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An Even Path: Post 6

June 11, 2017 02:52PM
Author's note: I'll be aiming to post a new chapter of Love's Adagio next weekend. Also, I'll be posting An Even Path and Love's Adagio at a 2nd austen site. Email me at beeninehundred@gmail.com if you want the address for that smiling smiley


Chapter 9

Will Darcy was up to his ears in paperwork. Literally. Aware of how much work he had ahead of him for the week, he'd arrived at his corner office at half past five in the morning. He'd started reviewing depositions and statements, poring over time lines and police reports, paging through obscure law books and older, established case precedents.

The rest of the office grew alive once 6:00 AM turned into 7:00. Phones rang, files were sorted, and officials passed in and out of the buzzing office. His formal suit jacket came off by 9:00; his white sleeves were uncuffed and rolled up around 9:30. Somewhere around 11:00 AM the offer of bad coffee and biscuits was made, but Will brushed it off. At this point in his morning, he was too busy handling a phone call, reasoning with a surly foreign constable who was holding out on a key deposition due to supposed political red tape. Some more negotiating had gotten him the deposition, faxed over twenty minutes later. There was only one problem.

"The deposition is in Bulgarian," Will muttered as he scanned one page, and then the next. He rubbed at his temple. "Perfect."

Will tugged at his tie and flipped through the Rolodex he'd inherited from his office's predecessor. "I" for Interpreters. Surely one of the people on this list knew someone who knew someone who could read Bulgarian and charged by the hour.

"Hey, Will." Charles Hayter drummed his fingers on the entryway of the door, poking his head in.

"Charlie. If this is about the sludge in the break room they're trying to pass off as coffee, forget it." Will pulled the phone off the cradle, punching numbers into his phone as if it were personally responsible for the stress headache at the back of his head. The phone signal buzzed in his ears. "How good's your Bulgarian?"

"Non-existent. Yours?"

"I can handle varying degrees of Italian and German. Grammar school Latin. Bulgarian's beyond my pay grade." Will hooked the phone under his jaw while it rang, picking up another file and flipping through it. "What do you need?"

"There's, uh, someone who keeps trying to call into the office for you. When she couldn't get your office or your mobile, she started dialing other random numbers in the office. Sylvia at the front desk and said you weren't taking any non-emergency calls until past noon, right? Anyone who wasn't your sister or a judge, you didn't have time for."

"That's right." Will's jaw tightened, his thumb instantly pressing the phone dial to terminate his call. "What's wrong? Is it my sister?"

"No, no, no--" Charles rushed. "It's, uh, a lady who says she's your aunt. An actual 'Lady,' as it happens. She says her name is Lady Catherine De Bourgh? And she needs to speak to you. Immediately."

"My aunt." His jaw relaxed, irritation supplanting concern. "Thanks, Charlie. I'll take care of it."

Charlie didn't have to give him the number. Will already knew this one by heart. With a sigh, he dropped the file he'd picked up and began punching in the digits. He was rewarded with his aunt's voice, clipped, precise and chilly on the other end of the line.

"Good morning, Fitzwilliam. So kind of you to finally return my phone calls, and nearly three hours into our morning. How courteous of you."

No one could use passive aggression to its full effect like his Aunt Catherine.

"A product of my upbringing, Aunt?"

"I'm sure you've got a few little projects on your desk to keep you busy--"

"Two frontier disputes, a statement on the legality of armed force in Chechnya, a slave labor case, and an investigation into illegal organ transport. And I have a meeting with a judge before lunch."

"Fine, fine. But you oughtn't complain to me about any of this, Fitzwilliam. What is the use of that expensive law degree if were never intending to use it for the family business? Their legal department could certainly make use of you. Instead you choose civil service! Government prosecutors make no money at all. I never could make heads or tails of your decision."

Will drummed his fingers on the edge of his desk and glanced at his clock. "What's do you need, Aunt Catherine?"

"I have a bit of quandary that I need you to deal with. One of our investors, a very significant friend of mine, has need of a competent barrister."

"Fine. I know every competent solicitor and barrister in London. I'll email you a few recommendations. Now, if you'll excuse me I have a few things I have to take care of."

"You, Fitzwilliam. I meant you! It has to be you. No one else will suffice. Lord Mansfield is a landed aristocrat, he's a stockholder in Darcy, Inc., and he's approached me in confidence. I won't have his business affairs pawed over."

"You're always full of such honorable impulses, Aunt."

"A contract dispute has emerged between a newly acquired talent and an American company. Tiberius needs a solicitor who's familiar with international law, contract disputes, that sort of thing. Lord Mansfield has significant contacts in many royal circles, contacts which could be beneficial to Darcy, Inc., Derbyshire Acquisitions, and De Bourgh in the long term. You're already shirking your familial responsibility by not taking a more active role in the corporation. This is the least you can do. I expect you to do this for me, Fitzwilliam, no arguments to the contrary."

Tiberius. Lord Mansfield. Why did that name sound so familiar? Will racked his brain for a list of his family's past associates and couldn't dredge up a match.

