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The Second Coming

Chapter Text

The goodbye with Georgiana had been difficult. Both of their tempers had flared. It was the first time Charlotte had been on the receiving end of Georgiana’s sharp tongue. Now two weeks later she opened her letter anxiously.

 

Dearest Charlotte,

I must apologize for my heated and unkind words. I must admit my emotions run high and are very conflicting over this matter. I worried for your heart when you revealed your feelings for Sidney. Having known him for years I am well acquainted with his unreliability and his temper. I did not wish for you to attach yourself to a man that would make you unhappy.

However, I understand too well the devastation of losing love and clearly see that in both of you. Forgive me for not respecting that when we were last together. You softened his edges, I was too lost in my own despair before, but I see it now. I must say he is quite aimless and broken without you. I do hope you are recovering better.

I can say that things improve with time but only partially. My heart still aches for Otis or perhaps for the loss of what I thought we shared. Oh if only you could come to London and stay with me this autumn! We could nurse our hearts together. But as your heart is tied to my infernal guardian I suppose that cannot be. Do you not have family in London you could stay with? I miss having a true friend.

Ever so fondly,
Georgiana

 

She ached as she read of Sidney’s state. It made her heart flutter to know that his feelings had been so sincere, and even seemingly remained that way. But she truly wanted him to be happy, wanted to believe that his marriage could grow in love with time and attention. The thought of his marriage being a form of slavery, as she had proclaimed months back at the pineapple luncheon, hurt her deeply. Sidney deserved happiness and peace.

“How is the news from Georgiana?” her mother asked from the other side of the room trying to keep her voice neutral. Charlotte had regaled her family with stories of her adventures in Sanditon, it had helped her grief to focus on the happiness of the summer. She wanted to feel gratitude, not resentment. She spoke of Sidney but tried to approach him with the same interest that she spoke of Arthur, just one of Tom’s kind brothers.

Her mother and father however saw the heaviness in her. They expected Charlotte to return changed and indeed she had matured and blossomed but she had clearly also learned some of the more difficult lessons of coming of age. One afternoon a few days after her return, Charlotte and her mother were washing the laundry together when her mother dared to bring it up.

“Your heart lingers with someone in Sanditon, does it not my love?”

“Oh. Mother. I…” She paused.

“You need not hide it from me. I was once a young woman too. I remember.”

“I...Perhaps…” Charlotte really didn’t know what to say and tears started welling in her eyes. “Mr. Sidney Parker.” she whispered.

“Ah, yes.” Her mother had assumed as much to be the case. Charlotte’s stories always floundered a bit when he came into them.

“I did not understand him at first but mother, I grew to be so very,” Charlotte’s voice caught, “very fond of him.”

“My love”, Mrs Heywood wrapped her arm around Charlotte’s shoulder. “Do you think he returns your fondness? Have you received word from him since your return?”

Charlotte couldn’t bring herself to tell her mother the full truth. “I think he may have Mother but it is not to be. Remember when I told you that Mr Tom Parker was able to secure more financing to rebuild after the fire? It was actually Mr Sidney that secured the family by engaging himself to a wealthy widow. One he courted in his youth.” Charlotte started to cry in earnest.

“Oh goodness Charlotte, that is dramatic. I’m so very sorry. Life certainly is more complicated when you make money one of your highest goals.”

“But Sid- Mr Sidney Parker was simply doing the best he could to save his brother and his family. Please don’t think badly of him.”

“I certainly don’t mean to disparage him. He seems to be very loyal to his family and certainly marrying for material and social gain is quite standard. It would have been a lovely match for you seeing as how well you get on with his family. But Charlotte there will be others. And you will find that the true love and compatibility needed for a marriage are not the same as the flutterings that accompany dancing at a ball or polite dinner party conversation.”

“Yes mamma. I know.” If only her mother knew just how much deeper their relationship had been, how she felt he had bared his soul to her. “It still hurts however.”

“Of course, of course my love.” She wrapped both arms around her and hugged her tightly as Charlotte allowed herself to cry freely.

