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An Even Path: Post 9

November 19, 2017 11:47PM
An Even Path: Post 9



Chapter 12


Mansfield Park was nothing short of astonishing.

Romanesque bridge, complete with keystone arches, stretched over its rivers. There were stretches of oak trees and long sweeping lawns. They drove past enormous topiary mazes, dormant rose gardens, and high stone walls.

The car stopped at the edge of one broad courtyard. After exiting the car, the trio gathered at one frost covered fountain. The circular fountain was vast, and as deep as a large pond. At the center was a brass statue: a ten-foot Neptune with an enormous silver trumpet.

“England's answer to Schönbrunn Palace,” Emma declared. The blonde's dress was a long, floaty, chocolate brown satin. The hem pooled at her ankles. The straps crossed at her back. “That's just how he described it. Exactly this.”

Elizabeth nodded, hardly hearing her. She was still twisting her invitation between her fingers. Their surroundings certainly had the breadth of an imperial estate. The house equaled that grandeur, stretching so wide she couldn't be glimpsed in one viewing. She had to glance right and then left to take in the scope of it. It was a model of classical symmetry, with hundreds of long, arched windows, and dozens of slender columns.

Elizabeth was glad she'd worn her sapphire tea dress with its high, bateau neckline and its flared, knee length skirt. She would feel anxious enough in a palace. She couldn't imagine entering a place like this in that eye catching, blood red dress.

“Emma,” said Anne. Everything seemed louder in the great, cavernous courtyard. The word echoed.“Who described Mansfield Park to you that way?”

“Lord Mansfield's heir.” Emma's answer was distant.

The trio began their approach. "There must be a hundred rooms here,” murmured Elizabeth. “Can you imagine washing all those windows?"

Once they'd entered the main house, Elizabeth realized she was probably one of the rare souls here who considered burden involved in the task. Every aristocrat with a designer frock and an annuity was here at Mansfield Park. Waiters in white tie and tails were ushering guests into the reception hall.

A whole wing had been opened up to host the festivities. One long room led into another, and then another. The ceilings were vaulted and trimmed with leaf pattern moldings. The floors were shining marble. One long reception room led into a huge mirrored ballroom. The ballroom adjoined another parlor. The parlor connected to another ballroom. Sconces lined every window. Waiters floated past with champagne flutes.

Every room was crowded with men in tuxedos and women in sparkling dresses. Light chatter warred with the hum of music. The dance floors were already full with couples dancing and flirting.

Another beautifully dressed couple drifted past them. “I've never been in a place this...opulent,” said Elizabeth.

“It's much, much bigger than Kellynch Hall,” agreed Anne.

“Nothing we can't handle.” Emma gathered the girls into an impromptu circle. “A few rules. Firstly, the goal of the night is to have fun.”

“Alright,” said Anne quietly. “Second, just because a man asks you to dance, that doesn't obligate you to say yes.”

“Okay, yes, that's true, Anne, but--” Emma laughed, “that doesn't mean you need to ask for his emergency contact list just to dance with him. Sometimes dancing with a guy you'll never see again is fun. Rule three: it's not a crime to be flirtatious. I won't be, of course, since I have George, but it's Valentine's Day. If you want to flirt up a storm with some cute guy, go for it.”

“Well, I'd like to add rule four,” Elizabeth interjected, “none of us need a man. There's plenty of fun to be had dancing without one.”

“True,” Emma conceded. “Also, if any man asks you to go to some secluded spot with him, only go if one of us has met the guy and declared him trustworthy. As I told Lizzie, I have strong elbows.”

“And Emma always carries mace in her purse.” Elizabeth nodded proudly to Emma. “Emme, you're a good deal cannier than you get credit for most of the time.”

“Honey, if you knew the men in the modeling industry, you'd know that I had to be.”

Elizabeth nodded. She searched the sea of people for any friendly, familiar faces.

Chance helped her spot Mikhail in the crowd. Chance, thought Elizabeth, and the fact that he was five-foot-ten, and two-hundred-twenty pounds of solid Russian muscle. Beside him stood another male dancer, fair haired, Swedish Johan Jorgenson.

Mikhail's eyes lit up when he saw her. He gestured to Johan. Both men started moving through the crowd.

“Friends of yours?” Emma observed.

“Dancers in the company. Mikhail and Johan. Mikhail's built like a great Russian tank, but he has a soft heart.” Elizabeth tiptoed, trying to get a better glimpse of the approaching men. “Johan is kind, but a maddening flirt.”

Johan arrived first. He was tall, with a long, wiry frame. He had curling red hair, a dashing smile, and a crooked nose. The man's blue gaze landed squarely on Anne. A grin spread over his mouth.

Elizabeth wasn't surprised. Anne would be getting a lot of attention tonight. Her dress was a wine purple column, snug at the bodice, with a sweetheart neckline. Emma had used every inch of makeup craft on Anne. She'd accented the arch of Anne's eyebrows, and used lipstick to make her lips more generous. A shimmery blend of smoke gray and cool violet had been dabbed onto her eyelids and then blended. She'd accented the look with artful strokes of eye liner.

The affect was stunning.

“Friend of yours, Lizzie?” Johan asked, holding out one hand as he approached.

Elizabeth nodded. “This is my roommate, Anne. That's Emma, and--” Elizabeth's introduction was interrupted by Mikhail. The Russian was planting a wet, firm kiss on her cheek.

“I suffer here without you, Elisaveta,” Mikhail announced.

Elizabeth drew back with a laugh. “In the four brief hours since you saw me at the opera house?”

Johan was drawing Anne's hand into his own. He left a kiss on her palm. “Happy to meet you, Anne. Please tell me that you came here to dance?”

It had been so very long since any man had been so blatantly flirtatious with her that the gesture caused quiet Anne to giggle. You came here to have fun, Anne told herself. So have fun. “Elizabeth mentioned that you can dance. Perhaps that's enough for both of us?”

“A good answer,” Johan confirmed, drawing Anne onto the dance floor.

Mikhail's twinkling eyes landed briefly on Emma. He smiled at the beautiful blonde, though his attention shifted quickly back to Elizabeth.“It seems your friends are all as pretty as you are.”

“Nice line.” Elizabeth laughed. “You're too late, Misha. She has a boyfriend.”

Confusion furrowed his brow. “Who has a boyfriend? You, milaya?”

“No.” Elizabeth's confusion mirrored his. “Emma. My pretty friend.” She drew her hand away from his. “I ought to find Alistair.”

“Yes. Still, let me see what dress you have worn for me.”

“I wore it for me, Misha, though you can look all you want,” she teased.

He shrugged and touched her elbow. She knew the wordless gesture. He wanted her to spin. The skirt swirled when she turned.

She knew her dress was simple and sweet compared to the rest of the attendees, but she was a country girl, not a grand duchess, and couldn't pretend to be anything more than that. The silk fabric had a sapphire shine in it. There were pearls in her ears. A three-strand pearl choker fastened at her neck.

