Things had been getting more difficult. It had started soon after the accident when Jack had been knocked off of his horse and almost drowned with the heavy rains and flooding the year before. Elizabeth had been so incredibly terrified she was going to lose him. She still scarcely believed he had survived it all and would find herself glancing sideways at him or reaching out to touch him to reassure herself that he was not just a figment of her imagination for at least 6 months after the day he awoke to her leaning over him. She felt like after everything they had been through, they were as good as married and that meant staying in control was harder and harder to do.
But, then, he had taken the call to head to the Northern Territories. She had watched the inner battle within him to do what was right for them and what he felt was his duty for his position and his country. He knew that he could stay behind; he had his lifetime assignment. But, she had seen how torn he felt knowing what was going on up there while he stayed comfortably with her and eventually, she knew that she had to let him go. She had long accepted that she could not control what happened to him and had instead decided that she would spend her days in the here and now, thanking God and Providence for every moment they shared together, praying to share a long life, but knowing that if something happened, she would have enough memories to last her a lifetime. Truth be told, she had admired his sense of loyalty and duty and it had made him all the more attractive to her, knowing that he would always meet life's challenges head on with determination to do what was right. It had made her desire him even more, but the events leading up to his departure, including his proposal, had happened so quickly, she didn't have time to worry about propriety. Their final kiss on the street had been just a prelude to what she had wanted to do, but with the whole town watching, it had instead been about conveying feelings than squelching desires.
But now he was home. He had left her with a broken heart, but a ring on her finger, several months before. His letters had been few; there was no time to write often and the postal service up there was mediocre at best. But, what he did write about was what he envisioned for their life together and very little about the conditions he faced. He had left in the spring, but had returned 10 months later, after spending days and nights in the brutal cold. But, that frigid weather was what had finally given the Mounties the advantage they needed and they had been able to flush out the criminals simply because they had been better supplied to survive the harsh conditions of subzero temperatures and cutting winds.
Even though he had been back for several days, he still didn't talk much about what had happened up there. She had tried at first to drag it out of him, thinking that he may want to talk about it, but felt it was something she would not want to hear, so he kept it inside as to not worry her unnecessarily. But, instead, he had told her that it was over and done with now and he really didn't want to have to rehash it; that he was far more interested in focusing on their future together than his time in the frozen tundra amidst the other men, horses, snow and both bitter cold and loneliness. He had stayed alive and focused by imaging her in his arms, in front of their fire, and now that he had made it back, he never wanted to entertain the memories of the experience again.
When he had ridden back, he hadn't even stopped at the livery to drop off his horse or the jail to clean up. Several people had tried to stop him and speak to him as he rode through town, but all he would do was wave politely without even slowing down; he was a man on a mission. He was not going to stop until he reached her front door.
It had been early evening when he had jumped off his horse and bolted up the front steps before pounding on the door. Elizabeth had been preparing to cook her supper when she had been surprised and a bit frightened by the commotion and was hesitant to see who was on the other side. With a racket like that, her heart stood still, as it was obviously someone who had something very important to tell her. Her knees buckled slightly when she made it to the portal and threw the lock, the thought that it was perhaps Abigail, Bill or even Frank coming to tell her some awful news about Jack forefront in her mind, but she drew upon the years of good breeding and education to steady herself for whatever storm awaited her on the other side of the thick wood.
When she opened the door, she let out a small squeak of recognition before flying into his arms; the impact was almost enough to throw them both off of the porch. She had her arms wrapped tightly around him, her hands clasped behind his neck as she smothered him with kisses. Even her legs, which were restricted by her long skirts, had managed to wind themselves around his ankles, so she clung to him like a very long knapsack. His arms encircled her waist, his lips finding hers, both of them completely unaware of the small semi-circle of fellow residents who had gathered around to welcome him home and were watching their embrace.
Eventually, they came up for air and she smiled shyly at him to which he responded by swinging her around in the air, his joy apparent. When he put her down, she reached up and grabbed his face between her hands and gave him a scorching kiss, absolutely oblivious to anything but her desire for him. Without even seeing those who had gathered, he grabbed his bag and put an arm around her shoulders, leading her in through her front door and shutting it firmly behind them.
