Part 1: A Look At Some Events Leading Up To Col. Brandon's Proposal
The Colonel, Marianne, the Colonel!" cried Margaret from her treehouse perch.
Marianne leapt up from the piano, smoothed her skirt, pinched her cheeks and hurried out the door of Barton Cottage to greet Colonel Brandon, returning from his week's journey.
Colonel Brandon took a deep breath to calm himself as he dismounted. Turning to the cottage he saw his beloved's radiant smile turned upon HIM as she hurried toward him. His heart leapt into his throat as she grasped both of his hands in welcome.
"Oh, Colonel, you're back at last," she exclaimed.
Unable to speak, Brandon boldly kissed each of her tiny hands in turn, allowing his lips to linger just as long as he dared on her soft fingertips. Her smile deepened and a soft blush rose to her cheeks as she squeezed his hands in response.
"Do come in. You must see the pianoforte! Oh thank you, thank you! It's just perfect, I've been playing and playing, and Oh! we have such news to share with you--it's simply too wonderful!"
His head reeling with this greeting, Brandon wordlessly followed as Marianne childishly pulled at his hand, leading him up the walk. It occurred to him that she had never before taken his hand except to be helped in or out of a carriage.
"Elinor, Mama, come see. Colonel Brandon has come home." The two materialized in the doorway as they approached
Seeing by his appearance that he had come directly without a stop at Delaford, Mrs. Dashwood spoke. "Colonel Brandon, Welcome, please come inside and refresh yourself after your journey. Betsy, a cold drink for the Colonel."
As Brandon entered the sitting room at Barton Cottage, he was so amazed by the scene before him that he nearly neglected to respond to Elinor's curtsey. Bolts of fabric, lengths of lace and various other sewing accouterments were scattered about the room. "I beg your pardon, I seem to be interrupting some very great project."
"Oh no, Colonel. you are so welcome" Elinor replied quickly. "And now you may share our joy, though you will no doubt be as surprised at our news as we once were."
"Whatever cause for your joy will surely increase my own as well." replied Brandon looking a bit puzzled.
"Don't you see?" chirped Marianne, "our Elinor and Edward Ferrars are to be married in June!"
Seeing his look of complete confusion, Elinor spoke up. "It's a rather long and complex story, I'm sure Marianne will give you the details at leisure, but Miss Steele's affections were rather suddenly turned to Edward's brother, Robert, leaving Edward free to marry. He and I met at Norland Park shortly after my dear Father's death. He had been engaged to Miss Steele since youth and found himself unable to break his promise to her, thus separating us. But now, dear Colonel, your kind offer of a parish for Edward will benefit me also, and I give you my heartfelt thanks"
"Oh, Miss Dashwood, I had no idea of your feelings for Mr. Ferrars. How terrible of me to send you as the bearer of my offer of a parish to enable him to marry another. I am deeply sorry for the grief such a task must have caused you."
"'Tis all past. Your intentions were, as always, pure and good, and all has worked out for our happiness."
The smile that was to become less of a surprise to those around him, lit his face as he wished her great joy.
"Speaking of happiness," said Mrs. Dashwood, "the music you have brought back to our home has lit our lives. It is so wonderful to hear Marianne play again. Thank you so much, it is such a lovely and thoughtful gift."
"It was indeed my pleasure. Were you all surprised?" he asked, looking at Marianne.
"Completely," she replied. "I never would have guessed that to be your secret mission. I have learned the piece you send along with it. Shall I play it for you now?"
Mrs. Jennings had a dear old friend and her husband arriving from Town for a visit. A large dinner was being given tonight in their honor; the first in a series of events and entertainments planned during their stay. Sir John and Mrs. Jennings had kindly included Edward in all their invitations. This was a great treat for Edward and Elinor as they were so busy, he with the new responsibilities of the parish and she with wedding and household preparations, that they seldom sat still together these days.
In the past Marianne had dreaded these events at Barton Hall but, since her illness, she somehow had gained the ability to look past their lack of polish and see their kind hearts. She actually, much to her amazement, found herself envying their unrestrained laughter.
Marianne paced, impatiently awaiting the carriage from Barton Hall. This was the first real dinner party since her illness, and she was eager to be off. Recent weeks had seen her figure restored, and she filled her favorite dress most becomingly. Oh why did everything seem to drag so slowly today? It was as if she was surrounded by snails instead of her regular family. Finally all was ready and they were on their way.
They entered the drawing room full of talk and laughter. Mrs. Jennings' friends, the Hamptons, seemed to be very friendly in a quiet and gentle way. Mrs. Hampton and Mrs. Dashwood took to one another immediately and they were quickly lost in conversation.
Mr. Hampton seemed to be a gentle man, listening with a smile as Sir John and General Duncan regaled him with stories of service in India. The General was white haired, trim and crisp, but his smile was kindly and, noticing her interest, he eagerly invited Margaret to come listen to the tales.
Colonel Brandon arrived soon after and Marianne was surprised at the quickening of her pulse. Something seemed different about him tonight--he seemed more at ease, and she was struck by the strength and dignity of his bearing. His smile of greeting reached his eyes, causing them to glisten like gold in the candlelight. He greeted Mrs. Jennings then came directly to Marianne. "I must speak with the General, Marianne. It has been some years since our last meeting and the circumstances at that time were not favorable." Marianne smiled and nodded, feeling quite happy as she watched Brandon move cross the room.
As her stomach gurgled, Marianne wondered what was delaying dinner. Suddenly Mrs. Hampton spoke out. "Ah, here is our darling Elizabeth." Marianne looked up, as the most gorgeous woman she had ever seen entered the room.