Despite his better instincts, professional curiosity got the better of him. "Who's the contract dispute between, anyway?"

"American Ballet Corp and the British Opera Ballet. Tiberius is the ballet’s director."

The British Opera Ballet. Elizabeth worked there. He had stacks of paperwork to work through, about a dozen calls to make, a judge to meet before noon, a court hearing at 2:00. His work day probably wouldn't conclude until 7:00PM, if he was lucky.

Still, Will leaned forward in his chair and grabbed the nearest pen. "What's Tiberius Bertram's phone number?"



**

Somewhere between mid afternoon and mid evening, the drifting snowflakes had transformed into a genuine snowstorm.

"Hey, Liz! Are you coming with us to the bar?" Frank Churchill's voice, boisterously American, echoed down the hall. He had already found a group of friends.

One of his arms was draped around the glamorous soloist Katia Ivanova. Another hand was wrapped around the waist of petite and pouty Lydia Bourne. Principal dancer Mikhail Karoli, and two soloists, Johan Jorgenson and Ben Itsuki flanked the trio. She liked all three men, and considered them, easy going and approachable, as well as excellent dancers. She also knew they had a good time in their off hours. Ben, Mikhail and Johan were as well known for their ways with the corps girls as they were for their stage performances.

It was Frank, though, who seemed determined she join them. "Come on, barmaid!" He called out. "Live a little!"

Barmaid. The new nickname she'd acquired since this morning. It referred not to her side job at MacClaren's Pub, but to Kitri's occupation in the ballet. A barkeeper's daughter. Elizabeth smirked, wondering how long she would continue to tolerate the nickname as “cute.”

Her instincts said not long.

"Sorry, lads. I'll not trudge through this snowstorm just to settle in that minging pub round the corner."

With a frat boy's persistence, Frank dropped his arms from Katia and Lydia and strolled up to her.

"You wound me, Liz. Right here." He pressed playfully at his heart. "Remember when we were alone in the stairwell? You told me we'd get to know each other better. Personally, one-on-one."

Elizabeth laughed, though the suggestive remark caused a whistle from Mikhail.

"Two weeks here, and he's gotten further with you than I have all year!" Mikhail called out.

"Next time we meet in a stairwell, Mikhail, I'll grant you just what Frank had. An elbow in the gut and both feet stepped on," Elizabeth teased the Russian with a wink, before turning back to Frank. "Frank, you'll know me something grand by the end of the run. All my worst habits, plus half a Gaelic dictionary. I promise."

"Promises, promises." Frank answered, grabbing her around the waist and swinging her over his shoulder. "Lizzie, that accent of yours drives me crazy, you know that? I think I have to take you with me anyway, just to get some more of it."

"Frank! Frank, let me down." When he pulled off her shoe and began tickling her foot, she really squealed. "Down, Frank! Let me down!"

"Yeah, and who's gonna make me?"

"I will." There was nothing teasing in the voice behind them. "The lady made a request. I suggest you honor it."

Frank's hold, which had been mostly teasing before, suddenly loosened. She was lowered to the floor with an inelegant thump.

"Will?" Elizabeth managed, fixing the shoe Frank had managed to dislodge. "What are you doing here?"

Will's gaze was clear, sharp, and more than a little frosty. And it wasn't directed at her.

"Offering legal advice to the management. Is this a friend of yours, Elizabeth?"

"I--yeah," Elizabeth faltered. "Frank Churchill, meet Will Darcy. Will, this is Frank. He's a dancer here for the season."

"Hey," Frank reached his hand out. Will took the proffered hand and shook back, firm and brief. "Nice to meet you. I was told that someone would be stopping into Tiberius's office to help straighten out a little legal problem of mine. You must be the guy they got for the job. Will, huh?"

"Darcy." Will corrected. "Mr. Churchill."

The icy silence after this pronouncement indicated this was as far as the conversation was going.

"Darcy it is." Frank summoned a smile that glossed over the awkward silence, and then bent to whisper in her ear. "A lawyer, Liz? Call me when you get bored, will you?"

Will's surge of dislike for the seemingly pleasant Frank Churchill came quickly. The way he leaning in suggestively close to Elizabeth and whispered in her ear wasn't making his jaw any looser.

Frank straightened. "Darcy, nice to meet you. Liz, you know where to find me. I'm never too broke or too drunk to buy my favorite barmaid a drink. And that is a promise."

Frank left her with an almost brotherly pat on the back and joined the other dancers at the end of the hall. Barely aware of their laughing repartee as the group departed, Elizabeth turned back to Darcy with folded arms.

"You still make the worst first impressions."

"Are you grading on substance, Elizabeth, or do I get marked on form, too?"

Elizabeth sighed. This was much more like the Will Darcy of her first few meetings than the more pleasant recent occasion. Cool eyes and a hard jaw.

"Form, substance and tone most of all. 'Mr. Churchill,' you said. Tell me, sir, why is it he must call you Darcy, and I can call you Will?"

At last, Frank Churchill was gone. Will's tone warmed slightly. "Because we agreed to get along.”

