Adam's Cousin

Ben glanced up from the accounts book as his oldest son walked into the house. "How were things in town, Adam?" Ben asked, setting his papers aside. He spotted the opened envelope in his son's hand.
"Pa, did my mother have a brother?" Adam asked abruptly.
Caught off guard, Ben hesitated. "Yes," he admitted. He frowned thoughtfully. "Your grandfather and mother would never talk about him. He ran away from home and was never heard from again. It was reported he went down with a freighter down near Georgia right after I met your mother. Why do you ask?"
Taking a seat, Adam held up the envelope. "Apparently, Morgan Stoddard was alive up until nine months ago," he answered. "My grandfather recently received a letter from a Victoria Stoddard, who is claiming to be his granddaughter. She wants to meet him. Grandfather wants us to prove whether or not she's my cousin."
"This is unexpected," Ben said after a moment. "So where is this girl now?"
"On her way to Virginia City," Adam informed him. "She and her husband will be coming in on the stage tomorrow."

A light snow was coming down on the streets of Virginia City the next day. The Cartwrights stood in front of the stage office. Hoss fidgeted uncomfortably, tugging at his tie. "Is it really necessary for all of us to be here, Pa?" he asked. "We don't even know this girl."
"It's only polite to meet Adam's long lost cousin," Joe told him. He caught Adam looking down the street. "Looking every couple minutes won't make the stage get here any faster, Older Brother. Especially not with this kind of weather."
Annoyed, Adam shot him a sharp look. "I'm sure the stage will get here," Ben assured him. "The worst of winter is already over."
A strong gust of wind hit the town then. Across the street, a cloaked and hooded woman was struggling to stay on her feet. One of her parcels hit the ground and rolled in the wind. Seeing this, Hoss quickly hurried across the street and grabbed it.
"Here you are, ma'am," he said, reaching the woman. He took her elbow into his hand. "Can I help you home?"
"Oh, thank you," she answered breathlessly. Her face was hidden by a scarf and the hood. "I'm afraid I'm no match for this wind. If it's not to much trouble, can you help me back to the International House?"
The stage came racing down the street. Looking across the street, Ben jerked his head at Hoss. Torn, Hoss looked from the stage to the woman he was keeping upright. "Ma'am, I'm supposed to be meeting someone on that stage," he said honestly, setting her in a doorway. "If you just wait right here out of the wind, I'll be right back."
The woman's head nodded. "I'll be right back," Hoss repeated for emphasis, and then headed across the street.
The stage driver was just helping a young woman down. She put a hand up to keep her hat on as her eyes landed on the three men in front of her. "Oh, you must be the Cartwrights!" She exclaimed brightly. There was a faint hint of a southern accent in her voice. She held out her free hand. "I'm Victoria Anne Stoddard Coates. But that's such a mouthful, everyone just calls me Anne. Which one of you is my cousin Adam?"
"I'm pleased to meet you," Adam said politely, taking her hand in his. "This is my father, Ben Cartwright. And my brothers, Joe, and Hoss."
Her eyes flicked over them critically. "This is my husband Alan Coates," she introduced. Behind her, several trunks and bags were set on the snow.
Coates nodded at them, shivering in the cold. "If you'll excuse us, we should get to our hotel and get warmed up," he suggested, rubbing his hands together. "Frightful weather you have out here."
"Nonsense," Ben told them. He gestured to their waiting buggy. "We have plenty of room at the Ponderosa. Joe, Hoss, get their luggage."
"In a minute, Pa," Hoss answered, tipping his hat at Anne. "I promised to get a lady to her hotel."
Staring at the amount of luggage, Joe sputtered in protest as his brother headed back across the street. At the same time, the driver moved the stage out of the street. The woman sheltered from the wind got a clear view of the couple standing across the street. She crumpled to the ground.
Startled, Hoss jumped forward. "Ma'am? Ma'am!" he exclaimed, kneeling down beside her. He scooped her up and carried her to the hotel. "Sam, does she have anyone staying with her?" he demanded, looking over at the startled clerk, who nodded. "Get them! Send someone for the doctor."
A fair haired young woman came rushing down the stairs. "What has happened?" she demanded, a distinct French accent in her voice.
"She fainted," Hoss told her. "Sam's going for the doctor."
"No," the woman said firmly. Hoss looked at her in surprise. She glared back at him. "I will care for her, if you will bring her up to her suite."
"He's right, Miss du Larc," the clerk said, coming around the desk. "Miss Stoddard hasn't been well the entire time you've been here. You really should have Doc Martin come over. It's not a problem for me to go."
Shaking her head, Miss du Larc backed up and put her hands on her hips. "Do not argue with me! Take her to her room now!" she ordered, stamping her foot in emphasis. "I know what is best for her."
Reluctantly, Hoss nodded, exchanging helpless looks with Sam. Miss du Larc led the way upstairs. She flung the door open and waved him through. Hoss gently laid the young woman on the bed and stepped away. For a moment, he watched the French woman pull the scarf away and push the hood back, revealing dark brown hair.
"Merci, for your help, monsieur," Miss du Larc said coldly. "You may leave now."
Nodding, Hoss backed out and shut the door. He went downstairs, a frown on his face. "Sam, you said the lady's name is Miss Stoddard?" he asked.
Sam nodded. "Yep. Miss Victoria E. Stoddard. She's been here for about a week."
"Thanks, Sam." Still frowning, Hoss left the hotel.

