The Best of Intentions
"It must be Anne. No one so capable as Anne."
Anne entered the room in time to hear Frederick's accolade of her abilities. For the first time in a long while, how words caused a flush of pleasure to flood her face, her steps faltering on the wooden landing just outside the parlor door. Charles and Frederick heard the wooden click and their faces swung to look at her.
"You will stay?" Frederick asked, speaking directly to her unconsciously. His complexion was ashen in the aftermath of Louisa's accident on the Cobb. "Stay and nurse her?"
The warmth that had suffused her body drained away quickly. She nodded, solemnly responding to Charles' hopeful expression rather than Frederick's request. Anne's heart sank at the knowledge that the esteem in which she was held was directly related to her usefulness as a nurse to Frederick's intended.
Her eyes dropped to the shawl draped over her arm. Her fingers were absently stroking the satin material, stilling instinctively as Frederick walked past her. She could almost feel the heat of his breath as he passed so close. He was in search of a carriage for hire, charged with escorting Mary and Henrietta home to Uppercross and to inform Louisa's parents of her terrible accident. She did not envy him the task. In fact, she was quite relieved that she would not be cloistered into a cramped carriage with him for several hours.
Mary roused out of her sodden stupor at the slamming of the door. Anne did not pay attention as her sister questioned Charles. But as Mary began to protest the arrangements, Anne found herself riveted and drew closer.
"Why should Anne stay? She is nothing to Louisa! I am family!"
"Mary," Charles began, rubbing his face tiredly, "all is settled."
"All is NOT settled! Why was I not consulted?"
"You were in the room. Why did you not join the conversation? Have you gone hard of hearing?"
"Charles, you are unfeeling! I was overcome for Louisa! How can you even ask?"
"Exactly! You were overcome!" Charles nearly bellowed. From the corner of her eye, Anne caught the discreet withdrawal of Mr. and Mrs. Harville. She was ashamed at the display of pique and bad manners from her relatives, neither of whom seemed to notice as Charles' voice rang louder. "Louisa requires a level head for her care! Not a watering pot or a woman who would not even tend her own child when he was injured."
Anne felt all the injustice of the remark for her sister. Mary was gaping in astonishment, hurt at the bluntness of her husband's remark, and declaring herself very ill used indeed. Anne could almost see the wall of anger growing between the couple as Charles stood firm. He was a most affectionate brother and would brook no change in the arrangements. A tense silence descended on the group, broken occasionally by Mary's quiet sobs. Anne comforted her sister as best she could, but even Henrietta was relieved when Frederick arrived with their transport.
Anne watched her relatives noisily troop out of the small house. Charles, absolutely frustrated with the events of the day, chose to walk back to the inn for the evening. Anne faithfully promised to send for him should there be any change in Louisa's condition. Then she was alone in a house full of Frederick's friends. It was a strange circumstance.
Margaret Harville was a perceptive woman who seemed to understand Anne's sudden discomfort. "I am looking forward to getting to know you," she said. "It will be a pleasure to have another woman to talk to. I live in a house full of men!" Anne returned her smile half-heartedly. "Miss Musgrove will be well tended between us, Miss Elliot. And my nursemaid is quite capable in the healing arts."
Anne smiled at the other woman. "You and Captain Harville have been so obliging under the onslaught of my relatives. You must feel your home quite invaded."
The other lady smiled. "Do not be concerned. We are your friends now too. And true friends would do no less."
Anne insisted on preparing a bed in what was now Louisa's sickroom -- formerly Mrs. Harville's bedroom. Captain Benwick offered his own rooms for her use and had arranged for alternative lodgings. However, Anne was uneasy about being the cause of such inconvenience and disruption. In her preference for being unobtrusive, she steadfastly refused more than what she had already prepared for herself in the sickroom.
The debates continued through the family dinner but Anne would not be swayed. She was to stay long enough to see Louisa in recovery and insisted that no special favors would be needed. The protests from her hosts were sincere, but they eventually died away in her obstinacy. Anne excused herself and retired early, more tired from the day's tribulations than she realized.
As she settled down on the sheets beside Louisa's bed, she took a moment to glance at the young girl's face. Even in her illness, Louisa retained all the youthful bloom appropriate for her years. Anne thought wryly that this was a glimpse into Frederick's future, for he would one day have the pleasure of viewing this sweetly sleeping face. Anne sighed and tried to be comfortable in her makeshift bed. She was here for altruistic reasons, for friendship with Louisa, for the sake of Charles' peace of mind. In a moment of perfect clarity and honesty, she acknowledged she was here for Frederick. If his future happiness rested in the young girl asleep on the bed, Anne was determined to bring Louisa to health. She would yet be his friend.
Anne was always an early riser and had cause to rejoice in it the next morning. The Musgroves and Frederick had traveled early, arriving with a clatter and jabber that resonated through the household. Anne patted and soothed the volubly distraught Mrs. Musgrove as the new arrivals settled in the parlor room. The physician arrived and was immediately beset with questions from Charles, his father, and Frederick.
The Harville children were agog at the sheer size of the senior Musgroves -- eyeing them well and whispering laughingly to each other. Anne almost smiled as she realized their amusement stemmed from the momentous rise and fall of Mrs. Musgrove's ample body as deep sighs heaved through her. Her distress, and Anne was sure it was considerable, continued unabated even after the nursemaid shooed the children away.
The physician could offer no immediate relief to the grieving mother. He was concerned that Louisa had not regained consciousness and feared a serious injury threatened her brain. Frederick listened gravely and silently, deeply affected by the prognosis. Anne saw the grooves around his mouth, made from his laughter, had deepened in his sorrow and the dark circles under his eyes spoke of a sleepless night. Yet, as the assembled people trooped into the sickroom to gape and sob over the patient, Frederick remained in the parlor.
Charles soon escorted his parents to the inn for some rest. The sight of her lively daughter lying so pale and silent had again overcome Mrs. Musgrove. Anne found herself caught up in the suffocating embraces of the senior Musgroves as they left and nearly stumbled as they set her down. She sighed and waved as she watched them depart.
"Thank you for staying," a soft voice said from behind. Anne jumped and whirled around in surprise. She looked at Frederick in astonishment for she had thought him gone with the others. He was clutching his hat tightly and seemed curiously unsure of himself.
"It is nothing," Anne mumbled.
"Margaret tells me that you insisted on sleeping on the floor beside Louisa's bed? She said you refused Benwick's room?"
"It makes more sense to be near her as she is so ill."
He nodded, plainly not seeing through the thin excuse in his concern for Louisa. "You are very good, Anne."
She was startled by his unconscious use of her Christian name. He seemed just as surprised and flushed as he bowed and strode out of doors where Captain Harville awaited him.
Anne procured some of the household embroidery to keep her occupied during her sickroom vigil. Several hours passed this way, broken only by Anne's occasional attempts to wet Louisa's lips with some water or when one of the children clattered through the hallway outside. Sewing allowed her mind to mull over her situation and she pushed down all the tumultuous feelings Frederick's presence encouraged. She must learn to think him an engaged man. His heart was plainly given to another. There was not one person in this household or in Uppercross who doubted the mutual attachment between him and Louisa.
Her fingers ached as much as her heart by the time Mrs. Harville collected her for the mid-day meal. They had, by this time, agreed to be on a first name basis and Anne was happy to have such a sensible companion. Not for the first time, Anne felt a pang of regret that had she been firmer in her youth, these people would be fast friends of her own long before the accident.
Charles and his parents were expected in the afternoon for Mrs. Musgrove insisted on a vigil in the sickroom. Anne was surprised that Frederick had returned with Harville and joined them for the meal. They exchanged civil greetings, as they had both learned to do all those weeks in Uppercross. Anne was relieved that they had returned to the practice, less threatened by his cold politeness than by his warm, personal remarks. His social ceremoniousness of the past weeks was an effective reminder of the gulf between them.
"How does our patient?" Captain Harville asked.
"Much the same, I am afraid," Anne replied softly. Frederick paled again and put his spoon down.
Margaret patted Frederick's arm with sisterly affection. "It is to be expected, Frederick. Do not alarm yourself unnecessarily. She will recover."
"Yes, Wentworth," Harville said. "Your young lady is strong and vigorous. She is not built for illness."
Frederick's eyes shot quickly to meet Anne's. She wondered if he sought her encouragement as well and offered a rather thin smile. He frowned darkly and deeply in reply. Mortified, she dropped her gaze down to the piece of bread she was absently buttering.
That afternoon, Mrs. Musgrove did insist upon sighing and sobbing over her child. Anne had much sympathy for her distress, but could not see the sense in its expression. Margaret pushed Anne out of doors, declaring that Anne had already taken on too much and borne the brunt of nursing Louisa. Anne protested strongly, seeing that Frederick was paying close attention to their discussion. Margaret waved away all discussion with the conviction that fresh air would keep Anne from losing all her strength. In minutes, she found herself by the Cobb, listening to the happy chatter of the two eldest Harville children. The salty air whispered on her face and through the strands of her by her neck and Anne found herself relieved and invigorated by the exercise. She was too active to remain indoors for so long, regardless of the motivation.
