Jonathon had to walk twice around the square to keep from showing up before 12:30. He knew that would be too obvious, and for her sake, he didn’t want to be obvious. At least any more obvious than he already was, which was probably too obvious now that he thought about it. That kiss in her hallway was too close, and he was determined that he would let her fall in love with him before he made any real moves. True, that might in fact kill him at this rate, but he’d made the promise, and he wasn’t going back on it.
“Really?” she asked just as he got to the door, and he couldn’t at all figure out why she would be standing by the doors. “When is it?”
Jonathon opened the door farther and slipped in, realizing she was at the back talking with Mr. Thomason. Funny, Jonathon didn’t even know the kid’s first name. Taking care not to distract her, he crossed behind her and went down to his seat. He considered going all the way to the front but decided against it. Instead he slipped into his seat in the third row and pulled out Persuasion and his notebook. He’d only read the first five chapters. It was a real challenge now to read anything that reminded him so much of her.
He wondered if there was a video to this one and then if she had all six of them. Knowing her, probably. He smiled at the thought as his attention caught on her stepping down the stairs, and he ducked instantly. He knew it was her although he wasn’t entirely sure how. Lifting his gaze, he saw her back. She was in the brown dress that fit her lithe frame so nicely. His thoughts slid back to Friday night with her in the white sweater and then back to the blue oversized one of earlier that day.
Shaking his head, he fought to get all the memories of her away from him. If he didn’t, he would surely sound like an idiot if she called on him.
“Good afternoon, everyone,” she said, sounding decidedly like she had that first day. It was strange how different she could be one minute to the next. “I have graded your mid-terms.” She strode to the center and handed them to Adam. “Please find yours and pass the others along.”
Back at the front she retrieved her copy of the new book, a ragged, dog-eared mass of pages that could hardly be called a book. “I hope some of you started reading over the break.” She continued, but the stack had gotten to Jonathon, and he sorted through to find his.
Wishing he could pay attention to both so he didn’t miss anything, he found his and passed the stack on.
“Persuasion is often considered Austen’s…”
As he flipped through the essay book with no real expectation that there would be much of anything, his attention swerved to the extensive scripted note at the end of his paper. Letting his whole attention fall to it, he couldn’t help but think how perfectly her handwriting fit her. It was fine in line and executed with great care. It looked almost exactly as Elizabeth had been pictured writing to her sister in the movie. He let everything else go to read her thoughts on his writing.
Jonathon, I wish there were words to express what I’m feeling upon reading your essays. They have at once given me a glimpse into your soul and asked me to open mine. I am not one to feel the appropriateness or the necessity of opening the doors and windows to myself, but your writing challenges me to do just that. Your life experiences give a depth and breadth to your understanding of life and love that very few ever explain in such a way that reveals their truest nature and substance.
I’m sorry. Words. Words. Words—and such ineffective words at that. I truly wish I could say all of this in a way that would explain how I feel about it. The words, instead, seem to wrap around one another even in my mind so that I know what I feel, but I do not know how to even begin to express it. Suffice it to say, you have captured my heart in ways I cannot explain or even understand. Please know this even when I cannot say it.
He read it again and then over again, knowing exactly how she felt because he felt the same way.
Why wouldn’t he put that essay booklet down? He was reading her words. Words she now wished she could take back. How much had she said? How much should she not have said? It was like opening her shields and laying bare her heart, and she was quite sure he would, for wont of that’s what always happened in real life, slice it to ribbons. She studiously kept her gaze from him as she talked nonsense about a book she had long since memorized but now felt she had never even read. Who cared about the book? All she cared about was if he thought she was impetuous and rash for laying out her feelings so freely.
And then, for one brief second, her gaze chanced to him, and he looked up. Caught in the depths of his gentle brown eyes, she asked the question, and he answered. Her smile flickered to life dissipating all the doubt. Then she remembered where she was, dropped her gaze, and continued with the lecture.
It was a moment encapsulated between “is this real?” and “yes, it is.” Jonathon let his gaze fall from hers to let himself feel it all the way through. Somehow they had traversed the landscape from mere acquaintances to genuine friendship and were now headed in a decidedly more wonderful direction. He thought through all of that and the possibilities for after class—the library, walking, coffee. And then he realized he didn’t care at all. Whatever they did, he could be with her again, this time knowing that the attraction was no longer one-sided nor unreturned. He couldn’t wait.
When class broke, Jonathon stayed in his seat until the mass of students had passed the third row. He collected his things slowly and stood. Nerves he’d never really felt before crashed into the middle of him. On the floor, he took the five steps to her desk where she was already putting her own things away.
“Good afternoon,” he said, leaning in.
“Hi.” Her smile was shy and hopeful. “Did you recover from Friday?”
“Thankfully yes. Did you?”
