. Down on one knee in front of the entire pub. The ring on the bottom of her champagne glass."

"Very romantic," said Elizabeth. "You're a lucky man." 'Damn lucky because you don't deserve a gem like Char.'

"Congratulations," said George. "I hope you'll excuse us but I've got to get this young lady home before my car turns into a pumpkin."

Bill laughed and shook both their hands with an excess of affability.

Elizabeth gave Charlotte an overdue hug and whispered in her ear, "If you're happy that's all that counts."

When they got to the car George turned to Elizabeth and said, "Don't ever leave me alone with that guy again. I know more about fertiliser now than I ever wanted to."

~ * ~

After sampling all the nurseries in and around Courtenay and Campbell River, George had to return to the mainland to take care of the stragglers - nurseries that had signed up for the program late. He told Elizabeth that he was going to make their last evening together a special one and that dinner was a secret destination. When they drove through town and past Wal Mart and the other big box stores Elizabeth had a pretty good idea of where they were going.

"If you're taking me to Royston, it's either At Bob's or the Kingfisher - and I don't think At Bob's rates special by anyone's standards."

"At Bob's?"

"It's a little schnitzel house. For five bucks you get a huge chicken or pork schnitzel on a bed of fries that must be the cheapest no-name oven baked fries in the universe."

"Now you tell me. And to think I've already gone and made reservations at the Kingfisher."

"We'll just have to suffer through gourmet dining."

The meal was delicious and afterwards they drove along Marine Drive in Royston and parked by a little jetty. They walked arm in arm along the shoreline looking across the bay to the lights of Comox. It was a cold October evening but they kept each other warm.

"I have a confession to make," said George. "I left those clippers on that bench in the propagation house on purpose. And I'm glad I did."

"I should be mad at you for tricking me," said Elizabeth, "but either it's the dinner or the wine or the moonlight, or a combination of the three, because I can't bring myself to feel upset at all."

"I'd prefer to think it was me," said George, and he pulled her around into his arms and kissed her.

Elizabeth was taken by surprise by the kiss. Not that she wasn't expecting it. She'd just expected to react differently to it. He had left her feeling breathless with anticipation on more than one occasion, but she found the kiss a bit of a let down.

George continued to kiss her and slipped his hands inside her jacket and up her back. When he began to slide one hand around to her breast she squirmed away.

"Not so fast."

He reached for her again and put his lips to hers. "I'll take it slower. Promise. I told you I wanted to make tonight special," he said between kisses, "and we'll go as fast or as slow as you want." He trailed his lips down her cheek and nuzzled her neck.

"I don't know if that's a good idea."

He brought his head up and searched her face. "What's wrong? I thought you wanted this as much as me."

"You're leaving tomorrow - what's the point of starting something?"

"Baby! Is that what's bothering you? You know I'm coming back as soon as I can - I'm crazy about you."

Elizabeth drew back from him and took his hand. "If that's how you feel then you won't mind waiting till you do come back."

"Yes, but I wouldn't mind a little something to tide me over." He brought her hand to his lips. "I'm only human and you are so damn gorgeous."

"You said we could go as slow as I liked. Please don't ruin this beautiful evening."

He pulled her tightly against him and kissed her hair. "Whatever you say, baby, but you're killing me." His voice was warm and rough and incredibly sexy.

"We'd better go home now," said Elizabeth.

"Afraid you'll change your mind?" he teased as they walked back to the car, his arm still tightly around her.

"No, I'm afraid you will," Elizabeth said, too quietly for him to hear.

They had another short kissing session in the car when he dropped her off, then he walked her to the door. Under the porch light he gave her his most swoon-worthy gaze with those honey brown eyes of his. "I'll call and email you every day, but I'm still gonna miss you, baby."

"I'll miss you too," she whispered.

One last kiss and she was safely inside, wondering why there had been no fireworks. No magic. George was great looking, funny, and charming. He'd even respected her wish to slow things down in a situation where most guys would have kept trying. What more did she want?

He called her when he got back to his hotel and again when he arrived on the mainland the next day. They emailed each other regularly at first, but then it slowed down and his calls became less too. He wasn't sure when he'd make it back to Courtenay - work was keeping him swamped. She knew it ought to have bothered her, but she really didn't mind. 'That was pretty nice while it lasted,' she finally admitted to herself, 'But it wasn't love.'

Chapter Eight

Three weeks turned into four and still Elizabeth hadn't received the results from the testing. 'Same old, same old,' she thought, hanging up the phone after a call to the NTA. The receptionist told her that due to the high volume of samples there was a backlog at the lab. When she told them that George had promised to put a rush on her samples, the girl laughed. "He's famous for saying that, but he's got no authority over lab procedure."

Elizabeth knew that all the nurseries in the program were in the same position as Glacierview. According to what she'd heard through the growers' network no one had got any results yet - not even the nurseries that had been first on the list. There was growing concern about embargos on shipping to the States, and doing business with nurseries shipping to the States. Everyone in the industry was on tenterhooks, and it wasn't a comfortable position to be in.

The next step in the process, after sampling, was to establish best management practices. Elizabeth had been to the NTA website and studied all the information posted there, but none of it was thoroughly developed enough to really get a good grasp of what was expected. After a few evenings trying to make head or tail of it all, Elizabeth decided the best thing to do was go to the source. She called the NTA again, and this time she got George.

"Elizabeth! How've you been? I really, really want to come up and see you, but work has been so hectic. Sorry about your samples not being done yet - some goof up in the lab."

"I called last week and they told me. That's not why I'm calling."

"I miss you too, baby, but now that the sampling's all done they've got me working on the nursery manual. They rely on me because I'm the only one here with the expertise, but the hours I'm putting in are a killer."

"I'm glad I caught you then, because it's the manual I'm calling about. The information on the website is sort of muddled."

There was a slight pause. "Yeah - my supervisor did that - she's pretty much out to lunch."

"So, how do I go about setting up the nursery and instituting all the best management practices?"

"Tell you what, babe. We're building this program from the ground up - there's not another program like it anywhere. Our procedure is going to be the worldwide standard. We'll explain everything about the BMPs at the workshops we're giving in January. It's an integral part of the program. Can't be certified without it."

"January? But won't the nurseries receive certificates as soon as the test results are known? Some places could go out of business if uncertified exports are banned."

"Calm down, honey! You sure do take all this stuff seriously. It's just governmental posturing. They won't close the border to our plants - they need us. The disease is so bad in Oregon and California. Right now they're just trying to make us the scapegoats, that's all. The reason everything's taking so long is we have to make sure we've got all the bases covered."

"Sounds like you've just graduated from a course in double speak, George."

"You'll get more from me than the FHA will ever give you. Listen, the results will be in before long. All the nurseries will get them as soon as they are paid up."

"You guys have had my four hundred dollars for a month already."

"Too bad everyone's not as committed to the program as you, baby. It's like getting blood from a stone with some of these growers. Hey - it's been great talking to you." George's voice softened and took on that familiar intimate glow. "I'll be by as soon as I can, and we'll pick up where we left off, I promise."

"We could go for coffee," said Elizabeth smoothly, "but I think we both know there's nothing happening between us anymore."

"Heartbreaker."