She had, in the end, let Emma do her makeup. Emma had blended a soft-textured, silvery shadow onto her eyelids and edged a narrow line of dark eyeliner as close to Elizabeth's upper lash line as she could draw it. Her long lashes were curled and darkened with a coat of black mascara. The accents brought out a subtle, luminous quality in Elizabeth's soft green eyes. She'd finished up with a shimmery illuminator on Elizabeth's skin, a faint dusting of pale rose blush on her cheeks, and a wet gloss on her lips.

“Lovely,” Mikhail said, flashing a broad smile.

“Thanks. Here's hoping Alistair approves. He wants me to meet investors this evening.”

“Do not let him take up all of your time.”

A light laugh floated out of her. “I'm planning on finding him now and getting the meet-and-greet over with. Hopefully that will leave me the rest of the night to do as I please. If you're looking for someone for you to squire on the dance floor, though, I expect you'll have a palace full of willing women. My roommate's a beautiful dancer?”

Emma was watching the scene unfold. She realized one fact very swiftly. This Mikhail fellow had a mile-wide crush on Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth doesn't feel anything for him beyond friendship.

This was nothing like her behavior around Will. Emma had witnessed the shy surprise that swept through Elizabeth whenever Will was around. She'd witnessed the captive stillness in Elizabeth when Will cradled her hand in his palm.

She didn't seem to recognize it in herself. Perhaps, thought Emma, it was the result of Elizabeth growing up in that little Irish hamlet, where many of the men she'd known had been blood relatives. She'd had little experience with dating. She'd never spoken of any teenage sweethearts.

Mikhail couldn't have been the only one who looked at her with desire. Elizabeth was around men constantly at MacClaren's. Quite a few must have been charmed by the dark haired waitress. When it came to men, there was either true naivete in Elizabeth, or some degree of deliberate avoidance.

A little bit of column A, Emma decided, and a little bit of column B. Either way, Elizabeth couldn't see yet what Emma noticed clearly: brawny Mikhail would attempt to hold onto her all night if he could manage it.

“I don't know about a beautiful dancer,” Emma interjected with a cheerful smile, “not compared to Lizzie. But I'd be happy to dance, if you feel like it.”

“She's better than she lets on,” Elizabeth winked at Mikhail. “She won't even step on your toes.”

“Regardless,” Mikhail stepped forward and held out his hand to Emma, “I would be happy to dance.”

**

Will told himself this was a good idea. As he walked through the crowded reception room, his long fingers tucked under the band of his necktie. It felt tight.

Maybe it was just the press of the people around him. He told himself if she was required to survive this high society hothouse for an evening, than Will would do the same. He'd do this for her.

Even if she never knew it, even if their paths never crossed tonight, he knew he was doing it for her.

**

For most of the attendees, the party's first two hours of the party sped by quickly.

Not for Frederick Wentworth. He wondered if Louisa would've gotten this drunk if he hadn't prefaced their date by confessing to her that he saw her as a friend, only that, and that he hoped they could enjoy the party together in that spirit of friendship.

Now she was toddling in her four inch stilettos while he tried to talk her out of another Tequila Sunset. Who knew the woman had a taste for grenadine?

"I don't need water," Louisa moved past him. He was following her up the curved stairwell and wondering how she gained any traction when her heels sank into the carpet runner.

What a night. He hoped Will was having better luck than he was.

They arrived at a long sitting room. He'd already been in a dozen rooms in the estate's eastern wing.
This was the first room with anything close to comfortable looking furniture. There were cushioned, camel colored couches here. He saw a crystal coffee table, and shaded lamps.

“I'm going to powder my nose,” Louisa announced grandly.

“Alright.” Frederick's thumbs hooked at his belt. “That's fine, Lou. I'll wait here.”

He planted himself on the nearby couch. Groups of blondes fluttered past, heading toward the bathroom. In this crowd, Louisa could blend in quickly. There were blondes everywhere.

Objectively, he could appreciate Louisa's fragile, flaxen-hair, her pale complexion, her watery blue eyes. Still, he wondered why his sister Sophia hadn't been insightful enough to notice that Fred went weak kneed for the exact opposite look. His heartbeat quickened for beauty born from hot weather and sunshine.

He was sure about one thing: this was the last time he was ever going to let his older sister set him up with anyone. From now on, he could find his own dates.

Frederick hunched forward, resting his elbows on his knees while he rubbed at his eyes. He wondered what Anne was doing tonight. He'd been thinking about her all day. He thought of her every day. Nights, too. He'd suffered lots of lonely nights thinking about her. Today though, Valentine's Day, had special significance for him.

He remembered her. He remembered the shiver in her body when he touched her bare skin, and how their kisses raced through him like fire. He remembered the quick dash of humor on her face when they'd fumbled in bed, and how they'd laughed together.

I miss everything about her, he thought. Every single thing. She was my best friend. I shouldn't have given up. I should have tried harder..

“You look...particularly miserable,” a low, voice touched his ears. “Even...by Mansfield Park standards.”

Frederick looked up. A blond youth, lanky, lean as a whip, was leaning against the wall. The teen looked unsteady. There was a tumbler of alcohol in his hand.

Frederick frowned. “Want some help?”

The boy shook his head. The teen had blond hair, long enough to touch his shoulders, and nearly black eyes. He wore tuxedo trousers. His white dress shirt was unbuttoned.

“You're young for a party like this,” Frederick said. The kid was as drink as a skunk. He'd corralled his share of drunk, teenage midshipmen from shore to boat. He couldn't help the older brother instinct that kicked into him. “You need help getting to a taxi?”

Bitter humor stretched across the boy's face. “Au contraire,” the boy murmured, forcing himself to straighten, “I happen to live here.”

He lived here? Every story George Knightley ever told about the Mansfield Park wunderkind rushed through his mind.

“Ah,” said Frederick. “That makes you Tye Bertram.”

“Yes. Unfortunately. And I don't need help. I'm headed for the study.”

Frederick found himself standing. “Wherever you're going, the journey might not be easy when you're this drunk.”

“Thanks all the same, but...” the boy rubbed his ribcage, “I'm an old hand at debauchery.”

True to his claim, the boy managed surprisingly steady, albeit slow, progress down the neighboring hallway.

Frederick shook his head. The kid looked eighteen or nineteen, tops. No one that young should sound that jaded.

Louisa appeared shortly thereafter. She had more lipstick on, which she'd managed to apply with a mostly steady hand. He offered her a hand. “Ready to go downstairs?”

“Mmm...yes.” She breezed past him, toddling down the stairwell.

Frederick sighed and followed her. Maybe she'd sobered up just a little bit in the bathroom. He hoped so. Louisa managed safe progress down the winding stairwell. She brushed quickly past the woman at the stairwell's base, barely noticing her.

Frederick noticed her. All he saw of her was her profile. That was enough to make his whole body halt. Who is she?

She was so gorgeous that the sight of her hit him like a stop sign. She wore a purple gown. It was strapless. It had a snug bodice, one that outlined a sweet, hourglass shape.

