Shadows in a Brilliant Life

 Shadows in a Brilliant Life

I wrote this years ago for a challenge entry on the now defunct website, Firthness. The challenge was to choose a previously written drabble** and expand it to a story of less than 5000 words.

Most of the choices were based on Pride and Prejudice of course. This was the only one based on Persuasion. Aside from that, it had two things going for it: the author, Grace Regan, is one of my favourite fan fiction authors, and it cast Frederick Wentworth as a bad guy.

What’s not to like about that?

 

Here’s Grace’s fantastic drabble:

Studiously dissolute, Frederick eyes his object. Blonde. Buxom. Young. Foolishly infatuated by the uniform, if not the man. Consciously unlike she he desires to forget, she who proved too easily persuaded. Just not by him.

He watches; aptly reads her. Slightly foxed, this morsel will yield to his persuasion. Unfeelingly invitation subtly issues, is readily accepted. His earthly desires and not the hapless matron hovering so ineffectually shall prevail. If his heart calls out for softer skin, dark eyes, sweetly remembered lips, his body shall not answer. It at least can be lost in base pleasures of readily available flesh.

My expansion of the story:

Shadows in a Brilliant Life

The admiral was not in the least concerned about Frederick taking out the gig. “The weather is passable, and your sister and I would normally be out and about ourselves, but there are many things to see to here at the Hall before the winter comes. Take it and enjoy yourself.”

Sophia on the other hand thought it odd that he would not be using his own horse. He’d shown no interest in any other sort of conveyance before now. Seeing as he was in no mood to hear her objections to his taking Louisa Musgrove out unescorted, he kept the information to himself. Besides, he was fairly certain that were her parents to know, they would raise little or no objections. They are far too careless when it comes to overseeing both their daughters, he thought. There are many hazards awaiting young ladies in the world these days.

The captain would present no danger, today. Today would be nothing more than a quiet picnic between newly met friends. It would be a tactical error to move in on his prey too soon. Better to send signals of warmth and friendship, and build some trust before gradually revealing his true objective.

They had agreed to meet just outside the gates of Uppercross Mansion, take a ride around the area and then choose a place to partake of their feast. He came around the corner to see Louisa speaking with Henrietta, both gesturing broadly. He slowed, but not before they both heard his approach and turned. The gestures ceased and Louisa ended the interchange with a slight push and a wave to her sister. Henrietta took a few steps, and then stared at him again. Instantly she turned and ran to the Mansion.

“Finally.” Louisa followed the gig to a stop, smiling up at him. When he dismounted she moved immediately to his side. “I have discovered the perfect situation for our picnic.”

“Perfect situation” seemed to him to be an interesting choice of words. “And what might this situation be, Miss Louisa?”

Until now, he’d not thought her smile could be any brighter. She fished in the folds of her pelisse; she drew out an old battered key, and held before him. He took it, turned it over to study it, and then held it out to her. “It looks to be an ordinary key. Nothing perfect about it.”

 

She closed his hand around it. “It is an ordinary key, to an ordinary cottage.” She went on to explain that the cottage was owned by her Uncle Hayter. It was little used for its original purpose, and that now it was recently fitted with a lock because her cousin Charles sometimes used it to study and would leave his books there. “Not that anyone would steal some old books, mind.”

“One does need to be careful. Someone could get into all sorts of trouble in a place like that.”

She readily agreed. “The cottage has a wonderful fireplace with plenty of wood put by. And I have brought us lots of delicious things to eat.” She lifted the hamper at her side. “I even sneaked some of Papa’s best wine. We have everything one needs. The cottage even boasts a cot.” Her eyes and smile were still bright, but they had taken on a conspiratorial cast.

So much for my having to persuade her, he thought. He was a little disappointed as the thrill of the chase had nearly as much charm as an actual capture.

He took the hamper and pushed it next to one he’d teased from the kitchens of the Hall. As he was about to hand her in, she paused. “You will like this place, I am sure. It is very quiet, and very private, Frederick.”

She had never dared use his Christian name. He looked forward to hearing it used more and in different ways as the day went on.

He was about to follow Louisa into the gig when a woman called her name. It was Anne Elliot.

