Your Shadow To Guide Me
Brandon started, his breath catching in his throat, preventing his words. "Colonel Brandon. . ." Marianne repeated and set foot into the room where a toasty fire stirred some warmth into her shivers. She'd never been in Cleveland's library before, and she could definitely envision herself spending countless hours in such a place in the near future. But, the young lady resisted her urge to scavenge the shelves, and turned to the important situation directly in front of her.
"Miss Marianne, you startled me." His voice, always so deep and resonant seemed forced, pained. Although he had found the strength to address her, Christopher did not yet move to look in her direction. And, of course, as he said her name, he knew it was her, there had been no doubt as to who had called out his name only seconds before.
"Then, forgive me and-"
"There is nothing to forgive."
"And give me a moment of your time." Marianne moved to sit in the Colonel's vacated chair, crossing her arms over her chest. She'd made up her mind; she would not leave the room, or leave Brandon alone until they'd had a very frank and limitless conversation. When he did not respond, save the rhythmic sounds of his labored breathing, Marianne rose from the armchair and advanced in his direction. "I shall only leave when secrets cease to exist between us, Bran- . . .Colonel."
Finally, he turned to her, surprised that she wanted to speak so candidly. Well, not astonished that she wanted to speak frankly, but that she'd chosen him as her conversationalist. Having her attention was a delightfully alarming sensation of which Brandon was wholly unaccustomed. He hadn't yet managed to think of her addresses and kind words as anything less than a marvel, and doubted he ever would. "I have no secrets, Miss Marianne," He knelt, one hand palm upwards, and began, with the other, to pinch up shards of broken glass, cautious as not to cut himself. "I find that secrets can destroy every form of relationship. I keep nothing from you. I value your friendship above any other. . ." Had he not been focusing on the crystal-speckled carpet, Marianne Dashwood would have viewed a face ignited with ardent, tender love and honesty, hazel eyes flecked with an intense, fiery passion.
"If that is true," Marianne gulped and found her breath. How could she expect him to survive this meeting, if she herself was having a hard time maintaining her composure? "why do you always mask your feelings with weaker words?"
"Words are extremely powerful, my lady. That much is certain simply by reading the works of your favorite poets, even that poem you asked me to read this morning."
"I-I wrote that poem." Marianne gripped onto the delicate silks of her gown, nervously twisting the fabric between her fingers. She waited for his reaction, if it would show that he'd known all along, if he felt he'd been toyed with, or if her slight confession had been startling. . .
Brandon straightened his legs, standing impressively tall. And although he'd expected she'd been the verse's author, he nevertheless found himself moved beyond expression. After a moment's contemplation, Brandon glanced right at her, wondering that if he chanced to hold her eyes, she might forever imprison him in the unique beauty of her soul. "Then I must compliment you on the loveliness and skill of your writing." Gaining confidence, he smiled to her in the lighthearted manner she'd seen that morning.
"Thank you, Colonel. . .I wrote it for you." It was almost a whisper, and certainly a stammer, the way she now spoke.
"Miss Marianne. . ."
"I thought it the best way to make my apologies, to show you how much I have come to value your friendship. . .how thankful I am for your caring protection and loyalty."
He once again began collecting the remaining glass shards, not taking as much care as before. It was now a manner of distraction and discretion, an occupation so he would not be forced to lose all his bearings. "I am glad of it, that you may always call me friend, and trust me completely. That is my dearest wish-that I may have the opportunity to be the best friend possible, to you, Miss Dashwood."
Marianne paused, then clenched the feet between them, moving to kneel to his side. He stopped her with a quick and reflexive gesture of his splayed fingers.
"You might cut yourself."
"As you might." She countered, sitting on her knees to his right.
"Better I than you."
"I should not think so, Colonel. You've borne far too many of my wounds, already."
She started to touch his shoulder, but pulled away when her fingers were mere segments of air from the fabric of his jacket. "You said your dearest wish was to be the truest of friends as may be possible. My desire is this: that you would take the danger from those hidden words by speaking them to me, now. Speak of your heart, act of it!"
She was pleading with him, her eyes clouded like foggy, moist gems. He could not refuse her request, there was no avoiding her or lightening the strength of his words. Brandon turned from the glass on the floor and transfixed his eyes with Marianne's. "Miss Dash-. . .Marianne, if I were to act of my heart, right this instant, I would kiss you! Wipe your fresh tears away with my fingertips," He closed both his fists in what must have been an unnoticed gesture of self-control. How he wanted to hold her! "I should tell you that you are the center of my being. . ."