Mrs. Jennings bustled over, "Oh my dear, you are a vision. Did you rest well? Here, you must meet our dear neighbors, the Dashwoods."
Elizabeth was indeed a vision--seemingly perfect in every respect. She floated across the floor like an exquisite snowflake. Her hair was a cloud of the palest silver blonde, with blue eyes like a winter morning's sky and porcelain skin.
"Ladies, this is the Hampton's niece, Mrs. Elizabeth Fontaine. She is rather recently widowed, poor dear, and her parents deceased, so she has come to live with her aunt and uncle. You know all too well, my dears, the sad situation of a widowed woman whose estate has been entitled elsewhere."
Mrs. Jennings leaned closer, "Never fear, my dear, with looks like yours, you'll be married again in no time. There are many of the more mature gentlemen who prefer experience to the giggles and prattle of youth. Don't you agree, Colonel Brandon?" she asked loudly, beckoning to him. "Elizabeth, this is our most handsome and eligible bachelor, Colonel Brandon. Isn't she a beauty, Colonel?"
"Indeed," the Colonel answered, slowly bowing over her hand
Marianne stiffened as Elizabeth moved to Brandon's side, took his arm and led him across the room, speaking softly all the while. He glanced back at Marianne, as if to speak, then turned back to Elizabeth.
"She doesn't waste any time," Elinor whispered into Marianne's ear, "very smooth".
"Perhaps it's all that experience," retorted Marianne a bit hotly. Elinor squeezed her hand and smiled encouragingly. She had seen the subtle changes in Marianne's manner toward the Colonel, though she had not mentioned it. Elinor was sure that Marianne was falling in love quietly, without even knowing it. Maybe this is just the thing she needs, thought Elinor, to awaken her feelings, so buried since the loss of Willoughby and the resolve to restrain her romantic impulses.
Elizabeth remained the center of attention throughout the meal, sparkling with informed and witty conversation. Marianne's evening, which had begun with such promise, was crumbling miserably around her. She considered using a headache as an excuse to leave early, but determined that to be childish. She therefore did the far more mature thing and sat alone in a corner for a good pout.
Finally, Colonel Brandon approached to inquire if she were feeling well and offer any assistance. Marianne coolly replied she was quite well, thank you, and needed no help. As the Colonel moved to sit down, Elizabeth's serene voice called him back to her. "Excuse me a moment, won't you Miss Marianne" He did not return.
Elizabeth's actions did not go unnoticed by any present but were met with very differing reactions. Mrs. Jennings, unaware of Marianne's change in feelings for the Colonel, was bubbling over with good cheer. She was confident in having made a good match for her dear and lonely friend.
Mrs. Dashwood was beside herself with worry. Just who was this woman and did she have the charms to turn the dear Colonel's head? She couldn't bear to see her sensitive daughter's hopes dashed again.
Edward, though not privy to Marianne's deepest feelings, was sensitive enough to his future sister in law to know she was upset by the evenings events. He said as much to Elinor and together the two of them spent the rest of the party trying to distract her.
Marianne awoke the next morning with renewed spirits. Surely last night was simply that, an unpleasant evening. She put the thought from her mind and set about the day's activities, unconsciously awaiting Colonel Brandon's customary afternoon call. "Duties at Delaford must keep him away," she assured herself as tea then supper came and went. "I will surely see him tomorrow at the luncheon at Barton Park"
The day of the luncheon dawned as fine and clear as a May day can be. Marianne's mood was light and gay as she and her family made preparations for the day's engagement. She must be more intentional in her attentions to the Colonel. Surely, she thought, he will be happy to see my affection for him shown more plainly. Perhaps this is a good lesson for me to not take him for granted. With these positive thoughts in her head she saw the house coming into view.
"Oh how nice," exclaimed Mrs. Dashwood, "it appears we will lunch outside. It is such a pleasant day for it."
Upon making the necessary greetings, Mrs. Dashwood took a place next to Mrs. Hampton and they took up conversation as if they had been fast friends for many years rather than a matter of hours. "Where is your charming niece?" asked Mrs. Dashwood a bit nervously, when there had been no evidence of her for some time.
"Oh, she is taking in all the glories of the beautiful countryside here," was the reply. "She had a great desire to go riding this morning, and it was arranged for the nice Colonel to accompany her. They have been gone these past hours. Why my dear Mrs. Dashwood, is there something wrong?"
Mrs. Dashwood was fighting with tears. "Oh Mrs. Hampton, I would not speak ill of your niece for all the world, but is she not aware of the attachment between the Colonel and my daughter Marianne?"
"Oh my, is there an engagement?"
"Not a formal agreement, but surely one is forthcoming. I'm convinced the Colonel is giving Marianne time to fully recover from her serious illness of the past winter before he formally presents his suit. They are together almost daily and I am convinced of their mutual regard."
"This weighs heavily on my heart, my dear new friend. Elizabeth has been ever used to having whatever she sets her sight on. She married very well and it has been quite a blow to become dependent upon relatives. If there is no formal agreement, I fear she may see no impediment to advancing her own ends."
It was at about this same time that Marianne too discovered the whereabouts of Elizabeth and Brandon. Her high hopes dashed, she excused herself and set off.
