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Every Happiness

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That day, the fateful day he saw Charlotte for what he thought was the last time, Sidney did not rush back to Trafalgar House. He needed to make a plan. He did not want to be untrue to his word, but if there was a slight chance that Eliza would realize she wanted more for herself than a loveless marriage, a slight chance that the financial entanglement they had just created for themselves could be solved and undone, he had to try. For in these past few weeks, Sidney had started to hope, but he had also started believing that he deserved happiness. This was not it. He needed to become financial manager for the Sanditon venture, and he needed to control Tom, since he now was, through Eliza, principal investor together with Lady Denham. He also needed to understand why Eliza wanted to marry him despite him explicitly not loving her. There had to be something to unravel there. The marriage had been set for the month of May, a Spring wedding being more fashionable in London. At the thought that this was his fate, unless a miracle happened, Sidney fell himself falling into the familiar dread and despair. After all, he had years of experience at nursing a broken heart, a lost future. His natural reaction was to drink himself to oblivion, gamble, visit boarding houses and close himself up like a shell. But Charlotte had opened him up, and he was not ready to give up.

A week after the announcement, after Charlotte’s departure, Sidney found himself in the study late at night, and Tom walked in. With the model of Sanditon laying before them, Tom started to speak. “I do not know how to start… But Sidney, Mary could not keep the secret for herself.” Sidney looked up, intrigued by this unexpected turn of conversation. Tom seemed agitated, and self-conscious. He went on: “She told me that you did not, in fact, still love Mrs Campion. That you engaged yourself to her only to save me from prison. Is that true, Sidney?” Sidney absent-mindedly touched the outline of beach promenade, and looked back at his brother, defeated: “That is the truth. But it is too late now, it is done.” Tom appeared taken aback. “My dear brother. How can I ever repay this debt? But you are not telling me everything. Mary said she believed your heart lay elsewhere. That you had given up someone.” Sidney felt the now familiar pang of darkness in his chest awake at the thought of her. “I cannot hide anything from Mary.” Tom sat in the chair, and put his face in his hands. “I have been so blinded,” he whispered, “so this is why Charlotte left?” Sidney had to admit he was surprised that Tom had reached the conclusion himself. “It is. I almost proposed to her the night of the Midsummer Ball, before the fire. And was ready to do it when I left for London, but I could not find another solution. I knocked on all the doors, but the amount of money was simply impossible to gather.” Tom looked up, and dared look in his brother’s eyes: “And she loves you, of course.” Sidney scoffed: “I do not know, Tom. I think she might have. I hope she will recover from this, and find her happiness. Most of all, I hope she will not lose herself like I did me. I know too well what this can do to a young soul.” Tom had tears in his eyes. “You must hate me. And you would be right to.” Sidney went to sit across from him: “Come on, Tom. I am glad that you know what I had to sacrifice, as we can now speak plainly and honestly, but do not think I don’t know what I owe you.” “You don’t owe me your happiness. Do you think you can ever be happy with Eliza? Truly?” Sidney thought about it. The question deserved a proper answer. “I have come a long way in my relationship with Eliza, Tom. She had passed me over for a wealthier man, when we both know I was not poor myself. She chose more wealth over me, when I was an already wealthy man. There is a coldness in her that must have grown from making that choice, that makes me think I never knew her. Sometimes I’ll see a glimpse of young Eliza. But I cannot help but compare her to Charlotte, constantly. And she always has the upper hand. Where Eliza is mature, Charlotte is more honest. Where Eliza loves me for who she thinks I am, Charlotte cares for the man I want to be.” I leaned on his elbows, searching the floor for traces of her, perhaps. “I never knew I could find someone so perfect.” Tom was staring straight ahead, the weight of his guilt weighing visibly on his shoulders. “I will never forgive myself.” Sidney stood up: “I am sorry, Tom. What is done is done, and we all have to live with the consequences now.”

He found Mary in her parlor, writing a letter. “Mary. Here you are.” She startled at his voice, and smiled sadly. “Sidney. I wanted to talk to you. Will you take a seat?” Sidney had also come to talk, it was true that they had not spoken since Charlotte had left, but he had felt her lingering gaze often, and she had not seemed happy of late. He did not know which one had been avoiding the other. He sat on one of the settee, and she sat on the opposite one. “The truth is, my dear brother, I did not know where to start. I am…we are…infinitely grateful for what you have done for us. We would have been utterly lost.” She was on the verge of tears. “Please, Mary, do not trouble yourself.” She was not responsible, and, if anything, her trust in Tom was probably at the moment more shaken than ever. “I cannot help it. Tom has been so reckless. And now, I have to live knowing that my continued comfort ruined the happiness of two of my dearest persons. I am so sorry, Sidney.” He was silent for a moment. It was difficult for him to react, for he could not deny the truth of her words. He opted for openness, instead. “I do not look at you with anger, Mary.” “But Tom?” “That is a bit more complicated.” She looked at him, examining him. “You seem different. From the last time.” He knew exactly what she meant. “I feel different. You see, to tell you the truth, I have not given up hope.” She opened her eyes wide, and nodded. “I see. What do you intend to do?” He looked up in surprise, but then again, Mary had always been an ally. She was Tom’s redemption. “I have several wheels in motion.” “I was just writing to Charlotte, you know.” He missed her terribly. “I wish I could write to her too. I would not know what to say, and of course it would be very inappropriate, but I write letters to her nonetheless.” She stood up and came to sit by him. “How can I help?”, she asked.

Not all days were hopeful. In fact, most days were not. Most days started with the sweetest dreams of her, the cruel waking, the frustration and the anger at Tom, at fate, at Eliza, then some drinking, only to start all over again. He was drowned in his work for Sanditon, in making sure that at least this sacrifice of his would not be a drop in the ocean. Sanditon had to be profitable by the next summer, and for that, he used all of his social weight, all of his energy. There is one thing that did not feel like a drain and that was his newly-improved relationship with Georgiana. Immediately after Charlotte left, Sidney had decided to make arrangements so that Georgiana could live with him at least until his marriage, and he sought to employ a governess that would not seem too strict or too much of a bigot for Georgiana’s taste. He needed to be away from Trafalgar House and Tom, and given how much time he had to spend here now, it made little sense to always stay at the Crowne. He was going back and forth between London and Sanditon, and Georgiana mostly remained in Sanditon, but would come with him to London for the season. Georgiana was surprised and pleased at his decision. She did not forgive him just yet, but she understood that he intended to make amends. In Sanditon, Sidney started renting a small house near the sea. They took walks on the beach in the morning and talked of Antigua, of her father. Georgiana was still raw and bitter about what Otis had done, and her love was fading. She had a sense that the change in her guardian’s behavior had a lot to do with her friend Charlotte, but she did not want to pry. He was an engaged man. He was a devastated man. Sure, he seemed to hold himself together, but she saw through the new mask. She saw his jaw clench when she received a letter from Charlotte, fighting the urge to ask her everything. One day, two months after, when a new letter had arrived at breakfast, he let his guard down for a minute – for they never talked about her – and asked: “You would tell me if she were not well, would you?” He needed to know. Her face, full of tears, haunted him. The last thing he had wanted to do was to crush her spirits. Georgiana felt unsettled. It was a new thing, his sharing his feelings even the slightest bit, feeling more like the older brother he could have been all along. “Of course, Sidney.” She opened the letter, and read it, as he did his best to appear like he was reading his paper attentively. He saw her face change, first joy and then awkwardness. “What is it?” Georgiana toyed with her bacon. “You should prepare yourself. Charlotte will spend the season in London with Lady Worcester.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2.

From the moment Sidney stepped foot in London with Georgiana, he was positively obsessed with the possibility of seeing Charlotte again. She was here, in potentiality, in every silhouette he laid his eyes upon in the bustling streets, and he was dizzy with want and need. He had been good. He had done his best. He had not fallen back to the old demons of despair, drunkenness and savagery. If there was some justice, he should be allowed to see her again. They settled into Bedford place, where they were to be joined soon by the rest of the Parkers. For Georgiana, it meant moving from extreme isolation and loneliness to a buoyant family, problematic and tense as it was. Her spirits, already improved since the summer, were quickly restored. She and Arthur had become fast friends, and she and Mary often discussed Charlotte – and Sidney, in fact. Tom was quite altered – in some ways, equal to himself in society, but in private, he was subdued and ashamed. He felt Sidney’s sacrifice sharply, which led him to consider his own failings and shortcomings. The house was soon bustling with activity.

Sidney did his duty and went to visit Eliza at the Campion house. They had not seen each other in three whole weeks, but she had sent letters – detailed, mundane, nice – which he had answered dutifully – perfunctory, polite, nice. Every time he wrote “yours” at the end of a letter to her, he felt an anger rise in his stomach that threatened to take over. But Charlotte’s words resonated in his mind, “You must try to make her happy.” As long as the engagement was on, he would try. The truth was, however, he thought as the butler led him to Eliza’s parlor, Sidney had no idea how to make Eliza happy. He did not understand why she even had agreed to this, knowing full well he would not love her. Did she think she could change that? Did she think she could live with only his respect and – he swallowed – body? She was unlikely to get any more than that. A cold dread spread through him. She called out his name. Eliza was always surrounded with at least two friends, if not more, even at home. “Ah. Sidney, my dear!” He bowed, and made his way to the seat next to her. “Are you well, Eliza?” They made polite conversation, while her friends were still there, but after an hour, they left and Sidney found himself alone with Eliza. She took his hands, immediately, albeit with some awkwardness. He tried to remember a time at which the simple act would have made his heart race, but ten years and one day with Charlotte Heywood was a long time to pass in between. “How are you settled? And Miss Lambe?” To her credit, Eliza had not been as quick to judge as she usually was, with Georgiana’s situation. Sidney had not shared the details, he had simply said that given her state of heart, he preferred if she moved with him until she reached majority. Eliza had not seemed too pleased, but she was not so rash as assert herself in every aspect of his life yet. It had been decided that when they married, Georgiana would live with them. Sidney was not sorry about the prospect – if he had to marry Eliza in the end, he at least would not be alone with her most of the time. She spoke of wedding plans, and he did his best to listen. She did not ask how he was.

A few days later, in the morning, as Sidney was in the study, going over new plans with Mr. Stringer, who supervised the works from his London apprenticeship, something in the air changed and Sidney was alerted to her presence. She was visiting Georgiana and Mary, which he should have expected – being a guest at Lady Worcester’s house, it was easier for her to pay visits rather than for Mary or Georgiana to visit her. He heard commotion down the hall, and gathered that his nieces and nephew had seen her as well. He was leaning on the desk, his hands balled into fists, his jaw clenched, his eyes lost. He thought a bit too late that his feelings would show all over his face, and turned to see that Mr. Stringer was looking at him with an air of sudden understanding. Stringer was a good man, Sidney knew that. He had offered him to stay on, partly to make up for Tom’s negligence, partly because he was an excellent foreman, and partly because he had no energy to be jealous. This was a tragic love story, not a love triangle. The two men had gotten along well enough so far, although Stringer had always seemed to be studying him.
“Mr. Parker, sir. If you feel like that about her, why did you not propose marriage to her?”
He was ashamed to admit it, but if Stringer was observant enough, Sidney was running out of ways to explain. “Aye… Well, it was entirely to save my brother from debtor’s prison, and entirely against my aspirations.” Stringer looked a bit shocked, as if it all made sense now, but also, a mixture of pity and judgment. Sidney was paralyzed; he could not waltz into the parlor, he did not want to startle and upset her. He would probably remain hidden in the study. But it was counting without Stringer’s suggestion: “Could we go salute her together, perhaps?” Stringer was a good man, a great one.

It had been months. They found the parlor full of joy, and she was holding Henry up when she saw them enter. Sidney looked apologetic, half hidden behind Stringer, his eyes drilling a hole in hers. She felt a punch in her stomach, and the smile faded from her face, but she quickly recollected herself as Stringer approached to greet her. Mary and Georgiana were looking between the both of them, as subtly as they could. “Mr Stringer. What are you doing here?” she smiled, then turned to face Sidney. “Mr. Parker”. There was softness in her voice, and he almost cried on the spot. He was looking down. “Miss Heywood.” Henry was delighted to see his uncle, and he waved his arm to be transferred to him. Without even thinking twice about how inappropriate it could look – all the persons in attendance were in on the secret anyway – Sidney opened his arms and reached a bit closer to grab him. She looked at him, and him at her, and there was sadness and intimacy, there was the ghost of a toddler they would never share, and Sidney was glad for the comfort of Henry’s little arms around his neck, for he needed it. He let her exchange a few words with Stringer, before calling him back to his study to finish up the work.

After Stringer was gone, Sidney put his face in his hands and was leaning on his knees when she entered. “Ah. Miss Heywood.” He looked up, puzzled as to why she would come here. She just remained standing in the doorway, her face impassible. She looked the same, so beautiful that it hurt, and yet there was a kind of coldness, an edge of bitterness, around her eyes and in her posture. He wondered if it was for his benefit, or if it was simply his fault. “Have you been well?” she asked. “Have you?” he returned, and there was no bitterness, just concern, and sadness. “I wish there was something else I could call you. Less than Charlotte, but more than Miss Heywood.” She took a few steps inside, put her hands on the settee, hesitant. “I have done my best. I hear that you have done yours. I was worried about you.” What had he done to deserve her love? It was a constant gift that kept amazing him. For he was sure now. If it had been a passing infatuation, she would not speak to him like this, when all was lost. He chuckled. “One day, you will tell me why you are determined not to think badly of me. I do try my hardest to deserve your condemnation.” “No. You don’t.” He let the intimate silence settle between them. They had waited so long for a reunion. He spoke again. “I had wondered about this.” “Pray do tell.” “Whether we could meet as friends. Whether we would revert to tongue-lashings. How to go backwards in our affect… in our acquaintance.” It seemed they had both settled for the least tragic approach. The one that allowed them to revel in seeing each other and be miserable later. “I have missed you terribly,” she dared to say. It felt like a burn, like his whole body was too warm for comfort. He looked at her with all the longing he felt, and saw it reflected in her eyes. He stood, took a few steps towards her. “I do not want to be a bad person,” she added. He did not miss a beat: “You could never.” She smiled, always sadly. “I could not live with it if I saw you with your spirit broken,” he said. She looked at him. “Good. My thought exactly.” And with that, she left.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

Charlotte felt very different, a few months after Sanditon. It had been the great adventure of her life, indeed. Everything had been fast and intense, despite the size and provinciality of the little seaside town. These past few months had been taxing, an exercise in self-exploration. Her heart had been broken, but not in the way she had expected for a while. She had known for a few days what it meant to love Sidney Parker when he may love somebody else; that had been a heart ache. She had laid in bed, thinking of all the mixed messages, all the moments that could indicate that he loved her, only to be discouraged by other moments where he clearly had been disgusted by her. She was not a simpleton, but she did not know the intricacies of desire, attraction. She genuinely believed that Sidney Parker perhaps loved her, at the London ball, and decidedly the night of the regatta. That night, in her bed, she had concluded that what had happened before was an incompatibility of character. He had judged her harshly, she had reacted powerfully against his principles, and that was that. Everything had shifted under her when he had said these few words, after kissing her and changing her life forever. She had asked how long he had felt like this, and he had answered since their first meeting, on the clifftop. She had laughed at first, and thought that it was in jest. He meant attraction, she understood that. He meant that he had wanted to kiss her from the first moment, which made her whole body feel alive. Since the London ball, she had had time to ask herself: if Susan was right, and this was love, how long had she been in it? She had thought of the first time he had been playful with her, after old Stringer fell. She had thought of the balcony, and how he had prompted her to tell him what was her opinion of him. She had seen something then, something she did not quite understand.
He had asked her what she knew of love, apart from what she had read. And he had been right. She knew very little. She knew her parents’ love, a simple, rustic, quiet kind of love, which she was mature enough to gather was not a common occurrence within the English gentry. She knew of passing infatuations among young adults in Willingden, always innocent, never really scandalous. She knew of good intentions. In books, she had read that people fell in love because they liked each other, and she knew love was a solid bond, one that could lead to tragedy. Those were always nice stories. She had never known one could fall in love while disliking the other person. She had not known that you did not have a choice.

