As Emma merrily leaned out of the carriage door to carol out a last farewell, Jane slumped slightly against Frank's shoulder, watching the Knightley carriages turn down the Enscombe's stately drive on the first leg of their long journey back to Highbury. To her left, young Amelia Churchill, all of seven years age this past Michaelmas, sniffled slightly before following her governess' lead and returning into the grand house for geography and French lessons which had suffered sadly over the past fortnight of visitors and excitement.
Bidding their daughter and Miss Templeton a smiling farewell, husband and wife turned one last time to regard the rapidly departing equipages containing Emma, George, their sons, their retainers and the small mountain of luggage that the former Miss Woodhouse considered the merest necessities for a trip to the wilds of Yorkshire. Jane sighed quietly. "Tired, my dear?" Frank asked immediately as Jane leaned against him, his gloved hands coming up to wrap her charcoal wool pelisse even more closely about her. "Chilled? Let us head back inside and warm you up."
Jane turned her chin up and to the left, catching Frank's watchful gaze. "It is still morning, Frank. And, as I am wrapped up in as many layers as a Christmas pudding and nearly as immobile, I am neither tired nor chilled. In truth, I am only sad that our friends have departed."
Frank's ever-present smile broadened into a self-mocking grin. "More your friends than mine, Jane. For who could not love you? But for all that we have known each other these ten years now and more, I dare not call George Knightley ‘friend'. I am certain that he still disapproves of me!"
Jane shook her head disapprovingly at Frank's disclaimer. While Emma's husband would never have her free and easy manners, George Knightley and Frank were agreed upon many matters, from the importance of modern farming techniques to the intolerability of the Eltons. "You can most certainly call George Knightley a friend or else the last fortnight's extremely pleasant visit was all my imagining! In any case, Frank, you cannot mistake natural reserve for dislike, else you would never have dared approach me."
Frank turned his wife to face him, holding her securely and fondly as he examined her closely. Jane resisted the urge to fidget or adjust the strands of hair that she was certain were even now loosening from the smooth chignon she'd pulled them into earlier that morning. Frank's consideration made it clear that he was all admiration, as ever he had been since that first meeting. "I cannot imagine my life without you, Jane. It was the most fortunate day of my life when my aunt agreed to my stay in Weymouth and thus, unwittingly, led to our meeting."
The shuffle of feet reminded the Churchills that they were not alone on Enscombe's grand drive. And, were she to be honest, Jane was starting to feel the chill of the crisp December morning. "Tea?" she suggested.
Frank nodded as he slipped one hand to Jane's elbow to guide her back inside. He nodded genially to Winchell, their efficient butler, who attentively awaited the couple just inside the grand front doors that two liveried footmen were opening. Once they had shed their outerwear and placed the garments in Winchell's capable hands, she took Frank's proffered arm with a companionable squeeze. Her reward was his bright smile and sharply focused attention. Walking into the parlour together, Jane allowed her husband to settle her in a chair close to the fire and ring for their tea. She only intervened with his fussing when Frank directed the maid to have a shawl brought for her mistress.
"No, I must insist," Jane said firmly, raising a hand to draw their attention. "I will become overheated should you force a shawl upon me, and then perhaps too ill to enjoy our family Christmas. Imagine how disappointed Amelia would be were her mother confined to her room with an ague?"
Frank eyed her sternly but acquiesced with a gusty sigh, allowing Netty, the downstairs maid, to scurry off to the kitchens where a tea tray was certain to be made ready in a trice. He descended upon the other wing chair, hanging one booted leg over the arm before Jane's raised eyebrow caused him to assume a more conventional pose.
"I cannot wait for summer to return," Frank said, tilting his head to one side as he eyed his wife. "While the rich burgundy of your dress sets off your colouring beautifully, there is altogether too much of it. Why, look at that neckline! It positively creeps up to your chin while those sleeves encase the delicious prospect of your arms from shoulder to wrist. What a waste!"
Jane shot an appalled look to the parlour door where, fortunately, no servant lurked. She ducked her head slightly to hide the blush that always sprung up when her husband flirted with her, a blush which he was ever-willing to evoke. She knew that she would never win if they descended into a game of teasing. Frank could always produce an outrageous comment with his expression unchanged: an unfair advantage if ever there was one.
