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Know Your Own Happiness

Chapter Text

The sound of the door opening drew Elinor's attention.  She turned from gazing out the window to see Colonel Brandon entering the room.  He paused when he saw her, looking slightly surprised.

"Forgive me, Miss Dashwood.  Am I disturbing you?"

"Not at all, Colonel," Elinor quickly reassured. "I would be delighted with your company."

Brandon seemed to hesitate a moment before coming further into the room and shutting the door behind him.  "How is your sister?"

"Much improved." Elinor could not hide the relief she felt at her sister's recovery.  She had really thought Marianne might die.  "Our mother is with her right now.  I must thank you again for bringing her here.  Our mother has been a great comfort to Marianne as she recovers her strength."

Brandon nodded, looking a bit uncomfortable with the praise.  "I was happy to be of service."  He took a moment to study Elinor.  "And you?  How are you faring?"

"Me?" Elinor asked in surprise.  She had not been sick.

Brandon's stiff air softened at her obvious surprise. "You have been assiduous in the care of your sister.  I can only imagine how worried you must have been."

Reminded of her fear, Elinor had to look away.  Marianne had only woken from her fever this morning.  It was still too fresh for Elinor, but she forced herself to turn back to the Colonel and offer a strained smile. "She is better now.  That is all that matters."

Brandon nodded, but said nothing else.  He again studied Elinor, who was suddenly conscious of her unkempt state.  She had fallen asleep at Marianne's bedside while still in her clothes, and had not fixed her hair in the meantime.  The neat rows she usually styled it in were likely messy and beginning to come undone.  She could only imagine the state of her appearance.

She did not fear losing the Colonel's good opinion over something so trifling when the obvious source of her current disarray was her sister's grave illness; nonetheless, Elinor flushed when she realized, and it took all her self-control not to reach up to smooth her hair out as that would only call more attention to it.

"Miss Dashwood . . ." Brandon looked suddenly discomfited.  He glanced away, and his sudden change in demeanor chased away any thought Elinor had of herself.

"Colonel?"

He did not respond immediately, and Elinor thought he was weighing something in his mind.  When he turned back, it did not look as if he'd reached a decision for his expression conveyed a conflicted nature.  "Miss Dashwood, your sister is only recently recovered, and I cannot ignore that you have likely retreated here to restore your own piece of mind after the fright of your sister's illness.  It is the worst of times to demand your attention, but I . . ."

"There is something you wish to say?" Elinor guessed.  She could not imagine what the Colonel could want to disclose, although she was reminded of the last revelation he had offered her in Willoughby's scandalous behavior to his young ward.

Colonel Brandon took a deep breath and walked towards a bookcase on the far wall.  He touched the shelf but did not read the book titles, clearly still wrestling with some decision.

Concerned, Elinor offered, "Rest assured that I am not inconvenienced by your presence.  Indeed, I welcome your company.  If there is something you wish to say, I do not hold the timing ill-judged.  My sister does not need me at present.  You have my permission to speak on any subject."

"I wonder if you would be so forthright in your permission if you knew the subject of my thoughts," Brandon said quietly, apparently to himself.

Before Elinor could reply, he turned to face her.  "If I were a better man, I would hold my tongue and quit the room, but I find I cannot deny this opportunity.  I will take you at your word, though I think it likely you will regret it."

"I think you are too hard on yourself, Colonel.  If you would forgive me, I have seen it on several occasions in our conversations.  Whatever it is that distresses you will not be so bad, I am sure," Elinor said.

"We shall see." Brandon again fell silent and continued his slow wandering around the room.  Elinor waited patiently, wondering what could possibly be occupying his mind.

When he finally returned his attention to her, his expression was carefully guarded.  "As I am committed to this breach in etiquette, perhaps I could also indulge in a point of curiosity.  Understand, it is only to satisfy my own inquisitiveness and as such, I would not insist upon an answer.  Indeed, I demand that if you do not desire to answer, then you must not."

Elinor frowned in confusion but nodded.  Brandon hesitated again but only briefly.  Squaring his shoulders, he said, "Since I first knew you, there has been a quiet sadness in your eyes.  It has increased since our reunion in London, but it has always been there.  I wish to know . . . Is there someone who holds your heart?"

Elinor could not hide how shocked she was at the bold inquiry.  "Colonel?"

Brandon shook his head.  "I realize it is an unworthy question to ask."  He turned away to pace the length of the bookcase, looking ill-at-ease with himself.  "And I would not ask except . . ."

"Except?"

Elinor's question was not answered.  Brandon would not meet her eye, doubtless as scandalized with himself as Elinor was of the question.  It was not like him.

It was precisely that fact that inclined Elinor to answer when she never would have otherwise.  She had had many conversations with Brandon since their introduction, and she had never found him anything but gentlemanly and upstanding.  He was not close enough to share such intimacies, but Elinor did not doubt any such confidence she shared would be in the safest hands with him.

It had been so hard these last few weeks keeping Lucy's secret that Elinor did long to speak of it to someone.  At the same time, she also wished never to speak of it to anyone, heartsore at her loss and ashamed that she had ever thought Edward's attentions could mean more than they did.

Haltingly, she said, "There was a young man I . . . cared for, but it came to nothing.  There are no prospects there."

Brandon looked surprised that she answered, and now it was Elinor who could not meet his eyes.

"I had not realized . . . I did not see . . ." Brandon sighed, and looked out the window.  "There has been a great deal of that lately, I suppose."

Frowning, Elinor gave him a puzzled look but he only shook his head.  Wherever his mind had gone, he clearly turned from it and returned to the original topic with a suddenness that called attention to itself.

"I wish to be understood.  That is the true reason I am speaking now.  I feel I will burden you with knowledge better left unknown, but your good opinion matters very much to me so I cannot keep silent."

He finally turned to face her, looking earnest.  "I fear you will feel constrained to make a decision I am not asking of you.  That is not my intention.  My intention is solely to be understood."

Elinor nodded, as he seemed to want that, but she was confused.

Brandon accepted her wordless agreement but did not look comforted by it.  His whole being radiated unease, and Elinor wished she knew what to say to relieve his worry.

Resuming his pacing, Brandon spoke to the walls around him as he said, "To begin with, I must explain something of myself.  You know of my history with Eliza, but I doubt you have heard anything of Eliza herself."

A sad, bittersweet expression crossed his face.  "When I think of her, I try to remember her as she was in our youth: headstrong, vibrant, full of life.  She was the opposite of me in many ways, and I think that is what drew me to her.  I have always been reserved and quiet.  Eliza encouraged boldness in me, and I marveled at her openness."