"Didn't we just?" She tilted her head and examined him.

"You'll have to excuse me. I'm tired tonight." He rubbed his forehead. "Makes me extra friendly."

It wasn't a lie either. She could see the signs of it now in his eyes which seemed somehow darker than usual, in the tightness of his otherwise generous mouth, in the sharpness of his already sharp cheeks, and in the pallor of his skin. Generosity compelled her to ask, "Have you eaten yet?"

"No. I was just going to wait here until the snow storm blows over and then go home, maybe pick up some take-away."

"The storm could last another hour. Come, I'll get you supper."

"No, Elizabeth, you can't--"

"Why not?" She stepped close enough for him to see the depth of her fine eyes. "Is it because you don't think the lowly dancer girl can buy the prince of Darcy, Inc. and Derbyshire Acquisitions a proper meal?"

"No, it's because a cafeteria for dancers is probably sprouts and tofu." He shot back, grinning for the first time all day when those fascinating eyes of hers widened. "And how did you know about Darcy, Inc. and Derbyshire?"

“Googled you, didn't I? It won't impress me a bit, though. I don't care a thing about stock options." Elizabeth laughed. "Let's get some food. No sprouts if you're lucky. I'll give you a tour as we go."

The tour she gave through the winding halls of the opera house was both engaging and precise. Occasionally she would gesture to rooms, many of which were named for Opera House luminaries ("this one's stunning" she'd said with a grin, pulling open a heavy wooden door to one particular studio so he could peak inside. It was. Mirrors, warm lighting, a piano at one end, high ceilings and an even higher skylight).

The offices for the physiotherapist and massage therapist was down another hall ("madly Spartan, but effective," she said), and there was a gym nearby for cross training. Up a few flights was costuming. In another area, she confided, wigs were made and preserved ("not every performance has a girl in a wig, but some do. Not all ballerinas have long flowing hair. Some of them chop it quite short, though you'd never know on stage"). And, she told him, her tour wasn't even taking into account the workshop where props were made, or where the lighting or sound equipment was held, where the orchestra practiced or where the opera singers rehearsed, or about a hundred other things.

"This place is like a bee hive. Layer upon layer," she concluded as they reached the cafeteria. "I don't want to bore you."

"You're not." Darcy shook his head to contradict her. "I had no idea so much of the work for the shows was prepared here at the opera. It's fascinating."

"You think so?" She smiled up at him, her eyes brightening. "I used to have so much fun getting lost here. It's like wandering around Santa's workshop and seeing all the elves at work."

It was a whimsical statement, one that caught him off guard, like she was sharing a childhood secret. The smile that came with it was making his chest tighten.

"Are those people, um," he cleared his throat, nodding to a group of men carrying sound and lighting equipment, "headed into the theater to set up for a performance tonight?"

Elizabeth shook her head.

"No, it's a rehearsal. The orchestra's practicing for the Magic Flute tomorrow. The conductor always does a run-through the day before in the pit to get a feel for the acoustics." She looked at him curiously, "Would you like to go inside and see? Wait here, I just have to get us something first."

He waited in the hallway, hands in his pockets, while she ducked down the hall and into the cafeteria to get them some food. When she emerged, he noticed she was holding two sandwiches wrapped in plastic. She had the grin of a girl cutting class.

Elizabeth deposited both sandwiches discretely into her bag and pulled open the stage door, gesturing him to follow. She guided him discretely past lighting technicians and gaffers, stage hands and set directors, all of whom were far too busy directing, arranging and coordinating to care about the two slipping into the theater.

She led him to the top tier of the amphitheater, right to the edge of the rail before it dropped to the theater below.

"This is my favorite place to sit. The acoustics are amazing," she confided, taking a seat and gesturing for him to sit beside her. "You don't have a problem with heights, do you? It's not very far up, but some people have a problem with ledges..."

The memory of his parachute jump over that plain in Africa surfaced fleetingly in his mind. For a man with a temperament that many would consider coolly controlled, Will Darcy had loved that jump from the clouds. For those few minutes he'd had a feeling of complete liberation and an angel's view of the world. This was different, of course. Just a few flights up in a closed theater, right at the edge of a balcony, but it was endearing that she'd asked.

And besides, he thought, watching her with more than a little interest, for her the effect was probably much the same. As Elizabeth looked down at the stage below, the musicians and the theater lights, he could see her exhilaration and excitement. This theater was where she took flight. It was where she felt truly alive.

"I'll be okay." Will took the sandwich she'd dug from her pack, his mouth forming a slightly crooked smile. He unwrapped his sandwich and examined it. Turkey. "No sprouts?"

"I'm a girl of my word," she winked before taking a bite of her own sandwich. Down below, the conductor stepped onto his box. The orchestra, which up to now had been warming up their instruments with nonsensical notes, suddenly stuck up a tune. Mozart swelled in the amphitheater. Elizabeth let out a breath.

"Wonderful, isn't it?"

Those eyes of hers, emerald green, holding just a hint of gray, fascinated him. Her skin was so smooth. Every blush of emotion pooled in her cheeks. He couldn't think of a single reply, despite the world class orchestra just below them.