He led her straight to the settee, where he made sure she sat and then joined her. He couldn't get close enough to her. He wanted to feel every inch of her on him, needing her presence to make this feel real instead of another dream. He had dreamed of her nightly; sometimes his dreams were so vivid and heated he worried that he had revealed way too much to his fellow bunkmates. There were times when he could swear her naked body was lying next to his, limbs entangled, her silky hair draped across his torso, her hand gently stroking him, and he was sure that he had not been silent before he awoke in a fog of sweat, delirium and desire. Thankfully, no one ever said anything directly to him, but he was sure it was only because he was a commanding officer. He had spent enough time around the other men that he knew that if he had been a rookie, he would have never heard the end of the nocturnal liberties to which he had alluded to in his dreams.
After he kissed her a few more times, his hand cupped around her cheek, his fingers entangled in the hair at the base of her neck, he looked up and asked her, "Do you have anything on the stove?"
She merely bit her lip and shook her head, before delving back into his soft mouth, covering his with her own and sucking his bottom lip gently. As the kiss grew in fervor, he knew he ought to stop her, but he didn't want to. Instead, he had merely assisted her when she had clamored up onto his lap, her fingers playing with the longer-than-normal hair at the back of his neck.
He rubbed her back as they kissed some more, his hands studying the boning on her corset and the softer flesh in the panels between. As she slipped her tongue into his mouth, he let out an involuntary groan and pulled her closer to him. After a few more minutes, something dawned on him.
"Elizabeth?" he asked her, to which she responded with a "Hmmm?" without ever taking her lips off of his.
He laughed softly when he attempted to pull back to talk to her and she had just followed him, unwilling to separate. "Elizabeth…," he tried again.
"Yes?" she answered, sounding drowsy with longing.
"It just dawned on me that I haven't had a bath or a shave in I don't know how long! I must smell something horrible. I can't even imagine… Sweat, horse, mud… Sweetheart, I should really go home and get cleaned up."
"No," she told him simply.
"But, Elizabeth…," he tried again.
"You always smell like horse, so that is nothing new. You have come from the cold in the Northern Territories, so you couldn't have sweated much, and most importantly, it wouldn't matter if you did. Now that I have you, I am never letting you go again!"
He laughed at her. "Is that so?" he teased, his eyes dancing with mischief.
"Well, I have to go home eventually. I can't stay here; we aren't married."
"At this point, Jack, I really don't care!"
"Well, I do. I don't want to be responsible for ruining your reputation!"
"I think everyone in town would understand," she countered.
"I think that is being very optimistic, my darling. I can name five people right now on one hand who would be in a tizzy if they thought anything unseemly was happening here, Florence being number one on that list."
"So, what she doesn't know won't hurt her!"
"Elizabeth…," he tried again, hoping that he sounded more determined than he felt. "Honestly, sweetheart, I know we have never talked about our… expectations… but I always assumed that you would want to remain pure until you were married."
"Would you care if I wasn't?" she asked and it caught him off guard. He knew that they had never done anything terribly inappropriate together, but it dawned on him that he really had no idea about her courting life before they met and he had to shut his eyes against the sudden vision of Charles and her lying together indisposed.
"No…," he answered slowly. "Not really."
"Not really?" she asked him.
"No, I would be surprised, because I thought you were, but I guess it wouldn't matter one way or the other. I love you!"
She studied him for a long time, her head cocked to one side, her contemplation of his words apparent on her face until he could see the exact second she came to the conclusion that he was telling her the truth.
Then, it came out of the blue. The question he had been dreading for a long time and had hoped he would never have to answer.
"What about you?"
"I'm sorry?" he tried to stall.
"I said, 'What about you?'"
"What about me?" he asked, trying to be coy, hoping to redirect her.
"What about you, Jack? Will you be pure on our wedding night?"
His stomach sank. He had never wanted to lie so much in his life, but he knew that if they were going to be married, he had to tell her the truth. "Sadly, no." he answered quietly.
"What?" she asked, jumping off of his lap and standing in front of him.
"Just what I said."
He watched her intently, wondering what her next move would be.
Then, the other shoe dropped; the truly dreaded question. "Who was she?" she whispered, even though she had a pretty good idea and it made her feel like she had a stone in her stomach.
"Who?" she asked again when he seemed to hesitate in answering.
He looked absolutely miserable, almost like he wanted to cry. He glanced up at her, still standing in front of him, hands on her hips, and she reminded of him of when he was a child, being scolded for some infraction, wishing he could just sink down through the chair and floor.
He stared down at the hardwood beneath his feet. "Rosie," he answered quietly, his face scrunched up like he was awaiting a slap that never came. After a few seconds, he opened one eye and saw her looking at him, her hands down by her sides, like a defeated child.
