It was so nice to be home. Charlotte felt bumped and bruised inside and out after the carriage ride and she fell gratefully into her mother's arms. The end of the summer came so quickly and she'd had no time to write home before she left, heart in tatters. The half-written letter to Alison had been tossed into the fireplace and honestly she felt as if she'd been crying for weeks rather than days.
Her family fretted over her dampened spirits, but eventually, being home brought the light back to her eyes. The weather cooled and she spent time raking leaves into piles for the boys and little ones and got into the habit of taking long walks in the crisp mornings.
Alison and her mother joined her occasionally, and slowly learned the source of her sadness. She did not particularly want to relive the last few days in Sanditon, but eventually the facts made their way into her conversation and her mother and sister did their best to cheer her.
It was enough to be away from the sea and surrounded by her family. She even began to feel a bit more like herself, though slightly more somber.
As the end of September came creeping up, Charlotte decided penning a letter to Georgiana was the least she could do with the way things ended between them.
In her small, curling script, she hemmed and hawed over what to say and how to say it before eventually settling on a short but heartfelt letter.
I wish we could have had a proper farewell from Sanditon, but I, as much as you, wanted to leave that place by summer's end. I don't know how many times it must be said, but I am dreadfully sorry about what happened with Otis. I never wanted to think badly of him, and I never wanted for you to be hurt. I had my fair share of heartache before leaving. I am home now and it is far different from Sanditon. If you ever find yourself wanting to get away into the countryside, my family and I would be more than happy to host you, if you were allowed. It would mean the world to me to hear from you.
your friend, Charlotte
Georgiana's response came, much sooner than expected. Charlotte thought that perhaps their friendship had been tested too strongly, but found that Miss Lambe's response was far from hostile.
Sanditon is a place that I do not wish to return to. My prison warden would have to drag me, kicking and screaming if it came to it. I have missed London, though I can say it does not hold the same glamour as I remember after my run-in with the scum of the city. I truly do not want to say that I told you to be careful with Sidney, but I am sorry that you were hurt. I don't wish to hurt you further, but the infamous wedding happened and it was dreadful. If it's any consolation, Sidney did not look too jubilant and Mrs. C's dress was ruined when she was attacked by a goose-which is a story to tell and, if I'm being honest, was the most enjoyable part of the whole event, but I don't want to talk about it too much unless you ask for it. In any case, I would love to visit, though it's doubtful I would be allowed. I will let you know if that ever changes. I hope being home with your family has lifted your spirits. I only wish I could return home also. Maybe one day.
Charlotte would be lying to herself if she said she had been purposefully ignoring any thoughts of "the infamous wedding" and as glad as she was to hear from Georgiana, she wished the content of the letter had much less Sidney involved. But she couldn't have expected anything less since Georgiana was his ward after all.
She slipped the letter into the top drawer of the chest of drawers she shared with her sisters and went to help her mother with slicing the last of the tomatoes of the season.
As the season grew colder and the sun retreated even farther from the little island country, Charlotte received a lengthy letter from Lady Susan, which was both a comfort and yet another reminder of Sanditon and her adventures there.
I confess that I have missed your company and conversation. I do hope that I can convince you to return to London as my guest so we might divulge in my library and strengthen our friendship. I am sure you have heard by now of the wedding between Mr. Parker and Mrs. C, and I can say that while I attended, there was not much joy in the crowd. I am sorry, my dear, and I truly wish I could somehow return us in time to the evening we met and give the both of you another chance to come together.
Be strong, my dear. We as women have to deal with so much in life and it pains me to think that you were too heartbroken by these events. If you had not left Sanditon so quickly, I would have visited one last time to speak with you. Please know that I have you in my thoughts and hope dearly that you are doing well with your family. I hope my letter finds you in good spirits.
The winter is a cold and unforgiving season, though it leads to new growth and new prospects. Once you make it beyond this harsh moment in your life, you will find strength and renewed energy on the other side, I promise you this.
Write to me whenever you have the mind to. I would love to hear from you.
Your friend, Susan
"Is that the Lady Susan?" Alison asked abruptly, walking into the room. She, being much taller than Charlotte, easily peered over her sister's shoulder and read the letter.
"I only know one person named Susan," Charlotte said, carefully folding the paper back into a manageable size.
Alison stepped around to stand before her sister. "She sounds lovely. And quite like you."
"Whatever do you mean?"
"Independent. Knows what she wants. If I didn't know better, I'd expect her to set up some horrible accident to afflict...Mrs. C."
"Alison!" Charlotte batted the folded letter against her sister's shoulder. "You really can't say things like that. That's horrible."
"You said she treated you as if you were a servant!"
"That doesn't mean the woman deserves to be injured or...No." Charlotte shook her head definitively. "I must have explained myself wrong. There's no reason for you to think such a fate would be righteous. Even for her."
Alison shrugged a shoulder, neither defending herself or apologizing. Instead, she tugged on Charlotte's hand and moved toward the door leading out to the gardens. "Come outside before it gets dark. Henry's found a baby bunny all alone in the grass. That's what I came to tell you."
Taking in a breath, Charlotte added Lady Susan's letter to the others and let her sister drag her outside.
Christmastime came before she even realized. Everything was becoming colder and slower and more barren. The trees lost their color and leaves, the sun, when it shone, wasn't drenching the world in heat, and the fires in the Heywood home crackled each short day and into the dark night.
With frost on the windows, Charlotte wrote to Mary and Tom, short and sweet and ran it out to get put to post before the day's end.
Dear Tom and Mary,
It is nearly Christmas, and so I hope it is not too early to wish you both a Happy Christmas. I wish I could be there to share it with you and the children. I also hope that Sanditon's rebuilding has gotten underway. I am sure that Mr. Stringer is helping bring your dream to life once again. Thank you, always, for your kindness and hospitality during my stay with you.
It wasn't until a few days after Christmas, in which all of the children had a small trinket of a gift, that Charlotte received a response from the Parkers.
Thank you so much for your letter. We are grateful for everything you did for us during your stay and miss you terribly. Our holidays were filled with small joys and Tom spent only a limited time with the builders. He is a changed man since the rebuilding started. Both of us hope your holidays were as lovely as our own, and we hope to see you again soon.
Mary and Tom
Tom's name was written in the same script as the rest of the letter, added by his wife. However, Charlotte knew the thoughts and well wishes were sincere from both of the Parkers and it helped ease the slowly healing wound in her heart at the thought of two people who made it through certain disaster and came out together on the other side. It was like Lady Susan told her: the winter was for wiping a slate clean and beginning anew come spring.
Charlotte spent that night thanking Mary for not mentioning the reasons for which the rebuilding could occur, and yet not mentioning it did not make it any easier to ignore. With Alison sleeping soundly beside her, she stared at the ceiling, the frost on the windows clouding the moon and stars, and tried to forget how her heart leapt in confusion and anticipation atop that cliffside as her carriage stopped and she found Sidney there.
She had been so sure...and yet this was not a grand novel, this was her life. She did what she was meant to: letting him go, no matter how much it hurt and how unlikely it seemed that she would ever recover from such a selfless act.
She could have swayed him, but she would have doomed every single one of the Parkers and she could not allow herself to be the sole reason for other people's misery.
Instead, she would live with her own until it grew into a tender memory.
Covered in mud from the thawing earth and cold rain that hadn't let up in three days, Charlotte stepped into the village's store and received her post. It was not as if she were the only person in her family to get mail, but since most of the Heywoods had never left Willingden, they hence had little need to correspond with anyone.
First, was a letter from Georgiana, which was short and left Charlotte still wondering if their friendship was mended or if there was even anything to mend in the first place. The second was from Tom and Mary. She knew immediately that while the addressing was done in Mary's hand, the bold text and words inside came directly from Tom Parker himself.
After a number of months, I am delighted to say that Sanditon's terrace has been fully restored and even more glorious than before. The entire town is a beautiful place. My personal office is quite the mess without your skilled eye for organization, Miss Heywood, and I am formally inviting you to spend some time this coming summer with us. The children and Mary miss your company, and I fear that I also became accustomed to your place in our household. If not for your friendship with Lady Susan, Sanditon may have completely crumbled.
Wishing you well,
Tom and Mary Parker
It was very like Tom to sneak business into a personal letter, but Charlotte was grateful for it. Unlike her father's warning, there were a few people who were as they always were even at a sea resort. She would have to reply soon, after speaking with her parents. They were getting ready to send Edmond off to an apprenticeship and the little ones were growing quickly and Charlotte didn't want to leave them if they needed her.
And perhaps, a small part of her was scared to return. She would be happy to see the Parkers again, but she worried that the wound healing within would break open once she was back in a town filled with such vivid memories.
The sun began to rise earlier and earlier and the farm bustled into life as it prepared for the start of spring. Charlotte managed her long walks only sometimes, and she ended the days exhausted but satisfied with her days work. One evening, after scrubbing her hands clean of dirt, washing away the half-moons of darkness that had grown under her nails, she sat at the table filled with books and papers that she kept sorted for her father, and set a quill to paper to an unlikely recipient. She was not sure just yet what made her think of this, but once the paper was marked, there was no going back.
To Mister Stringer,
I have heard from the Parkers that your hard work at rebuilding Sanditon has been successful. I'm happy to hear it and I am sure you made your father proud. I will be visiting Sanditon this summer and would like nothing more than to indulge in another of our conversations. I apologize for not writing sooner, but I have been overwhelmed by returning to my family. I hope to hear from you.
By the time his response came—of which she was pleased to receive, as she hadn't really been expecting it—she had already made plans to spend a fortnight with Lady Susan in London. Stringer's response was on cheap, smudged paper covered in charcoal fingerprints. She could nearly hear him speaking the words as she read them:
Your letter was a pleasant surprise. Sanditon is looking well, I hope you find it meets expectations when you see it. I've decided to go to London to accept the apprenticeship, but I will try to see you in Sanditon if I'm able.
"I have never seen anyone get so much mail in my entire life," Alison exclaimed that evening, when she found Charlotte bundling together her letters. "You went off to Sanditon and came back with so many people to keep in touch with. Does it not get exhausting?"
"No," Charlotte said, amused. "I sent you letters from Sanditon, besides. And I would write you letters now if you want. I could leave them in town and you could pick them up for yourself."
Alison sat on the bed and thought about it for a moment before wrinkling her nose. "No. I don't think so. What would you say anyway? You tell me everything anyway."
Not everything of course. But most everything. There were a select few moments and thoughts that Charlotte kept to herself.
"Will you at least write to me from London?" Alison changed her mind.
"Yes," Charlotte said with a smile.
"Describe all the balls you attend! And all of the men you dance with. I'm sure I can find a new one worthy of your affection."
"I appreciate your insight but I think I can do that for myself."
"Nonsense. Look what happened last time." Moments later, Alison shook her head and stood. "Charlotte, I'm sorry. That's not at all what I meant to say…"
Charlotte took a breath and set back her shoulders. "I know," she said reaching out to touch her sister's arm. "I know what you meant." She paused to push her bundle of letters into the drawer and then moved to snuff out the candle. "We should get some sleep."
Charlotte's eyes were instantly drawn upward as she stepped out of the carriage outside of Lady Susan's estate in London. It was impressive to say the least and Charlotte felt momentarily overwhelmed before the door opened and a number of servants came to grab her belongings and usher her inside to the sitting room.
"Miss Heywood, Lady Susan," she was introduced.
Susan was seated by a large window, reading in the light. Her face lit up pleasantly when Charlotte stepped inside.
"Oh, dear Charlotte." The older woman stood and swept over to her, catching Charlotte's hands and squeezing them. "It's lovely to see you, my dear."