The next day passed much the same way. Louisa had stirred slightly, encouraging everyone accordingly, but she had not awoken. Anne tried to keep herself occupied by assisting Mrs. Harville in any way possible. Even in a small household, there was always much to do, Margaret was happy for the sensible, tireless company Anne offered. They were compatriots in the Musgrove invasion that moved in and out of the house at all hours. The tasks allowed Anne to stay busy and saved her the need to be continually in Frederick's presence.
On the fourth day, Anne was surprised by a knock on the sickroom door. It was Captain Benwick.
"I hope you will not think me impertinent," he haltingly began. "But you have been locked in here alone for so many days. I had hoped to be of some assistance."
Benwick proposed to read his poetry aloud to Anne and Louisa. Anne was secretly amused at the idea of reading to so inert an audience as her patient, but was gratified at the prospect of company and warmed by the young man's generous offer. She sat quietly sewing as Benwick's even tones wove verse and prose into the air. Anne loved poetry and poetry was meant to be read aloud. She found her fingers halt their work as Byron's magic worked its spell on her. Benwick read well and with obvious pleasure. He continued for over an hour, his strong voice never faltering or failing to give each verse its proper rendering. Even Louisa seemed to smile in her sleep.
"That was lovely, thank you," Anne whispered as the last word faded away.
He blushed becomingly, pleased with her compliments. He offered his library to her, suggesting several volumes he had enjoyed. Seeing that Louisa was comfortable, Anne ventured downstairs with him to select one.
"May I continue to read to you both in the mornings?"
"Certainly," Anne said with pleasure. "It is the only way to enjoy poetry and you read so wonderfully." Benwick stared at his feet, again embarrassed at her praise. "Might I suggest a lighter fare for your readings, however. Happier subjects will undoubtedly encourage our patient to participate."
He agreed with alacrity and they continued to discuss the merits of several poets. That was how Frederick discovered them.
Benwick jumped to his feel almost guiltily at the sudden entrance. Frederick eyed them both silently, his features fighting to keep a disapproving frown from emerging. In her mind, Anne could almost hear his censure at her abandonment of the invalid upstairs. She stood up as well, quietly excusing herself and going back upstairs.
Frederick followed her to the sickroom, asking several questions regarding Louisa's recovery. Anne answered him as briefly as she dared, never once meeting his direct gaze. She opened the door and stepped in, making room for Frederick to follow. He hung back, however, standing awkwardly on the passage outside.
"Will you not come in?" Anne asked.
"I had better not. I do not wish to disturb her."
"She is not likely to know you are here, but perhaps the sound of your voice will do her some good."
He looked startled at her frankness, his cheeks reddening at her acknowledgement of his attachment to Louisa and hers to him. He did step into the room for a moment. Anne straightened the bedsheets, affording Louisa as much modesty as possible. She turned to look at her companion and found he was not looking at the patient as she had expected. Instead, he was frowning at the neatly folded sheets on the floor.
"Is that all you are sleeping on?" He queried. "You cannot be comfortable."
She shrugged. Comfort was of little concern to her now. Frederick, the unwitting source of her every discomfort, would not be appeased.
"I will speak to Benwick. He must surrender his room to you."
Anne protested. She did not want to be a nuisance and as there had been no change in Louisa's condition, could not see the sense in making any changes. Frederick was adamant and they debated spiritedly for a few minutes, both still aware enough to keep a lowered tone in deference to Louisa's illness.
Finally, Anne sighed, "This is neither the time nor place for such a debate. Even if Captain Benwick were to vacate his room, I would not surrender my current situation."
"I fail to understand how your situation could be of help. Your being tired and uncomfortable will make patients of you and Louisa both!"
"In her current state, it is more important that I remain close." Anne argued. "We can discuss alternatives as her condition improves. Until then, I would much rather not require Captain Benwick to evacuate his room."
"No, you wouldn't, would you?" Frederick replied somberly. "Very well, I acquiesce to your wishes for the present." He very quickly exited the room.
Anne exhaled a pet up breath and sat down. She stared at the sleeping girl's face and acknowledged the growing envy in her heart. Frederick understood Louisa's need for a long-term nurse and wished only to ensure that Anne would be able to provide it.
There was shame for Anne in admitting she desired to be rid of her duty. As much as she liked Louisa and sincerely wished her return to health, Anne was beginning to know herself and her own limits. She recognized with guilt, her growing inability to sustain the level of self-sacrifice needed to endure Frederick's constant presence. To see Frederick's attachment to another woman was more painful than Anne had anticipated. She had thought their long separation would have blunted the edges of that pain, but it did not.
The afternoon hours gave Anne a reason to think her tenure might not be for too long. Louisa awoke briefly, smiling at her parents and brother, and murmuring a few nonsensical questions. She felt asleep again quickly, but the change was cause for celebration. The silent tension that had enveloped everyone broke as the assembled party cheered this first sigh of recovery.
The ensuing noise, however, was intercepted by the physician. He was positive regarding the change in his patient but quite firm that little noise should disrupt Louisa. Mrs. Musgrove declared that her daughter would have the peace required for recovery and quickly made plans to remove back to Uppercross. She quickly extended an invitation to the Harville children, expressing her wish to allow them the freedom to noisily romp and play where they could not disturb her daughter
Margaret was sad to see her children go but appreciated the sense in the suggestion. Anne, in her turn, persuaded Charles that too much time had passed since he had spoken with Mary. A trip home for a few days would ease his mind, allow him to see his children, and to make peace with his wife. Therefore, it was done.
Anne realized that Lady Russell expected her presence that week. She penned a letter to her friend and explained the circumstances, using Captain Wentworth's name only sparingly. She knew not what effect even the most casual mention of her former fiancée's name would have on her friend, and for a moment, wished she could have delivered the news in person.
Charles delivered the letter with alacrity and was able to bring a response back with him. Charles had also brought Mary and Henrietta for a brief visit with their sister and Anne was firmly pushed out of the way while they watched over the invalid.
Anne, in possession of a letter to read and a present to open, was quite happy to escape to the Cobb for a few hours. The wind was growing colder and she drew her cloak tighter around herself. The sound of the waves against the stone walkway was soothing, as much as the spray of salt water that covered her face as the water thundered with the force of high tide.
Lady Russell had thoughtfully sent a new novel for Anne to enjoy. There was intimation in her letter that Anne would need some entertainment even in the midst of such a task. Lady Russell professed her wishes for Louisa's speedy recovery and her assurance that such a recovery was inevitable with Anne's levelheaded nursing. Anne could not repress a smile at her friend's wonder that Anne was tapped to care for Louisa when a multitude of Musgroves existed in the world. Despite the biting commentary, Lady Russell's letter was all that was gracious, wishing Louisa well and stating that she would wait for Anne before journeying to Bath.
"Why are you smiling?"
Anne looked up and found Frederick looking down on her with a curious expression on his face. She quickly folded her letter and inserted it between the pages of her new novel. "My letter was amusing." She stood up and brushed her cloak straight. "Am I needed?"
"Not at the moment," he replied and turned to walk with her down the Cobb. "There is so much attention on Louisa that neither one of us is missed for the present."
Anne smiled wanly and looked away. There was a new intensity to Frederick when he looked at her that she found disconcerting. He sighed when she did not meet his gaze. They walked in silence for part of the way without once exchanging glances.
"I see," Frederick said hoarsely, then stopped to clear his throat. "I see that you have a new novel. Is it one of Benwick's?"
"No. It is a present from L...from a friend," she amended quickly. He looked at her with raised eyebrows, a small smile playing about his lips at her stammer. "Lady Russell." She said softly.
"Ah." He said, with smile fading and his glance turning away. Another short silence reigned. "You are still a great reader, then?"
"Yes," she acknowledged. "There is precious little else to do some days." She pressed her lips together tightly as he looked on her again, wishing for all the world that she had kept the wistfulness away from her voice. There was a framemaker's window just ahead and Anne made use of that distraction to compose herself. She expected him to move on to the Harville house, not four doors down. Nevertheless, he waited beside her, standing closer than she was comfortable with. Their eyes met through the reflection of the glass, hers dropping away quickly.
The wind kicked up again and nearly blew his hat off. Anne again drew her cloak closer, giving her back to the wind. She felt a light touch on her arm. Frederick was silently urging her to move on. He offered his arm and she hesitated, but took it. She kept her touch as light as was polite, but was surprised when his other hand covered hers.
They separated in the foyer of the home, Anne pulling away hastily while Frederick stood staring at her like a stone. Mary, always searching for a sympathetic ear, immediately accosted Anne and dragged her away, complaining the whole while. Anne was only half-listening. She was aware that Frederick's gaze had not left her and feeling all the impropriety of their actions. She made certain that they were never left alone again.