Despite her inner steeling, something of her fond exasperation clearly showed through in her expression as Frank bounded out of the chair to take her hand and lift it to his lips for a delicate kiss. How much farther he would have proceeded, Jane did not know for a small sound at the door signalled the tea tray's arrival. She permitted Frank to walk with her to loveseat where she was soon pouring them tea while Frank piled jam tarts on his plate.
"Cook spoils you," Jane observed, putting one tart on her own plate. "Is there any woman who would deny you any request?"
Frank paused to regard his wife in disbelief. "How can you say this? You, who denied me from the start, who left me heartbroken, hopeless and ready to die for love in Weymouth?"
He put down his plate with a careless clatter and laid the free hand on his chest as if his heart was in agony. "Have you forgotten how long and ardently I sought your admiration with not the minutest encouragement, my goddess? Truly, the autumn of '13 was my darkest hour."
Jane rolled her eyes at her husband's theatrics, swallowing the last of her pastry before softly correcting her spouse, "It could not have even been a minute for I was a fool for love for you, right from the moment the Campbells and I entered the Assembly Room that night."
In her mind's eye, Jane could see the glittering brightness of the well-lit rooms, filled with quite a crowd for the September evening. Windows were open to make the most of the cooler evening air as a counter to the press of bodies and the many branches of fine wax candles highlighting sparkling jewels and smiles alike. Amongst all of that glamour, Frank Churchill shone even more brilliantly, drawing the eyes of almost every young woman, Miss Campbell excepted. She doted on her future groom who begged her hand for a dance, while Jane stood modestly at Mrs. Campbell's elbow, determined to practice the governess-like demeanour she would need to cultivate.
Silent, invisible, unexceptionable, Jane repeated inwardly, all the while her attention darted across the room to the striking young gentleman who moved with ease from one small cluster of Weymouth's visiting notables to the next, exchanging greetings with the gentlemen while lavishing unexceptionable compliments upon every woman, whether an estimable matron or an impressionable young miss.
"Is he not a handsome young man?" Mrs. Campbell asked.
Jane started guiltily. Had she spoken her thoughts aloud? Had her observation been pointed enough for her dear patroness to have remarked upon? But no, she quickly ascertained, watching Mr. Campbell raise one eyebrow as he considered his wife's question.
"Handsome enough, I'm certain. That's Mr. Frank Churchill of Enscombe in Yorkshire. Quite a tidy fortune that will be his on his uncle's demise, or so I heard from my old friend, Captain Redding. His prospects have led to a near stampede among matchmaking mamas but they will have to keep an eye out for his aunt and guardian. She is very high in the instep, Redding says, and considers few families good enough to match with a Churchill of Enscombe."
Mrs. Campbell smiled smugly, unfolding her ivory fan to wave it placidly against the still air of the crowded venue. "I would not know, for, of course, we need to make no matches with our girl soon to be settled with her dear boy. But Yorkshire would be a less remote prospect than Ireland. I would that Dixon's lands were somewhat more conveniently located, do you not, my dear?"
The Colonel chuckled at his wife's whimsy and shifted their conversation to considering which of their mutual friends might wish to join them for a dinner party that Mrs. Campbell was planning, all the while Jane continued her surreptitious assessment of the fair-haired young Mr. Churchill, blessed with good looks, good fortune and, from the easy way that he spoke with each person present, good friends.
"Do you remember when I first spoke to you?" Frank asked and Jane started, suddenly, drawn from her reveries of a decade past in a seaside resort back to the elegant grandeur of Enscombe and the present day.
"Of course," Jane said quietly, her eyes dropping from the singular attention that captured her as utterly ten years on as it first had when he had presented himself to the Campbells at Weymouth, easily achieving introductions with their entire party.
Frank reclaimed her hands, lifting them to his lips one after the other for a delicate kiss. "May I have this dance?" He intoned the old words with fervent ardor much more marked than the casual attention his original request had implied, as he swept the quiet would-be governess from the Campbells with careless ease.
Frank pulled Jane up to her feet and she considered him warily. "I hope you are not planning to recreate that country dance. Our parlour is large, but not nearly large enough."
Frank chuckled, craning his head to consider the furniture which admittedly posed obstacles to such a boisterous dance, even in so elegantly appointed of a room. "No galloping up and down the room, for certain, but we could essay a waltz, perhaps?"
