If You Believed In Love, Ch. 11 & 12

Chapter 11

Knightly knew after being Emma’s friend for nearly two decades.  I knew after being with Abby for two hours.  The point is that we both knew, and when we knew, it was only a matter of time before our actions followed our hearts to the loves of our life.  I don’t know about Knightly, but I never regretted that decision for even one moment after I made it.

Elizabeth sat on her couch, holding his paper and letting the tears fall.  His deep love for Abby sent absurd arrows of hurt through her heart.  It was crazy to feel like this. First of all, Abby was gone.  So that meant she was jealous of a dead woman, which made no sense.  Secondly, she’d practically told him to get lost, which made even less sense—except that it was the only way she could see not to get her heart smashed into tiny pieces.

As she finished the fourth pass through his paper, she sniffed the tears back, knowing they were stupid and pointless.  How did she get here anyway?  How? When she had been so diligent for twelve long years about rules and barriers and propriety?  Teachers weren’t supposed to fall for their students, and she certainly should’ve done whatever she could to discourage his advances.  No.  This was wrong.  It was wrong.  And no matter how great a guy he was, she needed to remember that there were simply lines one didn’t cross.  She needed to make sure she didn’t give him any more encouraging signals—not that she was trying to before, but…

The only problem, she acknowledged as she clutched the paper and laid over onto the couch, was that she’d already let herself get thoroughly and maybe irrevocably attached to him—attached to his smile and his laugh, to his wit and his charm, to him.  To Jonathon.  And now, how to undo that attachment was utterly beyond her comprehension.

***

The problem of what to do about Elizabeth come Thursday, what to say and how to say it, what to do and how to do it, went with Jonathon everywhere on Wednesday.  At the grocery store, he found himself talking to the lettuce.  “Just once, Elizabeth… I’d like us to go out.  No, it’s not really a date-date.  It’s more like two friends getting together…”

He shook his head really hard to get reality to take over, still the dream clung there.  It was a fact. He was losing his mind.  But as he pushed his cart forward, there was one understanding that trumped all the others—the undeniable understanding that she wanted to go slowly.  She wanted romance and to know she was in love first before anything else happened.  Never had he thought himself capable of such a thing, but if it killed him, he was determined to honor that—so when she looked back on their time together, she would know he loved her that much.

Wait? The cart slowed.  Had he just thought that?  That he loved her?  Another small push.  Yes, that’s what he thought.  With a breath, he let that settle into his soul.  He loved Elizabeth Forester.  The next thought of if she would ever love him back ripped across his heart.  He had no way to even predict such an unforeseeable thing.  But as his steps followed the cart, the question of if that uncertainty changed his feelings at all surfaced.  A step and another, and he realized that no, it really didn’t change anything.  He loved her, and he would do what she needed him to do to feel loved.  True, that might in fact end up breaking him in half, but for her, he was willing to be broken.  He was already halfway there with this whole thing already.  What more could the other half possibly do?

***

“Please put everything else either under your desk.  You should have only your essay booklet and a pen.”  Elizabeth stepped carefully down the steps, pulling her skirt up as she descended each step.

Jonathon watched her every move, seeing now the hard shell encasing her.  The thing that had thrown him so off was how very soft that shell at first appeared.  It wasn’t hard and cruel.  It simply kept her secrets in and the rest of the world decidedly out.

Once at the front, her gaze swept across the room, taking in every student, save for him.  He felt the omission differently than he would have only weeks before.  It wasn’t that she was deliberately being mean.  It was more that she didn’t trust herself to look at him.  From twenty-five feet away, he felt her anxious need to pretend she didn’t even know he was alive.  But he knew she was, and somehow, he would find a way to make that perfectly clear to her as well.

***

Over and over as she sat at her desk during the next hour and a half, Elizabeth berated herself for looking up to that third row, third chair in.  Her head knew what every glance would do to her heart, and yet it wouldn’t do its job and keep her gaze from him.  She let out a breath that hurt as she shook her head and retrained her gaze on the book in her hands that she hadn’t read and couldn’t even see.  Instead, what she saw was him sitting there on that lonely bench, right there, next to her.  And what she felt was the undeniable pull of him on her body, spirit and soul.

Closing her eyes, she fought that feeling.  He was just some guy who happened to be in her class, who happened to be annoyingly wonderful, but who would also be gone in two months.  He would be gone, and for her heart’s sake she had to remember that.  Letting herself fall for him wasn’t an option.  It would only lead to heartache for her and for him.  She would save him from that even if she was beginning to suspect her heart was already in too deeply to save herself.

“That wasn’t so bad,” Mr. Cruz said, materializing at the other edge of her desk, and she sat forward, cracking the spring of her chair closed.

“Oh.”  Nerves attacked her. “Finished already, Mr. Cruz?”

“I’m not really that big on writing, but I tried.”

“Well,” she said, desperately trying to shake out of her reverie, “I enjoyed your paper on Emma.”  She retrieved his paper from the stack.  “Harriet has never gotten better treatment.”

He took the paper from her, looked at the grade, and smiled appreciatively.  “Thanks.”

“Thank you… for your insights.”

His eyes sparkled with gratefulness.  “I’ll see ya after Spring Break.”

“I’ll be here.”

After Mr. Cruz left, there was a steady stream of students, turning in their tests and retrieving their papers.  It got easier and easier to retreat into the safety of the world of laughing with students and seeing their interest in the subject.  This was why she’d gone into teaching—to impart knowledge, yes, but more for the honor of watching the students’ own knowledge and understanding unfold.

By 2:35 only two students remained.  Letty and Jonathon, and Elizabeth was sending up fervent prayers that Letty would hang on just a few more minutes.

“You need to finish up,” Elizabeth said in her best teacher voice, which didn’t sound nearly as confident and in command as it once had.  She hated that because if she could hear it, she was sure everyone else could as well.

When Letty moved first, Elizabeth sent up a full barrage of frantic pleas to Heaven.  However, she managed to hide all of them with a smile when the young woman approached the desk, swinging her backpack with her.

“That last one was tough,” Letty said.

“Really?” Elizabeth took the test paper and perused it quizzically.  “What was so difficult about it?”

“Just choosing who to use.  Three characters to talk with?  I could’ve made a case for almost every one in the stuff we’ve read.”

And then, Elizabeth knew he was moving, standing, gathering his things. Her attention snapped that way, but she dragged it back.  He was coming forward, and she dove headlong into the present conversation.  “So whom did you choose?”

“Oh, Browning just because he’s got such a broad range of…”  Letty continued as Elizabeth nodded, fighting to pay attention to her student.  “… he really needed some pointers on what it means to be in love…”

Jonathon laid his test on the corner of her desk and with only the barest of smiles, turned and headed for the stairs.  Her heart filled every space in her, aching to call out to him, to stop him from walking out.  Ten days would be an eternity.

“…and Harriet was so here-there-and-everywhere about who she loved and why, I thought it would be great for her to sit down with the two of them…”

At the top of the stairs standing by the doors, Jonathon stopped for only one second.  Then without turning, he pushed out, and Elizabeth felt it like a punch to the stomach.  She let her gaze fall to the desk as she fought to get her mind back on what Letty was saying.  “That sounds very interesting.  I can’t wait to read it.”

“I hope it’s as good as I wanted it to be.  I’m really enjoying this class, Ms. Forester.  I thought it might be a drag, you know?  But I’ve really learned a lot.”

Elizabeth yanked her rational side back to her.  What was she thinking letting him distract her from her mission here?  She wasn’t here to find someone, she was here to educate, to give young people like Letty Rahman a chance to expand their horizons.  “Well, I’m very glad, Ms. Rahman.  I hope the second half will be as enlightening as the first half has been.”

“Oh, I’m sure it will be.”  Letty paused, and Elizabeth thought that would be the end of the conversation.  Then the young woman leaned forward.  “In fact, this may sound kind of strange, but I’m thinking about changing majors.”

“Oh?”  Elizabeth collected the remaining papers, realizing with a shock that Jonathon hadn’t taken his.  She beat that down, fighting to keep her mind on Letty and the business at hand.  “What are you considering?”

Letty’s eyes widened with anticipation.  “English.”

That slammed Elizabeth to a full stop.  “English?  Really?”

“I always liked writing and stuff in high school, but I never thought I could really understand the literature part until now.”  She arched her shoulder under her backpack.  “It’s just… when you teach, you show me worlds I never knew existed.  I want to give that back to other kids, you know?”

As Elizabeth looked at her, soft gratefulness drifted through her.  “Yes, Ms. Rahman, I do know.  Better than you can possibly imagine.”

Letty nodded.  “Well, I just wanted to say thanks for everything.”

“You’re very welcome.”

And then Letty turned and started for the doors.

“Have a good Spring Break, Ms. Rahman.”

“You too, Ms. Forester.”

