The entrance to the White Hart was usually a scene for much activity and noise. Today was no exception. A group of ladies from the North had just arrived and were stepping down from their carriage. The cook, having burnt a tray of buns, was arguing with the innkeeper on the fact that " 'is Lordship's tea would 'ave to be put off yet." And to add to the chaos, a crowd was gathering on the streets to witness the passing of a traveling circus. It was a visual and audio feast for anyone who happened to be passing by at that moment.
But for one man standing nearby, hardly any of it brushed the edges of his consciousness. His thoughts were upstairs, concentrated on a young lady in whose hands he had just placed his very future.
Patience had always been one of Frederick's strong suits. As a British Naval officer, he had come to learn how crucial this quality was. Especially when running a ship and facing events in which he had little to no control over. When standing at the helm, such sudden incidents were to be almost expected. His ability to wait matters out had been helpful in the advance of his career and in training his younger officers.
But in light of the last half hour, Frederick felt hardly up to the task at hand. In some way, he had been waiting for this very moment for years. Would Anne accept his proposal? Would she descend and speak to him? Or would she silently turn and walk away?
The only sound he was aware of was the sound of his polished boots on the flagstones, echoing in his thoughts as he paced between the pillars of the entrance. It was the only activity that kept him from losing his mind.
A stableboy had unharnessed the ladies' carriage and was leading a beautiful, young chestnut gelding through the alley. Frederick looked up to watch its graceful movement, hoping for some sort of diversion from his agony. But when the lad and the horse had moved off, Frederick's eyes rested on a sight that caused a frission of painful joy to leap in his chest.
Yes, it was Anne. She was coming out of the inn with Charles, talking to him in a hushed, yet agitated manner. Oh yes, he could plainly see it. The autumn breeze was toying with the delicate curls on her brow. Her face was pale, so pale and her small hands were moving as she spoke. His letter had caused a flurry of activity, indeed.
Would her beautiful eyes sweep toward him and see him waiting there? The moment of decision had arrived and Frederick stood on the precipice, unable to move or speak.
"Why, you may tell him so yourself," he heard Charles say as the pair came from the alcove. "Frederick, which way are you going? As far as Camden Place?"
"I hardly know," Frederick stammered.
Charles was oblivious to his distress. "I should like to ask if you might take Anne's arm and escort her home. She is rather done for this morning, I am afraid, and cannot return there unassisted."
Frederick hardly heard the words. His eyes were on the lovely, upturned face of this beloved woman who had unknowingly held his heart in her possession these last nine years. They sought, silently, to know her feelings. To know once and for all if she, too, had never forgotten.
Anne had abruptly stopped, momentarily surprised to have found him standing so close by. Frederick strove to read her look, her appearance. Did she welcome his letter? Would she speak to him?
A mixture of emotions were making battle in her dark eyes. She was struggling, he saw, to make sense of it all. Disbelief, hope, fear, confusion, agitation...each strove to take possession of her. Her breath was coming in short, labored gasps. She was visibly trembling.
A surge of emotion flooded Frederick's pounding heart. His little one looked utterly lost. It was as if she were a small child caught in a storm, seeking shelter from surroundings that she did not understand or know. For so many years, Anne had been forced to keep her dreams, her lost hopes to herself. Only to give them freedom in the quiet of her room. She had maintained her family home amid a father and sister who barely acknowledged her existence. Every scrap of personal happiness she had managed to attain had been hard won. It was little wonder she was frightened.
She was afraid to hold out her hands and accept his love for fear that it might vanish like a beautiful golden rainbow. To be left desolate yet again with only memories to warm her.
"Oh Anne," he thought beseechingly, his own dark eyes bearing down into hers. "It is true. Every word I wrote was true. I have loved none but you!"
He could not tear his gaze from her. It was as if he were struck fast. "I should be glad to take her, Charles." he managed to say, his own voice husky with anticipation.
"Capital!" Charles exclaimed, completely unaware of the gravity of the scene that was unfolding before him. "The gunsmith is waiting for me. He promised me the sight of a capital gun he is about to send off. It's very much like that double barrel of mind, one you shot with one day round' Winthrop, Frederick."
Glancing at Frederick, then Anne, Charles got the inkling that his presence was no longer needed or wanted. They stood like statures, saying nothing. Ah, well, let the two be, he thought. I've done my duty. Mama will be pleased.
Grinning like a school boy sprung free on holiday, Charles bowed quickly and spun around to make his way to the marketplace, little knowing what he had just left behind.
Now they were alone. Amid a crowd of strangers on a public street, Captain Frederick Wentworth and Anne Elliot stood facing each other for the first time in nearly nine years. The very air crackled with anticipation, with emotion, with unspoken thoughts.
Slowly removing his tricorn and tucking it under his arm, Frederick stepped forward so that they were only inches apart. She had not spurned him. She stood, awaiting his words. And now he saw tears forming in those beloved eyes. Tears of joy and disbelief.
"I tried to forget you," he quietly told her, all pretense, all confidence absent from his voice. This was a man totally stripped of his defenses. By this small, gentle creature he had been utterly captured and possessed. "I thought I had."
Light was filling her face, making it shine as if the glow of her soul were reflected on it. Their dream was coming true at last. The fear was fading.
Slowly, so slowly, Frederick lifted his hand and at the same time, her own small, gloved one rose with it in perfect harmony. Savoring each slight finger as if touching the soft petals of a delicate rose, Frederick gently took possession of the hand whose very touch had burned through his sleeve the night before. At last, his hand closed on her fingers and held fast, his strength securing her feminine softness.
Unspoken, and yet shouted to the world. "You are mine, little one. Mine, as I am yours until the end of our days..."
A flickering fire had entered her eyes, leaping and beckoning him closer. Her tiny frame was so close, her delicate sense drifting up to further addle his senses. Come closer, Frederick, she was saying to him. I cannot bear another moment without you.
Oblivious to their surroundings, of the flirting girls, the shouting school boys, the jugglers, the performers on stilts, to the chattering debutantes, and the dickering merchants, Frederick slowly lowered his head. To kiss her, to touch those rosy lips with his own seemed almost an act of reverence, of devotion, of prayer. He glimpsed her expression of pure happiness as her eyelids fluttered shut.
Softly, tenderly, his mouth brushed hers in a healing, warming promise of love and affection. This moment, this reality, transcended every dream he had ever had of her. The joy, the beauty, her gentle sigh caused a ripple to break through his muscular frame. An answering tremor shook Anne's body and his hand tightened on hers protectively.
As he drew back, his eyes hungrily sought hers. Was she as shaken, as moved as he? Light still beamed from her now flushed cheeks, her warm eyes. His heart jumped in his chest as he saw her gently bite her lip in unconscious delight. It was a tiny gesture but one dear to his heart. She had done the very same thing when he had first kissed her years ago.
"My little one..." he breathed, moved.
Yes, yes...he had not been mistaken. His Anne had returned to him at last.