Slowly at first, then with growing resolution, Marianne brought her fingertips to his cheek in a tender caress. Her other hand closed over his-it was shaking for the fist was closed so tightly. She'd never heard such an heartbreaking, sincere confession. The young lady was quite undone. "Brandon. . ."
He made a motion to stand. But soon, Marianne's fingers were closed over his forearms, her delicate hands vicelike. He bent his head low, not daring to meet her concerned, tearful gaze. They were silent for a long while, watching the dying firelight lick against their features. Looking into one another, but not having the capability or bravery to see completely inside.
He broke the silence, his resonant voice possessking a gravity so sensual that she felt herself drawn closer to him, as if his very soul was pulling at hers. The fathomless depth of his eyes was beginning to pale. "I love you, Marianne." He uncurled her fingers from their grip about his arm, each one in turn, then brought her hand to his lips. And when he'd released her hand and stepped away only a pace, the touch of his kiss lingered, seared.
"Brandon, I'm. . .I. . ." Words failed her. Giving up, she plopped into the oft-used armchair, shrugging and defeated. Her eyes scanned him, resting on his face, the Slavic hazel eyes flecked with green, his almost wild hair, and the endearing disheveled manner of his linen shirt. Everything about him was so honest, so passionate. Marianne looked last on his hands, focusing a few times before rising in alarm. "Your hand, Colonel, it's bleeding!"
Alarmed, Christopher opened his palm and found the remains of his wine glass embedded in his flesh, blood streaming along his lifelines and curving about his wrist, the creases betwixt his fingers. Marianne was at his side in a moment, ripping fabric from the dress she had taken such time in choosing to use as a bandage.
"Sit down. . .let me tend it." She felt she would go mad if she did not have this distraction, a distraction that allowed her to show her tenderest feelings, which she would otherwise not even admit to her own heart. Marianne clasped his fingers and supported the back of his hand with her own. With tender and cautious attention, she removed the tiny specks and tossed them into the fire, which was quickly becoming more ash than flame. They locked eyes during the whole procedure, not chancing to speak words that would no doubt be inadequate to the ones shared only moments before. "There now." Marianne knotted the silk around his fingerspan. "That should be sufficient."
"The patient has become the doctor, it would seem." He smiled, lips closed and winked at her teasingly.
"You make a far better patient, Colonel." She laughed nervously, not sure of how she should be acting.
Christopher Brandon cupped her cheek in his good hand, his thumb stroking just below her eye. *In my dreams you become real, and forever, you are etched into my mind. . .* he murmured, barely audible. Leaning forward, he planted his mouth to hers, beginning as a timid schoolboy, but then gaining the passion and confidance of one who knew he'd been accepted.
Marianne shut her eyes with dreamy gentleness and tilted her chin upwards. It was inexplicable, This felt right. The correctness of it nearly drove her out of her mind. Only days ago she'd been willing to die for the love of a foolish cad. Now, she found herself sharing an embrace with a man she'd once deemed an emotionless bore. More than simply sharing a kiss, she was enjoying it.
Brandon released her and exited the chair. "Miss Marianne, it is late. . .you must rest." He walked to the doorway, chest heaving, knuckles white. "Until tomorrow. . "
"Until tomorrow," She nodded demurely.
"Goodnight, Miss Marianne." He bowed with dignity and pivoted out the room.
"Goodnight, Colonel. . ." But he was already gone, at least physically. Marianne Dashwood found herself tracing the shape of her lips, searching for the ghost of his kiss.
* * * * * * * * * *
Hope ya'll are satisfied, but that's not the end. . .Marianne hasn't said I love you..-Jessica
The fire was dying, the glowing embers blinking ceremoniously before they sputtered out into shapeless ash. Marianne's dying, faded stars reminded her that love was not always constant, that it paled and flickered out. Such was John Willougby. Marianne rose from her chair, running her hand along the mantle. She sighed and relaxed her shoulders. Dust ghosted over her fingertips when she lifted her hand and stepped away. The room was so dark now, dark and cold. She blew the dust from her skin, seeing a tiny cloud form in the air, then vanish. The room grew dimmer, drafty. Marianne clasped her arms about her chest. She'd not noticed the chill or the dark before the Colonel had left.