Then, she had seen him emerge from the water, and that was the first time the ground shifted noticeably. Later, she would realize other moments where the floor had shaken, but at that moment, it felt like the first time. He was all skin, all powerful movement, all raw. She had never seen a man unclothed, but she did not feel a shock, exactly. She felt an instant pull, deep in her entrails. She wanted to touch. She wanted to see. She buried it all, but that had been her reaction. Upon that moment, she had realized a simple thing: that long before the cove, she had wanted to see him.

Months later, Charlotte was a different woman. She now knew about love, and its intricacies. She knew it started out of nowhere, and that you were in the middle before you knew you had begun. Was it the portrait, the reprimands, the eyes, the chest, the teasing, the lips? It did not matter, since he was not to be hers, and yet she recalled everything every time with a pang of her heart. Where she was naïve, she was now skeptical. Where she was open, she was now cautious. She had tried to find in books the answer to what they had, but could not find it. When Susan had invited her, she had desperately jumped at the occasion. Another adventure, a chance to see London. A chance to see him. There was no use disguising that it was the first thing she had thought of. Charlotte was honorable, and she was not delusional. Sidney was to marry the bitter, judgmental and snobbish Mrs. Campion, sacrificing his happiness for the sake of Tom. Her heart was no broken, but her faith in life and happiness was. She loved, and she was loved. It was life that made the rest impossible. She was determined not to resent Sidney. She could not help resenting Tom. She now wanted a quiet life, if it was to be without him. She would find fulfillment in other things. But not marriage, never marriage. Charlotte had decided: there was no better man for her. If love could be like this, she would only love once, and one person.

Seeing him again had been torture. She wanted to behave well, but he made everything difficult. She thought she was strong, but he made her feel like she could break her resolve in a second, if it meant she could kiss him to oblivion. No wonder they did not describe this type of love in the books. It was quite unfathomable and unseemly.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Sidney slept very little, for many reasons. He was applying himself days and nights to growing the Sanditon venture, securing its standing as a great investment, with Stringer’s plans. Given his guilt, Tom had been reluctant but ultimately compliant with letting Sidney take charge of the finances. His role, instead, was to chat it up to London society during the season. Sitting in the study of Bedford place, Sidney massaged his forehead and scratched his beard. He did not have an optimistic nature, and things were looking dire. His main goal, these past few months, had been to keep Eliza at bay as much as was acceptable for her promised, and to make sure her investment was sound and very soon profitable. He knew it had been a transaction between them, but he hoped that by making his side of the transaction the least attractive possible (himself) and by making her side of the transaction as surprisingly profitable as possible, he had a chance to get out. Mary had suggested frequenting Eliza, to supplement the time he was not spending with her, and to give her the sense that she was welcomed into the family. The real plan was getting to know her better, and trying to gather why someone like her, a young attractive and wealthy widow, would want to condemn herself to a loveless marriage, merely to be Mrs. Parker. The plan, as elaborate and risky as it was, with strong chances of failing, was in full swing.

He heard the bell, and he caught his breath. These days, the only repeated visitors were one he dreaded and one he adored, and every ringing of the bell was a reminder of the source of his unhappiness. Which one would it be? He knew as soon as he heard determined footsteps crossing the threshold of his study. Charlotte was hardly allowed to wander inside to see him, so he turned to greet Eliza. “Eliza, how do you do?” She smiled, although he could sense something was not right. “Quite well, Sidney. I wondered if I could interest you in a walk in the park, it is not too cold a day.” He sensed his temper flaring up, and did his best to disguise it. “I have a lot to do today to get the contracts ready for the new buildings,” he attempted, apologetic. “Oh,” he saw the disappointment in her face, quickly replaced with something like malice, “Sidney, should I remind you that this reconstructing business would not even be happening if it were not for my money?” He was shocked that she would be so straight-forward, and felt ashamed but also angry. He exhaled slowly, “Eliza. You had never put it quite so threateningly before.” She looked at him, trying to read his expression. She walked a few steps closer, “Do you remember when we would walk on the Heath in our youth, and we tried to escape our chaperones? That tree we would always meet at?”

Sidney only felt anger now, and did not bother disguising it: “What is your point, Eliza?”. She sat down. “My point is…I want us to go to the tree again. We finally do not have to worry about chaperones. We finally are together, we are about to be married.” Sidney remembered, of course. She had kissed him for the first time under that tree, a quiet oak hidden away in the park. He sat next to her. If this was a moment of honesty with her, he had to take it. “Why did you do it, Eliza?” She looked up, tried to take his hand. “I know, you think me cold and calculating. But I was young, and foolish. I was, I think, flattered that such a man would be willing to give me everything. It was vertiginous. You were just a boy and I was just a girl. Is it not better that we find each other again now, as adults, who have gone out in the world and preferred each other?” He looked straight ahead. Was she creating this story for herself? He did not think it wise to go along with it. It would be cruel, and cruel Sidney was dormant. He answered her: “No, Eliza; it is not better.” He had said the last word like he was insulted. And he was: “In all this time, you have never asked me, have you?” His voice was low. It cost him a lot to admit this to her, the one responsible for his misery, that she had impacted him so, but it was necessary now. She was looking at him, as if dreading what he could say next. “What do you think I did after? After your letter? After your wedding?” She was a bit taken aback. Sidney had learnt these past months that Eliza was extremely careful and articulate, but never entirely frank. He had meant to shock her out of her comfort, and he had succeeded. “I”, she hesitated, “I thought you’d have gone back to school. I thought you would meet someone else soon, although I did not love the idea.” She looked at him. “I heard that you went to Antigua, and I thought it made sense, you always were adventurous.” He swallowed. He said the rest quickly and with determination, as if it would not come out otherwise. “When I received the letter, I did not leave my room for the next week. My heart was torn to pieces. I did not know what future I could have.” She had the decency to look down. “I started to drink heavily with Crowe. I gambled heavily, and played badly. I smoked opium. I lost so much money that I would have been completely ruined. At the age of eighteen. Tom is the one who paid of my debts. I went to Antigua because it was the only place I could go to try to get a new life.” Eliza was looking at him, and for once, she was speechless. She stood up, and he said: “I am sorry, Eliza. I needed you to know.” She nodded. “I will go, now. I will see you at the dinner.” And with that, she was gone. He thought that a good intended would have gone after her, kept talking. A good intended would not have asked for an apology of what had been done a decade ago. He thought of Charlotte’s words. He was trying to make Eliza happy. But happy did not have to be with him.

Eliza heard the door of the house close behind her and walked down the few steps to the pavement. She had dismissed her carriage, thinking she would be going for a walk with Sidney in the park. There was no denying that she was shaken. She crossed the street, and decided to walk in the park anyway, since it was right here. She could feel the emotions rising, and told herself that she loved the parks in London. That she loved how neat and reassuring they were. She tried to soothe herself, but it would not do. For as much as she had wanted to convince herself of the contrary, the Sidney Parker she was now engaged to was not the same as the one she had loved a decade before. She had thought he had hardened with time, because of his voyages; she had thought he was satisfied as a bachelor for now. Instead, she now had to face the fact that the dark, taciturn Sidney she saw more often now was very much a consequence of her own choices. How was it possible to affect another person’s life so? They had been eighteen. She was not sure of anything, least of all about something so ridiculously complicated as marriage. She had thought that wealth was as good a reason as any to get married. She had been advised against love, which was often foolish. Eliza had regretted her choice soon after, although she would not admit to anyone. Once the wedding had passed, her husband had been possessive and brutal. She had thought, when Sidney and her had gotten engaged again this time, that one day she would confide in him about that. But a woman was not allowed to both make a bad choice and complain about it. What could she say now that he had revealed to have suffered so much? She could hardly play the victim now. She imagined young Sidney, his heart broken, reading her letter. Between the lines, she could tell he had been close to not valuing his life anymore. How could she win his love now? She felt so alone, and had been for so long. Sitting in a bench, she started weeping.

He did not know what to do. He had seen her arrive a few benches down his own, the park empty at this hour and at this season. He had seen the panic and the despair moving across her face as she thought she was alone. He came slowly, and handed her his handkerchief softly. “Can I help in any way, miss?” She looked up at him, ashamed. “Oh. No, I am quite well, thank you.” He watched as her mask came back on. “I’ve been told I am a good listener.” She was not smiling. She wiped her face as elegantly as possible with his handkerchief. The silence was awkward. She looked at him. His eyes were soft and filled with concern and… curiosity. How delightful it would be if she could confide in this stranger, as if he were a friend. “I have just learned something that has upset me greatly. I do not usually spend cold mornings crying in public.” He smiled: “I gathered as much. You were entirely unprepared, not a single handkerchief in sight.” He saw her eyes hesitate between the poignant emotion she had just had, and a lighter one. “Yes, I suppose it is quite a woman thing to do.” “Indeed. Us men, we like to cry in private, but never in front of women. We would be unmasked. All of society would fall apart, if you knew.” She laughed, and he liked the sound. “Hush, sir, this is no place for radical thoughts.” Her hands were gripping the bench on each side of her legs. “I thank you, sir, for your solicitude. I am much obliged.” He smiled, and stood up. “Good day, miss.” She looked at him leave. His figure was imposing, now that she could look at it properly. His legs were long but muscular, and he had the type of shape that London men did not have. She stood up, and left the other way.

He had pretended not to know her, while she visibly did not know him. What would he do now, next time he saw her, for certainly he would? He had called her “Miss”, when he knew full well she was a “Mrs.”. He knew she was engaged to Mr. Parker. Stringer was intrigued. There had been so much more than a passing sadness in her expression. It was more like a trauma. As a person still in mourning, he could feel it.

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That evening, there was to be a dinner at Bedford place, hosted by Mary in honor of Georgiana’s birthday. Charlotte and Lady Worcester were invited, Eliza of course, and Mr. Stringer, who had taken on such an important role in the reconstruction that he was always in and out of the house, so much so that it seemed natural to invite him. The architect that Mr. Stringer was learning with was a gentleman who had fallen in love with the trade. Quite taken with his apprentice, he brought him to the occasional parties and dinners, so much so that Mr. Stringer was now very much the up-and-coming deserving provincial young man that several people in the London society talked about.

Georgiana found him in the study, as usual. “You ought to get ready. Do you even sleep at night, at this rhythm?” He looked up from a pile of papers. “I thank you for your concern, Georgiana, if that was indeed what this was.” She came closer, “Are you nervous, Sidney? To have them both in the same room?” He swallowed and attempted to look less somber than he felt. “I cannot deny it. I…” he hesitated. In the event that the marriage could not be avoided, and that Georgiana would live with them, he did not want her to dislike Eliza. She was prone to forming intense dislikes regardless, without his help. He continued: “Eliza’s remarks have not been generous with Charlotte, last summer. I wonder whether she will act differently, now that” “Now that she got you.” “Aye.” Georgiana put her hand on his shoulder. “Do not worry yourself too much. I thought you had noticed, but Charlotte is perfectly capable of holding herself up in a fight.” He smiled sadly. “Now go put on your best waist coat.” Sidney, truly, was concerned about seeing Eliza so soon after their conversation. It had not ended well, and he did not know where they stood. He hoped to have unsettled her, for she deserved it. What’s more, he hoped he had unsettled them.

In the carriage that brought them to Bedford place, Charlotte was pensive. She had been truly enjoying her time with Susan. London was a much different place than she had first perceived. Susan introduced her to new people every day, and it was another adventure, although much less wild, and much more bittersweet than Sanditon had ever been. Susan had of course asked what had happened, and quickly understood the engagement for what it was. Her opinion was that the fight went on. Susan was not one to be discouraged by such details as commitments, especially not when hearts were already spoken for, as she was convinced Mr. Parker’s to be. Charlotte, on the other hand, while she had gained a depth of complexity that her earlier life had not required, found that she struggled with her options. The more she saw Sidney, the more difficult it was to keep to herself, to not seek to be alone with him, to not touch him. Something had been sparked, that no gentleman Susan ceaselessly introduced—for Susan was a practical woman, and planned for all circumstances—could deem. A few had been charming, witty, handsome even. If she were to consider this time as an excuse to look for a husband, she would be dizzy with the choices; Susan, indeed, only seemed to put in her way gentlemen who would not look down on marrying a country side lady of no importance. Every time she saw Sidney, she recalled the way his lips had grazed her on the clifftop, and something in her belly twisted and pooled further down. She was afraid, truly, of what could happen if they ever were to find each other alone together once more. “Now, Charlotte”, Susan said, bringing her out of her musings, “I know this must be terrible for you, having to politely interact with this woman. You must be strong, as I know you can be. The situation is…somber, undeniably, but you must not lose hope. Whatever she does, do not let her see that you are affected.” Charlotte smiled as Susan took her hands. “I do not know what I did to deserve such a dear friend, Susan. I feel so revived compared to last month. I do not think I will be as sensitive as I was the day of the regatta. Besides, she has won, I do not see how she could still want to demean me for her pleasure.” “I’m afraid, dear Charlotte, that Mrs. Campion is far from assured that his affections are hers. As long as that is the case, I expect she will be on edge.” Charlotte nodded. “I am also nervous to see Tom. I have not seen him since I have been here. I cannot help but hold him responsible for this, and I do not know that I have it in me to behave as I did before everything.”

Mrs. Campion was the first one to arrive, and they were all seated in the drawing room when the butler announced Mr. Stringer. Mary took it upon herself to make the presentations. “Mrs. Campion, this is the architect of the Sanditon development, James Stringer. He is currently in London for his apprenticeship.” He bowed to her, and Mrs. Campion hid her slight shock by an honest smile, “And this, Mr. Stringer, is Mrs. Campion, who will soon marry Mr. Parker. Will you excuse me, I have to check on the children before Charlotte and Lady Worcester arrive.” Tom and Sidney were in a deep, heated conversation, no doubt about Sanditon and the former’s lack of role in the new venture. Eliza looked at Sidney, who looked aggravated and very near furious. He was a very different man from the man she had fallen in love with at the age of sixteen. She wondered what part life had played in this, and what part she had to claim guilt for. “Are you feeling better, Mrs. Campion?” She heard Mr. Stringer’s soft voice, a study in contrast, and realized he was still close to her. “Thank you”, she said, “so, Mr. Stringer, have you always wanted to be an architect?”

