by Rosemarie Hauer

Josiah winced and groaned as the cool, wet cloth made contact with his

"I´m sorry," Elizabeth murmured, carefully sitting down on the edge of the
bed. "Josiah, I really think I should get Nathan."

"No!" Just a small word, but uttered with such force that Elizabeth decided to
leave the issue alone for the moment. She could imagine quite well how
embarrassing it would be for Josiah to admit that he had fallen off his horse.
The fact that the animal had shied away from a rattlesnake would probably
make little difference with his not exactly compassionate friends.

"Then let me attend to the scratches on your face and neck," Elizabeth
suggested gently.

He didn´t reply to that. His hand went to the bridge of his nose and he rubbed
the spot between his eyes.

"It seems to be fated," he rasped, "that you end up alone with me
in...situations like this."

Elizabeth was touched by the fact that even in his condition he was concerned
about her reputation. "It´s long past midnight," she countered. "Who would
come for a visit at such an ungodly hour?" He didn´t respond, and she studied
his face as he lay there on her bed motionlessly, eyes closed. Careful not to
cause him unnecessary pain, she cleaned the wounds on his cheek and the side
of his neck, noting with relief that they were only superficial.

Her eyes went to his badly bruised shoulder. Shaking her head, she marveled at
his determination to keep his accident from Nathan. His chest heaved with the
labored breathing and she hoped silently that he had no internal injuries. Her
eyes lingered on his collarbones, and she felt heat spreading across her face
as she caught herself clenching her hands to keep from touching him there.

Gradually his breathing became more regular, and she thought that the
familiarity she felt with this man meant treading treacherous ground, because
her need to be close to him, touch him, even kiss him, seemed more and more
natural to her. It felt almost a wife felt for her husband, she
finally admitted to herself. The comparison stung, and she quickly clamped
down on the feeling it aroused.

When she lifted her head, she met Josiah´s gaze as he regarded her solemnly.
"What are you thinking?" he asked, and the huskiness in his voice sent her
heart racing. She opened her mouth as if to reply, but no words would come.
How could she explain to him what she barely understood herself?

Josiah struggled into a sitting position and took her hand. He didn´t speak
and she was grateful for that, but he studied her face so intently as if he
meant to look right down to the bottom of her soul.

It occurred to her that the position he was in had to be painful for him, so
she straightened and extricated her hand from his clasp to gently push him
back down onto the pillow. He complied wordlessly, but then she became aware
of her palms against the bare skin of his chest and froze. With a swift motion
he captured her hands with his to prevent her from pulling away.

The way his heart raced under her palms brought tears to her eyes. Why
couldn´t she simply lie down beside him and nestle close to his warm body?
Rarely ever in her life had she missed the touch of a man, but with Josiah she
suddenly craved things she had considered meaningless to her. Her marriage had
been so short and she had been so young that she hardly had any recollection
of things like that. Squeezing her eyes shut, she fought down the longing, the
desire, the need for touch, for a sharing of more than mere moments --  the
sharing of a life, a home, a...bed.

Elizabeth could do nothing to prevent the blush that suddenly stained her
face, and when she felt the pull of his arms, she followed willingly as if she
were entranced. Even the way her cheek came to rest against his bare skin
appeared to be the most natural thing in the world. Josiah´s voice was a soft
rumble beneath her ear as he finally spoke.

"Forgive me," she heard him say. "I thought I could be strong...for both of
us, but I´m not. I...the way you make me feel..." His voice trailed away on a
sigh of her name as he nuzzled the crown of her head, and she responded by
involuntarily running her hand up his ribcage and across his chest until it
came to rest on his vulnerable throat. She felt him swallow under her touch
and she trembled, pressing a small kiss against the side of his neck. It was
unbearable how smooth and soft the hairless spot felt to her lips.  Her
 fingers sought the contrast of the coarser texture of his chest
hair. His low moan tore at her heart. Never in her life had she heard a sound
like that. It spoke of utmost appreciation, of utmost vulnerability and trust.
She tightened her arms around him, startled by his sharp intake of breath as
she brushed against some as yet undetected bruise.

"I´m sorry," she gasped, bracing her weight on one arm as she scanned his face
for the extent of the pain she had caused him.

"It´s nothing," he rasped and his hand came up to cup the back of her head as
he pulled her back to him.

Inches before his face she tensed. "Josiah," she pleaded, but she wasn´t
certain any longer if she begged for his reason or for his surrender. In a
last moment of clarity she realized that it was his surrender she wanted more
than anything else, and as she relaxed into him, welcoming the gently pressure
of his lips against hers, she knew she was lost.


Josiah was torn between the sensible, honorable thing to do and the sweetness
of Elizabeth´s weight on top of him as she gave herself to his kiss. He
skimmed his palm across her back, pulling her into him more tightly as he took
in the slim and feminine contours of her body through the thin cotton of her
nightgown Their tongues met and the taste of her made him dizzy, heedless to
the pain in his ribs and shoulder.

"Marry me," he sobbed, his voice muffled by her lips.

Her reply sent fire through his blood. "I will," she breathed. "Tonight. Here
and now."

He groaned deep in his throat as he rolled her onto her back and she received
his weight with an eagerness that made him gasp. With fierce determination he
told himself to slow down. He mustn´t rush this. She was so precious, so

"With this kiss I thee wed," he whispered, taking her mouth with utmost
tenderness. With trembling fingers he reached for the buttons of her gown.
Instantly her hands were there to help him, and when the shirt parted before
him at last, he felt tears gather in his eyes. "So beautiful," he murmured.