She had a cinnamon-tan complexion, and a tumble of brown curls. The woman halted, one dainty hand balancing against the banister while she fixed her shoe. He wondered what the sudden, roaring sound flooding his ears was.

It was the sound of his own heart. The only woman who'd ever affected him that hard and that fast was Anne Elliot.

She looks like Anne. That's why I can't stop staring, he realized, dazed when stranger straightened and slipped into the crowd. She looked like the version of Anne who occasionally appeared in his most blood-warming dreams.

He didn't rush to follow her. He let her move away from him.

He didn't need a duplicate of Anne. He needed Anne.

**

Elizabeth's chances to mingle in the first hour were minimal. Charlotte, catching sight of her, quickly tugged her toward Alistair Allen and the rest of the opera house brass who were gathered in the assembly room.

Quixote, Quixote, Quixote. She couldn't get away from it. The promoters were keen on discussing promotion, press releases, interviews. There would be photo shoots and newspaper advertisements. The Daily Chronicle's society page would be spotlighting the dancers for the upcoming season.

The conversation turned toward fiscal projections and ticket sales.

"And so you see, Miss Bennet,” spoke one executive, “the importance of a position like the one you find yourself in? Not just personally, not simply in terms of your career, but for the company's financial stability in the coming fiscal year? The investment we've made in Mr. Churchill is logical enough, though it required significant money up front, and we won't see the dividends until opening night. You, however, are the true gamble. You must outperform your toughest critics. The success of the ballet depends on your ability to perform at the highest level."

"I'll do my best, how's that?" Feeling her shoulders tense, Elizabeth tried to grab a glass of wine and missed. A waiter zigged past her.

All of this money talk was giving her a headache. She hated money. Her stomach rumbled. Was that caviar on that silver tray? She managed to snatch some from another waiter parading past.

As her teeth sunk into a cracker, a voice announced, "Is this where the Irish beauty's been hiding?"
Beauty. Her eyes grew wide at the term. With a pearly white smile, Mikhail stepped between Elizabeth and the two suited men talking over her. He placed an arm on her shoulder.

"Excuse me,” Mikhail announce, “I must request Gospaja Bennet's company. Important choreographic consultation, you see? I am afraid I must steal her away."

He tugged her by the arm until they were a safe distance away. Elizabeth laughed. "Important choreographic consultation? Nice, Micha."

"It was a boorish interruption. But I am Russian. These English suits think we are all boorish."

“A wrong assumption.”

Mikhail grabbed a wine glass and placed it between her fingers. "Drink this, you looked tense. And the Irish girl likes her caviar?"

"I've never had it before." She smiled, taking another bite and then chasing it down with some wine."It's paradise on a cracker. You want some?"

"British caviar? This is nothing compared to the best Russian caviar, pulled from the Black Sea. A feast for czars and princes. Now come dance with me, Elizaveta, before Frank or any other man steals you away. You cannot be ignored at a party like some wallfern."

"Wallflower, you flirt." Elizabeth laughed. “Wait, wait—let me finish the caviar and the drink.”

“But you will dance?”

“Oh, I'll dance,” she promised, taking another swig of her wine. “I swear it. I've paid my dues to the executives. For the rest of the night, I just want to have fun.”

Happiness, by her measurement, meant a good beat and a chance to move. As long as she could sidestep the businessmen, she was bound to have some fun.


**

Emma was breaking her own rule for him. Rule five: if any man asks you to go to some secluded spot with him, only go if Anne or Elizabeth has met the guy and declared him trustworthy.

Neither of her roommates had ever met Tye Bertram. She doubted either of them would deem him trustworthy. Most people didn't think Tye was. Knightley sure didn't.

Yes, she trusted George's judgment. That didn't make him infallible. She also trusted her own opinions. The love of her life often struggled to view Tye Bertram objectively. She couldn't blame him for it. If some other woman served an equivalent role in George's life, she knew she'd be wickedly jealous.

He needn't worry. For one thing, Tye was barely more than a boy. For another thing: despite Tye's breathtaking beauty, or because of it---she would never be attracted to him the way she was attracted to her lanky, lean scientist. She loved George, a man who'd been rail thin as a teen, who still sported reading glasses when he picked up a newspaper, whose face held rugged, charming imperfections.

Yes, she'd flirted with Tye last summer. Yes, they'd even kissed a few times. Despite all of that, deep inside, she felt fiercely protective of Tye. She trusted him. When he texted her instructions about how to reach his current location, she slipped away from the ballroom and arranged to meet him there.

It felt strange to walk through the private hallways of another man's house. She forced herself to do it because she knew Tye needed her. Emma halted at the doorway to a dark study.

Bookshelves lined one wall. Moonlight poured through long, paned windows. She saw a collection of leather, wing-backed chairs. Tye was in one. He sat with the authority of a boy king, with a body full of loose, languid grace. His right foot was propped against the nearby window sill. Light and shadow played against his beautiful features. His shirt was unbuttoned. His blond hair, which was long enough to brush his shoulders, looked tousled. There was a glass in his hand.

"Viscount Southerton," she greeted him softly. “How many of those have you had?”

He set the glass down on the neighboring end table. The movement was slow, showing the barest thread of steadiness.

“Enough to lose track of the total,” he said softly. His eyes shifted to her. He'd been born with strikingly dark eyes. “You look great, Emme.”

“Thank you.” A spare smile graced her lips. He looked worse than he had last summer. He was too thin. There were shadows under his eyes. Tye, what are you doing to yourself? “Happy Valentine's Day.”

“I'm not sure they exist, but thanks.” His smile held bittersweet affection. He lost another moment looking at her. “How's your Knight?”

“George is fine,” she said softly. She walked towards him. The lead lined windows were old, dating to the house's eighteenth century construction. A cold draft was slipping through the room. It stirred the hem of her satin dress.

“Did he come here with you?”

“No.” She halted at the large leather armchair. Tye's hand reached out. She took it, letting their fingers thread together. “George is working tonight. I'm meeting him at his townhouse when I leave here.”

She knew the implication in her statement. So did Tye. She saw his tired smile.

“I'm happy for you.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I'm happy, too.”

Slowly, his arms drew her nearer. She found herself climbing onto his lap. It was a gesture that she would allow no other man in the world, save for Knightley. She allowed it of Tye. He would never abuse the intimacy.

Trust. She trusted Tye deeply. Probably, as different as they were, it was because she still saw so much of herself in him.

“He should have taken the night off,” Tye whispered to her. “He works too much.”

Silently, she agreed with him. “It's his vocation. He takes it seriously. That's his approach to life.”

Tye nodded. Tye, too, had been serious once. Perhaps that was why he and George Knightley clashed from the start. It reminded him too much of his former self. “I didn't think you'd come.”

“Liar.” Her head rested on his shoulder. “You knew. You knew that I couldn't say no.”

“Your husband's never liked me.”

“Boyfriend. And no, George never did. I suppose he was threatened by you.”

His laugh was hollow. Tye found no humor in that fact. Half the world reacted that way around him. Even George Knightley, the paragon of all that was just and temperate, felt threatened by Tye's accomplishments. He shut his eyes. “If you had any idea how tired I am...”