Marianne was not about to admit to herself that she was lonely, that Brandon's company had invigorated her in a way that had seemed all but completely alien a short while past. How could she find herself restless and wanting in such a room- a spacious and filled library? The high shelves rose up, filled, to the vaulted ceiling, high enough that Marianne had to crane her neck just to see their tops. But, for once, the literature did not stir her. How could she think of reading, when she now played in a drama so much greater than any she'd ever read? The events of the last few months, even the last few hours were unfathomable.
"The fire is dying down, the stars are guttering. . ." Marianne breathed, her voice crisp on the consonants, a whisper on the vowels. So quiet, but so powerfully she felt her words. In her haste, she'd left the bedroom without a shawl. Her words dropped from her lips with a slight shiver. It had been cold like this, no, numbingly colder the day she'd set out for Combe Magna. Had it only been a handful of days past? Marianne bit down on her bottom lip, promising herself that the tears would not flow. She did not really feel like crying, at least not out of sadness. But, some things, events, were so utterly bittersweet. . .and others so painful and selfish.
She'd once remarked that Willougby had carried as if she weighed little more than a feather, that his manner was impressive, and his looks dashing. His speech eloquent and energized. John Willoughby was all about presentation, how he appeared to others. It was very important to him. Even now, his money, the splendors of wealth and a fine manor home seemed his only comfort. The cad had confessed his unhappiness and his undying love for Marianne to Elinor. He'd come in the night, heaving and frantic-concerned. "Is your sister all right?" But, had that been his real concern? "Will you tell your sister that I am sorry, that my wife made me write the letter?" Yes, it had been all about him in the end. He wanted Marianne to view him still as the Adonis demigod to whom she'd lost her young heart. For all that Marianne knew was true, her emotions were not those of hate or anger in regards to her former love. Regret grew in her breast over what could not be reversed- and not the fact that she would never be Mrs. John Willoughby of Combe Magna and Allenham. She rued her actions, the nails she'd twisted into Brandon's heart. . .a heart she wasn't quite sure she wanted, but one she would, nevertheless endeavor to deserve.
Her mind was muddled, as if she'd sipped too much wine. Sense-something her older sister had in abundance-once again escaped her. The words ran over and over through her head, stirring her heart, frightening and astounding. . ."Marianne, I love you. . ." It clasped her memory as a new melody might, her lips moving to repeat it in silence. Someone loved her beyond all reason, as Abelard loved Heloise, with the emotion as Antony felt for his Egyptian seductress. It was unreal. Not the sweet, playful love she and Willoughby had played at, no, this was deep, darker, and more intense. It was something Marianne was not sure she would ever be able to handle. Yet, it seemed so strong, almost palpable in her hands. Brandon had said the words as Willoughby had only implied. Had Willoughby said the words in his rousing tones would she have quivered as she did now? A giggle, perhaps. Love, true love, was not laughter and daydreams. It went beyond that. Selflessness, humility and honesty, total abandonment of pride. It was powerful enough to scare one, to drive one near mad.
Marianne, beseiged by her own heavy heart, gave a last look to the room, kneeling down to pick up one remaining shard of crystal. Her steps were unhurried to her bedroom, as fleeting thoughts of knocking on Brandon's chamber door whipped through her. The idea was abandoned-what would she say when he pulled the door open, weary, hair mussed and eyes intense but tired? She would not say anything.
Tucking herself under a warm quilt, Marianne stared up at the ceiling. There was little point in sleeping. Rest was not easy for the confounded and distressed. Her thoughts turned to him, as she squeezed her arms about the pillow, her hair spreading like a mermaid's on the water surface. The covers tangled about her legs.
It was safe to call him 'dear friend', "Colonel'. even 'Brandon' sometimes-these addresses held no consequences. The fact that she'd allowed him to kiss her and hold her fingers in his hands held no consequence. No decisions to be made. Her fortress still stood-rocking, but not crumbling.
"Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head,
To work my mind, when body's work's espired;
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,
Looking on darkness which the blind do see;
Save that my soul's imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,
makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo! Thus by day, my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee and for myself, no quiet find."
But, Marianne recalled while her fortress shook. She had returned his kiss.
Brandon plunged his hands into the wash basin, cupping water into his hands and bringing them to his face. Another sleepless night, he realized, watching the sunlight creep in through the bedroom curtains. Now that he thought about it, the Colonel could not recall the last evening when he'd slept peacefully, when he hadn't dreamt of her.
