CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: "FAREWELL, INNOCENCE"

It was getting harder and harder to say no to him. Everything within Mary screamed for her to give in, that little voice that warned her away from such close physical contact waning with each encounter. They were becoming more and more frequent, the visits. He'd climbed the small barrel on the back of the house and onto the low-lying roof of the back storage sheds, then come through her window.

They hadn't talked about it much when they were together, their heady encounters always a mixture of heated passion first in the form of kisses and embraces...lately, though, their hands were branching into more risqué areas than before. That wasn't entirely what troubled Mary. She knew what was going on. She hadn't been tainted by her romance novels enough to not see what was the truth: she was falling in love. She was falling in love with two men and one of them came to see her at nights when she was in her room.

She loved Jack so much, but Ace? Ace was a problem. She wasn't sure what to do about either of them, now that she knew better what was going on. She wanted nothing more than to help him, but how? What could she do? The two men in her life...one would eventually have to go and the other would doubtless be shattered.

She wasn't above a night of passion. She wanted it, craved it. It was like seeing her fantasies come true before her eyes and her nighttime visitor...well, he never failed to leave her wanting for more. She wasn't sure about what to do. This was different now, everything was changing so quickly. She wanted so badly to give in, but what would anyone else think?

To hell with them, she thought. She wasn't an innocent little girl. She was a woman, a full grown, twenty-three year old woman and just because she'd never indulged in these things before didn't mean she was keeping them at an arm's length. She deserved to be loved by someone and she'd waited a long time for someone to come. He felt for her, told her she was beautiful. That was all any woman could want, wasn't it?

And she adored him. So handsome, so sure of himself (any other time), so accepting of her hobbies. When he had entered her life, she hadn't seen it coming and now that he was here she didn't want him to leave. She had never been so sure of anything before in her life.

Lying awake at night, she waited, nervous. What was going to happen? Would this be one of the nights he came by? Sometimes, she would lie awake waiting for him.—sometimes he came, sometimes not. Sometimes she would watch him enter and then sometimes he would wake her with a kiss.

She waited. Finally, she fell asleep and woke in the morning. He hadn't come. She sighed and tossed herself over in her bed. She had so badly wanted to see him. Perhaps, tonight, she'd just go to his window for once.

XxXxXxX

Jack woke up near the end of Fall and it was cold outside. Not chilly or cool or pleasantly nippy, but downright cold. He shuddered in his less-than-adequately heated house and got up to prepare the fireplace, which heated his whole house. He kicked around some firewood, noting that his pile of wood was, well...small. He'd need some more. He cursed his luck that his arm was better now. If he'd thought ahead, he'd have ordered Cliff to cut some while he was still injured, make the little guy do all the work. As it was, he'd have to put a hand in chopping the wood. Some stumps near the meadow would be all he needed for a few weeks.

He waited in front of the fire until it got warmed up good, then went into the kitchen and made some hot grits for breakfast and some sunny side-up eggs. Cliff knocked on the door a few minutes into the cooking and came in. He shivered, "Brrr, it's cold outside."

"Better bundle up good, then." Jack said. Suddenly, Jack sniffled. He paused, moaning out loud.

Cliff sat down, "What's wrong?"

"I've got a sniffle." Jack said, "That means I'm going to get a cold. Man, that's all I need is to get sick. I hate being sick almost as much as I hate politicians. Sure you want some breakfast?"

"I haven't been sick in years, I'm not afraid." Cliff puffed his chest out proudly. "Bring it on."

Jack served their breakfast while getting dressed. He wrapped himself into a thick flannel shirt, then a jacket, donned a set of earmuffs and gloves, and some thick fur-lined boots. "We gotta chop some wood today, so we'll be headed out into woods. Gotta stop at the General Store for an axe, though, cause I only have one."

They ate, downing their meal with some milk and then topping it off with some hot chocolate, some of which Jack tucked into a thermos for the trip. After that, they set out into the cold of late fall in Flowerbud. The village was a mirage of browns and dull golds, the leaves falling down where they may. No one intended to bother the leaves all that much, since they'd be there come Spring.

Jack took a cursory glance at his sweet potatoes. They'd be done in a few days and he'd have sweet potato pie to last him through the whole winter. That was what he was looking forward to the most. He also wanted winter to be done with. Not that he hated it, but cold weather made him feel less than alive. In truth, he loved the snow and had heard it snowed quite a bit in winter in Flowerbud. He hoped so, because the last few years had been so hectic for him in terms of his old job that whenever he'd seen snow, he'd never been able to enjoy it at all.

