"Frederick, I'm so pleased you chose to come to Bath!" Sophy told her brother happily. "I was becoming quite distracted by the thought of you languishing down in Shropshire so many weeks."
Sitting on the very comfortable sofa beside her was her husband, the Admiral. He enjoyed spending time in the cozy library with his wife. And now that Frederick had joined them, all was complete. "Do not hound him so, Sophy. Consider the ordeal he had just been through. I should wonder that he made it to Bath at all."
Sitting across from them in a leather armchair, Frederick regarded his brother-in-law with affection. The Admiral, crusty as he might be at times, was a blessing in his life. Sophy could not have married a better man. "No, allow her fair time, Admiral. I have not seen her these last six weeks and I deserve some raking over the coals. She would not be my sister if she did not tell me exactly what she thought of me."
Their combined laughter greeted the servant that entered with the tea tray. The tray was set on a sturdy table and Sophy immediately went to start pouring. "The weather has been a sad business, but we manage," Sophy told her brother. "We continually bump into someone that we know on the street, in the park, in the rooms, you know. The Admiral must have friends in all the corners of the world."
"Aye, that's the result of being a sailor," her husband chimed in. "Any man in a naval uniform is a friend, so it would seem. I was just remarking on the matter to Miss Anne the other day when I chanced to meet with her."
Frederick nearly dropped the small porcelain cup his sister had just handed him. Anne. Already news of her! This was fortunate for him. "You saw Miss Elliot, Admiral?" he asked, striving to keep his voice as normal as possible.
Before he could reply, Sophy explained, "We see her often, Frederick. She is wont to keep active, as we are. I have to tell you, she looks much improved. I think the air at Lyme quite transformed her. Although I should have always liked her regardless. She kept the Admiral amused while I was looking at some material I had found for a gown."
The Admiral took his cup and nodded. "Aye, a right trooper she is to bear me off. And I told her all about Captain Benwick and Louisa. You may call me a gossip, dear Sophy, but I took a keen pleasure in watching her delicate chin drop in surprise. It had the same effect on me!"
Frederick's thoughts were fast and furious. Was Anne happy that he was not to marry Louisa? How he wished he had been a witness to her surprise!
Sophy chuckled, giving her husband a wise look. "That she should choose James Benwick over Frederick! The very notion still makes my head spin. Ah, well, I hope your feelings are still reflective of those in your letter. You do not regret the engagement, do you, Frederick?"
If only she knew how much, Frederick thought wryly. "Not at all, Sophy. I hope the match is indeed a happy one, despite the fact that I still marvel at it. Benwick was very attached to Phoebe Harville and she had only been gone a short time. For him to attach himself to Louisa so soon. I should but wonder at his character in light of his recent actions."
"No doubt they fell in love over poetry," the Admiral surmised sagely. "Or so I told Miss Anne, who agreed with me heartily. I must say I like that young lady. Very much so. We first saw her in the Assembly rooms and she greeted us so warmly. She's not like her rather imperious father a'tall."
Frederick remarked truthfully, "No, she is not. She is totally free of the airs and pride that her father and sister exhibit. It still amazes me that she has remained untarnished by it after so much time."
Sophy looked at her brother sharply, surprised. "I say, Frederick, I did not have the notion that you knew her so intimately. But I suppose you came to do so at Lyme. Mrs. Musgrove, whom we saw yesterday, told me what a great help Anne was to them after Louisa's accident. A very calming presence."
The Admiral, grinning, commented, "I cannot but wonder that she remains unwed, Sophy. Such a gentle spirit and mild countenance. Perhaps Frederick here can scare up one of us fellow officers to pay court to her. She would make an excellent sailor's wife with a steady temperament such as hers."
Frederick did not reply but he felt the strength of the Admiral's remark. Anne had been in town a month now. Had she attracted many admirers? He knew how very fetching she had come to look and had no doubt that she did. When would he see her? Should he call at Sir Walter's? No, no, that would not do. Not after his history with the family. Perhaps she was at the Musgroves, who had just come up to town. She was their favorite person, he knew. Yes, that was where he would begin after he went to call on a few of his friends.
"Frederick, you have nearly spilt your tea, do pay attention," Sophy chided gently. "I do not know where your mind is."
Soon after Frederick collected his new umbrella and gloves and headed into town. Major Devon and his wife, Amelia, had invited him to dinner and he wanted to stop in at Molland's to purchase a gift for his hostess. He knew how she enjoyed chocolates and decided to step inside as it had started raining.
The shop was nigh full to bursting with people as he entered. No doubt all the fashionable guests of Bath were trying to outsit the rain indoors. He would not be in Bath at all if not for Sophy and for Anne. The place was full of people who only wanted to rise another rung on the social ladder. The constant game of dropping names was a tiresome business he avoided.
"Good day, Captain Wentworth," a soft, gentle voice near him spoke. Anne, he thought immediately, it could only be Anne. So soon!
Looking to the right, his eyes found her. A rush of joy and delight filled his heart. Yes, it was his Anne. She was wearing a becoming afternoon gown with a matching bonnet, her small face upturned to look at him. Sophy had been right. She looked blooming and pretty, a picture of good health and happiness. Could it have been six weeks since he had seen her? It seemed a lifetime.
For a moment, speech escaped him as he faced her. She was looking up at him with enquiring dark eyes, expectant. For once, Frederick felt absolutely tongue-tied in her presence. What should he say? There were so many things he wished to tell her, to explain. Dear Anne, if only we were alone, he thought desperately.
"Miss Elliot!" he finally said, a smile sweeping away the blank surprise on his face. "It is indeed a pleasure to meet with you again."
A pleasing flush softened her features yet more and she smiled up at him. To have that gentle, glowing smile turned on him was powerful indeed, he thought. Did she know how lovely she was to him, how unchanged? "You are...come to Bath, Captain?" she asked.
"Oh yes," he murmured unconsciously, his eyes unable to leave her face. Then a sound from nearby caught his attention. Her sister and companion were sitting nearby. Cold-faced and unsmiling as usual, he thought. Poor Anne. No wonder she was so happy to see him. Being in that paragon's presence would strike anyone full of an icy chill. I would protect you from her always, he thought.
"Do you like it so far?" Anne asked him quietly. She had obviously seen her sister's cold reaction to his presence and was trying to assure him that her feelings were not her sister's. It warmed his heart that she wanted to apologize for Elizabeth's ill breeding.
"I have seen little of it so far," he heard himself remarking baldly. "Your family...they are in health?"
She smiled warmly and nodded. "Yes, Captain, they are in good health. Thank you for inquiring after them."
Once again, Frederick felt it difficult to speak. She was beguiling him with her smile and her gentle questions. She grew more beautiful and winsome every time he saw her, he thought numbly. Surely the rest of Bath could see what was so obvious to himself. "And you...you are in health...I trust?"
This question seemed to amuse her and she chuckled as she answered, "Yes, Captain, I am quite well."
The little minx was laughing at his apparent unease, Frederick thought with affection. And so she should. In the last months, he had regarded her with so little interest. They had hardly exchanged a handful of words. Now he was utterly captivated by her. His usual polished manners lay in tatters under her calming influence. How he wished they might speak privately.
Just then a footmen entered the shop and announced, "Lady Dalyrmple's carriage for the Miss Elliots!" Elizabeth rose almost regally from her seat and made her way to the front of the store with her companion. But Anne stayed exactly as she was, looking to him expectantly.
"You are not going with them?" he asked curiously. Surely she would ride in the carriage with her sister.
"Oh no, there is not room," she explained, flushing a little. Was she remembering another gig that had seemed too cramped for her, he thought with warmth. "I shall walk instead. Truly, I should prefer it."
You would say that, Frederick thought fondly. Always thinking of someone other than yourself. I would walk with you for miles in the rain, just to keep you safe and warm. The thought of her walking unescorted in this dreary weather angered him. Was she always to be swept aside in her family's quest for importance, he thought. At least he could do something for her in this respect. "Although I have only just come to Bath," he told her in a low, warm voice. "I am armed for its inclement conditions. Please, take my umbrella. I cannot allow you to leave here without some protection from the elements."
Her small, gloved hand reached out as he offered it to her. Her fingers nearly brushed his as she took it and their eyes met. Let me walk you home, Anne, he silently pleaded. Do you know how greatly I wish to talk to you? How much I long to tell you how much I need you in my life? Forgive me for not valuing you, for not knowing what a treasure you truly are!
His very fingers itched to reach down the fraction of an inch and twine her small fingers with his. To warm them and enfold them, to pull her into his arms, to have her dark head against his chest. He loved her. More now than he ever had in the past. The strength of it filled his being until it nearly shouted from his soul. This woman held his heart totally in her hands. Could she not see that?
Her own eyes seemed to fill her small face as they stood there, somehow suspended in time from the rest of the room. She seemed as tongue tied now as he had been. Could she see, he wondered.