"The royal box is over there. The family hasn't been here once while I've been here, thank goodness. I'd be a mess if they were here. Occasionally it gets rented out. For loads of money, believe me." She paused, realized her audience, "not that you'd have that problem. If you ever want it, there's a private room behind the box. It's lovely."

His sandwich finished, he rested both hands on the guardrail, taking keener observation of the theater than he ever had before. "Have you always been so taken with the theater?"

She shrugged.

"I didn't see much of it growing up. Mum and Da had enough to clothe and feed the family, but not enough for long trips. Especially after—” She halted. Especially after she'd gotten sick. “Money was tight. Still, Mum was determined: ballet when I was seven. Ballet lessons were her way of keeping me inside in the winter. I don't think she realized I'd love it so much. But I did, and the next year I plagued her and plagued her to take me into the city. I wanted to see a real ballet."

"And you loved it," Darcy deduced, his voice softening.

"It was a fairy land." Elizabeth smiled. "I went to see a ballet once a year after that, always on my birthday. I didn't start to appreciate composers until later and I can't play a bit of music, not even a tin whistle, but I love to listen as well as watch. Opera took much longer to appreciate. I didn't even see one until I was eighteen."

"A date?" He didn't know why that had that been his immediate assumption, but the image was instantaneous. Elizabeth Bennet, fresh faced and bright, taken to her first opera by a boy who'd admired her from afar.

"And what kind of man do you think would be taking me to the opera at eighteen?"

"A banker." Will guessed, though his rich, Shakespearean voice remained stoic as he conjured the image. "A man in a suit who thought the performance and a glass of wine at intermission would impress you."

Or, he thought, one who wondered how it would brighten that already sweet blush, or darken her luminous eyes.

"Young and prosperous, then? Not even close. Try fifty-three and fond of flannel," she laughed, downright gratified as his mask finally slipped. His shock and disbelief were obvious. "My uncle. And my aunt too, to be fair. They live in Dublin. The biggest laugh of all was I didn't even like it. The language and the way they expressed it was so mysterious to me. It took many tries for me to come round to opera but I can finally say I love it, and for most of the reasons I thought I didn't. Are you fond of music, then?"

Ah, there was his smile again. Just a hint of it, but the effect reached his eyes.

"Yes. Everything from Hendrix to Handel."

"Oh, my Da's a big Hendrix fan. Favorite Hendrix song?"

"The Wind Cries Mary."

"All Along the Watchtower," Elizabeth disagreed.

"Doesn't count. It's a Dylan song.”

"Smug know-it-all, aren't you?"

“Yes.” He laughed. It was a rich, velvety sound, just like his voice and hearing it she nearly asked why he hadn't chosen the stage over the court room. "My sister Georgiana is the musical expert in the family. She could spend hours working on a single piece. She spends more money on sheet music than clothing. Georgie is thirteen and has other interests, of course, like any teen. But when she sits down and focuses on it, she's not even aware of the passage of time. She just plays and plays. It's like having Chopin in the dining room."

She wondered if her own brothers gushed to people back in Ireland about her and strongly doubted it. Her four brothers loved her, of that she was absolutely certain, but it was the love of four boys who would tease her mercilessly as fast as they kissed her.

Will's praise of Georgiana was almost paternal. It must be because of the age gap, she thought. He would be more of an authority figure to her than a simple brother.

"I'm sure your parents must be proud of her."

An odd look flitted across his face. His mouth tightened. His eyes grew darker. Unwelcome territory, she thought.

"Yes," he answered, very quietly. He looked away, down at the orchestra pit below. "Yes, I'm certain of it."

**


The sky had been depressingly gray all day. The rooftops were still snowy, the streets were slick with ice. The last days of January were clinging to the calendar. Winter at its grimmest. Emma was usually such a buoyant personality, but beneath that sunshine temperament were an array of mercurial moods and Anne suspected she was finding the wintery gloom tedious at best.

"Either of you want to meet me at the gym when you're done with work?" Emma had suggested over a shared breakfast with her flatmates that morning.

Elizabeth had been finishing the last of her morning oatmeal. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, and she wore a loose piece of knitwear over a lavender leotard. She had a notebook open, studying sketches, abbreviations and marks. Ostensibly the notebook was open to review choreography before her morning rehearsal, but the truth was, her mind kept drifting back to the previous evening and her conversation with Will Darcy.

Her green eyes glanced up, clouded with thoughts. "What were you saying?"

"The gym? Tonight? I'm going to meet Knightley there. I thought you and Anne might want to come, too. Not that you need the exercise."

"I'd love to, but I can't. I've got practice till 5:00 and then I'm working a shift at the pub."

"What about you, Anne?" Emma had questioned, removing a bagel from the toaster. She split it in half, covered both parts with cream cheese and dropped one half on Anne's plate. "Bagel and cream cheese. An American custom. You'll love it."