Aware that they were making a spectacle that might rival the circus passing beside them, Frederick held out his arm to her, his eyes smoldering with barely contained emotion. As if mesmerized by that look, Anne's hand wrapped round it and he pulled her against him. In one accord, they moved forward. Each step in sweet communion, taking them from two formerly separate paths into one. They hardly noticed the giggles and stares about them as they moved away from the busy street to find the retreat of the nearby gravel walk.
The moment that had just passed loosed Frederick's voice and he told her fervently, passionately, "I love you, Anne. It has always been you. Always!"
"Forgive me," she softly spoke, her fingers tightening on his arm. "I...I can scarce believe...that this is truly happening. Tell me I am not dreaming, Frederick. Make me know that this is real!"
He halted momentarily, regarding her freely now with every bit of love in his heart. Just a flicker of fear remained there in her eyes and he knew exactly how to assure its demise. Glancing round, Frederick saw that they were alone.
Lifting his free hand to cup her cheek, Frederick allowed himself the utter bliss of trailing his finger along her soft, silken cheek. Bending to her, his lips brushed each eye as if sealing them as his forever. "Does that feel like a dream, Anne? For I promise I am quite real."
A tear formed in her eye and it flowed over onto Frederick's gloved hand, burning him with its warmth. Did she know how she unmanned him, how she could render him utterly helpless?
"Frederick, I...I never forgot you," she vowed passionately, yet softly. "These last years...you cannot know the pain...the agony I faced in knowing what I had done...in realizing you were the only man I would ever love. And that you were gone forever."
Nodding in complete understanding, Frederick drew her back onto his arm and they moved forward. A nanny and her charge were coming onto the path and it would not do for them to cause a scene. Much as it was his desire to throw caution to the wind and draw her up into his arms.
"I came to know what true agony was when I left you all those years ago," Frederick confessed. "But I did not let it take its proper course. I refused to see the situation objectively. I could only see that you had rejected me, that you had allowed Lady Russell to guide you instead of me. I allowed my anger, my resentment to get the better of me. I refused to allow myself to think of what you might have felt or suffered."
Anne sighed in remembrance. "I can believe that. What else could you do? I had listened to another. I had taken her advice above yours. But, Frederick...I did believe Lady Russell to have taken the part of my mother. That she was looking out for my best interests."
She paused and he looked down at her. "I never thought to see you again, Frederick," she admitted shyly. "And when I saw you...every feeling in my heart came flooding back as if the years had flown away. But I knew that I had changed. My looks, what they were, had faded utterly. Whereas you had only grown more handsome...more steady, most confident. I was certain...you would never glance my way again."
Frederick felt a pang of guilt jolt his heart. There was so much to be said, so many truths to be confessed. They must find a quiet spot away from prying eyes to speak their hearts. Fortunately, a nearby park presented the perfect spot and he drew her aside to seat her beside him on a bench.
Taking her hands in his, Frederick regarded his beloved with sincere affection. "I, too, did not think our paths would ever cross again, Anne. And when I learnt they would, it gave me a jolt. I was angry at you, resentful of the past. That was wrong of me. And when I did see you again, I was so unjust. I would not allow myself to see the beautiful, gracious creature I had loved, still loved despite my protests."
Pausing, he leaned forward to drop a kiss on her forehead. "To me, you could never truly alter, my darling," he murmured. "It pained me to see you so ill used by your family, to be relegated as nurse to Mary's children, to listen to everyone's petty complaints. I saw your good nature, your loving kindness put to the test every moment we met. I must admit, it was a struggle to hold onto my anger in light of this. My resolve, so strongly built, began to crumble in a matter of days. The beauty of your soul shone like a candle."
The warm, secret glow of her eyes made it impossible for him to look elsewhere. "I never expected...any kindness...any consideration. I had used you ill, that was a certainty. I did not want you to think I had any pretensions of trying to win you back. Certainly...everything seemed set for you to wed Louisa."
She paused and gave a little chuckle. "I must mention something, Frederick. That day we walked to Winthrop. You...you made your sister invite me into the gig to ride home. Had your anger...begun to lessen then?"
He smiled in remembrance of that wretched day. Of learning that she had turned down Charles proposal. "Yes, it had. Louisa had let slip that Charles had meant to take you to wife some years before and that you had refused him. I must declare that bit of news had me astir. To know you had turned down a man who had much better pretensions to fortune than I had when I had proposed to you."
His hands tightened on hers as he remembered. "I had never doubted than other men might love you, ardently admire you as I had," he quietly told her. "But to know you had refused someone of Charles' standing! I suppose even then I began to feel things I had refused to feel before. I saw how tired the walk had made you. It made me angry that Mary would not let you in peace. I also felt ashamed for having been so indifferent to you in previous days. I wanted to show you in some small way that I was not so mean to hold it against you for all time."
Anne closed her eyes but a moment, remembering. "I...I must admit that it startled me. Until then, you had shown me not a whit of attention, of notice. I did not want to presume you might yet consider me...your friend."
He lifted one hand and kissed it, hoping to erase the pain of those days. "Forgive me for that, my darling. Believe me, the memory of my inexcusable behavior returned to haunt me. At that moment when I lifted you into the gig, it seemed like time dropped away. That you were my Anne again. You were a mere sprite, so very light in my hands, and it shook me. There is something...so subtle in you, Anne, that calls out to me unconsciously. That has always made me fiercely protective of you. It came strongly to the fore that day."
She looked down at their joined hands, still apparently surprised at the reality of their being together, being alone. "There are so many things...I want to say...to tell you, Frederick. But is not Captain Harville awaiting you? Surely..."
He silenced her with his own lips, blocking her words instantly. It was too sweet a temptation to resist and she sighed in frustrated joy. Her soft mouth, shaped to mold his own, was a gift he could but enjoy sparingly in light of their surroundings. Frederick drew back reluctantly and twined her fingers with his. Regarding her lovingly, he spoke his heart.
"Harville has gone on to perform his errand alone and has given me his blessing. So pay no more heed to him, or to your family, or to mine. We have waited nearly nine years for this hour. I shall not allow anyone or anything to come between us to spoil it. Do you not agree?"
Smiling in happy accord, Anne nodded and settled her head on his shoulder. This action, seemingly insignificant, sealed the moment as a blessing from God for Frederick and he put his arm about her, totally unconcerned with what others might say. Having Anne curled up against him like this was a joy he would not give up for anyone.
Lady Dalrymple, riding in her carriage down Milsom Street, accompanied by her daughter the Hon. Miss Carteret, raised her glasses to peer out of the window with interest. "Goodness me, there is that dashing naval captain we saw at the concert last night. Is he not a well-looking man?"
Her daughter, suffering from the same stigmatism as her mother, squinted at the scene they were passing. Yes, it was Captain Wentworth. It had been impossible to miss his wide-set shoulders and dark eyes. She affirmed her mother's words. "Yes, Mama, it is he. And he is with our cousin, Miss Anne. What do you think they are talking of, alone in a public park as they are? Still, I do envy her. They look blissfully happy."
Miss Carteret inwardly sighed. She knew she was not pretty. But men constantly paid her such silly, empty compliments in hopes of courting her and winning her fortune. If only a man like Captain Wentworth were to seek her hand. Lucky cousin Anne!
