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Time of the Season
[wip - modern/PG13]

Chapter Eleven

Elizabeth decided that rather than sit inside and wait the last five minutes, she would go outside and meet Darcy in the parking lot. The air was misty and damp, but it wasn't actually raining. She wrapped her scarf more tightly around her neck and tucked the ends into the collar of her jacket. She held a clipboard in one hand. Upon it was the nursery map marked with all forty sample locations.

Darcy's car pulled into the parking lot a moment later. He got out and put on his white disposable overalls before going over to greet her. His glance slipped across her face without making contact as he said good morning.

"I read your email just now," she said.

"Well, I'd better get started then. I'm going to have to take samples from these twelve locations." He held out a list.

It was obvious he'd meant what he said about sticking to business only and not bringing the subject up. Elizabeth felt relief rush through her, but she was glad she had taken the first opportunity to at least let him know that she'd chosen to be fair. She took the list from his hand and checked it against her map.

"This doesn't make sense. I don't think you'll find the same plants tagged at all those locations."

Darcy took both the list and the map from her and did the same cross check she had done. "May I take this with me? If I can't locate all of the plants, where will I find you?"

"Right beside you," answered Elizabeth. "I'm coming out with you."

Darcy turned to Elizabeth suddenly and his eyes met hers for a millisecond before dropping. "Are you sure you want to? I can manage on my own."

"Before I even knew who was coming to do the sampling I'd decided I was going to go along with them. This affects the nursery's future and I want to be as involved as I can. The fact that you are the sampler makes no difference to my decision. I've got a business to run."

Darcy nodded without looking at her again. "I'll get my sample bag."

They walked to greenhouse number three in silence. Elizabeth led Darcy to the red flagging tape that was tied to a branch at the corner of a block of plants, half way up the bed.

"Sample seven was taken from here, according to this. It's the first one on your list."

"But this rhodo is Unique, not Bow Bells. Could the tape have been moved?"

"No - everyone working here knew not to move the flagging tape. And the only Bow Bells we have are in greenhouse two, not here. I think it's more likely that George got mixed up with the names."

Darcy nodded grimly. He sanitised his hands and pulled on a pair of gloves, then he took a zip lock from the side pouch of his cooler bag. He leaned over and examined the rhodos and then randomly picked ten leaves from the block of plants. "I'm supposed to look for symptomatic material," he said. "But these plants look nice and healthy to me."

"Positive results have come from plants showing no symptomatology, haven't they?"

"It has happened a few times in the case of rhodos." He sanitised his hands again before zipping the bag closed, then he removed the rubber gloves and put them in a disposal bag. He treated his hands one more time, took a permanent marker and made some notes on the zip lock, then placed it in the cooler compartment. He gave the block of plants a cursory glance over and said, "Where to next?"

"Greenhouse four, over there." Elizabeth pointed.

They went to all twelve sites and followed the same procedure. Generally, the names on the list did not agree one hundred percent with the name of the plants flagged. And in a couple of cases they were different plants entirely.

"Why was George doing this job when he doesn't know his plants at all?" Elizabeth cried in exasperation, as the last block of plants on their list turned out to be maples instead of oaks.

"He has no scruples," said Darcy. "But I'm afraid that the problem is more complex than George not knowing his plants."

"What do you mean?"

"I can't say until I know for sure. Just leave it to me." He didn't look at her but studied the branches and stem of the young tree in front of him.

There was that secretive attitude again. Elizabeth grit her teeth and looked heavenward. Then she asked, "How are you going to take a sample from leafless trees?"

"I'm looking for cankers and lesions in the bark. I can take a scraping." He walked along the row of trees, eyes trained. "There's nothing," he called from the end of the row, but I'll take a few scrapings anyway, if you don't mind. I'll be careful not to damage the maples."

"Do what you need to do," said Elizabeth. "As long as there's something you can test. I don't want to be slapped with a quarantine till spring."

"That's what I'm trying to avoid." Darcy worked his way down the row. When he was back beside Elizabeth he held up the zip lock bag and said, "See, they are quite small. All the lab needs is ten different leaves or, in this case, bark samples that are big enough to take a hole punch to."

"So that's the last sample. You're finished now?"

"I should be but . . . I don't want any mistakes. With all the naming problems we've encountered today, I'd like to take samples from the rest of the sampling locations. He might have mixed all his numbers up too."

"I'm for doing the job right, no matter how long it takes," said Elizabeth.

"Isn't this keeping you from other things?"

"Nothing's as important as this."

Elizabeth looked at the map, and they worked their way back, Darcy sampling while she found the next batch of plants marked by red flagging tape. They worked in near silence, only speaking when necessary. Every so often Elizabeth would watch Darcy when he was intent upon his work. He looked strained. There were times when she thought his eyes were on her too, but whenever she turned to see if it were the case, he was looking somewhere else. It took a little more than three hours to finish sampling.

When they returned to the parking lot, Elizabeth offered Darcy a coffee. She wouldn't have been surprised if he refused, but he accepted. She went into the office to prepare them both a cup while he went to his car to complete the sanitation process and put the samples on ice in a large cooler in his trunk. When she brought out his steaming cup, he was rinsing his hands under a hose.

"Getting rid of the Purell build-up," he said, drying them on a towel. He took the proffered coffee and sipped it. "Thanks."

"Thank you for going to all that trouble. You did much more than you needed to."

"I'd have done the same anywhere I had the same concerns," he said dismissively.

"Yes, I can see that you would." She felt awkward, standing there in the parking lot, not knowing what to say next as Darcy silently drank his coffee, looking off somewhere in the middle distance. "So - what happens with the samples now? Do you ship them by Purolator?"

"Nothing can go by Purolator on a Friday - it could get stuck somewhere over the weekend with no refrigeration. No - I'm driving them back to the Victoria FHA office today. They'll be shipped by air to our lab in Ottawa as soon as possible."

"You're going back to Victoria? I thought there were other places up island you had to sample after the weekend."

"No. I only came up here to take your samples."

She turned and stared at him. "Just mine?"

"Yes - I wanted to be sure they were handled correctly. I'm actually investigating a different aspect of our current P. ramorum problems instead, and have to make a trip to the mainland." He passed his empty coffee cup to her. "Take care."

Before turning towards his car he looked into her upturned face. His grey eyes held hers for a few painful moments. Elizabeth felt her breath catch in her throat.

"As soon as we know anything you'll be informed," he said. He got into his car and was soon driving out of the parking lot and up towards the road.

Elizabeth stood watching the driveway long after he'd gone. All morning she'd only thought about her own feelings - how difficult it was to have to deal with Darcy after all the words that had passed between them the night before and the revelations of the email she'd read in the morning. She'd only regretted her spiteful reaction for the embarrassment it had caused her. She hadn't taken his feelings into account at all, besides thinking that his anger might make the situation that morning even more difficult for her. But his pain was just as real as hers. And that one look had shown her how deeply he was hurting.

~ * ~

The next two weeks Elizabeth spent most of her waking hours caught between wondering about the progress of the new tests, and going over that awful conversation in the car with Darcy, and the surreal three hours she had spent sampling with him the following morning. It was difficult to admit how fully she had misjudged him, but as she became more accepting of the fact, she found that her new insights cast every aspect of his behaviour in a different light.

She could now see that what she had taken as arrogance and a superior attitude was just his serious focus on doing his job as diligently as possible. His reserve she had interpreted as snobbery, his pride as vanity, his humour as mockery. She'd taken pleasure in mistrusting his kindnesses. She'd been completely blind to every one of his good qualities.

And with this new, clear-thinking approach, she realised that he was the kind of person she could like. It hurt when she remembered his words, so hollow and stark, forget I ever said I was falling in love with you. She felt awed that she could unwittingly have instilled feelings of love in him, and though she didn't want his love, or love him in return, she was saddened that she'd cast it aside so harshly. She was sorry that it was something that needed to be forgotten. She thought about him, somewhere on the mainland, doing whatever top secret investigating he was doing, and hoped that he still cared a tiny bit for her.

She was contemplating this quixotic attitude one morning as she checked her email. There were promotional fliers from suppliers trying to sell new and improved products, queries from buyers wanting to know how long they would have to wait for orders, and a few emails from other nurseries suffering under the same restrictions as Glacierview, airing their grievances. She'd just finished reading one of these when a new message popped up. It was from dfitz. She clicked it open, her heartbeat quickening as she did so.

Elizabeth

If he should contact you, I would advise you not to have dealings with George Wickham anymore. He has been fired by the NTA for intentionally falsifying samples, cover ups, negligence and incompetence. His actions put the entire project at risk. Our findings at your nursery helped uncover and prove exactly what he had been up to. We believe that most of the suspicious positives were the result of his actions; he was the sampler for almost every one of the nurseries affected.

As far as I can determine he never bothered to follow proper sanitation procedures. When the weather was bad, he collected samples as quickly and easily a he could, often in advance, and then falsified the information on the bags and flagging tape. He operated with complete disregard for everyone and everything. His only goal was to make as much money as he could with as little effort a possible.

