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Anna's Adventures, The Last Chapter
By Dale
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Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. No infringement is intended in any part by the author, however, the ideas expressed within this story are copyrighted to the author.

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The continuing story of Dr. Anna. You will find Books One and Two under the author 'Madge'.
Anna rose the next morning with a powerful sense of well-being. Her evening walk with Heath and, more importantly, their talk by the corral had left her warm with anticipation. Never had she felt so close to him. As their courtship lengthened Anna had come to realize that her initial appraisal of Heath was wrong: he was far more complex than he seemed, a master at disguising anything dark or unpleasant. She had learned not to coax or prod, learned that he was best left to find his own way to openness. The story he'd told last night was certainly not the worst of the little she'd heard. But hearing it made her feel that she had gained valued insight. The broken romance might have seemed a trifle to another listener. She figured better. It couldn't be put on the same level as his experiences at Carterson, yet she had a sense that the humiliating rejection had left marks no less lasting than the scars on his back.

In telling her, she thought, he had both told her how much the romance had mattered to him--and how far he had put it behind him now. Just the act of telling proved how much he had come to trust her. On this fine summer day, her wedding a little more than a week away, her face still flushing a little at the memory of their embrace, it was easy to feel that all was right with the world.

She left the door to the surgery invitingly open, but she wasn't expecting many callers. The weather was so fine it was hard to believe that anyone might be ailing. And she had some practical chores calling. But she had difficulty deciding where to start. It certainly wasn't too soon to start packing, and she had pulled out two trunks and several crates. But several crates from Maryland had finally arrived, with her mother's china and crystal and other household knickknacks she hadn't seen since her mother had died more than fifteen years ago. Nostalgia overwhelmed practicality, and she pried open one of the crates.

She was elbow deep in straw when she heard a familiar voice at the surgery door. "Jarrod!" she called with pleasure. "I'm in here."

Jarrod came into the parlor and smiled at the disarray. "Are you packing or unpacking?"

"I'm trying to do a little of both and, as you can see, making a terrific muddle." She sneezed. "Goodness. I wonder where Ella stored these things. There's a century's worth of dust in here."

"Things from home?"

"Yes. I'm not sure there's anything really suitable in here, but I was feeling sentimental and thought it would be nice to have a few things from home. But I'm sure you're not interested in my household inventory."

"I'm afraid not. No, I just wanted to stop by and thank you for replying so quickly. And for agreeing to play hostess."

"It's no trouble at all." Anna frowned and bit her lip. "Oh, dear. I'd better get this mess straightened, then. Your Miss Converse doesn't seem the sort to appreciate a muddle."

"My Miss Converse is a better sport than you'd imagine. I think any woman would take an interest in a bride's household trappings. I rather think she'll enjoy digging through this with you."

"Digging, perhaps, but not the dust."

"I hope this visit isn't too much of an inconvenience."

"Oh, not at all." Anna brushed her hands clean, wrinkling her nose at the dust. More slowly, she added, "It's really not an inconvenience, Jarrod. I liked Miss Converse. She was very kind to me, but I suspect I would have liked her anyway." She smiled ruefully. "Perhaps it's inevitable when one's bound for the altar--you start seeing matches everywhere. I'm a regular Emma these days. But I hope you realize your endeavor has at least one friend in the family. Or almost in the family."

Jarrod smiled, a smile for once without irony. "I appreciate that, Anna." The smile faded. "But I can't help worrying that I've invited Hester into a hornet's nest. Of course Mother and Audra will disapprove--at least at first. But it's Nick I'm worried about."

Anna frowned. "Surely he knows how long you've been attached. Surely he's had time to accept the idea. And surely a brother wouldn't wish to stand in the way of another brother's happiness?"

Jarrod sighed. "In the long run, Anna, I believe you're right. But in the short run--my brother is nothing if not unpredictable. You might not have seen it, but he has a ferocious temper."

"I've heard of it but not yet seen it."

"I hope you don't see it tomorrow."

"Have you told anyone of your plans for tomorrow?"

"No, I haven't. And I'd appreciate your leaving that to me."

"Of course." She thought she heard a familiar step outside. "Heath? Is that you?"

Finally he appeared. Anna smiled. "I didn't expect to see you in town today."

"Needed to pick up some things. But if you're talkin'--"

"No," Jarrod said quickly. "We're finished. And I think you're a better man to be lending the good doctor a hand than I am. Anna, thank you again. I'll see you tomorrow evening."

Anna had gone back to the trunk. With a groan she pulled out a handful of china fragments that might once have been teacups. "Look at this," she said mournfully. "Broken." She dug a little deeper. "Oh, no! What a mess. Most of them are broken."

"What is it?" Heath asked.

"My mother's china." She looked over the fragments. Just from the broken remains you could tell what a fine set it must have been, delicate white china with a dull gleam of gold trim. She sighed. "Too fancy for this life by far. I shouldn't even have tried to have it shipped out."

"I am sorry." Striving for a lighter tone, Jarrod said, "I do hope you have some other dinnerware. All this lug has is a tin coffee pot and a cup. And a can opener."

She tried for a smile, but the ruin of her mother's china left her more distressed than she would have believed. "We'll be fine."

Jarrod left. To her surprise, Heath followed him. "Heath," she said quickly. "Did you stop by for a reason?"

"No," he said finally. "No reason. I'd best be getting back." He hesitated. "I'm sorry about your mother's things."

"It's hardly your fault. It was just a silly, sentimental idea of mine. It's not really the sort of thing we'd need, or use."

He nodded a little, and turned to go. A little impatient now, she said again, "Heath." She tried a smile. "Am I too dusty to kiss, then?"

"No," he said, finding his own awkward smile. He leaned over the crate and pecked her on the cheek.

Wryly, she said, "I must be dustier than I suppose. Well, go on, then. You're obviously anxious to get back to work. And since you're working for me I can hardly complain. Shall I see you before tomorrow night?"

"Tomorrow night?"

"For the mission anniversary."

"Yes, yes, of course. I'll come in for you tomorrow."

That was a long ways away. But she felt as if she'd pressed him enough. What a strange mood he was in. Perhaps he was wishing he'd been less forthcoming last night? But surely it would pass. "Tomorrow, then."

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Heath stood in the cool shadow outside her surgery door for a long moment. He too had started the day with a feeling of eager anticipation. The house was nearly finished; the wedding was barely a week away, and Anna--well, her fierceness, her certainty last night had been heartening, especially when contrasted to his bittersweet memories of Maria Montero.

And there was an extra source of pleasure this morning. He'd ordered a handsome sign to be hung outside her surgery, with her name in bright brass letters. He'd meant to keep it as a surprise until they went home for real, but he'd meant to tease her about the surprise a little.

Now all the pleasantness was gone out of the day. Nonsense, he told himself. He'd heard just enough of the conversation between Anna and Jarrod to leave him sore and confused. What surprise did Jarrod have planned, then? To whom was he attached? A brother wouldn't stand in the way of a brother's happiness. All his uneasy jealousy, stirred by Anna's trip to San Francisco, suddenly came back; it was as if the quiet conversation of the night before had never existed. Suddenly Heath found himself unable to forget that Jarrod had once fancied Anna; that once even he himself had accepted a marriage between Anna and Jarrod as inevitable--as right, even. As more fitting for her.

Her mother's china, in pieces. Not suited to this sort of life--not suited to his sort of life. She, of course, had once been used to something far different. Perhaps longed for it again, more than she realized. The sort of life in which Jarrod would fit far more comfortably.

He wondered: was it in her to go ahead with a marriage just out of duty? If she'd come to realize she preferred Jarrod, would she marry Heath just to keep her word? And did he want her that way?

With an effort he shook off these dark thoughts. This is Anna, he reminded himself sternly. She wasn't capable of such deception. Maria--Maria hadn't been able to face up to the rigors of a life with him. But Anna was so different, so much stronger. She had already faced so much; she had chosen this life, chosen it over Europe or society. It wasn't in her nature to back down at the thought of a few difficulties or a little roughness.

Work to do, he reminded himself. The house wouldn't finish itself. He took a deep breath, stepped out of the shadow into the strong light of a June morning. But the sparkling day gave him no pleasure, and on this day the work on the house just seemed like work.

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Don Alfredo Montero rose with a sadness more weighty than any he could ever remember. But he knew his duty, and he rose determined to do it.

His daughter had returned from her late afternoon ride so exalted, so glowing, that he assumed she had already met with the young man. She insisted she had not. To a father's eyes she had never been more alive, more beautiful. It is finished, he thought sadly. This man had been susceptible to her charms five years ago, and she had been scarcely more than a child, a schoolgirl still softened by baby fat. Now she was a woman grown into her full glory. No man in his right mind could look at such a woman, no man could see such hope and desire in those magnificent eyes and resist. Was any woman ever shown to better advantage by happiness?