He took a deep shuddering breath as emotion threatened to overwhelm him.  Elinor felt great pity when she saw it, for him and the woman he had loved.  She wondered anew that he was confessing these things to her, but she trusted that he opened these wounds for a worthwhile reason.

Forcing himself to continue, Brandon said, "When I first saw your sister, I was struck profoundly by the resemblance to Eliza.  Miss Marianne shares so many of Eliza's traits that I think you could easily imagine what Eliza was like.  For a while, it was like having Eliza back."

"Until Willoughby," Elinor whispered.

Brandon nodded.  "It did not happen immediately, but the events in London and here at Cleveland have given me ample time for self-reflection, and I have come to some startling conclusions about myself and the nature of my affections."

"What do you mean?"

Brandon opened his mouth but then shut it, apparently changing his mind.  He thought a moment, and then said, "What I wish to speak of is you, Miss Dashwood."

Elinor was taken aback at the sudden change of topic and the content.  "Me?  How so?"

"Throughout my association with you and your sister, you have been constant in your kindness and consideration to me.  I noted immediately that as your sister's attention turned towards Willoughby, you made a point of occupying the time she had spent with me in her stead."

"Yes, well, Marianne did not realize how her actions were . . ." Elinor wasn't sure how to politely say her sister had been rude and she had felt obliged to make up for it.

Fortunately, Brandon did not make her say it.  "I saw nothing wrong with your sister's manner, although I knew you and others did not agree.  I felt guilty that you should have felt any need to make up for it, certainly not to me."

Elinor was quick to argue, "There is nothing to feel guilty for.  I have always enjoyed your company, Colonel.  If my sister's behavior was the instigation for a closer affiliation, I have only had benefit from it."

Offering a faint but genuine smile, Brandon said, "I am glad to hear it.  In the course of our acquaintance, I have felt we have developed a strong rapport."

"I agree.  I count you among my friends, and am happy to do so."

If that was the pronouncement he had been angling to hear, it did not appear to give him joy.  His smile dimmed, and then faded away.  His gaze turned to the bookcase but Elinor was sure he did not see it.

When he did not speak again, Elinor stood and approached him.  "Colonel?"

Seeing her at his elbow, Brandon smiled again.  His eyes were sad though.  "Your sister is a delightful young woman.  She is lovely in so many ways, but I have come to believe that I have not truly seen her until recently.  What I loved -- what I thought I loved -- was a reflection of a woman I loved a long time ago, one I had long ago laid to rest in my heart."

His words caused alarm in Elinor, who finally thought she saw what it was he wished to say.  Had Marianne lost his affections?  Elinor was aghast at the thought, stunned into silence.

If Brandon saw that, he made no sign.  His focus had turned to Elinor again, his eyes scanning over her face.  There was a warmth to his eyes that Elinor could not appreciate as her mind tripped over the sudden implication of his words for her sister.

"But I see you," Brandon said, pulling Elinor's attention back to him.  He reached out his hand as if to take hers but hesitated, and then let it drop.  "We are very quiet, you and I.  Easily overlooked.  I am used to it.  While I understand the phenomenon, I did not realize I was susceptible to it myself.  I overlooked you.  You stood by me, and I did not see you as you deserve."

"Colonel, that's really not-" Elinor tried to protest.

Brandon did not allow it.  "I see you now.  I see what you have come to mean to me.  It is not just Miss Marianne I have been concerned about.  I see that you too have been suffering, and it cuts me to the bone to see.  I would do anything for either of you, but especially you, Miss Dashwood."

Elinor was flustered by his words, and confused by the warmth of his gaze as he looked at her.  "Colonel, there is no need for that.  I am well, I assure you.  Whatever it is you have seen in me to cause you worry, it is not incumbent upon you to make right, assuming correction is even necessary.  Do not be worried for my sake."

Her words seemed to make Brandon sad.  "I do not agree with your assessment, but I fear I have blundered this badly if our discussion has turned to this.  It was not my intention."

"What was your intention, Colonel?" Elinor said, no longer feeling that she really wanted to know.

Brandon looked at her for a long moment before quietly replying, "I wanted to express my affection for you, Miss Dashwood.  While your sister has occupied my mind, it is you who have occupied my heart."

Elinor had only been this shocked once before in her life, when Lucy told her of her engagement to Edward.  She had never again thought anything could render her speechless, but she had been wrong.

"But you love Marianne," Elinor blurted out, unmindful of her words in her stunned state.

Brandon sighed.  "I care about your sister, yes, but the partiality that you -- and everyone else -- ascribe to me is inaccurate."

"But . . ." Elinor did not know what to say.  Her mind was reeling with the implications of this declaration, concerned foremost for her sister.  Elinor had hoped that now that Willoughby was gone, Marianne might be more open to Brandon's suit, and that Brandon would soothe the pain of Willoughby's betrayal.

To learn that Brandon was out of her sister's reach and that Elinor was the cause of potential grief for Marianne was absolutely appalling.  Elinor couldn't even contemplate that Brandon could love her.

Elinor could not imagine what her expression told Brandon as he watched her, but the sad look returned to his gaze.  Sighing, he walked to the window to look out at the gardens. 

"Your misconception was my own." His words were quiet and sad.  "I let myself be caught up in the possibility of breathing new life into old memories.  I did not see what it was I was really pining for."

He turned to look at Elinor.  "Not until I saw what my heart truly yearned for."

"Colonel, I am not a creature of excitement or vitality.  Marianne is upset currently, but I have no doubt she will recover her liveliness in short order.  I will never be so spirited.  I am dull and too cautious."

"Please don't." He looked pained.  "Do not disparage yourself like that.  I cannot bear to hear it."

Elinor swallowed back her words, unsure what to do to fix this.  Brandon inhaled slowly, and turned to her.  "I wish to be understood.  That is the point of this conversation for me.  I know that it will seem that I have gone from loving your sister to loving you, and you would rightly think me inconstant and cruel.  I would say my affections for your sister have not changed.  My well wishes for her happiness remain firm.  I do not think that I have changed so completely.  I did not understand myself, and therein lies the confusion.  But that has changed.  I do understand myself now.  I have given much thought to this to make sure I do not make the same mistake twice.  I am firm in my affection for you, Miss Dashwood.  Do you believe that?"

Elinor shook her head. "I am nothing like Marianne, who is like your lost Eliza.  I find it very puzzling that you should turn to me, so I'm afraid I am in doubt of the truth of your words."

"I am not surprised," Brandon said.  "I suspect many will see things as you have.  Indeed, I struggled with the very same conundrum.  My eye has always turned to bright, vivacious souls."  He offered her a chagrined smile.  "While I find nothing wanting with you or your quiet demeanor, vivacious is not really the term to describe you."

