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The Reward of All

Chapter Text

Following a lively and lavish wedding-breakfast on a bright morning in late spring, the new-made Mrs. Brandon departed on her wedding journey with a firm step as the Colonel handed her into the coach which was to take them to Lyme Regis.

It took very little of that journey to undo all of the bride's happy confidence, and in what remained of it, she only strove for composure and distraction as she gazed out of the window at the shifting roadside landscape. Her husband, content as he was, said little, and required no response apart from the surrender of her hand unto his, where he held it. His grip was not over-firm, but Marianne felt her discomfort would only be worse if she should make a point of withdrawing her fingers from his grasp. And he was her husband, now, after all.

It was difficult to say where her doubts had begun to take root--she only knew that they had, and too late for anything to be done. The Marianne of two years prior might have fled the church in her wedding-gown and died of a broken heart upon the wind-swept downs, but the Marianne of today was a far less fantastical creature. Moreover, she was culpable. She had agreed to marry the Colonel. No-one had forced her. Not in the sense that they had insisted upon it and that was all. She had given her consent.

Marianne Dashwood had, by degrees, come to know and appreciate the Colonel's virtues. She could easily acknowledge his gentlemanly ways to be the height of what ought to be truly esteemed in any man's manners and conduct, and his dignity, refined tastes, and the complexity of his experience and intelligence made his company surprisingly agreeable, though at first his solemnity and sometimes-silence had led her to believe him very dull, indeed. She had long considered him her friend before she knew of his regard for her, and could not help but feel gratified by having inspired such true and fervent admiration without being aware of it, and (she sometimes felt) without having done much that was worthy of admiration, at all. She yet blushed to recall some of her words and behaviour in times gone by, and little, painful reminders of her folly accosted her daily. She knew she had not the greatest share of blame, for Willoughby's conduct deserved most of the censure that might be derived from their unhappy history--but she had been naive, too. Marianne could now see--with a clarity that made her cringe--all that had been wrong in her attitude.

 It was, in part, this new understanding of herself which had led her to consider marrying the Colonel as a possible reality. He had earned her trust, and yet had never asked anything of her. His love made no demands, and did not urge her to act with anything that might be considered impropriety. He did not press her to be alone with him, nor even attempt to say such beautiful and poetic things as would have won her for Willoughby. He merely stood by, faithful in all things, seemingly unconcerned for himself. He would never knowingly do anything that might hurt her, nor make her look foolish in anybody's eyes--including her own.

 In addition to this, Marianne felt the absence of her own passion might, in this case, make her rationality a fairer guide than it had been, in the past. She did not feel blinded by any overwhelming feeling for the Colonel. She liked him a great deal, and he had the greatest respect and the warmest affection she could feel for anybody who was not already her own family...but she knew she did not love him. She had known what love was--and what heartbreak was. There was no risk of another such episode, she felt, with Colonel Brandon. Her heart was safe--for her heart was yet her own, poor and battered as it was after Willoughby had returned it to her keeping.

 Marianne Dashwood could give the Colonel her companionship, her esteem, and even her hand in marriage--but her heart, she had ultimately decided, was for no-one. The business of an establishment and a household would occupy her, and the Colonel's company was not objectionable.

This slightest consideration of the Colonel's grave proposal was met with such universal encouragement and delight from her mother and sisters, that Marianne did not have much opportunity to allow for other points of view to be aired. Thinking it best to act quickly, once a good decision had been arrived at (and everyone told her what a good decision it was,) Marianne accepted Colonel Brandon's offer at Christmas and spent the following months in the usual flurry of happy preparations, while being roundly congratulated up and down the whole of Barton Valley for her 'conquest'.

Marianne, who was not incapable of learning from her mistakes, relied heavily upon Elinor's good advice, now, and tried her hardest to ignore the more irritating and insinuating comments made by well-meaning friends and neighbours.

"You have only to please yourself and the Colonel, Marianne--and you know how little you truly care for the opinions of others," said Mrs. Edward Ferrars. "You were always right to ignore gossip and vulgarity."

It was that '...and the Colonel' which had come to trouble her. Yes, he loved her, and had been made happy by her acceptance--Marianne could see that. He had never questioned her motives in accepting him, however, and she wondered if he truly did not care, so long as he had her as his wife, or if he feared knowing the truth of her feelings. Both possibilities disturbed her, and so she said nothing on the matter; but could he truly be happy, in either case? Despite the happy ideals of domesticity which had charmed Marianne when she thought of being mistress of Delaford, as her wedding-day approached she was forced to think more practically of the whole of the expectations which would be placed upon her as Mrs. Brandon. The command of a household she could manage well enough, having observed her mother at Norland and then at Barton for many years. Lady Middleton, even, was a kind of example to her--insipid, perhaps, but excruciatingly correct in all she did. As to her capabilities as a housekeeper and hostess, Marianne had no doubts. As a friend to the Colonel, she must go on as she had always done, and he would likely continue enjoying her company, her conversation, her reading, her music.

 As his wife, however...Marianne was aware of the fundamental change which would come to their connection, and uncertain of its effects and outcome. In the abstract, she was pretty willing to be a mother, having few fears that her constitution would not support the rigours of childbearing. Her own mother had borne three daughters without difficulty, and continued to enjoy good health, and Marianne was certain she would have only the very best of care, should she meet with any illness or injury. She knew the essential mechanics of the process by which life was generated and brought into the world, as told to her several years prior by her mother. The delicate topic had remained unspoken of until the week before her wedding, when Mrs. Dashwood dared to speak quietly to her daughter of what she might expect. Mother and daughter both blushed and hastily did what each thought their duty in explanations and nervous queries, before the subject was left and they were relieved to talk of other things.

Marianne's mind had been left profoundly disquieted by this, however, and the culmination of some other events and elements in her experience served to disturb her further. Her feelings for Willoughby, she knew, had been wild, and at times she had felt a complete lack of control which, at the time, she considered thrilling. Her trust had been absolute, and--she was ashamed to acknowledge it, even to herself--had he asked, she felt she might have been as easily ruined as the poor girl he had seduced and abandoned. That sort of love was destructive, and it appalled her to think on it, now.

So what, then, could she expect from a man she did not love, yet who would be, as common phrasing would have it, her lord and master? He was not unkind, and Marianne knew she ought not to be afraid...and yet she shuddered to think of it. She could not form any notion of what might take place--she could not think of it with cool rationality and resolve. She could not summon any imagining of what it would be like to be so intimate...not without the intrusion of agonizing memories of what it had felt like when Willoughby had held her. By comparison to what took place between a husband and wife, she knew, her encounters with Willoughby had been chaste...but they were all she knew, and had been heady enough. With Colonel Brandon, she decided that, whatever he might feel for her, she had no reason to expect anything other than awkwardness which must be endured. A tentative and perfunctory exploration of her own body gave her reason to think it would likely be painful, as well.

All these things weighed on Marianne's mind, making her a little grave as her wedding-day approached, but what was to be done? She dared not broach the subject again with her mother, and had no opportunity nor courage to speak of it to Elinor--who perhaps would say it was all her own troublesome fancies at work, and she had better grow up and take the unpleasant things in life along with the good. It would be a silly over-reaction to jilt the Colonel, now, when all was in readiness to celebrate their marriage. Silly, and cruel. He did love her, after all. Everyone else seemed to have been aware of it before Marianne knew, herself. His sufferings in life had been great, and his sole happiness now seemed to rest with her.

What had, at first, seemed like a very great honour, now increasingly seemed like an impossible burden, and Marianne felt herself smothering and sinking under its weight. Who could live up to the expectations of such adoration? The Colonel's first love had remained incomplete--he had never been united with the object of his first attachment--he had never truly been allowed--or forced--to love freely and fully. His regard was entirely theoretical--such practical acts of love as he had been able to offer her were mere material supports to her health and happiness. A sheet of new music, a bouquet of flowers, even bringing her mother to Cleveland when she was so desperately unwell--all these things were as offerings to a goddess on an altar. The Colonel's love for her seemed, in a sense, to be not of this world. Marianne felt decidedly mortal.

The whirl of gaiety and her determination not to disappoint anyone were what carried her through the final preparations as well as the ceremony itself. The bride was a little pale, but very beautiful, and such was the collective happiness that few thought to question the couple as to their individual joy. The Colonel, it was clear, was quietly exultant.

Marianne exerted herself for everybody's sake but her own, and the relative peace of the carriage led her to begin to fully feel the monstrous extent of what she had done. Perhaps, of all things, to have run would have been kinder, in the end? But what could she possibly do about it, now? She would not leap from the carriage. No, she would have to explain to the Colonel, the mistake she had made. She would have to look him in the eye and explain...and treat him even more cruelly than Willoughby had treated her.

No! She would never be so coolly callous. She must endure, she decided miserably. Somehow, she must find a way.

Marianne had not the soul nor the countenance for extensive deceit, however, and the Colonel soon noticed her troubled expression.

"Are you unwell, Marianne?" he asked, still thrilling at his right to address her thus.

"I--I am a little tired," she admitted--and that much was true.

"I have arranged for us to have supper at the inn," he said. "Nothing too taxing."

"That was good of you," she said slowly. "...but I have no appetite."

"You are sure you are well?" he asked with even greater concern, his grip upon her hand tightening reflexively.

"It is the length of the journey, I suppose. I am not used to it," she said lamely, ignoring the trips she had made between Norland and Barton and London in perfect health and wellness. She rested her head against the cushioned panel and closed her eyes, and the Colonel said no more.

By the time they reached Lyme, it was near to dusk, and the candles were being lit as their luggage was brought in and the innkeeper ushered them through the taproom and into a private chamber where they could sup in peace. The spread was elegant and no doubt delicious, but Marianne could not bear more than a few mouthfuls of bread and some sips of wine, and did not feel at all revived by either. After her attempts, she rose from the table and choked back a little cry of surprise when Brandon stood, too. Her pulse leapt into her throat, and she darted a wide-eyed glance at him, imagining he meant to follow her upstairs that moment, before she realized he was only rising as any gentleman would when a lady departed. Marianne forced her shoulders to unhunch themselves beneath her shawl, and when the Colonel caught hold of her hand with a smile and kissed it, she even managed a trembling smile in return before she left the room.

The maid showed her to the tidy room which was to be hers--and her husband's--and cheerily helped the young bride out of her travel-dress and into a fine night-gown, all edged with delicate lace. The maid exclaimed in admiration at the material, but Marianne felt all at once that the muslin was far too unsubstantial, and she shivered, though the night was not particularly cold, and sweet-smelling driftwood logs fizzed and flared in the hearth.

Mechanically, she unpinned her hair and dragged a comb through her loose curls, the dark coils shining in the flickering light of the fire and the candle that stood on the dressing-table after it had lit the way upstairs. Distantly, Marianne could yet hear the faint murmur of voices in the taproom--or were they in the attics, above? The walls began to feel very close, and Marianne wondered with horror if she would be able to suppress any urge she might have to scream during the ordeal to come, and if the whole inn would hear, or what they might think. She could not decide which was worse--that she should be pitied, or that she should be thought silly, to cry over something so common. Everyone did it--Elinor, surely...

But Marianne did not find any thought of Elinor's example to be of any comfort. Elinor loved Edward, in her way, and, more importantly--she was not like Elinor. She never had been. If there was something to be endured, Elinor would do so with grace and dignity and poise. Marianne had tried--she had tried so hard--to emulate her sister in the time since her disappointment...but now she could only feel that it was all for naught. She was Marianne--impulsive, romantic, and far too sensitive to the headiness of joy as well as the dire sufferings of despair. Whatever attempts she could make to better understand herself and repair her behaviour, she could not so completely change her entire self in the course of several months, or even several years.

Marianne did not often seek consolation in prayer--her utterances of appeal to a higher power generally only came when she was in the deepest and truest distress--but her lips moved to form the holy words, now, and her hands folded themselves together as her elbows rested on the edge of the table.

"God help me," was all she could plead. Help me to be brave. Help me to be kind. Help me to be all the things I'm not.

She lapsed into silence, then, but her gaze remained so fixed upon nothing at all as her thoughts chased one another round and round within her mind, that she did not notice the door open as Alexander Brandon softly entered the room, and paused, struck by the sight of her. Marianne--now his wife (unbelievable truth!)--clad in simple white muslin, the glow of the firelight softly playing with the shadows of draping fabric to give tantalizing hints of the beauty of her figure beneath, while ripples of her hair spilled across her shoulders in dark waves. She sat with her back towards him, her head bent a little, offering a glimpse of the same profile which had first caught him when he had seen her at Barton Park, enthralled by the beauty of the music she called forth from her instrument. That ever-changing expression--endlessly charming in its variety and candour--now so sweetly still, as it might be in sleep...or perhaps not. Brandon's breath caught in his throat as he realized he would now have every opportunity of indulging himself in observing Marianne's countenance throughout the day--and night. The beauty of her sleeping form would no longer be a mystery or a phantom to torment him in his imagination. He could gaze upon her, and delight in her every glance. God above, he could reach out and touch her...

The creak of a floorboard gave him away as he took a step forward, and Marianne froze. If her stillness before had seemed complete in the tableau she presented while seated at the dressing-table, now she dared not even draw breath. Only her eyes moved, and her glance darted to the little mirror, in which she could now see the form of her husband. She had studied the Colonel a thousand times, but her own maiden humility had never yet allowed her to consider his person with the frankness she was now obliged to acknowledge. He was not an ugly man, but there were lines about his eyes and lips which spoke of the hardship he had faced, and there was no affection on Marianne's part which would deny that he could not be charitably considered a young man--still on the wrong side of five-and-thirty, and she was now scarcely eighteen. It was a difference in age not wholly unknown, nor even unusual, but Marianne felt all at once that she was very green and too uncertain for what might lie ahead. Who knew what the Colonel's life had been, exactly? All rumours and gossip and second-hand stories could only go so far...and they had never marred the ease of their engagement by referring to the pains they had both suffered in their pasts. What did he see when he looked at her, now? The long-lost Elizabeth of his youth? A loving wife, to be his consolation? A prize, for all he had endured and sacrificed?

Marianne felt the shackles of her numb shock fall away as the Colonel crossed the room towards her, and recovered enough of herself to jump to her feet and face him, though she could not stop him when he took hold of both her hands and raised them to his lips. His skin was warm, and his touch more delicate than Marianne had expected, and she could only drop her eyes to the hands that held hers, still frightened and confused.

"How are you feeling?" he asked, looking intently at her face, for fear he would never regain control of his gaze if he should, even for a moment, let it wander to the rest of her as she stood before him, so near and so very fascinating in the strangeness of their new intimacy.

Marianne knew she must now speak--but what could she possibly say?

"Colonel, I...I am...I must say, that I..."

"Hadn't you better call me Alexander? You did this morning, when you 'took thee, Alexander...' " he said, feeling it was safe to jest, just lightly enough to put her at greater ease. Of course she must be anxious--he could feel her hands trembling a little...or perhaps it was his hands which trembled--he could not be sure.

"I..." At a loss, Marianne submitted to the gentle command. "...Alexander..." she said softly, trying to begin again, the sound strange upon her tongue. In her confusion, she raised her dark eyes to her husband's face, and this was the undoing of them both. Brandon released his hold on her hands and instead buried his hands in her hair at either side of her head, his fingertips threading themselves through the silky strands while his thumbs brushed against the pulse in her neck and the line of her jaw. He kissed her, then--he felt he must kiss her or die in wanting it. He was as gentle as his passion would allow, and mindful of her innocence. Much as he cherished the freshness of her unspoilt youth, he could not help but wish himself a younger man, for her sake. At the impossibility of this, he could only do everything in his power to make her happy, to love her dearly, and to treat her tenderly. His lips were soft upon hers, and Marianne's senses reeled. Her painful awareness of everything--his love, his strength, her uncertainty, her frailty--seemed to have been slowly building towards this very moment, and yet it all swept over her afresh, as the waves beyond the darkened window shuddered and crashed against the stones of the harbour.

Marianne made a helpless sound of desperation, low in her throat, and could not have said why. It was too much--it was all too much--but she could not move. She was stricken, once again. Brandon, in his eager hope, only half-heard and felt this as wordless encouragement, and moved to deepen the kiss, while one arm dropped to circle itself about her waist.

The rush of heat in his breath, and the scent of the port he had drunk spurred Marianne to the capability of action of which her shock had temporarily deprived her. She could not endure being held, being kissed--not like this. Not when all that shielded her was a nightgown of more fashion than function. She supposed it had been given a place in her bridal trousseau with the best of intentions, but it only made her feel like a side of raw beef hung in the window of the butcher's shop.

Her hands pushed at his chest, and even through the layers of fabric in the coat, waistcoat, and shirt he still wore, Marianne could feel the frantic hammering of his heart to match her own. She could only presume it was love that moved him to such a state, and not the same panic which consumed her.

"No, please...no..." she gasped as soon as she could draw breath. Brandon immediately stepped back, his hands jerking away as if he had been burnt, but his eyes remained fixed on her face, concern evident in his gaze.

"Forgive me...oh, forgive me," he murmured brokenly. "I--I gave you no warning...I asked no permission..."

Marianne suddenly found her temper rising--angry that he should be imploring her forgiveness when it was evident that she had been the one to reject her duty of submission. She felt guilty already--was it not enough? Would it always be like this--would she always feel miserable in pushing him away and even more miserable when he apologized for her defect in not loving him as he deserved?

"You need no permission," she said, half-choking on the words. "I am your wife."

"...Marianne..." his voice was soft, but there was a new edge to his tone which came of his appalled shock at what was implied. "I would never...please understand me--I would never presume...I would never force you to..." He could not even finish the sentence aloud, so abhorrent was the thought. His hands were most certainly shaking, now, and he reached for hers again, to press them as a seal to his promise, but Marianne shook off his touch and paced towards the fireplace, wrapping her arms around herself to stave off another bout of shivering.

Brandon swallowed heavily as the firelight picked out the edges of her form in silhouette against the muslin, but more than anything else, he only wanted to take her in his arms and hold her close until she stopped trembling, to assure her that everything would be alright. He had been fearful of this, and had determined that he would not frighten her with any too-bold display of his affection...and yet, somehow, with a kiss, he had done just that. He was fairly certain she was not entirely ignorant as to what happened between husbands and wives--he only hoped she had not had the majority of her education from the outspoken Mrs. Jennings on the subject and taken some report amiss...but surely Marianne's own intelligence would not render her so easily frightened by whatever Mrs. Jennings might have said?

"I...I can be gentle..." he assured her in a low voice, desperately wishing she would turn around and face him. "...I'm sorry if I--I'm sorry I was not."

He had been gentle. Fervent, yes, but never violent. And yet he was apologizing on the assumption that the fault had been his! Marianne's irritation grew, and she shook her head as she glared down at the flames.

"Don't...don't apologize," she said at last, throwing back her head and glancing up at the dark timber beams in the ceiling as if they would offer her some help. "I...this is all my doing," she said, her nerve beginning to return to her with the frankness of the admission.

"Tell me how I can set your mind at ease," said Brandon eagerly, stepping forward. At the sound of his moving closer, Marianne turned, as if to prevent him sneaking up on her.

"My mind has been uneasy for some time," she said. Brandon's brow furrowed, but his eyes never left hers.

"...in what way?"

"Colonel Brandon, you...you are a good man," she said, fighting the tears she felt beginning to burn at the edges of her vision. "You are much too good. And I--"

"--you are all that is worthy, and everything that I desire!" he said, the words bursting out of him as words will do when a person has repeated them inwardly so many times it becomes impossible to count them all.

"Just so!" said Marianne, her chin rising an inch. "You are so very good, and I like you so well, and then you love me so very much, and everyone speaks of your goodness, and how...how much you have suffered..."

"Let us not speak of that suffering...of any suffering...not just now, Marianne," he begged her.

"But I am suffering!" cried she, her tears springing forth and coursing down her cheeks against her will, and to his horror.

"No...no, no," he murmured, shaking his head slowly. This was not right. It was never meant to be like this....  He could see plainly, now, that Marianne was in some torment beyond the usual anxieties of a bride, and felt, instinctively, in the habit of his own self-loathing, that he must be the cause.

"You deserve to be happy," she said, swallowing a sob. "You deserve...you deserve what you want...and I am what you want. Everyone said..." her voice died amidst her tears, and she could speak no more.

Good God, thought Brandon, is that how it had come about?

"...you mean you...you never wanted...truly wanted...to become my wife?" There was no-one on earth who could have known precisely how much it cost him to force those words from his lips, but his honour compelled him to seek to understand how he had wronged her.

Marianne, now mute, only shook her head. The look of piteous grief on his face was more than she could bear--to have seen such a man, usually so solemn, be so happy in one moment and now so wretched in the next was a sight that would never leave her memory until she drew her last breath.

Brandon nodded, once, and turned to go to the door. Marianne felt the silence between them now stretching like the expanse of a frozen lake. It was too cruel--inhuman--to let him depart upon such a point.

"Colonel Brandon..." her voice was faint, but it stopped him in his tracks, as her supplication would always do. Even now, he knew there was nothing he would not do for this woman, though she might bid him dash his brains out upon the Cobb. "...I do think you are a very great man," she managed to say, her honesty giving her the eloquence she could never plan. "And I thought...I hoped I could make you happy...please believe--I had no other motive," she added, thinking miserably that she must seem like some wretched mercenary--like that grasping Lucy Steele (now Ferrars)! "I was too easily persuaded...I misjudged myself...I blame myself, entirely." She would not shy away from her responsibility--not while he still looked as if he would like very much to take a whip to his own heart and soul.

"Of course, I would never have presumed you to have anything but the best of motives," said the Colonel, his accustomed manners falling back into place, speaking now as if they were once more conversing in the parlour at Barton Cottage, with her mother sitting across from them. "I am only sorry that you have been persuaded this far."

"Y--you could divorce me, or...or set me aside...I would not blame you if you never spoke to me, again," said Marianne miserably. Brandon shook his head, without looking back at her.

"It has been a very long day. We'll talk more in the morning. Goodnight, Miss Dashwood."

With that, he left the room, unable to bear the sound of her married or Christian name on his lips, which could yet taste hers.

For her part, Marianne could not repress the shudder of relief and unease which shook her as the door shut softly behind him.

Chapter Text

It was to be assumed that neither Colonel nor Mrs. Brandon slept well on their wedding-night, but the reasons thereof had little to do with the usual cause. Marianne saw nothing of her husband when she rose, nor when she took breakfast in the little sitting-room downstairs. She had eaten too little in the days leading up to her wedding, and next to nothing at the wedding-breakfast, and scarcely anything on the journey to Lyme Regis. Her stomach was in knots, and a single piece of toast and a cup of tea were all she could manage before she touched her napkin to her lips and abandoned the table. A young man passed through the tap-room, carrying her small trunk, and Marianne saw the ostler leading one of the Colonel's horses past the window which looked into the inn-yard.

Going to the door, she saw Colonel Brandon standing by the carriage, speaking to the innkeeper. Was he going to send her away? Return her to Barton in disgrace? She paused on the threshold, her fingers finding the cloth-covered buttons on the front of her new pelisse and toying with them distractedly, uncertain how to proceed.

Brandon turned to see her as the innkeeper departed, and half-extended his hand to her in an unconscious gesture of entreaty before his arm fell back to his side, and he only bowed, briefly. Marianne needed no further invitation to approach him, however, and speak. There seemed little point in bidding him 'good morning' when they both knew that to be impossible.

"...I...I am to go?" she asked, unable to meet his eye.

"I thought we might return to Delaford," he said slowly. "You may see your sister, then, and there is nothing...it is no use, our remaining here."

On a honeymoon which was only going to be a torment for them both--no, it was better that they go back to what was familiar to them, at least in part. Marianne nodded, once.

"Yes...yes, I should like to see Elinor," she said. "Thank you, sir."

"It will be a little while before all is in readiness," he said. "If you should wish to wait inside..."

"If there is time, I should prefer to walk a little. Perhaps upon the Cobb."

"Of course."

He made as if to withdraw, but Marianne stayed him with half a word.

"Please...if you can...will you go with me?"

To the ends of the earth, was the answer of his soul, but he only assented with an inclination of his head before he motioned for them to set off, together, not daring to offer her his arm, though they went side-by-side, out of the yard and towards the sea.

"Should you not take your bonnet?" he asked abruptly, acutely aware of the way the breeze toyed with the ends of her hair, the soft curls caressing the curve of her cheeks and the line of her neck.

"It doesn't matter," she replied, and they said no more until they reached the Cobb. It was early enough yet that only one or two fishermen sat nearby, mending their nets. For the rest, the sea-shore belonged to them, alone. Marianne had tried, again, to gather her thoughts into some pretty speech which would ease the Colonel's pain as well as assuage her guilt, all without forcing herself to make any further promises she knew she was incapable of keeping. It was an impossible task. At length, she could only speak her truth. "I think we must be frank with each other," she said firmly.

"I thought we were," said the Colonel sharply, then stopping briefly in his steps to turn a little towards her. "I am sorry, that sounded bitter."

"And you have every right to be so!" exclaimed Marianne. "I wish you would stop apologizing, when you have done nothing wrong."

"I have imposed upon you--perhaps without meaning to do it, but evidently my wishes were taken up with so great a will and interest by my friends that you felt compelled to act against your doubts."

"Then that is their wrongdoing, and not yours!" declared Marianne. "You are far too good if you take their errors and mine and lay the blame upon yourself." As they walked to the far end of the Cobb, the temperamental springtime sea rushed and hissed below them, and the warmth of the sun was stripped away by the brisk wind where it whistled across the cracks in the stones, and tugged at the edges of coat and gown. "I wish you would be angry with me, or resentful. I should like to discover you capable of faults."

"I have faults enough," insisted the Colonel.

"Then let me see them," said Marianne. "And do you see mine?"

"I cannot blame you, Marianne--you are--"

"Call me innocent or a victim in this, and I will scream," she interrupted him, reading the look of patient compassion with which he had so often regarded her. "I have been fickle, and I have acted wrongly. I always told Elinor that if I were doing wrong, I should know it--and I have known it, and felt it. I was only too great a coward to say anything until..."

"Until your disgust overcame your pity," he finished the thought for her.

Marianne wanted very much to protest the meanness of the charge, and yet found she could not. Well, she had begged him to be angry with her, and he was. It was no less than she deserved.

"I have been thinking...and our fairest course is to surely be as open with one another as possible. My respect and admiration for you remains unaltered, Colonel Brandon...and you must know I wish to do everything in my power to see you happy...though that power is not what you had hoped. Again, if you wish to put an end to this...this marriage..."

"And what would I do, then? Marry someone else?" he asked, with a trace of a smile on his lips, though there was no humour in the expression.

"You might," said Marianne, with a strange and awful feeling twisting round about her insides. "We both know I was not the first woman to whom you became attached..."

"Eliza died many years ago," said Brandon, turning his gaze to the far-off blue smudge of the horizon. "And she was lost to me even before that. Even so, I had not the smallest hope until knowing you. Do you imagine I could learn to think of another while you...while you walk this earth?"

"I don't know," said Marianne miserably. "Every case is so different. Some people we forget sooner than others...and when they have hurt us a great deal, we would wish to forget them sooner."

"It does not follow that we do."

"No."

Here the Colonel paused, and they stood together on the end of the Cobb, unmoving.

"You wished us to be frank..." he began.

"Yes?"

"Do you still think of him?"

Marianne's jaw tightened, and he thought he saw the sheen of moisture glint briefly in her eyes--but then it might only have been the wind.

"Every day," she said softly. "But it has gotten easier. Every day, it hurts me less."

"If he were free..."

"And if your Eliza still lived?" she countered, daring to look at him, now. Impulsively, she took hold of his hand, squeezing it gently. "We cannot dwell on what was...nor hope for what cannot be. We must consider what we have."

He raised their joined hands between them where they stood, pondering the way her fingers seemed to fit against his.

"And what do we have?"

"We are not entirely without affection, I hope," she said. "We are friends. We are honest. Whether it is enough or not, it is what we have."

After a long moment of reflection, he nodded, slowly, and let go of her hand. He could ask no more of her--he would not.

"I will not seek an annulment--unless you wish it," he said. "But the scandal would ruin you as well as your family, and I would not wish that for people I regard and respect so highly."

"...thank you," said Marianne.

"The best we can do is to return to Delaford and make the best of our lives."

"Yes, that seems wise."

He had dared to hope, before, and even now Brandon called himself a fool for wondering if more time might accomplish what his own efforts had only half-done. Living together as man and wife, even if only in name, perhaps she might come to regard him with better favour. Courtship could only do so much to increase the intimacy with which a man and a woman knew one another, but a life together was another matter, entirely.

"I will try not to burden you with...my affection," he said. "I had not realized the distress it caused you."

"It is not...I never minded being loved, Colonel," she admitted. "But I confess it is the manner of your loving which I find unsettling."

"I can promise you there shall be no repetition of last night," he said hastily, burning with the battle of indignation and thwarted desire within him.

"No, it...what I mean is...your devotion...it borders upon worship."

"...perhaps it does," he allowed, with a small shrug. It was strange--he thought it would pain him to speak of his love, now, and to her...but it felt more like relief, to know he could.

"I am not divine," said Marianne. "Whatever fanciful delight there may be in poetry or music which refers to the beloved as something supernatural...I know it cannot be true."

"It sometimes feels as if it is."

"We ought to know by now, better than to trust our feelings." It was said with such dry humour that the Colonel could not help but smile at her. She had ways--so many ways--of making him smile, and even making him laugh. "I have no wish to be a goddess, Colonel."

"You are a singular woman, then." Marianne fixed him with a look, bemused as it was incredulous. "In my experience, yours has not been the popular sentiment."

"In my experience, Colonel, I have actually been a woman, and among women; and not merely bowed to them in passing for many years."

The corners of his mouth twitched, and he conceded the point with a thoughtful nod. Whatever his age and experience, he had to admit that the company he was used to was largely male, and all he had known or heard of most women was through the superficial conversation of ballrooms or the second-hand tales of comrades, likely exaggerated.

"Perhaps you are right."

They turned, then, to begin walking back down the Cobb towards the shore, in mutual, silent accord. A minute passed before Marianne spoke again, of another matter which weighed heavily upon her mind.


"Elinor told me...when I discovered your regard for me, Elinor told me all she knew..." Marianne went on. "...how you had hoped I would never be changed by circumstances...and if that is true, then I can only disappoint you, for our circumstances are always changing, and we are always changing with them. I cannot be what I once was--and if that was the person you loved, then I regret to tell you that she is gone, and never to return."

"Your sister mistook my words, perhaps," said Brandon, casting his mind back to that far-away ball at Barton Park, where he had spoken so unguardedly to Miss Dashwood, while watching Marianne dance with Willoughby, aghast at his own helpless admiration as well as the impossibility of his suit, as he then saw the swift and deep attachment which had formed between her and his rival. "I feared that the some harsh experience might have done away with those habits and tastes of yours which made you so utterly yourself, and unlike so many people I have known...your courage, your faith in your ideals, your passion...I hoped for your own sake that these would never alter...that you would not become cold or cynical, as some do."