“Barely.” She pulled her satchel off the desk. “I still can’t believe that was actually real.”
“Well,” he said, turning with her, “it was either real, or we were both in the same dream.” He grinned at her. When she had gathered her things, up the steps they went and outside. He had to say it. He had to because it was right there. “Thanks for what you put on my paper.” Even as her gaze snapped to him, he barely glanced at her. Doing any more might give him wholly away. “I never really know if that stuff is going to make sense to anybody but me.”
“But it’s so beautiful,” she protested.
“That’s probably going a little overboard, but I appreciate it.” Next to her, he walked, wondering just how much of what he was feeling he could tell her. “I used to do that some, but I always felt like such a fraud.”
She looked at him with concern. “How so?”
Shrugging, he let his gaze travel up the sidewalk. “It just isn’t me.”
“Or maybe it is and you’re afraid to trust that.”
How she did that—getting all the way down to the middle of him and yanking the truth right up—he could never really tell. He walked beside her slowly wanting this journey to never end. “So, do you have plans for this evening?”
“Well, I was going to go to the library for awhile, but Mr. Thomason asked me if I would like to go to his senior recital later.”
“As his date?” The concern was real until he realized how dumb that sounded on so many levels.
She laughed. “No, not as his date. Just to listen. Apparently he’s afraid there won’t be that many people show up.”
“So you’re going to go?”
“I’d hate for no one to be there.”
“Well,” he said slowly, “if we both went, then there would be one less nobody there.”
Her smile was answer enough. “You’re going to get tired of this.”
“What?” he asked, yanking the library door open for her.
He smiled. “Not likely.”
They had sat on opposite sides of the table in the library, him reading, her grading Freshman Comp papers until nearly four. The concert started at seven, and although he offered to come pick her up, Elizabeth thought it smarter to just meet him there. However, when she got to the concert hall, she wished she hadn’t been so quick to say no. She looked into the large auditorium, searching for him, to no avail.
Not sure what to do, she went to the little padded bench by the windows. Trying not to worry and assuring herself he would be there, she watched the people coming in and out of the hall. Most were students. Many in very formal dress. It struck her that she hadn’t been out of her apartment for something like this in forever, and now it had happened twice in a week. Thanks to one person.
“Well, well, look who I found,” he said, suddenly standing right next to her.
She should’ve hidden her happiness a little better, but that was impossible. Standing, she breathed in how he looked. She really liked that he could look so completely in place in the formal crowd or just sipping coffee in an out-of-the-way place. “You made it.”
He tilted his head to take all of her in. “I said I would.”
“They’ll be starting in just a few minutes. Are you ready to go in?”
“Lead the way.”
In the blue dress with the little white lines, Elizabeth was decidedly less formal than the event seemed to call for; however, it was vintage Elizabeth. They found seats, and he leaned over to her. “I don’t think Mr. Thomason had to worry about having no one here.”
Looking around, she had to agree. “Yeah, but I’m glad we came.”
Like he was going to argue with that.
The concert consisted of Mr. Thomason on tuba and a piano player. Elizabeth regretted asking Jonathon when she figured that out, but this was no boring bass part tuba. It was a stirring melodious hour. She was so taken in by the music that she hardly noticed that much time had passed. At the end she clapped and then stood and clapped with the rest of the gathering. Three bows and Mr. Thomason exited the stage.
“Wow,” Jonathon said, “I never knew a tuba could sound like that.”
They didn’t exit immediately. Instead they took their meandering time getting all the way out into the lobby.
“I’d like to stay and at least tell Mr. Thomason hello,” she said when they stepped into the brighter lights.
“Okay.” Jonathon stayed close to her even as she went over to one side to wait. Time folded in on itself and the waiting turned even longer. Neither of them really said much, more stood and watched the people stream out. “Are you sure he’s going to…”
Commotion at the far side of the lobby pulled both their gazes that direction.
“I think that’s him,” she said, and without question, he followed her that way. When they got close, Elizabeth hung back waiting for the others he was conversing with to drift off. It was several minutes before there was an opening. “Do you want to come?” She looked up at Jonathon uncertainly.
Together they stepped through the thinning crowd and over to the young man in the tuxedo with the shy smile.
“Mr. Thomason.” Elizabeth put out her hand. “That was beautifully done.”
He took one look at her and put his arms around her. “Thank you so much for coming.” Letting go, he held her out from him and his grin shone bright. “That was… wow.”
“Wow indeed,” she said.
His gaze traveled behind her to Jonathon.
“Mr. Danforth?” the young man said, putting his hand out. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“That was some mighty terrific playing. I had no idea.”
The young man shook his hand and let out a long breath. “I was so nervous. I thought I was going to pass out.”
“You did very well.”
“Thank you.” His gaze swept from Jonathon to her and back again. “And thank you both for coming.”