Sidney felt more than he saw Charlotte entering the room. It was something in the air, a release of pain and tension, of desire. He thought he would be alert to her presence even in a crowded ballroom. He had touched her, kissed her, breathed in her scent; it felt like so long ago but also so near, and he ached for her. He looked briefly at her, and they acknowledge each other’s presence, each other’s pain. Lady Worcester came to salute him, and Charlotte went to Mary and Georgiana, who sat on the settee. “Mr. Parker. A pleasure to see you again in more intimate circumstances. We were not properly introduced before.” He smiled pleasantly. “No, we were not. My apologies, Lady Worcester. May I offer you a glass of wine?” She nodded, and looked around, insuring that nobody would hear what followed. “I understand you are now in charge of the Sanditon venture’s finances, Mr. Parker. I will not pretend to have an interest in the town itself, but I do have an interest in seeing the project succeed. Do you still accept investors?” Sidney looked at Charlotte, and back at Lady Worcester. “I assume I have a certain lady to thank for your interest in the project. Is there anything she cannot do?” Lady Worcester searched his eyes, and took the wine he was handing her. “Not in this case, or at least not directly. Mr. Parker, forgive me for speaking bluntly, but if I can help prevent more unhappiness in any way, I will.” Charlotte made wonderful friends, it seemed. It only made him hate himself even more for making her suffer. He looked down. “Do you think she could ever forgive me for breaking her heart?”, he swallowed painfully, the question that haunted him finally having made it into the open. Lady Worcester touched his arm, “Mr. Parker, from what I can observe, you are being as harsh on yourself as I intended to be, and you do not need my admonishment. You find yourself in an intricate situation. But as far as the lady is concerned, I am sure you have reasons to be hopeful. A woman like her does not just give up altogether.”

Dinner could have been a disastrously quiet affair, with a couple heavy with guilt, two broken hearts, and a couple still reeling from what had not really been a quarrel, but had the same effect. Thankfully, the good-natured Mr. Stringer, and Arthur, Diana, and Georgiana seemed in perfect humor, and chatted animatedly about the wonders of London. “And what are your plans for Sanditon, Mr. Parker?” Lady Worcester had addressed Sidney, no doubt willing to upset Tom in the process. Sidney looked at Tom. He had not accepted this engagement to save him from prison and yet cut him out of his life completely. But Tom decided to take it upon himself to answer: “The construction is still underway, Lady Worcester. It will be rebuilt and, thanks to new investments,” he smiled at Eliza, “even grander than before. We expect next season to be a success for our investors.” Sidney cut in: “I handle the financial aspect, and Mr. Stringer here has been given the status of principal architect. We rely on Tom for accomplishing the publicity and making sure that the buildings will be lent and occupied. As you can see, it is a team affair.” Eliza turned to Mr. Stringer: “And what expansions have you planned, Mr. Stringer?” Georgiana was seated next to Charlotte, opposite Sidney, and he saw more than he heard them chatting. He was seated next to Eliza, but they had so far avoided talking to each other. On his left was Lady Worcester, who asked him: “Mr. Parker, may I ask what you think should be done in order to make Sanditon the success that your brother is convinced it will be?” He half-choked on his soup. He liked Lady Worcester more and more, but she did not take much care with her thoughts. “I have been giving it a lot of thought. I believe we cannot approach this as if we were trying to build a second Brighton. Sanditon is a quaint, small town, and that must remain a part of what we are designing.” Charlotte was looking at him, smiling. “Do you agree, Charlotte?” Lady Worcester asked. “Very much so.” But her eyes told him she had more to add, and he could not help asking: “Could we be blessed with your opinions, Miss Heywood?” A lull in the other conversations put Charlotte’s answer under more pressure than it had been. Yet Charlotte, a guest of someone else now, after a few weeks of London, did not feel as obliged as she had before to not criticize Tom’s ideas. He admired her composure as she started to speak. “It is undeniable that Mr. Crowe and Lord Babington, in their visits, found little to occupy themselves with, and were quite at a loss to do anything else than sit at the Crowne hotel. If we…that is, if you want to keep attracting London clientele, which I’m not sure should be the focus, then they have to be offered something different than what they are given in London. Not less entertainment, but a different kind of entertainment. A few balls will never be enough to entertain the society I have come to know these past few weeks.” There was some silence, as she looked to other faces for support. She let her eyes find reassurance in Lady Worcester and Georgiana, and dared not look at Sidney. “In fact, following Tom’s idea in bringing Dr. Fuchs, it is my humble opinion that our model should be Bath, not Brighton. A more cultural idea of entertainment, but without omitting the quaint aspects that make Sanditon so pleasant. The town people should not be excluded from most of the life of the tenants. Our best successes have been the events in which town folks and gentlemen were in friendly competition.”
Tom was dumbfounded, and Sidney felt his desire for her rise in the now so familiar manner. If Eliza had not been here, he thought he would have clapped. If she had not existed, he thought he would have asked Charlotte to marry him on the spot. Georgiana chimed in, for she cared little about upsetting Tom Parker. “What kind of entertainment are you thinking about, Charlotte?” She was a bit self-conscious now, aware of all eyes turned towards her. Her hair was up, her cheeks rosy, and her dress was more elaborate than the ones he had seen her wear before. “I was thinking about concerts. And would it not be wonderful to hire a theater company, for now, with the hope of later building a proper theater?” “Wonderful indeed!”, Arthur exclaimed. She dared to look at Sidney now. It was defiant, but also hopeful. He understood that she acknowledged he may not agree, but that she hoped he did. There was no air of fearing his reactions. Sadly, he realized this was because his reactions had no power over her anymore. He had abused the privilege of her regard. He schooled his expression, afraid to reveal too much. He heard Eliza start speaking, her voice barely disguising sarcasm: “Upon my word, Miss Heywood, where did you learn your ideas about business? I suppose not in the fields around your little village…” Charlotte looked at her, not registering any emotion. “In all honesty, one would think you had a sizeable investment in the venture, given how you speak of it.” Mr. Stringer turned his face towards her and she read confusion in his features, as if he expected better from her. As if he was disappointed. Eliza suddenly felt weary of herself. She turned to Sidney, whose expression was, as usual, unreadable. “What do you think, Sidney?”, she asked. “As a friend of the family, Miss Heywood is entitled to her opinions, and to expressing them in the present company, is she not?” He was almost growling, his voice grave and low. “Besides, we can take all the help we can get. Do we not all want to see Sanditon succeed?” Mary took the opportunity to seamlessly change the topic of conversation, asking Lady Worcester whether she had any trips planned for the spring or the summer.

When guests were taking their leave, Tom bowed to Charlotte and asked whether she would come by the next day to discuss plans for Sanditon. She was surprised, but agreed. Sidney bowed and turned back to Eliza. “Will you visit me tomorrow, Sidney? There is much to discuss.” “Ah, yes. The wedding preparations.” “I wish to discuss other things as well. I will be at home in the morning.” She turned to Mr. Stringer: “Would you like my carriage to bring you closer to your destination, Mr. Stringer? You could tell me more about the plans for Sanditon. I wish to be more involved.” He thanked her, and followed her outside, after bowing to the others. Lady Worcester was inviting Tom and Mary to a ball at her house the next week, and Georgiana took the opportunity to let Charlotte and Sidney speak, albeit briefly, so she went back in the drawing room. Sidney came a bit closer, he could not help it. He looked at her, and she looked up at him. “Are you angry at me?” she asked, plainly. He breathed deeply. “Why would you think that?” “I have antagonized Mrs. Campion against my will. It is not my wish to…make things more difficult for you.” His cynical mind told him that in a way it was good that he would never be her husband because he would never deserve her. “It is my wish that you should be free to speak your ideas. It is my deeper wish to be privileged enough to hear them, regardless of how angry they may or may not make me. You know that.” She searched his eyes, her own tearful. “But you looked at me in anger.” It was torture. He wished he could just silence her, make her understand that what she understood as anger was something much different. Something shifted in her eyes and she seemed to have understood already. There was unabashed heat in her gaze, and wonder. Will we never hold each other like this? She seemed to ask. He had known, deep down, that he still held her heart as she held his. But to have such blatant proof of her desire was too much for him to bear. He was sure his eyes reflected the same heat, because she seemed a second away from pushing him against the wall, and he was certain he would not resist. But there was movement in the hallway, and soon, they were gone, and all he could do was go up to his room in defeat.

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After giving her the direction of his lodgings, Mr. Stringer helped Eliza to get inside the carriage, and went in after her. “Thank you, Mrs. Campion.” He did not add anything else. Was he upset with her? And if he was, why did it matter? It made her nervous and jittery to wonder too much. “So, Mr. Stringer, what new plans are you designing for Sanditon?” He looked at her. And he spoke of the new townhomes, of the seafront promenade. She was smiling, inviting him to talk more. He did not, letting the silence settle as the carriage made its way through the streets of London. “Forgive me, but you look weary. Is there anything I can help you with?” She looked at his earnest expression, his soft eyes. He truly was a very handsome man, and she felt drawn to him. He felt familiar and yet they were strangers. “It was not a good day.” “Oh. I know that sometimes Mr. Parker can be… taciturn. I’m sure he does not mean to be.” There it was. Strangers, and yet he knew what had upset her that morning. “I am wary of everything always being about Sidney.” Mr. Stringer chuckled. “But he does mean to be that way. And I am, I’m afraid, quite to be blamed for it.” He was aware of how precious this was, her confiding in him when they had merely shared a few minutes of sadness on a park bench the same morning. “How could you be blamed for his temper?” “Ah. You have been a witness to his temper, I see. He was not always like this. In fact, he was quite the opposite. And then I broke his heart.” Mr. Stringer’s face registered surprise, but he said nothing. “I did not know you were sweethearts.” “He was a much different man. And I was very different too.” “You married someone else. Why?” She bowed her head. He spoke again “I apologize. I do not mean to pry.” “He was a very wealthy man, older. He was quite dazzling, and I found myself having to choose between a young, naïve, uncertain love, and a life of luxury. I had grown up with a gambling father, we were always on the verge of poverty. I am not ashamed to admit it. Wealth was very important to me back then. I hope that it is not so much now. I gave away a sizeable piece of my inheritance to the Sanditon venture, and I did not think of it twice.” “Was Mr. Parker not wealthy back then?” “He was set to inherit a good sum. But he was not as wealthy as he is now. It would have been a more modest life.” Mr. Stringer nodded. He tried to understand. “What you said earlier, to Miss Heywood. Do you know that you were cruel, or do you do it without intent?” Her breath caught a little at his change of topic. She would not tell him everything, how she had caught Sidney’s looks. His smiles, the ones he did not give to her. “I… she unsettles me and I do not like it. It is not the first time I tease her. I’m a bit ashamed. Perhaps I envy the fact that she has not yet made a mistake. That she has not had years to regret her decision, as I have.” “I am sorry that you feel that way. It must be a lonely road.” His compassion was freely offered, like a soothing balm. And he did not even know how truly wretched her marriage had been. The carriage came to a halt. “I thank you, Mr. Stringer, for your company. I will see you soon, I hope.” “Much obliged, Mrs. Campion.” He took her hand. “I hope that you will find some peace. Nobody should go into a marriage with this much uncertainty and resentment hanging in between. I do not know much. But I know that.”


The next morning, Charlotte arrived at Bedford place nervous about having to face Tom. Since this was Sanditon business, Sidney would perhaps also be present, another reason to be nervous. He had said he wanted to hear her opinions, but he had not said whether he had liked them. The fact that she ran into Sidney on his way out clearly indicated that he would not attend. “Good morning, Mr. Parker”, she said just before he noticed her. She saw the surprise and the disappointment register on his face, but giving way immediately to one of his deep smiles. “Good morning, Miss Heywood. Ah. You came for your meeting with Tom. Forgive me for missing it, I was…previously engaged.” He trailed off, looking at her hair. It was down, this time. He wanted to pass his fingers through it. “I am nervous. I am not sure why Tom would want to see me.” Sidney realized then the source of her worry. The words felt familiar, but he needed to repeat them. “Do not doubt yourself. Your ideas were bright and worthy of discussion, that is all. I happen to agree.” She was paralyzed, not wanting to enter, not wanting to end this briefest of conversation. “I thank you, Mr. Parker.” Surely such a polite utterance should not have sounded so intimate and full of affection. But it was always like this with them, was it not? He nodded, unable to say more. “Good day, Miss Heywood.” He looked down, and whispered. “It was lovely to see you.”

He went directly to the Campion house. They had not talked of establishing themselves someplace else after their wedding; Eliza seemed comfortable here, and Sidney had no particular feelings about either moving there or to another house. If it was not a house with Charlotte, it would not be a real home anyway. He thought back to his last real conversation with Eliza, the day before. They had not exchanged much at dinner, but they had not parted on good terms that morning, and she would expect to finish that conversation. He was wary of trying, wary of seeing her persist. Perhaps she thought he could love her. But if she asked him straight-forwardly, he would not lie. He could commit to the marriage. But lying, he would not do. It was likely that he looked apprehensive as he entered her drawing room, but he found her looking quite the same. “Good morning, Sidney. Will you take a seat?” She was nervous, and he came to kiss her hand. Occasionally, he would see a trace of the young Eliza, a temperamental thing, a glimpse, and he would remember exactly what it had felt to be in love with her. There was a silence after he sat. He did not know whether to start, or to wait for her to speak. “I had not realized, Sidney, the depth of your resentment towards me. It is a difficult lesson to learn. I confess, I do not know how to move forward.” She seemed wary, and grey. “You must have thought me very superficial indeed to disregard it completely.” She was now speaking without expecting an answer, he could tell. But he gave one anyway: “That is not untrue. But I do not want to resent you. How will this work otherwise?” She bowed her head, “I do not know. I had hoped you could grow to love me again.” Sidney had told himself he would not lie. He owed it to her to try loving her if they were to get married. Instead, he asked: “Do you love me, Eliza?”