Elizabeth could hear the flirty teasing in his voice. Could envision the warmth of his honey toned eyes, and the smile that seemed like it was only for her. But really, all the time she'd been no more than someone to take the boredom out of his island stay. And, if she wanted, it was clear she could still be that person. "Goodbye George," she said.

After hanging up the phone Elizabeth realised she was no further ahead than she had been before she called. From the sound of it, George knew even less about the next steps in the program than she did. 'I'll just have to wing it,' she thought.

She already had the foot bath, and was making the landscapers spray their tires and undercarriages with disinfectant. She supposed she'd have to get them to sign in and out next. And she'd start to keep records, tracking all sales of host plants. The thing she was most confused about was the best placement of host plants in the nursery. All the information was contradictory - keep them apart, keep them together; 2 metre buffers or 4 metre buffers. She began a list of questions to ask at the workshop - if it ever got off the ground.

~ * ~

December brought more changes. May and Sam had bought a nursery just outside Victoria, and it was time to say goodbye. Elizabeth and her family threw them a dinner party up at the house before they left. Mrs Bennet had been a basket case for days beforehand, worrying about all the meal details, but she'd surpassed herself. The food was as delicious as it was plentiful. Between the main courses and dessert, they sat in the living room where a cosy fire was burning merrily in the stove.

"I don't know how I'll manage without you next season," said Elizabeth for the umpteenth time.

May laughed. "Brandon and Anne will handle the job well. They're both very bright and they've learned so much this year."

"Oh, God! I am so full," said Liddie, throwing herself on the couch between them, interrupting the flow of their conversation. "Is work all you can talk about?"

"Would you prefer foreign affairs?" asked May.

"I'd prefer affairs," said Liddie. "Any hot gossip I should know about?"

"Sorry," said Elizabeth. "We're a pretty boring bunch."

"That's for sure. Jane spends all her time moping over that precious Charles. She should just go to Victoria and see him already! And you, Beth - you sure blew your chances with George. I hear he's engaged to the daughter of the NTA president now."

"I'm happy for him. As far as I know she's a very nice girl. Pretty too."

"Pretty? I saw a picture of her online. She's got strawberry blonde hair and her face is just covered in the grossest freckles you ever saw." Liddie got up and looked at her sister with an expression of deep disgust. "I can't understand you. He dumped you for a real cow - the least you could do is be catty. I'm outta here."

Elizabeth didn't bother to correct her sister. If she'd said George hadn't dumped her, Liddie would just have told her she was an idiot to let him get away. Anyway, as ditzy as she was, Liddie had given her an idea.

"You know, May, I can't help but be worried about Jane. It's been over three months since Charles left and she's not recovered her good spirits."

"I've noticed."

"I think she needs a change in her life. She needs to get away. Go somewhere she won't be reminded of him all the time."

"A trip to Mexico, or something? I don't think a week on the beach would cure what she's got."

"I was thinking more of a month or two, not in an exotic location, but doing something to occupy her mind. There's this ikebana course in Victoria she's always wanted to take. If there were somewhere she could stay with friends for company, I'd give her the course as a Christmas present."

"I'd love to have her, only . . . isn't Victoria a bad idea? After all - it's where he lives."

"I know it's not a huge city, or anything, but I doubt she'd be bumping into Charles every day. And besides, I have a feeling that if he sees her, he'll rethink this whole long distance relationships don't work and we should see other people mentality. In my opinion, it wasn't his idea to begin with."

May widened her eyes expressively, but made no comment on the remark. "It's settled then," she said. "As long as Jane likes the idea."

~ * ~

Elizabeth was in her office. The ground was frozen and temperatures were still below zero. She'd checked all the heaters in the greenhouses and the propagation house. There was nothing else to be done out of doors in this weather. Instead of working, she'd registered Jane for the course in Japanese flower arranging and had got caught up in cruising a site with ikebana arrangements done by some of the modern masters in the art. Some were outrageously esoteric, others were breathtakingly beautiful.

The phone rang and she reached out and answered it, her thoughts still on the exotic images that played upon the screen. "Yes."

"Elizabeth - you're probably wondering why you haven't received your results yet. I thought I'd let you know how things stand."

Her attention jerked to the voice on the phone. Fitzsnobbiam? "Why are you calling me? Is something wrong?"

"No - it's nothing like that. Only, everything is taking much longer than expected and I knew you'd be anxious."

Anxious? Does he think I'm a freaking neurotic? "When did the FHA start to give out information voluntarily?"

"We don't. I mean, I'm not going to tell you anything confidential - I just wanted to set your mind at ease. They're very behind at the lab."

"The NTA has already told me as much. I don't understand what the hold up is, myself. Shouldn't this be a priority? I mean - businesses are at stake here. Is it a question of understaffing?"

"There are certain budget restraints, but no. It's more a question of the way the tests are going. There have been much more positives on the Elisa test than anticipated, so there has to be extensive further testing."

Elizabeth knew that the Elisa test only established if a phytothera fungus was present. There were many different types of phytothera. To know whether it was phytothera ramorum or not, a different test would need to be performed. The fact that he had told her this stunned her to near silence. "Oh."

"So you can understand the delay. I wouldn't worry, though. From our testing in the spring we know the chances of a high incidence of positive Phytothera ramorum results is extremely unlikely."

"Thanks for the information."

"I've really said more than I should, but I know I can trust you to keep this to yourself."

"Of course."

"So you'll just have to bear with it. Try to keep tabs on where the plants from the blocks that were sampled go. In the event of a problem it will make the trace forwards that much easier for us."

"I'm aware of the protocol. I've been doing my best to institute best management practices, so I've been keeping a log on all host plants coming and going, though with the way everything is frozen right now, nothing is going anywhere."

"I'm glad to hear it."

After Elizabeth hung up the phone, she wondered what he had meant by that. Was he glad to hear she was keeping a log, or was he glad to hear that the plants were staying put for the time being? Regardless, it was strange that he had called and told her so much. Had the big wigs decided they needed to do a little diplomatic soothing to keep the growers from getting up in arms? There was no way Fitzsnobbiam would go out on a limb, divulging supposed top secret information to put her mind at ease. There had to be some other reason for it. The feds were always trying to stay two steps ahead of the game.

But Elizabeth was true to her word and kept the information to herself. It would have been more than funny if his whole purpose in telling her was to have it spread throughout the industry.

~ * ~

Christmas came and the whole SOD issue was still unresolved and hanging over Elizabeth's head like a huge unwanted bunch of mistletoe. She'd heard from George, though he hadn't actually told her anything she didn't already know. In fact he'd told her nothing at all, just performed his usual light flirting, even after she'd congratulated him on his engagement. She didn't hold it against him - it was just his way. And it wasn't as if her feelings had ever really been involved.

She'd heard from Fitzsnobbiam again too. A Christmas card to the nursery. Probably signed by his secretary. There was a short greeting written in neat, draughtsman style script - no news his good news. Who was he trying to kid? She wanted to hear something.

The family was together on Christmas morning, the girls all sitting around the tree in their pyjamas while their father, adorned with a fake beard and Santa hat, ho ho hoed as he passed around the presents. Their mother bounced around the room, snapping wildly with her camera. Her pictures were famous for missing heads and assorted other body parts. If a Christmas gift was her intended object, the ceiling would be the focal point.