"Marianne, you must look at this reasonably" Elinor hurried along beside her sister. Walking was the best way Marianne knew to calm herself and she was moving along at a very aggressive pace. "Just because the Colonel has been polite to Elizabeth doesn't mean he's in love with her. I think she is using his unfailing good manners and tact to keep him at her beck and call throughout her stay here. The poor man is defenseless against her charming and seemingly innocent requests for company at this and that event. You know she needs an escort..."
"Why doesn't he tell her he loves ME?" railed Marianne.
"I'm sure she did not ask." Elinor answered wryly.
"She should have enough sense to leave him be if he told her he was mine. Maybe not, maybe she's after a well-to-do second husband. Oh Elinor, we can't let her steal him away from me now."
Elinor smiled inwardly at the intensity of feeling she was hearing. She was sure of the Colonel, knowing him to be steadfast and unwavering in his commitments. "Calm yourself, dearest. Do you think the Colonel changes his feelings so easily. Did he not carry you three miles through the pouring rain to save your life? Did he not ride throughout the night to bring Mama to your bedside? Did he not buy you the lovely pianoforte? Does he not visit to read and talk with you so very often? I think you need not worry"
"But Elinor, she's so beautiful and accomplished and worldly. I feel like an old dishcloth next to her. It's useless". With that Marianne sank to the ground and buried her face in her hands.
Upon returning to Barton Hall, Col. Brandon joined the gentlemen on the side lawn for a brandy. Accepting a glass from Sir John, he asked the whereabouts of Marianne and Elinor.
"Why, Miss Marianne asked if you were to be here with us this afternoon. I told her yes, and that you were out riding for the morning with Mrs. Fontaine. She thanked me and strode off like the devil himself was at her heels, Miss Elinor right behind her."
The Colonel's eyes had closed halfway through this recitation, knowing what was coming. Sighing he leaned back in his chair and remained silent, lost in thought. He had been pursued before--any unmarried man with property and a reasonable income could expect it. Never had it affected anyone but himself, and he had always been polite but not encouraging to the lady, until she tired of the task and moved on to more promising prospects. He realized that Mrs. Fontaine was using his unfailing politeness and good nature to manipulate the situation very cleverly.
His stomach suddenly twisted with a horrific thought. If--just if--Marianne was indeed warming to him, she could be enduring the pain of seeing the man she cared for attending another. His closed eyes tightened slightly, remembering scenes of Marianne so happy with Willoughby. If she was feeling any degree of such pain he must find a way to stop it- immediately. Should he profess his feelings for her? No, perhaps it would scare her away, he must be sure before proceeding...
His reverie was broken by the approach of young Margaret Dashwood. "How is the picnic proceeding, Captain?" he asked with a smile, having adopted Edward's custom of addressing her as an officer.
"The food is delicious, Colonel. You must eat before the bees carry it away though." Margaret took a step closer and looked into his eyes, she hesitated , then "Colonel?"
"What is it, Margaret?"
"Are you going to marry that Elizabeth lady instead of Marianne?"
Brandon actually flinched at the question. "What makes you say that?"
"That's what Marianne thinks, she's been so sad, but trying to be brave, like Elinor when she thought Edward was going to marry Miss Steele. Well, are you?"
"No, my dear. Have no worry on that account. Do you know in which direction you sisters went on their walk?"
"That way, sir." she replied, pointing.
"You must excuse me, Captain. I have an urgent mission to attend to," he left her with a brief flash of smile.
Elizabeth rejoined the luncheon party, settling beside her aunt with a small plate of tidbits. "Mrs. Dashwood, how lovely to see you today. I've had a blissful morning riding the countryside with the Colonel. I think I could find myself very contented settled here."
Elizabeth's aunt glanced at Mrs. Dashwood then cleared her throat. "My dear Elizabeth, what are you saying?"
"Oh Aunt, I know it is only a matter of time. The Colonel has been very attentive since my arrival, don't you think? How glad he must be to have me come along when marriage prospects nearby seem so few. Do you know him well, Mrs. Dashwood? Why do you think he has waited so long after his return from the service to marry?"
"I know the Colonel well enough to esteem him very highly, Mrs. Fontaine," came the cool reply. "The good Colonel will marry for no reason other than true love, I am sure of that."
"But a man in his position, master of an estate such as Deleford, he needs an heir. "
Are you aware, my dear, of an attachment between the Col. Brandon and Miss Marianne Dashwood?" her aunt inquired.
Elizabeth's eyebrows arched in surprise. "Miss Marianne? Excuse me Mrs. Dashwood, I intend no affront, but Marianne is but a babe compared to a woman of my experience. How could she possibly be the mistress of a great household such as the Colonel's? I'm afraid he must find me a much more suitable choice for the position. He has said nothing to me of any such attachment. In fact I find him to be a very silent man, a trait I do not mind. A woman can be much burdened with a husband's constant opinions. I find, on the whole, that husbands and wives have very little to talk of, so silence is not unwelcome. Mrs. Dashwood, your Marianne must be lost in a romantic dream, understandably so, the Colonel is a very handsome catch."
"Really, Mrs. Fontaine, I have found the Colonel to be a very pleasing conversationalist. He will speak with Elinor or Marianne by the hour. I wonder what it is that makes him tongue tied in your company?"
"Men have been known to find great beauty intimidating."
"Really?" countered Mrs. Dashwood suppressing a smile. This interchange has calmed her fears. The dear and loyal friend she knew could never love such a woman.
Brandon found the sisters, after a short search, sitting together near a small grove of trees.
"Marianne, I must speak with you." he announced upon his approach.
Elinor, seeing his agitation, excused herself and drifted away from the two, allowing some privacy.
