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Anna's Adventures - Book 2
By Madge
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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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In which we meet a character from the past.
Maria Montera had been a good daughter for five years. To mollify her father she had gone East again, gone to a fine woman's college, learning both literature and the finer social graces. In her spare time she moved in the first social circles of eastern society. After she'd finished college she had been taken off to Europe for the Tour, a full year abroad. She and her father had lingered in Spain, although at last her father had yielded to her wishes and finally taken her to Italy.

Maria knew she had disappointed her father, again. In Madrid she had been courted by the son of a duke. He was a most eligible young man, handsome, educated, wealthy. But dearest to her father's heart was the young man's background; his pedigree was as lengthy and distinguished as the Monteros' own. But the man did not move her. She appreciated all of his fine qualities; but she had loved once, and she knew the kind regard she felt would never ripen into that stronger feeling. She lacked her father's dynastic sense; she wanted not merely suitability in a mate, but love. So she had refused the offer of marriage, and her father, sick with disappointment, had at last taken her away to Italy.

She was no less sought after in Italy, but the parade of counts and marchesi did not impress Maria or Don Alfredo. In Italy she was thrilled by the softness of the weather, the art, the architecture. With or without the marchesi she could have stayed in Italy, and loved it. But her father seemed to weaken in Italy. There was no obvious illness, but he lost weight and seemed low. To Maria it was as if his disappointment had robbed him of all hope or strength.

In the spring she suggested they return to America, though her year wasn't quite finished. He agreed. To her disappointment it was to Boston that he planned to return, not California.

Maria had been aware, through the years, that if she had sacrificed, so had he. Perhaps the sacrifice had not been equal; but for him to have spent so long from his homes in the West, among the east coast Americans, it was a burden. Perhaps he felt it was still too dangerous for her to return to California; perhaps he just thought she preferred Boston. Boston had been her home since she was four; California occupied only a few bright weeks in the years since then.

In Boston she tried to take up the reins of her old life. Despite the notoriously closed nature of New England society, her pedigree, her father's wealth, and her own beauty made her welcome in the most exclusive parlors and ballrooms of Beacon Hill. And beautiful she was.

If there was a slight air of sadness to her, it only added a depth to the loveliness of her olive skin, her dark eyes. But it tended to discourage the younger swains; she seemed remote, untouchable in her dignity. Still, she did not lack for suitors. Even among this group there might have been a man who might have satisfied her father's dynastic ambitions. But her heart was as well-protected in Boston as it had been in Spain.

She had been in love once. Her memories now were threadbare from frequent handling.

There were so few-it had lasted only a few days. But those days had been the happiest and fullest of her life. Her mother had died when she was very young; an only child, she had been sent back East for school. Her father was a beloved but distant figure, seen only once a year. She had been a lonely child, cut off from home and all family ties. She had never felt quite at ease in the East.

No; it was only in California she had come truly to life. She had seen him that very first day, on the way to the ranch home she hadn't seen since she was four. He had seemed to her more real, more alive, than any of the boys she'd met back East, even in just those few moments, few words. Rougher, too; but that was part of his charm.

His courting was as shy and as sweet as any innocent heart might dream. Her heart was touched for the very first time, and she gave it with all the fervor and surprise of first love. She was Sleeping Beauty, just awakened from a life-long sleep. Those days had a rich, golden glow; at night she could scarcely sleep for feeling her heart beat hard against her ribs, impatient for the next day.

And then it was over. Her father's disapproval she might have withstood; but his destruction she could not bear. And destruction it would have been. So she had given up her love, and returned East with her father.

Five years, almost. How many times had she regretted her choice? How often did she hope to hear her father say, "Enough. I will take you back." He never did. Her memories were never far from her thoughts. In Spain, courted by the duke's son, she could only remember a pair of heavy-lidded eyes, his gentle kiss, his work-roughened hands. Perhaps her father had been right, he was not the man for her. Perhaps the novelty would have worn away, and she would have seen her dream man as no more than just other dusty cowboy.

Perhaps. But by stealing away she had become frozen in time, stuck at the memory of those few golden days, unable or unwilling to turn away, to find a new future. Dutifully she had gone through all the motions, gone through them brilliantly. But nothing could unfreeze her heart.

Of course, she told herself, it would be different for him. Men, she had been told, were not faithful. He had already seen far more of the world; no doubt he had seen a good deal more of it since. No doubt he had done as she'd asked, and forgotten her. No doubt there had been others for him. No doubt he was married by now, perhaps had children. Five years!

Compared to their short romance five years was an eternity.

She had no mementos, no photographs, no tokens, no letters. She didn't need them. She had the memory of his face the last time their hands touched, when she told him god-bye. It was enough to live on. It was a thin diet after all these years, but it sustained her.

A waste. It seemed to hear all these years had been a mistake, and a waste. All her father's efforts had not erased her memory or freed her heart. Nor, it seemed, had these years brought much happiness to her father. These days he seemed thinner and sadder than ever, though he refused her request to see a doctor.

What was it all for? Yes, she had kept her father. And he had kept the Montero line free of bastard Anglo blood. But it seemed to Maria that these victories were scarcely enough to keep two hearts alive, even in the midst of a beautiful spring and a glittering social season.

And yet, so close to despair, Maria learned to hope again. It was May, the last ball of the season. Soon the great exodus to the coast, the mountains, would begin. The hostess waved her over to meet a paunchy, sunburnt man. "You two must meet, you're the only Californians in the room-in all of Boston, I daresay. Miss Maria Montera, Senator Harris Pickering."

"Senator, a pleasure."

"Miss Montera, the pleasure's all mine. You must be Don Alfredo's daughter. You've got a place in San Francisco, I believe."

"Yes, and a ranch near Stockton. Though we haven't been in Stockton in several years."

"You'll find it much changed, Miss Montera. Stockton's grown like a weed the last few years. Before you know it it'll be as big as Sacramento." The senator grinned. "And then those darn Barkleys will start fussing to move the state capital down there."

"You know the Barkleys?" she asked.

"Of course. Saw them all last fall. That Jarrod's one smart fella. I believe he'll be after my job one of these days. And his mother's just about the finest woman in the state."

"And the others?" she asked, carefully neutral. "It's been years since I saw them. They must all be married and scattered by now."

"No, they're all still at home. Even those two rowdies, Nick and-I can't remember that younger one's name."

"Heath," Maria said quietly.

"That's it. Can we hope to see you in California again soon, Miss Montera?"

"I hope so."

Her manners and training carried her through the rest of the evening, though she had no recollection of it afterward. All these years-was it possible? Could he have been waiting for her, just as she'd waited all these years? All she knew was that there was a chance, hope where she'd long since forgotten to hope.

The next morning she faced her father squarely. "I want to go back to California," she said firmly.

Don Alfredo met her glance. "Why now, Maria?"

"I've waited long enough, Father. I want to go home."

"It's that man, isn't it, Maria?"

"And what if it is, Father? I did as you wanted. For five years. It hasn't worked. Isn't it time I was let out of jail?"

Her father looked stricken. "I did not realize you were so very unhappy, Maria. If I have kept you, as you say, in jail, I did not do it to punish you. I thought I acted for the best, for your happiness."

"I know, Father. I'm not angry. But I don't think it was for the best. I want to see if things can still be put right."

"If that is what you want, Maria, we will return to California. But I want to talk to you very seriously, my child. When I wished you to part from this man, I thought it was for the best.

