"Good afternoon, Josiah."
At the sound of Elizabeth´s voice Josiah looked up from his work at the back steps of the church and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. She was standing at the base of the stairs, a basket over her arm, regarding him solemnly.
"I see you're busy, but it´s hot and I thought you might like a drink of water," she offered with a smile.
Josiah rose and wiped dust off his hands. "I´ve just replaced a couple of broken boards. Wouldn't want a repeat of Buck's accident," he said with a grin. "Yes, a drink would taste good, thank you."
He noticed that her
gaze lingered at his bare forearms for a moment before she reached into
the basket and produced a mug, setting it on the steps.
Watching as she retrieved a jug from the basket, he rolled down his sleeves. He was uncertain how to interpret her glance, but straightening his clothes seemed to be the best thing to do at the moment. She handed him the mug and he took it from her.
"Would you like to join me?" he asked, gesturing for her to sit with him on the stairs. For a moment he thought there was a trace of hesitation in her, but then she climbed up the steps and took a seat on the top step. He sat down beside her, his arm brushing against her shoulder, and he flinched at the contact.
Instantly she put down her mug and turned to him in concern. "It´s your wound, isn´t it?" she asked, her gaze riveted to his sleeve as if she could see through the fabric.
"It´s all right," he lied. "Just a little tender yet."
"But it´s been almost three weeks," she insisted. "It shouldn´t hurt anymore."
"It hardly does," he replied.
"Please, let me have a look at it," she demanded insistently.
He shot her a doubtful look. "I don´t think it´s appropriate."
She raised her brow at him. "Appropriate?" she echoed. "I´m worried about a friend. How could that be inappropriate?"
"That´s not what I meant," he protested. "I just thought that..."
"That an honorable woman shouldn´t touch the bare arm of a gentleman?" she teased with a smile.
"Well, maybe I´m not exactly a gentleman," he offered, silently cursing the fact that he felt suddenly clumsy and shy.
"And I am not a maiden," she replied, staring up at him defiantly.
Her statement caught him unprepared. He had never given it any thought and it was almost startling that she should talk to him about it.
As if of their own volition his hands went to the collar of his shirt and he started undoing the buttons. Shrugging off his leather vest as he stood up, he pulled his arm free of the sleeve and waited for her judgment..
She rose to examine his arm, her fingers cool on his skin as she probed gently. "The tissue around the wound looks inflamed," she said. "When was the last time Nathan had a look at it?"
"About a week ago," Josiah heard himself reply, surprised that he was capable of shaping an answer at all with her soft palm against his bare arm.
"Please, promise me to have him look at this," she implored him and he nodded, a little dazed by the way she looked up at him from such a close distance. She seized the front of his shirt and held it for him so he could slip his arm back into the sleeve. Donning his vest, he gave her a sidelong glance.
"I didn´t know you had been married," he said quietly, not sure that addressing the issue was the wisest thing to do.
She turned and braced
her arms against the rail as she stared off into space. "I was very young,"
she began. "Far too young. My mother died when I was fourteen, and her
last wish was that I live with her best friend and her
family. I was barely seventeen when my mother´s friend died as well. The only way to live with her husband and son was to marry the son. We were married for two years, but then he went to fight in the war and..."
Her voice broke off and involuntarily Josiah turned to her, fighting the impulse to put his arm around her shoulder and pull her close. But the need to comfort her in some small way was too great, so he placed a steadying hand on her back. "Your husband died," he said quietly.
"He was killed, yes," she replied in a low voice. "I stayed with my father-in-law for as long as I could, but...we simply didn´t get along well. I had to leave and build a life of my own."
Josiah watched her narrow shoulders rise as she heaved a sigh. "And you became a teacher," he offered softly.
"Not right away," she replied, half-turning to face him.
A strand of her hair had come loose and fell across her forehead almost down to her cheek. The sight triggered a strange tenderness in him, and he quickly averted his eyes, looking out into the desert. He felt her eyes on him and endured her furtive scrutiny before turning to meet her gaze.
"That must have been hard," he said at last.
"I was fortunate," she continued. "I found a place with a family who needed someone for their three children. I stayed with them for almost ten years, and when I was no longer needed, I decided that working with children was what I wanted to do more than anything else."
He marveled at the way her eyes softened when she talked about children. "How lucky we all are that you came to this place," he murmured.
"How lucky I am that you are here," she replied. He frowned, uncertain what to answer to such a statement. "What I mean is," she hastened to add, "that you give me a feeling of safety, of...belonging. You are someone who cares about people, Josiah, and that warms the heart of everyone who comes near you."
Josiah lowered his head, studying the grain of the wood under his hands where he leaned against the rail. His mind reeled. Why did the thought of her as somebody´s wife stir him in such an unsettling way? It was ridiculous that it should bother him that she had known the love of a man. On second thought it didn´t exactly bother him. It just evoked thoughts in him that had been safely locked away so far. His skin remembered the touch of her palm and he was quick to clench his hands into fists to keep them from shaking.
"Josiah," she called out softly. "Are you all right?" Taking a deep breath, he finally looked at her and nodded. "Promise me to have your arm looked at, will you?" she added, and the concern in her expression warmed his heart.
"I will," he said, glad that his voice sounded more secure than he was feeling.
She gave him a long look before she bent to retrieve her things and started to descend the stairs. It tore at his heart that she was leaving already. He wished he were able to find words for the way she made him feel.
"Elizabeth." Her name had left his lips before he knew it.
She paused and turned. "Yes?"
His mind went blank under her gaze and all he managed was a hoarse, "Thank you."
Her featured brightened as if he had just paid her the most splendid compliment and he couldn´t help but return her smile in kind. She inclined her head, and the way she glanced up at him from under her lashes made his heart skip a beat.
Josiah remained staring
at the spot where she had stood long after
she had left, wondering how he should survive the hours
until he would see her again.