"Isn't it Elizabeth you prefer speaking to? You seem to enjoy her company so much." Marianne put her hand to her mouth, wishing back the bitter tone of her words.
"Oh, Marianne! I am truly sorry I allowed her to manipulate the situation so. I have no desire to be with Mrs. Fontaine. Could you really think I prefer her company to yours, after all we've been through?"
"Well, why did you go with her then?" Marianne asked petulantly. "You could have said no...
"Marianne, this jealous pouting does not suit you, and I can see that I must put an end to it."
Hardly aware of what he was about to do, Brandon took her by the shoulders and brought his lips gently down onto hers. Marianne swayed for a moment and laid her palms against his broad chest to steady herself.
"Colonel...." she breathed in surprise.
"Christopher" he whispered back, "please call me Christopher." Still holding her arms he took a step back to look into her eyes. " How can you doubt me, Marianne, when I love you better than my own life. Don't you know that? I want nothing more than to be with you for the rest of my days."
Seeing her eyes widen and her face flush, he stammered, "Forgive me, I shouldn't have said...I mean"
"What do you mean?" Marianne asked feeling her pulse quicken.
"I must give you more time...."
"Time for what? What is it that you mean?"
"I mean, my dearest love, that I want you to be my wife."
Marianne's heart soared. Wickedly, knowing him to be caught off guard, she asked "Are you stating a fact or asking me a question, Christopher?"
Taking a deep, shaky breath, Christopher Brandon dropped to one knee. "Marianne, my love, will you marry me?"
Joy shining from her face she pulled him to his feet "Yes, Colonel Christopher Brandon, I will gladly marry you."
Heaving a great sigh he pulled her close to his chest and kissed her sun-warmed hair. She settled close to him, listening to his heart as it slowed to a steady pace, thinking she had never felt such peace and safety.
Elinor cleared her throat and the couple turned to look at her. "May I be the first to wish you both great happiness." She saw in Brandon a look she had never seen before, his face alight with happiness and looking years younger. "Shall you go tell them all the news?"
Marianne looked at Brandon expectantly and his smile dimmed a bit, knowing that his words would disappoint her. "I'm sorry Marianne but this marriage must be properly announced at Delaford. There are formalities that we must observe. I'll host a dinner just as soon as arrangements can be made, and the news can then be shared."
"We should return to Barton now though, I think Mrs. Jennings was nearly ready to begin tea and they will wonder what has detained us."
Sir John looked up in surprise upon their return, the sound of deep rich laughter having reached his ears. "By Jove, Brandon, it's good to hear a laugh from you."
Marianne hung back a moment, "Oh help me Elinor, How will I ever keep this news to myself?" she hissed gripping her sister's arm. "I'd just love to see that Elizabeth Fontaine's face when she finds out."
"Calm yourself, Dearest. you must respect the Colonel's wishes. The time will come soon enough."
'Of course, Elinor, you are right. If I only had your self control."
Elinor squeezed her hand in encouragement and they joined the others.
The following afternoon found Brandon in the parlor at Barton Cottage. The golden sunshine cast a halo about Marianne's blonde curls as she played the final chords of a new piano piece.
"That's lovely Marianne. Perhaps you'll play it tonight at Barton for everyone."
"I'd be happy to if I'm asked. Thank you for the new music; it will take me some time to learn all these pieces. It occurs to me that I've never heard you play yet. Do you think we should perhaps learn a duet?"
"That would be a pleasure," the Colonel looked at her with exaggerated sternness, "you won't crowd me with your elbows will you?"
"Only if you play the wrong notes." Marianne replied with a smile.
"Perhaps we could begin when I return."
"Return? From where?"
"I've just been informed of legal matters require my prompt attention in London. I may be away as long as two weeks I'm afraid."
"Ohhh. I'm very sorry to hear it. Is there a problem?"
"No, mostly routine things. These trips are required several times a year to administer an estate the size of Delaford."
"What kind of things do you do? I'd truly like to know about what your duties are."
He looked at her intently for several seconds then, "You really would be interested?"
"Yes, I'd like to share all that concerns you."
"Well, there are some real estate transactions. My brother squandered much with gambling while he was alive, and a great deal of land was sold to meet his debts. I'm rebuilding the holdings of Delaford, grazing lands mostly. I must also meet several times a year with my banker. Then there is the matter of..." he paused, weighing his words, "assuming the guardianship of Beth's young son."
The change in Marianne's face would be discernible only to one scrutinizing her as closely as Brandon was. Beth was tied to them both in so many ways-the daughter of Brandon's only other love, Eliza, and the victim of Marianne's only other love, Willoughby.
"Is Beth very like her mother?" she asked softly.
Brandon was silent some moments, a faraway look in his eyes, "Not in looks at all, but quite like her in character and manner. Eliza was very determined and headstrong and Beth certainly shares that."
Marianne found herself wondering what this tie to their past would mean to their future.
Brandon interrupted her reverie by standing, "I must take my leave, Marianne, until this evening..." he took her hand and kissed it. she reached to gently touch his cheek as they shared a smile.
The party at Barton for dinner that evening was slightly smaller than the previous festivities earlier in the week. The General had taken his leave two days prior, just this morning Mr. Hampton had been called to London, leaving his wife and niece to stay in the country a bit longer, and Edward was called upon by a death in the parish.
Dinner was lively and laced with laughter and good cheer. Marianne had indeed played her new piano solo for the company and Margaret stepped forward to sing as her sister played.
The gentlemen retired to the study, leaving the ladies to needlework and conversation.