I'm confident that the results of the latest samples I took at Glacierview will turn out to be negative and your current worries will be over.

Darcy

Elizabeth didn't know what she had expected to read in the email. Possibly the results of the sampling or an explanation for another delay. But certainly not this. She was amazed at George's total irresponsibility - for him it seemed nothing was sacred. The disease threat hadn't been taken seriously. Didn't he understand the magnitude of destruction that could have resulted from his actions? Blocks and blocks of nursery stock destroyed and businesses ruined, livelihoods shattered? The spread of a disease that had the potential to devastate native species in the wild? It was unbelievable that he could have been so callous and selfish. Then she remembered that there were a few times when he'd made comments that showed he thought the whole program a farce and a waste of time. He'd corrected himself every time - made it seem like a joke. He'd always been ready to commend her on the way she took it all so seriously. She hated all this further proof of how easily he had duped her.

'Never again, buster,' she said to herself.

The next day she received a call from Lou at the FHA.

"Hi Elizabeth, remember me?"

"Sure, Lou. Please tell me you have my results."

"I do. Darcy just put them on my desk and asked me to call you ASAP."

Elizabeth was surprised at how disappointed she felt that Darcy hadn't phoned her himself. In the past all she ever wished was for someone else from the FHA office to call her. "Is it good news?"

"Yes! All the tests were negative. Your quarantine is lifted. The NTA will be sending you your certificate as soon as they get their paperwork done. Which shouldn't take too long now that George Wickham doesn't work there anymore. Did you hear about him?"

"Thanks. That's wonderful news." Elizabeth felt like a huge weight had fallen and she was floating free. "I heard about George too. What he did was . . . terrible . . . incredible."

"Yeah. What a rotten creep, eh? All the time he came on like he was so nice. I always knew what a sh*t he was, though, because he'd been fired from here a couple of years ago. His fiancée dumped him right away, of course. Anyway I'm glad I could give you the good news. Nice to talk to you again."

"Bye."

Elizabeth could hardly believe that her month of ordeal was finally over. Her plants were healthy and the business was safe. And to top it all off, Jane was arriving home that afternoon. She got on the phone and called Mary at the florist.

"Celebration time!"

"Because it's my last day working here and I'm coming back to the nursery on Monday?"

"Not that. Because we're disease free! No more quarantine! We can sell plants again."

"So, where're we going?"

"Jane loves Tita's."

"Tita's it is, then."

Elizabeth ran up to the house and shared the news with her parents next.

"I told you all along things would work out Beth," said her father, kissing her on the cheek. "But it's good to see my cheerful Elizabeth back. You were dragging yourself around here with such a hangdog expression on your face that if I hadn't've known better I'd've sworn you were crossed in love. But that's your sister Janie's area of expertise." He sighed.

Mrs Bennet was ecstatic. "We need to have a grand season opening sale! We could hang streamers and serve punch and have balloons for the kiddies, and a free pair of gardening gloves with a twenty-five dollar purchase. Those really cheap gardening gloves that we ordered so many of a couple of years ago. You know - the tacky ones that no one wants to buy. But we should wait till my new shipment of Italian bird baths comes in."

"We're opening Monday, mom, with no fanfare."

"Thank God those ugly Closed for the Season signs will come down at any rate," said Mrs Bennet, disappointed. "They brought on my depression you know. And my insomnia. I haven't been able to sleep a wink the entire month."

"You should have a good sleep tonight then, dear," said her husband.

"Tonight? Are you crazy? How will I be able to sleep knowing all the work I'm going to have to do to get the garden centre ready to be open on Monday?"

Even her mother's mood swings couldn't spoil Elizabeth's happiness. She drove around the nursery removing all the flagging tape George had put up and rolled it into a tight little ball which she threw into the garbage with as much force as she could. Jane arrived and they hugged each other tightly, tears and smiles on their faces simultaneously.

"Damn I missed you," Elizabeth whispered in her sister's ear. "Such big worries and you weren't here to give me moral support."

"Serves you right for not telling me all about it on the phone."

"I want empathy and all I get is smart remarks!"

"That's because I know you," said Jane. "I'll save the empathy for someone who actually does want it."

They giggled and hugged again, then got ready to go out for dinner. They picked Mary up from work on the way to the cozy Mexican restaurant. They were seated by the fireplace; the ochre walls glowed like burnished gold in the warm light. The food was perfect. The three sisters talked happily over their meal and drank toasts to freedom, fresh starts, and good prospects.

Afterwards, when Mary had called it a night and gone to bed, Jane and Elizabeth sat together in the darkened living room, talking on a deeper level. Jane swore that she had come to terms with her loss and wasn't going to think about Charles anymore.

"He'll always be the ideal I judge other men by," she said, "but I'm over being sad. I've got no regrets. He didn't back down on any kind of commitment to me. I'm glad we had that spring and summer together - it's something I'll always cherish."

Elizabeth told Jane a little of what had passed between herself and Darcy. She didn't mention anything about Charles and how Darcy had interfered with their relationship.

"I always knew he was nice," Jane said, "I'm glad you can admit it now too. I'm sorry for him - telling you he loved you and finding out you didn't like him."

"I was b*tchy and I'm not pleased with myself, but don't feel too bad for him Jane. He's over me now. This morning he could easily have called me himself to tell me the news, but he got Lou to do it instead."

"Do I hear a tinge of regret in your voice, Beth?"

Elizabeth had to admit to herself that she did feel regret. But what was it she regretted the most? That she had caused Darcy pain? That he had proved her a bad judge of character? That with all his good qualities he still had a major flaw because he'd hurt Jane? Or was it mainly that he had got over her so quickly?

Chapter Twelve

It was almost March. Elizabeth had registered for the workshop that was to take place in Nanaimo on the first Saturday of the month. She had received her information package and workbooks in the mail and she was reviewing them in her office. Everything seemed to be pretty straightforward from her perspective, but she had to admit she'd been more deeply involved in the program than most growers she knew, mainly because of her bad experience with the suspicious positives and her desire to make her nursery as safe from threat of the disease as possible.

Her office door opened and a familiar face peered in.

"Hey babe! How's everything going?"

Her gut reaction was to tell George to get lost and stay lost, but it was hard to say those words to his eagerly smiling face.

"Do I get to come in?"

"Sure. What are you doing here?"

He pulled the door closed behind him and walked up to her desk, sitting casually on one corner of it. "I missed you."

"And you expect me to believe that's why you're here?"

"I knew that if anyone still believed in me, it'd be you. I've been slandered pretty badly this time. But you know what our friend Fitzsnobbiam is like. He couldn't rest till he'd had me framed and disgraced. Because of him I've lost my job, my girl - everything."

"I've come to know Darcy a little better than I did the last time you were here. He's got integrity - something you don't have a clue about."

"Fitzsnobbiam's wrapped you around his little finger at last, eh? Well I guess he had to cover all my exits when he threw me to the wolves. He's a great manipulator."

"I thought I was so witty when I invented that nickname, but I was just being immature, so drop it, okay? I don't know what you want from me, but bad mouthing Darcy isn't going to get you anywhere."

"I thought we were still friends, Elizabeth. I'd hoped we could go out again, but I can see you're not in the mood."

"No, I'm not, George. Was there anything else, or can I get back to my books?"

He picked up the binder that was open in front of her and flipped through it. "I helped develop this manual and didn't get one bit of credit for it," he said, a note of bitterness creeping into his voice. "I've been blackballed, Elizabeth. Without references no one will hire me. I was hoping you'd put in a good word with that landscaping company you do so much business with."

"Forsters? Why would I be so mean to my best customer? Look George, we both know what you did. If any prospective employer calls me about you, I'll tell them the truth."

"That Darcy really did a number on you, didn't he?"

"George, you only have yourself to blame for the situation you're in. Could you please leave now?"

He put the binder back down and got up from her desk. The soulful look he attempted to affect with his honeyed gaze only made him look a little sick. His smile stiffened to a sneer. His "See you 'round, babe," rang hollowly in Elizabeth's ears long after he'd left the office.

"It's hard to believe I got taken in by that shallow worm," she said to herself, laying her head in her hands.

A few minutes later Liddie burst into the office. "What's wrong with you?" she yelled. "I just saw George leaving. Why won't you give him a reference?"

"Because he's a no good, lying cheat who almost lost us our nursery, and what he did could have spread the disease throughout the industry and wiped out businesses all over the province and destroyed all kinds of plants in the wild."

"Big deal! All that sudden oak death stuff is bull. The government just wants to make more money with all their stupid regulations. It would be awesome if George worked for Forsters. If you don't recommend him, I will."

Elizabeth groaned. "Luckily Bob's not going to listen to you. And I don't want you to have anything to do with George, understand?"

"Fat chance anyway - he's left. You sure know how to spoil a good thing, prissy pants."

"You'll get over it."