He feared her answer. “I think I do.” “Then tell me why. What is it that you love?” He did not say: we barely know each other. The older versions of who we are. She seemed bothered by the question. “I… It is only that, I cannot remember ever not loving you.” He repressed the anger he still felt, his immediate reaction would have been to challenge whether she had loved him when she had married her husband. “If you love me, you should be able to tell me why.” She was pensive, briefly exasperated. “And it cannot be simply because you like to parade me around, because I look good, or because you feel jealous if I talk to other women. Tell me why you love me.” He had said it all a bit too intensely, which, given his current state of mind, may have come out sounding too angry. “You think I parade you around?” “I don’t think. I know you do. I just don't know why. Otherwise, why ask me questions and answer them before I can?” Why marry me when we both know where my heart lies. She spoke then, with a voice more emotional than before. “I do not want to be alone. I want what I robbed myself off ten years ago.” That was as much of a confession as he ever had heard from her. He took her hand. “Eliza. If you truly love me, then you will not be alone, and you will have me. I committed to you. But I urge you to ask yourself why you want that with me, and not with another man. You are young. You are beautiful. You could have someone that would love you unconditionally.” She was listening to him, drinking every word. When she spoke, it was in a tone free of anger. “You love her.” He did not answer. It was not a question. He came closer to her, deciding on taking another risk. He was not going to get them out of this situation by staying still. She looked defeated, unsure. “Look at me, Eliza.” She did. He kissed her. Thanks to the conventions of society, he had managed to avoid this type of intimacy until now, merely kissing her on the cheek or hand most of the time. He put all the passion he did not have for her, all the pent-up rage, the sadness, the resentment even, in the kiss. He could tell she was shocked, but she was kissing back. They bumped nose, teeth. It felt wrong. He hoped it felt wrong for her too. He stopped. She looked more confused, and almost scared. “I can kiss you, and I can be your husband. But if this did not feel as good as you thought it would, you should question whether you indeed love me, and want to marry me. We only get one life, Eliza, and this is already your second marriage. Ask yourself if this is the best you can do. I doubt that it is.”

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The house was strangely empty when he came back. He could hear Mary in the schoolroom with the children upstairs. He locked the door of the study and went to open the mail received that morning. When he heard a knock, he thought it may be Tom, and gruffly told him to come in. He knew instantly, as the door opened, that it was not. It was simply not the way Tom opened doors. He turned, and it was Charlotte, her expression unreadable. “Miss Heywood. Please come in, I thought it was Tom. Pray tell, how did your meeting go?” She closed the door, and something in the air changed instantly. She looked shy, unsure, and yet her movement to close the door had been a quick, decisive one. She walked closer, hovering near the settee. “I think that he liked the ideas… He said he would give it some thought, but that he at least would consider how to better assess the potential Sanditon recruits. He…also wanted to apologize.” Sidney searched her eyes, but he already knew what his apology had been. “I know”, she added, I was surprised too. I thought Tom was more oblivious. Mary must have talked to him. It was not a comfortable conversation.”
“I can imagine.” He looked around. “I had a similar conversation with him.”
“Oh. You did.”
There was a silence, but it was not awkward. Rather, it was a contented peace for both of them. They were standing, several feet from each other, and yet it felt like comfort. Perhaps it was his open conversation with Eliza earlier, but Sidney wanted to speak plainly.
“I would understand if you were angry with me, Charlotte.” The way he said her name was almost painful, like an open wound, and it felt to her like a soothing balm.
“I am angry.”
“Good. You should be. I would be surprised if you were not.
She stepped closer, and he could not help mirroring her.
“Why did you not ask me before? I cannot help but resent you for that. If only you had spoken, we would have been engaged before the fire ever happened…It would be that word you would not have been able to go back upon.”
He scratched his face, like his skin was too tight for him. “Believe me. It haunts me every single day.”
Her face embodied her anger now. He could see the emotion settling in, could tell that she found comfort in that at least, the banality of being angry at him. There were no tears in her eyes. Her lips were slightly open, like there was more she wanted to say. Like he should not get closer or he would get hurt. He let this truth settle between them. The admission that she would have said yes. The shadow of another life that had been within their reach. He stepped closer, craving her smell if he could not have her touch.
“Shall I tell you all the times I have wanted to disappear with you since then?”
He thought that perhaps she would get angrier. He had liked her when she was angry before. He had loved her for daring to yell at him, for calling his bluff, shedding off his mask. Now, he felt desperate to have her smile.
“Where would we go?” He looked at her, and could tell in her eyes that she was asking him to imagine what could be. If they were selfish, bad persons, without responsibilities or reputation to worry about.
His voice went low. “To Scotland. And then to Bordeaux. I’ve imagined it many times. We would be so happy.”
The air between them was electric. She closed the space between them, and spoke while looking at his lips. “I am exhausted. From being good, acting proper. What did it get me so far? You said I knew nothing about love, and you were right.” She looked at him then. “I fear that I will never know many things about love, for I do not want them with anybody else. I know. You will say I am naïve.”
“I will not lecture you. I am sorry that you feel that way. It is not what I wanted for you.”
“Nor I. Promise me it will fade. That it will hurt less.”
“I cannot promise. I am as ignorant as you are. Perhaps if we did not see each other anymore.” She could tell from his whole expression that it was the last thing he wanted.
“I do not want that. I wanted to be yours. I wanted to feel what it was like. I…” she looked down. “I feel like you opened up a world for me, a beautiful one, and I got locked out of it immediately. I am not a pessimistic person. I enjoy life. But I don’t recognize myself anymore.”
He was in physical pain. He wanted to gather up in his arms and comfort her. But he looked at her and her eyes were different. There was a darkness and a resolve in them. She took his hand, tentative, and walked them both so they were directly behind the door, just so that if someone opened it, they would not see them immediately. Sidney let himself be led, his back against the wall, and it was like a dream he could not deny himself. She put her hand up to his cheek and he leaned into it, her fingers burning his skin. “I am sorry, Sidney.” His name on her lips felt like a dare, and like a white flag. Once she had said this, she stood on her toes and kissed him. He tried to keep it soft and slow. So slow that it was as if he wanted there to be a record of the fact that he tried. But she was pushing herself against him, her breast flattening against his chest, her arms around his neck, and he was helpless. He wrapped his arms around her waist and let her open his mouth, and it was delicious. They were breathless, sharing gasps, and her hands were exploring his chest, and then his back. He slipped his tongue in her mouth, biting her lips softly as she gasped and immediately did the same. He did not think he had ever been this hard for someone, not even her. She was all fire and he forgot even the risk of being caught, the guilt, the despair. There was elation in their kisses. He moved his hands up to her breasts and did not even ask before caressing them ever so slightly. There was a shared sense that this was their only, last moment, as well as the first of its kind, and they were grasping at everything, memorizing every second, every shiver. She gasped into his mouth when he touched her breasts. Her own hands found their way to his bum and she grasped it, forcing him into her. She stopped kissing him when she felt him hard against her core, and they were both breathing loud and fast, their foreheads against one another. “Will this ever feel like this with someone else?” She was not looking at him, not releasing the pressure of his erection into her core. But her voice was really asking. He did not recognize his own voice when he answered. “No. Not like this", He kissed her roughly ."This is just us.” And it felt as though he had woken her up from a dream. She looked a bit bewildered, but she held on to him, kissing him more softly now. She undulated a few times against him, as if to try it out, as he groaned into her mouth. “I understand”, she said, after a while. She slowly unhooked herself from his embrace and took a step back, as if dizzy. She was still breathing hard. As for him, he was not even sure he was still breathing. “Charlotte…” he started.
“I will leave now…” She started to open the door, and looked back at him, both sad and angry, again. “There is nothing more to say, is there?”
“I love you.”

Chapter Text

Once Sidney had gone, Eliza had released a heavy breath that she had been holding. Truly, she felt as though instead of kissing her, he had slapped her. Her whole body felt numb, and she was desperate for a walk. Eliza liked London. Her and Mr. Campion had lived mostly in York park, where she had been isolated, and since his death, she had chosen to reside in London because she had craved its society, streets, business. Eliza did not do well in the quiet, and today was certainly worse than ever. She craved the anonymity of walking among people in the streets, nobody wondering where you were going, or who you were. Simply people walking from one place to the next, minding their business. She put on her pelisse, a hat, and she set out. She could not deny that what Sidney had done, had asked, had challenged her. Indeed, she had not felt anything apart from an unwelcome sensation of strange lips kissing hers. Eliza had been kissed plenty of times, by him a few, a decade ago, and then by Mr. Campion. But his seductive ways had led to a sour relationship. When the time had come to consummate the marriage, everything had gone too fast, too rough. Eliza did not know whether that was the norm, but she did not enjoy marital relationships. In fact, when her husband had started to realize that she dreaded them, he had started to force himself upon her. She had not fought him – had thought it was normal for a husband to claim his right in that sense, regardless of her feelings. Yet, somewhere deep down, she knew it had not been normal. That it had been violence and that she bore the trauma of it somehow. She walked aimlessly, turning left once, right the next, too lost in her thoughts to pay too much attention. She asked herself what she had sought when she had seen Sidney again. Did she think that could be different with him? Not really. If anything, she could tell his temper was perhaps as brutal as Mr. Campion’s had been. But she had not wanted to remain alone. Anything but that. And she had loved him, held him in high esteem since she had let him go. He was the one that got away, except she had been the one casting him off. She had remembered how strong his feelings had been, and it was gratifying for her. She laughed, darkly, at the irony. She had pursued Sidney in Sanditon because she thought he was her one chance at not being married simply for her fortune. He had loved her then, so he was worthy of her now. Now that she really thought about it, she was terrified at the idea that marrying him would mean having to share his bed sometimes. She turned another corner. The mere thought filled her with dread. Truly, she could have picked someone less daunting and difficult than the new Sidney. She was not sure whether this was her trying to get another chance at life, a real life, complete with a fulfilling marriage, or if she was merely trying to not be alone.

Before today, she had wanted to kiss him, to be kissed by him. The innocence of that act meant it was not ruined for her yet, and she had waited for the moment where, either engaged or married, they would kiss. Now, she was disappointed. She thought of the last thing he had said, asking her whether this was the best she could do. She had been convinced that it was: a handsome man who had loved her, whom she knew to be educated and kind, who had known her before she was wealthy. She had been focused in making him love her, in assessing whether he truly loved Miss Heywood as she suspected, and how irremediable that was. But she had not stopped to consider that she might not love him. She found herself in a park, and sat on a bench overlooking a pond. How could she feel so lonely when she was surrounded by friends most of the time? “Good day to you, Mrs. Campion”, she heard. She turned, and it was Mr. Stringer, standing over her. She smiled: “Is London such a small town, Mr. Stringer?” He gestured at the bench, wordlessly asking her permission to sit down, which she granted with a nod. “Well, it is after all my place of work right around the corner, and I’m taking my break outside to eat, given the good weather.” She realized all of sudden where her walk had taken her, and remembered the address he had given the other day. “So, what are you doing here, then?” She liked how direct he was, not bothering with useless rhetorical niceties. “I took a walk, and ended up here. I must have been lost in my thoughts.”
“I thought you looked preoccupied. I would not have disturbed you, but I was so glad to see a familiar face I just had to salute you.” He smiled warmly.
“You did well. But I would not want to disturb your lunch. You will be on the clock, surely.”
“Aye. Perhaps I could eat, and you could talk, so I don’t feel too self-conscious about being the only one to eat.” He unwrapped a few slices of bread and cheese. He sounded teasing, but she was in the mood to talk, and he was quite easy to talk to.
“I have been thinking about…that is…I am trying to understand what one should look for in a marriage.” She looked at him, he was munching as he looked at the pond, allowing her to elaborate on her thought. “I did not have a good first marriage. So when Sidney asked me whether that truly was the best I could do, I thought I owed it to him, and to myself, to reflect upon it.”
He looked at her, and his eyes were surprised but there was also something else. “I am really sorry to hear about your first marriage.” He paused and toyed with a piece of cheese. “Where I come from, marriages are often mainly about affection, you see, there is little money involved.” He hesitated, so she said: “You can speak freely, Mr. Stringer. We are amongst friends, are we not. I have revealed my deepest trouble, you have to tell me something.”
“I do not know much about love, Mrs. Campion. I’ll not do you the dishonesty of pretending. I thought myself in love once. Sometimes, when I think back to it, I wonder whether one can fall in love from only a few conversations and some good looks. There has to be something more. A real… connection. I think I have seen it. And one cannot argue with that. Our goal should be to look for that.”
She was looking at the way his knees showed under the fabric of his trousers. He had long limbs, but was not lanky. She realized then that she was staring, blushed, and looked at the pond. For what she was going to say, she could not look at him: “I am scared of what I would do if…”
“If what?”
“If I broke my engagement with Sidney.”
He almost choked on his bread and cheese. “I know, it is a shocking thing to consider. I would not think of it, if I had the slightest sense that he loved me. Then I would never do that to him again.”
Stringer felt strangely restless. “Has Mr. Parker led you to think he did not want to marry you?” It was one thing that he loved Charlotte, but it was quite another to hurt a woman who had given away a sizeable portion of her fortune before you were ever married. “Forgive me. I should not have asked.”
“Not at all. He is honoring the engagement. He assured me that if that is what I want, he will be my husband.”
“Good. So what do you want?” He had not meant the words to sound so intimate.
“I do not know. It is strange. I never thought of myself as free to choose, really.”
“I’m sure you do not have to decide anything now. There is time.”
“Yes, Mr. Stringer. There is time.”
They sat back for a while, enjoying the silence. How strange, she thought, that he was so easy to talk to, when she had not told – and was not planning on telling – any of her friends about this.
“I thank you… these conversations, they mean a lot to me.”
He smiled and his whole face became sunny, she felt like he was cracking her open. “You are quite welcome, Mrs. Campion. It is as though we are trying to find a way to exist, and it is harder than we originally thought to find happiness, is it not?”
“That is so well put. Do you believe one can find happiness, Mr. Stringer? After mourning like we have, after dreadful experiences?”
He let his hand rest on the bench, almost touching hers, because he felt like it. “I believe one finds happiness in love and friendship, Mrs. Campion. It is, I find, much easier to meet…” he hesitated “like-minded people who make you want to pursue happiness. After all, you and I met, and that was unlikely to lead to such conversations.”
She looked at him, and smiled a soft, delicate smile. “Yes. I will see you at the ball, Mr. Stringer.”

And with that, she was gone. What a fascinating woman. James remembered sharply what he had said to Charlotte the last time he had seen her in Sanditon. He had seen Mrs. Campion, then, only a handful of seconds, and judged her harshly without knowing her. “She’s not half the woman you are,” he had said. He was ashamed of it now. On what basis had he made that statement? She was beautiful, so was Charlotte. She was wealthy, which gave Charlotte an advantage, for Mr. Stringer was concerned about his social class and wary of the rich. Other than that, though, he had assessed her from nothing and made a poor judgment. Stringer was honest and kind, and he resented having to look at her and admit what he had said. She was different from what he expected. Clearly, her marriage had been more painful than was appropriate to mention. She looked like a young woman grown too fast, her beauty not faded but dimmed by a cloud of worry. Stringer thought about Charlotte, the sharpness of her rejection, the strength of his feelings. She had been the first woman to hold his attention in a more special way. But she had been distracted, most of the time, always, he suspected, already in the middle of something with Mr. Parker. Eliza Campion was untouchable, and yet she was always attentive, always fully present in their conversations. Had she perhaps sought him out today? He did not dare hope. He had been stung before by his hopes, and had resolved to not imagine feelings that were not there. Once a woman, a worthy woman, would want him, she would manifest herself.

