Title: The Point of No Return

Summary: Wilton Parmenter goes back to Fort Courage after having left five years before.

The Point of No Return, Chapter One

The Mississippi.

Major Wilton Parmenter looked out the window of the train and thought about how much his life had changed each of the three times he had crossed this mighty river. Some could argue that the moment of change was when he left whatever was his home at the time, to board the train that eventually took him across the river, or maybe the moment of change was when he had already crossed the river and arrived at his destination to find out what awaited him. Maybe the change actually took place when he received word of his new assignment — or in this case made the decision that would change his life — but for some reason he had always felt like this river was where the change became real. He didn't know why that would be. Was it because it was the furthest west he'd ever been the first time he crossed it? He couldn't say that about the second time, when he had been coming from the other direction. Maybe it was because he had seen it as the point of no return then. And here he was heading west again. He probably wasn't past the point of no return this time, but it sure felt that way.

He'd been so proud the first time he had traveled west. He had known that there was something no one was telling him as they had pretended that Fort Courage was a plum assignment, but he hadn't cared. The world had been full of possibilities then. If Fort Courage had been a small fort in the middle of nowhere with a reputation for being ineffective, so what? He'd show them. He'd learn how to be a good officer, and he'd make a real difference. He was pretty sure he'd surprised a lot of people when he had actually done that. His success had proved to be a double-edged sword, however, for Command had finally given him no choice about accepting a transfer.

So off he had gone to Fort Henry, and while he knew that it was a huge advancement for his career, he had done it with a heavy heart. He'd left too much behind. But he had decided that he'd make the most of it, and four years later when they'd rewarded him by giving him the task of bringing Fort Sumter back to its former glory, he'd felt some of that old excitement again. It was a new challenge, a new opportunity, something he'd never done before… And then he had met Mrs. Emily Beauvais Williams.

She was a civil war widow his own age, and she'd already done the whole falling in love/engagement/wedding thing, so she wasn't in a hurry to do it all again. There was no pressure. Being with her was easy. She'd still been wearing widow's weeds when he met her, and it was a bit of a cliché to say that they were two wounded souls who had found each other, but he knew that there was some truth to that. And surprise of all surprises — he'd found that he was now the one who had started thinking about settling down. He'd been calling on her for nearly nine months, and the clear expectation among their social circle had been — and probably still was — that he'd marry her. The problem was that the more he thought about making it permanent, the more confused he became, despite the fact that she made him happy.

Boy, he sure hoped that he hadn't made a big mistake and messed up something good again.

Of course, she had known all about Jane from the very beginning, The Girl he had Loved and Lost. Somehow, he always capitalized those words in his head. For a long time he had carried around that hurt like it was a badge of honor, and he had blamed Jane for everything that had gone wrong. By the time he met Emily, though, he had figured out that it wasn't all Jane's fault. He'd made mistakes, and Emily was smart enough to know that he had regrets, just as he knew that she would always mourn the loss of the handsome young man who had ridden off with his new commission and made her a widow at the age of 26. But they were secure enough with one another not to be threatened by their respective pasts, and the seemingly insignificant event that changed everything had obviously taken her by surprise.

She had reached for a heavy book on his shelf. "Oh, look! I didn't realize that you read Dumas, Wilton." A wisp of dark hair had come loose from the comb that kept it pinned up at the back of her head, and he had just brushed it out of the way for the excuse of running his fingers across the nape of her neck when she opened the book and something fell from it.

She bent to pick it up, and when she turned to him with it in her hand, he felt that little tightness in his chest that always happened when he was reminded of his days at Fort Courage.

"What a pretty flower," she said. "Where did it come from?"

He took it from her, and for a moment he drifted away to another time, remembering the brightness of Jane's eyes and the flirtatious smile on her lips when she put the flower in the book and placed it back on the shelf. He quickly shook off the memory, and although he took care to keep his voice light when he answered Emily's question, it was too late to do anything about the small reflection of Jane's smile that had been on his own lips.

"Jane put it there," he said. "We had gone on a picnic, and she did it when we got back to my quarters. I guess we both forgot about it."

He studied it until he was sure that that the presence of the familiar old anguish wouldn't be written all over him, or that his expression wouldn't give away that he was thinking of blue eyes instead of Emily's brown ones. When he looked up again, however, he knew that he hadn't been completely successful, although he couldn't quite interpret what he saw on her face. Was it pain? Disappointment? Understanding? Compassion, even?

