This is perhaps the most insufferably awful dinner party Sidney Parker has ever had the displeasure of attending. If there is a hell, Sidney imagines his would look a lot like this. With his newly-arrived fiancee on his arm, making barely concealed insults at every person in their company. His brother’s booming voice echoes in Sidney’s mind. Tom’s happy manners grate on his nerves. It seems his visionary older brother has completely forgotten the sacrifices Sidney’s made on his behalf. All around him, people wear easy smiles and make polite conversation and Sidney would rather be on the rolling sea, nauseous and feverish, than here. A twinkling laugh grabs his attention and Sidney is reminded of the pièce de résistance of tonight’s torture.
Miss Charlotte Heywood stands on the other side of the room, smiling up at Mr. Stringer with enough affection to make Sidney abruptly drain his glass. Quickly excusing himself from Eliza’s side, Sidney makes his way to the bar cart, eager for something to numb the pain. Lord Babbington is there, pouring himself a much more sensible portion than Sidney himself does.
“How are you holding up, old boy?” Lord Babbington asks, a pitying expression on his face.
Sidney huffs a bitter laugh. “Splendidly, my friend.” The sardonic tone in his voice makes Babbington wince and Sidney almost feels bad about it. They don’t make any more conversation, just stand together observing the room. He’d be glad for Babbington’s quiet support if he weren’t so miserable.
He hasn’t been subtle, not about his anguishing engagement, nor his yearning for the woman destined to never be his. This lack of subtlety has not improved since Charlotte’s unexpected return to Sanditon. For the first time in years, Sidney’s every emotion is written on his face and it seems unlikely to stop anytime soon. Charlotte flushes anytime he looks at her in polite company, refuses to let him get her alone, refuses to let him - well, Sidney doesn’t know what exactly he’d do if he ever succeeded.
Explain himself, beg forgiveness, take her sweet mouth in his again and never stop kissing her. Anything, all of them, none. He’s unsurprised to learn that everything he thought he knew about Charlotte Heywood’s indifference is nothing compared to this. Even when she disliked him, she’d still follow his every movement, hang onto his every word, just waiting for the opportunity to bring him down to size. Sidney Parker does not know how to react when Charlotte is determined to give him exactly none of her attention.
So, imagine his surprise when he looks up from refilling his glass of brandy (for the third time) to see her striding towards him from across the parlor, a look of complete indignation etched into her beautiful face. He loses his breath for a moment; her eyes are blazing, her chest is heaving, and he wishes for nothing more than to hold her in his arms and ask her why she didn’t ask him to choose her instead (he would have, he almost did, he almost damned them all to hell just to keep one girl).
He’s sure he looks bemused when she grabs his forearm and says, “Excuse me, Lord Babbington, but I need to ask Mr. Parker about an insurance form for the new library, it should only take a moment.” With a sweetness that belays the anger running through every inch of her body.
His friend just inclines his head. “By all means, Miss Heywood. Mr. Parker.” The other man excuses himself and Sidney watches him be welcomed into Lady Babbington’s conversation like nothing at all. The jealousy that grips him is visceral and breathtaking.
Charlotte leads him away and nobody bats an eye.
She drags him into his brother’s office far more easily than their respective frames should allow, though Sidney admits it may have something more to do with his acquiescence than her physical strength. Charlotte clutches his arm and all he can think is this is the first time they’ve touched in months. It’s only a moment before they’re alone in Tom’s study and it’s all he can do to stare. She’s the most beautiful woman in the world.
Charlotte paces. Agitated and in clear distress, sneaking glances at Sidney but not looking him in the eye. He stands in front of the closed door, dumbfounded. Of course, the only time he gets alone with her she’s angry at him. Charlotte exhales a deep sigh and stands away from him. Her shoulders are squared and her face is set in defiant anger. All Sidney can think about is how the dimming fire does wonderful things to her brown eyes. This is probably why he is so confused when she finally says “You need to stop.”
“I beg your pardon? Stop what?”
Charlotte glares at him, thinking him to be in jest. “Looking at me like that.”
“And how do I look at you, Charlotte?”
“Miss Heywood, sir. We are not so familiar with each other.” She snaps, still looking somewhere over his shoulder. “And you know perfectly well how. As does everyone else! I did not come here to be the subject of gossip, Mr. Parker, and I will not have my reputation besmirched because you can’t keep your eyes to yourself.”