Most of Fall had flown by. Jack hadn't bothered with any of the Festivals because they mostly involved animals he'd only had a short while. Bilbo and Belle were too small to enter, so he made a mental note to do so next year. If the letter his father had mailed him was any indication, the plan to ditch Jim Black had gone over well.

"Dear Son,"

"Black's all over the news. Biggest scandal to hit Metro Heights since the pedophile fire chief in 89'. Trust me, of all the things he's doing these days, looking for you is not one of them. I'll keep my ear to the ground in case anyone starts looking for you. Good news, though...we've heard less and less of Ace Valentine lately. The frenzy seems to be dying down and people are starting accept that you're gone. Some news stations asked for our quotes on your whereabouts and we just told them that Ace is gone and gone for good. By the way, I didn't push it when you were here, but the subject of those girls seemed to make you nervous. I want to warn you not to try and work over any girls in the country. I'm not a dumb man, I'm aware of the kind of lifestyle you led when you were famous, so I can understand your mindset. But you're not famous anymore. Take it slow with a lady, trust your heart. That's how I found your mother. And don't try and overload your plate with more than one girl, it just leads to messiness."

PS: If you see Manna, tell her I said 'Joker's swinging harder than ever'. She'll know what it means."

"Love, Dad"

Jack had folded the letter up and tucked it away in a shoebox. His father mailed letters from the city, so no one would rummage through his mail. He didn't get much mail at all anymore. Most of the people in town would just walk to the person they wanted to see. Not much easier than that. Of course, it helped when everything was so close.

They passed the Library in time to see Mary unlocking it. Jack skewed away from Cliff and approached her from behind. She was fumbling with the lock when he put his gloves over her eyes. "Guess who?" He said.

"No clue." She said with a smile, turning around. "Hey, Jack. In town today?"

He jabbed his thumb in the direction of town. "Gotta go get some supplies for makin' firewood with Spanky over there. Say, you wanna come over tonight?"

"I'd love to. Been thinkin' about you a lot lately." She opened the door and took a step inside.

Jack put his hands in his jacket pockets, lifting an eyebrow deviously, "Oh yeah? About what? Is it naughty? You know I like naughty stuff?"

Mary just laughed, "You're such a card. I'll be by about seven, okay? I want to hear what you thought about my book. You did finish it, didn't you?"

"I wouldn't even think of disappointing a lovely lady such as yourself. Seven it is. I'll bring the 'B'."

Mary giggled softly, "And I'll bring the 'LT'. Bye." She waved her little black mitten at him as she went inside and Jack returned to the sidewalk, where Cliff was waiting.

"She seems smitten with you." Cliff said.

"What girl isn't?" Jack said.

Cliff shook his head, "Man, you've got an ego, you know that?"

"I like to think I earned it." Jack replied. "Wasn't a girl in the village not throwing a look my way, even the ice princess, Elli. You should have seen the way she was checking me out when I took off my shirt in the Clinic for the first time."

Cliff stopped. "Jack, she was probably staring at your scars."

Jack stopped as well and turned to him, "My scars? Why would someone stare at my scars? They're just scars. Nobody else back in the business said anything."

"Well, probably because they've all seen you without your shirt on countless times by now. These folks don't know where you got them from. Besides, Elli hasn't said much of anything to you, has she? No? Because she's absolutely taken by Doc."

"I thought he was happily single." Jack said.

"Give them some time, that's ship's gonna sail." Cliff said. "But before you came along, every girl in this village had some sweetheart they were seeing."

"Like who?"

Cliff counted off on his fingers, "Let's see, if what Ann tells me is true...Karen and Rick used to be a real item until Rick took over the Poultry Farm. Popuri's eyes apparently were only for Kai. Get this one: Mary and Gray were the big talk for a few months, when he used to come by the Library more often. Apparently not since you came into town, though."

Jack waved his hand, "Gray's half-an-idiot...and that's the good half. I'm not worried about any of them. I could have any woman in the village if I want, no matter who it is or if they're taken."

Cliff laughed, "HA! I'd like to see you try and get Ann. She'd grab your sack and fling you like a rag doll." Cliff's face dropped when he saw the look on Jack's, "Er, not that I've seen her do that, mind you."

Jack just grinned, "I bet I could steal Ann away."