There were seven seated around the Cartwright table. "My compliments to your cook," Alan Coates said, setting his fork down. "I haven't tasted a finer meal in quite awhile."
"I'm sure Hop-Sing will be delighted to hear it," Ben responded, standing up. Shall we adjourn to the other room for some coffee?"
Everyone rose and moved to the great room. "What about you, Cousin Victoria?" Adam asked, looking at the black haired young woman who took a seat beside him. "Did you enjoy dinner?"
"Oh, it was well enough," the young woman answered, her blue eyes flicking around the room. She smiled in a bored way. "And didn't I tell you to call me Anne? My mother is Victoria. You are a long way from any kind of society, aren't you? Whatever do you do for fun?"
"We keep ourselves occupied," Little Joe spoke up, grinning at her. "In fact, tomorrow night, there's a dance in Virginia City."
Ben offered a cup of coffee to Coates. "I'm afraid, Anne, that we don't have the kind of entertainment you would find in San Francisco," he said, taking a seat by the fire. "But, as Joe said, we find time for a few social gatherings."
Hoss glanced up from the table where he was still eating his dessert. "Most of them involve real good food," he endorsed. "You cannot imagine how good some of them ladies can cook."
Anne looked over at him, her eyes cold. "Yes, I can see you enjoy it very much," she answered. Hoss turned red as she focused on Adam and Ben. "I can't tell you how pleased I am to be meeting my family after all these years."
"I was hoping you might tell me about your father," Adam said to her, leaning forward. "My grandfather never spoke about him."
Sipping her coffee, Anne shrugged and wrinkled her nose. Her eyes had taken on a guarded look. "I didn't know him very well," she admitted, setting the cup down. "He was always away at sea. That's how he died, you know. His ship was caught in a storm and went down."
"An all too common story," Ben said, his tone sympathetic. He frowned thoughtfully. "I never met your father. By the time I'd met the Stoddard family, he'd already run away to sea. Elizabeth and Capt. Stoddard spoke about him rarely."
"Adam told us your parents met in Georgia," Joe spoke up eagerly. "And that you were raised there. Can you tell us about it?"
Yawning, Anne shook her head. "Maybe another time," she told him, standing up. All of the men stood up as well. "I'm very tired. It's been a long journey. Goodnight, gentlemen."
She went upstairs. "I feel the same way," Coates said. "I will bid you good evening."
The Cartwrights nodded as he went up the stairs. Sitting back down on the arm of the chair, Little Joe let out a whistle. "Your cousin sure is pretty, Adam," he said. "She looks nothing like you."
Adam gave him a dirty look. "Imagine finding you had a cousin after all these years," Joe continued, undeterred. He sipped his coffee. "And your grandfather hasn't met her yet?"
Shaking his head, Adam looked down at the cup in his hands. "Only in letters, which he sent on to me. I'm supposed to confirm her identity," he answered. He glanced at Ben. "She doesn't look a thing like my mother's picture, or act like my mother, does she?"
Hesitating, Ben shook his head. "It's unreasonable to think she would," he said. "She must take after her mother's side of the family. Though I will admit, she does have the Stoddard dark hair. In any event, Joe is right: she's a very lovely woman. You can't judge a person on the first meeting. Time will tell her personality."
"Hey, Hoss!" Joe called out, turning his attention to the Cartwright still at the table. "You look like you're miles away! Thinking about that woman you escorted today?"
Throwing down his fork, Hoss glared at him. "I'm going to make sure things are set in the barn," he announced, standing up. he grabbed his coat and hat on his way out.
"What's eating him?" Joe wondered.
Ben and Adam just shrugged. "He'll tell us eventually," Ben said.

It was a sunny, cold day. At the International Hotel, the French woman carried a tray to the suite. "What do you think you are doing?" Miss du Larc exclaimed in outrage the minute she entered the room. She set the tray on the table. "You should be in bed!"
 Rolling her eyes, Victoria finished pinning on a riding hat. The red hat and riding outfit went well with her dark brown hair. She turned to face her maid. "I feel fine," she said. She reached out and put her hand on the woman's arm. "I have to see if any letters were sent on from San Francisco. And before you say you could do it, I would enjoy getting out."
Felicia scowled. "That ended well yesterday," she commented darkly. Smiling, Victoria shook her head. Turning away, she flinched and coughed violently. "There! You see!" Felicia exclaimed. She darted to the dressing table and grabbed a small brown bottle. "You are not well enough for all this traveling. Drink this!"
She dumped a small amount of the liquid into a glass of water and pressed into Victoria's hand. The young woman drank it down, grimacing at the end. "That is some nasty stuff, Felicia," she complained, handing the glass back.
"It's good for you," Felicia insisted firmly. "Now you will stay in here and rest. I will check for your precious mail."
Firmly, Victoria shook her head. "I am going to do this myself," she said. She put on her cloak and flipped up the hood. She looked over her shoulder as she went to the door. "You're not going to stop me, Felicia. I am capable of taking care of myself."
She shut the door behind her. Felicia scowled and then frowned in worry. She glanced at the brown vial in her hand. "Please, Lord, forgive me," she whispered.

Coming out of the hotel, Victoria smiled as the sun hit her face. A pair of young kids came racing down the sidewalk, throwing snowballs at each other. Jumping out of the way, the young lady stumbled as she lost her balance. A pair of strong hands caught her before she fell.
"You younguns watch where you're going," Hoss called out, setting the lady back on her feet. "You all right, ma'am? They didn't mean anything-" His voice trailed away as he got a good look at the lady he'd just rescued.
Victoria smiled up at him. "I'm alright, thank you," she answered. "I just lost my balance for a moment. I was in their way."
Hoss snatched off his hat. "They should've watched where they were going," he said. "My name is Hoss Cartwright, ma'am."
"I guess this makes the second time you've come to my rescue." She frowned thoughtfully and repeated, "Hoss. I believe I've heard that before. Isn't that Swedish for big, friendly man?"
"Yes, ma'am," Hoss responded in surprise. "How'd you know that?"
Blushing, Victoria smiled again. "My father took me to Sweden many years ago," she answered. She looked up at him, her eyes searching his face. "I think it suits you, Mr. Cartwright. I have to check for my mail."
Setting his hat back on, Hoss offered her his arm. Smiling, Victoria took it and they set off for the general store. "I don't think we've been properly introduced," Victoria commented. "My name is Victoria Elizabeth Stoddard."
"Sam, at the hotel, told me," Hoss admitted. "Are you related to Victoria Anne Stoddard?"
The young woman frowned, looking up at him. "No," she answered. "The only family I know of is my grandfather in Boston. And I think I have an aunt somewhere."
A few moments later, they reached the store. Hoss opened the door for her and she walked into the warm room. She went straight to the counter. On seeing her, the clerk reached down and held out an envelope. Smiling excitedly, Victoria took it and tore it open.
"She's been in here the everyday since she got in town," the clerk informed Hoss as she read the letter. "It must be real important."
Frowning, Victoria folded up the letter. "Thank you," she said to the clerk. She headed for the door.
"Did you get bad news?" Hoss asked, catching up to her outside the store.
Smiling hesitantly, Victoria looked up at him. "Not exactly," she answered. "Are you by any chance related to Adam Stoddard Cartwright?"
"He's my older brother," Hoss informed her. "Do you know him?"
"Not yet, but I'm hoping too," Victoria told him. She hesitated again. "It would appear he's my only cousin. At least that what my letter from my grandfather just informed me."
Hoss stared at her. "Your grandfather is Abel Morgan Stoddard? And your father is Morgan Stoddard?"
Frowning, Victoria nodded. "Oh, lordy," Hoss said, looking around. Taking her arm, he escorted her out of the traffic area. "If you're Victoria Stoddard, then who's the Victoria Anne Stoddard we have out at our ranch?"
Sighing, Victoria shrugged. "I don't know," she answered. She frowned. "Victoria Anne? My middle name is Elizabeth, after my aunt." She paused and her eyes narrowed. "Describe this Victoria Anne to me. Does she happen to have black hair and blue eyes? And her last name is Coates now?"
"Yeah!" Hoss exclaimed in relief. "She goes by Anne. Do you know her?
Victoria rubbed her temple. "Unfortunately," she replied. She swayed slightly and Hoss caught her arm.
"Let's go sit down," he said, steering her back towards the hotel lobby.

