Written in 65 minutes.
The weather continued to improve as February faded into March, and Jason was relieved when the last of the snow had melted, leaving the ranch free of dangerous ice, and if a doctor was needed, they could arrive safely.
Elizabeth fretted over nearly everything as the birth of their child drew closer. She thought they had maybe eight weeks left, and worried that the cradle wouldn’t be ready or that the room next to theirs wouldn’t be cleared out enough for the nursery, or that Cameron would feel jealous over a new sibling—
Each morning, it seemed to Jason that as soon as Elizabeth opened her eyes, there was a concern, as if she was being chased in her dreams by a never ending list of problems. He’d grown accustomed to spending a few minutes each day reassuring her that the cradle was already finished, that he and Johnny had already cleared out the room they’d chosen for the nursery, and all Cameron could talk about was being a big brother—
This morning, he opened his eyes to the birds chirping outside the window, the streaks of pink and orange outside the window as the sun rose beyond the horizon. And for once, Elizabeth lay silent next to him, still sleeping. Her long hair, braided and tied with a yellow ribbon, lay across her chest. One of her hands curled up next to her cheek and the other resting comfortably on the bulge of her belly. That made him smile — Elizabeth had felt the baby move and shift, but Jason had managed to miss them so far — he and the baby kept a different schedule.
Jason gingerly slid from the bed, hoping he wouldn’t disturb her. It was difficult for her time sleep sometimes, and she’d been up and down through the night. He wanted her to rest as much as possible—
But he made it no further than the dresser to pull out clothing for the day when he heard the bed clothes rustling behind him. He looked back and Elizabeth was trying to sit up—Dropping the trousers in his hands, Jason went to her side and offered a hand.
“I feel like one of the ships back home,” she grumbled, reluctantly letting him pull her to her feet. “The ones bound for the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic. Big, clumsy, taking up space—”
“You’re none of those things,” Jason assured her, touching the end of her braid and flicking it of her shoulder. “And you don’t have to get up—”
“No, no, I do. I have so much to do before your grandmother comes to dinner tomorrow—” Elizabeth moved across the room, towards her own wardrobe, her face already set in a grimace. “I want to show her the nursery and, oh, Cameron and Pip got into the woodshed yesterday—and they tracked mud through the living room—”
“All taken care of.”
“I don’t know what’s gotten into him,” Elizabeth continued to grumble as she sorted through the handful of dresses that would fit. “These all look like sackclothes—”
Jason kept his mouth closed. The first time she’d complained about her clothing, he’d offered to buy her anything she wanted. Which she took as his agreement that she resembled one of the cows in the barn. The second time, he’d told her she looked beautiful just as she was—which was apparently also his agreement that she was a cow.
Simpler to say nothing and stick to the one topic he knew he could handle. “Cam’s just excited about the weather. He knows it means we’ll be back working the horses. And he’s grown two inches since last fall.”
“Almost tall enough,” Elizabeth murmured. “A few more inches. He’ll be over the moon.” She sighed, rubbing her belly. “Still, he has better manners than he’s shown these last few days. I just have to—” Her eyes widened and locked on his. “Oh—oh—come here—”
He was at her side in seconds, his heart thudding, his throat tight. “What is it—”
Elizabeth snagged his hand and flattened it against the side of her belly. Jason drew his brows together in confusion at first—but then it registered what was pressing back against his palm. There was barely any strength behind it—it was little more than a gentle push—
Their baby. Kicking against his hand. Jason raised his other hand to double his chances of feeling it. “That’s—it’s the baby.” He grinned, feeling another kick—stronger this time. And then against his other had, what felt like an arm. There really was a baby growing inside of his wife. Their baby.
“Oh, I was hoping you would get to—” Her voice faltered, and he glanced up, worried when he saw her eyes damp with tears. “I’ve waited for weeks for you to feel the baby, and now you can, and it’s so amazing.” She cupped his jaw and leaned in, their mouths brushing gently at first, then Jason drew her a bit closer and deepened the embrace. When Elizabeth stepped back, her eyes stayed closed another second or so, and then opened with a starry-eyed expression. “I love you.”
Startled, Jason stepped back and his hands fell back to his side. He stared at her for a long moment, her cheeks flushed, her expression expectant. “You don’t have to say that,” he said finally.
Elizabeth frowned, shook her head. “But—”
“You don’t have to—” Jason started to say again, then swallowed hard. “It’s all right. I don’t need to hear that.”
Her mouth closed, and her cheeks lost some color. “I—”
“I—I have things to handle,” Jason said in a rush, before going back to his dresser, yanking out the first change of clothes he found. He hurried out of the room, not wanting to know what Elizabeth might say next.
He changed clothes in the next room, where the nursery was half-furnished, the cradle he’d made tucked in a corner. Jason dragged his clothes on, his heart pounding so loud, it echoed in his eyes. He knew Elizabeth had meant well by her declaration and he’d nearly blurted out the response she’d clearly hoped for. But he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t accept the words when he knew that so much of what she felt was mixed up with gratitude. How many times over the last year had she spoken of his decision to offer marriage? Her worries that he’d sacrificed too much, her promises that he wouldn’t regret it—
No. He couldn’t stand to hear the words and know they weren’t true. They were much better off leaving their feelings unspoken.
Elizabeth nearly crawled back into the bed after Jason’s escape, her cheeks hot with mortification. She hadn’t meant to say the words—they’d just fallen from her lips at the way he’d lit up feeling the baby kick. Everything she felt had bubbled up and spilled over—
But it was just as she’d feared. He didn’t want those words. He didn’t feel the same way about her, and now he knew how she felt—oh, this was terrible.