He wrung his hands of the remaining water and slipped a fresh shirt over his head. It was impossible. Last night had NOT happened. It was too unreal. But try as he might, he could not doubt the events of the prior evening. His mind was actively replaying them like some never-ending verse. He'd kissed her, without asking, without any warning or sign of acceptance. And, she'd not pushed him away or screamed. If he dared to entertain the possibility-for it was quite useless to deny it- Marianne Dashwood had actually returned his embrace.
Perhaps it had been the moment, the encroaching darkness mixed with the warmth of the licking fire. The atmosphere could have an amazing influence on two very emotional, deep souls. Such words had passed between them, the tension thick and palpable as granite. How could a kiss have been avoided? They'd been walking a thin line, and knocked off balance by heightened emotions. But, he'd taken such liberties, overstepping the laws of propriety and insulting the one person he cherished above all others. Brandon was ashamed and awestruck at the same time. Ashamed that he'd allowed his impulses to take full control, and awestruck that he'd not been rejected.
It was overwhelming. Suddenly the room was stifling and he could not think. Hurriedly finishing with his dressing, Christopher exited the room, not sure of his destination.
"Colonel Brandon!" Elinor's energetic voice echoed down the winding hardwood corridor. "Good morning!"
"Miss Dashwood," he stuttered, unable to meet her eyes for the first time in his life. What was he to say to her? *Miss Dashwood, it is indeed a fine morning. Last night I insulted your sister. But, yes, a fine morning, indeed. * Instead, he bowed politely and added. "It is good to see you, Miss Dashwood."
Elinor's eyes traveled over the walls, then the vaulted ceiling. She seemed very anxious, not quite herself. As if her smiles were masking some inner conflict.
Brandon took a step towards her, noticing the tension in her words and the tight quality of her smile. Something was worrying her. Perhaps Marianne had shared her news, the occurrences of the last evening. It was not inconceivable. After all, such sisters rarely kept secrets from one another. But, Elinor was upset. That much was evident, no matter how valiantly she'd tried to conceal her emotions. His fear and concern battled in his mind. Did he extend his friendly comfort, or risk an interrogation? The confidante in Brandon won out. He was an honest man and had little reason to fear the consequences of his actions. He advanced a pace in her direction. "Something troubles you?"
"No . . . um . . ." Elinor's hands curled into the fabric of her gown, then up to the stray ringlets of her hair. "I didn't sleep well last night, I'm afraid." Well, it was the truth, although partial. How could she share with him the source of her unrest when he was the very man who'd assisted her dear Edward, allowing him the means to marry Miss Steele? She did not desire that any awkwardness enter into her friendship with the Colonel, so she did not offer a further confession.
"May I help in anyway?" He was unsure of how to cure insomnia, but it seemed the appropriate thing to say.
Yes, this was the Brandon she knew-kind and inhumanly considerate. "Thank you, but I am sure I will be all right." She laughed nervously, "It was only a nightmare. Very childish, really."
"Then I am glad you are well. If I may make a suggestion, Miss Dashwood?" He straightened his cravat, clearing his throat.
"It is very early. I am sure it would go virtually unnoticed if you were to slip in bed for another hour or two in order to get the sleep you so deserve." Brandon smirked, "I would not tell a soul that I had seen you any earlier than nine."
"Thank you, Colonel. I only wish that I could take such liberties. You see, once I am awake, I can not return to bed. It is strangely impossible." How could she rest when her mind was plagued with thoughts of Edward's impending marriage? He haunted her dreams . . .all the kind words they'd shared. Unsure of how to proceed, Elinor added, "Besides, Marianne has already risen. Hours before me, if I remember correctly. I doubt she even went to bed."
He started. "Is your sister all right?"
"Oh yes! She seems to be recovering rather quickly. Almost too quickly for my liking. I believe she's been so happy with her progress that she does not wish to stay any longer in that ╬abominable sickbed'. I only wish she'd take things slower."
Relief washed over Christopher's face, the color returning to his face along with a jovial gleam in his hazel eyes. "She is young. I am sure she will be fine. As I am certain she wishes to be home shortly."
"That must be part of it." Elinor nodded, tucking a rebel lock behind her right ear. It dawned on her that perhaps the Colonel suffered from many the same pains as she did. The lack of sleep, the great feelings of hopeless love. Surely, he had felt such pangs during Marianne's courtship with Willoughby. A fleeting notion to confide in Brandon passed through her mind, but was soon denied. There was no reason for her to subject the Colonel to her miseries. Especially when he had been so selfless as to offer Edward a parish. "Well, my friend, I must be on my way. Marianne has requested that I run an errand for her. She would see to her own matters, if I had not intervened and instructed her to stay inside."
