Sleep is no longer a respite for Charlotte Wells. Even on nights when she falls into bed half-dead with fatigue, her mind never quite lets her rest. On the best of nights she is merely rendered sleepless. Cursed to stare at the ceiling of her room until the first rays of light pass through her windows. On the worst of nights, her mind plays one of two awful tricks on her. She either suffers nightmares of her mother’s possible fates, or she dreams of Isabella. And six months has been an insufficient amount of time to allow her to decide which is the worse torment, or to find a way to quell either. Now, when she wakes in the mornings, cheeks wet with tears she has no memory of shedding, it comes as no surprise. It is a small mercy that she cannot always recall which of the near-hallucinations haunted her sleep. She merely dries her eyes and sets about getting ready for the day ahead.
In the daylight, Charlotte deals with her near wreak of an emotional state in the only way she has ever known how. By pressing it down as far as she can. Locking her real feelings in the back recesses of her heart, and focusing instead on what is immediately before her. On things she can actually affect. Business at Greek Street has been steadily improving since the first few hard weeks after she had learned that her mother lived, but was lost to her nevertheless. Her pain over her mother, at least, she can indulge with her family who shares it. But she keeps the pain of Isabella’s betrayal to herself. And so she dreams, and wakes, and tries to cope as best she can.
And little by little, Charlotte Wells is coping. Or at least doing something that outwardly resembles coping. The emptiness she had confessed to Nancy the day Isabella had walked out of Greek Street has started to fill again. She has her sister safe and under the same roof as her. She has a brothel that is succeeding better than she could have hoped. She has the knowledge that her mother is not dead. And she has her Pa and Jacob and Nancy. She has so many things to fill that emptiness.
But as the emptiness fills, the stone where her heart is begins, likewise, to crack. And with it’s cracking comes the pain. The hollowness would almost have been preferable to the weight of pain she now carries. The sting of Isabella’s betrayal of everything they had achieved burns as wretchedly now as it had at her first realizing it upon finding Fallon gone from Nancy’s house.
The greatest spark of light that has risen from the ashes of the wreak, the one she clings to when all else seems in darkness, is that Lucy seems to have finally come into her own after the business with Fallon. With the extraction of his confession, however futile now, her sister had also drawn from him the independence of her own mind. She is as free as Charlotte believes any of them can be. And it gratifies her that, at least, Lucy has been saved. If the girl feels any sorrow at the news of her former keeper’s apparent suicide or the unsatisfactory ‘confession’ that had accompanied it, no doubt manipulated at the hands of the still-living Spartans, she hides it well.
And so life on Greek Street continues. Culls come, and pay, and are serviced. New girls of Charlotte’s choosing join the house. Little Kitty Lambert starts to crawl. Life moves ever forward. And Charlotte tries to think of Isabella less.
~ ~ ~
“Charlotte.” Lucy comes into the drawing room late one morning as Charlotte is preparing for the girls to entertain prospective culls.
“What is it Luce.”
“Lady Fitz is here. She asked to speak to you.”
Charlotte stops what she is doing and just stands there, processing what Lucy just said.
“Tell her where she can shove it Luce. I don’t want to see her.” Except Charlotte does want to see her. She very much wants to see her. She just doesn’t trust herself to.
“Charlotte.” Lucy scolds her. God, she sounds as tired as Charlotte feels.
Lucy is perhaps the only person who has actually been witness to the real depths of Charlotte’s grief, even if she does not fully understand all its origins. She had been the one to crawl into bed with Charlotte, as she had once done when they were small, and let Charlotte sob into her shoulder without even so much as a questioning look.
“Fine. Where is she?”
“Upstairs parlor. I’ll finish up here keep charge of the culls and girls for you. Make sure they don’t go up ‘cept for what they’re paying for. Go.”
Charlotte goes. She climbs the stairs slowly and pauses for a long moment in front of the shut parlor doors before opening them, and going inside. She closes the doors and then just stands there, her back to Isabella, unable to turn around and face the woman, though out of pain or spite she can’t exactly tell.
“Charlotte -” she hears the woman begin, and her heart breaks all over again. But beneath the pain is fire. The flames her mother had condemned and praised in turn.
She cuts her off. “No. You do not get to talk first. You walked out with the last word. If you want to speak at all, I go first. ” She turns to lean her back on the closed doors and finds Isabella just staring at her hands. When she manages to meet Charlotte’s eyes, she merely nods and returns to studying her hands.
Charlotte tries to calm her breath before continuing.
“We had them. For God’s sake Isabella,” she doesn’t care if she has the right to be so informal, her anger makes her take that right, “We had all of them within our grasp. Fallon was going to sign a full confession. The entire group would have crashed and burnt. We would have dragged the carcasses of their reputations through the mud. We had our revenge. Everything we risked was going to be worth it. My mother’s death -” she chokes up at this, tears welling in her eyes, threatening to fall. The lack of full truth in the statement makes it more painful, not less.