He is not your kind. You have nothing in common with this man. This infatuation-I know you call it love-it was but the work of a few days' acquaintance." He cut off her objections with a wave of his hand. "Perhaps you are right. But I ask that you do nothing quickly. If you still wish for this man-and he for you-there is no need for haste." To Maria there was every need for haste, but she didn't wish to argue any further. "If I wait-and if it's still what we want-you must promise to give us your blessing, Father. Not just your acceptance, but your blessing."

Don Alfredo sighed. This past year he had been feeling his age. This only child, much beloved-how could his good intentions have led to such disappointment? These days he felt generally gloomy. But this new development filled him with despair. His objections to the young man had not been based solely on his illegitimacy. He had seemed rough, wild, not the sort of man Maria was used to, not the sort of man that could truly take care of her.

Now-he could not foresee a good outcome. His daughter would be cruelly disappointed in her childish dream. He just hoped she would be disappointed before she had time to tie herself to that man.

"I will give my blessing," he said sadly.

Part 2

On Easter Sunday Heath and Anna rode out to the North Ridge. They hadn't sen much of each other; she had been kept busy by a late rash of sore throats and pesky colds; he'd been tied up with the usual spring business of plowing and planting. Soon it would be time to round up the calves and band and cut them; young horses to be broken; and beyond that, the preparation for round up. Easter was a fine soft spring morning, although there was already the promise of summer heat. The North ridge was all newly green, with fresh grass and clover, and the mountain laurel that lined the low ridge was in bloom. A clear stream ran cold down from the ridge. While their horses drank, Heath said, "I'd like to live here. I know it's not that easy for you, bein that much farther from town. But I reckon you know I don't cotton to town livin. And I always thought this was just the prettiest part of the ranch. There's good water here and a good road into town."

"You've got this all figured out," Anna said.

"I been thinkin. I already talked to the family. But if you'd rather live at the house for a time that'd be all right with me. I just thought maybe you'd like to have our own place."

"You're right. I'd rather we start out on our own. I love your family-but I'd like a real home." She smiled. He was so serious she wanted to tease him a little. "But, Mr. Barkley, are you asking me to live in sin?"

"Anna." He colored a little. "Of course not. All this time-of course I mean to wed you. Whenever you say."

Her smile deepened into a grin. "I don't recall being asked. And I certainly don't recall saying yes."

Heath realized now he was being joshed. He swung down from his horse, held his hat over his heart. "If you'll have me, Dr. Carroll."

"Well, I reckon," she drawled. "But what about a house, Heath?"

"I got a book from San Francisco. If we pick something not too fancy I reckon I could do it myself-most of it, at least."

"You have been planning."

"I been thinkin, like I said. And you've seen my handiwork. I guess your roof's still solid."

"How long would it take?"

"Good weather and a little help-three months, maybe. Course we'd need a barn and a paddock, too."

"Of course. Three months-that would be June. We might as well do it proper. Midsummer, round about?"

"Fine with me."

"It will have to be my church, Heath."

"I got no problem with that, Anna. I wouldn't ask you to give that up for me."

Heath remounted. They rode slowly along the stream. She said, "Speaking of things I can't give up...I know there's times when you haven't appreciated how much time my doctoring takes. And I'll do my best to balance it with being a good wife, Heath. But I plan to go on being a doctor."

Heath took a long, slow breath. "I figured. I reckon I can live with that, Anna. I can't promise I'll always be happy about it."

"I guess that's the best we can hope for." She looked around. It was beautiful; but there were many beautiful places on the ranch. "Why here, Heath?"

"Like I said, it's my favorite place. Just like it." He turned in the saddle. "That road back there-that's the road I took to meet Vern Hickson. Didn't expect to make it back down that road." He gave a small, wry smile. "To remind me. The next time I set off to right the world single handed. Maybe I'll be a little more careful next time."

She reach over for his hand. "Maybe next time you won't be single handed." Part 3 Tuesday was Anna's normal day for making rounds, visiting any sick folk outside Stockton. The boy from the telegraph office met her just as she was locking her office. She glanced at the telegram, scribbled a reply on the back, and set off. She had few visits today. It had been a very clod winter. Paradoxically the cold brought fewer sicknesses, apart from the usual coughs and colds. No measles or scarlet fever. The spring had been mild. Coming into summer, it was still fine. She had a first-time mother expecting soon and a broken arm at the Mission. The mother was anxious but well. "Not for a few more days," Anna assured her. "Baby hasn't turned yet. I'll be away for a day or two but you shouldn't need any help before I get back. If you do, send for Mrs. Barkley."

"Everything's fine?"

"You'll come brave. You color's good, pulse is good. The baby's plenty active. Don't worry, Susie. But no more starch, please. It's not good for you or the baby."

"But I crave it so."

"Try a biscuit instead. Or better yet, an egg. Good for both of you. I should be around on Thursday."

"I sure am lucky to have a lady doc," Susie said. "I'd die before I'd have let old Doc Scanlon-" She blushed. "You know."

Anna laughed. "Once your pains started you wouldn't be so shy. Not to worry. Doc Scanlon's off fishing the Russian River. He won't be anywhere near."

Anna was warmed by the shy praise. She'd had an easier time being accepted here than she'd expected, largely because the Barkleys had used her.

Still, there were plenty of houses where she was accepted only with suspicion, and others where she was never called. The mission was not too proud; they were only too happy for the services, rendered gratis. The fathers were accustomed to accepting what the Lord provided; and if the Lord provided a lady doctor, so be it. Her mission here was not so satisfying. Tommy Binns had broken his arm two weeks ago. It was not a bad break and she'd set it easily. But the boy wouldn't wear a sling or leave the splints in place. She redid her work and gave Tommy a lecture in the sternest voice she could muster. "If this arm doesn't heal right you won't have the proper use of that hand. Whoever heard of a one-handed cowpoke? You mess with that splint again and I'll tell Padre Luis to tie you down till it knits. Hear me?"

"Yes'm," he said, but with poor grace.

"Boys will be boys," Padre Luis said with an apologetic smile as he walked her to her buggy.

"This boy needs to be still for a while. Even a week would make a difference. By now there should have been definite improvement. I'm a little worried, Padre. Please do what you can."

"We will, my child. Many thanks, and good day to you."

Duty satisfied, she turned toward the ranch. She bypassed the main house and the corral. Given the fine weather, she thought Heath would be in the North section. The gentle warmth of the day and anticipation brought a fine color into her face. She took off her hat and put down the roof of the buggy to better enjoy the drive.

Heath was up on the roof, beginning the shingling. Seeing the buggy approach, he climbed down. "No sick folk around here, Doctor. Don't tell me you got a minute just for visiting."

"Supervising, actually." She let him swing her down from the buggy. He was warm from working in the sun and had the same good green smell of the growing hay she'd driven through. "All by yourself today?"

"Yeah, too much to do down at the ranch. Got a new lot of horses in needin to be broken."

"And I guess you'd rather be breaking horses than hanging shingles."

"Any other time I would. But it occurs to me I ain't got much time to finish. Calling the banns on Sunday. Can't be bringing a fine East Coast lady to a half-finished house."

The fine East Coast lady, wearing a battered pair of denim work pants and a man's clean but faded work shirt, laughed. "If it's not finished we can sleep in the stable." Heath, country to the last, had built the barn first, on the sensible ground that they couldn't live out here without horses. "I have always suspected you place a higher value on that big bay of yours than on any mere woman. Now I have proof."