There she stood, eyes studying the scene, hands primly folded beneath her cloak, bonnet untied with the ribbons scattered off her shoulders. No person in the world had the power to ruin his plans more effectively than her. He climbed down, intending to be polite and pleasant, sending the woman away as quickly as possible.

“Miss Elliot, we were just setting off for a picnic.” He bowed and then took the horse’s bridle. It too was beginning to feel the excitement of the afternoon’s adventure. “I am sure whatever you have to tell us—”

She walked by him without a word and went straight to Louisa.

“Your mother needs you right away, Louisa,” she said. “She has sent me particularly to find you and send you home.” Anne reached up and touched the girl’s hand resting on the arm of the seat. Louisa scowled at Anne and said something he did not hear. She then looked from Anne to him. Anne stepped back from the gig, turned, and fixed her eyes on him as well.

They did not examine one another for long before she tried to speak again to Louisa.

There was something in her expression that angered him. Since his return to Somerset, she had been scrupulous to bestow upon him proper conversation only in doses as required by the specific occasion. At times, he observed her as she moved about the fringes of the Musgrove household, and, at times, she observed him as well. If she did convince Louisa to go, and the girl did return that afternoon, he would not be surprised to hear that Anne had manipulated Mrs. Musgrove’s needs in some way. It was clear that Anne’s opinion of him was nothing like it had once been.

“Oh, very well. I will go back and see what Mama wants,” Louisa said, as she dismounted the gig. She came close to him. “Please, stay right here, I shall not be long.” She nodded ever so slightly towards Anne, and quickly touched his chin. Laughing, she skipped to the gate.

They watched her red pelisse disappear into the house, leaving them to themselves. Wentworth felt no need to speak to Anne, so went to the horse and began an unnecessary examination of the leather straps and buckles of the tack. As he walked about the gig, he could feel her moving with him. Glancing under the brim of his hat, she was indeed following in his wake. “If you have something to say, please feel free to do so.”

“Louisa has been secreting things away from the house. Bedding mostly.”

He stayed to his task. “And why should this concern me? I am told that young women do odd things all time.”

“I know where the two of you are bound for.”

He looked her way, smiling. “Then you know more than I.” He found a loose buckle and set about tightening it. It was perverse that her strained voice pleased him so, but it wasn’t his fault that she was bothered by his actions. There had been more than enough opportunity for her to make amends for the past. If jealousy was at play, he could only see it as justice being meted out on his behalf.

“She intends to take you to a secluded hunting cottage in the deep woods of Winthrop.” Rarely was Anne cheerful, but she was positively depressing now. It seemed that there were no calamities worse than a friendly picnic on a slightly cloudy day. Or, perhaps Miss Anne harboured suspicions about the intentions of the participants.

Feigning an adjustment, he stepped closer to her. Looking directly into her eyes, he said, “So she told me.” She inhaled sharply, her face froze and her eyes widened. Anne never was an overly animated person, so it was not the outward reaction that pleased him, but the turmoil he knew was erupting inside her mind.

Time had made some changes and he was a little surprised when she stepped even closer, put her hand on him and said, “You cannot do this thing!” Her brown eyes were wide, her mouth gaping in shock. A tiny maggot of compensation was hatched and growing in his heart with her obvious emotional disarray. He nearly told her to keep her opinion to herself, but then thought better. He wanted to make her state what “thing” she presumed he was about.

He challenged her to elaborate. She blushed furiously and her eyes wandered, unfocused. Her grasp on him went slack and her hand dropped from his sleeve. Turning from him, she leant against the gig. He worried she might faint, but she remained steady on her feet. “I cannot believe that you have so changed over this period of time.”

“It does happen,” he said. Before he could goad her further, or she could express further astonishment, Louisa called to him from the house. She spoke to someone out of sight. When she was finished, she pulled off her bonnet and came down the steps. Louisa’s bright countenance and eager expression were made more glowing against the background of the weak light and dull autumn landscape. It was made all the more enticing, as he knew she came for him.

“Do you suppose she teases me on purpose?” he asked. “Or is she always so careless to let her hair fall around her shoulders like that?” He glanced down to see he had her attention. He did indeed and now she too watched Louisa walking quickly their way.

“No, Louisa is a sweet, chaste beauty who would never tease a man. Her purity even extends to her looks. She certainly has no need for powder or paint. Her cheeks are naturally the colour of early spring roses. And her lips are as inviting as any candies I’ve ever tasted.”