Lady Dalrymple glanced at her daughter sharply. Surely the girl was not harboring pretensions of romance with a sailor? Captain Wentworth was a handsome enough man but not worthy of her daughter. The very thought set her teeth on edge and she sat back in the carriage with a firm nod of her noble chin. "Pay it no mind, my dear. We shall see Miss Anne at the card party this night and you may ask her yourself."
The aforementioned couple had no idea that they had been spotted by two such highly regarded personages as the Dalrymples. But, truth be told, they should not have cared a jot if they had.
"I have so many questions to ask you," Anne was quietly murmuring. "The business at Lyme, of course, had me greatly occupied. The agony I saw etched on your face when you took up Louisa on the Cobb...how I wanted to give you comfort then!"
Frederick nodded, unable to put that scene from his mind. "It is something neither of us is likely to forget. You were my anchor, little one, keeping me from going mad. You kept your head, knew exactly what to do! While all the while the rest of us sat dazed and helpless."
He paused and took her hand in his yet again. It was a small hand and he found it difficult to not hold onto it. Even now, when their love had been reaffirmed, some dormant part of him feared that someone or something might yet take her from him.
"My shame was complete, I assure you, Anne. The realization of how foolish I had been took root and grew like an angry weed. How often had I raged against your memory, that you had allowed yourself to be persuaded to give me up? It became clear that Louisa's character, obstinate and headstrong, could hardly compare to yours."
Anne was very quiet for a moment, contemplating the memory with deep thought. "Frederick...did you ever...I must ask it...," she finally managed to whisper.
"I did not love Louisa," he finished firmly, as it reading her thoughts. "I did not know her, Anne. In returning to England, it was my object to take a wife and forget you utterly. Louisa seemed an agreeable enough young woman, sweet and spirited. Paying court to her as I did was disastrous. I did not realize until after the accident that everyone presumed we were to marry!"
Anne nodded, watching with pleasure and relief the sight of their twined fingers. "We all thought you would marry her. Especially Charles and Mary. Of course, they were laying aside bets as to whether you would choose Henrietta or Louisa. Can you but imagine my feelings when they asked my opinion?"
She could not help laughing with blessed relief that such days were long past and Frederick joined her. "Are we not a sad pair?" he asked. "So many secrets kept silent for so many years. I saw what a total fool I was, Anne. Some dashing naval man I had turned out to be. Here I was, now realizing how truly unrivaled you were and damning my past actions when I was as good as married to Louisa! I soon escaped to Shropshire to torture myself in Edward and Anthea's kind company. Learning of her engagement to Benwick gave me great relief."
Frederick looked down at her and his fingers tightened on hers. Perhaps he should keep silent on this matter. But she must know what primary events had triggered his actions in returning her to his affections.
"I do have a confession to make, dearest Anne. Do you recall that I left the party for a day or so to take some maps to Kellynch and carry out a commission on behalf of Harville?"
She nodded, remembering perfectly. "Yes. What of it, Frederick?"
"When I was at Kellynch, I felt your presence keenly," he confided, his dark eyes lowered to the ground, seized by the memory of it. "Can you picture me, Anne, the housekeeper having placed me in the room beside the one you had formerly occupied? Is it not a peculiar twist of fate? I could not help myself Anne. I entered it and I saw the sketch, Anne, the very one we watched being drawn in the village...all those years ago when we were first engaged."
Her slow gasp of surprise spurred him to look up again, to see her reaction. Her hand had risen to cover her mouth. "Oh Frederick," she murmured, a gentle flush coloring her cheek. "You know then..."
"Yes, my darling," he confirmed, his mouth brushing her forehead yet again, with lingering warmth. "It took me totally unawares. I had assumed you had rid yourself of it long ago. That sketch! It gave me hope...hope that after all that had happened, you had not forgotten me. And the books I had given you, my note...they were tied up to be sent to you. Can you know what seeing them again did to me?"
Anne was silent, too overcome to speak. Tears brimmed in her eyes and she looked away from him. He saw that she was embarrassed, as if someone had entered her innermost thoughts unannounced.
"I realized then that you, too, had suffered much. That it had not been easy for you," he softly assured her. "You cannot know how seeing those items again affected me. My mind was full of questions, my heart beating like a madman's. All the old feelings came flooding back again, reminding me that as hard as I might have tried, I still loved you. That I always had!"
The tears came faster now and Anne turned from him, rising from the bench as she did so, ashamed to let him see her distress. Frederick realized that for the first time in years, someone was finally speaking of a matter so private, so close to her heart that Anne's very scars were being laid bare.
Rising quickly, totally unconcerned with convention or courtesy, Frederick swiftly took her into his arms and held her against his shoulder, feeling the tremors of her weeping shake her small frame. The mere action of her coming to rest against his chest was like drawing breath after being underwater for hours and finally breaking the surface with relief. To feel life again filling his lungs and blood pouring through his veins.
How long had he dreamt of this moment, of holding her close. Her dark curls were silky soft beneath his cheek and he gently caressed them, unable to stop himself. To give her comfort, to be her refuge was his only thought at that moment.
"Dear girl, you must not be ashamed," he told her in a husky, determined voice. "I love you all the more for your constancy. To know that you had kept those beloved items was the most moving moment of my life. I knew then that it was difficult for you to stick to your principles. To remain at Kellynch amid the coldness of your family, without your dear mother to guide you."
She still could not speak, her face pressed against his coat. Through some magic osmosis, Anne was drawing strength, compassion, utter devotion from the only man that could truly provide it. Drawing it in took all of her strength and soul.
"I pictured you there, sitting on your bed, looking at our sketch," he murmured, his chin resting on top of her head. "How many midnight watches had I kept when I had looked up at the very stars only to see your dark eyes looking back at me? We both endured exquisite, blinding torture, my love."
Her tears had stopped now and she drew slightly back from him, pure love and affection shining in her eyes. It humbled Frederick and he lowered his head to carefully, reverently kiss the tears away from her cheeks.
"No more tears, little one," he promised softly. "You will never be alone again to face a cold, uncaring world. My arms will anchor you to me and keep you safe always."
Eventually reality overcame them and she moved back, somewhat surprised by her own actions. "You must think me an utter widgeon, Frederick," she confessed, taking his arm so they might walk a little. "I promise you I shall not become a watering pot again."
He smiled down at her. "I could never think that of you, Anne. But I must ask you some questions of my own. Did you truly consider marrying your cousin? I must tell you his attentions to you had me on the rack. Especially at the concert!"
They were walking toward the far side of the park so they might be alone. A fine breeze was kicking up but neither noticed it. Nor did they notice the stares of some passing servant girls on their way to the market.
"You cannot imagine how surprised I was to see you at the Assembly room today," Anne told him in wonder. "It was only then that I began to see what a delusion everyone was under. He had not yet formally asked for my hand but he had been dropping hints to it. But I could never marry a man...I did not love."