"You're no mere woman. Besides, you need someplace to put that rattle-trap old buggy and that crockhead you call a horse. Why don't you ride, Anna? Or at least let me get you a better nag."

"Easier to carry supplies. And there's nothing wrong with that buggy, or that horse, Mr. Barkley." She went up the steps. "Can't say as I see much progress, sir."

"You were just here on Sunday, Anna."

She smiled. "I know. But let's look around anyway."

The outside of the house was finished. He'd put in the doors and windows last week. Inside, though, there was still much to be done. Aside from the fireplace and the stairs, there was no flooring or paneling. You could travel only by walking on the narrow beams. Still, she was amazed by how much he'd done, working mostly by himself. "And how well it looks," she murmured. "Like a real carpenter."

He laughed. "The doctor is surprised the cowboy can swing a hammer. I too have many talents."

"You can even dig a well, apparently."

"Doused for it myself."

"You didn't."

"I did. With a peach twig. Nick didn't believe it either, till he saw me do it."

"I wish I could see upstairs."

"Don't want you falling off a beam. Don't you worry, Anna. You'll have as pretty a view as you could want. Sun'll come right in those windows in the morning."

"I may not look so good in such a strong light."

"You look good enough to eat in this light."

"Speaking of eating, I did have a reason for coming out."

"Visiting me's not a reason?"

"Well, an extra reason. I have to go to San Francisco tonight. Nat Sherborne's asked me to consult on one of his patients. So I won't be up to the house for supper."

Heath moved away from her, wiped his hands on a rag at his waist. Though they hadn't been damp a moment ago, when he'd had them on her shoulder.

"So you're going."

"Yes. Nat's no leading light where medicine is concerned, but he's one of the few that bother to treat me like a colleague."

"Is it-serious?"

"It's not contagious, if that's what you're worried about. It sounds like one of Nat's rich clients is suffering the effects of an overly-sumptuous life. As usual."

"If it's usual, why's he need you?"

"I don't know. As I said, I regard this as a professional courtesy. Heath, I know you don't like this. But you knew I was a doctor when you asked me to marry you. We agreed that I would go on being a doctor."

"Thanks for makin me feel small." He thought better of his harsh words and took her hand. "I'm jealous, I know. Sometimes seems you care more about your sick folk than about me. And I don't like the sound of this Sherborne fella."

"Nat? Don't be silly. Heath, I've tried to explain-

He stopped her explanation with a kiss. "I know, I know. Just maybe after we're married you'll talk with me before you go runnin off to see Nat Sherborne."

"After we're married maybe I won't even go." She grinned. "But we're not married yet, Mr. Barkley."

He did not respond to her lightness. He held her close for a long moment. "I love you, Anna Carroll. I want to wed you and spend every day of my life with you. Doctor or no doctor."

"This is what I get for saving a man's life."

"It's what you get for saving this man's life. Now, if I haven't been too boorish for you, lady, I'll drive you into town. Just let me get my shirt."

The shirt was still on the roof; when he came down she finished the buttoning for him. "I love you, too, Heath. I reckon we'll be all right, one way or the other."

"I guess sometimes I'm still surprised."

"Surprised? By what?"

"By you, choosin me. Look at you: East coast girl, fancy schoolin, family. You could have anyone. Even that society fool, Sherborne."

"But I wanted you. Heath, nothing will ever change that. If I live to be a hundred, if I have ten thousand patients, nothing will ever change that. Do you believe that?"

"I believe it." Anna caught the evening train to San Francisco. She didn't mind the journey; nothing put her to sleep faster than a train ride. Nat's carriage and footman met her at the station. Nat already had a flourishing society practice, and he had a beautiful home by his more prominent patients. Convenient for house calls, she supposed. The guest room had been properly aired and a plate of sandwiches left out.

In the morning she had a better opportunity to admire the room and the rest of the house. It was beautifully furnished. She thought of the simple house rising on the North ridge. All this mahogany would look ridiculous there. You made your choice, she thought with satisfaction.

This is not the life for you. Not that Nat's sort of patient would be satisfied with a mere woman...

"Anna, how good of you to come on such short notice!" Nat was only a year or two older than Anna; they'd been at Harvard at the same time. While she'd gone onto Europe for further study, he'd taken Greeley's advice and gone west. He was already well settled and well thought of, tending to the gout and megrims of the coast's robber barons. It was a good place for him, she thought, with a little cynicism. Nat was talented enough, though he'd never put forth much of an effort. His greatest gift was a fine and confidence-inducing manner.

"You must excuse me for not meeting your train myself. I was at Sylvia Ottway's-a charming affair. You should get up here more often, Anna. Although I understand you've been busy in Stockton. Good heavens-where are my manners? My congratulations, dear. You've made a splendid catch-though I would have thought Jarrod was more your style. Although he does seem rather attached these days. When's the wedding?"

"Thank you, Nat. The twenty-fourth, if your calendar's empty. But however did you hear?"

"From Jarrod, of course. He was at Sylvia's. With the lovely Miss Converse on his arm, as is usual these days. They're quite a pair. Of course, now it seems perfectly reasonable that those two uncatchables should catch each other. But I don't suppose the rest of the family approves very much-no wonder they're always in town."

Anna understood only a little of the past history, although she knew that the family took a dim view of Jarrod's friendship with Hester Converse. From Nat's chatter it seemed as if the friendship were closer than anyone in Stockton realized. "Tell me about the patient, Nat."

"Ah, the patient, of course. More eggs? Toast? Jenkins, Dr. Carroll will need some more jam with that. "The patient is a puzzle, so of course I called you. I'm not sure it's an urgent case-I'm not sure it's a case at call. But my patient was quite insistent."

Anna smiled to herself. "And not the sort to take the word of just one doctor, eh? What are the troubling symptoms?"

Nat consulted his watch. "We're due at nine-thirty...Jenkins, bring back those eggs. I've time for just a bite more. Well, Anna, it is more a lack of troubling symptoms. The gentleman runs no fever, keeps down his food, has not sputum or spots to speak of. Yet he feels persistently low and loses weight, though his appetite remains good. How is the weather? Lovely. Do you mind if we walk? It's just around the corner. Jenkins, my bag? Ah, good man. Will you stay another night, Anna?"

"No, I'd planned on taking the afternoon train back."

"Jenkins, see that Dr. Carroll's bag gets to the station. Very good. This way. As I was saying-weight loss, a low feeling. Nothing more certain."

"Neurasthenic?" she asked cautiously.

"Perhaps. But he has been a very active and successful man."

"Those are the sort stricken."

"Indeed, indeed. But I would have expected the onset of nervous symptoms at a much earlier age."

"Earlier age? How old is he, then?"

"Rising seventy, I believe."

"Seventy! Nat, I can't believe you dragged me up here for this. I should be surprised if a man his age didn't feel low."

"But the weight loss, Anna."

"True, true. Do you think it's anything more than normal aging?"

"I can't decide. In another man...but meet the gentleman yourself. Shall I join you in the consultation?"

"Please. It may make your patient less uncomfortable."

They stopped at a massive oak door; the house itself was a four-story mansion in the Mediterranean style. "Oh, my," Anna murmured.

"Exactly," Ned said dryly. "Don Alfredo is a man of much substance and no little style."

Nat's knock was answered by a grave-looking Spanish servant in full livery. "Doctors Sherborne and Carroll to see Don Alfredo."

