And so the next Saturday, Elizabeth was sitting on the front steps of her apartment at 10 a.m. waiting for him and wondering when and how life had changed so drastically. One minute she was Elizabeth who went nowhere and knew no one, the next she was Miss Popular, going to gallery openings and concerts and now this.
Her heart sped up at the thought of the person who most personified that change. It was hard to tell which part of her was most anxious—the part who couldn’t wait to see him or the part that thought she was crazy for agreeing to this. She let her hand tug gently on the braid sliding down her shoulder. If she could just get a handle on why she couldn’t make no stick with him, and why it was starting to feel like she didn’t even want to say no anymore.
A cab pulled up, and she stood and brushed her dress off, knowing his would be the only cab to stop here. When he got out of the back, she had to take a breath in. Black jeans and a nice though not overly dressy navy knit shirt—they accented his dark hair and features. When he smiled, she couldn’t help but join in.
She exhaled once. “As I’ll ever be.”
Her idea of shopping was clearly in a completely different realm from his. She had expected to go to some second-hand thrift shop. Instead he took her straight to Macy’s and then to Bloomingdale’s. She had never set foot in either, and everything about them raked up the stark understanding of their differences.
“Here?” she asked as he pulled her inside. “Are you sure about this? I don’t know…”
“Yes, I’m sure,” he said, going right up to the first counter as she stood behind him looking back at the doors. “Hello. We would like some help finding a dress for…” He turned even as she shrank back from the saleslady’s gaze. “…this beautiful lady. She has a very important dinner party coming up, and we’d like to find something suitable.”
The lady looked her over, clearly unimpressed, but then she looked at him and nodded. “Right this way.”
Through the store and right to the women’s section they went. With every step Elizabeth asked herself again what she was doing here. These clothes cost a fortune. However, affording them was hardly the issue. It was wearing them that would be the problem.
When they reached the women’s section, the first lady spoke to another who was equally condescending in her first glance at Elizabeth. Nonetheless, the second lady nodded and came over to them. Jonathon put his arm around Elizabeth, presumably to keep her there as much as for affection.
“Hello, I’m Charlotte.” First she shook Jonathon’s hand and then Elizabeth’s who was getting hot and woozy the longer she stood there. “What sort of event are we shopping for today?”
Without so much as consulting her, Jonathon explained the situation. “So, you can see, Charlotte,” he said formally, “we aren’t looking for just any dress. It has to be something very special.”
“Yes. Yes. I can see that.” It was clear that had Elizabeth been here on her own, Charlotte probably would have thrown her out. Jonathon’s presence, however, had a quieting effect on her disdain. “Let me pull a few things for you, and you can give me some further direction.”
“Great.” When he looked at Elizabeth, he raised his eyebrows and smiled mischievously. “See, not hard.”
Leaning in lest she fall, she swallowed. “Are you sure about this?”
With soft, encouraging eyes, he turned to her and put his hands on her arms. “Hey. Trust me. Okay? It’ll be great.”
She let out a sigh, knowing she couldn’t run for the kindness he was showing but wanting to just the same.
“I have a couple of options,” Charlotte said. “If you’ll come with me.”
Elizabeth stepped in front of Jonathon feeling like she was being led to the executioner’s room. He walked only slightly behind her for a few steps. Then he put his arm around her and leaned in to her ear.
“Be good, and I might take you for a mocha latte afterward.”
Her smile swept through her, and she shook her head at him as she put her hand up to his chest to push him away. “You are terrible.”
“I know.” His gaze slid up to her hair and then down to her eyes. “But you wouldn’t have me any other way.”
Jonathon had been on enough shopping excursions to know that you never went with the first outfit you found. That was Abby’s first rule of shopping. It just wasn’t done. But the truth was every single outfit Elizabeth had tried on took his breath away. There was the midnight blue one with the sparkles and then there was the satin purple one that made her eyes seem darker even than they were. He was beginning to think it didn’t really matter. She would look good in a sack.
The thought had just brought a smile to his face when she stepped out, looking so nervous she could hardly stand still. However, with only one look he stood and walked over to her taking in the view the whole way. “Wow.”
“Is that a good wow or a bad wow?” She smoothed the soft black tailored jacket down. Clasped with a gold belt in the front, it flowed down to full black palazio pants, fitting and flaring in all the right places.
A foot from her, he stopped and his gaze took in not only the outfit, which was stunning, but her, who was even more stunning. “I think we’ve found it.”
“Are you sure this is the right one?” She was looking down, smoothing again.
Gently he took her by the arms and turned her to the three full length mirrors. “See for yourself.”
