Burn

Daniel thought that he might like Elizabeth the day their class left the schoolhouse, traveling to the garden by the river. She had worn a light blue dress and twirled in the sunshine, all dark hair and skinny white legs.

He thought he might like her even more one day while playing in the church yard. A boys vs. girls game of tag had begun and he liked the idea of touching her.

He thought he might like to court her when the school formal was announced. Before he could ask, he learned she was excited about a date, the chance of inviting her passing before he could grasp it.

He thought he might ask her to take a walk with him that night. He was dressed in his best and she was achingly beautiful, standing alone while her date smoked with friends. The light blue gown, so different from the childish version she'd once worn, inspired feelings he'd never spoken of, making him want to kiss her.

Years passed between them, each one filled with his distant observations and her occasional, casual smiles. Then he went his way, she went hers, and life moved forward.

At 19 years of age, he joined the Infantry on the eve of war without a thought otherwise. The non-negotiable transition from books and athletics to guns, boots, and rations, one he could hardly recall later. Those first few months at the front changed him as it did every man, and soon his innocence and fear of death were extinguished.

Compulsively, he fought for his life and his country through the daily skirmishes with every ounce of courage he could muster, but when the camp went dark and his mind sought distraction, his thoughts wandered to her. He daydreamed of her smile and sweetness, of her beauty that starry night so long ago. As months passed, compatriots died, officers ordered retreats, and he fought when he was told to, but in free time she was his…

When sleep laid so heavily upon him, neither the ache of starvation nor the whirring of bullets could rouse him from those dreams, from replaying that night of the dance again and again. In his mind, they took that walk together to the grove and she kissed him with soft lips, touched him with soft hands, and asked him to make love with her. They did so in the warm, fragrant summertime grass, with the blue dress she wore pooled around them.

And when the pressure of mortal concerns crushed his will and he was too tired to dream of making love, he imagined her walking to him through the mud and pain, remaining clean, her smile so radiant, so beautiful. It was an unholy contrast, bringing angels to Hell, but he wished for rescue from artillery and blood, wished for the warmth of her skin. Wished he could be clean and well-dressed, walking toward her and not death.

He thought then that he might write to her. Once entertaining the thought, hours and days were filled concocting sentences and phrases, each seeming odd in their delivery; false in their execution. He was surrounded by death and chaos, had no good news to share, no witty anecdotes with which to charm her.

But one summer night, shells barraged the scorched earth with ferocity, sending dirt flying and men moaning, and he believed he would die. After the onslaught, the lost were respected and he retreated to her and his corner, unscathed but shaken, finally committing pen to paper. He wanted her to know, to understand what gift she had given him, what thinking of her made him feel. He wanted to see her when the war was over, wanted to touch her, see her smile in the flesh.

By a small fire in the trenches of a world war, he stared wordlessly at the dirty, blank note, every introduction or message still seeming forced and ridiculous.

With death under his nails and soot-stained sweat stinging his eyes, he realized his insanity.

It had been four long years since he'd seen her smile, since they'd silently nodded on the rural streets of their hometown. The illusion of familiarity was all in his head; she was no more than a stranger and he was grasping.

That damning realization sucked the life from him, ripping away his imaginary refuge. With precise, brutal understanding he accepted that he wouldn't go to her, remembered he would die in the dirt alongside his foolish illusions.

Daniel broke for the first time then. He had seen sanity flee other men, but never like this, never to him. Silently and painfully, he sobbed for three solid minutes, wiping false hope away with the tears. Later, he could hardly remember those subsequent days, each one passing in a blur of numbing obligation.

The peace was brokered the following season and after what seemed a lifetime of victories and defeats, of triumphs and tragedies, Daniel was free from gritty patriotism. From the only existence he knew. Changed, but alive, he returned to their hometown without purpose or plan, seeking nothing more than solitude. Yet the moment his boots touched the station platform, his curiosity over her whereabouts was ignited, the inkling to visit her childhood home an urge he did well to suppress.

Country villages were cradles for gossip and Daniel's uniformed arrival was celebrated by tow-headed beauties and sweet girls anxious to see the soldier's return. Many men had been lost; those that remained were much sought after. Though he preferred private company, repeated invitations to the town events couldn't go ignored, so he attended, each setting him alongside a young girl eager for his attentions. And any man would have been a fool not to pursue ladies so ripe for the plucking, but each engagement reminded Daniel he had only one woman in mind.

Nearly a month after his arrival and at a time that was advantageous, he found himself cornering the local physician in town, inquiring about Eliza's health after ten minutes of small talk. Daniel learned from the good doctor that she was living up north, having been married and widowed years ago.