So it would be, he thought. He bowed to the inevitable, but still hoped to hold to the proprieties. He extracted a promise from Maria, that she would not seek out the young man. Rather, he would do his duty as a father and seek out the family. He would re-open the acquaintance, prepare the way for the marriage he still could not look upon with favor. She agreed, though a little uneasily. He could see that she would not wait long. How many weeks, he wondered, until he lost her forever?

So distasteful was the errand that he opted for a trip to town first. He had spent most of his life on these acres. He knew them deeply; his love for them was colored and strengthened by his family pride. For a hundred years and more Monteros had worked these acres, had extracted wealth and honor from them. How often, in Boston or in Europe, had he hungered for a glimpse of these golden acres? Yet now, even after a five years' absence, the sight could not ease him, could not lift the leaden reserve that hung over him. These acres, so carefully tended, so jealously guarded: soon they would be home to one unworthy of them. When he himself was gone, the name Montero would vanish from this part of the world. A new name, a Yankee name would replace his--a name not even honestly passed on.

Never, at the best of times, had he enjoyed Stockton. He could see that the town had changed and grown in the years of his absence. There were more sidewalks than before, bigger buildings. More churches. An air of orderliness and contentment hung over the town. But to his eyes, the town was too rough, too crude, even its name a galling reminder of how Californio had been lost to the Americans. Impossible to look at the town without remembering the Renaissance glories of Italy, the drowsy solemnity of Madrid. They might build and build, they might tear down and improve, but the town was a sow's ear and would remain so. It had been raised up by men who had no knowledge of anything better, and was tended by men who could muster no appreciation even if they had the requisite knowledge. And this was to be her destiny! This to be the life she would choose! Maria, he thought miserably. There can be no happiness here for you. There must be a way to stop this madness...

He completed his business at the bank quickly, his reserved manner much tried by the impudence of the clerk, overawed by the unexpected presence of this most important customer. The simple transaction left Montero feeling exhausted. He decided against further business; the other items were matters that could be left to the household staff. He had no desire to linger in Stockton, to meet other inquiries.

And there he was--the source of all trouble, the object of his innocent daughter's reckless desire. Alfredo stepped back into the shadow. That man--he still could not bring himself to apply the name Barkley to that unfortunate creature--was loading wood into a wagon, joking with the mill hand assisting him. He was older, thinner than Montero remembered him, as if the intervening years had been hard ones. But the man was much as remembered. How could this man have so attracted, and held, the interest of a young woman so educated and so refined as his Maria? A farmhand; everything in the young man's posture and manner and appearance spoke of the humble station to which he properly belonged. How he would drag down Maria!

Perhaps--perhaps, Montero thought, it will go differently. She is much older, much more sophisticated; she has seen the world and received the attentions of gentlemen. Surely her childish dream will evaporate under reality.

Perhaps, he thought sadly. But, still, he had his obligations to keep. He stayed in the shadows until the young man had finished loading his wagon, had set off down a side street. With a sigh Alfredo found his driver and instructed him to take him to the Barkley home.

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Montero had thought well of the Barkleys. He had thought of them as the best sort of Americans you could expect to see in the West. They were obviously people of modest beginnings, but they had had great ambition without great pretension, and their strivings had been free of deceit or low tricks. And they had appreciated his reticent approval for what it was, and had made no efforts to intrude upon him or claim a greater intimacy than in fact existed.

Yes, the best sort you might find out here. Long before Maria had returned to California he had realized that California offered few men suitable for his daughter. A more fitting marriage might be made in Mexico, or Spain, or perhaps in Boston. But after having his daughter away from him for so long, he wished to have her settled in California, wished to have her come to feel the same devotion to this land as he felt, as preceding generations of Monteros had felt. In bringing her west he had accepted that her husband would no doubt be something of a disappointment. The irony, then: the other Barkley sons he might have accepted. The lawyer was clearly the best of the lot, with his mother's keen intelligence and some polish picked up in eastern schools and San Francisco parlors. The lawyer would have been best, but Montero could have accepted the other one, as well. Blunt and rough spoken at times, but a man with a fierce love for the land and a surprising sense of his own faults. Even he might have been acceptable as a son and heir.

But no: Maria had to fasten on the one son that was no true son. Others had spoken of Victoria Barkley's generosity in taking in this young man, but no act by the family had earned his contempt and disappointment so much as that one. Montero had felt that the Barkleys, wherever they might have come from, had possessed the proper instincts and understandings of a great family. Senora Barkley's casual disregard of propriety, her disgraceful decision to offer the once-proud name of her husband to this--this stranger; it certainly wasn't the act of a gentlewoman. To Montero the sotto voce discussions of whether the young man had had proof were irrelevant. All the proof in the world could not remove the stain. You could not recreate the ambience of Madrid in the dusty streets of Stockton; you could not make even a first-generation gentleman of that byblow. Foolish to try; and look at the evil consequences. Maria had innocently accepted the young man's attentions believing him to be a true member of a family she knew her father held in some regard, and by the time the truth had been told to her, her young emotions had already been roiled. If Senora Barkley had had an ounce of proper feeling, this tragedy would never have occurred.

And yet now, he thought wearily, he had to present his regards to this same Senora; he had to undertake the disheartening task of renewing the acquaintance, of preparing the way for this distasteful marriage. It was with some effort, then, that he climbed down from his carriage, entered the house, and waited for its lady.

Silas had told her, with barely hidden surprise, the identity of her caller. Even armed with the knowledge Victoria found it difficult to recognize the man. His haughty, upright carriage had wilted. He seemed smaller, thinner, and much older, as if ten years had passed rather than five. Why on earth, Victoria wondered, has he come here? Even his strict notions of politeness can't require this. "Don Alfredo," she said, summoning into her tone a warmth she could not feel. "How wonderful to see you back in the valley after all these years. I hope you haven't been called back by any trouble. As you can see we seem to be having a very fine summer indeed."

"Indeed." He took the hand that was offered, bowed a little stiffly over it. "No, I am not called back by any trouble."

Yet he looked troubled. Victoria tried to dampen her unease. "Please, join me in the parlor. I was just about to indulge in a little late morning coffee. May I offer you some? Or perhaps you'd like something cool."

"Something cool," he asked. The effort of coming here suddenly overwhelmed him.

For a few minutes the bustle of getting and serving refreshment eliminated the need for discussion. But too quickly the moment came, when the cold tea had revived him a little, when he became aware of the sharply questioning air beneath his hostess's courtesy.

"We have returned to California," he said quietly, "at my daughter's insistence." He swallowed once, hard. "You see, senora, she passed a happy time here, and she remembers her time here with much fondness. Even though many years have passed--even though she has seen many places since then--she has longed to return. And so we have."

Victoria hoped her expression remained pleasant, but she was suddenly uneasy. "So Maria has returned with you."

He nodded. "She has returned with me. And, senora..." How hard this was! Once he had come here to propose a marriage. How right the idea had been! Maria would have been forced to give up her romantic notions before they'd taken such deep roots, and he would have seen his daughter properly settled. But, no, this woman with her petty ideas of respectability and romance had kept that suitable outcome from happening. "Senora, my daughter wishes to renew her acquaintance with your family. With all your family."

"I'm sure the whole valley will be glad to have you back, Don Alfredo. My daughter Audra was much disappointed that she didn't have an opportunity to get to know Maria better." What an awkward situation. She felt a little sympathy for Don Alfredo. Then a terrible realization came over her. "But you can't mean--surely after all this time--"

Don Alfredo nodded. "It is an indelicate subject. But may I speak frankly with you, senora? It is the young man who draws her here."

Victoria put down her cup, her hand not quite steadily. "Don Alfredo," she said after a long pause. "Let me speak frankly as well. Heath is engaged--he's to be married next week. It's an attachment of many months' standing, and an attachment of which has made the whole family happy. We think of Dr. Carroll as a member of the family already."

"Dr. Carroll?" he repeated, his surprise evident. "A lady doctor of medicine? This is the woman of which you speak?"

"Yes, she's taken over the practice in Stockton. Perhaps you've heard of her?"

"She attended me in San Francisco. A most impressive young woman." Montero had to admit to a grudging admiration. That common young man had a talent for attracting uncommon young women. What did they see in him?

But what a lucky stroke! Even Victoria could see how his mood lightened. The young man was engaged; the dream would be ended at last. Perhaps Maria could be reconciled to staying in the valley, perhaps not; but in any case the worst of his hopes would not come to pass. "I understand," he said. "No doubt at this time you are much occupied with family matters and the time is hardly appropriate for expanding your acquaintance. Perhaps at some future time..."

They made polite good-byes. Don Alfredo went away tired but much relieved. Victoria, however, did not feel relieved. Maria Montero! In the valley, just now, after all these years--and still nourishing a tender regard for Heath. Of course, she told herself, nothing would come of it. And yet...she was uneasy. Any man would be gratified to learn that he'd inspired such lasting feeling. He'd pined for Maria Montero for so long. Strange to think that the little romance--had it lasted a week? Two? Certainly no more--had had such lasting consequences for both. Heath loved Anna, of course; but did he love her enough? Enough to resist a beautiful woman; enough to resist the pain it would surely cause Don Alfredo?