Charlotte couldn't help but smile. "Thank you so much for inviting me, Susan. Your home is lovely."
"Oh, thank you." Susan moved to stand beside her, curling Charlotte's hand around her elbow. "There will be plenty of time for lavish tours of London. What I really want is to hear how you are doing."
Charlotte's smile faltered slightly. "I'm doing well."
Susan raised an eyebrow subtly. "We're friends, are we not?"
"Yes, of course."
"Then you may be frank with me. I only wish to help you."
It took a moment or two, a number of short breaths and then Charlotte spoke of her slowly mending heart, the ebbs and flows of the days when she felt completely healed and then freshly spurned. Susan was an apt listener. Charlotte tried to brush off the intensity of her feelings, but her host saw straight through that.
"You will survive this, as I've told you," Susan said, assuringly. It was lovely to hear direction from the woman rather than just through letters. "And I hope you'll have a fine time with me while you're here even though," she paused to gauge the expression on Charlotte's face, "there is a high chance we will be at the same events as Mister Parker and the new Mrs. Parker."
"Will we?" Charlotte asked, her voice tight.
"I was hoping I could convince you to attend a ball while you were here. Some of the lords and ladies I introduced you to before will be there and it is always smart to keep up civility with the gentry."
Charlotte half smiled. "You speak as if you are not part of that world."
"Oh I am, I just find myself slightly off to the side."
"Reading a book," Charlotte offered.
Susan patted her arm. "Yes, indeed. Now, tell me, what else would you like to do while you're here?"
"I would be contented to see the library you spoke of," Charlotte confessed before adding, "and there is someone I would like to see."
"Oh? A friend from Sanditon?"
"Something like that…"
"Oh...does this have anything to do with that other young man at the regatta?"
Charlotte sputtered and wrinkled her nose. "You really miss nothing, do you?"
"It is one of my talents."
"His name is Mister Stringer. He was the foreman for the building of Sanditon."
"And he recently moved to London to apprentice to an architect."
"Hmmm...he has high ambitions. That's good."
Charlotte pressed her lips together as she contemplated her next words. "I don't think it's all that proper to go looking for him but I was going to try, while I was here."
"I can help with that."
"Of course. And I'd like to meet this Mister Stringer to form my own opinion of him."
Charlotte laughed a little. "You sound a lot like my sister. She also has it in her mind to help me choose my…" She trailed off a bit, not quite sure how to finish.
Susan marched onward. "We will find him and pay him a visit. And I will be more than happy to show you my sizable library."
"Thank you, Susan."
The ball was at the tail end of Charlotte's first week there. Susan was true to her word and they found Mister Stringer within days and set up a "chance meeting".
"How can it be a meeting of chance if you've made all these arrangements?" Charlotte asked as they were preparing to leave the estate, tying on hats and buttoning up jackets.
Lady Susan laughed a musical laugh and straightened her jacket sleeves. "My dear girl, you have much to learn."
She did, but it wasn't in Charlotte's nature to admit that. There was a sort of excitement with the prospects of seeing Mister Stringer again, mostly because she was happy that he followed his heart and came to London. After what happened to his father, she wasn't sure he would. He didn't seem willing to try when she bade him goodbye in Sanditon.
"Now, I know you brought dresses with you," Susan said as they walked, filling their walk with conversation, "but you cannot expect me to pass up the opportunity to get a dress made for you here in London."
"Really, I couldn't," Charlotte insisted.
"You must. I've already set an appointment for later this afternoon."
Charlotte couldn't resist a smile, though she was a little taken aback by Lady Susan's whole general nature. The more time she spent with the woman, the more she liked her; she was unlike the other ladies she had met at the events in Sanditon and also here in London. However direct she was, she wasn't rude like Lady Denham, and Charlotte never had to bite her tongue around her.
"And you know, I happen to have met Mister Nash before," Lady Susan steered the conversation back to this particular outing's purpose.
"Is that how you managed all this? Not that you aren't capable entirely on your own, but I know that architects are frightfully busy, and an apprenticeship takes quite a bit of time."
"It definitely didn't hurt," Susan mused. "They'll be meeting us for a spot of lunch."
The men were indeed waiting for them at a respectable restaurant where Lady Susan seemed to know a number of people, though the place looked like it was slightly lower class than her usual destinations.
"Miss Heywood," Stringer said, standing and giving her a bright smile.
"Mister Stringer," she replied with a smile in turn and the tiniest of curtsies. "And this is Lady Worcester. I've been staying as a guest at her home here in London."
"Pleasure to meet you, Lady Worcester," Stringer said to Susan, who returned his greeting kindly.
They all sat and Susan talked mostly with Mister Nash, leaving Stringer and Charlotte a few minutes to speak.
"You're looking well," she said, not just out of politeness either.
"Thank you," he said genuinely. "I was surprised to see that you're in London."
"Well, I have friends here...somehow," she added quietly, leaning forward. "I feel as if I'm a world away from home right now. London is vast and loud and I've gotten quite used to being home."
"I feel the same, miss. But I can't say that I'm sad to be here, since it meant I could see you today."
"It's quite nice to see a friendly face," she confessed. There was a moment, a beat in which their conversation lulled and there was a softness in the air between them before Lady Susan brought them both into the conversation.
"I hear you're doing wonders as an apprentice, Mister Stringer. How do you find London?"
"It's very different from Sanditon, but I'm learning a great deal. I'm thankful for that."
"And you helped build up the whole Sanditon front, is that correct?"
"It was a quaint little place, certainly," Lady Susan said, meeting Charlotte's eyes for a moment before turning her attention to Mister Nash. "You should try to visit there and see Mister Stringer's work first hand, Mister Nash."
"Perhaps," the older gentleman said. "I don't travel like I used to."
"Sanditon is a lovely place in the summer," Charlotte said, never able to keep quiet for long. "I plan on visiting again this summer. And I'm sure that Mister Stringer's work is worth seeing, Mister Nash."
The older man chuckled and even Mister Stringer looked abashed at her compliments. "I like this girl, Susan. Perhaps we will."
The rest of the luncheon was kept to civil conversation, including what projects were being worked on and the like. Eventually, however, the engagement was broken, as Lady Susan's standing dress appointment loomed and the men had to return to their work regiment. They said their goodbyes at the table.
"It was really nice to see you again, Miss Heywood," Mister Stringer said, holding Charlotte's gaze.
She nodded slowly. "And you as well, Mister Stringer."
"Charlotte is staying with me through next week," Lady Susan said. "Perhaps you two could meet again before she leaves?"
Before either of them could say a thing, Lady Susan took Charlotte's arm and walked them outside. They weren't more than a few feet from the door and immediately Lady Susan began laying out her thoughts:
"Well, he definitely is a charming young man, isn't he? I can see why you would want to see him."
"I honestly was just hoping he was settling in well here in London. His father died quite horribly in Sanditon at the end of the summer and I was worried…"
"Worried? He is a grown man, Charlotte, he doesn't need your worry."
"I can't help myself."
"No, of course not. And were you satisfied with how he's doing?"
"I think so, yes."
They walked in silence. The kind of silence that Charlotte knew well. "If I may be frank, Lady Susan…"
"You always can, Charlotte."
"Are you thinking of how we were? Mister Stringer and I?"
"It would be a lie if I wasn't paying attention. You know that I care for you and your happiness."
"I do and I appreciate it."
"He seems to be a nice man. He's different to the London high class, certainly. I'm not sure if he could lie and cheat and undermine and I think that would be good for you."
"Is that hesitation I hear at the end?"
"An amendment. He is kind and—"
"And he all but confessed his feelings for me in Sanditon," Charlotte blurted out, quite out of the blue.
"Yes. More than once. But I was...distracted."
Susan's smile turned thin. "If you truly want to start anew, it would not hurt to spend more time with Mister Stringer. Perhaps you'll find yourself warming to him."
"I enjoy being around him already. I always have. He never treated me like I was dainty or shouldn't know the things I know."
"Like someone else?" Susan prodded.
Charlotte swallowed, a frown creasing her brow. "Mister Parker...had no high regard for me when we first met. But he also didn't treat me as a dainty thing, at least."
Susan squeezed her arm. "All right, enough about that. Let's get our dresses fitted."
Charlotte did see Stringer more than once before she left London. He showed her his workshop space, laid out with beautiful designs he thought up himself that he would use once he could build on his own. He was joyously proud of his work and Charlotte found herself extremely happy for him.
Lady Susan's ball gown for her was white and blue, more elegant than the ones she had brought with her. Charlotte knew a couple of the faces in the crowds, people she had met at the regatta, and even Lord and Lady Babington.
"Miss Heywood," Lord Babington said kindly. "Lady Worcester."
"How on earth did you get here?" Lady Babington said, though not unkindly.
Charlotte actually found herself laughing slightly. "I've been asking this myself all week, Lady Babington," she said. "I'm a friend of Lady Susan's."
"Of course you are."
"You seem to be doing well here in London," Charlotte said. She didn't expect the former Miss Denham to apologize for her past conversations. Charlotte had been there at the ball when everything was brought to light, and she had been to the wedding to follow and she could see that the woman before her had done as she hoped to do: grow beyond her past.
"I am. Are you enjoying yourself?"
"Yes, thank you." She paused and leaned a bit closer, "And if I may be so bold but you seem happy here."
Lady Babington glanced at her husband and back to the village girl with a little softness in her eyes and an appreciative smile. "Yes," she said before the Lord and Lady departed.
Charlotte moved around the room with Lady Susan, who spoke to a number of people. Charlotte longed to dance as the band played, but she knew so few people well and no partners dared to come up to Lady Susan it appeared.
As she glanced around the room, she had the unfortunate chance to set her eyes upon two people who just arrived to the ball: a certain Mister Parker and his lovely wife.
Charlotte's breath caught in her throat and she felt for a moment as if she had just plunged into a frozen river. Lady Susan's delicate touch on her arm brought her to her senses and she blinked away a sheen from her eyes.
"Are you all right, my dear?"
"Yes," she said, breathily. "I'm perfectly fine."
Susan did a wonderful job of keeping them involved with the outskirts of the room, so Charlotte never had the misfortune of having to speak to Sidney and Eliza. She was so rattled that she lost even her desire to dance.
Amongst making their way around the room, she did hear a number of bits of gossip about the Parkers, who apparently were quite well known within these ranks. Charlotte did her best not to hear or dwell on it, but it wasn't as if she could stop herself from hearing. And she was fairly certain that Sidney never saw her before she and Lady Susan retired early.
Unable to sleep, Charlotte curled up in a high backed chair in Lady Susan's library and read until the candle had run all the way down.
Charlotte turned at her name. She had decided on taking a carriage from town rather than Lady Susan's personal one and she and the Lady had already said their goodbyes. "Mister Stringer?" she said, furrowing her brows.
"Are you heading on home then?"
"Yes. This trip to London has been better than my first, but I still feel out of sorts here."
He dipped his head down in agreement. "I know how that feels, miss. I hope it's all right I came to see you off."
"Yes, of course."
"And I was hoping," he took one of her hands in his which was quite bold but she didn't stop him, "you and I would keep writing each other while you're...home and I'm here."
She smiled slowly. "I think that's a wonderful idea, Mister Stringer."
He let out a relieved breath and let go of her hand. "You think?"
"Yes. And perhaps we will see each other this summer, if I managed to convince Mister Nash," she added with a small laugh.
"That would be perfect, Miss Heywood."
She took a small step back, toward the carriage. "It would," she said before twisting around and climbing into the coach. She was the last in and lifted her hand in a brief wave before the horses moved forward.
"Were there really no wonderful men at the party?" Alison asked, combing through the two letters she'd received while Charlotte was in London, as if she hadn't already read them a dozen times each.