"And what if it has?" asked Marianne, her voice so soft as to scarcely be heard above the wind and the sea. "My ideals are not what they once were...and I can no longer trust my own courage, or my own feelings--particularly if they are strong. I was stupid, once, because of these things. If you have loved my ignorance and my folly, well..."

"I don't think that I have," said the Colonel. "...Marianne, much as I appreciate your efforts to make yourself disagreeable as a means of sparing me to some degree...it's not going to work."

"I am merely being honest."

"I am aware that you have been changed by your misfortunes," he said. "...and though when I spoke to your sister at Barton, I could not then imagine what sorrow was to come to you, and for your own sake I wish it had never been...I have come to admire the woman you've become...and I hold you in greater regard for your having suffered and prevailed."

"I was a fool."

"We all have our moments."

Marianne raised a dubious eyebrow at this attempted exoneration of her behaviour, but she let it be, then. She felt more at ease in the Colonel's company, now, than she had since she had first realized the extent of his regard for her.

"I look forward to witnessing one of your moments, then, Colonel," she said as they drew near to the inn, and went to ready for their imminent departure for Delaford.

Chapter Text

The return to Delaford was both easier and harder for the Brandons to bear. Having made a clean breast of their hopes and disappointments, their conversation, such as it was when it occurred, was less stilted, and the Colonel made no attempt to take hold of Marianne's hand. Their silence was companionable, but their individual thoughts which filled that silence oppressed each with grief and vexation at their predicament.

Since their arrival was not looked for for at least a fortnight, the whole neighbourhood would be astonished to find them returned, but for the few servants who had had the benefit of a few hours' notice in a note Brandon had sent by express from Lyme, during the dreadfully wakeful night which had followed the wedding-day. By two o'clock he had determined what was to be done, and by three o'clock the note was on its way, and the Colonel had then only time for some restless dozing on a bench in the tap-room, which he had shared with a good-natured drunkard--though the fellow had snored terribly.

"Elinor--is that the Brandon carriage?" asked Edward, who had spied the passing equipage from the window of his study, and hastily stuck his head into the hall to call for his wife's opinion. Elinor looked up from sorting her linens and frowned, but made her way to the study to see for herself, and was required to lean bodily out of the upper window to catch the last glimpse of the coach as it disappeared down the drive that would take them to the mansion-house.

"...it cannot be--surely not! They are meant to be at Lyme for the whole of this week, and then there was some talk of perhaps going on to Brighton, for longer."

"Even if it is not them, or their carriage, anyone who knows them must surely know there will be no-one at-home just now, but a few servants?"

"Perhaps it is something to do with Miss Williams, or the child..." mused Elinor, her brow creasing with worry. "I should walk up that way to see if I can be of any help--if indeed anyone has stopped at Delaford."

"Take care you do not over-tire yourself," said Edward, laying a fond hand on his wife's arm, while they shared that hopeful, secret little smile which indicated the reason for his wanting her to take greater pains with her well-being than was usual. "I would go with you, but..."

"...you must finish your sermon, of course," said Elinor. "I do not think the little walk up to the mansion-house will do me any harm. It is neither too cool nor too warm out."

Her apron removed, and her light shawl and straw hat applied, Elinor was off down the road at a moderate pace to do justice to both her delicate condition as well as her curiosity.

It was with no small amount of astonishment that she saw it was the Brandon carriage which had stopped outside the house, and the trunks being unloaded by the footmen were the same ones she had helped Marianne to pack only two days before.

Mrs. Ferrars being a well-known visitor at Delaford, she was swiftly admitted to the house only minutes after the Brandons themselves had arrived, and found the newlyweds standing before the fire in the drawing-room, still in their travel-clothes.

"Marianne! Colonel! I did not wholly believe Edward when he said he had seen your carriage go past..." exclaimed Elinor, her surprise and her intimacy with her sister and her new brother-in-law overpowering the usual civilities in greeting. "I hope nothing is amiss..."

Marianne had, during the journey, for the first time in her life, managed to prepare a speech for this eventuality--though she had not expected even Elinor to turn up so quickly upon their arrival back at Delaford. The trick, she had found, to smooth phrases, was to keep it as near to the truth as possible, which often meant brevity was called for, as omissions would form the lion's share of her misdirections.

"Oh--we were not one night in Lyme before we realized we would far rather be at Delaford, and near to you and dear Edward!" said Marianne, able to feel and mean the truth of all she said as she went to her sister to take her hands and kiss her on the cheek. "I think we shall be happier here than we would have been, there."

"Indeed..." said Elinor, looking from her sister to the Colonel with a smile. "I hope you are growing accustomed to Marianne's infamous habit of changing her mind," she teased him lightly, with a knowing glance, though she could not know the twinges of pain she caused in both the Colonel and her sister by her jest.

"I assure you, I can adapt myself to whatever circumstances best suit her wishes."

"Mmm," said Elinor, giving her sister an affectionate look of mock-judgement. "You say that now, when you will have scarcely been married two days--but what will you say when she decides she would rather return to Lyme Regis the day after tomorrow?"

"Pray do not tease me so," cried Marianne. "I am not so changeable."

"Oh, yes, you can be proud and stubborn, when the mood strikes you, you know...but there is that whimsical element to your nature which does rather send you turning to and fro like a weathercock."

"Thank you, Elinor," said Marianne, now quite pained by her sister's having hit upon the sorest spots in her soul, even if it was entirely by accident.

"Do not mistake me--I only mean to temper the Colonel's affection with some description of your greatest faults--and those are still quite mild."

"I am sure he appreciates your efforts, there," said Marianne quietly.

"You must stay to take some tea with us," said the Colonel, quite prepared to play the part of host to his sister-in-law and to speak of something--anything--else.

"Oh, yes--and did Edward not come with you?" asked Marianne. Elinor and any other caller would be a blessing in that it would not leave her alone too often with the Colonel. However awkward it might be to receive well-wishers upon this the occasion of their marriage, it must be preferable to total solitude but for Brandon's company, while their anguish and awkwardness was still so fresh.

"Edward had his sermon to write, and I merely came to see that there was no accident which had taken place--or, we thought there might be something the matter with Miss Williams or the child. I know I had promised to look in on her at her cottage while you were away, Colonel, and I did mean to go tomorrow when the horse from the farm could be spared for the dog-cart."

"The dog-cart?" asked Marianne as she removed her bonnet and gloves and returned to where Elinor was seated on the sofa. "The cottage is not so far away as that, is it? I had thought it just the other side of the little wood and pastures--it is a long walk, but not unreasonably so."

"I..." A flush rose to Elinor's cheek, and Marianne was a trifle astonished to see her elder sister out of countenance.

"Have you been ill?"

"Not...not particularly...well...I did not wish to say anything--I had no wish to be a distraction in any way while all was being prepared for the wedding," Elinor explained, her delicacy upon the subject being the broadest hint her modesty would allow her to offer. "...and it is very early days, but...well, I am happy that you should be the first to know, besides Edward...and I mean to write to Mamma directly."

"...oh? ...Oh!" Marianne's eyes grew wide with her gasp as she realized her sister's meaning, and without a moment's hesitation she threw her arms around her sister. "Elinor! Dear Elinor! And dear Edward! Oh, nothing could make me so happy as your news!"

"It is hardly the most momentous change in your life, of late," Elinor pointed out, though she returned her sister's embrace with a little laugh.

"But such a wonderful thing!" Marianne's cheeks flushed with excitement, and her eyes glowed with a fierce joy which had been absent from her expression for many weeks--even months, now. Colonel Brandon saw this, and the uncomfortable realization crept over him that his offer and acceptance had subdued Marianne in a way his own selfish happiness and hope had not permitted him to see, before. Likewise, Elinor's revelation had only served to impress upon Brandon that such a scene was not likely to now ever take place in a reversal between the sisters. The Ferrars and their child would surely visit Delaford often, and he would have to endure the sight of his wife cradling the infant with all the adoration she held in her warm and generous heart, while knowing she would never have a child of her own to cherish with boundless affection.

Marianne glanced at her husband, and her smile faltered a little when she saw the look upon his face, and he half-turned to the mantlepiece to hide his expression in the shadow of that corner of the room. In a moment he had turned back, with a genuine sort of smile for his new sister.

"You have my congratulations, Elinor," he said warmly. "You and Edward, both."

"Thank you," said Elinor, and she rose.

"You are not going already?" said Marianne, her grip still firm upon Elinor's arm.

"I only meant to satisfy myself that all was well--I have become quite a quidnunc, living in a parsonage which overlooks the main road."

"An excellent quality in a clergyman's wife," teased Marianne, recovering some of her spirits in the fondness and ease of being in company with her beloved sister. "But are you sure you have rested yourself enough? Or shall the carriage take you? Perhaps I ought to walk back with you. I should love to see Edward."

"Oh, there is no need just now--he will be busy with his sermon, and I am quite well enough for the short walk...and I would not dream of depriving your husband of you on your first evening at home together," said Elinor, merrily imagining what domestic felicity awaited her sister. Delaford had been all arranged and prepared for its new mistress, and so there was not a great deal left but to enjoy settling into her new home, but in light of what had occurred at Lyme, Marianne felt the prospect of an evening at home to be something of a grim outlook. "You must be tired after your journey. I will say goodnight, now--but do come and call on me tomorrow, at any time!"

And with that and a friendly hand pressed to the hands of her younger sister and the Colonel, Elinor departed.

Silence fell in the room, broken only by the crackling of the fire.

"...I will go see to it that the carriage and horses are all away," said Brandon quietly, bowing a little to Marianne as he went to the door. "You may give whatever instructions you wish, if you are hungry, or if you wish to rest..."

"Shall I order a late dinner?" asked Marianne, eager to do something.

"Not on my account, no--I may take supper later, but I have no appetite for the present." Without another word, he was gone, and Marianne slowly went to pick up her bonnet and gloves, before she went upstairs to the rooms which were to belong to the mistress of the house. Her rooms. Her house. She sat upon the edge of her bed with a little sigh, looking wearily about her at the bright and pretty furnishings which were so suited to her tastes. Everything was so elegant, and so exactly as she would wish it. The Colonel had consulted her on every detail, and spared no expense in making the house ready to receive his bride. There was something bewitching in the idea of such an establishment, and Marianne suddenly wondered if indeed she could have been so indifferent to the Colonel's wealth as she had claimed when she assured him of her good intentions.

She felt so mean and small, then, that she could not help but weep a little--for herself, for the Colonel, and for the wretched culmination of misunderstandings and mistakes which had led them to this strange misery, when all about them supposed they should be nothing but happy!

Half an hour's earnest self-pity and guilt did a great deal to bring Marianne back into a more able frame of mind--nearly as refreshing as any proper rest, after her journeying. She bathed her face, and dabbed a dose of lavender water upon a clean handkerchief, whereupon she inhaled it vigorously. She donned a fresh gown--a simple, sober affair, not any of the gowns she had packed, which would be full of creases. The wool was lightweight, but dyed a dark blue which suited the twilight and Marianne's downcast spirits--and who did she mean to impress, anyway, that she should adorn herself in her finest new gowns?

At last finding in the quiet evening hours that she was actually hungry, Marianne went to make her way to the kitchen, if only to ask for something simple on a tray in the library. The fine collection of books was certainly to be considered a consolation, if only to fill the time she must now spend alone in that great, echoing house.

Marianne was halfway down the staircase before she stopped, hearing music floating faintly throughout the lower part of the house. Following the sound, she approached what she knew to be the music room, where the grandest instrument she had ever laid eyes on had pride of place in a corner which was well-lit by a great window in the day, and where she could see candlelight now glowed in the crack beneath the door. The notes were now clear, being played just beyond the closed door, and she knew it must be the Colonel. The adagio from Beethoven's Quasi una fantasia she recognized immediately, and Marianne caught her breath at the haunting melancholy of the notes. She had heard it before, and even played it herself, but the Colonel, when he had been pressed to perform, had only played cheering sorts of dancing tunes, and simple melodies--always ready to lead her back to the pianoforte and urging her to play, instead. That had always been in company, and Marianne now realized how little she knew of the solitary man who had always stood so upon the fringes of society in the merry gatherings at Barton Park. This was something entirely different--here was his every agony, his every darker thought--every moment of rage and passion he bit between his teeth while he bowed and only said all that was kind and polite. Marianne had sensed something of that anguish in their terrible encounter in her room at the inn at Lyme, and here she recognized it again. Painful as it was, all she could think of was her desire to go to him--to say something which would somehow release him from this torment...and yet she dared not stir from where she stood, listening, her forehead resting gently against the door as a single tear made its way slowly down her cheek.

She waited until the song ended, but still did not immediately move, half-expecting that he could open the door and catch her lurking in the hall, and determining to endure being caught like a naughty child with a sense of resignation which bordered on fatalism. There came nothing but silence from the music-room, however, and no sound of movement nor footsteps led her to believe that the Colonel was in any hurry to abandon the place, now that he had attempted to find some relief in music.

Marianne was not a patient person by nature, and even she grew tired of torturing herself with woeful speculation--an indulgence which grew less and less satisfying as she grew older and wiser. It was the work of a moment's impulse for her to turn the handle and admit herself to the room. Colonel Brandon half-stood, surprised to see her, but Marianne stayed him with a wave of her hand and gestured for him to resume his seat at the instrument while she sat on the little cushioned window-seat just behind him. He turned to observe her pale face and reddened eyes with silent concern, and she made herself smile a little.

"Will you play another?" she asked him.

"I thought you must be asleep," he said, turning his eyes back to the pianoforte with great effort.

"I had never heard you play that sort of music, before."

"What sort is that--bleak? Dismal? Depressing?" He touched the keys with an idle hand and struck a soft, low chord which hummed into the quiet of the evening.

"...play it again." He glanced back at her once more, but she only folded her hands in her lap and gazed at him solemnly. "I heard you from the hall...but I should like to watch you."

Brandon swallowed heavily as he looked back at the piano, the black and white keys suddenly seeming to blur before his eyes as his heart beat hollowly in his ears. How many evenings had a musical performance been his excuse for paying Marianne Dashwood the compliment of attention? He had lost count long ago. To sit and observe her at her beloved instrument, while sun or candlelight played against the soft glow of her skin and her honest delight in the beauty of music moved her to part her lips in earnest and single-minded concentration--what pleasure to see her passion for beauty and feeling! The long-dead Eliza, he had known from a child, and grown to love he so gradually he could not have known what he did. Marianne, he had loved with a swiftness and depth that rocked the foundations of his being. To enter a familiar room at Barton Park, unsuspecting, and to depart that same evening, having left his heart so entirely behind him, and in the keeping of the strange young girl whose name was yet new to him...and already so dear! He had avoided speaking to Marianne Dashwood for almost a fortnight after their initial introduction, so terrified he was of his own feelings for her. No enemy battalion had ever struck him so forcibly as the impression of that bewitching young creature whose dark eyes fired with ecstasy and enchantment at the slightest provocation. Though the experience differed so greatly from how he had come to care for Eliza, Brandon knew enough to name his feeling as love, and know he was utterly lost to it.

Shaking off the memories, his vision cleared, and he obediently began again, though his tempo was slower this time...as if he wished to keep her there, with the light of her eyes all shining upon him, for as long as he possibly could.

Marianne had at first been content to observe in a very general way, but in her musician's interest, soon found her eyes drawn to his hands, where they pressed the keys with a delicacy she felt she ought to have expected, and yet still found surprising. His tone was gentler, as well as slower, than what she had heard him play when he thought himself unheard by anyone. Either the passion of his agony was spent, or he restrained himself for his audience. In any case, the veil had, for a moment, been lifted, and whether he liked it or not, Marianne had glimpsed something of what he had meant to remain private.

Despite his efforts, no song could be made to last indefinitely, and eventually the final notes faded away, and he grew still, his fingers yet resting on the keys. The rustling of fabric told him that Marianne had risen from her seat, but Colonel Brandon did not--could not--quite bring himself to face her, just then.

Her warm and tentative touch crept over his right hand, and he looked at their hands with faint wonder, basking in the simplicity of her nearness, and fearful of spoiling it by any word or movement of his own.

"Thank you, A--" Marianne caught herself before she could say his Christian name, recalling what had happened the last time she'd used it. The gentle intimacy they now shared was too delicate a thing to be marred by any prompting of his passion. They were still both too bruised by what had passed between them, and what had been denied. "...a--and good-night," she added hastily. He only nodded, and remained seated as she left him--the first time he had ever neglected to bow to her upon her exit from any room. Only after her steps had faded down the hall did he raise his starving eyes to the door where she had disappeared.

"...good-night, my love," he breathed, to the empty air.

Chapter Text

The Brandons soon established themselves at Delaford in a pattern of domesticity which increased their ease with one another, over time, and allowed for no surprises to disturb them overmuch. They received all well-wishers who came to call upon them and wish them joy with good humour and excellent hospitality, and the Colonel had only to further admire Marianne for her ability and poise as she settled into her duties to her household and her village. Colonel Brandon was not so wholly despondant as he had imagined he would be, upon the shock of learning the truth of her feelings. She did not despise him, nor was she wholly indifferent to him--she cared for him, to a point, and he could plainly see how she tried to arrange things in a manner which would best suit his habits and tastes, and he appreciated it. The friendship and esteem which existed between them would not be undone by the unbalanced scales of their romantic feeling, and once they had a dependable routine, life became bearable, and very nearly pleasant for them both. They lived as brother and sister, finding amusement in those pastimes they both enjoyed--in reading or playing, or simply pursuing their own work in shared and companionable silence. Marianne was demonstrative in her affection, though he knew it to be only friendship and ease which led her to press his hand or take his arm from time to time, however much his pulse leapt beneath her touch. He would not presume anything, and never dared return any such gesture in kind.

Marianne was surprised to find how agreeable she found the time she spent at Delaford, and in the Colonel's company. They were not so constantly in one another's pockets that she came to resent his presence or feel smothered by the sense of his love for her, for he had responsibilities of his own to attend to in the village and surrounding farms and tenant cottages, as well as looking to the wellbeing of his ward and her child. He had many interests and occupations with which he had filled his time prior to his marriage, and those habits were now useful in keeping Marianne from feeling that the whole of his life must be wrapped up in his regard for her. It was not so romantic a notion, that a gentleman denied his love would get a reasonable amount of rest, take food and drink thrice daily, and in all other respects continue living his life without much interruption by storms of tears and the rending of his garments, rather than shutting himself up in his chamber to be wakeful and famished in his longing--but Marianne found the normalcy a greater comfort than the theatrics would have been a compliment.

In addition, Marianne had the consolation of Elinor's society almost every day, and often Edward's, too. News of Elinor's expectant state soon spread (and all the faster and farther after Margaret had let it slip to Mrs. Jennings one evening at Barton Park,) and Marianne's happiness in looking forward to the event was likely second only to the happiness of the parents. With her sewing or a book in her little basket, Marianne would often pass whole mornings at the parsonage--for she forbade Elinor to walk anywhere unaccompanied, even if it was only up to the mansion-house--placing delicate stitches into tiny gowns, and edging caps with soft lace to frame the dear little face which was to join them.

Inviting their friends to visit and dine with them at Delaford had the double advantage of bringing light and life to the house, as well as distracting the Colonel and his wife from dwelling overmuch on the subject which each refused to speak of, anymore. Their pact of honesty remained upheld, if only because they scrupulously avoided all mention of what had transpired in Lyme Regis, or what it meant to either of them. It was an easy thing, to be frank with one another, when all their conversation was of books or music or the state of the road for the Middleton's journey or whether they had better not serve beetroot at dinner on Tuesday, for Elinor could not abide the sight of them, just now, without becoming ill. The business of their visits and calls and duties also meant that their hours spent alone, together, were further and farther between. Even Marianne occasionally found herself wishing for a quiet afternoon's reading, or a walk on a fine day, to ease the giddy whirl of this and that and the thousand other things which made demands upon her time. She supposed it all must eventually become second nature to her, and the duties of Delaford would become easy routine, and more of her time would again be her own.

Alexander Brandon did not miss much in his close, though unobtrusive observation of his wife. Her energy and intelligence took her far in carrying out her new responsibilities, but he thought he spied some traces of weariness now and again in a quiet hesitance which marked some of her endeavours. He knew it had been some time since she had been indulged at length in some activity she truly enjoyed, and in his own musings he decided that her reward ought not to be simply a new book of poetry or music.

He could have bound her eyes with cloth, but he was only human, and saw his chance to half-hold her in his arms as he lightly pressed his hands over her face to block her sight, then led her through the hall and into the back courtyard.

"What is it?" laughed Marianne, able to trust him even in his proximity, for it was only the hallway in the middle of the day. If the gentle guidance of his arms and the warmth of his closeness made her heart beat faster, she told herself it was only the anticipation of his surprise.

"A gift," he said, speaking low into her ear as he raised his hands and she blinked in astonishment at the beautiful brown mare.

"For me!?" she exclaimed breathlessly.

"Of course," said Brandon, smiling broadly for the first time since the morning of his wedding-day. Marianne's sheer joy was an infectious thing, and no-one was quite so susceptible to the charm of it as he was. "I understand you have a riding-habit which has seen absolutely no use," he said. "Which crime against your dressmaker may now be remedied."

Marianne burst out laughing and shook her head at Colonel Brandon, approaching her horse with a hand outstretched so that the beast might catch the scent of her new mistress.

"Indeed, the dressmaker must be purple with fury, to think I have had it nearly three months, and never yet gone riding. But we kept no horse at Barton Cottage, you know..." It was impossible not to think of Willoughby, then, and his offer of Queen Mab, and so Marianne held her tongue and focused only on stroking the velvet-soft nose before her. Clearing her throat, she glanced back at the Colonel, who was watching her in quiet contentment. "Does she have a name?"

"Not as such. You must name her."

"Oh? Well, I cannot name her before I know her...but that is quite the opposite of people, I think. Upon learning a name, one immediately ascribes all sorts of traits to that person, even if they have never met them. But you, my beauty, " Marianne dropped a kiss onto the horse's nose and reached up to scratch her beneath her glossy dark mane. "You shall have your name once we have been out and become acquainted."

Stepping back, she looked to Brandon, who merely jerked his head over his shoulder towards the house.

"Go on and change your dress--Holland will have laid out your things."

Marianne went to go inside, only pausing to lay her hand on his arm and rise onto the tips of her toes to press her lips to his cheek in a gesture which was about as affectionate as the sisterly peck she had given Edward's forehead on his last birthday.

"Thank you," she said, before she hurried away to don her habit and boots, leaving her husband to pace about the courtyard in happy agitation.

She returned a while later, adjusting the sleeve of her jacket with nervous anticipation. The dark red wool was finely tailored to the height and shape of her form, and she wore it with an elegance unusual for so young a woman. Her mare having been readied with a beautiful leather saddle and reins, the Colonel himself offered to help her to her seat, placing his hands beneath her booted foot. Marianne half-worried that his chivalry would outstrip his strength, but in a moment she found herself lifted into her saddle with such ease that she hardly had time to steady herself by laying her hand on his shoulder. She fitted the toe of her boot into the stirrup and shifted to adjust her seat, drawing the skirt of her habit into place. She felt the brief brush of a hand against her ankle, but when she glanced down at the Colonel she realized it must have been a simple accident, for he seemed to pay it no mind as he once more checked the fastening of the girth to make certain it was secure.

"Are you not riding, too?" she asked, as he did not seem dressed for it, in old boots and weathered gloves, his coat draped over a gate on the other side of the yard.

"I have much to do, here," he explained, but he looked up at her with a curious expression. "...would you like me to come with you?"

"I...well, I am always glad of your company, but I would not wish to interrupt your work," she said.

Colonel Brandon half-fancied he heard a note of mild disappointment in her tone, but he dared not let himself fully believe it. He smiled, nonetheless.

"I would look a poor object, riding at your side, like this," he said with a laugh.

"I am sure you would look very well in the saddle," she assured him, before she looked away and gathered her reins into her hands, the sun suddenly feeling very hot upon her face. "...but another time, certainly."

"Certainly."

With a little nod and a small smile, Marianne guided the mare out of the yard and down the road a ways before she found a field she could not quite resist. The beautiful animal responded to her slightest touch, and soon she was off at a gallop, her heart racing with the thrill of her speed and the power of her horse. She had not ridden since Norland, and had feared her skill would have been lost, but something she loved so well could not soon be forgotten, and with such a well-bred mount, it was impossible that Marianne could not enjoy her ride to her heart's content. She saw more of the country around Delaford that day than she had ever done on foot or in a carriage by the road, and soon thought she had better be going back, lest anyone begin to worry she had taken a fall or gotten lost.

Curving around to approach Delaford from another angle, Marianne pulled at the reins to slow her horse when she spied a little grey stone cottage set at the edge of some grassy meadows, surrounded by woods and low stone walls, broken in places by gates and stiles. Here was the house on the Delaford estate where Brandon had made a comfortable home for Eliza and her child. Marianne had not known whether she ought to call, and Brandon hadn't encouraged it or asked it of her. The more time had gone by, the less Marianne felt she could make a point of going, but now that she had seen the place, and knew who must live there, she felt she could not ride by and ignore it.

Stopping her horse, Marianne jumped down from the saddle and tugged the reins forward so she could loop them easily about the hitching-post which stood by a corner of the cottage, where a faint cart-track passed in two dusty ruts among the tufts and hillocks of soft green grass. The skirt of her habit trailed in the dust, but Marianne paid it no mind as she went to the little front door and knocked.

The handle creaked and the hinges groaned, but the door swung open with some enthusiasm. There was little shyness about the girl who opened the door--she had an elfin little face, which was bright with curiosity. Marianne knew the girl must be almost seventeen, now, but so delicate were her features and so bright her expression, she found there was something childlike about the young woman which she felt no passing of time might wholly dispell.

Eliza Williams stared for a moment before she recalled her manners and curtseyed to the lady.

"Good morning..." she said, her voice soft.

"Good morning..." replied Marianne, thinking she must somehow speak, herself. "...I am...my name is Marianne Dash--er...Brandon. Marianne Brandon."

"You are Mrs. Brandon!" cried Eliza, her eyes widening a moment before a grin spread across her face. "Oh, please come in. Do come in and sit down!"

Not knowing what else to do, Marianne obeyed. There was not much to the cottage--it was even smaller than Barton...but then that had to do for four women and two servants, and here it seemed to be only the young Miss Williams and her child. The front door opened directly onto a sitting-room, and a door to a little passage beyond must lead to any back rooms and staircase, but they sat in the front parlour for the present. A little fire burned in the grate, for the cottage was in a shady situation, though the sunlight shone fair on the meadows just beyond the cart-track. It was a pleasing and tidy apartment, however, and Marianne could recognize the touches of the Colonel's care in how the room was well-furnished and tasteful, to provide a suitable and cozy home for his ward.

"I should offer you tea," said Miss Williams, as though she were standing in a school-room with her toes lined up along a crack in the floor-boards, ready to recite all that was proper.

"Oh, thank you, you needn't go to any trouble..." Miss Williams had not joined her guest in sitting down, yet, however, and Marianne saw she must take charge of the situation--and that Miss Williams really meant to be a good hostess in her little home. "...but...a glass of water would no doubt do me good...if you would be so kind..."

"Yes--yes of course!" Miss Williams disappeared in a moment and returned in half a minute with a tumbler and a pewter jug, which she poured from.

"Thank you, Miss Williams."

Eliza let out a giggle and sat across from Marianne, snuggling into a comfortable-looking little armchair which Marianne supposed must be the girl's habitual seat.

"I have not been called Miss Williams in so very long," she said. "Most just call me Eliza--I would not mind if you should like to call me Eliza, Mrs. Brandon."

"Oh--and you must call me Marianne, then," said she--feeling more she ought to offer, rather than any real desire that she should be on first-name terms so soon with Miss Williams. And yet...Mrs. Brandon was a stark reminder of her place, as the cottage and the person of Miss Williams was a reminder of that part of Willoughby's history which was now so entwined with her own family and connections. She had seen no cradle in glancing about the little room while Eliza had fetched the water, and so she assumed the child must be away, and sighed inwardly with her relief. She was so entirely uncertain as to what her feelings would be in seeing Willoughby's child that she had no desire to test herself.

"...I shall try to remember, Mrs...Marianne. Oh, but it it is so lovely to finally meet you, ma'am."

"I should have come by earlier to make your acquaintance," said Marianne.

"It is no matter--you must be very busy...and I am always at home, here. Any time suits me for callers...it is so rare anyone comes to visit me...well, besides the Colonel, and Mrs. Adkins comes by every day but Sunday, to help me with tidying, and she does all the cooking...and usually brings me some news from the village, and will spend a few hours to keep me company. I know the Colonel pays her to do so, but she is so good and kind to me, I am always glad to see her."

"And the Colonel comes to see you often?"

Eliza nodded.

"Some three or four times a week, when he is at home," she said. "And he always brings me presents of books to read. He knows how I love stories."

"And do you read any poetry?"

"...not...not so very much as I once did, perhaps," said Eliza, her cheery manner suddenly seeming to dim a little. "I like stories with happy endings...well, I always have--but now I read little else."

Marianne smiled a little tightly.

"That is as it should be," she said, sipping at her water. "I hope if there is anything you did need, you would surely let me know, if the Colonel is away, or if...if it is something for which you may need...a lady's advice or help."

"You are too kind, Mrs. Marianne," said Eliza, brightening again. "It is really enough that you have come to call. I had heard you were very pretty, and of course everyone was telling the truth--but you are quite the finest lady I ever saw."

Marianne felt herself beginning to relax and warm to the girl, who was so very honest and a little simple that one could hardly help but like her manner, and perhaps pity her, knowing her history, and how her trust must have been taken advantage of. Willoughby's treatment of her had been the worst imaginable--and yet here was Eliza Williams, apparently determined to be happy in her little cottage, though she was ruined in 'good' society, and had generally only her guardian and a washer-woman-cook for her company. Eliza spoke her mind and paid her compliments with such earnest good-will that it was impossible anyone but the hardest-hearted person should dislike her.

"If I am to have such sweet flattery from you, Miss Eliza, I shall have to come and call here a great deal more often--particularly when I have been brought low by anyone else's scolding or lectures."

"I cannot imagine who would lecture you, Mrs. Marianne!"

"You know Mrs. Ferrars is my elder sister?"

"I...I have met Mrs. Ferrars twice," said Eliza shyly. "She is a very good woman, and spoke kindly to me."

"Elinor is the best woman I know," said Marianne. "...but is it so strange to you, that people should be kind?"

"...not...not everyone is," stammered Eliza faintly.

"Ah..." Marianne felt a little blush rising to her cheeks.

"And it is their right!" Eliza added hastily. "I know I...acted wrongly...and good opinions must be earned."

"But compassion may be given quite freely, if we chose to."

"And I am grateful when people do!"