Frederick lifted her hand briefly to kiss it. "Thanks be to God you could not! It was something akin to torture to see him sitting beside you at the concert, hearing him flatter you. His admiration I had witnessed already at the Cobb that day and then at Molland's. Jealousy, I promise you, had quite firmly planted her fangs in me, Anne. All seemed settled for you to marry him."
He paused, considering his next words. "You know my feelings concerning status and society, Anne. I am a sailor. I have never aspired to be a great man. But standing amid those people, knowing that they considered Mr. Elliot to be the properest marriage partner for you...especially your father and Lady Russell! It was too great a burden for me to bear."
Anne groaned in memory. "Then you can imagine my pain when I saw you leaving! I wanted to shout at you, to tell you that what you were seeing was not true. That I had not formed a new tie with Mr. Elliot. But you would not stay."
Frederick regarded her fondly, remembering that evening. "You were a little tigress, darling, all agitation and fire. It quite riveted me and nearly caused me to act like some of the heathen I once witnessed in the Bahamas. To take you with me and damn the consequences! Only your cousin's interruption prevented me from acting so wantonly."
She assured him, "I promise you that I never would have given in, Frederick. I had learned my lesson, I assure you. Even before...I learnt what I did at Mrs. Smith's today something had always bothered me about him, a lack of openness about his nature. He had quite thrown Father off some years back and it puzzled me how he could suddenly alter so quickly."
Frederick stopped, his interest piqued. "Mrs. Smith? Your old school fellow you have been visiting?" He paused, grinning at his own confession. "You see, Anne, I have been aware of your every movement these last ten days. I was a hopeless man, indeed."
His beloved blushed becomingly and lowered her eyes accordingly. "I had no idea you were so persistent, captain. I must say I was not as fortunate as you in knowing your whereabouts. But Mrs. Smith told me a terrible tale this day, Frederick. It seems that Mr. Elliot knew her dear late husband and caused him to invest unwisely. That is why she is well nigh impoverished. His affairs are a mess and Mr. Elliot did not lift a finger to help."
She went on, still smarting at the memory of it. "She showed me a letter she had kept from him to her husband, declaring how distasteful meeting my father and sister had been. While I know the faults of my family, to see his duplicity so vividly was greatly upsetting me. How I wish there were something I might do to help Mrs. Smith regain something of what she has lost! But I know so little of these matters."
Frederick silently blessed Anne's friend for revealing such painful yet important news. At least there had been one unwitting person standing in his favor. "I shall do all I can to assist her, darling," he promised Anne. "She kept you from succumbing to the very active pretensions of a seemingly polished man of fashion. I owe her a great debt."
"My father and Elizabeth will also be shocked to learn that his style of life is a sham," she went on, holding tighter to his arm as they came over the hill. "He lives on borrowed money. It is the title, the land that he was seeking in paying his attentions to me. So you see, I mattered very little. He had no true attraction to me at all."
Halting as they came to the bottom of the hill, Frederick turned Anne to face him. There was something almost fierce in his eyes and she looked up at him in surprise.
"My darling, Mr. Elliot found you quite lovely, of that I can assure you," he firmly remarked, his hands on her shoulders. "When I saw him look at you on the beach at Lyme, your history unknown to him, I knew he wanted to know you. To have you. There is something irresistibly warm and loving in you, Anne. It is impossible to deny. So I shall not have you saying something that is not true."
His expression softened as his fingers relaxed on her shoulders. "Forgive my fervency when I speak. But it is with a knowledge dearly bought, for I am all too aware of how easily you might be standing before him now and not me."
Frederick paused, knowing they were now totally alone and out of sight from prying eyes. He must say this now or wait until tomorrow. He dropped to his knee then, taking up her small, gloved hand in his.
"Miss Anne Elliot, I again offer you my heart, my life, my future. For I love you now more than I did nearly nine years ago when I first declared myself. Will you do me the honor, the great honor of becoming my wife? My very best helpmate and lover? For if you refuse me now, this simple sailor shall forever wish himself having been sunk in the Asp in light of facing life without you."
"Oh, Frederick," she breathed, light flooding from her eyes, pouring from her very soul. "Yes....yes!"
Then she was in his arms and against his heart, his mouth claiming hers for all time. He crushed her to him almost violently, every emotion and yearning set free at last. His Anne, his beloved little one was finally his. And nobody could take her away. She was meeting his kiss with equal passion, equal warmth as the storm of their reunited love swept over them. Her very slight fingers were making forays through the hair at the back of his neck. The incredible feel of her small, soft body against his was pushing him over the very edge of sanity.
When he drew back at last, Frederick felt the pounding of his own heart echoed in Anne's own, so close was she clasped against him. This woman alone could draw the fiercest passion and the most possessive adoration from him, push him to new heights of ambition and shine the gentlest light onto his path. For a long, quiet moment, Frederick could only offer a prayer of thanks to God for having been so blessed.
The autumnal light of late afternoon was dancing off of her dark locks, bringing out fiery highlights that echoed the passion they had just shared. That smile, meant only for him, was holding him rooted to the ground, spellbound, robbed of speech.
And then, like an enchanted fairy princess, Anne gently lifted her hand and touched his face. Something inexpressibly beautiful passed between them and complete understanding reigned. The past was over and done. Nothing could ever separate them again.
"Frederick, you are my heart's captain," she fervently whispered, her soft voice catching. "I am yours...as long as you will have me."
Frederick's own hand rose to clasp the one against his face. His love for her blazed from those dark, brooding eyes and transformed him. "Oh, no, my love," he gently told her "For it is I who am, and have always been, your captive. And I shall never wish to be released."
Knowing the hour to be growing late, Frederick reluctantly agreed that he must escort Anne home to Camden Place. It had been hours since Charles had left them at the White Hart. But they had only seemed like seconds to the blissfully happy pair.
The dry autumn leaves crunched beneath his boots as they made slow progress. Had it been nine years ago, Frederick thought, when Anne and I walked together, hardly able to get in a word edgewise? We thrived in the warmth of each other's company. To be silent was unthinkable, to not share everything unheard of. Now they walked quietly, sometimes silently, but with the knowledge that their communication now did not always require words.
"It was difficult at times to know your thoughts, Anne," Frederick spoke aloud, wanting to hear her sweet voice again. "But there were moments when I would look at you, as in the past, and I felt I could hear you speak to me. Wishing so much to speak but unable to do so."
Nodding, Anne replied frankly, "I had been silent for so long, my voice drowned out by others. My situation had kept me quiet and my thoughts remained unspoken. It was only upon seeing you again, upon leaving Kellynch that something began to change. The life, the energy that lay dormant began to stir again, to break free."
She paused and glanced up at him, their gazes holding. He could never tire of watching her expressive eyes. "It was as if being near you again...restored me to life. It was as if...winter thawed into spring after all that time!"
Regarding her fondly, Frederick briefly touched her cheek with his free hand. She never stopped amazing him with her wisdom, her gentle smile. "I think I must have felt something akin to that when I removed to Shropshire, little one," he mused. "My anger, my resentment had fallen away and I was left hardly knowing who I was. I had held fast to it for so many years. My heart was raw, set free of the secret love I had held for you and yet denied."