With a few light steps, he had backed up to the more open area of the room near the doorway, humming a Viennese composition that Jane loved. She sighed happily and laid one hand on his shoulder as he curled one around her waist, pulling her close against him as they spun carefully on the Axminster rug while winter sunlight spilled slivers of sunlight from the southern exposre.
"You are as graceful as you ever were, Jane," Frank observed, as they continued to waltz to the strains of an imaginary instrument. "But more pliant. Back in Weymouth, it took two more assemblies before you danced again with me. As I said, my darkest hour."
Jane stopped their idle dancing to step back from her husband's embrace and glare at him. "I had my reputation to consider, Frank. There I was, all but a charity case, preparing to start my life as a governess-"
"A criminal waste of your many sterling qualities, no matter how well-educated and accomplished you were, Mrs. Churchill," Frank gra vely pronounced. "You were born to rule, if not a realm, at least my heart, and I will ever serve you faithfully."
Once again, the genuine devotion behind Frank's declaration struck something deep inside Jane, like the lowest C on her pianoforte, stirring something profound with its lingering resonance. She felt herself drawn back into the spell of his ardent regard, just as it had been at Weymouth, where every dance they shared he would maintain a seeming of propriety as he whispered his compliments and professions of utter slavery. No one in the tightly-knit social circle of Weymouth's regular residents and well-connected visitors had a clue that the dashing heir to Enscombe had any interest at all in the modest, retiring Miss Fairfax of Highbury.
Ah, she thought, but in private, Frank had more than assured Jane of his devotion. . . .
"What are you thinking on, Jane?" Frank asked, allowing her to lead him back to the tea table, where they resumed their seats.
"I am remembering my bedroom at the rented house in Weymouth," Jane said. "And what a beautiful trellis strewn with ivy, stretched up beneath the window there."
Frank smiled wolfishly as Jane slipped her fingers out of his grasp and lifted them to sweep against his cheeks, slightly rough with stubble he had been too impatient for his valet to shave perfectly that morning. She regarded his dear face closely, her grey eyes unfocused with fond recollection. "You gave that trellis quite a workout, eventually, if I remember rightly."
"Ever discreetly, my love," Frank vowed, but she saw the merriment lurking in his eyes even as she called up the memory of Frank's encounter with the back garden trellis.
Jane perfectly recalled the paralyzing fright she'd experienced at the noises coming from her bedroom window as she prepared for bed in the wake of yet another Weymouth social evening. The Campbells were all excitement over tomorrow's dinner party so Jane had excused herself for an early night, knowing that she would be busy on the morrow, assisting all of the staff with the final touches for the party. And there, out of her window, peeked the flushed and dishevelled face of Frank Churchill, frantically waving one hand above the windowsill. Frantic with worry, Jane rushed to lift the sash and Frank pulled his elbows up to support him on the window ledge, huffing slightly.
"Thank you, my goddess," Frank puffed. "See what I do for you? I shall never get the scuff marks and scratches out of these Hessians." He shifted enough to look down at his boots, firmly planted on the trellis cross-pieces a few feet below the stone sill now supporting most of his weight.
"Mr. Churchill, are you mad?" Jane hissed, frantically turning her head back to the quiet bedroom and forward to scan the silent back garden of the Campbell's rented house.
"Mad with love for you, dear Jane, certainly," Frank agreed. "And were you not addressing me as Frank just the other night? Do not tell me you have turned your favour from me. I might grow weak and fall to my death!"
Despite herself, Jane lunged forward, putting her hands on Frank's upper arms, securing him from such a dreadful fate. Seeing his dear face so close stirred her heartbeat to double time, a thundering tempo that made her feel almost dizzy.
"Frank," she breathed and his sudden smile was a brilliant reward.
"See," he said, "I knew you and I had come to that level of understanding. I have come here, albeit in a most unconventional manner, I admit, to press my suit again, as you would not see me the past two days." Frank paused expectantly, still leaning in his ludicrous perch on the sill and trellis while Jane alternated between trembling attraction and terror.
"Mr. Churchill-" Jane began before Frank's opened mouth reminded her that it was hopeless to try and return to a more socially proper form of address given that the said individual was hanging off of her bedroom window frame, "Frank, you must know that we cannot pursue our connexion further. My situation! Your aunt! It is hopeless and we were best advised to face those facts." Jane felt her racing hearbeat slow as the speech poured out, all of her hopes and joys at Frank's growing professions of love over the past days subsiding to the dull reality of a life that could not include him.