Liddie slammed the door and left. Elizabeth shrugged and went back to her books.

~ * ~

Elizabeth walked through the hotel lobby, following the signs that said Nursery Trades Association - Phytothera ramorum Workshop. She'd driven to Nanaimo the evening before and spent the night with a college friend, Elinor Ferrars. The boardroom where the workshop was being staged was already filling up. She quickly found a seat and then looked around to see who else was attending. She recognised a couple of growers from her area and nodded to them. Her eyes travelled to the presenters' table. Sitting in the middle, talking to a plump, blonde lady, was someone she knew all too well.

She took advantage of the fact that Darcy was occupied to watch him. She'd never really paid much attention to his looks before. He'd always been someone she disliked having around and she'd ignored him as much as possible. That last day, when they'd gone out to take the samples together, he'd been dressed in heavy work clothes and the white coveralls. And she'd been so focussed on trying to keep her mind on nothing but the business at hand that she hadn't been able to look at him.

Today he was wearing a black shirt and jacket, but no tie. His dark hair was slightly long and hung down a bit over his face. She'd always admitted he was good looking, but before this she'd never realised quite how handsome he was.

And once he'd almost fallen in love with her. It was hard to believe.

He looked up and caught her staring, but she couldn't look away. Their eyes held across the length of the room and he smiled slightly. She returned a tentative smile, and then his attention was called away. The meeting came to order and Elizabeth worked at settling her racing pulse. If his look had taken her by surprise, her reaction to it had surprised her even more.

She missed all the introductions, but was able to focus properly again by the time the first speaker began. When Darcy finally spoke, she was impressed by the clear way he presented his information, and his depth of knowledge on all aspects of the subject. He answered questions thoughtfully, taking care to distinguish between opinion and fact. Though she asked no questions, a couple of times during the discussion his eyes caught hers and it was as if he were talking directly to her.

After the initial presentation, there was a buffet lunch to be followed by workshops where they were to break up into groups and go into smaller rooms. Elizabeth stood just inside the dining hall, scanning the room for a table to sit at.

"Would you like to join my table?" asked Darcy, coming up behind her.

"Yes, um . . . that would be nice."

"Good." He seemed a bit awkward himself as he took her elbow and guided her through the busy room. "How do you like the workshop so far?"

"Good - excellent. But I didn't see your name on the brochure."

"No . . . Edmund Bertram is sick. I was called in at the last minute." He hesitated and then continued. "Would it have made a difference if . . . if you had known?"

Elizabeth took a deep breath and then came out with, "I would have looked forward to the workshop even more."

He stared at her. "Really? Why . . . I mean . . ."

"You didn't call me to give me the results, but I wanted to . . . to thank you for doing such a good job and everything."

They arrived at the table so whatever Darcy was about to say in response was cut off. Instead he said, "I think you know almost everybody here, except my sister Gina."

Charles, Carrie and Lou were sitting there, along with a pretty girl with long chestnut hair.

Elizabeth greeted the others and then held out her hand to Gina. "I'm Elizabeth Bennet."

"Gina Fitzwilliam. I've heard a lot about you," the girl answered shyly.

"You have?" Elizabeth glanced around at Darcy and then at the other occupants of the table.

"Good things," said Charles, laughing. "Only good things. It's great to see you, Elizabeth. I don't think I've seen you since the middle of last August when I . . ." His voice trailed off.

"Something like that," said Elizabeth, taking the seat Darcy had pulled out for her. She turned to Gina again. "Are you here for the workshop?"

"Oh no! We're just here for lunch. Carrie and Lou brought me on a shopping trip."

"We got the idea when Darcy was suddenly roped into this thing," said Carrie. "Nanaimo is so boring without friends around."

"I'm attending the workshop," said Charles. "Wandering around a mall looking at dresses and shoes is not my idea of fun."

They all went up to the buffet table to get their food and then sat back down. The conversation flowed about the same as it always had when Elizabeth had been out with them in the past, only Jane wasn't there to take up Charles' interest. He didn't pay any more attention to Gina than he did to Lou or Carrie, and Elizabeth got the impression he would have spoken as much to her if she had been sitting closer.

Elizabeth didn't talk much at all. She was nervous about saying anything to Darcy and he was quiet himself. She tried talking to Gina, but got little more than smiles and one-word answers out of her. Carrie was telling Darcy all about the clothes they had bought but getting hardly any attention in return. She decided to change her strategy and addressed Elizabeth.

"George Wickham isn't engaged any longer, did you know?"

Darcy looked up, listening more intently now.

"Yes," she said shortly.

"And he lost his job." Carrie shot a smug glance at Darcy.

Elizabeth snorted. "Serves him right."

Carrie apparently wasn't getting the results she wanted so, in a last ditch attempt, she said, "I expected a bit more sympathy from you, Elizabeth. He told me that the two of you were hot and heavy at one time."

"Carrie," Darcy said warningly.

Elizabeth paled. "Hot and heavy?" She was close to stuttering, but she knew she had to keep her dignity and somehow get through it. "In his dreams."

"You should really try this rosemary chicken, Elizabeth," said Lou, leaning across the table. "It's amazing! They've got a great chef here."

"The pasta salad is good too," said Charles.

"Let's go see if there's any left," said Darcy. "Coming Elizabeth?"

"Sure."

When they reached the buffet tables, Elizabeth said, "I don't really want any more food."

"Just pick a dessert, then. I want to apologise for Carrie."

"It's not your fault."

"Yes it is. She was trying to make you look bad in front of me."

Elizabeth pretended to study the dessert choices. "I never . . . I did go out with George a couple of times, but that was it. I'm sorry I ever believed anything he said. I was stupid to buy his line, but your email, the one you sent after our . . . argument - it made me see things clearly."

Darcy put a couple of cookies on his plate. "Would you like to go to dinner tonight, after the workshop, or are you driving back to Courtenay?" He glanced at her, as if trying to gage her reaction.

"I'm staying at a friend's, but she wouldn't mind." Elizabeth chose a dessert without knowing what it was. "Do you mean with everybody?"

"No - just the two of us. If you'd rather not . . ."

She glanced up at him for a second and smiled before looking away. "I'd like that."

~ * ~

The rest of the workshop was uneventful. Elizabeth was not in the same group as Darcy, or even Charles. She did all the exercises with only half her mind on the questions, which didn't matter because it was all so easy. She'd done her homework and most of the things addressed she'd already implemented in her nursery.

Afterwards she went back to the boardroom to wait for Darcy. She stayed to the side while he spoke with his colleagues and packed up his briefcase. When he joined her he said, "Where are you parked? I thought we could drop our stuff off in our cars and then walk along the harbour for a bit. We should be able to find somewhere good to eat when we're ready."

"Okay. I'm in the underground lot."

"I'm right outside here. Come with me while I get rid of my briefcase, then we can go to your car together."

Elizabeth was afraid things would get awkward between them again, like they had been earlier, but this time she found it easier to make eye contact and talk naturally. All those memories that had been surfacing earlier stayed in the back of her mind where they belonged. And it seemed the same for him. By the time they reached her car they were joking and laughing. She unlocked it and tossed her bag in, and was about to lock it up again when her cell phone rang.

"I'll check who it is," she said. She pulled the phone out of her purse and glanced at the screen. "It's Jane. I'll only be a moment." She flipped her cell open and held it to her ear. "Hi Jane, what's up?"

"Oh Beth! I'm glad I got you. I've been trying for a couple of hours."

"I had my phone turned off during the workshop."

"Kate's just told us something terrible that Liddie's done and mom's having hysterics and . . . how soon can you be home?"

Elizabeth glanced over at Darcy. He had walked a little way from the car to give her some privacy. "Jane, I have plans for this evening. I'm coming home first thing in the morning."

"We need you to come now."

"What did that little idiot do this time?"

"Apparently she's been sneaking out to the pub at the Courtenay Hotel with that George Wickham guy and . . ."

Elizabeth cut Jane off. "The Coho? That's a stripper bar and she's only sixteen! I told her to stay away from him."

"Since when does she listen to any of us? Kate says that Liddie was even going there with him the first time he was in town."

"When he was trying it on with me? The slimy b*stard! I'll strangle him - but can't you and Mary and dad deal with mom?"

"Beth, Liddie's taken off with George. She text messaged Kate that she's going to Victoria to live with him."

Elizabeth leaned against the car. "Oh God!"

"Can you come, please? We need you."

"I'll be home in an hour, Jane. Hang in there, okay?"

"Don't speed."

Elizabeth closed her phone. Don't speed, Jane had said. Impossible not to. She opened her car door and then remembered Darcy. She wiped at the tears that had suddenly sprung into her eyes, and looked over at him. He had begun moving towards her, a look of concern spread across his face.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I have to go home."

"What's wrong? Is there anything I can do to help?"