And a rupture at this late date! To lose Anna, after she'd been so much a member of the family since New Year's--since before, really. Or, she wondered, would they really lose Anna, after all? Jarrod had stayed away so much this spring, and even when he'd been home he'd been more reserved and distant than before. Jarrod had a secret; perhaps he hadn't really adjusted to the loss of Anna as well as she'd thought.

Perhaps, one way or the other, it would come out well enough in the long run. But the immediate future promised no good. She fervently hoped that the Monteros would take the next train back to San Francisco, or better, still, to Boston. She doubted, though, that any Montero would give up that easily.

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Lysander Converse suffered a great deal from gout. To be more precise, Mr. Converse suffered a great deal of aggravation from his difficult and cement-headed partner, Hannibal Jordan, and a great deal of aggravation from his mercurial and unpredictable youngest daughter, Hester. When the aggravation reached unmanageable proportions he took to his bed, blamed his gout, and called for a physician, a tonic, and a little soothing man-to-man talk. These days he, like most of his society friends, relied on Nat Sherborne for these comforting nostrums. No one handed out tonic, or empathy, with so much panache.

His partner had been giving him a great deal of aggravation for months now, still enraged over a court defeat suffered at Jarrod Barkley's hands a good six momths ago. But Lysander had known Hannibal since they were schoolboys in Providence, Rhode Island, and he was an old hand at dealing with Jordan's wrath. No, this particular Friday it was Hester that drove him to bed and a note sent round to Sherborne's.

Lysander had two other daughters, and they were admirable models for any young lady: Impeccably married, respected by all. The doting mothers of growing broods, each of which included a little Lysander. Good hostesses, obedient daughters and wives. You would think that any properly-brought-up young lady, with such paragons as older sisters, would have no trouble finding the straight and narrow path to appropriate happiness.

But not Hester. No, Hester, who had more charm and intelligence and sheer beauty in her little finger than either of her rather well-upholstered sisters had in an entire body, had started out wayward and had grown worse. Hester, who had been the toast of the finest San Francisco society since she was eighteen, Hester who might have had any man, Hester who should be the greatest pride and comfort of a weary father's heart was instead that heart's greatest source of indignation and confusion.

Of course that dalliance with Nick Barkley had been a dreadful, dreadful mistake. The lout! And of course it was to be expected that a proper, sheltered young lady like Hester would be marked by such a dreadful experience. But it hadn't made Hester more circumspect, or more steady. No, since her brief engagement to Nick Barkley Hester had led an ever more hectic and infuriating lifestyle. There were few invitations Hester rejected; there were few hearts with which she didn't trifle.

Well, he was prepared to admit that a girl deserved a little amusement. Impossible to expect that a girl as lovely as Hester--and rich as Croesus to boot--shouldn't appreciate her powers and exercise them a little. But Hester had been out for nearly nine years now. The courtship game ought to have palled long ago, Hester ought to have settled on some suitable young man long ago. She was still lovely, and she was still sought after, to judge from the clutter of invitations that piled up in the mail tray.

But had Hester grown too used to having her way? It was a heavy thought for a father to bear, knowing he had been far too indulgent for far too long, as his wife never hesitated to remind him. Not that the little minx seemed appreciative! Showing up every day at that trial, ostentatiously sitting behind the plaintiff's table. Her reading habits!--the filth and nonsense she defended as literature! And her stubborn insistence on her right to chart her own course, rather than taking the gentle advice of her sisters or mothers.

He heard--of course Hester herself would not confide--that these days she was much seen with Jarrod Barkley. No doubt she was getting her eccentric ideas from that popinjay. The Barkleys had been a mote in the eye of Hannibal Jordan for too long, and any mote in Jordan's eye soon became a log lodged in Lysander's own. Of course Hester knew this, which made her flirtation with Barkley even more outrageous. Any truck with the Barkleys would end in tears. Jarrod had been out and about in society even longer than Hester; Lysander assumed the man was a hardened flirt himself, and his darling daughter would soon meet yet more disappointment at the hands of those dirt-eating boors.

Yes, it was enough to send even the stoutest of hearts--and Lysander Converse's was not, truthfully, the stoutest--straight to bed for a good round of complaint before an easy, compliant listener like Nat Sherborne, who would, for the price of a little good sherry and a cigar, nod sympathetically, offer a few sound maxims, and not trouble one with inconvenient changes in diet or rountine.

This was the sort of visit which Nat actively enjoyed. Of course Converse wasn't truly ill, just discontented. Not that the man couldn't benefit from a good deal less sherry and red meat, but Nat knew better than to supply unwanted advice unless it were desperately needed. He knew that drudges like Anna--oh, he thought the world of her skills, but she was a drudge and always had been--were a little contemptuous of his ease in these situations and his willingness to put himself in them. But he answered such criticism with the well-reasoned argument that the spirit needed tending as well as the flesh, the spirit of the rich man no less than that of the poor man. Much of the world's misery seemed to come from thwarted desire, and men like Lysander Converse, who desired so much more, naturally suffered more.

Nat had perfected the art of appearing to devote his full attention at these little visits. It was a deceptive appearance generally, for so often the litanies were familiar and foolish to boot. But this day Lysander caught his interest and kept it. Hester Converse was figure in San Francisco society, and if the ladies disliked her intensely, there weren't many gentlemen who didn't appreciate her to some extravagant degree. Nat wasn't immune. She was a handsome woman and a witty one and, best of all, a rich one. So far his acquaintance with Hester had been superficial at best. Perhaps that was about to change?

But he kept these thoughts hidden behind his most grave, most empathetic facade. When he left his patient couldn't help wondering why Hester couldn't choose a fine young fellow like Nat Sherborne.

Well, speak of the devil, Nat thought. Hester was in the front parlor, inspecting a dress that had just been delivered. "Why, Hester," he said lightly. "Are you going Quaker on us? Or is that the latest fashion from Paris?"

"Neither," Hester said with a lightness she didn't feel. Her mind was dreadfully busy, worried abut the trip to Stockton, and she didn't much feel like playing society with Nat Sherborne. But if she didn't... "It's not for me," she said, "but for a friend of mine in Stockton."

"Stockton," Nat mused. "It wouldn't be a Barkley, would it?"

"Heavens, no. But related to them--or nearly so. Anna Carroll, do you know her?"

"But of course. I went to school with her and consult with her from time to time." And she steals my most impressive patients, he thought irritably. Senor Montero had forwarded a brisk note, indicating that he would be taking up residence at his ranch in the valley--conveniently close, of course, to dear Anna Carroll. Nat figured he wouldn't be seeing the inside of the Montero parlor any time soon, or the gracious Senorita Montero, either. A devilish impulse took him over. "But since when are you her dressmaker, Hester?"

"I suppose I should be flattered that a doctor would think a useless society creature like me could do anything so practical. Her dressmaker is mine. I'm going down to Stockton tomorrow and thought I'd deliver these in person."

"Stockton! Why, Hester, I hear it's a very, very dull town. Aside from the Barkleys, of course. What on earth could draw you there? I'm sure you could find a footman to deliver Anna's dresses."

Nat did have a way. His words were playful, but his tone was surprisingly gentle and encouraging. And he was a doctor, of course. Hester had no particular fondness for him, but she knew no ill of him, either, and she had been desperately short of confidants of late. "I have a social engagement there," she said finally.

"A social engagement? With the Barkleys, perhaps?"

"Not exactly. There's a mission nearby--it's some kind of anniversary celebration, I believe."

"Doesn't exactly sound your sort of event, Hester." In his most gentle tone, he added, "You must be very anxious to see your friends in Stockton."

Hester didn't answer, but busied herself repacking the dress.

Nat thought: so it's true, she has been keeping company with Jarrod Barkley. Nat knew the Barkleys casually. He knew Jarrod the best, knew a little of Nick and--what was the name of that pretty little girl? Audrey?--whatever the sister was. Galling to think that Anna had already burrowed into such a comfortable nest! Of course the brother she'd gotten was damaged goods, but she'd be a Barkley nonetheless. Anna and Hester! What a pair of sisters that would be. He had an urge to see all this for himself. "Don't tell me you're going down alone, Hester."

She looked up, an arch smile curing her lips. "I'm ridden the train alone before, doctor."

"Nonsense. I have a little business in Stockton myself--a patient down there. I really should drop in on him. And on Anna, of course. What say I accompany you down there?" He smiled. "If for no other reason than you need a porter!"

Hester hesitated. She wished Jarrod could take her down. She understood why he couldn't do it, but she was uneasy, perhaps even a little resentful, at being left on her own. If Jarrod couldn't be with her, se wasn't sure she wanted any other company. And yet--Nat would be a distraction, would keep her from losing her nerve. What harm could it do, anyway? "All right," she said finally. "I'd appreciate that, Nat."

