In the cab on the way back to her apartment, Elizabeth let out a long, shaky sigh as she fingered the little award on her lap. “I’m so glad that’s over. I was a complete basket case over this whole thing.”
He leaned over and kissed her temple. “You were beautiful.”
She sighed again, sniffed, and leaned on his shoulder as his arm tucked around her. “Thanks for making me go. I would never have had the guts to do that without you.”
Softly he smiled. “You could have done it without me, but I’m glad I got to be there for it.”
Snuggling just closer, she nodded. “So am I.”
All the way back to her place, Jonathon fought with himself. She was so beautiful, and he was so in love with her. But there were still barriers between them. He felt them although he didn’t at all understand them. At her apartment, it was the strangest thing in the world to him. Had she been any other girl he had ever been out with, he would know the script right through waking up in her bed the next morning. But she wasn’t any other girl. She was Elizabeth, and that threw the script right out the window.
On the sidewalk, she turned to him rather than letting him go up with her like she normally did. She pushed a strand of hair over her ear. “Thanks again for going with me.”
His heart jumped and then plummeted when he realized this was her way of saying goodnight. “You’re welcome.” Every single signal in his brain was screaming to kiss her. It hurt not to. Still those barriers were undeniable. Gently, he put his hand at her neck, twining his fingers through her hair. Then, although it wasn’t at all what he wanted to do, he leaned forward and kissed her forehead. He felt the whoosh of air slide from her body.
When he backed up to look at her, preparing himself to say goodnight and get back in the cab, he was not at all ready for there to be tears shining in her eyes. “Elizabeth? What’s wrong?”
“I…” She fought to keep looking at him, but lost the battle as her gaze slipped to the concrete beneath their feet.
Seeing this wasn’t some one-sentence send-off, he nodded. “Hold that thought.” Like lightning he went back to the cab, paid the driver, and sent him on his way. Back at her side, he took her hand and then put his arm all the way around her. “Come on.”
The honest truth was Elizabeth was tired. She was tired of the lies, tired of being something she was not, tired of leading him on when she had no hope of ever making this work. All the way up to her apartment, she simply let the numbness of hopes consistently dashed envelope her. If she could just convince herself that she did not care about him, that he did not care about her, she could trash them both and not have to deal with this every time she looked at him.
She never so much as slowed down at her door, and before she really thought it all the way through, he was there with her. The thought that she should at least try to be a good hostess drifted through her. “Do you want something—to drink or something?”
It sounded pathetic and weary even to her.
“I didn’t come for the beverages,” he said softly. “Here.” He took them to the couch where he pulled her down with him. A moment, another, and he looked at her. “I want to know.”
“To know what?” Divergent parts of her heart felt like they might split it right in half.
“What’s going on with you, why you keep everyone at arm’s length even as you knock yourself out to help them.”
He exhaled hard. “I know you don’t want to tell me. I can see that. You don’t want to tell anybody, but you’ve got to let somebody in Elizabeth. You’ve got to. This whole isolation strategy you have going is not healthy. Those people tonight, they wanted to love you so much, and yet you all but talked yourself out of even going. I don’t understand that.” A breath and his gaze came to her, burning there. “But I want to.”
Her heart twisted through the memories, wringing them out of her like a dirty sponge. How could she tell him what she really was? How could she say those words and admit the things she had done? It was one thing to tell him to get lost. It was another to know how disappointed in her he would be.
“Tell me, Elizabeth. Please,” he said softly. “It can’t be any harder than this.”
The fork in the road split before her. She knew she had to tell him if for no other reason than to let him go on with his own life. Pushing the tears away, she stood, wrapped her arms over themselves, and stepped over to the grime-covered window cloaked with the scratchy gold and orange curtain. She didn’t even move it so she could see out, but she hardly noticed. “Dr. Marsh remembered me because I didn’t exactly come here like most students do.” She turned and leaned on the wall but didn’t look up. “I was basically a runaway. I had no parents, no money, no admission tests saying I would make a fine addition to their institution. Nothing.”