They turned the corner and Frederick caught sight of a young Army officer crossing the street. His admiring glance at Anne reminded Frederick of how very close he had come to losing her to another.
"Anne, I want to marry you very soon," he told her quietly, resolute. The almost commanding tone of his low voice made his intentions clear. "The peace is at an end now that Bonaparte has got off Elba and raised an Army. They are likely to send me back to sea. I should like us to wed before that if we may, but it is possible we shall not have the time until I return."
"I do hate the thought of having to give you up..when I have only just recovered you," she murmured wistfully. "But I shall do what you think best, Frederick. You will come tonight?"
He knew what she was asking and nodded. "Yes, and I shall formally ask for your hand. It is a task I scarcely have patience to wait to perform."
"Frederick, I am not a young girl any longer," she reminded him softly, a glimmer of warmth brewing in her hazel eyes as she clasped his arm closer to her. "There is no need for desperation or impatience."
"You will always be young and fresh in my eyes," Frederick told her quietly as they cross the street. "The years may have added to your wisdom, your kindness, your virtues, but in my heart, I see you still as I did as of old. There is something still innocent, yet untouched about you. It awakens something primitive in my soul, this delightful awareness that you are my special treasure to protect from the evils of this world."
As they slowly made progress down the nearly deserted sidewalk, Frederick smiled down at her. She made a becoming picture in her pale white gown and warm blue spencer. Her arm was linked closely with his, a sight he had never thought to witness again. The mere sight of her gloved hand played havoc with his senses.
"You cannot know the torture I experienced in these last weeks," he confessed. "That instinct to care for you kicked into life long before I would allow myself to realize I still loved you. When we returned from Winthrop that day, it was obvious how weary you were. I could not help but have Sophy and the Admiral take you home."
"I was so surprised," Anne admitted, glancing up at him warmly. "I deserved no such kindness from you. None at all. And that day in Molland's when you offered me your umbrella. It nearly broke my heart to have to walk away from you."
Frederick nodded, remembering all too well. "I could not resist thinking of the past, remembering how easily you took cold. That day you came to visit the Musgroves and were chilled. Your little hands were shaking. How I longed to hold them in mine, to warm them and clasp them tight! In all my years, I had never been called to assert such control as I did in this."
Anne was pensive as they neared Camden Place. Frederick knew that the closer they came to her family's new home, the more unhappy she became.
"The time will come when you can leave your family forever, Anne," he promised her. "They never knew you, could never hope to. Tonight I shall have the sheer pleasure of watching you at the party, knowing we are no longer parted."
Anne soberly remarked, "I hold fast to that truth with more strength than you know, Frederick. It is wearying to my soul to be...somewhere I am not wanted. Your sister is so dear to me. I hope...she will be pleased to call me 'sister.'"
"Of course she shall," Frederick assured her, dropping a kiss on her forehead to give her courage. "She and the Admiral talk of nothing but your goodness, your sweet nature. You are already thick as thieves, I feel. This can only add to their joy. She has been hoping to marry me off these last ten years or more."
As they came to the door of her house, Anne paused on the step and looked up at him with uncertainty resting in her eyes. The sight of her, standing so near, had an immediate effect on him. Frederick took off his hat and immediately took her small, cold hands in his.
"Are you sure...I am the wife she would want for you, Frederick?" she asked softly, her voice a trifle husky. "I should hate to disappoint a woman I admire so."
"She will know that in loving you, I have been made the happiest brother she could hope to have," he quietly informed her. "And that is exactly what Sophy would wish for me. Never worry on that score. You are my peace, Anne, and nobody can stand in the way of my making you my wife. Not this time."
Without haste, Frederick lifted those hands and kissed each one. He could almost feel the sweet, soft skin beneath the thin gloves she wore. The very action made him draw breath deeply. "Until this evening, my love?" he asked with a secret smile. "In only a few hours we will be together again."
Her indrawn breath, a sure sign of her anticipation, was like a rich balm to his soul. How he adored every tiny facet of this little woman. To spend the rest of his life relearning the secrets of her was his fondest dream come true.
"Until tonight, my captain," she whispered, slowly, almost unwillingly taking slow steps up to the door. A slow, lingering warmth seemed to glow between them and her hand remained in his until the last possible moment, dropping only when distance necessitated she enter the house.
Only when the door had firmly shut behind her did Frederick turn round dazedly and replace his hat firmly. What a day! For the first time in nine years, Frederick knew his life was firmly on course to the utter fiber of his being. Anne would be his wife. That knowledge pounded through his head like a happy cry.
So rapt was he with this knowledge that he nearly ran over a man coming into his way. "Frederick, do attend! You cannot mean to trample over your oldest and dearest friend?"
"Harville, I am a true idiot," Frederick apologized, but he was still smiling. Would the whole world see it blazing from his face? "Do forgive my brutish actions. I was indeed not paying heed to my surroundings."
Harville, leaning on his cane, regarded his friend with a keen eye. "You have talked to Miss Anne and gained her heart once more! Tell me if I am not right!"
"Aye," Frederick agreed, his face the picture of utter contentment and triumph. "All these last hours we have been talking, renewing vows once left past. She has accepted me yet again and tonight I shall ask for her hand. I am a blessed man, Harville. More blessed than any man I know, to have her love."
Harville clapped him on the back as they began to walk down the street, unwittingly headed for their favorite tavern. "I am glad, Frederick. Very glad. So you are to beard the dragon in his den this night at the party? You are a brave man, indeed. Would you care for me to accompany you?"
"The words were on my lips, old friend," Frederick replied. "Thank you for that and you know you were invited just the same. You are one of the reasons I am grinning like a fool. If you had not drawn her out in conversation, I do not know what I should have done."
Taking time to make his way down the street, Harville laughed. "I doubt you would have waited much longer, Frederick. I know your stubborn, confident streak. Margaret will be that glad to know I've been playing cupid to you during my visit. She will be much pleased to see you return with a wife such as Miss Anne."
Frederick considered the evening to come with anticipation and confidence. Tonight, before the world, he would claim Anne Elliot as his love, his woman, his life. And not a soul could put a stop to it.
The Bath sky was strewn with stars that night and a full moon shone down on Frederick and Harville as they came out of the Croft townhouse in Minden Lane. The Crofts had already left for Camden Place.
Looking up, Harville commented sagely, "Tis' a full moon that can bring out the oddest behavior in a man, Frederick. Perhaps Sir Walter will attribute your proposal to it and forgive you."
Chuckling, Frederick put on his hat and replied, "I should wonder that Sir Walter would have the inclination to look up at the sky at all. In my brief meetings with him, he has been more prone to be hunting for the nearest looking glass."
"A veritable Narcissus, then," Harville commented as they started out. Camden Place was not so very far and Harville's strength had improved during his stay in Bath in that it forced him to go out with Frederick to pay calls and enjoy the entertainments of the place. "Then I should wonder at him giving you any opposition to your application, Frederick. Likely he shall not protest. He's not the same man you faced eight years ago."