A mere blink and Elizabeth was alone with a roomful of desks, a handful of papers, and a heart so heavy she could hardly hold it all.  She sniffed the tears back as she looked around the classroom that had now changed her life many times over.  Running her wrist under her nose to keep the tears at bay, she hastily stuffed the remaining tests and papers into her satchel.  She wished he had taken his, and she wondered why he hadn’t.  She also wondered why he had left without saying anything.  Then again her performance on Tuesday had hardly been resoundingly encouraging.  Not that she should want him to stay…

What was she thinking?  She swung her satchel off the desk, not at all sure of anything her head was telling her, much less her heart.  Everything was in such a swirling mess of confusion nothing at all was making any sense.  Up the steps, she alternately wiped her nose and lifted her skirt.  It was stupidity and stupidity alone that had led her here into this state of twisted sanity.  Without so much as a glance back, she pushed out of the door and stepped into the lobby where half a myriad of students milled about.

She considered going to the library and then decided she would go instead to her office and then she decided to just go home.  The truth was she was getting an awful headache and home sounded really good.

“Ms. Forester.”

Every piece of everything stopped in a breath.  Fighting to keep the last shreds of her sanity in her grasp, she turned and came face-to-face with no other than Jonathon Danforth himself.  “I… Hmm…” She squelched the thoughts and feelings. “Mr. Danforth.”

He was right in front of her now, so close she could reach out and touch him as she had in so many of her dreams.  “Ms. Forester.” His gaze was soft and engaging.  “I didn’t want to interrupt… before.”

“Oh.”  Elizabeth glanced over at the heavy wooden door and sniffed all the emotions back down.  “I was… Letty was telling me that she may change her major.”  When her gaze found his, she had to swallow to get the rest of the sentence out.  “To English.”

His smile poured into her cold, empty soul.  “Letty’s a smart girl.”  His gaze drifted up to take in her hair and then came back down to hers. “I was just wondering what you’re doing now.”

“Oh.”  Her hand slid up across her body to her neck where it tangled and twined with some of the loose pieces of hair.  “Um, I don’t know.  I’m kind of tired.  I thought I might just go home.”

“Ah.”  He nodded slowly, and his smile drifted into his eyes.  “I don’t blame you.  You must be exhausted from bleeding on all those papers.”

“Oh, no.  The papers weren’t so bad.”  Her breath snagged on the way he was looking at her and on wanting to tell him everything about everything about how she was feeling and thinking and wanting.  With a crack, she snapped that in half.  “They… they were fine. They were good.”  She thought about his then and scrambled to retrieve it from her satchel.  “You didn’t get yours.  I have it in here…”

“Tell you what.” He stopped her with a raise of his hand.  “Why don’t you agree to have coffee with me, and I can get it there?”

Her gaze slid up to his.  Could he seriously be asking this when she’d treated him so miserably the last time?  “Oh, I don’t…”

“It’s a nice day,” he said, glancing to the sunshine streaming through the windows beyond.  “Why don’t we go, and you can argue on the way?”  This time his grin was full and broad.  “That’ll save us some time.”

She dropped the flap of the satchel.  “You make that sound like I argue a lot.”

He looked at her with a quirk of his eyebrow.  “You don’t?”

“Well, not normally.  You just seem to bring that out in me.”

“Lucky me.”

***

All the way to the coffee shop, Jonathon could think of nothing other than just how lucky he was to be with her.  He made sure to keep the conversation on safe topics—the weather, the class, the tests.  She was smiling today, and that was a whole lot better than crying.  At the restaurant, they got a table.

“So you going to spring for that mocha latte today?” he asked, teasingly.

She smiled and let her gaze slide to the side.  When it came back up, there was a definite air of mischievous.  “Can you keep a secret?”

He put his menu back between the napkin holder and the salt shaker, intrigued. “Try me.”

“I’ve never actually had a mocha latte,” she said, shifting her shoulders so he could see the battle she was having to keep her nerves at bay.  “I just always thought that sounded so cool, you know?” She sat up straight as if performing. “Yes, I’ll have a mocha latte.” Then she shrank down again. “It sounds so grown up.”

Even though he tried not to, he laughed.

Retaining the smile, she let her gaze fall as her shoulders collapsed farther forward.  “I know.  It’s silly.”

With a tilt of his head, he surveyed her, loving every single thing about her.  “I think you should do it.  It is Spring Break after all.  Throw caution to the wind and live a little.”

The waiter stepped up.  “May I take your orders?”

Jonathon looked at her and raised his eyebrows in challenge.  “One time. Just to say you have.”

There was the slightest of hesitations before she tore her gaze from his and slipped it up to the waiter.  “I’ll have a mocha latte.”  Her teeth caught her bottom lip, barely snagging the giggle from escaping.

It lifted his heart.  He looked at the waiter. “I’ll have the same.”

When the waiter left, she shook her head, trying to get the giggles to dissipate.  Finally pulling some seriousness back to her, she put both forearms on the table and leaned toward him.  “I didn’t know you liked mocha lattes.”

“I’ve never had one, but you make them sound so interesting.”  Tipping his head to the side, he caught her gaze in his and held it.  “I figure there’s a first time for everything, right?”

***

Despite the fact that her better judgment said this was all wrong and a complete mistake, Elizabeth was having more fun than any person had a right to. The mocha latte was surprisingly good but it paled in comparison to the company. He’d regaled her half the afternoon with his exploits in the mega-merger business and the other half with horror stories from being the younger brother doomed to be set up with every “eligible” girl his sister could drum up.

“She must really love you,” Elizabeth said, seeing more and more just how much.

“She does.”  He slid the tip of his ring finger around and around the edge of the large white cup.  “I just wish sometimes she didn’t love me quite so much, you know?”

Elizabeth smiled.  “You’re very lucky.”

He nodded.  “That I am.”

The pause lasted longer than any prior one had.

“Well,” she said, knowing this magical day had to end sooner or later, “I should give you your paper, or someone might get the wrong impression.”  She pulled the satchel to her lap and dug inside to retrieve the paper.  Holding it, she realized that once he had it, there would be no more excuse for them to stay.  She almost didn’t want to make the transfer.

“You know,” he said, pulling himself forward with his elbows on the table, “Jane Austen’s original title for Pride & Prejudice was First Impressions.”

Her gaze snapped to his.  “How do you know that?”

He tossed his napkin to the table and shrugged more with his eyebrows than anything.  “I’m just saying…”

She narrowed her gaze at him, feeling what he was telling her more than hearing it.  The satchel slipped back to the floor. “You started reading Pride & Prejudice?  Why?”

“Well, you just said you liked it, and I was wondering what was so fascinating about it.”

Her gaze narrowed even further.  “So you started reading it?”

“Yes.” He had her captivated, and he knew it.

She wanted to not be taken in, but in truth, she was.

“Well.” He reached across and took the paper from her, looked it over for a second, and then looked up and smiled. “I’d better let you get home, or someone might get the wrong impression.”  He stood, and before the wheels of her brain caught up with what was happening, he was behind her, pulling her chair out.

“Oh. Th-thank you.”  And then, even more inexplicably, he was holding her coat.  She slipped her arms in and blinked to figure out what in the world was going on.  “Thanks.”

He reached down and retrieved her satchel before handing it to her as her heart fought to sort it all out.

“Well,” he said when she was all put back together, “it has been a very nice afternoon, Miss Elizabeth.”

Heat scorched its way up her cheeks.  He was reading Pride & Prejudice.  He was here, helping her on with her coat, pulling her chair out.  He hadn’t even once pushed into anything other than what she was comfortable with.  What in the world was going on?

Hanging back slightly, he threw a couple bucks to the table, and before she could protest, he guided her with only one hand up to the register.

“Was everything all right, Sir?” the host asked.

“Wonderful.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth’s brain caught up with reality, and she dug for her money.

“No,” he said, turning to her, “I’ve got this.”

Because she was so blown away with everything else, she absorbed this as well.  When he had paid, he guided her back out into the late afternoon bustle of New York City.

“Thank you,” she said softly, glancing over at him as her feelings rushed hither and yon in the center of her like the people now cramming the sidewalk.

“Any time.”

They started back for campus, and suddenly Elizabeth didn’t want this to ever end.

“So, what are you doing for Spring Break?” she asked.  “Any big plans?”

He walked two steps before he glanced at her.  “I don’t know. Reading?”

Incomprehension drained through her. “During Spring Break?”

Shrugging, he strolled next to her.  “What else do I have to do?”

She resettled her glasses on her nose, knowing she must be completely crazy to even think the thought.  Hadn’t she spent the last three days trying to convince herself to get him to leave her alone?  Hadn’t she vowed to do just that if he ever so much as looked her direction?  And now here she was, thinking these crazy thoughts.

“You?” he asked, glancing over at her.

“Oh.”  There were so many thoughts jumbled in her head, she had no clue which one would not get her into trouble.  “Well, I was going to grade tests.”  The words came out haltingly as if she had forgotten how to speak the language.  “And maybe read some, get lesson plans done.”  Wow.  Did she sound like the most boring person on the planet!