The moment Elizabeth turned, time itself froze. Only one small part of the shock was the outfit—a very, very small part. Instead, what most slammed into her the hardest was the picture he made standing there behind her, with her. It stunned her senses numb. She ducked as her heart ricocheted through her chest. Fighting to breathe, she brought her gaze back up, but it did nothing but make her dizzy.
“Don’t you think it looks right?” he asked, putting his hands on her arms when she said nothing.
That didn’t help at all. She tried to get some word out as she gazed at herself, standing there in the arms of Jonathon Danforth. It wasn’t working. Any word would have been welcome, but none were anywhere to be found. Finally she nodded, looking into his eyes in the mirror as gratefulness for him slipped into her heart.
His smile melted through her, and she had to drop her gaze as she fidgeted with the links of the gold belt. He leaned in, and she heard the half-laugh. “I think you just wanted that mocha latte.”
“Did we find something?” Charlotte asked, coming up from behind them.
Jonathon turned first. Elizabeth only barely followed, her senses still trying to recover.
“Oh, my,” Charlotte said. “That is just lovely. And you know, I have the perfect necklace to go with it. One second.”
She strode off, and Jonathon turned back to Elizabeth, his face teasing and happy. She loved when he looked like that. She loved when he was this close. She loved… Then as she looked up at him, her heart stopped. It wasn’t the things about him she loved. It was him. She blinked twice as the understanding slipped into her spirit.
“I really think you’re going to stop every heart in the room looking like that,” he said, still gazing at her. “It looks incredible on you. Not that you ever look anything other than incredible.”
The world around her spun, threatening to throw her right off of it. Could it be? Could she really be in love with him?
“Here we are,” Charlotte said, appearing again, this time with a black box in hand. She held it out to the two of them, and Elizabeth had the distinct impression that she was going to pass out right there.
“Oh, I…” she started.
“Thank you,” Jonathon said to Charlotte.
She held the box out to him, and he gently picked up the delicate gold necklace.
He turned back for Elizabeth who had no idea what any of this meant. She couldn’t even focus enough to realize what he was planning until he unlatched the little fastener and picked the two ends up. “May I?”
Hoping she wouldn’t pass out, she turned back for the mirror. As she watched, he dropped the necklace over her head and around her shoulders. When it was that far, her brain kicked into gear, and she lifted her hair so he could see what he was doing. Never, never before had fantasy paled so pitifully next to reality. And then the necklace was on.
He tucked it and smoothed it just so on her neck before stepping back only a breath. His hands were on her arms again, making everything spin and quiver. His gaze came to hers in the mirror. “Perfect.”
And there was not one molecule of her that could think to argue.
“Okay, we’ve got shoes and an outfit,” Jonathon said, walking next to her in the mall. “What else do we need?”
Elizabeth was just thankful she could still walk a straight line. Thinking was out of the question.
“What are you going to do with your hair?” he asked, glancing at her, and her hand went up to the braid on her shoulder.
“I… I don’t want to cut it.”
He slipped to the side just a touch to gaze at her. “No, but maybe they could style it so…”
Her hand clutched at her braid. “It’s… This isn’t… I haven’t really…” She felt so horribly inadequate at that moment.
Slowing, he let his gaze peruse all of her. “No. You’re right. I think you should wear it your way. It won’t look like Elizabeth otherwise.”
She ducked, still feeling her defectiveness. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
The fact that she really didn’t know brushed into him, and Jonathon glanced over at her. This whole trip had made her look far more wary and scared than he had seen her in a long time. Far from looking like a confident, radiant young woman on top of the world, she looked hesitant and frightened. Old Jonathon would either have laughed at her or pushed her into seeing things his way. New Jonathon sensed that both would push her farther away from him, so he tried the soft and understanding approach. “It is a very, very good thing.”
Her smile was grateful.
“I’m starving,” he said. “How about you?”
She nodded. “I could eat.”
“Good.” He turned them into a small sit-down restaurant and went through the process of getting them a table. When they were seated with the bags laid to the sides, he looked at her huddled on her side, and the need to give her a safe space to be Elizabeth again clutched him. “So, about that mocha latte…”
The whole day had been so wonderful that Elizabeth’s spirit begged for her to find a way to make him stay, but she couldn’t do that. As much as she wanted to, she had no experience in making advances nor in interpreting them. What if she was misreading all of this? What if she asked him in and then did something wrong? Something to make him understand she was not what she seemed to be? What if at the moment of truth, she couldn’t go through with it? He would think her a tease or worse…
“I had a nice time tonight,” he said after setting her packages by the door.