Someone else stepped up to offer him congratulations, and they took their cue to step away.
“I think he was glad to see you,” Jonathon said, leaning in.
She shrugged. “I’m glad I came, but I don’t think he would’ve noticed if I hadn’t.”
Jonathon opened the door for her. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Your students really think a lot of you.”
“I really think a lot of them.” Angling her gaze up to him, she let the gratefulness find her heart. “Thank you for coming with me. I always find ways to talk myself out of going to things like that—even though I know I should.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“I don’t know. I just always feel so out-of-place and inept when I go to things like this. It’s nice to have someone to hold onto.”
They were nearing the edge of campus. Time to make a decision. She hated that.
“Well, any time you need someone to hold onto,” Jonathon said with a mischievous glint in his eyes, “you now know where to find me.”
In truth, she liked that knowledge. He lifted his hand to summon a cab, and one pulled up almost immediately.
“Now,” he said, turning to her, “you take care of yourself. Okay?” His fingers played with the wisps of hair at her temple. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, and I’ll see you on Thursday.”
Why did that have to sound so very far away? She gazed up at him, liking everything about him and wishing he wasn’t standing there telling her good-bye again. “Thank you, Jonathon.”
His smile was soft. “No, thank you.” A moment more and he stepped to the curb to open the cab door.
As she slipped inside, her resolve that this was anything other than what she wanted it to be crumbled slowly at her feet.
He leaned down and winked at her. “Be good.” And then he shut the door, and she exhaled hard and slow.
Propriety and respectability were starting to make less and less sense with each passing second.
“Please take out a sheet of paper,” Elizabeth said on Thursday. She had opted to let her hair down in a loose braid that slid down her shoulder, and like it her whole being felt at once together and yet not. He was there, as always, in the third row, and every time she looked at him, heat flowed up her shoulders, into her neck, creeping onto her face.
Not looking at him didn’t help because no matter what she did, he was right there with her. At the board she wrote the quiz question. “Captain Wentworth and Anne obviously have a past together. Why might he choose to ignore Anne while encouraging Louisa’s advances?” She laid the chalk down. “Now as usual, this does not count against you. It is extra credit only. If you haven’t read the selection, simply note that at the top of the paper.”
With that, she let them get to work.
Wentworth was in all aspects annoying Jonathon. The captain liked Anne. It was plain for anyone and everyone to see, and yet, there were glimpses of this at best. In fact, had Jonathon had the chance, he would gladly have knocked the pompous navy man off his high horse. Knowing it was always best with anything he wrote in this class to go with his gut, he did so with relish.
After class, they walked to the library together. It seemed not even a question that they would. The conversation was light, mostly about the spring weather and how very different it was from New York winters. At the library, Jonathon followed her to the table, and Elizabeth didn’t so much as notice, assuming with every step that he would. When they were seated, he pulled out his book, and she got out her work.
“Um, you might want to get a fire extinguisher out for mine,” Jonathon said, nodding at the papers.
“A fire extinguisher? Why?”
He quirked his mouth into an apologetic smile. “I kind of let Captain Wentworth have it.”
That got her attention. “Why?”
Jonathon shook his head and leaned forward. “He’s just such a jerk to Anne. I mean, what’s that about? That drives me crazy about these books. He likes her. She likes him. All this dancing around and pretending and everything. It’s such a waste of time.”
“But he thinks she let go, that she doesn’t care anymore.” It took next to nothing for her to jump into the ring to defend her friends—the characters in the book. “What’s he supposed to do? Say, ‘I don’t care if you don’t care about me anymore, I’m in love with you. Run away with me’?”
He scowled. “But she does love him. That’s just it. She’s still in love with him. She never stopped.”
“But he doesn’t know that. We know that because we see her and what she’s really thinking, but he doesn’t. He sees this woman who will hardly look at him…”
“Because she’s afraid he will see everything if she does. He’s already hurt her once, she doesn’t want him to do it again.”
Elizabeth lowered her gaze at him in despondency. “Same for him.”
“I guess, but at some point, you have to be willing to put your cards on the table and stop playing games. This whole Louisa thing… it’s such a farce. He doesn’t love her. She’s just a silly little girl to him. Besides I don’t think guys fall for that silliness anyway.”
“They don’t?” Elizabeth backed up at that one. “Yeah, right. It’s like flies to honey.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is. Guys take one look at silly, empty-headed girls and fall madly in love with them.”
“I don’t think so. Okay, maybe at first,” he conceded, “but not for real, not forever. Give me someone challenging and smart any day. That’s what I’m looking for.”
She wasn’t convinced. “Then why do guys completely overlook the girl who likes books to go for the cheerleader types? And don’t tell me they don’t because they do.”
