By Avellina Balestri
Word Count: 6592
Summary: Marianne and Colonel Brandon attend a Christmas party and find themselves dealing with specters from the past. Sequel to A Soldier’s Heart.
Dedicated to the memory of Alan Rickman (1946-2016)
Christmas Eve parties had always been enjoyable for Marianne Dashwood in past years. All the color, the excitement, and gay vitality of it all, the clever flirtations, and witty banter. It was all the brightest of society having the excuse to display their charms.
But this year, her first year as the wife of Colonel Christopher Brandon, she felt different somehow, like she was worlds away from the dizzying array around her. And at the same time, she was also the target of too many pitying eyes asking too many snide questions behind sugary smiles. She knew what they thought. They thought it was all decidedly “respectable” after her former disgrace in the company of another man, but that she was also decidedly being wasted on a battle-scarred soul past five and thirty years.
They were wrong, they were all wrong to pity her. Whatever may have started as a “convenient” match had grown into much more long ago. It had been her choice, with passion behind it, too, beyond the staid relegation of sense and sensibility. Even settled down, she would never be like her sister Elinor. But she found herself more annoyed than willing to explain. She just wanted to stay away from them.
Sitting together off to the side, Brandon gazed at her clinging to the sleeve where his arm should have been, almost in an automatic effort to keep prying eyes away from the place of amputation, and a slight smile playing on his lips. “How does it feel to be the center of attention?”
“Delightful,” she quipped, eying the little bevy of women in the corner chattering stupidly and pointing rudely at them.
“I can tell you exactly what they’re saying,” he confided, as if it were a military secret. “They’re saying that a sly old fox got into a hen house and robbed the prize.”
“They don’t know the half of it,” she huffed, brushing down a wrinkle in his coat. “You just need someone to take good care of you.”
“My lady nurse?” He raised an eyebrow.
She smiled coyly. “The mistress of your estate.”
“Mistress? How scandalous,” he twitted. “But the estate part should assure everyone of the propriety of the arrangement, and at least provide some rationality behind your choice of mate.”
She shook her head indulgently. “You know, you’re more playful than you used to be.”
“You make me feel younger than my years.” There was a twinkle in his eye. “Am I embarrassing you?”
“You’re just making me think there are depths to you I have yet to explore.”
“You shall be the only one I shall ever let do so,” he responded good-naturedly. “On that you have my word as an officer and a gentleman.”
“Good heavens, the war is over already,” she exhaled.
“Alright, then on my word as your husband…” He leaned closer to her ear and whispered, “…who thinks himself the most honored man in the room for his company.”
She blushed. “You’re a hopeless romantic.”
“And you are hope itself for me. Truly.”
She eyed him knowingly, then tugged on his sleeve. “I want to go home, don’t you?”
“Think we can manage it without a social uproar?”
“Well, there’s going to be an uproar anyway if one more person stares at you like a Waterloo relic and makes another ill-considered remark about…battlefield surgery.”
“They mean no harm,” he assured. “They just want to hear grand war stories I suppose.”
“They want to make sport.”
Marianne knew that well enough, especially when it came to the women. It amazed her how cruel the gentler sex could be sometimes. Ever since their marriage, she’d grown increasingly defensive of the weakened Brandon, and seen firsthand the rather callous display of questions and comments that made him seem more like a strange animal specimen than a man. They wanted to stare at the empty sleeve and get him to divulge the gory details. And Brandon, soft-spoken, awkward, always trying to be polite, would try his best to humor them in a self-deprecating fashion, even though Marianne knew the battle memories were taking a toll on him.
She was the one who knew about his nightmares and how he would cry out in the middle of night and she would try to calm him while he brokenly apologized for waking her. She knew how he winced at the scent of cooking meat because it reminded him too much of burning flesh on the field. She knew how loud, sudden sounds made him jerk upright, expecting a rain of molten metal. She knew how the lung played tricks on him some days, how it betrayed him and left him struggling for his next breath through the coughing, and the handkerchiefs sprinkled with blood. And she would hold him when till he got it back, and promise she wouldn’t let go.