"No." Elinor couldn't help a small smile of her own, although it could not last in such a conversation.

"As I said, I wish to be understood, so let me explain myself.  I said that Eliza fascinated me because she was so different to me.  Miss Marianne is similarly captivating.  But fascination is not love.  I have great affection for your sister, but I cannot say how well I truly know her."

"Can you not?" Elinor asked.  "Marianne hides nothing of herself, and gives her opinion openly on anything that takes her fancy."

"While you are circumspect?" Brandon finished.  "Yes, Marianne speaks her mind but she is not inclined to speak on subjects that do not interest her.  Her mind is very much on her own circumstances, as it should be for someone so young.  That is not the case with you.  I have had such thoughtful and enlightening conversations with you, Miss Dashwood.  I do not always feel comfortable opening up to others, but there is such ease with you.  I find myself looking forward to any moment I can spend with you, and any new information I hear, I wish immediately to hear your opinion of it."

Elinor was heartened by his words.  "I have felt similarly, but surely that is merely friendship."

"And should I not desire a dear friend for my lifelong companion?" Brandon asked.  "But that is not all.  That was merely the opening of my eyes.  If I am to be really bold, I would tell you how uplifted your presence makes me when you enter into a room.  Were I a poet, I would wax about the beauty I find in your countenance.  I would say that you have lifted the shadow of Eliza from my heart, and made me anxious for each new day to start.  Do you believe me now when I say I love you?"

Elinor had never had anyone say such things to her before, and she could not refute him.  But she could not meet his declaration with joy, thinking of her sister.

Brandon seemed to guess her thoughts.  Turning his attention back out the window, he said, "I know that by my actions, I have given rise to the common belief that it is your sister who holds my heart, and I have created an obligation thereof."  He looked back at Elinor.  "You fear that I will not hold to that obligation."

"I was hoping it was not an obligation," Elinor said.

"I suppose I hoped that too, or I would not have marked my attentions as I had," Brandon said sadly.  "Have no fear.  If you do not countermand it by returning my affections and your sister desires it, I will hold to my obligation to her.  I will ask for your sister's hand in marriage, and you have my promise that I will do all in my power to provide her with the affection and care she deserves.  She will never be given cause to think that my affection for her is not as great as she believes it to be."

Brandon reached out again, finally taking Elinor's hand in his.  "But I cannot be dishonest with my feelings to you, Miss Dashwood.  I do not want any secrets between us."

"And that is why you have revealed all of this to me?"

"I would be lying if I said there wasn't a part of me that hopes you return my affections, and would accept a proposal, should I make it," Brandon said.  Elinor's eyes widened at that, but he quickly continued, "But I promised that I would not force a decision on you, and I hold by that.  I only wish to be understood.  I will speak no more of this."

He pressed a kiss to the back of her hand, and then released it.  Elinor watched him walk to the door, completely speechless.

Brandon opened the door but then paused.  "I know that I have imposed upon you tremendously, but there is one other thing I wish to ask of you."  He looked back at her, eyes sad.  "If you were to contemplate a union with me, I would not have you forget your own feelings in the matter.  I know you weight your sister's happiness highly, but you matter too.  I would not have you forget that."

He nodded to her, and slipped out.

Elinor sank down in a chair, stunned by the whole conversation.

Chapter Text

Sitting on the hillside with Marianne beside her and no one else around, Elinor decided there was no better time to broach the subject of Colonel Brandon than now.  She was momentarily stymied on how to do it though.  The Colonel's unexpected declaration had been on Elinor's mind ever since he'd confessed his feelings, although he had said nothing more on the subject in all the times they'd been together in the interim.

Marianne was now well enough -- both physically and emotionally -- that Elinor could not put the conversation off any longer, but she was unsure what she wanted to hear.

"Dearest," she said, calling Marianne's wandering attention to her.  "I would not infringe upon your privacy, but there is a topic I wished to speak of, if you would allow it."

"Certainly."  Marianne looked away.  "For all that I hid nothing of my affections for Willoughby, I have realized that I did not confide in you as I should have."

"You did not owe me your confidence," Elinor protested.

Looking back, Marianne offered a wan smile.  "No, but I see now the prudence in it.  You urged caution and restraint, but I would not be constrained.  If I had your wisdom, perhaps I would have saved myself some heartache."

"Not wisdom," Elinor deflected, thinking how ill equipped she felt in the current circumstances.  She certainly had no idea what the prudent or wise choice was regarding Colonel Brandon.  "But certainly a more objective eye can discern things we cannot see when we are too close to the matter."

"I agree.  Of what did you wish to speak?" Marianne asked.

Now that the moment had come, Elinor still did not know exactly what it was she wished to say.  She had no desire to hurt her sister, and that was all she had thought of.  If her sister asked of her own feelings in the matter, Elinor had no reply to give.

"Colonel Brandon has been very attentive, especially of late.  I know Mrs. Jennings and Sir John have been speaking of a growing attachment, and even Mama has taken for granted that a forthcoming engagement will happen when you are ready."

"I have heard that as well," Marianne said, her tone non-committal.

"This is not the first time that the Colonel has been attentive to you.  It seemed to me -- and to others -- that his attention was not unwelcome, and you were warming to it.  But then Willoughby arrived, and I did not see any regret or hesitation in your countenance that a previous attachment might engender."

Marianne sighed, looking out over the landscape.  "You are right to admonish me.  My actions were uncharitable at best."

"No, no!" Elinor reached out to put her hand on Marianne's, inducing her sister to turn back to her.  "I have no admonishments.  That is not my intention.  I only wish to know that you are happy with the Colonel.  I wish to know for certain what it is you feel for him so I do not make false assumptions as I did with Willoughby."

Marianne looked down at their hands and was silent for several moments.  At length, she turned her hand to hold Elinor's, and said, "Colonel Brandon is a very good man.  Perhaps the best of men.  I did not give him his due, thinking only of his age and desiring a passionate love affair like those I have read about in my books.  I could not wish for a better suitor."

"You do not sound very enthused by the prospect," Elinor said cautiously.  Indeed, Marianne looked quite sad as she spoke.

"I know of his feelings for me, and I am glad of them if a marriage with him lifts up the spirits of all of you around me.  I know I have worried you all."

Her words alarmed Elinor.  "And what of your own feelings in the matter?  Marianne, you mustn't marry just to satisfy us.  I would never desire you to be unhappy."

"I don't think I would be unhappy," Marianne mused.  She again looked out over the countryside.  "I am sure I could be very contented with the Colonel.  We share a love of music, and his calm disposition would be a good counter to my own.  There are many advantages I had not considered when I first met him."