Presents were soon ripped open and wrapping paper discarded across the entire room. Liddie and Kate were squealing over new outfits, gift cards, and mp3 players. Mary was reading the new book her dad had bought her, the rest of her presents still unopened on her lap. Elizabeth unwrapped a deep green cashmere sweater. It was lovely and soft, but she doubted her mother could have found one lower cut if she had tried. She looked over at Jane who was holding up an identical sweater, only powder blue.

"Open mine."

Jane dutifully dropped the sweater and rifled through her pile, coming up with a small, shiny gift bag. "Smaller always means better," she said, and eagerly pulled out the tissue. "Oh - a piece of paper - yay!" They had a tradition of giving each other gag gifts as well as real ones.

"What does it say?" asked Elizabeth, grinning knowingly.

"It's probably written in Sanskrit or something and I'll have to go online to translate it. Oh! Ikebana! Beth - I love you!" She jumped over her pile of presents and threw her arms around her sister in a huge hug.

"I love you too, Janie."

Jane's face suddenly fell. "I'll have to book time off for this - it's a month long course. There's no way I can swing it."

"All taken care of. Your boss was sworn into secrecy."

"But . . . how?"

"I won't need Mary in the nursery all of January, so she's filling in for you."

"Mary!" Jane laughed. "What does she know about flower arranging?"

Mary looked up from her book. "What's to know? Throw a few flowers into a vase and stick a bow on - done!"

"Don't listen to her," said Elizabeth. "She's actually excited about it and has been practicing with mom's silk flowers in the garden shop."

"Where am I going to stay? Don't tell me you've got that all planned too."

"Okay."

Jane threw a wad of wrapping paper, hitting Elizabeth squarely on the head. "Tell me, Oh Manager of My Life."

"May said she would love to have you. I hope you don't mind."

"Mind? This is wonderful!"

Elizabeth grinned.

"My present will seem like nothing compared to this."

But Elizabeth loved the book of botanical prints that Jane had bought her, and the pair of filigree silver earrings with little amber beads.

The first week in January, Jane moved into May's guest bedroom and started her course. She called Elizabeth in the evenings full of happy news about May and Sam's nursery, their little dog, Emma, her fellow students, and some of the interesting things she was learning. On the weekend she called at lunch time. Her voice didn't have the sparkle it had during her previous calls.

"I was supposed to meet Carrie and Lou for lunch today, but something came up and they had to cancel."

"Typical."

"We did talk for a bit, though. Carrie told me Charles is seeing a lot of Darcy's sister, Gina. She said they are inseparable."

"Oh Janie - don't listen to her. I'm sure she thinks she and Fitzsnobbiam are inseparable too."

But Jane would not be appeased, no matter how hard Elizabeth tried to build up her spirits. She said she hoped Gina and Charles were happy, because then at least someone was happy in the world.

Elizabeth spent the rest of the afternoon roaming around the nursery in a deep funk. She'd left her cell phone on her desk and when she returned to the office she noticed that she'd missed two calls. One was from the NTA - no message had been left. The other number she recognised as Fitzsnobbiam's.

Chapter Nine

Elizabeth stared at her phone with misgiving. Two calls from government agencies on a Saturday did not bode well. She chose the lesser of the two evils and dialled the number for the NTA. The answering machine kicked in after two rings, so she left a message.

"Hi, this is Elizabeth Bennet at Glacierview. I wasn't in when someone from your office called earlier today. I will keep my cell phone with me if you need to get a hold of me."

She debated returning Fitzsnobbiam's call, but decided that if it was important enough he'd call back. She really preferred the idea of discussing whatever it was with the NTA representative. For all she knew it would be George, and though she no longer was into him, she didn't mind chatting with him.

As she was sitting there thinking, the phone rang in her hand and she almost dropped it. She checked before answering - it was the NTA number.

"Hello."

"Elizabeth?"

It was George. "What's up? I didn't think they worked you on Saturdays."

"All hell has broken loose. There have been a hundred nurseries with suspicious positives, and I'm sorry to say yours is one of them."

"Suspicious positives? What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that samples from your nursery tested positive for SOD. Twelve, actually."

"I don't believe it!" Elizabeth felt anger and fear run through her. Legs shaking, she pulled back her chair and sat down.

"Hold on! Let me finish." Papers rustled at the other end of the phone and then George spoke again. "It doesn't mean your plants have the disease - not definitely. Hence the word suspicious."

"Then what does it mean? The way I understand things, either a result is positive or it isn't!"

"The FHA are questioning the testing. They don't trust our results because they weren't found at their precious lab back east."

"So - what happens now?"

"There's a meeting in Abbotsford on Wednesday. It would be great if you could make it."

"I can't go to the mainland right now. My dad's sick and my sister Mary is doing Jane's job while Jane's taking a course in Victoria. Everyone else is laid off for the month."

"You could attend the meeting by speaker phone. I was just hoping to see you."

"Don't forget you're engaged - and to your boss's daughter."

"Baby! You know I didn't mean anything, only that it would be nice to see you."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes and changed the subject. "What can I do until then?"

"Business as usual until you hear different. Leave it with us to get sorted. Call reception at 10:00 Wednesday, and Marianne will hook you up to the meeting. Oh yeah - keep quiet about this - we don't want to cause a big panic in the industry. We're only contacting the nurseries with suspicious positives."

Elizabeth reflected that one hundred nurseries out of the three hundred and fifty or so registered in the certification program was a sizeable chunk. The test results were bound to become common knowledge before too long. "I'll do my best."

"And no worrying."

"Thanks George."

When the phone rang again, Elizabeth knew it would be Fitzsnobbiam.

"Sorry to disturb you on the weekend, Elizabeth," he said, "but there've been new developments in the P. ramorum program that I think you should know about. We've received quite a number of questionable results."

"Those suspicious positives?"

"So, you know already?"

"I just now got off the phone with George."

"Wickham?" His voice had changed subtly - it sounded almost wary.

"Yes. He told me that Glacierview had twelve samples test positive. But he also told me that the FHA doesn't trust the lab results."

"We don't."

"Simply because they weren't done in your own lab?"

"Is that what George told you? I'm glad I called, then. The last thing we need is that kind of back biting remark to send tempers flaring again. There isn't some sort of Federal/Provincial petty rivalry going on. We're in on this together - we all have the same goal at heart. The problem isn't with the lab, it's with the kind of tests performed. And possibly it goes even deeper than that - but that's speculation on my part."

Elizabeth grabbed the one thing he said that she felt needed addressing over all the rest. "What was that about the kind of tests performed?" She didn't really expect a straight answer.

"There's more than one test to determine P ramorum. One is much quicker than the other. Both the US government and our federal government have agreed upon using the slower test because it's considered more reliable. Because of the volume of tests being performed and the time restraints, the lower mainland lab opted for the quicker tests."

"So, does that mean the results are wrong?"

"We are taking these positives only as an indicator of probability."

"So, my suspicious positives could turn out to be negative?"

"It could go either way - we could have a very serious situation on our hands."