That news was repeated in casual response to a politely curious question, but the force of the words crushed his chest. For the first time in so long, excitement lit his skin. In the darkest corner of his heart, he vainly, selfishly hoped she was free for him.

For weeks, he planned his strategy, his tactics for approaching the angel a monumental task. He needed her to know what he had always felt for her.

But each time he set firm plans in place to write or visit, he reconsidered. After all, the stark truth he'd accepted on that battlefield was still the same: they were strangers.

One afternoon, after pacing and obsessing, he gave up. Dulling his fears with stout liquor, he finally picked up a pen. This time, words poured like a once-dam-blocked river rushing free. Ink flew and splattered and the product was messy, but honest. When he was finished, the stains on his face and nails stood as a testament to his desperation, and he decided then it was better this way. Better to write her of his love now, with the black fluid of communication on his hand than the dirt of battle.

He had spent so long resigning to die that he wanted nothing more now than to live.

Before sending the letter, he had considered drafting it again, realizing he had given her everything. But he was done waiting. Life was fleeting and precious and to delay any further was cowardice.

~

In her mind, snapshots of his face existed, a pleasantly recalled catalog of moments past, but nothing more.

Elizabeth Wallace hardly knew Daniel Hardy beyond their playground interactions so many years ago. She remembered that he was quiet and regular in all the ways that counted, with a handsome face and kind eyes. The summer after they had all finished school, she'd seen him at the market in his tidy Infantry uniform, thinking he'd grown into a fine man. His tight jacket displayed his obvious strength, causing her to linger in the aisle near the dairy, watching him select eggs.

But her circle didn't run with his and she'd not allowed herself to consider him further. He went his way and she went hers, strangers from the same small town.

For a short time, the war was a looming, foreboding thing, something women like her strived to ignore, their time spent instead with innocent gossip and nightly flirtations. It was then that she met her husband: a sweet, thoughtful debonair who made her laugh and flush with passion. She fell in love with his charm, leaving her small country home for the city. Their first months together were a whirlwind. He took her to society parties, entertained notable men and women, and married her in a beautiful riverside ceremony. She couldn't recall a happier time. Her days were filled with friends and life, and her nights with his warm love.

And then he left for the front, like every man who could; without him, her joy was dismantled. Soon, the war was a dark, never-ending absolute, a giant abyss that stole her husband and her future. Nightly raids and eerie alarms kept her pacing until dawn and nightmares of blood and iron made her cry. In the city, food was scarce and days were cold. For those painful, black months the silence of the city was louder than thunder. Lonely and overbearing silence; the kind that opened up the saddest parts of her.

Deep down, she knew he was gone before the letter arrived, but every day she waited for her husband to return, feeling more selfish for expecting him when so many others were grieving.

By the time signed treaties ended the war, having sold all they had but her home and books, she had lost everything that mattered. As time passed and seasons changed, she was resigned to her now-silent home and meager wages at the local bakery. To solitude.

It was in this dark, hopeless place that a letter arrived from Daniel Hardy.

Her shock at seeing his name was a flash and then a burn. She barely made it to her house before tearing the letter open.

Dear Eliza,

I should call you Elizabeth, but for so long you've been dear to me that I cannot speak of you formally.

Please know that I send this letter with a heavy heart full of hesitation, knowing you may never deign to respond. I ask now for your forgiveness, as I am sometimes rough in habit and do not possess the will or desire to delay my natural urgency.

I am home from the war and during the years since I saw you last, memories of you have kept me thinking and feeling. I have thought of nothing but you since my return.

I mean not to offend you and silence would be an honorable and well-deserved response, but I must convey that I love you.

I do not know if you are happy where you are, but if you are still unattached and amenable to a meeting in the most respectable of circumstances, I would be honored to host your stay.

But if you do visit, know this: I seek to have you, love you, touch you, cherish and protect you for the rest of my life. Think this not overzealous, but the inclinations of a passion gone too-long ignored.

Most honestly and sincerely,

Daniel Hardy

Stunned, she read the letter again and again, feeling intrigued and yet ashamed for being moved by such forward language. With the paper still in her grasp, she sat, laughing breathlessly at this stranger's words, which were almost… romantic. No man had ever spoken to her in such a way, never written her a love letter. But that was just what this was, slightly wrinkled and splattered with ink drops and smudges. Daniel Hardy, the quiet, handsome boy from her hometown was in love with her.

Unsure of what to think as her cheeks flushed with a myriad of emotions from guilt to curiosity, she considered whether to respond.