"If you like old men with white hair, yes there were plenty," Charlotte said as she folded some fresh laundry.
"Did you spend the whole time reading books?"
"Not the whole time. And I did...I saw Mister Stringer."
Alison frowned. "From Sanditon? The builder man?"
"Yes. He is apprenticing in London."
Alison scooted up to the edge of the bed where she was sprawled. "Why didn't you write to me! I would have loved it."
"I didn't want to," Charlotte said sharply before she sighed. "I did not want to repeat myself. I wanted to tell you all about it here."
"Fine, fine," Alison waved her hands. "So, tell me!"
And she did. It was a light sort of conversation, in which Charlotte spoke aloud things she had known from very early on after meeting Stringer, but had never voiced out loud. And every word she spoke made it easier to see the appeal, put some sense to feelings and questions in her mind.
"I think Father would like him," Alison said finally. "And Mother, too. He sounds sweet. And he loves you! Oh. How did you leave for a single summer and come back with two men in love with you?"
"I assure you," Charlotte sputtered, "I did nothing whatsoever except act as myself."
"Do you think anything this romantic will ever happen to me?"
"I wouldn't call it romantic," Charlotte insisted.
"What do you call it then?"
"Heartbreak and recovery," she said softly. Shaking her head, she waved to the basket on the floor. "Now, will you please help me with this?"
Sanditon was just as lovely as she remembered. For the first week, there weren't even any gailing winds and few others had arrived yet. Tom and Mary welcomed her back with open arms and Charlotte tried not to exclaim at how big the children had gotten over the last year.
"What do you think, Charlotte?" Tom asked after he took her on a tour of the rebuilt down. "Almost every one of these apartments are tenanted."
"Mister Stringer certainly did an amazing job, Mister Parker," Charlotte said honestly.
"Yes, yes he did. My vision, laid out before me."
"I'm happy for you."
"Thank you, my dear."
"Tom! Stop that right now and let Charlotte rest. She's just gotten here," Mary said, having come out of their home and joining the two of them on the street.
"I don't mind, Mary," Charlotte said, though she was thankful for the respite.
"Nonsense, come inside and we'll drink tea and catch up."
Half an hour later, they were having tea in the drawing room. Charlotte was glad to be back, and hadn't yet thought of last summer. Yet.
"How is Mister Stringer doing? I hear you met with him in London," Mary asked over her teacup.
"Very well," Charlotte said. "I'm sure Tom wasn't happy about him leaving."
"He was a good foreman and he kept his word in helping us rebuild. Of course, it helped once we had Eliza's fortune to help aid in our endeavour."
"Quite right," Charlotte said, feeling her heart sinking. She drank some tea and tried desperately not to look to her left and see the very place in which her heart was shattered into a million little pieces.
Mary noticed. "Oh Charlotte...I'm so sorry about...well, you know. If it helps, Sidney and Eliza won't be spending much time here this summer. She doesn't particularly care for Sanditon, but they'll be here for the cricket."
Charlotte's smile felt flat and thin. "You know, I'm feeling tired from my trip. I'm sorry. I think I'll retire to my room."
"Of course. Shall we fetch you when dinner is served?" Mary stood as Charlotte started moving out of the room.
"Yes, please," Charlotte said, hurrying up the stairs to the appointed room. She thought she had far surpassed this point in her heartbreak, but her face flushed and her mouth trembled and she did everything in her power not to cry. She breathed and sat still on the edge of the mattress and finally she felt under control. Wiping her cheeks with her fingers, she found no tears, but flushed skin. Tossing open the window, she let in a cool breeze from the sea and leaned against the sill until she was cool.
Days later, she found a letter waiting for her from Mister Stringer, who she had been writing with for the last few weeks. He knew when she would be in Sanditon and he was still hoping to be able to see her while she was there.
She took the letter to her room, not quite wanting to share that part of her life with the Parkers and opened it. Inside was not only just the handwritten note, but a small picture as well. Drawn with clean lines, it was no masterpiece building, but it looked almost like an illustration in a children's book. A small, quaint home, fuzzily drawn gardens surrounding it. She set it aside carefully and read the letter.
Dear Miss Heywood,
If I were a proper artist, I would have drawn a portrait. I hope you like my gift anyway and keep it with you to think of me. I have almost guaranteed a trip to Sanditon half-way through the summer. I'm looking forward to seeing you again. Your visit to London feels very far away. I think of you often.
The drawing was sweet and his letter brought a smile to her face and she added it to her bundle of letters that she now brought with her everywhere. They had become a part of her life, and she didn't want to be parted with them. She had tucked them into her luggage when she packed for Sanditon. She did not, however, hide away the drawing. She propped it against the mirror atop the chest of drawers in her room.
She could not spend much time in the house. Her room was a fine place to be and she took to lingering in the kitchen but the sitting room was like a war zone and even Tom's office made her think of Sidney. She did, however, spend time reorganizing for the man who was hopeless at any sort of paperwork management.
But she also spent a lot of time walking the cliffs and the gardens, reading by the river and taking seabaths. It was a frigid and refreshing activity that made her forget everything else in her life in the minutes she stayed in the sea.
One of these days, weeks into her visit, she was walking back from the beach to find Sidney Parker exiting a carriage just outside Tom's apartments. She resisted the instinct to hide behind a wagon, but she did step to the side of the road and kept very still. Eliza got out next, looking unhappy. They had a brief conversation before heading into Tom Parker's residence.
They hadn't seen her.
Charlotte took a couple of deep breaths, shivering from the cold and watched the footman unload the carriage into the apartment opposite Tom Parker's. At least they wouldn't be staying under the same roof. Charlotte had a hard enough time walking past Sidney's painting every day.
After a good amount of time, Charlotte straightened her shoulders and made her way inside, hoping to slip up the stairs unnoticed. However, the dreaded floor creaked under her footsteps and Tom stopped mid-sentence in the drawing room to call out for her.
Not allowing herself the same response as the last few times she seriously thought about Sidney Parker, she steeled her resolve and stepped into the room, hair still damp from the sea.
"Mister Parker," she said as politely as possible, only glancing at Sidney and moving onto Eliza, "Mrs. Parker. I take it your journey here was uneventful."
"Miss Heywood," Sidney said, a little too late, as if he'd been stunned into silence. Perhaps he had.
"You're still here?" Eliza asked, even less politely.
"Charlotte is once again a guest here for the summer," Mary pressed.
"Is she? Don't you already have servant girls to look after your children, Mary?"
Charlotte took in a deep breath. One glance at Sidney had been enough, she thought, but she stole another. He looked ambushed, though she imagined he knew she was here, however his emotions were hard to read in the briefest of looks. Their eyes met for the minutest of seconds. "I'm sorry, I've just come from the sea and I'd like to change. Excuse me."
She rushed up the stairs then and spent much too long getting ready than necessary.
She could do this. Couldn't she? Not without a little help. Without thinking, she took up writing a letter to Lady Susan. Stringer's beautiful little illustration watched over her as she scratched quill to paper.
The drapings over her windows blew in the wind. She liked the fresh air, but found it difficult not to peer out and see if she could catch a glimpse of the apartment across the street. She never did see anything, and she started taking her mornings out, much like when she first arrived home, almost a year ago.
The cliffs were chilly even though it was summer and she often bundled herself with a thick jacket so she didn't get too cold. The cliffs were not void of their memories; here was where she first met Sidney, and here is where he kissed her, and here is where they last parted…
She walked farther this morning and the cliffs sloped down to the sea. The sun was just breaking through morning clouds as she stood still, closing her eyes and letting the wind and sunlight wash over her.
She didn't know how long she stood there, but she didn't hear anyone come up to her until she heard her name:
She opened her eyes slowly and blinked, having to squint against the light until her eyes adjusted. And there he stood, hair wet and not fully dressed. He must have come from the sea.
"Mister Parker," she said, surprised at how calm she felt. Perhaps she had been able to process many of her feelings once she wrote them all out in that badly written letter to Lady Susan. She had been too emotional and wasn't sure her words had made sense, but writing them down had made it easier for her to see them clearly.
That wasn't to say that her heart didn't ache at the sight of him.
"How are you liking your time in Sanditon?" she asked, since he was just standing there, words on the tip of his tongue but he seemed unable to speak.
"I didn't come here to speak of the town," he said, avoiding all pleasantries. He stepped closer. She turned to face him, the wind whipping her hair around her face rather delicately. His eyes were like oceans of heartbreak and yet there was little consolation in knowing she still affected him so.
"Mister Parker, please," she said, almost desperately. This was so very improper and she didn't want another reason to feel even more inferior around Eliza. She started to walk around him, already planning her walk back to town, but he caught her around the arm, stopping her.
"Charlotte," he said, using her name like he still had the right to. But she didn't stop him and she didn't walk away, though she did remove her arm from his grip. "You have to know, I...I think of you. I can't stop myself. Every waking moment in which I'm not distracted, I think of you. It's like a...torment that I have to bear and I will gladly, but seeing you again has made our parting all the worse."
Tears prickled in her eyes, cold in the wind. "What is it that you want from me?" Sidney's lips parted but he seemed to be at a loss for words yet again. Charlotte pushed on. "You're married and your family is saved. I'm just...a girl from a village. You should forget all about me."
He shook his head. "That's just it. I can't do that."
Her arms stayed firmly crossed, a small semblance of security from the tight hold. "You must. You agreed that you would make her happy and that definitely does not include finding me out and speaking to me as if…"
Sidney was doing everything he could keep himself under control, but it was easy to see that he was teetering on the edge. "I know I did, but I never planned on losing my happiness because I had thought I'd never be happy again. And then you..."
"Your brother is happier than I've ever seen him. And Sanditon has become a place of dreams. You did the right thing." His face fell and she hastily finished off with, "And you'll be happy again. Mrs. Parker is lovely and she really cares about you."
"I have tried," he insisted, his face begging her to tell him what to do. As if she, the farm girl, had all the insight he needed. "I have tried to make Eliza happy I just...she's not as I remember. And I know I'm not as she remembers either. She cares more for position and sovereignty than happiness."
"Why are you telling me this?" Charlotte felt a tear escape and she swiped it away. "Can't you see you're just making this worse?"
He did seem to notice then and while he controlled himself, he was still at his wit and sanity's end. "I'm sorry. My desperation has gotten the better of me."
"Yes, it has." She sniffed and her gaze slipped to the horizon. "I think we both need to face the reality laid out all around us. And we should move onward in the world that has presented itself to us."
"You're right," he said, not taking his eyes off of her. And then, more to himself than anything, "How are you always right?"
"Good day, Mister Parker," she said, her voice wavering only slightly before she started back to town. He didn't follow, at least not right away and by the time she made it to the edge of town, she paused, using the side of a building to rest her hand and keep herself from crumpling to the ground. She closed her eyes and breathed deep.
She did not think of all the things she wished she could have said to him. How she yearned for him and how much it tore at her soul to think of him and to be in the places where they had grown close. About how she thought of him every single day the way he thought of her. But if she had started saying those things, it would have only ended badly.
Already, the guilt was billowing up around her like the sea coming to claw her down into its depths. To speak so frankly, while alone with a married man with whom she had once had the fleeting moments of a courtship with was not proper. She would have to bundle up this encounter forever and not tell a soul.
She added it to the other things she told no one: the cove, the cliffside kiss, their heartbreaking goodbye...
Stop this, she told herself, once she calmed down and continued walking back to the Parkers. Stop this before it gets even worse.
"Mister Stringer!" Charlotte smiled like she hadn't in weeks when she spotted him, newly arrived with his master.
He twisted around at her name and smiled right back. "Miss Heywood," he said, glancing around. "What do you think?"