"But?" Elinor sensed there was more.

Marianne turned to meet her eye.  "But if I am to be honest, there is a part of me that mourns the loss of the passionate love I once wished for.  Willoughby is gone to me, and his true character known.  I cannot wish him back into my life.  Having come so close to ruination at his association, it would be folly to again seek such a relationship.  I would deserve everyone's scorn that I had not learned my lesson from Willoughby's wicked behavior.  But does that mean there is no decent young man out there with Willoughby's passion?  It is not just the loss of Willoughby that I have struggled with these last few weeks; it is also the death of the love I thought once attainable.  When I have truly accepted it, I am sure my reservations about Colonel Brandon will all be laid to rest.  But in the meantime, I cannot help but wish to meet a better version of Willoughby and feel once more the sharpness of joy that I did with him."

Elinor was both shocked but also unsurprised by this revelation.  It certainly felt truer to her knowledge of her sister than suddenly falling completely in love with Brandon did.  She was glad to learn Marianne had taken to heart the lessons of Willoughby's betrayal, but she was reminded of what Brandon had said so long ago about the despair of Marianne becoming better acquainted with the ways of the world.  It was not what Elinor thought it was.

As Elinor thought on this, Marianne watched her.  "You are disappointed, aren't you?"

Snapped out of her thoughts, she saw the sad look on her sister's face and quickly sought to reassure her.  "No, not at all."  Elinor reached out to pull her sister into a hug.  "Willoughby did not do right by you, but he brought you great joy before we knew of his actions." 

Pulling back to look her sister in the eye, Elinor offered a chagrined smile.  "I have not always understood you, Marianne.  Your association with Willoughby ran counter to my own inclination for courtship, and I fear I imposed upon you to conform to that.  I should not have."

"I should not have been so harsh with you either, Elinor," Marianne said.  "A little restraint was not an unworthy thing to ask.  If I had only thought a little more of others, I would have been sensible of your own suffering.  That grieves me more than anything Willoughby has done.  You do not love as I do, but I understand now that what you do not show says nothing of what you feel, and I am sorely sorry that I did not see it before."

Elinor was touched by her sister's admission, and hugged her again.  After a moment, Marianne settled at Elinor's side, resting her head on Elinor's shoulder and was quiet.

Whatever their current heartache, Elinor took comfort from the fact that she had never felt closer to Marianne than she did now.  She had always loved her sister, but it was true that their very disparate temperaments had left a wall between them -- a wall they were finally breaking down.

Elinor let the silence linger, but her thoughts returned to Brandon's declaration.  She had thought to hear Marianne's quiet but growing attachment to him, which would make the decision to ignore his feelings easier.  But it was clear Marianne was not as interested as she sounded.  While she had quieted since her illness, Elinor could not believe that she would hide her affection if she truly felt it.  It seemed clear to Elinor that Marianne was trying to talk herself into an association with Brandon.

Before Brandon's declaration, Elinor might have agreed with this approach.  Brandon would be good for Marianne, at least in Elinor's eyes.  But Elinor was beginning to see that she could not impose her own version of happiness onto Marianne.  Perhaps she was right that Marianne would find contentment with Brandon but it would never be the blinding joy that she had shown with Willoughby.  Elinor finally realized that maybe for Marianne, that joy really was vital to her being.  Elinor was not in a position to judge.

"Marianne," Elinor said softly, leaning her cheek against her sister's head.  "Whatever your own feelings in the matter, I think we can safely say the Colonel has been steadfast in his affections for you." Elinor swallowed at the lie but forced herself to continue.  "I wonder, though, if the Colonel's affections were to turn away if you would think less of him."

Sitting up so she could look at Elinor, Marianne gave her a puzzled look.  "Why should his affections change?  Do you mean that you think he would behave as Willoughby did?  I cannot believe that of him."

Her defense of Brandon made Elinor smile.  "No, I did not mean that.  I was merely speculating in the general sense.  If the fantastical occurred and the Colonel's lost love Eliza returned tomorrow, would you think ill of him for abandoning you for her."

"No.  I said as much with Edward: I would not have him marry what he does not love.  I hold that true with Colonel Brandon as well.  If his first love could return tomorrow, or he truly fell in love with someone else, I would not force him to honor an attachment that has not even been spoken of.  He owes me nothing, and he owes himself happiness.  I would not feel ill-used in such a case." Marianne sounded very firm on this, firmer than Elinor could ever remember her being.

She clearly knew her mind, which left Elinor in doubt of what she should do.  "It is getting late.  Perhaps we should head home."

Marianne looked wistfully at the hill where she first met Willoughby but she nodded.  Arm-in-arm, they walked back to the cottage.  The countryside around them was bright green, but Elinor could not admire it.  She had an opportunity to come clean to Marianne about what Brandon had told her, but she found she couldn't.

The guilt of that was terrible.

Chapter Text

It was raining, forcing everyone at Barton Park indoors.  Elinor had immediately retreated to a book while the others played cards or otherwise amused themselves.  She was on the last page when she felt someone sit beside her.  As whoever it was did not call for her attention, she allowed herself the luxury of finishing the book before she looked up to see who it was.

When she did, she saw Colonel Brandon waiting patiently for her attention, and she could feel her face heat up.

"I trust it is a good book, Miss Dashwood," he said softly.

"Good enough," she replied.

"I have often seen you occupied reading while in company, but I have not heard you enthuse about any particular author the way your sister does.  Are you a great reader?"

"No, I would not say so.  It is simply that I enjoy the quiet it affords me." Elinor glanced towards the card game where Mrs. Jennings and the others were wholly absorbed in gossiping.  "But I do not deny that it is a pleasant way to pass the time."

"Ah." Brandon clearly understood her meaning.  "If you would like, there is an extensive library at Delaford.  I would be happy to lend you any tome of your choosing."

"That is very kind, Colonel, but I still have ample selection here.  Sir John's collection is not small." Elinor smiled to soothe her refusal.

Brandon glanced around at the shelves.  "Ample but not varied." His assessment was not wrong.  Elinor had augmented her reading with the few books they had brought with them from Norland, but if that were not the case, she might have been more eager to take Brandon up on his offer.

"I shall keep your offer in mind," she said.

"I hope you do." Brandon watched her quietly, and Elinor could feel her pulse begin to pick up speed.  Like everyone else, she had seen all of Brandon's actions through the lens of his supposed attachment to Marianne.  Now that she knew there was something else, she could not mistake the warmth of his gaze as he looked at her.  "There was a matter I wished to speak of with you, Miss Dashwood.  If you would permit me?"