"You're doing well, Anne," Coates said, as they stood in front of the fireplace. "You will have them all eating out of your hands soon."
Smirking, Anne looked up at him. "I always did have a way with men," she responded. She scowled abruptly. "It's tiresome pretending to be that serious Victoria. I don't think I can keep it up for very long, Alan."
"It'll only be a few days," Coates assured her, setting his coffee down. He faced her and took her by the shoulders. "You can act that long, can't you?"
Anne frowned. "I suppose I can," she answered reluctantly. "What a shame Victoria can't be here to see how good I am."
"Don't you think about Miss Victoria Stoddard," Coates told her in a lowered voice. He grinned at her. "I've taken care of her. You don't need that distraction. Now kiss me."
He forcefully pulled the woman closer and kissed her. They stood locked together for several moments. The sound of someone clearing his throat made them break apart. Adam stood in the dining room, looking amused.
"I'm sorry if I'm interrupting," he said.
Blushing, Anne backed a couple steps away from her husband. "Not at all," Coates said. He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "You weren't standing there very long, were you?"
Adam laughed. "No," he answered. "I was only here a moment. If you don't mind, I'd like to talk to my cousin privately."
Shaking his head, Coates headed outside. Adam gestured for the woman to be seated and he took a seat across from her. "I'd like to hear about your father," he said.
Shrugging in a bored way, Anne just shook her head in answer. Adam stared at her in slight annoyance. "You can't tell me anything about your father?"
Anne frowned at him. "I told you last night he was always gone," she snapped. She took a deep breath and forced a smile. "He was busy building up the shipping business he started. We were never close when he was actually home."
"I'm sorry if I'm bothering you," Adam said, frowning as well. "It's just I would have liked to hear about my uncle and his childhood with my mother."
Anne shrugged again. "I'm afraid I can't help you," she said carelessly.
"Then, maybe you should show me some of that proof you say have," Adam suddenly challenged. Anne gave a start and stared at him. "My grandfather received word soon after my uncle left home that he'd gone down with a ship. Now, you show up out of nowhere, claiming to be his only descendant. You're going to have to prove who you are."
Blue eyes going cold, Anne stood up and marched upstairs. Moments later, she was back with several papers in her hands. "Is this proof enough?" She demanded, shoving them into Adam's hands. She crossed her arms. "There is the marriage license of Adele Welling to Morgan Stoddard. And those others are some of my father's business contracts."
Critically, Adam examined them. "They seem genuine," he admitted after a moment. "But, you'll have to give me time to have them verified."
"Fine," Anne snapped. "You will owe me an apology when you are done." She whirled around and started up the stairs as Little Joe was coming down.
"Just the beautiful lady I was looking for," Joe said with an infectious grin as they met on the small landing. "How would you like to see some more of the Ponderosa?"
Anne smiled flirtatiously. "I would love to," she answered. "Just let me get my things."
She went past him and Little Joe came the rest of the way down. He caught the look his older brother was giving him. "What?" he asked as Anne came hurrying back. Adam shook his head with a sigh as the pair walked out.

Hoss and Victoria sat in the hotel lobby, out of the way. "Anne is my stepsister," Victoria explained quietly. "My mother married her father after my father died at sea. We went to the same school even though she's older by about two years. We have never gotten along."
"Why would she be pretending to be you?" Hoss asked with a frown.
The young lady shook her head. "I don't know," she answered. "She must know she doesn't have anything to gain." She sighed, glancing up at him. "This is becoming a huge mess. I expect you don't believe me."
"Miss Victoria, I have as much reason to believe you as I do to believe the other Victoria," Hoss answered. He glanced around the empty lobby. "Do you have anything to prove who you are?"
Victoria frowned. "No, I expect not," she responded thoughtfully. "I have the letters I received from my grandfather, but anyone could've pretended to be me and picked them up. I used to have my parents' marriage license and some of my father's business letters, but I lost them quite awhile-"
She broke off and heaved a big sigh. "What's wrong?" Hoss asked in concern.
"My papers. Now I guess I know who stole them," Victoria said ruefully. She rubbed the side of her head. "All I want is to meet my family. Now I have to fight to prove who I am, and the right I have to be here."
"Miss Victoria, you don't look too well," Hoss told her, taking in her pale face.
Smiling, Victoria shook her head again. "It's alright. I'll be fine," she answered. She hesitated. "If I were to meet Adam, and talk to him, do you think he would believe me?"
Hoss hesitated. "I don't know," he admitted. "Miss Anne said she had proof of who she was. I imagine she's already shown it to Adam."
"Well, I still have to give it a try," Victoria said decisively. "If it's a fight Anne wants, it's a fight she'll get."
"Well, if it's any consolation, I believe you," Hoss said firmly. Victoria smiled at him. "If you feel up to it, may I drive you out to the Ponderosa tomorrow morning? You can meet Adam and explain things."
Standing up, Victoria offered her hand. "It would be my pleasure," she answered sincerely. "You can come by the International house at any time, and I will be ready. Will that be alright?"
Jumping up, Hoss accepted her hand. "Yes, ma'am, Miss Victoria!" he declared. "I'll be back here."