"I understand your wedding will be very soon, Miss Dashwood" said Elizabeth Fontaine. "Will you remake an older gown to wear? It is such a pity that your circumstances don't allow for a proper wardrobe. Do you have any trousseau at all? My gown was yards and yards of the finest silk and Brussels lace.
"And you, Miss Marianne, I understand you fancy the Colonel. Don't you know of man of his means and station could never...well, you know...It takes a woman accustomed to the duties and formalities of such a station to be lady of a manor such as Delaford. I do admire your ambition though." she laughed prettily and went on to a discussion of the latest fashions.
"How dare she" Marianne silently seethed. "Belittling my sister's wedding and daring to think the Colonel could possibly prefer her..." She felt a tug at the back of her consciousness, how little she did know of running such a household. Even Elinor, with all her sense and wisdom, was taxed by managing their own tiny household. How would she know what to do? There was a huge staff of servants to manage, tenants, social duties. A small gnawing began in her stomach...
Later that evening, as Margaret sat on the floor with her atlas and most of the others were immersed in a card game, Brandon and Marianne sat together near the fire. "Is something troubling you, Marianne?" he asked studying her face.
Putting a smile on she said "No, Colonel, I was just a bit preoccupied. Elinor's wedding date is fast approaching and there is still much to be done. It will be a busy time. That is good though, it will make your absence seem shorter. There is no chance of you still being gone is there? The wedding is only three weeks away."
Brandon's face softened even more that it already had at her mention of wanting his trip to be short in duration. He smiled gently, "I will surely be here. I have agreed to stand up with Edward." They shared a smile, knowing this would put them at the altar together with Elinor and Edward. "If I am to be back quickly however, I must be on my way. I leave at first light. I will miss you." Glancing quickly over his shoulder he kissed his fingertips and touched them to her lips. She smiled against the light pressure.
The Dashwood household immersed itself in preparations for Elinor and Edward's upcoming wedding. It was to be a small ceremony with only family and a few friends. Mrs. Ferrars had finally relented and agreed to attend. Surprisingly, this was due in great part to the persuasion of Edward's sister, Fanny.
Since the couple would be starting an entirely new household there were many items to gather and linens to prepare. The rectory was rather small and Elinor was determined that each room be appointed modestly but adequately. During the following two weeks several trips to the new house were required. Each trip took them past the great house of Delaford. If amazed Marianne to think that some day soon she would be mistress of such a place. She was burning to see inside the house but was, at the same time, reluctant to face the reality of the task.
She wanted very much to ask questions of her mother and of Elinor about running a household. She knew that she could never question her mother without raising suspicions and having to evade questions. Mrs. Dashwood had tried to teach her much in the past years but Marianne had paid little attention, preferring poetry books to account books. As for Elinor, bothering her with such things now was just out of the question. Despite her calm appearance, Marianne knew her sister to be stretched thin these days. So, in her vivid imagination, the task before her began to grow to enormous proportions.
Activities at Barton had slowed with the scattering of Mrs. Jennings' and Sir John's company. An invitation came to dine in the second week as Mrs. Hastings and Elizabeth were to leave for London the following morning to join Mr. Hastings. It was a treat for the Dashwood women to break from the labors, however joy-filled. Marianne found it a special joy to know that Elizabeth Fontaine would soon be out of the picture.
Marianne felt rather subdued at dinner, having been seated next to Elizabeth. She found herself disliking her even more than her sister-in-law Fanny. Though she had seen it evidenced time and again, it never ceased to amaze her that such angelic beauty could conceal such a cold heart.
"How will you occupy your time in London, Mrs. Fontaine? Many will be just leaving for the countryside now that the weather is fine." asked Elinor.
"Oh Miss Dashwood, I have many dear friends in Town to visit. We have also received an invitation to dine with Colonel Brandon. I'm sure we will see a great deal of him there. His engagements do not seen to keep him too busy."
"It seems odd that he would linger once his business is finished." observed Mrs. Dashwood. "I have never thought the Colonel had any great love for the city."
"Well," returned Elizabeth dryly, "once we are there he will have much to distract him. I so enjoy being away from the monotony of the country. I'm sure he is happy to be also."
Marianne found herself at a total loss for words. How could the Colonel possibly have invited this woman to dine with him? He had assured her that she was his choice, and she must believe him, but why would he choose to see Elizabeth? Why was he staying away longer than necessary? The knot in her stomach grew larger.
Colonel Brandon and Mr. Hastings sat in companionable silence before a blazing fire in the study of Brandon's London house. They were awaiting the arrival of Mrs. Hastings and Elizabeth to dine. The two men stared into the flames, each lost in his own thoughts. Mr. Hastings spoke suddenly, "Brandon, why have you never married?"
Brandon, roused from thoughts on that very subject, looked curiously at his friend. "I hoped to, years ago. Fate seemed to frown on the union."
Hastings, looking uncomfortable, shifted in his chair. "Well, you see, it's Elizabeth. I'm more than happy, mind you, to have her with us after the untimely loss of her husband. It seems though, that she's set her mind on having you..."
"Ahhh, I see..." Brandon smiled, a soft light entering his eyes. "I have, just recently decided to take a wife. It is only now that I have found one I love with all of my heart and soul. She has become my very heartbeat... "
A soft knock at the door interrupted him, "Mrs. Hastings and Mrs. Fontaine have arrived, Sir."
"Thank you, Jason. Please tell them we will join them in the dining room."