“Stop it. You are being despicable. You should be ashamed.”

He did not look at her, but he imagined embarrassment and anger were flushing her cheeks, colouring them in their own appealing shade. Having lured her down the path now there was no reason to turn back. “Ashamed of noticing the fine attributes of a lovely woman? You never minded when I noticed such things about you.”

She breathed in sharply. “Don’t speak of us.”

“Oh, look, the dear girl has changed her dress for me. I think this one is cut quite a lot lower in the front than the other. What do you think?”

“I think what you are planning is wicked. And I am ashamed to know you or anything about the sordid business.”

He cared nothing about her opinion of his sordid business, but she had slapped him smartly with her other remark. “But it seems that you do know. And in a while, I shall know whether her legs are as long and shapely as I suspect—”

“Stop it, Frederick. Please don’t do this to her. She is only a silly, imprudent girl. Don’t take advantage like this—” Her hand again grasped his sleeve. He imagined her features more pleading than earlier.

“What if I said I would leave her alone? That I would drop any and all plans I have concerning Miss Louisa Musgrove?”

“I would say that you should do it.”

“Do you wish to know my conditions?” She said nothing. “Well?”

“What do you want of me?

My clever, clever Anne, he thought. She knows me well and she knows that any freedom for the girl will be connected to her somehow. “Come with me to the cottage.”

There was only the sound of Anne’s breathing. And now Louisa’s steps could be heard on the gravel drive.

“Say you will join me and I will relinquish her. But hurry, Anne, she’s almost here.”

With each step, Louisa drew closer to her fate, and Anne’s breathing became more pronounced.

“I know you usually need time and solitude on your decisions, but I am giving you neither. Decide now, Anne.” He raised his hand to wave to the girl. “If she reaches us, I shall withdraw the offer.” Louisa waved back and began walking faster.

“Decide now or I take her,” he said.

Louisa was within steps of them—

“Lou—”

“”I accept!”

“Very good,” he whispered.

“I am relieved you waited,” Louisa said, finishing the last few steps at a trot. Her hair was nearly all down. She breathed heavily from the exertion. Her eyes shone and her cheeks were brilliant roses. “Mama found a thousand trifling things to be done around the house. But I did few and told her I would do the rest later, after returning from our picnic.” She looked smugly towards Anne. With that, she offered her hand that he might help her into the gig.

Frederick took her hand and drew it to his lips. He wished for bare flesh, but thought soft leather better than kissing scratchy wool. Taking her other hand, he said, “I am sorry that you were called away for such inconsequential matters. It seems we have missed our opportunity.” She was puzzled and before she could speak, he continued. “It is our rotten luck that in the time you were called away it has become clear our plans for the day must change.”

Her initial response was to pout and then she began a campaign of wheedling to find out why the picnic must be cancelled. When she realised that stratagem was hopeless, she began to try to flatter him that he could ignore whatever was blocking their plans. That thwarted, she moved immediately to petulance. Once she stamped her foot, Wentworth brought it to an end by reaching into the gig and pulling out the hamper they had placed there earlier. “I see I have hurt your feelings, Louisa. Let me assure you, I regret this all very much.”

Her eyes were on fire and her nostrils flared in a most appealing manner. For an instant he thought to give in to her and go on the picnic. There was nothing Anne could say or do to stop him, and the girl was looking very lovely in her agitated condition. “This is the most rude and inconsiderate thing anyone has ever done to me, captain.” She snatched the hamper from his hand, her hair flying and pelisse brushing his legs as she swept off to the house.

When Louisa was safely away, he turned to Anne. Her hands again under the cloak. The steady movement indicated she wrung them with energy. Perhaps Anne was becoming more animated with his help.

Clearly it cost her to look into his eyes and say, “You did the right thing. Thank you.”

But, it was too soon for her to thank him. “Are you ready to go on our picnic?”

She stared for a moment, then slowly shook her head. “Surely you don’t mean to hold me to some ridiculous, coerced bargain.”

He stepped closer. “I do not think it ridiculous.” Another step brought him close enough to feel the warmth of her body. “I gave up a very entertaining afternoon. I did what you requested, now I expect you to do the same for me.”

Frowning, she sighed in exasperation and started to turn away. “I refuse to be a party to this nonsense.” It was clear her intention was to leave him.

