"Ian, you must be hungry. Can I feed you something?" Mrs. Miller rose from her chair and wiped her chin with the back of her hand. "I have coffee all ready. There's some bread and some soup. It's not much and no trouble."
"No, ma'am, I'm not hungry at the moment, but thank you," he politely answered. She walked over to him and reached her hands up to hold his face.
"You're a good boy, Ian. I know your folks are mighty proud of you. Thank you for all your help to us today."
"I-I just wish someone would fill me in on what it is that did happen," he replied with a nervous smile. He glanced at Elizabeth and added, "But you should know I'd do anything for this family. I used to feel like I was part of this family… once."
Elizabeth felt her heart skip. His words weren't bitter. He was asking for answers, for truth. And she owed him the truth.
"I'm going to sit with Miss Beadle," she said. "Ian… would you sit with me?" He nodded, and followed her into the bedroom where their beloved teacher lay sleeping. Ian pulled a chair to the bed for her and leaned himself against the wall. She watched him move around the room and noticed that he was different. He seemed more like a man to her than a schoolboy. Suddenly the time spent apart seemed like a whole lifetime.
"You look different," she said to break the awkward silence. He turned his hands over in front of him and shrugged with a slight smile.
"Is that a good thing?"
"Oh, yes… I didn't mean anything. It's just… been a while." More awkward silence followed. She watched Miss Beadle sleep for a few minutes, and then took a deep breath.
"Ian… I've been trying so hard to find the best way to tell you everything so that you don't hate me, but I can't. When I told you I was going to school in Boston, I knew I hurt you. I made you so angry…"
"I wasn't angry," he interrupted. "I was confused. Elizabeth, we were talking about getting married! We were making plans for the future; all of those plans were about us… together. Suddenly this opportunity to go to school changed it all."
"I know," she agreed. "I made a mess of everything."
"If you wanted to go to school, Elizabeth, I would have let you go. I never wanted to keep you from doing things that you really wanted to do. But I needed to know that you were going to come back to me and you refused to talk about it. I thought you just didn't love me anymore, didn't want me. What happened, Elizabeth? I just… don't understand what happened?" Ian shifted from one foot to the other. Elizabeth could hear the pain in his voice and she couldn't bare to look at him.
"Ian, please listen to me. Benjamin... he, uh… he hurt me. He hurt me real bad, and uh… well, I was ashamed."
"He hurt you? What do you mean 'he hurt you'?" Ian asked. Elizabeth couldn't answer. She just looked up at him tearfully. His body slumped and he held his head in disbelief. He understood. How could he be so dense?
"Pa wanted to protect me, so he thought I should go away. I didn't want to go, but everything was so awful… he was in so much pain and Ma cried all the time, all because of me. I blamed myself and I just wanted to make things easy for them. So I agreed to go. I couldn't tell you the truth because… I was so afraid…" she couldn't speak. She was still afraid.
"Afraid? Of me?"
"I was afraid that I would tell you and you would hate me… that you would just… be so disappointed. I couldn't bear it. I couldn't bear the thought that you would forever look at me with pity… or disgust. It would have killed me, Ian. Please try to understand that I always loved you. But I didn't think I could ever be a wife to you. I wanted you to be happy and... I don't know if I could ever make you happy, Ian," she whispered.
She heard him move. He turned is back to her and stared out the window. Tears filled his eyes. He didn't want her to see them.
"I don't blame you," she said. "I hurt you so much. When I came back, I couldn't bring myself to see you because the damage was already done. If you knew I was home, I thought it would just make the pain worse. But I never stopped loving you, Ian." She stood up and moved closer to him. He still wouldn't turn to look at her. "So… this brings us to what happened today."
"Miss Beadle wanted to talk to me and Ma told her where I was. But then she saw Benjamin following Miss Beadle up the hill and was afraid that he was going to do something so she followed him with the shotgun. She got there just in time; Miss Beadle tried to fight him but he is just so big… he hit her on the head and then was going to hit me but Ma stopped him. It all happened so fast, I'm still not sure I'm not just having a bad dream… Ian, I think he was going to kill me." Her voice cracked. She swallowed hard and tried to collect her emotions. "So… now you know what happened. You deserve the truth. I don't know if you can forgive me…"
Ian turned and looked at her. He was ashamed that he wasn't as strong as she needed him to be. He was ashamed of all the horrible thoughts he harbored when she left. He couldn't hate her for what happened to her.
"Elizabeth, there is nothing for me to forgive. I could never blame you for what happened. If anything, I need you to forgive me," he reached out and took her hand gently in his. "I should have made it so clear from the very beginning that my love for you is forever. Nothing could make it go away, not even for a day. Not what Benjamin did to you… nothing! If I was a better man, Elizabeth, there never would have been any doubt about any of that. You would have known how it has always been you for me, ever since we were little. You have always been my Elizabeth, always will be. Please let me try to be better a man now... tell me you forgive me and that you love me too." Elizabeth wept as she fell into his embrace.
"I do," she said, over and over and over. They held each other for a long time, crying only tears of happiness. Ian finally released her so that he could kiss her.