As if she hadn't already written him about how lovely his work was, she happily replied, "It's lovely. The work here is amazing and deserving of the highest praise, Mister Stringer."
"Indeed it is!" Mister Nash said, coming up beside them.
"Mister Nash, how do you find Sanditon?" Charlotte asked.
"I've seen naught but this street corner, but it's excellent so far," he replied with a kind smile.
"I hope you both enjoy your time here," she said, taking her leave. Halfway down the road, she was stopped by Stringer, who skidded to a halt beside her. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, miss," he said, before taking a deep breath. "I was hoping, now that I'm here...maybe we can have some conversations. Walking by the river perhaps."
Charlotte's hesitation was no ploy. Her conversation with Sidney two weeks ago had rattled her, no matter how much she tried to move past it. "Yes, of course. I often go to the river to read in the afternoons. Maybe you can find me."
With that, she gave him a small smile and continued on her way.
Charlotte tried her hardest not to end up in the same room with Eliza with others around, much less alone. Post cricket game—this time, Charlotte had not taken part—the two women found themselves in Tom Parker's drawing room.
Charlotte walked by and found herself nearly summoned by the woman. "Mrs. Parker," she said, politely. Always politely. She had to bite back certain retorts.
"Yes, could you get me a fresh—"
"Mrs. Parker," Charlotte interrupted, saying to hell with manners, "I don't know how many times I will need to tell you, but I'm not a maid or a servant. I'm a guest here. My age and upbringing should have no bearing on the matter."
Eliza looked almost impressed, though when she stood, she had the look of a willowy spike and Charlotte found herself mildly frightened of her. Only momentarily however. "I'm just trying to understand how you came to know the Parkers. It makes little sense and your continued presence is utterly confounding."
Charlotte could handle this kind of verbal attack. At least she wasn't being brought down to the level of being a servant. "I'm sorry that my presence so confounds you, Mrs. Parker."
Eliza held Charlotte's gaze in a cold lock until she scoffed lightly in the back of her throat. "And you have such manners," she said scornfully.
"If that's all…"
There was something, a word, an accusation, working itself to the end of her tongue, but Eliza did not say it. Charlotte could guess what that was, and she held her chin high, as if it were a challenge. It wasn't; Eliza had won, hadn't she?
After a few moments, Charlotte said a sharp, "Good day" and left the residence to find much sweeter company in Stringer.
"You need a much flatter rock, Mister Stringer," she called out, squinting from far away as she made her way down toward the riverside.
He turned at her voice and flashed a smile. "You would think I would know how to skip rocks."
"I think you know, you just wanted me to tell you," she said, stopping beside him.
"Ah," he said, as if suddenly coming to a realization. "Of course."
She laughed and got down on her knees to find a more fitting rock. "This should do," she said after a minute of searching. "Try it for yourself, Mister Stringer."
"You can call me James, if you like, miss," he said, not for the first time. He had been signing his letters that way for some time now.
She tilted her head as he flung the rock. It skipped a few times before stumbling on the soft current and going under. "Mister Stringer is fitting for an aspiring architect, don't you think?"
"If you say so, Miss Heywood."
Mister and Mrs. Parker left soon after. Charlotte and Sidney had said nothing more than a handful of greetings during their stay, if one did not count their encounter on the cliffs. Neither of them spoke of it, thought Charlotte often lay awake at night, knowing he was just across the street, wondering if he was thinking about her.
It was horrendous to think about and she hated that it was something she had begun to do often, but it was easier once he was gone. She feigned feeling unwell so she didn't have to say goodbye or watch their carriage leave.
It was oh so much easier without the temptation of him being near.
She felt much more herself knowing he was far away. It made it easier for her to return to the progress she had been making for nearly a year.
Unfortunately, he was not the only one to be leaving soon. Mister Nash enjoyed his time, but had buildings to complete. Stringer invited her for one more stroll through the woods to the river, in which they talked about London and his prospects there after a few years tutilage. She spoke of her enjoyment of Sanditon but how she missed home, much like her feelings last summer.
"It is quite lovely here," she said, once the river came into sight.
"Yes, it is," he said, automatically, distracted by something.
"Is something wrong?"
He chuckled nervously and they both slowed to a stop. "You are...very perceptive, Miss Heywood."
She half smiled, half frowned. "I can't help it."
"And you shouldn't. I like you just the way you are."
That wasn't the first time he'd told her that. "Thank you."
"And…" he sounded nervous now and Charlotte made sure to pay extra close attention. "We've been spending some time together this summer. And I have enjoyed myself."
Perceptive she was, as she quickly caught up with the conversation. Momentarily she felt frozen in place, but it passed quickly. "I have as well," she said.
"Good," he said and she laughed ever so lightly, hoping it was encouragement enough. "I have nothing, right now to offer, you know. I'm boarded as master and apprentice and it may take years before I amount to anything."
"But you will."
"I do hope so." He then did that bold thing and took her hand.
She took a short breath. "Are you…"
"No. And yes." He shook his head. "I want to...propose that a proper proposal will be in the future. If you'd wait for me."
Her first instinct wasn't a yes or a no, but a general caution. But James Stringer was not Sidney Parker. He was kind and honest and he loved her dearly, enough to put his emotions and intentions out there. And she? She had no one else, had nothing else when it came to marriage in the future. And she was oh so fond of him.
"I can wait for you," she said, and he squeezed her hand slightly. "I can, I will, you barely have to ask. But I'm glad you did. Oh...I'm sorry, I'm not very good at this."
"Neither am I," he confessed.
But they smiled and laughed about it and made the best of their walk back to town, where Mister Nash was waiting. He gave Charlotte a warm goodbye and Charlotte waved as the carriage started off back toward London. She felt light and airy and calm for the first time in a very long time.
Coming home this time was much easier than last summer. There were no days of crying in bed. She immediately went back to helping around the farm and the home, started teaching Benjamin to read though he was wriggly and barely wanted to stay put for more than two seconds. She saved her thoughts of Sidney Parker for late evenings in which she couldn't sleep, and spent a great deal of time going over her time spent with Mister Stringer with Alison.
"The letters weren't enough!" Alison had exclaimed, needing more of it. Charlotte could tell that her sister was getting cooped up and anxious as the weeks passed. Letters from Lady Susan told her that Mister Parker and Mrs. C (perhaps Alison was right in the way that Susan really did not care for the woman, especially since she still penned her with her former name in each letter) were hardly ever seen at events together and often it was Eliza alone with a small entourage of female friends. They also told Charlotte to be brave and daring and they have lengthy debates over Mister Stringer's proposed proposal.
Both Lady Susan and the Parkers invited Charlotte to visit them for the holidays in London. Sanditon was far too cold in the winter and the Parkers had returned to their London home for the winter. Mary had insisted Charlotte stay with them once again.
Dear Mary and Tom,
Thank you so much for the invitation. Lady Susan has also expressed the desire to see me this holiday season. I will gladly accept the offer to stay with you and your family once again. You have always treated me so kindly. Would it be acceptable to bring my sister, Alison, with me? She is growing into a young woman in need of adventure and going to London would certainly satisfy her curiosity.
"What did they say?" Alison asked. She'd walked with Charlotte to the village post and could not wait until they returned home to read the letter.
Charlotte appeased her sister and they stepped to the side of the road. She broke the seal and opened the paper. The response was short but heartfelt. "They agreed," Charlotte said, even though she knew Alison was reading over her shoulder. "We can both stay with them in London."
Alison squealed and actually jumped up and down before she straightened her back and shoulders, having gotten her excitement out of her system. "I can't believe it!"
"Tom and Mary are extremely generous," Charlotte said, hooking her arm through her sisters as they walked back. There was another letter from Mister Stringer in her hand, unopened. "And I'm sure there will be a holiday ball we can go to. Lady Susan will insist. She doesn't love balls, but she does love fashion and gossip."
Alison grinned so wide her face looked as if it may split. "And will I finally meet the enigmatic Mister Stringer?"
"Perhaps," Charlotte said, dipping her head and hiding her smile.
They walked in silence for a few moments before Alison's face fell a little. "And will I have to see you-know-whom?"
"Yes, considering we're staying with his family."
"And his intolerable wife," Alison finished gloomily.
Charlotte said nothing to correct her sister this time. "Come on, let's go home and work on your steps."
"I can dance as well as you."
"You think that, I have yet to see it and I won't have you stepping on any man's toes."
London was a magical place in the winter. It was a beacon of light and merriment amongst the cold. Charlotte and Alison arrived a week before Christmas.
"Bugger, it is cold," were the first words out of Alison's mouth, shivering in her jacket.
"Shhh!" Charlotte said as they got down from the carriage and quickly hurried inside the Parkers residence in London. Charlotte had been here before...she blinked up at the stairs and saw herself walking down them in a gold gown.
"Charlotte!" Mary Parker exclaimed, coming around the corner to warmly clasp Charlotte's shoulders. "And you must be Alison."
"Pleased to finally meet you, Mrs. Parker," Alison said, her eyes roaming around the walls of the house. The Sanditon home was more impressive but even this was like nothing Alison had seen.
"And we're pleased to have you," Mary replied. "Why don't you make yourselves at home upstairs, we have a room prepared for you. Tom will return soon."
"Where is Mister Parker?" Charlotte asked as she started up the stairs.
"Working, of course."
"Of course," Charlotte replied with a sad little laugh.
"But he promised it would be the last transaction of the year," Mary added, smiling.
"This is amazing," Alison whispered once they were both upstairs and walked to the guest bedroom. Their things were brought in behind them.
"Lady Susan's home is even more glamorous," Charlotte told her as they started putting away their things, stripping off their traveling jackets and hats and trying to tame each other's hair.
There was a small knock on the door. "Misses Charlotte?" came Ginny's small voice from the other side.
Charlotte opened the door and all three young Parker children fell into the room. They hugged Charlotte and took instantly to Alison.
The night quickly grew late and Alison met Tom Parker briefly as they drank tea by the fire to warm themselves before going to bed.
It took three days before Sidney and Eliza made an appearance before lunch, bringing gifts for the children to open on Christmas day.
Charlotte and Alison were sitting on the floor in front of the fire, pulling a wooden train set around on its track. Alison was making a grand story out of it and the children were thoroughly delighted.
Neither of them heard Mary greet the other Parkers and Charlotte had the misfortune of being utterly happy and losing that feeling like a rock dropped in a lake the moment she turned and laid eyes on Sidney as he came into the room. Alison noticed the abrupt silence and her story trailed off as she also noticed the newcomers.
The children quickly forgot about the train and, with yells of "Uncle Sidney!" threw themselves at him with as much fervour as they did anything.
"Oh," Eliza said, barely holding her composure as she found herself faced yet again with Charlotte's presence. She especially turned her nose up at the fact that Charlotte was sitting on the floor, surrounded by children's toys.
"Mrs. Parker," Charlotte said, getting to her feet and shaking out her dress.
"And who is this?" Eliza asked, turning her razor gaze at Alison who more slowly got to her feet.
"Ah yes," Mary said, moving in to mediate. "Eliza, this is Miss Alison Heywood, Charlotte's sister. She's joining us for the holidays."
"Oh," Eliza said with a laugh that was more insulting than humorous. "There's another Miss Heywood? How many siblings do you have?"
"Ten siblings, Mrs. Parker," Charlotte said.
That shut Eliza up just long enough for Mary to formally introduce Alison and Sidney and Eliza. Once they were all acquainted, they gathered for a meal. Charlotte was thankful for the buffer Alison provided, not only physically, but with her mere presence. As this was her first time in London, Alison was not shy with her opinion of the city and her experiences.
She could talk just as much as Charlotte.