"I will see you at dinner, then, Miss Dashwood." He bowed, and turned in the opposite direction. He made towards the study in order to inspect the condition of the room following the previous night's occupation. It had been dark; he could not be certain he'd picked up all the glass. Faint music poured into his ears, growing to a molten gold as he neared the music room. Christopher halted in his tracks, the heels of his boots causing the rug to bow up. Pressing his body up against the wall, he listened intently. Marianne was playing. Something very plaintive, honest . . .
The door had been left ajar. Cautiously, then with growing resolution, he crept inside, standing right past the threshold. Unnoticed. His attuned ears recognized the melody, so haunting and simple. "Beethoven . . ." he breathed. The world outside of the music room ceased to exist, as if he'd crushed it in his palm and tossed it into the fire. There was only Marianne, only Marianne and the music that oozed so effortlessly from her delicate fingertips. He never wanted the piece to end, never wanted more than to languish in this moment and savor her presence. If he could not hold her, he could cherish her memory, this memory forever.
The notes drifted out, sustained for a mere moment before evaporating into the air. Although it seemed to vanish after it was heard, music was constant, always in his soul. Brandon shut his eyes as the final notes sounded out, barely audible in pianissimo, breathing a prayer that the dear girl might forgive him for his past actions. There was the sound of a book closing, of padding footfalls across the floor. And the feeling of one's breath very near his cheek.
"Colonel Brandon," Marianne's voice was breathy and nervous.
"Miss Marianne, I am sorry to have intruded upon your playing. It was beautiful, and I could not help but listen." He looked down to the ground like a frightened boy, preparing to be chastised for his actions.
Marianne blushed hotly, her dark eyes darting about the room. It occurred to her that she was completely unable to look him straight in the face, scared of what emotions might betray themselves in her own features. "Thank you, Colonel."
He simply nodded, not knowing if he should head for the door or take a seat. "Beethoven, I believe . . ."
"Yes, a new aria, "Ich Liebe Dich". It's a very simply melody, but I find it quite lovely." She ran her hand through her hair quite nervously, then moved to straighten her dress.
"That it is, Miss Marianne." Brandon walked past her and assumed the piano bench. His hands hovered in the air above the smooth ivory keys, yet he did not touch them. "Have you played any of the piano sonatas?"
Marianne was surprised to see the Colonel take to the piano bench. She waited in barely hidden anticipation for him to caress the keys. She'd glimpsed deep inside his soul over the last few days, and knew that if he were to play the instrument, the feeling and skill involved would be exquisite and real. There was something very mysterious about this man who appeared so reserved and silent. It was as if his mind and heart had opened like Pandora's Box-without the consequences of pain and tragedy- that she had pulled the latch of this box almost without knowing she'd done so. It seemed to Marianne that she had never before been so fascinated with another person as she was now with the colonel. Her thoughts and actions were guided attempts of learning more about him, his interests, and the emotions that fueled his soul and resonant words. She'd never known such a complex individual, with so many facets.
"No, I have not played any of Beethoven's sonatas, I must regretfully admit, Colonel. I suppose that I am afraid that my abilities would not be equal to the task." A nervous blush pinked her cheeks, as she realized she had taken more than a few moments to answer his question.
"Miss Marianne, I am sure your skills would be well invested in any composition. What you might consider a challenge would not remain so for very long." He smiled to her very gently, not even parting his lips. It was more a look in his telling hazel eyes.
"Your flattery is far too generous," She advanced to the piano, running her fingertips along the curve of the singer's nook.
"Miss Marianne, I must disagree. My comments do not do justice to your talent. I hope you do not mind my saying so." He set one hand down on the keys with a slow pressure so light that only a peaceful, vibrating hum issued from the instrument.
"No, Colonel. I only wish that I were truly deserving of such praise. I know you will protest otherwise- it is comforting to have such friends."
"I value your friendship very highly. I . . .cannot . . ." he paused, the pads of his nimble fingertips sliding across the treble.
He caught her eyes and held them, the end of his sentence evident in the look that passed between them. "I cannot imagine my life without it."
It was overwhelming, this admonition, so honest and humble. Sweeter words had never soothed her ears nor touched her heart. Marianne Dashwood, for the first time in her life, understood that words or actions were inadequate to express her feelings at this time. She had been moved beyond all reason by a simple sentence, devoid of flourish and impressive rhyme, but resounding with numbing truth. "Colonel Brandon, had it not been for your friendship, I might not be here in this room today." She sat down beside him on the bench, her shoulder brushing his, and shyly blanketed his hand with her own.