Her hand brushed his cheek. The bones of his cheeks were sharper. Exhaustion lined Tye's face. “Tell me.”

I'm tired, thought Tye, of people knowing my name. I'm tired of seeing jealousy in the eyes of strangers. I'm tired of being the prodigy. I'm tired of being approached like a circus act, or a demi-god. Black eyes, hazy from alcohol, focused momentarily on her. “I'm glad you came.”

“I know.”

“We're friends, aren't we?”

“Yes. It's easier when you're sober.”

“Tell Knightley not to worry about this. Us. He should have seen the truth when we parted last.” Tired humor played on his face. “We'll never sleep together. You're a beautiful woman, but...whenever I've kissed you....it was like kissing my sister.”

She nodded. She'd felt similarly. Leave it to Tye to say it so bluntly. “Chemistry's a funny thing, isn't it?”

“Yeah, it surprised me, too.”

“I think I know part of the reason. We have too many of the same childhood hang-ups.”

She heard him laugh at the phrase, and understood.

Hang ups. It was a politer word than traumas. They both endured the burden of being viewed as extraordinary by the outside world; Emma for her beauty, Tye for his music. They'd both endured a dysfunctional, destructive parent, Emma's mother, Tye's father—a parent who envied and resented their offspring's talents. They'd both suffered an abridged childhood. They'd both been initiated into adulthood before they were ready. They'd both had their talents mass-marketed, their image reprinted in magazines across the world.

They never would have worked as a couple because they had too many of the same weaknesses and wounds.

“You need Knightley's..steady, confident influence. I'm glad you have it. Is he patient with you?”

“Intensely patient.”

“Doesn't pressure you?”

“Never.” Somehow, instinctively, Tye knew the pressures she faced, the walls she'd constructed. “Not once.”

“Good. I'm glad. You deserve that patience.”

“Tye...Why are you still doing this to yourself? The alcohol makes you so unhappy. And you have this look about you...” Her head lifted. There was no judgment in her eyes. “You look like you climbed out of someone's bed recently. Did you?”

“Yes. I have a friend staying the night.”

“And how old is she?”

“Thirty.”

“Thirty. Tye, that's twelve whole years older than you.”

“Eleven-and-a-half years older. I turned nineteen this month.”

“She's too old for you. The women you're with are always too old for you. You never date women your own age.”

“The older they are, the less they ask of me.”

“Do you care about her?”

“Of course. I care about every woman I take to bed,” he admitted quietly. “That doesn't mean she stays in my life. When morning comes, one of us leaves. I wouldn't sleep with someone if she didn't understand that from the outset.”

“You're afraid of a real emotional connection. You numb yourself with alcohol. You need help, Tye.”

“More help than you can offer me, love.”

“I worry that these women are taking advantage of you.”

Pure affection surfaced in his eyes. “Only because men have tried to take advantage of you for nearly a decade. I know how to protect myself.” His lips brushed her cheek, leaving a brotherly kiss. “In my own way, I do love you, Emma Woodhouse.”

She nodded. Emotion caught in her throat. “In my own way, I love you too, Tye Bertram.”

“That's why you have to go. When you return to George Knightely, tell him...tell him your brother says hello.”

**

Around him, guests debated stock options, and traded tales about winter homes in Palm Beach, or Cote d'Azure. Other guests tippled champagne, flirted, and danced with abandon.

Will was finding brief solace by the bar. As much solace as one could find, anyway, around Caroline Bingley. It was bad luck that, out of all the women here, it was Caroline Bingley, not Elizabeth Bennet, who'd found him in the crowd.

He'd been enduring her flirting with him for the better part of the hour.

“And Charles says his favorite stead will be ready for Pimlico,” Caroline continued, “but he's hired the most unqualified veterinarian to tend to our newest foals. She's too young. Completely incompetent.”

“Your brother knows what he's doing when it comes to horses.”

Will leaned against the bar, pulling a handful of notes from his wallet and sliding the bartender cash. He had the rare need for a drink. A strong one.

“What can I get you?” asked the bartender.

Will nearly said vodka. The memory of a beautiful, green-eyed brunette surfaced swiftly in his mind.

The last time he'd taken a drink, he'd had one with her. He heard himself say instead, “whiskey straight.”

He'd been raised as a gentleman; politeness dictated his next move. Will nodded to Caroline. “What'll it be, Caro? I'll buy you one.”

“Certainly not a whiskey. That's a man's drink,” said Caroline. Her pale pink nails thrummed against the shining bar top. “I'll have a Cosmo. And bartender, don't overindulge when you add the cranberry juice. And I expect freshly squeezed lime juice. A true lime---not lime concentrate. You do have limes behind the bar, don't you? And please make sure the glass is properly chilled. I'm quite serious about that. If the glass isn't chilled, I'll send the drink back.”

Will dutifully reached into his wallet again. He'd forgotten what Caroline was always like around waitstaff. Always tip extra for anyone dealing with Caro. A flash of gratitude showed on the bartender's face as Will passed him an extra twenty pounds.

When his drink arrived, he brought it to his lips, taking a hardy swallow. He started scanning the room. Every brunette caught his eye. He was still searching. The brunette in the red gown wasn't her. She had short hair. The girl wearing the green dress was too tall.

At last, he saw a familiar face. Emma Woodhouse, looking dynamite in a chocolate brown gown, moved toward the bar.

“Will,” Emma greeted him with a grin, “you're looking so handsome in your tux. I didn't know you were coming tonight.”

He shrugged. “A last minute decision.”

“Well, it was a good one. I was moving through the ballroom and some lady spilled soda water on my skirt. I don't think it will stain.” She bumped against the bar, reaching for a cocktail napkin. She started dabbing at the mark. “Caroline, I can't imagine you're happy to see me.”

“Likewise, I imagine,” replied Caroline.

“Oh, no. I'm plenty pleased you're here. You see, I'm not vindictive.” Emma leaned across the bar, dazzling the poor bartender with a cover-girl grin. “Can I get a glass of water?”

The bartender blinked. “Water?” he repeated breathlessly.

“Yes,” said Emma. She glanced back at Will. “I know who you came for. Yes, she's here, too.” Emma picked up her water glass and added playfully, “I couldn't talk her into wearing something sexy tonight. I tried for you, believe me. She doesn't like all that attention. Look for a dark blue tea dress instead. Go find her.”

As swiftly as she'd arrived, Emma slipped away, disappearing into the crowd.

George always said Emma had a talent for leaving a man speechless. Will had never realized how true that statement was until now. Perhaps, as meddling went, Emma's efforts weren't all bad. A blue tea dress. What's a tea dress?

“Will,” Caroline interjected coolly, “it's been far too long since you've come up to Netherfield Stables. Everyone misses seeing you there on weekends.”

His dark eyes scanned the crowd. “Bingley and I always keep in contact.”