Her words cut him like a knife because it’s true. He sacrificed that right when he saved his brother from debtors’ prison. The hitch in his breath at the thought finally makes her look at him and their eyes meet for the first time since she arrived. And at that moment Sidney knows her pain just as he knows his own. She hasn’t forgotten. “Miss Heywood, then.” He says, voice thick with meaning. “I’m afraid I cannot abide by your request.”
“And why not?”
“Because I find myself quite sure that I shall never see you again after this season. And if I am to get by on my memories for the rest of my godforsaken life, I shall need as large a supply as possible.” Charlotte steps towards him, almost involuntarily, but the distance is still too great. Tears brim in her eyes, the same as Sidney’s own, and he finds he can’t help himself. “It’s quite a compulsion, really. I couldn’t stop looking at you if I wanted to.” And I don’t want to.
Uncertainty flashes across her face and she takes a deep breath. “...Mr. Parker, I-”
“Sidney.” He interjects, deciding to add gluttony to his long list of sins. She’s never said it and he’s too weak a man to never ask.
They are a great deal much closer when she finally whispers, “Sidney.”
The damn breaks. He can’t help himself. He’s been without her for so long, living his half-life of social gatherings and business meetings, so much more aware of it than he has ever been. Every day his mind refuses to let him forget that there was a moment in time where perfect happiness was within his reach and it was ripped away because of his brother’s incompetence. The worst part of it all is that if he were more selfish, if he weren’t so determined to be the kind of man Charlotte could love, if she hadn’t changed him so completely, he could have happily chosen her. (It’s a lie, it’s always a lie, Mary and the children would haunt his thoughts no matter what, but it’s a lovely dream anyway.)
As it is, Sidney can force himself to make do with this moment- where tears burn in both of their eyes and he sweeps her into his arms, devouring her mouth. Charlotte gasps and small hands grip into the nape of his neck, anchoring him to her as if she’s just as afraid as he is that this will all disappear.
Sidney pushes her up against a wall, desperate to be as close as possible, giving less than a damn about the world outside of this. Outside of her. A tentative tongue swipes into his mouth and his knees nearly buckle. God but this woman’s curiosity will be the death of him. Sidney moans into her kiss, clutching at her waist, dangerously close to grazing her breast with his thumb.
This needs to stop, he needs to stop. He needs to honor his commitments and her virtue. Sidney rips away from her mouth and she follows his lips just like that first time, drunk on the sensation. “We should stop.” He says this like he wasn’t the one who broke first, like he isn’t currently bending his body to press kisses to Charlotte’s delectable neck, relishing in her soft moans.
“There are a great many things we should be doing.” Charlotte’s voice is snidely knowing, so different from how Sidney has ever known her and yet somehow everything he should have expected. When he looks at her he can see that reckless youthfulness of hers etched into her face, almost enough to hide the pain that lingers. She inspires so much feeling in him, things he can barely recognize or understand and even still, Sidney has never felt so known. Charlotte is play-acting, deflecting from the horrible truth they both know and would sooner forget.
If this is all he’s going to get…
Sidney slides his hand slowly up her side, watches her shiver as he passes over her breast. A rough palm moves onto her throat, encompassing her. Charlotte grips his hand, holding him to her and submitting to his whims. Slowly, he inclines his head towards her, taking her mouth in an odd approximation of their first kiss- gentle and tentative. He doesn’t stop until they’re both breathless. Charlotte’s lips are swollen, already ravished, and Sidney knows he looks just as undone.
Her hands fall to his chest, unbuttoning his waistcoat with shaky fingers and sliding his shirt out of his trousers. Those same hands slide under the loose material, exploring the expanse of his chest. Charlotte stretches up on her toes and presses kisses to his neck. Her name is hoarse on his tongue, a growled “Charlotte.” that cannot begin to encompass everything he feels in this moment.
He gathers her skirts up, eager to finally feel her. Charlotte watches him as he slides his hand up her thigh. “Can I…”
“Yes.” The trust in her eyes compels him to kiss her, trying to pour all of his love for her into his actions. Hoping she’ll understand everything he can’t say. His fingers slip under her underthings and they both moan at the wetness he finds there. Sidney cups her, not stopping their kiss, relishing in everything she’s giving him. He only moves when Charlotte starts to squirm, desperate for pleasure. Keeping his touch light, reminding himself to go slowly, nothing has ever been more important to him than this. Charlotte gasps when he finally presses a finger into her and the tightness even just wrapped around his finger is maddening. What he would give to have her completely, to show her his love in the most complete way possible. Even if they’ve both reached a silent understanding that that’s not meant for them, his treacherous heart still wishes for it.