"Tomorrow, then," Nat said pleasantly. "We're for Stockton."

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Heath went straight out to the house and worked all day, getting done more than he'd hoped to have done by sundown of the following day. The repetitiveness of the work soothed him. By the end of the day his equilibrium had returned, but his peace felt fragile and he wasn't in the mood to have it disturbed. He went home but bypassed supper, going straight to his room and a dreamless sleep.

Victoria's afternoon had been far more troubled. Her most fervent hope was that the Monteros would leave and she could keep the news of their presence to herself--could keep it, perhaps, forever. But she doubted that would be possible. Maria Montero had hankered for Heath for five years now. Would the news of an engagement really be enough to stop her now? The irony of it: if the girl had shown a little determination five years ago, none of this would have happened.

And so, uncharacteristically, Victoria dithered the afternoon away in doubt. More than once she was ready to call for her horse; more than once she thought the better of it. Heath seemed happy, he seemed settled, but she knew how well he could hide any turmoil. He had been with them five years and she knew him better than anyone else in the family, but she also knew the limits of her knowledge. She decided to wait until the evening. She could judge his mood better then, and, if it seemed right, she could have a quiet word with him. A quiet word, moreover, when it was too late for him to do anything rash.

That was her plan, but she reckoned without Jarrod.

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Four Barkleys sat down to dinner that night. Victoria was a little alarmed at Heath's absence, but Silas told her Heath had come home tired from the house and gone straight up. Victoria was a little relieved; any discussion could be put off until tomorrow. Put off forever...

Nick and Audra were both in fine moods, chatting energetically about the big party at the mission. It wasn't a fancy affair, but it always drew a good crowd, and the brothers were generous with their home-made wine. The evening was full of boisterous dances and relaxed manners. Audra was a little fretful, worrying that there wouldn't be any interesting to dance with, given that she'd pretty well run through most of the locals. "I hope there's somebody new there," she said dreamily. "A stranger--from San Francisco, maybe..."

"A stranger!" Nick snorted. "At the mission? You're just as likely to see the president of the United States there. Strangers from San Francisco!"

Jarrod shifted a little in his seat.

"Well, who are you planning on dancing with, then, Nick?"

Nick put down a fork, smiled. "Well, let's see, there's Bertha McGarrett. And your little friend Ellie. And Mrs. Ingersoll..."

"Mrs. Ingersoll!" Audra gasped. "She's a widow!"

"She's a widow with some pretty bright eyes. I reckon she's ready to toss those weeds."

Audra wrinkled her nose. "Bertha McGarrett must be as old as you. And a widow! I can see why you're not worried about finding partners. You're not very particular." She turned to Jarrod. "How about you, Jarrod?" Her tone grew arch. "Are you worried about finding partners?"

Jarrod took a breath. No time like the present. He strove to make his tone as light as hers. "I'm not the least bit worried. I'm bringing my own partner all the way from San Francisco." His tone grew a little wry. "My only trouble will be keeping her to myself."

Audra squealed, clapped. "Jarrod's been snagged at last!" she beamed. "This is momentous, your bringing a girl from San Francisco! Who is she? Oh, I can't wait to meet her!"

Jarrod looked around the table. Audra looked genuinely pleased, Victoria a little puzzled. Nick--the thunderclouds were gathering around his darkened brow. But it had to be done. "You have met her," he said to Audra, "though it was some years ago--and not an entirely pleasant experience. But I hope you'll be generous enough to be welcoming to her."

Victoria's mouth dropped in surprise. Nick growled.

Jarrod said, "It's Miss Hester Converse."

The table erupted. Both Audra and Nick were trying to talk at once, her tone high-pitched with distress, Nick's deepened by anger. Nick finally drowned Audra out. "You can't," he said, his voice tight with fury. "You can't."

"I can," Jarrod said firmly, "and I have."

"Jarrod, you know what she is--"

"Yes," Jarrod said agreeably, "I know what she is. A charming, beautiful, intelligent young woman whose best impulses have had too little outlet. Nick, I know how you feel. But your acquaintance with her was terribly brief--had you known her five days before you proposed? My acquaintance with her has been much longer, and, I flatter myself, I've taken the opportunity to know her better."

"She's fooled you, just like she fooled me. And once she's down here--you can't imagine the trouble she'll cause."

"She'll cause no trouble." Jarrod's tone grew icier. "And I trust you to cause no trouble either."

"Jarrod, do you know what happened when she came down here? Do you? Heath and I might have killed each other over her!"

"But you didn't. And, Nick, let's be honest. Your disagreement wasn't caused by her--it was caused by your impulsive and quick temper."

"Oh, that's it!" Nick balled up his napkin, jumped out of his chair. "You've already chosen--and you've chosen a woman over your own brother."

"That's nonsense," Jarrod said. "It's not a matter of choosing. Nick, sit down and listen to me. Heath chose for his wife I woman I would have liked to have had myself. I accepted it. What else could a brother do? Your situation is the same. Hester is a woman you once wanted for yourself. Can you be man enough--and brother enough--to accept that she's chosen me?"

Nick made a face. "I thought she'd chosen me," he said, "and I was damned wrong."

"I'm not wrong."

Audra said: "Then you're serious about her."

"Of course I'm serious. Would I ask her here--knowing how difficult it would be for all of us--if my intentions weren't of the most serious kind? I haven't asked her, but I mean to ask her to marry me." He tried for a smile. "And I'm hoping none of you give her cause to turn me down."

Victoria said quietly, "You seem very sure."

"I am very sure. Mother, I certainly had no intent to fall in love with Hester Converse. But the attachment has been the work of many months--many meetings. I know you have a bad opinion of her, and I know she gave you some cause for that bad opinion. But that was years ago. Hester isn't the same woman that came down here with Nick--none of us are the same."

Unbidden, Victoria remembered Maria Montero and thought: she hasn't changed. Nor, looking at Nick, did she think he'd really changed. Impulsive? Yes, as much as ever. Quick-tempered? Certainly. Was it possible that Nick still harbored a weakness for Hester Converse? Impossible. It had been the work of a few days, it had been nothing more than an infatuation. On both sides. And yet--what other serious attachments had Nick had since then? Heath had brooded over Maria for years. Was it possible she'd missed Nick's pining for Hester?

It was clear that Jarrod thought so. "You say you want to protect me," he said to Nick. "Are you sure it's not jealousy that's making you so angry?"

"Jealousy?" Nick bellowed. "Jealousy? Is that what you think of me? Jealousy's a small emotion for a small man."

"Is it?" Jarrod sighed. "Then I've been a smaller man than I realize."

"You're a smaller one than I realized," Nick said coldly. He turned on his heel and stalked out.

Victoria watched him go. Yes, Nick was impulsive and quick-tempered. But when his voice turned cold and controlled, as it had been at that last, something darker and stronger was at work. This storm would not blow over quickly. "Audra," she said, "tell Silas we won't be taking any dessert."

When Audra was gone, Victoria said, "Are you sure jealousy hasn't been your motive, too?"

Jarrod frowned. "However so?"

Victoria toyed with a spoon. "One brother took the woman you wanted; you take the woman another brother wanted."

Jarrod smiled, ruefully. "But shouldn't I have taken a woman Heath wanted? I don't know anyone who fits that bill. If you're thinking that my attachment to Hester has grown simply out of disappointment over losing Anna--I can''t answer that, Mother. My friendship with Hester began about the time Anna came to Stockton, and it grew even when I had hopes of winning Anna. Perhaps disappointment did make me turn to Hester. But I can't imagine caring for Hester more than I do now."

"If you go through with this--It will be difficult, Jarrod. Nick will have a very hard time accepting this." She sighed. "Perhaps you don't realize this, being away so much. But this has been a hard spring for Nick. He and Heath have been so close. It's been hard for him to accept."

"At least he likes Heath's choice."

"Yes, he does. But of course Heath isn't around as much, and he'll be around a great deal less in the future. Nick misses him, and I think he feels left out as well. You can see where your taking a wife--even if it weren't Hester--would trouble him."

"But it is Hester," Jarrod said. "Or will be, if I'm lucky. I know you're right. But Nick will come around. Remember how bitterly he resented Heath? But he learned to accept him. He'll learn to accept Hester, too."

"I hope so."

On his way out of the dining room Jarrod kissed his mother on the forehead. She watched him walk out with his usual unhurried stride. Did he really feel as confident as he seemed? What a mess: Hester Converse, Maria Montero. Anna Carroll. Victoria had always expected the marriages of her sons to be joyous occasions, she'd expected to welcome her new daughters with open arms. How differently all this was turning out from what she'd hoped. They were all good men. They were good women, too, in their ways. But it was hard for her to see how it might work out to the good of all of them.