Anne did not venture out of doors again over the next few days. She spent time with Louisa in the mornings, Benwick invariably joining them to read for an hour or two. Louisa smiled wanly in half consciousness when he spoke and responded well when Anne patted her hands or smoothed her hair from her forehead. Frederick hovered around the edges of Anne's routine, never making his presence known while Louisa was awake, occasionally peering in when she was asleep, and watching...always watching. Anne made sure she was never alone, for she did not trust herself to act appropriately.
Mary and Margaret made unlikely allies during this time. With mutual interests in raising children and running a household, they had much to gossip about. Anne would sit and listen to them with amusement, rarely commenting while she embroidered. Currently they were discussing the effects of sweets on young bodies, Mary waxing eloquent on how her mother-in-law fed her children so much cake that they became unmanageable. Anne was so entertained by this discussion that she did not notice the men had joined them.
Charles was the first to speak, denying the cake as the cause for his sons' bad manners. The Harvilles began to laugh as Mary spiritedly debated with her husband, with emotion rather than logic coloring her arguments. Charles continued to tease his wife, who grew more vexed by the minute. Margaret saw an opportunity to let cooler heads prevail and joined into the conversation, speaking so well as to mollify both parties. Captain Harville merely picked up his fishing net on one corner and began working on it.
Anne felt the cushion next to her on the couch depress and turned smilingly, expecting to see Benwick. However, as she turned, she spied Benwick standing nervously by his library, watching the continuing argument between Charles and Mary with astonishment. Frederick had taken a seat next to her. He smiled warmly and she felt her lips instinctively respond before dropping her eyes back on her work.
"Charles does like to tease his wife." He commented.
"You do not seem at all discomfited by the ruckus."
She smiled wryly, still not looking at him. "It is a common enough event. I have grown accustomed to it."
He laughed softly, intimately. "I imagine you have."
She did not reply and bend her head over her needlepoint. She imagined herself invisible in the noise of the room and waited for Frederick to join the others in conversation. However, other than reply to one or two queries by Captain Harville, he did not leave her side.
"That is very pretty." Did she imagine it or was his voice shaking just a bit?
He sighed and leaned closer, inspecting the work. Obligingly, she handed it forward. He took the wooden border with one hand, his shoulder bumping hers gently as he looked.
"Who is EF?" He asked, a frown marring his features.
"It will be EE." She replied quietly, taking a quick glance about the room and seeing that no one was paying attention to them. "It is a handkerchief for my sister, Elizabeth."
"You have a delicate touch, Anne." But he was looking at her again, not the cloth.
Anne started and yanked the piece back. She had pierced the sewing needle halfway through and the rapid withdrawal of the cloth caused the needle's edge to scrape Frederick's palm. He winced and she looked down in horror as a thin line of blood bubbled up.
"I am so sorry!" She exclaimed causing the others to turn to her. She drew her own handkerchief, heedless of his protests and pressed it against the wound.
"What are you two doing over there?" Harville called with a small smile.
"Miss Elliot has punished me for criticizing her embroidery," Frederick responded with a forced laugh. "She has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that her needle is sharp enough."
"Anne! How could you be so careless?" Mary reprimanded as the others laughed.
Anne looked up at her sister, unable to hide her distress. She had Frederick's hand in both her own, one holding his still while the other pressed on the scrape.
"It is only a small scratch, Mrs. Musgrove," Frederick said smoothly. "And I daresay I deserved it."
"Don't let him bully you, Miss Anne," Harville said. "He isn't worth half his weight on dry land."
And with that comment, all interest in her corner faded and Anne was left with Frederick again. She suddenly realized that she was tightly gripping Frederick's hand and let go, but he clenched his, retaining a hold of his own on her.
"Don't look like that. It really is a scratch that wasn't worthy of ruining your own handkerchief." He whispered. "Although I do like holding your hand."
Alarm raced through her and she painfully pulled herself away from him. Her abrupt movement startled him. "I'm sorry for cutting you. I don't think you need a bandage," she said, "but the cut should be washed."
He smiled nervously and extended his palm to her again, "Will you show me how?"
"I think you can manage." Anne gathered her sewing materials and stood up. "I pray you will excuse me."
She meant to pass out of the room directly, but was stopped by Captain Benwick.
"Miss Anne," he said. "You sister tells me you received a new novel recently. May I see it?"
Anne saw the small smiles exchanged by the Harvilles and the Musgroves as Benwick followed her out of the room. Neither did she miss the hardening of Frederick's features.
Inevitably, Charles returned Mary and Henrietta to Uppercross and again Anne was left in Lyme. She was happy for the Harvilles, both of who she now sincerely valued for their own merits and friendship, but she was sad for herself. She was increasingly ready to journey to Lady Russell's house, for the absence of so lively a group as the Musgroves provided too many opportunities for private moments with Frederick.
She successfully maneuvered her routine so that very little time was spent alone with him. She assisted with various household tasks, took exercise and sunshine when the men were known to be engaged, and stayed in Louisa's room when they were not. She retreated into social civilities when they dined with the rest of the household. But while warm and often humorous conversation was a staple to any Harville meal, private and intimate discourse was impossible -- even when Frederick took the seat next to her. And he did...often.
Anne began to discern a distinct aloofness in Frederick toward Louisa. There was a degree of affection in him, but it was more akin to that for a sister than a lover. Frederick declined to spend time with the invalid, stating standards of propriety as his reasons and ignoring the fact that living in such close quarters had relaxed the male/female mores to some degree. Margaret Harville was quick to point out that Anne often acted as a chaperone to Benwick and volunteered her own services. Still he stayed away.
Anne knew that Frederick had meant to take a wife upon his return to Somerset. He had even meant to choose between Louisa and Henrietta. He had courted Louisa exclusively after Henrietta had become engaged to Charles Hayter. Yet, even then, Anne had seen no particular regard between them. Louisa and Henrietta were giddy at his attentions and in love with love. Frederick had been just as heedless. He thought well of Louisa, and she of him. They enjoyed each other's company and conversation. Perhaps there was even mutual attraction. But Anne knew what it meant to truly love. And she knew what it was to be truly loved by Frederick. She had seen no symptoms in either to suspect a lasting attachment. Her heart secretly and guiltily rejoiced at the knowledge, but her mind and reason understood that for every action there was an effect. Frederick had courted Louisa. She had responded positively. Their families were well aware of the circumstances and they would be expected to wed.
One morning, Frederick made an effort to sit with Louisa, surprising Anne and Benwick who had continued the exercise of reading poetry out loud to both ladies. Frederick had silently entered and taken a seat across from Anne and Benwick, something akin to shock fleetingly passing his expression as he noted the other man's presence. Other than a brief smile of acknowledgement, Anne had not dared even a glance in his direction. She concentrated instead on her letter to Elizabeth, scribbling at the desk with determination and knowing that she would have to write the missive over that evening in order to delete the nonsense her pen was now scratching.
Benwick, whose poetic tastes often matched her own, had selected one of her favorite passages from Cowper. As his voice read the dearest verse of all, Anne found herself forsaking her letter to smilingly listen to Benwick. She sighed as he finished the passage. Louisa turned over and murmured her own appreciation indistinctly. Anne's eyes instinctively flew toward Frederick at the movement, her lips turning upward. The smile died on her face however. He was not looking at the girl on the bed. He was looking at her with ashen complexion and hurt written on his countenance. Surprise and concern caused her to move toward him, but he excused himself and left the room before she had done more than stand up.
Over the next few days, Louisa grew more and more alert and Anne became confident that the end of her nursing days was imminent. Louisa, while being a rather pleasant patient, was changed...quick to jump at sudden noises and strangely somber. She was just starting to remember the details of the accident itself and ask questions regarding the events after her fall. Anne answered her as best she could, wondering how much was necessary to tell, for she did not want to upset Louisa.
That evening, Louisa crying out in her sleep startled Anne awake. She hurriedly lit a candle and rushed to the girl's side to put her arms about her as she crooned Louisa awake. The memories of Louisa's fall had started coming in the form of dreams, frightening the girl into tears. Louisa accepted the comfort Anne offered like a child, allowing herself to be rocked slowly.
"You must think me a ninny, Anne."
"Of course not," Anne denied affectionately. "You have been through a very trying time, my dear. You must not rush your recovery."
Louisa almost smiled, "How could I not want to linger when such a sweet voice reads poetry to me everyday?"
Anne started and looked at her patient in surprise, "You knew you were being read to?"
Louisa nodded, "I have faint memories of hearing a voice reading verse. Sometimes the voice of a man, sometimes a woman. You and Frederick I suppose."
Anne flushed guiltily, remembering the argument she had with Frederick during the first days of Louisa's illness. "We did not mean to disturb you."
"It was soothing and I kept reaching out to that voice. I kept having these terrible dreams, but they would go away when Frederick would read to me."
Anne stared at Louisa for a moment, "What do you mean? When did Captain Wentworth read to you?"