The servant looked at her doubtfully, but gestured them in. The hall was paneled in dark leather and heavy wood, the floors dark marble. An elaborate chandelier, unlit, loomed over them. The house had a faintly musty smell, as if it had closed up for a long time. "Don Alfredo is in his sitting room. Please to follow."

The upstairs was no less impressive, and no less dark. The doors here were also massive,perhaps ten feet tall. The servant opened one.

"Don Alfredo." Nat, wearing his best good-doctor smile, offered his hand to Don Alfredo, who took it uncomfortably, as if not used to this American glad-handing, and not pleased by it. "This is Dr. Anna Carroll, a classmate of mine. Not only did she study at Harvard, but she's also trained in Europe."

Don Alfredo made a little bow. "Where in Europe, senora?"

"Primarily London. They are making wonderful advances in surgery there. And in Paris, under Dr. Pasteur."

"I do not know the name. I have heard, though, about this new drug for surgery."

"You perhaps refer to chloroform. It's been used with more success than nitrous oxide, and it does not seem to have the side effects of the opiates."

Don Alfredo shook his head. "A dangerous drug, I have heard."

"Good enough for Queen Victoria, sir, and quite safe when properly used."

"Dr. Carroll's extensive background in surgery made me especially desirous to have her opinion, Don Alfredo," Nat said.

"You think this is a matter for surgery, then?"

"I doubt it, sir, but an informed second opinion is always most useful. And should you need surgery you could be in no finer hands. I do not believe there is a finer surgeon west of the divide-and few of them east, either."

"Do you lose many patients, Dr. Carroll?"

"Good heavens!" Nat sputtered, more than a little nervous. "Just a few months ago-the son of a most prominent family-"

Anna cut him off. "Nat, no one wants to hear about other people's operations. To answer you, Don Alfredo. Despite recent advances, despite my training, surgery is generally a last resort. So, yes, I have lost a good number of patients. But a few I believe have been saved, and others not materially harmed. An honest doctor could tell you no differently."

"Very well," Don Alfredo said gravely. "I have had many misgivings. Forgive me, senora, but I have never seen a woman in medicine before, aside from a nurse or a midwife."

"There are very few women doctors yet. Back East it is even harder to practice than it is to train. West of the divide, with doctors so scarce, the climate is a little friendlier. I've been unusually lucky to get all the education I've had."

"And how did you manage this education, doctor?"

"My father was also a doctor and in touch with many of the leading physicians in Europe. I was extended kindness on his behalf."

Don Alfredo drew back. "You family-they supported this?"

"Most firmly," she smiled. "My father's family have been doctors for generations. My mother's father was a classics professor at the University of Virginia

who taught his daughter, as well as his sons, Latin and Greek. My family has a long history of educating its women."

"My daughter, too, has been educated at university-in Boston and in Madrid. A woman of good breeding should be accomplished in things besides china-painting. But to take up a trade..."

"Medicine is not a trade, sir," she said sharply. "It is a profession. And an honorable one."

"I surrender," Don Alfredo said. Perhaps his expression was as close as so dignified a man came to a smile. "Senora, you have borne with me and defended yourself most admirably. I place myself in your hands." Part 4 "Good. Dr. Sherborne has told me a little of your history. I have some questions for you. Please be patient; a thorough history is an invaluable tool. And, sir, remember that I am your doctor, however strange that may seem. You can't shock or upset me, but withholding information may make this visit useless." She took up paper and a pencil. "Your age, sir?"

"Sixty-seven. Sixty-eight in July."

"Your symptoms?"

"A great and persistent weariness. I have little strength or stamina. I have lost much weight, though my appetite is unchanged and my digestion little disturbed. I have no fevers or pains."


"Onset?" He was puzzled.

"When these troubles began."

"Four months, no more. And have worsened with time. Before, my health was quite robust, despite my age and city living."

"City living?"

"For the last several years I have lived in large cities, Boston, Madrid. And traveled a good bit. Before that I lived mostly in the country."

"Any other changes at the time the symptoms began? You were traveling?"

"We had spent time in Spain, then Italy."


"My daughter accompanied me."

"She has been well?"

"Yes, quite well."

"Do you drink alcohol? Wine, brandy?"

"Wine with meals, of course. A little brandy. I am not a toper," he said stiffly.

"Don Alfredo, please, I must ask. Any other symptoms? Rash? Pustules?"

"Nothing of the sort."


"Now and again, but mild."


"Nothing unusual."

"You were quite well while traveling? Any dysentery?"

"Some, of course. But it passed away."


"A cigar now and again. Not excessive."

Anna opened her bag. "If you could remove your shirt, Don Alfredo, and have a seat over here, in the light. I would like to examine you."

He looked horrified. "An examination? But, my dear senora-"

"It is essential, and should not be unduly embarrassing. Dr. Sherborne is here as well."

He sighed. "Sickness is a great leveler, I believe." He sat down and removed his shirt.

With a lit candle she looked into his eyes, throat, and ears.

"My ears do not trouble me," Don Alfred grumbled.

"I'm glad to hear it," Anna said calmly, but continued her examination anyway. She palpitated the glands in his neck, then took out her stethoscope.

"What is that?"

"It's called a stethoscope. It makes sounds-like a heartbeat-much louder. They've been around for many years, but this is a new model. The best I've used."

"How does it work?"

She laughed. "I'm a doctor, not an engineer. I don't quite understand how it works. I just know it does." She listened to his heart and lungs. She then palpitated his abdomen. He was clearly uncomfortable. "Any pain?"

"No. There, a little sensitive. No."

She took his pulse, checked his grip and his reflexes. "There," she said. "You've been most patient, sir. You may put your shirt back on. If you don't mind, I'd like a few words alone with Dr. Sherborne. We'll just step into the hall and we'll be back directly."

In the hall Nat seethed. "Are you mad? Examining him like that? Anna, he's a grandee, from one of the finest old Spanish families. You can't treat him like a farm hand."

"He's a man like any other, and I couldn't give an honest opinion without a proper examination, Nat. You know that."

Nat let out a long breath. "What is you diagnosis, then?"

"I'm not sure there is a diagnosis. What about sugar sickness? That would explain the weight loss."

"The characteristic smell is missing."

"As is the noted the mass in the abdomen?"

Nat said, "I would hardly call it a mass, Anna. A slight thickness or stiffness. In a man his age-with alcohol- "

She shook her head. "Not normal, even with age. He lacks the other signs of dipsomania. His eyes, his features, his hands-I don't believe he was ever an over-imbiber."

"What are you thinking, then?"

"A growth," she said slowly.

"Epithelial?" he gasped.

"Difficult to be sure. But the listlessness, the weight loss...sometimes it progresses that way. There is nothing else to explain it."

Nat bristled. "But the traveling. In Florence there is a most unhealthy climate. It could be malaria."

"Possible, but not likely. He's had fevers but no chills or headaches. And there is the time lag-but timing is so unpredictable with malaria."

"What shall we tell him?"

Anna shrugged. "I hesitate to tell him too much. If I'm right, there is little to be done. If I'm wrong, the fear may be worse than the true disease."

"And the remedy?"

"No remedy. But let's try a strengthening regime. If I'm wrong, a few weeks should bring some improvement or alleviation. If I'm right-well, it will do no harm. Shall we go back in?"

Don Alfredo rose as they returned. "You have decided?"

"We have decided not to decide," Anna said pleasantly. "You symptoms do not easily support a diagnosis. Therefore, we recommend a general regime aimed at strengthening your overall health without aggravating the underlying problem."