"Little one, tell me I am not too late," he thought desperately.
Then a voice intruded and the spell was broken. "Ah, I am sorry to have kept you waiting, Anne. But it could not be helped."
Turning slowly, Frederick caught sight of a face he knew all too well. It was the man they had passed on the beach at Lyme, Anne's ardent admirer, Mr. Elliot. Only now he was regarding her with the warm affection of a man who was regarded as a close friend.
"The rain has eased so I think I is safe for us to depart," Mr. Elliot continued with a smile, offering his arm to Anne. "Let us be off, shall we?"
Frederick felt a wave of jealousy pour over him. It was clear yet again how much this man admired Anne. Now he was speaking to her as if they were more than mere cousins. No, that lingering gaze was all too clear. He meant to marry Anne. That much was apparent to anyone watching.
Anne turned to Frederick, a lingering look in those dark eyes. Something was there that he had not seen in them since his return. It spoke to him, called out to him to be answered. But it vanished as she handed his umbrella back to him. "Thank you, Captain," she murmured so low he barely heard it. "But I must go now."
Frederick's eyes fell from her as she turned to go, the sound of Mr. Elliot's banter in his ears. He watched as they left the store and headed down the street, their arms linked. Helpless, Frederick felt his resentment to this man taking on new depths. How dare he think that Anne was his property! She did not belong to him. No, she did not!
But as Frederick stood in the window, hardly seeing the people passing by, he realized that the man had every right to court Anne. She was lovely, indeed. Intelligent. Kind. Gentle. And his cousin. Yes, it was all too clear how the attachment could have easily taken place. And no doubt Lady Russell would approve of the match. Mr. Elliot had money and connections. It was no wonder he was hoping to win her. The odds were heavily in his favor.
What were Anne's feelings, he thought blindly. Did she care for this man? Did his obvious town polish and style attract her? Did she enjoy his company? After being snubbed by Frederick for weeks, had she decided that she must move on with her life and forget him?
He reviewed her actions. She had spoken to him first. That was not Anne's usual style, not in line with her usually quiet nature. She had smiled at him and appeared pleased to see him again. She had even blushed! Perhaps it was not all a hopeless case, he thought. Maybe there is something here yet to be salvaged. I cannot give up just yet.
"Miss Anne Elliot is a lovely girl," a woman nearby remarked. "And there is Mr. Elliot with her, the cousin and heir to the estate. I hear he half lives with the family. He's there every day."
Her friend nodded, as if knowing all the facts of the case. "One can guess what will happen there. They say he is the most charming man. Miss Crewe told me he attended a dinner party she was at and he was quite the nicest gentleman she had ever met."
"I wish Miss Anne happy," the woman spoke fondly. "And I think she will find it with Mr. Elliot."
Frederick could listen no more and soon exited the shop without the box of sweets he had been seeking. His mind was in torment and he needed some relief. Thank heaven Harville was staying at the White Hart. Perhaps his old friend could provide him with some advice.
If only he knew what Anne were thinking....
Captain Harville, perusing a fine spyglass, spoke without looking up. His voice was so low only Frederick could hear it in the small shop.
"Suppose you come clean with me, Frederick. You did not wrest me from the Musgroves to go shopping, now, did you?"
If he were not in such a state of inner turmoil, Frederick would have laughed out loud at his old friend's sixth sense. Instead, he merely bowed his head briefly and replied in an equally quiet tone, "You should have remained in India, Harville, and pursued a career as a fakir. Have I ever been able to conceal anything from you? Do name the occasion and I shall still doubt you."
Harville lowered the spyglass onto its velvet bed and grinned sardonically. "Perhaps you are right. Being one of your oldest friends, it is not so difficult. However, even with my visionary gifts I could not have pictured the both of us doing the fancy in Bath."
They left the shop and decided to retire to a tavern that they both favored. The gray, dismal sky above them made it a wise decision. And because Harville could not walk far due to his wounded leg, a glass or two of beer would suit him nicely just now. Ensconced in a quiet corner near the fire, Frederick hardly knew where to start. But Harville did not intend to be silent for long.
"Are you brooding over Benwick's engagement to Louisa?" he asked carefully, not wanting to seem out of line. Benwick had nearly been his own brother-in-law. "You have hardly spoken of it."
"I wish them every happiness," Frederick assured him heartily. "I pursued Louisa stupidly, and did not truly know what I was about. I can only say I have had a lucky escape. I did not love her as surely Benwick seems to do."
Frederick paused, measuring his words. The engagement had its own source of mystery to it for Harville. Benwick has seemed utterly devastated by Phoebe's death. Yet only months later, he had asked Louisa to marry him. His sister's memory seemed utterly gone.
"It is I who wonder about you, Harville," Frederick remarked, taking a sip of beer. "Phoebe was a wonderful, loving woman. Benwick was fortunate to have her love. Does it wound you to know that he has...seemingly forgotten that now?"
Smiling faintly, Harville told him, "I admit it took me quite aback when I first heard of it. I had seen them together often enough, their heads bowed over some book of his. I have to report she looked decidedly attentive. But I saw no harm. Had he not done the same with Miss Anne? And yet they never approached the altar."
Frederick remembered Anne's intimacy with the Captain all too well. Was she wounded by the engagement? Did she have affection for Captain Benwick? It was something he had not considered until now. Mr. Elliot was Frederick's keenest rival.
"Twas' Miss Anne who got the poor lad living again," Harville was saying as he nursed his half-full glass. "He was in a sorry state, as you know. So I was not utterly desolate when his engagement to Louisa came about. Still, being here as the fuss of the preparations takes place...it is unsettling at times. I have yet to send his picture to the framemaker's to be reset for his beloved."
They enjoyed a companionable silence. The subject they were discussing was a weighty one and must not be rushed. The two men had experienced every sort of hardship and trial together aboard the Laconia. Each knew when it was appropriate to speak and when to keep silent. That was the blessing of friendship and shared experiences.
"Frederick, I must ask you," Harville began uncertainly. "Is it Miss Anne's presence that has brought you to Bath? For I can think of no other. Have your feelings concerning her altered?"
Frederick drained his glass and set it on the table a little too firmly. He had not often spoken of his past romance with Anne to Harville. But during a nearly fatal storm, when there had only been time and darkness to keep them company, Frederick had told him of the only woman he had ever loved. Harville, in fact, was the only person aside from Edward who had any inkling of what the past weeks had been like for him.
"She is," he finally answered, a low, heaviness to his voice. "I cannot rest...until I know everything. She is still the loveliest, wisest, most adorable woman I have had the opportunity to know, Harville. She is the only object in my heart and mind these days. In my eyes, she has no equal."
Harville simply nodded in acknowledgment, looking away. He had suspected as much since Frederick had left Lyme upon learning Louisa would survive. While the events on the Cobb had been swift and dramatic, Harville had seen how quickly Anne had organized everything and calmly handled it. The timid creature had vanished to leave behind a capable, courageous young woman. It was little wonder Frederick had come to see how truly special Anne was in light of such events.
"I have heard talk of her cousin, Frederick," Harville finally spoke, lighting his pipe as he did so. "Everyone says they are as good as engaged. He's at Camden Place nearly every day. And on excellent terms with Anne's father. Is that what is blue-deviling you so now?"
Frederick nodded briefly, his dark eyes stormy. "I saw them only this morning at Molland's. She was alone at first, came to talk to me. So unlike her, Harville, to do so! And yet she did. Her face...Lord, how can I forget how sweet and glowing it was? I was like a raw schoolboy in his salad days, hardly able to utter even the simplest pleasantries. She must have thought me demented."
He paused, the memory of it still vivid to him. "She has always been a small woman, Harville. Seemingly made of porcelain, so delicate is she. And yet she renders me a babbling idiot by merely smiling a me."
Chuckling at the picture his friend painted, Harville drew on his pipe and blew a smoke ring above his head. It floated up to the ceiling to mingle with the smoke coming from other tables round them. "I can warrant she did not think you a total candidate for an asylum, Frederick. Miss Anne is a wise judge of character, it seems, although I cannot claim to know her as you do. Did she remain?"
"We spoke, but I can hardly recount it," Frederick admitted, leaning back in his chair. "I was mesmerized by her, Frederick. Those dark eyes that I once cursed for haunting my dreams when we were at sea. They were staring up at me, full of the same gentle warmth that had been there when we first...loved. As if time had never separated us. There are limits...to a man's ability to remain composed."
Ah, so that was how it was, Harville surmised silently. Anne had flummoxed his friend, indeed. "So you are no longer angry at her, wishing her far from you? This is a decided turn in your stance, Frederick."