Louisa looked alarmed, "Don't tell me those were dreams too! I couldn't bear it. That voice was like my lifeline. I never knew poetry was so magical. And my Frederick does read well."
Understanding flooded through Anne as Louisa fiddled with her blanket. She moved away from the bed and turned her back, trying to compose her thoughts and squelch down the jealousy she felt at Louisa's familiarity with Frederick. "Louisa, I don't want to upset you, but it was Captain Benwick who read those verses."
Louisa gaped, "Captain Benwick?" Anne could only nod as she communicated the truth of her statements with her gaze. "But I thought..."
Anne sat down at the edge of the bed again and took the other girl's hands. "Does it matter? Captain Benwick was more than happy to be of assistance and was truly concerned for your recovery."
"It was just that...I thought it was Frederick. It made me struggle harder to wake up."
Anne sighed. "I know you are disappointed. But does that mean you would have stayed asleep if you had known it was Captain Benwick?"
"No..." But Louisa did not sound sure.
"Shall I tell him to discontinue the readings?"
"Oh no, please! I would like to hear the verses again while awake." Louisa smiled, almost impishly. "Anne, I know it's late...but I am hungry."
Anne laughed softly. "That is a good sign indeed. I will make you something."
"Yes, some ham or venison would be lovely...and a glass of wine..."
"Some bread and cheese and tea, I think," Anne replied. "You must not over extend your constitution. It has been some time since you last ate."
Louisa acquiesced easily. Anne lit another candle and considered dressing to go downstairs. The lateness of the hour and the delay in feeding the girl made her change her mind and decide instead to wear her outdoor cloak. The thickness of the material warded off the night chill and provided adequate propriety to her dress.
She crept down the stairs toward the kitchen, taking care not to wake either the residents or the servants. The candle's flame was throwing strange shadows on the walls, lending the familiar house an eerie quality. Anne was not superstitious or given to fits of anxiety. However, she was still relieved to close the kitchen door behind her.
It took a moment to locate some bread and cheese. The fire in the kitchen was almost out and Anne poked at the embers to heat a kettle of water for Louisa's tea. Anne took a sharp knife and began to cut wedges of cheese. She found a tray and prepared a place setting, filling a small pot with Earl Grey tea leaves. She began to hum to herself as she worked.
"What in damnation are you doing?" A voice growled.
Anne gasped and dropped several rolls of bread. Frederick was staring at her in sleepy bemusement from the doorway. His lawn shirt was undone at the neck and hung loose over his breeches. His sleeves were rolled up and he had forsaken his boots to creep around in stockinged feet. Anne blushed to see him thus and looked away. She heard him sigh impatiently and move toward her as she bent and retrieved the rolls.
"You're planning to run away!" He said angrily.
Anne looked up in disbelief. "What? Why would you say such a thing?"
"You're wearing your cloak and preparing several sandwiches to take with you." Frederick said as he strode closer. He bent and picked up some rolls, depositing them on the tabletop.
"That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard." Anne said, laughingly.
Frederick scowled in reply, talking away the rolls she held. "Then what are you doing dressed like this and sneaking around the house at this hour?"
"Louisa is awake...and hungry. As for my cloak, I'm cold." Anne stood up and wondered at the relief on his face. "Why would you think I would run away in the middle of the night?"
He shrugged and stood as well. "I awoke to a noise and thought there was a burglar. When I saw you standing here in your cloak..."
Anne nodded, her lips twisting bitterly. "You assumed the worst." She turned to get the now hot kettle and poured the water into the waiting teapot.
"I'm sorry." He offered softly. "I wasn't thinking too clearly."
She nodded and replaced the kettle on its hook. Taking a broom, she cleared away the crumbs from the floor and put away the bread and cheese. Frederick was still in the room, watching her clean after herself in silence. She stepped close to the table, reaching for the tray when Frederick grasped her arm. She stiffened as he leaned closer, his breath stroking her cheek.
"I didn't mean to accuse you. Forgive me."
She turned to find his face just inches from hers. "It was an honest mistake," she whispered. "There is nothing to forgive."
His eyes dropped to her lips, making her words shake as she spoke. Then his lips met hers with aching familiarity. She had never forgotten was it was like to be kissed by Frederick, to feel his mouth gently moving over hers, coaxing them apart with teeth and tongue. Anne was intoxicated, responding heedlessly as he pulled her closer, her arms winding about his neck and feeling the rasp of his hair against her fingers. Anne could not account for how long they were wrapped in each other before sense overcame her. It was the warmth of his hand as it slipped under her cloak, burning through her thin nightgown to her skin, producing enough of a shock to make her pull away. They became aware of their mutual states of undress at the same moment. She stared at him in anguish and ran.
She was halfway up the stairs when she realized she had forgotten the tray. Louisa would be awake and expecting her and there would be no way to disguise the disturbance of her emotions. Anne felt the breath pushing past her lungs painfully as she tried to repress sobs of dismay and regret. How could she have allowed such advances? How would she survive knowing she would never own Frederick's touch again? Sitting down heavily on a step, she buried her face in her hands, crying silently and wondering what she could do to escape this intolerable situation.
"Anne...Anne... my darling, don't cry..."
Anne kept her head down, unable to face Frederick at this moment, ignoring even his endearment. She heard something set beside her and flinched when his hand caressed her unpinned hair.
"Please..." she whispered plaintively. "Please...leave me be..."
"I can't," he said brokenly. "I can't bear to see you like this."
"Then go away...please, just go away."
He pleaded with her softly for several minutes, saying her name repeatedly. There was one moment when she thought she felt his lips against her hair. However, she had built a wall around herself and steadfastly shook her head, refusing to look at him even once. Finally, he sighed, and with a last fleeting caress, descended and left her.
Anne was surprised not to be left in darkness. She took several deep breaths, calming her tears by sheer force of will. When she felt equal to re-entering the sickroom, she stood up. Frederick had placed the tray next to her on the stairs, her candle flickering on it. Anne had forgotten about Louisa's tray, but Frederick had not. With determination, she picked it up and headed for the room.
Louisa was half-dozing, but perked up when Anne entered the room. "My goodness you do look pale, Anne!"
"I am only cold."
"I am heartily sorry then for sending you out to feed me. But it does look delicious, if meager."
Anne could not respond to Louisa's teasing for she was wishing herself a hundred miles away from this house. Louisa ate quickly and in silence. Anne bade her not to over indulge, but knew the girl was hunger after so long a fast. Finally, Louisa's stomach was full and she began to grow sleepy. Anne snuffed out the candles and they both settled in their respective beds.
"Why hasn't Frederick visited me? I mean, I know we aren't formally engaged...but I did hope..."
Each word pierced Anne to the core and she could not find the words to answer.
However, Louisa continued to ramble. "Everyone expects us to marry, don't they?"
"So why didn't he visit me?"
"Did he really?"
Anne did not want to lie. "Two or three times."
Louisa's voice carried the edge of disappointment. "Why so few visits?"
"I believe he was concerned with the propriety of visiting you in a sickroom."
"Oh! I understand. How good of Frederick to think of such a thing, though I hope he will relax the practice now that I am awake again." Louisa yawned. "It is strange, is it not, that Frederick would feel it proper to stay away when we are all but engaged, while Captain Benwick would not hesitate to come in and read poetry to me daily? Do you think it is because Frederick is in love with me?"
Anne was glad that Louisa could not see her wince. "I don't know."
"I do hope so, Anne," Louisa said softly, with melancholy in her voice. "It would break my heart if he weren't."
"Go to sleep." Anne said softly. As Louisa drifted off, Anne was left to consider the state of Captain Wentworth's emotions and what decisions lay ahead of him in the near future.
Margaret commented the next day that Anne was very quiet. Anne smiled wanly as Captains Harville and Benwick attempted to tease her out of her silence, but Frederick only sent her alarmed looks. She did her best to ignore him and avoid his numerous attempts at private conversation.
A single instance, when Anne was entering a room that Frederick was leaving afforded him the opportunity to whisper, "You cannot avoid me forever, Anne. We have much to discuss." She felt the heat of a blush acknowledge him, but hurried away without a word.
Ironically, the fact that Louisa was more alert assisted her in disappearing from Frederick's company. A letter had been dispatched to Uppercross, bearing news of Louisa's continued progress. Charles beamed as he entered the Harville home, bearing his parents and Henrietta. The clamor in the household, and Charles' monopoly on Frederick's attention, made it easier for Anne to slip in and out of everyone's notice.
As expected, Mrs. Musgrove was ecstatic over her daughter's recovery, deeming it nothing short of miraculous. Anne found herself exchanging grins with Margaret Harville when the matron would wax eloquent regarding divine intervention. Frederick, though usually the most sanguine of men, seemed to struggle under the weight of Mrs. Musgrove's enthusiasm -- and her not-so-oblique hints regarding a future matrimonial event he was expected to initiate.