Elizabeth figured he'd heard so much of her side of the conversation that she couldn't hide it from him. He'd find out soon enough anyway. People talk, George especially. Carrie's snide comment was proof of that. "My stupid sister Liddie has run off to Victoria to live with George. She's only sixteen! My mom's freaking out and Jane's beside herself with worry. I have to be with them."

"Sixteen? My God! What's being done?"

"I have no idea what my dad's planning to do, but you can bet we're going to try to find her somehow and bring her home." Elizabeth got into her car.

"Wait! You're too upset to drive now. Why don't we get a sandwich and a coffee somewhere first?"

"I'm okay, Darcy, really. I promise I'll go to the first fast food drive through I see." She shut her door and turned on the ignition, then pressed the power button to lower her window.

He was at the side of her car in one stride. Leaning over, he reached through the open window and covered her hand on the steering wheel with his own. "Be careful."

She nodded, too choked up to speak. With a thin smile and a little wave of her hand, she backed out of the parking stall and headed for the exit. The image of Darcy, reflected in her rear view mirror, standing straight and still, stayed with her for the entire drive.

She didn't stop for food and coffee as she had promised, but there was a Mars bar in her glove compartment that she fished out and ate at the first red light. She was half way home, driving twenty kilometres above the speed limit, when she remembered Elinor, who was expecting her to stay over for another night. She slowed down, made a quick call with a lame excuse, and then concentrated on the road again. It was almost 7:00 pm when she turned into her own driveway. She'd never driven home from Nanaimo that fast before.

She parked the car and laid her head on the steering wheel. The adrenalin was beginning to wear off now she was home, and the thought she'd been holding back in the depths of her mind came bursting forth. All this has completely blown it for me. I'm never going to see him again. It wasn't until that very moment she realised just how much she did want to see Darcy Fitzwilliam again.

Chapter 13

Elizabeth arrived home to quite a scene. Her dad was sitting in a chair, his head in his hands. Her mother was running back and forth in the kitchen, banging pots and pans around as she wailed about losing her favourite daughter.

"Nobody cares that Liddie is all alone in a strange city with that man! She must be so frightened!"

"She wanted to go, mom," said Kate. "She's happy."

"Happy? How can she be happy when she's broken my heart? This is just like that story I was reading in Star the other day. They never saw their runaway daughter again."

"Try and be positive mom, please," said Jane. "Dad will have her back as soon as possible, you'll see."

Mr Bennet raised his head up as Elizabeth came into the room. "Congratulate yourself, Elizabeth. You were right and I should have listened to you."

"Dad! None of us expected something like this to happen."

"Let me admit that I've failed as a father. It's not everyday you find me owning up to a truth like that."

"Talking that way won't help any. What are you going to do?'

"You should have gone already," cried Mrs Bennet, putting away a stew pot and then taking it out of the cupboard again. "And stopped Liddie from being with that man all night."

"How? I don't have a clue where they are." He turned to Elizabeth. "I've contacted Sam Gardiner. He says I can stay at his place. I'm going to Victoria in the morning. You know this George guy better than any of us. Any idea what part of Victoria he'd go to? Did he mention any friends there?"

"I'm sorry, dad. I've been thinking all the way home. He never told me anything. The only people I know that he knows in Victoria have nothing to do with him."

"He'll get her pregnant!" wailed Mrs Bennet. "My little girl an unwed mother! I'm not ready to be a grandmother."

"Liddie's on the pill, mom," said Kate.

"She's what?" yelled Mr Bennet.

Kate turned white. "She's on the pill, but she's never . . . it was a precaution in case - that's all."

"And what about you?"

"Me?" cried Kate. "Why are you asking me? I'm not the one who ran off with a guy."

"But you and Liddie do everything together."

"No, Dad. I just like to have fun - have guys look at me and flirt and stuff, but I don't have a boyfriend or anything. I'm not easy."

"You won't have a boyfriend for some time to come either. You're grounded for ten years."

"Ten years?" Kate began to sob. "That's so unfair. I never did anything, Liddie did."

"And you're not going to do anything either, if I can help it."

"Has anyone eaten supper?" asked Elizabeth.

Jane shook her head.

"Kate," said Elizabeth, "how about you and I cook some food? Jane, can you take mom to the living room? Dad, can you check the timers on the sprinkler system? They've been acting up lately. I'll call you when supper's on the table."

The next day a stern Mr Bennet left at 7:00 am for the three hour drive to Victoria. Mrs Bennet had succumbed to her sleeping pills and stayed in bed till noon, giving Jane and Elizabeth a mercifully quiet morning. Kate sulked in her bedroom. Mary appeared at breakfast, her head inside a book.

"You were a lot of help yesterday," said Elizabeth.

"Figured you'd handle it better than me. Looks like you did."

"When mom's up she'll be ranting about how dad had better punch George out and worrying that George will kill him, all in the same breath. I'm going to be checking on the cuttings and Jane's going out for groceries, so you're stuck with keeping her calm."

"What about Kate?"

"She's grounded for ten years, can't leave her room." Elizabeth grinned.

"I'm taking Kate to Superstore with me," said Jane. "She needs to get out of the house and stop feeling like a victim."

"I sure hope dad finds Liddie fast," said Mary. "I don't know how long I can take this craziness."

Unfortunately Mr Bennet had no luck in Victoria at all. After a week of cruising the city, stopping random people on the street and showing them a picture of Liddie, asking if they'd seen her, he gave up and came home.

"I've left our number at all the homeless shelters and women's crisis centres. I've reported her missing to the police. I've been to every grungy flop house I could find. I don't know what more I can do." He sat on the couch, looking worn out and grey, and stared off into space. "Sam's going to keep an eye out. She hasn't contacted you and told you not to tell, Kate, has she?"

"I'd let you know first thing if she did. I've tried calling her cell hundreds of times but it's turned off or something."

"Her charger is plugged into an outlet in the kitchen," said Elizabeth.

Mr Bennet sighed and closed his eyes. "She could borrow a phone if she wanted to call. I'm sure George has one. No - she's having too much fun to give any consideration to the fact we're all worried sick about her."

The next evening the phone rang just after supper.

"It's for you, Dad," said Mary. "Sam Gardiner."

He took the call in his bedroom. He came back to the kitchen half an hour later. The girls were busy doing the dishes, but they all stopped and looked at him expectantly.

"Liddie has been found."

"Thank God!" cried Mrs Bennet. "I hope Sam did some damage to George's pretty face."

He ignored the remark and continued. "She's spending the night with the Gardiners. I'm driving there in the morning to get her and bring her home."

"That is so good of them to take her in," said Jane.

"She's willing to come home?" asked Elizabeth. "She doesn't want to stay with George?"

"Thankfully, yes. It seems her exotic experience didn't live up to expectation. George left her."

"I'm coming with you to get our baby!" cried Mrs Bennet. "She needs her mother at a time like this. So terrible that George left her. She must be upset."

~ * ~

"Am I glad to be home!" said Liddie, as she sat down to supper with her sisters. Mr Bennet had taken a plate of food to eat in solitude in the office and Mrs Bennet was lying down after the tiring trip. "May Gardiner treated me like a child and never even let me go on her computer. Sam looked at me like I was diseased and didn't say two words to me. You'd think I'd done something wrong!"

"Well you did," said Elizabeth. "You ran off with a man at least ten years older than yourself."

"I'm not talking about that. But don't remind me of George. I thought living in Victoria with him would be fun, that's why I went. And it was at first, though my cell died and I couldn't call anyone to show off about it. We went to some nightclubs and had some drinks and then he took me back to this place. I thought it was his place, but I guess it wasn't. Anyway, I was a little drunk, so I passed out on the couch and the next thing I know it's morning and these strangers are looking at me like I'm an exhibit or something."

"Where was George?" asked Jane.

"The jerk must've just dumped me there and left. I never saw him again. The guys that lived there were pretty cool, though. They let me crash with them and gave me food and stuff, but they didn't have a computer or anything. But they had a TV and a DVD player so we watched a lot of movies. They were stoned most of the time, but I hardly touched the stuff - it made me feel weird."

"They gave you drugs?" asked Elizabeth. "What else? Did they . . . did you . . ."

"Oh God no! You're as bad as May, asking that. They weren't hot, so I wasn't interested in them. Anyway, I still thought George would come back and I told them he was my boyfriend so they never tried anything. Well nothing I couldn't handle, anyway."

"You don't know how lucky you are," said Elizabeth. "But what were you thinking? When George didn't come back, why didn't you call?"

"I figured you'd all be mad at me, so I thought I'd just hang with them for a while. Anyway, they never had a phone. But I got a bit bored after I'd seen all their movies a couple of times so when that Darcy guy came and told me he was taking me to May's place, I said okay. If I knew that May's place would be even more boring, I probably wouldn't have gone."

"Darcy?" asked Elizabeth. "What did he have to do with it?'

"Oops!" cried Liddie, covering her mouth and giggling. "I promised not to say anything. It's supposed to be a big secret."

"Why was it a secret?" Jane wanted to know.