In the night that followed, she paced through a range of indefinable passions; moving from fear to embarrassment to desire and then to self-righteous conviction. His words were almost erotic. Have you. Love you. Touch you. No respectable man spoke to a woman in such a way. Maybe he had "rough habits," but she did not, and clearly he'd forgotten how to treat a lady.

His proposition was ridiculous, and although beautifully written, insulting.

She told herself that, knowing his intentions, an unsupervised visit was nothing more than scandalous.

Hundreds of weary footsteps later, however, she began to empathize with the longing he must have felt, blushing repeatedly when reading his confession: I must convey that I love you.

Have you, love you, touch you… cherish you.

Those words repeated in her mind relentlessly, and though she didn't know what his voice sounded like, she imagined him saying them to her. Over the next four days, she penned twelve drafts of her letter, covering each discarded page with carefully practiced calligraphy. While considering what to say in return, she analyzed every word, wrapping sin in ribbon, hoping brevity made her less guilty.

Dear Daniel Hardy,

I am pleased to hear you have returned from the war safely. I hope this letter finds you well.

It has been a very long time since I've seen you, our hometown or the country. I hope the weather is fine and that you find the town as you left it.

As to your offer of friendship, I respectfully accept your invitation and will see you in six days' time.

Sincerely,

Eliza

~

By the time he received her reply, he was humiliated to have sent that letter, but shocked that she had agreed to see him.

Eliza, Eliza, Eliza… 

Nerves claimed each day and then hour and then minute before her arrival. Never a vain man, Daniel wondered if she would find him as attractive as he hoped, wondered further the status of her class, if his home was presentable enough. He told himself he would be a perfect gentleman, and made preparations to be exactly that. She would sleep in his bed and he would have the davenport. His room was tidy and all hers, with fresh linens and space for her trunk.

He was straightening the bed skirt again when a stirring below the window caught his attention. It was the creak of the front gate and then a scuffle of feet on gravel. Darting to the window, he laid eyes on the adult woman Eliza for the first time, clothed in a green dress that sped his heart.

He couldn't get down the stairs fast enough.

With staggered breath he opened the door, the brave words of an absolute man long forgotten. For so long he had imagined her before him, her smile, and her beauty, but there was no comparison to the reality. Stunned by her shy laughter and cherry-red lips, he admired her delicate, curved figure and bright eyes, thinking she was a muse straight from Bouguereau's brush.

She stood breathless and weak, shocked by the changes to the boy she hardly remembered. Strong and scarred from tools of war, he was stoic, but handsome. Stepping over his threshold, in that moment, she thought he might have seduced her without a spoken word.

Their meeting proved indicative; magnetic for her, final for him. That day, after polite introductions, they talked like new friends with careful boundaries, walking in his garden, sharing updates on forgotten acquaintances. Sometimes, his admiration was so intense she withdrew into girlish bashfulness.

He was trying to win her and it was working.

Dinner that evening was simple, but romantic. He laid out a candle and a blanket in the grass, and she couldn't recall ever being treated so sweetly. They laughed together easily, both surprised by the foreign sense of joy they felt. Once, as they both reached for bread from the picnic basket, their hands touched, warmth tingling their fingers with the accidental contact.

As they watched the fiery blaze of the sun leave a ghostly palette of color behind, her lonely heart warmed and he fell even harder. The ethereal form of her wartime apparition disappeared in the face of her tangible beauty.

When it was a respectable time for separation, she slept in his bed while he stayed in the sitting room; an awkward arrangement for an inappropriate situation.

Midnight struck and he became borderline desperate, quietly touching himself to thoughts of her nude arrival in the darkness, of tasting her with his tongue, of taking her full hips in his hands. His want for her burned and it was all too much: the prospect of being with her again tomorrow, the unfathomable reality of her being there, and the memory of how her breasts bounced during their walk to the river. With a muffled groan, he reached fruition only to fall asleep, his dreams full of the woman he loved.

For Eliza, rest was nearly impossible. The night was not so deafening as that winter of anguish, but loud enough to be heard. His bed was freshly laundered for her, and though it was an expected courtesy, the idea that he'd prepared for her arrival so thoughtfully only increased her admiration. He had been so polite, so kind to her, so sweet and respectful... and handsome and generous.

Eliza lay awake and thought of him, obsessing over his words with equal intrigue, her fascination with him growing with each minute. The way he looked at her was hypnotic, as if he had a thousand questions to ask her. Already she adored the way he laughed and how he spoke softly and smiled genuinely.

She liked him, and perhaps even more, wondering if she could be happy after all of this time, and if her husband could forgive her.

Sleeping in a foreign bed with unfamiliar scents aside, she was eventually lulled into sleep by sweet fantasies of Daniel touching her, cherishing her. Just as he promised.