Isabella takes a step forward, “I am so sorry Charlotte.”
“You’re sorry?! What makes you think that is even close to good enough?” Charlotte can feel herself starting to yell but she can’t calm the flames rising in her chest. All the pain she has suppressed for the months since she last saw this woman is coming up as red-hot anger. She is either going to yell or she is going to break something. She can’t guarantee she won't do both.
“Do you even realize how many people risked so much for you?! How many people could have been flogged for what we did? Could have been jailed? Could have hung? My friend got beat by Quigley’s men because she thought he had gone to fetch your daughter. That beating was meant for my Pa!” Her voice cracks and she takes a few slow breaths before continuing again, Nancy’s words at the wake of Kitty Carter coming to her mind.
“We are whores and we are poor. We risked everything to bring down a conspiracy of rape and murder far larger and more monstrous than just Quigley and her blackmail. We put our necks in view of the noose to save potentially hundreds of girls. To avenge our friends and innocents like Abigail. To take back some power from men who rape and murder without compunction. To free you as well as ourselves! What if your brother had decided to let Fallon live? He could have condemned my whole family! I have lost so much in this damn fight. I put everything on the line to bring those bastards and Quigley down. And it worked! We had gotten everything in our grasps and you betrayed us! Showed our entire hand to your brother! For God’s sake Isabella how could you?! How could you, after everything, protect him! What were you thinking!” She stops then, finding herself at the end of the rope her anger had been burning. “Say something god damn it. I’m out of breath.”
There is a long pause before Isabella speaks again.
“How many days?” she asks, still looking down at her folded hands.
“How many days do you think it would have taken for Lord Fallon to sign the confession? For you to bring it before a Justice, and for my brother to be arrested? Provided that your plan actually worked.”
“Provided our plan actually worked? It would have worked, Isabella.” She can see that her using the lady’s name is causing some degree of pain.
“Please just answer me.”
“I don’t - I can’t say exactly. Two? Maybe three? He would have broken.”
“But it could have been a week to see your plan’s completion. Maybe more if my brother tired to run. He had my daughter Charlotte.” There is an almost desperate look on the woman’s face as she says this. And Charlotte softens ever so slightly.
“Whatever length of time it would have been,” Isabella continues, “it would have been time that Sophia would have been alone in that house with him. Utterly alone and his mercy, of which you and I both know he has none. That is the only thought that consumed me from the moment Lydia Quigley tore my daughter from me. When you told me you had Lord Fallon, I saw a bargaining chip to spare her damnation and I took it. I know you do not wish to hear it, but I am sorry for the pain that choice caused you in return.”
Charlotte walks past where Isabella stands, wiping at her eyes, and sits on the couch behind her.
“It was all done to protect your daughter?” She asks, looking up.
“Yes.” There is a pleading look in her eyes.
“Not to protect him.”
“An unfortunate consequence.”
Charlotte looks up at her. “And what of the money you demanded of him? Your house? You took much more than simple freedom from him.”
Isabella sits down beside her. Closer, but still keeping her distance.
“I believe we both forgot, for a while, how different our worlds really are. I can see how my focuses seemed to you. Like trivial matters in the face of what you were dealing with. I cannot ask you to accept my reasons, or understand how blood alone could not have assured me my freedom, but I can try to explain where my mind was.” she says, looking earnestly at Charlotte. “Please let me try.”
Charlotte nods mutely.
Isabella takes a deep breath, contemplating the best place to start. After a moment, she begins. “I needed to ensure that my daughter was safe. Not just from the immediate danger posed by my brother, but in her future as well. In my world that means money. Money to see her educated. To support her as a lady. To give her a dowry.” Isabella looks down at her hands again. “She is a bastard. And a bastard born out of the worst circumstances. In the end, I may not be able to make her respectable or accepted but I have to try. I owe her that much for abandoning her for so long.”
“And you were willing to serve the whims of the devil to do that?” Charlotte asks, the edge still in her voice, but no longer with the same force.
“I finally knew how to play against him. And you had given me the strength to know that I could. His obsession for years has been the control of me. But I, at last, had the upper hand. I had found a weakness. He wanted Fallon silenced more than he wanted me. More than he wanted Sophia. And so I pressed.”
Isabella pauses then to collect her thoughts. She has tried to put all of this into words so many times. To write to Charlotte and explain it all to her. Each time tearing up the letter which always felt wretchedly flat and insufficient. Finally, she continues.