"And you suggest what?"

"Rest and quiet. A little exercise-perhaps a walk in the morning and evening, but not in the heat of the day. Exercise, but only to relax and refresh-not exertion. A very mild diet. Milk, eggs, chicken. Only a little beef, perhaps two or three times a week."

"No beef!" Don Alfredo choked a laugh. "Senora, it has been my custom to east beef twice a day. Beef is strengthening."

"But it can be irritating, and you must cut back. Red wine in moderation, nothing stronger. Fresh fruit and vegetables, but served very plainly-no sauces or dressings. And the milk-only the very freshest milk, gotten that day. Milk turns unhealthy very quickly in this heat. Do you sleep well?"

"I am restless."

"Dr. Sherborne will prescribe a draught. Sleep is a great curative. I wish you good luck, Don Alfredo."

"I will see you again, doctor?"

"I don't live in San Francisco and-will find it more difficult to travel so far in the future. Dr. Sherborne and I have agreed on this regime, sir. And, besides, your cook can administer it better than any doctor. If it becomes necessary Dr. Sherborne can consult with me again. Or bring in another San Francisco doctor."

"But you do not prescribe surgery."

"Oh, no."

"Then perhaps I am not at the last resort after all."

"Luckily for you, sir." But she could not quite meet his eyes.

"Dr. Sherborne," Don Alfredo said smoothly. "I thank you for your time. I realize you must have other pressing business. I am sure you will not mind if I detain the senora. I have found her to be a most interesting lady, and at my age I get so few interesting callers."

Don Alfredo was faultlessly polite, yet there was a clear dismissal in his words. "I'm going straight to the station, Nat, so you needn't wait," Anna said.

"Indeed. I'll send the sleeping draught around, sir. It's always a pleasure to see you. Anna, I hope you have a good journey home. I give you both good

day." Nat's good manners didn't desert him. After all, Anna would leave, but Don Alfred was staying-and Don Alfredo was the paying client. No point in a show of hurt feelings. Anna felt cornered, but Don Alfredo did not spring his trap right away. Instead he rang a bell, and another solemn servant appeared. "Tea," he said simply. "Or would you prefer coffee?"

"I'm afraid living out here has made me a coffee drinker."

"Coffee, then. You are not from the West?"

"Oh, no. I grew up in Maryland."

"Maryland?" He frowned. "Ah, yes-but Carroll-this is a very fine name, an ancient family, I believe?"

She laughed. Out here it was so easy to forget pedigrees. "Ancient, yes. Fine-well, there are quite a lot of us now. Some fine, some not so fine."

"But you are Catholic, no?"

"Yes. Most of the families in that part of the world are."

"And still you are a doctor! With your family's approval! Surely they did not approve of your coming to this rough country."

"Rough, but getting smoother every day. My parents have been dead for many years, so I needed no approval but my own."

"But a woman of your background, your breeding-to be exposed to such things." He frowned. "In my country, among my people, such a thing would not be allowed."

What, she wondered, was his country? She shrugged. "Foolishness. Why must we act as if half the human race had no skills beyond butter churning? Think of all the talent gone to waste."

"No doubt you are a follower of Mrs. Stanton as well."

"Men vote. In the South former slaves vote. Out here women vote, and have done no harm. Why not everywhere?"

"You shock me," he said simply. "And yet you do not seem coarse or unwomanly." She was glad she'd worn a dress after all. "This country, with its strange ways-I worry. Perhaps we should have stayed in Spain. But my daughter has grown up in America and has many American ways. I fear for her."

The coffee appeared. The cups were carefully filled by the servant. Anna sipped her coffee nervously. She knew Don Alfredo suspected she had been less than forthcoming. She was not yet sure how much more to say. The door opened. A beautifully dressed woman, younger than Anna, came in. She was lovely, with dark Spanish eyes and hair. In the proud carriage of her head there was a resemblance to the old man. "Father. Did you see Dr. Sherborne already?"

"Dr. Sherborne is a fool, I'm afraid. But he has brought this Dr. Carroll, who I believe is no fool. Do not defend your colleague, senora."

In spite of his words, Anna felt she had to defend Nat. "Don't let his manner fool you, Don Alfredo. Nat is not all window-dressing."

"Dr. Carroll?" the woman said hesitantly. "You're the second opinion?"

"Yes." Someday, Anna thought, it will be common as dirt and I won't feel like I belong in the PT Barnum freak show.

"My daughter, Maria Montera. Jorge, bring us a fresh pot and a cup for Miss Maria. Join us, my dear. Dr. Carroll is about to tell me why she takes a grave view of my condition."

"I did not say grave."

"Perhaps you did not mean to. But you are a most unconvincing liar. I am an old man, senora. Trouble does not surprise me. I would like to hear what you did not say before."

Anna put down her cup. "When I said I didn't know-that is quite true, sir. I don't know for sure. But I think your condition may be quite grave."


"Possibly, yes."

Maria gasped. "But how is this possible? Father has hardly been ill!"

"I said possible, not certain. But there is a growth, a tumor, near your liver. If it is a certain type of growth, it will be fatal. But it could also be no more than a nuisance. I cannot be sure."

"Another doctor? A specialist?" Maria asked.

"Not in California. New York or Boston, perhaps. But I doubt anyone could truly be sure at this point."

"And when will you be sure?"

"Hard to predict. A month or two should tell a great deal. If there is no change or worsening, then the situation is probably not serious."


" could worsen rapidly. Within six months."

"It is not likely that I shall see my three score and ten, you believe," Don Alfredo said.

" is not a question of belief. Our science is still so crude-there is much we still don't know. That is why I hesitated to tell you more. Health and sickness are strange. A man who believes he will recover often does-sometimes against great odds." She thought briefly of Heath. "But a man without hope may poison himself with his own fear. So I don't like to frighten people. It can do real harm."

"Still, my affairs should be in order. Perhaps it is well that we have come back after all." A long look passed between father and daughter, a look that puzzled Anna but brought a small smile to Maria. "And this-regime you have prescribed?"

"If your problem is something else, there will be improvement. In any case it will do no harm. Even if there is malignant tumor, the diet will give your body greater strength to fight the illness."

"Strength...I would like to travel to my home in the country. May I do so?"

"How far?"

"A hundred miles, perhaps."

"Good roads?"

"As good as may be found here."

"I'd recommend a few days' rest first. But taken in easy stages it should not be an undue strain on you."

"May I consult with you again?"

"Of course. But professional courtesy-please contact Dr. Sherborne first. He can reach me. But I doubt that you'll need me again."

"It is not suitable for surgery?"

"As I said, I consider surgery a last resort. In cases like yours it has been tried. But with poor success. The risk of infection is so great. I couldn't recommend it. It is too unlikely to prolong or improve your life."

"I thank you for your honesty, Dr. Carroll. And now, if you will excuse me. I believe I shall start on your regime of rest and quiet now."

After he left the two women sat in silence. Anna felt plain. Her doctoring dress, as she thought of it, was severe, simple, black, with no bustle or trim.

Maria was beautifully dressed in pale amber silk, with a dark amber jacket, flounced bustle, and bonnet. And she wore those beautiful clothes with an ease and grace that Anna, at her best, did not have. Anna felt a stirring of envy, almost dislike, which she beat down. The young woman was about to lose her father, probably to a painful and lingering illness. Be nice, she reprimanded herself.