She hesitated, clearly uncertain. She had always been a confident person, one of those Southern women who knew how to graciously handle anything or anyone, and he berated himself for being the cause of her current distress. He didn't know what else to say, though, so he just stood helplessly until she took control of the situation again.

She held the open book in his direction. "That was a good place for it," she said kindly. "Let's put it back to keep it safe."

Neither of them had said anything else about it, but that night in bed he thought more about what a great day it had been, when Jane had enjoyed it so much that she had saved the flower as a memento. It was springtime, and the weather had been unseasonably warm, so they'd gone down to the river and spread the blanket for their picnic near the bank. The early flowers were just beginning to appear, and Jane had picked a delicate white bloom and put it behind her ear. He remembered that he could smell it when he kissed her, and that he had to be careful not to jostle it from its place when he stroked her hair. The memory was so fresh that it was hard to believe it had happened over five years ago. Where was she now? Did she ever think of him the way he thought of her?

He had worked long hours the next two days so he hadn't had a chance to see Emily, but on the third day after the flower incident he had escorted her to an afternoon tea celebrating the engagement of a friend's daughter. She had genuinely seemed to enjoy herself, but she was preoccupied on the buggy ride there and back. He also noticed at their arrival that she had held his elbow a moment longer than necessary, and that she had searched his eyes briefly before allowing their hostess to pull her away. He had gone to the side of the room to stand with the men, who like him weren't completely happy to be spending their Saturday afternoon this way, but soon enough it was over and he was standing with her inside her front door. Usually she invited him to sit with her in the parlor, but this time she didn't.

She moved close and put her hand on his cheek. She was a small woman, and he had always liked the way she had to turn her face up to his whenever she gazed into his eyes. "You're such a good man, Wilton," she said, almost regretfully.

He frowned slightly, not sure where she was going with this.

"I enjoy being with you," she continued, "and I know you enjoy being with me. We have fun together. We make a good couple."

"Yes, we do," he replied. He put his hands on her back and tried to pull her close, but she stepped away carefully, and he had no choice but to let his hands drop to his sides. He took a deep breath, finally comprehending what was happening. "Emily, I've never been one to talk about my feelings, but I care deeply for you," he said. "You believe me, don't you?"

"Yes, I do. I feel the same way about you, which is what makes this so hard."

"Then why talk like this? Is it because of the way I acted the other day? If it is, I'm sorry. I just slipped up. It won't happen again."

"Oh, Wilton. Yes, it will."

He shook his head, ready to argue, but she jumped in before he could.

"I've been thinking about this a lot over the past three days," she said, "and I keep coming back to one thing: I got to marry the love of my life, and it seems only fair that you should have the chance to do the same."

He could only blink stupidly, not sure he had heard her right. "What?"

"You need to go to Kansas and try to win back Jane."

"Oh, I… I don't think so, I mean… It's been a long time, and I don't want to lose you, and…"

"Wilton." She put her hand on his arm. "When George died, I thought that I would die, too, and for years I just wrapped that grief around me like I was in a cocoon. Then you came into my life, and now I feel like a real, living woman again. That's hard to give up. But no matter what happens between you and me, I'll always have that glorious first love. That can never be taken away from me."

It stung him to hear this, and he didn't bother to keep it from his voice. "So you're saying that I could never measure up to George. Is that it?"

"No, not at all. I'm a different person now, and I expect different things from life. And who knows? Maybe you would be happy with that, too, but it seems terribly unfair to you. You need to do this, Wilton. You need to do this, or you will always wonder what might have happened if you'd only tried."

He looked at the floor. "I don't know, Emily. I admit that I've been confused recently, but this is only making it worse."

"Maybe that's true right now, but it might clarify things for you if you let it. Go home and think about it, and tell me what you decide."

When he looked back up at her, he was surprised to see tears in her eyes. She had discussed it all so dispassionately that he had been hurt at how easy it was for her, but maybe it wasn't so easy after all. He gripped her shoulders, kissed her cheek, and left.

Of course, he had made his decision, for here he sat, on a train headed for Kansas. He had drummed up a reason for Command to send him to Fort Courage, but it was a flimsy excuse and he knew it. Emily had told him that if he came back to Charleston alone, she would still be there, but he wasn't so sure. He felt like something had shifted, and it could never be the same. It had changed. And he had just crossed the point of no return, hadn't he?

He remembered how everything had changed, before…

End Chapter One