Frank could see her withdrawal and with one rapid glance over his shoulder, he hoisted himself onto the sill and, with an easy slip, into the room with Jane. Suddenly, her spacious bedroom felt all too small with Frank looming over her and Jane clutched at the soft navy gabardine of her skirts with both hands.
Frank raised his own hands disarmingly. "Do not fear, Jane. I come into your room not to take advantage of you, merely to reassure you that I will not give up. You are everything to me and I am certain that, given time, my aunt will open her heart to you as well. Do not lock yourself away in the fastness of your tower and hide from me. I will find you, no matter how many trellises I must climb."
Jane sighed in exasperation at Frank's assertion. From all that she had heard about his situation from others around them here at Weymouth, he grossly underestimated his aunt's likely reaction to the news that her beloved nephew had given his heart to a penniless orphan of no distinguished birth. Certainly, when Frank touched her hand or gazed into her eyes, Jane had no strength to resist his blandishments and the rosy picture that he painted of their future together entranced her utterly. Once at a distance from his person, however, Jane returned to her senses and could not put all of her trust in such a preposterous scheme as that she was the future Mrs. Churchill.
"What say you, Jane, dearest?" Frank asked, wheedlingly. "Will you not let me call on you tomorrow? Or, if that is not convenient, when is Miss Campbell next on an outing to the shops? I would meet you there. It would be entirely unexceptionable!"
Jane couldn't help the smile that spread across her face at Frank's ardent manner. Truly she knew not what she had done to be worthy of his devotion, but she found herself unable to resist. "I believe we are to go to the shops tomorrow, in the company of Mr. Dixon. You could meet us on the high street, say at eleven of the hour?"
"It will be done," Frank vowed. He shifted as if to vault back over the sill and then paused, turning back to regard Jane. "But do I not deserve some reward for my valiant efforts to see my princess in her tower? Would you grant me a kiss, sweet Jane?
Jane felt her much-admired reserve utterly crumble at Frank's relentless attention. He took her silence as agreement, and stepped forward, lifting her hands to his lips for a gentle benediction before he leveraged her lips to a breath from his own. "Just one kiss, goddess."
She pressed her lips against hers in wordless reply and lost herself in the sweetness of the moment until Frank gentle pulled away. "Ah, that it could be more," he mourned. "But I must go else your dragon will hear me here and all will be lost. Adieu, fair maiden!" With that, Frank was over the sill and making his way down the trellis. A few muttered expostulations let Jane know it was not nearly as easy as he had suggested. She stifled a giggle when she heard Frank gasp awkwardly as he landed on the cold ground and leaned out the window to watch his unsteady rise to his feet.
"Goddess," he mouthed with silent exaggeration, the moonlight illuminating his perfect face as he blew her a kiss. Then he was off, through the back gate and out of danger, if Jane felt that she was utterly at sea.
"You know that I was never able to wear those breeches again between the grass stains and the rip at the knee. My tailor must have thought he'd had his lucky day when I had to make a hasty order the next morning!" Frank's chuckle showed that his memory was running along much the same paths that Jane's had followed.
"True," his wife said, "but at least it gave you a convenient excuse to meet up with our party without any further threat to your wardrobe."
Frank finished a hearty gulp of tea, raising an eyebrow at her words. "That was hardly a threat, my dear Jane. Clothing can be replaced but, ah, the risk that you faced when you nearly fell out of Dixon's yacht into the wild and choppy sea. I lost a good ten years of my life, watching him pull you back from death's embrace."
Jane nodded thoughtfully over her own upraised teacup. By the time she'd decamped to Highbury, the grand drama of her brush with disaster was only a tale, oft retold by her doting aunt to the increasingly restive visitors at their small abode. But it was still child's play for Jane to recall her feelings from that fractured day, beginning with the ocean outing gone amiss and ending with an adventure right in her own bedroom.
"Thank you, Mary," Jane managed from the coziness of her bed where two warming pans radiated heat on either side of her slim form. "That will be all. Please tell the Campbells that I only want to sleep and that nobody should fuss over me. Dr. Atkinson said I will be just fine and I only wish to rest, now."