Brandon glanced down at the joining of their fingers, forever imprinting the image in his mind.
"You have saved my life in more ways than you know."
"You have saved my life in more ways than you know."
The silence crescendoed in that room, compounded only by the sound of two breathing in the time of one.
"I have only endeavored to be a worthy friend to you, Miss Marianne. I hope that I may continue to be such." He made a movement to rise, but replaced himself on the bench following an insistent squeeze of his hand.
"You never allow a single commendation or accolade to be addressed to you, do you, Colonel?" Marianne had no desire to offend her dear friend, but she could not hide her frustration. Here was a man, the kindest and best she'd ever known, and he could not bear the praise of others, only their condemnation.
"I deserve no more praise than any other friend, Miss Marianne."
"Then, as a friend, you must allow me to think otherwise."
Brandon was silent for a time, his unspoken words weighted with emotion. How to receive such kindness from her was beyond him. In the past, he'd found himself undone by her mere civility. This friendship, it's continuing growth and tenderness, had him quite at a loss as how to react. He wanted nothing more than to speak frankly with her, to share his thoughts, and offer her his protection and trust. And if he were to admit it to himself, his greatest desire was to hold her very tightly, and feel her hair brush across his cheek.
"Will you play for me, then?"
Her sweet request roused him from his reverie. Smiling, he added, "Yes . . .if you will be so good as to sing to my accompaniment."
"It would be my pleasure, Colonel." Marianne dipped her chin in a mock bow. She could not recall the last time she'd felt so at ease with anyone. She had not forced happiness to reveal itself on her face as she had in order to placate others in the past, nor had she censored her words to prevent a minor scandal or scoff. *I may say anything to him. He will be honest and understanding. He has never judged me.* And although he'd said it so passionately only a night past, the revelation was just gripping Marianne's mind and soul. *He loves me.* A warm flush enveloped her cheeks and her pulse began to quicken. How amazingly satisfying it was to be sure of one's regard and sincere affection!
"Is there a certain aria you favor?" His hands stroked the keys with a sliding pressure, a small vibration of clear sound resulting from his touch.
"Shall we attempt a bit of Mozart?" She smiled brightly, footing herself solidly to the floor.
"If you like." He searched the stacks to the side of the piano, and after removing the top three or four leafs, he came upon a score of Mozart's "Voi Che Sepate". He offered it to his companion who took it with an enthusiastic nod of satisfaction.
"I had hoped you would find this one." After thumbing through it, to assure she knew the lyric, Marianne handed it back to her doting accompanist.
Brandon opened the score and straightened it across the piano's bridge. Poised, hands relaxing in the air above the keys, he looked to her, making the eye contact that was so necessary between the singer and the pianist. Wordlessly, they began.
The Colonel's touch was light and precise as he tackled the ornamented aria. His fingertips barely touched the ivory as the notes and runs trickled out in perfect balance with Marianne's delicate but dexterous soprano. Memories stirred his soul as her voice oozed mellifluously through his ears, weaving a song of sweet love and renewed innocence. The first time he'd heard her play, saying nothing, only listening as the ghosts of his youth rushed through his mind, only to be replaced by the image of this enchanting girl with whom he'd not yet shared a word. He'd never predicted that she would stay, that her place in his heart, the indelible brightness she'd caused within his soul, would never again be occupied by another, dead or living.
It was the same to listen to her now as to recall the memories they'd already formed. Even if he did not avert his gaze to watch her animated features, the relaxed ╬O' of her lips; he could still conjure, with perfect clarity, the radiant smile, the light in her dark eyes, seeming to emanate from a candle within.
Marianne's voice flew over the difficult runs with careful ease, a tone of playful joy in her head voice. She was thankful to know the lyric, for she would have found it hard to concentrate on anything but the movement of her accompanist's hands, his flawless technique. Her eyes followed his slightly curving fingers, the subtle lean he made towards the keyboard, and the gentle way his lips pressed together in a focused halfsmile. There was something very bewitching about this music, this particular moment. If only Marianne could give free reign to her feelings. They welled up in her like a star near bursting, so brilliant and warm that her cheeks colored. Too soon, it was finished. Voice cut out as the piano resolved in the last major chords.
