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And the Heart is Brave

Chapter 30

"Well, I'm glad things are back to normal," Rosemary Coulter said to her friend as they sat sipping tea in her rowhouse. "It must have been very difficult for Nathan with his father here," she opined.

"It was," Elizabeth conceded. She had told Rosemary some of the things between Nathan and his father, but not all of it. Some of it was Nathan's private business and she would not divulge all of it, even to her best friend. But Rosemary understood that things had been difficult. And that things were harder now for Nathan as a Mountie too. Some of the townsfolk had become less trusting and less certain of him now that the information about his father had come to light.

"But you know Lee and I totally support Nathan," Rosemary was saying. "The stuff about his father makes no difference to us," she said.

"Thank you, Rosemary," Elizabeth said. "I appreciate that. And so does Nathan."

"So...speaking of Nathan," Rosemary slightly changed the topic. "How are things going there?" she asked with a knowing smile.

"Things are good...things are fine," Elizabeth prevaricated.

"And...?" Rosemary prompted.

"And I think...I think I may have told him I loved him," Elizabeth stammered as Rosemary's eyes grew wide.

"What do you mean...you think?" how was it possible to only "think" you told someone you loved them.

Elizabeth thought back to the moment. When Nathan had showed her his scars. And she'd said don't turn away from love. That was when. She hadn't really meant to say it, it had just come out, it was something that had felt right and natural to say so she had. And of course, nothing was ever clear cut and direct with Nathan, she was discovering that. So was it any wonder that her proclamation had been a bit obscure too. "Well..."Elizabeth said. "We were talking and I may have said something about 'love'," she explained.

"And did Nathan say 'something about love' in return?" Rosemary asked.

"Not in so many words," Elizabeth said. No, he had kissed her instead. A very sweet, very tender kiss. But there had been no words spoken in return. But that didn't mean he didn't feel the same way she did. She could tell. She could tell from his kiss that he did. At Rosemary's inquiring look, she added, "I'm sure he will, when the time is right. I'm sure he will," she said in a reassuring voice, either for Rosemary or herself, she wasn't sure.

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It was a week later and Elizabeth was scrambling around inside her rowhouse getting ready. Today was the town picnic and they were going together...her, Nathan, Allie and Little Jack. Elizabeth knew the town knew about her and Nathan, knew they were courting, knew they spent a lot of time together, but going to the town picnic together...well, that definitely made things official.

As she filled her picnic basket, there was a light rap on the door. Elizabeth opened it to find Nathan and Allie on her doorstep. Nathan was dressed in a cream coloured shirt and he wore suspenders over his dark trousers. Although the look was mostly casual, he wore a string tie at his collar signifying the specialness of the occasion. Allie was dressed in a pretty blue dress, her hair worn down but a section from each side pulled back and tied at the back of her head.

"Nathan! Allie!" Elizabeth exclaimed lightly. She was dressed in her favourite pink skirt, a lacy white blouse up top. "You're a little early. I'm just finishing packing the basket," she said. There would be sandwiches, and pie, and hard-cooked eggs with a cream filling, and potato salad, and cold fried chicken and several large mason jars of lemonade. Elizabeth beckoned the pair inside as she scrambled to finish filling the basket...well, actually it was two baskets as it didn't all fit into just one. Little Jack, sensing the fun afoot, had taken to running around the room, a stuffed toy in his hand, squealing in delight at his own made-up game, and as Elizabeth darted from place to place in her preparations she occasionally skidded to a stop to prevent herself from colliding with her son when their paths intersected.

"I'm sorry things are a little chaotic," Elizabeth called over her shoulder as she apologized to Nathan. She'd had a time of it today getting Little Jack ready, he'd been a real handful, he in his brown pants, white shirt and miniature sized suspenders, and it had put her behind in preparing the picnic baskets. She had told Nathan to leave it to her, that she wanted to prepare the basket for the outing today. Knowing his cooking she thought it was a wise offer. And she had to admit, even though things had gotten a bit out of hand and chaotic, she had enjoyed it. There was something about the idea of them all going off on this adventure together that she found exciting. So what if it was just a church picnic, it still felt exciting to her.

"Please, Elizabeth, take your time," Nathan was saying. "Can we help at all?" he asked.

"You can put that one basket in the wagon. It's ready to go," she told him. They were taking a buckboard to the picnic. It was a distance away and it would be easier than carrying Little Jack and the baskets the whole way.

"Right," said Nathan, reaching for a basket on the table, before Elizabeth forestalled him.

"Not that one, the other one," she corrected with authority, when he reached for the wrong one.

The corner of Nathan's mouth lifted in a smile. "Right," he said again, getting used to her orders.

