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What Was Unspoken

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Charlotte wandered along the beach looking for unique shells. Her brothers and sisters would appreciate such treasures more than common trinkets purchased in the village. None of her younger siblings had ever been to the seaside. Until a few months ago, neither had she. Now she knew the beaches around Sanditon well. She had enjoyed the solitude she had found here, even more than the excitement of meeting so many new people. Solitude was always in short supply in Willingden. 

But today it was oppressive. Below the cliffs, beside the vast, churning sea, Charlotte had never felt so small and alone. The man she loved would marry someone else. She was hardly the first young lady to be passed over for a fortune, nor would she be the last. But she found little comfort in trying to view her situation practically, sensibly. She only knew her heart was broken. Because of Sidney.

She scrambled over an outcropping of rocks to reach another long beach. As she walked over sand and pebbles, she was engrossed in her search: a black shell with an iridescent underside, a spiral ending in a sharp point, fan shapes with scalloped edges. She looked up to a curious sight. As she came closer she realized it was a walking stick stuck into the sand, and next to it, a pile of clothes. 

In a panic, Charlotte scanned the waves. She knew Sidney was out there. She thought of their last meeting in the church yard after Lord Babington’s wedding. Even through the struggle to conceal her own wretchedness, she could easily detect his misery as he stood beside his betrothed.

Charlotte could not bear another painful encounter with so much left unsaid and everything so keenly felt. She must be long gone from this beach before he emerged from the water. His inevitable nakedness certainly wouldn’t make a meeting any less awkward either. 

It was farther to go back the way she had come than to go forward. She nearly ran past his waiting belongings, but at the sight of a stretch of undisturbed sand next to them, she halted. On an impulse, Charlotte took his walking stick and wrote her confession in the sand. Words that had not and could never be spoken, just eight letters. They would be her farewell gift to him, to be wiped away by the next high tide. 

She reached the next outcrop and made her way back toward the cliffs, frantic to be far away. She told herself she need only avoid seeing him for the night. On the morrow she would depart for home. 

But her escape seemed to be foiled much sooner than that. Facing the sheer wall that separated her from the top of the cliff, she could see no easy way to scale it. She had cornered herself, but Charlotte knew she could not turn back toward the beach. She managed to climb up about six feet to a small ledge of grass. From there, she could find no sturdy purchase for her hands or her boots. 

“Charlotte?” she heard Sidney call. He would find her soon.

In desperation, she clawed at the cliff, the sand and rocks falling down her dress. For every step she attempted, the cliff crumbled beneath her boots. In her flailing, she dropped the reticule holding her collection of shells. 

“Blast!” she cried.

“Charlotte, come down from there,” he said, his voice horrifyingly close. 

Her mortification was so great, she dared not look fully back. Instead she saw him in her peripheral vision. It was quite enough. He was barefoot and dripping wet, wearing only his trousers and a clinging, untucked shirt. 

“No,” she said with a firmness she did not feel. Oh God, why had she written it?  

“It’s not safe.” There was a tightness in his voice she could not identify. Was it anger or suppressed laughter? She knew not which reaction to her message could be worse.

She turned around on the ledge to behold him. His chest heaved as he looked up at her; his arms were tensed at his sides. He looked like a great tethered beast that needed merely to pull to be free of its restraints. 

Yet he did not pull.

“What you...what you wrote. Is it true?” 

His quiet words made her angrier than she had ever been. “How can you ask me that? Yes, it’s true!” 

She was leaning forward, looking down at him accusingly when the ledge gave way beneath her feet. 

He caught her and held her. Upon regaining her senses, her inclination was to pull away. She couldn’t bear to be so close. But her back was nearly against the rough cliff wall. 

He gently pushed the hair from her face, and his tender, open expression brought tears to her eyes.

“Do not cry, dearest Charlotte. I had convinced myself that you cared for me, but could not possibly love me. Me, a man so unworthy, so undeserving of a woman like you.”

“Stop talking nonsense.” She placed her hand over his heart, feeling the heat of him through his damp shirt. “You deserve love too, Sidney. You are a good man.”

He took an unsteady breath. “I love you more than I have ever loved anything or anyone in this world.” 

She wanted to weep, to laugh, to kiss his dear face. But she could only tremble with the effort of keeping her emotions in check. “We...we must say no more. I depart in the morning, and you are engaged.” The last bitter word stuck in her throat.

He shook his head. “I was willing to sacrifice my own happiness to Tom’s misfortunes, but I am not willing to sacrifice yours. Now that I am certain of your feelings, I cannot marry her.” 

In that moment, Charlotte was undone, all thought of propriety gone as she embraced him. Sidney, too, was lost. His body pressed her back against the cliff, and he kissed her passionately. They had kissed before, but this was entirely different. It was not gentle and tentative, but desperate, searing. She should have been shocked when his tongue touched hers, but she welcomed it greedily. 

He groaned, and she thought she might faint. Her hands had slipped beneath his shirt to find the bare skin of his neck and shoulders, but she needed to be closer. By some vague instinct, she hitched her leg up over his hip. All became clear when his hand cupped her bottom to support her position, adjusting and pressing just so. Again she should have been shocked to feel his arousal against her most intimate parts with only thin layers of fabric separating them. Instead she rocked her hips against him, gasping out his name as he kissed her throat.

“Dear God,” he said hoarsely, taking her by the shoulders to steady her as he stepped back. “We must stop.”

She leaned her head against his chest, for she was not bold enough to look him in the eye as she spoke. “But I...I do not wish to stop.” 

He put his finger under her chin to tilt her face up. “You deserve better than this, Charlotte. When we make love, I shall worship you.”

She could muster no response to such a promise. She simply held his gaze, and hoped that he would kiss her again. 

But he swallowed and stepped away. “Now, you must start back towards the village. Allow me time to...right myself, and I shall catch up to you. We have much to discuss.”

She was grateful he had a plan, for she could not string two thoughts together. He stooped to pick up her forgotten reticule and handed it to her. He then ushered her back to the beach. They reached the spot where the rest of his clothes still waited, where she had written her message of love. 

He kissed her hand. “Go on ahead, my love. I shall follow you shortly.”