Nodding slowly, she let the memories wind around her. “All I had was the word of a woman who had pulled my life from the fire and was trying to keep it from falling in again.” Numbness overtook everything else. “Her name was Sister Clarise. She was the chaplain of the Pine Street Salvation Army. I’d been living with her for nearly a year at that point, struggling to get through high school and to stay off the streets. I slept in her room, on the floor, and I worked the soup kitchen when I wasn’t at school.”
Elizabeth lifted her gaze to his for a second, smiled slightly, and then let both fall again. “It really wasn’t so bad most of the time.” Her hands fell from her arms in front of her, and her fingers fidgeted together. Reliving these years of her life even in words was difficult. She knew that it said so much about her, and she hated every word. “Sister Clarise was a good friend of Dr. Avery, who was the department head at the time. I think they were on some kind of city board for the homeless or something like that. Apparently she mentioned me to him, and they talked about how I was an avid reader but in major danger of having to drop out of school because of everything else.
“So, he came to the soup kitchen one day. I didn’t even know who he was then. I sure didn’t know he was some big, important guy from a college, that’s for sure. That night, after everyone was fed, they asked me to come back into the little kitchen office to talk. I had no clue how drastically that hour would change my life.” She laughed. “He interviewed me right there in my torn, second-hand clothes that smelled like soup and the streets, and then between the two of them, they mapped out a plan to have me get my GED and start at Central by the fall. I thought they were both crazy, but I trusted Sister Clarise so fully, I couldn’t rightly say no. Besides, I think I’d pretty much worn out my welcome on her floor.”
Elizabeth smiled again as the memories became better and better. “I’m not sure which of them was more determined to get me through school. And I sure didn’t want to disappoint them, so I took classes every waking hour and worked every sleeping one.” Her hand slipped up her arm and her fingers pulled slowly through her hair. “By the time I made graduate school, they offered me a teaching position, and here I am.”
Jonathon looked at her for a long moment, the pieces of what she was telling him both fitting and not. He decided to start with the most obvious question because there were so many that begged to be answered. “Your mom…?”
Her gaze dropped like a falling rock, and she exhaled slowly. “Yeah. My mom.”
But she said no more.
Not knowing if it was appropriate, or smart, or even if she would run, he couldn’t help himself. He stood from the couch and stepped over to her. A foot from her, he tilted his head to look right at her, and seeing the fight in her eyes, he gently put his hands on her arms. “Hey. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s okay. I’ll understand.”
She looked up at him then, and her eyes were pools of anguish. Her breathing snagged on the tears, and blinking them back, she simply stepped into his arms. The whine of her crying was like the frightened meow of a newborn kitten. It raked every ounce of his deep need to protect her from him.
Overpowering concern poured through him as he held her in his embrace. He felt her tears, smelled them, and heard every single one. He laid his cheek against the top of her head and stroked her hair as she let them all out. “Shh. It’s okay.” Whatever it was, it was bad. Of that and only that, he was sure. The previous revelations of the evening were already enough to set his mind on permanent spin-cycle, and at the moment he was less than sure that they could make it through all of this to the other side. But the one thing he was sure of is that he would stand here and be here for her no matter what.
After a few minutes of her clinging to him, she stiffened, sniffed, and pulled backward. Although he let her go, he felt the emptiness of her leaving in the middle of his soul.
She stepped away from him toward the window where she leaned on the wall with her shoulder and let her gaze fall all the way to the floor.
He watched her standing there and felt more helpless than he ever had in his entire life.
“I was about six when I first heard the word whore.” The words, her words, were a mere breath. “I remember that day so clearly. I was in my room, as I always was when my mom had someone over. I don’t know who he was. I don’t know that I ever even saw the man. It probably doesn’t matter who he was, but I wonder about that sometimes. But he was right outside my door, and he was yelling at my mom about something that I didn’t even really understand at the time. He kept calling her a whore and telling her he was going to kill her if she ever told him no again…”
The exhale escaped through the helplessness. “Oh, Elizabeth…” Jonathon reached out to put his hand on her shoulder, but she twisted to shrug it off and pulled both of her shoulders up closer to her ears, huddling into herself as she did so.
