Brandon awoke first, his arm still wrapped around the warm body of his wife.
Each morning he began the day in slight disbelief that Marianne could and did love him. Waking up with such a creature of heaven beside him was nothing short of a blessing.
Her figure pleased him, not just those areas which brought him pleasure but little pieces of her. The hair, her chin, even the back of her knee. Every inch of her was utterly perfect.
That made him feel more conscious of his own frame, especially his scarring. He was relieved that her reaction had been a compassionate one, but she would nevertheless have her questions.
Feeling her shift against the covers he kissed her head. “Good morning beloved”
Marianne stretched and gave a yawn. Feeling the morning air acutely she shuffled to be closer to him. She sighed contently, one of her hands slipping inside his nightshirt.
Almost involuntary her hand brushed the scar and she brought her touch away with a suddenness that broke him. “It is displeasing to you?” he asked quietly.
“No” she replied, unable to wield enough passion in her speech so early in the day. “I did not want to hurt you,”
“I cannot feel touch on it directly” he confessed. “I haven’t since it healed”
“How did it happen?” she dared to ask. Seeing him pause she instantly took back her question. “No do not! It was wrong of me to ask!”
He gave a sad smile. “You have a right to know seeing as you are one of the few that see it”
“But it’s painful to recount no?” she urged. “I’m too bold!”
“Nonetheless” he sighed, pulling her closer. “If you wish to know I shall tell you”
“You have never seen a bullet wound so I would never expect you to recognise that of a machete” he began.
“A mach-“ she muttered. “How do you say it?”
“Machete” he repeated, but seeing her still utterly lost he simplified, “a large sword”
“Oh,” she replied, for a moment not fully understanding. “Oh!” she cried, more fear in her voice. “How awful! Christopher why were you attacked!”
“It was the height of war” he added. “Most men were shot so when a man came at me with a sword I was not capable to fight him”
“Did you suffer greatly?” she asked worriedly.
“I would wish to never have the pain again,” he replied. “Sir John killed the man who attacked me. I was therefore indebted to him.”
“That explains why you are so close” replied Marianne.
“War makes brothers of strangers” replied Brandon. “Each time I see the scar I reminded of it”
“Well,” she said. “You shall have no fear from me if anything I think it suits you”
“Imperfectness suits me?” he remarked.
“No” she replied, “Courage and honour are what it means to me, not all men fight with bravery or survive injury. You have done both and are still quite handsome for it”
Brandon was quite touched by her words. “You must promise to remind me of that when I am old and grey”
Marianne kissed him, “With pleasure”
That afternoon an express came to the house.
Marianne moved towards the door as their butler collected the letter. “What is it, Laine?”
“For the Colonel M’lady,” he replied. “From his ward, I believe”
“Beth” muttered Marianne, “I shall take it to him”
“Yes, Miss” Laine replied, handing her the small envelope.
Marianne found Brandon in the library. “This just came for you”
Lost in his work, he had not noticed the arrival of the horseman, “Thank you”
“I believe it is from Beth” she added. “It came by express”
“Express?” he questioned, now urging her to hand him the letter.
“Yes,” she said, watching him open it quickly. “Is everything well?”
Brandon’s eyes scanned down the letter, sighing as he reached the bottom. “I think so”
“This would not have anything to do with that other letter?” she asked, perching on the edge of his desk. “The one you still have yet to tell me about?”
He raised an eyebrow, “You have a marvellous memory my dear. Have I really not told you?”
“No” she replied, “So please, does this letter follow its sentiments?”
“Yes” replied Brandon. “The first letter on the day of the picnic was from Mrs Winters, the woman with whom I have placed Beth and her son. An outbreak of some sort had begun to affect the children in their area and she was eager for myself to act”
“And I assume you have done?”
“Of course, I have arranged for Beth to spend some time here in Devonshire” he added, trying to gauge her reaction.
Marianne’s face visibly changed, “Well, I am glad to hear of it now. Is she to stay here?”
“No” he urged, “This is not just my home any longer, and I would not have you subject to her presence knowing that she despises you, that would be cruel. Perhaps a day or so can be spent here but no longer”
“Well, where is she to stay?” she asked.
“Herself and her son are staying with Sir John, Mrs Jennings and her daughter,” he replied. “I am eager for Beth to meet with another mother and perhaps gain some of the self-discipline that goes with it”
“Beth is still quite wild then?” remarked Marianne.
Brandon grunted, “From what I hear motherhood has matured her slightly, but she has been known to still evade Mrs Winters and visit friends and travel to dances unchaperoned”
“She sounds quite-” she paused. “Almost beyond control?”
“For which I blame myself” he confessed. “I should have not indulged her”
Marianne hated to see him look so guilt-stricken. “Christopher, you cannot blame yourself, children develop personalities, she must be bold by nature, not indulgence”
“But I have indulged her” replied Brandon. “Anything in my power to give her was hers in an instant. Beth has her mother’s eyes and I cannot deny them anything”
“Is she aware she has this control over you?” remarked Marianne.
“She knows I like to see her happy” sighed Brandon. “I am not wrapped around her finger, but she knows how to ask for things”
“And has she changed at all since her son was born?” she asked. “Or is she still a child?”