Chapter Text

Lady Worcester’s ball was in a few hours. He was nursing a scotch in the drawing room, on his own. It had been a few days now since their last talk, and Eliza had been avoiding him, as much as he avoided her. Charlotte also avoided Bedford place, although he was aware of her going to the dressmaker with Georgiana and to have tea with Mary. The mere thought of their last encounter threw him in multi-faceted torments, not the least of which was constantly reprimanding himself for not having resisted firmly. He knew of such things, she did not. He had more experience in the power of such feelings, and therefore felt guilty for not having restrained himself better. He thought with bitterness that all his deepest convictions about Charlotte, how she would be, how she was, had only been confirmed. She was passionate in a way that no other woman had ever seemed to him. He was amazed that he had not tried more, so lost had he been in his senses, her hands, her waist, her breasts, her lips. He had reveled in her experimental dominance, speechless and powerless. He had been right, that night on the balcony, to think himself completely in her power. If she had wanted him to take her right then, he most likely would have, for he was utterly out of his mind. But the wedding was only getting closer, and Eliza had showed no sign of changing her mind. The further away his dreams of a life with Charlotte were getting, the wilder his fantasies became. He would dream of making her his mistress, he would dream that she appeared naked in his bed, he would dream that the whole charade of Sanditon and Eliza was a nightmare. He could get no rest and felt wretched. But he needed to prepare mentally for the night. He would see them both. And he could not behave with any of them in the way he truly wanted to.

Charlotte was ever so grateful for Susan’s kindness and friendship. There was a lot unsaid, but over the weeks, Susan had been more and more forward about her worst-kept-secret relationship with the Prince Regent. From their conversations, now less one-sided than they had been at the beginning, Charlotte had gathered that her own sense of morality was shifting, and that there were many grey areas in matters of love. Coming back to Susan’s house after the encounter with Sidney, she had been shaking and confused, and they had proceeded to talk about desire, passion, and the many judgments that came with it; Susan was of the opinion that women were deprived of very much, already, without adding onto it the pleasures of the bedroom. Charlotte had blushed, but not as much as she first had when discussing love with the very same lady when they were but strangers. Months had passed. Much had happened. It was not the same river, and Charlotte was not the same woman. She felt no shame at her actions, apart from the risk of being caught. She only felt a deep sadness. Her philosophically-inclined mind wondered, as she was putting on her gown, what this new understanding of life meant for how she wanted to lead hers. She could, if she decided, never get married. She did not see the point of sharing a life if it was not going to be the bond she and Sidney had. She smiled at herself in the mirror, in her newfound maturity and cynicism, she still found ways to be naïve. It was not a sacrifice, she simply remained uninterested in marriage if there was no love or affection. Except now, her knowledge of true love and affection rendered the whole thing preposterous. What she did not know is what she would do when there would be no chances of seeing Sidney, albeit in public and surrounded by people, any longer.

Sidney arrived at the ball with Mary, Tom and Georgiana, and, nervous and in a foul mood, he immediately downed a glass of port. Eliza had received her own invitation from Lady Worcester, and would be arriving with her friends. He searched the crowd for a head of black curls, an elegant neck, a beauty spot. If only he knew at least the color of her dress. Tom and Mary went for a dance; they seemed happier today than the past few weeks. As Tom had been forced out of the main share of Sanditon business, and obliged to share with others, he had more time for his family. Sidney was happy for Mary, whom he knew had suffered greatly at her choice of a husband. “I cannot find her either, you know,” Georgiana said. He procured two glasses from a waiter, and handed one to her. She insisted: “She does live here these days, she cannot be far.” That is when they both saw her. She was already dancing, but her dress was most unusual, a pale green silk that was enhanced with a gauze embroidered with tiny pink and gold designs of flowers and leaves. Her hair was put up in a new way, and hung low in her neck in a tight bundle of plaits that had been adorned with tiny drops of pearls. Her dancing partner was a young gentleman whom Sidney did not know, but who was in many ways more traditionally handsome and elegant than he was. “You could close your mouth, you know. She might see.” Sidney finished his drink, and groaned “Yes, well, she is not looking at us, is she?” “I did not mean Charlotte.” Sidney’s eyes darted to the door and he saw Eliza chatting pleasantly with Lady Worcester, surrounded by her usual suite. The dance ended. “Let’s dance, Georgiana.” She smiled and obliged, and they found themselves in the middle of another dance before Eliza had noticed them. He exchanged glances with Charlotte as they crossed path, without smiling. He wanted to reach for her. She was dancing with Mr. Stringer now, who had visibly been invited by Lady Worcester too.

After thanking Georgiana for the dance and letting her go talk to Charlotte and Stringer, Sidney made his way reluctantly to Eliza, whom he had observed glancing anxiously at the dance. “Eliza. Are you in good health?” She turned to him, granting them a kind of privacy from her friends, who seemed to understand and left. “Sidney. I wonder if we could talk.” She was smiling encouragingly, and a cold dread seized him. “It’s hardly the place for a talk. Can it wait for the morrow?” She seemed embarrassed, and he saw something change in her expression. “Of course.” He felt bad: “Eliza, I know we have not talked since…the other day. I was giving you space to reflect.” “I know. I hardly sought you out myself. It felt strange, not talking to you.” She finished her drink. He looked around the ballroom. If he was forced to marry her, would all his life be like this? A precipice of boredom and discomfort? Eliza did not enrage him, despite the dire situation. He was indifferent, which he was not sure was better or worse. The music stopped, and she asked whether he wanted to dance. “Of course,” he said, and held out his arm.

Couples gathered in a circle, and the musicians announced. Sidney was relieved, for as little as he knew about dancing, he knew that this dance meant they would be switching partners. Too late did he realize that the couple they would be exchanging with was none other than Mr. Stringer and Charlotte. He caught Eliza at the very moment when she had, he believed, the same realization, but could not fathom her reaction. She did not seem jealous, there was instead a kind of curiosity. Glancing quickly, he noticed Charlotte’s distress at the situation, no doubt thinking of everybody’s feelings on top of her own. The only comfortable one, surely, was confident, handsome Mr. Stringer, who seemed to, at Sidney’s constant awe, get along with most people and be pleasant all the time. He knew the man had been partial to Charlotte. It had been obvious enough for a while, but it had died swiftly, or so it seemed. Sidney was not enough of an idiot to feel absurd jealousy, or to be unable to recognize that a reasonable man like Stringer might admire Charlotte for all the reasons he himself adored her. Yet he had wondered about compatibility, and whether Stringer had thought his character well-fitted to Charlotte’s. They had started the dance in silence, and Eliza seemed to enjoy herself, smiling. “This may be our last dance while we are engaged, Sidney.” He was snapped out of his musings, but quickly recollected, in time to change partners. Eliza also distanced herself, and Sidney held out his hand for Charlotte. It was such a curious, strange thing, to hold the person you loved in front of your fiancé. Sidney tried to hide his feelings, but they were written all over his face, by the clench of his jaw, the smile he repressed, the intensity of his eyes. Charlotte, meanwhile, was trying to avoid his gaze, turning this way and that, looking at other dancers. He remembered how close he had held her during their second dance, closer than the other dancers. He remembered how she had held his hands, grasped them. That intimacy was out of reach now, and yet it was all they could think of, as they held the other at arms’ length, not allowing their touch to register on the other. They were being so careful that it was like a challenge, to the one of the two that would touch the other the least, while undressing them with their eyes. The couples switched again, and he turned to find Eliza, holding out his arm again, and they swayed around the room some more. She seemed unsettled, missing a few steps. “Are you well, Eliza?” She nodded, “Yes. Let’s just finish the dance.” Was she angry? Had she seen him look at Charlotte? Had he not dissimulated well enough? Then, they were done, and instead of clapping for the musicians, Eliza was clasping her hands together. “Sidney. I need us to talk now.” Resigned now, he led her to a side parlor, where nobody else was.

He was paralyzed with dread. He had been reckless with her, had put all the cards on the table. Something was strange, and he was certain she would announce that she still wanted to marry him. He still felt no love in her eyes, gestures or ways towards him. She had not even asked how he had been these past days. But if that was how she loved, he would have to comply with the agreement. Perhaps she was angry at him, still, for she was silent, as if processing the situation. She took his hands, and he shivered. “I am unhappy, Sidney. And being engaged to you does not make me happy.” He had failed. He truly had tried, but it had been above him. “I am sorry, Eliza. I shall try harder,” he added, without conviction. “I do not mean to make you unhappy,” he said. “I have reflected a lot, about what you said. I know it was brave of you to ask the question.” He let her go on. “I have not been very good with you, before, and I have not been much better now. I am sorry.” She was going to offer to be better. That way, they would both make promises they would not keep. Sidney felt nauseous. “So, I have decided that, if you agree, I would like to break off our engagement.”

Chapter Text

Sidney’s heart was beating wildly. In his unexpected, sudden happiness, he had to remind himself to not look too relieved, for Eliza’s sake. She was looking at him expectantly, and he owed it to how well things were ending, how mutually, to be gentle with her. He took her hand in his: “Eliza, I do think we will both live happier lives without trying to force this.”
She looked almost scared.
“To speak the truth, I was never under the impression that you even liked me that much.”
She nodded: “I think I have closed myself a little too much. I am scared of what comes next. You felt”, she smiled at him, “familiar. And that felt good, at the time.”
“You will find a much better match for you. And I promise, I will make your investment as profitable as possible. You have my word.”
“Yes. I do think we will not be rid of each other.”
They looked at the dancers a while, silent. He spoke next: “So, how do we do this?”

They decided they would wait a few days to announce it to people. Sidney would head to Sanditon until the gossip died down a bit. They would announce that she had broken the engagement – after all, she was so wealthy that nobody would care as long as Sidney was not the one to blame publicly. People would merely assume that Mrs. Campion had fallen in love with someone else. She could afford to. Perhaps she even would. They parted not as friends, but as people who had once meant a lot to one another, but would not pursue a life together. It was perhaps bitter more than sweet, but Sidney could not bring himself to feel bad. He had succeeded in proving her wrong, and he was now free. Eliza was half aware of his affections for Charlotte, so, after a few weeks, he would be free to court Charlotte, his dearest Charlotte. To beg her forgiveness for this mess.

He felt elated as he joined the ballroom again, leaving Eliza with her friends. The evening was drawing to a close, but it took trouble to find Charlotte in the still crowded rooms. Yet here she was, glowing as if she had just finished a jolly round of dancing. He wanted to cry from what it felt to see her after this. He pondered whether he should wait to tell her. It felt wrong to speak of this here. Yet he wanted to walk directly to her and kiss her. He saw her seeing him, and she smiled one of her genuine but sad ones. How he hoped this was the last one of this type! She was busy talking to some of the guests, several of them single gentlemen, most of them looking delighted to make her acquaintance. He could tell she was being pleasant to them, as she had been with him the first night. How could a woman like that forgive him one more time, after so many mistakes and character flaws? He needed to be alone with her, as soon as possible. He turned on his heels and went in search of Lady Worcester.

She was in a parlor off to the side, no doubt looking for a little peace. “Mr. Parker, how are you enjoying this ball?” He saluted her, and went to stand closer to where she was sitting.
“I…have not paid much attention to the ball, Lady Worcester. I have been occupied with Mrs. Campion.”
“I see.” She smiled at him, encouraging. Sidney liked Lady Worcester, if only because of the affection and kindness she had shown to Charlotte at a time of – he assumed – great sadness. He was reminded bitterly that the turn of events, although freeing for him, did not signify that she would want to be courted by him. Although they had shared some moments, their last private encounter only made him ashamed, that he had shown more self-control. They had not talked since; it was highly possible that she would resent him for how he had made her feel. He had, after all, given her a great disappointment. She had then been forced to watch from the sidelines as he brought Eliza into the family circle that Charlotte did not seem to escape. Perhaps she would have wanted to escape it. When, as defeated as he felt, he had said he loved her, the other day, she had merely looked at him with pain, and had left the room. He had meant it like a gift. He turned to Lady Worcester again:
“May I trust you with a piece of information?”
“Of course. As you know, there are plenty of secrets we share that have been kept for months now.”
“Mrs. Campion and I have just broken our engagement.” Lady Worcester, who was always so poised and careful, for once seemed genuinely surprised.
“And you are relieved, I presume.” He nodded, thoughtfully.
“But I do not know how to… speak to Charlotte. I am terrified that once the impossibility of our…affections… will be relieved, she will be free to feel as angry with me as we both know she has a right to be. I have been on the receiving end of her anger when we were nothing but acquaintances. I do not know that I could bear it now.”
Lady Worcester had the decency not to smile knowingly; the young Mr. Parker was growing on her. She had thought him different and perhaps rash before, she now understood he had a more complicated soul. “Yes, well. I can see how you would fear that. I am told, however, that you have a way of reversing such impressions, and of making quite a good case for yourself.”
He smiled bashfully. “I do not dare believe.” It would have been too much happiness after too much anxiety.
“Please come visit me tomorrow. I am sure I will find a way to be otherwise occupied, but that you will find sympathetic ears around here somewhere.”
Relief flooded through Sidney, and he thanked Lady Worcester profusely. “Call me Susan, please. We are in business together after all.”

On his way out, Sidney desperately wanted to catch a glimpse of Charlotte. If he could somehow signal to her that they were free now. Tomorrow, he would put himself at her feet. Tonight, he needed to see her. He caught a flash of green and pink, of silk and dark curls, in the corner of the ballroom, as she was leaving it. He could not help but follow, as if an invisible pull was drawing him to her. He was surprised, on his way there, to see Eliza dancing with Mr. Stringer. They seemed quiet but thoughtful, not at all as two people dancing should look like. His arm was placed carefully around her back, and the dance was moving slowly. He wondered what was happening there, but he was on his way to find Charlotte.