“No.” She sniffed and then wiped her eyes. “I don’t even know why it gets to me now. It shouldn’t. It’s what I grew up with. It’s all I ever really knew. She would have a couple guys a night come in. Her bedroom was on the other side of the wall from mine, and I pretty much heard everything. When I was little and she’d send me to my room because some guy was coming, I’d get in bed and pull the covers up over my head, and I’d sing to myself real quiet so I couldn’t hear them. I didn’t know what was going on, not really, and I really didn’t want to know. She always threatened me that I was not to come out of my room for any reason, and I didn’t… even that night with the guy who was going to kill her. I swear the place could’ve burned down around me, and I wouldn’t have come out of that room.
“As I got older, it got harder and harder to pretend that I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t want to know, but I did. That’s when I started reading in my room. I’d lock myself in there, and it was great because I could lose myself in the words. They put up a good barrier between me and the awfulness of everything else. I read everything I could get my hands on from the library—Huck Finn, Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, even The Sound and the Fury although I don’t think I ever really understand much of that one. Then I found Pride & Prejudice.
“I’m not sure if I’d ever read a real romance at that point. I don’t remember if I had. The librarian at school was my recommendation source, and she wasn’t much on romance.” Elizabeth laughed at her own joke. “But when I found Pride… it gave me hope for the first time that there could be a Mr. Darcy, and he would look past my family and my situation and love me anyway.” She glanced at Jonathon. “As stupid as that sounds, it gave me hope.”
He was hardly breathing. “It doesn’t sound stupid at all.”
She lifted her eyebrows in consideration of that and then let them fall. “I bet I read the library copy 50 times before I checked it back in. When I’d get home, I’d sit behind my bed and just read and read and read until the last guy left. A lot of times that was midnight or after, and then I’d go to sleep. When the librarian told me I had to give it back after I’d checked it out four time in a row, I freaked. I had to have that book.
“On the way home from school I’d walk by the soup kitchen. I was only like 13 at the time, and who’s going to hire a 13-year-old, you know? But volunteer. I thought maybe I could volunteer enough so that they might give me some pocket change that I could save and buy that book. That’s when I met Sister Clarise.” This smile was soft. “She was a reader too, and when I told her what I wanted to do, she offered to help me ‘build my library.’ That’s what she called it, and I couldn’t even imagine having a library of my own at the time, but it sounded so grown up and so wonderful that I caught onto the dream.
“We would go down on Saturday afternoon together to the used bookstore, and she’d let me pick out what I wanted in ‘payment’ for my work. I probably worked 40 hours for a two-dollar book, but I didn’t care. Those books were my lifeline. They were my sanity.”
Then a hideous darkness fell across her face again, and it was all Jonathon could do not to reach out to her. But he knew she would only brush him off, so he didn’t. Instead, he stood, listening and trying to comprehend the life she was now describing.
“When I was fifteen, I came home from school one day and found one of mom’s clients in the hallway.” Her words were once again barely breaths. It was like listening to a ghost. “He said he was waiting for her, that they had an appointment scheduled. I know this sounds so stupid, and I’ve been through that moment a million times in my head about what I should’ve done or could’ve done or whatever, but it always comes back to what I did do—I let him in.”
The pause in the story pulled every fragment of compassion in him to the surface. To be able to go back there, to that moment, and protect her—he would’ve given his life to do that. Yet, what he could do seemed so very, very insignificant in the face of everything she was telling him. Still, almost without breathing, he waited.
“I don’t know, I never knew, if he was really there to see Mom. I don’t know even now. Part of me wants to believe he was, part of me pretty much knows he wasn’t.”
This part was easier, Elizabeth reasoned. She’d managed so much distance from it in the ensuing years that it hardly seemed like she’d lived it at all. However, she wrapped her arm around herself and twined her fingers up through her hair just the same. “When it was over, he laid fifty bucks on the bed and told me he’d had better.” Her laugh started off humorous, but it raked through the emotions she’d kept buried for so long that her face crumpled into it and the tears came up again.