"I'd be your free slave for life if you could manage that." Cliff said, laughing. Jack smiled, not laughing, and nodded to himself. Cliff walked away, still laughing, not aware of the look on his face.

Jack and Cliff entered the General Store to see Jeff manning the register. He regarded Jack with the same kind of friendliness a person would grant an anonymous human being who walked in to buy something. Jack brought the axe no trouble and they were on their way back through town.

They stopped by the Inn so Cliff could bring another jacket, since apparently he hadn't dressed as warm. As he dashed up the stairs, Ann came out of the back carrying a crate of glass mugs. Jack slammed his hands on the counter, "Bartender, I demand to see a beautiful woman when I drink."

Ann scoffed, "Ha! Fat chance of one around here. You'll just have to settle for me."

Jack smiled, that charming smile he put on for the female persuasion only. "I think you'll do just fine."

"If you like rude, crude, rough-and-tumble girls, be my guest." Ann said, putting the glasses up on the counter and taking them out into the shelved. "Sorry, Jack, but I'm just not a real lady."

Jack leaned up on the counter closer to her. She was turning with a glass when she spied him, the way he was looking at her, and paused. "You're more of a lady than you know, Ann." Jack said. "In fact, I'd say you're quite the lady."

She paused, thrown off for a moment. "That's...the first time anyone's ever called me that." She put the glass down slowly. "Not even Cliff calls me a lady. Just jokes around that I'm more of a man than he is."

"Well, that's certainly a rude thing for your boyfriend to say, isn't it? I know I wouldn't say something like that to a lady like you."

Ann, strong, independent Ann, was completely off her guard. To hear Jack say those things, and hear that he actually meant them, put a blush on her face that she wasn't entirely comfortable with. All her bravado, her gusto, her in-your-face attitude suddenly vanished under Jack's increasingly attractive smile. She felt as if a shard of glass had suddenly been shoved between her third and fourth rib. "What...what would you say?" She asked.

Before Jack could answer, Cliff came bounding down the stairs. "Alright, let's go, Jack." He made for the door, without a second glance at Ann. "Bye Ann."

"See ya." She said, her enthusiasm getting sapped by Jack, who leaned back and followed Cliff slowly. He mouthed to her, "Talk to me later." To her own surprise, she nodded back to him, her mind wandering as she watched them leave.

XxXxXxX

Jack was waiting at seven, BLTs ready, when Mary arrived just as she said she would. She came in shivering. Jack shut the door behind her, the cold air blowing into the house the longer it was open. Mary hugged herself and took her scarf off. "It's getting so cold lately. Isn't it cold?"

"Not in here." Jack said, the smugness of his voice almost immediate. Mary shivered again, but not from the cold. Ace had already made himself known, she could tell from the voice. She sat down, thinking fast. "How have you been, Ace?"

Jack would have jumped at hearing his professional name called like that. But he didn't jump. He only walked over and handed her the plate of food he had ready. He just shrugged, his smug smile in place. "Same old, same old. You know how is it, right? Well, I guess you don't."

Mary took the plate and ate graciously, but kept her guard up. What was she doing? She didn't know how to deal with this. This was something a professional should do. But who else would do this? No, there was a reason Ace had opened up to her. There was a reason. "I suppose not." She replied, "But I wanted to see you and, from the sound of your voice, you wanted to see me."

Jack nodded. The look in his eyes was like watching someone wearing a Jack Harris suit. He looked like Jack, but that was it. Everything else was different—body language, tone of voice, attitude. She had to be careful. She didn't want to break everything apart, even if being here put her heart in jeopardy.

"Yeah, guess you could say that. Care to guess why?" He asked.

Mary put aside her half eaten sandwich. "I think perhaps...you see that I'm noticing a...change in you." She looked in his eyes, "Is there anything you want to ask me, Ace?"

He sat back, his knees spread wide, his arms on the couch's long way. "I ain't dumb, see? I see what you see. Jack...he's nice and all, but he's in my way. He's holding me back and I don't like to be held back. People who hold me back get steamrolled. That's just the way it always has been. No one steps up to Ace, see?"

Mary nodded, "Why me? Why am I the one to talk with you?"

"You got smarts. I figure you might could find some middle ground for me and Jack."

Mary looked aside, dubious. "I'm not sure how to create any middle ground for you and Jack. What could I do for you?"