She reached out and cupped the back of his head with her palm, pulling him
close until his face came to lie against the incredibly tender skin of her
breasts. Inhaling deeply, he absorbed as much of her as he possibly could.

"Josiah," she whispered close to his ear. "Let me touch you. Let me..."

He raised his head, staring at her incredulously. How could she want that? He
made a futile attempt at seeing himself through her eyes, but all he could see
was her tender beauty, mocking his coarse appearance. Suddenly self-conscious,
he rolled onto his back. He had to make an effort not to pull up the blanket
to cover himself. She rose onto one elbow, her free hand resting lightly on
his chest as she looked down at him calmly.

"I love you, Josiah," she said quietly, her hand suddenly on his face as she
worshiped his rough features with her touch. "There is nothing I can change
about that."

He captured her hand and brought it to his mouth, kissing the inside of her
wrist as he squeezed his eyes shut against the tears that threatened to spill.

"Oh Elizabeth," he exclaimed on a sigh. "What are we to do?"

Encircling his waist with her arms, she laid her head on his chest. "I don´t
know," she replied. "I don´t want to know. All I know is that I want to be
with every way there is." Before he could respond, she raised her
head and locked her gaze to his. "How can that be wrong?"

He thought his heart would die with the anguish he saw in her face. "It´s not
a matter of right or wrong, Elizabeth, but a matter of priorities. We may be
married in our hearts, we may...even join our bodies, but that doesn´t change
the fact that we can´t have a life this community.
Not with you and me being who we are, what we represent to the people in this

"But we do have a life together here," she countered.

He smiled. "That´s right, but it´s a life of stolen moments. You deserve
better than that."

"You are everything I want, Josiah, and you are so much more than I deserve,"
she finally said, and he saw a shadow pass over her face.

Her reply puzzled him and he leaned slightly forward, searching for her eyes.
Shaking his head, he said, "What do you mean? How could you not deserve every
happiness there is?"

"Because...," she replied, "people became unhappy...through me." He wanted to
contradict, but she placed her fingers over his mouth. "My only excuse, if
such a thing exists," she continued, "is that I knew so little about
life...and love."

Josiah´s heart constricted in apprehension. He braced himself to hear about
people she had loved. But how could someone such as she ever have caused
anybody hurt?

"I had been wondering time and time again why my husband left and joined the
army. We had a peaceful life, a quiet life, but..." She paused, and Josiah
sensed the depth of her sorrow so clearly as if it were his own.

"But?" he prompted gently.

Elizabeth sat up straight, absentmindedly closing the buttons of her gown. "He
left because I didn´t love him," she confessed at last.  "I should never have
married him. I did so out of need, the need to have a place to live. That´s
unforgivable. And in the end he had to pay for it with his life."

Slowly Josiah got up on his knees, ignoring the pain in his side as he took
Elizabeth´s shoulders in a gentle clasp. "Are you so sure he wouldn´t have
left if you had loved him the way you think you should have? He was young,
too. When you are young, you seek adventures and are easily blinded by their
false promises."

Her shoulders shook as she wept quietly. "His father could never forgive me.
Phillip was his only son and all the family he had, and I ..."

Josiah knew that at the moment there was nothing he could say to ease her
pain, so he just cradled her to his chest, rocking her tenderly.

Suddenly she turned in his arms, her eyes huge as she locked them to his. "I
didn´t know what it was to love someone, Josiah. To want someone with every
fiber of your being. I know it now, but Phillip never got the chance to love
and be loved like that."

I know it now. The words exploded in Josiah´s chest with the force of
lightning, and he mentally chastised himself for being shaken by them in the
first place when it was her anguish he should be aware of above everything
else. "Oh my God," he exclaimed in a muffled voice as he buried his face in
her hair. Gradually Elizabeth´s breathing calmed and she wasn´t crying
anymore. Josiah´s mind worked feverishly as he sought for a way to regain
control over the situation. What they had been about to do was madness. He
mustn´t let that happen. She would never forgive herself if they gave in to a
moment of weakness.

As if she had heard his unspoken thoughts, Elizabeth pulled back and looked up
at him. "I´m sorry," she said. "You came to me because you needed my help, and
I threw my own problems at you."

The sudden distance between them cut through his heart like a knife, but he
knew that it was better that way.

"You have nothing to be sorry for," he replied. "I..."

She placed her fingers over his mouth to silence him. "Promise me you won´t
work too hard during the next days," she said. "You need time to heal."

Josiah shook his head. "I´m still working on an explanation for the scratches
in my face."

She laughed softly. "I don´t think the truth would hurt anyone, Josiah."

"It would hurt my reputation," he replied with an indignant frown.

She leaned forward and kissed his brow. "Maybe we are too concerned about how
others see us," she mused. "Maybe that´s our main problem. And things
are...I don´t think there´s much we can do about it."

Mutely Josiah nodded his head. As long as she looked at things that way, she
was safe. There was relief in that knowledge, and the bittersweet pain of
realizing that everything else had to remain locked away.

His attempt at avoiding pain made him a little awkward as he rose from the
bed. "I...should go now. Thank you, Elizabeth."

"Good night, Josiah," she whispered, and her breath was warm against his cheek
as she kissed him gently.

He felt her eyes on him as he walked to the door. Somehow he half-expected her
to call out to him, to stop him, but she didn´t, and when the door fell close
behind him, he released a groan of anguish. How should he ever cope with the
memories they had created tonight...