He let out a breath. “Well, the cheerleader types may get our attention, and they’re okay too as long as they aren’t outright dumb, but that body thing only goes so far, and then she’d better have move going for her than a nice set of pompoms.”
Elizabeth considered this and shook her head. “Maybe, but I still think more often than not we’re trying not to get hurt like Captain Wentworth, and we end up hurting the other person and ourselves. Austen knew that, and that’s what she wrote about.”
“Yeah, or maybe we’re twisted into knots like Anne, and in trying not to hurt the other person, we end up hurting ourselves.” His gaze brushed hers, and she read so much there. He smiled softly as he picked up his book. “Just thought I’d warn you about that essay.”
She felt like a bomb had gone off right in front of her. Blinking, she looked down and because she so wanted to read it, she sorted through them carefully and pulled his paper out of the stack.
Captain Wentworth would do well to dig his swelled head out of the sand of his pride and arrogance and own up to the fact that he’s still madly in love with Anne. Why that is so beyond him is beyond me. I believe he chooses not to because he has a colossal chip on his shoulder due to his mistaken conclusion that Anne has fallen out of love with him. The wounding of his pride, to his mind, provides him ample justification in hurting her like he presumes she has hurt him. This cycle devolves all the way to him encouraging the affections of a silly, dim-witted child because in his mind that accomplishes two things: the building up of his wounded ego and inflicting the maximum amount of pain on the woman he supposedly loved at one point. However, I hardly consider that love. It is more the fanatical, overbearing, self-important delusion of a man who thinks himself educated and worldly when he is really nothing more than a childish, immature fool.
Elizabeth couldn’t keep from laughing. He wasn’t kidding about the fire extinguisher.
“I told you.”
She held up her finger to silence him and went back to reading.
Louisa is not to be blamed for her behavior because she is after all no more than a child and a child cannot be condemned for childish behavior. However, Captain Wentworth is no child. He has commanded ships of men, and yet in this matter he shows he is not worthy of the moniker “man.” Instead, he runs from his feelings, preferring to watch with pain and jealousy the advances of other men toward Anne. For her part, Anne does very little to assure him that she is still in love with him, but from his first entrance back into her life, he makes it very clear he has no feelings for her anymore if he ever did at all. Because he shows her almost not even the civility he would otherwise show a stranger, she has no choice but to retreat into her world and bear the wounds of his rebuffs and rejection. To avail herself of her true feelings toward him in the face of his obnoxious, selfish behavior toward her would surely be the height of senselessness on her part and would lead only to her being further crushed under his obvious and unfailing callousness.
Unfortunately I believe too many men fall into the same trap. We, Captain Wentworths, get our feelings hurt or our pride wounded, and we retreat into hurt-first-ask-questions-later mode. However, far from it being unmanly to express an interest in a woman so worthy as Anne, it would take true manly courage and honor to simply stop playing games and do whatever it took to sweep her off her feet (with all due diligence to those who think that a quaint and out-dated undertaking). That would ultimately be the manly thing to do. Anything less is juvenile and stupid. Had Wentworth put his pride aside and from the very first moment back in Anne’s presence availed himself of putting her needs and feelings above his own, he would not be in the tumultuous situation he now finds himself. All he had to do was treat her with some kindness, and her true feelings would have been revealed. Instead, it was his pettiness and spite that trapped him here, and thus, he has no one other than himself to blame for the miserable situation he is now in.
“Wow.” Elizabeth sat back, and Jonathon looked up. “No one could accuse you of not having an opinion.”
He shrugged. “He deserved it.”
Thinking through it again, she sat forward. “So you think she would’ve fallen into his arms if he had been nice to her?”
“It couldn’t have hurt. Hello. Why would I want to be around someone who acted like I wasn’t even in the room? Like I was an afterthought if that? Personally, I think Anne was way too nice to him. I’d have busted him in the chops.”
“But you don’t think we do that—hold back and wait for the other to make a move?”
“Maybe, but every move he made screamed that he was no longer in love with her. What was she supposed to think?”
True, Elizabeth would have argued his point for him had he come down so harshly on Anne, but she hadn’t expected this much emotional criticizing of a character in some book he hardly even wanted to read. “So, what about it then? He should just go tell her he’s in love with her? That didn’t work so well with Darcy in the middle of Pride.”
“Yes, but Darcy had some excuse. He was naturally not a people person. Besides he at least smiled at Elizabeth in the book. Good grief, Wentworth acts like he has no use for Anne, but he’s civil and gracious to everyone else. At least Darcy was an idiot to everybody.”
“And that’s better?”
“Well, yeah, in some ways. It wasn’t that he was mean to Elizabeth, singling her out for that treatment. He really tried. I mean he went over there… Okay, he didn’t know what to say once he got there, but at least he made the attempt. Wentworth is more…” Jonathon sat up straight and put a scowl on his face. “You may come and speak to me, and if I so decide I may deign to speak with you.” He relaxed. “That’s just wrong.”