Somehow, Elizabeth found the courage to dress and prepare for the day, to smile at Alice and Cameron at the breakfast table. To make excuses when Jason avoided the house most of the day, only coming to fetch Cameron to help muck out some of the stables. He’d avoided her eyes and Elizabeth hadn’t been able to look at him either.
Why, oh, why had she said anything? She ought to have kept it to herself. After all all the wonderful ways he’d changed her life and given her so much, Elizabeth had had no business burdening him with her feelings. Jason was so kind — God, what if he had spent most of the day trying to convince himself to return her words? To say he loved her so that she’d feel better?
She’d rather die than hear words he didn’t feel.
“You seem quiet tonight, Miss Elizabeth,” Alice said, setting down a bowl of soup. “You sure you don’t want to wait for Mister Jason to have supper?”
“Oh. No.” Elizabeth swirled her spoon in the creamy dish. “No. I’m feeling a bit tired, and I’ll turn in before he comes in. It’s a busy time—the thaw—”
“Not so busy a body can’t spend time with his wife,” Alice said, but it was a grumble offered as she left the dining room.
Elizabeth did exactly as she said, going to bed nearly an hour before she would normally, and when Jason finally came in much later, the way his footsteps hesitated at the threshold caused the tears to well up anew, but she squeezed them back, hoping her breathing would fool him.
The footsteps resumed, coming towards the bed. The mattress dipped beneath his weight and Jason stretched out next to her, laying flat while she laid on her side, turned away.
It was a terrible long night, and Elizabeth had only herself to blame.
The next morning, Jason decided that they ought to just pretend the whole scene had never happened. Especially as his grandmother and cousin were coming to dinner that evening, but Elizabeth seemed more upset than he’d expected. She wouldn’t look at him, not even over the breakfast table where Cameron bounced with excitement about the impending visit from his great-grandmother that evening. Elizabeth was so subdued that Alice sent him dark looks, indicating that Jason was fooling no one.
The carriage carrying his family drove through the ranch gate as the afternoon slid into early evening. Cameron waited on the porch with him, the little Greyhound Pip sitting expectantly at his side.
“Well, look at this handsome welcome.” Lila beamed as Dillon escorted her up the walk. She kissed Jason’s cheek, then leaned down for Cameron. “And it’s good to see you, too, Pip.” The dog yipped, as if reply and she laughed. To Jason, she said, “I hope Elizabeth is inside resting comfortably.”
“She’s supposed to be,” Jason said, holding the door open for his grandmother. “But you know it’s difficult to keep her in one place for long.”
Elizabeth was in the parlor, her face smiling but her eyes still carried a lingering somberness that cut at Jason. He’d hurt her the day before, rejecting her words. Maybe he ought to have just accepted them and said nothing—
“Hello, daring,” Lila said, pressing her cheek to Elizabeth’s in greeting. “And how is my youngest great-grandchild?”
“Restless,” Elizabeth said, touching her belly, hidden slightly beneath the dark blue dress with its higher waistline. “He’s awake when the world sleeps, and sleeps in the day.”
“He?” Lila echoed.
“I’m not sure when I decided it was a boy,” Elizabeth said, her smile a bit more genuine now. “But I just do. I knew with Cameron.”
“I want nothing more than a healthy baby,” Lila declared, “but I must admit, I was looking forward to seeing my Jason cope with a little girl with flowers and lace.” She smiled at her grandson, the blue eyes they shared twinkling. “Well, maybe next time.”
Jason’s lips curved, but now he wondered if that would even be possible. Would there be another child?
Lila’s smile faltered slightly, and she looked back at Elizabeth, who dropped her eyes. “Dillon,” she said, not actually looking at him, “I think you ought to take your cousin to the stables. Put the horse up while I visit with granddaughter-in-law.”
“Grandmother,” Jason began, but Lila arched a brow, and he closed his mouth. “Of course.” He turned and left, not waiting for Dillon who eventually quit the room. A moment later, they heard the door close.
“And Cameron, take Pip into the kitchen. I think you deserve a cookie.”
“Yay!” Cameron punched the air and then raced out of the room, the dog yipping behind him.
“Now, my dear,” Lila drew Elizabeth to the sofa. “Tell me what’s happened.”
“Everything is wonderful—” Elizabeth started but her throat closed, and she couldn’t push out another word. She curled her fingers into her palm. “I fear I’ve made a terrible error. I—I spoke rashly, and it’s poisoned things between us.”
“Ah, it happens in all marriages,” Lila said. “You mustn’t worry so—”
“I told him that I loved him, and he said that I shouldn’t have said it. That he didn’t need to hear it.” A tear slid down her cheek. “He doesn’t feel the same, you see, and now I’ve burdened him with that—he doesn’t love me. And he can scarcely look at me now.”
Dillon had not, in fact, followed his cousin out the door. Instead, he’d lingered by the doorway, hoping to learn the cause of Jason’s glum expression and Elizabeth’s quiet. Then he’d heard Elizabeth’s hushed confession, the words shaky — he thought she must be crying. You could hear it in the words.
He scowled at what she said and tossed a dark look towards the direction of the stables. He’d worked hard to give his cousin a happy ending, and he’d be damned if Jason screwed it up now.
“Idiot,” Dillon muttered, and strode out the door, careful not to let it make a sound behind him. It was time to take matters into his own hands.