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Maria heard her father out with a mixture of astonishment and despair; she began feeling mostly astonishment and ended with despair predominating. She never doubted the truth of her father's words. He could not be so cruel or so dishonorable as to lie. Too, there was a quiet satisfaction, a relief in his manner that all of his gravity and solicitousness could not conceal. The evil had been averted. His dignity, his name, his patrimony, his daughter: they were all safe, and this time he had not had to raise a finger or risk his daughter's displeasure. No wonder he could not quite conceal his pleasure.

"Carita," he finished, "this has been a sad disappointment for you. Surely you do not wish to linger here. Shall we return to San Francisco?"

"Yes," she said quietly.

"Tomorrow, then."

"Tomorrow." Yes, they could not be too soon gone from here. But then she saw how weary he was despite his relief. "Monday, Father. You need some rest. We can start back for San Francisco."

"I can rest in San Francisco as well as here."

"No, you know you can't. The country will be good for you."

He shrugged. It was true. Free of worry, he could enjoy his hours down here. "But to stay--surely it distresses you."

"I will be distressed anywhere we go," she said quietly. He could see the truth in her words, and resolved to discuss it no more.

Yesterday she had been all a-fire to slip the confines of this house, to roam again over the golden country she had not seen for five years. Today--today she could sit quietly, as still as the house itself. She had no desire to see old places; she had no desire, suddenly, to see old faces either.

Terrible--terrible how quickly the world changed. Dully, she thought: I will never again feel as I did last night. In those happy hours she had come as close to true happiness as she ever would. The powerful sense of his presence; and, even better, the certainty that their hearts still were one, that destiny bound them together, silken and powerful and inevitable. All those years ago she had been drawn by the sense that he, rough and solitary, understood her own loneliness in a way that no one else could. Standing before his house, she had felt time and distance evaporate, she had felt his sympathy and his understanding as deeply as she had ever felt it. Standing before his house--their house, the house he had built believing in her--she had seen their future unfurl in a ruddy glow.

Not their house, she reminded herself. He had raised those walls with the thought of bringing someone else under them. No doubt--no doubt he had long ago forgotten her. No doubt he could look up those meadows to the north ridge without pain or regret. No doubt he had long ceased to regret her.

Oh, the shame of it! She was still a Montero, still Don Alfredo's daughter, and her face crimsoned in shame at her impulsiveness, her naivete. Five years! That a man should wait five years for a woman he'd known two weeks!

(And yet he had waited, and waited. After five years, and even now he was not yet married. Promised; but not married. How long had he waited, truly? If only she'd come back sooner...)

At least she hadn't seen him, hadn't had the chance to make an even greater fool of herself.

(Would it matter to him? What would he feel if he knew she had come back for him, finally? Was it wrong to wonder?)

No, she told herself, best this way. Her father was right. On Monday they would gather up their things and go back to San Francisco--back, perhaps, to Boston. Or to Spain. She could not be too far away from here; she could not learn to forget too quickly.

(And the other woman was not even handsome. Oh, a worthy sort, no doubt. Her father had thought well of her, though shocked at her practice of a man's profession. But plain. Tall and plain, more than a little shabby. Could he love her, truly? Was it perhaps no more than affection, respect, duty?)

That last thought made her squirm. Unworthy of her; unworthy of him, truly, to think that the passionate young man she'd known would marry without love, that he would care only for a woman's surface appearance. Unworthy.

(And yet--didn't they say that the heart didn't desire what the eye didn't admire? Was it possible?)

She sat very still in the early morning darkness, remembering and wondering. Why had he chosen that place for a house, so close to the places where they had been so happy? Perhaps even without realizing it he had still thought of her, had still longed for her. Perhaps longed for her even still. Perhaps even now his feelings for her smouldered, waiting only for a spark.

Her heart was beating fast now. Would it be right to just leave? What if she were leaving him to make the mistake of a lifetime, a mistake that would cut them off from each other forever? It would be her fault all over again, a fault this time that would blight not only her happiness and his but that of an innocent third, a woman who doubtless did not suspect how deeply his emotions were engaged elsewhere.

(And they were engaged elsewhere--they were. Why else built the house there?)

I can't leave, she thought suddenly. Not again. It's a miracle that I have a chance to put right all that I did wrong five years ago. I can't turn my back on that.

Don Alfredo did not come down for breakfast. He would have noticed a hectic light in his daughter's face. But he would have realized that the despair of the day had vanished. In its place was an uneasy excitement, different yet again from the exultation she had felt that first night, but an excitement just the same. How could she do it? she wondered. How could she find her way to him again?

Nat Sherborne gave her an answer. That Saturday afternoon she opened the door to a smiling Nat. She had the impression her father did not think highly of Sherborne. And yet, Maria thought, what was the alternative? She felt uneasy, remembering how impressed her father had been by Anna Carroll. And he was ill, he needed care....

There was a certain coldness when Don Alfredo finally joined his guest and his daughter on the patio. "Dr. Sherborne," he said stiffly. "It is too kind of you to travel all this way. I hope you have not come solely on my account. As you can see I am quite well."

Oddly enough, despite the traveling, the old fellow did look better than he had in San Francisco. Anna had to be wrong: the change in diet couldn't have effected much of a change this quickly. "I can see," Nat said heartily. "I must say the change in climate agrees with you magnificently. To tell the truth, Don Alfredo, I used your presence here in the Valley to justify a little pleasure jaunt. Since I could combine my social visit with a medical one, it seemed justified."

"Social visit?" Alfredo echoed. He was uncomfortable. Surely this popinjay did not intend to insert himself into their social lives! Maria...but even as upset as she was, Maria would see this posturing fool as he truly was.

"Yes, a social visit. I've accompanied a young lady friend--as a courtesy, no more than a courtesy--from San Francisco." He grinned, leaned in toward Maria. "No doubt I'll have the pleasure of seeing you there tonight, Miss Montero. It's my understanding that the fame of this good party has spread far and wide. At least as far and wide as San Francisco."

"What party is that?" Maria asked carefully.

"The mission anniversary celebration. We will be a large party, no doubt, what with the Barkleys themselves and guests from San Francisco, but I'm sure we might make room for one or two more."

"That will not be necessary," Don Alfredo said sharply. Maria was out of his line of vision. The poor girl! Even the suggestion that they might be part of the--Barkley party. He had had enough. He rose. "You will excuse us," he said politely to Nat Sherborne. "I appreciate your efforts on my behalf, but you have arrived at an unfortunate hour for calling. Perhaps I shall see you in San Francisco."

Nat rose too, with a ready smile. No doubt the old man was brushing him off; no doubt, too, that the daughter was definitely interested. The air out here agreed with the old man, and that went double for the daughter. In San Francisco she had been as gracious, and as lively, as a statue. Today her cheeks were pink, her eyes bright. Nothing like the prospect of a country dance to raise a girl's morale! How interested she seemed; how intently she'd been listening. She'd flushed up at the suggestion that she might join his party. Yes, she was definitely an interesting case. No need to earn any more of the father's enmity; no doubt this matter could be safely left in the daughter's hands. "I'll look forward to it. Don Alfredo; Miss Montero."

"I'll see you out," Maria said.

When they were at the door, and out of her father's hearing, she said carefully, "The Barkleys are taking a big party? No doubt Miss Carroll is included."

"Of course, and another young lady from San Francisco--Miss Converse; are you acquainted? No doubt you'll recognize the face if not the name. And I'll be there. So you see, Miss Montero, you already have quite a circle of well-wishers at the mission. I do hope we may have the pleasure of your company."

"Perhaps," said Maria, but her mind was already quite made up.

Yes, Nat thought, no mistaking the set of that chin. No doubt she was used to turning all Montero around her little finger, used to getting her way. She would certainly get it tonight. "If you would be so kind as to save me a dance, Miss Montero, I should be grateful."

"Perhaps," she said again, and closed the door.

"Maria," her father said sharply. "You cannot mean to--to attend this hoedown."

Maria turned to meet her father. "I do mean to attend."

"Maria," he said sharply. "Do you think you can hide your intentions from me? You plan to seek out that young man tonight. Do you not understand? He is engaged! Maria, if you pursue this man--you will bring shame upon yourself and your family."

"I don't care!" she cried. "I don't care! Five years ago I listened to you. Five years ago I cared about those things--dignity, shame, the family. I cared about you, Father, and your opinion." She took a breath. "And what has it done--for either of us? For five years you've been kept away from you home. And I...I have been kept from finding mine." Her chin came up. "I don't care if I shame myself, Father. What does it matter--to trade a little dignity for a lifetime's happiness?"

"Maria. You scarcely knew this man. For five years he is a stranger to you, he has made other plans for his life. I beg of you--don't do this. Do you think I care only for honor? Do you think I wish to see you hurt?"

"I won't be hurt," she said quietly.

He saw it then: the glow she had worn so magnificently that first night had come back to her. What he had told her--it meant nothing to her. Yesterday she had been defeated, she had believed her fate was sealed; today she believed her determination and her beauty could win back all that was lost. He had never seen her look this way.