Jack just leaned forward, "Jack just wants a sweet lady. I'm not afraid of that, but my patience is only good for so long. Jack wants to beat around the bush, but me, I'm a little more...direct." His hand came out and cupped her chin, tilting her head up as his lowered to hers. "I got a little relief on my trip home last week, but I'm an animal of routine. I like a regular girl, one I can count on. Look, I know you've got it bad for Jack and I won't look down on you just because you look a little homely. All I want is some physical gratification and I'm happy. I already have the respect and admiration of everyone in this little town, so I'm more than set. It's just this one little thing."

Mary shivered, her skin raising on her arms.

"You see," He continued, "I think you're the only one I can count on, Mary. You know me by now, know what I'm all about. This one little thing is all I'm lookin' for. It's an itch and I need it scratched. "

"Jack, I don't know if I'm ready yet."

Jack leaned down, "You certainly enjoy my kisses, don't you?"

Mary looked away, "Yes. I do. But what you're asking...that's something else."

"You're in your early twenties, Mary." Jack said, tracing around her cheek with his finger, "You're more than ready. I promise I'll be gentle. The first time may not always be the best for some girls, but I can make it memorable. Trust me, once you start, you won't want to stop. You go a few days and the urge'll hit you like a ton of bricks. But thankfully, I'm always ready for a go, so you don't have to worry. I would say give me some warning first, but...the anticipation is almost half the excitement."

Mary closed her eyes, shuddering at Jack's touch. "Ace, you're asking a lot of me. It's a private thing, it's a heartfelt thing. I won't just lay down for anyone."

"I'm not just anyone, I'm Ace Fucking Valentine, Mary. You have no idea how much I want you, how much I crave you. That first night you slept in my house, I saw you lying there in my bed. You looked like a perfect angel. I had to have you. There was no one else I could count on. Any other girl...they wouldn't understand me or what I've gone through. But you...you're different. That's why I want you—I need you. If you could find it in your heart to cede that one little thing...I can give Jack back what he wants."

He leaned down and kissed her sweetly, much easier than that brutish kiss he'd gave last time. But the longer he kissed her, the deeper he went into the embrace. Mary let herself be kissed, because in part she wanted him herself. He was right, but she knew he was asking a heavy price for what he wanted—no matter if it was a 'small thing' to him. The other part of her was because she wanted to help him, but not this way. Or was this the only way to help him? Was it? She couldn't think. She couldn't breath. Jack was kissing her too fiercely, smothering her. She put her hands on his face and made a shrill noise through her sinus.

Jack backed away, breathing hard. "Sorry, I just...don't know...I want you so much, I..."

Mary held her hands up, "It's okay, Ace. It's okay." She straightened her glasses, which had fogged up badly. She wiped them with her thumb and then her forehead. She hadn't realized how long she had kissed him. She was sweating, her skin shining with dampness. It didn't help that Jack's house was warmer than normal. Jack noticed, "You look like you're hot. Why don't you...you could cool off better without that long sleeve blouse on."

"You wouldn't want me walking around naked, Ace." She said.

He leaned next to her ear, whispering, "Oh yes, I would."

Mary shivered again, looking away until he took her face and brought it near his. He spoke to her kindly. "Listen, you go home...think about it for a little while. I'll get back with you later."

Mary swallowed and nodded. "Okay." She said meekly. Without another word, she got up and left, taking a last glance at Jack as he blew her a kiss from his finger. She smiled only a bit and left, leaving Jack by himself.

Jack laughed, "Ace, my man, you are the absolute pinnacle of 'Just too much'." He settled into his chair and lay back, dreaming and thinking about Mary. She, he knew, would be the hardest girl to sway his way. He knew Karen was hot for him, but around her, Jack seemed to be more on guard. Ace wanted nothing more than to take her for a few romps between the sheets, but Jack kept standing in the way with his 'morals' and 'indecision'. He didn't care for Popuri. The little puppy dog could fawn over him if he liked, but he'd had enough of that kind of school-girl crush stuff when he was king of the world.

An hour after Mary had left, Jack heard a knock at the door. He smiled. Could that be Mary with an answer so fast? He leaped to his feet and tossed the door open.

"Ann?" He asked, surprised.

The girl stood at his door, her hands tucked into her back pockets as she looked at him, "Hey, Jack."

Jack—Ace—was more than a little stunned. His little charm work in the Inn had actually worked. Wait...of course it had worked. He'd told Cliff it had worked and indeed it had. Ann was over at his house, looking unsure of herself. Who was he to be unkind. He stepped aside. "Well, come in, come in. Don't stand out in the cold like a big goof."