He found her in a corridor. He understood then that she was not taking a break from dancing. Instead, she was leaving to go up to her room. His heartbeat quickened just to think of it. She was walking purposefully, reaching the staircase at the end. “Miss Heywood, wait!” She froze in place, but did not turn around. She let him catch up with her instead. “I cannot talk to you, Mr. Parker,” she said. He stopped one foot behind her, leaning down to breathe in her smell.
“Forgive me”, he asked. She was breathing hard, her arms clenched by her sides. He
“It seems I cannot trust myself in your presence. I do not recognize the way that I act. I am scared of what it means. Of what I am ready to do. So”, she sounded sad, “I ask that you please leave me alone.” She took a step on the stairs.
“Wait wait wait”, he said, and reached for her hand. “Please”, he pleaded.
“Could you ever forgive me?” he asked. Surely, she could tell his hand was shaking. “All I ever wanted for you was happiness. I did not mean to cause such sorrow.”
She did not free her hand, but she turned to lean back against the wall, further from him than she was now. She was not looking at him.
“I seem to be so convinced of the unfairness of it all…” she breathed, barely speaking out loud, “that I am ready to be with you just because we deserve it. And I cannot seem to bring myself to regret such a thought, despite knowing it is not moral.”
“My dearest Charlotte.” He stepped closer, one step below her. “I have been wanted to tell you this since the moment I watch you being torn away from me by that carriage on the clifftop.” He was breathing hard, hopeful but scared. “I wanted to wait and tell you tomorrow when we could be alone and quiet, but I saw you leave and could not resist.”
She was looking at him, and there was defiance, hope, anger, love, desire, cynicism. A whole new Charlotte that he wanted to wrap around and never let go.
“I do not know how I managed it, and it is so recent that I still do not believe it is real, but Mrs. Campion has finally agreed to break the engagement.” He did not want to add anything. He let her process it. He did not dare look at her and see her reaction. Her hand tightened against his. He could hear her breathing.
“Sidney”, she said. She brought her other hand up to his chest, then his neck, then his cheek. He was in heaven.
“So,” he said, “will you forgive me? I just thought I would ask.” She had to leaned down slightly, but because he was taller than her, the steps were a perfect adjustment. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and she kissed him. It’s ok, she meant. I will, she breathed out. You can relax now, her body said. And he did. For the first time in months, he let the tension fully release from his shoulders, his head; all that mattered was the solid presence of Charlotte around him and the future with her. Only with her. He was dizzy with happiness. He felt tears on her cheeks and he kissed them away.
“You heard me the other day, did you not?”, he asked, breathless. She was suddenly shy, and he wanted to ravish her up to her room. Perhaps she needed to hear him say it again. He would say it every day from now on, if she would let him. “I love you”, he said, and they were gazing in each other’s eyes, giddy with happiness. He knew that with everything she had so far so freely given, she could still be coy. “Will you allow me to court you, Charlotte? It is all I ask.” She smiled her earnest, wide smile.
“Only if I am allowed to court you as well.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
“You need to leave,” she said, not moving at all to disentangle herself. He straightened, and walked down the step, taking her hand with him. He leaned down to kiss it, briefly.
“I will visit you tomorrow.”
He went out in the cold air and breathed in deeply. He could feel a sense of peace settle all the way to his toes. A life with Charlotte. A haven. A gift. A family. His eyes were full of tears, from the cold or from his relief. Was it possible to be so happy?

Chapter Text

He ran more than he walked to Lady Worcester’s townhouse again the next day. He had slept better than he had in months. He did not want to announce the news to Tom just yet. Eliza had not spoken of withdrawing her investment, and he had promised that she would not regret it. The fate of Sanditon was still very much caught up in his own, but that morning, his head full of Charlotte, he could not find it in himself to be resentful. She seemed not to resent him for the dreadful months she had passed, but he wanted to tread very carefully. He wanted to deserve her.
He was introduced in the lobby and brought to a drawing room, where Lady Worcester and Charlotte were sitting. The former seemed amused, the latter blushing. He sat and exchanged pleasantries for a little while. Lady Worcester had to remind him to call her Susan, which he did. “Heavens, I have forgotten that I have an urgent matter to solve. I won’t be an hour. Charlotte, do you mind?” Charlotte blushed again, and they were left alone. They were sitting across from one another. He could only look at her, speechless. She did not let him start another conversation on the weather: “I could not sleep last night,” she declared.
“I am sorry to hear that. How come?” he feared that she had grown to despise him overnight. Sidney seemed incapable of believing someone could care for him constantly. Love was to be revoked at any moment.
“I was too excited. I just could not calm down. And I was so curious about how you and Mrs. Campion parted ways. It seems so inconsistent with her behavior…”
“You mean, her behavior with you?”
“You noticed.”
“My dear Charlotte. You should know that when it comes to you, I notice most things.” She blushed a deep red, but did not let herself get thrown off balance.
“Is this what you will be like courting me?”
“Perhaps.” He looked at her with longing and affection. “I think I am past the pretense of courtship, insofar as I have left you in no doubt about…my affections. I merely want to know you better. You once said I took pains to be unknowable – I have tried to be different. You are unknowable in other ways.”
“Prey do tell.”
“You give a lot of your whole honest self to a lot of people, I have noticed. You have told me harsh truths several times already. And yet I can never know what you are thinking. It is as though you’re always a step further, and I’m always struggling to catch up.”
They sat in silence for a little while. Contented, blissful silence.
“So, how did you and Mrs. Campion break the engagement?”
“I had discussed it with Mary, and a little with Georgiana. They both thought that they did not see a real affection in the way Mrs. Campion interacted with me. We concluded that the best strategy could be to make her realize that she could fall in love, just not with me. That we were in fact poorly suited.”
Charlotte was nodding quietly. “You told her this?”
He stood up, and came to sit beside her. She turned her body towards him, instinctively.
“I proved it to her.”
Charlotte looked intrigued. He looked down. “I knew, deep down, that her professed affection for me was more of a habit, something she wanted to believe in, and I wanted to force her to face the fact. So I kissed her.”
“Oh.” Her mouth stayed slightly open and it distracted him.
“You see, when I kiss you” He moved closer, not smiling, just predatory and real, “I can feel that you want to kiss me too. I can feel that we…fit…together, in a way that I could never have with her.” He was an inch from her lips now, but he wanted her to move.
“I see. And when I kiss you, it feels like I would hardly ever want to do anything else.” His eyes went dark and he wrapped his arm around her waist.
“What else do you feel, Charlotte?”
“I feel…warm.” She kissed him, seizing his upper lip. She breathed deeply. “Alive.” She kissed him again, this time wrapping her arm around his torso. He returned her kiss with all the passion that her words ignited. “Please,” he groaned, “always share what you feel with me. It is…one of my greatest joys to hear it.” He was smiling.
“I love you.” He kissed her, and dared to put her on his lap. He wanted her to feel how hard he was for her. For all her professed innocence, Charlotte had never hidden her awareness of his body, and of matters of the flesh. She felt it instantly, and was gazing at him with pure desire.
“You make me so happy, Charlotte. I hope I can make you happy, too.”
There was a lot unsaid. Sidney thought it improper to discuss marriage when there had been so much heartache and pain these past few months. He did not want to go too fast. But as he looked into her eyes, he felt at peace.
“You can. You know that you can.”
And this was it. The best self, the truest self she had turned him into was for her as well as for him.
“I do not deserve you.”
“You do. All of me.” She squirmed in his lap, showing him how much she wanted him. She also placed her hands flat on his chest, then slowly brought one up to his neck, his cheek, and finally his hair. It felt like heaven. A mixture of being completely aroused and unsatisfied, but cocooned and blissful.
“I want to apologize, Charlotte.” He took her hand in both of his and he kissed her palm. “I made you behave in a way that you disliked, that made you feel wrong. I know I could have avoided it, but I was too selfish, and too desperate, to prevent it. I want to court you, not dishonor you. Your soul is precious, and your heart is pure, and while I do know that you have changed a lot from what happened these past few months, I hope you will not resent me for it.”
She blushed, as she knew exactly what he meant. But then she raised her eyes and held his gaze proudly, and said without missing a beat: “I love you, Sidney. That means that I desire you as well, and I do not wish to feel shame about it.” He was in awe. How had he been gifted with such a person? He smiled and kissed her. It seemed that now they were free, they could not stop. He was quickly becoming addicted to her body, if he had not already been.
“You are a strange bird, Charlotte Heywood.” He reluctantly nudged her to get back on the seat. “So, I need to leave London for a little while. Let things settle while Eliza announces the news.”
Charlotte nodded, disappointed but trusting. He took her hands again. “How long are you still supposed to stay with Susan?”
“I see you’re on first name basis.”
“Stop teasing.”
“Two weeks. I am for Willingden next Monday.”
“I will be in Sanditon. I will miss you every minute.”
“And I you.” She looked unsure.
“Charlotte. Of course, you know why I haven’t started another type of conversation. Believe me, it is all I think about. Will you let me write to you?”
“I do expect the courting to continue somehow.” He chuckled. There was no end to her wit and he wanted to do all sorts of things to her. Sometimes he was afraid of the depth of his feelings, and of his attraction for her. But sitting there, in the morning light, her face open and bright, her hair falling around her face in glorious curls, her straight back that she let him touch freely, he could not feel anything else but happiness.
“I promise you that I will be in Willingden two months from now. Will that do?”
“It will have to. But we were lucky, so let us not be ungrateful.”
An angel. She traced the contours of his face, his nose, his lips, his arms. He did not dare touch her, but his eyes roamed her face, her waist, her breasts. He spoke softly:
“I wish I could bring a portrait of you with me. I’ll have to have one made.” This was as much of an admission that they would be married as soon as possible, and she smiled wide and sweet.
“A portrait wouldn’t talk back. But I see what you mean. I like your portrait.” He looked at her, and she was blushing, delightfully. Was she admitting that she had been looking at the portrait of him as a young, hopeful man? Was it possible that in her first days in Sanditon, she had been looking forward to meeting him because of it?
“Well, it is not much my likeness any more, is it?”
“Your likeness is much better. And I have seen all of it, remember.”
“Charlotte, you are impossible.” But his eyes, and hers, said something different. She had desired him then, it was clear now. Her eyes said she wanted to see him like that again. Sidney thought he would burn under her gaze that very minute. They heard steps in the corridor and quickly made themselves proper. But before Susan entered the room, she kissed him again. “I love you, Sidney.” “And I you.”

Chapter Text

My dear Charlotte,

I am already counting the days until I get to see you again. To think that I was once foolish enough to complain that you would pop up everywhere when least expected. How I wish you could pop up now. Before I left, two days ago, I told the family the news. They were – most of them – delighted. I think Georgiana and Mary hugged each other. Arthur hugged me. It felt like being congratulated for not having given away my life. Tom was strange. To be honest, I feel that he has been given free reign to not feel guilty anymore, and now wishes to go back to normal. Normal being, me out of the Sanditon business, him in charge of everything again. Those will be harsh conversations, but needed. I will not let anything like what happened occur again. I merely wish that Tom would reach that conclusion himself, but now that he does not have to be conscious of the sacrifice I am not making anymore, the pretext is too good. I’m sure this is not the last you hear of it, Charlotte. In fact, how your words resonate now, despite my sharp rebuttal – we have already gone over what a brute I was, but I never told you. You were right to assume, it was a finely drawn portrait of my brother and I was merely cross to hear the ridiculousness of it said out loud. In general, you are too clairvoyant for your own good. I wonder what we shall do with you. I have a fair idea, as you can imagine.

Sanditon is unchanged, but the construction has progressed significantly. I will have to pay a visit to Lady Denham. Lord and Lady Babington have decided to remain with her here for the time being. It seems they are quite fond of the place, in the end. I cannot say that I disagree. I remember the day you had the idea about the regatta, you said that once people would get here, they would fall in love with it. I remember being intrigued that you could have developed such an attachment for it, so quickly. It is my hometown, after all, and I think I detached myself from it over the years. As you said, I was too busy gallivanting around London with my dandy friends. You pierced my soul, Charlotte, and I fear that that Sidney Parker may never come back. Will you miss him? I’m not sure I will. So, now that I have a new outlook on life – all down to you, as I don’t cease to repeat – I am giving Sanditon a second chance, and finding it quite to my liking. I went swimming yesterday, and I thought of what you said. If you ever want to try to swim, you will find a devoted companion in
S. P.

 

Dear Sidney,

You make quite the pen pal. I assume – as I know you are no simpleton – that you have taken liberties knowing that I would still be staying with Susan, who does not care how provocative my correspondence is. I shall try to intercept the post in Willingden, as I enjoy your style. Yet, in case I cannot, sometimes, and for the good of both of us, will you please stop referring to yourself as anything else than fully clothed? Some of us would like to be able to focus on other things. Such as: the weather, or philosophy. Or ribbons, I hear they are a good topic. Despite what I may have led you to think, there are other reasons why I remember that event fondly. It was the first time you made me smile. The first time that I saw a crack, and if I try to fix the hour, or the day, I would not be able to say, but I would have to go back to that moment you complimented me in the street. Or to the sunset walk. I had been told my whole life – the short amount of it, anyway – that I had excellent judgement, which explains why I liked to amuse myself by trying to assess others. I had never truly considered I could be wrong in my first impression.

But what is a first impression? What was the one I had of you? Was it when you walked up to us and acted as if you had already forgotten my name? I was intrigued then, I think, and not naïve enough to not know why. Or was my first impression our first conversation on the balcony? If that is the case, one might wonder whether the correct impression is, then, your tongue-lashing or my assessment of your character. I still believe, assumption or not, that you are the sensible brother. I do not resent Tom for all of this as much as I did a month ago, there seems little reason to now. But I have grown to understand Arthur better now, and I can safely say that that impression was deceiving and deceived. We shall all gain from being a bit more like Arthur. I think I gather that you have a more distant relationship with him than with Tom; is it because he was so much younger than you? I am fond of him, as he would often talk to me during these weeks in London, and seemed aware of my pain, and willing to acknowledge it.

I am delighted to hear that you are giving a second chance to Sanditon. To answer your question, I will not miss him, because I dearly hope I will see a whole lot of him quite regularly. That Sidney Parker enraged me and made me stand up for myself, even if he was a mere stranger at first. You might have made me feel that my ideas were wrong or futile because I was young and naïve, but you also heard and processed all that I told you, and I think you are perhaps the person that has listened to my opinions and ideas the most. Truly listened, by which I mean, reacted to them. I have been raised in a family where we speak our minds, and care little about propriety or grand society. But I would never have assumed someone like you could value someone like me, let alone…

In London, people have been talking and speculating about the reason behind Mrs. Campion’s newfound availability. She seems fine – I saw her at a tea party yesterday. We did not speak, but she was not unpleasant, and she even asked me how my family was. She seems a bit different. I thought maybe you were misrepresenting things, how well she had taken it, to make me not feel guilty. But I can see now that you and her did not bring out the best in each other. I dearly wish it to be different for us.
Yours,
C.H