He was a proud man, and he was a broken man. And people said proud, broken men were a burden to be tied to, a sure way to kill a girl’s youthful dreams of romance. They might be good to live out a comfortable life with, for their holdings if not their personal attributes, but that was all. But how could she explain the truth them? Love is too easy a word to bandy about; it doesn’t explain the details or the depths. She was in love; she had not fallen into it, like she had with Willoughby, but now she was convinced that no one falls in love. They only fall into fancies. One must walk into love, one soft step at a time.
And how can anyone explain the movement of such things? You can never understand the depth of a thing until you’ve laid yourself bare, at the cross-section of it, the light and the shadow of it. You can never understand it until, somehow you give yourself over to it, the living heartbeat of it, when all you want is the other, and when the other is present, all is comfort and contentment. The very physical reality of them is like the earth, grounded, necessary, and frighteningly fragile. And to find oneself a river flower over that earth is like some song that keeps both alive.
Marianne blushed as she found herself overcome by memories of her wedding night. It was as if, surrounded by all these gossiping partygoers, she liked to think of it as some secret she held beyond their grasp. A man past five and thirty was surely out of touch, they whispered. He could never please a young woman in the blossom of her youth, surely. She wondered if such stipulations of performance were even rational to make. She decided no two beings made love the same, and if they truly were in love, it was not some act to be performed at all. It was no other focus but the presence of the other. And that was all, it seemed, there would ever be.
“You seem…overly warm, my dear,” Brandon noted, observing the color of her cheeks.
“Good,” she exhaled, fanning herself with a napkin. “Perhaps I shall faint, and we’ll finally have an excuse to leave.”
He snorted. “She who would not faint over an operating table succumbs over the social event of the season!” he quipped.
“Elinor and Edward are fortunate to be prancing about in Ireland for the duration,” she sighed. “If she were her, she might want to faint too.”
“No, she’s too sensible,” he teased, and she flicked him in the shoulder with her napkin. “Besides you were always the life of the party,” he insisted, suppressing a smile.
“Must be getting old,” she decided, shifting in her chair a little.
“Good God,” he gasped. “Must be contagious, and I’m to blame…”
“I’m afraid Margaret is the only young one left around here.”
“Yes,” Brandon agreed with a nod towards the far end of the room, where Margaret was sitting several other young girls, looking as if she were about to explode from being forced to be ladylike and proper for that long a time. Since her marriage, Elinor had taken Margaret into her new home, but since they were outside the country, Elinor thought it best to leave her with Mr. and Mrs. Brandon for safe-keeping. Surely a retired military man could manage to keep her from overthrowing the social order for a few weeks…
“Perhaps, if given enough time, your sister might provoke some distracting happenstance which will provide us a perfect excuse for escape…and possibly provoke intervention from the royal marines…”
This straight-faced strategy caused Marianne to laugh outright. A few of the sour-faced older women in attendance turned their heads towards her disapprovingly from across the room, and she chastened herself quickly.
“For shame, my lady,” Brandon clucked, keeping Marianne holding a hand to her mouth to hide her giggling.
Just then, the party took a decided turn for the worse, and not because of Margaret.
“Greetings, distinguished company,” came an all too familiar voice from the entrance of the drawing room.
“For the love of heaven, no…” Marianne bit her lip and turned her eyes down. “Where on God’s earth will he leave us alone?”
She felt Brandon’s hand slip over hers. “He should be shamed out of this room. If he dares speak a word in your presence…” His hand moved from hers down to his ceremonial sword hilt.