The next morning, Adam and Ben sat at the table. Smiling, Hoss came down the stairs. "Morning," he said, walking over to join them. He sat down as Hop-Sing set a plate for him. "Thanks, Hop-Sing. This looks delicious!"
"You seem extremely cheerful this morning," Adam commented casually. Hoss shrugged, dishing up his food. Lifting his cup of coffee, Adam asked, "Is there any particular reason?"
A slight frown forming on his forehead, Hoss looked up. "I met a lady in town," he answered carefully. "Her name is Victoria Stoddard.
Ben and Adam nearly choked on their coffee. "What did you say?" Adam demanded, recovering himself first.
"Her name is Victoria Elizabeth Stoddard," Hoss repeated, focusing back on his food. "She's on her way to Boston to meet your grandfather. She just got a letter and learned about you yesterday. She wants to meet you."
"And just how do you know all of that?"
"She told me," Hoss answered honestly. "I'm driving her here so you can meet her. She'll explain everything."
Concerned, Adam looked at his father. "Hoss," Adam said slowly. "There can't be two Victoria Stoddards."
Hoss looked up. "No, there can't," he agreed. "You should talk to this one too, Adam. See which one is telling the truth."
"I could," Adam answered carefully. He leaned forward. "How can you be so sure she's my cousin? Anne has shown me proof, papers that can be verified. This...other woman hasn't shown you anything, has she?"
Hoss put his fork down. "No," he admitted patiently.
"Then, how can you be so sure she's not a fake?"
His temper flaring, Hoss glared at his older brother. "She is not a fake," he snapped.
"Boys! That's enough. You are capable of talking this out like grown men," Ben interceded, his tone sharp. He looked at Hoss. "Hoss, don't you think there's a possibility this... other Victoria Stoddard is an imposter?"
Shaking his head, Hoss stood up. "She's not," he told them firmly. "I'm going into town. I promised to drive Miss Stoddard here."
As he headed for the door, Little Joe came down the stairs. "Hey, Hoss!" He called out. "Where are you headed? Going to go court that woman you helped the other day?"
Without answering, Hoss grabbed his hat and gun belt, and left the house. Joe whistled as he walked to the table. "What's his problem?"
"It's complicated," Ben told him. He eyed his youngest son. "And don't think I didn't see the way you were acting around Anne yesterday, young man. She's a married woman, Joseph, and you shouldn't be openly flirting with her like you were."
Joe shrugged, reaching for a dish. "We were just having fun," he answered. "She knows I don't mean anything by it. Oh, by the way, I'm taking Anne riding again this afternoon."
Hop-Sing came in. He stared at the empty place at the table. "Where Mistah Hoss?" he asked. "He no like Hop-Sing's cooking? Hop-Sing quit! Go back to China!"
Sighing, Ben put his head in his hand.

"I cannot believe you are doing this!" Felicia snapped, pinning the hat into place on top of Victoria's dark hair. "You will have a relapse and die this time! And all because you insist on trying to prove yourself to a scoundrel of a cousin!"
Sighing, Victoria stood up and faced the maid. She was dressed in a dark green riding gown. Her cheeks were flushed with annoyance. "How many times must I tell you, I am fine?" She asked. "If you say one more word about it, Felicia, I will fire you. Do you understand?"
"How can I not be concerned?" Felicia demanded, not backing down. Her voice was pleading. "You look so pale, and your cough is back. You need rest, not riding out to the middle of nowhere with some stranger! I'm only trying to think about what's best for you."
"I think I am the best judge of that," Victoria told her sharply. She pulled her cloak on. "I'll see you when I get back, Felicia."
She left the suite, closing the door behind her, and went to the stairs. True to his word, Hoss was in the lobby waiting for her. His hair was slicked back and he was wearing a thick brown jacket. He was fidgeting uncomfortably, a thoughtful expression on his face.
As Hoss looked up, he smiled at her and the concern slipped away. He held out his arm. Smiling at the gesture, Victoria slipped a gloved hand onto his arm. He escorted her outside. "It's a beautiful day," Victoria commented.
"Just like you," Hoss complimented as he helped her into the buggy. The woman smiled at him. Hoss climbed up and drove out of town.

Outside the ranch home, Joe dismounted and hurried to help the young lady down. Anne paused in his arms. "Kiss me, Joe," she whispered. The sunlight glinted in her blue eyes. "Please?"
Slowly, Joe started to lean in close. When their faces were inches apart, he stopped. "No," he said, pulling back. "We should go in now."
"Joe," Anne protested, pouting.
"You're married," Joe told her sharply and simply. Pulling free of her grip, he walked towards the door. Glaring, Anne followed him.