She leaned against the wall next to her apartment door, fighting all her heart was telling her. “I did too.”
Yelling down the hall, yanked his attention that way, and shadows of emotions she didn’t want to see crossed his face. Then he turned back to her and forced a smile as he reached down with both hands and took hers in his. “You’re going to be beautiful.”
There was the second of knowledge that he was leaning toward her, and her eyes fell closed. His lips touched her forehead, and feelings upon feelings washed through her. Then he backed up. Forcing the air into her lungs, she opened her eyes, hoping that the pleading from her heart and body wasn’t screaming through her eyes.
He smiled softly. “I’ll see you Tuesday?”
“I’ll be there.”
“So how’s class?” Janet asked as they sat over sandwiches on Monday. She had called to suggest it, and he could think of no good reason to say no.
“Good? That’s kind of broad.” She bit into her sandwich. “Mind elaborating?”
Jonathon took a long breath. Even figuring it out for himself was too much for his feeble brain. It had been working on the issue all weekend without any direction from him, and still he had come to no real conclusion. “Well, class is good. I should pass anyway.”
“Pass?” Janet’s face fell into a scowl. “That’s not exactly what I meant. What’s up with what’s-her-name, the teacher?”
“Her name is Elizabeth, and for your information we went out on Saturday. Shopping.”
“Shopping?” Her eyebrows reached for the ceiling as she bit into a chip. “Wow. This is serious.”
“We just went as friends. She needed an outfit for a big dinner party coming up.”
“But she asked you?”
“Okay. Well, that’s something. At least she didn’t tell you to get lost.”
The very thought made his heart sink.
“So, this is like what then? Second, third, fourth date. You ought to be heading out to Vegas any time now.”
He caught the not-wholly intentional reference. “It’s not like that.”
“What do you mean? It’s not like that? You like her. She obviously likes you. Okay, there’s the whole teacher thing, but surely that’s not stopping you. I mean you could drop the class for all that’s worth.”
Drop the class? He would never even consider it. “No.” His mind slipped through everything. “Besides it’s not like we’re even that serious. I haven’t even kissed her yet.”
Janet stopped eating and looked at him seriously. “You haven’t…? You’re kidding.”
“No.” Quiet calmness drifted through him. “She has this thing about waiting until you know you’re in love.”
“Well, you know. What’s the hold up?”
He should never have told her this much. Glancing up, he tried to gauge his sister’s possible reactions to the whole story that he didn’t even understand. “I don’t know if she feels the same.”
For a long moment she simply sat and looked at him. Then she shifted in the chair. “Let me get this straight. You like this girl. I mean you really like this girl. And she is most likely in love with you too, and yet you haven’t even made a move yet?”
Although he wanted to smile, it didn’t quite make it that far. “Pretty much.”
His sister surveyed him, not moving so much as a muscle. “You’re really in love with her, aren’t you?”
“I thought we’d covered this.”
“No. I don’t mean, ‘Wow, she’s hot’ kind of love. I mean ‘I’ll-do-anything-for-her’ kind of love.”
He hadn’t thought of it like that, but he couldn’t refute it.
“So what’s next?” Janet asked softly.
It shouldn’t be so hard to get a fix on that answer. “I have no idea.”
“Well, it’s about time,” Letty said as Jonathon listened in fascination on Thursday to these students who had hardly sounded intellectual those first couple of days. For her part, Elizabeth simply stood down front nodding to get them to keep going. “I thought Wentworth was going to be stupid the whole book. He was really getting on my nerves.”
“And her father,” Susana said. “What’s up with him? He’s a bigger jerk than Wentworth.”
“But that’s why,” Mr. Thomason said. “She grew up believing no one could ever love her, so when Wentworth did, she couldn’t really believe it. That threw him off, and everything just went downhill from there.”
“I think Wentworth finally realized it was put up or shut up time. When he had to deliver that message to her about Mr. Elliot,” Adam said. “That got his attention.”
“You go try to tell somebody you’re in love with that she has been asked by some other jerk to marry him,” Mr. Cruz said. “I guarantee that will get your attention.”
The conversation continued around him, and Jonathon smiled. She certainly had a way of getting them to discuss the books. To his recollection, most English classes he had been in featured the teacher up front writing on the board explaining it to the students who pretty much either fell asleep through it or turned half of their brains off in the process. This was much different. These kids were passionate about this story—even if they had never seen an English countryside even in pictures.
