"I have a question for you."
"Yes, Mr. Bonner?" She did not raise her head.
"Will you please say my name?" he said with an intensity which caused gooseflesh to rise on her arms.
She hesitated. "Nathaniel."
"Look at me and say my name."
Elizabeth looked up slowly.
Nathaniel saw in her face an overwhelming confusion. He saw that she had never stood like this with a man, that she had never imagined doing so, and that she was flustered and even a bit frightened, but not unhappy to be here with him.
"What did you want to ask me?"
"How old are you?"
Elizabeth blinked. "Twenty-nine."
"You've never been kissed, have you?" The white cloud of his breath reached out to touch her face. His hands jerked at his sides but he kept them where they were. Now she would tell him to mind his own business, and he could put this woman out of his head.
"Why?" said Elizabeth, raising her eyes to his with a critical but composed look. "Do you intend to kiss me?"
Nathaniel pulled up abruptly and laughed. "The thought crossed my mind."
Her eyes narrowed.
"Why do you want to kiss me?"
"Well," Nathaniel said, inclining his head. "You seem set on going back to England, and the Mahicans say that you should never return from a journey the same person."
"How very thoughtful of you," she said dryly. "How benevolent. But please, do not discommode yourself, on my account." She began to turn away, but Nathaniel caught her by the upper arm.
"Now I, for one, hope you don't rush off," he said. "But I want to kiss you, either way."
"Do you?" she said tersely. "Perhaps I don't want to kiss you."
Elizabeth was afraid to look at Nathaniel directly, for how could he not see the doubt on her face, and the curiosity? And what would that mean, to let him know what she really thought, how confusing this all was to her? To tell a man what she was truly thinkingthis was a thought more frightening than any kiss could be.
"I didn't mean to get you mad," Nathaniel said softly.
"What did you mean to do, then? Have some fun at my expense, but not so much that I would actually notice that you were making a fool of me?"
"No," he said, and Elizabeth was relieved to see all trace of teasing leave his face. "I'd like to see the man who could make a fool of you. I meant to kiss you, because I wanted to. But if you don't like the idea"
She pulled away from him, her face blazing white. "I never said that. You don't know what I want." Then, finally, she blushed, all her frustration and anger pouring out in pools of color which stained her cheeks bluish-gray in the faint light of the winter moon.
"So," Nathaniel said, a hint of his smile returning. "You do want to kiss me."
"I want you to stop talking the matter to death," Elizabeth said irritably. "If you hadn't noticed, you are embarrassing me. Perhaps you don't know much about EnglandI don't know why you should, after allbut let me tell you that there's a reason I am twenty-nine years of age and unkissed, and that is, very simply, that well-bred ladies of good family don't let men kiss them. Even if they want to be kissed, and women do want to be kissed on occasion, you realize, although we aren't supposed to admit that. To be perfectly honest with you"she drew a shaky breath"I can't claim that anyone has ever shown an interest in me at homeat least, not enough interest that this particular issue ever raised its head. Now." She looked up at him with her mouth firmly set. Her voice had lowered to a hoarse whisper, but still she looked about the little glen nervously, as if someone might overhear this strange and unseemly conversation. "You'll forgive me if I question why you would be thinking of kissing me."
"It's a wonder," Nathaniel said. "How purely stupid Englishmen can be. Scairt off from a pretty facedon't you scowl that way, maybe nobody ever thought to tell you before, but you are prettybecause there's a sharp mind and a quick tongue to go along with it. Well, I'm made of tougher stuff."
"Why" Elizabeth began, sputtering.
"Christ, Boots, will you stop talking," said Nathaniel, lowering his mouth to hers; she stepped neatly away.
"I think not," she said. "Not tonight."
Nathaniel laughed out loud. "Tomorrow night? The night after?"
"Oh, no," Elizabeth said, trying halfheartedly to turn away. "I cannotpardon me, I must get back."
"Back to England?" he asked, one hand moving down until he clasped a mittened hand. "Or just back to your father?"
Nathaniel saw Elizabeth jerk in surprise. She looked up at him sharply, her eyes sparkling. At first he thought she was angry again, then he saw that it was more complicated than that: she was furious, but not at him. Not at this. This almost-kiss, the idea of it, had released something in her.
"It isn't right that my father misrepresented things to me, that he brought me here under false pretenses, that he made plans for me that I want no part of."
"You don't want Richard Todd," Nathaniel prompted.
"No," Elizabeth said fiercely, and her eyes traveled down to focus on his mouth. "I don't want Richard Todd. I want my school."
"I will build you a school."
"I want to know why you're so angry at my father, what he's done to you."
"I'll tell you that if you really want to know," he said. "But someplace warmer."
"I don't want to get married."
He raised an eyebrow. "Then I won't marry you."
Her eyes kept darting over his face, between his mouth and his eyes, and back to his mouth, the curve of his lip. He saw this, and he knew she was thinking about kissing him. Nathaniel knew that this was a conflict for her, one not easily reconciled: she did not want marriage, and in her worldin this worldthere could not be one without the other. This struggle was clear on her face, and as he expected, training and propriety won out: she was not quite bold enough to ask for the kisses she wanted. This disappointed him but he was also relieved. He didn't know how long he could keep his own wants firmly in hand. And this was not a woman who could be rushed.
"I want . . . I want . . ." She paused and looked down.
"Do you always get everything you want?" Nathaniel asked.
"No," she said. "But I intend to start."
Elizabeth let Nathaniel turn her back toward the house. Her hands and feet were icy, her cheeks chafed red with the cold, but she was strangely elated, her head rushing with possibilities. She felt that she could face her father now and that she must, she would, have her way. She had no intention of mentioning Nathaniel to him, of what had passed between them, although she recognized, she knew, that this was not over. She knew that it had just begun, and that it would take her places she could not yet imagine. It frightened her, how far she had come in just a few days, but it was also deeply exciting.
A strange thought came to Elizabeth: if her father would not give her what she wanted, Nathaniel might help her take it. He was a man such as she had never known before, and she wondered if he could be a part of her life and not an obstruction in it. She cast a wondering and speculative sideways glance at him, and shivered.