The buggy pulled up to the Ponderosa Ranch home. Hoss jumped out and went around. He helped Victoria down. "I'm sorry no one's here to meet you," he apologized. "They all seemed to have things to do. Adam will be around soon though."
The young woman was looking up at the building with awe in her face. "It's magnificent," she declared, looking over at Hoss, who was visibly puffed up with pride. She looped her arm around his and they went to the door.
Opening it, Hoss let Victoria go in first. The young woman stopped abruptly only a few steps in. Pausing, Hoss looked over her and his eyes widened.
Anne had Joe shoved up against the wall and her arms were wrapped around him. As the couple in the doorway watched, Joe pushed the woman away, disbelief written all over his face. Anne smirked, her eyes sparkling. She moved towards him.
"Anne!" Victoria exclaimed sharply. "That's enough!"
Jerking, Anne glanced back and her blue eyes widened. She froze where she was. "Victoria?" she gasped in shock. Joe took the opportunity to put a lot more space between them. Voices came from the kitchen and Adam, Alan, and Ben walked in.
"...take Anne on a drive," Alan was saying. His gaze fell on the scene and he gave a start. For a fraction of a second, disappointment was on his face. "What is going on in here?"
For a moment, there was silence as everyone looked at Joe and Anne. Joe was a bright red. Anne opened her mouth, but Victoria spoke first. "Nothing," she said, keeping her eyes on her step sister. Everyone's eyes turned to her. "You and Anne were just leaving, weren't you?"
Ben stared at her in disbelief. It was almost as though he was looking at his first wife.
"No, I am not!" Anne snapped, indignantly. She glared at the other woman. "I will not allow the likes of you to push me around! I have the right to defend myself!" She pointed an accusing finger at Joe. "He was trying to take advantage of me!"
Coates looked like he wanted to slap her. "Is this true?" he demanded, trying for an angry tone.
"Hoss and I can tell you right now, nothing of the kind was happening," Victoria told him as Joe sputtered. She raised her eyebrows at Anne. "Or should I mention a certain incident involving you and my fiancé last year?"
Anne went pale and she took a few steps back. "I'm still staying," she insisted, her tone faint.
"You have a fiancé?" Hoss asked in interest. He escorted the young lady over to the settee. "You never told me."
Sadly, Victoria smiled up at him. "I used to," she told him simply. "But that's a story for another time. You should introduce your family, Hoss."
"Adam, this is Victoria Stoddard," Hoss introduced, gesturing to his older brother. Studying her in a detatched way, Adam just nodded in greeting. "And my younger brother, Little Joe, and my pa."
With a small smile, Victoria nodded to each one in greeting. "This is a little awkward, isn't it?" she said conversationally. She looked pointedly at her stepsister. "So you are Victoria Anne, now? When did that happen?"
Anne bristled and her blue eyes flashed in annoyance. She stepped forward, lifting her hand. Quickly, Coates grabbed her wrist and gave her a warning look. Ben took the opportunity to step between the two women.
"I'm sure we can resolve this peacefully," the silver haired man said, looking at everyone in the room.
"This Victoria Anne Stoddard has proof she's my cousin," Adam said to her, his tone noncommital. "What do you have?"
Victoria looked at him, and shook her head. "It's Victoria Elizabeth," she corrected. "And the only kind of proof I have is this." She pulled a small pocket watch out of her pocket. "When my father didn't get the son he wanted, he gave this to me. His father gave it to him."
She held it out. Adam took it and opened it. "To my daughter, Victoria Elizabeth, always follow your dreams." he read aloud the inscription. He flipped it over and read the back. "To my son, Morgan, go with the wind's current."
"Anyone could've had that made," Ben pointed out.
"I know," Victoria answered. She continued, her voice sharp, "Ask me any question about the Stoddard family. My grandfather was a proud man, captain of the Wanderer, and he always called Elizabeth, Girl. She called him a snaggle-tooth octopus! And my father called her Lizzy. My Aunt Elizabeth's favorite book was Paradise Lost by Milton."
Ben stared at her for a moment, and then nodded. "That's all true," he said. He looked at Adam. "I can verify what she says. It looks like we have a problem. They both have proof of being Victoria Stoddard."
Anne and Victoria stared at each other as everyone looked from one to the other. "I can't believe you are doing this to me again," Anne said, her voice shrill.
Breathing quickly, Victoria stood up. "Oh, stop," she said. "Hoss, please take me back to Virginia City. I am not going to waste my breath trying to talk over her."
Quickly, Hoss took her arm. He sent a disappointed look at his family as he escorted the woman out. "What was that all about?" Joe asked cautiously.
"You know her then?" Ben asked, looking at Alan and Anne.
Sighing, Alan nodded. "She's Anne's stepsister, Vicky McCauley," he explained. "They have never gotten along. Since they look so much alike, Vicky used to pretend to be Anne and get Anne in trouble."
"They look nothing alike," Adam pointed out.
"What brings her to Virginia City, do you think?" Ben wondered out loud.
Snorting, Alan shook his head. "Isn't it obvious?" he asked. "In San Francisco, Vicky tried to pass herself off as Anne. That's how Anne lost her inheritance. Now Vicky follows us here? She's trying to do it again."
"Why didn't you tell the authorities?" Adam asked suspiciously.
"We did. There wasn't enough proof. Anne decided to be gracious and left things alone. She just wants to know her family."

Leaning her head back against the buggy seat, Victoria let the sun hit her face. Beside her, Hoss was grumbling. "Adam is just being a stubborn mule," he said. "If he would only talk to you, we could get somewhere! But he seems set against you because of that Anne and Coates feller."
"'My good opinion once lost, is lost forever,'" Victoria quoted softly.
"Huh?" Hoss glanced at her quizzically. The woman just shook her head at him, closing her eyes. "Maybe if we got Pa to talk to you again… If he believes you, he'd get Adam to listen. But Pa seems as set against you as Adam."
Sighing, Victoria shook her head again. "It seems hopeless," she commented, opening her eyes. She flinched and started to cough. As Hoss watched in concern, she fumbled for her handbag and pulled out the brown bottle. She took a swig of the contents and grimaced. "It's a good thing Felicia sent this awful stuff along."
"Tell me the truth," Hoss told her firmly. "Are you alright?"
"Yes and no," Victoria answered, reluctantly. "A few months ago, I was very sick and I nearly died. Since then, I just can't seem to get completely healthy again. This cough keeps coming back." She smiled at him. "Don't look so worried. I'm fine."
Hoss shook his head. "I once knew someone with a cough like that," he said very quietly. "She never got well."
Resignedly, Victoria smiled at him. "It's sweet of you to be so concerned," she responded, putting her hand on his shoulder. Hoss just looked at her, and she sighed. "If it will make you feel better, I'll go see your local doctor, just to be sure, alright?"
Smiling, Hoss glanced at her. "Will you tell me about your fiancé now?" he asked.
"He was the first mate on my father's flag ship," Victoria explained. "He and my father went down with the ship nine months ago." She changed the subject abruptly. "How about you tell me what your parents really named you?"
"Eric," Hoss admitted, flushing in embarrassment. "But no one ever calls me that, except for Pa, when he's angry."
"Eric. It suits you too," Victoria told him. She looked out over landscape thoughtfully. "This is one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. And I've traveled a lot of places."
"Pa always talks about the places he's been," Hoss commented. "I can't imagine any of them being able to top the Ponderosa."
Victoria shrugged. "Every place has it's own special beauty," she answered. She smiled at him. "But you're right: after this, the Ponderosa is going to be hard to beat. I hope, after this is over, I'll be able to come back."
"You will," Hoss told her firmly. He chuckled as he thought about the scene at the breakfast table. "Pa and Adam seem to think you've blinded me to the truth, and Little Joe thinks I'm courting you."
"And you're not?" Victoria asked teasingly. She laughed as Hoss flushed again. "It's alright. I'm not looking for a beau." A shadow crossed her face. "I'm satisfied with a friend."
"Yeah, me too," Hoss answered, his thoughts going to the past and lost loves.
They fell into companionable silence. Victoria shivered as a cold wind blew as they drove into Virginia City. Hoss pulled the buggy to a stop in front of the hotel. He cleared his throat. "Miss Victoria, tomorrow night, there's a dance. Would you allow me to escort you?"
Getting to her feet, Victoria nodded. "I'd be delighted."
"Only if the doctor says it's all right." Hoss added, getting down to help her out.
All right," Victoria said, getting down. "Thank you for a lovely drive, even if it didn't turn out the way we'd hoped. I'll see you tomorrow, Hoss."
She entered the hotel and Hoss got back into the buggy, grinning from ear to ear. Halfway out of town, he glanced down to see the bottle of medicine on the seat next to him. He picked it up and, after a moment of hesitation, put it in his pocket.