As Nathan took the correct basket outside, Elizabeth finished packing the one remaining on the table. She looked around her, running her hands down her skirt, trying to think if she'd remembered everything. Suddenly she spotted Allie waiting patiently by the door. Allie in her pretty blue dress. "Allie, I have a hair ribbon the same colour as your dress. Would you like to wear it? I can go get it," Elizabeth offered.

Allie's eyes lit up. She liked this. She liked when Mrs. Thornton fussed over her, like she was doing now. "Yeah! Sure!" she replied enthusiastically.

Elizabeth smiled, then reached into a nearby drawer and pulled out a robin's egg blue ribbon which was, in fact, the same colour as Allie's dress. She approached Allie, then reached her hands to Allie's arms to spin her around as she began to tie the ribbon into the knot of hair at the back of Allie's head. When Nathan reappeared a moment later, Elizabeth silently tilted her head to the other basket on the table, and he did as he was bid, carrying it out to the waiting wagon, returning just as Elizabeth was finishing up with the ribbon in Allie's hair.

"There now," Elizabeth said, turning the girl around and smoothing her hair from the front. "A pretty ribbon for the girl with the pretty hair," she smiled as Allie beamed at the praise. "Now, could you take Little Jack outside with you and watch him a minute till we're ready?" she asked, as Allie nodded happily. Elizabeth laughed as Allie went to get Little Jack, watching as the girl chased her son for a moment as he raced around the room before she caught up to him. My, but Little Jack was a handful today, Elizabeth shook her head, then watched Allie pick the child up and carry him outside.

Elizabeth looked over at Nathan, who was looking askance at Elizabeth, wondering if there was anything else for him to do. "You," Elizabeth pointed at him and then at a spot not far away. "Over there and wait," she ordered. Nathan's eyes widened. Had she just ordered him to stand in a spot and wait? Not quite understanding, he moved to do as she'd commanded, then watched as Elizabeth turned and pulled open a drawer. She reached inside and pulled out a fabric-padded box. She lifted the lid and retrieved a button and a threaded needle from inside.

"You're missing a button," she told him as she came over to him. Nathan quickly looked down at his shirt, just now noticing the gaping spot.

"I guess I am," he conceded. "I knew a button was loose. I didn't know it had fallen off," he noted.

Elizabeth tried to contain her smirk. "You knew it was loose but you didn't think to fix it?"

"Hey, I was hoping it would hold. I try to be optimistic when I can," he teased, the corner of his mouth lifting into a crooked smile.

Elizabeth shook her head. "Optimistic, my eye," she teased with a scoff. They were smiling at each other now before Elizabeth glanced back down to his shirt. "Now hold still," she commanded.

"Elizabeth, you don't have to..." Nathan began to protest. She didn't have to do this. This...fussing over him. She'd just finished fussing over Allie with that hair ribbon and now here she was fussing over him.

"I said hold still!" Elizabeth said again, more of an order this time. She looked up at him and held up the sewing needle between her thumb and index finger, rotating it around a few times for effect. "I'm holding a weapon, Nathan Grant, and I won't be responsible for what happens if you don't hold still!" she threatened with mock severity.

Nathan did the only thing he could. He held still and uttered a mumbled "Yes, Ma'am."

Elizabeth hid a smile, pleased with herself, then got to work affixing the button. It didn't take long, a few passes of the needle through his shirt and button, then she knotted off the end and reached for a small pair of scissors to nip the thread. "There," she said at the completion. "I'm optimistic that will hold," she couldn't resist saying as Nathan turned his head a tad to squint at her. Seems like she was getting the best of him, as usual. Thinking better of it than to counter her claim, Nathan merely smiled and said, "Thank you, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth nodded, then reached for her shawl. "Let's go," she said, heading out the door as Nathan followed, closing the door behind him.

At the wagon, Elizabeth took Little Jack from Allie's arms, waiting until Allie had climbed up onto the wagon seat, with Nathan assisting his niece. Then Elizabeth lifted her small son up to stand just in front of the bench and Allie reached her arms over to hold him still. Now it was Elizabeth's turn to climb the wagon, as she drew up her skirts with one hand and used the other to clasp the side of the wagon. Nathan reached his hands to her sides just above her waist to give her an extra boost up and a small jolt coursed through Elizabeth at his touch, a slight inhalation of breath the only outward sign of his affect on her. Once up at the wagon seat, Elizabeth immediately reached for her son, then sat beside Allie and pulled her son onto her lap. Finally Nathan untied the horses' reigns from the post, and brought them back with him, laying them over the horses' backs, before he too climbed the wagon and sat next to Elizabeth. He turned to look to make sure everyone was ready, seated properly, the picnic baskets loaded securely behind them, then he gently rapped the reigns on the horses' backs and they began their trek to the picnic spot.