In that moment, above their heads, a faint cry rose up, and Eliza leapt to her feet. Marianne grew pale, and set aside her glass.

"Oh, I did not think--I fear we have woken..."

"...her. Her name is Anne. Little Nan, I call her," said Eliza. "She is so small, and so sweet. It suits her. I had just laid her down to sleep a while...she usually does, this time of day. Perhaps our talking carried upstairs--this cottage is usually so quiet."

"I am sorry...I should go."

"Oh, I wish you wouldn't--"

"No, I think I must," said Marianne, rising and pulling her riding gloves back on. Looking up at Eliza as the baby's cries grew louder, and seeing the sad worry in the girl's eyes, Marianne felt moved to greater courage, and sat down again. "...oh, very well," she said.

"I'll just run upstairs and see if I can settle her."

"Do take your time."

Eliza may have done, but still she worried to leave Mrs. Marianne sitting alone too long, lest she take her leave or grow offended at waiting. When she returned downstairs, she held her child in her arms, and Marianne set aside the water-glass she had drained, fearful of it slipping from her tightening grip along its coolly misted sides.

"This is my Nan, Mrs. Marianne," said Eliza, smiling proudly as she sat down again with the child in her lap. "Isn't she the prettiest baby?"

Marianne looked solemnly into the rosy-cheeked face of a healthy and happy little girl, and saw...only a baby. Whether there was something about the eyes or the little curls of hair which might be something of her father's, here was no spectre of her former love to haunt her. The child had no power to hurt her, and certainly not merely by any accident of its looks. A small smile found its way to Marianne's lips, and she reached out to touch one chubby little hand with the tip of her finger.

"She is beautiful," she said honestly. "She is a credit to you, Miss Eliza."

"...oh, not just to me...I owe so much to Mrs. Adkins, and to the Colonel, of course. He has already promised to provide for her education, as he provided for me...but I dare say she shall be a far greater lady than I ever was."

"You...you do not imagine your circumstances may ever change or improve?"

Eliza shook her head slowly, but she did not seem to pity herself.

"I have all I could ever need, and the care and support of true friends--the Colonel, and...and you, I hope."

Marianne impulsively leaned forward in her seat and laid a hand on Eliza's knee.

"And me," she promised, knowing she meant it. "I will try to call upon you much more often, after this."

"I would like that," said Eliza. "Mrs. Adkins is a very good woman, but...but her company is...well, she is ever so helpful with Nan, and looking after the house, but..."

"...her conversation is not...improving?" said Marianne delicately, half-imagining what Mrs. Jennings might have been like had she been born to the life of a hearty villager.

"I do not mind hearing all the news of the village," said Eliza. "But it is always the same people, and after a time, even I am not shocked by anything I hear of them."

Marianne had to laugh a little.

"I feel I am yet new to Delaford, and no-one in the village dares share much gossip with me, or my sister--she is a clergyman's wife, after all."

"I will be happy to tell you anything you wish to know!" said Eliza, giggling again. Marianne laughed again, seeing no harm in the girl's offer.

"Is there anything remotely shocking that happens in the village?" she asked dubiously. "It seems such a peaceful little place."

"John Mulligan got himself drunk a fortnight past, and fought with Joseph Ross."

Marianne had no idea who either man was, but the story sounded interesting enough, in its common way.

"Fought with him? Simply because he was drunk?"

Eliza shook her head.

"He was drunk and he fought Joseph Ross for the same reason--Cathy Peake."

"Did she reject him, for love of Mr. Ross?"

Eliza blinked at Marianne, to hear Joe Ross called a Mister, and to think of what had occured in such delicate terms as rejection and love.

"...well..." Eliza blushed, but, considering her own situation, and that Mrs. Marianne was a married lady, and had asked to hear the story, she continued-- "Cathy Peake had a child by John Mulligan, two autumns past..."

"...and he did not marry her?" Marianne was excruciatingly aware of how awkward it might be for Eliza to recount the details of a shame so similar to her own, and could have bitten off her own tongue if it might do any good, but Eliza did not seem overly disturbed.

"They had to wait for money, until John could secure them a house, and regular work..."

"Oh..."

"...but he likes drink, you see."

"Better than providing for--" Marianne stopped herself, realizing they could both quickly bring to mind another man who held his self-interest far above the care and keeping of his own child and its mother.

"...Cathy has been wanting to be married...but I suppose she tired of waiting...for she is with child again."

"...by Joseph Ross?"

Eliza nodded.

"Joseph's got a little put by, and he's said he would not mind raising another man's child, alongside his own."

"And what does Cathy think? Does she no longer feel any attachment to John Mulligan, at all?"

Eliza's only opinion was a small shrug.

"She's said she was a fool to ever think of John Mulligan...she knew he was fonder of drinking than working..."

"Why did she ever like him in the first place, then?"

Eliza's thin little cheeks grew red, and she adjusted the baby's cap, and Nan burbled happily to herself, content in her mother's arms.

"...I do not pretend to entirely understand these things..." she said slowly. "...but Mrs. Adkins says there's love...and there's...that...that longing, which is not quite love..."

"...I suppose Mrs. Adkins meant...lust?" Marianne gently supplied the word, understanding Eliza's hesitancy to speak of it. For herself, though they were two women, not wholly ignorant, and quite alone together, Marianne yet blushed, too.

"Ye-es. And Mrs. Adkins said to me that sometimes these two...things...sometimes they go together, and other times not. She said...what happens between...between two people...it's a road, like that cart-track out there. And these...two things...they're like people walking along. And sometimes you'll see only one person go by, and sometimes two...but then even when there's two, they sometimes walk together, and sometimes not. One might walk a little ways ahead of the other...and while they will both eventually get to where they are going...there is no prescribed time or pattern."

Mrs. Adkins' simile was perhaps a little belaboured in Eliza's doubtlessly more delicate retelling, but Marianne believed she could comprehend it. She would have formerly believed that love and...that longing which is not quite love...must surely be one and the same...but the world as she was coming to know it was such a variable place, and people themselves so complicated, that she could more easily believe the wisdom of Mrs. Adkins sooner than her old ideals.

"It is a sound theory, I suppose. There is little in life which has a prescribed time or pattern," said Marianne quietly.

"...you are right," said Eliza, her head tilting to one side. "I had not thought of that."

Marianne smiled.

"Nor had I, until just now," she admitted. They each fell silent for a moment, and Marianne felt the time had come where she must truly take her leave, and not because she was running away out of cowardice. "...I should be getting back--I had only meant to go for a short ride, and the Colonel might worry if I am gone too long. He gave me my horse only today, as a gift."

"Of course..." Eliza rose to see her guest depart, letting her go with greater ease once she knew that the Colonel was expecting his wife's timely return. Of course she would not keep Mrs. Marianne all to herself for too long. "He is so kind. You must be very happy."

"...yes. Yes, I am," said Marianne; and though her happiness, as she knew it, was of a different sort than the kind of happiness she had once dreamed of, she knew it was happiness all the same, and it was not dishonest to acknowledge it as such. "I am very glad to have met you, Miss Eliza--and I promise I will visit you again."

Eliza was so pleased by this that she curtsied twice in her exuberance, jogging baby Nan on her hip as she stood at the open door to bid Mrs. Marianne farewell, and see her safely mount her horse--standing on the firewood chopping-block to do so--and ride for home, taking hold of the baby's little hand to make her wave goodbye to their new friend.

The journey to Delaford was swift on horseback, though the closed gates of the pastures forced her to take a longer path in the surrounding woods to find her way back. Colonel Brandon had gone inside after she had left, but came out at once to see how she had liked her ride.

"She is a joy," said Marianne, patting the mare's neck. "I feared I would be out of practice, but it was as easy as slipping into a dream. I must commend your taste in horses, Colonel."

"I am glad you find her suitable," was his understated reply as he took the reins she held out and handed them to the waiting groom so he could assist her in dismounting. Marianne had expected to jump herself down as she had at the cottage, and so she missed Brandon's intention when she slipped from the saddle and stumbled a little heavily against him, his hands half-encircling her waist where he had meant to support her. Marianne let out a little cry of surprise, and Brandon's heart thundered against his ribs when Marianne was forced to grab hold of the edges of his coat to steady herself. "...forgive me," he muttered.

"No, no, I should have warned you," said Marianne, hastily stepping back. "I do tend to jump without much thought."

"A fact I ought to have remembered," said the Colonel, smiling to prove that his intention was only to tease her. Marianne rolled her eyes at herself, her smile answering his.

"Well, if all is in hand, I must now think of a name for my new friend," she said, looking to her horse and, for no particular reason other than she could not think how to bring it up in casual conversation, neglecting to mention her visit to Miss Williams. "And I should go wash."

Colonel Brandon watched her depart, and his brow creased lightly with confusion when he saw the smudge of dust which had collected on the hem of her riding-skirt. He looked down at the clean-swept paving-stones of the immaculately-kept courtyard where he had seen her mount and dismount from her horse, and could only wonder where and why she had stopped in her ride. Surely she would have said, if she had fallen? He had made certain the mare was good-tempered and exactly suited to carry a woman, and he knew Marianne was an experienced rider, or had been, in times gone by...she surely would have had no cause to fall from her horse.

His expression still one of mild puzzlement, the Colonel gave orders for the mare to be put away and cared for, and returned to his work in his study.

Chapter Text

Marianne went immediately upstairs, where Holland helped her out of her dusty riding habit, while a housemaid brought ewers of hot water from the kitchen to fill the hip bath in her dressing-room.

Keeping her hair pinned high upon her head, Marianne sank into the bath with a gasp that turned into a sigh, the steaming water at first a shock, and then a balm to the aches which had already begun to throb in her hips and her lower back. Even her shoulders twinged, having grown unused to the posture and constant strength required to ride well and direct her horse with a firm grip upon the reins.

Having used a little soft soap and a cloth to scrub all traces of dust and perspiration from her limbs, Marianne let her legs hang over the edge of the little tub, leaning back into the water to enjoy the rest of her soak, wriggling her toes against the rug which had been laid on the floor beneath the bath.

Resting her head against the folded towelling which provided a pillow against the back of the tub, she let her eyes drift shut as she reviewed in her mind all the events and information of her visit to Miss Williams. She decided she would not be afraid to go again, and that she had even enjoyed the visit, overall. Eliza was a sweet girl, and surely had done penance enough for any part she had played in her mistake. As far as Marianne could tell, she was still very young in the ways of the world, and her understanding not so swift or capable as to make it easier for her to make good choices, without the help and advice of wiser and well-meaning friends. If this was Eliza Williams now, she could only have been more vulnerable when Willoughby convinced her to go away with him. Marianne herself knew how compelling John Willoughby could be, and saw at once that Eliza could not have had any hope of long resisting his charm, so evident was her helplessness and gullibility. That Willoughby must have seen this, too, and had ruthlessly taken the worst sort of advantage of her youth, her inexperience, and any defects of her intelligence, only served to make Marianne angrier than ever at the man she had once loved--and at herself, for having been so blind, and for loving him. If Willoughby was such a blackguard...how could she have not known it? Their hearts had been so open--or so she had thought. Knowing the depths of his deceit and selfishness only served to further open her eyes to her own folly, and she was nearly as disgusted by herself as she was by Willoughby.

Grimacing at her memories and her sore muscles, Marianne lowered her hands into the water and began to gently knead at the knots in her back and legs, determined to think of nicer things than Willoughby and his callous treatment of everyone but himself. She had been amazingly pleased to ride again, and decided she would do so every day, as long as the weather held. There were hills and fields and forests she had not yet explored, and the independence that came with riding a horse filled her with delight. It was just like the Colonel to have thought of his gift, when she had not spoken a word about the possibility. Her habit had simply been packed away with the other things in her trousseau which had not yet seen any use, and she had never mentioned it to him. Perhaps Elinor had said something...or perhaps Colonel Brandon was just observant and thoughtful.

A light smile played across her lips as she considered his kindness to his ward, and her child. It was as if she could glimpse, then, the sort of man the Colonel might have been, had he been a father. Marianne's eyes flew open at the thought, and though she was already flushed in the heat from the bath, her blush only deepened when her hands skimmed against the tops of her legs, her skin suddenly prickling with awareness. Of course that would never be, now...and she must not let herself think of it.

Marianne was not so much in command of her own rebellious mind, however, that she was able to use reason to banish certain things from her thoughts. Her right hand moved to rest on her middle, and she thought of Elinor and her delight. Would submitting herself to the act of procreation really be so abhorrent, if she could feel what it was to have a child of her own? Even in her solitude and shame, Eliza Williams seemed very nearly entirely consoled by the love she bore for her child...and as for Colonel Brandon...Marianne knew he had a great deal of warmth and affection, and very few people to whom he could show its true depths.

Relaxing into the heat of the bath and the lazy stupor of her imaginings, Marianne let out a gasp as her hand slid lower, her fingertips grazing against the dark curls at the apex of her thighs. After the anxious fumbling which had followed her talk with her mother, she had never again dared attempt any further exploration, but this...this was different. Her hand had not reached so low as before, and little frissons which were not unpleasant now tickled the soft skin of her stomach and her thighs. A sudden knot of heat settled low in her belly which was something quite apart from the hot water, and Marianne froze, uncertain.

It was not as if she would do herself any great harm, she reasoned, and let her fingertips brush softly against those curls again, with greater curiosity and purpose. The trembling awareness of her sense of touch only grew stronger, and her pulse quickened. She held her breath, listening for a moment as if to assure herself that she had been left quite alone, before her hand slipped lower, and found the focus of her desire. Her head rocked back against the folded linen as a helpless sound of shock left her lips, and her free hand gripped the side of the tub as if she could steady herself against the whirl of sensations that left her breathless, only knowing she wanted more.

---

He had meant only to retrieve a book he had taken to his room.

Brandon had made it his habit to avoid even looking at the door which led to the dressing-room which would connect his apartments to those of his wife. Going late to his bed and rising early, as was generally his practice, it was rare he should be aware of sound or movement on the other side of the panelled wall. A false sense of security, he realized, when he heard a short, sharp cry. Fearing Marianne might have slipped or been scalded, he lost no time in going to the door, only to pause and consider her modesty.

Clenching his teeth, he quietly turned the handle and eased the door open only a fraction of an inch. His voice died in his throat when he meant to say her name, only able to see the top of her head where it peeped above the back of the hip bath, and where part of her leg was draped over the lower edge, and her hand holding fast to the rim just above. There was nothing more to be seen, and she did not appear to be hurt, but all at once the sounds from within the room struck him with the realization of what was happening, and he drew the door shut as quickly as he sucked in his breath. Brandon all but hurled himself from the his room, down the stairs, and into his study. He did not stop until he was safely behind his own closed door, and he strode over to his desk to brace his palms against its edge as he commanded himself to forget.

Forget the way the water shone on her brown skin...the way the drops of it clung and slid against the curves of her limbs...the rippling splashes of water against the sides of the bath that gave him every indication of her movements...the soft hum and sighs of her pleasure sounding low in her throat...

"Damn it...damn it all!" He ground out the hoarse words between his teeth, a deep ache pounding throughout the whole of his body as he fought the full force of his darkest desires.

With one sweep of his hands, the books and pens laid out upon the desk were sent crashing to the floor, loose slips and sheets of paper fluttering through the air in the moment of silence which followed his outburst. Coming back to his senses, he stared miserably at the mess for a several minutes before he slowly began to return everything to its proper place, condemning himself with every breath. If this was the petulant and violent way he behaved at so small an incident--and Marianne was not even aware...and she could never, never know--what hell might be unleashed even if he made every attempt to seduce her...and was rejected, after all? A life among military men had left him with full knowledge of the depth of men's depravity and the violence of their pride. He had flattered himself that he was above such brutality as he had seen, of which others had even boasted. He had thought so, even after that night in Lyme. The space of a few moments, and a glimpse of what he had not been meant to see, hearing what he was never meant to hear, undid his every good opinion of himself and his claim to true gentility. He now feared himself no better than the worst of his comrades, and that Marianne might suffer by his own madness. The idea that he might hurt her terrified him more than anything else in the world, and that cold horror was all that helped to smother the flames that leapt within him.

It is me, he thought.

Surely I am damned.

Chapter Text

Marianne Brandon felt, upon descending the staircase, that she had at least a very little more clarity--in one regard--than she had previously held. Her bath had refreshed her in more ways than one, though she yet blushed a little to think of what she had done, what she had felt, for the first time.

She had already made up her mind it would not be the last.

It was early, but she decided she ought to dress for dinner just the same, and save herself some time. In having unearthed the riding habit, Marianne felt emboldened to consider some of her other gowns--items less serviceable, perhaps, than the sturdy and simply-made muslins and wools she had worn since coming to Delaford, but a great deal prettier, too. They had not really had any great parties since their marriage, and Marianne found she no longer wished to wait for a good reason to wear something a little more refined. In the end she had chosen a pale yellow satin-silk, of a shade that glowed warm, like candlelight. The cut was elegant, with a squared neckline and elbow-length sleeves, the smooth drape of the skirt falling from the high waist serving to accentuate her height, while neat darts and subtle gathers yet gave definition to the curves of her figure. Marianne drew a little yellow ribbon through her dark hair, weaving it into a thin band about her head, the shining silk slipping in and out of coiled curls, light on shadow.

Humming a little of an old air to herself, she decided to occupy herself in the music room until dinner, half-hoping Colonel Brandon would come in to listen to her play, as he often did. She had not played ten bars before she heard the door to his study open, and she smiled as she looked expectantly at the door she had left open, on purpose, that he might hear her song. She paused, waiting, and a long, quiet moment passed before she heard footsteps retreating to the other end of the house. Distantly, a door opened and shut, and she was alone once more. Marianne frowned, but supposed that something must need the Colonel's attention before they dined, and it was only right he should see to it, and not simply indulge his wife's need for an audience.

The time yet passed swiftly, and Marianne enjoyed her music for its own sake, and her own pleasure in it, and sooner than she realized, it was time for dinner--though they did not keep monstrously fashionable hours at Delaford when it was just the two of them, and so it was still early, by some standards. She went into the drawing-room to look for the Colonel, but found the room empty. She sat down to wait, but only a minute later, the footman entered to tell her that dinner was served.

"Has the Colonel gone in already, Oliver?"

"The Colonel has gone out, ma'am," he said, a little surprised that she did not already know. "He said not to keep dinner for him."

Marianne nodded slowly, and went in to take her seat, the room and table suddenly seeming too large in its emptiness while she sat at her solitary place-setting, a few simple dishes arranged before her plate. Oliver attended to her every wish, and she managed to eat and drink a little, but for the whole of the meal she was distracted by wondering what had called the Colonel away at such an hour, and why he had said nothing to her. She briefly feared for Eliza or Nan, but felt that, surely, the Colonel would have told her of anything dreadful had befallen them.

The performance of dinner soon ended, Marianne returned to the drawing-room to sit before the fire with a book to read, her slippered feet propped upon a cushioned ottoman before the fire as she leaned back in her armchair, the volume of poetry propped open on her lap. She stared at the pages, and even turned them over now and again, without taking in any of the words, watching as the sky outside the window darkened. Oliver tiptoed through the room to light the candles in their brackets, then left her in silence, again. The little clock upon the mantlepiece chimed, chimed, and chimed again. Marianne drowsed in her seat, and did not stir until she hear the faint and distant clatter and crunch of hooves upon the drive. Raising her head, she looked to the clock, amazed to see that it was past midnight. She heard the Colonel enter the house several minutes later, and she went to the door of the drawing-room when she heard his steps passing through the hall towards the stairs.

She spied him just as he mounted the first few steps, his hand lying heavily upon the bannister, as though he required its support, his head bowed a little, in that attitude he so often held himself when he was deep in thought, or low in spirits. Marianne faltered a little to see him so, but was determined to cheer him, if she could, and so she called his name, to stay him from going any further.

"Colonel--will you not come in and sit a while? The fire has burnt low, but it is still warm."

He did not look back at her, but only shook his head.

"It is very late," he said softly, moving to continue his way upstairs. Marianne frowned, and crossed the hall, clasping her hands about the newel post, the edges of the carved wood, polished to a dark gloss, biting into the tips of her fingers.

"Yes it is very late," she said. "And I have been worrying all this while as to what might have happened! It is not like you to go away without a word."

He finally dared look at her, then, and immediately felt it to be a mistake. In the dim shadows of the hall, she burned before his eyes like a flame, the warm silk seeming to draw in every scrap of light, to fire the glow of her dark eyes and the shimmering glints in her hair.

"I rode into Ashton," he said shortly.

"Ashton?" The moderately-sized town was no great distance for a rider, and the Colonel did sometimes do business there, where there were offices and shops which had no equal in the villages, but Marianne was still puzzled as to why he would go in such haste, and without telling her. "What needed such urgent attention in Ashton?"

"Business...I'll not bore you with the details," said the Colonel, speaking with difficulty, though he also spoke with haste. Marianne looked at him sharply, her head tilting to one side as she stared up at him.

"What business? Colonel Brandon, I shall only continue to nag you until I am satisfied," she said, with an impish little smile which usually never failed to get her what she wanted.

"I had business at the inn, there," he said, with a sigh of resignation.

"...at the inn?" Marianne was only more and more puzzled by his answers.

"A meeting," he said briefly, turning to climb a few more stairs at such a bounding pace, it seemed as though he might even be fleeing her presence.

"So late?" asked Marianne, gathering her skirt in one hand and beginning to climb the stairs after him. Colonel Brandon then stopped and rounded on her so swiftly that she was forced to grab hold of the bannister to keep her footing when she stumbled backwards.

"I went to find a woman!" he snapped, undone by his heartsick weariness. "Such a woman as usually frequents an inn in any town of moderate size, who meets with men for business at late hours!"

Marianne blinked, stunned first by his tone, before the full meaning of his confession struck her, and the heavy realization of it settled, cold and slick, in the pit of her stomach.

"Oh!" she said, faintly--for she had nothing else she could think of to say. "...oh." She knew she ought not to be shocked. She was his wife, after all, but in name only. If she had not kept her vow of obedience, it was certainly not fair for her to expect him to forsake all others. Slowly, she sank down to sit on the step, her skirt billowing about her with a whisper of rustling silk against her petticoat. "I...I understand," she said meekly.

Brandon could have bit his tongue the moment he had seen the knowledge break upon her, the open expression of her face hiding nothing from him. He was angry, still--angry at himself, and afraid for her. He had gone to Ashton, and with every intention of keeping company with a whore. He had done so before, in his Army days, in fruitless attempts to forget his misery in the blinding oblivion of nameless flesh; yet now, when he most hungered for that temporary release from his torment, he found he could not. He had sat at the inn and drunk more than he ought, intending every moment to beckon to one of the painted doxies who wound their way through the room, purring for patrons like cats looking for scraps of meat. He never did. He had returned home, defeated at every turn by his own irrational will, and the heart that had bound him irrevocably to a woman who could not love him or want him as he wanted her.

He came down two steps and lowered himself to sit beside her, though he was careful he did not sit too near.

"I do not think you do..." he said quietly, his tone growing gentler in his penance for having flung such words at her.

"Then I...I should wish to," said Marianne, glancing across at him. Finding he would not meet her eye, she looked back down at her hands, which she clasped together at her knees. "I know I have been a disappointment."

"No..." His protest was automatic, and Marianne would not allow herself the protection of his courtesy.

"If I was not, you would not have gone, and..."

"Nothing...took place."

"Nothing...?" A frown passed over her features, and she dared to look at him again. "...then why did you go? Why did you say--?"

"I felt...I thought...I thought I might."

Marianne considered this, and then wondered why he had not gone before, in all the weeks they had been married, so far--it was almost three months, even! No, something had changed...something had to have forced him to go, now, after all this time.

"Was it something I said?"

The Colonel was silent, hardly trusting himself to speak. What he had witnessed that afternoon was etched forever upon his memory, but he dared not tell her. He could not bear to distress her, to have her think he might have spied upon her on purpose. He wanted her faith in him, and feared his mistake might cost him that which was more precious than her love.

"I was...I thought I might be in danger of being overcome by my feelings," he explained at last, shifting where he sat to rest his back against the wall, looking across the short (and yet too wide!) distance between them to where Marianne sat in a similar attitude, her shoulder pressed to the carved railing.

"Your...feelings," said Marianne, nodding a little to herself. She thought she could understand a little of those feelings he spoke of, now. She had loved, yes, and felt the pull and power of that love; but now she knew the pull and power that might be felt in another way, as well. She took a deep breath, and began to nervously play with a fold in the material of her skirt, no longer able to quite look the Colonel in the eye. "You know I told you, you could be honest with me. If you ever wanted to speak about...your feelings."

"My feelings are no secret," he said thickly.

"They are!" she contradicted him. "I may know something of them, but not all. You are not open with me...and I can see that it hurts you."

"I had no wish to trouble you with such repetition and detail as might annoy you," he said, tilting his head back with a sigh. "I could fill every minute of the day in telling you I love you."

The wistful weariness in his voice made her look up, and Brandon made himself turn his face away, unable to bear the gentle pity he knew he would find in her eyes.

"I had much rather know everything," she insisted. "If I am to be annoyed I dare say I can bear my portion of uneasiness. It is not fair that you should take every pain, and I can do nothing to spare you." Brandon shook his head, and Marianne reached out impulsively to lay her hand over his, where he gripped the edge of the tread where they sat. "I must know," she implored him. "I am not a child."

He looked at her, then, taking in the elegance of her form and face where she sat and solemnly faced him. They were sitting upon the steps as if they were children, but he knew when he looked at her that there was nothing in her but the grace, strength, and intelligence of a woman. She was young, yes, but she would only grow in these virtues which were already hers. He could never be insensitive to her charms, nor could he ignore her plea for his honesty when his blood was afire with her presence and the drink he'd consumed.

"No..." he murmured, taking a deep breath before he went on, focusing his gaze upon the steps where they fell away beneath his feet. "No, you are not. You are a woman, and everything I could ever want in a woman, and I...I do want you, Marianne. Much as I cherish your companionship above all other considerations, I cannot deny that I also desire you...so desperately, sometimes. Some nights I cannot sleep for thinking of you, and knowing you are near, and wanting to go to you, to touch you...to taste you..." Marianne cast him a hasty, wide-eyed glance, a deeper hue rising in her cheeks which he did not see, when she suddenly thought of what that might mean. "...to lose myself in your arms...even just to hold you while you sleep. I have not time or words enough to explain the ways I long to be with you, Marianne. My imagination torments me throughout the day, and even worse at night. The only power greater than my desire for you is my regard for your comfort, and that is why I know I must never act on my wishes, nor even speak of them beyond this moment--and even now I only speak because you have asked." His breath hitched, but once he had begun, he knew not how to stop himself until he had poured out his heart to her. "I know you think me old, and...and that I repulse you. You cannot attempt to ease my ardour without putting more fuel to that fire, and so I wish you would not pity me." At this he summoned the strength of will to withdraw his hand from beneath hers, though for a moment he succumbed to temptation and let the tips of his fingers brush against the backs of hers. "I fear that my reserve may only go so far, whereas my love for you increases daily. If you would know all--that is it...and you may best spare me by sparing yourself."

Marianne had sat and listened very quietly as he spoke, fearful that any sound or movement might interrupt him before he had finished, and that his courage to speak might falter. When he at last fell silent, she nodded once, before she reached up to the bannister with a shaking hand to pull herself to her feet. She waited a moment until its trembling faded, and turned to lay her hand upon his shoulder.

"...thank you...thank you for your honesty," she said. "...and I wish...I wish you could know how much I...how much I wish that I could..." Though her heart beat rapidly, and had done for very nearly the whole of their conversation, Marianne knew she could not yet bear to invite the Colonel into her bed. There was still so much that she sensed, for which she felt unprepared, and a little afraid...and if the Colonel said he could not wholly trust himself around her...how was she to trust him, too? "...goodnight, Colonel."

And with that, she was gone, her slippers making scarcely any sound against the stairs as she went to her room. She had not told Holland to wait up for her, and so she undressed herself, blew out her candle, and climbed wearily into her bed. She thought she heard the Colonel pass by her door as he went to his own chamber, but she could not be certain.

Despite the lateness of the hour, sleep would not take her, and Marianne lay in the dark, turning her husband's words over and over in her mind. Was tonight one of the nights he could not sleep, as she, now, could not sleep? Did he want to come to her---to touch her--to taste her?

Suddenly she could recall his kiss, in Lyme Regis. His gentleness, but also his ardour. Marianne gasped against her pillow as the memory of it brought the now-familiar pooling of heat between her legs. The tip of her tongue edged against her dry lips as she tugged the hem of her nightgown above her waist, and let her hand find the aching core of her sex. His words, his voice, all echoed in her mind, as did the look of half-starved passion with which she had sometimes caught him in, his gaze burning with all that he felt and could not express. The lazy strokes of her fingers soon quickened as her need grew, pressure building deep inside her like the inexorable flow of water caught behind a dam.


...everything I could ever want...
...desire you...
...so desperately...
...to touch you...
...to taste you...

All at once, she felt the brush of his lips, again, from her memory--only this time, she did not feel them move against her mouth. Marianne crumpled the edge of the bedsheet in her fist and held it against her face to muffle the sound of her moan as the dam within her broke and sent her rushing into the flood of pleasure. Her spine arched against the mattress, half-raising her shoulders from the bed as the force of her climax bowed her body, curling herself around the hand she still held pressed between her thighs, as if she could trap her bliss there, and hold on to it for longer.

When the last of the trembling spasms left her, Marianne collapsed back onto her pillows with a gusty sigh, and soon slipped into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Marianne had the dubious pleasure of a morning's visit with Mrs. Jennings, who had been invited by the dutiful Elinor to come and visit them at the Delaford Parsonage for the week. ("How could you think of having her to stay for a whole week, Elinor? You know she will end in not being satisfied with less than a fortnight!" Marianne had whispered to her sister in the hall, while the good Mrs. Jennings was yet awaiting them in the tidy parlour. "My dear Marianne, consider that if I had not extended the invitation now, Mrs. Jennings' own curiosity and determination might inevitably bring her, anyway--and nearer to my confinement, when I shall least be able to bear her interference, however well-meant!")

While Mrs. Jennings had proclaimed her triumph far and wide upon the marriage of the two eldest Dashwood girls, and seemed content to then turn her attention to young Margaret, she still had ample opportunity for encouraging her married protégés to eye their next target--the production of a 'fine family', starting with, of course, a son to inherit. Though she had had only daughters, not even her own happy experience of motherhood could convince Mrs. Jennings that a son was not a necessary requirement for any and every family.

"I was so pleased to hear of your news, at last, Mrs. Ferrars!" cried that good woman, wanting only certainty of the child's sex to allow her warmest congratulations and heartiest approval flow forth. "We had begun to all wonder, at the Park, what might be the cause of this delay, since your marriage!"