“Christopher, don’t…he’s not worth it.” Her husband may have been mild-mannered and even-tempered by nature, but she was aware that another encounter with Willoughby would end in bloodshed. Brandon had borne up with the man’s defilement of both his young ward, the daughter of his first love, and then his second love, his now-wife, and she knew he had too much manhood to allow him another chance to dishonor her again by a flippant turn of speech. “Christopher,” she addressed him quietly, “look, he has his wife with him. And she’s…with child”
The young woman looked woefully out of her element, with all the eyes scouring her, and her notably rounded belly. While Marianne felt rather pleased to have weight lifted off of her, she couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for her old rival. For whatever fortune she might have inherited to make her so desirable, she was now simply the latest source of scandal. Everyone knew of her husband’s dalliances with debutantes and even more blatant brothel excursions. He had no sense of respect for himself or her. And she had to know that even now she was being used as some sort of perverse shield to permit his attendance.
The two of them were moving among the guests, with him bearing her on his arm like some sort of prize, something to rub in other men’s faces. He and his filled purse and his pretty little wife…all for the gazing, and to be judged by fertility, as a new horse is judged by speed. And soon they came to where Marianne and Brandon were seated.
Willoughby’s eyes fell on Brandon’s empty sleeve. “Why, sir, we’d nearly given you up to Boney’s outrage. It was most…distressing.” His eyes turned to Marianne briefly. “Faithfulness…such a gift.” Back to the sleeve. “The handling of arms must prove difficult…on your hunting excursions, that is. But rabbits can’t fire back, at least. A bit more of an even fight, what?” He snorted cynically.
“He can still shoot,” came Margaret’s voice from across the room. She was standing up now and walking over towards them, her arms resolutely crossed, dead-eying Willoughby. “I’ve seen him do it. He can load and shoot just fine. Just needs something to steady it while he gets the bullets in, is all.”
“Margaret…” Marianne tried to shush her under her breath, but she new well enough her younger sister would be undeterred.
Willoughby smirked at her. “Turning into quite the little soldier, aren’t you, sweet Meg?”
“Don’t sweet-talk me,” she snapped back, lifting her chin defiantly. “And by the way, he’s been showing me how to load too.”
He sniffed and turned back to Brandon. “You really are grooming her for the regiment, aren’t you, Colonel?”
Brandon met his gaze sternly. “No, it’s rather a precautionary measure. I tend to think that not all scoundrels were to be found in Bonaparte’s ranks, and there are more subtle dangers than on the bloody fields of Europe. I’d like to think, when the time comes, she shall be prepared to…deal with them.”
“Taken her under your…wing?” Willoughby dared the emphasis. “You do that a lot for young ladies, don’t you?”
“Of course, he has,” Margaret shot back, annoyed. “He’s my brother now. We’re family. We look out for each other.”
Brandon smiled slightly in spite of himself. It was evident he’d grown fond of Margaret over the past year and a half, and she of him, and even though he might have been considered somewhat awkward with children, the 10-year-old’s spirited nature won his affection. There was no guile to it, and that he appreciated more than he could say. Even though he knew she would have to “become a lady” someday, he sincerely hoped that some small part of it would remain, that she would retain herself in the midst of so much false display.
“So you have taken on brotherly responsibilities? New for you…”
“And do you intend to take on fatherly ones?” Marianne cut in, a bit harder than intended.
Willoughby’s wife, who was had grown increasingly pale during the course of the exchange, now looked as if she might faint.
“My dear, are you unwell?” Willoughby inquired, rather nonchalantly.
“No, husband, it’s just…I am unused to being out at this hour…”
Brandon stood up from his chair. “My apologies, madam, for my thoughtlessness; please be seated by my wife.”
“I am most remiss,” Willoughby clucked. “Introductions have not been made. Well, my dear, this is Colonel Brandon, a long-time…acquaintance. You’ve already encountered Mrs. Brandon in brief before her marriage; she made a memorable entrance at a certain social gathering, if you recall?”