"It was foolish of me to hold onto my resentment for so long," Frederick groaned, rubbing his forehead in frustration. "But I was blind indeed. There she was, thrown in my company nearly every day at Uppercross and then at Lyme. But I nourished my sense of pride, my conviction that she had been weak, persuaded against me. I wasted my opportunity to renew our friendship, to discover what had happened while I was gone. Stupid fool!"
Harville did not speak immediately. He had often wondered at Frederick's sustained anger at his former fiancee. Upon meeting Anne himself, Harville had only felt a sense of pity for her amid his pleasure that she had managed to reanimate Benwick again. She seemed a quiet, intelligent, caring woman. Well suited for his friend. Why did Frederick refuse to allow it, he had asked himself. But now the truth was revealed and Frederick's blinders had been withdrawn. He saw now what all of Bath saw at once.
"What am I to do, Harville?" he asked his friend at last, eyes watching the smoke rings his friend was creating. "I hardly know what she must think of me now. After the way I have treated her, she must surely think me a true fool. And her dashed cousin is constantly at her side now. Surely she will listen to her family, her friends, and agree to marry him."
Harville put down his pipe for a moment as the barmaid took his now empty glass away. He regarded Frederick with the decided honesty that Frederick so admired in him. "You are a sailor, Frederick. You and I are both aware that the truth is not always as it seems. One moment the sky can appear cloudless. The sea is calm as that of the water of a bathtub. Everything indicates smooth sailing. And yet in a matter of moments, you may be plunged into the heart of a deadly typhoon. Have we not seen it happen before?"
Frederick did not speak so Harville felt he might continue. "You refer to your charts, to the stars, to those articles which are fixed. You consult your wisdom, your knowledge of past events, to guide you. So you must in this case. Anne did not marry while you were at sea, an action she had ample opportunity to make. That must be accounted to be worth something. And she did not repulse you at Molland's. In fact, she spoke to you quite freely. Perhaps her cousin does pursue her, that does not mean she will accept him."
Frederick turned his words over in his mind carefully. He always listened to Harville's advice with great attention. It was always just. But his own doubts clouded the issue. Anne had been persuaded by Lady Russell in the past to abide by duty, not her own feelings. She had surrendered to someone else's judgment regarding his prospects. She had not followed her own feelings. Would it happen again? Would she marry in order to ensure her family's happiness? To please them?
"She is wont to please others rather than herself, Harville," he said at last. "It is a past indication of her character. It would not be a surprise to see her accept his petition with favor. He is a man of fashion, of wealth, of manners."
"I am certain her family would have been pleased enough had she married Charles Musgrove," Harville countered strongly. "Yet she turned down his proposal. What is to stop her from saying "no" to another man? You must look to the high road, Frederick, and not allow grim thoughts to rob you. Take the next days to witness her in public, to see her interacting with the Musgroves. They adore her and for good reason. Take heart in knowing that she is not apt to make a sudden decision. Use this time wisely to talk with her, to gain an understanding of the woman she has now become."
Harville paused, gladly accepting the glass of ale brought to him. "I am not book clever as Benwick is, Frederick. I know my shortcomings. But having been a married man for some time, I have learned a lesson or two on women's feelings. Their feelings...they are fragile at times. Have I not witnessed the depth and scope of my own Margaret's emotions? And been puzzled many a day."
He paused, deadly serious now. "But I know how Phoebe loved Benwick. She never faltered in her love for him although they were apart for months. True, women's constancy is an issue I have long debated. As have our greatest authors and poets. So I am in good company there. But in Phoebe it was very real. Could it not be so for Anne?"
Suddenly the image of Anne's room came to Frederick's mind. Its quiet solitude and the aroma of freesia. The sight of their sketch hanging in a treasured spot on the wall. His own books tidily wrapped and expressly requested to be sent to her. Did she have them in her possession now? Did her fingers linger over the edges of a simple, faded boat made out of paper?
The intensity of the memory of it caused him to nearly close his eyes.
Perhaps Harville was right after all. Perhaps Anne had grown stronger and passionate in her views and would nor marry Mr. Elliot simply to please others.
What did she feel toward the dashing young heir? Did she enjoy walking about on his arm through Bath? Did he make her laugh? Did they discuss current events and topics of the day? It was the one mystery that Frederick had not the slightest indication of one way or another.
The reappearance of the barmaid with a full glass for him interrupted his reverie abruptly. Sighing, he regarded his old friend with a mixture of gratitude and admiration in his gaze. "I do not think I was too far off target with my earlier estimation of your clairvoyant powers, Harville. What do I not owe you for your friendship? I am yours to command."
Harville, setting down his pipe, accepted the compliment with mocking grace. "You shall do me a kindness in keeping me from being dragged to the milliner's shops that line these fair streets, Frederick. That is a kindness that I should consider highly advantageous."
Pausing, his tone and demeanor took on a more serious, hopeful aspect. "I can only wish that if my offices to you are of any help, they will assure you the final winning of the woman you love. I know I should not do without Margaret's love. I should wish such a devotion, such a safe harbor, for yourself, Frederick."
Toasting his friend silently with his glass, Frederick only nodded. It would take time to unravel this mystery. But he knew if he were to rekindle his romance with Anne after nearly nine years, it would take courage and every bit of strength he had to win her.
"Wait for me, little one," he thought urgently, remembering the painful sight of her walking away with Mr. Elliot. "Give me yet another chance."
Some days later Frederick and Harville chose to go driving about the country round Bath. Because of Harville's wounded leg, riding was not an option. Neither man was greatly interested in town fripperies. But later Harville casually mentioned that Anne would be visiting the Musgroves that afternoon. Frederick had every intention of being present at that visit.
As they neared the White Hart, Harville leaned heavily on his cane. "I should be glad to sit down for a time. My leg has been troubling me today, I fear," he confided in his friend. "Perhaps old age has finally begun to set in."
"I hope we may have the opportunity to enjoy a long visit with our Uppercross friends," Frederick assured Harville. "However, if you find that Henrietta is pressing you too much into looking at pattern books, you have only to look in my direction for an immediate rescue."
Chuckling, Harville gladly entered the inn. "You are a true friend, Frederick. Now give patience to me as we mount these stairs. I still find them a trial to negotiate."
Once upstairs, they were eagerly admitted by the Musgrove ladies. Frederick's dark eyes scanned the room for Anne but did not find her within. Disappointment washed over him. Where was she, he wondered desolately. Was she riding out with her fair cousin? The very thought galled him to the core.
Henrietta, sitting at a table with her mother, smiled at them in greeting. "So good of you to visit us this morning. Charles should be with us presently. He has been raving about a capital gun he is to see soon. And Anne promised to stop in as well. She had a morning call to make on a dear friend of hers, I believe."
As Frederick sat down, Mrs. Musgrove took up some needlework. "Is it the Widow Smith she visits? Poor lamb, that one. To be left a widow at such a young age as she. I reckon she truly looks forward to Miss Anne's visits."
Frederick tried to think if he had ever heard Anne talk of Mrs. Smith. Yes, now he recalled the name. She had been a school fellow of Anne's during her unhappy years in Bath. Mrs. Smith had been her dearest friend. That Anne should have resumed the connection upon her return to the city was only further proof of her goodness. He was relieved to hear that she kept company with her and not her cousin.
"I do not like to carry gossip, but Mary says Sir Walter is quite put out by Anne's visits to Westgate Buildings, where Mrs. Smith resides," Henrietta remarked in a low voice. "He thinks a widow with no surname of dignity or wealth is beneath Anne's notice. Mary said, however, that Anne quite set him on his ear by refusing to cease her visits. It was most unlike her to speak so strongly, is it not?."
Mrs. Musgrove did not seem surprised. "Miss Anne would never desert a true friend. She was a strong shoulder to me when your dear sister was ill, Henrietta. I do not think even her Papa could stand in her way of comforting someone as poorly in health as Mrs. Smith. Poor dear cannot walk an inch without the help of her nurse, they tell me."
Henrietta nodded, opening a book of ribbon samples to look over. "Well, Anne certainly took Sir Walter by storm. Mary says that she did not accompany them to a very important tea at their cousins, the Dalrymples, because she had promised a long coze with her school friend. Imagine! I believe I should have done the same. What is all the fuss over the Dalrymples? That Carteret girl is no more a beauty than Charles' best hunter!"
She started to laugh at her own words and Mrs. Musgrove could not help but join in their laughter. Frederick marveled at this news. Anne had stood up to her father. In the past, she had always deferred to him in everything. Could she have changed in her stance? He could hardly grasp it. Perhaps there was yet more reason to hope she might receive his affection again!
Just then a gentle knock came at the door and in walked the very object of his thoughts. Frederick held his breath as he watched her enter. Her cheeks were rosy from the wind and she looked utterly charming in a warm gown of cherry merino. She rarely wore rich colors and yet they suited her eyes nicely.