A single lamp lit the room. Victoria sat at the dressing table, brushing her hair. Felicia entered, carrying a cup of hot tea. "You're miles away," the French maid commented, her tone derisive. "Thinking of that big ox, or your despicable cousin?"
Sharply, Victoria turned. "You will never speak about either of them in that manner, ever again!" she hissed. "Hoss Cartwright is a perfect gentlemen, and my cousin… there is simply a misunderstanding. Do you understand?"
"Perfectly, Miss," Felicia answered stiffly. She set the cup down. "I do wish you hadn't misplaced that medicine. It is hard to come by."
"Well, perhaps the doctor will have some," Victoria answered, her tone still cool. "Good night, Felicia."
"Good night."
Felicia left the suite, a dark look on her face. Sighing, Victoria sipped the tea, and made a face at the bitter taste. Standing up, she went over to her bed and blew out the light. She coughed in the darkness.

"I'm sorry for getting angry at you, Adam," Hoss said, without looking at his older brother. Adam looked up from his book in surprise. Hoss was staring into the fire. "But you better not say anything else about Miss Victoria being a fake or liar."
Adam nodded without any hesitation. "Honestly, Hoss, I would prefer it if I was related to your Victoria than the one here," he answered.
Hoss grinned and looked over. "I'm glad I'm not the only one with that opinion," he countered."I'm taking her to the dance tomorrow. I'm sure you can find a chance to talk then. Thanks, Adam. Good night."
As his brother went upstairs, Adam closed his book and stared thoughtfully into the fire.

The French maid hurried along a street in Virginia City. Coates stepped out from an alley and grabbed her arms. "Felicia, dear," he said, pulling her into the shadows. "I believe we must have another talk."
Walking down the street in the same direction, Hoss saw the maid get pulled into the alley. Frowning, he hurried forward. He paused as he heard voices.
"What are you doing?" Felicia demanded heatedly. She struggled to get free of his grip. "Let go of me!"
"When I'm done talking," Coates said firmly. "You really messed things up, Felicia. You were supposed to keep Victoria in San Francisco. Permanently. Or do you not want to go back to France to your Jacque?"
"I don't know what went wrong," Felicia snapped. "I did everything you asked."
Coates stared at her. "Finish the job, Felicia," he ordered. "Or I won't give you the rest of your money."
Flinching, Felicia nodded. Coates released her and then watched her rush down the street. He went in the opposite direction, going right past Hoss, who watched him ride out. Thoughtfully, Hoss walked on to the doctor's office.
Victoria was just leaving with Felicia right beside her. "Well, Dr. Martin gave me a clean bill of health," Victoria announced on seeing her friend. She smiled. "Looks like you'll be escorting me to that dance tonight."
"Miss Victoria, there's something I should tell you," Hoss told her, glancing at the maid uneasily. "Privately."
Felicia saw his distrust and lifted her chin. "Of course not!" she declared. "Miss Victoria needs to rest before tonight if you insist on risking her health. Whatever it is you have to say, can be said tonight!"
Smiling in amusement, Victoria gave a slight shrug. "My keeper has commanded," she said teasingly. "She's right though. I'll see you tonight, Hoss."
Before Hoss could say anything else, Felicia was pushing the lady down the street. Sighing, Hoss frowned as he thought. He took out the bottle and went into the doctor's office.