Marianne's mouth dropped open a little to think that such things might, indeed, be openly discussed at any length by any of the inhabitants of Barton Park, but Elinor saw in this only Mrs. Jennings' usual tendency to exaggerate, and managed to smile. It had come as something of a relief to the Ferrars, though they had appreciated the year given to them to live only as bride and bridegroom, without their immediate promotion to mother and father.

"I am pleased that our happiness should be the cause of happiness among our friends," said Elinor, standing to serve her guests the tea that had been brought in, only to be interrupted by Mrs. Jennings' protests.

"You must allow me, Mrs. Ferrars! On no account are you to lift a finger to serve me, or your sister--or even your husband! Let him not think he has done his part, and be content to sit idle! You will have enough to put up with, when your time comes...and so you must take every opportunity to indulge yourself, and rest easy."

Mrs. Ferrars obediently sat back down and crossed her hands in her lap, where the protrusion of her abdomen did not yet seem at all apparent unless one happened to look very closely and she happened to hold the skirt of her gown very close to her form. Elinor shared a little smile with Marianne behind Mrs. Jennings' back as the capable lady bustled over the tea-tray and handed 'round the cups. Marianne set aside her sewing to take hers, and made the mistake of thanking Mrs. Jennings for her trouble. It was invitation enough (if indeed Mrs. Jennings required any invitation!) to include her in her conversation.

"And now for you, Miss Marianne--Mrs. Brandon, indeed! I hope we shall not be so long in congratulating you as we have been in congratulating your sister!"

Marianne's cup met its saucer with a rattle, and she coughed a little on a sip of tea which had gone down all wrong, her eyes watering as she struggled to regain her countenance, which had flushed quite thoroughly. Mrs. Jennings hummed knowingly, raising her eyebrows at the young bride in a manner so entirely galling that Marianne could not immediately find the words to reply, leaving the other woman free to fire off another salvo.

"Come, come, this will never do--you cannot long be outdone by your sister!"

"...if sisters cannot be outdone by one another, perhaps Margaret shall be the next to become a mother!" said Marianne, with an edge of aggravation in her tone she was helpless to dismiss, though Elinor glanced pleadingly at her sister. Marianne's curt manners and indignant rudeness went unnoticed or excused by Mrs. Jennings, as usual, and Mrs. Brandon was left to the most provoking of vexations: that of being irritated by a person whom it is impossible to irritate in return.

"Now I know why you are peevish with me, Mrs. Brandon--I know all about it! It is not fair, Marianne, it is not just!"

"I have not the smallest idea what you mean, Mrs. Jennings."

Mrs. Jennings only made use of the efficacious eyebrows, again, then did her best to allude with delicacy where her natural vulgarity made it necessary she should be bluntly crude.

"I will only say that I hope you do not make poor Brandon sleep on a cold bench every night!"

"I beg your pardon?" Here Elinor's shock and confusion made it necessary for her to interject.

"A little bird--well, my kitchen-girl Jemima has a cousin, gone into service like her, waiting on folk what stop at a certain inn in Lyme Regis--who had quite a tale to tell of a new-made bridegroom who spent his wedding-night in the tap-room, while his pretty young wife shivered alone in her bed upstairs!"

"Mrs. Jennings!" Poor Marianne's exclamation could not save her, for she had no gift for deception and denial when the truth was spoken, however humiliating it was. That Mrs. Jennings should listen to a kitchen-maid's gossip! And that such gossip should have travelled all the way from Lyme, now to haunt her in Dorset!

"I hope that was the last of any such modesty, my girl," said Mrs. Jennings, her tone authoritative, but kindly. "I was afeared enough, myself, when my Richard first showed himself in our chamber..."

"Mrs. Jennings, please--" protested Elinor weakly, looking pale.

"Nonsense, we are all married women, together," said Mrs. Jennings, dismissing her with a wave of her hand as she applied herself to her tea-cup scarcely long enough to wet her lips. "We women all come to our grief, and our joy, sooner or later. I have known the Colonel for many years, and he should not get much older before he can have the pleasure of seeing a son of his own."

"Whatever may or may not have taken place at Lyme," said Marianne hotly, her outrage giving her better eloquence than Elinor could summon in that moment. "Surely what efforts you suggest are by no means a guarantee that I should have a son, or any child at all!"

"Aye, you are saucy with me, ma'am, but whatever may not have taken place is a very fair guarantee that you shall never have any child, at all. And the poor Colonel has suffered so greatly in his life...and he does love you so very dearly, Mrs. Brandon--surely it can be no such great hardship to favour your own husband with the privilege of sharing your bed. He is as great a gentleman as anybody ever saw, and so very kind to all he meets...I am sure he is not a brute."

"And so you think mere kindness and proper, considerate behaviour--that which all people should aspire to show their companions--is due my...favours...as a reward?"

"You shall not put me in the wrong by your clever twisting of my words, Marianne...for I am convinced that I am right...and your protest only leads me to believe you have continued to be cruel--contrary and cruel!"

It was as strong a reproof as either of them had ever heard from the good-natured Mrs. Jennings, and though she did not deliver the condemnation with any blast of ice or censure beyond the expectation that her scolding would soon have Marianne mending her ways, the sisters sat in a state of some shock thereafter, unable to think what else to say in reply. To Marianne, it seemed a hopeless and exasperating argument, which could not satisfy either of them; and Elinor hardly knew what to think.

Marianne departed soon after, and Elinor walked her sister to the gate at the bottom of the rectory garden, where the little foot-path joined the road back up to the mansion-house, speaking in swift and low voices, lest Mrs. Jennings, who remained in the parlour and listening through the open doors, latch on to their conversation and insert herself and her opinions, once more.

"Is it true, Marianne?"

"Yes!" In her desperation, what could she do but admit all to her sister? "At Lyme, I...things were...difficult..."

"Did Mama not tell you--it is generally difficult, at first..."

"No--not even that! It was difficult to even be alone with him!"

"Mar--Marianne." Elinor seemed to pause to attempt to put the pieces of this puzzle together with some coherency. "You knew what was to happen between a man and wife...and you know the Colonel. He is a good and kind and loving man...why should you find it difficult to be alone with him? And if you felt that way, why on earth did you agree to marry him in the first place?"

"Because he deserved it!" cried the unhappy girl. "Mrs. Jennings is right--you are both right. He is good and kind and he loves me so...and has suffered so much...and that is why I agreed to marry him. I knew--I think I must have known--it was a mistake...but everyone persuaded me of his worthiness, and I could not think what to do but accept his proposal. To refuse him would be to disappoint all our friends--and you and Mama had such expectation of it! And to throw him back, again...to see a man who had borne such heavy disappointment already in his life, face it again...I could not do it. I know his virtues, and I like him so very much."

"Oh, Marianne..." Elinor sighed over her wayward sister, certain it would not be for the last time. "...and the Colonel knows how you feel, now, presumably?"

Marianne nodded miserably, tears gathering in her eyes.

"I could not help but explain my mistake...at Lyme. We agreed it would be best to go on as if nothing were amiss."

Elinor could not fault the sense in this, at least, and that it was the best possible path in an altogether awkward situation. And perhaps, as it did in some cases, pretending all was well might someday lead to all being well, in truth--as forcing a smile did, sometimes, provoke something like actual mirth.

"Is there anything I may do, to help?" she asked her sister; and Marianne could have burst into tears afresh in her gratitude for her sister's support, even if she did not have all of Elinor's understanding.

"No...thank you, Elinor...it is enough, I think, that I now know you know of it...it does not press so heavily upon me. I have felt so ashamed...to be shirking this duty...and yet to be compelled by law or custom or the horrid, smug assertions of Mrs. Jennings--who would not protest?"

"I suppose if one thinks of it as an unwelcome duty or command, it must seem burdensome..."

"Quite so!"

"And yet..."

"Oh, Elinor, pray do not you urge me to it, as well!"

"I would not dream of directing you so completely, in this...only..." Elinor stopped at the gate, and turned to look seriously at her sister, though there was such gentle sympathy in her glance that Marianne calmed her rebellious spirit to listen to what Mrs. Ferrars had to say. "...try, if you can--simply try to give...the act...less importance and gravity in your own mind. You may find it is not so staggering an alteration to your circumstances or your relationship with the Colonel. After all, I assume you can bear to be alone in a room with him now, which you say was impossible, at Lyme--you live in the same house, often with only one another for company. It must happen, from time to time."

"Yes...well, of course I can be alone with him in the house...but not while I am in my nightdress, you understand."

"I had not thought a gown and petticoats so great a shield against the desires of one's husband," said Elinor dryly.

"Oh, but that is part of it, too! Though I will allow that I have become easier in the company of my husband, during the day, I am still quite aware that he is rather violently in love with me."

"Violently?" Here Elinor's humour vanished, and she gripped her sister's hand tightly, her voice dropping to a whisper. "Do you mean you have reason to believe he would be careless...or even cruel to you?"

"N-no...not...not exactly. But...Elinor, he is so passionate!"

"As you, yourself, are passionate?"

"I do not focus my passions on him, the way he does his on me!"

Elinor half-shook her head, mutely acknowledging with a sigh that this had always seemed to be the case, with her sister and the Colonel.

"Well, I cannot think how else to advise you...apart from cautioning you against making too much of it in your own mind. Recall how you would read those dreadful Gothic novels, then lie awake the whole of the night, shivering in horror at every gust of wind about the house, or a rattle of raindrops against the window-pane, thinking they were phantoms or murderers, intent upon your destruction?"

"Elinor, I am no longer a child!" cried Marianne. "Of course I do not put the Colonel in the same class as harmless creations of my own imagination. He is all too real."

"But the risk you seem to think he is, to you? How real is that? Have you any proof that he is likely to do you harm, in some way?"

"His own words, Elinor! ...more or less," countered Marianne. "He has spoken of his fear that his self-control might not always overpower his...love."

Mrs. Ferrars gave this some thought, before the tap upon the front window from Mrs. Jennings and her happy waving to them from the parlour made her realize she must soon go back inside.

"Well, perhaps if there might be some means by which you could be assured of his self-control, you might find it easier to--"

"I have no wish to test his self-control, Elinor--not if I, myself, stand to suffer by it, if it does not hold."

Elinor was forced to let the matter lie, and hope that time and further familiarity might somehow allow her sister to put her anxieties to rest. For the time being it seemed as if Mrs. Jennings would have to be satisfied in cooing over the expectant Mrs. Ferrars, and leave the Brandons to sort themselves out.

"We should really invite Mrs. Jennings up to the house for dinner," mused Colonel Brandon that evening, after Marianne had returned home from visiting Elinor and her guest and managed to regain some of her composure. This inadvertent threat, however, was more than Marianne could then bear.

"I will not have that vulgar, insinuating gossip here to have the pleasure of vexing us all for a whole evening!" she snapped, terrified of what Mrs. Jennings might dare say to the Colonel on the matter, if she judged that her lecture to Marianne had accomplished nothing.

Mrs. Brandon then opened the instrument with a bang, and fell to a concerto with such determination and volume that her husband dared not raise any objection, or even hint at the possibility of such a scheme for the whole remainder of Mrs. Jennings' visit to the parsonage.

Chapter Text

It was not long after Mrs. Jennings' departure from the county, that Colonel Brandon rode over to Ashton to see to some local matters (careful to avoid going anywhere near the inn he had frequented on his prior visit.) He had departed before Marianne even came downstairs for breakfast, and had told her he did not expect to be back until well after dinner-time. In his absence, she had determined to spend the day with Elinor and dine at the parsonage, and so the Colonel was free to take his time, and in the end, stayed rather later than he had meant to, at first.

Having picked up some new novels he had ordered from at the book-seller's, he rode to the stone cottage in the dusk, finding his way with ease along the paths and rutted roads he knew so well, to where light still burned in the lower windows of the sleepy little house. He tied up his horse and rapped at the door before he admitted himself, ducking beneath the low beam of the door.

His cheery greeting for his ward died upon his lips as the girl looked up at him from her armchair, pale as a sheet but for the redness of her eyes, where tears yet flowed, unabated, her little handkerchief soaked through, and wrung in worried knots about her fingers.

"Eliza!" he cried with gentle concern, dropping his parcel on the table and going to take hold of her hands in his. "Are you unwell? Is Nan?"

"N-no," stammered Eliza, unable to say any more for the moment, only bursting into fresh tears, prompting the Colonel to lay one hand upon her head, stroking her hair as he tried to calm her sobs with murmured assurances that, whatever it was, it could be put right, if she could only tell him what was the matter.

Eliza shook her head, now staring at him with mild horror and disbelief.

"You...you will not have heard? Everyone in the village knows...Mrs. Adkins told me..."

"I was in Ashton, all day, on business," said Brandon. "...what is the talk that has upset you? Did...did someone dare say something to you, or about you?" he asked, something in his tone shifting from calm  patience to quietly venemous outrage, to think that some idle tongue might have nothing better to do than hurt this poor girl who had already suffered enough for what the world called her folly.

"It is not me," said Eliza, eager to reassure her beloved guardian that she was not unwell, nor under attack from any quarter. "It is...it was..." She took a deep breath, and gulped on her own sob, forcing herself to speak of what had so distressed her. "...It is Mrs. Ferrars."

"...Elinor?" Brandon's brow furrowed, then his eyes darkened with sudden comprehension--and fear. "...Elinor?" he repeated, as if he did not wish to believe it possible any harm should come to his friend--his sister, as dear to him, now, as any sister of flesh and blood could be.

Eliza nodded, more tears welling up in her eyes.

"...she lives," she assured him hastily, realizing with a jolt that at least they were spared an even greater sorrow, though in her broken little mother's heart, which felt so deeply for those she loved and respected, Eliza could not fathom a greater pain than what they all now felt for their friends, the Ferrars.

"...but her child?"

"...born dead," whispered Eliza, hesitating, as if to say the words aloud would only make the truth more irrevocable--as if the power of grief had some deep magic which, by wishing, could undo what had been done.

Colonel Brandon stood, and had to turn his back upon Eliza for a moment, so that she might not see him struggle with this agony. He rubbed his hand over his face, and suddenly, felt very, very old. Pain had got to be a habit with him, however, and his years of patient suffering had conditioned him to bear it with better strength than most. He must look to what remained, and offer what comfort he could to those who had been so cruelly bereaved.

He returned to Eliza, and asked her if she wished to have Mrs. Adkins come and sit with her, for the night.

"I could set off to the village now--she could sleep upon the sofa--I am sure she would not mind..."

Eliza shook her head.

"I will be alright--there is nothing the matter with me...I am only so sorry for it..." She bit her lower lip. "...and yet...I have been...not glad, exactly...but...Colonel Brandon, is it...has it been wrong of me, to be thankful for Nan's safety? When Mrs. Ferrars has lost her baby...is it wrong to thank the God that took her child, for giving me mine, whole and well?"

"No, Eliza--" The Colonel's voice was rough, and he leaned over her chair to press a kiss to the top of her head. "It can never be wrong to thank God for what we have...even as we mourn what we have not."

The pale young woman nodded slowly, then rose wearily from her chair.

"I shall be fine, here," she said. "I will not be alone...not with Nan. Nan is all I want with me, tonight. You go home...home to Mrs. Marianne."


Marianne.

Whatever the Colonel's rational mind told him the Ferrars must be suffering, and whatever his own anguish for their loss, it was nothing to what he now felt when he realized what his wife must be feeling at this moment. He nodded wordlessly, and without any further need to speak, took his leave in haste, untying his horse with hands only steadied by his single-minded purpose of getting home as soon as possible, and riding into the night at a gallop which would have been a danger to a lesser rider and anyone who did not know the paths about Delaford so well as he did.

He was already running when his feet met the ground, and he did not even pause to ascertain whether the servant had come to see to his horse, only bursting into the house to find it entirely dark and silent, whereupon he mounted the stairs, taking them two at a time.

Brandon had never yet dared contemplate entering her room, and certainly would never have thought to do so without knocking, but he entered it now, without any preamble.

It took him a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, and to find where Marianne sat in a chair before the unlit fire, her knees drawn up to her chest beneath the fullness of her nightgown, a woolen shawl drawn tightly around her shoulders.

"Marianne..." he went to go to her, but his steps faltered when the hollow thud of his footfall against the floor was half-muffled by something, and his eye was drawn to a crumpled heap of white cloth that lay discarded beneath the sole of his riding boot. Slowly, he bent to retrieve it, and as he straightened, he saw he held between his hands a pretty christening gown, beautifully and skillfully made, adorned with the tiny and intricate sorts of stitches which were a testament to the love and hope of those who had awaited the coming of a child with the greatest joy.

Brandon looked at Marianne, then carefully laid the garment aside, where it could not be trodden upon, his hands carefully smoothing away the creases where he laid it against the little chaise that stood at the foot of Marianne's bed.

That act of consideration completed, he turned back to his wife, and softly, so softly, he went to kneel beside her chair, and took hold of her cold hand between his.

"...Marianne...Marianne, I'm so sorry," he whispered, unable to say more, and yet knowing how paltry his only offering could be, in the face of her sorrow. "How is your sister?"

Marianne moved for the first time, then, turning her eyes from the cold grate to the pity and concern of her husband's face.

"...she sleeps, for now. The doctor gave her a draught to settle her...he said she will be well...she will recover...but how she can possibly recover after this, I do not know!"

"He meant, I suppose, that her strength will return, in time," he said, the pad of his thumb stroking gentle circles along the back of her hand. If he could only know what he needed to do--what, if anything, could ease Marianne's distress, even for a moment. Duels, he could fight--his fortune, he could throw away, every penny of it--his life, he could gladly lay down, for her sake...and none of that, not a bit of it could make any difference to her, now.

"But her child will never return to her--this child! I know she may yet have other children, but she will never have this one! It is lost to her, forever. It cannot even be given a proper grave--" Marianne's voice broke on a sob as her tears began afresh, and Brandon said nothing, then, only reaching up to pull her from her chair and into his arms, where he sat upon the hearth-rug and rocked her gently in his embrace, pressing for no other liberty but to console her as he might with his nearness. He half-knew it might repulse her, and he steeled himself for the probability that she would push him away, but he knew his own motives in that moment to be entirely selfless, and intended only to offer her what comfort he could in whatever strength he had.

Marianne's own strength could not long bear to maintain the violence of her grief--her spell of weeping must pass. Eventually she grew quiet, yet made no move to escape him, letting her shoulders rest against the firm support of his chest. He heard her shuddering intake of breath, as she strove against succumbing too entirely to her pain.

"How can it be like this...when Elinor was quite well, and well-looked after? How can a person do all that is right, and take all possible care...and yet have everything fall apart?"

Brandon did not dare try to answer a question he had wrestled with for so much of his life--which he wrestled with, now.

"I do not know," he admitted.

"...it was a little girl," she whispered faintly. "I...I saw..." Brandon shook his head slightly as if to stop her from speaking, his lips brushing against her hair.

"You should not have been in the room."

"No-one could have kept me away. I would not leave Elinor."

"No, of course not," he said, seeing how it had to have been, though his heart ached for what Marianne must have seen--and suffered, to have seen! "...it must have been a terrible business."

"It seemed like it would never end, at the time..." she mused softly, speaking as though half in a dream, and still staring into the darkness before her eyes as if it might somehow reveal some hidden meaning in its shadows--some meaning or purpose to all that her loved ones had suffered, that day. She knew she would not find it, but she looked, just the same. "...but it was really all over so quickly..."

"...and now the work...the very great work...of living with this, must somehow begin."

"I do not want to live with this."

"Of course not," he agreed, before letting their mutual silence work upon her mind and spirit, which he knew, now, to have matured since he had first known her--an impetuous, wild girl, whose first taste of hardship had only come with the brutal, though natural loss of her father, then followed by the unnatural pain of betrayal and heartache. Those miseries he had wished would never touch her, had come, unavoidable in any life lived in the real world, no matter how quiet. If he could not bear to see Marianne Dashwood shut away in a tower, safe and never to know any true joy, he knew he must allow the risk that she would be hurt, and know true torment. Here it was, again. She had borne many degrees of suffering, in the death of her father, her removal from Norland, and her abandonment by the man she loved. In each, he had only seen her, ultimately, gain strength and maturity; and though it troubled him to think of her pain, he knew, now, that she would survive, and that he would love her more dearly for her having fought despair, and prevailed.

"...but...we must..." she said at last. Brandon nodded, his heart too full in hearing her pronounce that we to allow him to speak, just then.

Another minute's silence made him aware of the chill that had settled over the dark room, and he shifted a little, moving to chafe his hands against her arms.

"You should try to sleep," he said.

Marianne scoffed a little at the notion, but she did not resist when he stood and offered her his hand. She gained her feet, but swayed for only half a moment before Brandon caught her up in his arms and carried her to her bed, laying her gently against her pillows before he moved to draw back the coverlet and blanket, unwinding her shawl from around her shoulders and pulling the covers up over her, instead. He gazed down at her in silence before he dared draw the back of one finger across her cheek, tracing the tracks of her tears for a long moment before he turned and disappeared into her dressing-room.

He returned in half a minute with a small basin and a damp cloth, and sat upon the edge of the bed. The pad of cloth he wrang out before he pressed the cool linen against the flush of her tearstained face, and Marianne could only let out a sigh at the tenderness of his gentle ministrations. He continued thus for some time, only pausing now and then to refresh the cloth with the cool water he had poured into the bowl, until the prickling heat of her blotched skin had subsided to calm, and her breaths grew steadier and deeper. Brandon did not cease until he thought she must be asleep, and moved to set the bowl aside and leave her to her rest.

Marianne's whisper broke the silence, and he turned back to look at her, where she gazed up at him with weary eyes.

"...do you remember..." she asked, "...when I was ill?"

He nodded, recalling that most terrible time, when he feared death might again take from him the woman he loved. He felt, then, that he could bear anything, if only she might be allowed to live--even if she never looked upon him with affection--even if he were never to see her again. To see Marianne, now, dull-eyed and languid with grief, he could recall how she had appeared when, a few days following the break in her fever, she was allowed to sit up, and had asked to see him--to thank him for bringing her mother to her. To clasp her hand, then, to know that she lived, and be humbled by her gratitude, was all the happiness he had ever dared to hope for.

"I do."

"Elinor stayed with me...she sat by my bed."

"As you stayed by hers, today."

Marianne fell silent for a moment, then looked back up at her husband, who stood half in the shadows, and half in the faint moonlight that filtered into the room.

"Will you stay, here, tonight?"

Brandon was under no illusions as to what she was asking of him--and in this night, he felt no fear, for he felt no desire to have her body. Here was no danger--he would only be what she needed, and she needed someone to stay close to her, to help her bear the terrible weight of this sadness. In silent reply he went to the chaise, pulling off his boots before he lay down upon it, with his coat for a blanket.

Marianne stirred, and he looked up at her from the foot of the bed. She said nothing, but extended her hand to him.

Slowly, he stood, and went to the other side of the bed. His waistcoat and cravat he removed, and left with his coat upon the chaise, before he took his place beside her, his eyes fastened upon the canopy above them, accutely aware of the barest of spaces which now separated them, beneath the covers. She made no move to close the gap, but her hand found his, and he threaded her delicate fingers between his before he let them rest, together, upon his chest, where the steady beat of his heart and the rise and fall of his breathing would assure her of his presence. If she woke in the darkness, she would know she was not alone.

In that endless moment between waking and sleeping, the silent prayers of Alexander Brandon's heart thanked God for what he had.

Chapter Text

When Marianne awoke, only a very few hours had passed since she had gone to sleep, and it was yet so early that the light of dawn had scarcely begun to scatter its pale beams throughout the dimness of her room. Objects and furnishings yet took on those more ghoulish shapes of night-time, and it took her a minute to fully comprehend her surroundings. Her head still ached from crying, and she felt she could not trust her voice, so swollen seemed her throat, and heavy her tongue.

It was this almost compulsory state of slow silence which prevented her from starting or exclaiming when she turned her head upon the pillow to see the Colonel asleep at her side, and realized that her hand was yet clasped against his shirtfront--not imprisoned there, but resting beneath his own hand, with a sort of gentle security which made her heart feel rather filled with a new sense of affection and respect for her husband. Her recollection of his comfort and support now came to her, and Marianne did not immediately withdraw her hand.

She could not have explained to herself, had she tried, why she then dared to lean across and brush her lips against his forehead, her breath stirring his hair where it grew a little long. It was the briefest of gestures, and she quickly drew back, slipping her hand from his, only to find he had awoken, and now regarded her with an inscrutable look.

"...how--how are you, this morning?" he asked, unable to keep his voice from shaking, though he strove to keep his manner calm, and his countenance composed. He could not wholly disguise his concern for her, however, and Marianne had only to set his mind at better ease with a little nod and a shrug.

"Prepared to go on living, I think," she said, sighing a little before she looked to the window, where the daylight was brightening. "I should go to Elinor."

"Yes," he said, sitting up and turning away from her as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed. Whatever his resolve the night before, he had not counted on having to face the reality of waking in his wife's bed, nor knowing the touch of her lips upon his face. Of course she was in no danger of his imposing upon her, but he might at least hide his untoward feelings and save his pride. He knew he ought to see nothing in her kiss but gratitude, but hope has a means of insinuating itself despite rationality, and Brandon's heart was not unmoved by it. To open his eyes to see her dear face had been a moment of such deep happiness, he scarcely trusted himself to keep from smiling, though their necessary grief made such an expression highly undesireable. "Shall I send in Holland to you? Will you take any breakfast? I can have something sent up."

Marianne, considering, felt she had no appetite, and refused the offer of food. While the Colonel's suggestion had been phrased as a question out of delicacy, he yet realized that melancholy held too much sway while bereavement was fresh, and insisted that she ought to eat something.

"I assume you ate nothing upon your return to the house, yesterday?" Marianne shook her head. "Some tea and toast, then--even just a very little. It will make some difference to your strength; and Elinor will need you to be strong."

"You are right," said Marianne, finding her shawl where he had laid it the night before and pulling it around herself. "As you say, then--some toast...and perhaps a cup of coffee, rather than tea."

"Whatever you wish." He stood, and repressed the urge to bow before he quit the room. "I'll get Holland, and have some hot water brought up to you, as well."

"Thank you," said Marianne, and at the tone of her voice, he stopped, having reached the door to the hall, and looked back at her. "I--thank you."

He half-smiled, cherishing her gratitude, at least, and increasingly felt that her kiss had been nothing more than that. That conviction made it easier, then, to take his leave of her while she stood on the other side of her bed, still flushed and softly rumpled from sleep. He even felt a little easier in himself, knowing he had managed to share her bed without making her feel too obviously uncomfortable--it seemed she might have even liked having him there. It was to be the first and last time it happened, of course, he reminded himself. She must think of him as quite a brother, of sorts. His affection was not returned in kind, he knew--and he had generally made his peace with that state of affairs. Marianne did not dislike him, and he began to think she was not so afraid of him as, perhaps, she had been, when first they married. Honest as he was about his feelings for her, he was not going to press her for intimacy of which she did not feel capable--and he would not let his dreams warp what was real in her friendship and whatever small regard she had for him.

His wife's maid was dispatched to the mistress' rooms, and breakfast and hot water soon followed. Brandon had his man bring coffee and hot water to his dressing room, and his own matters of business were enough to move him to go about his own day. He decided he would not immediately call upon the Ferrars to express his condolences--Elinor was surely not going to receive any visitors so soon, even her dear brother-in-law and friend. He thought he might send a note 'round later to Edward, and perhaps meet with him, man-to-man, when the poor fellow was ready to speak to anyone. In the meantime, he thought it best to allow the sisters their privacy, and to tend to various matters at Delaford requiring his attention. A servant was sent with Mrs. Brandon, however, bearing a large basket filled with all manner of cold meat, hot-house fruit and a bottle of medicinal wine of an excellent vintage which the Colonel had selected himself from his cellar. It was nothing, of course, but food and drink might be one less thing to think of, while the parsonage was in mourning.

Marianne went, and sat a long while with her sister, and though company and what little conversation they managed did both some good, Mrs. Ferrars required nothing so much as rest, then; and so after such an early beginning, mid-morning saw Marianne taking a turn along the lanes around the parsonage and nearby farms, while Elinor slept a little.

The dust of the dry lane threw a pale haze over two men who stood either side of a great red stallion, each holding a lead-rope attached to the bridle. The stablemaster and his assistant both paused to touch the brims of their caps to Mrs. Brandon, but did not long loosen their grips upon the ropes, though they stopped long enough to bid the lady a good morning.

"Good morning, Mr. Loman," she said, one hand shading her eyes against the glare of sunlight as she peered at the horse. "That is not one of our horses, I think?"

"No, ma'am," said the stablemaster. "He's been brought down from Shropshire for stud."

"Shropshire! So far? And so late in the year?"

It was already nearing late summer, and Marianne had not grown up the daughter of a country gentleman without learning something of the rhythms of the year, so far as horses and hunting went. Most people tried to breed their mares in the spring, or early summer, at the latest--and so she was a little surprised to find that they intended to try it, now.

"Not unheard of to have mares foaling in midsummer," said Mr. Loman with a shrug. "The master learnt all the merit of Mr. Gibson's stock, and was determined to have no sire but this one--and the stallion could not be brought into Dorsetshire until now."

"It will not go easily for the mare, nor her foal," remarked Marianne.

"Perhaps not so easily as it might," agreed Mr. Loman, admiring the young lady all the more for the surprise at seeing her interest in the subject. "But patience and careful attention will do much."

"Indeed. I am sure your skill will see that all is done properly--I'll not detain you any longer. Good day to you."

"G'day, ma'am," said Mr. Lohman, touching his finger to his cap again before the two men led the horse away towards the paddock where further hands and a grey mare waited.

---

By the time Marianne returned to Delaford, it had grown late, and she found Colonel Brandon in the library, sitting before the fire in his shirtsleeves with his elbows resting on his knees, a glass of brandy held in his hands.

"How are the Ferrars?" he asked.

"...about as I expected to find them," she said. "They are brought very low by this. I have never seen Edward so worried...but Elinor is rallying her spirits, for his sake. She was always one to exert herself to spare others. Of course Edward can see through her completely--" Marianne sighed heavily, then her nose wrinkled, and she frowned a little at the Colonel.

"Oh--a mustard plaster, for my shoulder," he explained.

"A mustard plaster?" Marianne moved to sit on the arm of his chair and pulled at the loose collar of his shirt, and sure enough, saw the little muslin-bound poultice balanced against the back of his right shoulder. "What happened to it?"

"It is an old injury--a dislocation when I was a boy. It does not often trouble me, now," he said. "But a horse caught me off-guard this morning."

"The stallion?" asked Marianne. "--I met Mr. Loman in the lane with him."

"Ah--no, I left Loman to the stallion, and Jackson and I held the mare's lines. She was skittish, and perhaps I should not have bred a maiden mare with that sire, but she was the best choice." He took a sip of his brandy, and shrugged.

"Are the horses alright?"

"They're fine. No harm done, really. She only shied a little, and I should have anticipated it. Let her head turn a little, so she'd have a better view of him, and she stood quietly enough for the rest."

