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You Pierce my Soul

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Disclaimer: This is an original fanfic that I've posted on other sites and I'm not plagiarizing someone's work. It is my first story on AO3, so please be indulgent! :) I don't own any of the characters in this story, that privilege belongs to her highness, Jane Austen!

As she tried to will herself into sleep in vain again, Anne sighed into her duvet, reviving the sight of Frederick's wind-beaten, tanned face and how the gusts of salty air swept his coat against his body. She felt the knot in her stomach twist and make her shiver when she thought of his admiring gaze sweeping over her. But she scrunched her eyes the next moment as she recalled kissing him where his collarbones met and looking up into his smiling hazel eyes. The taste of his mouth when she surprised him with a kiss. His laughter echoed in her ears like a thunderclap.

Involuntarily, she found her hand caressing her folds and her fingers making hurried motions over her aroused bud of nerves, making her tremble. She tried to think of what she'd do if she ever again encountered him in a room alone. In her reverie, she looked over every inch of him, trying to confirm the changes in him she had perceived with fleeting glances. The newly broadened shoulders, his muscular thighs, how a wayward lock of his hair fell into his eyes. His usually warm, smiling eyes now burned her with his gaze, full of reproach that chilled her to the bones. Her legs barely contained the urge to run and she walked up to him instead, reaching for his hand. She cherished the jolt through their nerves and felt the roughened skin of his palm as she held it up to her cheek and kissed it softly. It was absurd not to reach up and run her fingers over his beautiful cheekbones and lose them in his hair. His chest reverberated with a deep groan as she nipped at his delicious lower lip. Her hands inched up his back, her mouth whispered how much she'd missed him while kissing his neck and sucking his earlobe gently between her lips. The liberty of losing her tongue in his ear was taken, while her hand caressed his burgeoning arousal. Frederick cursed and gripped her shoulders; his eyes angry and yet full of want. He pulled her against him and bruised her lips with his, delving into her sweet mouth with his tongue.

One hand moved faster against her center and the other pinched a sensitive nipple between two fingers as she thought of him bunching up her dress around her hips and pulling her thighs up around him so that her feet left the ground and her bottom landed on the writing desk behind her. She longed to wrap her legs around his hips and squeeze against him. His imploring eyes waited for her hurried nod before untying the laces of her bodice and claiming a nipple between his teeth. He bent her backwards to lie down on the desk. Anne undid his breeches and intensified the pace of her strokes. He groaned against her breast, his hands leaving bruises even as he took in the sight of her trembling, naked body under the dappled light from the chandelier overhead. Breathless, he kissed her and slipped his fingers into her dripping core, just as hers did now.

She cried out at his touch and her muscles convulsed, helpless. She stroked him faster and imagined him twisting his fingers inside her like he did and rubbing a sensitive spot that'd make her see stars. She reached up and kissed his mouth hard, biting his lower lip and drawing blood. Abruptly, he removed her hands from him and held them against her sides. 'Must you do this to me?' He half-screamed and half-hissed at her, his lips barely inches from hers and his arousal rubbing against her swollen folds. His mouth was taut with fury even as his eyes narrowed with passion. "I've pined for you every night, Anne.", he whispered. "I've wanted to kiss that mouth of yours and make you cry out my name as I make love to you."

Anne's fingers thrust furiously into her. She thought of escaping his arms and biting his lower lip again, but he would not allow it. "I've pined for you too", she gasped, "I've relived how you feel within me a thousand times, Frederick.' His eyes afire, he entered her in one swift motion as she pulled his torso onto hers, delighting in the sensation of his hips slapping against hers. She laughed with unadulterated joy into his kiss, and wanted to memorialize again how perfectly they fit. Her surprise as his teeth grazed her neck. The familiar, warm expanse of his torso, her fingers rediscovering the features she had known so intimately once. 'Oh yes, Anne!', he sighed and increased his pace and covered her mouth with his. She pushed against his chest for a second, before placing her legs on his shoulders. He looked upon her in wonder and his thrusts grew deeper. She pushed up against him as his fingers stroked her and made her clench furiously around him. Feeling his and her peak approaching even as she reached it presently, she held her illusion close to her as her back arched. She recalled feeling him erupt deep inside her as he released her legs and her pulse attempted to slow down. Her fingers traced his lower lip as he looked down upon her, spent. She saw his elated face as she remembered it, but his lips stayed silent. Dread filled her as his eyes slowly lost all their joy until he looked at her indifferently, as if he no longer recognized her. 'No!', she whispered to the darkness.

Anne felt her eyes moisten as his touch and his scent faded away. She clutched desperately at the pleats of the duvet, willing them to be the folds of his jacket. Their time apart had almost convinced her that she'd forgotten the effect he had on her, but he'd only had to hold her waist and help her into Lady Croft's carriage to agitate her body and vex her nights ever since.

She remembered how loved she was when in his warm embrace, his cheek pressed to hers and his hand in her hair as they waltzed slowly to an arbitrary tune he had just made up. She would never hold or love him again, for he might soon be Louisa's. Her heart broke anew and she indignantly steeled herself against the sobs that racked her body. Breathing deeply, she bid herself to find her happiness in his contentment. As exhaustion finally made her begin drifting to sleep, she reasoned to herself that though the memory of all that they'd shared was a perpetual cause of agony to her, it was also her only source of hope against hope. Her final cognition before falling asleep was how he had beheld her at the pebbled beach this morning while she'd breathed in the sea air and beamed at the waves lapping at her bare feet.

A few yards away, Frederick thrashed around in his sleep, trying to grasp at the memory of Anne's cheek against his as it slipped away from him, yet again.

Chapter Text

Frederick woke up reluctantly, his heart hammering in his chest, trying to grasp at the vestiges of his dream. Instead, he caught a few fleeting glimpses before he opened his eyes; a lock of dark brown hair twisted loosely around his finger, a window laden with mist and raindrops and the ghost of a whiff of lavender. He had worked hard to dispel these dreams of her that made him restless with anger.

Somewhere along the way, he thought he'd conquered the abundance of mixed feelings Anne's memories would stir up in him. Over the past few weeks, however, he'd been proven thoroughly wrong. The first time they'd laid eyes on each other again, he had hoped to look just as detached as he felt. The moment their gazes met, though, he had glared at her in undisguised anger, quickly stifling his urge to chuckle bitterly. Of course we've been acquainted, Mary, he thought to say. Why don't you ask Anne just how much? "We have met once" he drawled instead, his eyes roving over her hair pulled severely over her forehead, hollow cheekbones and pale complexion, ending in a disdainful glance at her hand as it gripped the chair for support. His fists clenched and he felt an almost physical stab in his chest as he thought of what her family's neglect had done to her. He addressed Mary again, barely hearing his words or hers, aware only of Anne and how her tiny frame swayed momentarily off balance. Weak, just as weak as before. Eight years of separation, and yet it has barely taken me one moment to undo her composure, he congratulated himself, conveniently ignoring his own racing pulse and the rush of blood to his ears. Abruptly, he remembered the last time he'd made her swoon like that, and her ecstatic face beaming up at him then. The knife in his chest twisted deeper in a pang of shame. Hurriedly making an excuse about not letting Charles grab the best spot for their shooting, he left the house, not daring to glance at Anne again.

That was graceless, Frederick, he told himself. Despite the injury of their broken engagement, she had once made him inconceivably happy. He owed her mere decency in his manners if not deference. You loved the wrong woman, made the mistake of placing your trust in her and now you openly mock her. Are you a green boy still? he cursed under his breath. He was surprised to find her still unmarried and unattached. It caused a queer excitement to his nerves that he would rather not inspect. Instead, he threw himself into conversation with Louisa and Henrietta as they fawned over him, attending to their curiosity with manners so happy that an onlooker might have thought him most interested in their affections.

After that first debacle of a meeting, he strived to keep his interaction with Anne at a minimum. Though it could be hardly called a conversation, it was a great relief to him that they could not only acknowledge each other's presence, but also perform the essential civilities required of old passing acquaintances. He gave his devoted attention to the Musgroves and was earnestly engrossed in their cheerfulness. They were fond of music, of dancing, of all the joy to be had in life. They were pleased by his manners and conduct, and he was invited almost every night to take part in dinners, dances and recitals at the Great House. He admired Mr and Mrs Musgrove for delighting in the happiness of their children and marveled at how vastly different the relationships within families could be. Indeed, these were families with nearly similar claims to name and fortune. And yet, how one's vanity should affect his own kin so cruelly, he could not understand. He couldn't help but notice how little Anne spoke when in their company, though he knew she heard and had an opinion on all of their discourse. At least twice, at Louisa's more innocent statements about his life in the navy, he saw her smile quickly out of the corner of his eye. Frederick enjoyed the sisters' attentions to him, and he couldn't deny the petulant pleasure he received from inflicting his own particular treatment of them on Anne.

Nevertheless, he longed to talk about other things than his adventures on the seas, but found little indulgence from them. He had to remind himself again that he was a sailor who had long been out of the society of women. He thought he should temper his expectations accordingly, but hesitated for a moment, recalling his past conversations with Anne about his duties in the Navy, her particular questions about the war with France, the debates they'd had about the English penchant for discovering the world and the evils of imperialism. He recalled with a chuckle how handily she had resisted his pretended assertion of colonialism being an unfortunate consequence of expanding trade with the world. "These are people's homes being invaded, their livelihoods seized and generations of their families being taxed to live on their own property", she'd cried, rendering him silent. "Is this not the same oppression we fear the French will inflict upon us? Isn't it this fear that uproots you, Commander Wentworth, from your home and family and spend years in hostile conditions to defend our country? And yet you defend your country while these peasants terrorize you in their own lands.", she'd cried in disbelief. Frederick was speechless. He had bowed his head graciously in defeat and hardly said a word for the rest of the evening, humbled. But he pushed these recollections out of his mind for now, and happily accepted Miss Louisa's invitation to dance. Reminiscing about those times will hardly help me find a suitable wife. It would be cruel to hold any woman to those standards, impractical as they were, he realized, and smiled at Miss Musgrove as he led her to the next dance.

He shrugged off his sleep and peered outside the window as dawn slowly but surely approached. He longed to breathe in the fresh air and thought how much Miss Louisa would enjoy a walk. He considered that for a moment and leisurely laid out his gold-braided coat, making a note to ask the valet to give it a shine. Later, as he walked to Charles's cottage to seek Miss Louisa and Miss Musgrove, he considered Anne's behavior to him. Is she indifferent to me then? No doubt her recovery had been painless, he thought. He frowned at the thought, though he knew it should be only natural. With a dour disposition, he walked into the cottage, hoping to find Mary or the Miss Musgroves. Instead, he walked in on Anne trying to comfort little Charles. She heard him approach and turned to look at him, the color rising to her cheeks instantly, making his breath catch in his throat. "I", he stammered awkwardly, "I was told I would find the Miss Musgroves here". "They are upstairs with my sister. They will be down shortly.", she whispered, before looking away and applying herself to her nephew instead, who was complaining and close to tears. Frederick walked away to the window, unable to make further conversation. His nerves overpowered him and he tried not to think of their last meeting alone. Indeed, he was still enduring its consequences. Is there no escaping you?, he thought.

"Darling" he heard her whisper, and turned around in a flash, his heart missing a beat. But she was only addressing the boy, running her hand through his hair and feeling his forehead. "If you lie still and rest, the pain will disappear so quickly you'll forget you ever felt it", she smiled at him. She arranged his toys around him and wiped hot tears from his face. She pulled out a worn out book from under his pillow. "But what is this? Surely these cannot be the famed Sir Archibald's adventures?" she exclaimed. From the way the child giggled, it was clear that this was a favorite of his. She began reading it to him, all the while painfully conscious of Frederick present near by. She would have run away from the room had it not been for Charles in his poor state. Frederick watched them quietly, noting how easily she had comforted the child. He cursed himself inwardly for having dared to dream once, of their own children. This is to no avail, he thought, crumpling his gloves in his hands. Just then, the door creaked open and Mr Hayter walked in. Anne looked at him in painfully obvious relief and invited him to take a seat and wait for Miss Musgrove. Frederick, also grateful for the respite, tried to make polite conversation with him, but the man's conduct was most strange. He curtly picked up the newspaper and ignored Frederick studiously.

Mildly irritated, Frederick moved back to the window, only to hear the door open and see stout little Walter enter, looking around for his older brother. He stared out at the surrounding greenery again, wondering what could have caused the man to behave in this manner, when he heard a small commotion behind him. He turned around to find the little boy perched on Anne's back, holding her by the neck. Anne struggled to shake him off owing to the weight against her throat that stifled her and trying not to hurt the child. She managed to loosen his grip and set him down and was about to reprimand him when he climbed back, amused. This time, she could not remove him from her, and she scolded him. "You are most troublesome, Walter. I am very angry with you. Get down at once." Frederick hesitated briefly, surprised at Mr Hayter remaining fixed in his seat and giving the little tyrant half-baked orders. Incredulous, he marched over to Anne and gripped little Walter under his arms and tugged him up, but the boy's legs were crossed in a death grip around her ribs. Frederick heard her struggle to breathe and broke the boy's hold over her. In doing so, his fingers inadvertently brushed against the swell of her breasts, sending a jolt through him that rendered him motionless. His lips were inches away from the enticing curve of her neck and her sweet smelling hair. As he lifted the struggling Walter up, his lips grazed the nape of her neck and her hands plummeted to the floor, clutching it for support as she gasped for air. He took Walter with him to the window and bounced him up in the air, causing him to cackle with amusement. He caught a glimpse of Anne's surprised face, and thought he saw a brief burst of emotion there. He quickly attended to Walter, who was now curious to see his compass. The child jumped up in excitement asked him how to read directions. Frederick cheerfully complied, enjoying the little one's wonder at how the hands turned when he shuffled around in their seat.

He smiled as he considered the thumping beat in his chest. Despite his bitterness toward her, he had no control over the sublime joy from this fleeting contact with her. All that persistence in vain, is it? He heard the approaching chatter and giggles of the Miss Musgroves then, and found that they were delighted to see him. He saw Anne desert the room immediately and leave the now asleep Charles to his mother's care. He led them out on their planned walk, all the while wondering why she continually underscored her desire to avoid him, if she was so indifferent. She had rejected him, used him ill, and yet she was cowering behind the company of others and evading him. It was most baffling. Unless.. he thought, but then quickly dismissed the idea as both absurd and trivial. Even so, he hoped it was not because of his behavior the other day. He was mortified of it as it was then. Or could it be because she was bound to another and his presence only served as the cause of unpleasant recollections? He swore under his breath at the thought.

He let out a slow arduous breath as he recalled one particular tryst in the library at Kellynch. They'd tried to run back to the house one evening after their walk was interrupted by a thunderous downpour. Instead, they'd found themselves laughing at Anne struggling up the muddy path and refusing his assistance repeatedly, until she'd almost toppled over. Barely able to control his mirth, Frederick had laughed aloud until he had tears in his eyes. But the next instant, she'd picked up her skirts to her ankles and resolutely fought through the muck and weeds to walk up to him and looked at him proudly, when suddenly, her foot had twisted in the gluey sludge and she'd lurched towards him. He caught her quickly and sat her down on his knee, checking her foot for injury. "Are you hurt, darling?", he'd asked, gingerly feeling her ankle for a bruise or swelling, when he felt her shudder quietly in his arms. Alarmed that he'd made her cry, he looked up at her flushed face to find her shaking with laughter instead. "Frederick, that was the silliest thing I've done in a while" she'd laughed. Frederick had laughed with her and beheld her eyes as they lit up with mirth, and the enticing color in her cheeks. She'd been startled as his hand involuntarily brushed against her arm and caressed her back. Afraid that she might escape him any moment, he had picked her up in his arms and carried her up to the house. He had delighted in how she blushed at their proximity, refusing to look up at him. He remembered feeling goosebumps on his own skin, breathing in her lavender scent and noticing his urgency for her grow. He'd set her down gently when they'd reached the shelter of the verandah, but his arms had remained around her waist, his heart thundering in his chest at his own audacity. He'd raised her face towards him, a finger under her chin and lost himself in her soulful eyes. Frederick's fingers committed her face to memory as his tongue brushed against her lips. Anne had gasped, letting his tongue delve into her mouth and duel with hers. She had broken away for breath and looked surprised at her own reaction to him. "Frederick", she'd whispered, intertwining their fingers. "Come with me", she'd said in a flash of inspiration, and dragged him with her into the house. Frederick had followed her up the dingy back staircase to a hidden alcove at the back of the library. He'd looked around the shelves of old books surrounding them and hiding them from view and turned to her in amusement. "You surprise me at every turn, Anne Elliot", he had laughed and regarded her leaning against the wall, grinning and shaking out drops of water from her hair.

Frederick hadn't been able to help himself. He'd looked longingly over Anne's drenched dress as it stuck to her body and revealed every curve in intimate detail. He had sensed his need for her growing stronger and realized he was panting loudly; due to exertion or her effect on him, he did not know. When his eyes had found hers, they'd seen the same desire making her nearly breathless. Her undulant breath had made her unsteady, and he'd stepped closer to her, his hands grasping her waist and roving up her back. "As I was saying", he'd whispered, before kissing her lips and plundering her mouth with his tongue. Anne had moaned, returning his kiss passionately and running her hands under his shirt, astonished at the thick cords of muscle she encountered. Frederick had thrown all caution to the winds at her touch on his bare skin, grabbing her derriere and pressing her soft body into his. She'd drawn back a startled breath as his sharp arousal pressed against her stomach. He had tried to stop then, drawing back hastily, but she'd held his hands and kept him to her. Frederick had tried to distract her intent gaze at his obvious excitement by leaning in to kiss her again, but instead, he'd felt her hands brushing against his length, making him lean against the wall for support. "Good God, Anne", he'd gasped, his nerves almost imploding when emboldened by his response, her fingers had squeezed him gently. He had groaned long, swarming into her and pulling her legs up around him so his arousal brushed against her exactly where she needed. He thought of Anne's stifled cry as he thrust against her body propped against the wall, dropped his mouth to her breast and rolled an eager nipple between his teeth. Her legs had clasped around him as her face contorted with pleasure. "Please, darling", he heard her urge him and he set her down on the rug. His fingers had found her wet folds and her nails dug into his shoulders as he entered her with two fingers and moved them against her warm drenched core. "I want you, Anne. Now" He'd sighed into their kiss and she'd pulled him closer to her in return, responding in earnest to his fingers. "Now", she had cried in his ear, her warm breath on his ear sending shivers up his spine.