"Good morning, everyone," she greeted them kindly, her eyes coming to rest on Mrs. Musgrove. "I do apologize for my tardiness but my visit was longer than I had expected."
"Tush, we are simply glad to have you," Mrs. Musgrove assured her, reaching out to squeeze her hand. "Henrietta has been quite done in by all these plans. Perhaps you can assist us. Do come near the fire and warm yourself. Your hands are small blocks of ice, dear."
Happy to be indoors, Anne removed her pelisse and bonnet and moved to place them on the pegs on the wall. Frederick covertly watched as she rubbed her arms as if to warm them. Anne had always taken cold easily, keeping her shawl about her to fend off the cold. He wished he might warm her small hands in his just now, to enfold her in his arms and chase away the chill. To feel her soft, dark hair beneath his chin.
A few moments later Charles entered with Mary, a look of pride and pleasure on his round face. "Mama, you can be proud of your boy," he announced triumphantly. "I have secured a box for us tomorrow night at the theatre!"
The room erupted into gasps of delighted surprise as Charles explained, "We shall have a grand time of it. Anne, you must accompany us. And Captain Wentworth, you must come as well. There is room for all of us."
Seated nearby, Frederick felt like cheering himself. To spend an evening in Anne's company would be a gift indeed. To watch her viewing the performance, to witness the subtle play of emotions on her face. She had always enjoyed dramatics as a young woman, had read Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. He relished the thought of being with her among their friends. There were so many things he longed to tell her.
Her gentle voice was saying, "I wish that I could join you, Charles. Were my family not hosting an evening party at Camden Place, I should accept the invitation with pleasure. You are all to be invited to the party, by the way. But I should much rather attend the theatre with all of you."
Frederick could hear the sincere regret in her voice. He could well remember her expressing her dislike of spending a dull evening at cards. She would much rather spend it in lively discussion or settled in an armchair before a blazing fire with a book. Cards bored her intensely.
Smiling secretly to himself, Frederick remembered attending such a party with Anne in their younger days. They had been seated across from each other with another couple. Whenever he would look over at her, she would be smiling enigmatically, her small, slippered feet bumping his shoes beneath the card table. It nearly set him to laughing uncontrollably. As a result, he had lost each hand, so amused and entertained he was by her quiet antics.
"Then we will go to the theatre another time, Anne, when you may join us," Mrs. Musgrove firmly said. "It would not be nearly as much fun without your company."
Anne murmured her thanks to Mrs. Musgrove. Seeming grateful and embarrassed as she turned away, rising from her chair to move from the group to compose herself. Her shawl slipped from her arm and trailed the floor. Unable to stop himself, Frederick quickly moved to retrieve it for her.
Slowly, savoring the moment, Frederick gently took up the garment and lowered it onto her small shoulders, his gloved hands lingering there for but a single moment. Yet it was enough. Anne looked up at him swiftly, her breath indrawn, and in an unguarded moment of truth, their eyes met and held.
She was so utterly adorable, he thought dazedly. Did she know how completely spellbound he was by her? Recollecting himself, he drew back and quietly told her in a somewhat sardonic tone, "You have yet to enjoy these parties they give, Miss Anne?" Did she remember their own party, so long ago?
She continued to hold his gaze and her hazel eyes seemed to spark with disapproval. "Those who hold them believe the theatre to be beneath their dignity," she quietly answered, her true feelings vividly apparent. "But I am no card player."
Frederick saw the fire in those eyes and admired it fondly. Anne might be quiet and gentle but when pushed, there lay a passionate heart beneath it. She was so insistent that he know she would rather be in the Musgroves company than with her family. Could it be that she wished him to know they had no influence on her heart now?
He reached out and touched her elbow for a brief moment then retreated. She must know that he did understand. "I see what you are saying to me with your eyes," he wanted to say aloud. "You need not fear my bad opinion any longer. I will not turn you away, little one."
Finally, he spoke. "No, you never were, were you?" he remarked with a quiet admiration, glancing down at her small feet. She seemed to soften at his words and a small, knowing smile crept up into her lips. She did remember! That was his Anne, so attentive to his moods. She knew him all too well. It was as if at that moment they had never been parted. There was perfect communion, untold sweetness in that look.
"I say, Anne, is that not Mr. Elliot down below standing beneath the colonnade with Mrs. Clay?" Mary's strident voice broke through the spell holding them captive.
To his disappointment, Anne slowly turned from him to answer her sister. "No, it cannot be Mr. Elliot. He is gone out of town these two days to visit friends at...Coombe Park."
Her voice trailed away and she seemed to blush. Frederick felt the warmth dissipating from his body like a cold wave of sea water against him. She was well aware of her cousin's movements, he realized. That was why she was with them all today. Had Mr. Elliot been present she would be with him. Here was proof enough.
"I suppose I can be trusted to know my own cousin when I see him," Mary replied with dry impatience as she motioned to Anne. "Do come and look."
Anne glanced back at him briefly, an obvious reluctance, an aura of regret, in her expression. Then she moved to join her sister at the window and he could not hear their discussion. What did that look mean? Was she regretting her words? Did she wish them unspoken? If only he knew! He felt as if he were on the rack, agonized with hope and defeat by turns.
There was no other opportunity for them to speak, for Anne was obliged to join Lady Russell for a drive in the park. Frederick, frustrated and tired, gave his leave soon after she departed with Mary and decided to visit his sister. Sophy's teasing influence would soon revive his spirits and ready him for the next battle.
For tonight he would attend the charity concert in Langley Hall. And he knew from his former attachment to Anne that she adored music above all things. It was a common love they had always shared.
There he would have his opportunity to speak his heart at last.
Ladies, I once again apologize for going out of sequence. I do hate that it happened. Please take this next installment as my apology and I hope you enjoy the "concert scene."
Frederick adjusted his tricorn as he stepped out of the Croft's rented townhouse and preceded to walk to Langley Hall. It was a cool evening but not dreadfully so. For once, the rain had stopped and he was glad of it. Perhaps it was an omen of his success this evening.
Sophy had teased him at dinner that evening for his unusual reticence. "I did not know that a concert in Italian would have you in such a ponderous state, Frederick," she remarked as the servant moved forward to remove her plate. "I cannot recall you being an enthusiast for Italian in the past."
The Admiral, grinning like a schoolboy, suggested. "Perhaps it is not the Italian that claims his thoughts, my dear. More likely it is a particular young lady in the audience and not the performers that he is thinking of."
Sophy's face was a mixture of delight and wonder, "Truly now? Have you found another exquisite young lady to dangle after? I do hope she is of a less fickle nature than that dear Musgrove girl."
Laughing despite himself, Frederick had assured her that it was no such thing. "I have come to bath to enjoy myself, Sophy, not entangle myself. Do allow me that freedom. You have always known of my appreciation for fine music."
"All the same," Sophy had told him, eyes alight, "I should wish that we were to attend to receive proof from your actions that will bear this out. But my dear Admiral has gotten us seats to a fine play this evening. I am that excited!"
Putting down his glass, the Admiral sardonically replied to his brother-in-law, "Tis likely we should see better acting at this concert Frederick is attending tonight. Everyone will smile and applaud and pretend to understand what they are hearing while hardly a soul will have an inkling of what is being wailed about!"
The crowd bustling outside Langley Hall indicated a fine crush. It seemed as if all of Bath had come out to take part in the entertainment. He only hoped that circumstances would lend themselves to his speaking with Anne.
Entering the Hall, Frederick removed his hat and tucking it under his arm, he strode purposefully into the octagon room. It was more than likely Anne's sister and father were to be present with her. Not to mention Lady Russell. He had no wish to make Anne blush on his behalf. Confidence, he had learnt, was an attitude few could find fault with. He may not be a baronet but Frederick's career could stand on its own.
His dark eyes scanned the room, hoping to catch sight of her. She was a wisp of a girl, he remembered with a smile. Easily missed by many. The ladies tonight were wearing a dazzling array of colors and it was difficult to ascertain who was who in such a crowd.
Just as he was crossing the room, Frederick realized she was only a few feet away. And she was coming to meet him. Moving with her innate grace and loveliness.
She looked like a small princess tonight, he thought warmly, all breath leaving his lungs. Her becoming figure was set to advantage by the sky blue silk gown she wore, the matching necklace glinting in the candlelight. But it could not match the brilliancy of the glow in her eyes tonight. Oh yes, he thought. His little one was in fine looks tonight.
"You are...come for the concert, Captain?" she softly inquired, her voice quivering just a trifle. Her eyes looked up at him beseechingly.
Frederick smiled, knowing this time he must not gape at her like a disobedient schoolboy. She was a lady worthy of respect and admiration. "No, I have come for a lecture on navigation," he murmured, a wicked grin lightening his features. "Have I come to the wrong place?"