Still, that one thought trailed through her mind like a train she could not get to stop no matter what she tried.  Closing her eyes with disbelief that she would even say the words out loud, she forced herself into just-say-it-before-you-suffocate mode.  “Um, you know, I was also going to watch Pride & Prejudice some time over Spring Break.”

“Oh?  You have the movie?”

“I have all of them.”

“All of them?” He looked at her uncomprehendingly.  “There’s more than one?”

“There are three.  At least I have three, but one of them’s six hours.  I don’t recommend starting with that one although it is the most faithful retelling of the book.”

“Six hours?”

She heard the horror, and she laughed.  “It’s really not so bad.  I’ve probably watched that one 30 or 40 times.”

“Thirty or forty…?” The depth of his disbelief plummeted further.  “Wow.  That’s unbelievable.”

“But I won’t subject you to that one.  It’s only for us English-teacher types.”  Weaving her steps, she bumped into his shoulder teasingly.  “You know how we are.”

“I’m learning real fast.”

Walking a few more steps, she glanced over at him.  “So what do you say?”

“About?” He looked wholly unsure of the offer she wasn’t making.

Her gaze fell to the concrete, and when it came up, her heart felt more open than it ever had.  “Joining me?”

***

Had he been able to pinch himself, Jonathon most certainly would have.  “You’re serious?”

Dragging in a breath, she pulled her gaze up to his.  “Yes. I am.”

“Then yes.  Of course.  Tell me when and where, and I’ll be there.”

“There” turned out to be his apartment.  It was something about her small place and the noisy children next door.  He didn’t really care so long as they had plans that would let him see her over the break.  The next four days were a whirlwind of reading and cleaning.  By Tuesday at one, every counter shone and even the carpet smelled like flowers—maybe too much, but it was far better than stains and piles of junk.

Best of all, he hadn’t completely hated Pride & Prejudice.  The books were getting easier to read, and he’d become much more in tuned with the quaint societal rules and particular characteristics of the characters.  Since he had already seen both Elinor and Marianne, he could better appreciate the willfulness of Elizabeth, the main character.  She was a definite cross between Sense and Sensibility.   She was caring and compassionate but also not one to be run over—even by much wealthier, more prominent men.  And to have the nerve to do that at that time as a woman was no small feat.

He was in the kitchen, checking on dinner, which he hoped to share with her if the opportunity presented itself when the little bell in the hallway rang.  It startled him so badly he nearly burned himself on the oven.  “Ouch!”  Jumping back, he shook out his hand and examined it.  He’d live.  He closed the oven. Checking himself over twice, he strode to the door, took a breath and opened it.

***

Elizabeth had spent the entire morning fighting with herself about what she should wear and how to do or not do her hair.  She thought she’d made good choices, but the second he opened the door, she suddenly felt all wrong.  Her hair with half of it falling down well past her shoulders and half up in the braids and bun made her feel blatantly obvious.  It wasn’t how she’d wanted to be at all.  Trying to smile, she put her free hand up and twisted it through the strands of hair trailing down her shoulder.  “Hi.”

***

“Hi.”  The syllable was more a breath.  Only once had he seen her hair not rolled tightly at the back of her head.  Now it was streaming down her shoulders with curls at the end.  More than that, she wasn’t wearing her glasses, and the beauty of her soft face was exposed for all the world to see.  She still wore the brown dress, but it looked far less plain like this.

He knew he should say something, but words and sense had gone right out of his head.

After a moment, she lifted the little basket in her hand.  “This is for you.  A gift for the host.”

“Oh, you didn’t have to.”

“Don’t be too impressed.  It’s just some sparkling grape juice, cheese and crackers.  I’m afraid I’m not very creative.”

Taking the basket from her, he looked at the offering.  “It’s great.  Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

And then with a snap, he realized she was still standing on the other side of the threshold.  “Oh.  Please come in.”  He stepped back, and when she passed in front of him, the scent of her light perfume spun his senses.  This was going to be a real challenge.

Looking around though she was only three steps in, she smiled. “This is really a nice place.  Much better than mine.”

He watched in fascination as she stepped slowly around the room, examining the décor and furnishings.

When she made it over to Abby’s picture on the little table, she stopped and stood unmoving for a long moment.  Then she traced her finger down the side of the frame. “Is this Abby?”

“Y-yes.”  His voice was no longer working.

“She’s beautiful.”

“Yes, she was.”  But he couldn’t help but think so was the woman now saying so.  It was something of a mystery how and why she was now standing in the middle of his apartment.  Part of him asked how exactly that happened, part of him really didn’t care.

“I’m sorry.”  Elizabeth turned, catching him staring at her.  Her gaze dropped to her boots.  “I shouldn’t be so nosy.”  With her hands behind her back, she looked around the whole room.  “It really is a nice place.”

“Th-thank you.”  He had to do something to get his mind to work again.  “I’ll just go get us some glasses.”

“Okay.”

Just as he turned, she said, “Oh!  Wait!”  Striding over, in the next second she was right next to him.  That perfume was going to kill him.  He picked up his head to fight off the feelings it pulled up in him.

“I put the DVD in the bottom.”  She dug in the basket he still held as he fought not to notice how unbelievably beautiful she was and how close she was and how much he wanted to reach out and touch her.  “Ah, here it is.”  Coming up, she caught him in her gaze again, and his heart slammed to a stop.  “What?”

“Uh. Nothing.”  His gaze slipped up to her hair as he fought to breathe.

She put her hand up to her hair, and her face fell into concern.  “I hate leaving it down.  I almost never do.”

“It’s… perfect.”  His gaze brushed hers, and she smiled without really moving anything on her face.  Words!  Something! Say something, Jonathon! “Um, your glasses?  I thought you wore them all the time?”

The observation pulled her gaze down from his, and he wished he hadn’t made it.

There was an apology in her eyes when she brought her gaze back up to his.  “I only need them for reading, and not really even all the time for that.  They’re a very weak prescription.  I don’t really need them that much, but if I don’t wear them most of the time, I lose them.”  Like she felt badly about that, she let her shoulders slide up closer to her ears.  “It’s a bad habit.”

Jonathon nodded because nothing else about him would move.  “You look… different.”  He was just conscious enough not to say something that might frighten her away.

Her smile was coy.  “Good different or bad different?”

He laughed softly at that.  “Good different. Definitely good different.”

“Good.  That’s what I was going for.”  Yanking her gaze down to the DVD in her hand, she bounced twice.  “Now.  What am I supposed to do with this?”

“Oh. Uh.”  And they each retreated into the details of the afternoon.

With her sitting on the floor right next to him during the whole movie, Jonathon had a terrible time following it.  In fact, it was a good thing he’d already read the book or he would’ve been hopelessly lost.   She, however, seemed absolutely enthralled.  With her knees up, she had one arm wrapped one way around her and the other hand wrapped up next to her shoulder.  It looked uncomfortable, but she didn’t seem to even notice.

“I love this part,” she breathed, and Jonathon refocused on the movie so he could make intelligent conversation at some point when the movie was over.  Between her and the movie and Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth from the book and now from the movie running around in his brain, he had a sneaking suspicion that making conversation wouldn’t be at all easy.

As Mr. Darcy kissed Miss Elizabeth for the first and final time, the credits flashed to the screen, and Elizabeth sighed as she wiped stray tears from her eyes.  “Ugh. I love that movie.”

Jonathon looked over at her, and she felt his amusement.  “I’d never know it.”  Gently he reached over and brushed one tear from the side of her cheek that she had missed.  His warm, gentle touch drifted through her, and her eyes closed of their own accord.

When she regained her breath, she opened her eyes, and her whole being took in just how close he was.  She’d never shared an entire afternoon with someone just sitting on the floor watching a movie, yet not once had she felt crazy nervous like she thought she would.  Something about him put her so at ease, and she couldn’t at all account for that.  She laid her head on her knees and looked over at him. “So what did you think?  Am I completely nuts for liking it so much?”

“No. I don’t think so.  It was a little hard to follow.  I’m glad I read the book first, or I would’ve been really lost.  But so much of it was so different.”

Huddling into the couch, she turned to him.  “I just love this Mr. Darcy.  I mean I like the other ones too.  But this one, uh.”  She collapsed sideways into the couch.  “He just kills me.”

Jonathon turned so that his knees were only inches from hers.  “What makes him so ugh?”

She laughed.  “Well, the first time I watched it, I thought, ‘What a total jerk.’ And that’s not really the way I saw him when I read the book, but I liked a couple of the scenes and the way they pictured it that was a different than the book.  I mean I’m not one of those who has to have it word-for-word or whatever.  I really like seeing the different ways different people interpret the same story.  I think each person really comes at it from their own vantage point, and I like that about books in general.  I love to know what someone else gets from it, you know?”

Pulling her knees up, she rested her arms and head there again.  “There’s something so fascinating about how two different people can see the same thing and get something completely different from it.  And this movie, I get something different every time I even watch just it.”

Questions streamed across his face.  “Like what?”