"It feels very warm," said Marianne, laying her hand against the poultice. "How long have you had it on?"

"Long enough, I dare say," said Brandon, reaching back to remove it. Marianne saved him the trouble, and took away the poultice herself.

"You should rest your arm--perhaps wear it in a sling."

"I am not so decrepit, Marianne," he said with a rueful smile. "The arm won't fall off just yet. It may ache for a day or two."

Perched where she was, Marianne found it too easy to lay the heel of her hand against his shoulder, and apply gentle pressure in small circles to the knots she found in the muscle there. Brandon made a sound that was half-grumble and half-sigh, his head bowing a little at her touch. There was a sense of ease that flowed through him from her fingers, soothing him as much in soul as in body, and he could have happily sat thus at her mercy for all eternity.

"You will be more careful, from now on?" she asked him.

"We are always more careful, having been hurt," he pointed out.

"Indeed," said Marianne softly, the motion of her hand slowing a little. Brandon turned his head to look up at her, and gave her half a nod.

"I will take more care, in future," he promised her. There was something unfathomable in the darkness of her eyes, and he found himself caught, and unable to look away. "...this morning..." he began, already rebuking himself inwardly for what he knew his brandy-loosened tongue was going to say, despite himself.

"...yes?"

"...you kissed me."

Marianne felt her cheeks growing hot, and as much as he wished he had not said it, he did not take his eyes from her face as he awaited her response.

"I did," she admitted. "I was just..."

He felt, in her silence, that she was searching for a means to spare him, without deceiving him or giving him false hope.

"...you felt some gratitude, I suppose," he said, supplying her with her likeliest motive. "After such a difficult night..."

"I suppose so," she said, though she did not entirely agree with his assessment. Had it been gratitude? She was grateful to him, but her feelings did not seem to end at obligation. "I must have shocked you by it--I am sorry," she said, desperate to say something on the matter. Clearly it had meant something to him, enough for him to make mention of it.

"Shocked? No--that is to say, I was surprised, perhaps; but pray, don't apologize," he said. "As kisses go, it was practically filial."

He let out a soft laugh as he said it, and Marianne smiled a little. She recalled having once, long ago, protested that the Colonel was old enough to be her own father--which was, perhaps, strictly true, but not strictly fair. Some men were aged many years by the time they were five-and-twenty, while others maintained their youth well into more advanced ages. The Colonel's tragic experiences had, perhaps, given him the mien of an older man before his time, but his active life and moderate habits left him yet well in what Sir John Middleton would call his prime. In lighter moods and easy company, there was a quiet vitality to his bearing and manner which could not be discounted. It was true, he had not the outwardly fantastic ways of a young dandy, but to affect such manners would only be ridiculous. Marianne had come to appreciate his simple dignity and gentle strength, particularly when she now recalled the livelier manners and charismatic impulsivity of John Willoughby. That recklessness, seductive as it was, now gave her pause when she sensed it in anyone--and there was not a bit of it to be found in Colonel Brandon.

How she had come to compare her husband and her former lover, Marianne was not quite certain; but perhaps, she reflected, it was only natural that two men--one who had figured so greatly in her life for so short a time, and another who would likely figure greatly in the rest of it--should eventually be judged by their contrasts.  Would she have been happy, with Willoughby, in the end? Time and learned prudence had given her the courage to examine his faults, as well as hers, and determine that she would not have been so perfectly satisfied in all things as she had once imagined. Certainly, once she had learned of Eliza Williams' fate, Willoughby could never have merited the same sort of esteem she once had for him.

"You...you should rest," she said at last, standing up and letting her hand fall away from his shoulder. Brandon repressed a shudder, suddenly feeling cool and bereft.

"As should you," he said. "Is there anything I can--?"

"No, thank you," she said hastily. "There is nothing I need. Goodnight, Colonel."

"Goodnight."

Marianne let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding when she shut the library door behind her, and took herself upstairs. Three months prior, the accusation of filial feeling would not have made a wordless sense of protest bubble up within her, and yet when she went to bed, Marianne Brandon spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to determine precisely what name she ought to give to her feelings for the Colonel, without coming to any satisfactory conclusion before she fell into an exhausted sleep.

Chapter Text

The summer went slowly--ripening into the long, golden days that would soon see the bounty of the harvest. Within the thick walls of Delaford, shaded rooms were cool, and little breezes passed from room to room where doors and windows were thrown open, carrying the mellow scent of warm earth and the sharper scent of verdure throughout the house, while heat shimmered in the distance against trees and fields. Now and then a summer storm would bring the violence of its relief, and rain would pour down to soak the baked soil, while lightning cracked in the black clouds above. 

Marianne spent almost every waking moment with her sister during her convalescence, and even managed to persuade her to join her for a fortnight at the seaside. The journey was not far, and if there was any benefit to be had by sea-bathing, Marianne made certain Elinor availed herself of it.

While she would have protested her duty and her love for her sister as her only motives in this--and, when she generally thought of it at all, she truly believed this to be so--Marianne was also operating under the increasing suspicion that she found herself to be somewhat attracted to her husband.

What Mrs. Jennings would have said to know of this, and of Marianne's principal response of near-total avoidance of her husband must be left to conjecture.

Marianne held two chief concerns in this matter: the first, that her own feeling and judgement might be fickle things, given how they had led her into difficulty in the past; and second, that, should she give in to any temptation, it might give rise to an expectation of more than she felt, or was prepared to do. She could not call it love, and so she would not--and she thought of Mrs. Adkins' clear differentiation between love and lust. Lust, though she blushed to name it, she could not deny. Marianne's lack of resolve on either of her two points left her to acknowledge that the safest course was to do nothing, and simply to spend as much time in Elinor's company--or, at least, out of the Colonel's--as possible. 

That night in the library, and the previous evening's slumber at his side, had made her acutely aware of this desire she had to be close to him--or even held by him. In her half-formed fantasies she could call to mind his look, his voice, or even just the sense of his presence, while she brought herself to the breaking-point as she lay in her bed. How would it be, she wondered, to let him touch her as she touched herself? To surrender herself to his care and experience? (For she assumed he must have some knowledge--one did hear things about the wild ways of military men.) With her, she was almost certain, he would not be so wild as to worry her...but then in this she could not be entirely sure, and in that doubt she found another reason to avoid any prompting of passion. She was aware, too, of her own vulnerability, in the days which followed Elinor's loss. It would be a grave mistake, indeed, to act too hastily upon her need for consolation, and to confuse it with whatever else she might feel.

If Colonel Brandon noticed her attempts to be absent, he said nothing of it to her, and in any case, was much occupied with the usual flurry of activities that come to a country estate in good weather. Matters of horses, farms, repairs and building-works, gardens and visits and little excursions--all were brought on by the long days and warm nights, and though Colonel and Mrs. Brandon entertained their guests with ease and enjoyment, they were not often left alone together in that comfortable companionship which had once been theirs.

Elinor gained back her strength, and was about her usual business in the parish by the time the crops were beginning to be brought in, and Marianne was grateful for the activity necessitated by the harvest, once her presence was not required so often at the parsonage, anymore. She went more often to visit Eliza and Nan, as well, but was conscious of the risk of meeting her husband there, and having no excuse not to join him for a walk or a ride on the way back. It happened once, one evening in August, and Marianne had unwisely taken his arm while they navigated the forest path, which was filled with the twists of gnarled roots to trip them up. To have him so near, and to be herself so intensely aware of her more wanton desires, Marianne had struggled to keep up her end of the light conversation, her answers clipped and perfunctory. Brandon had soon given up attempting to speak, and only enjoyed the walk, while Marianne burned beside him, and seriously considered once or twice whether she had the nerve to push him against the trunk of some tree and kiss him until she had done away with all her doubts. It had been a very near escape, and afterwards, she had been horrified by the power of her own desire, and fearful of its overwhelming her judgement.

What Marianne would have found to be an amusing sort of irony on the page or stage, she found to be near-intolerable agony in daily life, when she would go into her dressing-room and hear his footsteps in the next chamber, or see the glow of his candle beneath the door. He would surely not reject her--no, she had no fears of that! His love was no secret...but his fantasies might be a great deal to live up to. He had, presumably, never consummated his love with the long-dead Eliza. Could a woman of flesh and blood be to him all that he imagined or dreamed of? Marianne knew she was known to some as a pretty woman, and had worn her beauty with a careless sort of insolence which gave her personal charms even greater allure in her lack of vanity...and yet now, she faltered. She inspected her every feature in the mirror, finding no particular fault, but wondering if there might be something wrong with her of which her maiden ignorance left her unaware. What if he found something about her disgusting or abhorrent? What if she found something about him disgusting and abhorrent? Could either of them face a repeat of that night in Lyme Regis?

Quite rationally, she decided it was easier not to find out. 

Quite irrationally, she kept revisiting the question.

---

Michaelmas found Marianne brooding in her room, where she had taken to escaping with a book when she knew the Colonel might be expected in the house. He had walked out to see Eliza, but returned late in the afternoon, and Marianne spied him from her window where he strode across the shorn fields, his coat folded over his arm. A furtive movement of his hand further caught her attention, and her book was laid aside as she moved to kneel in the window-seat, watching him. He'd gathered a handful of late blackberries, and, as he walked, tossed one after the other into his mouth. It was such a boyish thing to see in a man so generally serious, that Marianne could not help but grin, foolishly fond of those habits and secrets of his she had discovered.

He caught sight of her at the window as he was licking the last of the dark juice from his thumb, and smiled a little bashfully at having been caught indulging himself. Marianne let out a helpless giggle and only shook her head at him, whereupon he grinned all the wider, and went inside.

Marianne let out a heavy sigh of irritation as she leaned back against the heavy folds of the curtain. She missed him--and it was galling that she should miss her own husband, when they lived under the same roof. When only her own lingering doubts were what kept them apart!


I must master my fear, then, she admonished herself. Somehow.

She flicked impatiently at the silken tassle that fell against her shoulder, and frowned down at her book without reading a single word upon the page. Her gaze soon drifted back to the window, and then...back to the curtains.The thought came to her so suddenly that she gasped, and her face flooded with colour. Would it work? Did she even dare?

She knew she could only ask...and, such was her frustration, she felt she had the nerve for just about anything.


---

Colonel Brandon did not, at first, believe the knocking to have come from the door it did. It was late, and he had meant to read a while before sleeping, and half-expected his valet to appear with some matter, and so he had looked to the outer door when he called out, rather wearily--

"Yes?"  

He sat bolt upright with surprise when his wife appeared at her dressing-room door, holding a candlestick.

"Marianne? What is the matter? Is something wrong?" he asked, presuming an emergency required his attention.

"No--no, everything is quite alright," she assured him, setting the candle down on the edge of a little table before she laced her fingers together before her, her palms suddenly damp. "I...I wished to talk to you."

"Talk? Well, what about?"

Brandon was, he flattered himself, a reasonable man. If she wished to talk to him, he would carry on as rational a conversation as possible. The difficulty was, that, rational or otherwise, he was also, quite simply, a man--and a man who was very much enthralled by his wife. She had some purpling smudges of fatigue beneath her eyes, and her dark, curly hair hung in a long plait down her back--but he would swear that he had yet never seen anyone look lovelier. The wide neckline of her plain nightgown had slipped to one side as she turned to look at him, and the curve of her bare shoulder and neck made him long to trace the soft lines with his lips.

"I must ask...that is..." She started towards him, then stepped back, hesitant, before gathering her courage and going to sit on the foot of his bed. "...if it is agreeable to you..."

"...yes?" he prompted her softly, mystified by her ambiguity, but enchanted by her proximity.

Marianne now found she had not quite the words to explain herself, however clearly she understood her own purpose.

"I must begin at the beginning, I suppose," she murmured to herself, frowning. "Would you let me kiss you?"

It took him a moment to comprehend her meaning. Marianne's tone had been so very polite, and her words so coolly spoken, that he half-believed his own fancy had twisted what she had actually said into something he had only dreamed of hearing.

"I...beg your pardon?"

"I should like to kiss you, sir."

His instinct was to reach for her, and his hand slid forward before he thought better of it.

"To kiss me?"

She nodded.

"I have given the matter a great deal of thought," she said solemnly. "Too much thought, perhaps." Brandon's lips half-quirked into an incredulous smile, which vanished in the next moment, as she spoke again. "I should like to do more than kiss you. I think."

So saying, however, she had stood up, nervously brushing the palms of her hands against her nightgown, as if uncertain what came next, and suddenly aware of how close they had been.

"Marianne..." he said, shifting to draw one of his knees higher beneath the covers, helpless against the way his body has reacted to her words, and only able to seek to disguise it. "...Marianne, are you sure?"

"I...I have an idea...which may make...the matter...easier," she explained, her blush spreading across her face, despite her determination. "If...if you would..."

"Anything," he promised her.

"Of course you are under no obligation," she went on. "And I swear I shall stop at once, if you wish it--or if anything...displeases you."

"Displeases--?" He was, by now, so bemused by his wife that he let out a short laugh. That she had, evidently, turned the matter over so much in her own mind, and had done battle with her fears, and come to him of her own accord left him amazed and humbled by her courage--and a little amused by her gallantry and concern for him. "I cannot imagine you will disappoint me."

"Terrify you, then."

"Terrify me?" He gave her an incredulous look.

"Well I haven't started, yet."

That being true, he had to cede the point. He narrowed his eyes, however, considering her where she stood, then, cautiously, he held out his hand to her.

"...I...I know not what you may have heard, but...this needn't be a fearful thing, Marianne," he said at last, as eager to re-assure her and soothe her uneasiness as he was to take her into his bed and prove to her how wonderful it could be.

"No--I know," she said, approaching him near enough to slip her hand into his. "...only..."

"Only what?"

Marianne took a steadying breath, only to have it leave her on a sigh as she rolled her eyes.

"This is humiliating..."

"No, not at all--" His grip tightened ever so slightly on her hand, and he raised it to his lips, pressing a kiss against her palm. Marianne felt a jolt run through her veins as he lifted his gaze to meet hers. "Shame has no part in this," he whispered.

It was the easiest thing in the world for her to lean forward to brush her lips against his, and each grew still at the contact, though it lasted but half a moment. Marianne drew back, as if considering whether he might grab her the way he had done in Lyme. Having recalled his harsh lesson, he did not.

Marianne Brandon, however, was going to take no chances.

"If I am to continue, I would like to bind your hands--if you will let me," she asked.

"...my hands?"

"Mmm." She nodded, her glance shifting to the bedpost. He followed her gaze, then looked back at her; and--seeing she was serious--he nodded, slowly.

"...as you wish."

In a moment, she had gone to the table where she had left her candle burning, and only now did he see she had brought something else with her, which she brought back over to him. Soft silken thread, twisted and bound into slim, cream-coloured cords...

"--from the curtains, in my room," she explained, reading the question in his puzzled look. Now that she had obtained his consent, Marianne was very brisk about her business, lacking no eagerness, and not being over-burdened by modesty, once she had seen the gleam of desire burning in his eyes. If he wanted her to stop, he must say so. "Your nightshirt, please. Off." She snapped her fingers, once, and he felt his arousal twitch.

Please, let her find pleasure in this, he silently begged whatever powers there were, as he tugged his nightshirt over his head and tossed it to one side. He did not spare a thought for his own insecurities until it was too late, and he found himself quite at the mercy of Marianne's eyes. Her mouth fell open a little to see all of him at once, but her wide eyes held no trace of fear or disguist...only the delight of discovery. Classical statues and paintings had not left her entirely ignorant of the idealized male form, but here was warm flesh, and not cold marble.

Before she could permit herself to do more than gawp, Marianne recollected her plan, and stepped to the head of the bed with her handful of cords. Brandon wordlessly raised his arms above his head, laying his hands before her, to do with them as she would. She brushed her thumb across his wrists, considering the powerful grace of his hands, even as they lay at rest. It took her a moment to shake off her reverie and get back to the task at hand. After all, she might let him have the freedom to use his hands eventually...just not yet. She had to be sure of him, first. She looped the cords about his wrists, before carefully knotting them around the post.

"Is that too tight?" she asked.

"No," he said, scarcely trusting his voice to remain steady as he wound his fingers around his taut bonds, already holding on to them as if for dear life.

"You will tell me if you are uncomfortable?" she said, already looking at him with greater ease now that he was prevented from potentially being overwhelmed by his passion.

"...my principal discomfort has nothing to do with my restraints," he admitted, letting his head fall back against the pillows Marianne had plumped up behind his head and shoulders. Her already-pink cheeks flushed a shade darker, and she chewed a little distractedly on her thumbnail, then, as she stepped back to admire her work. "By God, you are the loveliest creature I ever saw," he whispered. She glanced down doubtfully at her nightgown of serviceable linen.

"They do say love is blind," she said dryly.

"A man would not have to love you in order to find you beautiful," he said. "But it is my privilege to love you, as well."

A frown appeared between her brows, and Marianne drew back the bedclothes to be out of the way, and moved to sit beside him.

"About that..." she said. "You really ought not to take...anything that occurs, tonight, as a sign that I...that my heart is..."

"Ah--I think I see." He swallowed, but nodded. "I understand." Lest the protest of his love and longing ruin everything, he was forced to retreat into levity, his lips curling into a small smile. "You mean to use me most wantonly, and no more."

Marianne leaned over him, then, with a glance so heated it made any further jests die in his throat.

"Just so," she murmured, trailing her parted lips up along the line of his jaw, before she caught the lobe of his ear gently between her teeth, giving it a curious little nip.

The sound Brandon let out was as unfamiliar to his own ears as it was to hers.

Well-pleased with what she had discovered thus far, Marianne took her time in continuing her examination of her husband, sitting back and letting her hands slip slowly along his body, learning the texture of his skin, the angles of his limbs, and the rhythm of his racing pulse. The hair upon his legs, she decided, was lighter in colour than her own, but thicker. The scattering of hair upon his chest intrigued her, and she let her fingertips drag against the soft tangle of it, before tracing the path of it to his navel, whereupon he let out a rough and breathless cry. His erection now stood to its full height, and Marianne had to pause and wonder if it would, somehow, fit into the space between her legs. The warmth of her need had long since begun to gather low in her belly, but she faltered, now, despite knowing what must come next in the act of intimacy as it had been explained to her.

Granted, no one had ever mentioned that her husband might lie beneath her--and certainly there had been no talk of tying him up--but the startling dimensions of his organ aside, Marianne did not see why she could not manage as she was. Gamely, she moved to straddle him, and only the colonel's hoarse interjection stopped her.

"Wait--Marianne--wait. You must be ready."

"I...I am..."

"No, I mean..." He let his head fall back against the pillow once more, striving to collect enough of his scattered wits to explain what he meant. After a moment, he raised his head again, catching her confused glance, and holding it with his gaze. "You must be so--so prepared," he said softly. "I would touch you if I could, but as it is...you need..." His jaw clenched for a moment, and he drew a slow breath, his nostrils flaring. "I need you to do it," he said, neither of them in any doubt as to what it was.

"Oh..."

Setting her teeth against the flushed fullness of her lower lip, Marianne was almost shy as she moved back to kneeling beside him, and slipped the hem of her nightgown higher to admit her hand beneath, finding the bud of her pleasure with a helpless gasp.

"Yes, like that," he encouraged her, his eyes never leaving her face. "Just like that, love."

Marianne felt her heart begin to throb heavily against her ribs as the familiar eddy of need caught her in its whirl...only her appetite took on a keener edge, this time, with the awareness of his scrutiny. Within half a minute she had begun to pant against the building force of her desire, and felt the damp heat pooling between her thighs.

Brandon lay still, only trembling as he watched her, and wondered if it were possible for a man to reach his climax simply by witnessing hers.

Marianne was not to be distracted from her purpose, however, and she turned her eyes upon the length of his sex, before she reached over to cup him gently in one hand.

His groan of delighted agony formed a sound which might have once been meant for her name. Beyond its first syllable, however, it bore little resemblance to Marianne.

"Stop--stop," he gasped at last, and she obediently and swiftly withdrew her hand, and made no other move to touch him.

"I've hurt you?" she asked.

"We must try to go slowly," he said, with effort, dragging breath after burning breath into his aching lungs. It was a kind of drowning, when she touched him...so potent was the force of his need, and so great the ache of his desire to please her. "Is there...have you got anything...anything like oil? It may help...make things easier."

Marianne thought for a moment, then grinned, her eyes alight as she hopped down off the bed and hastened into her dressing-room to retrieve a little bottle of sweet almond oil which she had been used to using upon the ends of her hair. Returning to the side of his bed, she held it up for his inspection.

"Will this do?"

He could only nod, his mouth having gone entirely too dry when she had tipped a few drops onto her fingers, and reached between her legs again. Without wasting another moment, she tilted the bottle again to pour more oil into the palm of her hand before she set it aside, and rubbed her hands together until they shone in the glow of the candle-light. Climbing back up onto the bed, she reached for him again.

Brandon sucked in his breath when her oiled hands slid over his shaft, leaving it glistening as she drew her hands up over his stomach, bracing them against his chest as she moved to straddle him once more. The scent of sweet almonds assailed him, and he sensed that this could very well ruin the innocence of marzipan, for him, forever. His arms were tense against the pull of the cords around his wrists, but he lay as quietly as he could, waiting for her. Marianne adjusted her seat until she was comfortable, and could feel the tip of his erection pressed against her entrance, slick and throbbing.

It was the work of a slow moment for her to press downward, and each let out a shaking sigh as she eased herself against him, relaxing only when his full length was pressed deep within her. At first, she did not dare move, nor even breathe, as she let her body adjust to this change. Marianne could see what he had meant about the oil, and was glad she had not refused it. All the same, it gave her a strange sense of satisfaction, to find she could accomodate him like this. The pride of it made her smile to herself, and Brandon felt a wave of relief wash over him.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

"I think so," she said. "--and you?"

"...words fail me, Marianne."

The coherancy of his reply somewhat belied his statement, but she understood his meaning; and a little wickedly thought she might try the truth of it, as she tentatively rolled her hips, first forward, then back. A moan sounded somewhere low in her husband's throat, and Marianne leaned forward to kiss his Adam's apple, before she indulged herself with his mouth. They each panted softly against one another's lips before she let the kiss happen, closing her eyes and falling into an abyss of riotous sensation from which she never wanted to return. His mouth reached for her as his hands could not, and Marianne took the hot edge of his tongue against hers, tasting the port wine he had drunk an hour ago, and, she thought, the faintest hint of blackberries.

It was enough to make her rock against him, again, before she leaned back, intent upon finding the pace and rhythm her body demanded. She began slowly, easing herself upwards, without entirely abandoning him, before she let herself glide back down, letting him fill her once more. Marianne began to gasp with her exertions, the pull of her need gathering force and spurring her onward, ever so slightly faster, ever so slightly harder. Her fingers curled against his chest, the edges of her nails digging lightly into his skin, before she brought one hand back to her sex, stroking the centre of her pleasure even as she rode him.

For his part, Brandon was doing all he could to hold on to his sanity. From the moment she had first moved against him, he had been fighting a losing battle against his own body, the pent-up desire of so many months--years, since he had known her--coiling through his whole being to find its focus in his arousal. To feel the tight, wet heat of her surrounding him had nearly driven him over the edge in an instant. Only some unknown mercy made it his fate to last beyond that moment, and with every deep breath, it became easier.

Until she had begun to move against him in earnest. Every twitch and twist of her hips brought a host of stars pounding at the edges of his vision, and the sounds of her soft little exclamations of pleasure were enough to make him shudder beneath her.

"...easy...easy now," he managed to whisper raggedly. Marianne, however, was selfishly lost to the promptings of her own wanting, and only slowed down fractionally before she continued. "Marianne--Marianne--" Something in his tone arrested her, and she opened her eyes, at last, to look at him. "Do--do you want me to get you with child?" She frowned, but did not stop, still half-hitching herself against him with blind desire. "Marianne, answer me!"

"I...I don't know..." she said helplessly. "Not...perhaps not yet..." she admitted.

"Listen--you must listen to me, Marianne--I cannot--"

"I know..." she said, groaning almost petulantly as she shut her eyes again. "I know!"

"We must stop." He ground out the words between his teeth.

"Not yet..." she moaned softly, only increasing the urgency of her movements. "...not yet...please...it's so close..."

"Marianne!"

"Almost!" she cried, begging him. "Please...oh, please, Alexander...oh...!" Her words dissolved into a senseless cry as she peaked, white and gold light flashing behind her eyelids as she lost herself in the shuddering burst of her release. He felt her bear down upon him in the throes of her climax, just as he felt the curl of need at the base of his shaft begin to tighten in response, and he knew there was no more time. Jerking his hands free from their restraints, he grabbed hold of her hips and lifted her clear of him with not a moment to lose, spending himself between their bellies in a hot, brief burst.

Marianne collapsed against him, pillowing her head upon his chest as she gasped for air and shivered through the remains of her orgasm. He immediately let himself wrap his arms around her, holding her close, but gently, his own breath fanning the few sweat-damp curls about her face as he waited for their heartbeats to return to something nearer to normal. He could stay, like this, with her, forever, he thought. He thought he had imagined everything, in torturous detail, and yet, from first to last, she had surprised him. She was beyond anything he had ever dreamed, and certainly beyond anything he had ever deserved. The only bitter draught in his cup of joy was the nagging thought at the back of his mind--reminding him that she had acted only out of her natural impulses and physical desire. He knew he should be grateful for what she had given him--and he was--but now he wondered whether it would only torment him further, when he knew he held her body but not her heart.

Several minutes passed in silence before Marianne shifted a little, and reached down to use the hem of her nightgown to dab at the cooling stickiness of his emission.

"I...I'm sorry..." she said. "I thought...I thought we had more time, before..."

Brandon could not help but chuckle softly at her wonder.

"Good God, woman, don't you know what you do to me?" he murmured, smiling at her fondly as he let one of his hands move to rest against the curve of her bottom.

"You--" Marianne sat upright in a flash, her eyes wide. "Your hands! You pulled loose!"

"And not a moment too soon," he reminded her. Despite the sense of this, Marianne yet gazed at him with mild dismay. "You have many accomplishments, Marianne, but tying knots, it would seem, is not among them."

Marianne only drew back further, her brow furrowing in perplexity when she considered the loosened loops of cord, and her husband's unmarked wrists.

"You were free this whole time?"

Brandon looked at her then, with a stillness and loving solemnity that had not so completely taken hold of him since the day he had stood before her in church and vowed before God that he was hers.

"Never, while under your command," he said softly.

Marianne, who had only just done all manner of shameless things to his naked body, found herself blushing and averting her eyes at this; and she soon slid out of the bed to untie the curtain-cords and take them with her.

"Won't you sleep here?" he asked, trying not to sound as desperate as he was.

"Now, now," she chided him, teasingly, eager to be done with any tones too loving. "We must allow some mystery to remain in our marriage, sir." Her gaze travelled down the length of his form, and she rolled her dark eyes at him. "...and do you really think we would get any sleep?"

Seeing that she did not wish to dwell in sentimentality, he let her tease him, and gave a good-natured shrug to this.

"True," he said. "Likely you will be the insatiable sort of wife," he jested in return, fervently hoping it was so.

"In which case, you'll need all the rest you can get," she shot back, giving him one more brief kiss upon his lips before she eluded his grasp with a smile and went to retrieve her candle while he sat up in bed to watch her go. Marianne paused by the door to her dressing-room to give him a cheeky bob. "Goodnight, Colonel Brandon!"

He raised his hand in a sweeping salute and bowed his head to her with all the gentlemanly courtesy he could muster for a man who had just been very nearly broken by his wife.

"Goodnight, Mrs. Brandon."

As Marianne slipped from the room and made her way back to her own bed, it was the first time she felt not one tiny shred of objection to hearing that title.

 

Chapter Text

Marianne was later than usual when she went down for breakfast in the morning, and so found she had missed the Colonel, who had gone into his study to attend to some letters of business. Though she had spent much of the summer avoiding his company, she now found she had rather been hoping to spend more time with him...but of course she knew the importance of his correspondance and such things. Life went on, but there air of the household seemed to have lightened somewhat--at least in the eyes of its master and mistress. Marianne found herself quite content to be patient, then, and look forward to what she had planned for their next connubial encounter.

Taking herself off to the music room, she gave her practicing her undivided attention for all of five minutes before she lapsed into playing old favourites she knew off by heart, so she could let her mind wander. She soon began an air she knew to be one of the colonel's favourites, and could not help but smile when she looked up to see that it had drawn him into the room. Her notes faltered, then faded away, however, as he shut the door behind him and came towards her with a frown upon his face.

"Is something the matter?" she asked him. Brandon shook his head, but sighed, tapping his hand a little restlessly against the instrument.

"...I must go to London."

"To London! When?"

"Immediately, I'm afraid." He lifted his hand as if to stay her. "Nothing too terrible...only a letter seems to have gone astray and I think unless I go speak to my dealer at Tattersall's, in person, we may end up with two horses I had decided not to purchase."

"Oh." It did not seem so very bad a situation, though Marianne could appreciate the expense and bother which would be saved by his making the journey up to town. "Shall I go with you?" she asked brightly.

"Believe me, Marianne, I have no real desire to go without you, only an obligation to look into this matter," he said, smiling at her, with a look in his eye that made her squirm in her seat. "But the business will no doubt go faster if I just ride up and back, alone."

"How long will you be gone?"

"A week, I think--while I am there I might as well see to some other things."

"A week!"

While Colonel Brandon was, naturally, sorry to be called away from his wife's company--particularly in light of recent developments--he could not help but be a little pleased to note the crestfallen look she could not possibly hide.

"Will you miss me, while I'm gone?" he asked--and his glee was so apparent to her as to almost seem smug...and Marianne could not allow him to be too self-satisfied at her disappointment.

"Not half so much as you will miss me," she countered, standing up from the pianoforte to stroll to his side, smiling. Brandon's own smile faltered, when he realized what she was about. Marianne had now some awareness of her power, and no scruples, it seemed, about how she used it.

The colonel could see his own doom in her knowing glance, and surrendered to it with as much grace as he possibly could. He moved to brace a hand on either side of where she stood, her back against the instrument, and let himself enjoy the simple intimacy of being near her.

"I do not doubt it," he said fondly, before he lowered his head, but did not let his lips touch hers, waiting for Marianne to meet him halfway; and rejoicing, when, with a laugh, she did. Her touch was as water to a parched tongue, and he found that he could not tear himself away. How often had he dreamed of this--to kiss Marianne, freely, just because he had wanted to, and because she wanted to?

Marianne's only response to such a thoroughly passionate kiss was entirely inevitable and uninhibited. Her arms stole about his neck and she had no reservations when it came to pressing herself against him in sweet invitation.

"How much time have you got, before you go?" she asked, before stealing another kiss.

"Not enough," he sighed with frustration. "I have sent off a note by express, which I have said I will follow directly. I've sent instructions to open one or two rooms in the house in town, but there's no real need for any staff, if I am just going to make use of a bed, while I am there."