"Listen, Elizabeth," he spoke quickly. "It was one time! It was right before I left for the academy, the night we got engaged. She broke it off a few nights later. I didn't mean for it to happen, but… well… we were kissing and one thing led to another and…"
She held up her hand to stop him.
"What?" he asked, his nervousness apparent.
"I don't want to hear any more."
"Are you angry?" he asked quietly.
"No, I suppose not," she answered slowly. "It was a long time ago."
"It was. And, truly, I never meant for it to happen. We had just known each other all of our lives. We were comfortable with each other. We were both scared of the unknown and took comfort in one another. I wish now that it never would have happened, but I was young and undisciplined and…"
"Does Lee know?"
"I don't know. I have never told him and never will. I am not sure if she has, but I would never ask her."
He took a big breath and continued, "Honestly, Elizabeth, my heart stopped when I saw her talking to you on the street a few years ago. The first thing that went through my mind after it registered it was her was wondering if we had a child together and that's why she had come. I had never been so relieved in my life to know that, at least, hadn't happened!"
She sank back into the settee beside him and leaned her head back on the wooden frame at the top. She took a deep breath as he turned sideways a bit to study her.
"I guess I am not surprised," she told him. "I know how men are. To be honest, I would have assumed that you would have had a lot more experience just based on your position. You do look very nice in your uniform and women tend to love strong, competent men."
"Yes, a lot of the recruits spent their nights with women while we were in the academy. The uniform seemed to hide a multitude of sins and make us especially hot commodities, but I was too heartbroken to even care about it at the time. I am glad now that I didn't."
They sat in silence for a long time, both looking at the other, before he finally reached out and took her hand. "I'm sorry," he told her, his eyes full of shame and fear.
"I'm not upset, Jack. Like I said, it was a long time ago, long before we ever met. I just wish it hadn't have been her. Not only because of how jealous I was, but because I see her every day and I now know this about her. I know she has shared a part of you that I haven't yet and it does make me envious, mostly because Lord knows I want to be with you in every sense of the word. It will make things feel awkward for me," she answered. "But, to be honest with you, I am not surprised. I figured there was something more to your story when she followed you here all the way from New York."
"Yes, I figure that she was ready to settle down and thought I was a safe bet; a sure thing," he responded. "Thank God Lee got here when he did!"
They sat quietly together on the settee and he reached up and lifted her hand to his lips. When she looked at him, he smiled weakly and asked, "Are we okay?"
She nodded. "I think we are."
"You aren't angry or disappointed with me, are you?"
"I am not going to lie; it shocked me. But, honestly, you are a man who has been on his own for quite awhile. It isn't unusual. The only difference is that I would have never asked anyone else."
"Why is that?"
"Because I never would have felt comfortable enough with someone else," she told him simply, and for some reason, his heart soared.
"Not even Charles?" he asked, almost afraid of her answer.
"Especially not Charles! It just isn't something that people talk openly about where I am from. Sure, there are scandals and whispers in dark corners, but it is just understood that women are to be pure and men… Well… No one seems to care as much about what they do. But I have always wondered… For every fallen man, there must be a fallen woman, right? I have often pondered just who these women are. I have also wondered how many couples cross the line as they are waiting between their engagements and weddings? I mean, who would know? But, again, it is not something people speak openly about in polite company. Ever."
"So, I am not polite company, is that what you are telling me?" he asked her with a grin.
"No, you aren't. You are my best friend, my fiancé, the man I love. I intend to have no secrets from you and hope you feel the same about me. I could never marry a man I didn't trust completely."
"You still trust me, though, right?" he asked, cringing a bit. "I mean even though…"
"Of course I still trust you. As far as I know, you have never lied to me, even maybe when you really wanted to, including right now."
"You have no idea how much I wish the truth would have been different," he sad, his disappointment with himself evident in the defeated tone of his voice.
They were silent again for a few moments, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, she asked, "Honestly only one time?"
"Swear to God! And, to be even more truthful, it was over almost as soon as it started," he added, cheeks and even his ears blazing, mortified he had admitted that to her before he had thought better of it.
He looked up and met her eyes, which were open wide with surprise.
"No secrets, remember?" he joked nervously.
"No secrets," she affirmed while nodding her head.
He saw a look pass quickly over her face and asked, "What are you thinking?"
She leaned over and ran a finger up the buttons of his uniform before stopping and looking up into his face. "I was thinking that I can't wait until we don't have to act like polite company," she said, as she began to unbutton his jacket.
He groaned in response. "Me, either," he stated before pulling her back onto his lap for a passion-filled kiss.