***

“Like…  well, when I first watched it, I really liked the girl who played Elizabeth, but I thought they had totally messed up the Mr. Darcy character.  I mean I never saw him as really mean like they have him at the beginning.  But after I watched it a couple of times, I stopped watching her so much and started really paying attention to him.  Especially to his eyes.”  When she looked at Jonathon gazing at her with rapt attention, she smiled.  “Eyes say so much.”  She ducked to get more out.  “But then as I watched him, I so got how he wasn’t mean, he was just scared to death of living.”  The thoughts slid over themselves.  “I know what that’s like… wanting to join in but not feeling like you even know how.  And Elizabeth, wow.  She doesn’t cut him any slack at all.  Not that I blamed her the first ten times I watched it.  I was totally cheering her on, but now… Sometimes I don’t know…” A beep sounded in the kitchen, and her attention jerked that way.  She let her gaze come back to his inquisitively. “Does that mean something’s done?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said as if he hadn’t even heard it.  Pulling to the side and then up, he stood, and her gaze followed him.

“It smells delicious.”

He turned and after only a moment’s pause he offered her his hand.  “I threw something together for dinner.  Do you like roast?”

The second her hand was in his, she felt both the tenderness and the strength inherent in him.  With barely any effort, she was on her feet.  A breath away her gaze snagged on his.  “Thanks.”

When he broke the connection, she let her eyes go wide, trying to get her heart to start beating again.  Scratching her bottom lip to rejoin reality, she followed him into the kitchen. She swung her hands and bounced a little to try to keep her thoughts light and her feelings from running away with her as she took in the transition to the other rooms.  The dining room just off of the living room was just spacious enough for a table and a setting for four.  The kitchen, too, was nice—not overly large but not a hole in the wall like hers.  Everything about his place was so cheery and inviting.

She leaned back against the cabinet with the sink. “Do you cook a lot?”

“Some.” He took the glass dish from the oven.  It really did smell wonderful.  “I kind of got out of the habit when it was just me, but I used to cook a lot.”

She heard the unspoken when Abby was here, and her mind went back to that little picture in the living room.  Blonde hair blowing in the breeze, Abby had a bright, cheerful smile that made her seem instantly likeable and engaging even in a photograph.  She looked like light personified.  Elizabeth tilted her head to watch Jonathon sorting and adding vegetables to the dish.  It was easy to see how he had been so very taken with his wife.  Elizabeth tried not to think of all the ways Abby had surely fallen for Jonathon though they were equally evident.

He put the dish back in, closed the oven and turned, removing the oven mitts.  “That’ll be another hour if you want to stay.  I’m sorry.  I should’ve put it in earlier.”

“Oh, no.  No.  That’s fine.  You don’t have to feed me.  I didn’t expect that.”

However, instead of really moving, he leaned on the opposite cabinet and folded his arms.  “So what do you do besides watch movies and read?”

Mischievousness grabbed her.  “Grade papers?”

He laughed.  “Besides that.”

She thought through her life and lifted her shoulders.  “That’s pretty much it.  I’m about as boring as they come.”

With a shake of his head, he headed for the living room.  “C’mon. I’d hardly call you boring.”

“Oh, yeah?” Taking his lead, she pushed away from the cabinet and followed him.  “What would you call me?”

At the DVD player, he worked the controls only glancing over at her.  “Interesting.  Fascinating.  Charming.  Enthralling.”

“Stop!”  She put her hands over her face to hide the creeping heat of her cheeks.  “You’re embarrassing me.”  Only when she dropped her hands did she realize he must be teasing.  “Besides, you really don’t think that. You’re just saying that so I’ll give you a good grade.”

He checked her with a strange look.  “I thought we had established that I’m not getting a grade.”  After one second of seriousness, he smiled, and she did too.  “So, do you want to watch this again?”

“Again?”  She couldn’t believe he would even ask. “Really?”

Leaving the DVD, he came over to her.  “So you can show me the really good parts.”  He held up the remote.

She tipped her gaze at him and arched her eyebrows.  “You’re giving me the remote?”

“Just this time.”

***

The rest of the afternoon and evening flew by.  It was still strange not to be able to kiss her and sweep her off her feet like Jonathon wanted to do and would have done had he had any inclination it wouldn’t send her racing for the exits, but the longer they were like this, the more he saw the benefits of it.  Eating dinner, she told him about teaching and the kids she’d had, and he was sincerely touched by how deeply she cared about them.  They weren’t names on a sheet or numbers to deal with to her.  They were real people, with real histories, and real perspectives.

As they sat over the remains of dinner later, he picked up his water just enjoying seeing her so at ease and comfortable.  It was how she was that first day in her office, relaxed and open.  Then as he watched her, he realized what was different.  The shell was gone.  This wasn’t about keeping the world out.  This was the real Elizabeth—excited and fascinated with life.  She made little off-handed jokes that were at once witty and entertaining.  She would never make it in stand-up comedy, but still, he liked her subtle sense of humor.  In fact, the longer she was here, the more he found to like about her—her smiles, her laugh, even her scowl.  She wasn’t pretentious or stuck-up.  No, she was far more down-to-earth and open than anyone he had ever been around, and he loved the challenge of that.

When their conversation carried over into the living room for another two hours, it was impossible to believe so much time had passed when she looked at the clock.

“Oh, my.  It can’t be so late.”  She sat up straight.  “Is it really almost ten o’clock?  I had no idea.”  Her gaze went to the little dining room where the dishes from dinner still sat. “And we didn’t even do the dishes.  I’m so sorry.”

Jonathon was anything but sorry except for the fact that she was now going to use the stupid clock as a reason to leave.  “Hey, don’t worry about the dishes.  I can get them.”

As she looked at him, he saw so many things go through her eyes, and he wanted an eternity to hear every one.

“Thank you, Jonathon.  Really. I’ve had a wonderful time today.”  She laughed as if she couldn’t keep it in.

“What?” he asked, not able to keep his fascination with her in either.

She shook her head.  “You.  You are so different than I thought you were at first.”

“Why?  What did you think?”

It was a moment before she found the words.  “I… I didn’t know what to think really.  You were so very quiet and then so very… harsh.  I never would have guessed… this.”

His heart filled with the words and the breathlessness in her voice.  How much of him now was how he always was and how much was her influence?  It was impossible to tell. “Listen, Elizabeth,” he said as she stood and he followed, knowing he shouldn’t say this but not being able to stop himself. “I know you probably have a ton to do this week, but what’re you doing tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow?” At once her eyes went wide and she exhaled.

“I was thinking about taking a walk in the park after lunch.  I’d love some company… if you want to join me.”

She gazed at him, assessing, breathing, deciding.  “I’d like that, I think.”

“Good.”

At the curb Jonathon put her in a taxi and paid the cab driver.  Elizabeth would gladly have walked, but he insisted, and it felt nice for someone to be concerned about her.  She sat back as the lights of New York slid over the cab.  Her thoughts strayed into realms she had never before imagined herself inhabiting.

Putting her knuckles up to her lips, she thought through the day and the semester and the promise of tomorrow.  With a sigh, she laid her head to the side on the seat.  He was so very wonderful, more wonderful than she could ever have imagined a real man could be, and yet… yet… he did not know.  She closed her eyes, willing the tapping of that memory on her consciousness away.

In two months he would be gone, she reasoned, pushing it back into its dark little hole in her heart.  In two months he would be gone, and he would never have to know if she didn’t tell him.  Yes, if she simply didn’t tell him, he would never have to know.

Chapter 12

“The trees are so beautiful this time of year,” Elizabeth said as she walked slowly next to him, her attention anchored upward into the intertwining fingers of branches and leaves arching above them.  “I love it.”

Jonathon couldn’t help but think how nice she looked in the smoke-blue dress that was off-set with tiny white lines that accented the dress’s simple lines.  Her hair was once again down though with some of it pulled back, and it blew on the breeze across her face making her brush at it.
“So what’s your favorite time of year?” she asked, swinging her gaze to him with a toss of her head.

“Oh, uh, probably fall.”

“Leaves turning, school starting.  That’s my second favorite.”  Her grin brought his happiness to the surface.  “But I like spring most because it’s new life and everything smells so clean and fresh.  I love the rain and the flowers and the newness of it all.” She held his attention rapt to the point that he didn’t even realize he was staring until she said, “What?”

“You,” he said because he could think of no reason not to.

“What about me?”

“I’ve never met anybody like you.  You just, you see the world with such different eyes.”

“Different how?”

“Open.  Innocent.  Excited.  Most of the people I’ve been around are looking at their watch instead of the trees and the flowers because they’re late for the next meeting, or they’re buried under mounds of paperwork and stuff.  You’re… not.”

She considered that for a moment.  “And that’s a good thing or a bad thing?”

He didn’t know exactly how to say it, but her courage in simply saying what was on her heart gave him the courage to do so as well.  “It makes me want to see things the way you do—to have that enthusiasm for life.”  Thoughts wound over thoughts.  “It’s how you are in the classroom too.  It’s what made me know you were different almost from the first day.  You don’t see life as work.”