"I feel so silly," Maria said. "Here I've been out visiting, while this- I really expected Dr. Sherborne to say it is nothing. He hadn't seemed alarmed before.

I thought the second opinion was just to convince my father. I had no idea..." Her voice trailed off.

"Don't give up," Anna said gently. "It is not hopeless."

"Perhaps. Father believes it is-has believed it for some time. As if he knew."

Anna had no response. Maria continued, "I have given up so much for my father." Her voice was so low Anna had to strain to hear. "And have so often regretted it. Now, when he relents, when everything might be made right...You must excuse me. I'm babbling. But this-has been quite a shock."

It is beyond time for me to be gone, Anna thought, although her train would not leave for hours. She rose. "I don't want to intrude any longer, Miss Montera. I'm sorry and I hope I'm wrong. Please give my regards to your father."

"Oh, I will. I wish I could talk to you a little more. What an interesting life you must lead. I've done nothing but go to school and museums and dressmakers." She forced a smile. "Perhaps another time, in happier circumstances. Thank you so much."

At least they didn't kill the messenger, Anna thought. But her spirits rose as soon as she was out of that dark, quiet house. She decided she would pass at least a little of her free time with Jarrod, and set off for his office. Anna found Jarrod's office with some difficulty. In his anteroom she passed a brilliantly dressed young woman who said lightly, "If you've come for Mr. Barkley, you're out of luck. He's in court. Can you imagine? Midmorning, and a weekday at that. How very inconsiderate of him."

Anna sighed. She had wasted time finding the office, and now she would get no assistance. She might as well go down and wait at the depot...

"Pardon my insufferable curiosity," the young woman continued, "but you're Doctor Carroll, aren't you?"

Anna was so surprised she could only nod.

"Hester Converse," the other woman said. "There, shall we shake like gentlemen? I've heard a great deal about you. It's a pleasure."

"I've heard a great deal about you, also," Anna said automatically, and then realized she had heard a good deal about Hester Converse.

"And all of it perfectly charming, I'm sure," Hester said dryly. There was no small tinge of jealousy in Hester's heart; she knew only too well that Jarrod had hankered for this woman.

And what did her appearance on his doorstep portend? "I understand congratulations are in order. If it's not too forward of me, may I wish you all the best happiness? You're acquiring a fine family."

Anna broke into a real smile, the sort of smile that removed any doubt about where her affections lay. Then, again, she remembered Hester's own rather torturous connection to the Barkley family. "Thank you so much. Yes, I think they're fine-certainly they've treated me with a great deal of kindness."

"You must have a great deal to do. Are you in town for shopping?"

"Yes-no, that is, not initially. But I have some time before my train, and I thought I would try-well, try to get a few things. I thought I'd ask Jarrod."

Hester laughed with real amusement. "Oh, my dear," she said at last. "Jarrod is a font of useful information-but about feminine furbelows? I think that's beyond even his ken. But you have run into just the right flibbertigibbet. What are you in need of? Linens? China? Crystal?"

"All," Anna mumbled. "But-well, I should be looking for practical things, but..."

Hester looked her over. The dress was dreadfully dowdy, and getting shabby. "I don't imagine you've had much time to think about your wardrobe, have you?"

"No-not that I'd know what to think. I'm not a regular reader of Godey's."

"But who is making your gown?"


"For your wedding. It's this month, is it not?"

"Yes. I hadn't-well, I have been meaning to get Mrs. Hill to do it, but-Hester took a breath. "Well, we haven't much time, then, have we? But not to fear. My seamstress is a marvel. Come along, it's a few blocks."

Anna hesitated. Hester was beautifully turned out, from her small dashing bonnet to her neat, well-shined shoes. Anna couldn't imagine herself in such a rig, although in some small corner she felt the same stab of envy she'd felt earlier. "Perhaps your seamstress is too fancy for me."

"Nonsense. She's a woman of rare talent. Of course you're not looking for my clothes; you're a different type altogether. But you'll see, she's got a fine eye-and fast hands, which you'll need, my dear. No, no, don't argue. Surely Jarrod has told you it's useless to oppose one of my whims."

The woman of rare talent was ensconced in a fine house at the base of Nob Hill. The walls were lined to the ceiling with bolts of material in every color; recent editions of Godey's and other ladies' books were in stacks on various little tea tables. While an assistant took Anna's measurements Hester spoke with the seamstress quietly. The seamstress blanched at little at the deadline she was given; but Miss Converse was too valuable a client to contradict. After the measuring was finished, Anna joined the two.

"For the everyday suits, something like this broadcloth. It'll do you excellent service; that habit you did up for me has held together quite nicely, Mrs. Wilkes. No, Dr. Carroll, step away from the black. Really, there are other colors. That gray, for instance. And the navy. You don't want to look like an undertaker. Brown? No, you're not the brown sort. That style there, Mrs. Wilkes. Without the bustle, of course. Dr. Carroll will manage to look both dashing and somber-quite a feat, I couldn't pull it off. Now," Hester sighed with real pleasure, "for the important piece. A gown suitable for a wedding, but a smallish wedding, yes?-and suitable for good after. You've got a nice long neck-you'll want to show that off. Something like that Mrs. Wilkes. Last year's neckline, but no one in Stockton will know, and it's just the thing. Fabric..."

Hester strolled around the room, stopping now and again to pull a little fabric out, try it under Anna's chin. "Yes, this white, with the blue cast. Just the thing."

Anna fingered the heavy silk carefully; it whispered at the slightest touch. Long ago, she could remember her mother's voluminous skirts, with just such a rustle. And then she caught sight of the price tag, discreetly tucked alongside the roll. "Oh, my," she said. "I don't think..."

"Nonsense," Hester said briskly. "You can afford it-or your husband to be can. It'll be lovely. I doubt he'll grudge you the pennies, my dear. Now, Mrs. Wilkes, we have labored mightily. Might we have a spot of tea-and a little privacy?" Mrs. Wilkes withdrew.

Over tea, Hester said, "You must forgive me. I do have a way of running off once I get an idea. No doubt you think me terribly officious. Of course if you don't like the silk you needn't take it."

"Oh, no, I like it. And you haven't been officious, you've been quite kind. Without your help, who knows what I might have ended up with?" Anna put her cup down. "Normally, I'm the one who's taking others in hand and giving the orders. But my work takes up a great deal of my time. Somehow I've found myself shy of woman friends."

"Surely you have made friends with Audra. I remember her as a most outgoing girl."

"And she is. And very sweet. I do think of her as a sister. But, perhaps you agree, there might be a difference between a sister and a friend. Especially a sister like Audra."

Hester thought of her own sisters, married and dull; and she thought of Audra, who no doubt had the full share of Barkley family loyalty. "Yes, I can see that."

"And Victoria-well, she's magnificent. But..."

"Yes," Hester said again. "Yes, I do see. Let me assure you," she continued quietly, "it is not a fault of geography. You would find friendship as difficult a commodity here, I'm afraid."

"Yes," Anna agreed. "I imagine I would."

They finished their tea in silence. Hester with her brittle facade, Anna with her seriousness; both recognized the other's loneliness and saw an echo in herself. They were both aware that there might be a deeper friendship to be found in the other.

At last, Hester said, "My goodness, we've just time to get you into a cab for the train station. Mrs. Wilkes will send your parcels to your directly."

"It's a lucky thing Jarrod was out," Anna said.

"Indeed. Just think how happy he'll be to have missed an hour's shopping."