Marianne’s face burned and Brandon’s eyes shot daggers, but he restrained himself at the completely embarrassed expression on the pregnant woman’s face. “Y-yes,” she stammered. “We met in brief. Marianne, is it not?” She extended her gloved hand to her hesitantly, and Marianne, equally hesitantly took it. The soldier’s wife forced a smile as best she could, and gestured for her to sit down.
Brandon nodded to her briefly. “Your servant, madam.” Then he turned to her husband, with the motion of a snake turning to strike. “Shall we…have a word outside?” Brandon’s voice was cold and unyielding, as he gestured for Willoughby to follow him outside.
“Surely, after all these years, we have no secrets from each other,” Willoughby chuckled brazenly. But the look on Brandon’s face made him realize that complying was the most intelligent thing to do. He smiled brightly, and kissed his wife’s hand in false gallantry. “Will only be a moment, dearest.”
Once outside on the terrace, Brandon turned abruptly. “I do not believe anyone here draws comfort from your presence. Of particular concern to me, you’re upsetting my wife. I ask you to leave the gathering peaceably.”
Willoughby smirked. “A peaceable man, to be sure.”
“I do not wish to engage in an incident with you again. But…I would not advise you to press further than my honor and the honor of those in my care have already been pressed on your account.”
“If you wanted me gone so rapidly, you shouldn’t have offered my wife a chair.”
Brandon’s teeth set themselves on edge. “You expect me to punish the poor woman for having the misfortune to wed a charlatan rogue who cares nothing for her wellbeing and uses her fragile condition as a shield for his own twisted devices? No – you know well enough that’s not my way.”
Willoughby shook his head, as if to humor him. “The saddest thing is you believe in honor, Brandon. You truly do. So many fine gentlemen play at nobility, with a wink and a chortle in the mirror, and possibly a wench on the one hand and a jug in the other, but not you. You are painfully crystal clear, so dully unsullied…”
“Do not speak of…”
“That’s what irks me, don’t you see? You really do see yourself the knight, come home from the wars to right the wrongs of the land, save damsels in distress. You relish in it.”
“You are wrong in that.”
“Am I, am I really? Or perhaps there may be some small sliver of me at the heart of every man. They just don’t want to face up to it. That’s why you hate me so much, why you want to kill me; I remind you of it.”
Brandon had a mixture of astonishment and distaste on his face. “If I wanted to, I could have killed you long ago. You are wrong if you think I wish it by my hand.”
“You at least wish I had gotten my head blown off, in the wars, isn’t that right?”
Brandon grimaced. “You cannot know what you are saying.”
“Well, you’re still living off the clean sweep of a national victory. Quite the white horse to ride…”
“How can I be clean when I already have blood on my hands?” he whispered harshly, and Willoughby was taken aback. “You have not been to the killing fields, you do not know what it is to order men to do things which disgust you later on. You have never seen how flying metal dismembers and disfigures. You do not know what it is to cut through flesh and bone and see the life drain from another’s eyes. You do not know what it is to do it unflinchingly, like a machine, and then fear the monster lurking inside you for the rest of your days.” He squinted. “Oh yes, it is terribly easy for me to kill. I have been trained in it since youth, since the purchase of my first commission…”
“And it terrifies you? Is that why you refrained from firing, when the last duel turned to your favor? My life is the exchange for your fear?”
Brandon turned away from him momentarily, his memories traveling back to the moment when his pistol shot fired into the ground. His silence filled in the words well enough. “I hoped you would have enough sense to make the act…unnecessary. But you are showing as little sense as a man could possess.”
But Willoughby was undeterred in his line of inquiry. “So is there truth to the rumor that you have not gone on a hunt in some months? Target shooting, yes, but no live game, so it’s been said.”
Again, he hesitated in his response, wondering if he should even dignify his antagonist with one. “After what I have seen, it takes time to distinguish animals from men.”
Willoughby laughed shortly. “Perhaps that is the great joke of the universe. There’s really little difference, aside from cunning and craving. We just became too pretentious about ourselves.”