“Maybe he’s scared of how deeply he still cares for her,” Elizabeth offered. “It’s scary when you care, and you’re not sure what the other person’s thinking.”
“Of course it is. That’s life, but at some point you have to make the choice to do it anyway. I’m telling you, if he doesn’t get it together, he’s going to lose her forever—and I’m not sure she wouldn’t be at all better off without him.”
Elizabeth considered this and then tipped her head to the side. “So, what if the roles were reversed? What if it was Anne who was cold, and she was throwing some rich young man in Wentworth’s face to show him what he’d lost?”
“It happens, but the thing that gets me is that Wentworth is not a kid. He’s a man’s man, and yet here he acts like a spoiled brat who didn’t get what he wanted so he’s going to punish her for rejecting him, which she didn’t even really do in the first place.”
Elizabeth surveyed him for a very long moment and then smiled.
“What?” The question was more petulant than inquisitive.
“You.” She leaned forward. “Who would’ve thought you’d be sitting here discussing some characters in a book like they were real people?”
He fingered his book as his gaze fell there. “You know, it’s weird, but sometimes I really feel like they are real. I mean when you read… when I read, half the time I’m sitting there going, ‘No, you idiot! Don’t go off with Louisa. What are you thinking? Can’t you see Anne is right there?’ I can’t explain that exactly. I mean I’ve never really read things like that or like this. I used to read a lot on the planes when I’d go to Europe, but if I ever read novels, it might be a good story, but I didn’t really care about the characters like they were real.”
“So what’s different now?”
He scratched the side of his head. “Well, I don’t think it can all be attributed to Austen. I mean I really like the characters but sometimes she really glosses over scenes I would like to see. Maybe that’s it. I’m not just reading this. I’m like in the story. I want to see it all, to experience it all with them.”
It took him a long time to answer and before he did, he picked his gaze up to hers. “Promise not to laugh?”
“I think I’m more looking for things now than I used to. I mean, I don’t just read it and go, ‘Done. Next.’ As I’m reading, I keep asking myself, ‘Who is this like that I know?’ ‘When have I been like Anne or Louisa… or even Wentworth, not being able to tell someone how I feel?’ It’s different when you’re collecting pieces for your room rather than just reading some random story that has no connection to you whatsoever.”
Elizabeth nodded. “And have you learned anything in the reading about yourself or your life?”
“That being an egotistical idiot doesn’t get you very far, and a lot of times it hurts the very people you supposedly love.” His gaze fell to the book. “I did that for a lot of years. I was Captain Wentworth, out in the world, making a name for myself. When I met Abby, I pretty much swept her off her feet, but I think now I used too many things and not enough me. Although the thought of using me to sweep anyone off their feet is a little… implausible.”
He looked at her, and then he blinked several times as his gaze fell. “How I was… how I used to be was impressive but it wasn’t very pleasant. I could be a real jerk when I wanted to be.” Tilting his head to the side, he watched his fingers fan through the pages of the little book. “Abby helped change that some, but when she left, I was caught between the person I thought I was and realizing how empty that life and the way I was living was. Problem was, I had no idea how to be who I had been with Abby when she wasn’t there, so I pretty much gave up on it all. I couldn’t be me, and I couldn’t be not me, so I guess I figured I’d just be nobody at all.”
Her heart went out to him for the soft reflection in his voice. This wasn’t someone trying to impress her or con her. This was him, the man who walked that lonely windswept beach in his mind.
“I think the class has helped.”
He glanced up. “Well, it’s made me look at characters who were charming on the outside but conartists or jerks on the inside. Some who were struggling just like I have; some who were angry like I was; and some who finally got it right even though they had taken every imaginably wrong path to get there. I guess in a way it gives me hope that maybe there’s still a chance for me to get it right.”
Elizabeth sat for a moment and then adjusted her glasses. “Then I think the class has accomplished what it was designed to do.”
His gaze held hers in its warm embrace. “I think so.”
The blunt assessment of the class and the characters stayed with her the whole weekend, playing through her mind, daring her to not hear what he was telling her. On Sunday night, she told herself it was because they would begin reading Pride & Prejudice in the next couple of weeks as she took out her DVD and popped it in the player. Darcy was just mean to everybody. Jonathon’s words went through her again.
She could see what he meant of course. It was more than obvious how anti-social Darcy was—at least at first, but if one really knew him like she did, it was far less anti-social and far more a distrust of people in general, which she understood. As she watched his fascination with Elizabeth grow into something even he could not deny, she sighed and allowed that he’d had no real defense against the strong-willed, affable beauty of Elizabeth who was so his opposite on the surface and so his match underneath.