Elinor glanced again at the others in the room.  Brandon's request reminded her of their last private conversation, and she wondered what new declaration he could possibly have.

Turning to meet his gaze, she reminded herself that he had been nothing but gentlemanly since their previous meeting and he would not say anything improper in company.  "Of course, Colonel.  What may I help you with?"

"As you know, I was called away on the day of the Delaford picnic, and I know none of you proceeded there without me," he said.

"It would have been very rude if we had," Elinor noted.

Brandon nodded.  "I would not have minded, if only that all the preparations for the picnic had been made.  Indeed, I have several games and other such trifles still at my estate, and I have been contemplating trying to hold another picnic."

"Really?  That sounds lovely," Elinor said with genuine enthusiasm.

"Do you think so?  My departure was very abrupt, and I have been hesitant to schedule another picnic because of it."

"Why?" Elinor glanced around and lowered her voice.  "Has something happened to Beth or her child?"  The idea of Brandon's young ward finding more trouble sent a stab of pity and concern through Elinor's heart.  Surely Beth has endured enough already.

Fortunately, Brandon shook his head.  "No, I have no cause to think there will again be an urgent dispatch.  Rather, my concern has more to do with the fact that another picnic will call attention to the suddenness of my earlier departure and the silence I have had as to the reason.  Only you and your family know the truth."

Elinor frowned. "I thought Willoughby's affair was well known."

"Yes, but not the identity of the young woman in question or her connection to me."

"Ah.  Well, it would be a pity if the prospect of interrogation kept you from ever having a picnic again.  Indeed, I think there will be a point where the absence of such an entertainment will draw its own attention."

"You may be right." Brandon rubbed his chin as if he had not thought of that.

Elinor smiled.  "Besides, I am sure you have had ample experience dodging Mrs. Jennings' inquiries."

Brandon glanced at the card game, his expression pleasantly rueful.  "So I have."  He sounded more fond than aggrieved, which pleased Elinor.  While Mrs. Jennings was still aggressive in her inquisitiveness, Elinor had come to appreciate her more for her kindness and support when the truth about Willoughby and Edward came to light in London.

Returning his attention to her, Brandon said, "So you approve of my plan."

"I do indeed.  Margaret will be delighted to finally fly her kite on your lawns," Elinor said.

Brandon smiled.  "I shall be sure to choose a day with good wind in her honor."

Elinor smiled, and the conversation should have ended, but Brandon lingered for a moment.  His expression was neutral but Elinor could see the regret and desire in his eyes.  She was reminded of Marianne's words about unseen emotions, and she could believe that Brandon's emotions must be very intense indeed for her to pick up on them so easily.

Elinor was still shocked that she was the one to engender such intense feelings, and she had to look away, uncertain how to react.

Brandon stood abruptly, looking stiff and uncomfortable when Elinor instinctively turned back to see what he was doing.

"Thank you, Miss Dashwood," he said, bowing formally and turning away quickly.

Flustered, Elinor grabbed her finished book.  She opened it in the middle and looked down to seem occupied, although she read nothing.

When it came to Brandon, Elinor had been so preoccupied with the implication for her sister that she had thought nothing of what it could mean for herself.  But Marianne had made it clear that she would not be upset, and Elinor believed her.  It seemed to Elinor that both Brandon and Marianne were prepared to enter into a marriage for the sake of obligation but not love, and that seemed wrong to Elinor.

She could not deny that it still might be best for Marianne in the long run, and that both could come to love each other.  They were fond of each other after all, and wanted the marriage to be successful.  It could work.

But it was also possible that Brandon could marry for love, and for the first time Elinor let herself consider the idea.

Glancing over her book, Elinor saw that Brandon was now occupied in conversation with Sir John, which gave her a chance to study him.  He was certainly handsome and refined.  His manner was quiet, which suited Elinor quite well.  There was an air of sadness to him that called to Elinor.

She looked down at her book and thought over all of their many interactions.  She did like Brandon very much, and always looked forward to his company.  His stated enjoyment in their conversation matched her own.  She had never spoken to a man as she did with him, as he seemed to welcome her thoughts on subjects often reserved for men alone and made no great show at the unusualness of that.

She felt comfortable in his presence.  Were she Marianne, that would be a damning indictment, but she was not her sister.  A quiet, comfortable attachment sounded ideal to Elinor.  She did not want to yell her feelings to the heavens.

But what were her feelings?  She liked Brandon very much.  Indeed, when she thought of him, she couldn't help comparing how her first days with Edward had gone.

Thinking of Edward made her heart constrict in her chest, and she abruptly stood.  She set the book on the table and immediately quit the room, not looking to see if anyone noticed her sudden departure.

She needed space.

Wandering through the large house, she finally found an open door at the end of a lonely hall leading to the gardens.  It was quiet and secluded.  There were no lamps lit here so Elinor felt confident she would not be disturbed.

She stood just inside the threshold watching the raindrops pelt the pavement before her.  A cool breeze blew against her skin, and the gentle sound of the shower drowned out the sound of her own breathing.

Elinor reflected that if she were Marianne, she would step out into the rain.  There was a part of Elinor that did long to feel the rain on her skin, to feel it wash away the turmoil she felt.

But that feeling was immediately followed with the knowledge of how uncomfortable it was to be plastered in wet clothing, and then the further reminder of Marianne's condition when last Elinor had seen her like that.

The memory sobered Elinor immediately.

Wrapping her arms around her middle, Elinor forced herself to confront the problem Brandon presented, and she knew that to do that she must confront the ghost of Edward first.

Edward was married to Lucy now.  There was no hope there.  Rationally, there was no reason to keep dwelling on him, but it seemed impossible to move on.

"Miss Dashwood?"

Startled, Elinor turned to find Brandon at the end of the hall.  "Is everything alright?"

Embarrassed, Elinor turned back to the rain.  "Yes, Colonel.  I just needed some air."

She could hear Brandon walk closer.  "I hope nothing I said contributed to that necessity."

His tone was quiet and sad.  Elinor looked up to see him quite near and saw the quiet distress in his expression.  She hastily reassured, "No, indeed, Colonel.  I just . . ."

She wasn't sure how to go on and looked back out at the rain.  She could feel the warmth radiating from him as he stood so near, and she wanted to lean closer.

She was again reminded that she needed to confront this problem.  Turning, she said, "You asked me to listen to you against propriety.  I wonder if you would extend the same courtesy to me."

"You may speak to me on any subject without fear of consequence." His tone was quiet, and when Elinor glanced at him, she could see he was braced to hear bad news.  He met is unflinchingly though.

