Authors: Zoe Matthews
She did her best to not allow herself to be alone with Austin. She told herself that she didn’t need to keep coming over every day once Jessica was totally healed. Jessica was doing a fine job keeping the house clean and she had been very quick in learning how to cook a few simple meals like beef stew and scrambled eggs and ham. Austin might be eating the same things every day, however, they wouldn’t starve. But would she be able to stop coming without regrets? What did the kiss mean? Austin seemed to be avoiding her also, although he was very friendly to her. Did he have regrets? Lizzie again thought that maybe he was only expressing gratitude for her help with Jessica.
She shoved the longing she felt for him down deep inside, just as she had shoved all of her other deep feelings all her life. She wanted more than gratitude. She wanted love and acceptance for who she was, a female who was sometimes strong, sometimes weak, from the one person who would still love her unconditionally.
That Saturday, she spent the day helping Hannah with her laundry as she promised. She also helped Hannah with some other much needed chores that needed to be done around her home.
On Sunday, Lizzie went to church as usual. She didn’t see Austin or Jessica, but really didn’t expect them to come. After all, Jessica’s leg was still a little sore and riding a horse probably would hurt her leg. She sat with Hannah and Chase and enjoyed the sermon about learning to trust God in all areas of your life, whether it was good or bad.
After the service ended, she shook hands with the reverend and left the church. She stood off to the side in the church yard to wait for Hannah. A few people came up to her to ask her how Jessica was doing. Then a woman, Mrs. Newell, stopped to talk to a group of women who were standing close by Lizzie.
“I heard that our schoolteacher is spending a great deal of time at the Perry farm,” Mrs. Newell spoke loudly and Lizzie knew anyone who would want to hear the woman’s words could.
Another woman answered her. “I think she was helping with Jessica’s care. She was seriously injured.”
But another woman who Lizzie didn’t recognize jumped on Mrs. Newell’s words. “What? Is this true? We can’t have the schoolteacher spend so much time at an unmarried man’s home without a chaperone! Something must be done.”
Mrs. Newell noticed that Lizzie was standing nearby and turned to her. “You have a serious responsibility to the children of our town. You must maintain a flawless reputation. You should be devoting yourself to all of our children, not just one.”
The woman Lizzie didn’t recognize nodded, her double chin bobbing as she did. “I think we need to report this to the schoolboard. Something needs to be done, immediately.”
Lizzie’s heart dropped when she saw more than one woman nod their heads in agreement. Lizzie couldn’t take any more and quickly turned and walked away.
What was she going to do? If she was let go from her job as school teacher, she would have to return to Texas, and that was the last thing she wanted to do. In the few months that she had been here in Pine Valley, she had learned to love this beautiful mountainous town. She knew that she needed to stop her association with Jessica and her father. She needed to stop going to their farm in order to keep her reputation intact.
The following day, Lizzie expected a visit from the schoolboard, but nothing happened. She did her best to teach and give affection to all the children in her class. She could tell from the way each child responded to her that she had done a good job in letting each one of them know he or she was important to her. She went over all that she had done with Jessica and Austin and she knew she had done nothing wrong, except maybe spend more time than she should have with them. She worked hard that entire week at the school. She didn’t want to give anyone a reason to criticize her again.
She loved to teach, but she also yearned to have her own house to care for, a husband that loved her, and children. Deep down, she admitted to herself that she wanted Austin as that husband and Jessica as her first child. She admitted to herself that she loved Austin and she promised herself that she would not deny her feelings again. She didn’t know what would happen between them.
The next Saturday, Hannah told her that Chase was going to go to the Perry farm to help Austin with the roof of his barn. Some other men from town were also heading to his farm to help. Lizzie was glad that Austin was accepting help and she hoped none of the men would get injured on the steep roof.
Chase drove her and Hannah to Austin’s farm in their wagon. Austin seemed happy to see her and she immediately started cooking a lunch meal for the men with Hannah’s help. Lizzie realized she enjoyed working in Austin’s kitchen. It almost felt as if it were her own. She knew where everything was located and knew what food Austin had in his pantry that was available for the meal.
A few other women came out with their husbands and Lizzie enjoyed her time with them. She half expected at least one of them to comment on how much time she had been spending at Austin’s farm, including a comment that it was inappropriate, but none of them did.
Maybe not everyone in town feels the same way those women did at church
, Lizzie thought to herself.
The men finally finished repairing the roof when it was just starting to get dark. Lizzie had prepared another large meal with the other women and after dinner was eaten, everyone left, leaving Lizzie with Austin and Jessica. She wanted to finish cleaning up the kitchen before she left, and she overheard Austin tell Chase he would make sure she arrived home safely.
Jessica had gone to bed long ago. Austin sat at the kitchen table watching her finish washing the last of the dirty dishes. When she put the last dish away, he stood and held out his hand.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he suggested.
Lizzie looked at his hand and then at him and could see something unreadable in his eyes. She slowly slid her hand into his.
“I know we can’t go too far since Jess is in bed, but it is nice to enjoy the last of this nice evening weather. It’s going to start getting cold very soon,” Austin told her as they left the house. Lizzie expected him to drop her hand as soon as they left the house, but instead he tucked her hand under his arm.
They slowly walked by the barn and corrals. They didn’t talk, but Lizzie kept looking at Austin out of the corner of her eye. What was he thinking?