He had grumbled and pushed her thighs apart wider before positioning himself to enter her. He'd held her face as he gently thrust into her. "It won't.." he'd struggled for breath, "..hurt for long. I promise." he'd said, pulling out almost entirely before returning and trying to pick a steady pace. He still recalled Anne drawing in a sharp breath at the pain, her wet, warm body slowly moving against him and inherently trying to meet him, the tantalizing curves of her breasts, the pressure of her ankles on his rear as she begged him not to stop. He had dropped his body to hers once again and his mouth had found her breasts. His hands clasped her thighs as their movements grew more urgent. His thumb had moved tortuously against her nerves, and he could still feel her clench around his arousal, delirious. The memory of their gazes meeting as they reached their climax was etched on his consciousness for eternity. He'd reveled in the sight of her face as she writhed in ecstasy, her cry muffled by his mouth on hers. He'd felt his body convulse and collapse against her as he found his legs no longer able to support him. "I love you", he had whispered, his head resting on her heart, hearing it hammering out of control. When he could, he had leaned up to look at her, dazed that they'd shared these moments and amazed at her passionate response to him. Her happy, glowing face had made his heart nearly burst with happiness. She'd smiled up at him and run her fingers through his wet hair. Her words then he'd never forget. Her cheek pressing against his, she'd confessed, "I love you more than I know how to, Frederick". They'd rendered him speechless, just as they did now. All he could do was embrace her and kiss her softly, murmuring her name under his breath. She had understood him to be overwhelmed, chuckled softly, and allowed him to straighten her skirts and tidy her disheveled hair.

Frederick grimaced at the memories, swinging his riding crop at an unsuspecting bunch of weeds in a bitter motion. His memories of their history were certainly not unpleasant, except the excruciating last few hours. How easily I had fallen for her. But this is my punishment, for loving someone who had no strength of conviction. And yet..he thought, recalling their many conversations. No, surely I know better now, he heartened himself. My heart has long healed and is eager to love any woman who can charm me with her manners, her adherence to principle, and who can respect and love my family. I may easily learn to love Miss Musgrove or Miss Louisa for that matter, he assured himself with an amused laugh, walking faster to catch up with the ladies in question.

Chapter Text

"Did Charles want to marry Anne?", he asked. Did I hear that correctly? "Oh yes, certainly!", exclaimed Louisa, oblivious to the upheaval she had caused within him. "You mean to say she refused him?" "Yes, she did. I hoped she would accept his hand; I think we would all have preferred Anne a great deal better." "When was this?", he inquired, his mind racing. "I'm not sure, perhaps a year before he married Mary. 'Etta and I were at school then" Louisa continued, picking at a walnut he had crushed for her. He debated whether to question Louisa further, but she satisfied his curiosity right away. "Mama and Papa believed it was her friend Lady Russell's doing.", she said. "She thought Charles wasn't learned and bookish enough for her, so she persuaded Anne to refuse him." Frederick noted the slight bitterness in her voice and was surprised to find how readily he shared in the sentiment for Anne's godmother.

However, he had his doubts about Lady Russell disapproving of Charles. He would instead expect her to be in support of the wealthy eldest son of a respected family. Especially to her conniving, calculating mind, the aptness of the match should be clear. A part of him riled at the idea of Anne and Charles together. Knowing her gentle, friendly nature, he supposed they would have been an excellent match. However, he recalled her heady effect on him, how she could destroy his resolve with one touch. He hoped desperately that it was reserved for him alone, recalling how they had come together that night, whatever the aftermath of their courtship. He'd had no words to tease her or vex her; he could only say her name as he'd kissed her repeatedly and buried his face in her hair. Could Anne have refused Charles' proposal on my account?, he wondered, his chest feeling lighter all of a sudden. He relished in the timing of this new found event, but compared it then to her disinterested behavior since they'd met again. Certainly not, Frederick, he realized. You have exceedingly grand notions of your own importance, no doubt.

He found himself glancing at Anne repeatedly as they joined the others and set off on their return journey. Even Henrietta's new-found happiness was dulled by the excitement in his nerves at the moment. It was necessary to keep himself from walking closer to her, for his feet took him to her of their own accord. He burned to ask her why she had been foolish enough to reject a chance at a successful marriage. Was that not what your godmother desired for you, Anne? Have you, belatedly but at last, developed a will of your own? His thoughts took this bitter turn in spite of himself. Just then, Mary's voice reached his ears. It was apparent that she wasn't pleased after her argument with her husband and Mr Hayter joining them. Frederick turned to Anne with a meaningful look, eager to share his opinion of her sister, but he found her walking alone behind the bickering couple, halting and almost stumbling over a slippery moss covered stone before regaining her balance. Her face was drawn and tired, and she held her cloak to her body tightly against the wind. He had to contain his desire to offer his hand and was relieved to hear the approaching sounds of his sister's carriage and the Admiral's booming laugh. He leaped over a hedge and greeted them and the others crowded around the carriage to follow suit.

"We have come from Winthrop.", Louisa said excitedly, giving Henrietta and Charles Hayter a happy look. "Winthrop? You ladies must be exhausted!", Sophie mused, peering at the muddy hems of their skirts. "We can take one of you with us on the way back, it will save a full mile!", promised the Admiral. The invitation was general, however, and was generally declined.

The rest of the walking party had now crossed the lane, and were surmounting an opposite stile. Frederick sensed the opportunity and stepped to his sister's ear, whispering "Take Anne, she's very tired." His sister turned to give him a significant look before urging Anne to accompany them again. "Miss Elliot! I am sure you are tired, do let us have the pleasure of taking you home. You must sit with us.", she said.

"But there's no room, Mrs. Croft", Anne objected, plainly uncomfortable at being singled out.

"Oh, were we all as slim as you, there would be room for four!", the Admiral chuckled, and shuffled over to the other end with Sophie. He muttered something to his wife about her reckless driving just then and they were engaged in a whispered argument for the moment, barely noticing their surroundings.

Frederick placed his hand on Anne's back and gently led her forward before she could protest again, sensing the broken sigh run through her body as his fingers sunk to her lower back. She felt him turn her around toward him and the warmth of his palms on her waist. He wished desperately to taste her slightly parted lips and kiss her wide, curious eyes that looked up at him. The lavender scent from her hair made his knees unsteady, and he closed his eyes to record it to memory.

There was no one on their side of the carriage, thankfully, for they would have seen him stepping closer to her and Anne trembling as he breathed into her ear, "Up you go!" He thrilled in the delicious catch in her throat as he lifted her into the air and placed her in her seat. Anne held on to him, perched precariously on the edge of the seat and unable to direct her wobbling legs to bolster herself. She nearly moaned aloud at the pressure of his thumbs as they rubbed back and forth across the sides of her slender waist. "Are you steady?", he asked of her, his voice hoarse. Her fingers dipped towards his chest in an imperceptible motion that he recognized too well and her knees clasped together as she shook her head, afraid she might fall off any instant. In response, he raised his face to hers, ran his fingers over the smooth inner skin of her arms and found the curve of her hip as he held her and pushed her securely into the seat. A groan rumbled in his chest and he debated whether to pull her towards him instead and press into the soft, willing contours of her body. It would be so easy, so wonderful. He was brought back to his senses, however, as her lips formed his name silently, pleading to him as his fingers gripped her derriere. "Must you torment me so?", he muttered to her as his hands left her momentarily to hastily rearrange his overcoat and hide his arousal that now strained against his breeches. Turning Anne towards Sophie, he disregarded the loud ringing in his ears and her animated, embarrassed face as he banged a fist on the back of the carriage. His voice broke as he shouted to the Admiral, "She's steady!". He had to look away from her face and will his heaving chest to calm and he was unable even to respond to his sister's cries of farewell.

As they set off, Anne shifted in her seat, grateful that she hadn't cried out his name in front of everyone. Yes, he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest. She understood him. He could not forgive her, but he could not be unfeeling. It was a reminder of former sentiment; but was it just an impulse of pure friendship or of their consuming want for one another? What was he thinking, too, teasing her in such a manner? Was he so cruel that he'd test her resolve like this? I don't see myself succeeding in this deception at all, she thought, for she was wet and trembling with anticipation, and her mind cried out in protest at being yanked away from him. She detested her body's natural response to him. They had always been this way, she recalled with pained pleasure and swallowed heavily, trying to expel memories that crowded her mind, refusing to take leave even when she begged them to. I wonder who is more tormented, Frederick. You saw how easily I nearly went into your arms just then, she reflected. If she hadn't known the impossibility of him trusting her again, she would have sworn that the wild feeling evident in his eyes was more than breathless lust. If it was even an iota of the enraging, confounding furor within her, she would be satisfied. But that is not to be, she knew, noting how eagerly he had jumped Louisa from every rock and stile she fancied herself unequipped for. Enough, she uttered softly to herself and stopped her train of thought. You will not consume yourself with spite. Perhaps it is best if you leave sooner for Bath and avoid him completely. She felt stronger at the thought, hoping to find respite in it but encountering only dread in the pit of her stomach.

Chapter Text

He watched as she leapt out off the narrow ledge, following precisely the trajectory his mind predicted. He had shot out towards her the moment his brain had understood that she was indeed going through with it, but even as he raced towards her, he knew it would be too late. Gravity pulled her downwards faster than his legs could propel him forward. His arms were extended and his fingertips inches from her face as he heard the sickening crunch of her head colliding with the ground. She lay unmoving in his arms, her eyes shut. He cradled Louisa's head in his hands and he knew she might very well be dead, but his body could not comprehend what had just happened and think of, let alone convey a suitable response. After a few torturous moments, he looked around him and saw virtually all of their company staring at Louisa's lifeless form in the same manner as he was. All except Anne. She and Benwick had caught Henrietta as she had collapsed with shock at Louisa's state, and Anne was now checking her for a pulse and fanning her forehead with her hand as she called out to her. Frederick felt the weight of Louisa's body make his suddenly weak legs almost buckle. "Is there no-one to help me?" he asked aloud, his chest contracting and his brain only just processing the extent of the damage he had inflicted.

She answered him, to his relief. "Go to him! For heaven's sake, go to him! Here are salts, take them!", she cried, her brow furrowed with the effort of holding Henrietta stable and urging Benwick to leave her and attend to Louisa. He obeyed in an instant, leaving Henrietta with her and helping Frederick to hold Louisa steady. As he held the salts up to Louisa's face, Charles rushed forward too. He looked dazed from the effect of Mary's hysterical shrieks and Louisa's bloodless countenance. Frederick looked at Anne and his eyes implored her for direction. Promptly, she checked Henrietta's balance on her feet and gently sat her down on the steps before rushing to Louisa. Sitting beside her, Anne bent down to feel her pulse and her temperature. "She's breathing", she exclaimed, much to his relief. To Charles, she said, "Rub her hands, rub her temples!" "What shall we do? What shall we do?", cried Frederick, "Oh God, her father and mother", he cried, his guilt overpowering and agitating him. "A surgeon." he heard her voice as though from far away. "Get a surgeon!" Anne bid him, feeling Louisa's breath slow down drastically. Frederick nodded and set off at once, before her shout stopped him in his tracks. "No! Benwick! He'll know where to go." Seeing Benwick run past him, he went back to her and waited as her fingertips felt Louisa's wrist again. She shook her head and turned to him. "Carry her to the inn" she said, trying not to give away how worried she was. The two men obliged instantly, and their sudden motion caused Louisa's head to jerk wildly for a moment. "Gently!", cried Anne as she followed them apace and made sure Henrietta and Mary followed in their wake.

En route to the inn, they encountered the Harvilles again. Having heard the news from Benwick, they were visibly worried and quickly diverted them to their own house. Frederick saw Charles nearly lose his grasp twice and picked up Louisa in his arms, shaking his head at him. "Give her to me, Charles!", he cried, now running to the Harvilles as fast as his legs would allow, without disturbing her injured head. He cradled it in the crook of his neck to lessen the impact of his sprint. Gods, what have I done? She is but a child! he thought as fear coursed through his veins. He recalled Anne's brief look at him the moment Louisa's head struck the ground. He thought he'd seen the same disbelief and reproach there that he felt now. And both richly deserved, he reminded himself contemptuously. He finally reached the house and had just laid down Louisa on the nearest bed, when Benwick arrived with the surgeon in tow. As the doctor proceeded to banish them from the sick-room, Anne picked up Frederick's hand from Louisa's pillow, held it between both of hers and urged him earnestly, but he had trouble trying to hear her voice above the ringing in his ears. "She will recover, Frederick. Please, take them downstairs." she pleaded. I will ensure she does, she left unsaid. The surgeon had already begun to take her pulse and feel her head and limbs for damage. He had numerous questions about her fall, how it happened and how quickly they had administered the salts, but only Anne had the composure to give him any useful answer. At least twice, she'd had to quell Mary's loud wails with her hand on her arm and her gentle reprimanding glare. Mary's third screech of horror shook Frederick out of his reverie and he understood then what Anne was asking of him. He quickly took Mary and Henrietta's arms and led them downstairs.

The wait was agonizing. As his remorse mounted, Frederick almost expected Charles to charge at him with rage. But Charles merely sat near Mary with a stunned look on his face, trying to comfort both his wife and sister, failing even to convince himself. The party looked up with anticipation when they heard the doctor's footsteps descending the wooden staircase. It raised Frederick's spirits a little when he saw his cheerful face and saw him pat Charles on the shoulder genially. The portly little man exclaimed, "There is no harm to the limbs, it is only the skull that was compromised by the fall. She needs a lot of rest, but she will gain consciousness, surely. I have seen worse cases improve, you need not worry. It will be slow, but she'll make a full recovery. She is fortunate that she was attended to so quickly." He gave Anne his particular directions for her care before taking his leave, and she turned to speak to Mr. and Mrs. Harville in a low voice, discussing what should be done. Frederick's head had collapsed in his arms at the doctor's words. His relief was immense."Oh, thank God!", he exclaimed. Not all is lost. She can weather this, he thought, but his mind punished him with images of all the possible impairments the injury would cause. He thought of Harville and how vastly a leg wound had affected his life and family. He stared at the floor, aghast. You were a fool to encourage Louisa in her obstinate manners. She was plainly developing an attachment to you, and you acquiesced, all to spite Anne. Are you so resentful that you'd allow your anger to nearly kill her? His clenched fists struck his thighs with force, and he stood up quickly and left the room in a hurry, trying to bury his outburst and allow them to rejoice in the momentary reprieve.

As he left to sit in the tiny dining room, he could hear Anne speaking softly to Mary. "It is all right, Mary. She will make it through the night and get better very soon. You have nothing to fear, Mrs Harville is more than accomplished to direct her care and I am able enough to be of every assistance." He heard Mary's sobs abate and hear her complain, "But Anne, the sound of her crashing to the ground! I can never forget it! Our poor Louisa!", she whimpered. He heard Charles console his wife then and Benwick take Anne aside and speak in hushed tones to her about something he could not distinguish. A wild thought of them comforting each other took him by surprise and he crushed a piece of paper in his hand and began pacing around the room. He took in the darkening skies instead and worried over Mr and Mrs. Musgrove's worry over the delay. He lingered in the dining room, impatient for Mary to compose herself so he could speak to Charles. After a seemingly endless wait, he walked back to the drawing room and sat in front of him, keen on defeating the guilt that sought to weaken his resolve. "Charles", he said to him, "The women need to be taken home. Someone needs to inform Mr and Mrs. Musgrove. They will be anxious to see we have not returned yet." Charles stared at Louisa's face and held her hand in his, refusing to look elsewhere. "I shall not leave my sister's side", he whispered feebly. Discerning the pain in his voice, Frederick conceded. "You can stay, Charles", he said, "I shall take the ladies home. But if someone is to stay with Louisa, no-one is more suited, more capable than Anne", he avowed. At that moment, Anne entered the room, her eyes looking at him curiously. He spoke to her directly, controlling his urge to grip her shoulders and confess his carelessness in front of all their company. "You will stay, won't you?", he asked of her, taking in her curious face and the color staining her cheeks. "Stay and nurse her." Stay and help me make her whole again, he thought. The things I ask of you, Anne. Anne nodded quickly at him, her heart wrenching at the sight of his ashen face. Frederick braced himself against the injustice of his request. He walked out, eager to prepare for the ride back to Uppercross and to escape her disappointed face. It hurt his insides to acknowledge how much he deserved it.

You are reckless indeed! You ask for her hand in marriage despite being penniless and uprooted from a home of any kind. You curse her memory and despise her for eight years, and what does she do? She gladly agrees to correct your careless mistakes. That was badly done, Frederick! He could almost hear Edward berating him in anger. He walked in haste to the inn and occupied his conscious thoughts with the routine tasks of arranging for their journey. The howling wind and sporadic raindrops splattering his coat did little to calm his own restless mind. He reached the inn and listlessly collected the ladies' luggage, grateful that they'd packed and prepared for the return trip before embarking on the ill-fated walk. As he prepared the horse and Charles' curricle, he recalled Anne's quiet courage and authority even as everyone around her was bewildered with shock. He knew in his gut that this would be her natural response to a crisis. She was gentle, granted, but never with any trace or pretense of fragility. He had realized it then while falling in love with her and he knew it now to be just as true. For all his experience in a war, he had merely added to the chaos. He secured the luggage in the back of the curricle a little too tightly and hoisted himself up in the rider's seat, drawing the reins gently to lead the horse into a trot. As he regarded the foul weather that awaited them, he shook his head in his disbelief. He had never indulged reckless behavior from his subordinates or his peers, much less the women in his company. And yet, simply to inflict hurt, he had repeatedly aided and given in to Louisa's incessant demands on his time and attentions. Indeed, for all her steely determination, Louisa had wreaked havoc on her own life and his. He cringed with remorse at the thought, reminding himself that she was still lying in bed, injured and unconscious. And whose fault is that?, he checked himself, halting and turning to the sound of footfalls from the Harvilles' house.

Charles walked towards him, his head bowed. To Frederick's surprise, he saw Henrietta resting her head on Anne's shoulder as they followed him. He got out of the curricle and hastened towards Charles, gripping his arm. "What is this, Charles? I thought Mrs. Charles was going back home with Henrietta. Why is Anne here?"he asked of him, his harsh voice jarring the other three. Charles looked at him with a wounded expression, mumbling "I know what we discussed, Frederick. But Mary thought she should stay near Louisa and me in her state than go home just now." He looked away. Frederick abandoned his arm and recoiled, comprehending what must have happened. "You would rather leave your sister in Mrs. Harville's care, then. No doubt, she's an excellent nurse, but hardly better than the woman who mended your own son." The last few words rang with accusation, and Frederick stopped himself before he uttered something he could not rescind. "Captain Wentworth", Anne's voice broke the grim silence. She looked at the two men in mild admonishment as she led the sobbing Henrietta to the curricle. "Henrietta must be home. We'd better hasten, the rain could delay us even further." Frederick nodded and quickly offered his arm to Henrietta to lead her into the small space and grasped Anne's hand as she tried to scramble her way up without his assistance. He took her waist nevertheless and almost lifted her up to her seat. He nodded to Charles before getting back to the riders' seat, taking the reins and setting off. It was all done without a word, for the dull ache in his throat would not let him speak.