As the party was seated, Brandon studied Elizabeth. She was very excited about the new wardrobe in the making. She waxed eloquent on all the latest styles and choices of fine fabrics. Sparkling in the candlelight, flushed with the pleasure of spending, she was a very beautiful woman, adept in every social grace. True, she could be counted quite a prize.
"Lord and Lady Ellsworth are having a ball on Tuesday next. All the finest people will be there. I am having a dress specially made for the occasion." Elizabeth looked directly at Brandon, "Surely, Colonel, you will stay to escort me?"
"I'm afraid I must return to Delaford long before then. I have promised to stand up with Edward Ferrars as he weds Miss Dashwood. I am merely awaiting delivery of the gift I have ordered for them before I return."
"Really, Colonel, for the master of the estate to stand at the wedding of his employee...that Dashwood family is far too assuming."
Brandon's eyes clouded, a muscle moving at his jaw. "Mrs. Fontaine, I deem it appropriate to stand beside two people that I am proud and thankful to call my true friends. As for the social standing of the Dashwoods, perhaps this will raise it in your eyes. I shall be announcing my engagement to Miss Marianne Dashwood upon my return to Delaford."
Elizabeth gaped, "Colonel" she gasped, "surely you jest."
"I've never been more serious in my life."
Seeing the color rising in Elizabeth's cheeks, Mr. and Mrs. Hastings exchanged nervous glances. How could they check the coming outburst?
"You can't marry her. She's just not suitable...you need an experienced woman who can behave properly in society. Not some romantic flutter.."
Elizabeth's mouth snapped shut in surprise. No one had ever spoken to her in such a manner.
Brandon's voice was full of cold fury. "Mrs. Fontaine, who I choose to marry is clearly none of your concern. I am aware that you had hoped to land me in your silky seine. Under most circumstances you are a very charming woman, undeniably beautiful, socially adept, many men would be charmed into submission by your charms. For me, there is just one thing missing...you have no soul, Madam."
The Colonel pushed his chair back and rose. Addressing Mr. and Mrs. Hastings he bowed slightly, "Please forgive me, dear guests. I beg you to stay and enjoy the meal. You must excuse me." Turning on his heel, he left the room.
Elizabeth recovered her composure. "Oh do let us eat, the aromas are simply wonderful." She helped herself from the offered tray. "I wonder who will be at the ball...."
The Dashwood women stood to greet Edward Ferrars as he approached the rectory. It had become the new Rector's habit to spend the better part of each weekday morning visiting among his parishioners. The ladies had made use of his daily absence to work in the house. Things were very near readiness. The amiable couple who staffed the house had been a great help and Elinor was happy that they were so easy to work with. The wedding was now only five days away. Elinor was beginning to have trouble concealing her mounting excitement, giving Marianne much room for teasing her poor sister mercilessly.
Edward puled a paper from his pocket as he approached, "Colonel Brandon is on his way home as we speak. He expects to arrive this very evening. He sends his greetings to all you ladies and has insisted that he host the groom's dinner himself at Delaford on the night before the wedding."
"What a great honor for you, Edward." said Mrs. Dashwood.
"Oh, Mrs. Dashwood, A letter is enclosed for you from the Colonel." He put it into her hand, winking at Marianne, who blushed furiously. Mrs. Dashwood opened the note, read a moment, then tucked the paper into her apron pocket, smiling her thanks to Edward.
"Mama, what does it say?" pleaded Margaret. She turned as Marianne pinched her arm, "Well, don't you want to know too?"
"Hush!" hissed Marianne.
Mrs. Dashwood silenced them, "The Colonel asks that I read the letter privately. Its contents are for my eyes only."
"Very mysterious indeed," intoned Edward in his best new preacher voice, the merry glint in his eye belying his tone.
"Perhaps," suggested Elinor sensibly, "we should continue our work and leave Mama to her reading."
Mrs. Dashwood watched the others enter the house and opened the letter, barely daring to breathe.
My dear Mrs. Dashwood,
Please keep the content of this letter to yourself alone. I return to Delaford today, having delayed to await delivery of my gift to Edward and Elinor. I apologize for any anxiety my extended absence may have caused.
I humbly ask, dear lady, your blessing upon my proposal of marriage, which has been accepted, to your daughter, Marianne. It has been, since the moment of our meeting, the desire of my heart to make her my wife. I count myself the happiest of men that she has come to return my affections and lack only your blessing upon the union.
In my communication with Mr. Ferrars, I insisted upon hosting the groom's dinner at Delaford. This has a twofold purpose. Firstly, it is my great pleasure to honor this most deserving couple and secondly, I promised Marianne that our engagement would be announced as soon as possible but must be done at Delaford. It is my hope to do so on this occasion when all are assembled, with your blessing.
I will call upon your family tomorrow afternoon at Barton Cottage. You may give me your reply at that time.
Your humble servant
Mrs. Dashwood held the precious letter to her breast and looked to the heavens, breathing happy words of thanksgiving.
Who comes with the Colonel? He said nothing about bring visitors."
"It is a very fine carriage." said Edward, "but not one that I recognize."
As they neared Barton Cottage, Colonel Brandon spurred ahead of the carriage. He dismounted and strode quickly up the walk. His eyes anxiously sought those of Mrs. Dashwood first. Seeing her broad smile and nod he relaxed visibly and a smile lit his own countenance.
Greetings were exchanged, ending with Marianne. Brandon took her hand in his and absolutely caressed her with his eyes. Marianne felt the heat of his hand through his glove and thought she might swoon at the intensity of his gaze. As if reading her thoughts, his grip tightened ever so slightly and she felt steadied and reassured.