Brandon blinked. “That’s it, is it not? Your credo?”
“I see myself as a more…natural man. An intelligent animal, free from delusions of grandeur.”
“You become what you will,” Brandon responded shortly.
“I am satisfied with what I am,” the younger man assured. “Are you?”
“Perhaps that is the difference between you and I. Some things…run deeper than personal satisfaction. They are integral to this creature called man. That is the gift. I should not like to misuse it, lest I were to lose myself altogether. Pleasure or pain, it matters not which. It’s a faith we keep when cannot see it clear at all.”
“Ha! A martyr then,” Willoughby jabbed cuttingly. “A suffering servant, through smoke and fire. Gave your whole self to your honor, and even left a decent cut of yourself behind, a token to hallowed ground.” He leaned on the railing of the stoop. “Tell me, have you never thought of it out there, rotting out there, where you might have been? Human flesh is made to rot, down to the bone, to the chalk.” The man’s voice sounded bitter now, bitter towards himself more than anyone. “We control so very little in the grand scheme of things.”
Brandon looked out across the lawn blankly, then dared a glance at the stars. They were brilliant tonight, piercing like the frost that gilded the ground. He remembered staring up at them when he lay on the battlefield, covered in blood and mud, too badly hurt to move, and cold, so cold, for it had rained earlier, and he was soaked through. When the clouds finally broke and the stars could be seen, he wondered if they would the last things his eyes would ever see. He thought Marianne and her family might be looking at them somewhere. The thought kept him company.
But the passing hours had haunted him too. What happened, he wondered, when all the functions of a man stopped, what happened to the part of him measured by no physical thing? What happened when it was boiled down to the nth degree, and darkness closed in around it, and there was no one left to remind him what a man was? Was his own belief in meaning all vanity? What would his mortal ending make of the strands of himself, the thoughts and dreams and decisions that made him what he was far more than any physical dimensions?
He found all his life creating a circle in his mind, his youthful years, his first love Eliza, her fierce beauty and boundless spirit. He thought of her dying in his arms, begging him to care for her child, and he wondered if she would be there for him should he pass over. On the brink of death, he had marveled at the enormity of the abyss, the edge of time and space and pulse of some subtle eternity. Now everything on earth felt small by comparison.
Everything but Marianne, that is, his living love, and her silver songs, and gold hair, and the fact that his body was still alive enough to feel her embrace. He imagined she was the closest thing to eternity he would have in this world. She was the one who had kept him breathing in spite of the bullet in his lung, out there, alone, in the veil of the rain, and he had shivered, and breathed, and wished for her hand in his, and pressed against his lips. He had tasted his own blood on his tongue, and wondered if he would ever taste anything else. He had let the water from the sky trickle in drop by drop, and wondered at the nature of the blessing, that falls on good and bad, on British and French, that chills and quenches. And he heard the groans of others, his own side, and the other side. And he thought he could cry for them, and he knew, all at once, at level it was all the same, all the same thread weaving through it all, and everything felt melted around the edges of the beyond, and there was death and there was death and there was death…
And now, this Christmas Eve in England, Brandon wondered if the stars were the same he had seen. And he turned to his enemy, and he wondered if his eyes were the same as the dead, glassy ones he had seen on the field, or more dead, and something inside himself dropped, and he imagined his own eyes on the field, nearly dead. And he pitied him for his sightlessness.
“The fault is not in our stars,” he recited quietly, “but in ourselves.”
“Excluding you, of course,” Willoughby mocked.
“No,” returned Brandon, and the simplicity of it was stark.
Willoughby drew patterns in the light snow lining the railing with is finger. “My real reason for making an appearance at this gathering was to bring you glad tidings,” he stated. “I will be sojourning abroad for some time. I have made the decision to invest in a sugar plantation.”
“Trying to get the most from your bride’s inheritance?” the colonel droned.
“Making it pay can’t hurt.”