Be strong, Elizabeth. Guys don’t want a whiner and a complainer. For pity sakes, don’t start blubbering over all of it again. Fighting it all, she shook her hair back, trying desperately to take a breath that wouldn’t yank up more tears. And it almost worked until she looked at him. It was barely a glance, but there was such compassion and concern in his deep eyes that the tears overwhelmed her resolve.
They breached the surface almost simultaneously with the moment his arms came around her.
This time she didn’t just let him hold her. She grabbed for him, feeling the riptide of emotions yanking her down into them. “I knew it was wrong,” she gasped. “I knew what he was doing, what I was doing was wrong, but I was so scared. I was scared he would hurt me that if I didn’t do what he said…”
“Shhh.” His hand stroked slowly, gently down the full length of her hair. “Shh.”
Time ceased to exist then as tears upon tears washed over her. She’d always known they would take her down with them if she ever let them start. It’s why she’d never allowed herself to go back to that horrible moment. Now that she had, she had the sensation that she might in fact drown in the tears before the last one came up.
However, there came a time after many minutes that the tears began to release their hold on her although Jonathon never did. Several more spilled over before she could sniff and gather her wits to her again. She backed up and ran her wrist under her nose. She was a mess, and she knew it.
“I’m sorry.” Her gaze slid up to his, fighting to be steady enough to let him leave now that he knew the truth.
His gaze was rock solid on hers. “Now you listen to me, what happened that day was not your fault.” The statement was laced with anger and concern. “He took advantage of a young vulnerable child, and what happened is laid one hundred percent at his doorstep. You hear me?”
“Elizabeth.” He spoke her name with a firm command. “Don’t. Don’t do that to yourself. First of all, you were too young to make that kind of decision for yourself. Second of all, he had the weight of physical violence toward you on his side of that equation. You did what you had to do to get out of a horrible situation.”
“But I didn’t say no.”
“And you didn’t say yes either.”
Her gaze fell. After a moment and a shaky breath, her resolute resolve picked her gaze up to his. And she held it there despite the churning of the emotions inside her. “When he was gone, I put some clothes in a plastic shopping bag, grabbed my copy of Pride and left.” She didn’t want it to, but her gaze fell anyway. “I never went back.”
When she looked at him again, he was nodding. The fragments of horrible she had laid at his doorstep swam in his eyes. She hated that he knew now, that she could see in his eyes that he knew. Most of all, she hated knowing that they would be there in his eyes forever.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head and forcing a smile. “I shouldn’t have kept you so long. You really need to be getting home.”
It was those barriers again. Going up like battle raiments. She was so good at putting them up at a second’s notice. Jonathon felt the brush off, but this time, here, he wasn’t nearly so apt to respond to it the way he might have before. “Don’t do that.”
Hurt and anger dropped across her face. “What?”
“That. That pushing me away thing. You do that all the time, and I hate it.”
Genuine confusion went over her face. “No I don’t.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Determination not to be put off as easily as he had been in the past solidified inside him. “Yes, you do, Elizabeth. The second I start to get close, you go all propriety and correctness on me. Why do you do that?”
Slowly her defiant gaze fell, and it was a full 30 seconds before she said anything.
“Why are you still here?” she asked so softly the silence almost swallowed the words.
The question slammed him to a stop. “Why…?”
She shook her head back and pulled her gaze up to his. There was a challenge there and a distance. “You’re just a student of mine. Some guy I met in a class. Why are you even still here, listening to this junk? I’ve told you all this horrible stuff about me, some that I’ve never even told anybody else, and yet, you’re still here.”
Spirals of ache swirled through him, and he had to force himself not to compel her to accept the dire need he had to be present in her life. “And that’s a bad thing?”
Tired overtook her countenance. “It should be.”
“Why?” As he watched, she reached over and slid her fingers over the orange and gold curtain. It looked a million years old and about as soft.
A moment and she dropped the curtain to scratch her head. “Nobody stays.”
Confusion pummeled him. “Elizabeth, what are you talking about?”
Her gaze flickered up to his but only that. “I never really knew either of my parents, not really like most kids do anyway. My friends at school barely knew I existed. There was Sister Clarise and Dr. Avery, but they’re both gone now. I just can’t figure out why you haven’t left yet. I would have by now.”