The dance floor was full of couples dancing to the fiddler's music. Several tables of food and drink were set up along the walls. Those not dancing stood near the refreshment tables enjoying conversation with friends.
Adam and Ben were among those watching the dancers from the sidelines. Little Joe and a pretty local girl swept past them, laughing together. Ben smiled, glancing across the room where Alan Coates and Anne were talking to Dr. Martin.
"Joe seems to have gotten over Anne fast," Ben said. His eyes followed his youngest son around the dance floor.
"It's odd her husband didn't seem to care that she was flirting with Joe ever chance she got, until yesterday," Adam answered. He took the opportunity to glance around the room. "Did you get the whole story from Joe?"
Ben shook his head. "Joe has been avoiding me," he answered. "For good reason, I think."
"Hoss isn't here yet," Adam commented. "I would've thought he'd be first in line for the food, even if he was picking up... the other Victoria."
The song came to an end and everyone applauded. In the break, the door opened. Ben spotted his middle son enter the room. On his arm, dressed in a dark red, silk dress, was Victoria. Sheriff Coffee was behind them. "There's Hoss," Ben said to Adam. "You promised to talk to her. Why not get it over with?"
Nodding, Adam moved for the door. The musicians began a waltz and Hoss drew his partner into the dance. They gracefully swept past the two Cartwrights on the sidelines.
"Pa, she really looks like-," Adam started to say, but his voice broke off.
"Your mother," Ben finished, his eyes staying on the lady. She was smiling up at Hoss in a way that forcefully reminded him of his first wife. "And you, Adam."
Alan Coates smiled at his wife, who was staring angrily at the dance floor. His eyes fell on Hoss and Victoria. His eyes narrowed and he swore under his breath. Dr. Martin looked at him quizzically. Setting his glass down, Coates escorted Anne around the room to reach Adam and Ben.
"Is it just me or does Anne look angry to see Hoss' date?" Adam asked, having seen the encounter.
Alan, coming up beside them, answered, "She has every right to be upset. That girl has taken every single opportunity she can to ruin Anne's life."
Adam raised his eyebrows. "That seems to be a bit of an exaggeration."
The waltz ended and the musicians took a break. Hoss escorted his date over to the refreshment table and got her a glass of punch. Accepting it with a smile, Victoria sipped the punch, her eyes scanning the area. She spotted Alan, and her eyes narrowed in anger.
"I should've known," she muttered.
"What's wrong?" Hoss asked in concern.
"Alan and Anne," Victoria answered. "They are telling their story to your family with their own embellishments."
"Well, let's tell your story too," Hoss told her.
They both put on a smile as they walked over. "Good evening, Vicky," Alan greeted, his voice polite.
Her eyes flashing, Victoria lifted her chin. "I have asked you to never call me that," she said coldly. "It's Miss Stoddard to you."
Mockingly, Alan made a half bow in her direction. He glanced at Hoss. "You work fast, don't you, Miss Stoddard," he said. "What pathetic story did you make up this time to get this Cartwright on your side?"
"Mister, you-," Hoss started to say, his hands clenching into fists.
Victoria put her hand on his arm. "He's not worth it, Hoss," she said, intently. She glanced at Ben and Adam. "I can't keep doing this. I'm leaving for Boston in a couple days, so leave me out of your petty schemes."
Coates stared at her in shock. "Come on, Hoss. This isn't the time to talk, especially if I have to talk over them," Victoria said, pulling Hoss away.
"He shouldn't have said that about you," Hoss said, anger still in his voice.
Breathing quickly, Victoria put her free hand on her chest. "I need to sit down," she said, her voice breathless.
Looking down, Hoss realized her face was very pale. He led her over to an empty chair, and she sat down. "Are you all right?" he asked, anxiously leaning over her. "I can go get the doc real quick."
"No," Victoria said quickly, catching his arm. She forced a smile. "The doctor already gave me a clean bill of health, remember? Alan just upset me. I'll be fine as soon as I catch my breath. This will make me more believable, won't it?"
Nodding, Hoss frowned. "I still don't like this," he said in a low voice. "I'll get you something to eat."
Alan Coates smirked, watching the largest Cartwright hurry for the food table. "It looks like she already has him convinced she's Victoria Stoddard," he commented. "She practically has him wrapped around her little finger."
Disturbed, Ben watched his middle son take the plate of food over to the young lady. Anne turned to Adam. "Dance with me, Cousin," she ordered, holding out her arms.
Without a word, Adam led the woman onto the dance floor. Frowning slightly, Ben came to a decision and headed for Victoria. She watched him come over and didn't say anything as he took a seat beside her. Hoss saw and changed directions. He joined Sheriff Coffee and Dr. Martin.
"You look like Elizabeth," Ben said finally.
"Thank you," Victoria replied, turning to look at him. Her hazel eyes were sad. "My father often told me so. I've wished for many years that I could meet her and my grandfather. Maybe it would've been better if I'd stayed away."
"Why did you decide to make the effort now?"
Sighing, Victoria let her gaze wander around the room. "It seemed the perfect opportunity," she answered. "My father has been dead for nine months and my mother is content in England with Anne's father now. The shipping business is steady with my manager and I am not needed. I…wanted my own family again."
"Are you and Hoss-," Ben paused, unsure of how to ask what he was most concerned about. "Are the two of you serious about each other?"
The young lady laughed. "Oh, Mr. Cartwright," she said, looking at him again. "He and I have decided on being friends, nothing more."
"Wait." Ben frowned. "You own a business?"
"Oh, yes," Victoria answered. "My father's shipping business he started. I inherited it when he died." She looked at him, her eyes narrowing. "Alan and Anne told you the Stoddard fortune was lost because of me, didn't they?"
Ben nodded. "Well, then, I now have a way of proving my identity," Victoria said, smiling in delight. "Contact San Francisco. Many people there knew my father and me. And they know about Anne and her husband."
"We will do that," Ben promised. "You remind me of my Elizabeth, Miss Victoria. I believe you are who you say you are."
Victoria smiled. "That is a relief," she said. "I was beginning to think I was going to lose this war."
"A war?"
"Anne declared war when she tried to take my place and it cannot be avoided now," Victoria answered, waving at Hoss. She smiled mysteriously. "And, with the help of a spy and some friends, I have a few tricks of my own to pull on them."
"You sound like a general," Ben said, frowning in concern. He stood up as Hoss walked up to them. "What are you the two of you planning?"
"A general? I think I like the sound of that. General Stoddard," Victoria exclaimed with an amused grin. She accepted the food Hoss offered her. "And Captain Cartwright, my advisor. We are planning a strategic attack against the enemies defenses. One I hope will end the war."
Ben looked down at her skeptically. "Then, I will get out of your way, General Stoddard," he informed her.
"We have acquired another Ally," Victoria informed Hoss in answer to his questioning look.