His hands burned where they'd touched her. He unwittingly recalled how they'd once undone her bodice and felt her bare skin. His calloused palms longed to feel the smooth stretch of her midriff and the swell of her breasts again. Anne's soft sigh as he kissed the curve of her neck rang in his ears and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The sudden sound of Henrietta's sobs and incoherent mumbling brought him back to his surroundings and he glanced back at them, hurriedly dismissing his thoughts. Henrietta was almost asleep on Anne's shoulder. Anne's arms held the sleeping girl securely to herself, but her eyes regarded him with a keenness that made him avert his away. The lump in his throat threatened to overpower him, but he fought it, muttering "If only I had..", he paused to gulp in a breath of air. "If only.." If only I had never encouraged Louisa. If only I had never behaved like I did, he thought to add. "Yes!", she said firmly, startling him for a moment. Frederick glimpsed her kind face and looked back at the road, relieved that she understood him. He tried hard not to blurt out all his thoughts at once, but his tongue wouldn't bend to his will. "Anne, I regret.." he said softly, only to have Henrietta interrupt him with an anguished shout in her sleep and Anne turn away from him abruptly. He watched in defeat as she held Henrietta closer to her and looked away determinedly. I regret not writing to you six years ago, when the sheer memory of you saved my life. Foolish, bitter pride! He cursed her scent as it stung his eyes and jerked the reins harder, willing the animal to race faster. "Damned foolish!", he cried into the wind that whipped around the canopy and wailed around him. "Damned foolish!"

Chapter Text

Frederick looked up from the mare he was tending to, as footsteps approached from the house. He was mildly horrified to see Anne walking towards him with a small bundle in her arms. Confusion gripped him for a moment, as he considered climbing into the carriage and setting off, pretending he'd never seen her. But he was too slow, as she was too close now to walk away from. Her lips parted to address him but he cut her off brusquely. "Yes?"

Her startled eyes made him wince with regret. He stopped adjusting the reins and turned to her, keeping his hands crossed behind his back. "I apologize, Miss Elliot.", he uttered, not daring to look at her directly. "My emotions claimed the better of me. I did not mean to snap at you." Anne nodded sympathetically and handed him the package. "Please, Captain. This must be as trying for you as for her family." She added, "Could you please take this with you?" Disappointment and concern warred within her as she regarded his lost, anxious face. Frederick placed the package in the curricle and enquired, his voice rising slightly. "Is that for Captain Benwick?"

Anne frowned in confusion. "No."

Relief washed through him and he stepped toward her, flexing his fingers and panting as he stared at her mouth. "Good. I'm glad." he whispered.

She stayed rooted to the spot, stunned at their proximity. Sensing the blood rushing to her cheeks, she looked away, dismissing her longing to run her fingers through his hair and kiss him and looked up at him in determination. "Captain, I understand you.", She blinked back angry tears from her eyes and reached for his hand, holding it with both her own. "Louisa will be well again. You will soon be.." she struggled and her face fell. "Married" she whispered and turned away from him. You were a fool to think you could endure that.

Frederick reeled in shock. "Married? To Louisa?" he mumbled, nonplussed. Why on earth would you think that?  His hand extended toward her, ready to turn her around toward him and hear a sane response, but he stilled as the realization dawned upon him slowly. His constant attentions to Louisa had convinced all her family and probably even his own friends that they were in love, to the extent that everyone in their company had believed him to be an engaged man. I do not want to marry Louisa!, he almost blurted out indignantly, but stopped himself. If his foolhardy behavior had convinced Anne of all people of his being in love with Louisa, he could barely expect to tell her family the reality of the situation. That would be a fine way to repay their kindness to you. He comprehended with horror his being bound to Louisa, perhaps forever. She will recover surely, but it will be slow, were the doctor's words. His mind was in turmoil as he looked at Anne. He could not take her into his confidence, not now, he couldn't bear to see her disappointment in him once he'd told her the truth. I have to keep up this charade until Louisa is well again, he realized.

And yet, it disquieted him still that Anne hadn't seen through him and realized this already. "You understand me, Anne?", he asked of her, willing her to turn to him. When she did, he went to her, lifting up her face to him and trying desperately not to disgrace himself with tears. His thumb brushed her cheek and he held her hand to his heart, his fingers on her wrist. "Do you?", he repeated, delighting in her frenzied pulse and aching to hear her voice.

Her skin was scalding where he touched her. She tried to look away from him, but his fingers held her firmly. "I can only hope I do.", she muttered, her lungs scorching as the smell of sunshine and the thrum of his heartbeat pervaded her senses. Is this your way of making an apology?, her brain screamed as she tried to collect her raging thoughts. She recalled with a shudder that he hadn't denied his intentions to marry Louisa, and was angry to find a tear escape down her cheek. We do the cruelest things in love, don't we? She had to gather the last traces of her dignity and wrench her hand away from his warm, inviting chest. It was hard to ignore the fire in her throat as she dislodged his fingers from her chin and spoke to him. "Please, Captain, if you can, write to me of her progress. I wish you both great happiness. Good night."

With that, she left him and walked back to the house as fast as her legs would take her. She rushed up to her room and nearly collapsed on her bed, her fingers struggling to make sense of the layers of sheets underneath which she must be at once, for her bones were cold. It is over, it is over, she thought, ashamed of the anguish that overpowered her. Her chest heaved in great gulps at the frigid night air as her hands tore at the sheets and she slithered in and her body shivered. He is whole, and he is content with another. Perhaps that will help you forego your delusion. Now, certainly, you can live again, a part of her cried out, much to her surprise. But her grandiose plans were checked instantly by something snapping within her, curtailing her balance and releasing a torrent of tears on her pillow.

Frederick stared at her departing form, his hands dropping hopelessly to his side. A guttural cry escaped his lips, forming her name. He looked down at the spot where she'd stood and touched his heart. He stayed there till his legs grew numb and cold and his breath grew so quiet he thought he hardly lived any more. If I cease to exist, will this pain cease too?, he wondered as the knife dug deeper into his chest and made him grunt and clutch at his heart. It was all in vain, Anne. We are back where we were. A servant's cry roused him and he climbed into the curricle, absently picking up the reins in one hand and rubbing his chest with the other. He felt a dull prod to his hip and looked down on the seat. Curiosity gripped him as he saw the package she'd handed him. He numbly ripped it open, only to find a flask of water and a thick, roughly hewn cloak that looked like it might fit him. She must have noticed his was drenched from the rain on their journey to Uppercross. He took off the one he wore now and wrapped the dry cloak around himself, grateful for the instant warmth it brought. For all your kindness, Anne, I had only immeasurable bitterness, he cursed. He pulled at the reins and set off, barely lifting his head to follow the servant's directions and unconsciously following the route back to Lyme. There, it is done. All hope is gone.

Chapter Text

He forced his eyes open and considered the scene in front of him. The Asp was sinking slowly, its deck splitting along a long fissure that ran parallel to its spine. His men had followed his orders and boarded the Obsidian, armed and ready to conquer the vessel that had nearly blown apart their beloved ship. Following custom, he had remained on deck, ready to sink or survive with his charge. It certainly won't come to that, he chided himself. It was an aberration, this accident, as the Asp wasn't even supposed to be in the line of fire that morning. They had set sail with their 40- ship fleet, but halfway into the morning, given their optimum location, Admiral McGilvary had assigned the Asp back to shore to bring down a single pirate ship spotted off the coast. Frederick had led the charge eagerly, hoping to add another gem to his string of conquests. That the pirate ship would be much larger than his ramshackle sloop was to be expected, but its treasure trove of firepower wasn't. For each of the Asp's guns, the Obsidian had three. As they approached the stationary ship, he spied through his telescope a wisp of smoke rising from the humongous gun staring them in the face. Frederick thanked Providence that the pirates had not fired at them yet. If they had, he would be floating around somewhere in the ocean by now with his men.

The ensuing few minutes had been fiery, splintering chaos. The element of surprise had favored him; they had succeeded in blowing the Obsidian's front apart first by targeting the main gun and its neighboring load of ammunition, but the Asp had also been struck in return. As the pressure wave from the blow to the boat tossed them in the air, he covered his eyes to protect them from the hail of wood shattering all around him. Instead, he felt something rip into his left flank and held back his howl of pain, waiting for the tremors to stop. He tried not to look down at his stomach, and occupied his thoughts with his ship instead. As the godawful tearing of the hull right underneath them reached his ears, Frederick recognized that the damage from a single shot had rendered his crumbling charge useless. It would take minutes before the fire below deck reached them. He had to act now, or they would soon end up dead. Struck by a wave of genius, he hobbled up with effort, took a post near the aft and gestured to his shaken crew as they picked themselves up around him. "Men!", he bellowed, taking in their shocked faces and surveying them for injuries. After satisfying himself that miraculously, there were none beyond some broken fingers and a few flesh wounds, he made his decision. "We've almost drowned the looters. Lieutenant-Commander Griffin will lead the charge. Let's go and earn our prize money." He clamped his right palm on his side, the intensity of the spasm surprising him. "Take every gun, sword and knife you possess and take that monstrosity down." He regarded their anxious faces as they stared at him, realizing what he was truly asking of them. "Sir, you're bleeding.", Griffin said in concern, gawking at his wound. "I will be all-right, Griffin.", he dismissed the man. "I will set off the rescue flares so we get out of here. In the meantime, you will see to it that we conquer that eyesore. I don't want them escaping us; we hardly have a vessel to fight them anymore.", he said, gasping at the smoke-filled air with effort. "Now!", he barked at the man, with more anger than he truly felt. He watched them board the two lifeboats and approach the blackened hull of the enemy boat, prayed to God that they would prevail and released the rescue flares.

The simple task knocked the wind out of him and he slumped back to the deck. In the urgency of ordering his men to disembark and signaling for rescue, he had miscalculated the burning pain in his left flank and merely clamped the wound with his palm. Now, he recognized his folly. As an inexplicable thirst set his throat on fire, he analyzed the pain that started somewhere under his ribs and spread to his leg. I wonder if it is enough to kill me, he thought darkly, and felt the area with the hand not applying pressure to the gaping wound. He detected blood soaking his clothes and grimaced. This will be more difficult than I expected. He looked around himself for something to stem the flow of blood, and having spotted a discarded shirt from one of his men, gratefully crawled to the stern of the sinking Asp. He pulled himself up with effort beside it and stamped on it with his foot, using his unoccupied left hand to tear it in two pieces. He swore loudly at the pain now blazing through his left leg and wound it around his torso tightly, recognizing how much his pulse had slowed down. He finished his knot and rested for a moment, worried at the gnawing in his throat and chest. It is you again, he gasped, fighting his urge to fall asleep on the empty deck now. Her eyes lit up as he grasped her hand and led her to their first dance together. His ears rang with her voice as she hummed his favorite song while ensconced in his arms. The fading memory of her smile when she'd consented to be his wife sent shivers through him yet again.

As his world rocked and tilted to its side, he held fast to the rails behind him, gripping them in the crook of his left arm. The flames finally made their way upwards to to the bow, and he huddled closer to the bulwark as they crackled and snapped at the rotting wood. A coin escaped his pocket and steadily rolled out onto the slippery deck before falling into the water with a soft plunk. He looked curiously at the open water, bare meters away from his feet now as his side of the Asp started going down with slow determination. It'd be effortless to break his hold on the railing and slip into it's embrace, he contemplated with a sick smile. What is stopping you, Frederick? he asked of himself. He kicked off his right boot, loosened his elbow from the soot-soaked railing and gripped it in his hand while he tested the water with his foot. That could freeze me to death in minutes. His throat burned with urgency now, and he had to clamber back up to his safe position and rub it, hoping to find some relief. I was only jesting. I'm not that stupid.

The remains of the sloop shook as it collided into something and he heard men shouting, followed by a rush of footfalls. Either this is a rescue or those wimpish pirates have managed to defeat my men, he realized. He felt his lungs cry out with need and the thirst burn his throat again. Oh, I'd give a limb to lay my eyes on you again, he said to himself, the thought making him smile weakly. He tried to stand up, but only succeeded in getting up to his knees and staring at the world sway around him. Her tear-stained face glowered at him helplessly anew. Her hands were on the lapels of his coat again, trying to stop him from leaving her and he remembered how he had shrugged them off and walked away, bitter with anger. No! Go back, you fool! he urged himself. In his fever dream, he turned around and walked back towards her, anxious to get to her. "Anne", he cried, enveloping her in his arms and imprisoning her hands against his chest, trying to calm the sobs that wrecked her. We shall find a way, my love, he told her, pressing his lips to her temple and willing himself to believe the words. There, this is perfection, he thought. If they could stay like this forever, breathing in unison as they did now, her head on his chest, him running his fingers through her hair and whispering sweet nothings in her ear. This is all I'd live for.

Reed caught hold of the man in the nick of time and tried to hold him up, but the Commander held on to him so fiercely that he struggled to move. "McManus, lend me a hand here!", he shouted out to his mate, who hurried down to the edge to help him. Together, they dislodged Commander Wentworth's arms from Reed and carefully carried him to the Isles of Summer, as she swayed gently beside the Asp's broken remains. "Quick, the man's bleeding!", said Reed, now running towards the ship's sickbay. He surveyed the flimsy shirt temporarily chafing the yawning cut in Frederick's flank and shook his head. "He's going to need stitches. And plenty of spirits."

Someone was addressing his wounds with a pungent tincture while muttering darkly under their breath. Frederick tried to sit up but he had greatly overestimated his agility. He peered at the figure through his blurred vision, persevering in the task of seeing clearly. Slowly, as the muscles around his eyes relaxed, he distinguished a doctor's form hovering above him, looking at him with ill-disguised annoyance. "Where", he rasped, "Where am I?". He watched as the man recoiled at his breath and took a step back. "There! Now that you're awake, you might finally lie still!", he exclaimed darkly. "We've had to change your bandages twice a day for the past week. You wouldn't stop tossing and turning, you know." He saw the confusion on Frederick's face and relented. "Commander Wentworth, I'm Dr. Reed. You're alive and well on the Isles of Summer.", he gestured dramatically to their surroundings, his brow knotted in irony. Frederick considered the window at the far end of the cabin, and recognized the faint smell of salt above the numbing scents of medicines around him. He greeted the gentle rocking motion of the sea underneath him, and decided he'd believe the man for now. He tried to sit up, but the man held up his hand to stop him. "Please, do not exert yourself.", he said. "You haven't recovered completely yet. You took a six-inch splinter to your side. When I saw it at first I thought it had likely taken out your liver, but by the grace of God, it missed the organ by an inch. I must say, you're recovering well, considering the amount of blood you lost." he muttered. "My men.", Frederick whispered, recalling with horror that he'd sent them away. "They're all alive, albeit with a few broken ribs and slashed noses here and there." Dr. Reed replied. "They are aboard here; I daresay you will see them soon enough."

"How long have I been unconscious?" he asked. "About a week. And what a delight you were!", the doctor smirked. "We had to move you here away from the sickbay to let the other patients get some sleep." Frederick grimaced. I have likely embarrassed myself by screaming nonsense in my sleep. He shuddered at the thought of what he might have admitted, and half-screamed in surprise when the doctor pulled on his bandages to secure them in a knot. He clenched his fists and bit on his lip to avoid crying out. As he tried to collect himself gingerly, a pinch of pain traveled slowly through his abdomen and left side. The doctor nodded at him and handed him a mug sloshing with water. Frederick gulped it down its entirety and coughed, his parched throat protesting. "More", he croaked, tilting his head upwards as far as he could. He gulped gratefully at the mug handed to him, and lay back down, exhausted by the effort. "You should drink some of the broth too, Commander.", he heard the doctor say, but he shook his head in disgust at the thought of food. Out of the corner of his eye, he observed the Dr. Reed pack up his things and prepare to leave. "I will see you every evening, but there will be medics attending to you every three hours. The pain will be unbearable for at least a week, Commander. The food will help, as will water and rest.", he said, stressing the last word. "I'll let the Admiral know that you're ready to talk to him. He's been aboard for the past two days, waiting to see you."

Frederick's eyes snapped open and he craned his neck to look at Reed. "Why does the Admiral want to see me?", he asked, dread filling his chest. This cannot be good. Admiral McGilvary was not known to visit the sick men under his command, considering there were over a hundred in his charge. Then again, the Admiral considered him to be rather a favorite of his. "I'm afraid he didn't share the inner workings of his mind with me, Commander.", the doctor answered. "Until tomorrow, sleep, and do as the medics tell you." Frederick nodded at him as he stepped outside the tent. He swallowed some of the insipid soupy broth placed next to him and heard his stomach growl in satisfaction. As his head hit the pillow, he let her voice lull him to sleep, the ghost of a smile on his face.

The Admiral arrived at 4.00 pm the next day, striding into the cabin and surveying him from head to toe. He frowned at Frederick's unkempt beard and paced around the small room. Frederick had sat up as much as he could, assisted by pillows and a generous dose of brandy to dull the sting in the wound. He had obeyed the doctor's orders and slept for sixteen hours straight. What he couldn't help were the redundant dreams that always included her. In the end, he had willed himself to stay awake and occupy his mind until the Admiral's arrival. He'd met his men and rejoiced in the knowledge that they were recuperating and buoyant. He'd listened to their stories of the skirmish aboard the Obsidian. It didn't disappoint him at all to learn of the prize money they had won together. He'd faithfully drank more of the ghoulish brown broth offered to him in the guise of food, and even tried a bit of porridge this morning. Yet, the impending meeting had worried him. Now, as he sat in attention, he wondered why the man was striding quietly around the confined space with a frown on his face.

Suddenly, the Admiral stopped in his tracks and addressed him, his voice gruff. "You will be happy to learn that the Asp didn't sink, even after that deadly blow and fire. She's going to be taken apart for scrap."

Frederick nodded in satisfaction. "Yes Sir, I heard about it from the men. I must thank you for sending the rescue team so promptly."