Her smile fell into a sad knowing.  “It is all a very proficient act, I assure you.”

“That’s just it.  It’s not.  I can tell that’s who you really are.  You see things, and you understand them to a depth I’m not sure anybody else even gets. You read things, and they like open up a new world for you.”

“And they don’t for you?”

“Well, yeah.  I guess so, but it’s different.  For me, it’s work to sit down and read.  I don’t just want to.  I have to make myself.  You don’t.  For you, it’s natural.”

“And for you walking into a boardroom full of angry individuals ready to rip you to shreds because you’ve come to sell their company, that’s natural.”

He lifted his eyebrows in consternation. “It might be natural, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

They walked in silence a few more steps.

“So, what happens when the semester is over?” she asked, and he felt the glance.  “Do you go back to doing that, or are you going to take another class—science maybe.  I could see you in a white lab coat blowing up the Chemistry Building.”

“White’s not really my best color,” he said, joining her laugh.  Then he drifted off into seriousness.  “I’ve been thinking about it, and I don’t think that’s a life I really want to go back to.  I don’t have the heart for it anymore.”

“You’ve gotten soft.”

He looked at her. “No, I’ve learned that there’s more to life than making money and making people fiercely afraid of you when you walk into a room.  I’d rather learn to command respect like you do rather than demand fear like I did.”

She nodded, taking that in. “And how did you come to this conclusion?  Was it by a straight road or a roundabout one?”

“I don’t really know except I think it led through an English class with a teacher who told me the strangest thing.”

“Oh, yeah?  What’s that?”

He glanced over at her, and his heart waltzed three steps.  “That she believed in some mythical thing called love.  Imagine that.”

“Ah.  Yes, I’ve heard of such a strange and wondrous creature.” She leaned toward him although her arms were wound safely at her middle. “They say if you use your imagination, you can begin to believe in it as well.”  With a smile and a half laugh, she bumped into his shoulder.  “Who would ever think such a wild and ridiculous thing, huh?”

“Yeah,” he said softly as his gaze took all of her in.  “Who would ever believe such a thing?”

***

At the steps to her apartment where they eventually wound up, Elizabeth tried not to realize how much he saw about the neighborhood around them.  Compared with his, it was grimy and trashy, only now did she see the dirt. She put her hand up to her neck and twisted her fingers into her hair. “I would invite you up, but…”

“It’s okay,” he said, gazing at her as she leaned against the concrete baluster, afraid to take even one more step that might lead them into her apartment.  “I need to be getting on home anyway.”

For a moment she thought he would reach out to her, bend to kiss her, something.  How she wanted him to, how her whole being yearned for one touch from him.  Finally she said what her heart was whispering. “Thank you for today.  I had a really nice time.”

His soft brown eyes held her gently. “I’m glad.”

This moment was more painful than the last.  If someone didn’t move, she was afraid her heart would simply move her to him and make the point moot.

“Well, Miss Elizabeth,” Jonathon said, stepping backward off the stair.  “I will see you next week.”

Everything in her surged to the surface.  A week?  Seven days?  Could she make it that long without seeing his face, hearing his voice?  “Okay,” she said, barely breathing the words.  “Take care.”

He smiled.  “You too.”  With one spin, he turned and headed off down the sidewalk.

How he could just walk away like that, she had no idea at all.  And then she knew for certain. “Oh, no, Elizabeth,” she whispered.  “What have you done?”

***

Back home, Jonathon picked up the remote, trying to find something to distract him from thinking of her.  Two cold showers hadn’t done much good, neither had reading.  Taking a walk wouldn’t help either.  Besides it was nearly one in the morning.  The only two reasons to go out now were to get drunk or mugged—neither of which sounded pleasant.  He hit the remote button, but instead of the regular television, the middle of the Pride & Prejudice movie started.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!”  He gripped the remote, a second from hitting the off button but stopped at the thunderclap.  It was the part in which Elizabeth shot Mr. Darcy’s declaration of love down with flaming arrows.  The part was not in the book, but Jonathon could see what she meant about those who had made the movie adding their own perspective to it.  Settling in, he let the movie play.  At least this way, he felt a little closer to her, and that helped more than anything else had.

***

Completely beyond belief Elizabeth had talked herself out of going to retrieve her DVD all day Thursday.  How she had done it, she had no idea as it was all she had thought of the entire day. He probably didn’t even realize she had left it.  Trying not to think about it, she had gone to her office to get some work done.  But when she got to his test, she knew despite her better judgment, her heart was at the mercy of the handsome man who sat in the third row, third seat down.  Jonathon.  Jonathon Danforth.  A man she had never seen coming but could not longer deny was here.

She read his essays slowly.  The first was about Emma’s topsy-turvy relationship with Harriet.  Mostly he blamed Emma though Harriet didn’t escape without her share of the blame.

Taking responsibility for one’s self is not just a right, it is a privilege that too many forsake due to lack of bravery.  It is an honor afforded us from on High that is not to be taken for granted nor abandoned to the fates or to others.  In the end, regardless of the winds of chance that may blow us off-course occasionally, it is our choices that take us to our final destination.  Harriet gave responsibility for her choices to Emma and very nearly paid the ultimate price of losing the one she truly loved.  That choice, the choice of who holds our heart, should be the one made with the most care for it is the one that will touch the part of us that is most real and most immortal.   It is the only part that will live into eternity.

Dropping the paper to the desk, she thought through all of the comments she could possibly put on that.  The clarity and care with which he expressed himself took her breath away.  That he had ever not believed in love was not even possible.  It was the hurt talking, she finally decided.  It had to be.  She looked down at the paper again.  A grade would’ve been easier.

***

Friday morning, Jonathon was still lounging in his white T-shirt and night pants, watching the second run-through of the baseball scores from the night before when the little bell in the hallway rang.  He put his head back in surprise and looked over at the hallway, sure he hadn’t heard what he thought he just did.  Finally, he shook his head and returned his attention to the television.  It was a mistake. It had to be.

However, half a minute and it rang again.  This time a scowl dropped all the way to his face as he rolled off the couch and strode to the door intent on telling whoever it was to go away.  But when he looked in the peep hole, his whole world stopped.  With three motions he had the door open.  “Elizabeth?  What’s wrong?”

Her gaze slid from his eyes all the way down him, and pink lit to her cheeks that were nearly hidden by the waves of hair cascading down the sides of her face.  “I’m sorry.  I thought you would be…” She looked back into the hallway. “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have…”

“No, hang on.  I didn’t know.”  He stepped back into his apartment and snapped off the television.  “Did we have something planned for today?”  When he looked back, he realized she was still standing on the other side of the threshold.  “I’m sorry. You don’t have to stand out there. Please, come on in.”

He swept up the morning paper that was strewn all over the coffee table and the floor and took it to the kitchen.  Looking around for a good place to put it, he finally shoved it onto the counter.  Going back out into the living room where she stood by the door, practically pressed up against it, he raked his fingers through his hair, noticing then that instead of her normal dress, she had on jeans and a very large, over-sized sweater.  That threw him off even more. “I’m sorry.  Were we supposed to do something today?”

“Uh, no.  I… um.”  Her gaze was plastered to the floor, and when it came up, she couldn’t have looked any more uncomfortable.  “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come.”

What to do?  With her right here, he hated to leave, but it was clear his state of non-dress was embarrassing her.  “I’ll tell you what,” he said, taking charge before she actually turned around and ran, “why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll run go throw something a little more appropriate on, and we can go for coffee?”

“Oh, you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“Who said I didn’t want to?  Make yourself at home.  I’ll be five minutes.”

***

Even as she sat on the edge of the couch, it was clear she shouldn’t have come.  Elizabeth knew that when she had left campus and wondered for half an hour telling herself she shouldn’t come.  Still her steps had turned this way, and finally she had given up although now she realized she hadn’t done nearly enough to talk them out of this little escapade.  Now, here she was in his apartment again, and he was obviously not expecting anyone.  Running her fingers over her hair, which was down save for the two small braids that ran from the front around to the back, she pushed it back.  No one could ever accuse her of knowing how this was done.  That was for sure.

To distract herself, she let her gaze slide around his apartment and snag there. It wasn’t that it was messy exactly.  There were breakfast dishes on the coffee table and a magazine on the floor.  She fought the urge to pick them up and straighten up.  This wasn’t her house.  It wasn’t her place, but it still took practically handcuffing herself to the couch keep from doing anything.

“Okay. I’m coffee ready.” Striding out in nice black jeans and a smoky-blue-gray long-sleeved knit shirt, Jonathon walked right into the kitchen, and Elizabeth had to remember to breathe.  No one should be allowed to look that incredible.  It just wasn’t at all fair to someone who was trying so hard not to notice.

She pushed to standing, willing her shaking legs to hold her.  “Uh, I kind of left my DVD here the other night.”