"Don't ask me. The guy's into secrets or something. Anyway, he was sort of nice to me, even if he did dis George and tell me I shouldn't go places with him. Like I would anyway, after he dumped me, the jerk."

"How did Darcy know where you were?" asked Elizabeth.

"Who knows? I never asked him." Liddie took a big mouthful of her lasagne and savoured it. "Mmmm. This is so good after nothing but instant noodles and chocolate bars. Druggies don't cook."

"You are so exasperating!" cried Elizabeth. "What you did was stupid and dangerous and you're lucky you never got hurt. Can't you take it seriously at all?"

"Cool down," said Liddie. "I won't do it again, if that's what you're worried about. I didn't have shower till I got to May's place. Do you know how gross it is to go without a shower for over a week?"

"At least I know it's a stupid thing to do," said Kate.

"Nice to know someone has learned something from all this," said Mary.

"I can't wait till I see Sandy and Dennis next and I can tell them about those guys. One of them had dreads and these really kinky tattoos. And the other guy was so funny - he knew every line from Napoleon Dynamite and he could do that dance too. I'm not kidding you - exactly like in the movie. I think he watched it every day."

"We're not allowed to help the landscapers anymore," said Kate. "Dad says that if we want to work for the nursery, we have to stay in the potting shed and wear coveralls. I'm even grounded, thanks to you, so you must be more grounded than me."

Liddie smirked. "He says that now, Kate, but give him a week and he'll forget all about it."

Elizabeth groaned and finished her supper quickly. She'd had enough of Liddie's conversation for the evening. There was only one thing about Liddie's whole experience that she wanted more information on, and that was something Liddie appeared to have no interest in talking about. She knew her youngest sister very well and Liddie had never kept a secret in her life.

But how and why had Darcy found Liddie and taken her to May's?

~ *

After a few days stewing over the mystery, Elizabeth decided to break down and call May. The worst that could happen was that May would refuse to tell her anything.

"We were asked to keep it confidential," said May. "But now that Liddie has given most of it away I see no reason to be secretive anymore. Anyway, Sam's much happier not taking the credit for finding Liddie. That was all Darcy Fitzwilliam's doing."

"But how? Why?" asked Elizabeth.

"I don't think you need to ask why, Elizabeth. It should be perfectly obvious. According to Darcy, he was with you when you got the call about Liddie. He did it to help you out because you were so upset that your sister was in trouble. He said something about it being his fault that George had ever gone to your nursery and met your sister, because he should have told the NTA everything he knew about the guy's prior history with the FHA. I don't really see how that was his fault. It's the NTA's responsibility to check backgrounds before hiring someone."

"Yeah, he did tell me he blamed himself about that. But he was hoping George had learned his lesson."

"Darcy told us that because of having dealt with George in the past he knew some of his Victoria hangouts. He got in touch with the lady who ran the apartments George used to live at, and she admitted she'd heard from him recently. I'm guessing he had to pay a bit for that information. Anyway he tracked George down at a seedy motel and after a bit George admitted that he'd ditched Liddie with a couple of dealers he knew."

"Why didn't he call me instead of taking her to your place?"

"You'll have to ask him that. All I know is he wanted to keep his involvement quiet."

"I'm not calling him. If he didn't want me to know it's better I say nothing. What gave him the idea to take Liddie over to your house?"

"One of the places he called at looking for George was a shelter that your father had been to. Our number was left as a contact number if any information about Liddie turned up. They gave him the phone number and he called us. We told him to bring her right over as soon as he found her."

"Thank goodness it all worked out," said Elizabeth. "I thought I'd blown it, telling him, but it was for the best."

"If you're worried that the story will get out, don't be. From what I know of him, Darcy's the kind of person to keep things to himself."

"You're right. That's not what was bothering me."

"He's a good man you've got there."

"He's not my man, May. I doubt I'll ever see him again, now the SOD thing is all settled."

"Why would you think that? He's done a lot for you and I don't think it's all because of some plant disease. I've got a friend who works at the FHA - she's not that good with their secrecy policy. She told me that when Darcy brought your samples in and demanded they get shipped to the lab as a top priority, he even threatened to catch a flight to Ottawa and take them himself if they weren't put on the next plane and processed before anything else. Apparently he called the lab for the results so often that they put the samples through quickly just to shut him up. He was the one who figured out what George had been up to. He went to the NTA with all his evidence and exposed George."

"He didn't do that for me. He was just doing his job. He takes it very seriously and he's thorough."

"Believe what you want to, Elizabeth, but most people don't book off holiday days to search the sewers of Victoria for runaway teenagers unless they are emotionally involved in some way."

Elizabeth would have liked to believe May, but it didn't make sense. If Darcy had found Liddie because he still cared, he would have called her, not taken Liddie to the Gardiners'. But she couldn't really blame him for not wanting to have a relationship with someone who had a slut for a sister. It had almost seemed like he'd wanted to be friends again, before that fateful phone call. But now . . . he'd done what he thought was his responsibility. He'd found Liddie because he'd kept quiet about George. But that's as far as it went. He hadn't wanted his involvement mentioned. That proved he wanted nothing more to do with Elizabeth on a non-business level. When the yearly sampling needed to be done again, you could bet he'd send someone else to inspect Glacierview.

Chapter Fourteen

Spring is the busiest time of the year in the nursery business. Elizabeth found herself putting in twelve hour days, seven days a week, with no time left for socialisation. Not that there was anyone to socialise with at any rate. She'd lost touch with most of her friends when she'd gone off to the mainland for college, and in the year and a half since she'd got back, work had taken over her life. She saw Charlotte occasionally, but that was it. Too much time spent in Bill's company made her head ache.

She thought about Darcy Fitzwilliam a lot. There were things all over the nursery to evoke memories. Just a roll of flagging tape was enough to put his image into her mind. But the thing that impacted her the strongest was the dark blue mug she'd given him his coffee in that day they'd gone out sampling together. She put it in a drawer so that no one else would use it. She knew she was being silly but she couldn't help it.

He hadn't called her since she'd driven away from him in the hotel underground parking lot. If an FHA contact called the nursery for any reason, it was always Lou. She was friendly, but she wasn't Darcy. Elizabeth missed him, though most of their interactions had been confrontational. She owed him so much but hadn't ever had the opportunity to thank him. Calling him wasn't an option. It was clear he wanted nothing more to do with her.

She threw herself into her work harder than ever.

By summer, rumours were flying around that the FHA were going to be doing another P. ramorum survey. Anyone on their list wouldn't need to be sampled by the NTA in the fall. Elizabeth knew that the FHA wouldn't be sampling Glacierview. It only made sense that they would target larger nurseries with a higher likelihood of having suspect plant material. Her nursery had been tested only six months before and hadn't even had a positive elisa result.

When Lou called to tell her that samplers would be there the following day, she was completely surprised.

"Wish it could be me again," said Lou. "Not! Think of how hot it's going to be for the poor samplers in those horrible white coveralls."

"Do you know who will be coming?"

"You might know one or two of the team," said Lou, but she refused to divulge any more information than that.

"I think that's carrying FHA secrecy a bit too far."

"Okay, I'll give. I was only having you on anyway. Charles is one of them."

"It'll be great to see him again. Thanks Lou."

Elizabeth sat there staring at her phone in indecision after Lou had rung off. She almost called Jane to tell her the news, but then thought better of it. She knew it was too much to expect Darcy to come. As department head he couldn't waste his time with an easy inspection at an inconsequential little nursery. He had more important fish to fry. But the fact that Charles was coming spoke volumes. Either Darcy felt Charles was safe to come within Jane's radius and not get involved again, or he was subtly giving him the okay to follow his heart. Elizabeth made a quick decision and dialled Jane's number.

"Can you take the afternoon off from the flowers tomorrow? I need a favour."

"I think so. It's been pretty slow the last couple of days. What's up?"

"Kate and Liddie have gone up to Auntie Julia's and dad's got Chambe working in the back field. Mary's barricaded herself in her room, writing like mad on her novel, and refuses to come out till she gets another fifty thousand words. I've got a batch of cuttings that need potting up and I could really use some help."

"No problem, Beth. It'll be just like old times. See you after lunch."

"Come for lunch. I'll make your favourite sandwich."

"You make the best BLTs! I'll be there."

When Elizabeth got off the phone she drove around the nursery till she found Mary.

"Hey," she called. "Want to take tomorrow off and work on your novel?"

"I thought I was helping you pot cuttings."

"Not anymore. Jane's coming."

Mary came up to the truck and leaned against the door. "So suddenly I'm not good enough for you?"

"No, I'm playing matchmaker."

"Don't tell me Bill Collins has a twin brother and Char's getting you to line him up with Jane."

Elizabeth laughed. "Scary thought. No - we're being sampled tomorrow by the FHA and Lou just told me it's Charles who's coming."

"Are you sure that's a good idea? Charles hurt her big time."

"Trust me, Mary. Everything's going to work out for them. I've got a feeling."