"Hmm", the Admiral grunted, resuming his pacing. Frederick stared at him, trying not to blurt out his questions. Before even a word escaped him, though, the man turned to him and asked eagerly, "Tell me, Commander Wentworth, how often do you have suicidal thoughts?" His face was a maze of angry wrinkles.

Frederick started, nonplussed. "I.. I beg your pardon, Sir?" he asked, confused.

"How often do you think of throwing yourself into the sea? Do you have the count for today?" his superior persisted.

Frederick bristled. "I think of no such thing, Sir!"

"Don't you?", the Admiral stepped closer, holding his angry gaze.

He'd had enough. "Admiral, I do not know what gave you this impression, but believe me when I say I am no coward." He struggled to keep his annoyance in check.

"In that case, I think the violence on the Asp has affected your mind. You turned not only into a coward but a liar."

Frederick stared at him open-mouthed, incredulous. He longed to snap back at McGilvary, but his memories of the explosion and its aftermath were still muddy. What else happened, in heaven's name? At last, he sputtered, "I'm sure the events were sudden, but they affected me just as much as any other man. Though I had my eyes on the bounty, I had been temporarily compromised by an injury. We were losing precious time, and furthermore we would certainly die if the Obsidian's crew had recovered from the explosion first and shot at us again. Time was of the essence, Sir". The effort of this rapid speech made him pant weakly.

The other man looked at him cynically. "Certainly, you did all the right things, launch a surprise attack, complete the capture before the enemy recovered, set off the rescue flares. It was almost as if you were hoping to get out of there alive.

He sighed in exasperation. "Sir", he said, "You are insistent on continuing this line of questioning. And yet, I have no terrible trauma to share with you." His throat screamed with a dull ache then, and he reached for his glass of water, noticing that the generous gulp didn't quench his thirst one bit.

McGilvary leaned in towards him and spoke in a low, menacing voice that sent a chill through Frederick. "Commander, I observed the rescue action on the Asp from my ship. I saw you dangling at the edge and testing the waters." He leveled his gaze, looking him squarely in the eyes. "I saw you consider sinking to the bottom of the ocean, Wentworth."

Frederick grew very still, recalling now with horror his vivid fever dreams while waiting for the rescue. The memory caused his breath to rise in painful spurts and nearly made him nauseous. He said nothing and waited for the rebuke.

"You are in charge of twenty men's lives, Wentworth. May I remind you, that number includes yours as well?", McGilvary's voice hissed in his ear. "Your first and only instinct should be survival."

He started pacing around the room again, muttering darkly. "I will not have brokenhearted men contemplate life and death in the middle of battle, Wentworth. The navy is not your escape from the disappointments of civil life. Do you understand?"

Frederick stared straight ahead, stung at the accusation and startled at how close it was to the mark. Have I become a romantic fool? Had I cried in front of my rescue team? Had I screamed her name at night when agonized by this wretched injury? He swore under his breath. "Sir", he finally ventured, "I am..", he gulped before continuing, "sincere.. in my duties. I have no wish to lead my crew and charge into dangerous circumstances because I am dying for violent adventure. I do not deny I was disturbed by the explosion and the loss of blood, but pray, place your faith in me. It happened once, and it shall never happen again." He gripped his glass so hard he thought it might shatter in his hand.

When he finally looked up at the Admiral's wind-beaten face, he was relieved to see the anger had reneged somewhat. "Good.", he said, "I expect better of you, Wentworth, but I believe you." He still regarded him sternly and admitted, "We thought we'd almost lost you, but luckily, you roused yourself." Frederick peered cautiously at him from the corners of his eyes. There's more to this embarrassment, then? He waited as McGilvary chuckled in amusement. "You nearly killed Reed with that iron hold of yours. For a moment we thought you meant to strangle the breath out of him." He shook his head and patted Frederick on the shoulder, saying in earnest, "Whatever this.. belief you clutched at, Wentworth; be it God, your family, a lady", his eyes twinkled, "hold fast. Clearly, it makes you sane. A man needs his sanity on these lonely voyages, I daresay." Frederick stared at him, speechless. His throat blazed in agony as he swallowed and looked away, nodding in silence. I know not if it is mine to hold on to any more.

The Admiral stepped away and gave him a moment before exclaiming, "Besides, I wouldn't want you to behave like this on your new command and put your own and others' lives in danger again." He half-smiled as he saw Frederick's surprised face. "Am I getting a new charge, Sir?", he asked, his nerves alive with anticipation. "Yes, you are. You see, in the Royal Navy, we award audacious bravery (and foolery) with a frigate and a Captaincy.", he remarked, shaking his head and smiling. "I wouldn't approve these orders if I didn't believe you, Wentworth.", he said, his face serious again. "Do not disappoint me." Frederick smiled gratefully and nodded to him. "Thank you, Admiral. I promise you I shall take the utmost care of my new command." He looked inquisitively at McGilvary, who handed him his new papers before saying, "So you shall! Your new command is very special to me, Captain. I expect you to treat the Laconia as if she were your own heart."

"Let's not risk that, Sir. I will do far better.", Frederick laughed, and wished the Admiral good night as he took his leave. He breathed freely, the sensation surprising him with its novelty. He was a rich man, he realized. He'd always dreamed of what he'd do with his first prize money. As a little boy, he'd thought of buying a house for his mother, but she had died when he was too young. As a new officer, he'd wanted to buy new clothes, a fine horse, maybe even a house he could go to during his leave from duty. He recalled how easily he'd spent his prize money in the year Six and grimaced. I will be more cautious this time. After all, according to the same social standards he despised so much, he was now a suitable match for any woman from a respectable family. He knew he couldn't afford to keep her in luxury, but there would be no want of necessities. He imagined himself coming back to a home to be greeted by a wife, but gasped as the woman in his dream turned around to greet him. It was her as he remembered, her dark eyes brimming with joy as she ran up to him and threw herself in his arms. He closed his eyes and thought of the many times he'd welcomed her by picking her up and twirling her around, placing kisses on her neck and whispering in her ear "How are you today, my love?"

Frederick debated with himself. She might be married by now, most probably to another Baronet or Lord. Maybe a rich land owner who had inherited all his wealth and needed her position to establish himself within the ranks of society? Someone like that pompous sod Walter Elliot. But what if she had married both correctly and for love, and found love returned in even greater measure? What if she was happy, content and fully recovered from the past? The thought disquieted him and he crumpled his sheets in hands impatiently. I must know what her feelings are, or I may never find out. He recalled how he'd kissed her in the rain that blissful evening and how difficult it had been to leave her then. Enough. Either write to her and ask for her hand, or stop punishing yourself. And so he wrote, haltingly at first, his words boastful and angry. He tore up these drafts and threw them away. Finally, on his tenth attempt, he gave up all reasoning.

Anne,

I write to you in the hope that my letter finds you in health. Our last meeting is etched on my mind. I am ashamed to recall my impetuous behavior and hope you will find it in your heart to forgive the angry fool I can be. I have tried in vain since then to forget you, even despise you. I am a broken man with a broken soul, traversing the seven seas trying to escape you, and just realizing what a foolish notion that is! I take you with me wherever I go, love. Relentless memories of you have long infuriated me and riled up black, bottomless anger within me. They refused to leave me and talked back to me when I was being ridiculous. They saved my life when I was being a tragic idiot.

I know not if you have forgotten me yet and placed your faith in another more deserving of your heart. I live and breathe only in the fervent hope that you return my deep, thriving feelings with yours. For me, there is none but you. I desire your kindness, your love, your passion and your beauty to be mine and only mine, until death do us part.

Recent events have awarded me with the rank and success I had set out to achieve, and I assure you that the friends who persuaded you against our union then cannot use the pretext of my place against me any more. If you would have me, again, I am yours, with all my heart and soul and everything to my name.

Yours forever,

Frederick.

Tears stung his eyes as he recalled her words when they'd parted ways. "I will only be an impediment to your dreams, Frederick.", she'd said between sobs. He had taken her protests on his behalf to be a mask for her true reasons; that she was persuaded of herself being wrong. And by none other than the arrogant Lady Russell, who had made her dislike of him evident in every meeting. He did not doubt her love for him, but that her resolve could be weakened so easily revolted him, so much that he'd angrily questioned her powers of reasoning. He faltered, regarded the letter in his hand and saw the ink was still wet. Indeed, Anne, you are the cause of both my happiest and my most miserable moments. I cannot take your refusal again, for a refusal it will be, he lamented and crushed the piece of paper in his hand. You are more than this heart-broken sod, Frederick, he snapped at himself, as he flung the balled up letter at the window. He swore loudly as the violent motion caused his stitches to gnaw at him anew and send a wave of pain through his side. He threw the numerous pillows out of his way and lay back down on his cot. The dull ache in his throat returned, and he welcomed it as he would an old friend. This is the last time you yearn for her, he promised himself. From now on, I do not care for Anne Elliot. She is no-one to me. Enough. Enough now.

Chapter Text

"I think we should all have an opportunity to prove ourselves in life, instead of being handed a position and a set of duties at birth. I do not profess to be ungrateful for my privilege and position in society, but surely learning about the poorer pleasures of life would do us all a great deal of good." Colonel Wallis said, swirling his sherry-glass as he settled on the decadent sofa. Anne gawked at the irony and wondered if he was encouraging satire or if he was truly so uninformed. She glanced at Mr. Elliot, and saw him nod and smile at Colonel Wallis in bored agreement. In the next instant, though, he turned to her and gave her that quick look of understanding they had so often shared. She had seen it after Sir Walter dismissed Louisa as a mere farmer's daughter and Elizabeth's sweetly worded dismissals of her from their company.

She left the group and walked over to the adjoining little library, letting Elizabeth's stern and disgusted disapproval of the notion mask her escape from the room. Her fingers lingered over a volume of Yeats, and as she pried it out and took a seat, she wondered, Does he mean to deceive me or the Colonel? And that too over a passing observation?

"You disapprove of my friend, Miss Elliot.", Mr. Elliot's voice interrupted her thoughts as she looked up and saw him standing in the doorway. She hesitated before closing her book shut and returning it to its place. "I assure you, Colonel Wallis has as much respect for commoners as he does for those with rank and stature. You must understand that the issue is close to his heart, having made a reputation for himself as an army man." he said, his face anxious.

"After being born the son of a judge.", Anne observed, resuming her seat and regarding Mr. Elliot with amused curiosity. "I am confident the Colonel had no want of luxuries growing up."

Mr Elliot sat across from her on the settee, observing "And why should that count against him? Colonel Wallis might not express himself very well, but he means he wanted to be just as successful in his endeavors as he is now, whatever his situation in life."

Anne scoffed. "And what situation would that be?", she asked.

"He does not mean to mock anyone, surely you will allow that.", he said.

"The Colonel wishes to be poor while despising the poor in the same breath. It troubles me to hear such romantic notions of poverty. It is depleting and disadvantageous in the cruelest sense. I think we owe it to our rank and privilege to we encourage better reasoning and debate of these issues, but then again, I find no obvious benefits of rank in our present company." she said, aware of her voice rising.

Feeling she must elaborate, Anne continued. "When we presented ourselves to our cousins the Dalrymples, for instance, my father declared it a notable success." She mused at the memory of Sir Walter and Elizabeth's zealous attempts to impress their superior cousins and her own attempts to indulge them in conversation. "But I can discern no superiority of manner, accomplishment or understanding in the Dalrymples, and that is all there is to it."

Mr Elliot shook his head, smiling. There again, she received that look of confidence that he seemed to reserve for her. "Good company is always worth seeking.", he maintained. "They may be nothing, but they will collect good company around them." There, it did not take you long to abandon your friend, she thought.

"My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the fellowship of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation and a liberality of ideas.", Anne said, recalling how much she preferred her exchange with Mrs Croft or lately with Mrs Smith. Indeed, their intense debates on nearly everything from music to the war was what had drawn her to Frederick in the first place. She missed a breath at the memory, but was soon drawn back to the present by Mr Elliot saying, "That is not good company. That is the best."

He glanced in mild derision at the party in the adjoining room and remarked, "Good company requires only birth, education and manners. And with regard to education, it is not very particular. " Seeing her laugh in disbelief, he exclaimed, "My dear cousin! The Dalrymples will move in the first set of Bath this winter, and as rank is rank, your being related will be highly advantageous."

"I perceive your value for rank and position to be greater than mine."

"Not at all!", he said. "You are simply too proud to admit it."

"Am I?", Anne asked, surprised at his ready response.

"Yes, I think we are very alike." he said and leaned in closer, so that Anne could smell the mint on his breath and distinguish a chink of green in his blue eyes. She was surprised to find him so close, but she held her position, for she could distinguish no flutter in her heart, no excitement of her pulse despite his proximity. Her curiosity, however, was kindled. "In what respect?", she asked.

He hesitated for a breath. "In one respect, I am certain. We both wish that every opportunity to your father to mix in the best society, may be of use in diverting his attentions from those who are beneath him." He glanced at Mrs. Clay brushing Sir Walter's arm and giggling as he said this, and looked back at Anne.

Anne was startled at how closely he had read her own mind on the matter. She stiffened as she considered his imposition. Dismissing her peaked irritation, she said, "You presume to know me very well, Mr. Elliot."

He gazed at her in open admiration and whispered, "In my heart, I know you intimately." Anne could not smile at him or speak further and instead had to take her leave to join the party again, so rattled was she. She could not get beyond his armor, but it was clear that the blatant disrespect for her family that she saw was in stark contrast with his amiable manners toward them. It disquieted her that he could be so guarded and so flagrantly flawed at the same time. She recalled how much Frederick had struggled to be polite while conversing with her father, despite Sir Walter being.. well, himself. He had borne it only for her sake, she knew. She reminded herself again to stop thinking about him, and listened to her sister's continuing arguments. Even Elizabeth's elegant, brash opinions, though, weren't enough to stampede on the fleeting joy of his memory.


Her fingers trembled as they tried to unbutton her coat, and she nearly ripped one out in her haste to make it to her room. She felt lighter than air, brighter than the flowers blooming right outside the drawing room window. Relieved that none of her family would observe her and much less care, she leaned on the tea-chest and recalled with pleasure the Admiral's words "Not at all', he had said "There is not a single oath in it, the letter is sanguine! From his way of writing, it seems that Frederick had never been interested in pursuing Miss.. oh, what's her name?"

"Louisa", Anne had supplied, her cheeks hurting from beaming, and looked away.

"Yes, Louisa!", the Admiral said, shaking his head. "So now, Miss Anne, Frederick is unshackled and free. The poor man has to start all over again with someone new." he smiled slyly in her direction, not missing her restrained burst of happiness. Anne was all politeness in enquiring further about his recovery and Mrs. Croft's health, but her mind was vivid and loud in its rush of thoughts. The abundance of her arguments for dismissing their past now abandoned her entirely. Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting on her way to Camden Place. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way. She tried to collect her rambling mind and apply herself to the maid's questions about the impending visit from Mr. Elliot, but withdrew to her room instead, finding herself happily irrational in her thoughts and behavior. It was pleasure to recall the last time they'd reunited after he'd been away, shortly after she had accepted his proposal.

"You are impatient today, my love." he'd said as he held back his growl of approval. Her fingers tightened around him and stroked him harder. He had been away for a week to attend Harville's wedding, and every moment had been agony, filled with recollections of her and images of them in the library alcove. He had surprised her by arriving a day early and sneaking up on her while she sat reading on their bench. "I missed you, darling." he'd said, only to hear her muffled laughter as he swung her around and she sunk her head into his chest. He put her down and asked, "Did you not miss me as much?", punctuating his words with kisses. "Evidently not.", Anne whispered, grasping him by the hilt, making him groan as his legs almost buckled. He dragged her back with him to the bench and sat her on his lap, facing him as he lifted her skirts as much as he could and dragged her legs up around him.

His lips had scorched a path from her mouth to her neck and his teeth found the tender skin above her collarbone as she gasped and her breasts pushed against him. He picked her up slightly, and grunted his approval at the ease with which he entered her with two fingers. "Liar!" he'd hissed in her ear and matched her pace. Anne moaned and her laugh echoed in his ears while her other hand bruised his shoulder as her nails dug into his skin. Frederick turned her face toward him and looked into her eyes as they both shuddered and held on for dear life. She kept stroking him as he kissed her and his fingers drove her wild with all-consuming bliss. "Frederick!", she cried and tightened around his fingers and he withdrew from her, as he sensed his own peak approaching. He held on to her as the torrent wrecked him in great waves, and his head fell on her shoulder. "You little imp!", he said and laughed, clutching her securely as he leaned back. "Did you miss me?", he had asked again, his lips sweeping across hers, light as a feather. "More than I'm proud of, darling.", she'd replied, smiling as she kissed him back.

Anne fell back on her bed and stared at the canopy above, wondering what they would say to each other if they met again. When shall I see you again? she thought, as her fingers traced her neck and she recollected the bruise he'd left there that evening with a smile. The possibility of laying her eyes on him again, especially when they were both again unattached was too much to comprehend fully in the thrill of the moment. Her stomach flipped as she realized that even though he was unattached, he might still not love her. No, that will not do, she told herself and smiled, recalling how he'd held her hand to his heart, that night at Uppercross. Is this what you had tried to tell me then? Oh, I must, I must know what you feel, she thought and closed her eyes, lost in memories of rainy afternoons and the smell of sunshine.

Chapter Text

Later that week, she found herself thinking of him again when they were stuck at Molland's one afternoon, owing to a sudden downpour. His voice echoed in her ears as she recalled his eager face and his drenched brown locks falling in his eyes. I want you, Anne. Now!, he'd said. Elizabeth's drawl brought her back to the present and she listened to the heated discussion between her, Mrs. Clay and Mr. Elliot, over who should ride in Lady Dalrymple's carriage. Satisfied that both herself and Elizabeth preferred Anne to walk home instead, she turned away to the window again and descried, most decidedly and distinctly, Captain Wentworth walking down the street.

She was lost, and when she had scolded back her senses, she found the others still waiting for the carriage, and Mr Elliot (always obliging) just setting off for Union Street on a commission of Mrs Clay's. She now felt a great inclination to go to the outer door; she wanted to see if it rained. Why was she to suspect herself of another motive? Captain Wentworth must be out of sight. She left her seat, she would go; one half of her should not be always so much wiser than the other half, or always suspecting the other of being worse than it was. She would see if it rained. She was sent back, however, in a moment by the entrance of Captain Wentworth himself, among a party of gentlemen and ladies, evidently his acquaintance, and whom he must have joined a little below Milsom Street. He was more obviously struck and confused by the sight of her than she had ever observed before; he looked quite red. For the first time, since their renewed acquaintance, she felt that she was betraying the least sensibility of the two. She had the advantage of him in the preparation of the last few moments. All the overpowering, blinding, bewildering, first effects of strong surprise were over with her. Still, however, she had enough to feel! It was agitation, pain, pleasure, a something between delight and misery.