Besides the few glances across the table, Charlotte and Sidney made it through the night without saying a word directly to each other until it came to saying goodnight.
As everyone crowded in the foyer, he tipped his hat to the sisters. "Miss Heywood, it was good to meet you." And then to Charlotte: "Good evening, Miss Heywood." Perhaps it was her imagination, but he looked at her for a heartbeat too long before following his wife out.
Hours later, while getting prepared for sleep, Alison finally formed her thoughts about Sidney and let her sister know.
"He is quite handsome. I can see how you were swept up by him."
"It wasn't...it wasn't for those reasons," Charlotte insisted, pulling back the covers on the bed. "I was too busy being completely offended by him to notice."
Alison snorted unladylike into a pillow as she flopped onto the bed. "I don't want to seem unsensitive, Charlotte…"
"You're not. Enough time has passed, I think." So she kept telling herself. And it worked. Most days.
"Then I can say that I very much wanted to kick him in the shin for hurting you so."
Charlotte raised her eyebrows in surprise. "I appreciate that, but he did nothing wrong...not really." She climbed into bed. It was quite a large bed and much more comfortable than their shared bed at the farm.
The sisters turned to their sides and spoke openly in the darkness.
"Mrs. C," Alison liked calling her that because Lady Susan did as well and Alison very much idealized Lady Susan, "is horrid. Can you believe she was so rude to us before I was even introduced properly?"
"I can believe it," Charlotte said quietly. "I feel as if we should give her some benefit of the doubt. As glamorous as this fanciful lifestyle can seem, I don't think she's had a very easy time of it."
"Why do you say that?"
"I...I don't know. I want to believe that perhaps there's a redeeming quality beneath the surface."
There was a pause before Alison spoke again, "So that it won't hurt so badly that Sidney chose her over you?"
Charlotte closed her eyes and tucked her hands under her cheek. "I want him to be happy. I do."
Alison reached forward and wiped a tear from Charlotte's face as it made its way into her hair. "You're too good of a person, Charlotte."
"I'm trying to be."
Alison shook her head and squeezed Charlotte's shoulder. "You are already."
Charlotte opened her eyes. "Thank you, Alison."
They hugged and cuddled together until Charlotte felt lulled to the edge of sleep.
"I have one request, though," Alison said softly.
"What is it?"
"You definitely need to introduce me to Mister Stringer. I promised Mother a full report."
Charlotte laughed sleepily and agreed before falling into sleep.
The ball was once again held at Lady Morsleys and the Parkers were all in attendance, even Arthur and Diana. It was the evening before Christmas and Alison was wearing Charlotte's blue satin shoes. Charlotte was wearing her white and blue gown.
Alison clutched Charlotte's arm as they walked inside. "I have no words," she said, awed. The place was glowing in candles, giant chandeliers hanging overhead and music playing from far in the ballroom. Charlotte found she recognized many people in the room from her weeks in London with Lady Susan, who was looking lovely as ever.
The sisters stayed close and Mary moved around the room with them until she was swept off into a dance by Tom. Lady Susan came to their side almost immediately after.
"Good evening, girls," she said, having met Alison earlier in the week. "What do you think of the evening, Alison?"
"It's stunning, Lady Susan."
"Indeed it is. Quite magical, wouldn't you say?"
Alison nodded and Charlotte smiled at her friend. "I hope you didn't take offense with the two of us staying with the Parkers, Susan," she said as Alison watched the dance progress in front of them.
"Not at all. Though I would be happy to host you and your sister at another time, perhaps."
"That's most gracious of you," Charlotte said.
Soon, the dance ended and the crowds spread and mingled. Charlotte and Alison were once again alone, standing arm in arm, Lady Susan beckoned off for a conversation with the Babingtons. But not for long, as Sidney Parker left his wife talking with a huddle of dark haired woman and came to them.
"Miss Heywood," Sidney said, first to Alison and then to Charlotte, though he barely looked at her when he said so. "How do you find the ball?"
Alison couldn't help herself. "It's more than anything Charlotte described to me in her letters. Have you seen the chandeliers?"
He smiled ever so slightly and glanced at Charlotte, who had a similar look on her face. And then his attention was back to Alison. "Well, then, let me treat you to a dance," and offered his arm.
Alison hesitated and Charlotte nudged her sister forward, knowing fully well that Sidney was a great dancer and her sister deserved to enjoy her time here in London. Alison did step forward then, though she tossed a look back at Charlotte with furrowed brows, asking silently how exactly to handle this situation. Charlotte shrugged ever so slightly, hoping against all hopes that Alison wouldn't say anything too rude.
Alone, Charlotte glanced toward Lady Susan who had been joined by a familiar older man…
"Good evening, Miss Heywood."
Charlotte turned, slightly startled to see Mister Stringer there and immediately blurted that out.
"Believe me, miss, I feel out of mightily out of place here."
Her expression softened. "Nonsense. You will soon be attending so many of these gallas that it will become second nature."
He seemed unconvinced. "I very much doubt that, but I appreciate your optimism." He paused and then offered up his arm. They joined in on the dance a few beats behind but Mister Stringer was a fair dancer.
"Lady Worcester extended an invitation to Master Nash and he brought me along," Mister Stringer explained as they danced.
"She's taken a liking to you, Mister Stringer."
"Hopefully not the only one, miss."
"Not at all."
They moved away from each other in the dance and spoke of Alison when they were back together. Charlotte was happy to talk about her sister's love of the city and he was happy to listen.
By the time the end of the evening came, Charlotte's feet were sore and she felt dizzy. She had danced a number of songs, most of them with Mister Stringer, though he and Mister Nash retired much earlier than she and the Parkers. She even managed to catch Georgiana for a short conversation, though their friendship had grown distant, but Charlotte was happy at least to see the light back in Georgiana's eyes.
She even managed a brief—a single sentence to be exact—exchange with Sidney that didn't end in her needing to find a room to cry quietly within.
As she lay down to sleep that evening, she felt light and happy.
After opening presents on Christmas Day, they all traveled to the park, as a light dusting of snow had covered the city in the early morning. The children had the time of their lives and Arthur and Diana met Tom, Mary, Charlotte and Alison there. They all gathered for a meal once the young ones were soaked from the snow.
The end of the year passed while Charlotte and Alison spent an evening in Lady Susan's estate, drinking wine—something they hadn't been allowed before—and catching up on the gossip of the city. Alison hung onto every word even if she didn't know a single name being spoken.
While feeling light headed and fuzzy to the tips of her fingers, Charlotte had a private conversation with Susan as Alison fell into a light sleep on the couch next to her sister.
"There is one matter I felt was...questionable to share with you," Susan said, face glowing in the light of the fireplace.
"Questionable how?" Charlotte asked, furrowing her brows.
"It's about Mrs. Parker."
Charlotte's frown deepened. "You never call her Mrs. Parker." Her head cleared a little at the thought.
"You're right. I have been indulging in my dislike for the woman but I am not a bad person for it."
"No, of course not. What is this about?"
"I've heard, just over the past day or two, that Mrs. Parker isn't doing well."
"That could mean anything."
"Yes. But most everyone spent time in the snow and some of us are not built for seasonal changes."
"Are you saying she's ill?"
"I don't know for certain, but it's possible."
That night, after barely getting Alison upstairs to their shared room, Charlotte lay in bed, wondering what to do with that information. She vaguely remembered seeing Eliza at the ball on Christmas Eve, but she hadn't seen the woman dancing. Eliza spent most of the evening sitting or standing with some friends. Which wasn't a sure sign that anything was wrong but if it was...what was the appropriate response? Did she send her well wishes to a woman who had done nothing but criticize her? Did she dare send any supportive thoughts to Sidney?
It soon became clear, as two days later, while Alison and Charlotte were quietly reading in the drawing room of Tom and Mary's home while Mary sewed and the children played with their new toys on the floor, Sidney paid them a visit. He looked solemn when he stepped into the room and spoke to Mary and Tom in another part of the house. Alison and Charlotte had to keep the children from rushing after them.
Mary came back a while later, looking shaken.
"Mary? What's wrong?" Charlotte asked, standing from where she had crouched to play with Henry.
"Eliza is ill. She spent some time outside on Christmas Day and had a cough that turned to something worse. The doctors say that her lungs are full of water."
Even Alison knew to look shocked.
"Will she be all right?" Charlotte asked. Lady Susan had been right about a number of things: that Mrs. Parker was sick and also that she was still a woman, a wife, and she did not deserve to fall into such a dire illness. Charlotte was a good person; she tried, as she told Alison, and even this situation made her navigate certain obstacles.
"We're not certain yet, but there are brilliant doctors in London. Tom knows them all."
Charlotte tried to look reassuring as she took Mary's hand. "I'll pray for her to recover."
"Thank you, Charlotte," Mary put her other hand atop Charlotte's and they stood quietly for a few minutes until the children called for attention. Mary and Alison stepped in and Charlotte walked out of the room, nearly slamming right into Sidney as he went to leave.
"Mister Parker," she said, her words a gentle touch that she couldn't actually give.
"Miss Heywood," he replied, everything about him looking stiff and tired.
"I'm sorry to hear about Mrs. Parker. I'll say a prayer for her recovery." She meant every word genuinely.
Sidney nodded. "Thank you." And then he was out into the cold afternoon, sending a gust of winter into the house.
Charlotte watched the closed door for a few seconds before she walked up the stairs to find something warmer to wear.
Charlotte and Alison arrived home in the first week of 1819. Alison had never been more animated and Charlotte couldn't help feeling the same, even though underneath it all she was worried. Worried for Eliza, worried for Sidney, just plain worried. She worried so much she was exhausted by the time the coach arrived at Willingden.
They were home just a handful of days before Eliza succumbed to her illness but they didn't hear right away. Much was to be done, and the short letter from Mary soured the day for Charlotte and even Alison gave her a wary berth. She spent most of her day walking outside until she couldn't feel her nose and respectfully lighting a candle in the church at the center of the village before arriving home for what was left of the family's dinner.
Every time she tried to sit and write a letter to Sidney, all she could think of were hollow words. Instead, she ended up writing a letter to Tom and Mary about her sympathy with a sentence directly toward Sidney in hopes that they would pass along the message of her condolences.
He had loved Eliza once. He must be feeling the loss of her.
In the weeks to come, Charlotte penned Mister Stringer a short letter and soon received a fresh letter from Lady Susan.
I have no doubt that you have heard the news of Mrs. P's passing. London is sympathetic; she was young enough and her marriage was still new. She had many friends and her funeral was well attended. I could not help but think of you during this time and the weeks since, my dear.
Mr. Parker had a dreadful time of it. He's been scarcely seen, and when he has been seen, he looks clearly distressed. I obviously cannot know what goes on inside anyone else's mind, but he has appeared less like he is distraught and more like he has closed himself off. Even his closest friends have seen little of him and Lord Babington voiced his concern for his well being last week at a luncheon.
Everyone knows what happened the last time poor Eliza left him, though through different circumstances, and I feel as if the entire social circle here in London is holding their breath, wondering what he'll do next.
As for you, my dear friend, I have just one thing to say: don't give up hope about your heart and your happiness. The world order is strange and unforgiving, but most everyone can agree that everything happens for a reason. Stay strong and bold, Charlotte.
"That is…a lot to process," Alison said, once she read the letter.
Charlotte nervously paced the length of the room. "I don't even know what that means, Alison."
"Are you worried about Sidney?" She squinted at the letter and reread the part about him withdrawing from society.
"Of course I am." She wrung her hands. "Is disappearing from the world a normal mourning routine? Sidney was never much for that world, he told me so himself. He always said he was an outlier in the high society."
"Perhaps he's fine. He must have a lot to deal with after her passing. Didn't she have a lot of money? That must take a lot of paperwork to keep in order."