“I think one of the tough things with Anne and Wentworth was how well they hid the bottom three layers,” Letty said. “I mean most of the time it’s at least somewhat clear what someone is feeling or thinking if they love someone, but these two were like…”
“Stoic,” Mr. Thomason said. “It’s like they are both Elinor.”
“This is what Elinor and what’s-his-name that Brandon guy would’ve been like if they had gotten together,” Ms. Moore said. “The prim and proper thing only goes so far, and then at some point that mask has to drop away.”
“Or it doesn’t and they’re miserable forever,” Susana said.
“So, what’d you think?” Elizabeth asked as they walked to the library after class.
“I was just trying to keep up with them today,” Jonathon said. “It’s funny how they’re discussing these people like they’re real, and how in my head, they seem so real. Then sometimes I try to remind myself that they are not, and really there’s less evidence to support them being real than them not being real.”
“That’s the way I always felt when I read them. I thought I must be weird.”
“Yeah? Well, I think your weird is rubbing off on the rest of us.” He opened the library door for her. “I can’t believe we only have one more book to read.”
She smiled up at him. “And you don’t even have to read it.”
Concern drained across his face. “Why not?”
“Why not.” She laughed. “Because you’ve already read it and watched the movie. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to score brownie points.”
At the top of the stairs, he waved to Mary who waved back. They walked behind the bookcases, and he pulled out his chair and settled in.
“No, I really think I’m going to enjoy reading it this time. I mean I know the whole general story now, so I’m not wading through who’s who and what’s going on.” He pulled his satchel off and set it next to his foot. “I think it will read very differently this time.”
On the other side of the table, Elizabeth was just pulling out her laptop when her gaze jumped up to the movement behind him. She went pale as she stood. “Dr. Nevell.”
Jonathon looked up, and snapping into ultra-impressive mode, he stood as well.
“Elizabeth,” Dr. Nevell, a young man not 30 years old, said as he came to their table. He went right past Jonathon to her. “Sue at the department said you might be over here.” He stepped up to her, far too close for Jonathon’s liking, and he looked to her for some clue about what was going on.
“Oh.” She smiled but only slightly. “Yeah, I was going to grade some papers.” Her gaze jumped over to Jonathon who was as serious as she was looking. “Umm, Andy Nevell, this is Jonathon Danforth.”
“Dr. Nevell.” Jonathon shook the man’s hand.
“Jonathon.” The condescension dripped through the younger man’s gaze. There was no more than a moment’s of acknowledgement before he turned back to Elizabeth. “Elizabeth, I… wanted to ask you… I got my invitation for the Faculty Dinner. I guess they figured since I filled in and everything…” He glanced at Jonathon. “I was wondering if… we… you and I might go together.”
Abject horror dropped right into the center of her heart. He could not seriously stand there and ask her that. Not after everything. Her gaze jumped to Jonathon’s as the fact that he was standing there listening to this plowed over her. “Oh, I… umm…”
“I’m sorry,” Jonathon said after only a moment’s pause. His voice was so calm she had to wonder how he seemed so completely unfazed. “You’re a little late on the up-take there, Andy my man.”
Jonathon clamped him on the shoulder, and Andy’s gaze jumped to Jonathon and stuck.
“Elizabeth here already has a date,” Jonathon continued as he smiled a grim half-smile and let his hand fall. Then he looked right at her, and his deep, gentle brown eyes soothingly told her she need not worry about this jerk. “Isn’t that right, Elizabeth?”
“What…? Oh, yes.” Her senses came back to her slowly. “Yes. Uh, Jonathon and I… are… We’re…” What? her brain screamed. Jonathon and I are what? Her heart slammed forward nearly jerking her with it.
“Seeing each other,” Jonathon finished for her. He looked at her one more second and then transferred his gaze to Andy. “And,” he said pointedly, “I plan to escort her to the Faculty Dinner.”
“Oh… Well…” Andy looked from Jonathon to her for confirmation, and although Elizabeth really couldn’t get words out, she wasn’t denying it either. “I’m sorry. I didn’t…. I guess… I’ll just…”
“Yeah.” Jonathon clamped him on the shoulder again and turned him for the exit. “You do that.”
Turning at the bookshelf, Andy looked right at her. “Good-bye, Elizabeth.”
“Good-bye, Dr. Nevell.”
And then he was gone. Grateful for the chair, Elizabeth sank slowly into it, her heart and mind in a swirl of confusion. On the other side of the table, Jonathon sat as well.
“I’m sorry,” she said, finally pulling the words up, “about that.” The fact that she still wasn’t breathing made her light-headed.
“So, who was that jerk anyway?”