“I don’t believe that, and neither do you.”
With a snap her gaze came to his.
“Look at you,” he said, straining to keep the emotions in check, “you practically spill your blood for your students. You work night and day. You all but live at that school. You put more effort into your classes than anyone I know, and yet you never give yourself even a second’s worth of credit for any of it.”
Anger flashed through her. “That’s because I don’t deserve it.”
“No. It’s because you won’t accept it, and that’s very different.”
The falling of her gaze yanked his heart with it.
“Don’t you see? You are a good and worthy person. Yes, junk happened to you, yes it was horrible, but you survived it, and you used it not to get bitter and angry but as a reason to help make other peoples’ lives better.” Then he did reach out to her because he couldn’t help himself. “I saw Kelsi tonight. I saw the way she looked at you—the admiration and the gratefulness, the hope that you gave her. You did that. Not Dr. Avery or even Sister Clarise. You did it.”
“I was just trying to give back what they gave me.”
“And that is the most awesome thing in the world. But, at some point, you have to realize that if all you ever do is give, eventually you will run completely dry.” His legs begged then for some rest, so he pulled her with him to the couch. “Come here.”
Seated, he angled his knees until they were almost touching hers. Then he took her hands in his. “These hands care so much, and your spirit is so in tune with life and with love that it overflows into everything you do. But you can’t give and give and give and expect not to ever need anything in return.”
“But I don’t do it to get something back.”
“I know, but when it does come back, you have to open your heart to accept it.” He lowered his gaze until it was locked with hers. “I saw you tonight, up there, and you were amazing. I mean just what you said about how our lives touch those and how we have the opportunity to help them believe in themselves. That was incredible. And you do that so naturally. Sometimes it totally blows me away. But then when people congratulate you, you act like it’s stupid for them to even say the words. That’s not fair to them, Elizabeth. It’s not. It hurts when someone wants to love you and you won’t let them. It makes them close their arms a little rather than open them more.”
That reference went all the way into her heart and knifed there. “That’s not what I’m trying to do.”
“I know.” His gaze was so soft as it held hers. “But it’s what you’re doing when you won’t let people in.”
When she took a breath, tired came over her for real. “I don’t mean to do that. I just don’t know how to do what you’re saying—how to accept.”
“I didn’t either,” he said softly. “Until this great teacher I know taught me how.”
Peaceful playfulness danced in her heart. “You think you could teach me?”
“I can try.”
Attachments based on outward appearances and proximity of connections may look good on the outside, but only those made with the heart will last into eternity. Anne found out that ultimately the love she had given to Captain Wentworth did not die for lack of these outward things that were thought so essential in her time. Instead it was her love for him that withstood everything time and the world threw at it. When she declares that a man’s love is fickle and that a woman’s love is deeper, she has no way of knowing that Wentworth too is in a conundrum of desperate unexpressed love for her. The true crux of the issue between these two is not that they do not love each other. It is that love unexpressed can never be accepted and returned. That is a gap that only total honesty can ever bridge…
Elizabeth laid her head back on her couch and looked from his paper to where he had stood by her window the night before. It was still nearly impossible to believe that those few moments hadn’t been some elaborate dream. She had told him about her past and far from running, he had asked her, challenged her to open her soul even further to him. She smiled at the thought. How could she open much more than she already had? For the first time ever, she wasn’t afraid at the prospect of doing that—with him. It made her smile a real smile that finally, at last set her soul at rest.
“So if you gave me a grade,” Jonathon said as they made their way to the library on Tuesday after class, “what would it be?”
“I can’t tell you that,” Elizabeth said for the 37th time. “All I can say is it was really good.”
“Top ten percent good? Top two good? Come on. Give me something here.”
“Ugh!” Frustrated playfulness danced through her. “You just don’t give up, do you?”
“I thought that would be obvious by now.” He opened the library door for her. “I just want to know. What? Like a 90 percent? 75? 25? What?”
She exhaled as they climbed the stairs. “In the realm of a 95. You had a couple of commas in the wrong place.”
“I hate commas.”