The short upstairs maid regarded her dubiously but nodded as she slipped out of the bedroom where Jane sank back into her pillows with a shaky sigh. Closing her eyes was a mistake as she was suddenly back on the rocking boat, hurtling backwards towards the greedy ocean-
A sharp rap had her eyes open and her upright in the bed before a coherent thought could form. Jane turned towards the sound, her bedroom window, where framed against the sunny sky was the worried face of Frank Churchill. "Frank," Jane gasped, as she shoved aside one warming pan to slip out of the bed and rush to the window. She soon had the window opened enough that Frank could slip his way in. He immediately turned to secure the window behind him before grasping Jane's hands and falling to his knees before her, pressing kisses over her fingers.
When he finally stopped kissing her hands, he lifted his eyes to Jane's face, scrutinizing her closely. "I almost lost you," he whispered, seemingly aware of the danger he courted by coming to her room via that trusty trellis in the bright light of an early October day. He slowly rose to his feet and shepherded Jane over to her bed. "The physician? What has he said?"
Jane submitted to the cosseting with some gratitude but once she was settled back in her bed, she chided Frank as he attempted to layer her blankets more closely. "I am fine, truly. Dr. Atkinson concurs that all I suffered was a shock to my nerves and somewhat more damp than I'd expected. I am resting to relieve the Campbells more than anything else."
"Who is this Dr. Atkinson and what does he know of medicine? I could send for one of the physicians my aunt patronizes," Frank offered as he began to pace the small room and only ceased at Jane's frantic signal.
"Do not make noise," she hissed. "Sophie and her parents are in the sitting room which sits almost beneath my room. They will hear you!"
"Oh," Frank managed, carefully eyeing the door before stepping softly to stand between her bed and the window. "But I cannot rest easy until I know you have taken no harm from this. I am determined to stay with you-"
Despite her best intentions, Jane's words tumbled out at near normal volume. "No! If you stay with me, my reputation will be ruined. I cannot risk that, not while I must make my way in the world once you give up your fancies of love as I know that you will."
Instantly Frank was leaning over the bed, one shock of bright hair escaping his customarily elegant style to drop over his forehead, heightening the shadows on his worried face. "Do not say that, Jane," Frank commanded, reaching out to pull her hand away from the twist of coverlet it clutched and into the warm confines of his grasp. Lovingly, he caressed her slim fingers and turned the palm over to lay a kiss in the centre. "I am faithful to the end. I am determined. I will write my aunt to inform her of our attachment and let her know that I intend to ask the Colonel for your hand in marriage."
Jane's eyes widened and she felt the power of speech leave her. "You cannot, Frank," she finally managed. "Your aunt, she will never understand. You will lose your inheritance and you would ever resent me for that as we struggled along in life."
"I am prepared to give up Enscombe if it means having you, Jane," Frank solemnly said. "Besides, my aunt might not be as harsh in her reaction as you expect!" At Jane's meaningful look, he had the grace to appear shamefaced. "All right, I admit, I cannot envision that she would take the news well but that's because it would come upon her suddenly. I just need time to wear her down, to lay the way for her to see what an angel you are and understand why we must wed. . . ."
Outside in the corridor, a floorboard squeaked. Jane's face paled. If the person was coming to see Jane, there was not enough time to usher Frank out the window. But before she could say anything, Frank lightly leapt three steps across the chamber and swung open the door of her wardrobe, slipping inside just as the door to her room swung inward.
"Jane, are you all right?" Sophie Campbell leaned inquisitively in past the half-open door to regard her friend and onetime playmate. Jane had schooled her features to utter stillness and so met Sophie's eyes guilelessly.
What a conniver and fraud I have become, Jane thought as she murmured reassurances to her dear friend. "Oh, I was just chastising myself, Sophie, that is what you must have heard, for what a ninny I was there on that boat."
Sophie smiled sunnily. "You could never be a ninny, Jane, but it was quite the fright. John is downstairs, back from the docks where he took his crewmen quite to task for not being as mindful as they ought of the passengers today. He wants to know how are you doing? I told him that you are not up for visitors."
Jane stifled a gulp of half-hysterical laughter before sedately agreeing that, once again, her dear Sophie had the right of the matter. "Do give him my most sincere thanks again. Your intended is my hero," Jane proclaimed.
Sophie brightly agreed with that assessment. "Afterwards, do you wish me to come and sit with you, Jane? I could read to you as you have been wont to do for me when I was doing poorly," her friend offered.
