An early season snowstorm caused Audra Barkley's train to pull into the Denver station several hours late. Her colleagues were already onstage at the lecture hall when she arrived, disheveled and still in her traveling clothes, but they were pleased to see her safe, nonetheless. Despite the snow, the lecture hall was full, the denizens of Denver being quite used to inclement weather. Audra made it through her portion of the presentation with fewer butterflies than the last time - she thought she might get comfortable on stage before this tour was through.
She was fielding questions from several members of the audience afterward when she heard her name spoken softly behind her. "Audra." She turned around to find herself looking into the face of Darren Smith, Jarrod's friend and her former love.
"Darren," she said, surprised. "I didn't expect to see you here."
Darren shrugged. "I saw the announcement - I thought I'd come out, see what you do." He looked down at the ground, then back up. "It was marvelous - I didn't realize. Perhaps we could go out for supper? Talk a bit?"
Audra felt the ring on her finger warm against her skin, but she was more than aware of the curious stares of the onlookers. She shook her head. "Not supper - but yes, we can talk. Follow me." She led him behind the stage to the large shared dressing room and turned to fix her hair in the mirror, her heart pounding.
"I've been thinking," Darren began, before she could turn back around to face him, "maybe you were right. Maybe this is important enough to you that I could tolerate it."
She contemplated his face in the mirror - a year ago she had cared for this man enough to seriously consider marrying him. She still cared enough to want not to hurt him, but it seemed she had no choice. "I'm sorry, Darren," she said with a sigh, turning around. "It's too late. I'm engaged." She looked down at the ring on her finger, turned it around and then looked up into his face. It was ashen.
"Engaged?" he said, stunned. "To whom?" He nodded toward the lecture hall. "One of them?"
She shook her head. "No, someone in Stockton. No one you know."
"Well, if you're engaged to someone there," Darren said, his voice rising, "what are you doing here?"
"Because it's what he wants for me, because it's what I do, Darren."
"What kind of man would let his fiancée do that?" Darren said. "Gallivant about the country with a bunch of men, unchaperoned?"
"A man who understands me," Audra replied, calmly. "A man who trusts me." Her brow creased. "But it's really nothing to you, Darren. We haven't been involved in over a year."
Darren deflated. "I know, it's just. . .when I saw the announcement, thought I might see you again, might, well - I've never stopped thinking about you, Audra. Never stopped wondering what I did wrong."
"Nothing," she said, her voice sympathetic. "You're a good man - I'm just not the right woman for you, is all. You need to stop thinking about me - go find the one you do belong with."
Her colleagues began to trickle into the dressing room. "Everything all right, Barkley?" Emerson asked, taking them both in.
"Yes, Emerson, fine," she replied. "Allow me to introduce Darren Smith. He's a lawyer here in Denver and a friend of my brother's."
"Nice to meet you," Emerson said, shaking Darren's hand.
"And you, Professor," Darren said, putting on his hat. "Well, I should be going. Nice to see you again, Audra. I wish you every happiness." He exited the dressing room, shoulders squared. Audra sighed.
"We're going to a late supper at the hotel, Barkley," Emerson said. "Will you be joining us?"
Audra shook her head. "I'm not really hungry, just tired from the long train ride. I think I'll turn in early."
"Very well," Emerson said, but when they got to the hotel insisted on escorting her to her door. "Now, Barkley, I hope you're not going to make a habit of this. You don't have a beau in every city we're going to, do you?"
"No, Emerson," she said, "no one east of the Divide." Her manner grew more serious. "How did you know?"
"It was obvious," Emerson shrugged.
"Darren's not a beau. He and I were involved, but it's been over for more than a year."
"Not to him, apparently," Emerson said. "The poor man looked like he'd been pole-axed. What did you do to him, if I might be so bold as to enquire?"
"I told him I was engaged." She looked down once again at the ring on her finger.
"Are you now?" Emerson was smiling now. "When did that happen?"
"Just before we left San Francisco. I didn't tell you at the time because I wanted to tell my family first."
"Which is as it should be," Emerson agreed. He took her hand. "May I be among the first to offer all good wishes for your happiness?"
"Thank you, Emerson," she said.
"And don't worry, Barkley," he said, "you know you made the right choice."
"Yes, I know," she smiled. "I just hate hurting people, is all. Darren is a good man, he deserves better."
"Then I'm sure he'll find it." Emerson looked down shyly. "I got engaged just before we left, too."
"Why am I not surprised?" Audra grinned. "But, Emerson, you're going on to Europe. How can you bear being apart that long?"
"I asked her to come with us," Emerson confessed, "but she didn't want to drag Teddy all over for months. I can't blame her - but we'll have to learn to cope. After all, I'll still be gone on expeditions for months at a time." He took her key and unlocked her door for her. "Now, why don't you go write to your love while I go write to mine?"
"All right, Emerson. Good night." She closed the door behind her and sat down at the table. She took out a pen and paper and began to write.
My Dearest Owen. . . .