He needed her to drag him out of his miserable shell. In her he found safety to be himself. Ever since her second reading of the book when she was only fourteen, Elizabeth had wanted to find someone like Darcy. A man, ultimately kind though at first shy, but who in the end loved her so much that he was willing to put himself aside to make her happy. As she curled her knees up to her on her small couch, her mind went from Darcy who had walked her thoughts nearly every second of her life since entering it to Jonathon who had in large part taken over for her earlier fascination.
Jonathon in many ways was much like Darcy—slightly mysterious at first, well acquainted with the ways of the world, and ultimately intelligent, loyal, and kind. She struck upon that word. He had been kind, so very kind in the last couple of weeks. In fact, she had come to count on his friendship and kindness in ways she never would have imagined she would count on anyone. He was rock-solid in his approach to being with her, there but not pushy. Her mind slid over the times in the book that Darcy had come through for Elizabeth.
And then she thought with more clarity than was good for her heart how many times Jonathon had come through for her. Okay, it wasn’t paying a king’s ransom to get her younger sister out of shame or repairing the feelings of her older sister by convincing a suitor to marry her. Instead, it was more subtle but just as touching. He had given her the opportunity and the courage to step out and do things she thought impossible on her own—going to the gallery and to the concert and even to the coffee shop. He talked to her like a real person and seemed to even enjoy her company.
Truth be known, he had battled even her own overwhelming fears just to get close to her. In one way that was comforting. In another it made her shiver. At some point, his attention and affections would have to meet an untimely and quite possibly painful end. There was no other likely outcome.
Like a dragon come to consume her happiness, detailed moments of her past reared up, and she blinked them back, focusing only on Darcy on the television. He was safe as no man who had actually walked the earth could ever be. She had retreated in her mind and heart so often into his arms that she barely questioned it now. However, as she turned up the sound, she had to close her eyes to get the memories to stop. Cold, she pulled the old blanket around her and lay down on the couch. It would be a long night to add to the many others she’d spent at the hands of images and memories she could never outrun nor delete. They were part of her in ways that things like trust and peace had never been, and she suspected they always would be.
Monday morning Elizabeth was six inches deep in Freshman Comp papers and lesson plans when there was movement at her door. Absurdly she had hoped it would be Jonathon though there was really no reason for him to visit. Instead, the head of the department, Dr. Marsh stood in the doorway. Instantly Elizabeth stood to greet him. “Dr. Marsh? This is an unexpected surprise. Please come in.”
The older gentleman with the soft manner and bright sparkling blue eyes stepped into the little room. “I’m sorry to disturb you, Dr. Forester.”
“No. No. That’s quite all right, Sir. Please, have a seat.” She didn’t sit until he did, and even then she felt very unsettled by the meaning of his visit. Not only was it unscheduled, which was highly unusual for Dr. Marsh, but it was also the first time he had actually been in her office. Had she known he was coming, she certainly would have straightened up a bit.
This now old man had as storied a history in these halls as did her mentor Dr. Avery. In fact, Dr. Marsh had been best friends with Dr. Avery for many years even prior to her coming to New York Central. And during her time as a student, the two of them had conspired on many occasions to come up with odds and ends at their respective houses for her to do to earn enough money to continue her studies, for which she had always been grateful. She still recalled with piercing clarity the eulogy Dr. Marsh had offered for Dr. Avery as well as the kind words he had shared with her afterward.
He had acknowledged at that time that Dr. Avery had always thought of her highly, and he would be pleased to fill the void left by his friend. She had kept to herself that she knew no one could do so.
“To what do I owe the privilege of this visit?” she asked, folding her hands on the desk atop the scattered books.
“First of all, I want you to know I’ve been hearing very good things about you. The retention rate for students in your classes is the highest among the faculty, and we have had at least three requests this past week for students to change into English majors, all owing directly to your classes.”
That knocked her backward. “My classes?”
He nodded. “That is what they told the counselor who relayed the information to me.”
“Oh, well. I’m sure they were inclined to make that decision without me.”
“Modest as always.” His smile was reserved yet warm. He pulled forward on his elbows before continuing. “I’m quite sure you remember the nomination forms that were distributed to the faculty and staff in March pertaining to whom the department should select as Teacher of the Year.”
“Oh, yes, sir. I wholeheartedly nominated Dr. Rosen. She helped me so much when I was doing my dissertation. I would never have made it without her.”
“Yes.” Dr. Marsh pulled forward again. “Well, Dr. Rosen is a fine teacher, and I’m sure she would be most grateful to hear the accolades. However, there was one name that was selected more than all the others, and that is why I’m here.”
“Oh?” She tilted her head inquisitively because what he was only hinting at didn’t quite connect.