Silently, Marianne advanced to the piano bench, her hand shaking in the air above the Colonel's shoulder. Before she'd made a move to set her fingers down, Brandon turned, not smiling, not frowning. Yet, she could read his face, the unspoken satisfaction and happiness that would not be made inadequate by a simple smile. Nervously, she stuttered-which was something she had never done-"Colonel Brandon, you play extremely well."
He nodded modestly and extended his palm; "My playing would be nothing save your beautiful vocal skills, Miss Marianne." He gestured to her with that palm and rose from the bench.
"You are too kind, sir." She curtsied.
"Then, as a friend you must allow me to be so." He grinned and winked. He took a step or two towards the open door, then turned back to her. "Miss Marianne, if you would like . . ." Christopher paused, forming his question. "Would you do me the honor of a stroll among the grounds?"
That inescapable light resurfaced on her cream features. "My good sir, I would be delighted." Without a moment's hesitation, she took his arm.
"The grounds are lovely this morning." Marianne's eyes roved over the lush landscape, settling on grass dunes and the outstretched branches of ancient oaks. Her voice was unsteady and she found she could not quite meet his eyes. In short, Marianne found herself to be quite nervous. It was not a small event in her mind that they were walking together, her fingers curled comfortably about the Colonel's arm. Six months ago she would never have imagined it. Or if the idea had been proposed, the old Marianne Dashwood might have either laughed at the ludicrous suggestion or turned her nose up in disgust. But, now, although she could not begin to explain it, her lips formed a slight smile of satisfaction, as if it were very natural that she should be strolling along a tiny lake with this man.
Brandon turned to her, silent for a moment, unspoken satisfaction revealing itself in his eyes. After inhaling in a relaxed manner, he answered her. "Yes, Miss Marianne, the day could not be finer." Whenever he spoke it was as if his voice was a violin, his lips- the bow caressing the strings of language- smooth, languid and warm.
To the young lady, that voice had become nothing less than incredible, as if she might simply hold its volume between her hands to listen to it whenever she felt the desire. Marianne gazed down at the water in front of her. How still it was to her, not a ripple, just as if it were fine crystal, the sun catching on its surface and beaming down towards her feet. Yes, the day could not have been finer. It had been nearly two weeks since her last venture outdoors, and she vowed she would never again let one day go by- with the exception of threatening weather- without taking a little time to appreciate a flowerbud or shard of grass.
"Would you like to sit down, Miss Marianne?" Brandon gestured to a nearby stone bench located on the right side of the pond. "After all, I believe this to be the perfect spot at which to take in the beauty of Cleveland. Also, we have come quite a distance from the house. You should, perhaps, rest?"
"Of course," Marianne sat down on the stone and relaxed her shoulders. It did feel good to sit. Her legs were tired and still a bit wobbly. Following some exertion, she often had the sensation of a sailor stepping on land after months at sea. The two companions shared an understanding look before the Colonel soon placed himself on the bench beside her.
"Miss Marianne, about the other evening . . .there is something I wish to say . . ." Christopher's gaze was steady, the anxiety he felt found a release as he clenched the edge of the bench.
"Miss Marianne, about the other evening . . .there is something I wish to say . . ." Christopher's gaze was steady, the anxiety he felt found a release as he clenched the edge of the bench.
Marianne tensed, the well-formed muscles of her slim back tightening in expectation. It was not quite the feeling of awaiting the guillotine, as she might have thought several months past, but one of curiosity that would not be easily quelled. "Then, sir, please say it."
He reached for her hand, seeking the reassuring refuge of her fingers, and hoping she would not rebuke him. When her hand curled inside of his, he had the strength to speak. "I only wish to apologize for my actions against you yesterday evening. I was out of myself, and chose only to act on my own desires, not taking into consideration your best interests."
The dear girl rose from her seat on the bench, to face the repentant colonel face to face. "Colonel Brandon, I will not stay to listen to unnecessary and offensive apologies!"
"Offensive, Marianne, Why I had no intention of offending you!" Brandon stood up beside her, running his hands through his hair because it seemed the only thing he had any control over was his body. Certainly not his mind or voice. It would be madness to remain still, staring dumbly at her with nothing but unintelligible sound spouting from his lips.
"To say that you regret acting upon your emotions is just as if you were to say that my very presence disgusts you!"
"Quite the contrary, Miss Marianne. Your presence is dearer to me than any other, nothing you would do could ever disgust me!" He paused, catching himself in the dark, bewitching depth of her eyes. "It is only my own behavior that is revolting . . ."
"And, to that, I must disagree, for I have all reason to admire you, to enjoy your company, to care very deeply for you, and to . . ."