Elinor contemplated what she wished to say, still unsure of what it was she wanted.  She supposed that was the real place to start.  "I have spoken to Marianne.  Without divulging what you revealed to me at Cleveland, I could not obtain a definite answer regarding the situation, but the answers I did receive have settled my mind regarding my sister's happiness should anything happen between us."

"Does this mean you would consider a proposal from me?" Brandon sounded cautious, as if he wanted desperately to be optimistic but was forcing himself to hold back.

Elinor wanted to relieve his suspense but she knew she could not answer with only that in mind.

Finally turning so they were facing each other, Elinor said, "I admit I feel very confused.  Since the beginning, I thought your eyes were only for my sister and so I never entertained the idea that there could be anything between us but friendship."

"I understand." Elinor could see Brandon closing off before her eyes.

She shook her head, frustrated.  "It is new to me but not . . . not unwelcome."

"No?" The cautious hope was back in Brandon's expression.

Elinor felt overwhelmed, feeling terrible to leave Brandon caught between rejection and assent, but that was where she herself remained.

Tightening her arms around her middle, she walked closer to the open doorway.  "I told you there was another who held my heart.  Holds my heart."  The admission was quiet and quite painful for Elinor to make.  She could only do so as long as she could not see Brandon's expression.  "He is married now.  I have no reason to think of him anymore, and all the reason to move on.  But I cannot."

"You are afraid to be hurt again."

Brandon's quiet words struck Elinor deeply.  She turned to find he had moved to stand right beside her, also looking at the rain.  "I know that feeling well."  There was a wealth of hurt in his voice, and Elinor knew he was thinking of Eliza.  Her heart went out to him, feeling a kinship she had never thought to have.

Apparently forcing his memories away, Brandon looked over at her and offered a sad smile.  "It's very difficult to move on from a broken heart.  I have only recently come to a place where I could contemplate being happy again." His pointed look towards Elinor left her in no doubt where he found the incentive for that.  "I know it sounds self-serving to suggest letting go of an old love when I desire that you turn to me, but I speak honestly and from experience when I say that you should seize joy if you can.  I lingered too long with the ghost of a lost love, and I have many regrets on that score.  I do not presume that you will find happiness with me, but I would not have you wait as long as I did."

"I could not afford to wait that long," Elinor said with gallows humor.  She was getting on in age, and would soon be too old for a decent match.  She did not have the luxury of waiting a decade for her heartache to mend.

Brandon frowned.  "I cannot put myself wholly in your shoes, but I do not think there is any dire haste.  While twenty years is much too long, you should take the time you need as well.  I do not mean to rush you."

"Nor have you," Elinor said.  Taking a deep breath, she looked out at the rain again.  It was strange how relieved she felt to have Brandon so readily understand her situation.  Not only understand it but name it for her.  Yes, she was afraid of feeling as awful as she had when she learned that Edward was promised to another.  The feeling was compounded by the hope she had lived with for weeks that perhaps he could get out of it and find his way to her.

That hope was gone now, and with Marianne's heartache and sickness, Elinor had only just begun to feel the weight of that.

Brandon stood silently beside her, asking for nothing.  His quiet company was soothing to Elinor.  She knew he would wait as long a she needed, which finally decided her.

Turning back to him, she said, "I wish to be as honest with you as you have been with me, Colonel.  I did not look for your affection before you declared it so I have only just begun to consider the idea, but the more I think of it, the more appealing I find it.  However, I cannot in good conscience agree to any proposal you make me at this moment.  I do not wish to give you false hope when I am still confused.  It would be unfair to you to enter into an arrangement with me if my heart were to remain forever someone else's.  I need time to consider all of this and to understand my own feelings."

Brandon considered her words with sober reflection, which Elinor appreciated.  "I understand your position -- perhaps better than you know -- and I have no desire to be an added difficulty for you."

"I do not think you could be," Elinor said.  "I have always known I could depend upon your goodness and restraint."

"And so you can."  Brandon hesitated a moment.  "But I wonder if you would permit me a liberty.  I will not ask for your hand here and now when you are not ready for the question, but would you allow me the honor of courting you?  I understand there is no surety of conquest if you agree."

Elinor wanted to consider the offer with the same sober reflection Brandon was showing, but all she could feel was how her heart beat against her ribcage and her cheeks flushed.  "I . . . I think I would like that."

Brandon's smile was muted but so genuine that Elinor could not doubt her answer delighted him.  Gently, he took her hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it, just as he had done at Cleveland.  "Then nothing would make me happier.  Take whatever time you need, Miss Dashwood.  Your presence in my life is all I require at present."

She knew he meant that sincerely, and she felt another weight lift from her heart.  Gently squeezing her hand, Brandon said, "Perhaps we should return before we are missed."

Elinor nodded and let Brandon escort her back to Sir John's parlor.

Chapter Text

Delaford was more lovely than Elinor had imagined.  The weather was fair and the sun was bright.  They could not have asked for a better day for a picnic.

Despite that, it was not long before the elder Dashwood sisters found themselves inside.  Marianne was keen to see Brandon's fine Broadwood grand pianoforte, and she had dragged Elinor along so as not to be too conspicuous in her absence from the picnic outside.

Elinor was standing by the doorway listening to her sister play when Brandon said, "I see Miss Marianne has found my pianoforte."

He had come up to her so quietly that Elinor was a bit startled to find him so near, but she smiled to see him.  "Indeed.  I cannot profess Marianne's superior knowledge of the subject, but it seems to be a fine instrument."

Brandon smiled in return.  "She is welcome to play whenever she likes.  I would extend the same courtesy to you."

"But it is not a courtesy I am likely to ever take you up on," Elinor finished for him.  She smiled, as he knew she was not accomplished in music.

"There is, perhaps, a better invitation I could offer instead," Brandon said.

"I do not require any such consideration.  I certainly do not feel slighted by any kindness you show my sister," Elinor said.

Brandon shook his head.  "It was one I had intended to offer in any case, and we are very nearby so the opportunity is excellent.  Would you permit me to show you?"

Curious despite herself, Elinor nodded.

They were indeed nearby as Brandon moved across the room to a pair of doors.  He opened them into an impressive library, at least twice as large as the one at Norland.

"Colonel, I do not believe I have ever seen so many books in one place!  I am astounded that Delaford can be renowned for your pianoforte but no one has thought to mention your library," Elinor said beginning to wander along the shelves.

Brandon glanced around at the books.  "That is partly, I think, because there is another smaller library nearer the parlor that my guests are more familiar with.  This is the main library, a work of many generations."

"Two libraries?" Elinor paused to give the Colonel a surprised look.