Elizabeth sighed. "So you're retesting all the samples that came out positive?"

"That would certainly simplify things, but we think the samples may be tainted. The results are way out of proportion. We'll have to go to each nursery involved and take new samples from the suspect plants."

"What do I do in the meantime?"

"That's going to be discussed at Wednesday's meeting. Will I see you there?"

"No. I'm doing it by phone. Could you at least tell me which of my plants tested positive?"

"We're not disclosing that to anyone yet."

"What? I'd say the growers with suspicious positives have a right to know."

"We don't want any plants disposed of before we can get there to retest them."

"I would never do anything so irresponsible."

"I'm not saying you would - I know how seriously you take the P.ramorum threat. It's simply FHA policy, besides I don't have the list in front of me."

'Like heck you don't.' thought Elizabeth. "Thanks for the information you were able to give me."

Elizabeth sat at her desk for a long time after the two phone calls. She stared blankly at the walls, worst-case scenarios playing through her head. If her buffer zones weren't organised right and there truly were diseased plants, it could create a domino effect. The result would be catastrophic. The only thing that gave her any hope for a better outcome was the knowledge that they'd passed the spring testing with flying colours and since then they hadn't brought in any stock from outside sources. She didn't see how the disease could have entered her nursery and spread so widely with the safety precautions she'd been taking.

Telling her dad seemed unfair. His cold had put him in bed for a week - something unheard of for the man who'd always worked through whatever ailed him. Talking to her mom about the problem would be pointless. And Jane had enough troubling her right now. Elizabeth kept everything to herself. By Wednesday she was overwrought. She hoped the meeting would ease her tension and eliminate her fears.

The phone connection to the meeting wasn't very good. Even with the volume up it was difficult to hear all the speakers. And when more than one person started to speak at a time it was impossible to tell what anyone was saying. Some of the questions she wanted to ask were raised, but the answers were inconclusive. The lab supervisor spoke, the NTA project manager, even Fitzsnobbiam himself. It seemed the main focus of the meeting was to keep the growers calm and put off answering the hard questions.

All Elizabeth really learned was that the FHA would do the sampling as quickly as they possibly could, using all the manpower at their disposal. The NTA's role would only be as a liaison. In the meantime, no plants were to go in or out of the nurseries affected. Unaffected nurseries would finally receive their certification papers. Everyone in the program was to continue on with the workshops, which would run in February and March, depending on the area.

The next day Elizabeth got a call from George.

"The word is that the FHA will be sampling in your area starting Monday. This whole thing is such a fiasco. Do you know they are sending out fisheries inspectors and dock inspectors - people who know nothing at all about plants? We have trained samplers they could use, but no dice."

"That doesn't make any sense."

"The feds never make sense, baby. I'm glad I'm outta there. Anyway, I'm up to my eyeballs in this liaison crap - their big concession to the NTA - we get to do their phoning for them."

"I don't envy you."

Monday. Elizabeth hung up the phone and got out her day timer to check what was already on her agenda for the following week. At least they were getting right down to it. Usually her little corner of the island was left until close to last. From the looks of things she'd have the time to go out with the FHA inspectors, whichever day they came. She wanted to supervise the sampling procedure every step of the way. If they didn't like it, too bad for them.

After lunch she drove around the nursery, familiarising herself with the locations the forty samples had been taken from. It would have been easier if she'd known which twelve to target, but that kind of openness from the FHA was obviously too much to ask. She had asked and been denied, after all.

The weather was mild for early January. Dull grey clouds hinted at rain to come, but for now were content just to skulk over the distant sea. Down below the nursery on the waterlogged flats, she could see large patches of white: trumpeter swans wintering in the wet fields. A faint opalescent glow in the sky reminded her that the sun was up there somewhere. Even in its dismal dreariness, there was beauty to be found in the afternoon.

Elizabeth's cell phone rang, sending her running back to her truck where she'd left it on the dash.

"Glacierview," she said, not bothering to check the display.

An all too familiar voice said, "Hi Elizabeth. I'll be at your nursery tomorrow morning to take the samples."

"You? Tomorrow? But, I just spoke to George this morning and he told me the inspectors were coming up island on Monday."

"I have family plans in your area so I thought I'd get started a day early. I'll see you at 8:00 am."

Why did it have to be him?

She was having no luck at all. Now Fitzsnobbiam would be nosing around in her nursery again. With his damn superior attitude he'd be certain to find fault with something. Sure, he'd been almost nice the last two times she'd dealt with him on the phone, and he had told her that stuff about the tests - they hadn't mentioned that alternate test thing at the meeting - but she knew it had been a strategic FHA ploy to lull her into submission. And it had worked too.

She'd been planning to shadow the FHA inspectors when they came, and Fitzsnobbiam or no Fitzsnobbiam, she wasn't going to change her mind about that.

Elizabeth started up her truck to head in for the day, when her phone rang again. She was tempted to throw it out the window, but instead she checked the display. It was Charlotte.

"Char! What a treat to talk to a friend and not some government flunky. This sodding P. ramorum problem is giving me nightmares."

"The SOD thing has flared up again?"

"With a vengeance. You wouldn't believe the hell I've gone through the last few days worrying about the latest crisis - and no one to talk to about it."

"Sounds like you need a night out to relax and totally take your mind off things."

"You can say that again. I need someone to come and save me."

"I'll save you - that's what I'm phoning about."

"Charlotte - you're a Godsend! I'd love to hang with you."

"Here's what's planned for tonight. Bill's boss is having this thing at the Rose and Ring. Just us and some of her family. Maria's coming too."

In her overwhelmed state Elizabeth had all but forgotten the existence of Bill, but it would be awkward to back out now, though an evening spent with Bill Collins and his boss, Catherine Dubarry was an ordeal she could do without. She'd barely seen Charlotte since that evening she'd announced her engagement, and she'd really put her foot in it that night. The fact that Charlotte still wanted to be friends with her was something worth protecting. As much as she'd have liked to, she was in no position to renege.

"I won't be able to stay late, Char. I'm so tired and I've got that jerk Fitzsnobbiam coming to inspect the nursery first thing in the morning. I just got off the phone with him and he said he'd be here at eight."

"That explains your mood."

"I know you don't think he's so bad, but don't even try sticking up for him. You know he said I was ignorant and clueless and that the disease was so widespread because of people like me."

"He never said that to your face."

"He knew I was close enough to hear him."

"Isn't it about time you got over it? In my opinion his attitude to you changed pretty damned quickly - you're just in denial."

"Char - if you get like that with me I might change my mind about coming."

"Forget him. Forget plant diseases. In fact forget that plants were ever invented. Unwind and break loose - God knows you need to. How about Maria picks you up so you don't need to drive and you can drink strawberry daiquiris all night."

"And face Mr I'm-Perfect-and-You're-a-Loser Fitzwilliam with a hangover tomorrow? Yeah, right."

Charlotte laughed. "He might be easier to take like that. I'll let Maria know you want a ride. See you at the Rose and Ring at seven!"

~ * ~

Elizabeth was relieved when they finally pulled into the pub parking lot. Charlotte's little sister Maria had talked about nothing but how excited she was to be meeting Mrs Dubarry at long last. She'd heard a lot about the lady from Bill and she'd gushingly regurgitated every overblown fact he'd ever spouted. A neon sign flashing in the pub window dampened Elizabeth's relief, however.