Suddenly, the calm Ann was gone and good old Ann came back. "I can take a little cold, Jack. I'm not a big baby, okay?"

"Are you?" Jack asked.

Ann took a step forward, but Jack held his ground, smiling, "I'm not afraid of you."

She held up her fist. "You should be."

"Give me a reason." He said, holding his arms out. "Give me a reason. Come on and bust a move!"

Ann charged him and tackled him on the gut, knocking him into the couch. He laughed, "Okay, okay! I give."

Ann stood back up and nodded curtly, "Tell me I can't put the fear of Ann into a man. I'll tie your anatomy into knots if you dare me like that again."

Jack laughed as he shut the door, "Ooooh, testy, are we?"

She smiled back, "Just a little. That thing is on it's way...what do they call it?" She snapped her fingers, trying to recall.

Jack furrowed his brow. "What, your period?"

Ann clapped her hands, "That's it. Jeez, I forget about it each month. Every time it's on it's way I get cranky."

"What's your excuse for the rest of the month?" He asked.

"Ha! That was so funny, I forgot to laugh...excluding that first 'Ha', of course." She crossed her arms, looking around his home. "So...what's up?"

"You tell me. You're the one that came over." Jack replied.

Ann stopped in his living room. "Well, you invited me."

"I told you to talk to me later." He said, "That didn't necessarily mean come over to my home at night. Where's Cliff?"

"It's Friday, Jack. Cliff stays up there all night long and then goes right to bed afterwards."

"So, I guess that means Friday is the loneliest night for Ann, huh?" Jack asked.

Ann looked away, her persona slipping again. "I guess so. Yeah, that's about it."

Jack approached her. "Well, I guess you're not really missing out on anything, though. I mean, from what I heard this morning, it sounds like Cliff doesn't get you much."

"I guess...well..." She looked down, forgetting herself entirely, "I mean, he's sweet and all."

"Yeah, I bet he's nice and sweet when he's in the sack." Jack scoffed, "But let's face it, Cliff isn't exactly the epitome of intelligence or charisma."

"There's more to me and Cliff than charisma, Jack." Ann protested.

Jack put his hands on his hips, "Like what?"

She looked down, her eyes darting as she tried to think, but couldn't. "I...I guess he's...well, he's just a sweet guy."

Jack nodded, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I bet he is. I wouldn't know, because he hardly even mentions you during the day. All day long it's 'My ex-girlfrined' this, and 'My high school sweetheart' that, as if he still wants her around. Of course, I can tell when you've been letting him sack up with you because he's all grins and can't help but mention it."

Ann looked up at Jack, her face a mask of confusion and worry. Did Cliff really think like that? Was Jack telling her the truth. "He's still a sweet guy, Jack. I've...I've never felt for anyone like I feel for him."

Jack just scoffed, "That's just the nookie attraction. Trust me, find someone better at it than him and you wouldn't think much about Cliff."

"How would I compare?" Ann asked. "He's my first."

Jack put his arm around Ann, pulling her closer to him as he asked, "Let me ask you a personal question. When you two are shacking up, how long is it from start to finish?"

Ann thought for a moment. "Twenty...thirty minutes...maybe."

"Does it feel good?" he asked.

Ann blushed, but nodded.

"Does it always feel like...just as you're starting to get into it, his game suddenly ends?"

Ann stared blankly, still blushing, but eventually nodded.

Jack leaned closer, "Well...imagine a guy who could go for...I don't know...a few hours."

"Hours?!" Ann gasped, her mouth open, "How in the...what guy could go for hours? Cliff said most guys don't go but about that long anyway."

"Maybe you should stop believing Cliff and make up your own mind. You're your own woman, Ann. I never lied about that. Has Cliff ever made you feel like a woman?"

"No...yes...I don't know." Ann said, flustered, looking away from him. "You're...stop making me...I can't..." She looked up into his eyes. Big mistake. Now that she looked up at his eyes, she could see the soft glow in them that wrapped around hers, enveloped her like a blanket. Her entire body seemed to flush, burned softly as she felt gazed upon for what she was: a woman. In a single flash, like the strike of a match, everything she was disappeared. No longer was she the rough-and-tough Ann who downed beers, but the scared little girl hiding in the cupboards, wishing someone would take the pain away. Every time she slipped into someone's arms, she lost all pretense of herself, she shut down. She looked up at Jack hungrily. He looked back at her with the same animalistic look in his eyes.