“I could tell.” She laughed. “Hi, Mary. How’s the book business?”
“Great. Did you hear I got that scholarship?”
Elizabeth held up her hand for Mary to hit. “Congratulations. Look out art world.”
Mary laughed. “Hi, Jonathon.”
“How’s it going, Mary?”
“Wonderful.” She looked past the bookcases. “Your table is all yours. It’s been pretty quiet up here today.”
“Thanks,” Elizabeth said, and together they headed to it. At the table, she slid her satchel to the floor.
“So other than commas, I’m in the ballpark?” Jonathon asked, sitting down.
She laughed. “Why is this so important to you?”
“Because I want to know. I’m a competitive guy. It drives me crazy not to know how I’m doing.”
When she looked over at him, she couldn’t stop the gratefulness. Carefully, she put her hand across until it was atop his wrist. “You’re doing just fine.” Pulling her hand back, she busied herself with getting her things out. “In fact, if you want to know the whole truth, you’re doing better than fine. I think you missed your calling.”
His eyebrows shot up. “English? I don’t think so. I just got lucky this time to have a very forgiving teacher who is seriously considering going out with me on Friday.”
Her busyness slowed. “Oh, yeah? Where did you hear that?”
He tilted his head to the side and gazed at her with amusement. “You didn’t hear that? Oh, yeah. It’s this wild rumor going around that she is secretly hoping I would ask her out, but I didn’t want to say anything, you know, unless she might consider saying yes.”
“And how do you know if she would consider saying yes unless you asked her?”
Pursing his lips, he thought about that. “Hm. Good question. What do you suggest?”
Taking her very sanity in her hands, she stopped her movement, then laid her arms crosswise on the table, and looked at him. “Well, I think there’s only one way to really know. I think you have to get up your courage and ask.”
He appraised her seriously. “And what if she says no?”
Elizabeth shrugged slightly. “I have it on good authority that she won’t.”
“Ah.” He lifted his chin, and for a moment her heart all but stopped. “Well, I’d better get to reading.” Breaking the spell between them, he reached down into his satchel to get out his book. “I hear this one is really good.”
Disappointment and confusion rained through her. Wasn’t he just going to ask her out? Had she misread what he was saying and humiliated herself by bolstering his ego saying she would say yes when he wasn’t even really asking what she thought he was asking? “Yes, I believe it is,” she said softly, melting back into her own world.
Several minutes passed as pushing away what he’d never really said, she forced herself to focus on the papers she had to grade. It wasn’t easy.
“So,” he said when she’d almost convinced herself nothing of the like had transpired, “what’re you doing Friday?”
She didn’t even look up as her heart slammed to life in her chest. “Nothing. Why?”
His gaze slid over her. She felt it. “What do you say we go do something?”
The smile was so soft it brushed her heart. “Okay.”
“This may not be a fair thing to bring up,” Jonathon said on Thursday, “I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but I thought that line by Wickham was interesting. ‘The world is blinded by his fortune and consequence, or frightened by his high and imposing manners, and sees him only as he chooses to be seen.’ He’s talking about Mr. Darcy of course, and there is a real effort to bring Mr. Darcy down in Elizabeth’s eyes, but it’s interesting that he uses the words ‘chooses to be seen.’”
“How so?” Elizabeth asked from down front. It was odd how comfortable this now seemed. The pretending she didn’t see him or hoping he wasn’t looking at her had stopped almost completely. She did see him, and she made no apologies for that.
“Well, Mr. Darcy looks to the outside world to be this high-minded, proud, egotistical jerk. But after you’ve read the book, when you get back to this part, you see that’s not what’s really going on. I don’t think he chooses to be seen this way so much as his distrust of why people want to be around him makes him appear as if he’s proud and hateful. I think we often misjudge people like that. We see the outside, and we assume that X behavior means they are Y. Like Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth assumes that being stand-offish and quiet means he is proud and unapproachable. But it might mean he’s shy and not very good with new situations and people.”
“It’s like he’s got steel curtains in his windows so no one can see in,” Letty said.
“Why might that be?” Elizabeth asked.