~

Her touch showed him she wanted to be alone; the past four days had been long for them both. After a discussion of that summer before the war and Daniel's time in the military, Eliza had requested to see his uniform and medals of combat valor. Her request was a ruse, though. She could think of no other way to lure him to his bedroom.

Now, backed against his own wall, Daniel was ready for her full acceptance; the only way forward from here was making love. His hands remained respectfully on her waist, however, his mind racing over polite conventions for new lovers. His experience was limited and this moment pivotal. Unsure of what actions he could take, he decided to follow her lead, to watch her for signs he could have more, feel more, love more.

Inspired by his lustful admiration, she stepped closer after only a moment of final hesitation, raising one hand to his hair as she slid the other down his stomach.

For Eliza, their time together had filled her with intense curiosity; she burned to know why he desired her above all others. To test her sensual power, she watched his mouth and he watched hers as she moved over his belt, rubbing the front of his trousers like the brazen temptress she was not, feeling what was once partial become complete.

Shuddering with vulnerability, he swallowed loudly as her hand shook in the wake of his primal, guttural moan. To him, her touch was bold and brave, a perceived demonstration of her readiness. Ever-patient and exhaling heavily, his eyes remained on her mouth as she explored from fingertip to palm, searching his handsome face for affection.

Fascinated by the feel of him, her small tongue swept over her lips, the flash of white teeth biting skin all he could handle. Breaking from the spell, his hands slid above her bottom, pulling their bodies flush. When their lips finally met, he groaned, tasting and feeling her after years of fantasy. Eager but temperate, their tongues touched, the sensation of warmth and wetness weakening his waning restraint. Her kiss was shy at first, but when he grasped her chin for more, that action unlocked pieces of her heart. Eliza could feel the nights of loneliness, taste his passion for her on his tongue.

Soon, the warmth of once-uncertain mouths felt familiar as they advanced, both more excited than they could remember feeling. As Eliza unbuttoned the pearl beads adorning the front of her dress, Daniel backed her toward his bed, now-laden with her perfume. Barely contained by a commitment to be gentle, his hands explored her.

Removing his shirt, he shivered, feeling the warmed lace of her undergarments press against his bare skin. With his ministrations and her hasty assistance, her dress fell the rest of the way to the floor.

Lowering herself shyly, her heart racing for what was to come, she smiled timidly, giving him permission to pursue her. And there she lay before him after all that time, clad in her chemise, wanting his touch more than anything in the world. He approached her slowly, on his hands and knees, his gaze flickering between her lace-covered breasts and her bared stomach, full of wonder and lust.

She was right about his seduction, she decided—he'd managed it all so easily.

Slowly, with the anticipation of a thousand nights, he slid up her body, feeling the so-soft skin and delicate lace. "Beautiful," he whispered, staring at her navel. As he explored her belly, she gave in a little more, threading her hands into his hair in encouragement, feeling pleasantly reckless.

"Thank you," she breathed in response to his compliment, her heart skipping twice from his praise. The long fingers of his appreciative hand roamed to her hips and around her back, pulling her closer as he lay beside her.

As he brought their bodies flush, still believing he was either dreaming or in an alternate universe, she felt a last, quick sting of permanent decision, of panic over what she'd already done. Though she wanted him, wanted to feel again—they hardly knew each other, and it had been so very long for both of them…

He sensed the change in her, searching her eyes tenderly with sudden perception. Slowing his urgency as best he could, he trailed his fingers along her ticklish skin, kissing her neck to soothe her. For Daniel, she was a surreal treasure, this moment one he'd dreamed of for years, even in the midst of chaos and death. He wanted to make her his, more than he'd wanted anything—more than rations, a shower, the end of the war, or even survival. And more so, he wanted her to want him in return, to love him as he loved her.

"I want to make love with you..." he whispered in her ear, nudging her head to the side. "May I?"

Wanting to be free and inside heaven, his hips shifted of their own volition, the hope for sinful friction difficult to bear.

"Yes," she whispered, touching his face with her fingers and his lips with her own.

That was all he needed. With a sigh too heavy for the quiet room, Daniel unleashed his pent-up want minutely, pulling her against his erection, exploring her mouth with his own, feeling her close after all this time. She felt so good in his arms, so warm and soft and real.

As he pulled her into his world, she left behind more of her chaste sensibilities. The way he sought her, the careful lovemaking of lips and the slightest touches of tongue all showed her it was time to let go. To be loved again.