“Yes, Dr. Forester. Now, I would normally make this announcement only at the Faculty Dinner on the 14th, but knowing you the way I do, I felt it prudent to make a smaller declaration now.”
Narrowing her eyebrows, she shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
“Elizabeth,” he said slowly, “I have known you for a very long time almost from your first steps on this campus. I have watched you grow from a bright, albeit timid student into a fine teacher this school is lucky to have.”
Her heart sped up for no reason she could really explain.
“You have not only excelled in the classroom, but your articles and papers have drawn praise from many of those at much larger universities. In fact,” he said, leaning forward, “I happen to know of three offers by our larger counterparts that you have unceremoniously turned down.”
She let her gaze fall on the unsolicited compliments. To her, the writing was a gift, a privilege she dearly treasured as was the teaching. That she could even be considered to be in the company of the other writers of the journals was more acclaim than she could fully accept. She picked her gaze up to his and smiled brightly. “I love it here at Central. I wouldn’t move for all the money they could give me.”
He nodded with understanding in his eyes.
“I feel very fortunate,” she continued, wanting to fully explain in case he had any questions as to why she stayed, “that Dr. Avery and this institution took me in when it was surely much more prudent not to. I have no plans to ever leave unless they throw me out or carry me out.”
Again he nodded. “I’m glad to hear it, glad to hear it. In fact, that makes my getting to deliver this news even more of a privilege.” He leveled his gaze at her. “I know you to be a humble, generous teacher who delights in her students and brings out the best in them while demanding nothing short of excellence. I also know you to be the most frustratingly difficult person to get to a banquet or a party. In all the time I’ve known you, I believe you have been to no more than two faculty parties, both of which I believe you found a reason to leave from early.”
She smiled as she leaned back in her chair. “I much prefer my books to parties and festivities.”
“Yes. Yes. I know. And that is why, I have come this morning to tell you that on the 14th of April at 7 p.m., I will be giving the award for New York Central English Teacher of the Year to Dr. Elizabeth Forester.”
There was one single blink before her whole face fell into a frown. Slowly she sat forward. “Teacher of the Year? What? No. Me? Why?”
His laugh was soft. “I thought we had already elaborated on the list as to why.”
“Yes, but.” A moment of thought and she stood and walked over to the little windowsill where she turned, leaned against it, and folded her arms. “I’m… I’ve only been teaching three years on the Doctorate level. Dr. Rosen’s been here like 20.”
“And Dr. Rosen has received this honor at least twice in those years.”
“Yes, but, I’m not…” Her mind spun away from her. She lifted her glasses and tried to comprehend what he was telling her. “This… No, Dr. Marsh. This is not… necessary. I mean I teach because I love it, not to win some award.”
“And thus you win the award.” He stood and walked over to where she stood. “Elizabeth, if you could read the evaluations we get about you every year from the students… In fact, if Dr. Avery would’ve had his way, you would have gotten this your second year of graduate teaching. Of course, we might have had a difficult time explaining that to the administration, but David pushed for it something fierce.” Dr. Marsh smiled. “He always knew you were something special.”
“Yes, but…. This?” She searched the old man’s eyes. “Are you sure?”
“I have counted the votes twice, and I can surely count them again if you want me to, but you have to know this was only a matter of time.” Reaching out he put his hands on her arms to gain her full attention. “Now, I suggest you go out and get something other than this cotton dress and these stylish black boots that you’re always wearing.” He looked up at the stark hairstyle. “And get your hair done for real, do it up right, Elizabeth. No one deserves this more than you do. And don’t—” He looked right at her. “—find an excuse to miss this as you normally do. You understand me?”
She could hardly find the words. “Uh, yes, Sir. Okay.” But nothing was really making much sense.
“Good.” Pushing away, he started for the door. “Oh, and Elizabeth, it would be all right for you to show up with a date also, if you have someone none of us knows about.” Softly he smiled at her. “Just don’t find a reason not to grace us with your presence. All right?”
“Did you have a good weekend?” Jonathon asked, standing by her desk after Tuesday’s class.
“I guess.” Her heart slid through her chest as it had all afternoon with him sitting there. The news still had her in shock’s grip, and to this minute she had no idea what to do with it. “You?”
“Good enough. I went over to Janet’s. What’d you do? Any big exciting gallery openings?”
Her smile was barely there. “No. I pretty much just stayed home and graded papers.”
Tilting his head, he chuckled. “You lead the most extraordinarily fascinating life. You know that?”
She wanted to smile at him, but it came out as a sigh. “I try.” Heading out, she didn’t really wait for him.
“So,” he said, cresting the first step in lockstep with her, “are we going to the library?”
Did she have a choice? “I guess.”