His attempt at lighthearted humor seemed to break the tension between them, and Frederick gloried in her soft laughter. Glancing up, Frederick saw Sir Walter, Elizabeth, and her companion standing gravely behind Anne. For once, Elizabeth did not seem to look down her nose at him. Instead, she gave an adequate curtsey as Sir Walter bowed. With equal respect, Frederick bowed to them. This was a start, he thought. "They do not think me a total wastrel or they would give me the cut direct."
His eyes quickly returned to Anne and he drew closer to her so that they might speak more intimately. She recognized his attempt and blushed becomingly. It made something inside his chest tighten with a delicious pain. To be with her like this again was something akin to a dream. And he wished never to awaken.
"I've hardly seen you since that wretched day at Lyme," he told her quietly, almost regretfully. "I had worried that it might have caused you harm, not from your not...having been overpowered but..."
His voice trailed off uselessly as another chuckle arose from her. Frederick laughed with her. It was a total loss to attempt to be gallant and polished in her presence, he realized. She alone had the ability to rob him of rational thought or speech. Her mere presence, scant inches from his grasp, was casting a magic spell on him.
"I do not think I was in danger of...not being overpowered, Captain Wentworth," she finally spoke, trying not to laugh again.
Frederick decided to take a different tack this time. He wanted to talk of Louisa and Benwick, to make certain she knew that Louisa meant nothing to him. The Admiral may have expressed something of it to her, but Frederick wanted that assurance to be echoed by himself.
"When you had the presence of mind to send Benwick for a surgeon, I doubt you had any notion of what would result from your request," he remarked, watching her face carefully.
She nodded in agreement, seeming to be at ease in talking of it. "No, I had none. But I do hope it will be a happy match."
In response, Frederick told her, "As do I. They are to marry very soon, I understand. In that I am glad. They have no opposition to the union, no caprice, no delays to suffer from."
Instantly he realized he had spoken unthinkingly and saw the memory, the pain flash into her eyes as she looked away. Oh Anne, forgive me, he thought. I did not mean to accuse you of the past. That was no my intention, my dear. That I could wish those words unsaid!
Hoping to reassure her, Frederick's words came quickly, "But I cannot but wonder on it. Louisa, while a sweet tempered, amiable girl, is not unintelligent. But Benwick...he is something else. He is a reading man, a clever man, as you know. His attaching himself to her like that so suddenly..."
His words again faded as she looked up at him quickly, urgently, as if something in his voice had touched her deeply. Yes, Anne, he thought, keep listening. You will not be disappointed. It was clear that she was fully concentrating on every word he spoke.
"Phoebe Harville was a wonderful woman and she loved Benwick with her whole heart. A man does not forget such an attachment, such a devotion so quickly. He does not. He ought not."
Frederick could not continue. She was looking at him so fixedly, her very heart resting in those hazel eyes. Did she understand what he was trying so ineffectively to say? That he had never forgotten her...that she was and always would be his ideal of perfection? That his love for her had not died but had grown stronger, deeper, more devoted with time as he had come to see her true value?
A murmuring behind them caught her attention and Frederick saw her attempt to calm herself. It was then he remembered they were standing in a public assembly hall, their emotions clearly witnessed by everyone to see. Anne was a private person and to be speaking in so intimate a manner had stressed her, he saw. If only they could speak privately, he urgently wished.
"Did you...stay long at Lyme?" she finally managed to ask, making an extreme effort to make her voice sound normal, unaffected.
"A fortnight, until we were assured of Louisa's health," he told her, feeling some of the tension holding him fade. "The country around Lyme is fine and I rode and walked a good deal."
Frederick paused, remembering that ride back to Uppercross, his guilt at having been a precipitator of Louisa's fall. Anne must know that he had learnt his lesson from the dreadful day. "The fault lay with me, it was solely mine," he solemnly told her. "Louisa would not have been headstrong, if I had not been weak."
A silence passed between them that spoke volumes. Despite the milling crowds about them, the closing of doors, the whispering of ladies, the guffawing of peers, there was understanding between them. Frederick watched as Anne's hands seemed to reach out to him, involuntarily, then fall at her sides softly. She wished to give him comfort, to assure him that she knew he had seen the truth.
"Your character is miles removed from Louisa's," he wished to tell her. "If only you knew how much I treasure that mild, flexible nature of yours."
"I should very much like to see Lyme again," she said at last.
This was a surprise to him and it was clearly written across his face. "What? I should have thought the unpleasant memories would prevent such a wish."
She shook her head in denial. "But when the pain is over...I have traveled so little that each place is of interest to me. I should very much like to see it again."
Her insistence was strong and it added life to her facial features, making her even more beloved to him. This was his Anne, Frederick inwardly vowed. No man but him would show her the pyramids of Egypt, the gardens of Paris, the mountains of Bavaria. No, only on his arm would she be truly safe and where she belonged.
His emotions loosened his tongue and the words burst from his lips, "Anne, I have never..."
But the sudden commotion from the front door stopped his outburst and he turned to see the Lady Dalrymple and her daughter, the Hon. Miss Carteret being announced. Henrietta was right. The poor girl had little to recommend her but her title. The crowds parted to admit the pair and Frederick felt irritation rising in him. Why must time and circumstances forever divide him from Anne? Would it always be so?
He also saw Mr. Elliot entering the hall and making an immediate path to the Elliots. The sight of the young man set Frederick's blood at a slow boil. The further sight of Lady Russell coming into the octagon room finished him. How was he to speak to her again in the face of all this? It was as if fire-breathing dragons guarded her from every side.
By the time he had gotten into the concert room, all the chairs were taken. He chose to stand against the wall so he might watch Anne during the concert. While he was not close, Frederick could hear the soft rise and fall of her murmured comments to Mr. Elliot. She seemed to be half attending her cousin, Frederick thought. But then again the concert had begun. She was likely trying to listen to the singer.
As the concert dragged on, Frederick hardly heard a note. He had mentally flung himself into the depths of despair. The evidence lay before him more starkly than it ever had before. Mr. Elliot was leaning toward her, occasionally asking questions about the Italian. Dutifully Anne would answer him, her replies somewhat distracted. The puppy would not leave her alone! Every moment, every breath he drew increased his inward fury.
Everything in Elliot's manner, his way of speaking, outlined him to be Anne's intended husband. And from the warm, knowing glances being tossed the couple's way, everyone else thought so as well.
"I wish that I might flatter and adore you the rest of your days, Anne," Mr. Elliot's low, impassioned voice rose to meet Frederick's ears. The syllables dropped against Frederick's heart like searing embers. He closed his eyes in near agony then opened them. No, this could not be happening. Anne could not give herself to this practiced, smooth man who distributed compliments like lemon drops. No!
Lady Russell sat nearby, her elegant fan hiding most of her face. She had looked at him, barely nodded, then returned to the singing. The woman still did not think him good enough for her friend, Frederick angrily realized. Had he not done everything in his power to rise in the Navy, to gain his fortune? The polite world overlooked the fact Sir Walter had frittered away most of his blunt. His title, insignificant as it was, protected him from social stares. At that moment, Frederick wished he had never hear the word "Elliot" in his life.
Hearing his name spoken, Frederick looked over at the very man he had been silently degrading. Sir Walter was eyeing him with approval, explaining to Lady Dalrymple that he was the brother of his tenant's wife, Admiral Croft.
With a bitter smile, Frederick realized he was now accepted. With 25,000 pounds, Captain Frederick Wentworth was now viewed as an acceptable "passing acquaintance" of Sir Walter's. The man who had once claimed him to be unfit to wed his daughter. Likely Sir Walter did not even remember. It had taken eight and a half years to be transformed from an unknown sailor to this. It galled Frederick to the core and he pushed himself away from the wall. He could not bear to stay a moment longer in such wretched company.
Storming from the room, Frederick barely saw the tiny figure that planted itself directly in his path like a young tiger cub. Dear God, it was Anne!
"Captain Wentworth, you are leaving too soon, do you not enjoy the singing?" she was breathlessly saying, alarm flickering in her hazel eyes.
She looked so animated, so anxious, he thought. Her chest rose and fell quickly from the effort. He could feel her soft breath on his cheek she was so near. Damn this concert! Damn those now staring at them! The urge to pull her up and into his arms, to press his mouth against hers pounded against his mind. To soothe the unspoken questions in that gaze...
But it was hopeless. Already Mr. Elliot was approaching to seize her, to pull her back into the world Frederick could never hope to enter. That he never wished to enter!
"No, ma'am, I am not," he bit out the words with effort. He had to quit the room before he swept her up into his arms and took her with him.
But her hand, that small, gentle hand rose to grip his arm with the slightest of pressures. It burned through the cloth of his coat, his lawn shirt, and down into his skin. The pain, the delight jolted up his arm and exploded like a charge in his heart. It nearly made him choke and gasp out loud. Anne, you are killing me, he thought wildly, trying to school his features into sternness.