With his words and touch, an ache formed in her stomach and moved lower, nerves and bashful grace giving way to lust in the face of his want. Eliza relaxed into the pillow as he explored her with reverence. When his nimble fingers shakily lowered the strings of her chemise, she watched in shy fascination; her heart racing faster, thumping hard against her chest. When he pulled the lace down further, her full breasts were bared for him, her nipple so soft in his mouth. Kissing and licking softly, he teased her, his hips jumping at the taste of her. She flushed with passion, the switch between reservation and desire surprising in its newness.

He stopped , letting the reality sink in, let the moment own him before he lost final shreds of restraint.

Escalation seized their composure, his vigorous attentions to her breast rendering them both anxious to proceed. Dazed and tingling all over, she realized she wanted more, wanted to feel his need inside of her. It was all she could think of, all she could focus on.

Slowly, patiently, he bade her body open for him; understanding she was ready, her receptiveness signified by soft sighs and parted legs. As he touched her in forbidden places, she struggled with his clothing, freeing his belt and then his undergarments.

Once linen gave way to strong, smooth skin she reached for his warm erection rendering him helpless to her touch. She gasped as he shifted into her hand absently, both imagining him inside of her. Naked together, they breathed and touched, the feel of soft texture over hard driving her to continue caressing, his erection locked between her stomach and his own.

It was time then and they both knew; the silent agreement signified by a long, breathy kiss they both became lost in, his weight settling between her legs.

First penetration left them both breathless. When she furrowed her brow and moaned low in her throat, he withdrew experimentally, watching her slight frown through his slow second invasion. He could hardly think, but he observed her face, hoping to please her.

She nodded for him to move and he did, his desire a sight to behold. Giving in, the carnal fire of hot skin and wet pleasure eliminated his normal restraint and soon he surrendered himself in her sweet sex. His mouth explored, his hands gripping her possessively as quiet, automatic sounds swept everything away. He was making love to her, wanting her, having her. Cherishing her, just as he promised.

Soon, the sound of sensuality, deep thrusts and shallow breaths filled the room, his consumption of her almost shocking.

Pulling her close, he found the infinite pleasure of release, promising never to let her go. For him, vast, indefinable moments had passed, all of which had led them to this moment.

As his forehead pressed against her neck and he whispered "I love you," she convinced herself easily that his letter had saved her, that it was by divine design that he had come to her with all this love now and not before.

Twilight passed as they lay spent on his bed, the glow of intimacy keeping them close as he whispered truths in her ear. He told her how he loved her, shocking her with silly memories long-forgotten and dear, tender dreams of a once-dying man.

They stayed awake until dawn, learning each other, asking seemingly trivial questions, punctuating their replies with occasional kisses.

As he talked, he watched her watching him, tracing her face from the bridge of her straight nose to the curve of her bottom lip, picturing her smile. He had never felt more alive, more deeply grateful for his irrational luck and past pain; never felt closer to another person.

Curled into his strong, warm embrace, she rubbed circles against his jaw, memorizing his face, asking questions and listening to his favorite things. Frequently, as he talked and she listened, she found herself thanking God for this chance. For after suffering through the silent aftermath of war, she had grown to appreciate the quiet. Though his feelings had a head start on hers, she was ready now to explore his decade of love.

Notes:

The dialogue is limited because I wanted to use it powerfully given that there are several themes at work, mainly the impact and power of words between the two characters and how words (both in past, present and consequently the future) effected the relationship. For the male character, he struggles with his words, hence his difficulty with writing the letters. I tried to show how hard it was for him to say what he felt, while simultaneously showing that, in the end, his actions spoke louder than anything else. For instance, she places great emphasis on his words when reading and thinking of the letter, but when she steps over the threshold and again when she's deciding to be intimate, she thinks on those occasions that he seduced her with near silence; his actions were so genuinely moving that she could not help but fall for him. She is in awe of the way he treats her, of his gestures, not his words though "words" were so initially important to her.

As for dialogue after the reunion, the characters are near-strangers, the era being one of reservation in communication, so their conversations would've been filler and polite convention rather than true feeling or thought. The reason for their reunion was one of an underlying romantic nature, but neither acknowledges this until the moment she makes her advance and again, silently with actions. For the dialogue that was used, "beautiful", "Eliza", "thank you", and "I love you" were chosen by design: these words were representative of their love affair. He says, "beautiful" and "Eliza", because her beauty and his concept of her being were all he had for so long, yet his remembered visions pale in comparison and he tells her so in his own way.

She says "thank you", because she is grateful for all of this unexpected love while also overwhelmed and unsure how to process these feelings, therefore channeling them into gratitude. His last word spoken aloud was "I love you", because this indeed summarizes the apex of his feelings. In the end, he loves her for all that she has given him in the purest sense.

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