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Nathan didn't know quite when it had begun, but at some point during the picnic he had begun to watch Elizabeth. From his spot sitting on the picnic blanket, his back against a tree and his legs straight in front of him and his arms and ankles casually crossed, assorted picnic offerings surrounding him and his belly replete, he watched her.

Little Jack had fallen and he ran to his mother holding his palms out to her. Elizabeth brushed the dirt and pebbles from her son's palms, then bent to lightly kiss each one, before her son, satisfied with his mother's attentions, turned to run and resume his activity. Then a group of the school children came to her, wanting her to organize a game for them and she did so willingly and enthusiastically. Later, when Florence and Molly were bemoaning how quickly their pies had disappeared, Elizabeth had offered one of her own, one of several she had brought. And on and on it seemed to go. Elizabeth was here, there, and everywhere, always helpful and giving assistance. Always, always...giving. And it seemed she enjoyed it, seemed like she relished being helpful, but something niggled in Nathan's mind. Something he was just beginning to see, to be aware of. And he mulled on it long and hard that afternoon.

It was a tired group that trudged home that day. Back into the wagon, back to the rowhouses. The children were tired out from the day's activities and it was already growing dark when the buckboard pulled up in front of the rowhouses. As the weary group disembarked, this time in reverse order than they'd left, Elizabeth remarked, "I think I'd better get Little Jack straight to bed. He's already half-asleep." And it was true, the little boy was already nodding off in his mother's arms. "Allie, you come too," Elizabeth instructed. Allie was going to sleep over. They had plans to go fishing tomorrow, just Elizabeth and Allie, and they would be getting up very early in the morning. While Elizabeth took the children into the house, Nathan got to work unloading the wagon and bringing the now-emptied baskets inside. He watched Elizabeth usher the children up the stairs and then he waited.

It was a short while later than Elizabeth came slowly down the stairs. "I can't believe it, but they're both asleep," she said when she reached the bottom. "I guess all that running around really tired them out," she said.

"Elizabeth, are you sure it's okay for Allie to stay?" Nathan asked, wondering that she was doing even more now. More than what he'd seen today already.

"Nathan, it's fine, she's already asleep so she's no trouble. Plus we are going fishing tomorrow, remember? I promised I'd go with her and try it out. I've never fished before," Elizabeth said, her eyes twinkling. Allie was excited to show her her favourite activity and Elizabeth was game to give it a try.

There's another thing, Nathan thought. Another things she's doing for someone else. Nathan exhaled with his thoughts.

"Can I...can I do anything here for you tonight?" he asked, for some reason wanting to help, to do something to be helpful.

"No, everything's fine, Nathan," she told him with a smile. "Oh, you can take that basket with you. That one's yours," she pointed to one of the picnic baskets on the table, reminding him she had borrowed one of his baskets to pack.

Nathan nodded. "Okay," he said. He could tell Elizabeth was tired from the long day too and it was best he got going. He reached for the basket, then turned from the room, heading out the door as Elizabeth followed him down the steps. At the bottom, they stopped, and Elizabeth stood with her back to the railing with Nathan facing her.

"It was fun today, Elizabeth. Thank you for everything you did," Nathan told her, wanting to thank her but finding the words inadequate.

Elizabeth nodded. "I had fun too," she said simply. Nathan eyed her a moment then turned to leave. He only got three steps away when he turned to look back at her, still leaning against the railing as she watched him leave, and the thoughts niggled in Nathan's mind again. The ones from this afternoon. Suddenly, he leaned to the side to set the basket down.

"Nathan?" Elizabeth asked, wondering why he had stopped, why he was looking at her so oddly.

"Elizabeth, I watched you today," Nathan began as he took a deep breath. "I watched you take care of everyone. Allie, Little Jack, me," he said, touching his shirt where she'd sewn his button. "The children at the picnic, everyone. You helped everyone," he noted, as Elizabeth eyed him quizzically, wondering what this was all about. "And you were always so kind...so tender," he smiled at the word. "And I just...I just can't help thinking...," he said as walked a wide circle back in her direction, drawing closer as he finished his words. "I can't help thinking...who is caring for you? Who is tender with you?" he asked.

Elizabeth blinked at Nathan, not sure what he meant, but sensing he thought there was something amiss...that there was something she was lacking. "I'm alright, Nathan," she told him, trying allay whatever worry it was he had.

"Are you?" Nathan quickly countered. "Are you alright?" he said again. "Because everyone needs love and care and tenderness, Elizabeth," he said. "You most of all," he summed. Her most of all, after what she had been through. Her loss and her pain.