It did not take long for Henrietta to fall into gossip with her favorite sister and would have happily chattered for hours if Anne had been less vigilant in ensuring her patient attained the appropriate amount of rest. There was no mistaking the wistfulness in Louisa's expression when Henrietta talked of her impending nuptials.
Charles was rather confused over the changes in Louisa's demeanor, especially after she reprimanded him softly for making so much noise. He sent an expressive glance toward an amused Anne as he watched Benwick read to his sister.
"My sister has lost some of her fire, I think," Charles commented sadly as he and Anne stepped out of the sickroom. "She jumps like a chick first encountering water at the slightest noise."
"She has been through a rather traumatic accident, Charles."
"I know, I know," he said impatiently. "But I am starting to wonder if she will ever recover her verve. Especially with that Benwick reading silly verses to her all day."
Anne stifled a laugh, knowing the finer points of poetry were lost to a man who had more affection for guns and dogs than novels. "It might not be my place to reveal a confidence, but I understand Captain Benwick's readings did assist Louisa in regaining consciousness."
Charles snorted doubtfully, "Indeed? Still, I find his sitting next to her whispering poetry rather odd. Perhaps I am simply uninspired by the loves and losses of England's poet laureates." He began to stride downstairs, "Where the devil is Frederick? I haven't seen much of him lately and I brought my new musket all the way from Uppercross for him to test!"
Louisa bore Anne's company quite well and truly enjoyed Benwick's morning readings. Benwick found himself extending his sickroom visits, since Louisa was not very well read, but curious as to the interpretations of many a verse. To these discussions, Anne did not enter, preferring to sit happily ignored or to escape for a few moments of fresh air and solitude.
On one such morning, as Louisa and Benwick were earnestly discussing Lord Byron's poetry, Anne slipped away for a short walk. It had been days since she had ventured outside, partly because Louisa was awake for longer hours and eager for company, but mostly because Anne was avoiding Frederick. The house was quiet as she donned her cloak and slipped out for a walk along the shore.
The air was rapidly cooling as winter approached and Anne could feel the spray of salt water on her face as the tide battered the Cobb. She walked slowly, breathing deeply, and watching her feet push pebbles around in the sand as they stepped one in front of the other. Anne contemplated the next few weeks seriously. Louisa would not need her services for much longer and Anne would have to leave Lyme for the dreariness of Bath. Anne was only beginning to realize how fiercely she had grown to love Lyme, how much she valued the Harvilles and Benwick as friends...and when that time came, Frederick would be left in Lyme as well. How treacherous her heart could be, Anne considered, as it persisted in loving a man who was as good as engaged to another. Her heart whispered that his affections were returning to her, but her mind would not allow for the possibility.
So engrossed was she in her thoughts that she nearly tripped over the boulder that lay in her path -- and the figure perched on it. She tumbled forward and cried out in surprise, reaching her hands forward to cushion her fall.
Instead, strong, warm arms held her and Anne's hands landed on a solid, masculine chest. Frederick was looking at her as she lay in his arms in surprise. It was the amusement in his expression that made her regain her footing.
"Your thoughts must have been deep indeed, Anne," he said softly, making room on the boulder for her to sit. She declined without a sound.
"Do I frighten you? I think I do," he continued as she looked away. "I cannot blame you for I have been abominable to you since I returned. And who can rely on a man who lets a young girl fall and break her head?"
There was such deep remorse in his voice that it tore at her heart. His head bent with the weight of his conscience. Anne knew she should leave him to grieve in peace, that she had no right to his most private ruminations. But her kind soul would not, could not, leave him to face such misery alone. He turned his entire body toward her as she hesitantly took the seat next to him.
"The fault was mine...all mine. Louisa would not have been obstinate if I had not been weak." He said sorrowfully. "God help me, I never saw the harm in her adventurous jumps from every fence, stile, and rock. Blind fool that I was, I did not recognize the growing heights and dangers of every succeeding jump."
"Louisa could have chosen not to jump. She is not a child." Anne said softly.
"In many ways, she is. So innocent and spirited. I confess I was enchanted by her vigor and youth...but all of that is not so important to me anymore."
"She is getting better very quickly." Anne replied. "You must believe in her recovery."
"I do, because you have tended her so well."
"Then do not regret what cannot be changed.
"It is not in my nature to forget a lesson so hard learnt."
Anne sighed, unsure how to proceed. "It is a choice you have to make for yourself. To fall into painful reverie will never rewrite the past. It is more likely to continue this remorse. Instead, resolve to be happy that all will be right again."
"Be happy," he said wistfully. "Are you happy, Anne?"
Anne's eyes shifted away. "We are not talking of me."
"Perhaps we should be." He took hold of her hand tightly. "Just in case you try to run away from me." He said with a slight smile, but there was tension behind it. "You've been avoiding me although you know we have to settle this thing between us."
Anne let out a deep breath. "I know," she replied with resignation. "I won't run away, so you can let go of me."
"Can I?" He whispered, pressing her hand against his heart. "You're wrong. I never could. I never did."
"Don't say that."
"It's the truth."
"Is it? Was it true when you told my relatives I was altered beyond recognition?" He winced. "Not that it matters. I have altered beyond recognition."
"No, you haven't. I was being spiteful. I have been angry with you for so long for giving me up."
She nodded solemnly. "I know."
His hand tightened on hers. "I'm not angry anymore."
"I know that as well."
"Then why are you avoiding me?"
"What was your intention when you first returned to England?"
He frowned, "I don't understand what..."
"Just say it."
"I...intended to marry."
"Did that intention change when you met the Musgroves?" He shook his head. "Did you demonstrate any interest in marrying one of the Musgrove daughters?"
His lips tightened and he let go her hand, "You know I did. It didn't really matter which, I was determined to marry Henrietta or Louisa."
"And then Henrietta became engaged to Charles Hayter."
"I know what you are trying to say," he retorted. "But I am not engaged to Louisa Musgrove. I have made her no offer to accept or decline. Neither do I intend to do so!"
"How can you avoid it?"
"Why is it expected?"
Anne stared at him in open-mouthed surprise. Frederick's expression showed stubborness and determination as he met her look directly. Anne's lips pressed together and she touched his arm lightly. "Frederick..." she whispered reproachfully.
His expression melted into anxiety and despair. "Even you think me spoken for?"
"If I am, it is in honor only for I have made no offers and do not intend to -- regardless of the hints dropped by her family."
"Do you consider yourself an honorable man?" Anne asked softly, watching the color drain from his face.
"That isn't fair."
"It is the reality of your situation. Do not harden yourself to this future. No one who has seen you together could doubt the mutual affection between you." Anne forced herself to speak, wishing she believed her own words. "She loves you. She will make you happy."
"Louisa does not love me any more than I love her. Being sought after enchants her, that is all. Time will reveal all of this."
Anne remained silent.
"Anne, I swear to you, even before Louisa's accident, I had resolved to put distance between myself and her. I had reconsidered. I knew...I know...than I can never settle for anything less than someone I love deeply. And that has always been you. I've been trying to find a way to make amends...to heal the breach between us. I've been a fool, wasting my time at Uppercross being resentful, when I should have been doing everything in my power to win you back."
"It's too late."
He flinched and shut his eyes tightly. Anne saw his withdrawal from her and slid off the rock, prepared to leave him. Her movement jolted him to awareness and again his hand shot out to detain her. She turned to look at him sadly, not protesting at the cruel grip he had on her arm.
"See what happens when I let go?" He whispered brokenly. "You tell me I am too late and then try to run away again."
The pain in his eyes lacerated Anne's loving heart beyond repair. His face blurred as her own tears obscured her vision and ran rampant down her cheeks. Her head bent and her arm raised to hide her weakness from him. She felt herself being tugged closer.
"Tell me the truth. Have you stopped loving me, Anne?"
Anne sobbed aloud once and would have turned away, but Frederick took her other hand away from her face and imprisoned it as well.
"Look at me, Anne. Look at me." He commanded. She complied. "Look me in the eyes and tell me you don't love me."
She stared at him, her mouth opening and closing, attempting...and failing to lie. "I can't."
Hope shone out of his eyes at her admission. He pulled her close, roughly, winding his arms around her waist and burying his face on the curve of her neck and shoulder. "Thank God! Oh thank God!" He whispered repeatedly.
Anne turned her face upward to the heavens and sobbed all the harder. Her hands were braced against his shoulders and she prayed to heaven for strength.
"Nothing will stop me this time." He promised against her. "I won't let anything get in the way again."
Anne was tempted to acquiesce. Never before had she wanted to throw caution to the wind more. She loved Frederick and knowing he had forgiven her, had returned to her was more than she ever dared hope for. But how could she do what needed to be done? The image of Louisa's disappointed face embedded itself in her mind. How could she hurt Louisa? And what would it do to her relationship with Mary, Charles, and the entire Musgrove family if she allowed this to continue?