Mary shrugged and went back to her work. Elizabeth drove to the propagation house and began preparing the soil mix for the next day.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was walking across the office when she saw the dark blue FHA van pull into the parking lot. She grabbed the site map she'd prepared for Charles and went out to meet him. He got out from the passenger side and came over to shake her hand, a grin of greeting brightening up his face.

"It's good to be here," he said, looking around expectantly.

"I'm glad it was you they sent," said Elizabeth. "Here's a site map for you and your . . ." Just then she noticed who the driver was. He'd got out of the van and was standing beside it, his still gaze directed at her. Her heart jumped directly into her throat. " . . . I didn't know Darcy was with you."

"You know him - he likes to keep an eye on me," joked Charles. "Wants to make sure I do the job right, especially here."

"Why especially here?" asked Elizabeth, wondering if she'd got it all wrong. Was Darcy still against Jane and Charles? Had he come to make sure nothing happened between them? But that made no sense - if he didn't want them to see each other he could easily have sent someone else.

"After George Wickham screwed up on your samples so badly he wants to make sure nothing like that happens to you again."

Elizabeth laughed and all the tension left her. She glanced over at Darcy to see he was suiting up in the disposable coveralls. "Time to get your alien gear on, Charles."

Darcy came over, cooler bag on his shoulder. "Hi Elizabeth," he said. "I just want to let you know that we're not sure how many samples we'll take this time. Because new host plants are being added to the list all the time, we might take samples from non hosts as well as hosts, if we see something that could be symptomatic. We'll make sure that we take at least forty, though, so the NTA doesn't have to come tidy up after us."

'So he means to keep it strictly business,' thought Elizabeth, her heart sinking. She smiled bravely and went ahead with carrying out her plan anyway. "Before the two of you get to work, I was wondering if you'd like to join me at noon up on the terrace for lunch. It's the least I can do after all you've done for me."

Charles was halfway into his disposable overalls, but he stopped and looked up, smiling. "Thanks."

Elizabeth turned to Darcy. His expression was unreadable. "Charles has already agreed so I can hardly deny him the pleasure," he said, finally. He stared at the site map for a moment. "Where is the terrace, exactly?"

"Sorry," said Elizabeth, pointing to the back end of the office. "Just up those stairs. See you both later, then."

At eleven thirty Elizabeth left her cuttings and went up to the house to wash up and prepare lunch. Soon bacon was crisping on the stove and a plate of neatly sliced tomatoes sat ready on the counter. The special herb bread she'd picked up from the bakery first thing in the morning was sliced and ready for toasting. Fresh squeezed lemonade filled a pitcher. She'd pulled out all the stops.

She was setting the table when Jane came through the house and joined her.

"Four places? Are mom and dad eating with us too?"

"Lord, I hope not," said Elizabeth.

"Who, then?"

Footsteps were heard and Charles rounded the stairs and almost bounded onto the terrace. He came to a screeching halt when he saw Jane. She was staring at him, her eyes wide, her mouth a rounded 'oh!'

Darcy looked across the two of them to Elizabeth. "Well staged," he said.

And then as suddenly as he stopped, Charles surged forward again. "Jane," he said. "I was hoping to see you. How're things?"

"Beth didn't tell me," she blurted out. "It's good to see you Charles." She glanced accusingly at Elizabeth.

"I'd better put the toast on," said Elizabeth.

"I'll help you." Darcy followed her into the kitchen. "I never took you for a schemer," he said when they were inside.

Elizabeth shoved four slices into the toaster and pulled the lever firmly down. "You saw their faces," she said defensively.

He took a step closer and smiled. "Yes. But don't forget I brought Charles here, so I've obviously done some thinking about what you said that night."

"Don't remind me of that night," she whispered.

"Would you like me to take the tomatoes outside, or are you going to put the sandwiches together first?"

Elizabeth shrugged. He'd taken her at her word, and was back to strictly business again. "Either way. I just want to give them a few more minutes alone."

He peered out the window. "Looks like they might appreciate it."

Elizabeth glanced out too. Jane and Charles were standing close together, talking earnestly. "I don't mind eating cold sandwiches," she said.

Darcy turned to her. "How've you been?"

"Busy. Non stop work." She checked the progress of the toast. "And you?" she asked tentatively.

"Travelling a lot - P. ramorum conferences in Europe, a stint in Ottawa, and then a tour of California and Oregon nurseries. I'm probably the last person you want here after that." He smiled a crooked little half smile.

'No, I want you here,' she thought. "You look pretty well decontaminated," she said. "So, how come after all that high level work you get shafted inspecting an unimportant Nursery like Glacierview? I'd have expected you to go over to the mainland and do all the biggest wholesalers."

"Your nursery is important, Elizabeth," he said. And then he tempered his statement with, "All nurseries are important, big or little."

"More FHA doublespeak," she teased to hide the flustered feelings his remark had raised. "This toast is ready. Do you think we each need one slice or two?"

He looked out the window again. "Two."

Elizabeth followed his gaze while she placed more toast in the toaster. "It doesn't look like we'll get a chance to eat lunch at all."

"I don't know about them, but the food is right here, so there's nothing stopping us."

Elizabeth laughed and picked up a knife. "Butter?" she asked.

They ate their sandwiches in the kitchen, forgetting to even check on the other two anymore. Elizabeth was picking at the last crumbs on her plate and Darcy was pouring another glass of lemonade when Jane and Charles walked into the kitchen.

"So this is where you're hiding? We wondered what happened to you guys," said Charles.

"You didn't look like you were wondering anything of the kind last time I checked," said Darcy.

Charles grinned. "I hope you've left us some food."

"The toast is cold," said Elizabeth, "and I think Darcy ate all the bacon."

"I'll fry some more," said Jane quickly.

Charles ran his hand down her arm and squeezed her fingers. "Thanks, but you don't have to. Tomato sandwiches are good."

"To you maybe, but Beth promised me BLTs and that's what I'm going to have."

Darcy looked at his watch and stood up. "I'd better get back to sampling. Don't take too long, Charles, or you'll give government workers a bad name."

"I need to plant up those cuttings." Elizabeth cleared their plates and put them in the dishwasher. "Remember you promised to help me, Jane."

Jane didn't look up from her task of laying bacon out in the fry pan, but she nodded her head.

As Elizabeth and Darcy walked down the steps together, he said, "I have to go back to Victoria tomorrow. Charles should be able to finish sampling here pretty quickly and then he's got a couple more places in the area, conveniently scheduled."

Elizabeth wanted to ask Darcy if he was coming back up island soon or heading off to the mainland, but the distance between them, which had disappeared while they were in the kitchen, had returned full force. She only nodded and then headed to the propagation house where the four-inch pots were waiting.

~ * ~

'Why did he come?' she thought to herself. 'If he's going again tomorrow? Just to see if I was right about Jane's feelings for Charles? It wasn't to see me, that's for sure.' She tried to ignore the emptiness that was welling up inside her and instead concentrated on how well Jane and Charles' initial meeting had gone. Lucky them! She sighed and tied her hair back, then started potting up the tender young plants. An hour later Jane joined her.

"I was about to phone Mary to get her butt down here - thought you'd ridden off into the sunset with Charles."

Jane pulled on a pair of gloves. "The sun doesn't set in summer until around 10:00 pm."

"Don't be so literal - you know what I meant."

"Oh Beth! It's just so great to see Charles again and know that we can be friends without the complication of emotional involvement."

Elizabeth laughed out loud. "No emotional involvement! That's a good one."

"Don't laugh at me, Beth. I mean it."

This entreaty only served to make Elizabeth laugh even harder.

That evening Jane went out with Charles, and the next night too. She never made another comment about there not being any emotional involvement. Every time Elizabeth saw her, Jane's expression was brighter and her manner more carefree.

Charles soon finished his up island sampling and had to return to Victoria, but this time there was no talk of the ills of long distance relationships or suggestions that they see other people. Instead he told Jane that he was putting in for a transfer to Parksville as soon as possible, and she began studying employment sites to see if there were florists in Victoria who were hiring.

The day he left Courtenay, Jane spent the evening with Elizabeth.

"He loves me!" she said as they strolled the beautiful grounds at Filberg Park. "He told me that he loved me last year when he left, but he didn't think that I was in love with him. Silly man."

Elizabeth kept what she knew to herself. Jane was the most forgiving person she'd ever known, but she still didn't want her to know the part Darcy had played in the break-up, just in case. There were some things even a saint couldn't forget.

~ * ~

Elizabeth was watering her newly potted cuttings when her cell phone went off. Some days she wished she could escape the darned thing, but she put down her hose and answered the cell. It was her mother.

"Beth - there's this lady here who insists on talking to you."

"A customer with a problem?"

"I think she has a problem, but she's no customer. Get up here quick."

Elizabeth sighed. Sometimes her mother was so aggravating. She refused to deal with anyone when things started getting confrontational, and the confrontation was usually caused by something that was Mrs Bennet's fault to begin with. Elizabeth would be stuck soothing ruffled feathers on both sides, not her favourite pastime in the world.