Brandon offered a faint smile.  "'Library' may be too generous a term for the front parlor but there are several shelves there.  My mother had high hopes of housing a second room as grand as this one, but I'm afraid her plans did not reach fruition.  She managed to refurbish this room and complete a modern selection of titles, but there are boxes in storage of damaged books that need to be re-glued and bound that she never was able to attend to."

Elinor perked up at the mention of fixing old books.  "Do you know, my father and I undertook exactly that kind of restoration when he took possession of Norland after my grandfather died.  I remember the endeavor very fondly."

Looking pleased by this information, Brandon said, "I can indeed imagine you taking great joy in such work."  He glanced at the shelves around them.  "There has been little need for haste in restoring the stored books given the luxury of variety and quantity I have been afforded.  As you can see, I would not be inconvenienced to lend a handful of volumes to a friend."

He returned his gaze to Elinor.  "So you make your offer again."

"I had hoped that if your refusal at Barton Park was out of a sense of modesty, seeing the reality of my offer would entice you to choose something for your leisure that suits your tastes rather than what is merely available to you."

"I confess Sir John's selection has become repetitive of late," Elinor admitted with a smile.

"Perhaps you will find something more suiting your liking here," Brandon suggested.  "I should return to my other guests, but I will leave you and your sister here to enjoy my home at your leisure."

He bowed to her, and she returned a curtsy.  Again, he lingered a moment in her presence before finally turning to take his leave through another door.  Elinor watched him, and then let her gaze wander over the room.

Brandon had been nothing but patient and generous in the month since she had accepted his courtship.  His attentions were small but consistent, and Elinor was in no doubt of his continuing affection.

For the first time, she considered the idea that she might be mistress of this very house.  The project of binding books left by his mother was the very thing a wife might do to take ownership of her new home.  No doubt that was what Mrs. Brandon had been doing with the library.

Elinor found the idea very appealing.  Since agreeing to this courtship, Brandon had not given her a moment's hesitation about the decision.  She had only grown more comfortable in Brandon's presence, and looked forward to any moment they could spend together.

She didn't even realize how long it had been since she'd thought of Edward.

"Elinor!"

Lost in reverie, Elinor had not realized the music had stopped or heard Marianne's approach, but her sister was suddenly at her side.  Marianne's eyes were searching as she took Elinor's hands and said, "With the Colonel?  How long has this been going on?"

Elinor was so surprised by her abrupt appearance and her inquiries that she could not immediately reply.  Marianne's eyes widened with sudden realization.  "This was what you were speaking of when we talked upon the green hill, was it not?  It was you Brandon had fallen in love with."

"Marianne, it is not-" Elinor honestly had no idea what to say.  Panic held her in its grip; she wasn't ready for this conversation and dreaded what Marianne would say.  It was one thing to hint that she might have wanted something more than Brandon but it was another thing entirely to see him stolen away by her own sister.

"But this is wonderful!" Marianne augmented her enthusiastic words by grabbing Elinor in a tight hug.

"It is?"

At Elinor's bewildered question, Marianne pulled back and gave her a concerned look.  "Oh, Elinor.  Please do not say you have been holding back on my account.  I could not bear that."

"No, Dearest, I have not," Elinor reassured when she saw how distressed Marianne looked.  "But tell me truly, are you not at all unhappy by this prospect?  Both Colonel Brandon and I have been worried about what you might think given his past partiality to you."

"I could not be happier.  Honest, Elinor," Marianne said.  "I have the highest respect for the Colonel but I must confess to private trepidation regarding our suitability.  I have no such doubts for you!  Now that my eyes are open to the reality, I see the cause of the good cheer that we all have marked in you these last few weeks.  Mama asked me just this morning what could have happened to elicit such a turn in your demeanor.  It is all clear now."

Elinor could feel her cheeks heat up at Marianne's words.  She had not thought there was any great change in her behavior of late -- certainly nothing for others to note -- and Brandon was always so courteous and circumspect, wary of putting too much pressure on Elinor.  They had both noted the external pressures pushing Brandon and Marianne together.  Brandon had said he wanted no such considerations to mar Elinor's decision, and she had appreciated the time to settle her own feelings inside herself without being teased or pushed.

Apparently she was not as guarded as she had presumed.

"Elinor, I know that it is terrible of me to ask but after everything that has happened, please forgive me the impertinence.  Tell me, are you engaged to the Colonel?"

Elinor was taken aback by the bold question, but she understood her sister's heart immediately.  She remembered how difficult it had been to wait for Marianne's confidence with regards to Willoughby, and look how that had turned out.

"We are not engaged," Elinor said.  When she saw Marianne's face fall in disappointment, she quickly added.  "But the Colonel has positively expressed a desire to do so."

"And why does he wait?" Marianne sounded indignant on Elinor's behalf, which made her smile.

"He does so at my request."

Marianne opened her mouth to make an instant retort to that, but it was a testament to how much she'd grown since Willoughby's betrayal that she paused and thought better of it.  Thoughtful, she said, "Have you waited on my account?"

"Not wholly," Elinor said.  "I wished to know my heart in the matter first."

Marianne grabbed Elinor's hand. "Surely, you must know it now.  You have been so happy, Elinor, and I want to see that continue.  If I am in any way an obstacle to your accepting the Colonel, let me now definitively and emphatically put your concerns to rest.  More, let me relay the understanding that I have learned these last few months.  Do not let your happiness slip away.  I see so clearly now that you and Colonel Brandon will make each other happy.  Do not wait."

Marianne implored Elinor was such earnestness that Elinor did not know how to respond.  Stuttering, she said, "I-I can do nothing at present.  This is hardly the time or place."  Elinor paused and thought back to the warm way Brandon had looked at her before departing the room.  "But my consideration of the matter has become very serious.  I might say yes."

"Please do." Marianne squeezed Elinor's hand.  "I will say nothing more, but know that I am anxious to wish you well in this matter.  I will even occupy Mrs. Jennings so you may have a moment's peace with the Colonel."

Elinor laughed.  "What trials you brave for your dear sister!  How could I refuse you when you suffer so on my behalf?"

"I should think so." Marianne smiled, and they could only keep straight faces for a few moments before falling into giggles.

"Come, let us look at the Colonel's library," Elinor said.  "I'm sure there are many volumes of poetry to entertain you."

Marianne consented to this, and nothing more was said of Elinor's growing attachment to Brandon.

 

***

 

The sun was still strong as evening approached, leaving ample time for Brandon to host a stroll through his gardens.  Marianne, Margaret, and Elinor joined with the Palmers, but the rest of the party stayed back.