“Oh, yes.  Mr. Darcy.”  Jonathon strode from the kitchen and over to the player as her heart flipped over.  “You know, I was watching it, and that scene at the beginning in the dance hall, I think he’s in almost total denial there.  The glimpse really happens when she walks to their house and she shows up all natural looking.  I really don’t think he was prepared for that.”

“Oh.  Y-yeah.”  The two syllables sounded as if they had nothing to do with one another.  Kind of like me right now? She shook her head to get it to stop talking.  It was going to get her into serious trouble.

“Here you go,” he said, taking only a couple of steps so that he was right in front of her, handing her the little case.

“Oh!”  What to do with it.  She took it from him, hoping it would fit in the little purse she had slung around her at the last possible moment before leaving her apartment.  It fit.  How? Why?  She had absolutely no idea mostly because the rational part of her brain had completely stopped working.

“Ready?”

“What?  Oh, yes.  Of course.”  Strange how what she really wanted to do was to kick back right here in his apartment and just be.  But how could she tell him that and not sound like a lemming?

***

Jonathon had no accounting of this strange and unplanned visit.  She said it was for the DVD, but he could tell that was mostly an excuse.  Still, if she was out looking this much not like herself, what else could be going through that head of hers?  They walked, mostly in silence down to the sidewalk outside.  The weather was decidedly warmer.  No jacket necessary.

“So,” he asked because he so wanted to know what was going on and he so had no clue, “how has Spring Break been?”

“Oh, good.  I’ve enjoyed it, you know.”

He didn’t, but he pretended he did.  “That’s good.  Did you get the tests all graded and everything caught up?”

“Yeah.”  A scowl dropped on her face.  “I did.”

“Were they… bad?”  This trying to ask without asking thing wasn’t as easy as it sounded.  He wanted to know, but where that line was that would send her scurrying back across was anybody’s guess.

“No.  They were good actually.  I… I really liked yours.  The one about Emma and Harriet.  Very astute observations.”

It honestly was like she was two different people.  One was this really cool girl who wore her hair down and loved to have fun.  The other was this prim and proper English maven who would hit you with a ruler if you didn’t enunciate your verbs correctly.  Somehow he was suddenly talking to both at once. It was like having vertigo in a tornado.  He narrowed his gaze at her, trying to get the world righted around him.  “What part did you like?”

“The ending was very impressive about our right to make our own decisions.  That was particularly inspiring.”

“Inspiring?  Wow.  Never thought I would be inspiring.” He nodded, still assessing exactly what was going on.

“Really?” she asked, glancing at him.  “I find you very inspiring.”  Then she jerked back against what she’d just said.  “Your writing I mean. I find your writing inspiring.”

Mischievousness took hold of him, and he couldn’t stop the question.  “Inspiring or very inspiring?”

“What?” she asked verily tripping over the word.

“Well, you said I was very inspiring and then you said my writing was just inspiring.  So which is it?”

“Oh.”  She thought about the question, searching for the answer.  “Your… Your writing is very inspiring.”

“Ah.”  Still not sure what was going on, he lifted his chin.  “Well, as long as we have that straight.”  At the door to the coffee shop, he stepped to the side and opened it for her.

“Thank you.”

He got the feeling if she could disappear, she would, but they were here now, again, together.  What that meant and why, he had no idea, and he wasn’t about to get his hopes up that it could mean anything he wanted it to.  When they sat down, he knew his only line of defense was humor. Seriousness looked doomed to send her over the edge.  “So, were you craving a mocha latte?  Is that why you came banging on my door in the middle of the morning?”  He perused the little menu.

“I did not bang on your door.”  She pushed her hair over her ear.  “And it was hardly the middle of the morning.  It was nearly eleven o’clock.”

“Yes, but I don’t normally wake up until noon.”

“And I was to know this how?”

“You didn’t ask.”

“You didn’t say.”

“You didn’t ask,” he said again, looking only at the menu.

Deflating, she played with her fingers. “Okay, you’re right. I didn’t ask.”

“Not that I minded, mind you.  I rather don’t mind beautiful women showing up on my doorstep for no apparent reason.”

She let her gaze fall as she pushed her hair over her ear again. “I told you, I came for the DVD.”

“Oh, yes.  The one you had just watched at my place three times two days ago.  What?  Did you forget how that last scene went, or were you lost without Mr. Darcy there to keep you company?”

Her side of the conversation went deathly silent, and in the moment before he was going to both apologize and ask, the waiter stepped up.

“Just coffee,” she said barely looking up.

“The same,” Jonathon said, sliding the menu back into its place.  When the waiter was gone, Jonathon folded his hands with his elbows on the table.  “I’m sorry about that.  You just really took me by surprise with this.”

Her gaze bounced everywhere other than to his.  “I’m sorry.” She let out a short breath.  “I just… I was at my office, and…”  Nerves were starting to permeate her every move.

“Hey.” He let his hand fall across the table to rest on her wrist.  When she looked up, her eyes were at once apologetic and beseeching him to understand what she herself obviously didn’t. “I like going to get coffee with friends who show up for no reason.  It makes me feel… not so invisible.”

The smile she gave him melted right through him, and when she nodded, he knew he’d said exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, which for him was a feat of unbelievable proportions.  “So, tell me about that article you were talking about writing the other night.  The one about Elizabeth Barret Browning’s work.”

***

And then, through no effort of her own, things were easy again.  They talked mostly about her work, and he really seemed interested—owing mostly to him asking questions of things she had brought up on their previous outings.  An hour passed and with their coffee gone, he suggested they take a walk to the park, which she readily agreed to.  Why this felt so wonderful to just walk and talk, she couldn’t really say, but it did.

The conversation veered into world matters, heads of state and crisis spots around the globe.  Being the consummate reader that she was, she kept up with much of the world on several fronts—political, social, even the arts.  It was nice to find that he, too, had a grasp and ideas about many of these subjects—save for the arts.  On that topic, he seemed completely out-of-the-loop.

“There is this big show opening downtown this evening,” Elizabeth said.  “Ralph Undlio.  He’s supposed to be very good.  Impressionistic.”

Jonathon looked over at her.  “So are you going?”

“Going?” Her eyes widened.  “Oh, no.  I don’t think so.”

“Why not?  You said he was very good.”

“I’ve only seen his things in some magazines, not in real life.”

Step.  Step.  Step.

He glanced at her, and she felt the weight of the look. “I thought you said you liked art.”

“Oh, I do.  I just…”  She wrinkled her nose and laughed softly. “I don’t get out much to do things like that.”  Even the thought of going made her swimmy headed with fear.  They would surely throw her out if she showed up to something grand like that.

“So would you go… if you could?” he asked.

Spirited enthusiasm rained through her.  “I’d love to go.” Then reality took over. “But I couldn’t.  I’ve never been to something like that.  I wouldn’t know at all what to do.”

He looked at her with studied confusion that lifted into nonchalance.  “It’s easy. You go. You hold a drink. You stand in front of paintings that make no sense at all, and you say, ‘I really like his use of space and depth in this one.’ Even though you have no idea what you are talking about.”

She laughed softly.  “I take it you have some experience in these matters.”

“I do.”

And then she remembered Abby and knew what this topic must be bringing up for him.  Her enthusiasm fell into regret for saying anything. “Well, maybe some other time.”

However, he tilted his head in sincerity.  “Why some other time? How about tonight?”

“Tonight?” Fear plowed through her again.

“Yeah, you said you wanted to go.  If you don’t go now, you might not get another chance.”

When her gaze came up to his, the deep brown of his eyes was challenging her and asking her why not.  “I don’t know.”  She wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly feeling the chill that was not there.  “I… wouldn’t even know how to go about getting tickets.”

“Why don’t you let me worry about that?”

“You?”  Her gaze snapped to his.  “But you don’t like art.”

“No, but I like you.”

She had no time to put up her defense shields, and the compliment hit her directly in the heart.

“Come on.  What do you say? Let me do something to repay you for getting me off my couch and out of my apartment.”

There was no way to tell for sure, but she was certain she must’ve fallen down a rabbit hole somewhere along the way.  “Okay.”

***

“Janet, I need a big favor.”  Jonathon had raced back to his apartment from hers and was out of breath by the time he got his sister on the phone.

“What’s that?”

He could hear the sounds of the newsroom where she worked in the background.  “I need two tickets for the art exhibit opening tonight—Ralph Undlio.”

“Ralph Undlio?  Are you out of your mind?  You’re not going to get tickets for something like that.  They’ve been sold out for months!”

“Please, Janet.  I’m not asking here. I’m begging.”

“This wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain teacher, would it?”

“Janet!  Could we please stick to the subject?  I need those tickets.  Can you get them?”

“I don’t know, Jon.  Really.  That’s like the hottest opening in town.”

“Can you try?”

“I can try, but I’m not promising anything.”

“Good. Call me back as soon as you know something.”  He clicked the phone off, his mind spiraling through his other options.  It hit upon one.  It was the longest of shots, but he dialed the phone anyway.  “Yes, William Turner, please.”