"Miss Elliot", he muttered. He walked up to her and opened his mouth to speak, but wrung his hands together instead, his eyes darting everywhere but in her direction. A member of his party called out to him that instant and Frederick went to him, grateful for the interruption. He could feel Anne's eyes on him as he spoke to his friend and he loosened his scarf, attempting to breathe freely in the muggy air. All of his planned speeches sprang to his tongue at once, inchoate in order and loud in expression. He drew a slow breath and approached her again.

They spoke of her family, the weather and how much he'd enjoyed his first few days in Bath, but all he grasped was the tense knot in his stomach unraveling slowly but surely. Her eyes glimmered with amusement at his nervousness, and she broke into a smile as he made her repeat her question. "I asked how you like Bath, Captain.", she said.

"Oh.. I have yet to see it.", he replied. Her embarrassed laugh heartened him and he paused for a moment to take her in; the glint in her eyes, her glowing cheeks, how well her rose-colored dress suited her. He admired the symmetry of the round embroidered collar framing her collarbones. "Lady Dalrymple's carriage for the Miss Elliots!", a footman shouted, interrupting his train of thought. Frederick looked around to see Elizabeth and her friend turn their noses up to him in disdain and walk out of the shop without a word to him or Anne, conveying any relation only by a lazy glare thrown at her. Frederick looked back at Anne, anxious. He offered his arm to her, but was relieved as she stood still. "Are you not going too?" he asked. "No, I walk.", she said, "There is no room for all three of us."

"But it rains", he objected. "Only a little. Nothing I regard.", she said cheerfully, then lowering her voice and admitting, "I prefer to walk." Frederick nodded at her eagerness, smiling. With that company, so would I, he thought. He sighed as he remembered again how beautiful she'd looked that morning at Lyme and was struck by a sudden idea. "Though I arrived here only yesterday, I am already armed for Bath.", he told her, brandishing his new umbrella. "Please, allow me to walk you home.", he said.

She politely refused the offer and he offered to get her a chair instead, but she shook her head again. "I'm only waiting for Mr. Elliot.", she said, looking out the window. He frowned at the name, confused. At that moment, the shop door chimed open and the man in question rushed to Anne's side. Frederick recollected him perfectly. There was no difference between him and the man who had stood on the steps at Lyme, admiring Anne as she passed, except in the air and look and manner of the privileged relation and friend. He came in with eagerness, appeared to see and think only of her, apologised for his stay and held out to his arm to her before saying, "Shall we set off? The rain has eased."

Frederick's shoulders slumped and he nodded in defeat as he regarded her now discomfited manner towards himself instead. With a polite "Good morning to you, Captain.", she was gone. He stood rooted to the spot, trying to dismiss the building, raging doubt within him. When he had set off from Shropshire, he had been consumed by plans of confessing his heart to her. He addressed the images his mind now cruelly inflicted on him, and shook his head. No, that can't be.

As soon as they were out of sight, the ladies of Captain Wentworth's party began talking of them.

"Mr Elliot does not dislike his cousin, I fancy?"

"Oh! No, that is clear enough. One can guess what will happen there. He is always with them; half lives in the family, I believe. What a very good-looking man!"

"Yes, and Miss Atkinson, who dined with him once at the Wallises, says he is the most agreeable man she ever was in company with."

"She is pretty, I think; Anne Elliot; very pretty, when one comes to look at her. It is not the fashion to say so, but I confess I admire her more than her sister."

"Oh! so do I." "And so do I. No comparison. But the men are all wild after Miss Elliot. Anne is too delicate for them."

Frederick laughed aloud at this, and took in their surprised faces as he looked up. "What do you think, Captain?", Commander Wesley asked him eagerly. "You are acquainted with the family, aren't you? Do you find her prettier than her sister?" Frederick frowned as the man's eyes lingered over where he and Anne had stood talking a few minutes ago. "Infinitely so.", he muttered and glared out the window at her retreating form, her arm in William Elliot's.


"A man does not recover from such a devotion to such a woman. He ought not. He does not." he said, his eyes aflame. Anne gulped, gasping for air. The room disappeared and she grew very aware of him and how close they stood. Her ears rang as she heard him repeat himself over and over again in her mind. She licked her dry lips and realized she'd been staring at him all the while. "Did you stay long at Lyme?", she asked weakly instead. "A fortnight", he said, confused. "Until we were sure of Louisa's recovery. The country round about is very fine. I walked and rode a great deal." He reveled in her agitation, and was about to inquire further about her thoughts, but she smiled and said instead, "I should like to see it again."

"Would you?", he asked and frowned. "I would have thought; the stress, it would be too painful."

She recalled their walk around the beach that morning and his gaze drinking her in. "But when the pain is over..", she muttered, her cheeks glowing. "I have traveled so little, every fresh place is of interest to me. One day I should very much like to see it again."

Frederick regarded the ache in his throat and whispered, "It was my doing, solely mine. Louisa would not have been obstinate had I not been weak." He saw her frown in sympathy and raise her palm toward him but he caught her fingers in his instead and implored her. "Anne, I have never.." But he was interrupted by the crowd swelling around them, thronging to greet someone and chanting their name as they ushered to make their salutations. Anne was led away by someone in her party and was separated from him. He walked away, striding into the hall and rejoining his party, his heart thundering in his chest.

He spoke to the gentlemen, distracted and very aware of the ringing in his ears. He recognized the dull ache in his throat as it jabbed at him. Suddenly a hush went through the room, and he turned to see her arrive with her companions,. They were led by Sir Walter and the lady presumably everyone had bowed down to greet. Frederick stiffened as he saw Anne follow with William Elliot. Lady Russell and Elizabeth were not far behind, chatting gaily with a couple and another lady he did not know. He frowned as he acknowledged the bitter anger that consumed him. He saw Anne laugh aloud at something he said and Elliot leaned in closer to her to make another apparently snide remark. When the pain is over, she'd said. Was she referring to Mr. Elliot? He examined her manners and found only beaming, glorious joy. "I have heard that she returns his affections and they are soon to be married.", his friends had said at Molland's this morning. Frederick had dismissed it then as hearsay, but now as he watched Elliot's face, inches away from her own, both lost in their own world, he felt the bile rise in his throat. He tried to turn his attention to the performance, but kept glancing back at her. She was busy talking to Elliot, as he stared at her in open admiration, again. Frederick nodded and smiled absently at something his companions were saying, his insides hurting.

He watched as Elliot's fingers brushed her shoulder and he bent close to her to whisper something. Frederick fumed and nearly ripped his gloves apart in his hands as Anne replied to him eagerly. But as he glanced behind Elliot to see Lady Russell smiling at the two cousins absorbed in their conversation, Frederick's face fell. In an instant he was back in the grove at Kellynch, lost and unmoored yet again. Perhaps she was engaged to Elliot after all, and he had failed to understand her. You are too late, he bemoaned. She is engaged to another, while you played your games. She certainly has her family's ready blessings for this suitor, he thought bitterly. He caught Anne's eye and his courage left him as she frowned at him in embarrassment bordering on pity. Panting, he strode toward the door, hastening to escape the stifling room. He had to stop in his tracks as she accosted him before he could reach the door.

"Captain, you are leaving already?", she asked, surprised.

Why do you care? He wanted to shout, but merely said, "Yes!" His nostrils flared and he kept his trembling hands hidden as he spied Elliot looking at them.

"But the music is good, is it not?", she said, grasping.

"I neither know nor care.", he said, turning around and walking away.

Anne ran toward him and stood in his path. She would have held him steady with her palms on his chest if they were not in public at the moment. Stay still, for heaven's sake, she thought. "But what is the matter with you?" she asked.

"Nothing. Nothing is the matter with me.", he said, his irritation barely held in check.

"But this is too sudden!" she exclaimed, her brow knotted in confusion.

"Is it?" he hissed, and his eyes blazed as Mr Elliot approached them and beseeched her to come back, for Miss Carteret needed to know what she was about to hear. Anne sighed in exasperation as Frederick looked from him to her and bid her good night. "The next song is a very beautiful love song.", she whispered to him as he stepped away. "Is that not worth your staying for?"

"No, there's nothing worth my staying for." he muttered, his mouth taut with fury.

Anne stared after him as he left, considering the hollow dread in the pit of her stomach. His manner, so opposite now to that earlier in the evening, unsettled her. Her happiness was replaced by an unfamiliar confusion that gnawed at her. She gave in to her instinct and ran after him, not caring about the faces turned towards her. She hoped he hadn't left the building yet, opened the heavy oak door and rushed past it into the hall, only to slam into someone who was striding toward her. She was caught before she staggered and fell backwards, and she stopped trying to move away once she recognized the fragrance. "Frederick", she sighed, burying her head in his warm chest and embracing him. Frederick brought his face to hers and their lips met in a bruising, growling kiss that made her stomach quiver. She held his face to hers, biting his lower lip and moaning softly as he returned the gesture, his hands now traveling down her back and clutching her bottom. Anne clutched at his jacket as he lifted her up to him and carried her behind the gaudy partition screen near them. She loosened his scarf and kissed his throat, her tongue making its way to his ear. Frederick propped her against the cold stone wall and his mouth found her neck, her collarbones, her breast before they returned to her lips, his movements furious. Her fingers cupped his face as their tongues met and she basked in his familiar taste. She was soon warmed by his hands, as they weaved through her hair, cupped her breasts, slipped under her dress and held her thighs in a vice grip. Abruptly, he broke off, and Anne frowned at him, dazed. His fingers roamed over her legs as she wrapped them around him.

Anne fell forward as his fingers brushed against her most deliciously. She hung on for dear life, returning his movements with fervor and relishing the feeling of his mouth tracing her breast through her dress. Am I dreaming again?, she wondered in her delirium and held his head close. As his teeth closed around a nipple, her legs gripped him harder and his fingers stroked her, his movements growing harder and more urgent. "Frederick!", she cried, hugging him closer. "What do you want, Anne?" she heard him whisper as his thumb rubbed against her lips. Before she could think of a response, another wave of pleasure broke through her, and she lost any recognition of her surroundings save him. Frederick cradled her head on his shoulder and held her to him as her breath slowed down, his lips skimming her temple. He set her feet down on the floor and repeated his question, urgent. His lips found the curve of her neck as she tried to balance herself. Her fingers found his arousal, and Frederick groaned as she gripped him. She relished the storm her touch set off in his half-closed eyes.

"Listen to me!", he growled, pulling her hands away from him. His rage surprised her. "They are trying to persuade you again. Please, think for yourself." Her confused, agitated mind struggled to make sense of his impassioned plea, but as he shook her by her shoulders, she heard her name being called again, not by him, but by Mr. Elliot, who must have followed them outside.

Frederick's face resumed its angry, bitter mask as he took in her startled eyes. He smoothed her ruffled dress quickly and hissed at her. "Think! Think of what you want for once, Anne!" With that, he was gone. She stared after him, her legs still wobbling. She collected her breath before she walked out and greeted Mr. Elliot as he called for her again, squinting in the relative dark of the hall. "Mr. Elliot", she greeted him. "I had to step out for some air." She smiled, but it would not reach her eyes. "Anne, there you are! I was wondering where you had disappeared.", he asked, his eyes darting toward where she'd emerged from more than once. Anne held his gaze, lamenting her inability to have a moment of her own. And then it dawned upon her; he was jealous of Mr. Elliot! It was the only intelligible motive. The idea brought a moment of sweet gratification, but the next was only suffering. Alas, how was such jealousy to be quieted? How was the truth to reach him? How, in all the particular disadvantages of their particular situations, would he ever learn of her real sentiments? It was misery to think of Mr. Elliot's attentions. Their evil was incalculable.

Frederick walked out of the concert hall in a hurry, buttoning his coat and trying to conceal her very obvious effect on him. His legs were shaky, and he felt his chest rise and fall rapidly as his lungs tried to keep up with him. He'd thought his heart would burst with happiness when she'd kissed him back. She was just as ardent, just as obstinate as he'd remembered, and he touched his bleeding lip where her teeth had sunk in with a satisfied smile. Oh, it is good to hold you again, he said to himself, walking over to a hedge and resting his back against it as he discovered that walking was no longer possible. He shivered as he recalled the sweet taste of her mouth, her scent taking him over. He'd wanted to leave no doubt of his intentions in her mind, and had turned back from the door to talk to her. If that meant declaring his feelings in front of Elliot or even Lady Russell, he would do it. But that was before she had embraced him; he'd lost all cognizance necessary for words and thought at her touch. If only that smarmy William Elliot had not walked in, he would have received her answer to his question right then. Think, love, and think of us, he prayed.

Chapter Text

Charles had a lot to say, and now that Frederick had dispelled the initial awkwardness of their meeting, he returned to his garrulous self. He took care in sharing his opinion of Benwick, was all praise for his character, but Frederick smiled at his restraint. He had been so relieved by Louisa's engagement that he'd hardly given a thought to how compatible his two friends might be together. Frederick wondered about what Charles would make of Benwick's stoic, reflective nature, but his stories quickly put his doubts to rest. As they walked up the stairs to the Musgroves' rooms at the White Hart, Frederick could hear the familiar peals of laughter and excited chatter. He glanced out the window at the top of the stairway, his eyes roving over the street but had to turn away, disappointed.

"Look who I met, Mama!", said Charles as they entered the room. Frederick followed him, beaming, but nearly stopped when he saw her sitting next to Mrs. Musgrove. He gulped, for his throat was dry. It was effortless to go through the motions of greeting the Musgroves and discussing their good news, but all he could fathom was her startled gaze, her fingers fumbling and grasping at the streams of ribbons that escaped them and the color in her cheeks. He dared not look at her again for fear he wouldn't be able to turn away. He recalled her legs grasping his bottom as she'd collapsed in his arms that night at the concert hall. God help me, he thought and clutched the back of a nearby chair. He turned his attention to Charles.

"I have been a good boy, Mother.", he was saying. "I have secured us a box tomorrow at the theater. Captain Wentworth and Harville shall join us too, I hope." he said, to which Frederick and Harville nodded their assent at once.

"Oh Charles, that's wonderful!", cried the ladies, and Mrs Musgrove turned to Anne to entreat her to join them.

"I am obliged to you, Mrs. Musgrove, but I cannot.", said Anne. "There's an evening party at Camden Place, to which I understand you shall all be invited." She smiled, but her eyes were wary.

"Pssh, what's an evening party?" Charles said, his eyes twinkling.

"Oh, if it depended only on me, Charles, I assure you I should prefer the theater, but I have an obligation to my family."

Frederick frowned at this, his stomach suddenly queasy. "Then we shall go another time, when you are free to join us.", said Mrs Musgrove to Anne, and turned to her children.

Frederick saw Anne walk away to the fireplace and he followed to stand next to her. "Perhaps you have not been in Bath long enough to enjoy these parties they give.", he said softly, so only she could hear. He debated whether to ask for her answer to his question the other night.

"They mean nothing to me.", she said, her wide eyes so sincere his breath caught in his throat. "Those who hold them believe the theater to be beneath their dignity." He could not miss the bite in her tone. He let out a slow, relieved breath and inched closer to her.

"But I am no card player." she whispered, shaking her head and examining the mantelpiece. Frederick burst into laughter at her apprehensive face, recalling the many afternoons spent trying to explain to her the rules of poker and whist. She had thrown up her cards in frustration more than once and returned his incredulity with plain obstinate refusal to listen. In the end, she had thwarted all his attempts to involve her in a game by distracting him most artfully. "No, you never were, were you?", he said and sighed as he remembered how those teaching attempts had always ended.

Anne seemed to recall the same, for her eyes lit up and she half-smiled at him, but Mary chose that moment to shout, "Anne! There is Mrs Clay, I am sure, standing under the colonnade, and a gentleman with her. I saw them turn the corner from Bath Street just now. They seemed deep in talk. Who is it? Come, and tell me. Good heavens! I recollect. It is Mr Elliot himself."

"No," cried Anne, quickly, "it cannot be Mr Elliot, I assure you. He was to leave Bath at nine this morning, and does not come back till to-morrow." As she spoke, she felt that Frederick was looking at her, the consciousness of which vexed and embarrassed her, and made her regret that she had said so much, simple as it was. Frederick averted his eyes from her and exhaled slowly, as his fingers fidgeted with his gloves. He saw her glance back at him and take a seat at the table instead, her face turned away.

Mary, resenting that she should be supposed not to know her own cousin, began talking very warmly about the family features, and protesting still more positively that it was Mr Elliot, calling again upon Anne to come and look for herself, but Anne did not stir. Frederick looked keenly at her, trying to dismiss the perceiving smiles and intelligent glances pass between two or three of the lady visitors, as if they believed themselves quite in the secret. He held his breath and waited for a sign from her, but instead a short pause succeeded, deafening in its significance. He turned his back to her and walked over to Harville near the open window instead, where the cool breeze bit at his eyes. "Do come, Anne!" cried Mary, "Come and look yourself. You will be too late if you do not make haste. They are parting; they are shaking hands. He is turning away. Not know Mr Elliot, indeed! You seem to have forgot all about Lyme."

Harville was saying something, whether to him or Charles, he did not know. In his mind, he saw the Asp exploding to smithereens around him, and the open water a few meters away from his feet. He breathed faster as he recognized the familiar plunging feeling within him and he held on to the windowsill till his knuckles shone white. He felt Harville's hand on his arm, shaking him out of his reverie. "Are you listening, Frederick?", he asked and looked at his friend with concern. Frederick glanced above him to the window and watched her say, ""Yes, it is Mr Elliot, certainly. He has changed his hour of going, I suppose, that is all, or I may be mistaken, I might not attend."

Frederick perceived her gaze directed at him the next instant, but he gathered his faculties and turned his attention to Harville instead. "I have a rather unpleasant mission from Benwick, Frederick. I had hoped to discharge it, but it seems I do not have the courage." Harville was saying, as he fiddled with a small frame in his hands. Frederick noticed the glance he gave in the Musgroves' direction. He walked over to the family, made their excuses and left the room with Harville. He couldn't bear to look back at her, not now. Her last statement had been as bewildering as her intimate knowledge of Elliot's itinerary. He recalled their last ill-fated meeting in the Kellynch grove then and grimaced. I do not know what to believe, Anne, but I know not to hope. Not again.


