Still holding Anne's hand, Frederick started to pull her back around the corner to the inn. He was stopped, however, when Anne pulled his hand back. "Wait," she quietly protested when she realized he meant to lead her inside. She nodded toward the inn. "Shall we tell them?"
Frederick caught her meaning and looked contemplative. Would it be proper to inform their companions so soon? He was unsure. "Perhaps I should speak to your father first?" he asked.
Anne shrugged and gave him a sad smile. "I do not think my father will much care," she admitted.
Frederick groaned. Though he had not spoken of it, the Elliots' disregard of Anne secretly infuriated him. Her father would probably be all too happy to get rid of her, Frederick mused, for he probably saw her as nothing but an extra expense. It irked Frederick that Anne's family could not see her worth. She deserved much better than them. However, he put these thoughts out of his mind and smiled, trying to raise Anne's spirits. "Well then," he said, "we shall tell them if you wish."
Anne looked hesitant. "But what shall we tell them?"
Frederick then understood her hesitancy. Since they had been reacquainted, the two had all but ignored each other. There had been no semblance of courtship between them, and as far as their companions were aware, they were no more than slight acquaintances. Aside from Benwick, none of them knew of Anne and Frederick's past. How could they simply walk in and announce their intention to marry? Their sudden engagement would be bound to raise suspicion if announced without explanation.
Frederick sighed. "Well, I suppose we can just tell them of our engagement and let them draw what conclusions they will," he said. "Although that will likely draw some gossip."
Anne grinned. "I am not afraid of their gossip," she promised. "If only you knew the amount of gossip I have endured about you recently," she added teasingly.
"About me?" Frederick asked, his face incredulous.
Anne laughed and was about to reply, but she was stopped by the sound of the inn's door opening. Voices emerged from the building, and Anne and Frederick both realized that their friends were headed toward them. The pair jumped apart like the guilty lovers they were and had just managed to regain some propriety when their party rounded the corner.
Louisa was the first to spot them. "Captain Wentworth!" she called pleasantly. "You are returned from your walk?"
Frederick was about to reply to the overture, but Mary cut him off when she spotted her sister. "Anne!" she exclaimed, "where have you been?" She rushed to her sister's side, a look of anguish on her face. "We thought you to be in your room, but when I went up to fetch you for a walk, you were gone! Oh what a fright you have given us! We thought something had happened to you and were just setting out to find you, and then here you are!" Mary was breathless, though whether that was owing to the speech or to her assumed hardship was unclear. "Really Anne," she chastised, "you should not go disappearing like that! It is so unkind of you to give us such a fright."
Anne bore her sister's chastisement with grace. Though she doubted that her disappearance had truly caused her sister so very much concern, Anne nonetheless attempted to mollify her. "My dear Mary," she said soothingly, "I assure you I am well. Why don't you come back inside and have some tea to calm your nerves?"
Mary submitted to her elder sister's guidance, evidently pleased with the attention her speech had gained her. She willingly followed Anne back into the inn and allowed herself to be ushered into a chair while Anne called for some tea. When she had settled, however, she began to look at Anne suspiciously. At last she asked, "Where did you get off to?"
Anne was unsure of how to explain her disappearance. She blushed and looked across the room to Frederick with a shy smile.
Frederick caught the meaning of her look. He returned her smile before declaring, "she was with me."
All eyes turned to him. Louisa echoed, "with you?"
"Yes," Frederick confirmed. "And we have… come to an understanding." He looked back at Anne for confirmation before adding, "Anne has given me the honor of accepting my proposal of marriage."
The room was silent for a long moment. Henrietta and Louisa looked back and forth between Frederick and Anne, their countenances skeptical. Mary stared at her sister in shock. Harville stared open-mouthed at Frederick, unsure of what to make of his friend's declaration. Benwick beamed.
Mary was the first to speak, though all she did was utter a surprised "dear me."
Her words seemed to spark everyone into action. Harville and Benwick pulled Frederick aside to congratulate him while the three ladies surrounded Anne. When Louisa had recovered from her shock, she exclaimed, "I thought you said you had no designs on Captain Wentworth, Anne!"
Anne blushed. "I had none," she replied honestly. She could not stop her eyes from traveling across the room to where Frederick when she quietly added, "for I did not think it possible."
After dinner that evening, as the party was engaged in general conversation, Captain Benwick caught Anne's attention. She excused herself from the conversation and joined him on the perimeter of the room. When she approached him, he said, "I think an apology is in order, Miss Anne." Anne frowned in confusion, so Benwick added, "Wentworth tells me you know that I broke your confidence-"
He would have said more, but Anne cut him off with a shake of her head and a kind smile. "There is no need of an apology, Captain Benwick," she assured him. "You have not injured me. In fact, I owe a great deal of my current happiness to your revelation of our conversation." Anne smiled at him. "I will not hear of an apology."
Benwick bowed in thanks. After a pause, he said, "I am happy for the both of you. You both deserve to be happy."
Anne smiled. "You deserve to be happy too, Captain," she said quietly. Benwick shook his head sadly and would have spoken, but Anne continued, "you said before that it was the fate of some of us to love and to lose, and you were right. But if I have learned anything through all this, it is that there is always another chance at happiness, if only you are willing to find it."
Benwick looked unconvinced. "I do not know that there is another chance for me, Miss Anne," he admitted sadly.
"I once thought the same of myself," Anne assured him. "Even when Frederick returned, I thought it impossible that we could ever have the happiness we once shared. I dare say he thought so too. But it was only because we were not able to see what was right in front of us that we thought we had no chance." Anne sighed. "That is the thing about loss," she said, "it preoccupies our hearts with misery until we are blind to the possibility of leaving such misery behind." She paused, waiting until she had Benwick's full attention before continuing, "There may be a chance for you to be happy again too, Captain Benwick. Do not close your heart to the possibility forever."
Before Benwick could reply, Anne was called to join the rest of the party. Benwick watched her go with a contemplative smile. Perhaps she was right. Though some loved and lost in this life, perhaps loss was not the end. Maybe second chances do exist for those who dare to fight for them. Perhaps the loss of the person who held one's heart was not a death sentence, but could rather be the beginning of a new story, a new chapter of one's life. Benwick watched as his friend smiled at the girl who held his heart and wondered for the first time whether it was possible that loss could be overcome. Maybe, he thought, second chances are possible, and maybe force so powerful as love can truly conquer even the most bitter loss.