Frederick lifted his face and pulled her down determinedly, immediately capturing her mouth with his. He gave no quarter, forcing her to acknowledge her own passions as he demonstrated his. She felt his lips leave hers and travel past her tearstained cheek, down the column of her neck to settle again against the heartbeat that throbbed there.
She pushed against him gently, trying ineffectively to extricate herself. "Frederick, I can't do this. Please don't ask me to do this."
"I'm not asking you to do anything except trust me. I will make everything right, I promise."
"And if you can't?" Anne did not know which of them shuddered more as she asked the question. Again, he buried his face against her, not willing to speak of what it meant for their future if he was unsuccessful. She laid her cheek against his hair, slid her arms around his neck, and held him, taking comfort for a brief moment in his embrace.
"What would you have me do?" He whispered forlornly.
Anne leaned back and cupped his face with her hands. "I would have you act as the honorable man you are."
"Even if that means marrying Louisa Musgrove?"
Anne's eyes closed in pain as he spoke the words aloud, sealing their fate in the wind. She pulled completely out of his arms and he did not stop her. He was staring at her in hurt bewilderment.
"You would relinquish me again?" He asked.
Anne could not find an answer for him. She reached forward and gently touched his cheek with her fingers, bidding him a silent goodbye, and she wended her way back to the Harville house. She did not need to look back to know he was still watching her.
Frederick did not return that evening or the next day. Anne worried about him but understood that it was for the best. His absence made her introspective and often plunged her deep in reverie. She found herself unable to interact with anyone else and least of all Louisa. By the end of the second day, Margaret Harville and Charles Musgrove confronted her.
"Anne, are you making yourself ill?" Charles asked bluntly. "I cannot thank you enough for taking care of Louisa, but I would hardly wish you to work yourself to death."
"Perhaps it is time for someone else to take over, Anne," Margaret interjected. "Louisa is much improved and I am sure my nursemaid and I can manage on our own." Anne looked startled at the suggested dismissal, hope and despair warring for dominance.
"Weren't you expected to be in Bath by now?" Charles asked.
"Yes. I wrote to Lady Russell about delaying my departure. She agreed to wait for me."
"Lady Russell!" Charles exclaimed. "Now I understand! Mary and I paid her a visit, not a week ago and she made a very pointed comment about usually journeying to Bath by this time of the year."
Anne flushed, "Perhaps I should write and tell her to go without me."
"Certainly not! You should write and tell her you will be joining her soon."
"You really have been wonderful, Anne. But I am too apt to forget that you have a life of your own that does not involve nursing the injured. You are too accommodating for your own good."
Anne thought for a moment. It was unexpected, this opportunity to escape. She had no love for Bath and little enjoyment in the company of her father and elder sister. But while she stayed in Lyme, there was little chance that Frederick would do the honorable thing. He would struggle against expectation and compunction. He would offend the Musgroves and hurt Louisa. Anne knew her heart well enough to know that she could not resist for long if he persisted. No, it was best to go.
"Charles? If I am to go, will you take me back?"
"Certainly, I am leaving tomorrow for Uppercross but should be back by next week."
"No...no..." Anne protested. "I would prefer to leave with you tomorrow, if I may?"
Charles looked surprised. "I would be delighted to escort you."
And it was settled. Anne packed her few belongings and bade everyone a fond farewell. Charles was collecting her very early in the morning, before the residents usually rose. Anne did not sleep that night, trying to convince herself that she was doing what was right. But her heart fretted over where Frederick was and what he would think of her leaving without a word to him.
Anne was already sitting on the steps when Charles' drove his curricle to collect her. He looked sleepy and tousled but with the same good humor he always displayed. The curricle rocked as he stood up and descended. He adjusted the brim, making sure that Anne would have enough protection from the elements as they traveled out of Lyme's windy countryside. Anne watched him quietly, hearing an unseen horse meander through the fog. The sound drew closer, the clip of a single horse and she looked up in time to see Frederick appear. He looked tiredly at them as Charles hoisted up Anne's suitcase.
"There you are Frederick! You've been like a ghost, man! What do you mean by all this flitting about?" Charles called loudly. Anne winced as his voice cut through the silence of the street.
Frederick dismounted and approached. "I'm sorry. I have been preoccupied."
"Yes...well...instead of brooding about it, why not just talk to the girl!"
Both Anne and Frederick sent Charles alarmed gazes.
"Don't look shocked, man!" Charles laughed. "Even Louisa is wondering why you aren't making it all official!" Frederick met Anne's eyes with a sorrowful look. Charles stretched his hand to Anne to help her onto the curricle.
"Where are you going?" Frederick asked. Anne wondered how Charles could miss the anxiety in his voice.
"We have taken advantage of Anne long enough," Charles replied. "She is off to Bath -- a few weeks later than scheduled -- but off to enjoy herself all the same. She has certainly earned a rest!" Charles patted his coat suddenly. "Blast! I've forgotten that list of supplies Harville wanted me to purchase for him. Frederick, help Anne into the carriage for me. I won't be a moment." Charles crept into the Harville home to retrieve the item.
Frederick stared at Anne with a fierceness she had never encountered before. "Do you want to go to Bath?"
"I hate Bath. It reminds me of my mother's death." Anne replied. "But it's best that I go."
"Best for whom?"
Anne did not have the strength for another debate and hoisted her skirts up, determined to get on the curricle without Frederick's assistance. She hadn't gotten too far when she felt Frederick's hands encircle her waist, lifting her gently and firmly into the vehicle. Anne settled herself in the seat and tried not to look at Frederick.
"Give me your hand," he asked, reaching into the curricle. Anne complied and sighed when he pressed soft kisses into her palm and wrist. "Don't forget me," he said and stepped back as Charles rejoined them.
Charles lost little time and the set off. Anne looked back once, staring at Frederick's dejected figure until the fog enveloped him and they were well on the road to Uppercross.
Anne could barely contain her unhappiness as she entered Lady Russell's home. Despite Frederick's assurances, her heart would not be easy regarding their future. There were moments when deep in her secret self, she thrilled at the knowledge that her affections were once again returned by the only man who could own her heart. But her mind, ever practical, never allowed her to dwell on that fact, for she could find no avenue or action that would liberate Frederick from his current predicament. Try as she might to have faith, her mind was wont to consider him, though hers in inclination, inextricably tied to Louisa Musgrove.
If Lady Russell found her young friend silent and pensive, she made no comment. A thorough quizzing of Charles Musgrove many weeks ago had unearthed that none other than Captain Wentworth had been in attendance during Anne's tenure in Uppercross and Lyme. Lady Russell knew with a mother's concern that such a companion would have sorely tried Anne's composure. She sympathized with her young friend, wishing again that she had refused to let Anne languish since her broken engagement.
Yet if Wentworth's presence was enough to raise concern in Lady Russell, it was his anticipated connection with Uppercross that raised her ire. Charles had been gleeful in his belief that Wentworth was soon to offer for Louisa. Anne could only avert her eyes in dismay and avoid entering the conversation. As she watched the pain flicker through Anne's countenance, Lady Russell felt her heart harden in angry irony that a man who had eight years ago understood the value of an Anne Elliot would now prefer the simpering of a Louisa Musgrove.
Anne made an effort to be pleasant but vague about her time in Lyme. Her comments remained fixed on Louisa's health, the happiness of the Harville marriage, even Captain Benwick's library. Never once did she mention Frederick Wentworth. Lady Russell gently prodded but could receive no more than a simple acknowledgement that he had indeed been there.
A week passed before Charles and Mary paid a call to Anne. Mary had been peeved that Anne had not returned to Uppercross. Nevertheless, Anne had neither the strength nor the inclination for Mary's peevishness and remained pleasant but withdrawn through tea. Much was made of Louisa's continued recovery in the beginning, as required by politeness. When the conversation turned toward Lyme itself, Mary began to wax eloquent with the only piece of gossip she could call her own. She recounted with fervor the appearance of none other than William Walter Elliot, heir to Kellynch and the Baronet title. With overblown phrases of regret, Mary expressed her disappointment in not having introduced herself to Mr. Elliot. Anne blushed in mortification for her sister.
"Phoo! Phoo!" Charles chuckled. "So much ado about a stranger! Mary, I do believe you are more interested in what he will attain than in who he is."
"Not at all!" His wife protested. "He is, reportedly, quite pleasant company...with impeccable manners."
"Reported by whom?" Charles challenged. "I do not believe you know of anyone who could have delivered such information. If you did, you could not have contained it for all the gold in the world."
"Charles, you delight in contradicting me! Since you profess to care little about Elliot information, I cannot wonder at your ignorance about Mr. Elliot. Why none other than my own father and Elizabeth have described Mr. Elliot as such. They became acquainted with him once in Bath and once in London, I believe, and came home full of praises."
"That was a very long time ago, Mary." Anne murmured, uncomfortable with the satisfied smirk on her sister's face.