“Who may I say is calling?”

“This is Jonathon Danforth.”

“One moment please.”

Pacing back and forth next to the window, Jonathon’s gaze caught on Abby.  “Abby, please…”

“Jonathon?  I thought you’d fallen off the planet.”

“Hi, William.  I know.  It’s been awhile.”

“What’s going on?  Is everything all right?”

Jonathon remembered the last time he had seen William, Abby’s manager and best friend.  They were standing in the graveyard, over her casket.  William had said to call him if he ever needed anything.  Jonathon had never thought he would actually place that call.  “Yeah.  Yeah.  Everything is fine. Listen…”  And then he made the request of a lifetime.  If tickets were un-gettable, there was only one person so connected to the underground art world that he could find two tickets somewhere.  “William, you know I wouldn’t ask if this wasn’t important.”

“She must be pretty special.”

“Believe me, she is.”

***

Elizabeth sorted one way through her sparse closest and then the other.  Nothing was even in the realm of close.  He must be completely crazy to ask her to something like this. How he would ever get tickets… but he’d assured her he would.  And he would be here to get her around five-thirty so they could go to a nice dinner—that’s what he had said.  Her mind tilted decidedly toward freak out, and she finally realized nothing in her closet would be good enough.

There was no time, but there was no time to realize there was no time.  She grabbed up her things and headed out.  She had to find something.

***

“Nothing?” Jonathon asked, trying not to feel defeated.

“Nobody has them, Jon.  You’re not going to get them,” Janet said. “I’m really sorry.”

His phone beeped, and he jerked it from his ear and looked at it.  It had been forever since it had done that.  “Listen, Janet. I’ve got to go. I’m getting another call.”

“Oh,” she said, stunned.  “Okay.  Good luck.”

“Yeah.” He pressed the button.  “Hello?”

“You must be the luckiest guy on earth!” William said, and happiness wove through his voice.

“Tell me.”

***

Her hair was up in a loose half-ponytail.  She’d jammed the spray of pearls and ribbon comb into it, liking how it made the style look asymmetrical and yet right.  The two small strands of hair spiraling softly down the front of her face would probably drive her crazy, but she was crazy anyway, so what could it possibly matter?  She brushed at the white top which angled nicely into a v from her shoulders to the top of her chest.  It had little shaggy things at the top of it that looked both different and interesting.

The outfit ended in a long fitted black skirt with black heels that were the shortest she could find.  They felt odd, like they were going to pitch her to the floor at any moment.  Again she thought herself crazy as she looked into the mirror.  He’d said he would be here to get her about 5:30, and it was 5:30.  She grabbed her small purse, planning to meet him out front; however, the soft knock on the door jerked a gasp from her. Surely he wouldn’t come up here!  But the knock sounded again.

Praying it was someone else but knowing it wasn’t, she checked herself once more and went to the door.  However, when she opened it, nothing upon nothing had prepared her for this.  Standing there was not Jonathon Danforth, scruffy student.  It was the man of her dreams in a black jacket and medium blue dress shirt with a tie that was only two shades darker and made out of some shiny material that just begged to be touched. The crowning touch was the soft amusement in his eyes. “Hello.”

“Jonathon,” she breathed, taking in all of him from the top down.  “Wow.”

His smile was slow but lit his eyes and face.  “Wow.  Right back at you.  You look amazing.”

She touched the back of her hair and shrank from his gaze.  It was so awkward being examined like this.  “I… um… did you get tickets?”

“I did,” and there was a secret behind his smile.

Her gaze came to his. “You’re serious?  You really did.”

“I told you I would.”

“I know, but…”

He put out his arm for her.  “Miss Elizabeth, would you do me the honor?”

Joy.  It was the only word that even came close.  “Yes.  Yes, Sir.  Gladly.”

***

Although he knew it made her nervous, Jonathon could not keep his eyes off her.  In the cab ride to the restaurant, at the restaurant where he’d pulled in another old favor he never thought he would need.  She was mesmerizing and more so because she was so mesmerized by all of it.

“So, have you lived in New York long?” he asked, curious because with her obvious educational background and tastes, it was odd how taken with everything she was.

“My whole life.”  She cut into her dinner, keeping her gaze down.  “You?”

“My whole life too.  My dad was a banker.  My mom stayed home with us.”

“So she was the referee?”  Her smile was so soft and teasing, it melted right into him.

“Something like that.”  He took a drink of the wine, wondering when the last time he’d had a really good wine was.  “She was a good woman although her health was borderline most of my life.  I don’t know that I realized that so much until I moved away.  When I came back, she was really in ill health even though she was only, what?  52 or 3?  They diagnosed her with lupus not too long after that, and she died when I was about 28.”

“I’m sorry.”

He nodded.  “It was tough.  More for Janet than for me.  She really went through a tough time after that.”

Elizabeth cut into another part of her chicken.  “What about your dad?”

Jonathon laughed a sarcastic little laugh.  “My dad and I never really got along.  He was stubborn, and I was more so.  He’s still alive.  He lives up north.  I haven’t seen him in years.”

“He didn’t come…”  The question was started before she realized what she was going to ask, and she looked at him with apology.

“To the funeral?” he asked, and she nodded.  “No.  He didn’t even come for the wedding.  Why should he come for the funeral?”

She pulled in a ragged breath.  “That’s very sad.  I’m so sorry.”

He thought about it and then shrugged.  “It’s life.  How about you?  You have any parents?”

The cutting slowed almost to non-existent.  After a moment she glanced up.  “My mom.”  The words were barely audible even though the restaurant was set on permanent hush.

Interested that she’d never mentioned her mother, he tipped his head.  “Where is she?”

Her hands ceased moving, and then she laid her knife one way and her fork the other.  Lifting her napkin, she wiped her mouth slowly and laid it to the side.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll be right back.”

“Eliza…”

But she was already up and gone.  Closing his eyes on his utter stupidity, Jonathon knew he’d stumbled across that invisible line again.  He picked up his wine and took a drink that he did not taste.  “That was good, Jonathon.  Real smooth.”

***

In the anteroom of the restroom, Elizabeth stopped and put her hands on either side of the vanity that had no clear purpose other than to hold her up.  It did not have a sink or even a mirror.  Still it was something to hold onto, and that was a blessing.  “Oh, Lord,” she breathed, running her hand over the back of her neck, “what am I doing here?  This is insane. Why did I think this was a good idea?”

She pushed up to standing and let out the breath.  He was going to think she was a total idiot.  After all, he’d taken her to the nicest restaurant she’d ever set foot in, not to mention that he looked amazing.  And here she was, running to the ladies room… why?  Because of a past that was better off buried?  It was dead.  Gone.  Fini.  There was no reason to ever go back there again.

Pulling herself upright, she lifted her chin.  She could do this.  She had to if for no other reason than to pay him back for his kindness toward her.  With purposeful, long strides she went back to the table and sat down.

“I’m very sorry about that,” she said in her best proper accent.  “I don’t know what came over me.”

He checked her with a confused look and took a sip of wine.  “Is everything… all right?”

“Yes.”  She smiled at him.  “It is.”  Her gaze chanced to his near empty plate. “So how is the prime rib?”

***

By the time they made it to the gallery, Jonathon was tilting on utter confusion.  She had snapped so thoroughly back into English teacher mode that he couldn’t quite regain his footing.  Every word out of her mouth sounded like it had come directly out of Jane Austen, and she might as well be hiding behind the nonexistent glasses for as open as she was being.  Every topic came back to something about him although he wasn’t at all sure how she did that.

All he wanted to do was find a quiet corner somewhere and ask her what was going on, but as they pulled up to the gallery, he realized that was not going to be possible tonight.

“Oh, my…” Her eyes widened on the scene outside her window.  “I had no idea…”

“Thank you.”  He paid the taxi driver, got out, and went around to help her out.  For the barest of seconds, the picture of Abby getting out flashed through his mind, but he pushed that back.  Tonight he would make new memories. “Elizabeth?” He held his hand out to her, and when she stood, the look of absolute awe covering her face reminded him of everything he so loved about her.  He offered her his arm.  “Shall we?”

The awe never left her as they proceeded up the red carpet and into the gallery.  Flashbulbs went off in their faces, but he knew these pictures would never be used.  Still he was deeply amused by her fascination.  Despite the train wreck at the restaurant, he was immensely glad they had come.

The gallery itself was much quieter and far more discreet.  Patrons milled about, talking and drinking champagne.  The formal announcement of the artist had already taken place, so they wouldn’t have to suffer through that.

“Do you want to look at the paintings?” he asked when they had stood at the entrance looking around for far too long.

Her arm tightened around his.  “Very much.”

He smiled and nodded.  “They should be this way.”

***

In all her life Elizabeth had imagined what such an evening might be like, but this was far better even than her imagination could have drummed up.  The paintings were like seeing a live person for the first time after having only heard tell of them.  They were alive with color and beauty and inspiration.  They spoke of life and of love and even of sorrow and tragedy.