"I have interesting news for you, Sophie.", said the Admiral, rubbing his hands together and walking over to the bar. "I know you will be most surprised to hear it!"

"What is it, Admiral?", Sophie asked, looking up from the paper.

"Do you remember William Elliot?", the Admiral asked, rummaging in the closet for his scotch. Frederick's neck snapped up and his eyes bore into the Admiral's back at this. Sophie eyes narrowed, confused. "The cousin we heard so much about at Kellynch. The one who had parted ways with Sir Walter most disrespectfully. Come now, you remember!", Benjamin said. "What about him?", Frederick asked instead, his stomach queasy.

Benjamin glanced at him in surprise before telling them eagerly, "Why, according to my company at the Pump Rooms today, he is to wed Miss Anne. It has all been settled with her family, I've heard." Frederick's ears buzzed with an angry hum as he shook his head, a laugh escaping him. Sophie took in his face before turning to the Admiral.

"Come now." she told him. "Do not fall for idle gossip, Benjamin. It might be that your company misheard it. Just yesterday the maid told me that he was to marry Miss Elizabeth. Tomorrow they shall say he means to marry Miss Atkins!" She glanced at Frederick again, questions buzzing through her mind as she saw him frown and rub his mouth with the back of his hand.

But this offended the Admiral. "No, that will not do." he said, shaking his head. "I have heard it from none other than Lady Russell. She can't be gossiping about her own god-daughter now, can she?"

Frederick stared at the floor, his skin still burning where her nails had sunk into him. He had plummeted from wild joy to black uncertainty in the past three days, and this morning at the inn had been particularly excruciating. His mind buzzed with images of her rushing into his arms and kissing him the other night at the concert hall and made him dizzy. Though he had not heard the words from her, he had understood her enthusiastic response to mean that she returned his feelings. He rubbed his throat where she had kissed him, not three days ago. They have succeeded in persuading you, then, he realized. Either that, or.. His heart sank as he thought of the alternative.

He felt Sophie's hand on his arm and he looked up at her and the Admiral. "Are you alright, Frederick? You look quite gray." Benjamin asked, peering at him. "Yes!" he replied, a little too loud. "I.." he said and hesitated. "I shall go out, Admiral. I feel like stretching my legs.", he said.

"Hold your horses, Frederick!", said Benjamin, as Frederick got out of his seat and stood up. "Sophie!", he said, addressing his wife again. "Do you think Miss Anne would wish to live at Kellynch once she is married?"

Sophie considered that for a moment. "Miss Anne is certainly more attached to her home than her sister. It seems natural that she should, Benjamin. I think we should ask, don't you?" she asked, her face set in anxiety.

"Well then! Frederick, I have a task for you.", said Benjamin, turning to him. "You shall ask Miss Anne if she wishes to stay at Kellynch after her wedding to Mr William Elliot. If she does, please convey to her that Sophie and I shall be glad to break our lease and find another house."

Frederick nodded, grasping at the opportunity. "Let it be done with", he muttered under his breath and put on his boots. It was dark and cloudy outside, and he fetched his umbrella, realizing how much effort every step was. As lightning blazed through the sky, her delighted laugh rang in his ears instead of the booming thunder he expected. A gust of wind greeted him as he walked, and instead of smelling the rain lurking on its tails, his lungs burned with her scent. He tugged at his collar and straightened it, hearing the fabric protest as he tugged at it. He did not fight the memories and instead, surrendered himself to them. Do with me what you will, love. This might very well be the last time I have the right to remember you. He had asked her what she wanted, and she had chosen Elliot. Maybe I am only a constant disquieting reminder of our all-consuming need for each other. I cannot dismiss it either, Anne, he reflected as he brushed off the spray of rain from his face.

As he reached the Pump rooms, he shook off the water from his sleeves and summoned the doorman. He asked for Miss Anne Elliot and made sure the man knew his message was regarding Kellynch Hall. He paced around the hallway, panting and trying to still his cold trembling hands. He turned as he heard her approach and saw the shock on her face. She must have been expecting the Admiral.

Anne wished to run to him, but stopped in her tracks as she saw his face. "Frederick.", she said. "What has happened?"

He held up a hand and silenced her. "I have a commission from my Admiral, and I must discharge it. You may think me impertinent, but remember, I speak for him." he said, his voice barely above a whisper.

She recognized the flare of anger in his eyes. "The Admiral is aware that everything is settled for a union between Mr. Elliot and yourself." he said, and saw her gawk in surprise but kept speaking, lest his voice failed him. "It has occurred to the Admiral that when you are married it may be your wish to return to Kellynch Hall. I have been charged to tell you that if this should be what you wish, the Admiral will cancel his lease and that he and my sister will find themselves another place." He paused to collect his breath and take in her confused face. Did you think no-one would find out, Anne? Didn't you know there are no secrets in Bath?, he ached to add.

Instead he bit his tongue before muttering, "There, I've done my duty. Do you wish it? All you have to do is give me a yes or a no, and we are both released." His hands tore into his scarf as he clutched it behind his back. He saw her lower lip tremble as she struggled to find words, shaking her head at him.

"The Admiral is very kind, but.." she stammered.

"Just say it", he said. "Yes or no."

"Frederick, I am.." she said, stepping closer to him. But he held up his hand again, his mouth set in a snarl. "Don't!" he hissed and instead of the sorrow that sought to drown him, he found nothing within him but black anger. "Have you not learned anything? You are just as weak, just as gullible as before, enough that your family can persuade you for their own benefit! How could you.." he said, trying to keep the rage out of his voice, but she cut him off.

"That is enough!", she cried, her chest heaving and eyes burning as something snapped within her. "You go too far, Sir." she said, looking away to catch an angry tear that escaped him. She could feel her limbs vibrate and she debated whether to strike her fists on his chest or shake sense into him. A sharp pain arose in her throat as the dam of tears threatened to break, and she recalled the events of the past few months and those at the concert hall. After everything that they had been through, he was still bitter enough to fling these spiteful words at her. Frederick felt a pang of shame as he saw her eyes tear up. "Anne", he whispered and went to her, but she struck his arms away, retreating from him. "You have no conception of what I feel!", she cried. The words took the wind out of her, and she swayed on her feet.

"Anne, I didn't mean..", he said, but she stopped him. "I have no more wish to speak to you, Captain", she said, as she tried to collect her senses. It was misery to see her like this, and he loathed himself for having caused it. "Why are you marrying him, then?" he asked. "Are you..", he said and hesitated. "Do you love him?" he asked her, not taking his eyes off her.

Anne sighed in exasperation. How can you be so blind?, she wanted to scream, but her question died on her lips as she heard Lady Russell join them. "Captain Wentworth!", she said, looking from him to Anne, her eyebrows arched. Anne turned away and left the room, her nerves failing her. She could not bear this, not any more. Lady Russell and Frederick confronting each other was not something she wished to participate in. She was tired of them both and exhausted by it all. Collecting her things, she escaped the oppressive atmosphere of the room. She welcomed the rain outside, for the torrent hid the sobs that shook her chest and the tears escaping her eyes. Her nails dug into her palms as she continued walking through the blinding downpour, her boots sloshing in the mud. Her nostrils flared as she remembered his livid, hurtful words. Your anger has made you this cruel, heartless man I no longer recognize, she thought as she trudged past the sea of people running in the opposite direction to seek shelter. He, too, has no perception of my mind. From the moment I met you, you have claimed my identity, my soul, my whole being. You have dyed me in yourself with just a glance and I have never yearned to be another color. She wiped away more hot tears from her cheeks and gulped against the painful lump in her throat.

Her figure slumped and she stopped in her tracks to look back. She had walked a long distance, and the Pump rooms were no longer in sight. She knew he must have already left, and she continued walking through the puddles until her limbs ached and she'd reached the familiar imposing archway of Camden Place. Despite the heavy, sodden cloak, she hastened inside, for she was soaked to the bones and even the faint breeze made her shiver. But she was stopped by the maid, who had an urgent message for her. Anne decided to hear her but asked her to bring her a dry cloak first, for her brain struggled to comprehend anything but the cold bite of the air around her. She took off her boots and slumped against the chest of drawers as she waited for Helen to return.

"Miss Elliot!" she heard his voice instead and she turned around to find him standing before her and her father approaching them. Anne stared at them in confusion, and heard Sir Walter exclaiming, "Look who we found on the way home, Anne. Elizabeth and I had to invite him to ride home with us and join us for tea." But Sir Walter noticed her properly then, and Anne ignored the irritation creeping up on her father's face as he took in her soggy, muddied cloak and bare feet. Frederick stared at her swollen red eyes and felt a pang of shame. He noticed the shiver that ran through her, took off his own cloak and placed it around her shoulders in one fluid movement before she could move away. As he fastened it he whispered hoarsely, "You must warm yourself, Miss Elliot. Please, retire at once or you shall take ill." Anne flinched at his touch and uttered her thanks before turning to the stairs and walking up to her room. She was only halfway up when she heard him call out.

"I apologize, Miss Elliot." he said. His tone made her turn around despite herself. His face was anxious, and she saw his pleading eyes as he tried to convey his heart to her in that one look. At the very least, he regretted his heinous words, that was clear. She didn't know if she forgave him yet, but she would have certainly run to him had her father not been standing next to him, confusion evident on his face.

Frederick glanced at Sir Walter and added, "I should have offered to walk you home, or at least given you my umbrella, instead of letting you walk alone in that rain." That satisfied her father. He shook his head and dismissed the idea. "Nonsense, Captain!", he said, leading him back to the drawing room. "Anne doesn't mind the rain. Do you, Anne?" he asked, his back already turned to her. Anne saw Frederick awaiting her answer and addressed him before leaving. "No, Sir, I do not.", she said and ran upstairs, fighting the storm in her chest as it threatened to overpower her again.

Chapter Text

Anne started to rip away the wet layers from herself, but they stuck to each other like papier mache and resisted her sharp, sudden tugs. Still, she persisted, looking in satisfaction as his coat dropped on the floor in a soggy puddle, followed by her dress and corset. Finally, only the petticoats clung to her, suffocating her skin. She clawed at the knots and tried to shake off the soaked strands of hair that fell into her eyes. "Helen? I could use some assistance." she said, her voice rising and reverberating through her empty chambers. Another tug at the tight knots and she gritted her teeth, exhaling forcefully. "Helen!" she cried. Her angry shout whipped through the silence and she immediately regretted it. She heard the patter of the maid's feet on the stairs, took three quick breaths and tried to will the despicable tears to stop.

The door cracked open and Helen rushed in, her eyes wide. "I beg your pardon, Miss Anne, I was attending to Mr. Elliot downstairs. Mr. Brockhurst was engaged with Sir Walter and Miss Elliot.", she said as she undid the knots Anne was struggling at and helped her step out of the pile of clothes at her feet. "It's all right. I didn't mean to startle you, Helen. Thank you." Anne mumbled, as she tiptoed towards the tub of hot water that the maid had prepared for her. She sank to her knees and sat down carefully, letting the salts dissolve around her as she leaned forward and inhaled the scented steam until her chest hurt. She dipped her head in the water, burying her face and blinking hard. I wonder if I can scream aloud underneath here. Would anyone hear?, she thought and smiled. Instead, she blew out the air in her lungs in a cacophony of bubbles, threw her head back and shook it from side to side with force. She heard Helen shriek with laughter as her wet hair released a stream of water on her skirts.

Anne smiled at her, surprised at the effort on her facial muscles. It's an effort, this pretense. She thought.There are moments when I can read you like an open book, and then there are those frosty flashes of temper with which you ruin everything. She sank lower, until the water came up to her chin. I am exhausted, she thought. Her hands gripped the edges of the tub as she lifted her feet to rub the bath salts into her skin. Helen pushed her forward gently and started scrubbing her back. Anne relaxed into the pressure of her palms. I cannot bear your fury and your presumptions anymore, Frederick. Are you unaware of the power you wield on my temper, on my very being? With a start, she realized that indeed, he was blissfully so. Her spirits had soared when he'd kissed her after the concert, her senses had blazed with elation as she'd held him again. After this evening, however, she could not help but doubt her own judgement. It was evident that he regretted his outburst, but that he would be so ignorant of her intentions and maliciously hurtful until it broke her, was startling. It sent a chill through her, despite the warmth of the water.

She curled into herself, breathing in quick bursts as her pulse increased in pace and made her feel faint. "Are you well, Miss Anne?" Helen said, as she felt the tremor go through her. "I think I might be coming down with a cold, Helen. I shouldn't have walked home through that torrent." Anne mumbled and noted her own shaky and high voice with distress. "Aah, that's nothing, Ma'am. The hot water and lavender will make you feel better, I'm certain." Anne nodded and leaned back, unable to speak for a few moments. "Besides, I know something else that will cheer your spirits.", the maid said, a sly smile on her face. "Do you?" asked Anne, relieved at the distraction. "Yes, Ma'am." Helen said and gushed. "Mr. Elliot visited just now. He was very eager to see you and asked me not to mention his visit to Sir Walter and Miss Elliot, Ma'am." Anne frowned. Mr. Elliot making an attempt to meet her in private? Had he perhaps discovered her friendship with Mrs Smith and wanted to illuminate his participation in her husband's affairs? What else could he have to say to Anne that could not be shared with her father and sister? Curious, she looked up at Helen's gleeful face. "Did he say why he wanted to see me?" To her amusement, the girl blushed as she got up to fetch Anne's robe for her. "He said he needed to speak to you urgently of some matters close to his heart, Ma'am." she said and smiled, her eyes sparkling. Anne could only gape at her. Bile rose in her throat as she realized who the source of the rumors had been. He has probably regaled half of Bath with our wedding plans by now.

She got up and stepped into her robe, aware of the palpable anger in her expression and its effect on the maid, who dropped her gaze and scurried away to fetch her garments. She dried herself and let Helen help her dress properly. With a grimace, she recalled Mrs Smith's assertion "He really wants to marry you. He respects you immensely, I have heard. Besides, you will have the happy blessing of all your family, won't you, Anne?", her friend had said. Anne couldn't help but agree with that particular observation, although it disturbed her how accurate her earlier judgement of Mr Elliot's character had been. Had he persevered to explain to her his true conduct in the past and that he repented over it, she might even consider changing her opinion of him. Is that what he wishes to confess to me tonight?, she wondered. She speculated if she would ever forgive him the betrayal of her family's and her trust, even if he apologized for it. Despite her mind's hurried objections, she knew her own sense of duty would compel her to do so.

The warm, dry layers of fabric felt wonderful as they enveloped her. Anne smiled fondly at how her gown draped her figure. She had spent many an evening in the company of her books in this gown. She closed her eyes and sniffed at it, pleased to find that it smelled of mothballs and roses, and she teased the familiar worn inside edges as they scraped against her skin, albeit gently. Noting the familiar yearning in the pit of her stomach, she draped her arms around herself. This is barely akin to being ensconced in your embrace, Frederick, she thought and opened her eyes, startled at the image that was burned on her vision. What wouldn't I give to rest my head on your heart and simply stay there? She frowned at her reflection in the mirror and balled up her fists, attempting to stop her train of thought. However desperately she tried to be livid at her obstinacy, it was impossible to solicit the emotion. You're the cause of this agony, and yet you're where I am at peace. If only, if only I could..

"What should I tell Mr. Elliot when he comes back, Ma'am?" Helen's voice interrupted her thoughts. "He said he would visit again in an hour, and it is almost time." Helen said and looked down at the floor. Anne glanced at her and looked back at her own reflection. Despite my raucous feelings, I am duty-bound, she realized as a dull slump spread through her body. "Tell him I shall see him in the parlor, Helen. Thank you."

Chapter Text

 

Frederick took off his sodden things and handed them to the butler who now looked at his boots with open disapproval. He kicked them off and walked into the drawing room, yearning for the seclusion of his room. But he saw his sister waiting for him, her face eager as she put down her book in her lap. “Well?”, she asked and waved toward the sofa. Frederick made no move to join her. “What was her answer?”, Sophie asked.

“We were interrupted by Lady Russell before Miss Anne could answer me”, said Frederick. He stood staring into the fire, avoiding Sophie’s gaze. His skin was cold and his feet screamed for rest, but he stood obediently nevertheless. “What happened, Frederick?”, Sophie asked him. The worry in her voice didn’t help. Frederick glowered at the floor as Anne’s words echoed in his mind; I have no more wish to speak to you, Captain! , she had cried.

 “Miss Elliot was.. indisposed for an answer.” he muttered, glancing at the stairs instead of Sophie’s surprised face. “Indisposed?”, said she. “Good heavens, Frederick, what did you say to her? I told Charles we shouldn’t have sent you, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“Why would you say that?”, Frederick asked, confused.

 Sophie glared at him. “Well, brother, you haven’t exactly been warm towards her, have you?”

 He couldn’t miss the anger in her voice even if he tried. He looked at the floor instead, his hands fidgeting.

 "Why do you and Lady Russell dislike each other?”, Sophie asked.

 Frederick shook his head in reply. He saw his sister’s stern face and the disappointment in her eyes as she regarded him. His resolve weakened. “I see you will keep hounding me with your questions, Sophie.” he said as he shuffled his feet, hoping to ease the jolts of pain shooting up his spine. “If you must know”, he said, “I asked Anne to marry me eight years ago. She accepted, and then proceeded to break the engagement on the advice of Lady Russell a few weeks later. Her dear friend advised her that I was not worthy enough of her.” His face grew hot and he clenched his fists, hoping to still his trembling fingers.

 He ignored the sympathy in Sophie’s eyes and stared into the fire behind her instead. “You were a Commander then, Frederick.” she said.

 Frederick looked at her in surprise. “I had enough to support her.”, he said tersely.

 “You did not. You had spent all you had; I remember Edward scolding you for being so careless with your prize money.”, she said. “Painful as it was, Anne made the right decision to spare you both.”

 “The right decision?”, he said, anger welling up within him. “She would have been my wife!”, he shouted.

 “She would have been miserable, but would have never shown it. And you would recognized it nevertheless, and become resentful of her unhappiness despite all you tried. Believe me, Frederick, I have seen too many marriages suffer and go foul because of these very reasons.”, Sophie said. “Moreover, you would never have ventured so far from home knowing you had a wife and children awaiting your return.”