Karaoke Thursdays.

"Oh my Lord!" she sighed as she got out of the car.

"Karaoke's fun," said Maria. "You should see Bill. He usually does My Way, but he doesn't sing as well as he thinks he does."

Elizabeth could well imagine. He probably sounded like a sick cow that needed to be put out of its misery.

They entered the pub and looked around. Elizabeth always hated that feeling she got when she entered a pub alone - or virtually alone, as she was with a bubblehead like Maria. She was happy to immediately spot Charlotte waving from the far end of the room, close to the fireplace. Nice and cosy and away from the draughts. Good choice. The cashmere sweater she'd got for Christmas wasn't all that warm. It was a little fancy for a Thursday evening at the pub, but she hadn't had a chance to wear it yet.

"Why do we have such a big table?" she whispered to Charlotte, after being introduced to Mrs Dubarry. Bill had launched into his first rambling joke of the evening.

"Remember, I told you," said Charlotte, looking a bit cagey. "Mrs DuBarry's nephews and her daughter Anne are coming."

"Oh yeah - I forgot. Are you up to something? You've got that look on your face."

"No - I, um - it's just - oh, you'll find out soon enough. They've arrived."

The look in Charlotte's eyes was now saying, "Don't kill me."

Elizabeth turned slowly. The first person she saw was a slim girl in a black dress. Short, pale hair cupped a sallow face livened by large mascaraed eyes. Behind her was an athletic looking man with rough-hewn features. Elizabeth's gaze slipped easily beyond him and froze.

"Tell me he's not with them."

"Darcy Fitzwilliam is one of Mrs Dubarry's nephews. Sorry."

"You are evil incarnate - you knew all along!"

"I thought you wouldn't come if I told you."

"That's the one thing you got right today. How could you do this to me? You know he's the last person on earth I want to see. You expect me to sit here and make small talk with him when he's probably going to close the nursery down tomorrow?"

Charlotte grabbed a glass of wine and shoved it into Elizabeth's hands. "Here. Drink this and try to be nice."

Mrs Dubarry began busily introducing everyone.

"Elizabeth and I already know each other very well," said Darcy. "In fact it's her nursery I'm going to first thing tomorrow morning."

"I didn't know you were a nursery owner," said Mrs Dubarry, resting her steely eyes on Elizabeth with more interest than she'd previously shown.

"It's a family business. I manage it for my father."

"Oh, one of those small ma and pa businesses. How quaint."

Elizabeth put the wine glass to her lips and tried to look inconspicuous, but with Fitzsnobbiam's eyes still on her all she could do was wish she hadn't worn her new sweater - the neckline was cut a little lower than what she was used to wearing.

"We have met before too," said Bill to Darcy, taking his hand and pumping it.

"Yes - at the Blackfin last April. I remember."

Mrs Dubarry had enough of the niceties. She took Darcy's arm and steered him towards a chair. "You must sit beside me and tell me all the latest news from Victoria."

"You may have missed it, but I'm Colin Fitzwilliam, Darcy's cousin. Well his other cousin, because Anne's our cousin too, only she has the pleasure of being Mrs Dubarry's daughter," said the other man as he took a seat beside Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth Bennet," she said, holding out her hand.

"Her friends call her Beth," Charlotte said helpfully, a look of contrition upon her face, then she turned away as a nudge from Bill demanded her attention.

"Beth." Colin grinned broadly. "So you're who Darcy has come all this way to see in such a secretive manner. I understand now. I didn't think he'd rush up here just for an exciting night of karaoke."

Elizabeth blushed. "It's simply business."

"Really? He wouldn't tell me where he was going or what he was doing. How do you explain that, then? Top secret espionage? He works for the FHA, not the CIA. Or are you a master spy too, with sealed lips?" He made a gesture like a zipper closing his mouth.

Elizabeth laughed. "It's a confidentiality issue. Everyone is so freaked out about this disease, if word gets out in the industry that we are even suspected of having diseased plants it could ruin our business completely."

"And Darcy doesn't mix business with pleasure?"

"I don't think he knows how."

Colin glanced up the table at his cousin. "You don't say! So tell me - how does he act when he does an inspection? Does he resort to the old third degree?"

"Worse. I think he's one of these people who lets power go to his head. Last time he was totally unreasonable."

"So he goes all Gestapo on you? Hmm - sounds like his technique could use a bit of work. I'll take him aside and teach him a few lessons if you like." His eyes crinkled with humour.

"No. I can deal with it." Elizabeth took a sip of her wine and sighed. "Actually, the last thing I want to talk about tonight is work. I came out to get away from my problems."

"Sorry. Drink up your wine and I'll buy you another one. Where is that waitress?"

"It's okay - I'm good."

"I need to order a beer anyway. I'll be right back."

He got up and walked over to the bar. Charlotte turned her head and whispered to Elizabeth. "You've got to admit he's nice, at least. Forgive me?"

"Don't worry about it, Char."

Darcy looked over from his conversation with his aunt. His eyes met Elizabeth's and stayed for a few moments. He half smiled and then returned his attention to his aunt.

'What was that all about?' Elizabeth asked herself. 'And why didn't I look away?' She was glad when Colin returned, a jug of dark amber liquid in one hand and two glasses in the other.

"This was easier than waiting. I brought you a glass, in case."

"Thanks, but I don't drink beer."

"Suits me fine," he grinned. "Now I don't have to share."

Elizabeth took another small sip of her wine. "What is it that you do?"

"I've got a couple of boats up in Campbell River. I run a little sport fishing business."

"That sounds like fun."

"Reeling in a big salmon is always a thrill, but I work hard for my money, not like Darcy with his cushy government job and all the benefits he gets. I love being my own boss, though. So what if I can't afford to go to Hawaii every winter?"

"I know what you mean," said Elizabeth. "The nursery is hard work too, but at the end of the day I only have myself to answer to, and my dad, of course. But he and I see pretty much eye to eye on everything."

They continued talking on just about every subject, from hiking to skiing to movies and books, as comfortably as if they'd known each other for years. Their conversation was punctuated with outbursts of laughter. Elizabeth couldn't help but reflect on how different Colin was from his cousin. He wasn't anywhere near as good looking but he had an affability that was far more attractive than Fitzsnobbiam's aloof manner."

Elizabeth noticed Darcy looking over at them from time to time. "Why does you cousin keep staring at us?" she asked.

"He's probably wishing he could trade places with me. I get to talk to a beautiful, vivacious young woman and he's stuck with crusty old Aunt Catherine."

"It's more likely that I'm doing something he disapproves of."

"Yeah. Talking to me rather than to him," Colin said smugly. "Don't look now but the karaoke is about to start. Bill's going first."

"Oh joy!"

"Why don't you sign up for a song?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "No way. I'd rather sit here and be subjected to the torture of listening to those exhibitionists than go up there and make a fool of myself."

"Oh Beth," cried Charlotte, leaning over towards them. "I've put your name down for the next one so you can't get out of it."

"Some kind of friend you are!"