“When I see her again I will know” he replied. “Beth has always wanted to be older than she is, she couldn’t wait to be taken to town or presented, meet lots of young people and converse with everyone. I always insisted that her time will come and when she is old enough she will do all those things, but that was never good enough”
“Is that how she ended being with Willoughby, impatience?”
Brandon reflected for a moment, “That spring she had been complaining of headaches and she had convinced Mrs Winters and I that going to Bath for the summer to relax and drink of those famous fountains would do her good. At fifteen I demanded she go with Mrs Winters and another woman, Miss Linton who deceived us all greatly”
“It appears that Beth was not sick at all, but as I had not seen her for myself in almost four months I believed her letters. Had I known whose hands she would fall into, I would never have allowed her to go”
Marianne listened to the story unfold, “Christopher, what state was she in, when you found her?”
“A pitiful one” he replied. It seemed that Willoughby had kept moving with her as his mistress for eight months, eventually returning to Bath to seek a new companion. It was Mrs Winters who found her, abandoned in an inn near the edge of the city. Willoughby had left her to pay for everything and vanished in the night, without glancing back. When Mrs Winters arrived she paid the innkeeper and took Beth back home. When I got there and entered the room she sat on the bed, her hands trying to cover the swell of her stomach, trying to hide the shame in her eyes-”
He paused as emotion rose within him, taking a deep breath he continued but with a strained voice. “The girl who had convinced herself that she was mature and confident had become her age at last. It is the second time I have ever seen her look afraid of me, the first being when I took her in after her mother died. That same look of worry and of the unknown was in her eyes. I think she expected me to fly into a rage or disown her on the spot, but just as I did those ten years ago I took her in my arms and let her cry”
Marianne listened and her heart swelled, trying to repress the tears that glazed her eyes.
“You have done right by her” she urged. “Surely you know this. I do not know many men who would do what you have done for a child that is not yours!”
“Beth is a very troubled child, she always has been” replied Brandon. “Knowing what her mother suffered I could never abandon her”
“I would never suggest it,” said Marianne. “I know how special she is to you”
“That is why I am so saddened that she despises you” he sighed. “But perhaps when she meets you and sees-“
“Sees, that I do not have a tail or two spikes growing from my head?” she urged. “That I only wish her well?”
“Yes,” he replied. “All I want is for you to know each other and for her to treat you with the respect that you deserve”
“And if she does not?”
“Then” he paused. “Then I shall have to take measures to ensure that she does”
Somewhat unconvinced Marianne simply nodded. “She is only several years younger than myself, it is only life experiences that separate us”
“And in time, some of them may bring you together” he added, gently kissing her hand.
Marianne, out of her good nature insisted that Beth and her son stay at least one day and night at Delaford. It only seemed correct to try and be civil with a girl who Brandon considered as almost his own child.
She oversaw much of the preparation, organising her room and even removing a maid from the position of serving her to always be available to Beth should she need assistance.
Once they received word that Beth was in Devonshire Brandon thought it best to escort her to Sir John’s estate.
“You won’t be long will you?” Marianne asked as he mounted his horse.
“I shall be home again by nightfall” he assured.
“Is that a promise?” she urged, her tone quite pointed.
Brandon leant forward on his horse and playfully retorted, “You believe she has complete control of me don’t you?”
“Stranger remarks have been made” she replied with a smile. “Send her my love and be back soon”
Brandon returned that evening, fatigued from his journey and with pain in his shoulder.
Marianne was distressed by this, urging him to lay down, watching as he winced removing his jacket.
“Is it the scar?” she asked. “Your injury?”
“Yes” he replied, “it gets worse after riding”
“Then perhaps you should avoid it,” she remarked.
Brandon tried to laugh but the pain stopped him. “Somehow I do not think I can give it up just yet.”
“Come now,” she said worriedly. “Where does it hurt?”
“Now my dearest” he smiled. “The pain is not great, simply passing”
She placed her hands on her hips. “Where does it hurt?”
“My shoulder” he replied, wincing as she started to rub the skin, using her fingers to massage the sore joint.
After a sharp pain or two, Brandon felt some of the tension release, causing the throbbing to subside.
With a relaxed sigh, he began to enjoy the feeling. “I may have to request this from now on”
“I am at your service” she replied, kissing his head. “And-how was Beth?”
Brandon nodded. “Tired from the journey, her son had not travelled well and was quite agitated. But she was happy to see me”
“I’m glad to hear it” she replied. “And she shall arrive here tomorrow at what time?”
“Sir John is sending a carriage at ten,” he said.
Marianne tried to be excited, but inside she wished she had not needed to be so kind.
However, her mind wandered to the notion that this would be their last night alone for the week, as Beth would inevitably stay longer.
With her body healed and her mind returned to balance, she contemplated how long it had genuinely been since herself and Brandon had spent a night together.
As his shoulder seemed quite soothed, one of her hand slipped inside the collar of his shirt, whilst the other boldly travelled down his body, towards his waist and groin.
Naturally, Brandon reacted, “And what do you think you are doing my dear?”
“Well,” she whispered. “It has been some time since-“ she blushed. “If you do not wish to of course-“
With ease, Brandon pulled her onto his lap. “If you are well enough”
She brushed her hand over his soft hair. “Oh yes, quite well enough. Shall we retire?”
“With pleasure” he replied.