 He opened his mouth to protest, but he couldn’t come up with an argument. His mouth quivered as he recalled the angry tears in Anne’s eyes. “You have always been quick to make decisions, Frederick, and that’s an admirable quality. Crucial, even, given your profession. But you don’t hesitate to think of the others who get swept up in your wake.” Sophie’s gaze softened and she beckoned him to take a seat in front of her. Frederick walked over to the sofa and dropped on it ungraciously. He felt his nails dig into his palms as he gulped down the pain in his throat.

 “All I wanted was for her to keep her promise.” he whispered, his head in his hands.

 “I know, Frederick.”, she said. “She broke the promise she made you, for what she concluded were the correct reasons. You left, understandably heart-broken and never communicated with her until you were forced to be in her society again. Despite her obvious discomfort at this, she was polite to you, to the extent where I began to doubt any past attachment. You, on the other hand, deliberately favored Miss Louisa, ignored Anne and made every attempt to show how successfully you’ve recovered from your past. You did everything short of being openly rude and belligerent.”

 Frederick stared into the fire. He couldn’t refute any of those charges, so he hung his head in shame. His hands stayed clenched until his knuckles shone white. He could feel Sophie’s intent gaze upon him. “I..”, he struggled and pulled at his collar to loosen the top buttons of his shirt. “I love her”, he hissed, aware of the tears finally revealing themselves. He looked away from Sophie and wiped them away on his cuff.

 “How dare she be happy while I’m reminded of what we could have, every moment we are in each other’s vicinity?” he growled. “Every greeting, every polite smile was a dagger in my heart. I couldn’t.. I’m sorry..”, he tried to continue, but stopped when he felt Sophie’s hand on his arm.

 He looked up at her kind face. “Frederick”, she said, “You do not break the people you love.” Her reprimand was gentle, but firm. “Besides, it is not my forgiveness you should seek.”

 He breathed deeply and closed his eyes. “Do you think she will marry Elliot?”, she asked.

 Frederick frowned and shook his head. Given what he remembered of her, she would have given in to Lady Russell’s open desire to get her Elliot and her married by now. Anne had always been dutiful, restrained and polite, to the extent where it had infuriated him when she didn’t stand up for herself. But her anger at his assumption, the violence of her feeling at his callous words, were uncharacteristic. Even more so, her indifference to her father’s contempt this evening gave him a glimmer of hope.

 Why else would she care for how tired he was after their ride back from Lyme? Why would she be so indignant in her dismissal of him this evening? He shook his head, unable to believe himself. Had he truly been a blind, angry fool all this while?

 “I see a will in her that I’d perhaps missed before.”, he muttered at last, as he rubbed his forehead, his heart hammering in his chest. He looked up at her, smiled and pushed himself off his knees with his palms and paced in front of the fireplace, gesturing wildly with his hands. The sheer possibility made his stomach twist in a motion that sent shivers up and down his spine.

 “Sophie, do you realize what this means?” he asked, aware of the maniacal glee in his voice. “I must ask her, I must, I must, I must know if this is true.”

 He went to his sister and gripped her by the shoulders, shaking her as the laughter tumbled out of him. Sophie stared at him, her expression akin to worry mixed with amusement.

 “Well, I had rather hoped you would ask her today, Frederick, but I seem to have overestimated you.”, she said, her eyes twinkling.

 Frederick could only gape at her. “Well..”, he said finally, looking away, “you did call me a slow learner.”. He couldn’t help the smile that crept up his face.

 “If you engineer the circumstance, Sophie, I promise I will make the most of it.”, he said, clutching her hand.

 Sophie chuckled. “At last!”, she cried. “Worry not, little brother, I have the perfect circumstance in mind.”

Chapter Text

Sophie looked up as the butler walked into the dining room.

 “What is it, Thomas?” 

“A note, Ma’am, from Mrs. Musgrove, confirming your visit this morning at nine at the White Hart.” 

“Thank you, Thomas”, she said, clapping her hands with glee. “Could you arrange a carriage for me and Frederick to leave at eight-thirty? The weather looks rather foul for a walk.”

 “Certainly, Ma’am. I will go and rouse Captain Wentworth at once.” Thomas said as he handed her the note.

 Sophie sighed. “No need. He’s been awake and dressed since six. I could hear him walking around his room all night.”

 Thomas smiled and took his leave.

 “Sophie! When?”, she heard Frederick shout as he ran down the stairs toward her.

 “Eight-thirty.”, Sophie said and watched him stomp his way to the breakfast table, drop into the chair in front of her and seize the note from her fingers.

 “Another hour? But..”, he said, his brows furrowed. Sophie had to laugh.

 “Unfortunately Mrs. Musgrove has more pressing matters to attend to than help me plan accidental meetings, brother.”, she said and pushed the oats and toast toward him.

 “Now, have some breakfast, Frederick, you’ll find it helps with making complete sentences.” she teased. 

Frederick’s eyes narrowed as he spooned oats on his plate. “If only you knew of my oratory skills, dear sister. There is a reason I command a hundred men. If she refuses, I will merely order her to marry me.”, he said

 Sophie laughed. “Well, I hope it doesn't come to that. What if she refuses?", she asked.

"Then I shall have her arrested for treason.", he said, smiling.

"In all seriousness, Frederick, have you planned what to say to her?”

 At this he grimaced. “I tried to conjure up the right words. But each time I saw her face in my mind, all that spilled out of my mouth was this unearthly, low pitched whine.”

 Sophie’s eyes widened. “Was that you? I thought that was Thomas’s dog having nightmares, Frederick.”, she said seriously, before bursting into giggles at the sight of his face.

 “Well”, he said, “I now know not to sing to her.” His laugh echoed across the room.

 “Oh, absolutely not. That torture is only admissible after you are married.”, she said and smiled at the Admiral who joined them. “We were just discussing your singing, Admiral.”

 “Nonsense, Sophie, you love my singing.” he said and winked at his brother-in-law as he took his seat.

 “Now”, he said and turned to Frederick. “What are you going to say to Miss Anne?”

 Sophie laughed again as Frederick dropped his head in his arms.

  


 

 

 

Anne stared out the window. The rain was thundering down on the pebbled road and people outside were running to take shelter under canopies and inside open shops. She had promised Mrs. Musgrove that she would be at their rooms at the White Hart at nine. The clock in front of her struck forty minutes past ten as she stared at it in dismay.

 Elizabeth had taken a carriage with Sir Walter to visit the Dalrymples this morning after Anne had happily ignored her sister’s jabs at her about neglecting her duties. No amount of explaining about her commitment to the Musgroves would pacify her father or sister. In the end, she had merely shook her head, stood up and said “No Sir, I will not. I have a prior engagement that I intend to keep.”, her own voice thundering in her wake as she walked away from the breakfast table and went to her room. Her father’s shocked face still burned in front of her eyes.

 She frowned as Helen rushed into the sitting room. “Lady Russell is here, Miss Anne.”

 Anne stood to welcome her friend as she walked in, shaking drops of water from her sleeve and handing her gloves and coat to Helen. Her brow was furrowed as she turned to look at Anne and pursed her lips, until they heard Helen close the door behind her as she left.

 “Lady Russell, this is a surprise. I did not expect you here in such foul weather. Is everything alright?”, she said as she sat next to her on the sofa.

 The older woman frowned at her, tilted her head and took in Anne’s appearance. Finally she spoke. “I had a rather surprising visit from Mr. Elliot this morning, Anne.”

 Anne grimaced. “Did you? What did he have to say?”, she asked.

 “He was very troubled. He told me how he asked you for your hand in marriage and how you refused him.”, said Lady Russell, her frown deepening. “Is this true?”

 Anne held her gaze. “Yes, it is.”

 She sighed as her godmother’s mouth fell open. “Anne, why would you do such a thing?”, she admonished her, barely containing her irritation. “He is exceedingly fond of your family, he will reside at Kellynch one day, he’s well-educated and self-sufficient. Surely you must see the aptness of the match.”

 Anne stayed silent, her fingernails digging into her palm as she waited for her godmother to finish her tirade.

 “You will step into your dear mother’s shoes as mistress of Kellynch. Anybody capable of thought would have approved it.”, Lady Russell continued.

 “Oh, he’s very charming”, Anne said, the sarcasm dripping like honey from her voice. “But there is a reason my instinct tells me..”

 “Instinct?”, Lady Russell interrupted. “This is no time for instincts, look at the facts. The present Mr. Elliot is the only gentleman you’re ever going to..”

 “But what of the past Mr. Elliot?”, said Anne, ignoring the jibe she had trod upon. “Why do you think his character has altered so completely? Why do we all know him so little?”

 “You shall get to know him once you marry him.”, Lady Russell said icily.

 “That is not what I want!”, said Anne, her voice rising despite herself.

 Lady Russell opened her mouth to respond, but the anger blazing in her goddaughter’s eyes made her stop. “Is there something you wish to tell me, Anne?”

 Anne hesitated. She didn’t need to defend her decision to refuse Mr. Elliot, but neither did she need to ruin his reputation among the only people in his new-found society. He was now harmless to her.

 “No, there isn’t.”, she said, bowing her head.

 Her godmother narrowed her eyes. “Before leaving, Mr. Elliot mentioned that he knew about your attentions being invested elsewhere.”, she said cautiously.

 Anne’s face jerked up as she looked at the older woman. “What?”, she said, her voice low, the pit of her stomach coiling tight.

 Lady Russell hesitated. “He told me that he was aware of Captain Wentworth’s interest in you, and it appears Elizabeth had told him of your past engagement to him. Mr. Elliot said clearly that he would still accept you, with your tainted reputation, for he loved you.”, she said.

 Anne felt something snap inside her. She wasn’t used to sudden bursts of violence, but as the blood rushed to her eardrums and her mouth twisted of its own accord, she understood fully how Frederick must have felt every time Sir Walter dismissed his social standing, his family, his worth.

 She stood up and paced around the room, ignoring Lady Russell’s anxious face until she called out to her. “Anne, say something.”, she said.

 Anne turned to her. “Mr. Elliot’s lifestyle is a sham. He lives on borrowed money. The only reason he seeks my attentions and professes to be in love with me is because he wants the title and the land. If you do not believe me, ask Mrs. Smith of Westgate Gardens. Her husband was Mr. Elliot’s old friend and client. Mr. Elliot refused to do his duty when my friend was widowed and she is now poor and destitute.”, she said, her voice calm despite the furor within her.

 Lady Russell looked at the floor. Anne stared at her, only now comprehending what her godmother was asking of her.

 “You knew.”, she whispered.

 “I had my suspicions, but you confirmed them.”, she said.

 Anne’s mind reeled. “How can you still wish for me to marry him? After you know of his character, after he threatened to ruin my reputation?”, she said, her voice a hoarse whisper.

 “Oh Anne, don’t be daft, he wasn’t threatening you. He does not know the extent of the matter, but it is easy for anyone to see Captain Wentworth’s interest in you. I am certain Mr. Elliot made that hasty comment in a fit of jealousy, no more. And once you are married, the Elliot name will help him establish himself, I assure you. He does not have the best character, but he does wish to marry you. He will be devoted to you.”, she said, her voice desperate.

 Anne stared at the older woman, surprised to see tears in her eyes. “Lady Russell”, she said and sat next to her godmother, her eyes gleaming. “I’m not going to marry Mr. Elliot. If I may be impertinent, I will say that I will not make the same mistake my mother made. You once convinced me that there would be more suitors, men who could make me happy. Let me convince you now, I am happy as I am and I do not need a husband to establish my worth in society. Especially one that I do not trust and certainly do not admire.”

 Her godmother sniffed as Anne held her hands in her own. To her credit, she did not disagree with Anne about Mr. Elliot. Her mouth trembled and she wiped away her tears quickly. “Nonsense. You cannot be unmarried forever. You deserve bliss, child, and nothing less.”, she said.

 Anne shook her head. This was futile. “Let us admit that our interpretations of bliss are radically different, Lady Russell.”, she said and laughed.

 Lady Russell looked curiously at her, holding her cheek in her palm. There is a will in you I have never seen before. "Do you wish to marry Captain Wentworth, Anne?”, she asked.

 Anne’s smile brightened as she was reminded of her thoughts last evening. Her answer thundered in her heart and she knew it to be true, and yet it terrified her to no end to admit it to the world. It was as if someone might trample over her dreams the moment they knew of her deepest desires. It was better to be kept hidden away inside of her, until no-one suspected it, not even her own shadow.

 She looked away from Lady Russell’s face and her eyes widened as she spied the clock behind her. “It is ten thirty!”, she cried as she stood up on her feet with a jolt. “Pardon me, Lady Russell, I promised Mrs. Musgrove that I would see her this morning at nine. I can walk there, now that the weather has eased.”

 Her godmother stared at Anne’s departing form as she put on one sleeve of her coat, grabbed her umbrella and rushed out of the house. She was still smiling.

 

Chapter Text

 Frederick glanced at the door again and bit his tongue, exhaling through gritted teeth as he twisted the pen in his hand. Harville frowned at him. “Are you expecting someone, Frederick?”, he asked. Frederick looked at him, startled. “No, I am not. Why do you think that?”, he said, and paced around the window in the corner of the Musgroves’ rooms where he had found Harville sitting alone. A thorough inquiry of his friend’s state of mind had revealed his distress; he was tasked with preparing Captain Benwick’s likeness for Louisa and drafting specific instructions for the painter. Without a word, Frederick had taken the offending item into his possession and assured Captain Harville that he would take charge of the issue without delay.

 But that was before the clock had struck nine. He’d been aware of Henrietta and Mary attempting to involve him in a conversation about the wedding venue and guest list, of the myriad details involved in a wedding trousseau, of his sister describing yet again how romantic her elopement had been and Mrs. Musgrove’s high-pitched giggles. Frederick bore them all with good humor, but try as he might, he could muster neither his own flair for conversation nor the ease of manner his sister displayed. When he’d gulped down his third cup of tea in one searing gulp, Sophie had glared at him from above the pile of fabrics she was examining. Frederick had excused himself and walked over to his Harville. There he found himself now, his attention divided between James’s instructions and every patter of footsteps he heard outside the window.

 “Frederick, you haven’t listened to me for the past half hour. You keep fidgeting and staring the door. Who are you waiting for?” Harville asked, an amused smile tugging at his lips.

 Frederick hesitated, his ears burning red. He opened his mouth to explain, but the click of the doorknob made him turn around. His breath left him as Anne walked in and greeted Sophie and Mrs. Musgrove. Her cheeks were flushed as she looked toward him and James and smiled. She looked as if she wished to walk over and speak to them, but Frederick dropped his gaze, the hammering in his chest overtaking him.

 “We will write that letter we spoke of now, Harville.”, he said in a gruff voice to his friend and walked over to the writing desk, attempting to hide his reddening face from the rest of the party. James gaped at him in confusion at the abrupt change. I must look like a right fool now. Frederick thought and began writing James’s letter. The hair on the nape of his neck stood up as Anne passed him to sit at the table with the rest. He ached to reach out to her, hold her face in his hands, and spill out his soul to her, but he would have to stifle those urges until he was alone with her. And how is that to happen? Had you planned this better, Frederick, you might have told her how you feel by now, he thought. What if she has accepted Mr. Elliot’s proposal? What then? He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and spied a look at her. She was smiling as Mrs. Musgrove spoke about Henrietta’s engagement and her eager interest in getting married as soon as possible.

 "Oh! dear Mrs Croft," Mrs. Musgrove cried, “"there is nothing I so abominate for young people as a long engagement. It is what I always protested against for my children. It is all very well, I used to say, for young people to be engaged, if there is a certainty of their being able to marry in six months, or even in twelve; but a long engagement--"

"Yes, dear ma'am," said Mrs Croft, "or an uncertain engagement, an engagement which may be long. To begin without knowing that at such a time there will be the means of marrying, I hold to be very unsafe and unwise, and what I think all parents should prevent as far as they can."

 Frederick stopped writing. His chest clenched and this time he looked back at Anne, aware of her turning to him. Her fingers clutched at the tablecloth and her brow frowned in confusion as she turned away first. Frederick turned back to his letter to the craftsman, trying to still his hands and set the pen to paper.

 Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Anne walk over to the window to join James. He tried to recall Harville’s specific instructions and write them down. Anything to calm down the pounding in his chest. Their voices carried over to him; they were discussing Fanny.

 “Poor Fanny; she would not had forgotten him so soon!”, said James.

  “No,” said Anne, “that I can easily believe.”

 “It was not in her nature. She doted on him.”

 “It would not be the nature of any woman who truly loved.” said Anne. Frederick’s hand jerked across the completed instructions at the frisson of indignation in her voice. He dug his fingernails into his knee and tried to stifle the urge to look at them. He brushed away the letter to the framer and picked up a blank sheet of paper and strained towards the window to hear.

 "Yes. We certainly do not forget you as soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions."

 Frederick bristled. Was that her impression, then, that he had forgotten all about them? I can listen no longer in silence, he wrote, his chest rising rapidly with every breath. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. He paused, wondering whether Elliot had managed to convince her to marry him yet. Frederick shook his head. I must know, I must, he thought and set his pen back to the paper. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine.

 “You have difficulties, and privations, and dangers enough to struggle with. You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk and hardship. Your home, country, friends, all quitted. Neither time, nor health, nor life, to be called your own. It would be hard, indeed" Anne said with a faltering voice, "if woman's feelings were to be added to all this."

 In his haste to turn toward her, Frederick knocked over the stack of papers off the desk and his pen fell to the floor. Anne and James looked startled to find him so close to them. James looked at the folded set of instructions on the desk and back at him. “Have you finished your letter?”, he asked.

 Frederick looked away, avoiding his gaze. “Not quite, a few lines more. I shall have done in five minutes.”

 James narrowed his eyes, but played along. "There is no hurry on my side. I am only ready whenever you are. I am in very good anchorage here, well supplied, and want for nothing. No hurry for a signal at all. Well, Miss Elliot," he said and lowered his voice, "as I was saying we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman, would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you--all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman's inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman's fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."

 "Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything."

 "But how shall we prove anything?"

 Frederick pretended to skim over his letter as Anne glanced at him before replying. “We never shall.”, she said. We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point. It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin, probably, with a little bias towards our own sex; and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle; many of which circumstances (perhaps those very cases which strike us the most) may be precisely such as cannot be brought forward without betraying a confidence, or in some respect saying what should not be said."

 "Ah!" cried Captain Harville, in a tone of strong feeling, "if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children, and watches the boat that he has sent them off in, as long as it is in sight, and then turns away and says, 'God knows whether we ever meet again!' And then, if I could convey to you the glow of his soul when he does see them again; when, coming back after a twelve month's absence, perhaps, and obliged to put into another port, he calculates how soon it be possible to get them there, pretending to deceive himself, and saying, 'They cannot be here till such a day,' but all the while hoping for them twelve hours sooner, and seeing them arrive at last, as if Heaven had given them wings, by many hours sooner still! If I could explain to you all this, and all that a man can bear and do, and glories to do, for the sake of these treasures of his existence! I speak, you know, only of such men as have hearts!" pressing his own with emotion.