Emma had made it her mission to verify that Anne was taking better care of her health, and that she was getting three proper meals a day. The task came naturally to her. She was used to looking after people after all those years cosseting her father. And everyone knew Anne's own sisters didn't seem to care in the slightest what happened to her. E

Her work appeared to be paying off. The color in Anne's cheeks was improving. The fit of Anne's favorite cardigan, which had been unintentionally loose for months, was now tight.

Emma was happy to see it. At least something in this dreary weather should be flourishing. Now if only she could get a little romance in Anne's life, that would really help perk her up. And Emma just happened to know that a certain someone was tagging alone with Knightley to the gym tonight.

Unaware of the setup, Anne pleasantly agreed to the plan.

Snow was still fresh on the ground. By the time Anne arrived, she was happy for the artificial heat of a large gym. Emma had agreed to meet her at the check-in desk, and there she was, in a cheerful yellow top and soft gray track pants.

"Anne, you made it! You've got great timing. Come on, let's get you ready," Emma said cheerfully, tugging her into the gym locker room. Fred had arrived an hour ago, without Knightley, much to Emma's disappointment. Knightley had been delayed at the hospital and would be along soon, she'd been told. By now Fred was halfway through his workout. She didn't want Anne to miss a good opportunity for bonding.

Anne's brow furrowed as Emma took her coat and hung it up in a nearby locker. "Ready for what?"

"Let me see what you're wearing," Emma ignored the question. Track clothes and a black zip up sweatshirt. "What sort of shirt's beneath the sweatshirt?"

It was a red t-shirt, one that Anne had had since she was sixteen and could never bear to throw out.

"Red! That's the perfect color for you, Anne. Keep the sweatshirt off, you won't need it. It's a sauna on the gym floor. And can you let down your hair?"

"My hair? Emma, I can't work out with my hair down."

"Oh, sure you can." She dug into her own gym back and pulled out some lip gloss. "I brought this for you. Want to try it?"

"Emma," Anne laughed, staying her hand and giving her a firm look. "Now you must be joking."

"Come on, just a little? It has only a touch of color in it. It'll help keep your mouth from drying out in this frigid weather, even better than lip balm. You and Lizzie, you've both got the thickest, longest hair which I'm so jealous of. I can't understand why you both hide it so often."

Emma reached around and deliberately loosened Anne's tidy ponytail until her chestnut brown curls fell around her shoulders. Emma parted it with an expert, artist's eye, allowing it to fall over one brow and down past her shoulders. She turned her towards the mirror. "Look at that. You're a knockout."

Anne normally avoided mirrors; she forced herself to look. The girl staring back wasn't bland or washed out; she didn't look ill or afraid. Her dark eyes were shy still and hesitant, and that dominated the impression, but the woman in the mirror truly was beautiful. There was no denying it. Her red mouth would draw a man's eye, as would her hair, which Emma had quickly but artfully arranged. She'd gained back her figure, which included a curving waist and a fuller chest.

She looked like a flamenco dancer who'd decided to trade her red dress for track clothes. Even her father would approve.

"I can't go out there like this."

"And be the beauty of the gym room? Why not?" Emma countered, tugging her friend toward the locker room exit.

"I don't think anyone's capable of taking that title from you, Emma," Anne laughed. "Let's go back; I need to get my sweatshirt."

"No way. This place really is like a sauna, Anne, you'll be happy with just the t-shirt. Once you get some boxing gloves on, you'll see what I mean."

"Boxing?"

"I don't know if that's exactly what it's called; sparring was what I think Fred said. Self defense, you know? He was more than happy to offer me lessons. I think I'd rather the treadmill while I'm here, but I am certain he would extend that offer to you. He's such a nice guy."

"I know very well that he's nice, Emma, but I really don't think after our last meeting that I'm in a position to talk with him. Even more than that, I doubt very much that he'd look forward to talking to me."

"Oh, don't be silly. Sure, he was a little grumpy the last time you spoke but sometimes men get like that around women they like."

"Emma," Anne bit her lip, "I know you have the best of intentions, but that sentence doesn't even make sense."

"Doesn't it?" Emma snorted. "Check with Will Darcy on that and then get back to me." The door swung open and Anne stopped short.

"Fred!" Emma beamed. "How nice of you to meet me. And look, Anne's here too! What luck, isn't it?"

He'd been expecting Emma--only Emma. Knightley's Emma--buoyant, cheerful and blonde. She'd said something about self defense lessons and he'd been more than willing to oblige. Knightley had commented some time back about worrying over her living arrangements, it wasn't the safest part of town that she was living in. He'd assumed she had finally listened to him and decided to learn how to defend herself properly if the situation ever arose.

What he hadn't been expecting was the beauty next to her. Anne Elliot. As it was, he hadn't managed to get the thought of her out of his head since the hospital a few weeks ago. He'd been haunted by it, shadowed by thoughts of her soft voice, her quiet smile. He felt like he hadn't slept properly since.

The time apart seemed to be doing her well. The Anne he saw at the hospital was fragile, too thin, slightly unhealthy looking. He'd still found her beautiful, had still found her timid smile impossibly enchanting and those dark eyes limitless and doe-like. But the difference between that girl and this was enough to make him feel breathless. This seemed more the Anne of his youth, with her curls falling loose, and a mouth that could make even his iron will break.