Jane instantly and insistently demurred, assuring her old friend that all she wanted was a chance to rest. And get Frank Churchill safely out of my wardrobe, she thought. As Sophie planted a farewell kiss on Jane's forehead and departed through the door, the room was quiet for several long heartbeats. Jane dared not rise from her bed to check the wardrobe and hoped that Frank would be equally careful in his movements. Finally, after almost three minutes' long wait, he emerged from the cramped space of the wardrobe, frowning slightly.
With exaggerated care and slowness, he tiptoed his way to Jane's bedside and quietly whispered. "Forgive me, dearest. I can see that I am no help at the moment. I will depart but expect me to call upon your household tomorrow," Frank pushed on as he saw Jane's lips part as if to counter his plan. "It will be entirely unexceptionable, I assure you, as half of Weymouth is likely to make its way to your doorstep in order to hear of the thrilling heroics Mr. Dixon evinced. But you and I must talk again at some point for I am determined that nothing, not even my aunt, will stand in the way of our happiness."
With a chaste kiss to the back of her hand, Frank went to the window which he lightly unlatched and, seeing himself unobserved, quietly slipped out. Jane slipped out of the bed after him to pull down the window and fasten it securely before scurrying over to her bed for, what she truly believed now, was a well-deserved rest from such a tempest of a day.
"Your brush with death was the worst moment of my life," Frank said. He paused. "Actually, one of the worst. The most directly terrifying, that is certain, but the days following when I was certain you would not have me, when you denied my suit at every turn? Those days were endless agony!"
Frank's exclamation softened Jane's heart, as it always did, at least, since she had seen the strength of his affection. His tireless devotion to her and his certain belief that all would, nay, must end well for their romance, had been hard to accept, given Jane's own tendencies to see all of the difficulties in any given path. In the days following her near upset into the waters off Weymouth, she had done her best to depress any talk of her experience as well as any private meetings with Frank. The pitying looks from the well-to-do matrons and the arch dismissal of the many young ladies only increased Jane's resolve to set Frank loose from what she know was a bad match. Certainly the Campbells had been all kindness to her these past eighteen years but it was time for Jane to stand on her own and, after her birthday next, take up gainful employment as a governess. But Frank had not given up on their love. Instead, he had helped Jane to see as he did, all from behind the largest potted fern in the Weymouth Assembly Room.
It was the Campbells' last assembly at Weymouth before setting on the road back to London. Sophie's wedding was imminent and her mother could not rest easy until they had returned to the city where she could properly supervise the last preparations, with dear Jane's help, of course! The Colonel and his wife were busy leave-taking in this last busy evening, chatting with friends while the musicians played a raucous accompaniment to the only slightly-more elegant dancers spinning and weaving up and down the floor. Jane edged further back to one of the quieter corners when she was suddenly hailed by a large and unruly bit of greenery.
Slowly she turned her head to examine the overgrown fern, mounted in a tall, pseudo-Grecian urn, flanked by two less presumptuous plants settled in plain white pots. Surely I am imagining things, Jane thought. It is my distraction over Frank's impossible suit, nothing else.
The plant quivered and Jane's surety evaporated, only to be replaced by rueful recognition when she spied Frank, peering back at her through the fronds. "Jane," he intoned insistently. She glanced casually around the rooms where no one seemed to take note of her and nonchalantly backed herself around the corner defined by the plants, into Frank's embrace.
She startled at the last but Frank held her fast, the dim light filtering through the leaves lending his face an unexpected air of mystery. "I surprised you," he asked, holding her lightly but firmly on her forearms, her body just a hair's breadth away from his.
Jane shivered slightly but attempted to show nothing of the delicious disquiet his proximity triggered. "You most certainly did," she finally said. "I did not expect the ferns to accost me." The attempt at levity fell flat, however, as Frank uncharacteristically refused to follow her lead into lighter topics.
Instead, he regarded her with solemn focus, surveying her up and down. "The Campbells are still fixed on leaving tomorrow for London?" At Jane's nod, he sighed slightly, seeming to fix his stance more securely.
Jane steeled herself for what she was sure was coming: a leave-taking that, however sweet or appealing, would mark the end of their acquaintance. For what else could result with their stations in life so different, their families drawing them in quite opposite directions, he to take his position among the landed gentry of Yorkshire and she to toil in the household of one or another modestly genteel family until she was summoned to serve as support and companion to her aged aunt.
Frank shocked her utterly by going down on one knee, right behind the trio of greenery. "Miss Fairfax, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?"