"You have a bed you can make use of, here," said Marianne, with an impish look.

"Don't remind me--"

"Well, what of the sofa, then?" she asked.

Seeing that she was in earnest, he did not hesitate to comply with her implied request--however it must be said that they never did make it as far as the sofa. His eager hands found their way beneath her skirts, and Marianne's own encouragement assured him that she did not mind his haste, when she plucked at the fastenings of his fall front and turned her back to him, leaning forward across the pianoforte to brace herself as her knees began to tremble.

He was astonished, at this--but not so astonished that he stopped her. With a very few thrusts, Marianne had whimpered with her pleasure, straightening against him and reaching back with one hand to stoke his cheek. In all the tender roughness of their passion, he found himself pressing his lips against the bare skin of her shoulder where her gauzy kerchief had been lost, at some point. When she bucked against him, he bared his teeth and set them upon her flesh, in so primitive a fashion as would have horrified the gentleman he considered himself, if Marianne had not gasped and smiled with triumph, when she felt what he did.

Still, he sobered enough to recall what he was about, and left off soon enough that he buried himself in a fistful of her petticoat before he came, recalling their agreement of the night before.

"Forgive me," he said, speaking low as he pressed a gentler kiss to the spot he had marked, however lightly, with his teeth. His mortification was evident, and Marianne was quick to soothe him with a laughing kiss.

"I am not so delicate as all that, Colonel Brandon," she told him. "And you do not frighten me in the slightest."

"I am glad of that," he said earnestly, though he had begun to feel more at ease, seeing as she was not truly hurt nor angry with him. Marianne, he knew, he could trust to be honest about her feelings. "How can I go..." he muttered, resting his forehead against hers as she set about righting their clothing after their hasty coupling, and straightening the knot of his cravat.

"I suppose I ought to remind you that the sooner you go, the sooner you can come back," said Marianne, pouting a little. "But that old truth gives me no comfort."

"But truth it is." And so, with one last kiss, he managed to tear himself from her company and leave her to her songs, while he saw to his final preparations for his journey. Though Marianne was happy to stand upon the front steps of Delaford to wave him off as he cantered off down the drive, both of them were thinking of the far fonder farewell they had bid one another in the music room.

Indeed, Marianne did not think of much else for the rest of the day.

"A whole week!" she said to herself, as she sat alone after dinner. It was too cruel a separation--to both of them, and at such an interesting time in their marriage! It was not to be borne.

No sooner had the idea come to Marianne, but she was on her feet and ringing the bell to summon a servant, to prepare her things. While she could not go on horseback, as he did, she had the means to make the journey nearly as swiftly--so why should she not follow him to town? Surely if he had little need for all the usual attendants, she could do without them, as well? All she needed to furnish herself with was money, and some clothes--and both she had in ample provision.

Set upon her plan, and beaming to think of his happiness and delight when she would surprise him, Marianne went early to bed, so that she could make the earliest possible start on the morrow.

Chapter Text

The following morning, Marianne made good time on her way to London, with good roads, fair weather, and changes of horses which allowed her all possible speed upon her way. She found herself at her destination not long after six o'clock in the evening, but found no-one at home in the town house, excepting the char-woman who had been employed on short notice to see to what little matters of food and laundry might arise in so brief a stay as the Colonel's. 

"He did say he were going out this evening, ma'am," she explained, once she was assured that this was indeed the young Mrs. Brandon. "He hired a cab, not one hour ago. Gave directions to his club, but talked of going to some assembly, afterwards, if the fellow he wished to speak with could not be found at the club."

With this information, Marianne took only as long as she needed to change her dress--a shimmering gauze, the colour of dark red wine, embroidered all over with tiny stitches of gold thread in the form of delicate little dragonflies. It was a rich and exotic sort of gown, for her, but she was glad she had decided to bring it, after all, thinking, perhaps, that after she had surprised him, they might find the time to go to the theatre or some such evening entertainment.

She felt rather like the princess of the old folk-tales, throwing off her disguise to go and dance with the unsuspecting prince, and smiled to herself as she set off in the carriage, first to stop at the Colonel's club, sending in the coachman to inquire whether he was still in, and, finding he was not, whither he had gone.

The address obtained, Marianne was soon deposited at the brightly-lit assembly rooms, and had no difficulty in gaining entrance to the party. She craned her neck, looking everywhere for the Colonel, but saw nothing of him, nor anyone of her acquaintance whom she felt she could ask if they had seen him.

She tried to maintain her composure as she made her way through the crowded corridor and into the larger room where the dancing was being held--though she did not suppose she would see the Colonel in the set. Indeed, she knew she would not...and yet even the theoretical exercise of acknowledging that he could dance with some other woman filled her with a sense of selfish unease she could not justify.

"Marianne!"

Turning to see who it was who had spoken her name, she was astonished to see her brother John approaching her as rapidly as he could through the press of people who had gathered about the edges of the ball-room.

"John!" She could not have imagined feeling so very glad to see him as she did, for she had begun to feel quite small and alone in such a gathering. Though she had every right, as a married woman, to go about without a chaperone, she had never before gone into company so boldly alone, and she felt odd and out of place without anyone to speak to.

"I did not know you were in town!" said her brother.

"I only arrived today," she said. "I...I seem to have lost sight of my husband--have you seen him, at all, this evening?"

"This evening? No, not yet--though I had heard he'd come up to town on business. What a gathering! I would have thought the good weather would have kept more people in the country for their shooting parties. I cannot fathom why everyone is here."

"...why are you here, John? Is Fanny with you?"

"Oh, yes, Fanny is hereabouts, somewhere," he said. "She does get so very bored, from time to time, at Norland. We come to London quite often for some diversion, and to see her mother, of course."

Marianne only nodded at this, too incensed that Fanny should have been so eager to snatch up Norland and all it contained, to have carried out some intolerable 'improvements', only to abandon it for her home in town with such alarming frequency. If she had tried to speak just then, she knew she would say something of which Elinor would not approve.

"Do you know anyone else here?" John went on, feeling his conversation was amply discharging his duty to his half-sister in patronizing her. After all, Marianne was married--and well-married, now! More likely she could help him, in society--if only the Brandons would come up to town more often, and mix more in the same circles as he and Fanny.

"Not...not very many people, no," said Marianne, suddenly very tired, and only wanting to see the colonel.

"Can I find you a seat? You don't look at all well," remarked John, without making any move towards the arrangements of empty chairs nearby.

"No...no, only the room is so close...I wonder if I could get some air."

"Ah, well, I believe the doors at the far end of the room open onto a terrace, of some sort," said John, pointing helpfully. "I may go out for a breath of fresh air and a cigar, myself, later--only I am expected in the card-room. If I see the Colonel, I shall tell him you are looking for him."

Marianne nodded weakly, before recalling her intention was to surprise her husband, only to find it was too late to call John back and explain. Still, it was a comfort to know Colonel Brandon would surely come and find her, then, and she need only wait.

Moving through the room, and avoiding the dancers, Marianne soon gained the terrace, and, finding she had it to herself, sank onto a low stone bench with a sigh, looking out over the darkened gardens, hemmed in on all sides by more buildings and other gardens. It was pretty enough, but it made her long for the grace and wide-open spaces of Delaford and Dorsetshire. Her light wrap did little against the chill of the early autumn evening, but she was not too cold, and she hoped she would not be waiting long. It was cool enough, and early enough, that everyone else remained indoors, to enjoy the music.

Within a few minutes, she heard the door to the terrace open and close, and the firm step of a gentleman's tread upon the stones, and she smiled to herself. The tip of his finger brushed lightly against the nape of her neck, and she trembled with anticipation.

"Did I surprise you?" she asked.

"You did," said a voice which was all too familiar.

Marianne whirled about on her seat to see who stood behind her, hardly daring to believe what the dreadful pounding of her pulse already knew to be the truth.

"Willoughby!" she gasped.

"Marianne..." he said, gazing at her with a smile, his open, handsome expression alight with his joy at seeing her. "...it has been...so long, since I..." She would not let him finish--she could not let him talk to her as if they were simply renewing an old acquaintance. She stood, determined to push past him and return indoors, when he reached out to stop her, his hand closing upon her arm. "Please," he begged her. "Since you were ill, I...I suppose you know I went to see...I spoke to your sister..."

"Yes, I know everything," said Marianne, twitching her arm from his hand, and coldly furious where once she had been flushed with despair.

"...I know I...I know I dared not ask, then, if you could...if you would forgive me," he said slowly, his emotion evident, even in the half-darkness which surrounded them. "I dared not ask Miss Dashwood...she was so severe...and rightly so! I have deserved all I have suffered."

"I have not," said she, fearing she would burst into tears at any moment, overcome by the fatigue of her journey and the shock of seeing the man she had once loved above all others in the world.

"Of course you have not," he agreed, impulsively reaching to take hold of her gloved hand, and pressing it to his lips. "You dear creature! My greatest torture has been imagining the pain I caused you, Marianne..."

It took a great deal of effort for her to pull her hand from his grasp. Time and distance, as well as the full knowledge of his faults, she trusted to have removed his effect upon her...but now, seeing him face-to-face, it was a great deal harder to bear in reality than it had been in her imagination. Her love had been true--and so had his. He had been deceitful, despicable, even...but not so entirely false as to pretend all he had felt. It had been cold comfort, to her, to know that she had not very nearly thrown herself away on something that was entirely a lie. To hear him speak made her feel very nearly culpable, somehow, in all that had happened.

"...my...my name is Mrs. Brandon, now," she said, her voice rough with her unshed tears. "Please don't call me Marianne."

"God, that is the worst of it!" he said. "When I think that my cruelty drove you to sell yourself to that old goat! Oh, how could you bear it--how could I bear it?"

Marianne wondered that he had managed to convey no hint of this, his anguish, in all the months she had been married, if it had truly been so unbearable as he said.

"Do not give yourself too much credit for how I have chosen to spend my life!" She moved several paces away from him, but had not quite mastered her countenance enough to return to the ball-room. "I would like to be alone, now. You can have no more to say to me, Willoughby."

"I have everything to say to you!" he protested as he shadowed her every step. "And you must allow me to apologize, at least--you must allow me to tell you how acute my remorse has been!"

"You are sorry for how you treated Eliza Williams, I suppose?" she said tartly, refusing to look at him. There was yet a kind of compelling allure in his expression, in his manner, in his voice, which she felt instinctively to be a danger. Even Elinor confessed to having been moved to pity him, when he had come to see whether Marianne's fever had taken her from all who loved her. If her coolly rational sister might be so touched by his desperation as to have faintly wished for some possibility of a reconciliation, even if only for a moment, what greater risk was there for Marianne to encounter his charm for herself? Her hands shook with the force of her determination to withstand whatever he might say or do, but her stomach was all one great knot of foreboding, and her heart beat so painfully within her chest that Marianne felt quite ill.

Willoughby said nothing for a minute, but she could feel his eyes upon her, and it was all she could do to stand her ground, and not flee.

"Every man has regrets...and many have regrets of that nature," he said at last. "Why, everyone assumes she is Colonel Brandon's own natural daughter--and yet he is not disparaged for allegedly doing as I have done, in the past..."

"Even were she his natural daughter, he has taken very great care of her, to the best of his ability!" cried Marianne, rounding on him in her anger, at last. "Have you even tried to see your child, or gain any news of her?"

"You have seen her?" asked Willoughby, stepping nearer to her. "Will you tell me what she is like?" He almost smiled as he gazed down at her. "...it does comfort me...to think that you know her...that you will help to raise her...as if...as if she had been our child..." He moved as if to caress a long, loose lock of her dark hair, and Marianne recoiled.

"You go too far, sir," she hissed. "The child has the best and most loving mother in the world--though you will not pay her any compliments in how she has striven against the mess you dragged her into..."

"I cannot help thinking of you--or loving you--only you, Marianne," he said, his bright eyes burning with adoration...and desire. She could see, now, what she had not thought to look for, before...and now, it only made her shudder. Only on his lips could a soft protestation of undying love sound like a threat. "Believe me, I will never feel for anyone the way I feel for you...and you know what we were to each other. I thought, perhaps, I could go on...but seeing you, here, tonight...the shock of it...I've realized precisely what you are to me...and that is everything."

Unable to bear his presence or his conversation any longer, Marianne pushed past him to return inside, no longer caring if anyone remarked on the deep flush and apparent agitation of her expression. Her head ached, and her heart pounded, a roiling mass of uncertainty bubbling up within her. The shock of seeing Willoughby had unsettled her feelings more deeply than she could have imagined, and now her doubts and her guilt at acknowledging those doubts made her fearful of being alone with him, any longer.

She made it not three steps into the ball-room before she caught sight of the Colonel, who had spotted her from where he stood on the other side of the room, the sets of dancing couples whirling between them. Marianne stopped in her tracks, so relieved to have found him that she entirely forgot who must follow on her heels until she saw Colonel Brandon's expression cloud over, his gaze focusing just behind her, as Marianne felt the warmth of Willoughby's closeness as he passed her, and moved back into the crowd, pausing only long enough to whisper in her ear:

"I cannot forget you, Marianne...and you cannot forget me, either."

She could not help but wince; and when she had recovered enough to lift her eyes once more, the Colonel had disappeared from view. Panic now engulfed her, and she did not immediately know which way to turn. She tried to make her way to where he had been standing, but it gave her no indication of where he might have gone. Her search of the crowded rooms did not give her any more hints, and she kept catching sight of Willoughby at almost every turn, where he would smile at her, as if...as if...

By now she felt entirely unwell, and had only presence of mind enough to ask that her carriage be brought to convey her home. Surely, she thought, she would find the Colonel there. Marianne had lost her taste for surprises, by now, and only wanted to depend upon his sympathy, once he knew what had passed. Of course she could not blame him for absenting himself upon seeing Willoughby--she could only guess at what painful recollections the sight of his former rival and the man who had so callously disgraced his ward might raise in Colonel Brandon's memory. As much as she had longed for him to come and take her by the hand and lead her away from that terrible place and the terrible person it held, she understood why he had not. Elinor had told her, once, briefly, that Brandon had fought Willoughby, as a man of honour; and Marianne had no wish to see her husband find cause to put himself in that kind of danger, again. Whatever could avoid a meeting between the colonel and John Willoughby was surely for the best.

Marianne found the townhouse silent and deserted upon her return, but she lit the fire and a few candles about the little parlour which the colonel had been wont to use as a study and sitting-room while he was in town. Still wearing her evening-dress, she curled up in an armchair to wait, brooding over the flames as the hours passed.

At long last, she heard the door below, and slow footfalls upon the stairs, and though she could not manage a smile, there was a kind of light in her aching and weary eyes as she turned them expectantly to the door. There was a pause, and then the footsteps continued down the hall, and the Colonel's bedroom door thumped shut, the distant and muffled sound seeming loud in the silence, having only to compete with the faint hiss and pop of embers in the hearth.

Marianne hardly knew what to do or think--had he supposed she would be asleep by now? After all that had happened, did he not wish to talk to her?

Blowing out the candles in the sitting-room, and seeing that the fire was banked for the night, she slipped down the hall and went to his door. She considered knocking, but felt the courtesy would be a ridiculous pretence, after their evening's ordeal. Turning the handle, she let herself in, and found her husband standing over a basin of cold water, scooping handful after handful against his face. Marianne went to him, and only as she drew near could she smell the brandy on his breath.

"...why did you not come in and sit?" she asked softly. "Surely we must talk..."

"We can have nothing to say to each other," he said hollowly.

"Nothing to say? About--" Marianne swallowed, hard, her throat suddenly tight, making it painful to speak above a shaking whisper. "...about what happened?"

"I have no wish to hear it!" he snapped. "I saw enough."

"I know how terrible it must have been," she said, reaching out to lay her hand on his shoulder. He flinched, but stood still, gripping the edges of the basin with both hands, his head bowed so she could not see his face. "I wanted to surprise you, but I could not find you, and..."

"I assure you, I was surprised," he said.

"I know..." she said. "I did not expect...I was shocked, as well."

"So shocked you felt the need for a tête-à-tête with that man."

"He must have followed me!" protested Marianne. "Indeed, I did not--" Her objection to the implied accusation died upon her lips as her anger and disbelief overtook her urge to placate her husband. She had been foolish, perhaps, but she had never acted on purpose to hurt him--and she resented his tone. "...you are jealous!"

"Haven't I the right?" he snapped, turning to pace to the window and glare out at the darkened street before he drew the curtains shut with a jerk. "We are married!"

That he seemed to think she needed reminding of that fact cut her to the quick, and Marianne felt the culmination of her long journey and the horrible scene at the assembly come over her all at once, and hot, bitter tears burned in her eyes.

"And that was my folly!" she flung back at him, her fury and pride rushing to fill the aching emptiness that had opened up inside her at his words.

"No," he said coldly, without looking at her. "The folly was mine in thinking such a spoiled, heedless child would do anything other than bring me misery!"

In the silence that followed, there came neither word nor sound from Marianne until she strode over to where he stood and waited until he turned to face her.

"Was I a spoiled child when I put aside my feelings and agreed to marry you?" she demanded. "Was I a spoiled child when I stood by Elinor in her trouble? Was I..." Her fists darted out, landing harmless but emphatic blows against his chest with every few words she blasted forth. "...a spoiled child...when you took me into your bed?" His hands grabbed hers and held them still, only for Marianne to tear herself from his hold, sneering with contempt that he should think her capable of being so cruel as to seek Willoughby out, and to flaunt their keeping company before him.

"Get out, then!" he said darkly. "You never need share my bed, again."

Marianne did not go because he had ordered her to go, but because she could no longer bear to be in the same room as him. His unreasonable conclusions and galling accusations had half-stunned her, to the point where she could scarcely recall what she had said, even moments before. Her pain and her anger were what drove her, then, to mechanically change her dress and pack her few things in total silence. Though a light still burned in the Colonel's room, he had made no move to come after her, and Marianne could only think of returning to Delaford as soon as possible--even if it were the middle of the night.

And so it was not six hours after she had first arrived in London that Marianne left it, too exhausted, to angry, and too unhappy to even find any relief in tears.

Chapter Text

Marianne's return to Delaford was as quiet and unremarkable as she could wish. She made no attempt to explain her brief absence to Elinor, who had heard of her sister's hasty departure; but as Mrs. Edward Ferrars trusted her sister would not leave her without any indication of anything being wrong, and the report being that Mrs. Brandon had gone off in good spirits, Elinor was not so worried as to inquire in a particular hurry as to her sister's motives. If anything, there was reason to quietly hope for good things if Marianne was gone off after the Colonel to town, and Elinor thought it better not to meddle in what nature might already have in-hand.

Marianne returned in so low and uncommunicative a state that she would not have been able to answer any of Elinor's questions, had she been asked. She merely went to her room, and was not much seen out of it in the two days which followed.

She was roused, at last, by the sound of a rider approaching up the drive. Presuming it was her husband, and wishing very much to be reconciled--at at least explained--Marianne readied herself for the inevitable audience, but did not rush down to greet him. Of course he had been in the wrong, too--she was prepared to apologize for her own part, and her pride would allow no more. She neither wanted nor expected grovelling--a sober and honest exchange of apology was all she desired. After all, nothing bad had happened--tehy had only exchanged words in shock, confusion, and anger.

"A gentleman is waiting upon you downstairs, ma'am," said the servant who had come upstairs to fetch her. "I showed him into the study to wait."

"A gentleman?" Marianne's heart sank, realizing it must not be the Colonel--and then it positively plummeted, to think that some dire accident might have befallen him in London. Surely he had not done anything foolish or rash! "I will go down at once."

Determined not to panic until she knew for certain what was going on, Marianne swept into the study with all the self-command she could muster. Having so prepared herself for some surprise, she at least had the consolation of being able to keep her wits about her when she discovered it was Willoughby who stood upon the hearth-rug, still splashed with the grime and mud of his journey.

"What are you doing here?" she asked, her voice only trembling once. She suddenly recalled Elinor having told her something of the Colonel's past encounters with Willoughby--and that he had fought him, on Eliza's account. Marianne was seized by the dreadful notion that another such meeting may have taken place, and that Willoughby was come to tell her he had killed or gravely injured her husband.

"I heard you had left London," he said. "...and I was compelled to follow."

"Why?"

"Why? How can you ask me that? Do you not know my own mind and heart better than anyone else ever could?" That Willoughby seemed honestly puzzled at her question made Marianne frown. She had once thought she knew him--now, as she looked at him, she found she could not begin to predict what he might say or do next. She felt she ought to know him, and it seemed he did, too. Had he truly changed, or had she?

"...if you wish to see Eliza's child...your child..." she said, slowly.

Willoughby made a gesture of impatience, and Marianne began to relax a little. Surely if he had hurt the Colonel, he would have said so, immediately. He might have even triumphed in it. Marianne recalled how her lover had been wont to laugh at the Colonel, even to the point of cruelty in his jokes, and shivered. There had been no harm in that--they had only ever been jokes...but then when two people met with guns or swords and every intention of wounding or killing the other in a matter of grave offense...would Willoughby have laughed, then?

"I wished to see you...Marianne, I wish to be with you."

"With me?"

"You know too well the intolerable misery of our separation..."

"A separation! Yes, your marrying Miss Grey might be indeed called a separation! And my marrying Colonel Brandon--a double separation, if one marriage is not quite enough of a rupture!"

"My wife--" Willoughby broke off, as if it were too abhorrent to him to even speak of Mrs. Willoughby, to Marianne. "...she is not well," he went on, at last. "And if I may speak frankly I truly believe that it is my fate to shortly be made a widower. God knows I have not earned any second-chances by my conduct, and I pray she will not suffer needlessly, but the reality is that I will be free."

"Free! You can talk of such freedom?" Marianne was too horrified by the coolness of his reasoning to do little more than echo his words.

"I have made mistakes--I can acknowledge that, and my faults!" he said, with every fibre of his being and every note of his voice expressing the earnestness of his words. John Willoughby was the sort of man who evidently meant every word he said, as he was saying it--and therein, Marianne felt, lay the danger. He could say anything...anything at all...and he would utterly believe it. She tried to shake her head, to find the words to tell him to stop, but he went on. "Am I never to know happiness again? May I not even desire it? Are my crimes so great?" His eyes narrowed a little as he saw that Marianne remained unmoved. "...I have not waged war--I have never had cause to commit any such horrific act as the sainted Colonel Brandon will have carried out in the name of King and country!"

"I am surprised you recall that he exists!" cried Marianne, with a withering glare. "He is in very good health--or was, two days ago--and will not be so easily dispatched as your poor wife!"

Here he seemed to mistake her protest as a mere obstacle to be got over, for he stepped forward to eagerly take hold of her hands in his--and Marianne was too stunned to immediately react.

"If you come away with me, he must divorce you--all you need is courage to do it!" he said.

"...run away?" she breathed, the room slowly beginning to swim and spin about her aching head.

"Now--or soon--I can make all arrangements," said Willoughby, eagerly sensing agreement, or at least consideration, in her bewildered silence. "We could go to the Continent, live as man and wife until he has released you--no one need ever know us as anything other than the Willoughbys. We shall see all of Europe, together, until everything is safely settled and we can return to Combe Magna, and live as we have always dreamed..."

"Europe? Combe Magna? No--no! And all with your wife's money, I suppose?"

"The money must come to me," Willoughby explained patiently. "Right or wrong--and will it be wrong for us to be happy?"

"I could never, never be happy, knowing what it would cost others in misery...or myself in self-respect!" She tried to drag her hands from his, but his grip tightened, and he looked at her, then, truly perplexed. She had loved him, he knew, and set little store by the thoughts and feelings of others, when it came to her own satisfaction.

"Of course it must all sound horrid--I have spoken so plainly. ...but, Marianne, if I cannot be open with you, there is no-one...I can think only of you...and after seeing you again, in London, I knew I must do something. But you need a little time, perhaps."

"No!" Shaking her head furiously, she took back her hands, now, with great effort. "You must go."

Willoughby reached into the pocket of his coat and removed a sealed letter, which he laid upon the table beside her.

"I did wonder if you might be reluctant, or afraid..." he murmured. "And so I was determined to set down everything I wished to say to you in this letter...in case you would not see me, or...or hear my pleas. Only consider how happy we can be--oh, how happy we will be, my love! Marianne..."

Here he bent, lifting her chin so he might claim her lips with his. Marianne was so overcome with astonishment that she did not immediately recoil from his touch--and her senses could not help but feel the sensual effect of Willoughby's charm and the potent physicality of his presence. Her cry of protest and horror was only partially aimed at him, when she broke away from the kiss--the rest was her own guilt at the treacherous racing pulse of her response to the man she had once loved. Once--aye, she knew now that her heart was no longer his; and if it throbbed, it only did as any wound might--and wounds healed.

She ws shocked by the sound her hand made when it came into contact with his face--but it did not stop her other hand from taking its turn to strike him again.

"How dare you?" she choked out, her fury making her darkly pleased to see the trickle of blood where her slim gold wedding-band had caught the soft line of his lower lip. Willoughby seemed stunned, bowing mechanically, as if he had not kissed her and she had not lashed out and left him bleeding.

"Consider my letter," he whispered. "Please...Marianne..."

So saying, he fled the house, daring to press his luck no further. The time he would give her to reflect upon his missive and proposal was all he had left to rely on. Marianne heard the grinding of hooves upon the gravel, and looked from the window in time to see her visitor riding back down the long drive and out of sight.

She did not touch his letter for a full hour. Marianne required at least that to gather her composure. She certainly had no intention of going anywhere with Willoughby--but what if he should return, or grow desperate? Was her life now to be punctuated by these disagreeable encounters? He could no longer hurt her as he once had--that power of his was gone--but there had been enough in his kiss to concern her...and of course there was no moral distinction she could make between physical infidelity and emotional inconstancy--though she knew she had never yet pledged her love to her husband. It was all best to allow Willoughby nothing, and she must learn to govern her body as she had learnt to govern her heart...or at least determine she would not throw herself away, heart, body, or soul, on such a callous and self-absorbed puppy!

Sitting beside the fire, she unfolded the letter as if it contained spiders, and case a hurried glance over the flowing script. The same protestations and assurances--all of which turned her stomach.

--I will leave this with you, and wait for you at Weymouth, at the White Horse, from whence we may find passage to France, or else seek it at Portsmouth or Dover. I shall wait however long you wish me to wait, to prove that I am ever,

Yr humble servant,

John Willoughby

Marianne screwed up the paper and tossed it aside with a snort of derision, only to leap to her feet as her sister was shown in.

"Elinor!"

"Marianne--did I imagine it, or did I see Willoughby ride past just now?"

"You did," said Marianne weakly. "I sent him away...and I never want to see him again--or even speak of him! Please, Elinor, promise me you will say nothing of it to anyone...not Edward, not the Colonel." Her face, until now a bloodless, unmoving mask, now crumpled. "Oh, especially not the Colonel!"

"But--"

"You know what may happen, if he finds out!" cried Marianne. "I could not bear it if they should fight again...and there would be no reason for it. I am only glad I did not know of their first meeting until it was all over. Please, Elinor, let this be the end of it. Willoughby is unworthy of any further notice."

"...if you are sure, Marianne," said Elinor. She had her doubts about the prudence of ignoring such an event, particularly when such a secret might come between a husband and a wife; but she could share her sister's fear that the honour of men might overcome the good sense of women and lead to the unnecessary risk and anxiety of a duel. "But I think you may best know how to explain it all to the Colonel, so he might understand. If you told him you do not wish him to fight, and if there is truly no reason for it, then I am sure he would not."

Marianne recalled the events of Willoughby's visit, and felt she could not be certain of the Colonel's remaining calm, if he knew all. Elinor could not know--could not suspect--and Marianne would let it remain so.

"I am determined, Elinor," she said, trying to smile. "I would like to forget it all as soon as possible."


The Colonel himself finished his business in town sooner than anticipated, (having nothing to distract him, where he got little sleep and refused all further social invitations,) and returned to Delaford within the seven-night. His heart was heavy with his doubts and regret in how he had acted, and what he had said. Liquor could not be his excuse--no, he must take the blame for his suspicions and accusations, like a penitent man of honour. He began many letters to his wife, but felt he owed it to her to offer his apologies in person. Of course she could not have known to expect to see Willoughby--she had to have only just arrived in town. He knew Marianne's impulsive nature had likely prompted her journey, and he would not do her the discredit of believing anything other than what he knew--Marianne was honest, and Willoughby a cad. Not for the first time, Brandon regretted that their duel had not given him the justice of true injury. He had drawn first blood, and so was compelled to stop, his victory gained; but the blow had been so glancing and superficial that Willoughby had been able to attend an assembly later that same day, and nobody had been the wiser. It was not the punishment he had merited, but the Colonel had always played by the rules, and the rules stated that his honour had had its satisfaction, even if his heart had not.

He returned late in the evening, and found the house quiet and almost dark, though there were still servants enough to receive him. There was no light yet burning in Marianne's room, and so the Colonel only paused a moment at her door before he continued to his own chamber, presuming she slept. He could not have known that Marianne had hastily blown out her candle upon hearing his footsteps in the hall, and laid in the darkness listening to the pounding of her own heartbeat while she crumpled the edges of the bedclothes in damp-palmed fists.

It took Marianne most of the night to gather her composure for what must occur at breakfast, and it was a grave and silent woman who presided over the sunny table. Marianne had dressed with the utmost care, and had had her maid dress her hair in a manner she knew to be most becoming: an artful tumble of dark curls, seemingly restrained--and only just so--by a plain cream-coloured ribbon. Her muslin morning-gown was a simple affair, but she felt she would benefit from at least looking as if she radiated purity, even if the events of the last several days had left her feeling somehow spoiled and dirty, since her encounters with Willoughby.

As for the Colonel himself, he rather delayed going in to breakfast. His eagerness to be reconciled with his wife was tempered by his overwhelming ignorance of how he ought to remedy the matter. He had said things which he could not make unsaid, and when he thought of the look which had crossed Marianne's face, of the unreserved hurt which had stolen into her glance...even the most heartfelt apology felt utterly inadequate.

Having gone into the house so immediately after his arrival the night before, he slipped out to the stables to give himself a little more time, and, ostensibly, to see that his horse was none the worse for the journey back from town. Of course the animal had suffered no exhaustion nor injury, and had already been looked to by his own capable staff, but Brandon still lingered in the stall, brushing down the horse and checking its hooves while he made small-talk with Loman, asking how matters had gone in his absence, and finding (unsurprisingly) that all was quite well.

There was a patter of footsteps, and a small figure practically seemed to blur before their eyes as it whisked through the stables, and Loman called out to the young stable-boy, who halted in his tracks.

"Where d'you think you're going, my boy?" he asked.

"If you please, Mr. Loman...sir," said the boy, snatching his cap off when he spied the master standing silently by. "...Y'did say I might go into the Ashton on th'back of Mr. Derrick's cart, when he next came by...and all my morning's work is done, and I'll be back t'see to the evening's chores, too...promise!"