"Nathan, I..." Elizabeth trailed off, feeling something rise inside her, something she had tried to push down for a long time. It was as if Nathan was looking deep into her soul, deeper than anyone had in a very long time. And if she had seen his scars a week ago, it was like he was now seeing hers. The scars of her pain and loss. Nathan stood before her now, a breath apart, their eyes locked. Elizabeth swallowed. "Nathan, what are you saying?" she asked.

Nathan watched her a second with intensity, then replied, "This." He leaned towards her and brought his lips to her forehead in a tender kiss, held it a moment, then moved an inch away and pressed another beside the first. What was he doing? Elizabeth wondered. It was an assault on her senses, a tender assault and oh how gentle he was being. Elizabeth drew in a quick breath when next his lips pressed against her temple and she instinctively raised her face slightly to his and grew very still. He didn't touch her anywhere else, but she felt and knew only him, all of her senses tuned to him alone. She didn't notice the night air ruffling the hem of her skirt or the tendrils of her hair wafting on the breeze around her. It was only him she knew.

"Nathan, I..." Elizabeth tried again, trying to make sense of it all, but Nathan wouldn't let her.

"Shhhh," he quieted her. "Shhhh...I'm not finished being tender," he told her, explaining, as the kisses to her face continued, trailing over her cheek now. He let his kisses explain. That for so long Elizabeth had been giving to others, and that now it was her turn, her turn for the love and tenderness she gave to everyone else.

Finally, Nathan touched her. He brought a hand to the side of her face, his thumb on her cheek as his continued trailing gentle kisses across her face. To her brow next. Elizabeth's chest began to rise and fall with her breaths and she lowered her eyelids, accepting his gentle ministrations, And then she felt it there, a tender kiss on her closed eyelid and her chin trembled with some raw emotion, as a tear threatened then finally escaped from under her lashes to roll down her cheek.

Nathan felt the tear on his thumb and he brushed it away. "No tears. Elizabeth," he told her, his words a mere whisper and Elizabeth felt his breath on her face, soft and warm. "Not anymore," he said, the meaning clear. For a long while now there had been tears in her heart. The ones no one else saw, the ones that he did.

And then the words came. "Elizabeth," Nathan said softly between the kisses. "Elizabeth, I have love and tenderness I've been saving up my whole life," he told her. Then he pulled slightly away to look to her eyes, waiting for her to raise her own to his. "And they're yours. If you want them. If you'll let me," he simultaneously offered his love and waited for her permission to give it.

It was as if he offered himself as the sweet remedy to her pain and as Elizabeth searched his eyes she felt herself begin to slowly nod acceptance to him. It was then that Nathan's eyes traveled from hers to her lips and then he leaned in close once again and brought his mouth to hers. It was gentle and tender at first, as his other kisses had been, but then it soon deepened. Elizabeth felt herself lean into him, melt into him, and she raised herself higher on her toes and brought her hands up his chest, her palms flat, until her hands met each other behind his neck. Nathan brought his hand away from her face and reached it and his other arm around her back, pulling her tightly to him. He kissed her one way, then raised his head slightly to tilt the kiss in the opposite direction, his lips moving over hers, a gentle play of twisting, pressure, only to release slightly then press again, always giving, never far away. It was a moment later that Nathan reluctantly pulled away, one of them had to, and Elizabeth settled slowly back on her feet, reversing her palms down his chest. Nathan stood looking at her, not breaking his gaze, and slowly, very slowly, the corners of his mouth tugged into a tender smile that reached his eyes and he waited. Waited for her to return his smile, for her acknowledgement of what was now between them. It didn't take Elizabeth long to answer with a smile of her own, hers mirroring his, as it widened across her face, followed even by one or two eruptions of laughter. The kind that signified joy. And her eyes were bright as she gazed back him, bright with something that might have looked to be unshed tears, but were something else entirely.

Still smiling, Nathan took a step away, his hand travelling down her arm to her hand. He brought her hand to his face, then turned his head to kiss her palm. More serious now, he took more steps away, still holding her hand, until their arms were stretched out long before them and he finally released her hand. He leaned to the side, picking up the discarded picnic basket, then stood a moment watching her. Then he turned and left, the dark night air swallowing him up as he departed.

Elizabeth watched him go from her place standing at the bottom of the stairs. Slowly she brought her hand back to herself, and placed it flat to her belly as she took in a long, deep breath. Of course it had been like this, she thought. This was Nathan. This was his way. No grand gestures, no ardent declarations, just this simple offering of himself, of his love, with these simple words and actions.

Elizabeth took another steadying breath, then turned to the stairs, pulling up her skirts as she ascended, then opened the door. She entered her house and closed the door behind her.