As they walked out into the sunshine, Jonathon glanced over at her. From the first moments in the classroom earlier, he had noticed the unsettledness of her. He’d hoped that it was just something to do with the class or the day’s lesson, but it clung to her even now like a nasty cloud. “So you pretty much just stayed home all weekend?”
“Did you watch Pride & Prejudice again just for the heck of it?” It was a joke that fell flat between them. He fought to find something to get her out of the sour mood she was in. “I’m told Mr. Darcy is good for what ails you although I, myself, wouldn’t know seeing how I’m much more partial to Elizabeth.” Of course he meant the one walking next to him; however, she didn’t really react to either. In fact, she was starting to worry him.
They walked seven more steps before he thought of a new tack. “So, what’s on tap for Thursday? You got any amazing new insights about Wentworth and his incredible ability to make Anne feel rotten about everything?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought that far.”
He glanced again at her, and everything about her seemed the same as it always had except her spirit, and that most integral part of her was altogether different. Now he really was getting worried. “I’m just hoping Wentworth gets a clue here at some point. This back and forth stuff is driving me crazy.”
They walked into the library and up the stairs. At the top, she said hello to Mary who cheerfully returned the greeting. Jonathon noticed the young woman watching them intently even as they went to the back. At the table as he put his satchel by the chair concern for a possible cause of her reticence slithered into him. He sat, knowing he had to ask but not knowing how.
She never even looked at him as she pulled out her laptop and two books.
“You know,” he said carefully, “if there was something wrong, you would tell me, right?”
After only the barest glance at him, she bent back to her satchel that was on the floor. “Of course.” Back at the desk, she opened the laptop and turned it on, angling it between them.
“No,” he said as more worry came to him, “you would really tell me if you had like… I don’t know… gotten grief over this.”
She looked up then. “This?”
He held her gaze because he had to. “Us.”
“Us?” she asked uncomprehending.
His heart fell as he realized that she didn’t see them as an us the way he did. Still, he needed to know their friendship hadn’t gotten her into some kind of trouble.
“Oh,” she said, recovering. “No. No. It’s nothing like that.” She went back to her computer, all but burying her head into it.
“Then what is it like?”
“What?” She seemed on the planet Flafluga.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on with you, or are you just going to make me keep guessing and worrying? You have been off in some la-la land all day. What’s going on?”
Her gaze never came up from the screen although she wasn’t typing nor even really seeing whatever it was that was on the computer.
“Hey, whatever it is, you can tell me.” He laid his hand across the table to rub across hers. After only a moment, she retrieved her hand and leaned back in the chair. There was nothing about the blank frown on her face that he liked. “Come on, Lizbet, this is me, Jonathon. You can tell me, whatever it is.”
She looked up at him then, her eyes asking if she really could. After a small breath, she blinked and took a deeper breath. “I got a visit from Dr. Marsh yesterday.”
Already he didn’t like where this was going. “Okay.”
“He’s the head of the department.”
Bad. Whatever it was, it was bad. “And?”
“And…” Her eyes widened as if she was trying to stay awake. She pulled forward but dropped her gaze for a long, long moment. With a shake of her head and the smallest possible smile, she lifted her gaze to his. “He told me I’m going to get Teacher of the Year for the English Department.”
The words hit like an explosion in side of him. “Elizabeth, that’s great!”
“Yeah,” she said softly as her gaze fell. “Great.” And it sounded not even a particle of great.
He shook his head. “Okay, I’m obviously missing something here. Why are you not doing cartwheels?”
This smile was even smaller than the first and accompanied by a shrug. “I’m not the teacher of the year type. Look at me, I’m hardly good enough to be a student here much less…”
“Whoa. Wait. Hold up. Now that is not true, and you know it.”
“Do I?” Her gaze grabbed his. “Do I really?”
“Yes, you do. Or at least you should.”
As her gaze fell back to her hands, Jonathon sorted through how her reaction could be what it was. “I think they’ve just figured out what every student in that class of yours already knows. You have opened up worlds we never knew existed. You have to know that.”
“But I haven’t done anything really extraordinary… I just show up, and I teach.”
“No you don’t. Look at you. You spend every waking hour either getting ready for class or grading papers. You take time to encourage students to reach for everything they can be. That’s not something any of us take lightly.”
“But…” Tension wrapped around her. “I hate going to these things the way it is. I have no idea what to wear or what to do. What if they want me to give a speech? What if I get up there and completely freak out?”
“And what if you don’t?” He had seen her at her most real, and he wasn’t about to let her talk herself out of being anything less. “Come on, Elizabeth, you’re really selling yourself short here. You are an amazing teacher, and you deserve this award. I’ll help you if you want. We can go shopping, find something great for you to wear. Really do it up right. I’ll help you… whatever you need.”
When she looked at him it was with questioning eyes, truly trying for trust. “You would really do that for me?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Copyright Staci Stallings 2008