Allowing her to leave was not to be tolerated. He reached out and took her by the arm. She turned, looked down at his hand and began to pull away. The struggle was unexpected, and soon it escalated to the point he had to push her against the side of the gig. She still struggled as he pressed himself against her. When she stopped, he said quietly into her ear, “You obviously know what I want of you.” He was almost glad the situation of their bodies was such he could not see her face.

“Yes, I understand completely. You wish me to substitute myself for Louisa.”

“Yes, dear Anne, I want you at the cottage. I thought you understood that.” The words were shocking even to his own ears, Shocking, but pleasing as well.

She breathed in deeply and breathed out a ragged, low moan. “You can’t…you … ” she sobbed.

“I do,” he said almost too softly to be heard. Her bonnet had fallen away in the skirmish and her beautiful neck was exposed to him. His breath played on her skin and returned to him as he too breathed violently. “I want you, Anne.”

He had always wanted her this way; their bodies pressed together, her hands on him, their breath heavy and rhythmic with passion. All his long-buried desires would be fulfilled today. He would become one with her, but even before that he would see her and touch the flesh that had been denied him for so long. In his most outlandish dreams, she would give herself without restraint, she would moan his name, begging him to love her forever. In the deepest recesses of his soul, he knew he was willing to do the begging.

She raised her head and bumped it against the gig. Turning what little she could towards him, she said, “When I offered myself to you that summer, you were a gentleman and refused to degrade me so.” Her voice quavered and she began to go limp under him. He slid an arm around her, but would not let her get away.

The muscles of her neck were standing taut, just barely out of the reach of his lips. Her scent was overwhelming him. He only just stopped himself from kissing her soft, white skin. “Of course not, I intended to marry you. What was a few weeks wait?”

It was an extraordinary and gratuitous lie. Turning down her offer had been the most wrenching, and most decent thing he had ever done. It had also caused him no end of sleepless nights, particularly the weeks following their engagement being blown to bits. He had never regretted his actions, until that moment. He wanted her and the draw of the cottage was growing stronger by the second.

“Be that gentleman again, Frederick. Allow me to go home.” She gulped for air. Her hands hung limp at her side.

“I can’t.” He stood up and took her in his arms. “We have an agreement, and it must be fulfilled.”He let her go and indicated the gig. Though she was unsteady from the struggle and dread of what awaited her, she was still possessed of an elegant grace as she took her place on the far side of the seat. Wentworth enjoyed watching her move, and chose not to think how deeply he’d hurt her with his lewd proposal. She looked straight over the horse’s head to the road. He put his foot on the step, preparing to join her when she suddenly did turn to face him. “You are no longer the man I love.”

Looking into here eyes he saw everything he wanted. He hung in the air what seemed forever, then dropped back to the ground.

She had not spoken of loving him in the past tense. Anne had used the present, the active present tense. She was in love with him now. It would seem that in the past days and weeks he had been doing everything in his power to sink himself. And with this one short phrase, it was clear he had finally managed to do so.

He stood staring. She had turned away from him. All he could see now was her hair, fallen and messy about her shoulders. In his mind he could see her face, its colour high from the scuffle, the sweet pinkness of her cheeks outdoing any beauty nature might dare to conjure. If only she would look at him again so that he might admire her exquisite brown eyes.

He pulled the hamper towards him, guiding it from under the seat, being careful to brush her skirts as he did. Opening it, he pulled out a bottle of wine and the two pewter cups. He poured, gulped the contents of the one and handed the other to her.

She turned a bit towards him, looked at his offering and said, “You may need fortification to accomplish this wickedness, but I shall not allow you to make me drunk. If you will do this, you will face me knowing I am in my right mind.”

“Take it, Anne. We both need this.” He leant further to her and gestured with the cup. She glanced at him, then took it, but did not drink. He poured himself another full bumper and gulped it down. Wiping his mouth, he tossed the cup. It clanked on the floor of the gig. He walked to the horse. It shied when he tried to take the bridle. He swore a particularly filthy oath, took its head with both hands, and latched onto the leather strap. “Walk on.”

They’d gone only a few steps when Anne said, “Why do you not drive?”

He ignored her. The overcast sky was darkening and he watched a cloud in the distance begin to drop its rain over the nearby countryside. “Faster, you beast,” he said, tugging the horse forward.