"Yes, it was." Lady Russell said with a clatter of her teacup. "I recall that your father had generously invited Mr. Elliot to visit. He thought it most proper, and I agree with him, to extend an olive branch to the next generation and create an atmosphere of geniality between the current baronet and the heir apparent. I also recall that each invitation was never responded, except with the secondhand news that Mr. Elliot had married without Sir Walter's consent or knowledge." Mary began to look ashamed of herself. "Such a breach of manners and connection, I find distasteful. So you will pardon me, my dear, if I cannot share your enthusiasm for such an acquaintance."
Lady Russell's comment effectively ended that vein of conversation.
More tea sandwiched were offered and accepted through the awkward silence that ensued. Charles, ever ebullient, offered a distraction. "Lady Russell, knowing of Anne's humility as I do, she may have failed to mention another attraction in Lyme!"
Anne held her breath as Lady's Russell's eyebrows rose and met her gaze with a knowing look. "Oh?" That lady enquired with curiosity.
"Oh yes. It seems that our Anne has quite enchanted a certain Captain Benwick."
Anne's sigh contained a combination of relief and mortification. "Don't be silly Charles. We merely shared similar tastes in literature."
Charles chuckled. "Well, for a man who places so much value on a good book, I daresay it is enough to start an attraction."
"And was there an attraction?" Lady Russell asked, with hopeful curiosity.
"None at all," answered Anne at the same moment as Charles.
"Perhaps he has been reticent in your company, Anne. But let me assure you that he spoke of you often and warmly after you left."
"I do not remember Captain Benwick making so much as a single mention of Anne," Mary exclaimed peevishly, "other than inquiring after her trip home."
"Then you were not paying attention," Charles said with good humor, preferring to tease Anne than mollify his wife. "He asks about her often and when only the men were assembled, mentioned his admiration for her fine taste in literature and her kindness. He even means to call on you, I believe."
Anne blushed at the secondhand compliment, thinking it likely that Captain Benwick had not anticipated his frank opinions to be repeated in her hearing. Yet Anne was like most women and in the paucity of compliments in her usual companions, found an interest and warmth in hearing herself spoken of in such a way. Lady Russell was plainly happy to hear someone's appreciation of her favorite. As the visit ended and the days passed, both ladies began to anticipate a young man's visit.
After the first flush was over, Anne knew another sensation. She realized that Frederick had most likely been present during such discussions and spent many hours wondering what feelings it evoked in him and what comments he himself had made. While it was pleasant to be so thought of by a gentleman, Anne would have traded anything she owned to have heard Frederick speak such of her to his friends.
Sophy Croft was the next to pay Anne a visit. Again, there was the necessity of discussing the unpleasantness at Lyme. However, Mrs. Croft was an intelligent and practical woman, not given to fits or overblown sentiments. Coupled with Lady Russell's pragmatism and Anne's sensible nature, the business was gone over and done in short time.
Anne found that she truly liked Frederick's sister. She had been charmed with the obvious affection and warmth of the Croft's marriage, and even well entertained by the absentminded gregariousness of the Admiral. In Sophy Croft, however, Anne found a kindred spirit - one who thought more of amiability and respect than the empty pastime of social climbing. Mrs. Croft never failed to be pleasant, concerned, witty, and wise. Even Lady Russell was forced to acknowledge the superiority of the Crofts to all the potential tenants who could have leased Kellynch.
Anne meant to return the call quickly, feeling more pleasure than obligation in the activity. Lady Russell saw her to the carriage with a smile and a greeting to deliver to Mrs. Croft. It was an easy distance to Kellynch and Anne was surprised to feel no sentimentality for the place that had once been her home. Several of the servants greeted her warmly as she entered the property and with a light heart was shown into the front parlour. She stepped into the room, expecting it to be empty until Mrs. Croft joined her, but instead found herself face to face with Frederick.
They stared at each other in stunned silence, Anne nearly retreating out of the room and the house in her mortification. Frederick has immediately understood her inclinations and hurried forward to detain her.
"Anne! Anne...I never thought...I had heard you were with Lady Russell and I did not dare..." he stammered while taking her arm and gently leading her to a comfortable chair.
Anne understood him well. He knew, and rightly so, that her mentor would not view his presence with any welcome. It pained her to know it, wishing there were a way to mend the rift between the two people she loved most in the world.
"Perhaps, I should go..." she whispered.
"No!" He protested. "Please stay. Sophy will be pleased to see you. She likes you very much."
Anne smiled tremulously, "I like her equally."
Frederick was gratified by her reply, though his nervousness seemed to reach new heights. He could not remain still for his fingers picked at the creases in the sofa fabric and he could not decide if he wished to remain seated or standing. She watched him silently, in awe that he was actually before her and unprepared for the questions and emotions that flooded her.
Frederick suddenly turned and met her eyes with piercing clarity. He pulled a chair closer and leaned toward her intimately. "My Anne," he whispered. "I have wanted to see you and speak to you all these days that you have been gone. Are you well?"
"I am." Anne replied. "How goes it...in...in Lyme?"
Frederick looked away. "I cannot say for sure. Louisa improves daily, but I have not seen her. I am ashamed of myself, Anne. I have not had the courage to do what must be done. I have not been able to face Louisa for fear of her expectations."
Anne's heart sank with his words and she was thankfully spared a reply by a bustling at the door. Sophy Croft walked in; crying an enthusiastic greeting that was matched by her husband. A third person entered more sedately, but with just as much welcome for Anne.
"Captain Benwick!" Anne cried in surprise. "I did not know you had come as well."
"When Frederick announced that he was coming, I could not help but invite myself. I have missed our talks."
Anne intercepted the smiling look that passed between the Crofts. Frederick walked toward the fireplace to conceal a thunderous expression. Noticing Anne's embarrassed flush, Mrs. Croft rang for some refreshment. Frederick remained silently and stoic throughout the visit, narrowly watching as Benwick monopolized Anne's attention with tales of new books. He was also full of stories of Louisa's growing understanding of poetry. Anne listened politely, making the appropriate noises. Yet all she could wish for was another moment alone with Frederick, to calm the jealousy she could see boiling below the surface. In their well meant but misplaced designs, the Crofts encouraged the conversation between Anne and Benwick.
Within an hour, Anne was possessed with the urgent need to leave. Her nerves were frayed with Frederick's black looks, Benwick's attentions, and the need to always disguise what was truly in her heart. She wanted nothing more than to disappear from the environment that grew more painful by the minute.
There were many exclamations of regret when she announced her intentions, except from Frederick. He looks almost relieved to hear it. She curtsied clumsily in her haste. Frederick gave a formal, remote bow. And Captain Benwick escorted her to the carriage.
"Miss Anne?" He called as she settled herself inside. "May I call on you tomorrow?"
Anne could think of nothing that she wanted less. "Of course. I would be happy to introduce you to Lady Russell. She shares our taste for literature."
He smiled and bade her an overly fond farewell. As her carriage pulled down the dirt drive, Anne saw Frederick watching from a window.
Anne's thoughts whirled that night. A more practical woman would have done short work of the matter. If one man was eligible, kind, and of independent means, it was an eligible match and one that could be counted on for a reasonable amount of happiness. But love measured nothing by its practical applications - it wants only the object of its affections. There were no replacements.
Anne was a woman who loved that way. She did not want Captain Benwick's attentions. What would have been if there had not been a Frederick was not worth consideration, for there was and always would be Frederick Wentworth to consider. It mattered not that his future seemed tied to another's. Anne could not countenance a loveless marriage, and if it were anyone but Frederick, she would not love.
Lady Russell was suitably impressed with Captain Benwick. His taste in literature, his diffident manners, and his obvious attentions to Anne all generated her goodwill. Captain Benwick was all that was charming and Anne felt sorry for what she knew was coming. She welcomed Lady Russell's suggestion to tour the library and portrait gallery. Anne would have preferred the gardens, for there were always servants listening and lurking, but the weather was too cold for strolls by the rose bushes.
Anne gathered her words, trying to find the right moment and the gentlest method to discourage her would-be suitor. Captain Benwick watched her shyly, mimicking her movements as she traced a path through the shelves of books.
"Miss Anne? Have I offended you or been too forward in coming here?"
Anne was surprised at the question. "No," She replied carefully. "How could I be offended by the visit of a friend?"
He smiled sadly, "Though I admire the poets, I am not one myself. I must rely on more conventional means of expressing my sentiments. I made myself plain to your relations and to my friends. You cannot have mistaken my intentions."
Anne turned away again, "Please do no say it. I have no wish to cause you pain."
"But they must be said. Even just this once." He paced dramatically for a moment. Anne decided to hear him, for nothing else would fully settle the matter. "We are so alike you and I. Before I met you...before...I felt dead inside. You brought me to life."
"You were grieving for a woman you loved deeply."
"Is that why you hesitate? Do you think I am still pining for her?"
"It would not be illogical to think so."