"Go on, then," said Loman, dismissing the boy with a jerk of his head. "Spend your shilling wisely."

"Yes sir!"

The boy was gone as quickly as a bird taking flight, and Loman shook his head with a chuckle as he turned back to pat the horse's neck.

"I tried to tell him to save it, but he'd not hear of it," he said. "But then he insists he means to spend it on his mother for a treat--she always has something of a spell, after the work of the harvest is done...but she usually picks up again by Christmas."

"Can he spare the shilling from his wages?" asked the Colonel.

"Oh, that's as much a treat to him as to his mother," explained Loman. "Gentleman gave it to him for holding his horse, the other day."

"Gentleman?"

"...him what came to call upon Mrs. Brandon..." said Loman, before realizing the awkwardness of his employer's ignorance on the matter, and fearing he might have spoken out of turn. "Forgive me, sir, I thought you'd know of it."

"I've not yet spoken to Mrs. Brandon about any such matter," explained the Colonel, feeling he had to say something, yet already filled with misgivings and uncertainty. "I arrived so late that we have had no chance to converse."

"Quite."

"Did the gentleman leave his card, or any message for me?" he asked, hoping that it might have been Sir John, on some errand...but then his staff at Delaford all knew his friend well, and Loman would surely have referred to him with greater warmth, had that been the case.

"He gave us no name, sir," said Loman. "But I believe Annie heard him called Willowtree, or something of that nature...but then that is only the gossip of a silly girl, and the cook has had words with her before about listening at keyholes."

"Thank you, Loman--I am sure Annie meant no harm," said the Colonel, though he spoke more sharply than he had meant to do, and abruptly put an end to their conversation by bidding the man good-day and going into the house.

He soon found himself standing at the door to the breakfast-room, both dreading and desiring to go in and speak to her. It must have all been some mistake--he had been able to convince himself of that when he had thought over everything that had happened in the light of day, and without the blur of spirits to twist his judgment. But to find, then, that Willoughby--for who else could it have possibly been?--had come to Delaford, and presumably seen Marianne...what was he to make of it? He supposed, at last, that at the very least he could wait and see what she would say. If he had no reason to be suspicious, he could soon set his fears aside and give her the apology he owed. Willoughby, of course, he trusted not one whit, but that was of no consequence to him, now.

Steeling himself, he went in, and took his seat at the other side of the little table after a cursory bow to his wife. He bid her good-morning, and only then did she speak, though her eyes had been upon him from the moment of his entrance.

"Good morning," she returned quietly, merely continuing to spread a thin layer of deep red preserves upon her toast, dropping her gaze to her work once he had broken the silence.

"...your journey back was...not too arduous?" he said, finally, fishing about for what kind of opening he could muster. Plainly her journey could not have been pleasant, given how they had parted, but he knew he must make reference to it, if he was to question her at all about how she had spent her time in his absence.

"No," she said shortly, before lapsing back into an expectant silence, broken only by the soft scrape of her knife against her bread.

"...and...is there any news--anything which has happened at Delaford, while I've been away?"

Here, he thought, was her chance. If she could confide in him now, and explain what had happened when that wretched man had been there, he could be easy--he could go to his knees beside her chair and beg her forgiveness for what he had said in town.

Marianne looked up, at last, from her plate, feeling that she might have a greater appearance of honesty if she did not look away and mumble her answer--forgetting, of course, that her expression was not one given to keeping secrets...and it was her eyes which betrayed her, clouded and uncertain.

"...no...no, not at all," she said, the words scarcely above a whisper. Why would he not speak to her of what had happened in London? Why could he not see that it was all a mistake, and that they could be happy, once they put it all behind them?

"Ah." There was nothing more he could say, just then, though he took a cup of coffee and drank it with rather too much determination, and hardly paid the throbbing of his scalded mouth any mind. He could not press her without revealing that he already knew more than he had let on, and he did not care for the creeping awareness of his deception on that point, or the sense that it might not be entirely fair to his wife. No! After all, she was the one who had only just looked him in the eye and lied to his face. What her motives were, he could hardly begin to guess--he did not want to guess. Every possibility which immediately presented itself in his imagination was acutely painful to consider.

Having finished his coffee, and taken a single bite of a piece of dry toast, the Colonel laid aside his napkin and stood from his place at the table, ready to quit the room in a hurry, without even bowing as was his custom when he left any lady.

"There are matters I must see to, this morning," he said, by way of an explanation, though he did not excuse himself in any other terms, nor bid her good-day as he left, the door thudding shut behind him.

Marianne remained where she was, discomfited by what had passed. She had thought the passage of some time and a civil conversation would put an end to what had troubled them, but here it seemed the Colonel was still angry with her...even after the separation of several days and a chance to think the matter over at great length. Compared to the harshness of his words in their argument in London, this quiet coolness was almost worse, somehow. It was not even quite civility, nor conversation...he had looked as though all he wanted was to be gone from her company. The sense that he could not bear the sight of her had only increased in the short space of time he had sat with her at the table, and he had made no attempt to discuss anything. Oh, he had inquired after the journey, and her house, but what could she say of any of it? Apart from her misery, they had been unremarkable days, and she dared not breathe a word of Willoughby's visit. But had the Colonel asked her about Eliza, or little Nan? No! Marianne had gone over to the cottage every day since her return, in part trying to assuage her guilt over having seen Willoughby again, in town and then in her own house. That he had been so near to Eliza and his child, and cared nothing for either of them! Marianne was determined to love them both doubly, if he would not give them even the moderate concern which was due to them.

Well, that was all there was to it, then. The Colonel was not to be swayed by time, nor rationality, nor even whatever effect her presence might have once had upon him. He remained unmoved, and evidently determined to think the worst of her and her actions. And what could she do about it? Her pride would not permit her to plead where she had done nothing wrong...not really. Her shame she could not entirely justify...after all, she had sent Willoughby away, and had struck him for the liberties he had taken.

Her pulse had leapt when he'd kissed her.

Marianne could only shiver to recall how her flesh had betrayed her in that moment. She hated Willoughby, now--and hated him all the more for the effect he had had upon her, against the inclination of her will. It was a weakness, some failing on her part which she could not entirely understand, but if conscious choice had any say in the matter, hers must exonerate her. But where did men look for a woman's consent? Did they wait to have it from her own lips when she beckoned to them? Or did they read it in her glance, hear it in her sighs, and feel it in her trembling touch? Did Willoughby believe she had meant to encourage him? He had parted with every indication of his own confidence in their attachment, despite her outrage. She had been too overwhelmed, too confused...perhaps she had not been clear enough in her dismissal--for that she could easily blame herself.

And now the Colonel believed her capable of the worst sort of betrayal...and what would he think, if he knew Willoughby had called? That Willoughby was staying in the county? That Willoughby waited for her...and perhaps would even return?

Marianne shoved her plate away from her, her stomach turning over at the thought of such an encounter. No, as long as Willoughby knew where she was, she would have no peace. Even if she went elsewhere, for a holiday or a visit, word would get out, and he might follow her. Heaven only knew how that might appear, then, if they were seen together at some sea-side place! She would certainly not go to Weymouth...no, nor anywhere, that anyone knew...but she must get away. All she could hope was that more time and quiet reflection might work upon the Colonel's suspicious state of mind. For the time being, she knew she must think carefully, and plan what she must do next; and so she quit the breakfast-room, and went to her room to compose a note to her husband.

Chapter Text

A plan, once thought of, and thought over, is best not delayed--or so Marianne continued to tell herself. Having been forced to confide in Elinor all she wished to confide in anybody, and finding herself quite avoided entirely by the Colonel, she was left wholly to her own devices to extricate herself from an intolerable situation as best she could. She supposed, in time, dwelling on suspicions and anger would only worsen the Colonel's views--for she was incapable of exerting herself to try and win back his regard when she still felt both indignant and guilty for having lost it in the first place.

She had been frank enough to tell him from the earliest moments of their marriage that she did not care for him as a wife should...and though he had sworn his eternal love, Marianne was no stranger to the changeable ways of a man's heart when his interests conflicted with his affections. Willoughby had had his rich style of living; Brandon had his rigid sense of honour. Neither were to be set aside for the sake of a pretty little fool.

It was that which galled her the most. Not that it was so, but that she had been taken in again. She had let herself believe in...something. If not her own second attachment, perhaps in Alexander Brandon's. His love had been so very different from Willoughby's...and yet here she was to bear witness to its end--half a year with her as his wife had been enough to undo all the patient and generous workings of his heart. What a mistake he must now realize he had made!

Though the realization of her own folly and the prospect of what must happen pained her more than she expected, Marianne was resolute in carrying out her intentions. She must go away--quietly. Whatever scandal was to break should not come too near Delaford, where it might hurt Elinor or Edward or Eliza, or the respectability of the estate itself, which the Colonel had worked so hard to build and maintain.

The few serviceable clothes she would require she had dispatched to Ashton, to be held for her at the inn there; and for the rest she furnished herself with modest funds from her pin-money--a necessity for travel, though she was ashamed to take any of what she felt she did not deserve of the Colonel's former kindness and what had been her due as his wife. Would he seek a divorce? Or would mere separation be most agreeable to him? Marianne shuddered lightly to consider either prospect. That she would be excluded from all good society and be a burden on her family was certain--if they even took pity on her to support her! She wanted to believe she had friends and the love of her mother and sisters, but if it was to be widely believed she had treated so good a man with contempt and made a cuckold of him...might their outrage overcome their pity?

Contemplating the details of her future was horrific enough; but it was the notion that her husband would think so badly of her which gave her the greatest pain...that they would no longer even be able to be friends to one another! Marianne had long been able to acknowledge that their minds and tastes agreed on several points, and their companionship had been agreeable to her even when the prospect of more intimate conjugal connections had unsettled and terrified her. And when her terror had faded, and her courage and desire emboldened her to seek his bed...Marianne blushed hotly to recall what had taken place, and what he had made her feel...and grew cold to think she would never feel it, again. Even if he never so much as looked at her again in the whole of her life, even if the world condemned her for adultery which had never taken place, she knew she had too much self-respect, as well as respect for her husband, to be tempted by desire or loneliness or desperation, whatever her future might hold. Better to starve, better to die than to give anyone the true satisfaction of knowing her to have behaved thus!

"...now I must only teach myself to forget what was, or what might have been," she murmured to herself as she sat at her writing-desk, staring blankly out the window as she mused on all that was certain and uncertain in her future. A long while did she sit in that unchanging attitude, gazing at nothing, and thinking of everything. At last, she took up her pen to write.


Husband -- for however long I may have left to call you so --

By this time you are like to have realized that I have quit your house. Though I have no natural taste nor talent for concealment, I find it to be quite necessary under the circumstances; and I hope you will come to understand when you may someday know more of my motives. At present I dare not say too much, and shall not until it may be safe for me to explain, even in writing.

Despite recent events, and my great anguish at having caused so much pain as your wife (however unintentionally!) I must allow myself to be quite well in body, and calm enough in my mind to assure you that this is no rash or wild action borne of any fever of the body or soul.

I thank you most humbly for the kindness and care you have shown me until now, and I know you to be as honourable a man as any man can strive to be. I will not plead for your forgiveness, when I have only ever acted rightly, by my own estimation, though I know my judgement is not equal to that of others, by some accounts. I believe I have never meant to do any wrong, and I mean no wrong, now. Having lost in you that faith which must be the basis of all true affection, I am reconciled to our finding happiness in leading separate lives from now on. I can only close by wishing you all the true peace and happiness you have deserved, and could not find with


Marianne

Her pen dulled and beaded ink upon the paper as she at last signed her name in her neat, flowing script; and she blotted and folded the letter with mechanical motions and cold hands. Her eyes burned, and yet no tears fell. It was not numbness that she felt--no, it was assuredly pain that twisted deep within her as she gave form upon the page to the worst thoughts which plagued her. Yet she went on. There was much to be done, which she knew she must do. To pity herself too deeply or indulge herself in her misery could wait indefinitely. For once, the prospect of grief held no appeal to Marianne, for its sensibility or its cathartic release. She wanted nothing to do with the agony of her soul, and so she did the next best thing--she pushed it away, locking it behind some secret door deep within herself, to be faced if and when she felt she could bear it. Let it hammer upon the walls of its prison and shriek and wail and curse at her...she would not let it out.

Sealing the letter, she addressed it simply to Alexander in a final fit of indulgence in the intimacy of his Christian name, which she had only barely begun to allow herself to use, and thereafter would never have the right to use.

It was late afternoon on a dull October day by the time Marianne called for her horse to be saddled. The Colonel had gone out, and Marianne did not torture herself with questioning his whereabouts. It wasn't as if she meant to bid him farewell. She was even grateful for the opportunity to slip, unobserved, into his study to lay her note upon his desk where he might find it. She lingered a moment in the room that was, of all the rooms in the house, so utterly his. There was no object nor furnishing her eye lit upon which did not seem to her as if it had been placed there solely by his taste or habits. Here was the world he had built around himself--his childhood, his love, his loss, his travels, his work...all that he was and all that he had done felt present in that room of his, and Marianne was loathe to leave it. Next to having to look Colonel Brandon in the eye and say goodbye, saying it to this place that held so much of his quiet strength and fervent devotion was what sank cold, relentless claws into Marianne's soul; and she was certain something tore asunder within her as she made herself turn her steps to the door and leave the room behind her.

She did not even dare glance into the music room as she passed it on her way out to the stable-yard.

The groom helped her to mount, and she quietly thanked him before she pulled at the reins and trotted over the stones to the packed earth of the path beyond, and soon Mrs. Brandon disappeared from sight.


When the Colonel rode back to Delaford after seeing to his local business and taking supper at the cottage with Eliza and Nan, he did not think anything amiss, apart from the cold fire of agony which had been steadily consuming all within him--but that was nothing new or surprising. He had been at war with himself all day--ought he to confront his wife with what he had been told, with what he knew? She had lied to him--but it had been a poor lie. Marianne had no talent for concealment...but had her blushes been borne of guilt or some other misery? Must he immediately suspect her, even when he knew her to be too transparent, too considerate, too frank, and too moral to coolly carry on an affair under his nose? He had to admit that everything he knew of Marianne led him to believe there must be something more to the matter, even if she had deceived him, somehow. Likewise he was forced to allow that his own jealousy prompted his anger--his own fear that his inadequacies had forever shut out all possibility of her learning to feel anything for him, or that she would believe her heart must be forever wasted upon the man who had first held it, and treated it with such careless contempt.

Willoughby was a born seducer--handsome, charming, idealistic, and selfish. If such a man could have truly won the heart of such a woman as Marianne, his power must be great, indeed...and Brandon would not--could not--blame her. It was no crime to love so boundlessly and fearlessly as she had done. He was only sorry that it had happened to be with so worthless a scoundrel. All that galled him was that it was Willoughby. If Marianne had loved someone worthy and good, he fancied he might have found comfort in their happiness...but that a man with all the advantages of charm, youth, beauty, and fortune should first win Marianne Dashwood, then discard her without a thought for the acute misery of her heartbreak and the censure the world would place upon her for having been too unguarded in her affections...it was enough to make Brandon clench his teeth against an indignant hiss, even just to think of it. Willoughby had only ever used her--and she was as good a woman, with as true a heart, as any that ever lived. Even if the worst should be true, Brandon knew he had not been wrong to love her. She deserved better than Willoughby, and it was only fate which had sacrificed her heart to his cruel whimsy.

All this weighed heavily on Brandon's mind as he rode into the stable-yard and dismounted his horse, handing the reins to the groom.

"...beggin' your pardon, sir?" ventured the young man.

"Yes? What is it?" asked the Colonel shortly as he tugged off his gloves, his mind still on other matters.

"...only I see Missus Brandon ain't come back with you, sir, so shall the carriage be ready for her?"

"Back from where? Why should she need the carriage sent--did she not go out in it?"

"...she rode to Ashton this afternoon, and not an hour after she went her horse come back with the ostler from the inn, says she sent him to return the animal, but she stayed there."

"...at Ashton?" Brandon frowned.

"So the man said, sir."

"...well, I expect she had reason," he said calmly--too calmly, as he dropped his gloves into the upturned crown of his hat. "Never mind the carriage for now, thank you."

"Very good, sir."

The Colonel went in, puzzling over this strange freak of his wife's. Why on earth would she have gone to stay at Ashton, even if they were still in the midst of their quarrel, or seemed to be? Elinor's parsonage or even Eliza's cottage would surely have made better sense for her to find a refuge and a confidante.

It was only as he went to warm himself by the fire in his study that his eye was drawn to the letter lying neatly on his desk, addressed to him as only she addressed him in those moments when they had been so close to one another.

In less than half a minute he had broken the seal and read its contents--twice--but still did not wholly understand what was meant by it. She had gone into Ashton, and evidently did not mean to keep her horse with her...what was meant by that? A ploy to show him her anger or hurt? Should he go to Ashton himself in the morning to reason with her? To apologize? Marianne was a creature of impulse, he knew, but one could usually see the reasoning behind her actions, if they knew her well enough. Here, Brandon found himself almost entirely in the dark.

Musing over what she could mean, another pale shape caught his eye in gloom which gathered beyond the bright half-circle of firelight, and he bent to retrieve another paper which had fallen, seemingly unnoticed, beneath the desk, written over in an unfamiliar hand.

--I will leave this with you, and wait for you at Weymouth, at the White Horse, from whence we may find passage to France, or else seek it at Portsmouth or Dover. I shall wait however long you wish me to wait, to prove that I am ever,

Yr humble servant,

John Willoughby

"...no," he murmured, disbelievingly at first, and then with increasing panic. "--no, no, no!" Every mistake of his life now seemed to rise up to mock him when he held the two letters side-by-side and considered what they might mean. What happened when a woman left her husband for her lover, what happened to the women that John Willoughby loved only so long as it was convenient for him to do so, what happened to his Eliza...and little Eliza...and now-- "...Marianne..."

Gone to Ashton...with no means of coming back...but every intention of leaving him--for what? Where? Who?

Brandon lost no time in unlocking a drawer of his desk and numbly counting out--he lost count of how many banknotes it was, eventually satisfying himself by only folding them with the letters and stuffing them into his coat pocket, trusting the amount must be enough to take him however far he must go to stop them. Ashton--Weymouth--France--Hell.

Having no patience for calling upon the groom to saddle him a fresh horse while the man was still occupied with putting away the mount Brandon had only just ridden back, the Colonel saddled another animal for himself--a strong bay gelding which he knew had both speed and stamina bred in its lines.

He had never covered the distance to Ashton in so short a time as he did in the darkness of that night, with only the pale gleam of moonlight breaking through fitful clouds to pick out the pale track of the road before him as he road. The lights of the town soon appeared to guide him further, and though most of the shops and houses were shuttered up in the quiet of country nightfall, the town's main inn remained awake, though the hour was late, with some few travellers having only just arrived and yet needing to take their supper and be settled for the night.

Brandon strode into the taproom, and, seeing only a pot-boy dozing on his stool beside the fire, went over to the lad and restrained himself from shaking him too roughly by the shoulder, though the boy swayed into wakefulness and blinked up at the Colonel.

"I must speak to a lady staying here--a Mrs. Brandon. Black hair all in curls, brown skin, very pretty...she would have arrived this afternoon on horseback."

The pot-boy blinked again, then seemed to think for a moment before he nodded slowly.

"...I think I remember the lady, sir. What'd you say her name was?"

"Mrs. Brandon."

The boy thought again, then shook his head, even more slowly than he'd nodded it.

"...nooo..."

"She was riding a grey mare."

"...well she was, as you say, it all sounds like the same lady, but she weren't called Mrs. Brandon."

Brandon set his jaw and tried to swallow against the frantic terror that gorged at his throat and began to pace the short distance that spanned the bare floor before the fireplace.

"...do you know what name she gave, then? And what room she's sleeping in? Would you or a maid take a message to her--that I need to speak with her?"

"--Ditch--Ditchwater?" the boy stammered, scratching at his tow-coloured hair and yawning. "Missus Ditchwater?"

"--Dashwood?"

"That's the one!" said the boy. "An' she's not sleepin' here. She didn't stay."

"...didn't stay? Did she--" Again, he swallowed. "Did she meet with someone here? Did she go to another inn? Or a private house here in town?"

"She went--it must've been too late for the post, but she was askin' about hirin' a carriage to go out west."

"West?"

"Or south. South-west?" the boy said it as if it were a questioning guess.

"...to...to Weymouth?" asked Colonel Brandon, his tone having grown very quiet, as he himself had grown very still.

"...is that south-west of here?"

"...it is," said the Colonel faintly.

"P'raps she did, then."

"Perhaps she did."

Closing his eyes for a moment, Brandon rested his hands against the mantlepiece and leaned heavily against it, beset by the same heady despair that had consumed him when he learned of Eliza's divorce, and her daughter's disappearance...only this time, he felt all the force of his own guilt and the part his anger and bitter jealousy must have played in driving Marianne away. Perhaps he could have done more for Eliza and her daughter--those were questions with which he continually tormented himself. But Marianne...Marianne had given him her hand, and at least some part of her trust and even friendly affection...and he had pushed her away.

The woman he loved was gone to her ruin, and it was his own doing.

Chapter Text

Where could he go, but after her?

Only waiting for a fresh horse and paying the innkeeper for his troubles, Colonel Brandon was off at as great a speed as could be managed between the road, his horse, and the blanket of darkness which covered all. Of the dangers of a lonely country road between towns, he thought nothing. Man or beast, he would have pitied the ruffian who would interfere with him, if he could have considered them at all.

As it was, his journey was unbroken but for the silent swoop of an owl over the road as he passed the sleeping town of Dorchester, and he only prayed he was not too late.

He entered Weymouth as dawn began to brighten the grey autumn sky, and the breeze off the sea was rough and cold. The tide was far out from the shore, and he was at least confident that no ship had yet gone out that morning. It was not difficult to find his way to the White Horse, and the inn seemed respectable and commodious--but of course Willoughby was an incorrigible hedonist, and it was unlikely he would stay anywhere that did not offer the greatest comfort his wife's money could afford.

Here, the Colonel had less patience in his questions put to the yawning landlord.

"A man named Willoughby--where is he? I know he is staying here."

"I'll fetch him down in a moment, sir, if you'll just take a seat..."

"I doubt you'll enjoy having any sort of scene upon display for all your patrons to see," said Brandon in a low voice, fighting the urge to grind his teeth. "I had much better go to where he is."

"...this way, sir," said the innkeeper, apparently determined to let the gentlemen do whatever they must to one another, so long as it was behind closed doors. His only moral obligation was to preserve the reputation of his inn.

The room being pointed out to him, Brandon tried the handle and found it locked.

"Willoughby!" he called out, trying the handle again as he resisted the urge to put his shoulder to it. If Marianne...God help him, if Marianne was in there, he did not wish her to be frightened, or think that he had come to visit any violence upon her. "Be a man and open this door at once, Willoughby!"

Though there was a hesitance about the shuffling in the room beyond, and it seemed to Colonel Brandon that the moment lasted an agonized eternity, the key shifted in the lock on the other side, and the door creaked open to reveal the apartment...and its sole occupant.

"Well well," murmured Willoughby, looking rakishly mussed, having been roused from his sleep wearing only a wrinkled linen shirt and last-night's breeches, half-buttoned and hanging from his hips. "To what do I owe this surprise?"

Brandon was caught in the chaos of trying to order his thoughts, throwing out old presumptions and attempting to catch hold of the new. Marianne was not there--but was she lodging elsewhere in the town, then, in an attempt to remain respectable, at least until they left England?

"Answer me honestly, man," he said hoarsely. "...have you seen Marianne?"

"Lost her, have you?" sneered Willoughby.

Colonel Brandon was a man who fought duels. He had fought Willoughby, beaten Willoughby, and only wished that the gentlemanly rules of engagement had allowed him to injure the younger man's body if Willoughby had no honour to wound by his own cowardice. Ancient codes of conduct told Brandon that his honour had been satisfied with what had passed. Brandon's thirst for retribution and true justice had remained unslaked.

Until now.

A dark haze seemed to blur the edges of his vision, and all he knew was that his hands had found Willoughby's throat and that he had slammed the other man bodily against the wall hard enough to make the floor tremble with the impact.

"Is...she...in...Weymouth?" asked the Colonel, his tone low, his words measured and slow, even as he enjoyed the way his fingers dug into the soft flesh of Willoughby's neck.

"N-no! I don't--if she is not at Delaford, I don't know where--" choked Willoughby, the blood having drained from his handsome face as he tried to pull Brandon's hands from his throat. Brandon released his hold a moment later, but Willoughby's relief in drawing a lungful of air was short-lived, when the Colonel's fist landed a punch to his stomach that left Willoughby doubled-over in a breathless gasp. He slid to his knees, his groan turning to a wheeze until he could suck in a breath enough to speak. "I don't--I left her at Delaford...she..."

Brandon, in peering down at his rival, now saw, for the first time, the dark scab which had formed along Willoughby's lower lip.

"...she told you to go..." he finished, still speaking in that same slow and steady tone. "And you left that letter for her."

"She would reconsider," said Willoughby, the fire of defiance having re-entered his gaze as he glared at the Colonel. "She needed time, of course...but she knows. She knows what we are to one another."

"...which is why, I suppose," said Brandon, "...she has hidden herself from you so well...that she has given up her home, and yet hasn't come to you, here..." It all began to make sense to him, then. Here was Marianne's mysterious motive for her departure--though Brandon did not doubt that his own coldness and their argument had not made remaining at Delaford and confiding in him seem a reasonable alternative.

"Well she's left you, at least!" spat Willoughby, wincing as the scab upon his lip threatened to tear afresh.

Brandon was finished with being a gentleman when it came to John Willoughby. The first blow stung against his fist where it met with the bones of Willoughby's face and the edges of his teeth, but there was a kind of righteous joy in the pain of it, and in the punches which followed, he felt only dark pleasure.

He could not have said how long it was until he found himself releasing his hold on Willoughby's shirtfront, blood running red across the other man's face and smearing over Brandon's knuckles. Willoughby slumped against the floor, and Brandon reached down to grip his jaw in one hand, grimly pleased to note the softening swell beneath the skin, the fresh dark bruises that now covered the young man's face and would remain for days, if not weeks.

"If you..." he began, his breath still coming in harsh pants, though he spoke with the same slow calmness as before. "...should ever again intrude where you are not wanted--if you ever cause one more moment's pain to Marianne--we shall not next meet again on the field of honour, as gentlemen...for there will be no seconds and no rules...nor will it be simply a brawl between two men...for I will not be speaking to you then as I am speaking to you now, so consider this the only warning you may ever receive. The next time you address yourself to my wife...by God, Willoughby, I will kill you--cost me what it may."

Willoughby could scarce manage a whimper, then, but the Colonel took it to mean the blackguard understood and accepted those terms, which he felt could not be called uncertain or vague.

Having said and done all he meant to say or do, Brandon then left the room, shutting the door behind him before he returned downstairs to offer his apologies to the landlord for any disturbance caused by his early-morning call upon Mr. Willoughby, who he trusted would be returning to London as soon as he was able to travel.

Brandon took a glass of ale and a piece of bread-and-butter more because he felt he must, rather than he felt he should. Now that he knew Marianne had not fled to the arms of her erstwhile lover, he was a little calmer, and not so fearful for her safety or her reputation. He even felt a little foolish to think he had suspected such a thing. Clearly he had not been giving her that credit which was her due, and he knew he owed her several apologies for allowing his own insecurities to blind him to her sense of loyalty and propriety...to say nothing of her disdain for the man who had broken her heart. Willoughby had used her most callously, and behaved so terribly...a woman like Marianne could never truly love such a man as that, knowing what she now knew!

Having observed Marianne, knowing her habits and tastes so well as his adoration and their intimacy could allow, Colonel Brandon now set out again with a fresh horse, feeling his journey was far from over. Marianne had gone, but she had gone to hide herself away, to where she was safe from Willoughby's advances, and to where she might find some peace and consolation, if she could not find it at Delaford. Brandon could have kicked himself, seeing now how clear it was, when he considered calmly where Marianne might go.

Barton. He knew he would find her at Barton.

Chapter Text

Though he rode for much of the day, taking his only rest from the saddle where he changed his horse and took a few bites of cold meat without sitting down, Colonel Brandon arrived at Barton Park as dusk fell in the valley with all the energies of his determination intact. A cold rain had fallen steadily for several hours, and was now joined by wickedly keen gusts of wind, which drove showers of wet leaves across the road for as far ahead as Brandon could see. There were lights burning brightly at the lower windows of the Park, and as he knew the Middletons would often invite the cottage folk to come by most evenings, he thought it sound to try there, first, as it was in his way. He did not relish the idea of meeting with Marianne under the impertinent eye of his friend Sir John, and dreaded what might be said in the hearing of others, but if he could only assure himself that his wife was well, that would satisfy him until they could speak together, alone.

He was announced to the company which had gathered in the drawing-room, and entered to a general and joyous cry of 'Colonel Brandon!' ...but a swift glance about the room told him that Marianne was not one of their number, though Mrs. Dashwood and Miss Margaret looked at him with as much surprise as anyone.

"Brandon, what a surprise this is!" said Sir John. "And such an hour--you must be near soaked to the skin...come and sit near the fire. Can't go wrong with a blaze that size on a night like this, eh? Such terrible storms as we get from time to time in this valley. I shouldn't wonder if the little river down the way bursts its banks, such rain as we've had! Bless me, if we won't have a winter like the winter we had in '77...now I mind the time when--"

Sir John continued to enthrall his family and guests with his harrowing tale, and Colonel Brandon only politely took his seat on the sofa near the fire, at last beginning to feel the creeping chill of his exhaustion and confusion. He had been so certain he would find her here...but Sir John did not seem to expect her, and the Dashwood ladies were but two, at the Park.

The fog of his reverie was only broken when he realized Mrs. Dashwood had stood from her seat and moved to the fire, holding out her hands to it as if she merely meant to warm herself. Brandon looked up at her with mute pleading in his glance, and Mrs. Dashwood spoke in a whisper so soft he could barely catch her words.

"...she is staying at the cottage," she murmured.

"The cottage?" repeated Brandon.

"She did not wish her visit to be known to anyone beyond Margaret and myself...but beyond that she would not tell me what was wrong..." Here Mrs. Dashwood's voice trembled, and all her motherly concern for her child was evident in the subdued pain of her expression. "Whatever she has done..."

"Please--" Brandon could not bear to hear it spoken of as if Marianne had been the one to transgress, though it was evident that, to some extent, she had taken the blame upon herself. And was it any wonder, after he had given her every reason to do so? While his first thought was to find her out at the cottage, now he doubted whether she would receive him, at all. "The fault has been mine. I can now only beg her pardon...for speaking in haste."