“I think it’s that rich thing,” Mr. Thomason said. “People see you’re rich, and they automatically want to be your friend, not because of you but because of your money.”
“Yeah, like what’s her name, Miss Bingley,” Mr. Cruz said. “That chick needs to seriously learn he’s not some kind of meat in the window.”
“She’s totally going to meet her match in Elizabeth though,” Letty said. “I don’t think Elizabeth’s going to take nothing off of nobody.”
“Well, Darcy’s not exactly being nice to her,” Adam said. “What’d he say at the dance that she wasn’t good enough for him? There’s a great way to win friends and influence people—not to mention get a girlfriend.”
“But he didn’t know she heard it,” Mr. Thomason said.
“Doesn’t matter. He shouldn’t have said it,” Adam said. “He was just being the stuck-up snob, and I don’t blame Elizabeth for thinking he is exactly what he acts like he is.”
“I don’t know about anybody else, but personally I’m rooting for Wickham,” Susana said. “He seems like a really good guy. Very stable, and a real gentleman. Like someone who could totally sweep a girl right off her feet and make her forget being sensible.”
“Snake oil,” Jonathon said with firm authority. “Pure snake oil, and Elizabeth would be smart to not get too attached to him because he’s not just innocent fun, he’s got a dangerous silver-tongue.”
“I’ve met a few guys like that,” Letty said. “They talk a good game, sweep you off your feet until you give them what they want, and then they’re gone before the bed’s cold.”
The statement took Elizabeth so totally off guard that she felt the color drain from her face. Fighting to recover, she shook her hair back off her shoulder. “Any other thoughts?”
“How Susana could be taken in by Wickham is beyond me!” Jonathon said with a passion infusing the words as they walked to the library that took Elizabeth by complete surprise. “He is about slick as a baby seal.”
Elizabeth narrowed her gaze at him. “Wait. Weren’t you the one arguing for Willoughby in Sense?”
“Yeah, but that’s totally different.”
“Because he wasn’t… Well, okay he was, but… So was Marianne. Not that she was bad, but she was just carefree and having fun. She wasn’t Elizabeth. Elizabeth is way too smart to fall for Wickham’s charms and schemes.” He opened the door for her.
Elizabeth shrugged as they started up the stairs. “It happens. Girls fall for the guy who talks a good game and says all the right things.”
Their greetings with Mary took precedence over the topic until they were once again at the back table.
“Well, yeah, I can see her getting taken in by him at first. I mean he’s pretty smooth about turning everything on Darcy the way he does,” Jonathon continued as if they hadn’t stopped, “but anybody that smooth should never be trusted.”
“Well, how do you differentiate between someone who is smooth and shouldn’t be trusted and someone who is truly gallant and suave?”
“You give them the chance to show their true colors and you watch very carefully. Who somebody really is will always come to light. My dad used to say, ‘Always listen to a man’s actions more than to his words. Actions show a man’s true character no matter what he says.’” Jonathon shrugged. “Of course, he was a fine one to talk.”
Elizabeth wanted to ask. The question was right there, but the words stuck in her throat. “Don’t you think that’s easier said than done?”
“Of course. But surely you’ve known a few people who were super-charming at first but who turned out to be less than upstanding when you got to know them.”
Her gaze fell to her fingers resting on her satchel.
“Take me for example,” he continued as if his talk button was set on fast forward. “There was a time I could and would sell an oceanfront view in Omaha for the right price. I’m not proud of that now, but I could, and I did. I was never outwardly malicious with it, just not always upright and honest about it, but I could have been if I’d wanted to—just like Wickham.”
The center of her stomach turned over. “What about those you conned? Did you ever think of them?”
He sat without saying anything for a solid minute. “Conned may be going a little far, but no, I didn’t really think about them much at all until recently. Look up the term selfish in the dictionary, and my picture used to be smiling back at you.” He pulled forward on his elbows. “This is really bad, but I always kind of thought people who were dumb enough to listen to me deserved what they were getting. It was an ego boost in a lot of ways. I didn’t really care about them—just how they had what I wanted and what did I have to say or do to get talk them into giving it to me.”