“Phone calls, emails---it isn't the same as a visit. Charles has been so busy and distracted lately. I should be the one to show you around Netherfield, not Charles. Anyway, you haven't seen how we've remodeled the guest rooms. Our master guest suite has brand new furnishings.”

“Your brother's too busy for visitors right now.”

Recent email communications meant that Will was informed about the cause of Charles Bingley's recent distraction. The man was in love. He wondered if the stable-owner had been equally transparent with his own twin sister.

“If you came,” Caroline said, “I'd keep you company. It wouldn't be at all inconvenient for me to serve as your host. The best guest bedroom is just a stone's throw from my Netherfield bedroom.”

A loaded statement. Will took another sip of whiskey, trying to keep his expression neutral. A handful of guests had been blocking his view of the dance floor. He watched the group scatter; some moved toward the bar in search of champagne. Others headed toward the hallway.

That was when he saw the one woman he'd been searching for all night. Elizabeth.

How could I think even one of those other women was her? he wondered. The instant his gaze landed on her, he knew her immediately.

He also suddenly knew the difference between a cocktail dress and a tea dress. Caroline was wearing a cocktail dress: short, sophisticated, playfully designed to leave jaws on the floor.

Elizabeth's tea dress was sweet, not sexy. The neckline was high, stretching across her collarbone. The flare in the skirt made it youthfully demure. There were pearls on her neck. Her hair was pinned up. It provided a view of her pale neck and her delicate ears.

She was dancing, though that seemed to bland a word for what she was doing with her body. There was rhythm in every inch of her. Her back arched; she leaned against her dance partner, matching her movements to his, beat for beat. A playful smile was on her face.

He knew what sort of thoughts would race through his mind if she moved against him like that. He hadn't even touched her, and he was already thinking it. Asking her to dance suddenly seemed like the most dangerous choice of his evening.

He had a taste for danger tonight. He couldn't bear the thought of passing the evening without hearing her voice, or seeing her green eyes.

“Caroline,” Will set his drink down, “enjoy your evening.”

“But--” Caroline pouted, “but---where are you going? What are you doing?”

“I'm going to ask a beautiful woman to dance.”

**

"Mikhail, you dance like a pro." Elizabeth pretended to fan herself as the song ended. "Where do you learn all your tricks?"

"Russian secret," he quipped, taking her hand and spinning her.

It wasn't like her to stumble while dancing. She blamed the glass of rosé wine for that, and the fact that she'd drunk it quickly, on a mostly empty stomach. Her heel slipped. She stumbled into the man behind her.

The man who caught her had quick, strong hands. The brief contact made her heart quicken.

"Sorry about that. I promise I rarely fall out of a turn.” Elizabeth steadied herself, shaken by the electricity in the brief touch of his hands. She looked up, giving the stranger a breathless smile. When she realized it was Will Darcy, her eyes widened.

"Will!” She let out a pleased, flustered laugh. “What are you doing here?"

Will's dark eyes locked on her green ones. He offered a courtly nod. “Asking you to dance.” He looked to Mikhail. "If your partner doesn't mind, and you're willing..."

“Oh, um...” Elizabeth started fanning herself in earnest. Was it hot in here, or was it just her? “I--I don't mind, if Misha doesn't."

"You may keep dancing, milaya," Mikhail kissed her right cheek, then reached forward to shake Darcy's hand with a firm grasp. "I must try some of this English caviar of yours."

As Mikhail wandered off, Elizabeth stepped closer to Will.

“Dancing, huh?” Elizabeth smiled, letting her fingers rest against her warm neck. “Honestly, Will, I'm surprised to see you here. I didn't think you liked parties. Or dancing. Or...people.”

"It depends on the people," Will answered. He held out his hand. "And it depends on the dance."

Her warm fingertips touched his. Slowly, their hands came together.

He pulled her toward him. Gravity, she thought. There was something magnetic about the joining of their bodies. His touch was so slow, so thoughtful. She felt the soft warmth of his hand against hers, then his fingertips, light on her shoulder, then brushing downward to the small of her back.

The music changed, slowing into a honey warm beat. It was the type of song that started in the center of the body and built outwards, into the hips. As a dancer, music instructed her movements. There was an intimate hum in this song, one requiring close bodies and soft, slow movements.

Just another dance, she told herself, drawing his body against hers until they were chest to chest. She let her hips move.

An unsteady breath slipped out of him. He had a hard, strong body. She could feel his ribs constrict.

He moved with her. She tried to focus on the pleasant chatter of the people around her. She couldn't. She was too distracted by the heat burning in him, and how his touch sank through her. Their bodies simply...fit.

Neither spoke. Music overcame them. Will took in the pace of her hips, matching her slow rhythm with his own instinct, his own masculine heat. Her heartbeat started skipping.

The give and take between them felt primal. She sensed every sway in his body. She discovered the rhythm of his breathing, and the texture of his mouth when it skimmed against her temple. Elizabeth's hips slowed further. She heard a rumble of approval in his chest. It was a low, sexy, intensely male sound. It sent a tremor through her. Will's head dipped lower. Her chin lifted until their foreheads brushed. Together, they simply...moved.

She'd spent her whole life dancing. She'd never experienced a dance like this. The only word for it was sensual. In Will's arms, she felt the power of a grown man's touch: his controlled strength, his instincts, his fluid energy, his desires.

Caution warned her to pull back; she couldn't. Will's fingertips trailed down the length of her spine, then circled her hips.

Speak she told herself. Say something before you lose all of your senses to him.

"I—I like your cologne," she whispered. "What kind is it?"

Will chuckled. The sound reverberated pleasantly in her ear. "I don't know. It's whatever my sister gets me for my birthday."

“Mmm...” She breathed it in. Were they still surrounded by people? They seemed to have danced into their own world. She was barely aware of her words. "Your sister has good taste."

"I think so." His head lowered again. His breath was warm against her hair. It was leaving her lightheaded. "It certainly beats the streak of pink flamingo ties she got me."

"Truly? Well, it takes a real man to wear pink.” She told herself she was simply being a responsive dance partner when she let her hands move up the hard lines of his back.

“You're a natural dancer,” she whispered. “Better than I guessed.”

His thumb traced a feather-soft pattern on her lower back. “Should I be flattered that you even wondered about it?”

She laughed softly. “I'm a ballerina. Professional hazard.”

They continued to dance. He'd known this would be dangerous; he hadn't know it would be like this. This was a need for something he'd never known or felt before. An ache for Elizabeth was building in Will's bones, and in his blood.

“Elizabeth,” he whispered.

Her fingers, trailing up his back, sent a heady shot of yearning through him. Warmth was seeking warmth.

“Hmm?”

“Come outside," he whispered. "Walk in the rose garden with me.”

She bit her lip, looking up.

His dark eyes met hers. He couldn't hide what he wanted, what he needed. He was ready to confess how much he already felt for her, how strong this chemistry was, how it sparked a yearning in him for something larger and lasting.

“Will, I--” she took a shaky breath. “I---can't. I should get back to the ballet company.”

“You have to be with them?” His hand moved. His thumb caressed the edge of her cheek. He felt her tremble. “All night?”