The evening was drawing to a close and the majority of the guests were leaving. Between Alan and Anne, Adam hadn't had a chance to get near Victoria. Preparing to leave, Adam and Ben caught a series of strange looks: Dr. Martin looked across the room at the sheriff. Nodding, Roy Coffee looked at Hoss and Victoria, who were talking to a couple near the door.
"What's going on?" Adam asked in low voice.
"I believe we are about to see a military strike," Ben answered vaguely, setting his hat back down. Adam frowned at him in puzzlement.
The other couple turned to leave. "Hoss, I'm not feeling very well," Victoria said in a low, but clear tone. She looked up at him, her face pale. "I…should sit down."
Concerned, Hoss put a steadying arm around her. "Joe!" he called over to his younger brother as everyone's attention went to him. "Bring me a chair! Now!" He looked down at the woman. "Just hold on, Victoria."
"Hoss…" Victoria's eyes closed and she went completely limp.
"Doc!" Hoss shouted. There was no faking the fear in his voice. He gently lowered the woman to the ground as the doctor rushed over. "What's wrong with her, Doc? You said she was fine!"
"Move aside, Hoss, and let me see," Dr. Martin ordered, kneeling down.
Hoss moved back and watched anxiously. Ben hurried to his side, and put his hand on his son's arm reassuringly. Dr. Martin looked up and shook his head. "There's nothing I can do," he announced, his tone grave.
Everyone gasped. "You don't mean- she's dead?" Joe asked apprehensively.
Hoss pulled free of his father and knelt down. He pulled the woman's body into his arms and looked at the gathered crowd. His eyes landed on Alan Coates. "You did this," Hoss accused. The man gave a start. "Sheriff, arrest that man!"
"Hoss," Ben knelt beside his son. "I think you might be over reacting a little. She's been ill for awhile; you said so yourself. No one is to blame."
Glaring at Coates, Hoss shook his head. "I heard him this morning, Pa," he declared. "He's been paying Victoria's maid to kill her."
All eyes turned to Coates. "Murder is a serious charge," Sheriff Coffee said, putting his hand on the man's shoulder. "You're going to have to come down to the jail until we get this straightened out."
"This is ridiculous!" Coates objected.
Eyes wide, Anne stepped away. "You told me you were only going to make her sick!" she exclaimed, her voice shrill. Coates tried to shush her. "I'll have nothing to do with murder! I may hate her, but I would never want to see her killed!"
"There's the proof we need to send you to prison for quite awhile," Coffee said. "Let's go."
The rest of the crowd lapsed into amazed whispers as the sheriff pushed the man out. Adam grabbed Anne by the shoulders. "You aren't my cousin, are you?" he asked. She shook her head, tears brimming in her blue eyes. "Why did you pretend?"
"My father cut me off for marrying Alan," Anne answered. "We need money. Victoria had plenty. I was just going to make her share a little."
The woman smiled faintly and hurried after her husband and the sheriff. Ben put his hand on Hoss' shoulder. "You have to let her go, Son," Ben said quietly.
Hoss looked at him in astonishment. "Leave a lady like her on the floor?" he responded. He stood up with Victoria in his arms. "If one of you will cover her, I'll take her down to the doc's office."
"Hoss, what are you doing?" Adam asked. "Paul said he can't do anything for her."
"Yes, I did, Adam," Paul Martin answered. "She'll wake up on her own. The poison hasn't killed her yet, but it has weakened her."
The doctor found himself the target of several stares. "I didn't say she was dead," Dr. Martin said defensively. He retrieved the woman's cloak and draped it over her. "You all just jumped to that conclusion. Let's go, Hoss."
"Things didn't go according to script," Hoss said to his family. There was still worry on his face. "But we got the results we were after."
He and the doctor hurried out into the night. The rest of his family exchanged astonished looks and then followed them.

The next morning was bright and sunny. In the doctor's office, there was a stand off. Impatiently, Victoria tapped her foot and crossed her arms. "I am fine," she insisted, glaring at the doctor.
"I have to be certain," Dr. Martin responded, looking down at her. "I thought you were healthy yesterday, but a healthy young lady does not faint for no reason. I have to redeem my reputation."
Sighing, Victoria scowled at him. There was a knock on the door. Walking over, the doctor opened the door. "Come on in," he invited. "Maybe you can keep my patient from trying to run away."
Ben, Hoss, and Adam came in. The doctor left the room, closing the door. Victoria smiled at them. "I'll sign over half my shipping business if one of you distracts him long enough for me to get out of here."
"I take it you're feeling better," Ben commented.
"Yes, and I want out of this room," Victoria answered vehemently. She sighed and shrugged. She looked up at Hoss. "Come to report, Captain?"
"Coates is under arrest for attempted murder," Hoss told her. "Anne turned herself in for committing fraud, and the sheriff is still trying to find your maid."
"I'm sorry I wouldn't listen to you," Adam said, holding out his hand.
Victoria put her hand in his. "It was quite a battle," she commented. "You can thank Hoss for the information we needed to win the war. He, Dr. Martin, and the sheriff were the ones who came up with the plan to trick Alan and Anne into giving themselves away."
"Why do you talk like that?" Hoss asked her. "It's not like we were really fighting a war."
"I was raised on pirate battles and then was near the war between the states. I thought it was appropriate," Victoria explained. She glanced at Adam almost shyly. "So, can we be friends now?"
"I look forward to getting to know you before you go onto Boston," Adam told her. "I'd like to hear some of the stories you've been told about your father and my mother."
"Well, we only have a few days," Victoria told him. "I was serious when I said I was leaving for Boston." She cast a glare at the closed door. "That is, I'll be going if the doctor lets me lose by then."
The Cartwrights laughed. "Then, let's not waste any time," Ben said.

The driver hoisted the luggage on top of the stage. Victoria faced the Cartwrights, smiling sadly. "Thank you for these past five days," she said. "They have been wonderful. I will never forget them."
"I'm sorry for what you had to go through," Ben told her. He took her hands into his and kissed her cheek. "Have a safe journey and write to us."
"You're always welcome on the Ponderosa," Adam added, shaking his cousin's hand.
Victoria nodded at little Joe and then faced Hoss. "When I come back, you're going to have to show me every single beautiful spot on the Ponderosa," she told him. She threw her arms around the big man and hugged him tightly. "I won't accept anything less."
"Good," Hoss answered, hugging her back. "That means you'll have a long visit."
Laughing, Victoria pulled away and Adam helped her into the stage. The driver climbed aboard, and the stage was off. Just as it left town, Victoria stuck her head out the window and waved. The Cartwrights waved back.
"I hope she comes back soon," Ben said.
"She will, Pa," Hoss replied confidently. "She will."