Oh, the money. She hadn't even thought of that. But of course, even now that Eliza was gone, the money stayed with Sidney through their marriage. But that was good, of course. Tom must still be digging himself out of the hole he dug by building up Sanditon.
"What about this last part? Do you think she's hinting that...you should consider getting him back?"
"Back?" The word fell from Charlotte's mouth harshly and she nearly scoffed. "No. She can't mean that."
"I think she does."
"But...his wife just died. How horribly desperate would I appear going after a newly widowed man. A rich one, no less." Charlotte paused walking and pressed her hands to her face. "No. I couldn't do that. Even if I wanted to. There needs to be time to grieve and process all that's happened."
"But if you did…"
"I would feel so...guilty and underhanded. And what would London society think if a poor farm girl suddenly married a wealthy widow?"
Alison wrinkled her nose. "When have you ever cared what people think of you? You're so outspoken and frank, Charlotte."
"This is different. Lady Susan has been doing a fine job trying to make connections for me in London and I don't want to ruin her efforts."
"It sounds like she wants you to."
Charlotte let out a frustrated noise and she started pacing again, this time folding one arm across her abdomen and biting the nail of her opposite hand. "Oh...and what about Mister Stringer? Oh, Alison, he's been so lovely. He's kind and sweet and we've been writing to each other for a long time now. He even sends me drawings."
"He is very sweet. But if you had to choose, right now, with no evil consequences, who would you choose?"
She heaved a sigh, not answering aloud. "I like Mister Stringer, Alison. I've grown so fond of him. And I've already hurt him more than once. I couldn't do that again."
Alison had nothing to say, but she looked empathetic. She had no such choices in her life, so she could only guess what Charlotte was going through.
Finally, Charlotte's hands dropped to her sides. "It doesn't matter. I have to see how things fall. I'm not going to go out of my way to contact Sidney. Not so soon. And I was just...I was just becoming content with where we stood."
Alison stood and hugged Charlotte around the shoulders from behind, since she stood quite a few inches taller than Charlotte. There was nothing else to be said, not now.
The rest of the winter distracted Charlotte: between the littlest ones all getting sick and some misfortunes with attacking foxes, the spring found Charlotte exhausted and worn thin. Luckily, her siblings seemed to recover, though they were a bit weaker than before.
She also received a letter from Georgiana, which was a complete surprise.
You will never guess what has happened. Sidney has grown lax in his keeping me under guard and I have managed to mingle in with the London society and have found the affections of a lovely man. He is witty and tall and rich, though not as rich as I. Sidney does not even hate him. He's still in London, if you were wondering — Sidney that is. He hasn't run off to the marshes of some far off land. I hope that you're doing well, even if we're not as close as we once were. And, if all continues to go well, perhaps the next letter you receive from me will be a wedding invitation. Something has changed in this past year and I am no longer so distraught. I find a kindling of happiness sparking in me once again and I'm looking forward to that future.
Charlotte was happy for Georgiana, and even more happy to learn of Sidney's residence. She had, on the rare occasion on which she had a moment to wonder, worried that he had indeed traveled to some far off land. And it would be no knowing whether or not he would return.
When summer arose, Charlotte did not find herself heading off to Sanditon. It felt strange, as if she had started a ritual and was now breaking an unspoken tradition. She did, however, travel to London, where she stayed with Lady Susan and spent a number of afternoons visiting Mister Stringer before he had to go off to the North with Mister Nash. She was sad to see him go, since spending time with him gave her a relief from the number of high class people she found herself in attendance with.
"And how are you feeling today, Charlotte?" Susan asked after a week of her being there.
Charlotte had marveled in how anxious she had been lately about everything going on at the farm, but London, with all it's hustle and bustle, somehow calmed her. A great deal of that was also thanks to Lady Susan's vast library. "Quite well, Susan, thank you."
"Of course, my dear. And now that I've given you time, will you permit me to ask something you may not wish to consider?"
"I know whatever you ask will be in great consideration of my life and future."
"Good girl. How do you feel you stand with your affection toward Sidney Parker?"
Charlotte knew that was what was going to be asked of her. She was actually surprised it had taken so long to be asked. "Is there a particular reason why you're asking this now?"
She knew that if she thought about her answer too much, she would end up coming back around and falling in on herself so she just spoke as the words came to mind. "I'm both...conflicted and assured. Georgiana told me that he was doing well enough to still be in London, which, if I can assume anything about Mister Parker, is a good enough sign that he's taken this as well as he could. He didn't immediately run away, which has no bearing on me directly as he owes me nothing, but it's a nice thought.
"And yet I'm conflicted with the mere possibility of what could happen between the two of us. I have been doing my best to move forward. I've made a great deal of progress and yet I very quickly fell into doubt and worry the moment Mrs. Parker fell ill. I don't want to be an option for him, I want to be a choice.
"Not to mention Mister Stringer, who I've promised to wait for. But how long can I truly wait? My family needs hands on the farm, but as my siblings grow older, it's even harder to keep everyone under one roof. The cost alone." She sighed and shook her head. "And that's merely the practical part of my thinking."
"Oh Charlotte." Susan moved from her seat to the sofa next to Charlotte and the women sat close, facing each other. "There is really no right or wrong way to feel right now. And there is little you can do. The most that can be done is to see what Mister Parker decides upon. If he wishes to have you, he will tell you. And there is no shame in wanting that. As I said, love is like the measles, an affliction not so easily dismissed."
Charlotte sighed again and sank back as much as she could, feeling drained at just the thought of having to face all of this head on. "Thank you. I do wish they made a guide on how to navigate these situations."
"I believe they do, on each of our hearts. Some people just find it easier to follow than others."
Lady Susan was not about to sit back and let Charlotte and Sidney make their own way back to each other. She set up a large, but friendly dinner, set just before Charlotte's return home, and invited the reclusive Mister Parker.
Naturally, Charlotte and Sidney were sat next to each other. He looked about as friendly and thrilled to be there as he had the first moment they'd met on the cliffs of Sanditon, which is to say...not at all. He did, however, have a physical reaction when he saw her, already seated as he arrived nearly last, trailing behind the last couple to arrive. The room was already filled with guests and conversations were abounding in groups of twos and threes.
"Miss Heywood," he said after his notable pause at seeing her in the room.
Her desperation and pleasure of seeing him after such a long time wasn't written plainly on her face, but some of it slipped through in her tone. "Mister Parker."
"I should have guessed you would be here," he said with a heavy breath, settling into his place beside her.
"I've come to regard Lady Susan as a dear friend and I've found myself quite at ease as her guest here." How on earth they were having a civil conversation right now was beyond her reckoning, but perhaps the presence of a room filled with people helped guide them. "She was pleased that you could make it."
"Yes. Mary convinced me. Via letter, no less. She insisted that I needed to start socializing again before I forgot how." He wasn't exactly laughing, but she sensed a mild amount of amusement tinged his words. "Mary is typically right about these things."
He looked at her then and their eyes met and oh well, there was the emotion clogging her sense of calm and nearly choking her in turn.
Thankfully, someone at the other end of the table said something outrageously funny and half the dinner guests burst into an uproar of laughter, startling both of them to blink and turn their attention to the meal being presented.
Charlotte drank water in hopes of clearing her throat and found herself almost unable to eat.
After the first course, conversation filled the room with a din and Sidney's civility did not seem to extend to the poor Mister Roland sitting to his right.
Charlotte decided to garner his attention instead to try to pass the evening as well as it could. "I spoke to Georgiana," she said, barely able to look at him properly. She settled her gaze quite expertly on his shoulder. "Well, not spoke, I received a letter from her. She seems to be doing well."
"Yes she is. Her summer in Sanditon proved to be a harsh lesson in the ways of the world. I wasn't sure if it actually made a difference, but I was surprised at her change of attitude. That wouldn't have anything to do with you, would it, Miss Heywood?"
"Oh...no." She smiled nervously. "Definitely not. To be completely frank—"
"You always are," he said as he lifted his cup to drink.
"—our friendship did not truly surpass that summer. We had a number of disagreements and I don't think she ever truly forgave me for my involvement with what happened with Mister Molyneux. Among other things…" Her gaze flickered to his eyes. "But any change in her demeanor was completely of her own accord. Perhaps she finally realized that you weren't nearly as cold and uncaring as she originally led herself to believe."
"Is that what you believe?"
"Yes. And now...she spoke of happiness, which is all that any of us can ask for, wouldn't you say?"
There was little more to be said, as the final course was laid out and Sidney was unconcerned with being the first to take his leave. Charlotte watched him leave, but didn't move from her seat until the others began to stand and mingle. Lady Susan came up and linked her arm with Charlotte's.
"Mister Parker left in a hurry."
"He did." Charlotte frowned. "And I'm more confused than ever."
"Give it time. Love is a complicated thing. And not many of us are able to find it. If you do, and there is a chance, even the smallest of them, you should chase it."
Being home felt like being in a dream. There had been silence from Mister Parker; no letters, no other form of communication. She was bound to think that he had decided to move on, or perhaps he had fallen into an affection for Eliza and her death was truly affecting him.
Whatever the case may be, Charlotte returned home to the familiar fields and animals, her brothers and sisters, her small but overflowing home. She spoke deeply with her mother on matters of the heart and found herself no more certain than she had after her weeks spent with Lady Susan.
The months passed into the cold and Alison and Charlotte performed a play for their family and friends, with the help of quickly-growing-Emma and ten year old Sarah. It took up a great deal of time and Alison even wrote out scripts for them. She was quite the wordsmith.
Before they knew it, Christmas had passed and another decade had begun on the calendar of the world. It was a nasty winter, frigid and Charlotte wished, on occasion, to be in London, where at least there was a reprieve from the damp of the countryside.
With the arrival of spring came two new calves born and Benjamin's birthday. They played a horrible game of cricket, spending most of the afternoon outside until their noses and cheeks were red, their clothes were a muddy mess and they all had dry throats. Luckily no grand sickness came out of it, and Charlotte was careful to monitor for signs of more than just simple colds.
A few weeks later, while Charlotte was out to town with a days worth of errands, an impressive black carriage rolled right through town and out toward the farmland surrounding the village. Alison was home, one of the few Heywoods in the house. Most of the boys were out in the fields, the girls were out at the river with Mother for a lesson and Father was sitting next to Alison at the writing desk.
The knock that came to the door was unexpected, but Mister Heywood stood, walked through the room and opened it.
"Can I help you?"
"Yes. Mister Heywood, I presume."
"You presume correctly."
"Sidney Parker. I was hoping to speak with your daughter."
Mister Heywood stepped back and bumped into Alison, who had been trying to sneak to the door. "You'll have to be more specific, Mister Parker, I have quite a few."
"Mister Parker," Alison said breathlessly. She was...well, shocked. And completely aghast that this was the one day Charlotte was meant to be out.
"Miss Heywood." Sidney inclined his head. "Is Charlotte available?"
"I'm afraid not," Mister Heywood said. "She's in town."
"I can go get her," Alison blurted out, still clutching a knife and half peeled potato.
Mister Heywood looked pointedly between his daughter and the stranger at his door. "You don't happen to be related to Mister Tom Parker, of Sanditon?"
"Uh...yes. He's my brother."
"Hmmm. Well, come in." Mister Heywood stepped aside and so did Alison. "You can go fetch your sister, Alison."
With a flash of a smile, Alison deposited her potato and knife back on the table, pulled on a worn jacket and bolted out the door past her father and Sidney, who were still standing in the room.
Alison would have run all the way to town if she thought she could make it, but she had to stop herself. She walked quickly enough with long legs, and eventually found her sister only halfway done with her list.