While she was relieved to think that the quarrel was not so very bad as she had imagined when her daughter had turned up on her doorstep with only a single bag and no satisfactory explanation of her motives, Mrs. Dashwood had to wonder at the Colonel's being so downcast, though he now knew Marianne was well enough, and nearby. She smiled a little at her son-in-law, and reached out to lay a hand upon his shoulder. This seemed to startle him a little, and he looked up at her, uncertain.

"...go to her," said Mrs. Dashwood. "Just go."

"...yes, you are right," said Brandon, rising from his seat.

"We'll have your old room ready for you in a moment, Brandon," said Sir John. "You must be worn out after your journey in this weather!"

"Thank you, no, I cannot stop any longer. I have business to--"

"Business! At this hour! In this lonely bit of the country? In this weather?" cried Sir John, in all reasonable disbelief. "Nay, man--it's growing worse by the minute out there."

"I must only go to Barton Cottage."

"The cottage? Indeed, I shall insist upon the Dashwoods spending the night, rather than risk man or beast in sending them back, even in my finest carriage! You cannot mean it!"

"I mean to go on foot," said Brandon, as he waited for the footman to bring his coat and hat. "But I will be obliged for the use of a lantern."

"Lantern will be next to no use in all this wind and rain--'tis dark as Egypt! Madness, Brandon!"

"I must go," said the Colonel, with mild but inexorable determination. "Excuse me."

He took his leave while Sir John was yet exclaiming his disbelief, and the suddenness and secrecy was all very strange to him, even if it was his friend Brandon. Sir John had hoped seeing his friend settled would put an end to all these schemes and scandals that gave the man such an air of tragic mystery, and yet here was only more of the same! Business at Barton Cottage--when there would be only the servants there?

He shook his head over his glass of port for a full five minutes after that, but knew there was no sense in trying to stop Brandon from doing anything he'd set his mind on.

"Well at least I will have the satisfaction of persuading you and Miss Margaret to stay," he said to Mrs. Dashwood.

"Yes," said Mrs. Dashwood, as she watched the light of the Colonel's lantern disappearing down the road before the Park and into the hazy gloom of rain and darkness. "Thank you, Sir John, I think we must stay, indeed."

---

The journey which, in daylight and fair weather, was an easy quarter of an hour's walk from the Park, was double that in the darkness of the night and the wind and rain of an autumn storm. Brandon was soon soaked through, and had not even the warmth of his horse to sustain him as he walked. Nonetheless, he pressed on, and after what seemed an eternity, was able to discern a faint glow of light at one of the upper windows in the snug little cottage.

No sooner had he discerned the shape of the wicket-gate looming out of the darkness, still at a distance of several yards, but there was a trembling in the earth and a rushing sound that grew to a roar. The ground beneath his feet all at once felt firm and yet unsound; and, looking up at the hillside, thought it very odd that it should appear that there was a tree drifting lazily down the slope. The road behind him was then suddenly swallowed in a heap of loose soil, rocks, and the roots and trunk of that same tree, torn to pieces where it had fallen. The semi-solid flow of mud came from above, catching the colonel on its edge and knocking him to what was left of the ground. Stones dashed themselves against his body with bruising force, and the earth rose to meet him, driving the breath from his lungs. Even as he tried to gasp for his next breath, the creeping mass of the tumbled landscape fell heavily over much of his person, pressing him down ever further into the earth, as if nature itself meant to dig his grave and bury him in it.

In the moment before storm and his pain blurred and shut out what was left of his dazed vision, Brandon turned his eyes to the hills which rose up behind the cottage, noting with some small relief that the sturdy growth of trees clinging to the hillside at its back seemed unmoved, and only where the hill had been cut away to lay down the bend in the road had the earth become unstable.

He drew one painful breath, followed by another, and struggled to convince himself that any call for help would be answered--and if it were, would she then be in danger, should there be a further crumbling of the landscape in the storm?


Marianne...

Whether the word was spoken faintly aloud or remained an echo in his mind, he could not tell; and in the moment which followed, the blank darkness of oblivion was the only respite his injuries and exhaustion could offer.

Chapter Text

Even in the tumult of wind, rain, and thunder, Marianne looked up from her book at the sound of rumbling earth, and the shuddering which shook the whole cottage, however briefly. England being generally untroubled by earthquakes, Marianne was more curious than frightened as she threw back the warm covers of her bed and went to the window to peer out, where anything she might have perceived was obscured in the darkness of the night and the storm, and distorted by the ripples in the old panes of glass and the wind-driven water-drops creeping across them.

Seeing nothing, she still shivered as she turned away, only to go still at a flash out in the night which caught the corner of her eye, brief, but certainly no figment of even Marianne's fertile imagination. A light, flickering and weak, but it was certainly a light--a lantern, perhaps. God only knew why anyone would be out on such a night as this; but Marianne felt certain that someone was passing by on the road, and she wondered if the groan of moving earth had somehow left them hurt. Perhaps some of the path had been washed away.

Though she was alone, Marianne felt propriety could withstand the outrage of allowing whatever traveler it was to rest in the dry warmth of the kitchen, where compassion could not withstand the outrage of leaving any poor soul to their fate on such a night. Still, she was not such a fool as to go running out into the rain in only her night-dress. An old brown work-dress of Elinor's Marianne had found in the rag-bag was quickly put to use, and though its hem fell short of fashionable lengths, it was easy to fasten over her nightclothes, and fit loosely enough that she did not need to bother with stays. Being taller and thinner than her elder sister, the end result was that Marianne looked rather like an odd sort of scarecrow gone a-begging, but it would have to do. She shoved her little feet into the unlaced boots belonging to their manservant, and, wrapping her mother's old shawl around her head and shoulders, and, lighting her own lantern, unlatched the heavy wooden door and pulled it open, admitting a blast of wind, water, and wet leaves into the hall. Marianne gripped the shawl tightly beneath her chin with her free hand, and trudged off in the direction of the road, the lantern held out before her, emitting only the faintest of glows--which still seemed bright enough, compared to the thick obscurity which hung between the wooded downs and clouded sky.

Within minutes she could begin to see the clods of loose earth lying black against the softer tones of the turf and grass, and, at the edge of the newly-formed little hillock of dislodged soil and rock, a dark shape which did not belong to nature.

"Good God!" gasped Marianne, looking at the ruins of the road with despair, knowing she could not hope to fetch a doctor if someone was gravely hurt, or worse. It was yet a miracle that this man hadn't been entirely buried alive, and he must have only just come along on foot, himself. "Sir--!"

Covering the last several yards with lurching leaps and strides, half-hindered by the unwieldy nature of her oversized boots, Marianne set down her lantern beside the broken and doused wreck of a lantern--the dying sputters of which she had glimpsed from her window--and knelt on the sodden ground to use her hands to push some of the dirt from the half-prone figure, whose legs had been trapped in the slip of mud and stones.

Gripping the dripping material of the man's greatcoat, Marianne pulled at it in an attempt to roll the dead weight of him to one side, and barely managed to shift him even an inch. Her efforts were enough to dislodge the dripping wide-brimmed hat which had fallen across his face, and she let out a shriek of horror even as Alexander Brandon groaned weakly.

"Oh...oh no...no...!" Marianne was scarcely coherent as she lifted her shawl and held it over them both as some sort of cover against the relentless downpour. "Alexander? Can you hear me? Are you able to speak, at all?"

Brandon had opened his eyes slowly, pain and confusion robbing him of the ability to draw breath or conclusions for several long moments. When at last his lungs drew a ragged gulp of air on a desperate gasp, he wondered if he had died and awoken in some world beyond where Marianne had found him.

And of course it was her. He was both surprised and bewildered by that same surprise. He did not spring up to search for his long-lost Eliza, or any of his friends or family who had preceded him to the grave...he had all he could wish for, if Marianne was already with him, in heaven.

"...Marianne...I..."

"Hush!" she said with an air of relieved impatience which was certainly nothing divine. Once she saw he could speak, she immediately didn't want him to overtax himself with explanations. "Are you hurt? Can you move--enough that I could help you into the house?"

He nodded, still shaking as he became more and more aware that he was in far too much discomfort to be dead, indeed. Though he ached all over and his lungs still burned with having had the wind knocked out of them, his only real concern was for a sharper pain in one foot, where it must have been struck by a stone.

With a great deal of slipping about in the mud, and less speed than was desirable for anyone caught in such a storm, they managed to get the colonel to his feet--or his foot, at least. Marianne draped his arm across her shoulders and insisted he lean on her as they made halting progress back towards the cottage. Brandon privately insisted on letting his injured limb bear the brunt of his weight, in any case, though he did not reject the offer of his wife's support so entirely as to remove his arm from her keeping.

At last they gained entrance to Barton Cottage, and the Colonel dropped onto a low chair in the hall while Marianne went to fasten the door behind them. A moment of relative calm and safety brought back all the awkwardness of their situation, and once Brandon had gathered enough of his wits, he felt he had to speak.

"...forgive me," he said, his words spoken with the measured politeness which was so habitual with him. "...I know this is all very untoward..."

It did not quite strike either of them how ridiculous it seemed for him to be speaking as if he had intruded upon a tea-party, rather than he had appeared before her house, half-buried in earth and rubble, in the worst autumn storm the valley had seen for several years, while she had meant to be in hiding from all the world.

"No," she said quickly. "...that is...not no," she explained, realizing it seemed as if she were refusing to forgive him.

Shock had moved her to brisk practicality, which was a strange sensation to Marianne, but not wholly unwelcome. She bent to begin tugging off his boots, inspecting the foot he had been favouring, and was relieved to find it had not been crushed or otherwise mangled.

"I called at the Park, to see if...if you were there," explained the Colonel, trying not to wince and feeling he must say something, and yet not quite prepared to offer any of the hundred speeches he had gone over in his mind while he had ridden across two counties to find her.

"I thought you might be Mamma and Margaret, or a servant from Barton Park, but I was certain they would be asked to stay by Sir John, once the storm came up the valley."

"Yes--I believe he has."

It was all so surreal and vaguely ridiculous that polite conversation was the only possible refuge, just then. Marianne pushed a dark curl back from her face, leaving a streak of mud across her forehead and kicked off the large workman's boots she had requisitioned for the rescue effort.

"You...you should warm yourself by the fire," said Marianne, tugging the dirty, sodden folds of her mother's shawl closer about her shoulders in an unconscious attempt to pull herself together. Brandon glanced into the darkened sitting-room which was often used by the family, but saw no fire. Marianne followed his look, and tried not to blush. "Upstairs--the only fire I have lit is upstairs. The servants went into the village this afternoon, and I expect the storm has kept them there."

"Ah, I see," said the Colonel, bowing his head a little and striving to keep his tone even as he began his slow progress up the narrow staircase at her urging, neither wanting nor knowing quite how to refuse. "The road will need clearing."

"I heard the rumbling," said Marianne as she led him into the cozy chamber where the fire crackled and a few candles were lit. "I thought it might be thunder, but it did not quite sound like any thunder I had ever heard."

"The house here should be in no danger," he said, resolutely limping to the fire and turning his back upon the bed, where a book still lay open atop the pretty quilt. "But had I slowed by a dozen paces I suppose I might have been buried entirely."

Marianne paused, then, and stared at him, her hand rising to press against her mouth, as if to smother a cry of horror. There was something in her look which made his heart beat with a quickening rhythm of hope, but his mouth had gone dry, and he hardly knew how to begin to say all he wanted her to hear.

Trying to shake off her dread of what might have been with a shudder, Marianne half-reached for the fastenings of his coat before she faltered.

"You...you should put your things to dry," she said; and Brandon obediently removed his outer garments, laying them over the little chair. "Can I offer you some tea? I could make some in a moment, if I brought the kettle up here."

"No, no--you'll catch a chill downstairs."

"I'll catch a chill! Have you seen yourself? You're shivering and wet through!" Marianne eyed the mud upon his clothes, conveniently ignoring the state of Elinor's old gown, and her brow furrowed. "...you didn't just come from the Park, did you?"

Brandon shook his head slowly.

"I rode...from Weymouth."

"Weymouth?"

"...and Ashton..."

Comprehension began to dawn on Marianne's face, and she bent her head over the fire as if to excuse the blush that rose in her cheeks.

"...but...if you knew, somehow, that I had come here..."

"I should have thought of it sooner," he admitted, gazing at her as a parched wanderer in some desert place might gaze upon a cool spring. "...but I...I was misinformed, at first."

"But Weymouth!? I told no-one I had any thought of going to Weymouth."

"No...but there was a letter, left in your possession, I understand..."

Marianne's hand found her mouth, again, and she looked all at once guiltily knowing and defiantly innocent.

"...Willoughby," she said simply.

"Willoughby."

"...you saw him, then, at Weymouth?"

"It was a brief interview, but yes, I saw him before I rode for Barton," said the Colonel.

She was already shaking her head, her fingers twisted together before her in a nervous fidget.

"Whatever he may have said, I--"

"I have not come to accuse you of anything," he interrupted her, seeing her distress and eager to banish it. "Indeed, I...I have...I have already accused you...entirely unjustly...and my sole purpose in seeking you out has been to apologize," he went on in a rush. "Marianne, I--I have been so wrong...and what is more, I knew I was wrong, all the time...I was foolish, and angry...but you had done nothing to warrant my anger."

Marianne was so astonished at this that she had to sit down on the little cedar chest at the foot of the bed, staring incredulously at her husband.

"...then...you are not come to tell me you mean to divorce me?"

"Divorce you? Good God, no!" he exclaimed with such force that Marianne might have found it gratifying, had she not still been a trifle numb with the shock of the reversal of her expectations. Brandon lost no time in going to his knees before her and taking hold of her hands in his. "I know too well what divorce does to a woman, Marianne...and it is a fate I would not wish upon my worst enemy."

"...I...I left you...I thought..."

"I was cruel, I know."

"But I was angry, too. Angry and ashamed...and frightened."

"Frightened?" Brandon swallowed heavily, despising himself for whatever he had done to make her afraid. "What had you to fear?" he asked softly. He had to know. If he was going to torture himself, he wanted to be specific.

"Many things," said Marianne. "I felt weak and foolish...and that is why I was ashamed. You saw it...you must have seen it, or felt it, at least. Perhaps I knew I did not deserve any direct accusations of having done anything wrong, but your suspicions...perhaps they were not wholly unwarranted. Willoughby confused me. He confuses me still." Brandon said nothing, but waited for her to speak again. Surely, she did not still love that good-for-nothing coxcomb? "I do not...I do not mean I care for him as I once did..." she explained, her blush deepening. "I am certain of that...but...but he twists things...there is something about him which bends all around him to his will, and he does not really care for anyone but himself. I feared what might happen if he called upon me, if he just kept returning, kept coming to find me...it might pain him a little, if he realized he was hurting me, but he would not stop himself."

"You stopped him. Marianne..." Brandon reached up to let himself lay his hand against the curve of her jaw, the pad of his thumb brushing over the swell of her cheek. "You stopped him. I ought to have..."

"No--" Marianne half-smiled at him, and he felt his heart leap helplessly within him. "In a way I am glad...I am glad that I had my chance to refuse him, myself."

"He shan't come near you, again."

"I hope not."

"If he is as self-serving as you say, he will not."

Marianne's eyes narrowed, then, as she looked at him.

"...what did you say to him--in Weymouth?"

"I was brief, but effective," said the Colonel with a shrug, though he stilled when Marianne grabbed hold of his head between her hands and made him look her in the eye.

"Don't," she demanded.

"Don't what?"

"You cannot fight another duel."

"I don't intend to. We are well past dueling."

Marianne frowned at him for a long moment, her dark eyes darting back and forth as if searching his expression for something which would ease her worry that he meant to go to his death at Willoughby's hands. There being nothing else she could say on the matter, however, and the fact being that the Colonel was safe with her for the moment soon let her relax with a sigh so heavy that it shrugged her shoulders beneath the shawl, and she shook her head with weary resignation.

"Oh, just look at you," she murmured, pushing the wet hair back from his forehead. "Come on." She stood and tugged at his arms until he rose, too, and began to pull at the buttons on his waistcoat. "You need to be dry and warm."

Brandon caught hold of her hands and held them still.

"I have ridden from Delaford with only the clothes I am standing up in," he said.

"I promise not to be shocked," said Marianne dryly, as she finished with his waistcoat buttons and moved on to tugging at the sodden knot of his cravat. "And you must rest. How many hours were you in the saddle?"

"...a great many," he admitted, at last feeling the full weariness of his chilled and aching muscles.

"It will be a miracle if you do not catch cold," said Marianne, and Brandon did not refuse her help as the rest of his clothes were stripped away and set before the glow of the fire.

There was little time to be self-conscious as Marianne bundled him into the snug bed and tucked the edges of the thick quilts around him before she went into the next room to find a clean and dry nightgown for herself. When she returned, she moved about the room blowing out the candles one by one, banking the glowing embers of the fire and pulling back the blankets to slip into the bed beside him, her hand finding his and grasping it tightly. Slowly, his shivering left him, but despite his exhaustion, he would indulge himself in observing Marianne's countenance where she laid her head on the pillow next to his. The faint glow of the firelight lent a certain charm to her dark features, and he was sure he had never seen her look so beautiful to him as she did curled beside him, awake, yet somehow softened by fatigue...and with that streak of mud still drying on her face.

"Marianne?"

"Mmm?"

"...why were you afraid I would divorce you?"

She shrugged beneath the quilt, rolling onto her side so she could face him.

"I'm imaginative, I suppose," she said. "I thought your sense of honour would compel you...but then your true honour would preserve me, even if I had done something wrong," she said. "You said yourself, even if I were your worst enemy, you--"

"Honour be damned, Marianne--" he said with a sudden conviction which silenced her. "The plain truth is that I love you above all other things in this world!" He gripped her hand all the harder, until he forced himself to loosen his hold, fearful of hurting her. "Forgive me, I know...I know it pains you to hear me say such things..."

"No..." she whispered, her voice growing a little hoarse as tears gathered in her eyes, and she turned her face briefly against the pillow to blot them out. "I...I find that I have wanted to hear you say it...I have wanted to reassure myself of it...even when I began to think you had ceased to care at all...or that I had simply been a...a replacement..."

"...a replacement?"

"...for Eliza." Silence, then, as neither quite knew what to say, until Marianne continued. "...I wondered if I would always feel I was fighting the power of your memories...with all of her virtues upheld by grief and love, and all her flaws blotted out by time and absence...and then there I would be, mortal, angry, prideful, impulsive, heedless..."

"If--if I ever compared you, it has only been to admire the virtues you have shared..." he said slowly. "You are entirely your own person, Marianne...real and living and infuriating and wonderful and worth loving for your own sake."

"Despite my flaws?"

"And what of mine?" was his rejoinder. "Have I not proven myself to be jealous and suspicious in the worst way, when I ought to have had faith in you? Instead I grew fearful of my own inadequacy, and a flesh-and-blood rival, and let myself think--"

"Rival? No!"

"I know you have too much self-respect to--"

Marianne sat up in bed, then, and glared at him.

"Do not imagine it is merely my own pride which keeps me from breaking my marriage vows!"

"...well, it sounds so callous when you say it like that--"

"I want nothing to do with Willoughby! I want none of what he offered me. Moreover, I want none of what anyone in the world might offer me. I want only what I have!"

So saying, she flopped back down against her pillow and almost petulantly snuggled herself against him. Brandon could not resist letting his arm curl about her shoulders to hold her close, but he knew he could not simply let things return to an approximation of how they had once been. Exhaustion was pulling him into a drowsy state, now, and no matter how he strove against it, he knew he had only a little time before sleep would take him.

"Marianne..." he began. "I know...I know I said we could...not presume that you returned my feelings...but I...as much as I could desire you, and as much as I want to make you happy in any way I can..." he sighed, his eyes drifting shut as he brushed his lips against the soft, damp tumble of her dark curls, the scent of earth and rain and her an intoxicating charm like no other. "I know it would only drive me mad, knowing it was only lust between us."

Marianne said nothing, at first, but Brandon thought he felt the heat of a blush rising in the cheek she had pressed against his shoulder.

"...perhaps I can think of a means to satisfy us both," she whispered.

"...oh?" Sleep was pressing heavily on him, now, but he fought to stay awake, listening to the soft melody of her words.

"....I...I think I love you," she said, suddenly shy, even in the darkness.

"You what?"

"We'll talk more in the morning," she added hastily, her stomach turning over with a strange and turbulent combination of giddiness and terror at what she had just said. "Sleep now. Go to sleep."

"Say it again."

"Go to sleep." His only answer was to pull her fractionally closer with a final sigh as his breathing grew deep and even, and Marianne knew that slumber had finally claimed him. Smiling a little, now, she reveled in the delight of being held in his arms beneath the covers while the storm continued to howl outside, the raindrops battering against the windowpanes and hissing against the heat of the chimney while all in the cozy little chamber was quiet and still.

Chapter Text

Even in exhaustion, Colonel Brandon was not given to oversleeping himself, and though it was late enough when he woke that the pale sunlight shone in at the window, he found Marianne was still asleep in his arms.

He almost seemed startled, and half-rolled away for a moment before he could convince himself that he wasn't dreaming. The dull ache in his foot recalled the events of the night before, and the reconciliation of sorts which had followed.

She had said she loved him. Or said she thought she did.

Brandon knew he must take greater care than ever at such a critical moment. Misunderstandings and reservations had very nearly destroyed whatever tentative bond had grown between them, and he would not risk it again before he had more answers.

His determination on that point did not wholly prevent him from allowing himself the pleasure of holding her. Or letting one hand rest against the curve of her waist. Or pressing a kiss to her cheek. Or watching her wake, slowly--as he hoped to see her wake every morning for the rest of his days.

"...Marianne..."

"--what time is it?" she asked, sitting up and rubbing at her sleep-heavy eyes.

"A little after eight, I think," he said, uncertain what to make of her skittish pragmatism when she threw back the covers and got out of bed, seemingly determined to make a start on...anything. "Marianne--"

"Hmm?"

"Look at me." Marianne had gone to the window to see what she could of the damage the storm had done, and she paused before she looked back at the colonel. That he lacked a night-shirt and looked so very at home sitting up in her bed was enough to make her catch her breath a little, and she felt her face grow warm as she focused her eyes on her hands, finding it impossible not to fidget under his gaze. "...last night..."

"I've never seen a storm like it--have you?" Marianne said, with forced airiness.

"...you said you...that you thought you might...love...me..." he went on, inexorable despite the words requiring more courage than had any action on the field of battle. "And in the interest of avoiding such ambiguity as can only be agony..." Second only to the pain of absolute rejection, he must admit. "...I would like to know...why you think that?"

Marianne's shoulders slumped a little, but she shrugged and moved back to sit on the edge of the bed. Explaining herself had been easy, once upon a time. Everything was so much more complicated, now...there was so little of what had once been black and white, and a great deal more grey than she knew quite what to make of.

"If...if wanting someone else's happiness before your own is love...then let me call it that," she said slowly. Hadn't Elinor always urged her to think of others, and exert herself, as Elinor had done? More and more, Marianne found she admired that ability in others, and wished to cultivate it in herself...and Colonel Brandon was someone she wanted to care for, in that way.

"Don't--" he said sharply, and Marianne looked up at him, startled. "Do not offer me anything for my sake at the expense of yours, or for any obligation you may feel. That I could not bear."

"That is not what I meant!" said she, with a sigh of exasperation and a look which was now almost cross. "Not that I...I mean, I would not suffer for...for loving you...if that is what I feel."

"Is it what you feel?"

"I don't know!" Marianne threw up her hands. "All...all I have known of love, before...that was wrong. It all turned out to be wrong! What I feel now is...not the opposite of what I once felt, but nor is it at all the same. I only wish I knew what to name it, or what it means. I...I don't want to hurt you, anymore..."

"But--?"

"--but what if I say the wrong thing?"

Brandon paused, but then he laughed a little, and Marianne gave him an incredulous look.

"...if I survived our wedding-night, Marianne, I think I'll survive all other honest thoughts you may ever share with me."

"Oh!" Marianne winced. "Do not talk to me of that night...I was so horrid!"

"You were scared," he said, reaching out to take her hand without any sense of trepidation. "You hardly knew me--not really." She let her fingers rest in his, and he traced the tip of his thumb across her knuckles. "And I was a fool."

"...someone once told me...we all have our moments."

They both laughed, then, softly.

"In the past..." said Marianne. "I mistook loving quickly for loving easily...but everything was so difficult...and exhausting...even joy. Loving you..." She raised her eyes to meet his, and found the certainty she sought in the warmth of his look. "...loving you is as easy as drawing my next breath...I just do. And it sustains me."

"You..." A shaking breath left his lungs as he found he could neither speak, nor find any words for the voice he did not have. He tightened his hold on her hand before he raised it to his lips, and Marianne moved to kneel beside him, resting her forehead against his, where the dark dust of dried mud still streaked across her face.

"May I say love?" she whispered. "If it is the very strong suspicion that I belong with you, and that we could be so, so happy, together...? Can we just call it love?" He gave half a nod, fearing the moment would shatter and flee as did all dreams upon waking. Marianne caught a flash of the dazed doubt in his eyes, but it only made her smile before she kissed him. "...then I love you, Alexander Brandon."

Having perhaps expected at least some sort of reaction to her statement, Marianne was a little dumbfounded by the lengthy pause which followed. She blinked, then drew back a little to peer questioningly into his face.

"...there..." she said, as if prompting him. "I've said it...and, moreover, I meant it."

"Wh--...what can I say?" he whispered roughly. "What words are there, for...for this?" Still holding her hand, he brought it to his chest and pressed it there, where his pulse beat heavily against his ribs, the poetry of love only felt in the hush of fevered heartbeats.

Marianne looked at their hands, then back at his dear, tired, bewildered face.

"None," she said with a smile. "But I have no need of words, just now."


It was some time later that Colonel and Mrs. Brandon managed to make the best of the clothes which were at their disposal. Marianne managed very well as she had had the advantage of packing at least some of her own gowns, but the Colonel looked rather rakish and uncharacteristically mussed in the dried but dirty clothes he had set before the fire overnight.

There was no-one to witness this, however, as they ventured outside to inspect the damage in clear daylight, with the Colonel's sore foot already feeling better, though it sported a mottled bruise in some alarming shades of pink and purple. The road would be quite impassable until some of the rubble had been cleared, and the base of the path shored up with stones to prevent any further collapse.

"Were it not for the storm," said Marianne, "I might have sworn Mrs. Jennings had been down with a pick-axe, prying out chunks of the hillside on purpose to trap us."

At her husband's quizzical look, she briefly explained the irritating lectures she had had from Mrs. Jennings on intimate subjects--for, though she blushed a little to speak of it, she had at last found the courage for true candor. When he understood, Alexander Brandon could only throw back his head and laugh, their little corner of the valley seeming to ring with the joyous sound.

"My poor Marianne--what you must have suffered by her interference!"

"My only drop of bitterness in my present happiness is that, by and by, Mrs. Jennings shall be proven right," grumbled Marianne, with a look of such sweet vexation that the colonel laughed afresh, and she could not help but smile--eventually.

"Of course now it is very easy to say that you were being unfair," said he. "But we should never have come to understand one another as we have done, had you meekly submitted yourself to your role as my wife and done a great outrage to your feelings--such as they were. You would have grown to despise me, no doubt!" The Colonel shuddered to think of it, happy now that he had been so miserable then, and spared a worse fate.

"Indeed, I hope not," said Marianne, "but I fear you are correct. No, in view of the fact that I am very much in love with you now, I may say that my every action up until this point has been for the best, and was therefore exactly right."

"Yes," said the Colonel, shaking his head a little as they slowly began to walk back towards the cottage. "Though it would not make a very great example for others to learn from, we have somehow, arrived at happiness. If anybody should ever seek my advice in the matter of wooing, I can only tell them to be a suspicious, irascible fool, entirely unworthy of any good woman's affection. It is a wonder you ever came to care for me, at all."

"I could never love by halves," protested Marianne. "I must have cared even when I thought I did not. I should always have seen that I could trust you...but my experience made me doubt myself, and you."

"I could say the same. I am a bitter old man, all things considered."

"Old? Bitter? I cannot allow you to talk in such a way about my husband!" cried Marianne, crossing her arms and feigning scorn. Feeling his heart was at its lightest in many years, Brandon stealthily reached out to tickle his wife, making her break into a peal of laughter. "Not so bitter, then?" she teased, silenced only when he bent to kiss her softly. "...nor so old," she murmured in such a sleepy, loving sort of tone that he was hard-pressed not to lay hold of her arm and haul her back upstairs that very minute to demonstrate precisely what feats of which a man his age might be capable.

Clearing his throat, Brandon took a step back and followed Marianne indoors. Having read the heated entreaty of his glance, she led him to the kitchen--for they must have some practical sustenance. (Here was a change! That Marianne Dashwood was willing to acknowledge that the joyous fulfillment of love was not meant as a literal replacement for comestible refreshments!) Once they had been properly provisioned, she could take her husband back to bed for the next several hours, at least.

"It may be a day or two until anyone may make it through on foot," she said. "And longer until Mama and Margaret may return, or until we may go up to the Park. I don't quite know what is to be done about meals," she said thoughtfully, standing before the open fireplace with her hands on her hips. "There is enough in the larder for two, I dare say, but I never learned any proper cooking. If the bread will last long enough, there is butter and honey..."

Removing his coat and draping it over the back of a little wooden chair, Brandon moved to stand behind her and circled his arms about her waist, smiling into the messy arrangement of her curls.

"It is your great fortune, then, to have married an army man."

"You can cook!?" she cried, looking back at him with astonishment.

"With no known poisonings, to my credit."

"...I don't believe you," she said, narrowing her eyes as she scrutinized his countenance, which was alight with a newfound sense of humour she could scarcely recall seeing, before.

"Why on earth would I lie?"

"...to impress me?"

Marianne extricated herself from his embrace--with no real haste--and marched over to the wall to take a plain old apron from the peg upon which it hung, tossing it at her husband as if it were a challenge. Brandon caught it and rolled his eyes, though he smiled as he held the apron up against his half-buttoned waistcoat, looking rather like the disheveled landlord of a rather disreputable inn.

"I said I could cook," he reminded her. "I never said it would be impressive."

Clasping her hands behind her back, Marianne watched with interest as he rolled up his shirt-sleeves and began to rummage about for eggs and bread, stoking the banked embers of the kitchen fire until they came to life, refreshed by the addition of a few more logs from the basket of firewood at the back door.

"...if you prove to be a fair cook, I wonder if you would make a decent servant, as well," she mused.

"Servant?" Pausing halfway through cracking an egg into a bowl, the colonel looked over at his wife with one brow raised.

"Quite," she said with a sudden smile as she retreated to the door. "I'll take my breakfast in bed, I think. That will be all, Brandon."

She disappeared with a laugh up the stairs, and the colonel was forced to shake his head and draw a deep, unsteady breath as he went back to his work with a soft chuckle.


Although it was commonly said by common folk that Mrs. Brandon was a consolation and a reward for the trials faced by her husband, it was enough for them to know, between themselves, that she had won him, as well.