"Lizzie?" James whispered. "Oh, Lizzie."
She was swaying slightly from side to side, and he could see her shoulders rise and fall with each shuddering breath.
He knew that sort of breath. It was the one you drew when you were trying so hard to keep your feelings inside, but you just weren't strong enough.
He moved swiftly to her side, settling down next to her in the hay. Laying his arm around her slender shoulders, he whispered, "He's gone."
She said nothing, but he felt her muscles tense.
James looked down at her. Her clothing was dirty but not torn, and though he was fairly certain that Fellport had not managed to rape her, he prayed that his attack had not gone beyond a brutal kiss.
Kiss! He nearly spat out the word. Whatever Fellport had done to her, however much he had forced his mouth against hers, it had not been a kiss.
James's eyes wandered over the top of her head. Her white-gold hair was matted with straw, and even though he could not see her face, she looked so forlorn.
His hand clenched. It was rushing back—that familiar feeling of helplessness. He could feel her terror. It shook through him, coiled in his belly. "Please," he whispered. "Tell me what I can do."
She made no sound, but she huddled closer to his side. James tightened his embrace.
"He won't bother you again," he said fiercely. "I promise you."
"I try so hard to be strong," she gasped. "Every day, I try so hard...."
James turned and grasped her by the shoulders, forcing her to lift her teary eyes to his. "You are strong," he said. "You're the strongest woman I know."
"I try so hard," she said again, as if trying to reassure herself of this. "Every day. But I wasn't strong enough. I wasn't—"
"Don't say that. This wasn't your fault. Men like Fellport ..." James paused to gather a ragged breath. "They hurt women. It's the only way they know how to feel strong."
She didn't say anything, and he could see her struggling to hold back the sobs gathering in her throat.
“This—this violence ... it is due to a defect in his person, not yours." He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut for the barest of moments. "You didn't ask him to do this to you."
"I know." She shook her head, and her lips quivered into the saddest smile he'd ever seen. "But I couldn't stop him."
"Elizabeth, he is twice your size!"
She let out a long breath and pulled away from him, slumping back against the wall. "I'm tired of being strong. I'm so tired of it. Since the day of my father's death..."
James stared at her, searched her eyes as they went blank, and a very queer, foreboding feeling squeezed around his heart. "Elizabeth," he asked carefully, "how did your parents die?''
"My mother was killed in a carriage accident," she replied, her voice hollow. "Everybody saw it. The mangled carriage. They covered her body, but everyone saw how she died."
He waited for her to say something about her father, but she didn't. Finally, he whispered, "And your father?"
"He killed himself."
James's lips parted in surprise, and he was struck by a fierce and uncontrollable anger. He had no idea what had happened to make Elizabeth's father feel so desperate, but Mr. Hotchkiss had taken the coward's way out, leaving his eldest daughter to care for his family.
"What happened?" he asked, trying to keep the anger out of his voice.
Elizabeth looked up, a bitter, fatalistic sound escaping her lips. "It was six months after Mama's accident. He always—" She choked on her words. "He always did love her best."
James started to say something, but words were spilling from Elizabeth's lips with the speed of rushing water. It was as if he'd broken through a dam, and now she couldn't stem the flow of emotion.
"He just couldn't go on," she said, her eyes growing bright with anger. "Every day he'd slip further and further into some secret place that none of us could reach. And we tried! God, I swear to you, we tried."
"I know you did," he murmured, squeezing her shoulder. "I know you. I know you tried."
“Even Jane and Lucas. They would scramble onto his lap, just like before, but he'd push them away. He wouldn't hug us. He wouldn't touch us. And toward the end, he wouldn't even speak to us." She took a deep, sucking breath, but it did little to calm her. "I always knew he'd never love us as he did her, but you'd think he'd love us enough."
Her fingers curled into a tight fist, and James watched with helpless sorrow as she pressed it hard against her mouth. He reached out and touched her fingers, feeling oddly relieved when they wrapped around his hand.
"You'd think," she said, her voice the saddest, tiniest whisper, "that he'd have loved us enough to live."
"You don't have to say anything more," James whispered, knowing he'd be haunted forever by this moment. "You don't need to tell me."
"No." She shook her head. "I want to. I've never said the words."
He waited while she gathered her courage.
"He shot himself," she said, the words barely audible. "I found him in the garden. There was so much blood." She swallowed convulsively. "I've never seen so much blood."
James held silent, wanting so much to say something to comfort her, but knowing there were no words to help.
She laughed bitterly. "I tried to tell myself it was his last act of caring, shooting himself in the garden. I made so many trips to the well, but at least the blood washed right into the ground. If he'd shot himself in the house, tie Lord only knows how I would have cleaned it up."
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