"Who is your companion, Colonel? will they stay to tea also?" asked Mrs. Dashwood.
Brandon threw back his head slightly in a hearty laugh. "No guests, just gifts. Let us not delay.."
"Gifts for everyone?" piped up Margaret
"Most assuredly, Captain. Would you like to go first?"
"Oh, yes please."
And gifts there were...for Margaret a fine, new spyglass and a delicate coral pendant; for Mrs. Dashwood black pearl earbobs. Brandon beckoned to the driver or the carriage. Addressing Elinor and Edward he said, "This is Robert. He and the carriage are now at your service. A wedding gift with my best regards." As they expressed their surprise and gratitude, Brandon motioned to Robert who reached inside the vehicle and returned with a large box.
Brandon took the box from him and placed it upon Marianne's lap. "A gift for you, Marianne." Her eyes widened as she opened the box and withdrew its contents. A gown like she had never seen, blue of the sky, fabric like a soft morning breeze, the design pure simplicity and elegance. In a word: Perfection.
"Ohhhhhh" she breathed, "so beautiful." Her eyes rose to meet his seeing his pleasure at her reaction.
"Will you wear it to the dinner at Delaford?" he asked, his voice thick with emotion.
Understanding flooded her, "Of course..."
Betsy arrived with tea and the afternoon continued in the relaxed conversation and laughter of true friends.
Oh Marianne, we are finally going to see Delaford. How can you be still?" Margaret, unaware of Marianne's fluttering heart and stomach, danced around her sister as she sat at her mirror.
"It is a skill you must learn, Margaret. Believe me, I know how difficult it can be to conceal your excitement."
"But why shouldn't we let people know how we feel? It seems to silly to pretend you don't have any feelings..."
A wistful smile crossed Marianne's face, "Yes, dear, I know."
Marianne surveyed her reflection, the dress was indeed perfect. Christopher Brandon, it seemed , never did anything halfway. His every gesture was well thought through and executed.
Her reverie was broken by a soft knock upon the door, followed by Elinor. Marianne was suddenly struck by the thought that this was the last night the Dashwood girls would spend together. Beginning tomorrow their lives would be changed forever. The two hugged warmly.
Marianne backed away surveying Elinor's new gown, one of three made up specifically for her wedding festivities. "You look absolutely beautiful, Elinor. Can you believe that tomorrow you will be married to dear Edward at last?"
Elinor shook her head slightly, "I can still barely take it all in," smiling at her younger sister she said quietly," Dearest, you are a vision. I suspect the Colonel intends to spoil you. Do you think he will announce your engagement tonight?"
"I'm almost sure of it...."
"What is wrong, Dearest? You look troubled, surely you have no doubts of the Colonel's intentions?"
"No, no of course not. It's just...I'm just a bit worried about being mistress of such a large household. I never paid any attention to all that at Norland, you and Mama did it all." Tears welled up in Marianne's blue eyes.
"Marianne, I do not think the Colonel loves you because of your ability to plan menus."
The tears brimmed over and mixed with her laughter. "Of course, you are right as always. But it does make me feel a bit small to think of taking on such a responsibility."
"You'll learn it all quickly, dear, and Mama and I are always nearby..."
"Yes. Now we must be on our way. You don't want to be late for your wedding dinner."
The dining hall at Delaford was indeed a grand room. Candlelight illuminated every corner and sent showers of light reflecting from crystal chandeliers. Liveried servants moved silently about the table, working in smooth efficiency.
Edward and his family were seated down the table on the Colonel's right with Elinor and the rest of the party down the left. The chair at the far end of the table was empty. Marianne's eyes were on Brandon as he leaned to speak to one of the men serving. His eyes caught hers and he became very still. The message in his look warmed her through and she smiled in reply.
Course followed course in the lavish feast. Such gaiety had not been seen by any of those assembled in quite some time. It seemed that the doubts and unhappiness of the past months had been swept away for all, and each person was celebrating individually as well as corporately.
As the meal drew to a close, Brandon pushed back his chair and stood. His quiet dignity instantly drew the attention of all. "I have, tonight, the very great pleasure of honoring my dear friends Edward and Elinor on the eve of their marriage. They are indeed two of the finest, most honorable people I know and I am very pleased to see them brought together at last. It will be my further pleasure to have them as neighbors and to have their able help in ministering to the inhabitants of Delaford. May I ask you all to raise you glasses in a toast, to Edward and Elinor, long life and happiness."
"To Edward and Elinor," came the resounding reply. The couple stood to receive the best wishes. Many among those assembled stood to add their congratulations and glasses were refilled as the toasts continued.
Colonel Brandon stood again. "I have another announcement to make tonight. This house, my home at Delaford, has been without a mistress for over 25 years, since the death of my dear mother. I have, at long last, found, and been accepted by, the woman I would have as my wife." At this point he held out his hand to Marianne who, trembling, came to his side. "I invite you all to return to Delaford in two month's time to celebrate my marriage to Miss Marianne Dashwood." There was a hush and a surprised gasp or two.
"Bravo, Brandon," Sir John stood and clapped his hands resoundingly together. One by one the rest of the party followed suit and general noise and chatter ensued. Most of the group had been taken wholly by surprise.
Amid the noise and general congratulations Brandon had drawn a long thin box from his breast pocket and placed it into Marianne's hands. "This was my great grandmother's and has been worn by every lady of this house since."