But this time Elizabeth had wronged her mother. The lady had come to the nursery specifically to see Elizabeth and she had no interest in talking about plants at all.

"Hello Mrs Dubarry," said Elizabeth as she entered the garden shop and saw who was waiting for her. "What can I do for you?"

"You can take your hands off my nephew."

Elizabeth stared at her blankly. "Pardon me?"

"Don't put on an act, Miss Bennet. I know your kind."

Elizabeth could see her mother craning her neck to hear every word between them. "I think we should go somewhere more private to discuss this," she said. "Would you like to come to my office?"

"I noticed a pretty sort of garden on the other side of the parking lot. We can talk there."

Elizabeth ushered Mrs Dubarry outside and followed her through the door. They walked across the parking lot in silence and slipped through a gap in the shrubberies.

"Which of your nephews were you referring to?" asked Elizabeth.

"Darcy of course. I'm told your sister has got her hooks into his best friend, Charles, and that you are out to catch him."

"I don't see what business it is of yours what my sister and I do," said Elizabeth, her indignation rising. "And I would have thought your nephew was old enough to decide for himself who he goes out with."

"Men are rarely ruled by their brains in such matters, especially when you young girls flaunt yourselves in such revealing outfits."

Elizabeth looked down at her work clothes - an ordinary t-shirt and shorts.

"I was referring to how you dressed when I saw you last - in a sweater cut down to your navel."

"Mrs Dubarry - I have never flaunted myself in front of your nephew or tried to catch him. We have a business relationship and that's as far as it has ever gone."

"And will you promise never to take the relationship any further?"

"Why on earth would I make such a promise? I really don't know how Darcy feels about your interference in his life, but you have no right to come to my place of business and make insinuating accusations."

"So, you have the cheek to refuse my request?"

"If Darcy and I decide to have a relationship, that's between him and me and has nothing whatsoever to do with you."

"I'm his closest relative - it's my responsibility to see that he doesn't throw himself away on an upstart nobody! The Fitzwilliams are society people and when it comes to marriage they stick to their own kind. A middle class girl like you may satisfy his sexual needs, but Darcy knows his duty to his family. I plan on him marrying Anne."

"Is that his plan too?"

"Darcy knows what is good for him."

"Then I fail to understand what you thought to gain by coming here and talking to me, if everything is already settled so nicely."

Mrs Dubarry broke off a stem of agapanthus and shook it at her, the blue blossoms bobbing frantically. "It isn't completely settled. And with a girl like you out to trap him - I know about your slutty sister and her escapade - you would stop at nothing."

"I'm not staying here to listen to your outrageous insults." Elizabeth reached out and grabbed the flowers from Mrs Dubarry's hand. "I'd like you to go now and stop destroying my mother's garden."

She stalked out through the hedge without looking back. She circled around the garden centre to avoid her mother and returned to the propagation house by the back way. She pulled the door closed so forcefully that all the glass rattled in its frames. The woman was clearly insane. The one consolation she had about the probability of never seeing Darcy again now, especially after his aunt got through talking to him, was the possibility that insanity ran in the family. For some reason this reflection didn't make her one bit happier. Instead she burst into tears.

Chapter Fifteen

Elizabeth was in need of a break, so when Jane had invited her along on a trip to Hornby Island for the coming Saturday, she'd agreed readily, even though she'd feel like a third wheel with the two lovebirds. They were having a picnic, and Elizabeth had offered to prepare the main course. The drinks and dessert were up to the other two.

Elizabeth put a couple of ice packs in a cooler, and followed them with jalapeno havarti, salami, and a crusty Italian loaf. She added condiments, cherry tomatoes, and a bag of fresh, young greens. She was rummaging in the cupboards for the set of picnic dishes and cutlery when Jane came into the kitchen.

"Ready?"

"Just about. Yes! Found it!" She emerged with the picnic set, napkins, and a table cloth too.

"Did you pack lots of food?" asked Jane, peeking into the cooler.

"Tons."

"Good." Jane held her hand out to stop Elizabeth from removing a place setting from the bag. "We'll need that. Charles brought a friend."

"Who?" Elizabeth's heart began to pump unnaturally.

"Darcy. I hope you don't mind. I know you had that big scene with him in January, but . . . you guys seemed to get on okay when they came to sample"

"I'm fine with it, Jane. I saw him again in March at that workshop too - you know, when Liddie pulled her stunt."

"Oh yeah - Charles told me you guys all had lunch together. Then it won't be awkward for you - I'm glad."

'Oh won't it?' thought Elizabeth as she put the rest of the picnic gear into a pack along with her bathing suit and towel. "You take this and I'll grab the cooler."

Charles was waiting at the front door. He took the pack from Jane and the cooler from Elizabeth and put them in the trunk of his car.

Darcy was standing with the back door open and he motioned to Elizabeth. "Hi," he said as she got into the car. He looked serious but he flashed her a tentative smile before he went around the car and got into the seat beside her.

Elizabeth wasn't sure if she'd responded at all. She sat quietly, waiting for him to speak to her while Charles entertained Jane with light chatter as he drove. Finally she took the initiative and said what she'd wanted to get off her chest for a long time. "I want to thank you for finding Liddie. There are really no words to express how much it meant to me and my family."

He looked slightly annoyed. "How did you find out about that?"

"Liddie isn't exactly the soul of discretion."

"No, I suppose not. The conversation we had from the slum George dumped her at to your friend's place was enlightening, to say the least."

"What did she tell you?" asked Elizabeth, remembering with embarrassment how Liddie hadn't taken anything that had happened seriously at all, chattering on about the experience as if it was a normal part of everyday life.

"The thing that stuck with me the most was when she told me that George had said he liked her because she was fun, not like her frigid b*tch of a sister."

Elizabeth covered her face with her hands. "Oh my God!"

"She's a silly little teenager - don't worry about it. Anyway, that comment only served to reinforce something that I already knew."

Elizabeth looked at him. "What's that?"

"That you were never hot and heavy with George."

She turned away, blushing.

"Sorry," he said softly. "I shouldn't have mentioned it."

"No, it's fine. Thanks. I'm glad you believed me." Elizabeth was quiet for a few minutes. She looked out the window and noticed they were already passing through Royston. They'd be at the ferry in ten minutes. "Why didn't you call me when you found her? Why did you want it to be a secret?"

Darcy's expression became withdrawn. "I . . . I didn't want your gratitude, Elizabeth. Simple as that. I looked for Liddie and George because you were upset. Because I was partly to blame. Because I thought I had a better chance of finding them than your father."

"It was a kind thing to do. You really went out of your way for us."

Darcy shrugged. "It would have been kinder if I'd never given George a break in the first place. Do you know why he ran off with your sister? Because he was so pissed at you for not giving him a reference. He told me she was fun for a while but he preferred a challenge. He never had any intention of staying with her in Victoria, and dumped her on his dealer friends first chance he got. According to him he knew she'd be safe with them because they are gay, and he thought she'd call home as soon as she woke up."

"Some excuse - the disgusting creep." Elizabeth could have said a lot more about it, but she didn't want to waste her time with Darcy talking about George. "I wanted to thank you about my samples too. I heard that you bullied everyone into making them a top priority."

Darcy cocked his head toward Charles. "Did he tell you?"

"No - you've trained him too well. I've got more information out of you than Charles has ever given me. Someone at your office told May - I have no idea who it was and I wouldn't tell you if I did. I'm glad I found out."

"It was the least I could do," he said shortly, and then he changed the subject. "Do you go to Hornby often?"

"I've not been in years." Elizabeth smiled. "We've got a perfect day for it."

On the ferry they got out of the car and walked to the bow. The sky was clear blue without a single cloud. The sun was already heating up, but there was a light breeze that stopped it from being overpowering. The water was a deep jade, frothing white where the ferry cut through it.

"Look over there," said Elizabeth. "A pod of orcas!"

In the distance they could just make out the big splashes as the whales arced in and out of the water. They were putting on quite a show. Elizabeth took it as an omen of good things to come for the rest of the day.

They drove across Denman Island without stopping and joined the line-up for the Hornby ferry. Charles insisted that they buy ice cream from a hippie lady in a brightly painted trailer. She incorporated home grown fruits into store bought ice cream, coming up with unusual flavours like chocolate rhubarb. Elizabeth settled for vanilla with cherries.

On Hornby Island their first stop was Helliwell Park. The trail they took led through forest and then along grassy bluffs overlooking the sea. The grass had dried to a pale blonde under the summer sun. Elizabeth and Darcy kept walking as Charles and Jane scrambled down the hills to explore the rock pools on the shoreline. Eventually Darcy stopped and sat on a rock, patting the smooth surface beside him.

"We'd better let them catch up to us. Sit."

Elizabeth did as she was told. The rock was warm from the sun. "What a day!" she said, luxuriating in the beauty of the view before her.