"Marianne, you are too kind and complimentary. I do not deserve your flattery." He had cut her off during that sweet tirade, afraid of what she might have said. Words could be mountains at times, wonderful to behold, but impossible to fathom their greatness. And there were mountains Brandon was unsure he could climb.
"Anything I have said has been an understatement, Colonel. If I say that I admire you, let it then be known that I think more highly, that I respect you more than any other individual I have had the pleasure to know." She advanced toward the bank of the lake, but did not yet step into the pliant mud that might cake her satin slippers. "If I have said I enjoy your company, then you must surmise that spending time with you brings me great joy and stimulating conversation." Another pace towards the little pond, Marianne turned her back to Brandon, her shoulders rising with her heaves. Brandon did not dare to open his mouth and protest, finally realizing that it was best to listen. Listen, believe, and understand Ď it was all she asked. And, he had always desired to please her. There was a long silence, weighted with their rhythmic breathing, before she continued, her voice laden with a power it could not hold.
"And, finally, Colonel- no Brandon- if I have declared that I care very deeply for you, then you must believe that . . .you must believe . . ." She could not finish, and shut her eyes on fresh tears. If she were to speak the words, they would no longer be impossible, but have weight and time, existence. Consequence.
If it were possible, the silence between them crescendoed. There was nothing that need be said further, at least not with words. But, Marianne helplessly swam through propriety- something she had little practice at- in an effort to recover her dignity. "Colonel, if I say that I care very deeply for-"
Brandon, unable to bear whatever milestone she might toss in his direction was unwilling to allow her to continue with this rash tirade. "Miss Marianne." Now, they were both drowning, for the Colonel, so gifted in strategy and such a support to his friends, found himself anchorless in the tide of emotions raging between them. And, although he had never done so on the battlefield, he knew for certain, that in every man's life there came a time to . . .surrender.
Which is exactly what he did.
Catching the small circle of her white wrist, Brandon brought Marianne to him. The embarassed girl had turned in the direction of the house, possibly to the sanctuary of the music room so she might escape in some mournful aria. When Brandon had grasped her arm, she started and jerked around to face him, her dark eyes burning with an emotion quite unreadable. Surprise, sadness, hope, and-
"Miss Marianne, I now see that I must discuss with you the subject. . .the questions which have plagued my mind since you recovered. No, since I first heard you sing at Barton all those months past."
"Colonel Brandon," Marianne locked her gaze with his, as color slowly returned to her face, and composure to her body. "Please, speak."
For a moment, he simply looked at her, amazed as if it had been the first time he'd done so. Her redhair crowned her face so well, the gentle curve of her neck as it met with her chin, the brightness that shown in her eyes and smile. No, he could never have imagined her, nor could he ever dream her as wonderfully complex as she was.
"It is no secret that I love you. . .and it never was. I have loved you as long as the moment I stepped into that drawing room at Barton, Marianne."
At this, her face flushed as cherries on porcelain. His voice was pulling her in, his eyes closing tightly around her to shut her in his mind.
"I had never hoped, had forced myself to regard you as I only dreamed you would regard me. As a dear friend. And, a dearer friend I could not ask for." He squeezed her hand, fascinated with the smooth warmth of her palm. "But, my heart has always held more sway than my head, Marianne. I could not deny my feelings, but only hold them in check and wish for your happiness." Here, he paused, his eyes straying from her only momentarily to reflect over the past as he glanced over the rush covered earth. "I will not resurrect the past. I have too much respect for you, for what you have suffered. I ask only this, and this is all I shall ever ask you, Miss Marianne." He bent down on one knee, scarcely believing he could still breathe, and confidant that he held her full attention. "Marianne, I've never desired anything more than your happiness, and I would endeavor to please you all the days of my life. You know that you could never doubt my love or my trust. My dearest, you must know the question. . .Will you do me the honour of becoming my wife, Marianne?"
"I only wish, Colonel, that I could give you more." Marianne swiped at fresh tears with her free hand, and knelt down by Brandon. "I will marry you, Brandon. Not because you are good and kind, loyal or trustworthy. I might find all that in a friend. Not because you are handsome and wealthy. But, because you have shown me the kind of love that I might only endeavor to give through your every action. But, it is that love which I endeavor to return."
Not wasting that moment- for they would both imprint it in their souls to return to on a rainswept day- Christopher Brandon took her cheeks in his palms and touched his lips with hers. It had not been the first time, but now he might be certain, it would not be the last.
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