“Quigley’s coming here that day to take my daughter assured me of two things. That brother had bought my secret from her, and that he could reach me anywhere unless I freed myself and Sophia from him permanently. And I am sorry, but I did not fully trust the success of your warpath. There were simply too many ways I could see my brother escaping the repercussions of the confession you drew from Lord Fallon. And if he did that, he would have rained down unimaginable hell on everything I have ever cared for. I sought to stop that. The law had not been our friend to that point. You as well as anyone have seen how men can be corrupted, and how anyone can be bought. I am sorry I did not explain my mind then, but I cannot regret my actions or think that I was ultimately wrong.”
Charlotte looks away.
“A mother will do almost anything to protect her child,” she says after a moment, some of her anger melting away in the knowledge that Isabella had acted for her daughter’s sake, and not for Harcourt’s. “Mine gave up everything to save Lucy’s soul. It was wrong of me to think that you would not act similarly.”
“I should not have asked you to tear your focus from your sister and your family that day. I think we talked past one another without even thinking to talk to each other. You had so much pain and I made a request of you instead of offering comfort.”
There is knock on the door and it opens a little as Lucy’s voice comes through.
“Charlotte, are you okay?”
Charlotte had almost forgotten that she had been yelling only a few moments ago. Gods of whoredom be praised if no culls had left on account of it.
“I’m fine Luce. Mind the girls for me a bit longer would you.”
The door shuts again.
“How is she? Your sister.” Isabella cannot help but recall that it was Charlotte’s younger sister, a girl that reminded her so much of Sophia in looks, who had been manipulated by Lord Fallon. That she had been in peril at the hands of a monster too.
“She’s better. I’d liked to hope she is growing back stronger at the broken places. But all I can say for sure is that she’s managing. We all are.”
“Managing seems to be a popular state of mind recently.” Isabella pauses. “I have tried to make myself come here more than once before today. Something kept me from it each time and any letter I tried to write met flames for its failure to explain my mind, or my heart, at all. The pain of knowing I had lost your friendship and your…affections, for what I did silenced me.”
“I don’t think you ever lost my affection,” Charlotte says, meeting Isabella’s eyes and bringing her hand to Isabella's cheek, thrilling more than she will ever admit to anyone when the lady closes her eyes at the touch. “Not really. Not even in the moments when I hated you.”
Charlotte takes both of Isabella’s hands in hers then, and draws a breath. “But my trust is going to take time.” She feels Isabella about to say something but stops her. “Please, I need to say this much. I have only trusted a handful of people in my entire life. One of them was you. You betrayed that. I can comprehend in my head and accept why you chose the way you did, but it still stings. It still…broke me.”
Charlotte had spent the greater part of her life being used and discarded by people. By men. And because of it, she had learned to be always on her guard. To build a wall around her heart and to become a perfectly carved imitation of a girl. Beautiful on the surface, but never quite really there. She had molded herself into the Queen of Pretend that could entice and break the heart of any cull.
Daniel Marney had tried to scale that wall. His persistent and unguarded affections drawing from her some small glimmer of hope that she could, perhaps, be soft. But in loving him she had nearly gotten him killed, and no matter how much she treasured him, cherished the love he had given her, the experience only reenforced her belief that she was too far removed from softness to ever be really loved or to love in return. And so she had pushed him away. She had chosen her path of vengeance over his love. She had built the wall around her heart higher, returned her mask to her face, and swore to never remove it again.
But then Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam had walked into her life, or rather, Charlotte had walked into hers. And somewhere between her couriering veiled threats and demands from Quigley, their ally ship against the bitch, and the night Isabella had bared her soul to Charlotte in this very house, the woman and managed to simply walk through all of Charlotte’s walls and remove her mask before she had time to even recognize what was happening. And when it was Isabella who chose her own path, who did the pushing away, Charlotte had shattered into pieces that she is still trying desperately to put together again.
“Then I promise you I will do everything in my power to try and deserve your trust again.” Isabella says, and Charlotte feels another piece of herself fall back into place.
Charlotte kisses her then. Softly, as she had the night Isabella had shared her secret. They are once again in uncharted waters, but the longing between them remains, and Charlotte will not lock it away again. Isabella deepens the kiss and it is ultimate Charlotte who pulls away to speak.
“I know you risk much in coming here, but I can’t take silence again. Will you try again to write me?”
“I could take silence no better than you could. I will write.” She kisses Charlotte’s hand. “Now I must go. Sophia will expect me back after her piano lesson.”
Charlotte kisses Isabella once more, merely because she can, then she follows her down the stairs and to the door, watching her go with a calmer mind than she has had in months.
“Nancy isn’t going to be happy with you,” Lucy says, coming up behind her, a smile in her voice.
Sneaking sprat had been listening at the door.
“Nancy can fuck herself with her flogger. Besides, I don’t really intend on telling her.” Charlotte says, turning to her sister and returning her grin. “Come on Sprat,” she says, putting her arm around her sister, “We have a brothel to run.”
To Be Continued.