"I want to listen to at least one person who can sing on key," said Charlotte. "Bill loves the limelight but he can't carry a tune in a bucket."

The music started and Bill ripped the microphone from its stand. Elizabeth burst into a fit of giggles as she watched him strutting across the stage like Tina Turner, belting out, "Rollin', rollin', rollin' on a river."

"There should be a law against that," said Colin. "I just spewed beer out my nose."

"Be glad he's not dressed like her," responded Elizabeth, causing Colin to go into a choking fit at the idea.

Elizabeth looked up the table and noticed that Anne was trying hard not to laugh and even Darcy had a barely controlled smirk upon his face. Mrs Dubarry was nodding her head to the rhythm with every appearance of enjoyment. When Bill returned to the table she patted his arm and told him he was a born entertainer. Elizabeth decided that either Mrs Dubarry had no taste whatsoever, or she could make a sarcastic comment and keep a straight face with the same level of expertise as her own father, Mr Bennet, could.

Elizabeth was announced as the next performer but it took Colin agreeing to accompany her to get her onto the stage. She sang Gordon Lightfoot's version of Bobby McGee in a clear, light voice, and Colin joined in on the chorus. During the song, Darcy got up and walked close to the stage. When it was over he put his hand out to help Elizabeth down the steps in the poor light.

To cover up her astonishment at this unexpected act of gallantry, Elizabeth said, "Good attempt at intimidating me by coming up so close, but I managed to get through the whole song without messing up the words."

To her surprise, he laughed. "I know you don't mean that. I liked your singing." He turned to his cousin. "Yours I could do without."

"Are you going to sing us a song, Mr Fitzwilliam?" asked Elizabeth tauntingly.

"I can answer for him," said Colin. "He may enjoy putting down my singing, but there's no way in hell you'd get him on this stage, or any stage for that matter."

"Colin's right."

"Why? Do you think you're better than this? I know I'm not a great singer but at least I came up here and sang when my friend asked me too, and so did Colin."

"It's not that he thinks he's better," said Colin. "It's just that he can't be bothered to do it, no matter who asked him."

"I can't just get up and sing in front of people I don't know." Darcy stood in thought for a minute and then continued. "I don't really have to make excuses about it. But I think it's great that you came up and sang here for everybody, Elizabeth. I'm sure you don't normally perform for strangers either, but you did, and you did it very well."

"What are you all talking about?" asked Mrs Dubarry, even though they hadn't quite made it to the table yet.

"I was just telling Elizabeth that she sang well," said Darcy.

"Your voice is untrained, Miss Bennet, but you weren't too pitchy," said Mrs Dubarry, taking on the air of a connoisseur. "My Anne has a lovely voice. If she weren't so prone to throat infections she would have had classical training. And I could have had a career in the opera if I had learned."

Elizabeth mumbled something and got away as quickly as possible. When she sat back beside Charlotte, she hissed in her ear, "That old crow! If she had learned! She's got a high opinion of herself, doesn't she? I can see where Fitzsnobbiam gets it from."

Charlotte chose to ignore the remark. "What are you going to do?" she asked instead.

"About what?"

"Two hot guys after you. That's what you get for wearing such a sexy sweater." She smirked.

Elizabeth put her hand to her neckline self-consciously. She'd forgotten about it. "Get real!" she said. "They're not after me."

"They are. Darcy was drawn to the stage by a tractor beam. What did he say to you?"

"Just that getting up on the stage was more than he would do, but I sang well."

"See!"

"He was only being polite."

"He didn't have to go over there. He likes you!"

"In your dreams. Anyway - I can't stand him, so it doesn't matter one way or the other." She hoped that would shut Charlotte up.

Luckily Colin came over and sat beside Elizabeth again, so Charlotte had to lay off teasing her.

"Have you ever met Darcy's sister Gina?" he asked. "She's an incredible singer."

"No, I've not met her, but I've heard she's a lot like her brother."

"Gina? She's a shy sweetheart, not a workaholic recluse. Who've you been talking to?"

"When the sampling team was at the nursery last spring they talked a bit about her. I guess I got the wrong impression. Do you know any of them - Charles, Carrie, Lou, or Hurst?" Elizabeth thought it best not to mention George.

"I've seen Carrie in action - poor Darcy - but actually, he's a damn sight more patient with her than I'd be and he fends her off quite tactfully. Charles I know very well - they're best friends. The other two I haven't a clue."

"You cousin seems to take the responsibilities of friendship seriously. He takes great care of Charles," said Elizabeth acidly.

Colin appeared to have missed her tone. "Funny you should say that. He did get Charles out of a real jam last year sometime."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. I don't think it matters if I tell you. I don't know how well you know Charles, but he's always in and out of love with some pretty girl. He usually falls for the ones that are the least suitable for him too. Anyway, there was this girl Charles met when they were doing those nursery inspections. She was connected with some rinky-dink nursery they were taking samples at. You know how it went - they were stuck there for a whole week. She was always hanging around him, distracting him from his work. Charles fell for her hard, but it was obvious to Darcy her feelings didn't run as deep. Maybe she wanted him to turn a blind eye to some of the many infractions in the place. Maybe she'd heard the guy was rich. Anyway, he kept seeing her even after they'd finished with the area, but Darcy knew it wasn't a healthy relationship for Charles."

Elizabeth could feel her anger rising. It was obvious the girl was Jane, though the situation had been completely misrepresented. "Really? So what did Darcy do?" She'd always known he'd had a hand in the break-up, now she was being given proof.

"He didn't want to see his best friend hurt, so he got him transferred back to Victoria, out of harm's way. Charles would still have kept seeing her, even at that distance, if Darcy hadn't convinced him the girl was only using him."

"That seems pretty damned interfering." Elizabeth took a couple of breaths to calm herself. "How did he know for sure she was only using Charles? What if she was in love with him?"

"Most people don't fall in love that quickly. Anyway, I'm sure they're both over it by now."

"I guess," Elizabeth managed to say. "But that sort of lessens Darcy's victory, doesn't it?"

Colin shrugged. "It sounded better when he told it." He took a swallow of beer and then looked back at Elizabeth. "Hey - are you okay?"

"Suddenly I've got this blinding headache. I think I'd better go." She reached for her jacket from the back of her chair and at the same moment remembered that she'd come with Maria. "Damn!"

"What's up?"

"I didn't drive here and I don't want to make Maria leave when she's having so much fun with Anne." Both girls were on the stage pretending to be The Supremes, giggling more than they were singing. "I'll have to find a quiet corner where I can sit it out."

"You shouldn't have to do that. If you don't feel well, I can give you a ride."

"But you don't want to leave this early."

"If you're going there's no point in me staying," he said graciously. "Just give me a couple of minutes to say goodbye to my aunt."

"Thanks. That's really kind of you. I'll go outside to wait, if you don't mind. The cold air will be good for my head."