Her gaze drifted off to the side as memories slipped into her. “A guy I used to know.” She lifted her gaze to his. “Thank you… for that. I didn’t expect him to show up here.”
“I can see that.” For a long moment he said nothing. Instead he sat, looking at her with concern.
“I know,” she said, feeling how very, very dangerous the path her heart was leading her down was, “that you just said that to get me off the hook with him, but…” Fear snaked through her, questioning, screaming, yanking at her to please reconsider saying these words. “I…” She picked her gaze up to his but couldn’t hold it there. “Well… I mean…” Her fingers picked at each other on the table. Just say it, Elizabeth! “Umm, I have to go to this thing anyway, and I don’t know that I really want to go alone…”
Then, slowly his hand slipped across the desk until it drifted over and through hers, stopping their nervous fidgeting. The warmth and solid calm of his whole spirit twined through every molecule of her nervousness, soothing, calming, reassuring.
“If you’re asking,” he said softly, “I’d love to go with you.”
Even though she was fighting tears, her gaze came up to his. “Then I’m asking.”
All Friday and most of Saturday Jonathon worked on the problem of the terror in her eyes the second Dr. Nevell had materialized in that library. No one had to tell Jonathon there was more to that story than she had said. Worse, he surmised due to the distance she constantly managed to put between himself and her that the circumstances of whatever had transpired between her and Dr. Nevell were less than savory. How less than savory, he fought not to think about.
Saturday night, he got to her apartment ten minutes earlier than he’d said he would mostly owing to the fact that he couldn’t stay away. He would’ve been six hours too early if he’d had his way, but thankfully he’d talked himself out of that madness. With a quick check of his attire, he headed up first one set of stairs and then the next. From every direction in the dilapidated building came yelling and shouting. He could hardly tell if it was one fight or several, but they razed his nerves something fierce.
He’d wanted this whole night to be so romantic, but romance was not exactly possible under such dismal circumstances. At her door, he knocked softly even as he looked down the hallway toward one source of the yelling. Fighting not to attend to it, he reached up and knocked again. “Come on, Elizabeth, where are you?”
Nothing upon nothing was going right. It hadn’t been for 24 hours when she forgot the soup and nearly burned the apartment down around her. Now here he was knocking on her door, and she wasn’t any more ready than Marianne had sense. In fact, still wrapped in her ratty bathrobe with a towel on her head, it was quite possible that he was going to have to go without her.
“I’m coming.” She wrenched the door open, and the sight of him in that dark dinner jacket, smoky blue shirt and tie just about did her in completely. “Jona…” Her gaze slid down him. “Wow. Um…”
Questions ran through his eyes. “I’m sorry. Am I early?”
“What? No.” She looked down at herself, and only then did she realize she shouldn’t have opened the door in this state. Reaching down, she pulled the robe closer around her. “I’m running a little late.”
“I can see that.”
Not seeing any other option short of making him stand in the hallway, she hurried back to her room. “Please come on in. I’ll just be a couple minutes.”
The fact that he was walking into her apartment was only half of the issue. The bigger half was that she looked so much not-Elizabeth as to send worry careening through him. Carefully he closed the door behind him. “I didn’t think I was that early.”
She’d already fled into the room to the left of the entryway where he stood. “You’re not. I’m sorry. I lost track of time.”
A door closed somewhere inside the other room. He scratched his head at the incongruity of her present appearance as he stepped once and then again into the room which had dim, peeling gray walls. To one side stood a little threadbare, third-hand couch, on the opposite side was the little television on a stand that looked ready to fall down at any moment. Nothing looked at all new. The curtains, the furniture, the carpet. In fact most of it was just depressing.
When he heard the door again, his attention drifted that direction although it was struggling to assimilate the pieces of the situation into a coherent whole. “What time are we supposed to be there?”
“Seven,” she called back. “Ugh! This is pointless.”
“What’s wrong?” Not realizing he shouldn’t, he stepped over to the door between the tiny living room and the bedroom.
At the mirror which was barely clinging to the dresser, she stood. Her hair was in a mass of damp curls running down her head and across her shoulders as she fought with the chain belt at her waist. “This stupid belt. I hate this. What am I doing? I can’t do this. I don’t even know how to get this thing hooked.”
Concern for her poured through him, overtaking even the thoughts of the apartment. He stepped in not at all liking the tilting upset of her movements.
She had changed into the black outfit, but calm and rational were nowhere to be found. “It won’t latch. I can’t get it to latch.” Her fingers worked with the belt, becoming increasingly more frustrated. It slipped again. “Ugh. This is nuts. That’s it. I’m not going.”