She wasn't even aware that Jack had kissed her until she was well within the kiss herself. She wasn't aware that her clothes were gone until Jack's hand rubbed up and down on her naked body.

But in the chill of the last week of Fall, she was very much aware that he making love to her, but her mind was so aflutter that she couldn't focus on a single thing. The only thing she could even grasp coherently was screaming his name.

XxXxXxX

Mary had fallen asleep, despite the fact that her heart was beating so very hard within her chest. Lying in a large t-shirt, she sighed and rolled over when a soft pushing on her lips woke her up. She inhaled sharply, returning the kiss sleepily, and opening her eyes. She looked to the clock.

3:57 am.

He had finally come for her. She lifted her arms and pulled him onto the bed with her, losing herself in his gentle, sweet kisses. She didn't need her glasses to know it was him, she just knew. She ran her fingers through his silky hair, her hand over his soft, strong cheeks, over his back. He was cold, she could feel the bumps on his skin. He was only wearing a shirt and some long pajamas.

"You're cold." She said.

"I had to see you again." He said, "I can't...can't stop thinking about you. It's like...oh God, I don't know what to think anymore. I've never felt this way. All I want...I just want to be with you, Mary."

"Me either." Mary said. "I don't want to feel anything else but you." She pulled him closer. Her heart thudded so loudly it burned her ears. To be so close to him, to have him here, wanting nothing more than her touch. She couldn't stand it anymore. Mary felt the last of her inhibitions slip away and she took his hand and brought it down.

"Mary?" He asked softly, "What're you...what..."

She only kissed him in reply.

"Mary...are you sure...I mean, we...what if...I-I-I'm not sure about...about what it could mean for...for us." He was a little scared. Did he think that he could just come in like this, hold her, kiss her, whisper sweet things in her ear and then walk out? Maybe after that first kiss but not now...not now.

"I'm not scared." She whispered to him. "I wouldn't want it to be anyone else but you. The way you make me feel...no one makes me feel this way. You make me feel...beautiful. Like a woman." That was how she wanted to be seen, how she wanted to be held, regarded, thought of. Not Mary the inquisitive Librarian schoolgirl, but Mary the beautiful woman. That was how she felt in his arms. Nothing else matter.

Slowly, his hand went under her shirt and lifted it up. She moved with him, helping him undo all that she had standing between her and him until not even oxygen was between their skin. Mary wrapped her arms around his neck, feeling his gentle touch on her. "Be gentle." She asked.

Her mind became awash with a thousand emotions. Whatever she felt beforehand was nothing compared to what she felt in his arms as he willingly and passionately made love to her: she felt the cold chill of the Fall air seeping in through the crack in the window, cooling her burning, hot skin; the sudden sting of losing her maidenhood, biting into his shoulder hard until the pain seeped away, cradling his head as he breathed heavy, kissing him gently on the lips, the distant shame she felt at not waiting, even though she had willingly submitted to him, dread that she would be caught at any moment by her parents, as if she were still some young girl, loving the feeling of living forever in a single, glorious bout of passion, moaning into her pillow until at last the two of them were spent and he lay at her side, curled against her tiny form, their bodies covered in a sheen of sweat.

She could hear his breathing, heavy against her form, slowly to a steady pace. His whispered was like a summer wind against her ear, "I...I love you, Mary."

Mary cradled his hand in hers, smiling. "I know. I love you, too." She just wished she really meant it. How could she love him and another at once? She couldn't? Now she had chosen and she had no choice. She was already involved between the two and there was no pulling back now.

She bid farewell to her innocence. She was a woman now. She suddenly understood why her romance novels were so wordy. No amount of words could possibly accurately describe what it felt like to be in the arms of a man like him. To fall in love...well, that was another matter entirely. The spoken word could never describe it all at once, though 'love' came close. She understood now why everyone strove towards that unavoidable goal of a significant other.

But was he her significant other...or...

She shook her head. She'd have to think about it, but not now. Not after such a glorious evening, so perfect. Some women waited their entire lives for moments like this and never got them. Mary wasn't about to ruin it with her thinking. For once, she wanted to just not think about something.

So she held him, kissed his brow, stroked him, never wanting that inevitable moment when he had to leave. From the moment he left her sight, she longed for him. But she went to sleep, content in herself.

He'd be back.