“Yes. I, um, need to find---” There were countless people employed by the British Opera Ballet. Suddenly she couldn't dredge up a single name. “I need to find...someone.”

She detached herself from his embrace. There was a tremor in her hands. “Thank you for the dance. I enjoyed it, but I have to get back. I'm sorry.”

Elizabeth slipped away, off the dance floor, into the thick crowd.

Stunned, Will watched her vanish. He pushed his fingers through his hair, trying to regain his own bearings.

I never knew it could be like this, he realized. I never knew I could feel like this...

He knew what he'd seen in her eyes. He knew what he felt in his own heart. Dazed, he started to move through the crowd. How could he confess to Elizabeth that he thought....he thought he was falling in love with her?

A portly man stepped into his path. "Mr. Darcy? Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy?"

Will tried to push past the man. Instead, the stranger grabbed his arm. Will shook the hand off, shooting a warning glare that would make wise men cower.

The portly stranger, apparently, wasn't wise.

“We haven't been formally introduced,” the man continued, “but I know you by reputation, of course. That aristocratic De Bourgh bearing is quite obvious, even across a crowded room. I am such a fan, Mr. Darcy. Such a fan."

“What?"

"Bill Collins, at your service. I'm an investment banker at Collins, Cranmer, Barkley and Long. I'm also an acquaintance of your Aunt, the fine Lady Catherine. She is an extraordinary woman, Mr. Darcy. Extraordinary."

"She certainly thinks so." Will's response was cool, sharp, impatient. “If you'll excuse me, I don't have time for conversation. I'm searching for someone---”

“I just wanted to tell you what an honor it is to meet you.”

“Fine,” Will said brusquely. “I have to go.”

“I also wanted to say,” Collins continued, “what an important role Darcy, Inc. and Derbyshire Acquisitions serves in the global community."

“Then call their customer service line and tell them,” he snapped.

With that, Will stepped out of Collins' path.

**

Elizabeth escaped into the solarium where many of the dancers had gathered.

Edmund Bertram and Fay Price were huddled together in one corner. Edmund, the younger prince of the household, was wearing sleek, subdued black. Fay's dress was a simple, demure white.

Whatever they were discussing clearly wasn't for the benefit of the crowd. His hands were covering hers. If Elizabeth didn't know any better, she could have sworn he was offering a long-delayed, much anticipated declaration of love to quiet little Fay. Edmund carefully traced the line of Fay's jaw with his index finger, stopped when he reached the tip of her chin, and touched his lips to hers.

Mikhail and Ben had started a betting pool to determine when the pair would get together. It looked like someone would finally win the bet.

Thoughts of Will crashed into her mind. She remembered the look in his eyes, the warmth of his touch. Elizabeth turned away, breathing deep.

I'm not ready for this, she told herself. She was still trembling. And he's won't want me. If he knew...if he knew... he'd never look at me that way.

"Lizzie!" Charlotte interrupted her thoughts. "You'll never guess who's here?"

“Sorry?" Elizabeth's smile was weak. "I don't know, Char, Tye Bertram or something? I keep hearing stories about him and haven't even seen the boy."

"Tye? No, no. Believe me, if Tye shows up, you'll know it. He's that type of guy. Anyway, he's too young for you. If it's tall, mysterious and gorgeous that you're into, there's another brooding hunk wandering around here that could put even Tye to shame. He's got broad shoulders and everything. If he were on the stage, I'd put him in a waistcoat and a cravat and he'd be sex on a poster. We'd sell a million tickets."

The description had her rubbing her temples. That sounded like Will, alright. "I think I already danced with him..."

Charlotte turned her by the elbow, facing her toward a small, chubby man with a peach fuzz beard.

“That man over there is who we're looking for," Charlotte said. "Talk, dark and brooding's got nothing on him."

“Who is he?"

"Collins. Bill Collins," Charlotte said with relish. "Don't you read the society pages?"

"Oh, and you do?" When Charlotte didn't respond, Elizabeth's ironic question gained a sincere follow up. "Charlotte, do you?"

"Of course I do! Bill Collins is nouveau riche. Not only that, he's known for his generous contributions to the ballet world. He finds new talent and he backs it. I heard he would be here tonight, and that he likes women in red. How do I look?"

"Like you're prepping for target practice.” Her brow furrowed. “Are you serious?”

"Very. His money has plenty of appeal to make up for the rest of him," Charlotte responded pragmatically. "Now if you don't mind..."

“Char...” Elizabeth stepped aside, gesturing gracefully with one hand, “he's all yours."
She turned, only to see Frank Churchill standing behind her with his movie-star smile.

"All yours. That has a nice ring to it," Frank remarked with a grin, grabbing her by the hand and pulling her with him into the crowd. "Why should Charlotte have all the fun?"

"Nice to see you, too, Frank," Elizabeth forced a smile. Heaven help her, she was in no mood to dance with another man. "We're going somewhere?"

"You bet those Irish eyes we are. I've been waiting all night to get you on the floor.”

"Frank, you make absolutely everything sound like a double-entendre, you know that?"

"It's a gift." Frank winked. “Come on, sweetheart, I need a dance partner.”


**


Brave, resourceful, rough-around-the-edges Captain Frederick Wentworth was experiencing candy coated torture.

It was no one's fault but his own, he supposed. When Louisa Musgrove had called him and inquired whether he had a date for Valentine's day, he hadn't lied. He'd said he didn't have a single plan, save beer and pizza.

He was, as the old saying went, both an officer and a gentleman. He wouldn't stand a girl up when she requested a date on Valentine's Day.

It wasn't Louisa's fault that every brunette that he glanced at made him think of Anne Elliot.

It was a problem. Her presence in his mind had been getting stronger and stronger, like a current that strengthened with the turning tide. And speaking of tides, Louisa was still three sheets to the wind.

"If I swooned, would you catch me?" Louisa questioned, giggling into her glass. Somehow, the most recent glass of alcohol that she'd sneaked at brightened her mood. "I always wanted to be a swooning sort of girl. You look like you could catch just about anyone." Her soft hands settled around one of his biceps, squeezing flirtatiously. "My goodness, these arms are strong. You are a strong, strong man. Like a superhero. Can I call you superhero?"

"Uh, no. And I think this liquid courage is getting the best of you." He looped one long arm around her and steered her towards a nearby seat, extricating the alcohol from her grasp. "Happens to the best of us. How about you let me get a cup of coffee for you, and we call it a night?"

"You know I still think you're cute.” Her nose wrinkled up. She started to giggle as he knelt down in front of her, steadying her in her chair. “Cuuute.”

"I know at least one other person that thinks so too.” A sweet, confident, distinctly Texan voice interrupted the pair. Emma Woodhouse. "My, Captain Frederick Wentworth. You do clean up well. Dance with me, will you, Fred? Would you mind if I stole him for a bit, dear?"

Louisa cooed and swung her legs back and forth, googly-eyed. "The decorations here are soooo pretty!"