"No. It would not." He sighed deeply. "I cannot and will not lie to you. There will always be a place in my heart belonging to Phoebe Harville. But that time, that life, is past. I am looking towards a new one. I hoped you would want to be a part of it."
"When we met," Anne said softly, "I confided that I knew the depths of your despair simply because I have felt them myself. Do you remember?"
"I do. It is a part of my belief that we would make a good pair. We already have that mutual understanding of each other."
"Oh Captain," Anne replied. "Look deeper into your heart. You are looking to replace a lasting love with a superficial one. I am not what you want. If this is all we would expect of each other, it would not be many years before we became unhappy."
"Many more marriages are built on less." He persisted.
"You and I are alike in one respect. Having loved once, we cannot but want it again." She saw him avert his eyes. "Tell me that I am wrong."
He tried. "I cannot. You know me better than I know myself."
"I have had years to consider the matter. Give yourself time to do the same. People may pass away, but love does not. Memories and emotions will linger if not given free rein in grief. In time, you will truly be free to love a woman worthy of you."
He looked at her directly. "And what of you? Will you grieve forever?"
Anne smiled sadly. "There is something you do not know. The one I love lives. And while he lives, I am not free."
He nodded solemnly and with a new understanding, they walked to the front door.
"I hope, Captain Benwick, that we can use this to strengthen our friendship. For I will always consider you such."
"As I will you." He agreed with little rancor, reinforcing Anne's belief that his heart had been little touched by her. He took her hand and raised it to his lips. "You are kind and beautiful and special, Miss Anne. Do not let more time pass before you accept love back in your life. I would wish for you the best of marriages."
Anne smiled sadly, thinking of what kind of marriage she could have with Frederick. "As do I." She watched him ride away, relief and sadness mingling in her for another opportunity presented that she could not accept.
The time was coming for Anne to journey to Bath and join Sir Walter and Elizabeth. A house in Camden Place had been secured and decorated to her sister’s liking. Lady Russell, who had kindly put off her early journey to Bath to wait for Anne, was now more than eager to take the waters and get away from the running of a large estate for a few months.
Knowing her time was growing short, Anne penned a letter to Mrs. Croft, making her apologies for no longer being able to visit and wishing her well. Anne hoped they could continue a friendly correspondence while she resided in Bath. She hoped, in her heart, that Mrs. Croft would confide the contents of her letter to her brother.
Mrs. Croft was a prompt correspondent and a pleasant one as well. She conveyed the Admiral and her wishes for a safe and speedy journey, adding only that they might chance to journey to Bath themselves in a month or two. There were a few complimentary lines of Captain Benwick, but nothing of Frederick, which agitated Anne immensely.
As the week drew to a close, Anne wondered what could have happened to Frederick. That he stayed away was no surprise, for any interview between him and Lady Russell was to be avoided. However, Anne’s hopes to meet him in the lanes during her walks, or in Uppercross where she dutifully visited her sister, sunk under the dawning understanding that Frederick Wentworth was doing his best to avoid her.
Anne had recognized his jealousy during her visit to Kellynch. But how to assuage such an emotion? And was it unreasonable to think that Captain Benwick would have confided the failure of his suit to his friend? She knew he remained in the county, for she heard Charles speak of frequent meetings with him. But no more information could she glean with discretion.
Anne looked out her bedroom window at the gray morning and sighed. She would wear her warmest pelisse to ward off the cold, but she would not forsake her walk. The carriage was being readied for tomorrow’s journey to Bath. Anne had one last chance to meet with Frederick if he so desired. Her maid clucked and fussed as she dressed, commenting worriedly about the severity of the weather and how someone so delicate as Anne should stay warm. Anne gently brushed aside her concerns. This was no time to act like delicate lady.
Despite Anne’s bravado indoors, the wind did cut through the layers of cloth and chill her to the core. She tied the shawl tightly around her shoulders and held down her bonnet as the air stroked up her cheek and under the brim, pushing it up determinedly. The ground had hardened and the hint of frost was lingering. Still Anne pushed on, walking determinedly outside the edges of the estate. She was nearly ready to cry with frustration when the sound of hoofbeats alerted her.
"Anne! Dear God, what are you doing out in this weather?"
Anne looked up at the rider and nearly sobbed her relief at the sight of Frederick’s face. He was looking at her with alarm as she swayed a little on her feet. He reached down suddenly and picked her up, seating her across him on the saddle, and nudging the horse forward to a sheltered nook. Anne leaned tiredly against his chest, listening for his heartbeat and feeling the imprint of buttons against her cheek. Frederick’s arm was tight around her waist, gripping her securely as the horse cantered away from the main house. They found an old shepherd’s cabin at the southern edge of the Russell estate. It was dusty and abandoned, but it provided a respite from the wind.
Frederick led Anne to a rickety chair, then lit a small fire. He stripped of his gloves and took both her hands in his, blowing on them and rubbing warmth vigorously. "You are like ice. Why were you walking out today? You are more level headed than this."
The reasons that had seemed so reasonable and so urgent an hour ago seemed improper to admit. Frederick looked at Anne expectantly and she knew he wanted an answer. Truth seemed best, there were already too many secrets between them. "I was looking for you."
He turned scarlet at her soft response, unable for a moment to do more than bury his face in the hands he held. When he suddenly moved away, there was a decisiveness about him that made her uncomfortable and unsure of herself. He stood and turned to face the fire, regarding it calmly and coldly. "I have spent the last few days deep in thought. I know...I know you have declined Captain Benwick’s suit. Why?"
Anne wondered at his need to ask such a question. "Must you really ask such a thing?"
"Do you find the question improper?"
Anne’s lips tightened momentarily. Frederick was being deliberately obtuse. "I find the answer obvious."
His eyes flickered briefly, but he acknowledged the truth of her statement. "I suppose you mean that you gave him up for me? Have you?"
"You know I have."
"And Charles too? Did you refuse him because of me? Even when there was little chance we would meet again?"
Anne did not know how to answer him. Did he still think so little of her? She could not blame him for over the years she had found severe fault with her own judgment. "Perhaps unknowingly."
He smiled wanly, "That is a fair answer." He regarded the fire again. "Sophy tells me you are leaving for Bath tomorrow."
"Yes. I have been expected for at least a week."
He nodded. "I leave for Lyme tonight. I have decided...to offer for Louisa tonight."
Anne could feel her knuckles try to rip past her skin as she gripped her armrests. He had promised to make things right, asked her not to forget him, and then...changed his mind? She could only take short breaths for there seemed a terrible weight on her chest. It pushed down, oppressing her lungs and winding tight around her heart. "If that is what you wish..."she whispered painfully, unwilling and unable to grasp what he meant.
"It is NOT what I wish!" He cried. "How can you think that?"
"I only know what you tell me."
He turned almost violently towards her. The tears were beginning and through them she could see he was about to argue with her. But her obvious distress stopped him, left any harsh words unsaid as he knelt beside her and took her hands again. She tried to pull them away but he would not release her, Instead, he kissed them gently, even when she balled them into angry, rebellious fists.
"You would have done better to accept Benwick. He is a good man and would have loved you and treated you well."
The anger welled in her and she pulled herself out of his grip, wincing slightly as she twisted her wrists. He looked startled by her vehemence. She turned her face away, wishing for all the world her composure were not to transparent to this man.
"Anne, you must understand...I want you to understand..."
"I do. I always have." She said, still refusing to look at him.
"No, I don’t think you do, Anne." He said gently. "Charles has been quite...pointed...in his comments of late. He would consider it a terrible breach of friendship if I threw Louisa over."
"I understand." Anne replied through gritted teeth, wanting nothing else than to leave his company. "It was you who believed differently. It was you who asked me to hope for something that was impossible."
"Look at me. Anne, I am doing this for you. Look at me please."
She could not. She would not comply. There was nothing he could say or do anymore that could hurt her more than this. She kept her face averted and shuddered when his hand caressed her cheek tenderly. "I am to blame, for all of it. If only...if only I had let go my resentment of the past when we met again."
"Please don’t say it. It does neither of us good."
"Will you not look at me, Anne?"
There was a strange finality to his voice and it made her turn. It was as if he believed they would never see each other again. She knew differently. There would soon have relatives in common and by necessity would have encounter after painful encounter as the years progressed. She searched his stricken face, memorizing it, knowing that this was the last moment that he would be hers.
"Anne, whatever happens...I want you to be happy. Forget me, forget us and grasp life with both hands. More than anything in the world, I want to know that you will be happy."
Anne no longer remembered what it was to feel happy.
"Promise me." He continued. "Promise me that you will not wait any longer to truly live your life."
"I promise." It was the barest thread of sound.
He leaned forward and kissed her, softly and tenderly, neither one daring to take it further. It was a bittersweet farewell. He did not say he loved her. He did not have to. She would not say it. She bade him to leave her at the cottage. He protested weakly, but in the end left her. She sat silently, sightlessly watching the crackling wood as it burned.
"I promise," she whispered to herself. And meant it. p>************
Continued in Part 2
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