"But the next song is a love song," she insisted, the fire blazing forth in her eyes and nearly singeing to him. "A beautiful love song. Is that not worth your staying for?"
For a blissful, agonizing moment, Frederick wavered in his resolve to escape. She was imploring him in a way no other woman could. It was impossible to resist her entreaty. Did she not know she had only to twist her finger and he was like clay in her hands?
"Anne, I love you, my little one," he burned to speak aloud. The very words hummed against his lips to be released, to burst free.
But a too-polite voice Frederick had grown to despise broke into the tense, small space between them. "Anne, Miss Carteret wishes to know what she is to hear. Could you rejoins us to translate the Italian for her?"
Turning brusquely, Frederick briefly shot a look at Mr. Elliot that might have felled a young, raw recruit onto the deck. Their gaze met and Frederick clearly saw the possessive gleam he met there. It was clear that the battle lines had been drawn.
"No, there is nothing worth my staying for," Frederick darkly spoke, abruptly turning and striding out of the concert hall without looking back.
Even the wisest, most seasoned military commander knew when to retreat in the face of impossible odds.
"Frederick, I do declare you resemble the bad end of a dog fight," Sophy remarked wryly as Frederick entered the Library late that evening. She and the Admiral has just returned from the theatre and were sharing a fine bottle of cognac.
Frederick, despite his tumultuous emotions, could not resist laughing half-heartedly. Even in the semi-darkness of the firelit room, his sister could read him as plainly as a book. There were times he did wish his sister's acute sense of perception was not so finely tuned.
"Sophy, you will be my undoing," he managed to say as he seated himself beside the hearth, stretching his long legs before him. It was a relief to be indoors, ensconced in this cozy room away from the cold stares of the concert goers.
"Would you not look so dower after a concert like that?" the Admiral suggested, unable to stop grinning. "But I know what will rouse him. Come, join us for a drink, Frederick. Sophy and I were sharing some of this good grog Captain Harville suggested. Tell him I thank him again when you see him. You will see him tomorrow?"
Frederick, hardly aware of what was going on round him, nodded. "Aye, I will. I must needs write a letter to the framemakers concerning Benwick's picture for Louisa. He can scarce do it himself. So I shall undertake it."
The Admiral, more wont to take action than wait for a servant to perform it, poured a liberal dose of cognac in Frederick's glass and handed it to him. "That'll right warm you, man. Despite the rain's clearing off, a chill has bit down on the town tonight. I don't envy you that walk back here."
Frederick did not reply. He had hardly noticed the weather or anything else for that matter. The Prince Regent himself could have been strolling down the street clad only in his undergarments and he would have been unaware of it. Haunting visions would not leave him. The sight of Sir Walter simpering to Lady Dalrymple. Mr. Elliot's unquestionable challenge. Lady Russell's haughty air.
But it was a pair of frightened, anxious hazel eyes that would not give him peace. They beseeched him, almost physically held him captive with their entreaty. Frederick knew he would have no rest tonight from that memory. The sight of her hand lightly touching his sleeve, the aroma of freesia, the softness of her hair against the candles...
If a man could have cursed his own existence tonight, it would have been Frederick. He had become his own worst enemy. Having seen Anne tonight, Frederick concluded that no man but himself could have been more mistaken in his original thoughts. No man more blighted by his own pride and hurt.
Anne was everything a man might wish for in a woman and cherish in his wife, he thought. Her mild, gentle nature attracted him like a moth to a flickering flame. Her very smallness silently spoke to his masculine strength, beckoned something chivalric in him with the need to love and protect her always. To keep her from the clutches of scoundrels like Mr. Elliot.
"Oh Anne," he thought now, hardly aware of the drink in his hand. "Were there but world enough and time I would know the secrets of your heart!"
Sophy, snuggled into her husband's shoulder, asked him, "Did you see Miss Anne tonight? We saw Col. Wallis this evening during the intermission and he was nattering on about Mr. Elliot being almost engaged to her. Admiral, do you not think we must quit Kellynch if they are so attached? Surely they will want to return there to make it their home."
The Admiral, giving this notion thought, nodded slowly. "I imagine so. I like the place well enough but with that lad's blunt he'll put the place back on her feet financially. Yes, it would be a fine place for them to start their lives. He's a nice enough fellow but a bit too piano for me. Never disagrees with anything you say."
Sophy, unaware of her brother's silent, brooding thoughts, agreed. "I felt something of the same, George. Perhaps being an outlandish sailing wife, my opinions are always likely to be thought rather outre than the normal. But when we chanced to speak of London the other day, I told him I quite hated the place and should rather be sailing to Borneo. Just to witness what the man might say. He merely smiled and nodded! I was amazed, indeed!"
The Admiral rolled his eyes wearily and took another sip from his glass. "Pardon my saying it, but I do not think Miss Anne should attach herself to a man of such opinions. She seems to have her own fixed opinions and views, does not mind arguing them with you either. I do like her taste in art, I must admit. Told her so when I called just t'other day at Camden Place. She was looking at a seascape, a drawing, I think."
The lifeforce jumped in Frederick and brought him out of his quiet despair. It made him sit up straight and nearly drop his glass. "A drawing... you say?" he heard himself murmur, hardly able to speak. Was it the one he had seen in her room, the one she had requested be sent to her? Had she been quietly viewing it, thinking of their long-lost love, when the Admiral had come upon her?
The Admiral nodded, glancing at his wife with affection. "Sophy would not like to think of me stopping off to visit young, unmarried ladies. But Miss Anne is a favorite of ours and I could not help myself. She was alone, she was, in the drawing room when I entered unannounced. You know how I love surprises, Sophy. She was surprised, I should say. But recovered enough to greet me with her usual warmth and candor."
"Did she...show you the sketch?" Frederick asked, attempting to make his voice sound somewhat normal. But his hope was hanging in the very question. His heart grasped for the merest scrap that she might love him still. He had become a man obsessed.
"Aye, I must confess I made her show it to me," the Admiral went on. "She was making to hide it away but I had seen it well enough. Twas a right nice drawing of a skiff in high swell. Not like the pictures I've seen of vessels 'round this town. Looked like the artist had actually been on a ship! Now is that not a rarity, Sophy?"
"For these Bath ladies it is," his wife agreed, stifling a yawn. "They certainly could not tell the difference between a yardarm and a mainsail. Nor can the artists, it would seem. I hope you did not terrorize dear Miss Anne too greatly, Admiral. We would not wish to displease her, although I should find it difficult to do in light of her gentle, mild nature."
"Not at all," the Admiral assured his wife. "She merely told me it was her favorite picture in all the world and had kept it with her these last years or more. Seems a sentimental sort of thing, I s'pose. She put it away soon enough and we talked of other things. Aye, I do like that young lady. Tis' a sad loss to know she'll be shackled to that young puppy Elliot."
Frederick took a long sip of cognac and looked into the firelight with bleak sorrow. There was pleasure amid the pain, agony amid the ecstasy. Anne had not forgotten their special picture. It was her favorite, she had claimed! She had been gazing on it only a few days ago, perhaps thinking of him as she did so. Was she recalling their journey to Lyme? Was she hoping to see it again...with him?
"Frederick I do think I must ask you to speak with Miss Anne about this," Sophy was saying to him. "It is so delicate a matter. I trust you to use your best Naval diplomacy as you do it. You must tell her that the Admiral and I will happily vacate Kellynch if that is her wish. The Admiral is wont to be nearer the sea as it is. An improvement in his health is certain to result from it."
Frederick nodded unconsciously, hardly aware of his acceptance. His thoughts were in Camden Place. "Yes, Sophy, I shall carry out your request."
It was only as his sister and the Admiral started discussing the evening's theatrical performance that Frederick realized what he had agreed to do. How would he perform such a task? To hear her lips finally speaking the answer to the question that had haunted him for days. To know once and for all if she was going to marry Mr. Elliot. Then his agony would be over and his course set.
Perhaps it was blessing in disguise, he thought later as he mounted the stairs to the room he had taken to using when visiting his sister. The issue, delicate as it was, would be spoken aloud and Anne would have no option but to tell him of her plans.
For long, quiet, moments, Frederick stood at the bedroom window looking up into the clear, cold moonlit sky strewn with stars. He thought of the myriad lonely nights on deck on the Laconia, of endless midnight watches. There had been times that morning had seemed an eternity away, that the rosy fingers of dawn would never touch the horizon.
Harville's words came back to him then. Appearances, such as the evening's concert, could be deceiving indeed. Idle Bath gossip had been the ruin of many a reputation. Rarely was any of it founded in fact. People talked of matters merely to hear their own voices, he thought bitterly.
He must trust in what he knew. Anne had refused Charles' proposal. It had been her own independent action to do so. She had kept his picture, his books, the note, after all these many years. That must be counted quite extraordinary. Most women would have long ago consigned such objects to the rubbish heap.