“How does she feel about packing up and being off to the sugar islands?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of dragging her away from the comforts of home to accompany me. I should be leaving on the fortnight, and in her present condition, it would be best for her to stay here, in the parish.”
“Where one and all know and loved her,” Brandon spat, disgusted at the man’s sheer inconsideration. “A fine way to assure a smooth first pregnancy.”
“It’s not a first for me,” Willoughby chortled. Seeing Brandon’s hand automatically drop to his sward hilt, he jabbered on, “A mere statement of fact, colonel, no more, no less. A slight twist of jest, and you are ready to cut off one’s head!”
“It has been no jest to Miss Eliza, left full in the belly with your offspring,” Brandon hissed. “It was no jest to her mother before her, when my brother abused and abandoned her to the streets, to work in a house…”
He shut his eyes, trying to block out the images of his search or her at the brothel, at the poor house, of her coughing up blood and pleading for him to care for her daughter, as he tried his best to comfort her in her final moments, cradling her in his arms as she passed.
“You are trapped in the past, colonel,” he clucked. “Besides, I didn’t insist upon her taking it all so very seriously…”
“You seduced her in London,” he growled, “and then left her there stranded in the worst possible way, at the risk of being ravaged or murdered, while carrying your child…”
“Offered to have that removed for her,” he defended himself with a shrug. “I have my connections…could have worked it out with a stick…”
Suddenly the back of Brandon’s hand smashed against Willoughby’s jaw and caused him to stagger back. He obviously had not lost his strength when he lost his other arm, and the stricken man was left reeling and panting.
“It’s a daughter,” Brandon whispered intensely. “She’s innocent of all this. And if I have my way, she’ll live her life never having to suffer the indignity of seeing your face.”
Willoughby rubbed his jaw and smirked. “So while we’re in the altruistic mood…would you check up on Mrs. Willoughby during her convalescence? I fear isolation may not be the best for her disposition.”
Brandon very nearly snorted at the sheer gall of the man. “You would ask this…of me? Because you are not man enough to be there for her yourself?”
“You’re just…the right man for the job,” he decided. “You’re too honorable to seduce her, and too much the gentleman to leave her alone. You’ll do what I ask of you, for her sake, no matter what you may say here. You can’t help yourself. Guilt is a powerful motivation.”
“Yes,” Willoughby confirmed, “over the woman you could not save. Now you cannot help but try to make up for it by extending your tender care to all unfortunate souls gone astray…you even take them into your house, and in the case of the former Miss Dashwood, your bed…”
“You filth!” Brandon exploded. “She loved you, truly, did you know that?”
In some strange way, his words brought some starburst of emotion to Willoughby’s eyes, so sudden and brilliant it was terribly hard to read, and then quickly evaporated.
But Brandon saw it. “My God,” he breathed out. “She was the closest thing you ever knew to feeling love, fresh and pure grown, and instead of tending it, you plucked it out and left it to wither for the security of a heavy purse. Man, you could have killed her! When I saw her lying there, I thought…I thought…”
Oh, yes, he had thought it…he had thought of his first love, and how painful it was to watch the last light slide from her eyes. He had thought he would go mad to see another innocent snuffed out of this world b the cruelty of others.
For once in his life, Willoughby looked as if his sure-footing had momentarily slipped, and his face drained ashen. “She deserves you,” he admitted quietly. “You’re the very best sort of second best there is. You probably deserved to be the first. No, I know you did.”
Brandon gazed at him. “It hurts to love. It hurts to be broken. But it hurts far more to be loveless in one’s own self. Numbness, I think, hurts more than pain.” He took a step closer. “You felt life for the first time with her, but still cut it off. You nearly killed life itself. At least…let yourself grieve over your own folly. It’s the best thing you could for yourself. It may turn into a cure, if you let it.”
Brandon was happy to have been able to exit the party with Marianne and Margaret in short order following the conclusion of his talk with Willoughby. When the three of them finally arrived back at the manor house, they were surprised to find that they had visitors waiting for them already.