Learning her body is a dream. He can’t seem to keep still, kissing and licking any part of her he can reach, cataloging what draws the most fervent moans. Charlotte is just as restless, clutching at him and murmuring encouragements when he does something to make her gasp.
“Don’t stop, Sidney, please.” She pants into his ear. Her nails dig into his skin under his shirt, sharp, biting, and Sidney thinks to himself that he would gladly bear the marks of her pleasure for the rest of his life.
He looks down at Charlotte, a vision of a woman with her head tilted back against the wall, eyes closed as she basks in the pleasure he’s giving her. Her once neat skirts are bunched around her waist and his hand at the apex of her thighs would be unseemly if it weren’t so damnably right. Sidney curls his fingers against her inner walls, relishing in the gasp he draws from her. Ducking his head to kiss up her neck, he wishes he could mark her like she has him, wishes he could imprint his essence onto her very being. Stopping at her ear Sidney whispers, “I won’t, darling, I promise.”
Charlotte nods and turns her head to tempt him into a kiss. He goes oh so willingly. His body burns for release but he focusses on Charlotte, on giving her one of the few things he still can, stealing this first from whatever man comes after him. She breaks away from his mouth eons later, brown eyes locking onto his with a look of complete wonder. The tightening around his fingers lets him know she’s close so he circles his thumb gently around her bundle of nerves, eager to witness divinity in action.
“Sidney!” Her voice is breathless and seems too loud in the quiet of the darkened room. For a split second, Sidney remembers all of the reasons this is a bad idea before the pleasure of watching Charlotte find release makes them disappear. The primal satisfaction he feels as she slumps against the wall, lightly shivering and thoroughly debauched, is so great that he’s afraid he’ll turn into an animal any second and kidnap her up to his rooms. His head swims at the things they could do together, the ways he would worship at her altar and never want to leave.
Small hands circle around his back, pulling him into a laughably innocent embrace. Charlotte tucks her head against his chest and even though he can only see the top of her head, the elegant updo disheveled, curls escaping their confines, Sidney swears he can hear her smile when she asks, “Where did you go?”
He smiles himself, dropping a kiss to the crown of her head. “Nowhere. I’m right here.”
In the nestle of their bodies, Sidney knows she can feel him, and while some part of him aches for release he’s unable to articulate how much more he just wants to hold her- while he still can. Perhaps it’s some form of penance for his actions. Either way, when Charlotte nustles closer to him he simply tightens his arms around her, his thumb caressing the skin of her upper arm.
Noise from the party filters back to them and Sidney knows their time is drawing to a close. The pain of not having her hits him all over again. He’d truly deluded himself into forgetting all of the barriers keeping them apart. This wasn’t a frantic meeting of young lovers on the verge of marriage, this was a desperate attempt at goodbye. All he can have are stolen moments but Sidney knows if they were ever caught Charlotte would be ruined, all the prospects for her future would go up in flames, and as much as it kills him he knows this can never happen again.
They pull away from each other and the shine in Charlotte’s eyes tell him she understands.
She always understands.
The two of them start righting their clothing, never quite making eye contact, as all of their newfound intimacy disappears. Sidney tucks his shirttails back into his trousers, watching Charlotte smooth her skirts as he buttons his waistcoat. Except for the flush in her cheeks and his unmistakable erection, starting to calm down but not yet gone, it’s almost like nothing happened at all.
Charlotte looks as if she’ll bolt any second but Sidney can’t bear to go back to a room where he has to be civil to a fiancee he doesn’t want and watch the woman he loves be wooed by another man. “Charlotte, I-” He stops short, unable to process how they got here, blaming himself for the barely subdued pain in her beautiful eyes. “I love you.”
Charlotte just looks up at him, studying his face in that way she has that lays all that he is bare, leaving him nowhere to hide. She looks at him like that and Sidney knows as surely as he knows anything that they have ruined each other beyond compare. The possibilities of the life they could have had together lingers in the space between them, languishing and despondent. They should be happy. Charlotte should be happy.
As it stands all he can offer her is heartbreaking platitudes, a fervent declaration that means absolutely nothing next to family loyalty. Sidney says “I love you.” to the only woman that will ever hold his heart and Charlotte, wise beyond his understanding, gives him an enigmatic smile and says, “I know.”