Marianne's eyes widened as she open the box to reveal a choker of sapphires and diamonds, beyond her wildest dreams. Four large blue stones stared up at her surrounded by countless diamonds, all sparkling in the light. She looked up at him in disbelief, "For me?"
Smiling broadly, Brandon took the necklace and placed it around her neck. An audible gasp was heard from the direction of Fanny Dashwood. Marianne bowed her head as he closed the clasp, daring to stroke her neck for the briefest instant. More applause followed and the party all rose from their chairs.
Dinner was at an end.
The next weeks passed in a flurry of excitement and activity. As Delaford was a long established household, Marianne had no need to worry about linens and such. Colonel Brandon insisted, however, on whisking Marianne and her family off to London. She was fitted for an exquisite wedding gown of ivory satin, edged in lace and beaded with tiny pearls. More gowns and riding habits and lingerie than she had ever owned were chosen and fitted and sewn.
Brandon left the women to their shopping and fun and returned to Delaford to oversee preparations for the arrival of his wife. The entire household became a beehive of activity. Rooms long unused were opened, aired, furnishings refreshed.
He personally saw to the work in the master suite. Brandon had preferred to remain in his own rooms and never used these after inheriting the estate. All signs of his late brother were to be removed and his mother's things moved back in for the time being. He wanted Marianne to take her time to make this room her own. He moved in his own clothing and personal affects, which were few. Finally, he was satisfied and declared them ready.
The wedding day in August dawned cloudless and bright. A morning ceremony had been agreed upon to avoid the head of the afternoon. Marianne was glad to have fewer hours to endure waiting through. As the appointed time approached though, she felt a growing sense of calm settle upon her. She was to marry her Colonel, he who had loved her from the first moment and upon whom she could rely so completely. This tender, gentle man who had peeled away layer after layer in her presence to reveal depths of feeling she had never imagined.
She was sure her feet no longer trod upon the ground as she walked down the aisle on the arm of her half brother John Dashwood. Edward Ferrars was to officiate and her eyes first met his warm smile of encouragement. To his left stood Christopher Brandon in full dress uniform, flanked by members of his regiment. The effect was dazzling. Awaiting her on the other side, her dear sisters, Elinor glowing with happiness, and Margaret, so proud of the new, very grown up dress Brandon had decreed for the occasion.
Words were spoken, vows exchanged, the slender gold band placed upon her finger, and then she raised her face for his kiss. He had kissed her only once before, on a hillside in May. That was an impulse, almost and accident. This, however, was a slow, deliberate act. There was no uncertainty in this kiss, only infinite love and tenderness.
The afternoon passed in a blur of meals, friends and family wishing her well, gifts received and examined, and the presentation of the entire Delaford household staff. Marianne's head swam with the enormous size of the staff and the task ahead of learning all their names and jobs.
The saving grace was the housekeeper, Mrs. Williams. She was a middle aged, pleasant woman. "Please feel free to ask me anything, Ma'am. I know this can seem a very big place, but I am here to serve you and make your adjustment as easy as it can be."
Marianne knew her to be sincere. With help like this, she could do her job as mistress of the house. "Thank you so much, Mrs. Williams. I will rely upon you greatly, especially in the beginning." They shared a friendly smile.
Late in the afternoon Brandon himself conducted Marianne on a complete tour of the house, ending with their personal rooms. She wandered about the rooms slowly, touching fabrics and objects. "It's so large Christopher, and so lovely."
"You shall make any changes you wish, I want you to make this house truly yours." A knock sounded at the door, "Ah, that must be dinner." A cart was wheeled into the room exuding wonderful aromas. As the servant began lifting covers from dishes, Brandon interrupted. "Thank you, that will be all for the night. I will wait upon Mrs. Brandon." The man nodded his head to Brandon then to Marianne and left the room.
They ate, they talked, "more wine my love?" they talked, the light from the windows faded and candles were lit, they talked. Finally Brandon stood, "I'll leave you to prepare for the night.." and retired to his dressing room.
Brandon reentered the room to find Marianne silhouetted in front of the fire. He came to stand behind her, a whisper of space between them. His hands lightly stroking her arms, he bent to kiss her shoulder. Her head moved to one side as his lips moved in toward her ear, nibbling and kissing softly. Able to stand the tickling no longer, Marianne burst forth with a giggle and twisted away, "that tickles, Christopher"
Smiling, he advanced upon her again, "I'll remember that." His lips grazed hers, back and forth, until her small hands flew up to hold his face still. The kiss deepened and Brandon's arms tightened around Marianne's waist as her body softened into his.
With his arms still securely around her waist, Marianne leaned back to look into her husband's face. His golden eyes glowed and flashed like warm embers in the candlelight. All at once she felt she possessed the wisdom of the ages, the secret knowledge of all women. She was overwhelmed by the intensity of feelings flooding her body as her husband caressed her. She was, at the same time, aware of the effect her responses caused in him. With a sound that could be taken for a contented feline's purr, she slipped her arms into his open shirt, her hands gliding up to hook over his shoulders. "Marianne........"
Brandon's fingers moved, followed closely by his lips. The strap of her sleeveless shift slipped off her shoulder-the other followed. Marianne drew a shaky, shuddering breath as his hands burned their way down the skin of her back. As her fingers threaded their way into his thick blond hair, the last shreds of Brandon's years of subtle, lingering self doubt fell away.
Leaving her shift in a pile on the floor, where her feet had been, Christopher Brandon swept his bride up into his arms and carried her to their marriage bed. "Welcome to Delaford, my love. I lay my world at your feet."
"It's you I want, Christopher. Just you..."
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