“It’s nice to see Jessica back to normal,” Lizzie finally broke the silence. “I think she enjoyed having company today.”
“She seems to be doing well,” Austin nodded.
“The roof looks great.”
“Yes, I wanted to fix it myself, but when Chris found out, he talked me into seeing if I could get some men to come help. He said if I couldn’t, he would come help, but I didn’t want him to come out again.”
“It was nice that everyone came to help you,” Lizzie remarked.
“Yes, it was. It would have taken me weeks to get it done. I would have been lucky to finish it before the first snow fell.”
They walked in silence for a few more minutes. Lizzie was ready to tell him she should think about heading back to Hannah’s when Austin asked another question.
“How is your teaching?”
“It’s going well,” Lizzie was glad he kept the conversation going. She told him about a few events that had happened that week.
“I can tell you are a great teacher. In fact, you have taught me something important.”
“What is that?” she questioned.
“You have taught me that admitting a weakness doesn’t make me helpless. Having weakness is not the same as giving up.”
“Everyone has weaknesses.”
“Yes, and strengths.” Austin stopped walking and turned to face her. “You are a strong woman, Lizzie.”
“You used to see me as a woman who was going to quit my teaching job the minute the first snowstorm came. Now you say I am strong. You are seeing me only as you want me to be.” She turned to walk away but stopped at his next words.
“You don’t need to run from me. I am not your father.”
She turned to face him again. “What do you mean?”
“He hurt you. He abandoned you. I am guessing he was hurting himself. Perhaps he was afraid of his own weaknesses.”
“You are saying all this now, but when things get back to normal, you might change your mind.”
“We both have strengths and we both have weaknesses. I think we balance each other out.”
Lizzie wanted so badly to believe he had changed. But could she change? She didn’t know.
“Have you thought about my suggestion to contact your brother?”
Lizzie was confused for a moment at the change of subject. “Actually, I did send a letter to Owen. I haven’t heard anything yet, but it hasn’t been very long since I sent the letter.”
“I’m glad.” Austin leaned towards her and lifted her chin so he could look into her eyes.
Lizzie could see the love he felt for her on his face. What she saw almost frightened her and she lowered her eyes. She heard Austin sigh.
“You need to make peace with your past, just as I needed to make peace with my own past.”
She jerked her eyes back to his. “How can I accept how my father treated me when he isn’t around?”
“It seems to me you are mourning your past. I am glad to hear you wrote your brother. I hope he will contact you, but even if he doesn’t, I hope you know you did all you could, and you can let your past go.”
“I will think about what you said,” Lizzie told him sincerely.
“I have one more question. Why have you been avoiding me?”
Lizzie hesitated then decided to tell him what happened at church. She briefly explained what Mrs. Newell had accused her of because she was spending so much time at his home. She had stopped coming because she didn’t want to cause any more problems.
Austin looked frustrated. “Mrs. Newell always likes to stir things up. Did you get a visit from the schoolboard this week?”
Lizzie shook her head.
“I wouldn’t worry about it then.”
“How do you know they might not visit in the future?”
“Because I am on the schoolboard and I haven’t heard from anyone about this. I think Mrs. Newell is the only one concerned about the situation.”
Lizzie was surprised to hear that Austin was on the board. He hadn’t been with the group of men who had interviewed her for the position. Austin trailed a finger across her cheek. He gazed at her with such warmth and longing, Lizzie caught her breath. She almost moved away again, but then something made her stop. She studied his face. He had a dark shadow showing that he needed to shave and she found herself desperately wanting to reach up and touch his cheek. He smiled gently at her and she could see deep laugh lines in his face. She knew it was time she quit running away.
“Lizzie, I love you.”
Joy burst through her and she nodded. “I know.” And she did know. She could tell by the way he was looking at her now and how he had been treating her ever since Jessica’s accident.
“Can I ask how you feel about me?” he asked quietly.
Lizzie heard doubt in his voice, as if he was expecting her to push him away again, but she instantly made a decision that she would never do that again. “Austin, I love you very much.”
Austin’s face lit up as he pulled her towards him in a hug. “Then marry me. Share my life with me. Be a mother to Jessica and to the other children we may have.” She noticed that he called his daughter by her full name of Jessica for the first time and it made her heart sing.
She hesitated for a moment. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. I want you to be my wife.”
“Then yes, I will marry you and be your wife, and mother to Jessica.”
Austin hugged her for a long time and Lizzie cherished the comfort and love she found in his arms. Then he lifted her chin and gently kissed her. She wanted him to deepen the kiss, but she knew she had the rest of her life to enjoy his kisses and his love.
“When can we get married?” he asked eagerly.
“When I signed the contract to teach, I also agreed to finish the entire school year and not marry during that time. But hopefully since we are engaged to be married, there shouldn’t be any concern of my spending time here when I am not teaching. I will talk to the schoolboard if I have to. I refuse to pretend I don’t love you.”
Austin looked like he wanted to argue.
“I made a commitment to Pine Valley. I want to keep that agreement,” Lizzie explained to him.
He finally nodded. “Then promise me we will marry as soon as school has ended.”
“I promise,” Lizzie told him and sighed as he bent to kiss her again. For the first time, she was looking forward to the future and not dwelling so much on her past.
Coming soon, Debbie’s story, along with their brother, Owen.
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