"Coffee," Fred repeated firmly. "I have to get her some really strong coffee."

"She can dry out in that chair first," Emma answered mildly. As she pulled him onto the dance floor, the music picked up tempo. "So Fred, tell me how much you've enjoyed your time in Mansfield Park."

“On a scale from one to ten, it's clocking negative numbers.”

That didn't surprise her. Mansfield Park made his rough edges poke through. There was toughness in his jaw, and a hint of rebellion in his eyes. He tolerated the setting, but he wasn't comfortable in it.

“Maybe,” Emma said softly, “Mansfield Park reminds you of another family. I'm impressed you came here tonight.”

“If a lady asks me to go somewhere with her, I'm not going to refuse her without a good reason.”

"I appreciate a good Samaritan," Emma responded lightly.

"You should." Fred responded. "You're dating one. George is one of the finest men I know."

"Yes, he's the best of men," Emma responded quietly. Although she was surrounded by people, she'd felt a lingering tug of loneliness all night, quickly followed by a twinge shame. He was working tonight, saving lives. She thought she'd be spoiled and selfish if she chose her own needs over the needs of his patients. And yet...

“You're seeing him tonight?”

“Yes, I'm going to his townhouse after this.”

"He'll appreciate that," he said with a softer expression. "Knightley always told me he says no to you frequently. It must take a lot of will, I'm not sure I could do the same."

"Fred," Emma laughed, "I believe that was a compliment!"

Frederick chuckled.

"I could compliment you plenty. That's Knightey's territory. I'll leave it to him. Suffice it to say, I'm happy he's with you. I realize you know Will and George a lot better, and a lot longer, than you've know me, but believe me when I say I couldn't have picked better for George than he picked for himself."

"You don't have to compliment me more than that, Fred. I think that one will last me a lifetime." She squeezed his hand. "There's just one other thing I need you to do for me."

“Anything.”

"I have a friend here. I'd like you to dance with her before the night ends. Just one dance, that's all I ask."

"With Lizzie?" Frederick repeated in confusion. They took a step backwards, nearly colliding with a couple behind them. He released Emma briefly and turned, an apology on his lips and a boyish smile worthy of a navel cadet on his face. "Sorry, Ma'am. The lady here can only do so much to keep my two left feet at bay on the dance floor. I hope I didn't knock you too hard."

The color drained from his face. It was the siren he'd seen in the stairwell, the woman in a dress the color of purple flower petals. She'd reminded him briefly of Anne. The reason for that was now obvious. It was Anne Elliot.

She looked like a creation from his most dangerous fantasies. The dress outlined her beautiful body, revealing a generous neckline and beautiful, tan shoulders. Her curly, chocolate brown spirals spilled down her back. Her ink dark eyes had been painted with an exotic blend of shadow and liner. She made Frederick's mouth water.

Emma, too, stopped hard. She hadn't realized exactly who had corralled Anne into dancing. Henry Crawford.

"Anne," she forced herself to speak, "would you do me a favor? Um...Henry and I have some business matters to discuss. Could you manage a dance with Fred? I'd like a moment with Henry..."

It took all of her loyalty for Anne Elliot and all of her matchmaking instincts to force Emma from the safety of Frederick's arms, into the arms of Henry Crawford.

Ugh. He has such a smug look on his face, too.

"Couldn't resist dancing with me, Emma?" Henry questioned with a grin.

Reluctantly, she stepped into his arms. Irritation simmered in her. “It's a favor for a friend.”

"You know...I have friends here too,” said Henry. “I'm friends with one of the daughters of the house. Mariah Bertram."

"The recently engaged Mariah Bertram?"

"Yeah, that's what they say. Good ol' Mariah's getting hitched. She's been a friend for years. But you should know what that's like, befriending a Bertram. I still remember the rumors. You and Tye? It wasn't that long ago that I heard you two were hot and heavy.”

Emma snorted. “Those were just rumors.”

“I never thought I'd see you darkening the Bertram's door on Valentine's Day. He's young for you, but as a photographer I can admit that you two would make a beautiful couple. Very...blond. Or is it one of those 'what happens in Texas stays in Texas,' situations?"

Emma stiffened. “I'm friends with Tye. I'm not romantically involved with him.”

“Coming here might stir up those rumors.”

“I'm not worried. What happened between us was a long time ago.” Her ink blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. Had Crawford followed her earlier? The last thing she needed was a photo of her on Tye's lap splashed across the paper. "Have you seen him tonight?"

"No, Little Miss I'm-Not-Worried, I haven't seen him. And lying to a professional photographer is a terrible idea. Photographers notice everything, especially from a girl whose face is as expressive as yours. I hear Tye's going to be out of the country soon. Dragged along by his father to some shipping post, so the rumor goes. And you needn't look so worried about dancing with me, Emma. I won't try anything tonight."

"If I was truly worried, I wouldn't have let you dance with me at all."

"Sure you would. I'm charming." Hearing her snort again, Henry grinned. "No boyfriend along to challenge me, I see?"

Emma's expression turned to a sweet, venomous smile. "Hard as this might be for you to grasp, Henry, George has a real job. He's working tonight."

Henry chuckled. "I love it when you get mouthy, Emme. I wonder if your Knightley likes it, too. You've got a lot of spice beneath that beautiful exterior, you know? It's unique, even for a model."

"Former model."

"So you claim. Emma, there's something else that's particularly unique about you. You have the most unusual combination of sensuality--" he slid his free hand gracefully down her spinal column; she stiffened, "and innocence. It's a fascinating mixture."

"I think you should keep your fascination to yourself, Henry."

Henry sighed. "Here's the problem, Emme. You think I'm habitually deceitful. Right?"

"If the shoe fits..."

"I enjoy women. I'll admit to that. But I've never lied about my interest in you. Not to your face, and not to anyone around us." His voice lowered with sincerity. "I've pursued you, Emma, for years. For longer than I should have, considering how young you were when we first met. Out of all the women in my acquaintance, and there have been many, you're the only one I keep going back to. You are the inspiration I keep searching for, Emma. Only you. I imagine what we could have together, and it excites me. You could be my muse, Emma, and so much more."

As the song ended, Emma carefully extricated herself from his arms.

"I can't be that for you, Henry," she said. "Not now, not ever. From now on, the only muse I'm searching for is my own."

**

The gravel path crunched beneath Darcy's feet. He liked the sound of it, and the cool silence in the trees encased in winter ice. Soon the ice would turn to rain, priming the earth for a cool, foggy spring.

He'd searched for Elizabeth in Mansfield Park, then retreated into the cool air.

His feelings for Elizabeth were a huge revelation. Love was a foreign land to him. He'd never been anywhere near it before. This had the potential to change his whole life. His hopes. His wants. He didn't know what to say, how to explain the strength of his feelings for her, where to start. He didn't know how to make sense of any of it. All he knew was that the feelings he had for her, the feelings inside of him, went beyond every rule that he'd used to guide his life so far.