Nodding, Frederick thought back to that first proposal. Oh yes, how was he likely to forget? Sir Walter had not given him an adamant, decided negative. What he had deigned to give had been infinitely worse. Sir Walter had acted as if his application were beneath his notice. He remembered standing in the Elliot library, seeing that look of frozen hauteur on the older man's face.
That moment had haunted him during his years at sea. He had been angry at that look and everything that accompanied it in its assumptions. Sir Walter could only see rank, fortune, and connections as the stamp of a man's worth. Frederick had grown up in a family that valued intelligence, kindness, and strength over fashion and status. His family circle had been most intimate before his parent's death. And even now, he, Sophy, and Edward were most warmly attached to each other.
He had sorely pitied Anne that night, perhaps glimpsing the difficulty she was to face in pressing her point of wishing her father to approve their match. But Sir Walter was in different straits now. His remove to Bath and success there remained tainted by the well-spoken fact that he had been intemperate in his spending. His fortune, while not in ruins, was not nearly what it had once been. Frederick no longer cared if Sir Walter favored him or not. It was Anne he was concerned about and it was Anne he would marry. And tonight he was an invited guest, a card having come from Elizabeth herself. This very object he had nearly torn in two in disgust of her.
He thanked his Maker that Anne was not like her father or sisters. It was this very thing that had struck him about her years before. And at Uppercross he had witnessed it with dawning awareness. Anne regarded the Musgroves as dear friends to be treasured and enjoyed. Never had she spoken of being one of the "Elliots of Kellynch", rarely speaking of her home, if ever. No, not his Anne. Frederick had often wished to have met Lady Elliot, Anne's mother. It had to have been her influence that had made Anne the lovely, charming young woman she had become. Who could know what might have happened to the family had she lived?
As the pair approached Camden Place, Harville asked him, "What are your plans, Frederick? Will you wed without haste? Do tell me that your sensible Anne will not spend days on end as these girls do in choosing her wedding gear?"
Grinning, Frederick assured his friend, "Nay, she would not make you endure pattern books, my friend. I can assure you of that. Truth be told, I received a letter this evening which delayed our departure. With Bonaparte showing his face yet again, I am summoned to London by Admiral Galway, who may yet need me and I owe him that much for his support in my younger days on the Asp. I should like to be married in short time but you know the Navy. They are forever on a different clock altogether."
Harville, making easy progress on his cane, sidestepped a passing gentleman and replied, "Don't I know it. Still, it should be a lively jig they'll dance in light of this development. Much as I adore my Margaret and the children, the sailor in me is itching to see some action again."
"Tis' likely you shall see it indeed," Frederick answered. "Is it not strange, but I have no desire to be any part of it. The Admiral would have a good laugh over it to know how right he was. Facing the prospect of being apart from Anne...it tears me to bits to leave her. But I want her to have a proper wedding, with all that attends. She cannot have that with me tearing to London."
"I doubt she should care for all those trifles. Marry quickly and take her with you as the Admiral takes Sophy," Harville suggested with his usual open succinctness. "She is a good traveler. And we both know she has a cool head in a crisis. I should only be so fortunate to have a first lieutenant with such a manner."
Frederick shook his head. "No, I shall not put her through that so soon. And to endanger her in any fashion would wound me more than I could bear. No, Harville, at least not now. These frogs have a nasty way of breaking the rules. And Anne shall not suffer for it as a result of my selfish desire to have her near me."
They had arrived at Camden Place at last. Looking up at the windows, Frederick saw the candles burning brightly. He also noticed, to his dismay, that Mr. Elliot was standing at one of the windows with Elizabeth. The mere sight of the man set his blood at a slow boil. He took great pleasure in knowing that after tonight, Anne need never be bothered with the puppy again.
They were received below and a servant escorted them upstairs to the drawing room, which was elegantly decorated in gold and blue. As he had expected, the card tables had been set up and the game begun. Around him were faces familiar to him. His own sister and the Admiral, the Musgroves, the Dalrymples were all murmuring their greetings as well.
But Frederick's eye was drawn to one part of the room without effort. Standing nearby was his beloved Anne. His eyes glowed as they rested on her countenance, the soft hue of her cheek made lovely by the flickering fire in the hearth beside her. The rose sarcenet gown she wore complimented her dark coloring and the pearls seeded through her soft locks made her appear ethereal and delicate.
Never in his life had Frederick seen a woman more lovely, more glowing with life and affection than at this moment. She caught and clung at his heart, making the air in his lungs constrict. It was as if not a year had passed since their first engagement. She was as fresh and blooming as ever. Love and love returned had transformed her into something beautiful and profoundly lovely.
He smiled at that tender look, unable to stop himself. By her mere presence she was fueling his confidence, his ardor. Her very gaze, so happy and expectant, elevated him and made him feel as if there was no task he could not accomplish.
Sir Walter arose from his table and turning round, greeted him with alacrity. "Captain Wentworth, Captain Harville! Won't you join us for some whist? Please, do come in!"
"I have come on business, Sir Walter," Frederick announced confidently, his smile unsinkable.
This remark caught the usually unflappable Sir Walter unprepared. "Business?" he echoed in surprise, glancing back at Lady Dalrymple. It would not do to have his esteemed cousin upset. Perhaps he ought to have reconsidered his invitation to the Captain. Oh what a muddle, Sir Walter thought with despair.
"My proposal of marriage to your daughter, Anne, has been accepted," Frederick continued proudly, his eyes returning to her. "And I have come, sir, to discuss it with you."
Amid the gasps of surprise and pleasure, Frederick heard none of them. It was the small, happy smile of the woman he loved more than life that he could not tear his eyes from. This moment, this splendid conclusion to their stormy history, had come at last. And they were both blissfully aware that convention, opinion, or fortune could not stand in the way of their happiness ever again. The slate was wiped clean, all pain and sad memories erased. Life began again this night.
"Anne?" Sir Walter's indignant, shocked voice intruded on his reverie. "You want to marry Anne? Whatever for?"
Frederick nearly laughed out loud. The moment, for all its gravity, would yet have something of a comic footnote to it. Sir Walter's utter perplexity was too authentic to be believed false. For the baronet appeared truly stupefied that he should want to marry his daughter. It confirmed to Frederick that Sir Walter's notice of his daughter had sunk even further in the intervening years. He had absolutely no knowledge of her worth nor had he any wish to know to.
Sitting at a table very near, Sophy was beaming like a Christmas tree newly lit. He had never seen his sister in great transports. "Oh Frederick," she breathed, unable to say another word. It was the first time her brother had ever seen her rendered totally incapable of speech.
A more sobering sight was that of Mr. Elliot's decidedly angry countenance. To see any marked emotion on the man's face was a decided departure. He walked silently out of the room and Mrs. Clay soon followed. But Frederick did not care if they sailed to Australia for all his concern of the two.
Sanity at last descended on Sir Walter and he recollected as to who's company he was in. The Lady Dalrymple had only spoken last night of the Captain's handsome appearance and demeanor. Surely that was high praise coming from the leader of Bath society. That he wanted to marry Anne was surprising to the utmost. She was so very quiet, so very dull, and she had no notion of fashion or society ways.