Standing near one that jumped from the canvas in blues and purples and reds and fuchsias such that she never could have imagined, her wonder knew no bounds.  It was captivating.  Jonathon stood next to her, which only heightened the feeling of otherworldliness around her.

“It’s amazing,” she breathed as she took it all in and then let herself get lost in the pieces of it, each a fascinating picture unto itself.

“Jonathon!  You made it.”  A rather brash, blond-headed man stepped from the crowd and came right over to greet them.

Elizabeth tried to get her attention off the painting to the man but could hardly accomplish it.

“William,” Jonathon said, giving the man a quick hug.

“I’m so glad you could make it,” William said, and she felt his attention swing to her.  “Is this the young lady you mentioned?”

“It is.”  Jonathon put his hand at her back, and she dragged in a gasp that yanked her attention from the painting.  “William Turner, I’d like you to meet Elizabeth Forester.”

“Elizabeth.”  The man took her hand, and instead of shaking it, turned and kissed it.

She smiled at the gesture and then retreated to Jonathon’s side.  “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Turner.”

“Please, call me, William.”

“William,” she said softly.  And then Jonathon’s arm was around her, his hand touching lightly at her waist.  Her mind spun through the feelings that cascaded into her.  Oh, what it would be like to be in those arms, held there by his stability and love.

“Yes. Yes,” he said in reply to something William had said.  “I’m sure.”

When Elizabeth looked up at him, it was like seeing him for the first time.  He was in his element here, talking, connecting with others.  Her gaze slid up and then down his handsome features.  They were perfect in every way.

“And I’m sure Ms. Forester had nothing to do with this sudden coming out,” William said.

Her gaze snapped to the other man. “Oh, I’m afraid I’m just a good excuse.”  However, her gaze went back to Jonathon and held there. “I’m sure he could have had his pick of dates.”  But how glad she was he had chosen her.

His gaze swung to hers and snagged there.

“But none prettier,” William said.

“That’s for sure,” Jonathon breathed, and his gaze didn’t move from hers for the longest moment of her life.

“Well,” William said, and when Jonathon’s gaze let her go, she almost collapsed from the trance, “it was very nice to meet you, Ms. Forester.”

“You as well, Mr. Turner.  Uh, William.”

He disappeared back into the crowd.

“He’s very nice,” she said, moving away from Jonathon slightly and retreating into details because she couldn’t let herself think about anything else.

“He was Abby’s manager.”

“Oh.”  That whacked into her as suddenly she realized the connection between him and this world.  It took all words right away from her.

“So, what do you think of this one?” he asked, and when his hand came around hers to guide her to the painting hanging across the wide walkway, everything about everything in her slammed to a stop.

She fought to get her brain to work.  The warmth of his hand touched every part of her cold, fragile spirit, and thinking ceased to exist. When he let her hand go to put it on her back, that was no better.  Where had the air gone?  She fought to find air and words. “Um, it… It’s called ‘Spring Day.’  I saw it once in a magazine.”

They had meandered from painting to painting the whole evening.  Elizabeth would tell him her impressions of them, and he listened as if it made a difference to him what she thought.  It truly was one of the most amazing nights of her entire life.  Then just before the magical coach was sure to turn back into a pumpkin, she glanced up to the steps to the side of the gallery where a knot of people stood.  She gasped, never really realizing the artist himself would be here.  Of course he was, but she hadn’t realized she might actually see him—even from across the room.

“What?” Jonathon asked, letting his gaze go from her eyes and up to her hair as he so often did.

She angled herself so that he was between her and the artist.  “Don’t look now, but I think that is Ralph Undlio.”

Jonathon started to turn, but she jerked him back with a soft shriek.

“I said, ‘Don’t look.’”

He laughed at her.  “Okay, I’m going to turn around really slowly so he won’t think I’m looking at all.”  He did as he proposed, and with a tilt of his head, he nodded.  “Very artistry.”  His gaze came back to hers.  “Do you want to meet him?”

“What?” Wide-eyed, she stared at him.  “What?  No.  No, I don’t want to meet him.”

The soft, playful smile came to his lips.  “You do too.  You are a liar.”

She could hardly breathe.  “Okay. I’m a liar, but he doesn’t want to meet me.”

“Sure he does.  You love his paintings.  Artists love that kind of thing.” And then his hand was around hers again.

“What?  No.  Jonathon…”

But he was practically dragging her through the gallery.  “It’s okay,” he said, ducking back to her, “just tell him which one you like best and why.  Artists love that.”

“But… I…”  This was seriously not happening.  It could not be happening.  And yet, it was.

“Um, excuse me,” Jonathon said when they’d gone up the step where Ralph Undlio stood.  “I have a young lady here who just thinks you are amazing.  Isn’t that right, Elizabeth?”

He turned to her with eyes that challenged her to get a grip and say something intelligent.  That was a tall order.

“Oh, y-yes,” she managed to get out.  “Yes.  I really love ‘Spring Day.’  I believe it’s my favorite although ‘Whispers’ is amazing as well. It’s one I’d never seen before this evening.”

“So you’re familiar with my work?” Ralph asked, turning from the others to focus solely on her.  He was medium height with long curly hair that hung nearly to his shoulders.

“Yes.  I… have admired it in many magazines, but this is my first time to see it in person.  It really is brilliant.  The pictures do not do it justice.”

***

As she talked with Ralph the artist who Jonathon was only mildly impressed with, he was glad he’d dragged her over here.  She looked like she was meeting the king, and the look on her face was priceless.  Yes, it was worth it all just to see her like this.

“Thank you,” she said, “for sharing your talent with us.  I feel very honored to be here.”

“Thank you for sharing your love of my work. I am honored that you came.”

“You’re welcome.”  She nodded to him, and Jonathon shook his hand.  Together, they walked back into the gallery.  Three steps and she looked back. “Oh, my gosh. I do not believe I just did that.”

“Why?” He was enthralled with her fascination.  “He’s just a guy.”

“No, he’s not.  He’s like a famous artist, and I just met him.”  She exhaled.  “This is the best night of my life.”

It was the best thing he’d heard in forever.

***

Back at her apartment, Jonathon knew both that the night was over and that she had no intention of letting him come in.  The truth was the neighborhood made him afraid for her.  Why she would want to live here when she could well afford something much better made no sense.  Still, he didn’t want to destroy the evening by bringing it up.  Maybe sometime but not tonight.

“Thank you,” he said sincerely as they stood at her door, her leaning against the grimy grayish wall behind her.  “I had a wonderful time.”

“No, thank you.”  Her words were soft, and in the dim light so was she.  Softly she laughed. “I can’t believe tonight was even real.  It was so wonderful.”

He smiled at her. “I’m glad.”  Wanting to kiss her so badly it hurt, he cupped his hand around her neck and leaned forward, but he kissed her forehead instead.  Even that was enough to nearly send him over the edge.  His gaze slid back down to her beautiful face.  “Take care of yourself.”

She nodded but said nothing.

“I’d better let you go,” he said after a full moment had passed.  “I don’t want to get into trouble keeping you out too late.”

When her gaze came up to his, there was a novel-worth of words written there, but he didn’t trust himself to even start reading.  “I’ll see you on Tuesday?”

With still not a word, she nodded before peeling her gaze from him and turning for her door.  Only when she was safely inside did he turn and head out.

***

On the other side of the door, Elizabeth let out the breath she’d been holding for an hour.  She was sure he would kiss her tonight, not like he had, but a real kiss.  Her thoughts spun around and through the night, and she closed her eyes to remember every moment.  Even without the kiss, it was a night she would never forget.

***

By Tuesday at noon-thirty, Elizabeth was a bundle of nerves.  With her hair back up and her brown dress and glasses on, she wondered how she had ever made this work.  How had she ever been anything but anxiously apprehensive in front of this class? Nerves attacked her.  What if she made a complete fool of herself today?  What if he didn’t show up?  What if he did and she said something or did something that let the whole class know her feelings toward him?

He was still a student after all.  Or he had been until he escorted her through the most incredible night of her life and then put his hand on her neck and leaned in…  She let out a breath as she sat at the desk, letting her mind go through the memories.  How was she ever going to act normal around him again?  She closed her eyes on the knowledge that she would never be able to accomplish something so impossible.  “Dear Lord, please.  You know why I have to maintain my distance and composure with him—especially in class.  Please, take these feelings away so that I don’t do something to make a complete fool of myself.”

The door in the back snapped open, and she jumped a foot.  It wasn’t Jonathon.  It was Adam.  Pushing away from her desk, determined to act as natural as possible, she stood and went around the desk to greet Adam.  “Good afternoon, Mr. Reynolds.  How was your Spring Break?”

Copyright Staci Stallings 2008

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About Staci Stallings

Staci Stallings shares her heart for God with her novels, articles, and conversations. She loves making new friends, writing, and playing piano and guitar.
This entry was posted in If You Believed In Love and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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