“Elinor! It’s Elinor! You’re home!” Margaret flung herself at her older sister with her usual impulsiveness, and practically punched Edward in the arm. “Why didn’t you warn us?!”
“Och…It was a bit unexpected,” Edward mumbled, rubbing his arm, and then tousling her hair. “Never expected to have my wife wanting to go home as soon as we managed to get out on a proper holiday…”
“Holidays are well and good, but Christmas should be spent before a good hearth with those held most dear,” Elinor insisted as Marianne rushed over to embrace her sister as well. The older leaned forward towards Brandon and muttered cautiously, “We did take the liberty of bringing along an extra couple of guests we ran into in London…”
“More guests…?” Brandon started as he shook hands with Edward.
“Yes…” She gestured towards the sitting room. “Better go in and see for yourself, hmm? We girls will be talking out here for a while anyway…Edward, dear, you can go get the presents we bought from Dublin…”
His curiosity piqued, he headed for sitting room area and then paused, somewhat shocked.
His young ward’s face grew slightly pale then quite rosy. “Your wife’s sister has been kind,” she told him. “She bought me so many lovely things for the baby.”
Slowly, he sat down on the chaise with her as she rocked the baby in her arms, and it laughed.
Eliza smiled softly. “She’s happy,” she said. “She deserves to be happy.” She turned to Brandon, questions in her eyes. “Does…he know about her?”
Brandon nodded. “I told him.”
“You you think he’ll…?”
“I doubt it.”
Her face fell. “He doesn’t care at all, does he?”
Brandon looked down awkwardly. “I don’t believe his wife and child by her will fare much better.”
She set the baby down in the store-bought bassinet at her side slowly. Then she looked at him, as if trying to discern something in him. “I have shamed you. You must…be repulsed by us.” Her eyes drifted down to the baby. He shook his head, but she kept going. “You provided for me, all my life. All my necessities, my education…you might have died in that duel over me…”
“Honor demanded it,” he responded shortly. “And no harm came of it.”
“Honor, yes,” she said quietly. “To my mother.” She stood up stiffly. “When I was growing up, the servants used to gossip, you know. They used to say I might be your child by her. That’s why you cared for me.”
“I know they did.”
“But I knew they weren’t true. Just from the way you looked at me, I knew…”
He looked rather abashed now. “Did…did I hurt you?”
“Oh, it wasn’t anything so bad. You always showed me consideration, even when young. Yours was a quiet kindness, but I always knew…you were there. Even when you far away, and you often were, I knew that if I ever truly needed you, you’d come. Only death would keep you away.” She looked down to the floor and added quickly, “For my mother’s sake. But I still knew…I knew I wasn’t yours. And I knew, sometimes, it hurt you to look at me, because I was not yours. I was…another’s. That’s why every time we parted, you knew not how to bid me farewell. You knew not what type of affection to show.”
“No, it wasn’t…wasn’t jealousy of another. It was that you reminded me of…happy memories grown sad.” Now he his throat constricted. “I tried…I tried not to let it touch me, but it did. Do you remember the day I taught you to ride?”
“Of course I do,” she replied. “I was the same age as Margaret Dashwood is now. You smiled that day at my efforts. You don’t do it broadly like that often. I liked to see you do it. I thought you had grown…fond of me. Yes, you took me on a picnic, and I was sure of it. But by the time we said goodbye, you grown distant again, as if you did know me very well at all.”
He hung his head. “I…did not want to say goodbye.”
“Because I was all you had left of her?”
“Because…you were all I had…of you.” He twitched. “If I became attached, I might…somehow…lose you. And I had to distance myself, don’t you see?”
“You don’t know how much I used to miss you when you left, and how I’d wait up all night when they said you’d visit.” Eliza blinked. “I felt like a little child all over again when I waited for you in that London inn where he left me…you had no idea how frightened I was, but…but I had to believe you’d come for me, no matter how disappointed in me you were, and that you’d get me out of that filthy, frightening place, and help me…help me sort it all out…and you’d make it all alright…” She pressed a hand to her mouth.