Before stepping into the cab, Anna said, "Thank you again, Miss Converse."

"It was my pleasure. And again, I wish you very happy."

Anna rode away with no small pleasure. She'd spent a terrible lot of money; but she had enjoyed it, and perhaps made a friend. Hester watched her go with slightly more mixed feelings, for there went a woman who had secured her Barkley. Well, Hester thought; perhaps it's contagious.


Anna ate supper with the family the following night. In truth, she supped with the family more often than she did at her own home. Even before the actual engagement she had been accepted as a member of the family; any awkwardness with Jarrod was since gone, especially since Jarrod himself was away so much. Having met Hester, Anna wasn't surprised. She was surprised how much she'd liked Hester, but she knew it was a sore topic to the rest of the family. Nick retained a little jealousy; Heath was uncomfortable; and Audra and Victoria mistrusted.

It was a pleasant meal. Strangely, both Anna and Heath had taken pains with their dress that night. He'd actually put on a jacket to drive into town. Anna liked the country-gentleman appearance it gave him. She, anxious for her new clothes to arrive, had settled for the nicest dress she had that wasn't black.

Anna excused herself from the usual after-dinner coffee and chat; she wasn't in the mood.

As they walked toward the paddock, Heath said, "Are you needing to get back? Or will you walk with me a little?"

She took his arm. "I'll walk with you a little."

Twilight was deepening, but there was light from the rising moon. In the far paddock there were a dozen colts pacing about. "That's what's waitin for me when I finish the house."

"No wonder you're in a hurry to get back. I bet a dozen broncs look good after all those shingles."

"Truthful, they do look good. I'm still more cowboy than carpenter. But you know that's not the only reason I'm in a hurry." He pointed out one dark chestnut. "That's Charger's. First one that's old enough to break. We'll see if he's much of a sire."

They watched the colts in silence. Even in the dim light she could see the solemn look on his face. Somehow she didn't think he was all that worried about Charger's colt. She tightened her grip on his hand. "You don't usually walk for exercise, cowboy. What'd you want to say?"

He smiled a little. "Don't fool you, do I. There's been something I wanted to ask you."

"So ask."

He sighed. "You think-you think your folks would approve? Of me, I mean."

She was genuinely surprised. "I never thought..." She tried for a light note. "Well, mama would have thought you handsome enough. But I don't know if you could flatter her enough, Heath. You're not overgenerous with compliments."

"I'm serious, Anna."

"I know. But why, Heath?"

"I'll explain after."

"Oh, all right. But I was serious. My mother was a beauty-and she liked to be told that, frequently. Daddy had her spoiled that way." She thought for a moment. "He-my father would have liked you very much, I think."

"Even though I ain't educated? Done hard work all my life? Even though..."

She was beginning to understand. "Even though you're illegitimate?" The word sounded harsh. She used it deliberately.

"Yes, that."

"Heath, that's not your fault."

He looked at her darkly. "I been judged for it all my life."

"It's not how I judge," she said hotly. She put her arms around his waist, leaned her cheek against his. "If it matters so much to you-my father would have seen all the good things I see in you. See that you're honest and strong." She forced him to look at her. "He would have seen that you love me and would take care of me. That's all he'd want." She smiled. "Though he'd have preferred you Catholic, of course."

That teased a small smile from him. He kissed her forehead, brushed a stray curl behind her ear. "What's bothering you, Heath? My father's been dead for ten years. And even if he weren't-what difference would it make, anyway?"

"I guess you know," he said eventually, "I've crossed a few hills. There's been others-not like you," he added quickly.

"I admit I'm a little jealous of that. But I still don't see what it's got to do with my father."

"I'm gettin there. Right after I came here-after my mother died-there was a girl." He sighed. He had never talked of Maria since she'd gone away; it was hard to dredge up. But the memory still troubled him, and he sensed that it needed to be reckoned with before he could properly start with Anna. "It was only a few days. Maybe it would have just been a passing thing. But it was-it was strong between us."

"So what happened?"

"She was from a fancy family-very distinguished." His voice took on a harder note. "Her father didn't approve. Because I'm a bastard. To choose me she'd have to break with him. She couldn't do it. He took her back East. I never saw her again."

"And she left-because of that?"

"She was just a girl, Anna. No more'n eighteen. I don't blame her."

Anna was silent. She was tempted to say that at eighteen each of them had been on their own and capable of deciding for themselves. But she thought better of it.

"A ways back you asked if I was angry-remember? And I said not like I used to be. But, Anna, there's places where it's still rough, where I'm not easy. Thinkin I'm not good enough for you. Maybe you're better off-rather be-off in San Francisco. With someone more like you."

He put up a hand to stop her words. "Anna, it hit me hard. Just when I'd gotten here-when I thought all the bad part of havin no father, no name, was behind me. Made me realize it's never really behind me."

Her hair was in its usual plait, but it was pinned up. In the low light her neck looked very pale and very vulnerable; he could hardly see her face. The skin of her neck was warm and smooth. Their courtship had been chaste, old-fashioned; he knew without asking her limits. He knew how few days were left; soon he'd see that dark hair loose on her bare shoulders. But he would have liked to lay with her that night; he felt it would ease some doubt still gnawing at his contentment.

"I'm just sayin," he finished, his voice thickened and a little unsteady, "there's times you'll have to be patient with me, Anna. I'm not easy. I got cause."

"No cause," she said quietly. "You have no cause to doubt me. No cause."

Since New Year's Eve he had kissed her many times; but this was different. When at last he broke off she still clung to him; his arms were still tight around her. It bothered her that he was still troubled by old incidents and accidents that seemed trivial to her. But she had never felt closer to him. And it thrilled her that this man, who seemed so strong, so complete, was vulnerable to her. If he'd asked-well, she blushed, there was no telling what might have happened.

She thought he was like walking through marsh country, back east; you never knew when solid-looking ground would give way to bog. She'd thought she loved him six months ago; compared to what she felt that night, her old feelings seemed callow. Soon she'd be his wife, truly, for good and all. What would she feel then? How could any woman have turned away from him? A few moments ago she'd been ready to boast of her independence at eighteen; now, at twenty-eight, she was grateful to breach that independence.


At about the time Heath and Anna were sitting down to supper, Maria was on the North Ridge.

They'd left San Francisco that morning, leaving servants to see to the packing and closing of the house. She had waited so long. Even a day or two was unbearable. Despite the doctor's advice her father came too; he said he could rest in the valley as well as in the city. She knew he came to chaperone, to hover. Neither he nor the stableboy could keep her from riding out that very afternoon. The horses were restive for lack of exercise; she had not ridden in so long; it would be dark, she could be lost. All this she shrugged off. The horses were restive? Fine, this would be good exercise.

Lost? She almost laughed. The trail was burned in her memory; she could have traveled it blindfolded. Her confidence, her excitement could not banish the grim sadness from her father's face.

The trail was as she remembered it. The season was nearly the same, the trees were full and green, the clover and hay almost ripe. Even the air was as she remembered it. From the ridge she looked down with thirsty eyes. They had raced along that lane, watered their horses at that stream; under that tree he had kissed her. Oh, yes, it was all the same.

But it was not. As she rode further down the ridge, she could see a house, a barn, fences.

It was a jolt. Was it possible they'd sold-this? It was sacred to her; but to them it might be no more than so much good pasturage. To him?