And Anne had not repulsed him tonight. She had come across the octagon room to speak to him. Was that not again unusual? She had encouraged his questions, had smiled at him. And her surprising actions to inquire about his departure. She had never appeared so fiery, so adamant to him as tonight. A woman who was not emotionally involved with a man would not have acted so out of character. Could he believe that hope still existed? That Anne, despite all those who wished her not to, loved him yet still?
"Tomorrow," Frederick thought gravely, "I will have my answer."
The next day dawned bleak and dreary. But Frederick did not care. He arose early and went for a morning ride about the countryside to clear his head. Sleep had proven quite elusive to him. Visions of Anne would not allow him to close his eyes for hardly a moment.
Waiting until the "fashionable" hour to call on Anne, Frederick stopped in at Camden Place to see if she were home. The servant, who seemed courteous enough, informed him that Miss Anne was at the Assembly room with Lady Russell and could be found there. Obviously, she was not at home.
Walking down Milsom Street, Frederick attempted to gather his thoughts. She was with the woman who had persuaded her not to marry him once. Did the esteemed woman who had destroyed their happiness still hold sway with Anne? Was she telling her now how she must receive Mr. Elliot's attentions with warmth and acceptance? Frowning, Frederick nearly cursed aloud. It seemed that a multiple number of forces stood against him when it concerned Anne.
He knew he could not approach her in the large, open Assembly room, surrounded by strangers. He must speak with her alone so that he could deliver the Admiral's message and hear the truth from her.
Once inside, Frederick requested a servant to tell Miss Elliot that a gentleman of the Navy wished to speak with her concerning Kellynch Hall in Somerset. In that way, Lady Russell would not hear his name and try to prevent her from speaking with him. Frederick sat down on a nearby settee and held his gloves tightly in his hands, on the brink of agony at what she might say to him. The next few moments might determine everything.
In a few moments, he heard the soft sound of her footfall coming across the room It was unmistakably graceful and light. He stood quickly as she entered the small room and surprise lighted upon her features. "Captain Wentworth," she breathed, looking up at him, awaiting his words. It was clear she had not been expecting him.
For a moment, Frederick was silent. She looked as lovely by day as she did by night, he thought. The light was making her hazel eyes shine and flicker and made it difficult for him to concentrate on what he had come to say to her. But something else disturbed him. There were slight shadows under those eyes, as if she, too, had not slept.
"I have come on commission from my Admiral and must discharge it, and though you may think it impertinent of me, remember that I speak for him," Frederick began in a rather hurried, abrupt voice. This was the most difficult task he had yet to perform in his life. He wanted it over as rapidly as possible.
"It has come to his attention that it is almost certain there is to be an engagement between Mr. Elliot and yourself. Should you wish to return to Kellynch, the Admiral and my sister will cancel their lease and get another place."
He has spoken more quickly than he would have liked but it was too late for formality and decorum. The words were out and his eyes fixed on her response.
She was trembling, searching for words, he realized. "The Admiral is...too kind," she stammered, and for the first time, Frederick saw something akin to tears in her eyes. Oh, Anne, what does this mean? Tell me you will not do this!
"A simple "yes" or "no" will suffice. There, I have done my duty," he ground out, hardly able to stand there any longer. "Speak now and we will both be released."
Anne's eyes were bewitching him again, reaching out to him. She looked flushed and excited, as if a fever had encompassed her. Frederick ached to reach out to her, to take those small hands in his and prompt her answer. He longed to kiss those shadows from beneath her eyes and tell her she need never lack for love and safety again. To draw her into his arms and feel her warm breath yet again on his face.
"Reveal your heart at last, little one," Frederick silently pleaded, taking a single step toward her. "Before my own is rent in two!"
"Why is everyone assuming that I will..." she finally managed to mutter.
A tall shadow fell over her and Frederick looked up in surprise. "Lady Russell!" he exclaimed involuntarily.
Anne, in frustration at the intrusion of her friend, could no longer bear his scrutiny nor her friend's. She gave a cry of anguish and turned away, running from the room as if the hounds of hell were at her very feet. It took everything Frederick possessed to not call out to her.
"You have an amazing ability to discompose my friend, Captain," she remarked dryly. He knew she was triumphant at having broken up this vital meeting between Anne and himself. Frederick seethed with anger at her unabashed glee.
"And you, ma'am, have an ability to influence her for which I find it hard to forgive you," he bitterly told her before turning away to walk from the room. But Anne was gone. Not a trace of her to be found. The moment had escaped them and Frederick knew little more than he had before.
Walking toward the White Hart, Frederick was in a daze. What little she had said amazed him, sparked his senses. Her agitation. Her anger at Lady Russell's intrusion. It was clear from her appearance that something was troubling her. Were the voices around her advising her to marry Mr. Elliot? Was she trying to decide? Had she grown weary of all the gossip? Was it all simply that -- people talking out of turn?
Was it he, Frederick, that she truly loved but could not speak of because he had shunned her so before?
Frederick knew Anne better now since he had first seen her again at Uppercross. While she had aged nearly nine years, her true character remained fixed and steady. If anything, it was stronger. She had a forbearing spirit and a warm heart. She looked out for those in need and was a friend to the poor in spirit. She recognized goodness and clung to it. She also spoke her mind when it was necessary.
"She would have told me roundly and truthfully if she was engaged to Elliot," Frederick realized with a jolt. "Lady Russell's intrusion would not have prevented that. No, no, she is not his yet. She has not given in to their persuasion."
But when would he see Anne again? Striding toward the White Hart, Frederick knew that if anyone knew where Anne might have gone, it would be the Musgroves. Harville was likely waiting there now, wishing him to write the instructions to the frame makers. Perhaps Anne would join them and he could draw her aside, to ask forgiveness for upsetting her so.
Seeing Anne so close to tears had nearly torn the words of love from his own lips. Only Lady Russell's entrance had stopped him from speaking.
Frederick's chin was set in a determined line as he entered the inn. The time for pretense and unspoken glances was long since past. She must know how much he loved and adored her with no interruptions. This time, no man...or woman...would stop him from declaring himself.
Author's Note: I am trying to work it somehow so that the parts go in their proper order. The first White Hart scene ought to have come after Part 13, the concert scene. Please keep that in mind as you read.
Frederick glanced at his pocketwatch for what must have been the tenth time since he had entered the Musgrove's lively sitting room at the White Hart. Yet the hands seemed to move at a snail's pace.
Frederick had been sorely disappointed not to find Anne there when he had arrived. No doubt she had gone somewhere quiet to compose herself after there abrupt meeting. Why could he have not been so stark in his request? Likely she thought him a stiff, unbending, emotionless pile of rock after hearing him. Why could he have not asked her in a gentler manner?
The thought of wounding her in any fashion tore at him now. It was clear to him that her thoughts were as tangled and fraught as his own. If only they could have a few moments alone, where they might speak freely.
Upon Frederick's arrival at the inn, Harville had met him by the stairs, a look of concern on his face. "Been waiting for you, Frederick. Truly, can you finish this difficult business for me? You will think me a coward but I cannot do it myself."
Glad to have some sort of occupation, Frederick had clapped his old friend on the shoulder and told him, "You know I would do just about anything for you, Harville. Come, let us go up to the Musgroves and I shall borrow a pen and paper. It shall not take long. Then we will have done with it and you and I might head for framemaker's to get the task done."
That had been an hour ago. Upon entering the Musgrove's cozy sitting room, Frederick had been bombarded with questions from his own sister and Mrs. Musgrove. Mrs. Musgrove had been cooped up with pattern books for hours and was keen to have some news of the outside. Harville had enjoyed his discomfort thoroughly.
"Tis' a wonder you did not see Miss Anne this morning," Mrs. Musgrove had said blithely. "She promised to call after her visit with Mrs. Smith. Then I must remember that her visits are often lengthy with the widow. No doubt she is talking of the concert from last night. Do tell us about it, Captain Wentworth."
Sophy had laughed and told her friend, "He looked as happy as a man just promised a visit to the tooth puller's upon his return last evening, Mrs. Musgrove. Positively frightful. I can only conclude that Italian does not agree with my brother."
Eventually, Frederick managed to ease himself away from the table and seat himself at the writing desk. Pen and paper were soon at hand and he was able to start on a task he had put off for so long. Behind him he could hear Mrs. Musgrove talking of Henrietta's engagement to Henry Hayter.
He had hardly gotten underway when the sound of someone entering the room alerted him. Could it be...
"Good morning, Mrs. Croft, Mrs. Musgrove," Anne's gentle voice greeted his ears like a sweet song. "Are you all to yourselves this day? Are Mary and Henrietta gone shopping yet again?"