Chapter Text

It was the middle of April now, and Sidney would be headed to Willingden in two weeks. Time had gone by so slowly it sometimes felt like an elaborate hell designed to make him miss her more. It was becoming hard to focus on anything else than her and the fact that there was still reasonably a good amount of time until he would get to have her for himself. He wanted to have more honorable thoughts, but all he could think of at times, and especially when he was alone, was of the many ways he wanted to have her. He was happier than ever, and yet felt deserted and alone without her. Their courtly correspondence had been delightful, although it had been limited by the fact that she was in Willingden, and he had not wanted to talk to plainly for fear of the letters falling into unsuspecting (or very much suspecting) hands. He wanted her family to assume as little as possible about his reputation, and had kept his letters about Sanditon business and the family. They had found ways around it, as was expected for two people desperately in love, who had already said so much to each other. They wrote of swimming, a respectable activity in Sanditon, but it meant naked, and it meant together. They wrote of her next visit to Sanditon, but – he hoped – they both meant a more permanent one. They used ancient philosophers as metaphors to talk about each other. It was elaborate, and he was in awe of her spirit and wit. Sidney had gone for a swim that morning, and was now walking back, when he ran into Mr. Stringer, who was holding his hat in his hand and waiting in front of Trafalgar House.
“Mr. Stringer. Is anything the matter? You were not expected here before three weeks.”
“Mr. Parker. May we speak inside?”
They entered and Sidney led him to the study, assuming that this was Sanditon business.
“I am here to talk about Mrs. Campion.”
Sidney looked up and saw that Mr. Stringer was worried. “I have not heard from Mrs. Campion. As I’m sure you know, we are no longer engaged to be married. She is to remain an investor, though.”
“I know. She… wrote to me and asked me to explain the project and the next buildings we are planning on erecting. I did not think it necessary to inform you, as I assumed you would not want to hear about her so soon after…”
“Well? Why are you here then? Did she threaten to withdraw? Did she not like what she heard?”
“Mr. Parker. She said that she broke the engagement; is that the truth?”
Sidney was becoming impatient. He liked Stringer, but such private matters were not made to be discussed with employees.
“I fail to see how that’s any of your concern.” He heard a shadow of his old self, the taciturn, irritable man that Charlotte had all but wiped out. “Forgive me. I only mean that you will have to tell me why it is important to the present matter.”
“No, forgive me. It was entirely out of turn. It is a delicate matter, and I hoped to talk to you about it freely.”
“In that case, get straight to the point, Stringer.”
“I wish to know, because I do not understand. I thought that she loved you. And I thought that you loved Charlotte. But then the marriage is cancelled, and Charlotte leaves London, and you are here, and the talk about town is that Mrs. Campion broke the engagement, which, forgive me, does not seem to make sense.”
“Mrs. Campion could not love me. As for Charlotte, I am only not yet with her begging for her hand out of respect for Mrs. Campion, and frankly, for her as well.”
“So, was the broken engagement difficult news for you?”
“It was not. Will all due respect, I was only going through with it to save my brother from prison.”
Stringer sat down, clearly confused.
“Mr. Stringer, would you care to tell me how this affects you?”
“I feared your reaction, and I did not want to jeopardize a great working relationship. I needed to be sure before…”
“Do not tell me…”
“I…I do not know how it happened, but Mrs. Campion has made me an offer of marriage.”
Sidney could not refrain from laughing. The poor man looked so befuddled it was comical. “And what did you answer?”
“Sir, I want to say yes. Truly, I thought it was meant in jest for most of the trip here, but I now realize that there were no hard feelings on either her side or yours in all this. I… did not wish to be a consolation prize.”
Sidney was truly amazed. If this was happening, then Eliza had changed more in the past months than he had given her credit for. He had happily discarded her from his mind the minute she had set him free, but he now felt that she deserved happiness as well, and that it was an odd, beautiful thing that someone like her, who had married for money, should end up marrying for love, and quite scandalously, so much below her social standing.
“Stringer. If this feels real to you, I know it probably feels like a train hit you at full speed and you do not know what to do. Please, do not use me as a pretext to not grab that happiness with both hands.”
“People will gossip. They will stain her reputation.”
“If she has asked you, it is probably because she knew you would never dare to assume. It is also probably because she does not care a fig what people will say about it.”
Stringer looked slightly better. “I am so much below her it is laughable.”
“Stringer. You are a solid, good man, and a handsome devil. Did I look surprised?” Stringer had to shake his head. “So it will not matter then. I wish you every happiness.”
They shook hands, and Stringer thanked him, but not without apologizing for how improper the whole conversation had been. It was 10 o’clock by the time he left. Sidney called for a horse, and gathered a few of his things. There was no reason to wait to go to Willingden any longer.

***

He arrived a little before sunset. It was a little village among the hills, and a helpful kid pointed him towards Heywood house; his heart was beating wildly, and not only because of the riding. He had not given much thought to how he would try and approach her. It was likely that he would need to meet her whole family and possibly talk to her father before he could even speak to her. He made his way to the house on a little road. His horse was alerted to her presence before him, and he followed the direction of the beast’s gaze to the top of the nearest hill, where a female figure with wild dark curls and a red scarf was walking next to a black and white dog. Even from afar, he could tell exactly the moment that she saw him, as she stopped to look. He saw her open her mouth wide in disbelief, and she started to run down the hill, the dog barreling towards him even quicker. He did not want to yell at her to be careful, desperate for a few moments of privacy before the whole house was alerted to his presence. He got down from the horse, and started to run too. When they met, they were panting, catching their breath, and the time apart meant that he did not feel as free to embrace her immediately as he would have otherwise. “What are you doing here?” she asked, “Why did you not say?” He looked her up and down, her green, rough dress, her tweed jacket that was definitely made for a man, her red scarf that made her look like a different, adventurous, hunter Charlotte. She was carrying a rifle on her shoulder, and, he could see now, two rabbits with her left hand. He laughed out loud. “It seems we both surprised each other. You had no idea I was coming. And I had no idea you could fire a pistol, or I would never have given you the tongue lashings that I did.”
She smiled, and dropped the rabbits. “I’m not dropping the rifle yet. You have not said why you’re here.” He smiled wildly. “Well, this morning I had a visit, and since it seems that there is no respectable reason for me to wait any longer, I have come to you immediately.” She seemed intrigued, and he caught both of her hands in his. He kissed them both, reverently. “It feels as though I’ve started this speech many times over but never finished it. Forgive me.” She was looking up at him, a shadow of a smile peeking at the corner of her delicious mouth, her eyes wide open and sparkling. “Charlotte, my beloved, I have been under your power since the moment you told me to try to be civil, but not with you, and I am perfectly comfortable with that fact. I hope that I can try to deserve you every day. I am in awe of who you are and it is my most fervent wish and desire to make you as happy as you make me. I’m offering you my hand. Will you take it?” He felt foolish, as he had some tears in his eyes, but they had been through so much for the past few months, that it was hard to forget the tragic turn it had taken. Charlotte was herself teary-eyed, and she wiped his tears with the extremity of her scarf. “At last”, she smiled, “Yes.” And they kissed, without it being possible to determine which one had grabbed the other first. He enclosed her into his arms, tightening at the waist so she could never escape. There would be time for personal space – there would be time for propriety – but this moment was not it. He did not care if anyone saw. They were engaged now; the thought sent a current through his body. The dog wanted to participate in the love-fest, and was jumping up and down their intertwined bodies. They laughed. “So, are we you going to hunt for our food when we’re married?”
“Let us just say that we would never starve if it came down to it.” She kissed him, softly caressing his chin as she went. “I love to hear you talk about when we’re married.”
He smiled and kissed her. “Then you shall be very happy; it is all I can think about.”
The sun was almost properly set now. “Do you think it would be improper to be introduced to your family now?”
“We are hardly posh, as you will soon see. And my father will want to talk to you.”
“Aye. I am ready.”
He leaned down and grabbed the rabbits. She was reminded of that time in London, when he took her bag without even asking her, even if it was not at all heavy. It felt like a partner in adventure would, and her whole body and heart felt warmed by this, perhaps more than by his touch – and that was saying something. She took the hand that was not carrying the rabbits. He squeezed it, and there was so much happiness in his eyes that she was mesmerized. They reached his horse, which had been waiting by the road, and she grabbed the rein, and led them all towards the house.

Chapter Text

Charlotte opened the door and led Sidney inside. He could hear much noise, the sounds of a large family getting ready for dinner. “Father, Mother, we have company”, she called out. The noise did not cease, but two people whom he assumed were Mr. and Mrs. Heywood came out of the adjoining room. He felt very much on the spot, but resolved to lean into how strange the evening would be. He felt too happy to feel worried. These persons had raised Charlotte to be who she was; they could not be too different, so he should not expect the worst. “Mr. Heywood, Mrs. Heywood”, Sidney bowed, “pleased to make your acquaintance.” He turned to Charlotte. “Mother, Father, this is Mr. Sidney Parker, Mr. Parker’s brother.” Understanding dawned on them, then more curiosity showed on their features, except a bit more disguised than before. “Welcome, Mr. Parker. Will you come in? We were just about to sit to dinner,” Charlotte’s mother said, invitingly. She was looking alternately at him and at Charlotte, clearly having figured out plenty about what was happening. He looked at Mr. Heywood, who did not look inviting, but was waiting to see what the young, obvious suitor would do next. Sidney decided not to disappoint him. If he appreciated honesty as much as his daughter, he would want him to be straightforward. “Thank you for your kind invitation, Mrs. Heywood. I would be delighted. There is, however, one matter of importance I shall like to discuss with Mr. Heywood. I do not wish to disturb your meal, so I shall be upfront: I am here to ask for Miss Heywood’s hand in marriage. I can discuss any aspect of my proposal with you either before or after dinner, but I thought you should know.” As he expected, Mr. Heywood showed no surprise, but smiled slightly. Mrs. Heywood seemed very curious and content, and he witnessed a quick excited exchange between mother and daughter. “In that case, let us have our dinner first, and we’ll retire together afterwards, Mr. Parker.” Charlotte quickly grabbed his hand before they followed her parents in the room, a swift sign of affection. Would he ever get enough of those?
Dinner was a joyful affair. The young children did not take their dinner with the adults and older children, which resulted in a slightly quieter table. They were ten at the table, and Sidney was seated next to Charlotte’s father and across from her. They talked of the way their children had met Tom and Mary last May, of the carriage accident, and Sidney was treated to the tale by some of Charlotte’s siblings who had been there. It seemed that she was a big sister in more ways than one, leader of their pack. Charlotte’s mother spoke, as she was passing a bowl of roasted carrots: “We’re not even letting you place a word, Mr. Parker. Pray, tell us, are you also involved in the development of Sanditon?”
“More so now than before, truthfully. It is my brother’s idea, and it has long been his sole pursuit, while I have had my own business to deal with. It was only recently that I…” he looked at Charlotte “was obliged to take a more active role.”
Mr. Heywood took over: “And what is your own pursuit, Mr. Parker?”
He could hear a slight tone of disapproval. Perhaps Mr. Heywood was a gentleman who despised trade.
“I have had several, Sir. I spent several years in the West Indies, where I invested the little money I had at the time in the sugar trade. When I came back, I decided to invest in more diversified affairs, and I now own several boats that transport goods from Bordeaux to Southampton, as well as a few distilleries still in Antigua.”
Charlotte looked surprised, as they had never discussed what he actually did. Her father looked satisfied with the answer.
“Is Willingden on the way to Sanditon from London, Mr. Parker?” This was one of Charlotte’s younger siblings, and he was forced to smile a bit nervously, and look at Charlotte briefly.
“No, it isn’t.”
There were some murmurs after this among the curious children, who knew quite well they could not ask him what he had come here for, and yet did not know yet how to hide their eagerness to know the answer.
Luckily, Alicia changed the topic of conversation by asking him what he had thought of the West Indies, and they were able to discuss it until dessert. It was strange, in fact, to consider that while he had come here for her, they had not addressed one another since before dinner. Propriety had never been high in his list of priorities, but he wanted to do his best for her. If a semblance of decorum was to be maintained, it meant Charlotte had to somehow fake that she had no idea why he had come. As he was thinking this, Mr. Heywood stood up, and surprised him by asking Charlotte to come to his study, before Mr. Parker was to join him for brandy. To this conversation, he was not privy, but she came out after a little while, smiling, and waved at him to enter the room.
“Well, Mr. Parker, I’m sure that since you are well acquainted with my daughter, you will understand why I wanted to speak with her first. I had no doubt you had already made her a proposal of marriage and that she had accepted it, but I wanted to learn more about her motivations. I know how little my consent or dissent would matter if she were attached to you.”
He paused, and Sidney did not know what to say, but could feel it was his turn to speak.
“Of course, sir. I do not know what she told you, but I will answer anything you may need to know from me.”
“Very well. I must tell you what I asked her, first. I asked whether you had been the source of her extreme distress when she had come back last summer. I know my daughter, and she would not have fallen for someone, be disappointed, only to fall for someone else these weeks in London.”
“And you were quite right to ask. As a father, I would have done the same. Mr. Heywood, I have admired and esteemed your daughter since I had the luck of making her acquaintance last summer. I had reasons to believe she returned some of this esteem, and was ready to offer her my hand by the end of the summer. That night, the biggest construction site to date in Sanditon, my brother’s main investment, burnt in a tragic accident.”
Charlotte’s father was stoic, scratching his beard. He took another gulp of brandy.
“I realize that I can only reveal my brother’s shortcomings, here, or you would rightfully believe that I greatly wronged your daughter. My brother, Mr. Heywood, is too enthusiastic with his investments and pursuits, a fact that Char- Miss Heywood understood from the very first days of their acquaintance. He had failed to contract an insurance for the building, and owed eighty thousand pounds of debt.”
Mr. Heywood looked horrified that such an amount was even fathomable. This would not improve his opinion of business and trade.
“I did the only thing that I could at the time to save him from prison. I want to assure you that I was not courting anyone at the time, but a former acquaintance, recently widowed, and extremely wealthy, had… declared herself interested, and it became clear to me that I had to engage myself to her.”
“You broke an engagement, after you took her money?”
“I did not. I was resolved to do my best to make her happy, but after several months, she broke our engagement.”
Mr. Heywood looked skeptical.
“I will not pretend that I did not also try to get out of the engagement, Sir. I respectfully tried to demonstrate to her that we had no affection between us, and that I was not the person she wanted to marry.”
“When was this?”
“About two months ago.” Mr. Heywood nodded.
“Where will you live?”
“Charlotte loves Sanditon dearly, and it is not such a long way from London. If she agrees, we will establish ourselves there.”
“Very well, Mr. Parker. I expect I will get to know you better in due time, so let us announce the good news to my wife.”
There were accolades and laughter at the news, but all he could see was Charlotte’s face of delight. She turned to her mother and asked when the marriage should be, trying – and failing—to not sound too eager. Mrs. Heywood determined that two months should be plenty. Enough to silence the gossip from too quick an engagement, but soon enough to still have a summer, countryside affair. After a while, he had to take his leave to go to the inn and inquire for a room, even though the hour was quite late. They let her walk outside with him.