His steps took him right to her. “Here.” Looking at her for only a moment, his fingers moved hers from the gold belt at her waist. Barely having to so much as look down, he fastened the clasp to the chain and then spun the belt just so. “There.”
The world around them stopped. He was here, in her bedroom, with her looking at him. To stop the desire surging through him, he looked up and slid his fingers into her damp bangs. “So how are you going to do your hair?”
It was all Elizabeth could do not to cry. Overwhelm tilted across her—heart, body, and soul. “I don’t know. I don’t. Maybe I just shouldn’t go. I don’t think I can do this.”
Jonathon’s calm gaze melded into her as he put his hands on her arms. “Now you listen to me. This is your big night. You are not going to miss it, you hear me?”
“No,” he said, and the word was both firm and gentle. “You are going, and it is going to be wonderful. Got it?”
A moment and she nodded. It wasn’t so much that he calmed her as that with him making the decision, how could she question it?
“Now.” He turned her back for the mirror. “Since we don’t have a lot of time, and since I think it looks beautiful just like this, I say you leave it down.”
She gazed at herself in the mirror with him right behind her. “Are you sure? It’s not very professional.”
His smile was soft and soothing. “Yes, but it’s very Elizabeth.”
With her hand tucked firmly in his lest she run as she had threatened to do several times already, Jonathon led her up the steps to the Marquee Restaurant. Patrons in formal attire stood in the entryway, but he didn’t even slow down.
“Yes,” he said to the maitre de, “we’re looking for the New York Central English Department dinner party?”
“Oh, yes. Right this way.”
Elizabeth hung back behind him, and all he could think was at least he’d gotten her here. Apparently that was a far greater accomplishment than even he had realized. They stepped into the dimly-lit back room teeming with important looking people conversing and mingling.
Jonathon nodded to the maitre de. “Thank you.”
“You’re quite welcome, Sir.” And he left.
Walking together mostly because she was so close to him they might as well have been sharing the same space, he nodded to a couple of people who looked over at them curiously. Halfway around the room, he ducked back to her. “So, do you actually know any of these people?”
“Yeah, some of them,” she said, sounding breathless.
“Do you see anyone we should talk to?”
She surveyed the room and then for a moment she backed away from him. “There’s Dr. Marsh.”
“Dr. Marsh. The department head.” Jonathon nodded, suddenly feeling very inadequate to this situation. “Well, let’s go say, ‘Hello.’ No sense being rude.”
Oh, what Elizabeth would have done to be able to just go home and crawl into bed and forget New York Central ever existed! Still, somehow here she was being practically dragged over to Dr. Marsh and his wife. They looked so in place. She felt so very not. When they got right to the older man, Jonathon slipped his hand to her waist and pulled her to his side rather than letting her hide behind him.
“Hello, Dr. Marsh,” she said, fighting to get her gaze to hold on the older man.
“Well, Elizabeth.” Looking genuinely surprised, Dr. Marsh shook her hand. “I’m so glad you made it. You remember my wife, Sandra.”
“Of course.” Elizabeth shook the older lady’s hand, bowing slightly. “Ma’am.”
“Dr. Forester,” Sandra said, “it’s so good to see you again.” She patted Elizabeth’s hand and then let her gaze go to Jonathon. “And who is this?”
“Oh, excuse me.” Elizabeth stepped back to him and put her hand at his waist. “This is my… friend, Jonathon Danforth.”
“Dr. Marsh,” he said, shaking his hand, “Mrs. Marsh. It is very nice to meet you both.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Jonathon,” Dr. Marsh said. “We’re so glad you could make it.” He leaned in. “And bring our guest of honor.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks flamed to life, and she ducked her head.
“Believe me,” Jonathon said, looking at her, and when her gaze came up to his, there was only deep admiration in them, “it is my pleasure.”
“So,” Jonathon said when they had detached themselves from Dr. and Mrs. Marsh and each gotten a flute of champagne, “what’s the story on the English department? Who’s the students’ worst nightmare?” He took a drink surveying the room.
“Besides me?” she asked, a hint of a smile around the edges of the question.
He tipped his eyebrow at her. “Well, now that goes without saying.”
She laughed, and he loved that smile. “Well, over there is Dr. Beatrice Rosen. She is a senior tenured professor. Wonderful teacher. I’ve had her several times. She really knows her stuff.” Elizabeth turned a bit and found another. “That’s Dr. Henry Bains. He teaches most of the Shakespeare curriculum. Nice man, but he kind of talks in that Shakespearean rhythm.” She perused the room again. “And over there is Dr. Gerity. You want to talk alliteration and pentameter? He’s your man.”