Elizabeth said goodbye to Charlotte, waved to the rest of the people at the table without making eye contact with any of them, and pulled her jacket on as she got up from her chair. She needed to get out of the room and away from Darcy as fast as she could. It was bad enough that he'd done all he could to separate Jane and Charles, but bragging about it to his cousin, and who knows who else, just made what he'd done that much worse. Saying that Jane was only interested in Charles so she could get him to look the other way on his inspection, or because she was interested in his money, was totally outrageous. Elizabeth had never seen two people more in love. Dealing with the aftermath that morning after Jane's ill-fated trip to Coombs had been heart wrenching. Even now Jane was just a walking shadow. She had sounded so low the night before when they'd spoken on the phone. It was painfully obvious that she couldn't get Charles out of her thoughts.

Elizabeth slammed the front door as she walked out of the pub and onto the long front porch that overlooked Comox harbour. The cold enveloped her like a cloak - holding in all the anger and resentment that was building within. "I could kill him!" she muttered as she leaned upon the railing and drew in a few deep breaths of the salt tinged air. The sky was dark over pewter water. Stars sent their light spiralling down to reflect on the still surface. There wasn't a breath of wind. At any other time she would have relished the tranquility of the scene, but her thoughts were in a turmoil that even the beauties of nature could not soothe. Once she got home she would probably pace the floor until dawn. The worst thing was that she was going to have to face Fitzsnobbiam in the morning. He was probably going to impose a quarantine, or worse yet, have thousands of her plants destroyed. She bit back a sob and then a voice spoke from behind, proving that there was something even more horrible in store for her than she'd already imagined.

"Elizabeth? I told Colin I would drive you home. He's had a couple of beers already tonight so I'd rather he didn't drive you, besides there's something I'd like to talk with you about before we have to deal with all the P. ramorum issues in the morning."

Chapter Ten

Elizabeth wondered if she should call a cab, then walk back into the Rose and Ring, and sit down at table to wait for it to arrive. She'd only just met Colin Fitzwilliam, so she could hardly go up to him and demand he drive her instead of letting his cousin do it. Anyway, he'd been drinking. In her anger she hadn't even considered that. In the end, she followed Fitzsnobbiam to the car park and got into his car. It was the simplest thing to do, especially as her head had begun to throb in earnest.

They drove up the hill from the pub and turned left on Comox Avenue in silence.

"I thought you had something you wanted to say," Elizabeth said finally. He'd have her home in a couple of minutes - when was he planning on having this important talk?

"I do, but I can't talk and drive at the same time. Would it be okay if I pulled over somewhere?"

"Sure, but I do want to get home soon - that was the point of my leaving early."

"I understand. This should only take a couple of minutes." He pulled off to the side of the road after rounding the turn onto Glacierview Drive. "I just want to clear things up about us before this SOD business makes everything go crazy."

"Us?" Elizabeth was at a total loss. What on earth was he talking about?

"Us." Darcy's face was illuminated by the streetlamp he'd parked under. He looked tentative and almost vulnerable - something Elizabeth had never seen on his self-assured face before. "I know I'm crazy to have let this happen . . . . it's unprofessional . . . and full of potential for conflict of interest, but I can't help it and I really need you to know that whatever happens tomorrow - whatever results are found with this next set of samples - whatever conditions I see at your facility - whatever repercussions there may be - whatever actions I may be forced to take - it's just business, completely separate from our private relationship."

Elizabeth shivered where she sat, as the outside cold began creeping into the parked car. She stared into Fitzsnobbiam's eyes, trying to determine whether he'd had too much to drink. Nothing he had said made any sense so far. Her temples were in a fog of pain, adding to her confusion. "Our private relationship?"

Darcy gave her a crooked smile. "I know - not much has happened yet, but I'd like us to go out together and get to know each other better. Though I feel I know you quite well already, even if most of what has gone on between us has been on a business level. I want you to understand that I've never done this before - asked someone out who I've dealt with professionally. That first week when I met you and started to feel attracted, I told myself I was being an idiot letting a quick mind and a pretty face distract me from my work. And it appeared so wrong - so senseless to get caught up in something with someone from a run-down nursery I was inspecting. Like I was opening myself up to being used. But the more I saw you, the harder it was to try to stop thinking about you. About the possibilities between us. Even though your mother is a complete ditz and your younger sisters act like little tarts, and your father seems content to let everything fall down around him - you rise above all that. I've stopped fighting it - in fact, I've let myself fall pretty badly."

Elizabeth finally got it - he was trying to tell her that he liked her. That he wanted to go out with her despite the fact that she was all wrong for him and it was a totally stupid thing to do. "How incredibly flattering."

Darcy had been looking at her expectantly, as if assured of a positive reception and only awaiting confirmation that she understood exactly where he was coming from. Her cryptic answer took him aback. "What? I've just told you that I'm practically putting my job on the line because of you, and that's the answer I get?"

"You insult me and expect me to jump into your arms?"

"I'm being honest with you. Am I supposed to be happy that you manage a suspect nursery I'm inspecting? That I've already gone against my ethics a couple of times by sharing confidential information with you? That your family isn't exactly my idea of the world's most perfect in-laws? Did you want me to act like this situation was a dream come true, like some sort of fairytale? I never thought flattery would be the way to your heart, and anyway I'm above that kind of smooth talk."

Her eyes flashed. "Fairytale? It's more like a nightmare. I leave the pub because I have a headache, and you subject me to this load of BS. And then you have the nerve to say you're just being honest. If you like honesty so much, I can be just as brutal as you. I do not want to go out with you, and I never have. I don't even like you the least little bit. How could I? What have you ever done to make me like you? First you put me down because there're weeds in my nursery and I'm dressed like a hick. Then you go around the place with your nose in the air like there's a bad smell. You're so Goddamned superior all the time." Elizabeth stopped for a breath in order to control the sobs that would surely follow her burst of anger.

"So that's what you think of me," he said in a hard voice. "I can see I've made an impression."

"What do you expect? I don't know anything good about you. When I think of what you did to George!"

"Wickham? What lies has he been telling?"

"Lies! Right! You got him to take the fall for your own mistakes, just because you wanted your precious friend Charles to have the job instead of George. Luckily he's finally found work again, no thanks to you."

"There's a guy whose smooth talk has paid off."

"But that's not the worst of it. How could I like the person who has destroyed my sister's hopes? Can you deny that you deliberately separated her and Charles?"

"Why should I deny it? I went easier on him than I did on myself."

"And tore Jane's heart to shreds! Just so you could keep Charles for your sister. You are the most uncaring, arrogant, self-important person I've ever met. I wouldn't go out with you if my life depended on it."

"I'm glad we've got all this out of the way before tomorrow, just like I wanted to," he said coldly, turning the keys and starting the engine. The car jerked forward as he roughly threw it into drive. "Forget I ever said I was falling in love with you."

They were silent as he drove down the road, a little faster than the speed limit. A minute or two later he stopped at the bottom of her drive, skidding a bit in the gravel.

"I hope your headache is better in the morning."

Elizabeth said nothing. She jumped out of the car, slammed the door, and walked up her steps without looking back. She opened the front door hurriedly and closed it with a thud of finality. The tears she had been holding back broke loose then, and she ran straight to her bedroom.

Her night was spent sleeplessly as she lay in bed with the conversation in the car revolving in her head. Tylenol had dulled the pain, but nothing could take back the cruel words Fitzsnobbiam had thrown at her face in the name of love. How could he say those things about her family and still think she'd want to go out with him? What made him think he was better than her, just because he had a big deal government job and all she did was run a small nursery? And he didn't even care that he'd hurt Jane so badly - he was happy about it.