It was then, as Jonathon watched her, that the understanding she was again withdrawing into her shell crawled over him. He exhaled and shook his head. “I’m sorry. Too much information there, I’m sure.”
“No.” She shook her head and bit her bottom lip. “No. It’s not that.”
The distance in her voice ran him through. A moment and he pulled forward as concern for the ashen look on her face gripped him. “Then what is it?”
Her glance up did nothing to assuage the understanding that he’d really messed up this time. What was he thinking telling her all of that? That’s a great way to sweep her off her feet, Jonathon—I’m a certified jerk, want to go out with me?
“Elizabeth?” Keeping the worry and the guilt from his voice was impossible.
“Why do guys do that?”
The question pushed him backward. “Do what?”
Her shoulder came up near her ear. “Why do they do that to girls? Don’t they realize what that does when you let yourself trust them like that?”
He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
With a close of her eyes, she withdrew further. “Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
“No.” Picking his chair up, he moved it around the table to just perpendicular to her. “You know by now that I want to know—good, bad, horrible. I don’t care. If it’s bothering you, I want to know.”
She looked at him with sad, scared eyes, and then let her gaze fall to her fingers. “You remember Dr. Nevell? The guy who showed up here that day.”
“The condescending jerk with the doctorate in arrogant conceit? Yeah, I remember.”
Slowly Elizabeth wound her hair over her ear. “He was my Wickham.”
Jonathon’s heart fell at the hurt in her voice. His whole attention locked to her. “How so?”
For the longest moment of his life, she simply sat there, staring at her fingers which weren’t moving along with the rest of her which wasn’t moving. Then she exhaled, and he braced himself for the worst.
“I had just started graduate school. He was the top graduate assistant, kind of the coordinator of the graduate teachers.” She continued staring at her fingers and how anyone could be so, so still, he had no idea. It worried him more than he could put into words. No tears. No fit. No movement. Just hollow and heartbreaking words. “After one of my classes one day, he asked me out for coffee. I thought we were going to talk lesson plans and grading systems. He had other ideas.” This exhale was short and required only to keep her words coming. “I knew him before that, of course, and I’d always respected him. Everybody did. He seemed so together and charming. Just the kind of guy I’d always hoped to find.”
She glanced up, presumably to see if he was still listening. She needn’t have worried. Her gaze fell before she continued. “He told me he really liked me, and like an idiot, I was so flattered I would’ve driven off a cliff for him.” This exhale was wrapped around pain and tears.
He heard both, and gently slipped his hand over hers.
Sniffing once, she came back to center. “I don’t think it was more than three days before he talked me into going back to my place after class.” The disturbing numbness returned. Then quietly, she laughed a sad, sarcastic snort. “He didn’t even leave fifty dollars.” Defeated surrender slid through her eyes when she looked at him. “I was so stupid. I really thought he loved me…”
It required no thought at all as he moved to her. “Hey. Shh. Come here.” His hand slid to her neck and then to her shoulder as he pulled her into his embrace. Her tears were silent but made her quake just the same. He buried his nose and mouth into the undulating curls that slid down both shoulders, holding her grief and nuzzling right to her ear. “Nevell is a first class idiot. Don’t let him pull you down to his level.”
“But I should’ve known better.”
“And so should’ve he. He had no right to do that.” Jonathon moved back slightly so he could look at her. “Now, you listen to me. Running yourself into the ground and not trusting yourself now because of what happened back then aren’t going to give you that choice back. The question is not did you make a mistake. The question is, did you learn from it?”
She wiped her eyes and nodded. “The hard way.”
He didn’t laugh, didn’t so much as smile. “But you learned, right?”
Her smile was careworn and sad. “Yeah. I definitely learned.”
He looked up at her hair and brushed it tenderly from her forehead. “Then I think it’s time to forgive you for that mistake and move on.” His gaze came back to hers as hers lifted to his. Softly he smiled at her. “Don’t you think?”
A moment, another, and then she nodded. A pain-filled smile came to her face followed in the next second by a wave of tears. Without words, he simply pulled her back into his embrace, his brain saying only one thing over and over, No wonder.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2008