"He doesn't love her," she said. "He doesn't. I know it. How can it be honorable to let him marry when he doesn't know I still love him?"

"Carita," he said softly, "you are young, you do not understand. You think love and honor are different things. For some of us there cannot be one without the other. If you abandon your principles to chase this man, how can you be happy? How can you respect a man that would throw over his responsibilities? How could you ever trust such a man?"

That was a question she didn't want to answer. She turned away from him, ran up the stairs. It took her a few minutes to summon her control and her courage and begin dressing for the mission party.

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Victoria never had her discussion with Heath. He was off even earlier that Saturday morning; no doubt, she thought, he was feeling pressed to get the house finished. And she was vastly relieved when Silas politely took her aside later that morning. He'd seen the Montero housekeeper at the general store this morning, cancelling orders placed just the day before. The Monteros, it seemed, had decided to cut short--cut very short--their stay in the Valley. Victoria gave an inward sigh, glad that she'd never brought the matter up and now wouldn't ever have to.

Heath wasn't really feeling all that pressed. The house was, in fact, very nearly done; his anger had driven him pretty quickly the day before, and he figured another day or two would see the house finished but for a good coat of whitewash.

He was glad to get out of the house and get away from the others. He was too unsettled in his own mind to want anyone around. Nick hadn't done anything to make him easier, buttonholing him first thing this morning and haranguing him about Hester Converse. It seemed that Hester was coming as Jarrod's guest, and Nick was plenty steamed about it.

The whole mess with Hester Converse had been so long ago that Heath scarcely remembered his own part in the fiasco. Hearing that Jarrod was bringing her should have eased his mind considerably; it made the words he'd overheard the day before suddenly more understandable. Hester, not Anna, was the woman in question; Nick was the brother to be hurt.

But it didn't really make him feel better. It was one more irritant, and he was a man about to jump out of his skin already. And he couldn't help wondering. Jarrod and Hester Converse? Could he really be in love with the woman? Was she just some make-do? Worse, was she coming down just to cause mischief? God knows it wouldn't take much....

He wasn't entirely pleased to share the ride into town with Jarrod. No one, least of all Anna, had troubled to tell him that Hester was bunking with Anna. Since when did they know each other? That was all he needed, some society gadfly attaching herself to Anna and filling her head with nonsense. Hester had tried her wiles on both Nick and Heath and even the two of them hadn't been enough to satisfy her vanity. No doubt she'd think Heath alone was a pretty poor catch for a woman like Anna.

Jarrod noticed his brother's rather sullen silence. Striving for lightness, he said, "So you disapprove of Hester, too."

Heath frowned. "Not exactly," he said. "But, Jarrod, she sure caused a lot of trouble. You sure it's all out of her system?"

"I think so," Jarrod said more solemnly. "I know her behavior toward you was--wrong. But I think it was caused more by fear and uncertainty than by any cruelty or meanness. I've seen quite a lot of Hester these last eight or nine months. There's no mischief in her."

Heath shrugged. "Seems to me she wasn't ready to come down here for Nick. Why do you think she's ready to do it for you?"

Jarrod said, "But I'll give her a very different life than Nick would. Nick's life is here; this is what he wants. Of course this is my home and I mean to spend time here. But I'd be spending more and more of my time in San Francisco anyway, with or without Hester. I think my life is far more compatible with Hester's than Nick's could ever be." Jarrod hesitated. "I hope you don't think this friendship between Anna and Hester is bad."

"Is it friendship, then? I didn't even know they'd met."

Jarrod bit his lip. "If Anna's been discreet it's been on my account. I suppose it's early to call it friendship, but I have the impression that it might be some day."

Heath thought mutinously: What's she need more friends for? In San Francisco to boot? But he said nothing. Even as he thought it he knew it was uncharitable. Would he really begrudge Anna a woman friend? Even if it were Hester Converse?

But any sweet reasonableness he might have recovered evaporated when, on reaching Anna's house, he saw a man there with the two women. He'd never met the man, but he knew who it was even before Anna introduced him as Nat Sherborne. His reply was barely audible.

They rode out to the mission. Hester was tense but covered it well; Nat was at his easy best, voluble and charming. Anna listened to their banter with a little envy. In the surgery she was as confident as she needed to be, but she would never have the ease of Hester or Nat or Jarrod. Nor, she thought ruefully, would she ever have a wardrobe like Hester's. Hester had been kind enough to bring down some of her new clothes, but there was nothing suitable for a party among the dark, simple workclothes. Why hadn't she thought to order something fancier? Or at least ask Audra? It was just supposed to be a simple country dance, and of course Heath didn't seem to know or care a hoot about clothes. (But it had been Audra's red dress which had prompted him...) Oh, nonsense, she told herself; but when she climbed down from the carriage at the mission, and saw the bright swirl of dresses, she felt a little lower still.

She took Heath's arm and steered him towards Padre Miguel. She made a little pleasant chitchat with the father, who was to officiate at the wedding. Heath struggled even to answer. When Miguel turned away, she said to Heath, puzzled, "What on earth is wrong? I thought you liked Miguel."

His voice was low but his anger was unmistakable. "Why'd you invite him?" he growled.

"Invite who?" Anna asked.

"That popinjay--Sherborne. You was just visitin him. Wasn't that enough?"

Anna dropped his arm and stepped back. "What would it matter if I had invited him?"

"I'd wonder why any woman would be invitin men when she's to be wed in a week."

"She might do it to be polite." She tried for a smile, hoping to defuse his anger. "I didn't invite him, Heath, he accompanied Hester. Also I think he came down to see a patient."

Unwillingly he realized that might be true. "I just don't like seein you mix with folk like that," he said, his head down. "With his fancy city ways. Tryin to get you to San Francisco."

Anna laughed. "I think San Francisco is the last place Nat Sherborne wants to see me. Considering the way we disagreed over his patient, he probably wishes I were in Timbuctoo." But she was troubled, and her voice grew softer and less amused. "Heath. We talked this over the other night. I thought--I believed we understood each other that night. I thought--" She stopped, a little unsteady. "Was I wrong? Perhaps we don't understand one another as well as I thought."

He was quiet, remembering those enchanted moments in the moonlight. Where had all that feeling gone? He had a miserable moment, realizing it was his fault. She stood beside him now, as lovely and as gentle as she'd been that night. You're a fool, he thought. You don't deserve her, you know you never did.

He struggled for some word of contrition. His struggle was only too clear to her, though she misunderstood the cause. Without another word she turned and disappeared into the crowd.

He watched her go. Angry with himself, still a little angry with her, and at a loss to know how to make things right, he headed for the beer barrel.

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Anna found herself sandwiched between an indignant Audra and a glowering Nick. She was so stricken by the strange conversation with Heath that at first she couldn't follow the intense flow of conversation from Nick and Audra. What have I done? she wondered. What on earth could have changed?

When she finally began to listen to Nick and Audra, she thought perhaps she understood a little better. Hester was the problem, apparently. Jarrod's Hester, whom she had liked so much. Hester had been engaged to Nick, Hester had set her cap for Heath. It had been Nat Sherborne Heath had mentioned, but perhaps it was Hester who'd disturbed him. No doubt Hester seemed indistinguishable from Nat Sherborne, part and parcel of the fashionable world he seemed to dread so much. But why did he care? she wondered. From the way Nick and Audra told the story Heath had never been interested in Hester; surely he couldn't still be smarting over her rejection.

But, she began to realize, Nick was. Audra was as partial as any sister would be, and her partisanship just seemed to stoke Nick's anger. Hester was causing quite a stir, with partners clamoring for favors, and Nick found it hard to take her eyes off her. Anna, burdened with her own troubles, couldn't help but be worried. Jarrod seemed poised and even a little amused, chatting with Nat Sherborne. He caught sight of the three of them, and, with Nat in tow, ambled over.

Jarrod saw right away that Nick was dangerously angry, and that Audra, unescorted and without much to distract her, was making him worse. Nat, he figured was tailor-made for the distraction. "Audra, you were complaining about the lack of new dancing partners. May I present Nat Sherborne? Anna can vouch for his good graces. He's been pestering me for an introduction."

"I have indeed," Nat smiled, "if you can reconcile the idea of pestering anyone with good graces. I'm charmed. May I have this dance?"

Audra was distracted. Nick and Hester could wait. Here was a handsome stranger, beautifully dressed, and straight from San Francisco! "I think you may," she said sweetly, and took his arm.

"Anna," Jarrod said lightly, "I'm sure you have better things to do than to listen to Nick abuse me. A glass of punch, perhaps? Or are you ready for a little cake?"

"Both, I think."

"Your wish is my command." He offered her his arm. "Nick, your face might freeze like that if you're not careful."

Nick jerked his chin toward the dancers. "I see she hasn't changed much."