Despite herself, Jane gasped at the proposal. Frank had hinted of this moment, talked of their future repeatedly, but he had always shied away from words of commitment. She considered his attentive visage, turned up to her. Such a dear, dear face her Frank had. And his love, she could never doubt but, still, the certain opposition that his aunt would have to their match had not left her mind these past weeks. Jane would hate for Frank's love to turn to anger or indifference as he struggled against the adversities throwing over his family's good favour would present. Losing Enscombe, a property which she knew he already loved dearly, would leave an aching hole in his heart that Jane would be hard-pressed to fill, boundless though her love for him might feel.
"Frank, you know I cannot let you put all of your future to waste for me," Jane began.
At her protestations, Frank rose suddenly, speaking quietly and urgently. "You cannot scare me off, Jane. I am set on this, set on us. I am going to journey home to Enscombe, to enlist the advice of my uncle and begin a campaign to win over my aunt. I will not rest until I have won her over to our cause but, if I cannot, I will not despair. I can turn to my father and his new wife, certainly they will support our plan. In any case, we will wed! That is, if you will have me?"
Despite her best intentions, Jane's heart could not hold out against Frank's passionate declaration and, even more importantly, his purposeful devotion to work towards their future. How could any one, let alone someone who loved Frank's bright brilliance as much as Jane did, hold out against both of his charm and conviction. Her doubts and worries tamped down, Jane gave into her heart and her dreams.
Lifting her hands to frame his face, Jane whispered her acceptance and was swept up into Frank's arms. Each kiss was punctuated by fervent vows of eternal love and protection, their tryst only concluding when an amorous couple almost intruded upon their hideaway. Only Frank's quick thinking pulled them out of sight and into a nearby alcove where Jane could tidy herself while Frank promised to see her shortly in Highbury once he'd spoken with his uncle and aunt back in Yorkshire. Oh, how her heart had soared.
Back in the here-and-how, Jane found her hands framing Frank's face in much the same manner as she had done all those many years ago. "Oh, Frank," she murmurmed fondly, "you were utterly fearless and utterly irresistible. No woman could have held out against your onslaught. The army lost a great general when you chose not to take up a commission but chase, instead, after me that autumn in Weymouth."
Frank turned his head swiftly, bringing his lips to Jane's warm palm before he had cradled that hand again in his own, maneuvering her forward so that she was trapped, close against his chest on the velvet loveseat. Looking down into her upturned face, he whispered, "How could I not have done so, Jane? You were intoxicating. You are intoxicating. I could not help but press my suit through every possible avenue open to me, now could I. No man truly in love could have done any less."
As he explained himself, Jane's enraptured mood suddenly dissipated. Frank felt her body stiffening in his embrace. He leaned back to regard her too-still face. "What is the matter, my love?" Frank asked.
"Amelia," Jane said slowly.
Frank turned to the partially open parlor doors but their young daughter wasn't there.
"Not there," Jane said impatiently. "Just consider. What if twelve years hence some young man starts climbing the trellis outside of her bedroom window, here at Enscombe, or at your father's house or even in London? Hiding in her wardrobe? Proposing to her behind the potted plant?"
A visible chill wracked Frank's frame and his eyes hardened as he half-rose from the upholstered seat. "I'll round up the gardeners now and we'll have that trellis for kindling by noon! You, go get Winchell and see to it that her wardrobe is replaced with the smallest clothespress we have to hand. I'll see about forbidding any indoor greenery larger than a handspan."
Jane laughed disbelievingly. She pulled Frank back down to the furniture and patted his hand as if she was settling a fractious horse. Once she had his attention, Jane pressed the plate of tarts back into his hands. "Shush! Don't be ridiculous, my love. She wouldn't even give the Knightley boys a moment's notice at this age, and it would look strange for the gentleman of the house to be tearing at a bare trellis in December or suddenly disposing of perfectly good furniture, let alone plants."
Frank reluctantly held the plate but his body remained tense beneath the superfine of his well-tailored jacket. "This is my fate, is't not," he murmured ruefully, "to raise a daughter to adulthood knowing that one day she will be the object of admiration as dangerous as my own?"
Jane eyed her worried spouse indulgently. "Surely, Frank, your admiration was never a danger to me. You were always a gentleman."
Frank's eyes widened. "Barely. Just barely." He sighed, seeming to steel himself against a storm of worries. "Just know this, Jane. We are never taking Amelia to Weymouth."