"Charlotte!" She raced up and nearly bounced all of the parcels out of Charlotte's hands.
"Goodness, Alison! What's gotten into you?" Charlotte's face suddenly fell to one of concern. "Did something happen? Is everyone all right?"
"Yes, yes, we're fine, that's not the point!" Though she hadn't run, Alison still found herself gasping for breath out of pure excitement. "You'll never guess who's at the house."
Charlotte's mind came up blank. "You're right. I have no idea. Who is it?"
"Mister Parker," she repeated, just to be sure.
"Mister Sidney Parker himself. He just...showed up. He's with Father now."
Charlotte's mouth hung open in surprise. "I...why?"
"Why do you think?" Alison started grabbing the things from Charlotte's arms. "Go, now. I'll catch up."
Charlotte stood there for a moment, before the reality of the words truly settled on her. She didn't run all the way, but couldn't stop herself when she was halfway home from doing so. It wasn't very ladylike, but she didn't give a fig at the moment.
By the time the farm came into view—as well as Sidney's impressive black carriage and horses, the driver lounging outside in the fresh air—her heart was beating at the very base of her throat and she was definitely sweating and positively flushed. She took her time walking the last few hundred yards.
She could breathe properly by the time she reached the front of the house and paused only for a moment at the door before entering. Just as Alison had said, there were her father and Sidney Parker, looking quite relaxed and speaking together as if they had known each other for more than just an hour.
"Mister Parker?" she said, still unable to hide her surprise. She hadn't heard or seen hide nor hair of him since Lady Susan's dinner party, ten months ago.
At her arrival, Sidney stood and her father was slow to follow. "Miss Heywood."
The older man looked between the two of them like he knew something neither of them did. "Mister Parker was just telling me about his business in London."
"Was he?" Charlotte was breathless once again and, for the first time in years, could not keep her eyes off Sidney Parker.
"Would you care to go for a walk, Miss Heywood?" Sidney asked.
"Yes." Even though she had run halfway here, she ignored the protest in her legs and followed him right back outside. There were gardens and sprawling fields around the farm and she gently guided him toward where she hoped the rest of her family was not.
"I must say, I never expected to find you here, Mister Parker," she said once they were a good distance from the house.
"This is a nice place, Willingden."
She nearly laughed. "You and I both know that's not true. I hadn't had a single adventure until your brother arrived and introduced Sanditon into my life."
"I am particularly glad for that."
Charlotte looked down at the ground, unsure of where this was headed. It could be anything, she told herself. Sidney Parker was not an easy man to read, after all. "Is there a particular reason for your being here?" she ventured to ask.
"Yes, there is." He stopped walking and she followed suit. They were as secluded as one could get on her farm with the sun in the sky above them and the stubborn winter chill still clinging to the air even in April.
She tilted her head to look at him, expecting both everything and nothing all at once. And he took his time, working himself up to speak, as if he'd forgotten how.
"I barely know where to begin. There is every reason for you to not want to speak with me—"
"My standing right here should dissuade you from thinking so."
"Quite right. I...I am years late and I do not expect your answer to come easily. But I would be lying if I said that over the years my feelings for you have dimmed. They have not. You are not so easily forgotten, Charlotte."
This was not the first confession of feelings and intent between the two of them, but it was by far the most amiable. She had nothing to lose and now, he no longer did either.
"Always with your assumptions, Mister Parker," she said as lightly as possible because she could not think of any straight answer, not now.
He smiled in a way she had not seen him smile around anyone else. "I'll be staying at the inn in your village for one week. I'll wait for you there." He didn't linger, either because he was afraid of her answer, or the weight of his emotions were crushing him like they were her. He started back toward the house, toward the carriage.
"Mister Parker!" she called out, unable to help herself. He turned and she did nothing other than smile at him, hoping to convey some sort of hope. But she had no answer for him just yet. This was her entire future laid out before her. Could she dare to be hasty?
He did not seem unpleased, his gaze lingering on her for a long time before he returned his walk. She stayed there until she saw him return to his carriage and the big black horses began their journey into town.
Alison arrived at home, juggling half a day's small supplies, at the same time as Charlotte, who was in a dreamlike state, arriving from the gardens.
"What happened?" Alison called, snapping Charlotte back to reality. She helped her sister with the parcels and said, "He...he told me he still has feelings for me. And made a great hint at a proposal that he has sort of botched twice now."
Alison laughed, amused and thrilled at the same time. "Oh, he is lovely to look at but he is a disaster under that, isn't he?"
"Since when did you take to Mister Parker?"
"Since I realized how much he actually cares for you. And you him."
Naturally, Charlotte was overwhelmed with her choice of decisions. Not even speaking to her mother could alleviate the slithering feeling of guilt toward both Eliza Parker and James Stringer. Her mother was more than enough for most situations, but this called for another insight. That evening, Charlotte wrote to Lady Susan, detailing her feelings and Sidney's visit. She sent it in to the post first thing in the morning and hoped that she would get a response in time.
She spent most of her nights pondering the question, setting her emotions in some sort of order, and being utterly distracted by the fact that Sidney was close to her again. Even just geographically was enough, but emotionally...well, he was finally able to be without reprimand from the entirety of England and civilized society.
Lady Susan's letter did come in time, on the last day. Charlotte was fairly certain she knew what she would do, but Susan's reassuring and encouraging words were enough to cement the fact. She knew that her mother had most definitely told her father about this already, but no one in her household tried to stop her that evening when she put on her jacket and headed out under the light of the moon and the deep plum sky.
This wasn't the first time she had arrived at an uncouth building in pursuit of Sidney Parker. Charlotte folded her hands over and over, feeling the sweat on her palms soaking into the fabric of her skirt at her sides. She was nervous, which she decided to allow herself.
It took mere moments for the owner of the inn to see her and walk toward her. He was less brash than the inn owner on Honey Lane, but he did little to hide his confusion at her appearance here.
"Can I help you find something, Miss Heywood?"
She took a deep breath and nodded. "I'm looking for Mister Sidney Parker. I heard he was staying here."
The man, she knew him as Mister Miller, tossed a towel over his shoulder. "Aye, miss." He glanced at her up and down, probably getting all the wrong ideas of why she wanted to meet a man here in the nighttime.
She stepped forward. "May I see him?"
"I should not be showing a young lady upstairs, if you catch my meaning, miss."
Charlotte huffed and squeezed her hands together. "Then I would appreciate if you could tell him that I'm here. Charlotte Heywood." She pushed aside her aggravation and forced on a smile.
Mister Miller hesitated, not normally one to play housemaid but he knew her from church and around the village and nodded. "Aye, I can do that for you, Miss Heywood."
"Thank you, sir," she said primly as he disappeared up the stairs at the far end of the smoky tavern floor.
Alone on the main floor, she kept her chin up and didn't meet the gaze of any of the other men seated around, eating soup and bread and drinking whatever it is men drank in small country town inns. She hovered by the doorway and tilted her head at her warped image displayed in the large mirror behind the wooden bar.
Charlotte turned and found herself short of breath for no reason at all—oh but certainly there is a reason, she could hear Lady Susan's voice in the back of her mind. There he was, as he'd promised, though it appeared he had been settling in for the night. He was without his vest and coat and gloves and hat and walking stick. He looked very unlike one of the gentry at this moment.
"Mister Parker," she replied politely, voice breathy as if she'd run all the way here. She hadn't. She had walked. Briskly, the hem of her blue dress slightly mud spattered, hair frizzy thanks to the heavy rainclouds dispursing over the countryside.
Behind Sidney, the inn owner went off to the beck and call of one of the drinking men.
Now that she was here, she wasn't sure what to say. Momentarily, of course, since she almost always knew what to say. "I'm pleased that I caught you before you left," she said, resting one of her hands on the worn wood of the bar to steady herself.
"Yes," he said, adjusting one of his suspender straps. "My coach is ready to leave in the morning." His face said that he was worried she would never arrive.
She barely managed a smile. "Good." And all her words tumbled together in her head. Her heart was beating so that she was certain he could hear it.
Someone at one of the tables tossed some dice and let out an uproar at winning some amount of money. Instinctively, Sidney stepped closer, his hand reaching out before falling back to his side. "Shall we step outside?"
"Yes," Charlotte answered too quickly. She was getting warmer by the second and a fresh spring breeze would do her good. She stepped out and he followed, not bothering to retrieve his coat from his room.
The inn was on its own at the top of a mound too small to be called a mountain and there were vast grounds around it, though they weren't well kept like those around Sanditon. But the moon was full and as bright as the sun as they stepped away from the warmth and roar of the inn.
"I was beginning to think you weren't coming," Sidney said finally, voicing his concerns.
Charlotte took in as deep a breath as she could to clear her mind. "I almost didn't."
"I see." Warily, he clasped his hands behind him and his shirt billowed out in the breeze. "And why did you?"
She thought about her answer. There were many things she could say, all were true. She did not want to confess the past six nights she cried and fumed and poured over Lady Susan's reply all day and talked in circles around her feelings with her sister. She wanted him to feel badly for what he'd done, but she also knew that she didn't want to hurt him too badly. He had been hurt enough.
"You have to know what you did to me," she said, trying not to think about this too much and pushing onward. "I don't say this to make you feel guilty. I've told you before that I understand why you did what you had to to save your family from ruin. But personally...I was terribly wounded. I couldn't help it. You practically proposed to me, left and returned with an engagement to someone else. That's nearly the same thing that happened to you, so you should know how that felt."
"I do. And I am exceedingly sorry it came to that. I never wanted to hurt you, Charlotte."
"Yes, I think I know you well enough to realize that. But I needed to say it, to be heard. And now...it's been years. And I haven't waited for you." She wrung her hands, feeling a flash of heat through her whole body due to the source of the argument and her lungs, sore from her walk over. "I had no reason to. You were married, living in London, and I was here, like always."
"Is this a very long winded way of telling me that you're tied to someone else?" he ventured to ask, his voice tight.
"No! It's quite the opposite, actually," Charlotte replied quickly. "I've...I have been waiting for someone else and I've been happy to do so before you arrived. But seeing you again…" She stopped walking and talking, her breathing shallow and her mind swirling with the things she wanted to say, and the voice of Lady Susan spilling into her impulse control, which she had quite a good handle on until she got into situations like these.
She looked at him under the light of the moon and it was as if the universe itself had made her decision for her. "But then you arrived here of all places, and I can't help but feel love for you." If a heart could soar and twist at the same time, hers did just then. "I don't want to be a second choice, someone to fall back upon." She said that softly, to herself, to remind herself of the ties stringing her heart across the country, from the coast to London and beyond.
"You have always been my first choice, Miss Heywood," Sidney said, sincerity lacing his words.
Her eyes shone in the moonlight, though why she was close to tears she couldn't say. She didn't often cry out of happiness, but perhaps this was it. "I know," she said, without any of her usual eloquence. Whoever gets to marry for love, my dear Charlotte, will live a fuller life than those who do not, Lady Susan's latest letter came back to her. "I love you," she said, the words making her feel vulnerable and small, as if coiled tightly to protect herself.
"Oh, Charlotte." Sidney closed the space between them, his chilled hand tucking hair behind her ear. She slid her hand over his and tilted into his palm. "I have never loved another the way I love you."
I don't love her was not the same as I love you. Charlotte's soul and heart let go of their fear and she felt no longer small, but bright and full like a flower turning fresh petals to the sun.
She smiled brightly to rival the moon above. "Such directness, Mister Parker," she said, barely getting the words out before he kissed her.
The kiss had years of longing and passion behind it and it was like nothing she had experienced before. Even lightheaded and lungs burning for air, she kissed him still. They clung to each other, bodies much closer than appropriate but with no one to catch them.