 "Oh!" cried Anne eagerly, "I hope I do justice to all that is felt by you, and by those who resemble you. God forbid that I should undervalue the warm and faithful feelings of any of my fellow-creatures! I should deserve utter contempt if I dared to suppose that true attachment and constancy were known only by woman. No, I believe you capable of everything great and good in your married lives. I believe you equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as--if I may be allowed the expression--so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one; you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone."

 Frederick smiled, his eyes brimming with sudden tears. He thought back to the moment on the Asp when he had nearly let go of the railing and slipped into the sea, only to be harkened back by the memory of Anne in his arms. He recalled her hand on his heart on that unfortunate, rainy night outside the Musgroves’ when he asked her to understand his heart. She did believe him to be capable of loving her, then, but she could not believe it to be true. Not unless he told her, for Anne was oblivious of the depth of feeling and staunch loyalty her kindness and beauty inspired in the people she touched. She likely had no inkling of her effect on him.

 He glanced at her again and was elated to find her blushing, her hands clenched into fists by her side, her chest heaving as if she could not bear to say another word. He turned back to his letter.

  I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.

 He heard Sophie’s chair scrape against the floor. As she bid her goodbyes to Anne and Mrs. Musgrove, Frederick hastened to finish. I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never, he wrote and folded the letter, scribbled her name and hid it under the pile of papers before grabbing the instructions and making a display of folding them carefully for James. He registered Sophie saying something about the evening party at Camden Place and hurried to check that the letter was distinguishable in the stack on the desk before turning to her as she addressed him.

 "Yes," said he, "very true; here we separate, but Harville and I shall soon be after you; that is, Harville, if you are ready, I am in half a minute. I know you will not be sorry to be off. I shall be at your service in half a minute."

 He bid goodbye to Mrs. Musgrove and hurried after Sophie and James down the stairs. Just as they were outside the front door of the White Hart, he took his sister’s elbow in his hand and turned to Harville, bidding him to stop. “I must part with you here, Sophie. James, if you may be so kind, would you kindly accompany Sophie to the house? I expect I shall meet you both there in an hour’s time.”, he said. He returned Sophie’s surprised smile with a beaming one of his own and hurried back upstairs before either of them could answer.

 Anne was approaching the desk that he was at just moments ago. “I beg your pardon, Mrs. Musgrove, Miss Anne, I forgot my gloves.”, he said and crossed the room to reach the desk. Mrs. Musgrove waved a hand at him and continued looking out the window. Frederick looked at Anne and drew out the letter from under the scattered paper to place it in front of her. He hoped to convey all he felt in that one look, but, alas, there was no time. He knew he was bordering on impertinence if he stayed a few moments longer. He turned to leave and looked back at her before he walked out the door. The ringing in his ears nearly drowned out the sounds of the parade outside. He leant against a pillar, his legs shaking as his nerves trembled.

 He turned to face the street, away from the window of the Musgroves’ rooms. Musicians with flutes, drums and pipes thronged the corner and clowns and mime artists with painted faces danced along to the steady beat of large drums. The crowd cheered and children joined the procession, screaming with joy when they saw the two elephants and a troop of monkeys. Frederick smiled at them, his heart lighter than it had been for years. He found he could not think of Elliot, of Lady Russell or Sir Walter, even though the specter of Anne’s refusal still lingered in his mind. All the privilege I claim for my own sex, is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone. Her words echoed in his mind and he tried to contain his smile. He knew he should be pacing around the inn, fidget with his cuffs or pocket watch and think of how to convince her if she refused, as he had done the night before. But instead he found himself laughing as two toddlers chased a clown down the street, dragging the tails of his red waistcoat and playing tug of war with him until a harried woman (possibly their mother) intervened and set the poor sod free.

 He turned to the door of the White Hart just in time to see Anne walk outside with Charles. The commotion around them faded away as he took a step toward them.

 “Frederick, where are you going, may I ask?”, said Charles with some relief.

 “I hardly know”, he replied as he searched Anne’s face for a sign. Her face was open, her eyes were wide with wonder and her right hand seemed to reach out to him before stalling in the air between them. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but glanced at Charles and blushed, hesitating. Frederick’s heart leaped as he saw her trying to contain a smile. He glanced quickly at Charles, who had asked him a question, but Frederick hadn’t heard anything above the buzzing in his ears. “He shall have time, Charles.”, he heard Anne say to a confused Charles, who bid them goodbye and left, glancing back at them as he walked away.

Frederick beamed at her and took her gloved fingers in his. Anne was glowing. He brushed his thumb across her cheek and took in the sight of her. “I tried to forget you.” he whispered against her temple, his lips settling there. Anne took a step toward him and draped her arms around his neck, her eyes glittering with happy tears. “I thought I had.”, he said as she looked up at him through long, brown, wet eyelashes. What a fool I was , he left unsaid. The fire in his throat quelled as he traced her lips with his own. He was home.

Chapter Text

“Frederick, there is no need for all these things, I had given you a list of things we would need already”, Anne protested. She stared with wide eyes around the room. There were gowns made from silk, royal blue, rich forest greens, a black gown embroidered with blue the color of midnight and many others in quantities she could not count and colors she could not name. There were open boxes of jewels to go with each of the gowns, glittering in the candlelight with a brilliance that left her stunned.

“I should have known it was a mistake to trust you and Lady Russell with the wedding trousseau”, she said, smiling even though her chest contracted with discomfort. Frederick was beaming, taking her scolding without protest. His eyes widened as he saw her jaw set and her hands wringing as she tried to think of how to convey her uneasiness.

He put his hands on her shoulders. “You can send away anything you want, I promise. I wanted you to have everything you’ve missed all these years”, he said and laid a quick kiss on her forehead. “I want you to have everything you want, love”, he said, holding her face in his hands.

She looked surprised. “I have everything I want”, she said and wrapped her arms around his waist. "Right here".

Frederick’s breath left him in a huff as he smiled and pinched her cheek lightly between his index finger and thumb. “What have I done to deserve you?”, he said and sighed as he gazed at her, eyes wide with wonder.

“Absolutely nothing”, she said and chuckled at his narrowed eyes.

“I agree”, he said and returned her teasing smile. “I hope you still wish to marry me, Annie”, he said as he picked up a cashmere shawl and draped it around her, pulling her closer. “Have I mishandled this so spectacularly that you’re reconsidering?”, he asked as she shook her head, smiling.

“Of course not, Frederick! I am uncomfortable with the expense and extravagance, that is all”, she said and frowned, looking at the spread again.

He looked her over, examining her rigid posture. “Are you sure?”, he asked.

“What do you mean?”, she asked as she turned to him, confused.

He hesitated.”You have been a little distant ever since we started planning the wedding”, he said, worry creasing his features.

Anne sighed. “Frederick”, she chastised him. “You know my tastes are simple, my needs few and yet you insist on dressing me up like a queen and taking me to every event in Bath! I think we have been to four balls, eight dinners and at least fourteen lunches”. She groaned and rolled her eyes.

“Only a fool would not flaunt you, Anne”, he said, lips pouting.

The innocence of the gesture made her smile despite herself. “Frederick”, she said and kissed him slowly on his mouth, tongue darting out to taste his lips before she withdrew to look at him. “I cannot wait to marry you. All of this”, she said and gestured to the heap of rich, exquisite clothes, “though exceedingly sweet of you, love, is.. excessive. Every dress I have to examine represents another task I have to accomplish before I can be with you”, she said, her voice low as she leaned into him and kissed his neck, one hand on his roaring, thumping heart. “Every day I have to spend looking over the wedding arrangements is an obstacle in my quest to ravish you”, she said and grinned as he chuckled, his eyes crinkling at the edges with amusement.

“Then I am assured you will cherish this one particular gift I have for you”, he said hoarsely and kissed her, his touch light as his fingers traced her neck and jaw.  Her heart thrummed erratically, the blood rushing to her face. Anne ran her hands up his chest and into his hair as she kissed him back. His mouth was sweet, the lips warm as they opened to let her in. She lost herself in his taste, hardly aware that she was on tiptoe, pressing into him. A flick of his wrist would send her flying backwards and landing in a heap on the floor, but this was not the time to care. As her tongue stroked against his, Frederick dropped the cashmere shawl from her shoulders and pressed her closer, one hand in her hair and the other running down her back and gripping her hips closer.

Unbidden, a moan escaped her as she felt him hardening. Frederick moved his leg so his knee gently separated her legs, coaxing her open. Anne shuddered and broke the kiss, searching his face. Frederick frowned for a moment before smiling at her and leaning in to whisper in her ear, fingers skimming over her sides until his thumbs traced her nipples. “I got you the gift you wanted the most”, he said and nipped at her neck, until her head fell back and she gripped his shoulders. “Ever since you accepted my proposal, we haven’t been left alone for a single moment”, he said, his voice a low growl. Anne pressed her hips into him, her neck arching to give him access. “I have been dying to touch you”, he whispered, punctuating his pauses with kisses as his mouth traced her collarbone. “To take off every layer from you”, he said with a nip under her right clavicle, “To hold you as you come around me”. His voice broke here and Anne slid his jacket off of him, mourning the loss of his warmth for a second before his arms returned. “I have yearned to touch you too”, she said shakily, her head swimming as she picked up his hand and placed it on the knots that held her dress together at her back. She frowned again, trying to remember why she had hesitated a few moments ago. “What if someone-”, she asked, only to be silenced by a quick kiss.

“No-one shall interrupt us for an hour”, he said and undid the knots with surprising speed, given how much his hands quivered. “I have arranged for everyone to be on errands”, he said, chuckling at the beaming smile on her face. She stood on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his cheek. “This is why I agreed to marry you, you devious, handsome man”, she said and giggled as she began to unbutton his waistcoat.

“Aah, I was wondering how I eventually convinced you”, he said and jerked her arms up to tug the sleeves down till the dress dropped to the floor. He gulped and stared at the flimsy chemise, his fingers playing with the thin straps on her shoulders as he panted. Anne blushed furiously and attacked his clothing with as much vigor as she could muster. She whimpered as he kissed her, the force nearly knocking her backwards. His tongue slid against hers with fury, as he grabbed her hips so hard he left bruises. She wrenched away the opened shirt and waistcoat from him, smiling with victory. She breathed in his scent as tentative fingers traced the buttons on his trousers. “Yes”, he growled, before picking up her left leg and placing it around his hips. Anne could barely think or keep her hands steady through the inundating, submerging heat that spread through her. She unbuttoned the trousers and gripped his hard length through the cream silk pants, making him gasp and release her mouth. “Oh God”, he whimpered and gripped her wrist, his breath leaving him in erratic gusts as she squeezed ever so slowly.

“Anne”, he said, his voice hoarse as he wrenched her fingers away and pushed her shoulders gently until she fell back on the sofa and shifted to make space for him. A spark of brilliance took flame within her and she stood up to shrug off the remaining layers from herself as he did the same. By the time he stood in front of her, his tanned skin glowing in the candlelight, eyes blazing from under long eyelashes, his mouth open, Anne didn’t identify the greedy moans spilling out of her. She ran sure fingers over his chest, gripping him again and biting his lower lip until his nails dug into her waist. “Anne”, he said, head thrown back as he stared at the ceiling, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Glorious”, she said and stroked him slowly. A stream of nonsensical words escaped him as his knees shook.

“Sit”, she said, relishing her newfound power and releasing him. He sank gratefully to the couch and tugged her toward him by her wrist. “Come here”, he said, his voice so low it rattled her. She pushed his shoulders until they made contact with the head of the couch and leaned over him, gasping as he touched her down there with two fingers. “Gods, you’re...”, he said, losing his train of thought as she kissed his face and his neck, breathing in his scent and clenching around his fingers. She straddled him and put her hands on his shoulders, inquisitive eyes meeting his. He was beautiful, so beautiful it was hard not to taste every inch of his skin and savor the sounds he made at her touch. But she was too far gone now. “Frederick”, she said, her voice high as she moved her hips so his fingers entered deeper.

He looked up at her with wide eyes before gently pushing her hips down again. Anne was sure she must have cried out, so wondrous was the sensation of him inside her. She leaned backwards to accommodate him better, gasping as she felt rough fingers grasp her nipples and pull at them, the brief flash of pain sending a delicious shiver down her spine. “Frederick”, she groaned, putting her hands on his legs to balance herself better. Her hips moved above him with plain instinct, as she looked in wonder at him spread out in front of her, skin glistening with sweat and eyes closed so tight he almost looked like he was in pain.

She kept moving slowly, finding the right rhythm until she felt a sharp jerk pass through her limbs. Not yet , she thought as she dug her nails into his flank, leaning toward him. “Please”, she whimpered to his wide eyes. She fell into his embrace as he pushed himself up and held her in place with his legs around her. “Gods, you’re beautiful”, he said as he thrust into her slowly and soothed her with warm hands running up and down her back. “ I can’t ”, she said as another jolt lit her nerves ablaze. “I know”, he whispered. “It’s alright”.

His skin was warm against hers, making her press into him and pilfer some for herself. Anne bit his lower lip and rolled it between her teeth before releasing his mouth, pulling the hair at the back of his head and licking the shell of his ear. “Glorious”, she repeated and laughed with joy as he moved faster, hips snapping up until she bit into his neck and held on to him, a guttural sound scraping at her throat. Frederick was speaking into her ear, she realized belatedly. “I have waited so long to be inside you, love”, he whined, keeping his hips moving as Anne’s eyes rolled back in her head. “I have missed you”, he said and kissed her, causing her to clutch at his back, her movements erratic and unfocused. Being around him, tasting him on her tongue, hearing him whisper sweet nothings into her ear as he moved inside her was all she’d wanted. Even if you took away everything from me , this consuming, burning need for you would still remain . It belongs to me more than anything else does. she thought as she held his face in her hands and kissed his closed eyes open. “I love you”, she said, knowing she had never been more sure of anything else. “I love you, I love you”, she said as his eyes glittered and his lips parted in a wide smile. “I love you , Annie”, he said and placed a bruising kiss on her mouth before laying open mouthed kisses down her cleavage and sucking a nipple between his teeth.

“Come”, he groaned and moved so his hips snapped with hard thrusts that shook her and left her scrambling for support. “Frederick!”, she shouted to the ceiling, yelping as his two fingers stroked her right there until her legs shook hard and she felt her muscles grip his hardness, tighter and tighter until the sensations were too much for her to fathom. Her head fell on his shoulder and she traced his mouth with her thumb, knowing he was chasing his own end and was nearly there himself. Frederick growled as she gripped his bottom, the nails leaving angry red marks as she tried to pull him towards her. “Annie, Annie”, he said, voice broken and high as his mouth opened wide and she felt him fall to pieces, the muscles in his neck and shoulders taut as he arched up into her and swayed dangerously. Anne coaxed him down until they lay flat on the couch, panting and entangled in each other’s limbs.

They stayed that way for long, wondrous minutes until their breathing slowed down and she felt his fingers run through her hair. “Just as I remembered”, he said and she heard his smile in his voice.

“How so?”, she asked, unwilling to give up her position yet. It was warm and wonderful here in his arms, with her head on his heart.

“Just as greedy”, he said and laughed at her indignant face as she looked up at him.

“Just as wild”. She stuck out her tongue at him.

“Just as unpredictable”. She giggled, still surprised how easily the response came to her. He traced her right cheekbone with three fingertips, his touch almost reverent.

“And you, just as loquacious”, she teased and kissed his fingers.

His chest rumbled as he laughed and pulled her closer. “I never realized”, he said, a dark shadow passing across his face. “That you were alone”. He frowned, his jaw set. “I never believed you loved me until that moment at the White Hart”.

“Frederick”, she said as she touched his cheek.

“No”, he said and held both her hands in his. “I have been an angry fool for too long. I have hurt you for too long. I promise you now, I will never be the source of your tears”, he said, his grip so hard on her hands that it nearly hurt.

She pressed a chaste kiss to his mouth and smiled. “I know, love”, she said and laid her cheek against his. “Nor I yours”.

She gave him a moment to rest his jaw on top of her head and hold her, until she could hold her query no more.

“You have questions”, he said and smiled down at her as she nodded.

He sighed before he counted off of one hand. “Lady Russell thinks you’re unhappy with the embroidery on the blue silk gown I bought for you two weeks ago. Understandably, she appointed herself to the task of having it repaired”.

“Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove, along with Charles and Mary, are busy preparing their rooms to host Lady Russell, you and I for dinner. I expressed my dismay to Mrs. Musgrove over how often she had hosted dinners in my honor and how rarely in yours”, he said and winked. “I was merely jesting, I never expected her to succumb to my tricks”, he said and hissed as Anne pinched his arm.

“Frederick!”, she said, astounded.

“You can expect lengthy tributes to all your noble deeds tonight, even from Mary. We are all determined to embarrass you until you are forced to flee the room”, he said, chuckling.

“My sister and the Admiral”, he said, pressing her hand to his cheek and turning his head so he kissed her open palm, “are busy looking at houses for us”.

Anne gasped, eyes wide with surprise. “Houses?”, she asked, confused. “But you said..”.

“I know, I promised we would be economical and sensible”, he said, pressing kisses to her forehead. “And I have kept my promise. Why else would I choose Sophie for this task? Once she has given me a list of the three best houses near Kellynch Hall, you and I will visit them and pick the one you like the best”.

He moved them both so he lay on top of her. Anne whined as his tongue delved into her mouth. “Mrs. Smith is busy inspecting the church where we are to wed”, he said hurriedly, answering her query and kissing her again.

Anne rested her ankles on top of his back as she pressed up against him, her pulse racing again.

He broke the kiss to look at her, his hair drooping over his forehead in unruly locks and warm brown eyes shining. The smile spread on his face like the morning sun in the sky, slow, deliberate and luminous. “Which gives us not one, but two hours”, he said, chuckling as she giggled with delight.

“I love you", he said, the warm, beautiful eyes taking her in from head to toe, his fingers curling around her own, insistent.

“I love you”, she said and pulled him closer until their noses touched. I could get accustomed to this, she thought as the tender caresses gave way to urgent, demanding brushes of hands, whispered pleas and more promises than she could keep. But she would keep each and every one, even if it took eternity to accomplish them all. This, she thought, is my rendition of bliss.