He wished he could retreat to Pemberley to figure this out. He missed the unsculpted freedom of his childhood home. Pemberley was nothing like Mansfield Park. Pemberley had willow trees and rambling paths, ivy covered arbors and knotted groves, sweeping fields, rivers and lakes for fishing. Pemberley had peace.

Darcy walked to the edge of the property, staring into the evergreen trees beyond. He meant to return there permanently one day. He would never admit aloud that he'd been waiting for a wife and a family before he called it home.

"Excuse me?" The voice who interrupted this thoughts was soft and feminine. Will turned.

He couldn't hide his disappointment. As beautiful as she was, she wasn't who he wanted.

Her eyes were blue, pale as the moon hanging above them. She wore an equally pale blue dress and nothing at all around her shoulders. Her honey blond hair was swept off an oval face. There was an air of tranquility in her brow and in her mildly apologetic smile. Most men would find absolutely nothing to fault in her features.

Will Darcy wasn't most men. In a split second comparison, he found his mind asserting what the rest of him already knew: he preferred Elizabeth's fire to this stranger's tranquil perfection.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you." Her voice was clear, musical, mostly British, but with a hint of something else. She shivered, exhaling a frosty breath. "I wanted some fresh air, but I seem to be a bit turned around. If you could please let me know which way leads back to Mansfield Park, I'll leave you be."

He'd planned on lingering longer. Still, he couldn't let a young woman wander the countryside alone in the dark. He wouldn't have let it happen at Pemberley. He wouldn't let it happen here.

"The path back to the house is this way." Darcy's voice echoed, rich and low. "I can show you."

They walked in silence only a little longer before he shrugged off the jacket to his suit, offering it to her for warmth.

"Please," Will urged gently as she tried to deny it, "I've been in that hot ballroom. I'm too warm. You'll be doing me a favor."

She took the jacket. "Thank you, Mr..."

"My name's Will," he supplied.

"Will. It's nice to meet you. I'm Jenna Fairfax." She smiled back, slipping the coat on. Within minutes her shivers subsided. "It was foolish of me to go outside without a coat. Silly of me to come here at all, really."

Will glanced at her sidelong. "Why's that?"

"I'm avoiding someone. An ex-boyfriend. I told you it was silly. The silliest part of all is that I really want to see him. He's the only one that I feel like talking to, and the only one I keep making excuses to avoid." Jenna exhaled, looking bashful. "My goal tonight was to talk to him, but I haven't done it at all. Does that make me a coward?"

His thoughts turned to his own goals.

He'd wanted a connection. Elizabeth was his reason for coming here tonight. And Darcy was no one's idea of a coward.

"It makes you human," he answered simply.

With sudden clarity, Will headed back to Mansfield Park.


**

Anne Elliot looked ravishing. Frederick couldn't think of a time when she'd looked this beautiful.

Not true, as his own memory reminded him. He could think of a dozen examples, the most obvious being that Valentine's night years ago. Her last college ball. That night had involved a violet dress. He could go down to a watery grave and still remember that night.

That wasn't a memory to toss around in his head when he had her in his arms. Like a firecracker whirling around, it could light off other impulses, other thoughts.

"I didn't think you'd be here," she said quietly, her muscles trembling as his strong, workman's hands settled with easy familiarity around her waist.

"Don't look so happy, Anne. A guy might get the wrong idea."

"I'm always happy to see you, Frederick."

His grip tightened slightly. "Would it surprise you to hear that goes both ways?"

"Yes," Anne answered honestly. Her eyes held such quiet vulnerability that he could practically feel his heart slicing in half.

"So," he tried again, "is that man with Emma--"

"Henry," she supplied.

"Henry. Is he your date for the night?"

If 'Henry' was her date for the night, Frederick thought, the man's head must have been screwed on backwards. He wasn't paying Anne even the slightest bit of attention. He sure seemed smitten with Emma, though. Certainly, it was impossible to deny Emma's beauty. A girl who'd graced countless magazine pages couldn't be anything less than stunning.

Frederick preferred a different form of beauty. He preferred Anne's delicacy, her grace, her gentleness.

"Henry isn't my date. Did you come here alone, Frederick?"

Seeing the answer in his eyes, she looked down, somewhere in the general vicinity of his shirt buttons, unwilling for him to see her disappointment. Of course he would come here with a date, she thought, Angel remark or not. [/i]And she would be happy for him, like any true friend would. She thought she owed him that much.

"You have every right to be happy, Fred. Not just tonight, on Valentine's Day, but every night. I want you to be happy, even after everything we've--" she faltered, feeling her chest tighten, "even after all that's happened, I hope you believe that. I want you to find someone who makes you truly happy, whoever that person is."

She wanted him to find someone. Frederick repeated the phrase in his mind. She wanted him to be happy. Happy without her in his life, that was what she obviously meant. It seemed she'd chosen tonight, Valentine's Day, to announce she truly had moved on from him.

"Happy," he repeated the word in disbelief. They'd been dancing up to that point, but he stopped the movement and simply held onto her, determined to say his peace. "You want me to be happy. Listen to me carefully, okay? Because I'm probably only going to feel brave enough to say this once."

He brushed one calloused index finger under her chin, gently guiding her attention upwards. This would be harder to say when those dark, limitless eyes were looking back at him, but he knew deep inside that there was no other way to say it.

"I don't think you realize what you've been doing to me these last few weeks, Anne Olivia Elliot." Her eyes widened with surprise, but still he pressed on. "And yes, I still know your middle name. I know every damn detail about you and your life. I know how you bite your lower lip when you're thinking, and what that does to my blood pressure. I know how you never wear a dress cut lower than the spot where your favorite necklace falls."

His finger brushed the spot in question, a bold, intimate move that he wouldn't have tried if disappointment hadn't been fueling him.

"I know,” he continued, “about the scar you showed me from when you fell off a horse as a child, how the mark made you self-conscious. I know how you said you still ride, that the accident couldn't make you stop something you love. I know that scar was one of the sexiest things I'd ever seen in my life, even though it embarrassed you, because it symbolized all the things I love best about you, Anne: your fortitude, your resilience, your grace, your self-belief.” His voice lowered to a whisper. “I know the way you felt in my arms, and the way you taste. I know the way you breathe when you're body's underneath me, and I know one other thing, Angel--"

He used his index finger to lift her head a fraction further, and then he kissed her. A goodbye kiss, he told himself. If she was that over him, this would be a goodbye to the last vestiges of hope for their romance. The kiss wasn't gentle or prudent. It was the kind of kiss that caused a blush: rough, passionate, heartfelt, scalding. He explored her, giving, demanding, deepening the kiss. She was just what he'd remembered: soft and addicting. It was something he could lose himself in, and nearly did.

It was only his sense of self-preservation that cooled his blood, making him break it off with a sudden
release.

"I know, Anne," Frederick finished raggedly, "that the only person in this whole world who's ever made me entirely happy or entirely heartbroken, is you."

She was always the one who walked away first, but not this time. This time, he left her.
SubjectAuthorPosted

An Even Path: Post 9

BernadetteENovember 19, 2017 11:47PM



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