"Fred. You will teach our Anne here, won't you?" Emma supplied, "It'd be a shame to let your generous offer go to waste."

"I could. If that's what she wants." It was a short, militaristic answer to go with the cool blue of his eyes.

The address was to Emma, of course, thought Anne. He wouldn't even look me in the eye, so why should he speak as if he knew me. Why won't you say it to me, Anne wondered with a sudden flash of frustration. Why won't you even look at me!

"Frederick-" Anne attempted to interrupt. "You really don't have to."

"I want to," he cut her off with sudden heat. She'd wanted him to look at her, finally and properly, and that suggestion had certainly done the trick. The look in his eyes was making her squirm.

Feeling like a third wheel, Emma gestured behind her to nowhere in particular. "Okay, well...you two have fun. Anne, I'll be in the weight room. Come find me later, okay?" Her jog away from them was so rapid it might as well have been a sprint. To make matters even better, Knightley was emerging from the men's locker room. She managed to intercept him before he could make his way to Fred.

"You look busy," he greeted her, his gaze sharpening. "Is that Anne over there with Frederick?"

Emma grabbed his elbow, steering him away from Frederick and Anne. "Yes."

"And where are we going?"

"Somewhere we won't bother them. I know what you're going to say next. That Fred is a grown man capable of making his own decisions..."

"So sure of me, are you? I was going to say you look like the captain of a cheer squad. "

He used his free hand to tug lightly at her high ponytail. "And why do I feel like we've had this conversation already..."

"About business?"

"About Anne and Fred," he reminded her. "And how they can work things out for themselves. And wasn't Fred going to teach you some self-defense?"

"I had Anne go instead. Things are a little tense between them, sure, but a little close contact between them can't hurt. It's the only way to break the ice properly."

"Uh huh." He scratched his jaw, eying her, "Interesting plan. But if you're not getting self-defense lessons, how about trying one of the machines in here?"

"I can't lift weights," she protested as he guided her to one of the bench presses.

"Sure you can, it'll be good for you. That way if you ever really do need to pop someone in the jaw, you'll have a little strength in those weak arms. Now lie back." He guided her to lie down on a bench, then sat on a plateau just behind her. "Don't worry, Emme, I'll spot you."

"Weak arms," she grumbled as he rested a metal weight bar in the holders that were on either side of her. "My arms are fine. They're perfectly proportionate to the rest of me."

"Emma, I've more than noticed the rest of you," Knightley stood and slid small weights onto either end of the bar.

"You're terrible," Emma answered with a laugh. She put her hands around the metal bar above her, uncertain.

"Lift up," Knightley guided, his hands hovering right below the bar to catch the weight if she were to slip. "Now down."

"I can't believe I'm letting you talk me into this."

"That makes two of us," Knightley answered dryly. "I'm still not convinced this is the right approach for Anne and Fred."

When they'd established a rhythm, up and down, up and down, he noticed with satisfaction that she was starting to relax into it. His hands, however, stayed right where they were below the bar.

"How was your day?" He questioned casually.

"Fine." She exhaled, hesitated, and then decided she was going to have to tell him eventually and so she might as well just blurt it out. "I spoke with Sandra about the campaign and De Bourgh and wanting to be independent from Daddy's money. You know Sandra, perpetually practical. She thinks that if I want to put myself in a position where I'm...financially solvent, I should consider doing the campaign. I've done it for this long, Sandra said, what's the harm of one more job?"

Actually, her older sister's exact words had been rather less gentle.

"I don't know what's wrong with you, Emma,” Sandra had remarked. “Six months ago you would have taken the job and been grateful for it. Now the biggest jewelry maker in the world wants to hire you, and they want to pay you a lot of money for relatively little effort on your part, and, you won't do it? What changed?"

Six months ago she hadn't been reevaluating her life. And six months ago she hadn't been romantically involved with George Knightley. She had to think those two changes were related.

"Then I spoke with Norris," Emma continued. "You'll never believe who she put me into a conference call with.."

"Who?"

"Andromeda de Bourgh. She wants to sit down to a meeting with me at Rosings. It's her family's estate in Virginia. She'd go over the logistics of the potential shoot with me and give me a tour of the estate where the campaign would be photographed. Henry Crawford will be there with a light meter to take some initial tests of the exterior."

She exhaled as she pushed up, and not entirely from the effort of the weights. She had started the morning so firm in what she wanted, or thought she wanted, but the longer she'd talked to Sandra, and then Norris, the less her goals had seemed reasonable and the more taking this job with De Bourgh had seemed like her best option.

"De Bourgh would even pay for my flight. The weekend she's flying me in coincides with her step-mother's birthday celebration. She said it's the perfect time for Henry and his team to visit, because Rosings will be properly dressed -" Seeing that he didn't recognize the term, she explained, "decorated. That's why they want me there, for some test shots. "

Before she could try lifting the press one more time, Knightley caught at the bar, removed it from her hands with ease and settled it back into its resting place. He looked down at her, his expression serious. "So you've agreed to the shoot, then?"