Jonathon lowered his lips to take a drink. “I think I’ll pass.”
“Dr. Mills probably won’t come. She’s still recovering from back surgery at the beginning of the year. Of course there are several graduate students. I don’t know most of them very well.”
“Dr. Forester?” a voice behind her spun her around.
“Ms. Wells,” Elizabeth said instantly, and the young woman reached in for a hug.
“I’m sorry for interrupting,” Ms. Wells said, backing up but not really letting Elizabeth go, “I just had to come over and say hello. Um, I wanted to introduce you.” Only then did she back into the embrace of young man behind her. “This is my boyfriend, James.”
“James.” Elizabeth nodded to him with a smile.
“I just had to tell you,” Ms. Wells continued, “I got accepted to the doctorate program in Michigan.”
“Oh, Kelsi, that’s great,” Elizabeth said, dropping the propriety. “That’s the one you wanted, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Kelsi’s green eyes sparkled. “I’m so excited, and I just wanted to say thank you. You will never know how grateful I am for what you did to help me stay in school.” She looked up at James. “If I hadn’t stayed, I would never have met James. He’s a graduate teacher in engineering.”
“Yes,” Kelsi said, looking at her with eyes that might cry at any second.
Elizabeth’s heart went out to the young woman, not for compassion but for happiness. “Well, I’m so happy everything is working out for you.”
“Thank you, Dr. Forester.” Kelsi stepped forward for another long warm hug. “For everything.”
“You’re very welcome.” When Elizabeth backed up, she held onto Kelsi’s arms for one more moment. “You take care of yourself. Okay?”
Then, arm-in-arm, the young couple walked off.
“So who was that?” Jonathon asked.
With a snap Elizabeth came back to herself, realizing she hadn’t introduced them. “Oh. I’m sorry. Ugh. What was I thinking? I completely…”
He waved that off as he took another sip. “I take it she’s another satisfied student?”
The memory brought Elizabeth down slightly. “She was in my Freshman Comp class my first year as a graduate teacher. Nice girl. Had a lot going for her. Really smart. And then about halfway through the semester, she missed like five classes. She came back one day, and I stopped her to ask what was going on.” Elizabeth took a long breath. “It was a really bad situation. Her boyfriend was pressuring her to give up on the college thing. He had this real Byzantine idea that if she went to school, she’d be better than him, so he was really pressuring her to quit.”
The story wound to a stop. With a breath, Elizabeth shook her head. “We talked about five hours that day, and when she left, I didn’t think I would ever see her again.”
He waited for more, but she said nothing.
“But she came back though?”
“Yeah.” The memories ripped through Elizabeth. “With bruises.”
That lowered his drink. “He beat her up?”
Elizabeth nodded slowly. “Pretty good too. She didn’t have anywhere to go. She was living with the guy, and he pretty much threw her out on the street. So I took her in for awhile until she could find a job and get her life back together. It was pretty rough.”
He didn’t know where the thoughts of the stuffy people and the cloying pretentiousness of the whole night had gone, but in one second, they all vanished. Blinking, he realized he was seeing deeper into her, into her story, into her spirit than he ever had, and it immobilized him completely.
Someone at the front tapped on a glass, and her gaze went there. His stayed on her.
“If everyone could have a seat…”
As the evening progressed through the various speeches and conversations, Jonathon couldn’t tear his gaze or his attention from her. She was smiling now, talking with the others as if she belonged nowhere else. However, he saw her now, not just her beauty but her compassion. He had seen it before, but it had never gotten so deeply into him.
The meal wound down to dessert, and at the front Dr. Marsh took the microphone. “Thank you, Dr. Rosen. We appreciate your efforts for that organization.” He nodded to her and then turned back. “And now, we come to the moment we’ve all been waiting for.” He pulled out a small white marble award with a golden book atop it. “Every year the department selects the Teacher of the Year from those nominated by staff and students.”
Wanting only to be closer to her and once again afraid she might run as he could feel the nerves descend on her again, Jonathon reached under the table and took her hand. He smiled at her with excitement. Her return smile was so shy it was barely there. And then her head fell forward in embarrassment. He could not have been any more proud of her if she was the Queen.
“This year, I am so pleased with the selection of the committee. This young woman has been a true bright spot in our department for several years now. She came to us early on in her educational pursuits as a new freshman, I believe. Most of you remember Dr. David Avery, I’m sure.”
Several people nodded.