"What pretty flowers you've planted, Colonel," Mrs. Palmer said.  "Do you know, Miss Marianne, I think these rows go on all the way to the road?"

"Not hardly," Mr. Palmer said under his breath.

Mrs. Palmer laughed, apparently untroubled by her husband's dour mood.  She continued to address Colonel Brandon, "And you've a new pond, have you not?"

Brandon nodded. "We just finished it last month.  I've instructed the groundskeeper to include a boat for rowing."

"Oh, can I see it?" Margaret asked, coming up to Brandon's side.

"After we see the hedge maze," Marianne scolded.

"There's no need to wait for that," Mrs. Palmer said.  "We've already seen the maze before, and we'd be happy to take Miss Margaret to see the pond.  I daresay, Mr. Palmer might be prevailed upon to row for us."

Mr. Palmer grumbled but he did not actually object.  Marianne gave Elinor a significant look before declaring she should go with to make sure Margaret behaved.

"Perhaps we should all go then," Elinor said.

"Nonsense," Mrs. Palmer replied.  "You wanted to see the hedge maze, and it is just up that way.  You'll catch up with us in no time."

She did not wait for assent, but quickly started off towards the pond with Margaret in tow.  Elinor and Brandon watched them go until their voices could no longer be heard.  Then Brandon offered his arm to Elinor, and they continued towards the hedge maze in silence.

Elinor could have made inquiries about the gardens or Brandon's history with the place, but she found she liked the quiet.  Brandon did not seem to mind it either.

He directed Elinor to a wall of green vegetation with an opening at the center.  A path appeared to the left and right, indicating the start of the maze.  It was not a terribly large maze -- certainly, Elinor did not feel in danger of becoming lost -- but Brandon's sure navigation left no room for anxiety on that score anyway.

As they walked deeper into the maze, Elinor let Brandon lead the way until a small gazebo caught her eye and she stopped.  "Oh, how lovely."

"Another of my mother's improvements," Brandon said, following Elinor to the small gazebo.  Stepping up onto the platform, Elinor let her hand glide over the smooth wooden railing circling half of the structure.

She turned to find Brandon watching her as he waited patiently at the edge of the gazebo.  Elinor smiled at him.

"Do you know what I was thinking?"

"No, but I would be delighted to hear," Brandon said, taking her words as invitation to join her on the gazebo.

"I was thinking how quiet it was without Marianne and Margaret.  I love my sisters dearly but there is a very different atmosphere without them," Elinor said.

Brandon laughed.  "Indeed.  Although, I do not think either had a word in ten against Mrs. Palmer."  Elinor's smile turned into a grin, for she could not deny that.  "They are all merry souls."

"While we are not?" Elinor said, her tone growing serious.

Perceiving her changed demeanor, Brandon frowned. "I find nothing wanting with you, Miss Dashwood."

Elinor nodded, expecting that answer. "Nothing wanting for a friend, but can you truly say the same for a wife?  I know you said you misunderstood yourself, but I am so very different from my sister, and I am not yet satisfied that I will make you as happy as she might."

Colonel Brandon considered that for a moment.  "You have told me your recent thoughts; allow me now to impart my own.  When we parted company just now, I too marked the stark difference in atmosphere with only you at my side, and I thought how tranquil it was.  I enjoy your sister's company, but I would lie if I said there wasn't some small relief in the quiet that follows her absence.  Walking with you now, without a word passed between us, was soothing in a way I had not realized I needed.  I have come to anticipate the peaceful atmosphere provided in your presence when we are alone.  Our time together has only increased my admiration and longing for you.  I do not know what else to say to satisfy you on that score, but it is the truth."

"I believe you, Colonel," Elinor said, coming closer to relieve whatever anxiety her question had engendered. "I only wished to be clear on this point, as it is the last point of concern I harbored."

"'The last point'," Brandon repeated.  Elinor could see the quiet intensity in him that followed as he clearly marked the importance of her words.  "Does that mean . . ."

Elinor could not quite meet his eyes as she said, "It means that if there were a particular question you wished to ask me, now would be as good a time as any."

She could feel how warm her cheeks were, and her heart was beating so fast, but Elinor also felt a sense of rightness in this moment that she had not felt before.  It only made it a little easier to wait as Brandon absorbed what it was she said.

Hesitantly, he reached out to take her hand.  She wondered if he could feel how it trembled in his grip.  Brandon looked hopeful but also cautious, as if he was unsure he had read her words correctly.  That did not stop him from boldly saying, "Miss Dashwood, would you give me the great honor of your hand in marriage?

Elinor was pleased that she did not need to make Brandon wait in suspense for even a moment.  Smiling, she said, "Nothing would delight me more, Colonel."

Elinor had the privilege of seeing Brandon respond with a genuine and blindly smile that was warmer and more open than she had ever seen it.

Pressing a kiss to her hand, Brandon stepped closer still, leaving barely any room between them.  "You have made me the happiest of men, Miss Dashwood.  I cannot tell you . . . I have no words to express how . . ."

Elinor laughed, delighted that she had made him tongue-tied with delight.  "Your joy is my own."

Brandon's smile turned a bit chagrined but his eyes were so warm as he looked at her.  He looked at her like she was the most amazing person he had ever seen.  Elinor had to look away, overwhelmed that she could be the source of such deep happiness for someone who meant so much to her.

A large, gentle hand cupped her cheek, and she looked up.  Brandon's expression had settled back into something more familiar to Elinor, but it only made apparent to her how tender his expression had grown whenever they had spoken this previous month.

Without a word, Brandon's desire was conveyed and Elinor's approval offered.  Brandon leaned forward to give Elinor her first kiss.  Her eyes closed without thought, letting her feel it wholly.  Even Marianne could not find fault in this kiss, Elinor was sure of it.

When they parted, Elinor smiled without reservation.  She felt lighter and happier than she had ever known herself capable.

"Miss Dashwood.  Elinor."  Brandon seemed to savor saying her name.  "What is your wish now?  I am happy to tell our friends and your family at a time of your choosing."

"Let us do it now," Elinor said.  "I feel I could shout my joy to the heavens.  I could not wait a moment more."

"You delight me again, for that is my desire as well.  I only thought you would wish to reveal our engagement to your mother in private."

Brandon's thoughtfulness made Elinor smile.  "Everyone here is dear to me.  It will be a great surprise but a delightful one.  Marianne knows, and hers is the only heart who might have begrudged our happiness, and I know for a fact that she will be nothing but supportive."

"If it is settled with you, it is settled with me." Brandon offered his arm to Elinor again.  Arm-in-arm, they took their time rejoining the others.

 

The End