 


In the darkness, Charlotte carried one light to help him find the stables. He took her other hand and led her in the small building.
“How did that go?” he asked, tentative. She brought her body flush against his, putting the lamp down.
“All too well. My parents seem to like you exceedingly.” He smiled and kissed her, quickly, aware that Mr. Heywood could come out at any moment looking for them.
“Are you sure? Your father seems rightfully cautious, so I don’t know where you’re seeing any liking…”
“Sidney. My father asked you questions, I assume.”
“He did.”
“Were they pleasant?”
“No, they were not.”
“And yet he still gave you my hand.”
Sidney smiled and kissed her more, “He did”, one kiss, “I cannot believe my luck”, another kiss, deeper. “I should go, or I will have to sleep in the stables.”
“Are you disappointed that we have to wait two months?” she asked, searching his eyes.
“I would wait ten if it made you happy. It is important to remain proper. You are after all a respectable young lady.”
“I do not feel very respectable.” She started to kiss his jaw, and down his throat, as much as the cravat would allow. She managed to get her hands below his coat and closer to his stomach. “I cannot stop thinking about touching your skin.”
“You… cannot?” he was a little befuddled.
“No. I am obsessed with your skin. What it looks like, how it will feel.”
“What do you need?” he spoke in a low voice, putting all the devotion he felt into these few words. “I will do anything you want me to.”
She hesitated. “I want to feel you again. The way you…get. When we are close.”
She wanted to feel him get hard for her. She did not dare say the words, but they knew what she meant. “Charlotte,” he said, aroused, devoted, restrained, “please never fear voicing your desires with me. I want to know them all.” He moved quickly so she was laid flat between him and the wall. “I want to fulfill them all.” He was practically growling, and they were both breathing hard. “And I want you to express yourself, and to know what you are asking.”
She nodded, spellbound.
“There are crude words, Charlotte, but you must not be afraid to speak them when we’re together. I don’t believe there is any shame in naming your desires in a marriage bed, or anywhere else, so long as it is with me, and me with you.” He hoped she understood what he meant then, that he would never go back to the place she had seen him in. That she would be the only one.
“We have bodies, and we are meant to please each other’s souls with these bodies. Yours is beautiful.”
“I did not think I was beautiful. I am not slender, or blond, or fair. I have… too much.”
“You have just enough of anything.” Did she not think herself beautiful? She was magnificent, but he realized that she talked of a canon of beauty that she had perhaps observed more in Sanditon and London than she ever had before. “Look at me,” (she did) “I am not considered a handsome man. I am too…dark, and the way my body looks, because of wrestling, is not the way a man about town looks like.”
“But… you are so strong and…” he chuckled, “so charming.”
“So you see, my love, we are both just perfect for each other. You do not see my inadequacy, and I cannot see anything else than your plentiful body. I cannot wait to see you naked and prove it to you.” As he spoke, he brought his hands up to her bosom and caressed her cleavage, the round shape of her breasts.
She blushed, even in the dark, and she kissed him, unable to resist the urge. He pushed himself against her, as much as she did against him. “Won’t they come out to look for you?” he asked.
“They are probably quite busy with the younger children. And we would hear them coming.”
“Better not to get too disheveled, then. But, Charlotte, do you want me to show you something?”
“Please. Do what you will.”
He kissed her with renewed energy. “I want to touch you. Is that alright?” She said yes, and he leaned briefly to catch her foot, and hook her leg around his hip. “There.” He was already so hard that it was painful, but her thigh was pressed against his erection and he wanted her to know. “This is my cock. It gets like this sometimes when you’re not even there, when I think of you, or when I dream of you at night. Did you know that?”
“I… knew of what is supposed to happen, but I was not aware it got…hard, before…” she was breathing hard, as he was slowly rocking back and forth into her core. His hand went up her hooked leg, until he reached the hem of her dress and pushed it up even more.
“So, you know where my cock goes?” She nodded, mesmerized. He brought his hand to under the dress, and caressed his way to the patch of hair.
“I am a bit scared”, she admitted, defiant but brave, fragile but sensual.
“There is no reason to be.” He kissed her and brought his fingers through her curls, down there, until he found pure heat. “Do you feel how wet you are, Charlotte?” She was breathing hard, and moaned a little: “Yes”.
“This is to facilitate the coupling. There should be very little pain if you want this so much. I think that not all husbands know that, or care to learn. I want this to be most pleasurable for you as well as for me. Do you trust me?”
She nodded. He started moving his fingers in her slit, and circling his thumb on her bud. She moaned louder. “That’s it, Charlotte. I love to hear you do that. Never silence yourself when we do this, please.” He kissed her, and caressed her breasts with his other hand. He could tell she was stunned into silence. “You can do what you want to me. You can stay like this or touch me. Feel free to move in whatever way feels best to you. You’re in control.” She was responding completely to his touch and to his words. She seemed to like the fact that he talked, which was a blessing, as he discovered that he loved it, with her. He accelerated his movements, eager and ready to stifle her scream with one hand. She was moving in harmony with his hand now, undulating deliciously, and he wished it was on his cock but was delighted to see her response. He put a finger inside. “See, this is where I would go. Can you feel me?” “Yes”, she moaned. “Don’t stop.”
“I won’t. Can you feel that there is space for more?” He hooked his finger inside so she could see, and he felt her clenching in response. She moaned again and he stifled her with his hand. “Let go, Charlotte. Whenever you want, I have you.” And she did, undone below his hands, and he was stunned into complete paralysis by her beauty. Never could he have imagined that there could be something so pure in something so base as lovemaking. It seemed she had much to teach him about that, which he knew nothing about. She was catching her breath, and he released her leg and cradled her in his arms, her forehead against his shoulder. “I love you so much,” he said. “Thank you for showing me that. I feel… more unsettled, but much less scared,” she kissed his chin. “How do people ever do anything else?” He chuckled. “I honestly don’t know. The minute we are married, I for one have no plans to do anything else for as long as you wish to.” They parted then, and he went to find lodging at the inn. He did not know how long he would stay in Willingden. But if private moments were even a little less difficult to come by than in London, he had even more incentive to stay.

Chapter Text

The minute Sidney was in his room at the inn, he threw himself face first on the bed. Was this what it felt like to be truly happy? It was as though he was floating from one happiness to the next, since she had agreed to marry him. Within two months, they would be wed, and he would bed her, and it would not be a minute too soon. He was still reeling from their moment in the stable. He still could not believe that it had happened. One minute they were proper and well-behaved, the next he was touching her in the most intimate way against a wall. Was that why he had felt such a powerful pull towards her all this time? Because deep down he knew she would surprise him at every turn? There was no logical reason for how well they fit, and every day he was more amazed that this was indeed what love was. He had had sex many times before, of course, had been a trusted customer at shameful establishment, and without shame too. Until he met her, that was. He had wanted more again, the minute he had seen her. A most improper attraction, followed by weeks of falling ever more deeply in love with her. He had been subsisting on brief carnal encounters for as long as he could remember. He thought that would be enough to be content and satisfied. But then he would see Tom and his marital bliss, his family, he saw sweet Mary and how she forgave his shortcomings and supported him throughout, and he yearned for that pure love. When he had considered matrimony before, to get even a thread of what Tom had with Mary, he had always thought it would mean settling down, and had dismissed the idea. But this was not settling down. This was burning up, melting into another. He was definitely unsettled.
Two months now and he would possess her, just like she possessed him. His old cynical reflexes told him to proceed with care, that she could not be trusted. For the first time, he was a little afraid of the power she held over him. It seems she could convince him – or had they spurred each other on? – to be quite improper at great risk. What if they had been caught and the wedding had been called off for his being a dishonorable scoundrel? A few moments before, he had held her as she moaned, watched her as she found her pleasure. He was painfully hard again, and resolved to use his hand. He was well-used to it now. She left him in a constant state of want and he did not have the strength to overcome it. He needed to imagine all the ways in which he would show her that she was his and that he was hers. He knew some things, but he expected it would all be new with her. The way she had reacted to his words was new. The way he had wanted to explain, that was also new. He had never felt so aroused by feeling a woman be so wet for him. With others, it had felt like a normal act. With her, it felt like a gift. Sidney was obscenely aroused, so much so that it only took him a few minutes to spill himself in his hands.
Catching his breath, he tried to ponder his options. He would stay another day, then he would go back to London, and announce it to the family. There would be things to arrange there, and some other business matters that could not be delayed. He would then stop again in Willingden for a few days, and perhaps he would take her to Sanditon with a chaperone or two, so they could look for a house. Then, the last week or so could be spent in Willingden for the wedding preparations, and his family would surely want to follow as well. He felt more at ease now, controlled. For he had a sense that if she had it her way, she would arrange to be ravished as soon as possible, but that would not do. He smiled at her eagerness to be married, and fell into a deep slumber.

The next day, he fretted until mid-morning, when it finally felt like a suitable time to pay a visit to the Heywoods. He went walking, as it was a nice Spring morning. He wondered what she would be up to, and if she would be hunting perhaps. But when he knocked, he heard the noises of children, and when the door opened it was her. She smiled and he immediately wanted to get her alone.
“Good morning, miss Heywood,” he said a tad sarcastically.
“Good morning to you too, Mr. Parker,” she mirrored his tone. “It was wondering when you would come.”
“I took my time gallivanting around Willingden.”
“Did you now? And what of it?”
“Nothing to report. May I come in?”
“Of course. Forgive me” she said a bit lower, then she came closer and whispered in his ear “I wanted to keep you to myself.”
She would kill him. He grimaced, keeping his answer for himself – or for later – and stepped inside. Her mother was quite occupied in the schoolroom with the younger ones, and it seemed Charlotte and Alison were reading in the parlor. He saluted her, and she dutifully – but not without a sarcastic eye roll – went to sit near the window to give them some privacy. They sat on separate chair.
“Miss Heywood, might I enquire what sort of things I might be needed for regarding the wedding preparations?” For a brief moment, he saw the shadow of a dark memory cross her face, and was taken back to a short conversation they had had at Babington’s wedding. We wished he could kiss the memory away, but that would have to be kept for later, as well.
“I cannot imagine you would need to be consulted. I was thinking of a simple affair here in Willingden, a countryside wedding with a small luncheon. Would that suit?” She was smiling a bit shyly now.
“Char- Miss Heywood,” he prompted, “you know I do not care for a London society wedding. I much prefer whatever it is that you had in mind. I shall discuss some aspects with your father.”
“Have you written to Tom and Mary? I have written to Georgiana and Mary, but I did not want to send the letter before I had made sure you wanted to announce it.”
It seemed her insecurities were winning this morning. What could he do to reassure her?
“I have not written, because I would like to tell them in person. Mary and Georgiana have been so kind to me, and so helpful these past months.”
“Of course. How I wish I could come with you.”
“As do I. I will leave in the morrow. I’ll need to sort some affairs in London, perhaps for a week.”
Disappointment showed sharply on her face. He felt frustrated by the mask of propriety, that meant that he could not properly explain himself and that she could not express why she seemed so disappointed.
“Miss Heywood, would you care for a walk? It is a beautiful morning.”
She brightened up at the suggestion, nodded her agreement and understanding, and went to fetch her mother’s approval. He saw her exchange a few words with Alison, and they set off the three of them towards the hills behind the house. They had a pleasant conversation about London and about travels until they were not in view of the house – or of any house – any longer. Alison promptly announced that she needed to go down to the river for some wildflowers there, and left with a smile. Sidney quickly took Charlotte’s hand and led her to the nearest hidden point. It was, in fact, a section of fallow land with very high herbs, sectioned off by a few trees. “It seems I cannot stand to not be alone with you anymore,” he said. She seemed to perk up: “Oh. I… thought you were upset at me, that I had displeased you.”
His eyebrows must have gone up on his forehead, “Displeased me? How?” He took her hands in his, “I am the happiest. Please explain how you came to think that.”
“I have been too forward. And I… you pleased me, but I did not please you, and you left… wanting… and…” she seemed to gain courage by the contact of his hands, one of which was making its way to her waist and squeezing, “you are much more experienced than I and I feel the imbalance dreadfully.”
She said the last part fast, like she knew what he would think. He sighed deeply.
“I have told you, Charlotte; you’re not too anything. I am more than delighted by your enthusiasm.” He closed his eyes. “You have no idea how delighted. But it would be most improper to continue.”
“But I want to.” He gestured for her to sit down, and he followed. They were cross-legged on the grass, like children.
“I am not leaving to punish you. Your desires are my highest concern and please be assured that they are shared. But you did not let me finish. I am going to London for a week. When I return, I was hoping that we might go to Sanditon and…” now he was shy, anxious to meet her gaze. She brought her hand up to his cheek, as if to encourage him.
“Why do you want to go to Sanditon, Sidney? You do not like it.”
“Say that again. Please.”
“Sidney”. He leaned down and had to kiss her. He would never tired of hearing her say his name like it was the most natural thing. She kissed him back eagerly, bringing a heat that he had not meant at first. She chuckled. He leaned back: “I want to take you to Sanditon because I thought we could look for a house. To establish ourselves.” He saw the emotion in her eyes as it settled there.
“You would do like that?”
“If it is with you and it makes you happy, I already love it a dozen times more.”
“Sidney Parker.” She said, and he didn’t think he had ever heard his name pronounced with such amazement. It was addictive. “I would love that.” He had to look down to process his happiness; it was most distracting and pleasurable to actively make her happy. Perhaps more even that he had enjoyed making her angry before. An interesting, but perhaps logical development.
“Would you…I don’t suppose you would object to Georgiana living with us, would you?”
“I had noticed you had become closer, but I had not thought you would suggest this. I think you are wonderful.”
He felt warmed by her comment. She leaned down, but did not remain seated. She rose on her knees and moved toward him, sitting back on her heels when she was close enough. She brought her arms around his neck and she started to kiss him. “A week,” she breathed out. He was powerless. She felt daring and pushed him slowly down, which he did not resist. “Charlotte,” he pleaded, “you are quickly becoming quite unmanageable.” But he was smiling. She was braced on her arms, hovering over him. “Sidney. Show me how to please you.” He became hard in a second, spurred on by her sentence and by her body flush against his in this new, daring position. “Are you planning on killing me before the wedding?” he asked, practically growling from the restraint he had to display.
“Not at all. I am merely trying to be a bit more unmanageable. Besides, you know I have no interest in finding a husband.” She kissed a trail along his jaw and into his neck, one hand in his hair, the other on his chest.
“I will show you anything you want to see. You have my word.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and shifted and tilted her onto her side so she was facing him. He kissed her then, caressing her all over without giving her time to register where his hands were: bosom, stomach, thigh, bum. She was kissing him with all the pent-up desire she had, and when he brought her thigh to sit above his hip, she moaned deeply. She brought herself closer, her core against his hardness. “What can I do?” she asked, pleading. He swallowed and told her, “well, you could rub yourself against me, or you could touch me. Both sound incredibly good right now.” He kissed her again, letting her ponder. She had a frown on her face, which he soothed away with his fingers: “Or we don’t do anything and just lie here talking about Heraclitus.” But it seemed she had decided, and she started to move against him, “Tell me if it’s alright”, she asked. He moaned. It was more than alright. She undulated against him, his hardness right into her core. “Sidney”, she pleaded, “tell me.” He understood then, that she wanted him to voice what he felt. “Yes, Charlotte. It’s perfect”, he panted. She seemed even more aroused by his response. He brought a hand to her bum and another to her breast, sensing that she wanted it. “Do you like to feel me like this?” he asked. “Yes. Oh yes,” she answered, going faster. He was going to have to finish right here in the middle of a field, in his clothes, but somehow it did not matter right now. She was moving in a perfect imitation of the act he was desperate to accomplish with her and he was about to burst from wanting her. He could touch her breast, so full and plump, and her bum, which he had dreamed of, always emphasized by those dresses she wore that outlined her unusual figure. He raised himself on one elbow to help his movement, for now he was the one who wanted to drive into her. She surprised him then by bringing her hand down to the front of his pants, where it met her heat. Clearly she wanted to touch, to help something. He spurred her on: “You feel so good. Right here. Yes. Yes.” He groaned his release, erratically moving against her core, and that made her reach her peak as well, which he stifled with a kiss, as she moaned repeatedly into his mouth. Afterwards, she was stunned into silence, and he lay back on his side but went to the crook of her neck to rest. “Charlotte. I dream of sleeping like this on you.” She caressed his hair absent-mindedly. “I do not really want to leave either, you know. But the sooner I come back, the sooner we will be wed.”
“It is only that I keep thinking of everything that could go wrong.”
“Nothing will go wrong. All is sorted out now. Whatever comes next, we face together.”
“I like the sound of that.”
“Now come on, we should find Alison. She really is a great sister, is she not?”
“Undoubtedly.”