"I've resigned myself to the fact that it's not possible for Hester to be unattractive or uncharming. Nick." His tone was still mild, but there was no mistaking the iron edge under its velvety texture. "Leave it go. There are plenty of other young ladies who'd be charmed by your attention. There's..." Jarrod's eye was drawn to a carriage just arriving. "Good God," he said. "Is that the Montero carriage? It must be. Don Alfredo and his daughter! Well, we are honored." Jarrod turned to Anna. "Don Montero is the local grandee. He hasn't been in the valley in years."

If Nick hadn't already been so angry and unsettled it might have occurred to him that Maria Montero's arrival would be an awkward circumstance for his little brother. No one in the family, not even Victoria, had understood so well just what Maria's defection had done to Heath. But Nick was riding the crest of his own anger, blind to everything else. All he realized was that Maria, just now being handed down, was as stunning as ever--more so, really. As stunning as Hester could ever be. Already all eyes were turning to her. Nick pushed through the crowd to be the first to give his good evening to Maria Montero.

Jarrod watched him go, a little relieved. Nothing like a counterirritant. Unlike Nick he hadn't been privy to the full story of his brother's failed romance and never gave Heath a second thought. "I believe I was getting you some punch and some cake." He took her arm back and steered her gently through the crowd.

Jarrod found some punch and some cake; better still, he found a cool, quiet space behind the refreshments. The knot around Hester had loosened a little. He should go claim her at the next dance, he thought; he'd been indulgent to her other suitors long enough. More than once he'd seen her casting about the crowd for him. In those looks Jarrod understood how completely Hester had changed. The attention she was receiving had been addictive and five years ago she could not live without it. But in the meantime she had learned the pleasures of attachment, and Jarrod thought the press of attention had palled for her. It was true, Hester couldn't be unattractive or uncharming, but she had weaned herself from the heady mixture. Jarrod found himself looking forward to the end of the current music, looking forward to claiming his Hester at last.

"Jarrod," Anna said. "Did you notice anything strange about Heath tonight?"

"Hmm?" Jarrod broke away from this pleasing train of thought with some difficulty. "I can't say I did. But I was a little distracted. What's wrong?"

"I don't know. He seems--very angry with me, I think. Or angry about something."

Jarrod bit his lip. "I suppose it's Hester," he said finally. "I suppose she makes him uncomfortable." His mouth twisted a little. "I suppose she's going to make everyone uncomfortable for a while."

"Do you think that's it?"

She looked so unhappy. It was a rare expression for her. In the months since New Year's Jarrod couldn't remember a moment when she hadn't had a glow of serene contentment. He felt a little guilty, realizing that Heath's unease, and hers, was probably caused by him. He forced a smile, put an arm around her, and kissed her cheek gently. "Of course it's just that, and he'll be fine. It's just a little embarrassment, Anna, and you know Heath doesn't handle these social situations well. It's nothing to do with you. He loves you, Anna."

His words comforted her a little. She returned the kiss with a thanks, and let him go off to fetch Hester.

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It was the wrong Barkley brother, but Maria, so long schooled in the social graces, found a smile and a greeting and took his arm, scarcely thinking. There was only one face she sought in the crowd, and she found it at last. With relief she saw he was alone; surely that was a good sign? The way the color drained from his face made her heart beat faster. But he made no move to come toward her. His face went stony and he turned away.

She stood for a moment, puzzled and hurt. He was moved by the sight of her, that was obvious. But no more than that? The impulsive young man she'd remembered: he would be fighting his way through the crowd already. Instead he stood among the most awkward young men and the most red-faced old ones and made no move. He had gone pale; she felt her own face flame with shame and disappointment.

Was it so easy to turn away from her, then? After all this time he could be in her presence, and not seek even a word from her? Very well. If he could be indifferent she could be more so. She turned to Nick with a smile and let him lead her into the crush of dancers. Her partner's face was no less flushed than her own, his air of recklessness as palpable as her own. Anger drew them together. They danced closer together, flamboyant, aware that they drew more and more eyes. They were scarcely aware of each other, but they flirted and smiled and dipped and swayed, and when the music changed they refused to be parted.

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Hester begged off the dance, claiming to be winded. He led her away from the dance floor, back to the same quiet spot he'd found earlier. "It looks like you have a rival for attention, my dear," he said lightly. "I wish her well of it. What a lovely girl. I don't recognize her."

"I'm not surprised. She and her father have been away from California for several years. Maria Montero. They own the property north of here."

Hester lifted an eyebrow. "Perhaps she's discussing property matters even now. Your brother certainly seems enchanted."

Jarrod hesitated. To another eye Nick might look enchanted, but Jarrod wasn't certain that Nick's simmering anger had really been defused. But hadn't Nick nurtured a little fondness for Maria Montero himself all those years ago? Perhaps Providence had really taken a hand tonight. "I hope he is," Jarrod said finally. "It would be a very suitable match." He smiled. "And I'd be happy to keep her in the valley, since while she's around I might have a chance to dance with you without beating off the other suitors."

Hester gave him a smile; there was no archness in it. "You may have any dance you wish."

"I would like all of them, Hester."

The smile softened a little; her eyes were very bright. "I couldn't ask for a better partner."

The music slowed to a three-quarter beat. Jarrod offered her arm and they moved slowly, contentedly, into the crowd of dancers.

Anna saw the arrival of the Monteros with a little surprise, but not much interest. Senor Montero was looking very ill; no doubt the trip to Stockton had wearied him, and then to be out socializing, too. What a coincidence that the country home should be so close to her. Perhaps Senor Montero would wish to seek her medical care. No doubt that would annoy Nat. Well, she thought with some anger, turn about was fair play. Nat was causing her no little bit of trouble. Why had he come, anyway? Or was Hester just the sort of woman who inspired knight-errantry in every man she met?

She watched Maria and Nick dance with envy. The younger woman was lovely; she danced beautifully. And this evening, as in San Francisco, she was dressed with such elegance, such keen awareness of what colors heightened her fine olive skin. There was Maria Montero with Nick, and Jarrod with Hester, and Audra with Nat Sherborne. Heath had made no move toward her; their eyes hadn't met even once. She felt drab and abandoned. She looked about for Victoria, hoping for someone to confide in.

She took a slow turn around the periphery of the dancers. She didn't see Victoria. She passed near the refreshment table. Heath still seemed sullen, absorbed, staring off at nothing. She took a step toward him, willing him to look up. But he was immobile, and she hesitated, and then faltered. She turned away.

Nick had danced with Maria for a good while. Why, she wondered, didn't either of them look very happy? Maria had eclipsed Hester, and Nick had the most-admired woman at the dance clinging to him. Of course, she thought sadly, what does it matter if it's not the attention of the one you want?

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Nat had been dancing quite a while with Audra, too. He'd found her just as he'd hoped, lovely and lively and more than ready to be charmed by him. She wasn't attracting the kind of attention that Hester or Maria did, but she was a handsome girl in her own right, and no less an heiress. And, Nat figured, probably easier to impress than either of those well-traveled beauties. But at last he decided it was time to part, lest the lady think she'd made too easy a conquest. He surrendered her to a cowboy in jeans and a chambray shirt, smug in the sense that the partner who followed him would probably step on the poor girl's toes, and put the good doctor from San Francisco in an even better light.

He found Anna. "Well!" he said lightly. "You poor girl. I haven't seen you dance once. Is that fiancÚ of yours neglecting you? Shameful. Will you do me the honor?"

"I'm not in a dancing mood."

"Oh, nonsense. It's impossible to not be in a dancing mood on a night like this. There, it's a waltz. Nice and sedate. Do me the honor. I promise not to talk business."

"I don't mind talking business. Was it Senor Montero you came down to see?"

"Truthfully? I really just came out of curiosity, and to keep Hester company. I must say I admire Jarrod enormously. Hester's quite a prize." He looked over at Nick and Maria. "Although Miss Montero seems to have put her in the shade."

No one, she thought gloomily, would ever class her with Hester or Maria. "I hadn't realized the Monteros were so close to Stockton."

"Yes, but they've been away for years and years-something about a bad romance. The lovely Miss Montero took up with a farmhand, or some such. Of course her father didn't approve. Shall you continue to treat Senor Montero?"

"If he asks. Are you offended?"

"Professionally I'm a little wounded, of course." More than professionally. It looked as if Nick Barkley had really sunk his claws into the succulent matrimonial prize of Miss Montero. But Nat remembered Audra, and brightened again. "But of course I won't be offended." He smiled knowingly. "Seeing as you all might be family someday. Miss Montero and your soon-to-be brother seem-quite taken with each other. Look at the way they're dancing! It's a bit shocking. Even out here in the wilds of California I've never seen anyone waltz like that."

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Heath had seen enough. Anna thought he had ignored her all night, but the truth was he'd looked for her several times, and every time he'd seen something that had made him angrier. When Anna had lingered near the refreshment table he'd been acutely aware of her presence, hoping she would come to him. She hadn't; for the second time that night she'd turned away. Maria Montero-the sight of her was a shock, and another goad. The sour visage of old man Montero, looking daggers at him. His anger was building up, strangely diffuse. Everything he saw made him angry. Old man Montero; Nick and Maria; Jarrod and Hester. Anna, dancing with Nat Sherborne...