What was even harder for her to understand was how he'd fallen in love with her, like he said he had. They'd barely spent any time together - a few confrontations at the nursery, a few evenings in the same company, and a few phone calls discussing SOD issues. How could that lead to love? She looked back on all those times, all their conversations, trying to figure out what she'd done to prompt his attraction. She didn't think she'd ever been especially nice to him, and she'd never noticed him treating her with any more interest than he'd treated anyone else. Sure, Charlotte had teased her that Fitzsnobbiam liked her, but she'd never taken her seriously. Now it turned out to be true.

But love? From someone so . . . distant and reserved? Did he really know what love even was? Not that it mattered. His supposed love of her, which he'd so grudgingly given, would soon fade. Love couldn't last without encouragement - and she certainly hadn't shown him any. In fact, after all the things she'd said to him, she imagined his feelings of love must already have turned sour. It was just as well: they'd have to face each other in the morning,

She was dreading that.

~ * ~

A shower had done a little to refresh her, and two cups of strong coffee had substituted for the lack of sleep. Elizabeth sat in her office with nothing to do but wait as the minutes ticked by. It was 7:00 am. He would be meeting her at 8:00. It was an inevitable evil that couldn't be avoided - she had to go through with it, and there was really nothing that could prepare her for that.

Out of habit she turned on her computer and checked her email. There were a few business memos and some spam, but one email alone caught her attention.

dfitz@telus.net Please Read This

What did he think he could write to her that she would want to read? She moved the mouse indicator over the delete button and was about to right click, when she changed her mind. If it was more of what she'd got the night before she could delete it quite easily after skimming it over. It was best to know his mood before seeing him - she'd prefer not to have another confrontation.

She checked the time of the email - it had been sent in the wee hours of the morning. Apparently Fitzsnobbiam had been unable to sleep too.

With a certain amount of trepidation she double clicked his name to open the email, and began to read.

Elizabeth.

I'm not writing this email to bother you by repeating things you clearly have no interest in. We can forget all that. I do feel it necessary, however, to set matters straight on a couple of misconceptions you have. I know you are fair enough to give me the opportunity and not delete this at once.

'So, he's going to guilt me into reading this,' she thought. 'See if you can set me straight, buddy, but I doubt anything you have to say can change what I believe.'

You accused me of two quite different things. One, if I understand correctly, that I broke Charles and your sister up so that he would go out with my sister. And two, that I got George Wickham fired to hide my own incompetence.

I freely admit that I separated Charles and your sister. I didn't want to see him hurt, and he'd fallen for her in a big way. From what I could see, she had no deep feelings for him. I won't repeat here what I said last night about other members of your family. Though I don't place Jane in the came category, I still felt associations of that kind were best to be avoided. I also suspected that she might have encouraged Charles to please her mother.

"I'm not reading this crap!" Elizabeth muttered. She shoved her chair back and walked over to the window to stare out across the parking lot. Dark was giving way to a grey morning. 'How dare he say things like that about Jane? She's the sweetest . . . and what made him think he could tell how she feels?' She leaned against the cold glass for a few minutes to calm herself down before going back to the email.

If I was wrong about this, I'm sorry, but I assure you I only acted in Charles' best interest. He's been hurt badly before and I admit that I have a tendency to be overprotective of him. As for my sister - she is still very young. She's not quite eighteen and in her first year of university. Charles is twenty-five. I wouldn't promote a relationship between them, other than their friendship. If in the future it develops in a romantic direction, that's up to them. I have no idea where you got the idea I was trying to get them together.

As for George Wickham, what I have to say about him isn't pleasant. I'm not telling you any of this with the intention of hurting you, if you do feel something for him, but if that is the case, it's better that you know the truth about him. He is very good at making friends and gaining trust, especially with women. He does have trouble maintaining the charade, though.

He got his job at the FHA mainly through the use of his powers of persuasion. His credentials aren't worth the paper they are written on. His first supervisor was completely infatuated with him and he was able to cover up his ineptitude by blaming most of his blunders on other people. When he became a member of my team he wasn't so lucky. He continually took short cuts in his work, stretched his lunch breaks, and over used his expense account. He didn't get much accomplished, but what work he did do was slip shod. There was no care and attention taken, and no interest in accuracy. Because of his bad work habits, I kept a close watch on him.

He was not fired in a cover up or because I wanted Charles on my team; he was fired because I discovered that he often wrote phyto-sanitary certificates for exports without making proper inspections of the plants in question. It was his way of making a little extra money on the side. He was charged with fraud and served a suspended sentence because it was a first offence. There were also incidents with female employees and clients. To my knowledge he never went beyond legal limits, but he used these women as it suited him.

When you told me he was working for the NTA, I was surprised they had hired him, given his track record. I probably should have told them about his history, but I know they had a hard time staffing the recall and the certification program on such short notice. I hoped that he'd learned his lesson, and decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and not hold his past against him. I might have made a huge mistake.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I'm sorry for any distress I may have caused you. When we meet in the morning I promise to keep to business and not bring any of this up.

Darcy

As Elizabeth continued to read the email, she went from doubt, to incredulity, to disgust with herself for being so easily beguiled. When she finished reading, her mind still dazed, she began again, and found her reaction to the first half of the email to be less volatile. The second half just made her want to curl up and hide from embarrassment.

She should have noticed the warning flags about George's behaviour from the beginning, but she had been oblivious to them. And why? Simply because he had warm, honey-brown eyes and an appealing smile. She'd been flattered by his obvious interest. Flattered by his little trick with the clippers. And all the time he'd been using the tools of his trade to manipulate her. And later, when she'd got over her infatuation, she'd still made excuses for his flirting. She'd dismissed his familiar attitude as him just being George. He was engaged to someone else and flirting with her - she really should have been appalled. And she didn't doubt that if she'd ever shown her willingness to continue their relationship, he'd have been all too ready to oblige. Fiancée or no fiancée.

As for Darcy Fitzwilliam, her mind was in turmoil about him. She couldn't forgive him for dismissing Jane's feelings the way he did, or for his interference. But she knew she had misjudged him in many other respects. Reserved he might be, and officious - but he wasn't unfair or dishonest. He'd been open in his dealings with her, and not manipulative. He really had passed confidential information on to her, and not for some governmental subterfuge. But because he'd wanted to set her mind at ease, just like he told her. And maybe he was too much of a stickler for rules, but he'd pushed the rules to the limits out of kindness - not to get anything from her.

Elizabeth felt bad for some of the unnecessarily hurtful things she'd said to Darcy. And ashamed that she'd been such a poor judge of character; that she'd decided to hate one man because she'd felt insulted and like another because she'd been flattered, only to be blinded both times to each man's real worth. She still didn't like Darcy and certainly didn't want to go out with him, but she no longer had such a strong antipathy for him. And she had no interest in referring to him as Fitzsnobbiam anymore.

She looked at the clock. It was 7:55, and she knew Darcy would be absolutely punctual. She had five minutes before she had to face him, and now, after reading the email, she felt it would be even more of an ordeal than she had previously anticipated.

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