“Did you hear me?” Her tone was gentle, not exasperated or even fearful.

“I did.” He continued on, doing nothing to avoid puddles and mud as he set a respectable pace for them.

She did not ask anything more. The springs in the seat creaked as she shifted. After a time, she breathed deeply and returned a soft, resigned sigh. When the first raindrops fell, she let out a little help.

“We will both be soaked through if you continue to walk, you should ride,” Anne said, finally.

Both of them soaking wet was a wonderful cover for use of the cottage. The proposition of a warm, sheltering refuge on a rainy afternoon, with clothes hanging crazily about to dry was delightful. It was an amusing thought, but merely a distraction from the real purpose of the outing.

The seat creaked again. “You are taking us the wrong way. You have passed the lane that leads to it.” Perhaps he was imagining things, but there seemed to be a little urgency in her voice. He thought it ironic that she took it upon herself to correct his navigation. A correction that could only assure their quick arrival at the cottage. He wished he could chalk it up to her anticipation. Too bad it is her fastidiousness that spurs it and no real desire for me. He began to walk more quickly.

The seat creaked again, and he felt the gig shift to the side a little. “Please, Frederick. The rain is coming down harder. Please get in and drive us.”

He looked back to see her sitting on the driver’s side, leaning forward and grasping the board. She reached up to brush away water from her cheeks. It did no good and she blinked as the drops hit her face more quickly. Even in the rain, with her bonnet beginning to succumb to the soaking, she was beautiful and as desirable as she had been years before.

This beauty only served to make the circumstance more excruciating.

He stopped and the horse continued on. Again he swore, yanking it to a halt. Releasing the bridle, he turned, began to strip off his gloves, and walked back to her. Roughly, he took her gloved hand. Pushing back the fabric of her sleeve, he put his lips to her bare wrist and breathed in the scent of her.

This time she did nothing to escape his grasp. “Shall I tell you why I walk? Because it is not very far to the cottage.” She began to interrupt, but he raised his voice and continued over her. “And the reason I take this path is that I am taking you to your sister’s cottage and not the other.”

She closed her eyes for an instant and a faint smile touched her pink lips. Her hand remained in his. He brought her wrist again to his lips and lingered there. Reluctantly, he broke away and looked at her. Releasing her hand, he raised his to touch her cheek, but pulled back.

“I cannot get in the seat and drive us because being so near to you, and feeling your body so close, catching more of your scent, I would take you to that cottage, and I would take you without a regret in the world, Annie. And we both know that is something for which neither of us could forgive me.”

He returned to the horse and began walking them home.

“Frederick. Stop, please.” The gig jarred to the side as he slowed. She came to stand before him. Her face was wet, tears mingled with the rain, but her eyes were bright with something else. “You have done precisely the right thing.” Reaching up, her bare hand cupped his jaw and lingered, and then drifted to his neck. “I was wrong earlier. Neither of us has really changed so much.”

He reached up and ended the magnificent agony of her touch. Kissing her palm, he then said, “If I were a different sort of man, I would take you to that cottage.” He released her hand, but she did not pull it away. Instead she drew close and beckoned him to kiss her.

Into that kiss he poured all the longing of the past nine years, and all the renewed longing of the past few weeks. Her response was equal with hunger. Neither of them wanted to end it, but it was a pointless gesture under the circumstances. She did not move away as they each endeavoured to order themselves. After a time, she said, “I must thank you, for you have saved me from myself. Again.”

Both now had a better understanding of themselves and of the other. She asked no permission to leave and he did nothing to release her. Slowly she drew away from him and made her way down a meandering path, disappearing into a thin wood.

The urge to follow her was strong, and one he stanched with every bit of force he could muster. Taking the bridle, he began to walk again in a direction he hoped would lead him to the Hall. He regretted not knowing the location of the Hayter cottage. He had wine and the cottage held the promise of warmth. This was everything he needed for he brought with him quite enough food for thought.

 

Frederick as a bad boy is such fun to write. And I have to thank Gayle Mills for saving this story from the Abyss of Lost Files. Thanks, Gayle. Your OCD has paid of. For me!

 

**A drabble is flash fiction of a few words to approximately 100 words that tells a complete story.

Advertisements