She sat up, then shifted so they were face to face. "I haven't signed any formal contracts yet, but I think there's no harm in going to see the location. I've been thinking about what we discussed on our date, about me choosing my own life--" She slipped her hand into his. "I want to quit modeling. You know that better than anyone. But what Sandra said made sense. I was never any good at arguing with her."

"Maybe because you get all of your arguing out of your system with me first."

She bit her lip, sensing disapproval. "It's just one more job. The last job. I'm done with the industry, I told Norris that."

Then why don't you just walk away now, Knightley wondered, do what you want? He could have argued with her about it. But he could also see her hesitation, and her fear. She had so much fear in breaking away from the thing that had defined her. He wanted to say that she should have more confidence in her other talents and abilities. That she was worth more than the price tag for her face or body, and that she should tell De Bourgh and Norris and Henry Crawford, any number of personal assistants, and yes, even Sandra Woodhouse-Knightley (who he loved, but who also had a propensity for interfering), to shove off because Emma could live her own life just fine by making her own decisions.

But he didn't say any of that, even if he should have. Instead, he simply squeezed her hand back.

"When would you leave?"

"The first week of March. And there's one other thing: Andromeda said they're having a big party for that weekend, and I'll be expected to attend a formal dinner. She said I could bring someone along with me. Will you come?"

"I'd love to, Emma, but I'm booked at the hospital for that weekend. Will should be there to keep you company. Lady Catherine's his aunt."

"Will," Emma chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip. She was disappointed that Knightley couldn't come, but not surprised. It had been hard enough for them to schedule their date night with his job at the hospital. He couldn't just fly halfway around the world for a weekend just to keep her company.

Rosings Estate in Virginia. If George couldn't accompany her, maybe she could talk Will into discussing his feelings for Elizabeth. Few people needed quite as much guidance in the romance department and Will and Elizabeth; Emma knew she was just the one for the job.

**


Fred was a nice guy. He had patience. He had fortitude. He wasn't prone to a bad temper. In fact, he would consider himself downright cool-headed compared to Darcy. But at that moment he could let loose a host of the worst sailor curses and still not find relief.

Going face to face and arm to arm with a woman he'd spent the bulk of his adult life trying to get over was a true test of his mettle.

And here Anne was, looking beautifully innocent and entirely beguiling. Those locks seemed to be begging for his touch, making his hands twitch every time he looked at them. And her mouth wasn't helping, either. When she really listened --and Anne could focus with sudden seriousness that few others possessed-- she would purse her mouth in thought, twisting it into a bee stung pout. He'd been watching it for the last half hour and it was making him feel cagey. It made him want to ban her from the mats so he could find the nearest punching bag and work out his tension.

"Like this?" Anne questioned, trying to mimic the air punch he'd shown her. Forget the punching bag, Frederick thought recklessly. He wanted grab her by the wrist and pull her into a brusque, boiling kiss to determine whether her mouth still tasted like strawberries and desire.

"Uh, not quite," Frederick answered, his voice strained with control. "Let's go over your stance. You have to loosen up a little, Anne."

He'd gone as far as he could without actually touching her, but avoiding it any further would be ludicrous. He stepped behind her, both hands just shy of touching her. At his hesitation, Anne arched a single brow. It was a placid, mild little look, one he'd remembered her giving when they were still teenagers.

"It's okay, Fred," Anne said calmly. "Show me. I know you won't hurt me."

Trust. That seemed more than he deserved given the fact that he didn't trust himself, or the hurricane she produced in him. But he wasn't a coward; he could fight through this temptation. She didn't seem to have the slightest bit of trouble standing this close, which made him think he alone was battling old, residual feelings. That would make it easier for him to keep from falling for her again.

"Relax your shoulders." His hands skimmed over her shoulders, then down her shoulder blades. "Feel the difference?"

The body under his hands was soft, though his touch didn't seem to lesson her tension. If anything, he thought he felt her shiver. But that was crazy. "If a man comes at you in a dark alley and he's my size, what's your best line of defense when you throw a punch? Get as close as you can to him, or as far away?"

The differences between them had always been part of the interest for her. Her father's family was steeped in aristocracy; her mother was a sophisticated Spanish beauty. He was as English as they came, and from a family that was paycheck-to-paycheck poor. He was a man of action and energy. She possessed silence, stillness, and an effortless sophistication. He was tall and strong. She was gentle, delicate. They couldn't have been more different, but standing this close to him she could remember with every atom of her being precisely why she'd been drawn to him as a teen. He had a magnetism and a masculine strength that made her want to curl up in his arms and stay there forever.

"As close as I can get," she whispered, glancing up.

"Right," Fred said. "Right. Because if you're smaller than your opponent, you have to get in close and stay there to produce enough power for your shot."

He knelt down, putting on two large, padded gloves. They weren't boxing gloves; they were more like soft, padded targets. He stood again, turning towards her with both gloved hands raised. "Go on, Anne, hit me. Right at the target. A cross jab, just like I showed you. Hit the right target, and then left."