"Well, then, Captain, shall you and I adjourn to my study to discuss the matter," Sir Walter finally suggested. "I shall have the pleasure of it, indeed. I am quite happy and at leisure to receive your proposal to my daughter."
The two men left the room and tackled the task at hand, Frederick wishing to spend as little time with Sir Walter as possible. To hear the man's empty compliments after years of knowing his true nature was almost abhorrent to him. Frederick highly doubted Sir Walter even recalled that dreadful moment nine years ago, so beneath his notice it had been.
Frederick explained the uncertainty of the future, his wish to marry Anne upon learning his role in the war to come. Sir Walter listened, nodded, and gave his assent. Whatever Frederick wished would be accomplished. The matter, Sir Walter assured him, rested with Anne and himself. She had grown rather willful lately, Sir Walter said, and no longer heeded anything he said. It had taken all of his inner decorum for Frederick not to physically applaud.
Upon their return to the Drawing Room some minutes later, Frederick was assailed by well-wishers. Sophy, of course, insisted on teasing her brother first.
"You are as sly as Napoleon, Frederick. Sneaking about and paying court with nary a word! And the dear Admiral and I prattling on about dear Anne without a notion of your intentions. I would be severe on you were I not so happy."
Mrs. Musgrove added her felicitations, her round face beaming like a proud mother's. "Tis' a joy to see our Miss Anne so happily settled. She did me so much good during my dear girl's illness. Take good care of our Miss Anne, Captain. I know you shall!"
As the room buzzed with conversation, the cards all forgotten now save for the Dalrymples and Elizabeth. Those ladies had continued as if nothing had happened. So be it, Frederick thought firmly.
As their friends and family surrounded them, Frederick soon found Anne and drew her to his side. Deliberately, lovingly, he settled his strong arm about her shoulders and felt her sigh of relief and pleasure. He wanted her to enjoy every sweet compliment, every deep wish for their future happiness. They had traveled a long, difficult road to reach this moment. And Frederick wished her to savor every blessed word, every kindness. She deserved each and every one.
Much later, when the others had returned to their cards and the excitement had died down, Frederick drew Anne away to join him in the nearby conservatory. But gazing upon hothouse plants was the last thing on his mind at that moment. The very last.
It was all too easy, too wonderful to gently bring her into his arms, to lift her off her tiny feet and kiss those soft, rosy lips. She was flushed with happiness, nearly bursting with the wish to speak it. "We have done it, Frederick," she spoke excitedly. "My heart...it is full to the brim."
For a long, blissful moment, Frederick held her tightly, his lips against her soft hair, wishing to fix this moment, these feelings forever. He wanted to keep her in his arms like this, safe, unharmed, forever. His own emotions were fighting for freedom, his thoughts tangled. Yes, nearly nine years had passed since their first engagement. But this time was different for another reason besides time.
Their love had matured, deepened, and become more steadfast than their youthful romance. It was an affection, a true communion of hearts that went beyond emotion and pleasure. It was a thorough, tried knowledge of each other's hearts, of each other's strength. They were two pilgrim souls, having wandered separate for so long only to be inexorably drawn back together again. Now their marriage would be settled on the firmest rock, the wisest knowledge of each other, having come through fire and trial only to survive stronger and more settled.
"Frederick," Anne murmured urgently. "Are you...happy? Do tell me..."
Her breath was coming in little gasps, her soft breath against his neck threatening to shake his control. She yet still did not know how deeply she moved him.
Unable to help himself, Frederick chucked softly, kissing her cheek, her hazel eyes, her forehead. "Oh little one," he spoke, his deep voice husky and moved. "Need you ask? You are my life, my all.."
Then Frederick was kissing her, his mouth moving against hers slowly, thoroughly as if to assure her without words that never again would she be alone, never would she have to question his affection.
While the world and its evils might threaten to intrude, this tender, golden moment would stand alone as their new beginning, their first "voyage" together into life and love. <
Fully expecting to find his fiancee, Frederick entered the warm, inviting Library of Kellynch and instead came upon his sister writing a letter.
"Oh Frederick," she cried in happy surprise. "You are returned from Uppercross. Are the Musgroves in a stir about tomorrow's happy event?"
"The place could not be in more chaos," her brother dryly reported, looking rather amused at the same time. "The sisters are settling last minute wedding details and their dear mother is trying to keep her head amidst it all. Charles and his father were quite happy to escape for a while, I can assure you."
Frederick had ridden over to Uppercross from Kellynch that morning to take a note from Anne to the Miss Musgroves offering her assistance should they need it and examine a new gun Charles had been boasting of for some time. The ride had invigorated him and he was now eager to see Anne. She had been in the Still Room with the housekeeper, attending to something the servants had needed, when he had gone.
"I imagine I am not the person you were so eagerly seeking," Sophy surmised with a saucy grin. "Do not apologize. I have had experience enough at witnessing lovestruck sailors. You are not the first nor shall you ever be the last. Did not my dear George tell you how things would change when someone brought you your wife?"
Frederick playfully thumped his sister on the nose, a habit he had never quite given up from childhood. "Has George not yet taught you, after all this time, that selective memory in a woman should be used for a man's good, not always to his detriment? Yes, I am in search of Anne. Has she concluded her business with Mrs. Marshall?"
"Oh yes, quite so," Sophy assured him, putting aside her pen. "I have to admit, that is one task I am glad she offered to handle for me. Dealing with large estate business is not my strong suit. I am much more at peace aboard a man o' war any day. No, she is all done with that. She has gone for walk down past the stables, I think."
Frederick frowned thoughtfully. "The wind's gone keen and it's threatening snow again. She's likely to catch cold if out for too long. I'll bring her home then."
Sophy clucked her tongue in amusement. "Already you are treating the poor girl like Dresden porcelain, Frederick. She is a strong woman, quite capable of taking care of herself."
Frederick found himself smiling like a smitten schoolboy but he did not care. "It is she who will be taking care of me, Sophy, as you well know. How can I deny it? It is difficult to be away from her, for even a short time. You can well imagine what a sad trial I will be to my crew if they send me to sea again. I shall fret for her safety all the while."
Grinning at her brother, Sophy turned from the desk and her wise eyes appraised her brother's fond gaze out the window. She had never seen her brother like this, so content, so utterly aware of his own happiness and good fortune. It shone from him like a light and warmed her heart. This very condition made Anne Elliot the worthiest woman of Frederick's love in Sophy's mind. Her only fear was that Anne's loving heart would be sadly bruised by a long separation from Frederick if he went to sea again.
"Frederick, you know that Anne shall always have a place with the Admiral and myself," she gently reminded him. "Kellynch has truly become our new home, even if he should be sent to sea again. I shall stay here if he does, as they are likely not to allow me with him in light of Napoleon's blight on us. Anne and I will make ourselves merry here and keep company."
Turning from the window, Frederick thanked his sister. "I am in your debt for that, Sophy. I should be quite hopeless if I thought Anne had been left friendless to wait for me. Pardon me, I'm going to see where she's gotten to. That wind is getting stiff."