Frederick could not turn to look at her. Not this time. He knew if he were to but glance at her the words of love would come tumbling from his lips like a waterfall. What she must think of him!
"Yes, dear, they have," Mrs. Musgrove replied, indicating a chair nearby. "But do join us. They have told me to detain you until their return. They are quite mad to know what you thought of the concert. Captain Wentworth was telling us something of it himself, although I do not think he enjoyed it."
She did not speak again and the two older ladies resumed their conversation regarding Henrietta's speedy engagement to Henry. Frederick paused, thinking of how he wished they might be speaking of his engagement to Anne. That happy plans were being made for their union. Frowning, he took up his pen yet again. Once he was finished, Frederick would make his move to speak with her in private. Convention be damned!
Soon he heard the quiet scrape of her chair as she rose. She was joining Harville at the window nearby. Yes, that was capital. He could see her now from this viewpoint. Just the edge of her sleeve. But it was enough. And he could just catch what they were saying.
Harville turned to Anne, a rueful smile on his weather-beaten face. Since learning of his friend's affection for Anne, he had taken pains to speak with her. "Do you know who this is?" he asked quietly, showing her the miniature of Captain Benwick he had been keeping in his coat.
"It is Captain Benwick," came Anne's soft reply. Frederick could see she had rapidly discerned Harville's rather somber mood and was acting with comforting kindness. Bless you, my love, he thought affectionately.
"But it was not done for Louisa Musgrove," he told her, glancing down at it yet again. "It was drawn at the Cape for my dear sister Phoebe. It must be reset for Louisa," Harville explained to her. "It is beyond me, I confess. So he undertakes it. He is writing instruction to the framemaker's now. Poor Phoebe. She would not have forgotten him so soon..." he sighed unhappily. "It was not in her nature."
Frederick's pen stilled as he listened to her answer. "Nor would it be in the nature of any woman who truly loved," she vowed strongly, with a spark of acclamation in her voice. It struck Frederick to the core of his heart and he held his breath, plume clenched tightly in his hand. Has she truly said that?
"Do you claim that for your sex?" Harville asked in a rather bantering manner. "I believe the reverse. I think.."
Frederick, leaning forward to catch what was being said, knocked an ornament from the desk. It bounced onto the rug noisily and he hastily bent down to pick it up. He hoped fervently Anne had not ascertained what he had been about. Listening to their conversation like a gossip. Frederick hated himself for using such means to learn her feelings. But her softly spoken words were beckoning him, giving him hope! Sweet, lovely, Anne, keep talking! You encourage me by the moment...
"Have you finished with your letter?" Harville asked, glancing over at him. Anne had not moved an inch.
"A few minutes more," Frederick replied hurriedly, picking up his pen again. "Then I shall be at your service."
"No need to hurry," Harville called back with a grin, obviously noting his confused state. "I am in happy anchorage here. No hurry at all." At this point, Harville again sank his voice and Frederick strove to catch what was being spoken.
"All literature is against you, you know," he was telling Anne. "All story, prose, and verse. Why, I don't believe I have opened a book in my life that did not have something to say on women's fickleness."
"But they were all written by men," came Anne's gentle, amused rejoinder. Harville's laughter mingled with hers and Frederick felt a melting inside. She was so wise, so sweet. Did she know what he suffered by sitting there just now, unable to share his heart with her? Why could it not be he who stood with her at the window, perhaps holding her small, gentle hand in his?
There was only one method by which Frederick could pour out his feelings adequately. He must write them down, give life to them, and give them to her in a letter. Then she alone would decide whether or not they would resume their love for each other, to finally join their lives into one. The choice would rest with her. She would make that choice. He would abide by it.
Grabbing up another piece of paper, he began to write: "I can no longer listen in silence. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope..."
Anne was still speaking. He craned his neck to catch the gentle words. "We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet and confined. And our feelings...they prey upon us. You men always have some sort of work, some occupation, to take you back into the world."
Frederick's pen flew over the page, his face emotionless. But inside his feelings boiled over as if lava were flying from the mouth of Vesuvius. My poor darling, he thought. Is that how you suffered while I was away? Did you, too, stare up at the star-lit sky and remember how I held you in my arms, felt you come to life? How we vowed to love and honor each other forever?
When you sat alone in your beautiful room with our sketch, my notes, did you weep at what had been lost so painfully forever? Did memories of me haunt you as memories of you would not leave me? Did those small, slight fingers trace the sprawling traces of ink on a weathered paper boat?
The questions flew through his mind as his pen flew.
Harville countered cannily. "I won't have it said that men are more inconstant than women. If you could but know what a man suffers when he is absent from his wife and children," Harville was saying. "When, after a twelvemonth perhaps, he is to put into another port and he continuously calculates the time he can get them. The entire time, he fools himself by thinking, "They cannot be here until such a day," yet waiting for them twelve hours sooner. And then when they do arrive, you could but see the glow of his soul. The joy in his heart. As if Heaven had given them wings!"
Does she think me inconstant, Frederick pondered, his pen pausing for a moment. Does she think I have forgotten her as Benwick forgot Phoebe. Convince her, Harville, he silently pleaded. Make certain she knows that this man can never forget the woman he has loved and admired above all others. Time and circumstances cannot touch so deep a devotion as I hold for you, Anne...
"Oh, I do believe you capable of everything that is great and good," Anne replied, a warm fervency underlying each word. "Truly, I do. But it is only so long as the woman you love lives...and lives for you...the only privilege I claim for my own sex, and it is not an enviable one, you need not covet it...is that of loving longest...after all hope is gone!"
The town clock was tolling then but Frederick was hardly aware of it. His own heart was pounding so loudly that it drowned it out. Anne's words lingered like a fog, wrapping around his heart like silken ropes and tugging tight. She did believe in man's constancy! She truly did! And by her own words she had approved it and verified her own.
No woman could speak so profoundly as she just had and not have experienced such an emotion herself. His Anne had not fallen prey to Mr. Elliot or to Lady Russell's demands. Surely she loved him still! He must know the truth or lose his mind in the interim period of waiting.
"Here, Frederick, you and I must part company," Sophy was saying jauntily as she rose from the table. "But we shall meet again tonight at Miss Anne's party, to which we are all invited."
Hastily, Frederick shoved his note to Anne beneath the blotter. He would return shortly and give it to Anne. Instead, he folded up his letter for Harville and stood. "I am at your service, Harville. Shall we go?"
Looking somewhat disappointed at having to discontinue his debate with Anne, Harville bade her farewell and they moved to the door. Frederick could barely mumble his farewell, knowing he must return for the umbrella he had purposefully left in the corner. He hated to give Anne even a moment's pain but in this he must do so.
Once outside the door, Frederick bade his sister a hurried good-bye. He turned to Harville, who was making his way down the stairs carefully. "Just a moment, Harville, I forgot my umbrella."
His friend chuckled. "You look as if you have forgotten much more, Frederick. I shall be halfway down the stairs by the time you return. Make haste, then."
Re-entering the room, Frederick made his way back to the desk and seized the errant article. He felt Anne's eyes on him as she had moved to stand nearby. Carefully, he drew back the note from under the other papers and looked at her intently. A flush entered her cheek as her dark eyes greedily feasted on the small object. Turning from her, Frederick again expressed his excuses to Mrs. Musgrove. In a matter of seconds, he was out of the room yet again and joining Harville in the hall.
"Now confess it, Frederick," Harville said jauntily. "You are up to no good. My letter to the framemaker's is short, succinct, and jotted with ink droplets. You were writing a note to Miss Anne, were you not?"
Unable to disguise his actions, Frederick nodded. "Aye, that I did. She is deciding my fate now as we speak in reading that note. I have declared myself yet again, Harville. Do you think me a candidate for the asylum?"
Eyebrows arched, Harville looked happily surprised. "You have, have you? Well met, Frederick! Having just spoken with her, I think your Anne the finest woman of my acquaintance, aside from Margaret. She is as constant as the tides, man. If you do not seize her up, I think I may be tempted to do so myself!"
Smiling, Frederick regarded his friend with true gratitude. "I must confess I overheard that exchange, my friend. It gave me unbridled hope that perhaps my little one had been holding onto our love as I have. I shall await her here. So you must go on about this errand without me."
Looking wise, Harville nodded and secured the letter. "And I shall be on my lookout for you later, then. To know if it is good news or bad. I wish you well, old friend."
Frederick went outside to see Harville off and a few moments later barely missed colliding with Charles, Mary, and Henrietta. He stepped behind a post to miss them for he wanted Anne to come down of her own accord. Not because Charles had mentioned seeing him below. He wanted her to come to him of her own free will and to see her unspoken approval in her warm, hazel eyes.
Pacing back and forth restlessly, Frederick counted each moment as he waited for his beloved to arrive. Never had time seemed to move so slowly.
"Will you come, little one?"
Continued in Part 3
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