"My aunt told me she visited you," Darcy said. "I'd like to apologise for her behaviour. From what she said, it sounds like she was rude and insulting."

"She was."

"I wasn't quite twenty when my parents died. She's since assigned herself the role of surrogate parent, even though I've told her many times that her interference in my life is both unwanted and unneeded. She really overstepped her bounds this time."

"I was afraid that after she talked to you about our argument you'd never want to see me again." Elizabeth looked up at Darcy, searching his face.

His grey eyes flickered, seemed to deepen in colour. "It had quite the opposite effect."

Elizabeth said nothing, caught in his eyes.

"I know your feelings have changed towards me, and you don't hate me anymore, but, how much have they changed? I still feel the same about you as I did in January . . . more actually. If you're interested only in being friends tell me now, and I'll never bring this up again, but if you feel there's a chance for us . . ." Darcy's voice trailed off.

"My feelings - God! Don't remind me that I said I hated you. How could I have been so blind?" Elizabeth looked away from those eyes that saw too much, and continued shyly. "I like you; I've liked you for quite a while, but I thought . . . I thought I'd spoiled all my chances with all those horrible things I said to you."

Darcy reached his arm around her and pulled her head against his shoulder. "I deserved everything you said." he whispered into her hair. "Thank you for forgiving me."

"If you still like me, why didn't you call me or anything after we almost went out to dinner that time?"

"I wasn't sure how you felt about me. You had been pretty frank, you know. I'd been so sure of myself before and you blew me out of the water. I didn't want to put myself through that again." He brought his other arm around her and held her closer. "I had all that travelling with work and the time wasn't right. I needed to see you to judge how you felt."

"But what about when you came with Charles to take samples? I thought I was open and friendly but you ran back to Victoria."

"I wasn't sure of anything. You may think you were open, but your attitude was hard for me to read. I thought you might just be trying to make up for how honest you'd been with me that time. Showing me that you could treat my nicely now. But my aunt's visit changed that. When she said you'd refused to agree never to go out with me, I knew that you would have told her straight out if you wanted nothing to do with me romantically."

Elizabeth lifted her head from his shoulder and looked into his face. "She thought it was all only sexual anyway."

"To hell with my aunt," said Darcy. "She hasn't got a clue."

He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead, a soft, feather light touch. Elizabeth raised her head until she found his lips. The kiss unlocked the bonds that had been holding her tentative heart back. Darcy's arms were tight around her, but she felt herself fall. She was breathless when they eventually broke away. He stroked her hair and kissed her forehead again.

"I think they're coming."

"Who?" Elizabeth said.

Darcy laughed lightly.

"Oh! Jane and Charles." She jumped away and smoothed her hair, making him laugh even more.

"Wander around nonchalantly - I can see them now."

"I'm not ready to, you know, tell them about us yet. It's still more than I can handle."

Darcy leaned back on the rock in a casual attitude, his eyes teasing. "Take all the time that you need. I've got all day."

Her face shot back towards his, stricken. "You're not going back to Victoria tomorrow!"

"Nothing could induce me." He smiled up at her with such warmth that Elizabeth felt an answering blush radiate across her cheeks.

~ * ~

"Sorry we took so long," said Charles. "But there were these incredible starfish."

"That's okay," said Darcy with a complacent grin. "We made good use of our time."

Jane and Charles looked from Darcy to Elizabeth suspiciously.

"Aren't you guys hungry?" Elizabeth blurted out. "We've got about two more kilometres to go to complete the circuit, then we have to drive over to Tribune Bay for our picnic."

"We could just attack the cooler when we get back to the parking lot," said Charles.

"No!" said Jane and Elizabeth together.

Tribune Bay was a beautiful little horseshoe of blue water. The sailboats resting at anchor and the crescent of white sand dotted about with beach umbrellas gave it a tropical appearance. They wandered down the beach for a bit to find the perfect spot, away from people but still with a good log to sit on, and a nice view. Charles was ready to settle for almost anywhere, he was so hungry, but the girls were both adamant. Darcy simply found the process amusing.

"This is it!" said Elizabeth, sitting on a well weathered log with a flat stretch of sand in front of it.

"We've already passed three or four spots that were almost identical," said Charles.

"At the last one there were people with a dog really close," said Jane.

"But I like dogs."

"All wet from the ocean and trying to eat your food?" asked Elizabeth.

Darcy laughed. "She has you there, Charles."

Jane had taken the pack and was starting to unload it. Elizabeth joined her and spread the table cloth out on the sand while Darcy placed the cooler beside it. They made quick work of their lunch and then packed up the leftover food.

"Elizabeth and I are just going up to the changing rooms to put on our swim suits," said Jane, throwing her tote bag over her arm. Elizabeth pulled her things from the backpack and followed her sister.

Jane waited until they were out of earshot from the men before she started talking.

"So, what happened between you and Darcy when we were playing in the rock pools?"

"Nothing."

"Yeah, right. He's been looking smug ever since then, and you're happier than I've seen you in a long time."

"We sorted a few things out - that's all."

Jane gave her a hug. "He still cares about you, doesn't he?" She eyed her sister closely and then continued. "And you've stopped being in denial."

"I wasn't in denial," said Elizabeth. "I thought he'd given up on me, so what was the point of telling you that my feelings for him had changed?"

"And now?"

"You'll be mad at me when I tell you this, but I like him even more than I like Charles."

"Get serious!" said Jane, giving Elizabeth a hip check.

"Oh Jane! I feel so tingly and excited, I want to laugh all the time. I never knew it would be like this."

Jane sighed. "My little sister is in love at last."

"Love is a big word, Jane." Elizabeth was suddenly serious. "I mean - I like him a lot and when he kissed me it was . . . wow! But isn't it moving a little too fast to say I'm in love with him? This is the first time we've ever gone out together and done something that has nothing to do with work."

Jane gave her a knowing look and then raced her the short way left to the changing rooms.

When they got back to their log, Charles and Darcy had taken off their shirts and were throwing a Frisbee back and forth, wearing only shorts and flip flops.

"Ready to go in?" called Charles.

Jane nodded.

Darcy looked at Elizabeth, but she shook her head. "You two go ahead and swim," he said. "We'll stay here for a bit."

Elizabeth tossed her clothes into her pack and spread out her towel. She sat down, resting back on her elbows. Darcy sat on the sand beside her.

"Working on your tan?"

She smiled up at him. "Just thinking about something Jane said, and wondering if it's true."

"Your sister doesn't strike me as a liar," he said, leaning closer. "What did she say?"

"Never mind." Elizabeth laughed shyly.

He reached out and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "Nice bikini," he whispered. "The colour suits you."

She smirked at him. "Nice shorts. Are you coming on to me?"

"No," he said. "I wanted to let you know I'd noticed. If I were coming on to you, I'd just do this," and he leaned closer and kissed her.

Elizabeth curved against him, bringing one hand up behind his head as the kiss lengthened. "I think it's time we went into the water," she said after a few minutes.

Darcy leaned back a bit and stared into her eyes. "I don't know - swimming could be even more dangerous." But he stood and pulled her up. They ran down to the water hand in hand and were soon splashing each other in the surf.

After their swim they took a long walk along the beach, talking about all kinds of things. They reached the large rocks that followed the right side of the bay out and around the point. Darcy jumped onto a long slope of rock and then held his hand out to help Elizabeth up. The sandstone had been smoothed by water and weather, and in some places pitted holes of varying sizes left patterns in the surface.

"I'm always amazed by these rocks," said Elizabeth. "Look, that one there is a huge face."

They clambered over the rocky spread, searching out interesting formations and coming up with funnier and funnier interpretations of the shapes. Finally they sat down in a little space between two boulders that separated them from the rest of the world. They looked out over the water, watching light waves lap against the smooth stone, seagulls swoop and soar over the ocean, and sailboats nod and sway in the distance.

"This is so idyllic," said Darcy, putting his arm around her. "I wish today could last forever."

Elizabeth's spirits sank. "Do you have to be at the office on Monday?"

"Actually, Charles and I will be sampling on the mainland then. I can't tell you where - top secret government espionage stuff." He grinned at her. "But we've got all day tomorrow to spend together."

Elizabeth rested her head against his shoulder and sighed. "How is this going to work between us? I have a nursery to run here and you live in Victoria and your job takes you all over the place. We'll never see each other."

Darcy reached out and touched her cheek, ran his fingers down along her jaw and tipped up her chin so that her eyes looked directly into his. "If it's important enough to us, we will make it work. Building a life together is important enough to me." He paused, letting his eyes convey more than words ever could, then he continued with renewed emphasis. "Is it important enough to you?"

"Yes," she whispered.

He held her tightly to him and rested his head on top of hers. Elizabeth was overcome by that same euphoric dizzy sensation she'd felt when Darcy had first kissed her. 'Jane's right,' she thought to herself. 'I am falling in love.'

And she gave in to the feeling, ready to embrace every new thing life was offering her.

The End


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