Frederick swept up his greatcoat as he made his way out the garden door and made quick progress down the well-worn path that Anne always followed on her walks. She had a tendency to return to a certain grove to the west of the house near the stables and he thought she would likely be there.
Frederick had just come over the rise when he caught sight of her. She was standing in the stableyard with two of the grooms, holding a puppy in her arms. She was laughing softly at its antics, its attempt to lick her cheeks. The very scene made him smile. Anne so delighted in simple things, in the daily events of life. Were it not a time of war, she would make the perfect companion aboard ship.
When Anne looked up and saw Frederick's arrival, he saw the change in her instantly. Everything else seemed to fade from her attention and a subtle warm glow rose in her cheeks. To see that look...to know that it was for him and him alone made Frederick more grateful and humble than he could ever express.
"You have an ardent admirer, my dear," he remarked playfully as he came down the path. "Have I been supplanted in your affections by this young upstart? Another rival I shall have to face?"
Smiling, Anne held the wriggling animal up to meet his inspection. "My Spring Spaniel Beatrice had puppies during my absence and this is one of her rather large litter. Is he not a darling, Frederick? I think I shall have to keep him."
Chuckling, Frederick nodded to the grooms who were respectfully bowing. "I hope you decide to do the same in my case, little one. Yes, he is a playful little fellow. Have you a name for him yet?"
She looked thoughtful as she considered the question, handing the puppy back to one of the grooms. "I had not thought of it. I was simply hoping he would keep Sophy and I amused...when you and the Admiral are gone to London."
Frederick heard the slight note of wistfulness in her voice and took one of her small, gloved hands in his. "Then I welcome our new arrival if he makes you happy. Come now, let us walk back to the house. It would do no good if you were to become chilled and worn out before I depart."
Anne gladly took his hand and they moved out of the stableyard. She always grasped these moments they could have alone together as precious treasures. Only last night had she confided to him that she was saving them like memories in her heart to cheer here when he was absent.
She paused as they neared the quiet corner she usually favored, the stone bench she had visited so many times still present. Her quiet hazel eyes were full of feeling as Frederick glanced down at her.
"Your eyes are speaking but I cannot hold all they are saying," Frederick quietly told her. "Please tell me what is troubling you, darling. What drove you from the house to walk alone in the cold and wind?"
"I am not troubled," she assured him, smiling gratefully for a moment. "I was simply remembering things, how often I used to escape the house to spend some peaceful moments alone. It was my refuge of sorts."
Frederick felt the small shiver that rattled her petite frame and gently pulled her into his arms. The soft sigh of unbidden relief and happiness that escaped her tugged on his heart strongly. Were two people more dependent on each other's happiness than they were? Could they be more attuned to each other's needs and unspoken desires? At this moment, he doubted it very much.
Now he could grasp a glimpse of what his sister had shared with George Croft all these years. How they could not get enough of each other's company, how much contentment and love they shared in doing everything together. He found himself wanting the very same things for himself and Anne.
Anne was so quiet that it worried him. There was something more to her refusal that nothing was amiss. His fingers rubbed her back through the thick pelisse she wore, hoping to ease her worry. "Anne, you cannot hide from me like this. What is on your heart?" he asked quietly.
"Frederick, I am so ashamed of what I put us through with my decision all those years ago," she confessed in a voice hardly above a whisper. "I..I truly thought I was doing what was right. You were hardly started in your career. To hold you down with a wife on shore...truly that was one of the main reasons I...broke with you. I felt it would harm your career...more than help. I know how much the Navy...means to you. Do not think it was only Lady Russell's opinions that influenced me...at the time."
Her soft, pleading words nearly broke him. This was news to him indeed. He had always imagined it to be all Lady Russell's doing in tearing them apart, in persuading Anne to refuse him. That her courage had failed her. Instead she had been placing his future ahead of her own happiness.
"How I wish you had told me this before," he finally spoke, his voice low and moved and his chin rested on her head. "I would have made you see how little the Navy meant to me in comparison to loving you. Even when I returned to England two years later, I could not help thinking of finding you yet again."
Anne nodded. "That is why I did not tell you. I knew you would overcome my resistance, act against yourself. I could not let myself be the reason you did not find success in the Navy. I simply could not do that to you...not after all you had been to me."
For a long, quiet moment, Frederick did not speak but merely held her against his heart, awed by the wonder of the woman that was nestled in his arms. If any woman had suffered, had paid a price for her kindness, her virtue, her loving nature, it was his Anne.
Finally, Frederick moved so that Anne was looking up at him. The faint suspicion of tears in her dark eyes caused him to gently kiss her eyes, then her forehead. "Darling, I think it is well past time that we laid the past to rest. To put blame, regret, and anger aside. To keep those memories that bring us joy and surrender the painful ones. For if we do not, it will certainly return to haunt our present season of happiness."
A slight smile played about her lips as she regarded him, and he gently brushed her cheek with his fingers, softly, caressingly. "From this moment on, everything is new. I will never again blame you for the events that ended our first engagement, if you will be as good as to forgive my blindness for having midjudged you so. They are over and done. You have more than proven your love and devotion to me...something that few men ever have the blessing to experience. I only hope to do it justice in our marriage."
She blushed as the intensity of his gaze intensified. The wind was toying with her soft, dark curls and his lips brushed their softness briefly. "You are my peace, Anne, my anchor. That shall never change. In the past, I never knew how difficult it was to be apart from a woman when you love her as deeply, as urgently as I love you. I never understood Harville's melancholy when he would speak of Margaret and the children. But now I do!"
He paused as he considered his words, laying bare his soul for her to see. "It is humbling to love you, Anne, for I fear sometimes that I shall find you gone. At night, I awaken in the darkness, as I once did aboard ship, and seek you, realizing you're not there. No, I shall not know true peace until I do turn and find your soft, warm body coming into my arms...against my heart."
Anne's expression softened, warmed, glowed with a hint of flickering fire that indicated the passionate emotions that Frederick knew lay just below the surface. Even in the short time they had been reunited, he had no doubt of the depths of her feelings for him. At times it took all his strength and will to put her from his embrace and remember that they were not yet man and wife. No one could remark that his Anne could not be passionate, warm and loving.
"Then, captain, you know something of what I suffer in knowing I may soon watch you sail out of my life," Anne finally spoke softly, intimately. "But I draw strength from knowing you will sail back again and the bonds between us, the silent depth of joy we share, will only be stronger and more true for having been tried."
Frederick could not answer this wise, loving woman whose tempting lips and glowing eyes were only inches from his own. No, it was too rich a pleasure, too divine a gift to refuse for the sake of causing their neighbors to talk.
As the first downy flakes fluttered down from the gray sky, catching, melting in Anne's glossy, chestnut tresses, Frederick clasped her even more closely against his chest and murmured huskily against her waiting mouth, "Woman, I love you..."
Then there was no longer a need for words, for sound, for reason as rational thought gave way to truth, love, and feeling. The Captain and his lady were now entering a private, far-off sea meant only for two.
#169 1997 Copyright held by the author.