“I well remember the day that Dr. Avery first approached me about this young lady. This was no ordinary request as her circumstances gave us both pause for the uphill battle that her even attending would be. But as I look back now, I laugh because neither of us could have appreciated at that moment the tenacity, the compassion, and the determination of this young woman who came and worked night and day toward a goal that could only have been a mere glimmer to her at the time. In fact, I believe at one time she was working three or four jobs to even be able to continue her education here. But she did it—without complaint and without malice to the other students who were not facing the obstacles she was.”
When Jonathon glanced at her, it was as if every glimpse made him see depths he’d never known existed. She didn’t even look at him. Instead, her gaze was down on her napkin as the walls went up around her. He saw them, though he couldn’t quite comprehend them.
“I’ve had the honor of having this young woman in class, first in her undergraduate then graduate then doctoral work. Her sharp mind and incredible insights have astonished me on more than one occasion. And I know I am not alone in that.” Dr. Marsh gaze swept the room. “In fact, I just talked with a former student of hers a few minutes ago, and let’s just say my admiration for her grew ten-fold, which I wouldn’t have thought possible.” Then he looked right at her. “I know this young woman to be a humble, gentle, considerate teacher who puts her students first and herself second. We at New York Central are blessed to have her amongst us. And now, I’d like you to give a warm round of applause for the English Department’s Teacher of the Year, Dr. Elizabeth Forester.”
Around them, people jumped to their feet to applaud. Mesmerized by all the professor had said, the adulation, and his surging admiration for her, Jonathon stood and helped her with the chair. When she was on her feet, their gazes met, and he knew instinctively she wanted no part of going up there. However, he more than anyone in the room knew she deserved it. In that instant, he took hold of her arm and pulled her gently to him.
“Congratulations,” he whispered into her ear. “You’ll be great. Just go up there and be Elizabeth.”
Be Elizabeth. As she turned and walked away from him on unsteady legs to the front, just what that meant spun in her brain. Be Elizabeth. Be Elizabeth. At the front, she forced herself to smile at Dr. Marsh who held the award out for her. He nodded, handed her the award, shook her hand, and then pulled her closer.
“Congratulations, Elizabeth, you deserve it.” Letting her go, he stepped back.
She looked at the little award, bewildered. Never would she even have thought this was even a possibility—the fact that Dr. Marsh had told her it was going to happen hardly made a dent in her disbelief. With a blink, she stepped to the microphone. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
A moment and the applause died down. The people in the room sat, looking up at her expectantly. This was it, the moment she had most dreaded. Overwhelm threatened. She looked out at them, feeling her pulse race and her brain slide into freak out mode, and then she caught his gaze. Be Elizabeth. Letting her head fall, she whispered, “Show me, God.”
For a moment, Jonathon was afraid she would simply decide not to say anything. He knew she was overwhelmed, and he was very glad Dr. Marsh had warned her prior to this moment, or this might be even worse on her. However, when she picked her head up, there was not fear in her eyes so much as gleaming gratefulness. He leaned forward, his elbows on the table to absorb the moment.
“Thank you for this.” She looked down at it. “It really means a lot to me.” She shook her hair back. “See, I never really believed I would be here tonight. Not here accepting an award, but here with you all.” Shaking her head, tears shimmered in her eyes. “Dr. Rosen, Dr. Marsh, you all are my heroes as was Dr. Avery who is no longer with us. Without you all I’m not sure where I would even be right now.” Her gaze fell, and she sniffed. “I want you all to know that although it’s me up here right now, I don’t represent just myself up here but all those who helped me get here. All the teachers and the people who believed in me when I couldn’t even believe in myself.”
Her gaze swept the room. “And I also stand here for all those whose lives we touch who will stand here or at some other podium somewhere accepting accolades because of our influence in their lives.”
Jonathon glanced behind him to where she was looking, and the second he saw Kelsi, he knew.
“I think it’s important to remember that we are each the nexus that joins the past to the present, and our choices are both the representation of what we’ve been given and the legacy we will pass on. When we stand in the classroom, we are not just imparting knowledge, we are literally touching the future. We are opening doors that were formerly closed to those students who sit before us, and for that one moment, we have the chance to believe in them so that they can learn to believe in themselves.” Her gaze went to Jonathon. “That is a privilege I hope I never take for granted. Thank you very much.”
Jonathon was the first one on his feet, clapping as his heart slid through his chest. The others joined him, but he hardly heard them as she came back to his side. When she was there, he let his hand go around her as it had been aching to do all night. “Awesome. Absolutely awesome.”
She looked up at him, and the sparkles in her eyes danced with happiness. “Thanks for making me come.”
He laughed. “I wouldn’t have missed it.”
Copyright Staci Stallings 2008