She did, and with surprising proficiency. "You do this sort of thing often when you're out to sea?"

"Sometimes," he answered cautiously. "It's a good conditioning tool."

"I remember..." she began, but stopped herself. Go on, she told herself. We had a life together once. No matter how indifferent he feels to me now, he can't have forgotten everything. I certainly haven't. With a lot of inward courage, she began again, "I remember when we were teenagers. You used to box. I tagged along with Darcy and Knightley to watch one of your matches."

Of course he remembered it. His Anne, his sweetheart, showing up at that Hackney back alley boxing ring hadn't pleased him in the slightest. It was probably the only time in his life he hadn't been happy to see her, and the aftermath of it had produced one of their first arguments. The warehouse was dirty and filled with rough, disreputable men and scrappy teenagers. Unlike Frederick, a lot of them had gang connections. There was a lot of betting involved. He'd been seventeen and, thinking back on it, very stupid. "It seemed like a good way of making some extra money."

"I was terrified seeing you there," she confided. "And my mother and father would have been furious."

"You should have been scared," he answered with a touch of severity that was fueled by past emotion. "You were fifteen and so--" So beautiful, he wanted to say. He would have said it so freely once, but now he hesitated. "I never liked seeing you around people like that. I reamed out Darcy and Knightley for bringing you along."

"They were there to watch out for me," she reminded him gently.

"You could have been hurt," he told her.

"It wasn't myself I was worried about. It was you. I was terrified for you. Every time you took a hit, I was afraid your jaw would shatter. And when you fell to the ground, I was so afraid you wouldn't get up..."

Her presence had driven him to distraction. He'd been worried for her, furious at his friends for allowing her to come, afraid that she would be tainted somehow by seeing London's underbelly, or himself as having any part in it.

"The match you showed up at was the only match I got knocked out at," he declared.

"And your last," she said quietly.

"And my last," he agreed. She had asked him not to do it again, and he'd agreed. He would have done absolutely anything for her. Anything. The look that passed between them said they were both remembering it. How disappointed he must have been in her at the end, she thought with a stab of pain. How disappointed he must still be...

Frederick exhaled slowly, trying to shake off the sudden mood. Halfway through their conversation she'd stopped practicing and so he raised his hands again.

"Give me a right hook, Anne. Last one. Nice and hard."

Because she didn't want to deny him anything anymore, not a single thing, Anne raised her hand and moved to punch.

"Anne? Anne Elliot!?"

It was his fault. She would blame herself, but Frederick shouldn't have moved when a punch was coming at him. A man had called to her, a voice he didn't recognize, and with a good deal of familiarity. And so Fred had turned to look, curious and protective and perhaps more than a little territorial. It was at that moment, unfortunately, that she chose to punch. Her right cross, surprisingly forceful, hit him square in the jaw.

The next thing he knew she was kneeling over him. Her eyes were so dark. They'd always been able to lower his defenses, to go in for the kill, to finish him off completely. When she looked down at him, so sweet and enticing, he knew the truth. Frederick Wentworth, Captain of the Royal Navy, courageous on the battlefield, downright creative in a fight, had been laid low by a primary school teacher.

"Frederick!" She shook him fretfully, eyes going as large as if she'd just kicked her favorite puppy. The lower lip bite was the part that really stabbed at him. "Fred, I'm so sorry. Are you alright? Did I hurt you badly?"

"I'm fine," Fred actually laughed as he sat up. "I've had worse from bigger fists, Angel, believe me."

Angel. The old pet name he'd probably spoken to her a million times over the course of their relationship. It was out of his mouth before he could stop it.

But if she noticed the term, there wasn't time to comment on it. The man who'd called out to Anne was within eyesight and was waving enthusiastically. It was Wilhelm Elias, with a gym bag, a towel and a very broad smile.

"I didn't know you came here, Anne."

"I don't usually," Anne rocked back on her heels. Angel. Outwardly she looked as calm as ever and the name had surely been an accident, but to hear him say it aloud made her heart feel full enough to burst.

Mustn't read into it, she told herself. He could barely look at me at the start of this and he wouldn't even touch me.

"Fred, this is Wilhelm Elias. Wilhelm, meet Frederick Wentworth."

"Looks like she socked you good," Elias said, shaking hands with Fred before ignoring him completely. "I'm headed over to the weight room, myself. Feel like joining me, Anne?"

Anne's dark gaze wavered from one man to the other before fixing on the more important point. Frederick. "That is where Knightley and Emma said they were going. Would you like to come?"

"You go on ahead," Fred answered mildly. He rubbed at his jaw and then stood. "I'm headed for the locker room, myself."

After an hour in the gym in such close quarters to Anne what he really needed, Fred realized as he wiped his brow with a nearby towel and watched the pair walk away, was a long, cool shower.
SubjectAuthorPosted

An Even Path: Post 6

BernadetteEJune 11, 2017 02:52PM

Re: An Even Path: Post 6

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Re: An Even Path: Post 6

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