He was a little unsteady on his feet when he launched himself into the crowd of dancers. He had no clear goal; he was running on pure steam. But the press was thick, he was clumsy, and he bumped into Nick.

Nick was spoiling for a fight. He wasn't angry at Heath. But nothing had gone right tonight. He knew, even as they danced more recklessly, flirted more shamelessly, that he was as unmoved by Maria Montero as she was by him. From time to time he caught sight of Jarrod and Hester, waltzing serenely on the edge of the crowd. How well they complemented each other. Had Jarrod ever looked more gallant? Hester had never looked at Nick with that softness, that ease. Shorn of her flirtatiousness she was less handsome and yet more desirable.

No, nothing had gone right, and here was Heath in front of him. Their tempers were both on hair triggers, and they went off.

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Jarrod saw the struggle start. All my fault, he thought. "I've got to do something about this. See if you can find Anna."

By now everyone had stopped dancing. Nat looked on with detached amusement. Anna found herself backing away, suddenly cold. A romance with a farmhand. A girl from some fine family. She understood it all now. The girl who had rejected Heath was that lovely creature. No wonder he'd been angry and snappish. And now...

She bumped into Hester. Her face was twisted with shock and dismay. Hester, alarmed, took one of her hands; it was icy cold. "My dear," Hester said, "this is nothing to upset you so. Let's get out of this crush. Jarrod will sort everything out."

Anna finally found her tongue. "I want to leave," she said softly.

"Of course. As soon as Jarrod-"

"No," Anna said. What an effort it was to speak. "Now. I want to leave now. Miguel will give us a carriage, or horses. Now."

Hester felt wretched, thinking this was all her fault. Damned Nick and his temper! "Of course." She found Miguel, and found Nat, too, who kindly offered to drive, though Hester suspected he was enjoying the spectacle. Hester guided Anna to the borrowed carriage, and sat with an arm around Anna's rigid shoulders. There was no talk in the carriage on the way home. Nat saw them to Anna's door. Anna recovered long enough to say good night, but she quickly closed her door.

Hester stood in Anna's parlor for a long moment. Tonight, before the fight had broken out, she had been as happy as she'd ever been. It had not been a proposal in so many words, but Hester had understood very well what Jarrod was asking, and she knew he had understood her answer. Dancing with him she had let her thoughts drift, thinking of the worlds that would be open to them, together.

Would they? she wondered. Had they been fooling themselves, thinking they might make a future despite Nick's lingering anger? I shouldn't have come, she thought sadly. My entanglements with the Barkleys always end badly...

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Hester passed a sleepless night. She rose determined to leave on the first possible train. There had been no discussion about her staying, and, she thought, there was no need for discussion now. But the first train was not until noon, and it made for an awkward morning. It was obvious that her hostess had also passed a troubling night. But Hester did not want to presume on the slight degree of acquaintance. This was another loss from this ill-omened trip, she thought: no doubt Anna blamed her for the trouble last night, and no doubt that was the end of any friendship between the two. Hester felt the loss keenly. Oh, what a bad idea this had been!

The door opened. She turned, expecting to see Nat, and found Jarrod instead. "Oh," was all she could manage.

Jarrod said lightly, "Leaving already, Hester? Stockton too dull for you?"

Hester said, "How can you joke about it?" She put her hands to her cheeks, which felt hot. "Of course I'm leaving. I fear the air in Stockton doesn't agree with me, or me with it. My visits here always end unpleasantly."

Jarrod sat beside her and said, "But surely not so unpleasantly that you would refuse another visit." When she didn't answer, and kept her face turned away, he grew a little alarmed. Struggling to keep his voice steady, he said, "Hester, last night I asked you a question. I believe I received a favorable answer. Was I mistaken?"

She sighed. "You weren't mistaken. But, Jarrod--you saw what happened last night. It's impossible, Jarrod. I can't--I can't be the one to separate you from your family. And it would mean a separation."

Jarrod let out a breath, feeling a little relieved. "But you haven't changed your mind about me."

"Oh, Jarrod of course not." She gave a small smile. "To jilt two men--from the same family! Even I couldn't live down the scandal."

He took one of her hands. "So it's more a matter of tact and timing."

"It's not that simple, Jarrod. Time--"

"Time will do more than you realize. Nick has a hot temper, but it passes quickly. I daresay he's already a little abashed about his behavior last night. And not all of that trouble was caused by you, Hester."

She shook her head. "You talk as if it can all be sorted out. Jarrod, I knew I did wrong--before. But I had no idea it would have such terrible consequences, or I would have to pay in such a dreadful way. I wish I'd done things differently."

"What would you have done differently, Hester? Can you really say you wish you'd married Nick? Better to have you both miserable, for life, than for you to have changed your mind?"

"Of course I can't say that, Jarrod."

"Well, then, as I said, it's a matter of tact and timing. Let me take the blame for last night. I shouldn't have sprung this on Nick the way I did; I should have given him more time to get used to the idea."

"Jarrod, he's known since New Year's."

"Not really. Not the full extent. Now he does. And he will get used to the idea, Hester."

"You forget," Hester said a little shakily, "that you have more family than that. Nick isn't the only problem."

"No, he's just the one most likely to resort to fisticuffs! If you're talking about Heath..." Jarrod frowned. "I'm a little puzzled by him. But I don't think that was all your fault, either."

"And your mother and your sister. And Anna, too. No doubt she's angry with me."

"You're wrong about Anna. And my mother and my sister--well, Hester, it may be a good while before they'll grow to love you as I do. But they will. And in the meantime, neither of them is likely to start a brawl." Jarrod took her other hand. "So. May I accompany you to San Francisco?"

"Perhaps you should stay here."

"No, I think they'll sort themselves out without me. And I have an appointment in San Francisco tomorrow."

"Really? Where?"

"At Gump's," Jarrod said. "And if you'll be so kind to invite me, I'd like to sup with you. And your parents. May I?"

"Yes," Hester said. "Yes, of course."

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Jarrod found Anna in the kitchen, staring out the window at nothing. "I've come to take Hester off your hands," he said. "But I didn't want to run off to San Francisco without checking on you. Anna, there's no call to look so miserable. Last night--well, it was unfortunate. But not the end of the world."

Anna sighed and kept looking out the window. "There's more to it than you know, Jarrod."

"I'm sure there is." Jarrod hesitated. "I won't lie and say I always understand Heath. I don't. Nick understands him better than any of us--and even he misunderstands a good bit. He's had a difficult life, Anna, more difficult than any of us realize. He takes things very hard sometimes, things that you or I would shrug off. I'm not trying to excuse his behavior, just explain."

Anna looked down but said nothing.

"I don't suppose you've seen that side of Heath before. It's been a long time since any of us have seen it. I'm sure it was upsetting for you. But if I know him at all I'm sure he's as angry with himself over last night as you could possibly be."

"I'm not angry," Anna said quietly.

"No one would blame you if you were. Anna, I'm perhaps not the best person to stand here and argue for peace and understanding all around--not given the fireworks I caused last night. But if you love my brother--and I know you do--I hate to see the both of you miserable."

"Are you sure he's miserable?"

"I'm sure. So miserable that, even though this is a day of rest, Heath was up at his usual ungodly hour. Do you know where he was headed?"

Anna shook her head.

"To your new house," Jarrod said quietly.

Tears suddenly started to her eyes; a smile came to her. "Did he really?"

"He did. I'm sure a little visit would leaven any penance. Will you go?"

"Of course I'll go."

"Good. You see? This isn't going to be such a terrible day after all. For either of us."

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After Jarrod left Anna bathed and washed her hair. For once she took some time over her clothes, choosing the lightest of the simple new dresses Hester had brought. She left her freshly-washed her down. The memory of Maria was still strong. Anna knew that she couldn't compare to Maria, but she was determined to do her best.

Her spirits rose as she drove. It was a fine summer day, the sun golden and warm, the road dappled here and there with cool green shadow. She had been wrong last night, she thought, wrong not to go to him, wrong to leave him alone so long. The other night he had laid bare his uncertainty and his past troubles, and what had she done? She had taken pleasure from that sign of his trust in her, but she'd taken no trouble to understand what he meant. He had been let down from the day he was born. No wonder he'd been hurt when she walked away from him, and stayed away. By the time she reached the house she had persuaded herself that it was her doing, that the unexpected appearance of Maria Montero hadn't been important. She wasn't even sure that Maria Montero was the girl he'd spoken of--she'd just assumed. She had just assumed, and left him alone, and danced with Nat Sherborne. Yes, the trouble had been mostly of her doing, and she could set it right.

Jarrod had been right. His wagon was pulled up alongside the house, the team turned loose in the paddock. But there was another horse tied to the paddock fence. It wasn't a horse she recognized.

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