And the Heart is Brave

Chapter 29

It was a few nights later, when things had returned to normal, that Nathan and Elizabeth sat out on her front stoop as was their custom. The front door was ajar so Elizabeth would hear Little Jack if he awoke and Allie was sleeping over at Emily's house. The pair sat quietly together, deep in conversation. Nathan had explained to Elizabeth all that had transpired with his father, and his sincere hope that his father had left for good.

"I'm sorry about all this," Nathan was saying about the unpleasantness with his father the past several weeks. "Things might...things might still be difficult for a while," he conceded, knowing that some of the townsfolk had doubts about him now, knowing about his father's criminal background. Doubts about him and his suitability to be a Mountie.

"Nathan, everyone I know knows that you are a good man, a good Mountie," Elizabeth countered. "And those that don't, well, they will come around soon I'm sure. You have done nothing but good things for this town. You have been very protective of us," Elizabeth said, just now realizing the source and depth of Nathan's protectiveness. "You are nothing like your father," she told him. "You are kind, and gentle, and patient and loving," she rhymed off in praise.

Nathan sat quietly, taking in her words. For a long time, words had been hurtful things in his life, the basis rooted in his childhood, but Elizabeth's words were different. She had a gift for them, he knew, a gift for writing, but there was this too. The ways she used her words like she did now, as a soothing balm over the cracks of his hurting heart. And he had never heard the ones she spoke of now in relation to himself before. But it was almost as if they must be so, they must be true, because she said they were.

"Thank you, Elizabeth," he said, looking over to her and swallowing hard, more than gratitude in his eyes. He went to set his coffee cup down and winced a little at the pain in his shoulder. It was an old injury, and the night air had set it to aching.

"Is your shoulder bothering you again?" Elizabeth asked, immediately recognizing the tell-tale signs, even though Nathan had tried to mask it.

"No, it's fine," Nathan denied the pain. Elizabeth made a harumph sound, then got up and disappeared into the house a moment. When she returned she held a small pan in her hands, a white cloth and a bottle of liniment. Nathan's eyes grew wide as she sat down beside him.

"What are you going to do?" he asked.

"What does it look like I'm going to do?" she asked.

"Elizabeth, you can't!" he exclaimed, shocked now. She couldn't put liniment on his shoulder.

"Why not?" Elizabeth countered.

"You know why not," Nathan breathed quietly. It wasn't proper. They weren't married, not even engaged. She could not do something so...intimate...to him.

Elizabeth struggled a moment herself, propriety at war with wanting to help, to ease his pain. "Well, you can't put it on yourself," she said with practicality. He couldn't reach there, behind his shoulder. "You don't have to take your shirt off, just take the one arm out," she said. Maybe that would be a compromise to his objections?

Still Nathan hesitated and Elizabeth took a deep breath to add, "If you're worried I'll see your scars, I already know about them," she said matter-of-factly, looking to meet Nathan's startled eyes. "Allie told me," she informed him.

Nathan's jaw worked a second. "Seems like Allie tells you everything," he noted.

Elizabeth nodded. "She does. She confides in me," Elizabeth said.

Nathan sighed. He was glad of that. Glad Allie had someone to confide in, someone she felt safe enough to do that with and especially if that someone was Elizabeth. And if he and Elizabeth were on this path that he thought they were, then someday she would see his scars. She would see them then. So maybe it was better to get it over with now. Slowly Nathan nodded his head. He drew the suspender from the arm closest to Elizabeth down over his shoulder then began to unbutton his shirt, as Elizabeth turned to place the bowl, cloth and liniment bottle just behind them. As Nathan maneuvered his arm out of his sleeve, Elizabeth reached to hold the edge of his shirt and then let it drape down over his back as she tilted her head to look at his arm and shoulder. Much of his back was hidden but Elizabeth could still see them. Fine lines criss-crossed randomly on his skin, one particularly thick and jagged one curling up and over his shoulder. She tried not to show any reaction, but it was difficult, difficult to think of anyone doing this to a child.

As Elizabeth silently inspected his scars, Nathan stared straight ahead, his jaw clenched. He felt Elizabeth reach a finger out to touch one of his scars, to run her finger along its length, and he closed his eyes against the tenderness of her touch, such tenderness in a place he had only ever known pain. And then he felt it. The featherlight touch of her lips there, and his breath caught painfully. He turned his head away, his emotions roiling inside him as he averted his face from hers.

Elizabeth had leaned in to kiss the scar on Nathan's shoulder almost out of instinct for hers was a heart made to soothe a hurting child and she could not resist even this long-ago one. She looked up to see Nathan avert his head and she reached a hand to the far side of face, pulling his eyes back to hers. "No, Nathan," she said. "Don't turn away. Don't turn away from love," she told him softly, the words carried to him on a whisper, her eyes deep pools of the very love she spoke of.

And then Nathan saw it too. Saw the love in her eyes and now it was his turn. His turn to act on instinct, unable to resist the draw of her sweetness, her tenderness, her love. He leaned forward and brought his lips to hers, this, their second kiss, so very different from their first. For as much tenderness as Elizabeth had shown to him, he now returned to her as his mouth lightly played over hers and he brought a hand to the side of her face, his thumb gently caressing her cheek. A moment later, they pulled back, and their eyes locked for a time, knowing an important moment had passed between them. Elizabeth gave a slight nod, then turned to reach for the liniment, and began to work the lid loose.

"Now you tell me if I hurt you," she said, wanting Nathan to tell her if she hurt his shoulder when she applied the liniment. But Nathan understood a deeper meaning to her words, and he would reply in kind. That unlike his father, this was someone he could put his faith in, his trust in, and so he told her so. He met and held her gaze as he spoke the words, certain of their truth.

"Don't worry, Elizabeth. You won't hurt me."