He stood up from his chair. “It is true you are not of my blood,” he told her quietly. “It is also true that I have not always acted as I should. I know now that I should have…risked it, being hurt again by attachment, to let you know…what I felt I could not. But…my home is yours. And, though I may not have showed it as well as I ought, you…you could never make me ashamed, not truly. There is too much worthiness in you. And I…”
She came closer to him, and slowly, tentatively laid her head on his shoulder. Stifling a sniffle, she murmured, “Will it ever be made right, Colonel? Will it?”
He let his hand touch her back even his eyes drifted down to her child sleeping peacefully in the bassinet. “We’ll make it as right as we can, starting now. Come, let’s join the others. It’s a time for new beginnings, yes? Let’s ring in the Yule properly.”
It was late when all the guests retired to bed, after much enjoyment in the impromptu opening of presents and a meal of cold beef and bread custard and wine especially saved. Brandon had enjoyed observing the chatter amongst the ladies, and the way that the two sisters seemed to have taken Eliza and her child under their wing, with nary a sign of snobbery.
But the master of the house remained awake with his lady long after the others had gone to sleep. It was quiet, except for the crackling of the low fire in the hearth and Brandon’s monotone reading from the old poetry book. Marianne’s head was resting on his shoulder and with his one arm bracing her back. She helped him by turning the pages.
“You do that well,” he teased her gently.
“You do this well,” she returned, tapping on the page lightly.
“Well enough to put people to sleep with it.”
“It’s soothing,” she told him. “I…need it, after everything.”
He was silent for a moment. “You know, I should probably thank my old rival for being that which he is. Had he not been, I don’t suppose…” He paused again.
She titled her head. “What?”
“I don’t suppose you’d have given me a second look. You’d be happy with him and I would be…quite alone. I…I make a rather good second best.”
She sat up. “Christopher…”
“I know that’s selfish…I’m sorry. It’s just my way of telling you…” He turned his eyes down. “I am glad…I am not alone anymore.”
She shook her head, put her arms around his neck, and buried her face in his shoulder. “You’re not…second…anything,” she sniffled softly. “You’re the first one to go deeper than the surface of the heart, that’s all.”
He felt her hair fallen along her face and the tears there, and leaned her forehead against hers. “I am glad…I did not die…I-I want to be here, with you…that’s all I’ll ever want…”
“All?” she whispered, the edge of her mouth turning up a bit.
“Well…you know,” he chuckled awkwardly.
She held his hand in hers playfully. “You know, dear husband, woman become overly warm in the dead of winter for a reason…” She eyed him, as if letting him in on the answer to some clever riddle. He looked mystified. She sighed. “Some men actually deserve to become fathers.”
Now his jaw dropped. “Marianne…”
She raised a finger to his lips and just smiled. “I hope it will be a boy,” she said softly. “I hope he will be like his father…gentle and strong.”
Her cheek brushed against his, and they breathed life into a kiss. It was warm like the embers, soft in the dying glow, silent like the fall of the frost, like their love.
A child of his own. Oh. He had never felt so overwhelmed by any specter, no, not even on the battlefield. Truly, a child, his own…
“So then,” she whispered playfully, “will you teach him to hold a sword when the time comes, colonel?”
He shivered slightly. “I pray I may not have to. I want there to be no need of such things. I want…peace. Is that not the promise of this night? That peace has been born to men of good will? And the sword may yet be put away, lest we all die by it?”
She caressed his cheek with her hand and nodded. “Peace,” she murmured.
He mimicked the motion, brushing his fingers along her own face, and breathed out “Yes…that is what I want…”
And Marianne wished in her heart that all men would wish for the same. But Brandon had always been different in ways too few could comprehend. She prayed he always would be.