As she rode closer nothing, man or beast, stirred to greet her. When she came to the house she dismounted. No smoke rose from the chimney. She realized the house was new, unfinished, still empty. No sign to indicate who would live there, no furniture.

She wandered over to the barn. Hay in the loft, but no animals. But it had been built with obvious care; the stalls already had burned-in nameplates. Crockhead. Well, that wasn't very kind. Jingle. Chance. And the last, the largest, Charger.

Her heart stopped. Charger. The big bay with a tiny star, one white stocking. He'd been little more than a colt then, new-broken and a little skittish. His rider's pride and joy. Surely there could only be one Charger hereabouts; surely he still belonged to the same man. Surely his hands had raised these walls; surely his hands had laid in the name so carefully.

He hasn't forgotten, she thought. Of all the places he might have chosen...It was well south of the bower where they'd kissed, closer to the road; but surely he had chosen this place remembering her.

She wandered back to the house, looking it over more carefully. It was a simple plan, two rooms up, two rooms down, another, single room on the side with its own door. A post was already standing, waiting for a name. And, on the ground below the post, lay a brown suede vest.

Not the same one, but, to her eyes, much like the one he'd worn all those years ago. It was newish, but already softened and shaped by wear. To her it was warm, as if it had just been shed.

It carried a smell of horses, saddle soap, tobacco, a little sweat. Just as she'd remembered.

The scent was so vivid, so evocative it brought tears to her eyes.

It's as if he knew, she thought, awed. As if he'd known she would return at last, now, not last year or next year. They would live in this little house, in the hollow between her father's property and his. It was not the sort of place she was used to, but she would learn. The windows reflected the reddish glow of the sunset, throwing off the illusion of warmth. It was as if she were already home.

They would be happy here. The past could be redeemed, mistakes cured. They would be happy here, after all.

Just before noon the next day, Jarrod rang the bell at the Converse home on Nob Hill. A little to his surprise, Hester was in, and alone. "My overworked secretary just got around to telling me I missed you the other day. My apologies for my unreasonable work schedule. May I make amends by squiring you to dinner?"

"The fashionable people are beginning to call it lunch. Many thanks, Jarrod, but I'm not dressed for going out." She was uncharacteristically simply dressed in a plain white blouse and dark skirt; but Jarrod sensed it was her spirits, not her dress, which made her unwilling to go out.

"But Cook is just about to put a meal on the table for me. She'll be thrilled to serve someone who might actually put a dent in her massive puddings. Won't you stay?"


As they were sitting down, Hester said, "Your being out was actually a lucky stroke. I met your Dr. Carroll. Can you imagine, she was coming to you for guidance on where to find a gown suitable for a wedding. Not only were you spared an hour's shopping, but your Dr. Carroll was spared a most unsuitable dress. I call that lucky."

"I'm always happy to miss ladies' shopping trips," Jarrod said lightly. "And what did you think of Dr. Carroll?"

"I think your Dr. Carroll is a fascinating woman. I would like to know her better-and over something more substantial than tea and taffeta."

"I agree that she's a fascinating woman. And I'm pleased that you'd fancy the acquaintance. But, Hester, she's certainly not my Dr. Carroll. She might be my brother's-if such a determined woman could be said to belong to anyone."

Hester toyed with her soup. "Still, Jarrod, it is no secret that you fancied the lady a great deal."

"It is no secret," Jarrod said slowly. "Nor, I think, is the passing of that fancy. You know, Hester, it's an odd thing. When I first met Anna, I did, as you say, fancy her a great deal.

Yet my mother always doubted the wisdom and the likelihood of the attachment. In any case, she was right about the likelihood."

"And you put great store in your mother's opinion, I know."

Jarrod put down his fork. "My mother is a woman of unusual insight and thoughtfulness, and I listen to her opinions with great interest. I do not always choose to follow them. I'm not still in short pants, Hester."

"No," Hester said with a small smile. "You most certainly are not."

"Perhaps it's just as well the topic's come up. I did have another purpose in coming by today. How is your dance card for this weekend?"

"Heartbreakingly empty. What invitation have I missed?"

"Oh, it's not in San Francisco. And it's not the sort of fashionable entertainment you're used to. And you're going to think me intolerably behindhand in inviting you so late. I assure you, dear lady, it was the press of business that makes me so tardy."

"So? What is the invitation?"

"The mission outside Stockton was founded on Midsummer's Day. There's always a grand celebration, with good food and music and plenty of dancing. There'll be quite a few reels, and some other unsuitably active dances, among the more sedate waltzes. It draws a mixed crowd, but there are certainly people there you needn't be ashamed to meet. It's generally one of the best parties of the year-and I'm including the season up here in that year."

Hester gave up all pretense of eating and pushed her soup away. "Stockton? Jarrod, you know I can be bold-too bold-but even I..." Her voice trailed off.

Jarrod also pushed his bowl away and put one hand on the wrist that was still nervously flexed, toying with a spoon. "I know how hard it will be for you. But, Hester, it's an obstacle that must be faced eventually, if we are to go on as we have been this spring. But perhaps I have misunderstood you. Perhaps you have no wish to go on."

Hester met his eyes levelly. When she was satisfied of their sincerity she dropped the spoon and laced her fingers in his. "It is not that I don't wish to go on-Jarrod, is that bold enough? But I do not see how. What happened..."

"Happened years ago. None of us are the same people. I know my family can be intimidating. But they can be fair, too, Hester, if given a chance." He lightened his tone. "It's the perfect opportunity, for you'll have lots of camouflage. With Heath's wedding so close no one will be interested in us."

"Oh, goodness," Hester groaned. "There's another Barkley for me to worry about. I've only been thinking about your mother and Nick."

"Heath? I doubt he even remembers. He and Anna-well, they might as well as been wed months ago. If Anna likes you I think Heath will be guided by her. He already is." Jarrod smiled, a little wryly. "Much to Nick's dismay. He's lost his boon companion. Not just literally, although Heath hasn't been around to help Nick much. It's more that Heath is under another influence now-and Nick misses him."

"I couldn't tell," Hester confessed, "if they were truly brotherly or not."

"All those years ago-no, not really. But it grew between them. I must admit, there were times when I was the jealous one. It had been Nick and I for so long. It was a little uncomfortable, feeling displaced."

"Are you perhaps still feeling displaced?" Hester asked quietly.

Jarrod shook his head firmly. "Hester, would I ask this of you, if I had doubts? Since New Year's Eve I've searched my heart, done my best to be absolutely sure. Whatever you are, Hester, it's a great deal more than a simple counter-irritant."

Hester smiled; this time the smile had a great deal more of its old brilliance. "I should hope so: counter-irritant makes me sound like an itching powder. If I were to come to Stockton, counselor, where on earth would I stay?"

"At the house?" he asked.

Hester shook her head quickly. "Even if they'd have me, Jarrod, that is asking too much!"

"At the hotel, then."

She wrinkled her nose. "Even with a maid as chaperone, I don't like hotels."

Jarrod thought for a moment. "With Anna," he said at last. "I'm sure she'd be glad for the company. And perhaps you could further the acquaintance."

"Jarrod, that's too much of an imposition. We've spent barely an hour together!"

"Why not let Anna decide if it's an imposition? I'll wire her directly. If she's not imposed..."

"If she's not imposed," Hester said, "then I'll come. And you'd best go now, before I have an opportunity to change my mind."

"I'll go," Jarrod said, "although I've yet to see the pudding. I'll call for you on Saturday morning, Hester."

to be continued...

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