Eventually though, they parted, though their faces stayed close, breaths warm and mingling.
"May I call upon you tomorrow morning?"
It dawned on her then the late hour and inappropriateness of their current situation. She blinked and gathered herself back together. "Yes. You may."
"Will your father be at home?"
She could not have kept the smile from her face if you had paid her. "I'll make sure of it."
He smiled too, pure and brilliant and took her hands. "Until tomorrow then." He squeezed her hands lightly and, because he could hardly contain himself, dipped down and kissed her once more, soft and reminiscent of their first on the cliffs at Sanditon.
"Goodnight," she said, breathless and stepping backward.
"Wait! Should I see you home?"
The concern in his voice was palpable. Charlotte shook her head. "It's not far." She turned around and started off before she lingered any longer. Once close to home, she touched her lips, still warm from kissing and her stomach twisted in a surprisingly positive way.
By the time she returned home, she expected her entire family to be asleep, but her mother and Alison were there. They didn't even need to hear a word, they could read it clearly on her face.
"Did he propose?" Alison asked, clasping Charlotte's hands.
"He's terrible at this," Alison insisted.
Charlotte laughed, though she tried to keep quiet as to not wake the rest of the household. "He is calling here tomorrow."
The evening fell to numerous hugs and a number of tears and finally Charlotte settled into bed, happy and free from confusion twisting in her stomach for the first time in a long time.
She slept much better than she had for weeks, and the house was already set to order by the time to rose, dressed and walked into the kitchen. There was breakfast waiting for her and Alison pinned her hair back once she was done.
"It doesn't matter what I look like," Charlotte insisted.
"It does to me. And to Mother," Alison said, twisting another bit of hair and setting it right. "There, perfect."
Shaking her head lightly, Charlotte squeezed her sister's hands. "Thank you."
"You're doing the right thing. Choosing happiness."
"You'll have the same opportunity one day. I'm sure of it."
Sidney arrived on a single horse, looking much more put together than he had just hours before at the inn. He once again asked for Charlotte's company, and thankfully her entire family did not watch them walk into the gardens once again.
"Perhaps this time we won't be interrupted," he said once they were out of earshot of the house.
"That would be ideal," she said, and laughed a little. This was so far removed from what she'd thought would happen that while she was fully invested in the moment, it still felt a little dreamlike. Everything around them was fresh and new and green. The world, rebuilding itself after the cold winter.
Eventually, they stopped walking. "Charlotte," Sidney said, turning toward her and taking her hands. "I once told you that I felt like my truest self when I was with and I've meant every word I've said since then."
"You may need to remind me," she said, because she wanted to hear it again. The memory was not enough.
"You're not going to make this easy."
"You should know me better than that."
His gaze softened toward her even more and he shook his ever ever so slightly. "I've never wanted to put myself into someone else's power before and that still holds true. Before I met you I never wanted to care for anyone but myself and yet I've found myself completely taken in by you and that has not left me, even years later."
"That's quite good."
"Are you going to let me finish?" He was definitely amused and honestly she wasn't trying to be difficult. Instead of speaking, she smiled and nodded her head, allowing him to continue. "Even now, my every happiness lies with you. Charlotte, will you do me the greatest honor in becoming my wife?"
"Yes," she said without a moment's hesitation. "Yes, of course."
"Thank God," he said with a quick smile.
It was she who kissed him now, with a control neither of them exhibited the night before, just in case her family had snuck out and were anywhere near them.
She did not want a London wedding so they set the date for the end of summer. In Sanditon, of course. Her family was put up for weeks and they drew quite the crowd from London. Georgiana Lambe and her own new engagement on her arm. Lady Susan and a handful of her closest friends who could not bear to stay in London while the most sociable woman in London traveled to Sanditon. Lord and Lady Babington and numerous friends of Sidney's who had taken his isolation in stride.
And no one spread a hint of gossip about the fact that a simple girl from Willingden was matched with a newly widowed and relatively wealthy man.
All of the Parkers were there as well, and no one seemed the least bit unhappy.
In fact, Charlotte vowed to always find happiness in every day to come. To get here, she had been through a great deal of heartbreak of her own and others—she had, of course, written to Mister Stringer after Sidney's proposal and while she tried to be as kind as she could, there was no way around hurting him—and she did not want to linger in that state of melancholy any longer.
The weather in Sanditon held, with only minimal gailing winds and sun shining brightly. There were no interruptions today. No drunken disowned gentlemen. No horrid fires.
And there was no better way to spend the days following than to stay in the seaside resort. It was all fairly perfect.
Charlotte's family stuck to her like bees to honey and she most definitely stained her wedding dress but what was a little fabric when it came to a game of hide and seek in and amongst food tables in the garden.
Lady Denham, still living and breathing, though in a much better mood for the most part since Esther's own wedding, found Charlotte in a moment alone. "What did I tell you?"
"You came to Sanditon. You found a husband. And a fortune." The woman's eyes gleamed with amusement.
"A little later than you probably expected," Charlotte replied, squinting against the bright sun.
The woman laughed and set her sights on someone new. Charlotte watched her leave, trying to picture herself at the end of what she hoped would be a very long life.
"Tell me she didn't insult you on your wedding day," Sidney said, appearing quietly behind her and putting his hand on the small of her back.
"No. Surprisingly." She twisted around and found him looking equally surprised. "When is exactly appropriate for us to disappear from our own wedding?"
The corners of his mouth turned down in brief consideration. "A little while longer I think."
She resisted the urge to react childishly and rejoined the guests for what turned out to be a lot longer than "a little while".
When they eventually found themselves in Sidney's letted apartment, she was exhausted and enthralled in the fact that she was now Mrs. Parker. Who would have ever expected that?
She very quickly dropped all pretense of politeness as she pulled off her shoes in the small front drawing room as Sidney was depositing his coat and hat at the door. She leaned back against the table and enjoyed the sounds of silence.
"Are you all right?"
She cracked her eyes open. "Yes. Extremely well, actually."
He half smiled. "Good."
It came to her attention at that very moment that they were alone. Very, very alone, for one of the first and only times in all the years they'd known each other. And it was exhilarating. Her adventurous nature was at its height. This was all new for her.
And there he stood, her husband, who was charming when he wanted to be. Attractive as hell and oh so in love with her. She may not have the words and means, but she desperately wanted to kiss him so she did. Because she could. She closed the space between them and stretched up on her toes and kissed him without any hesitation.
He responded in kind, arms circling around her, holding her close.
She broke off the kiss when she was certain she was going to burst from the feelings bubbling up inside of her. And he took a deep breath and looked at her like she had set the stars in the sky with her very hands, like she was everything he had ever wanted.
Hand in hand, he took her upstairs to the bedroom, which was filled with appropriately glass sealed lamps—there would be no fires tonight, and hopefully none ever again in this poor, beautiful terrace—and just a single bed which shocked her out of her bliss for a moment before realizing that she'd been waiting for so long for this that nothing about this day could be anything but perfect.
And then they were kissing again. It was easy to get lost in it, bodies pressed close, hands feeling and gripping and the spikes of pleasure that sent chills down her spine when his lips pressed against her throat. Soon, her breaths came in panting gasps and she grew far too warm.
"Help me with my dress," she said, breaking off a kiss and twisting around. She could very well undress herself, but that wasn't really the point, now was it.
He undid the ties of her dress pretty quickly and she took a moment to step out of it, leaving her in a thin petticoat and stays and little else.
"Now you," she said, feeling bold.
"If you insist," he replied, though it wasn't as if he had the intention of staying clothed tonight. Gone were his boots and his vest and he went far enough to pull off his shirt as well. This was not her first time seeing him so bare, but since she was prepared for it, she could actually enjoy it.
She slid her hands across his skin as they resumed kissing. She liked kissing. And the more she did it, the more sure she became. Sure enough to press forward and back him against the wall, which he seemed to like as much as she did. She again pushed herself up onto her toes, and he desperately tried unlacing her stays from behind. He wasn't actually doing too badly, but she did eventually lend a hand and also untied the lacings for her petticoat, leaving her in a thin shift.
He said her name, soft and breathy against her lips and her throat, his hands pressing against her with such little fabric, it felt as if her skin was singing. She had no hesitation and tried rather unsuccessfully to undo his trousers without looking but she had no practice in the matter.
"Charlotte," his voice was deep and throaty.
She paused. "Yes?"
But he didn't say anything, he only looked down at her with a gaze that sent even more chills and jolts through her entire body.
"You are the most beautiful thing my eyes have ever beheld."
She flushed even more than she already was. His hand pressed against the small of her back, warm and strong, and his other hand was gathering up her shift into his fist at her hip.
"You would tell me if—"
"Please just keep kissing me," she interrupted, taking his face in her hands. He did, walking them slowly toward the bed. Her thighs hit the mattress and her shift was long past her hips and he pulled the rest off over her head, leaving her naked in his gaze. His lips parted and she just had to kiss them, so she did, and shivered as his bare skin touched her bare skin.
He moaned into her mouth and she was very aware of the hardness in his trousers but having no idea what to do with it, decided to break the kiss and move onto the bed now that they were close to it. She waited as he looked at her with those eyes like an ocean, the depths of them endless now, before he removed the rest of his clothes and joined her before she could make a single blunt comment about his naked form.
He kissed her and held his body over hers and she touched his ribs and sides and marveled at how different he felt to her own soft body. He tucked down and kissed her neck again and her hips and legs moved of their own accord, allowing him closer. He moved gently, softly and she gasped and her eyelids fluttered when he entered her.
The feeling was nothing she could have ever expected, and she found herself wanting more and all of it. He responded in kind and soon they were completely lost in each other.
Sidney woke in the morning to Charlotte getting out of bed. He opened his eyes but was blinded by the light from the windows and closed enough again to mere slits.
"Charlotte? Where are you going?" He reached toward her side of the bed. Still warm.
"Nowhere," she insisted, which was true. She merely slipped on her wedding dress shift-which was much better quality than her typical one and was soft as a kitten-and walked out of the room momentarily. She returned with a glass pitcher of water that had been conveniently waiting in the kitchen. She poured a glass for herself, finished half of it and then crawled into bed to offer him the rest.
He accepted and finished it off before placing it on the table sitting beside the bed. When he settled back down, his hand lay on her thigh. "Good morning, Mrs. Parker."
"Good morning, Mister Parker," she replied with a smile. Her hair was undoubtedly a mess, holding the light from the windows in it like a halo. He could see her now and still thought she was the most beautiful thing. "So...what is it we do now?"
He took a deep breath and contemplated, his mind slow to wake. "Whatever you'd like."
"Hmmmm." As she thought, she leaned forward and gently kissed him. Yes, she still very much liked kissing, although everything else was equally as satisfactory.
Just as she pulled away, he snaked his arms around her and pulled her back onto the bed with him, kissing her deeper and sliding his hand around her cheek. They stayed in a tangled mess, kissing and touching until an answer finally came to mind.
"I'm quite hungry," Charlotte said. "We can get breakfast."
"Yes, we can," Sidney agreed, still holding onto her. He looked at her with a sort of adoration that was uniquely Sidney.
She nodded. "All right then."
He held onto her a little bit longer before setting her free. Her things had been moved here sometime before or during the wedding and she started looking for her clothes. As she tried to gather all of her clothes together, she glanced over at him as he too started dressing.
"That...other thing. Is that a night time only event?"
He did that half smile again. "Not always."
"Good," Charlotte replied with a small nod of approval.
They dressed half heartedly and sat together for a simple breakfast, one in which Charlotte simply could not keep her hands to herself now that she was behind closed doors and she could touch Sidney all she wanted. And he kept looking at her with such love that she never wanted to leave this place.