Since that afternoon they had not spoken of Sidney again. Mrs Heywood would put a reassuring hand on Charlotte’s shoulder if she seemed to be struggling but she was a practical woman and knew that with time this would pass and eventually Charlotte would experience love again and move on. She also felt that while they wanted Charlotte to marry well, perhaps the Parkers were too enterprising, too caught in the chase for money, for the Heywood’s taste anyway.

The letter from Georgiana certainly piqued Mrs Heywood’s interest though as she knew that Sidney was Georgiana’s guardian. Charlotte could not read any of the letter aloud to her mother. She hadn’t told her family anything about Otis or the shocking abduction. She hadn’t even told them she had been to London. Once her mother knew about Sidney she was very relieved she had left that story out. What could she share with her mother? She channeled Georgiana’s skill for lying.

“She says that she is very well. She went sea bathing for the last time yesterday. She will be returning to London for the autumn and winter now that the season is over in Sanditon.” Charlotte hesitated for a moment. “She encourages me to come to London as well so we may resume our friendship in person.”

Mrs Heywood frowned. “That could be difficult, do you not think?” she said, clearly meaning that Charlotte would not, under any circumstances, be allowed to stay with Georgiana.

“Yes, she doesn’t mean to host me herself. She just misses our times together.”

They both left it at that. Charlotte wasn’t actually anxious to go to London. She knew resuming her friendship with Georgiana would result in her eventually crossing paths with Sidney and she did not feel ready to see him again. It had taken all of her resolve to wish him well and get into the carriage as she knew she must. Seeing him again would only reopen wounds. And yet, life in Willingden was no longer enough for her. It was comfortable and lovely to be home but it felt like an intermission, like she was just waiting for what came next.

Charlotte thought on it for several days and then one evening when the young children were asleep and she took a leap.

“I would like to visit Uncle Stephen and Aunt Beatrice in London.”

Mrs Heywood’s mouth went into a thin line. “They haven’t sent an invitation, Charlotte. I’m not sure it would be proper for you to just impose on them.”

“Oh, Mrs Heywood, you know how much my brother and his wife love Charlotte. I’m sure they would not consider it an imposition. Our young Charlotte has had a taste of the world and she’s hungry for more. Is that not true Charlotte?”

“Yes, father, I know it’s not the way you have lived your life but I do feel it would bring me happiness to continue to seek out new experiences.” Charlotte glanced at her mother after saying this. She had assumed that her mother shared the news of Charlotte’s heartbreak over Sidney with her father but apparently not.

“My love we can see your restlessness. You are your own woman and we know you to be prudent and sensible. I will write my brother tomorrow.” Mr Heywood spoke leaving no room for his wife to reasonably interject. Mrs Heywood looked at Charlotte intently.

“Thank you so very much father.” She kissed him and headed up to bed wide awake but ready to escape her mother’s eyes.

Chapter Text

Georgiana had received a prompt and kind, but brief, reply from Charlotte. When Sidney arrived later that day to finalize their plans to move back to London she couldn’t help but bring it up.

“She says I am to be kind to you as a favor to her. Is she not too good?”, Georgiana asked at a break in the stilted conversation.

“Who?”

“Charlotte of course.”

Sidney swallowed, his jaw tensed. “Of course. Is she well?”

“No, I don’t think she is.”

He nodded once and his head didn’t return up. He fiddled with his coat sleeves. “Yes, well what’s to be done.” he said flatly.

“Yes, well. What’s to be done?” she repeated back, leaning forward on the sofa, her intonation clearly different and clearly expecting an answer.

“Georgiana, I’m sorry you’ve been brought into my personal affairs. It was not my intention, just as it was not in my intention to be separated from Charlotte. But circumstances have required that my plans change. You know, I trust, that I do not relish this change in any way.”

“Circumstances have not demanded that your plans must change in this particular way. Is your pride really that important? Is it really worth more than Charlotte?” she responded hotly.

Sidney shot up from his chair,, “Do not be ignorant! You know this is not about my goddamn pride! I clearly have none!”. Just as quickly as he rose, he fell back into his chair, deflated and shamed.

Georgiana looked at him with pity and a bit of disdain. When the great Sidney Parker did not even have the energy for his legendary temper she knew he was a lost man. “You’re right, forgive me. I let my frustration carry me away. But I still find it hard to believe that this is the best possible solution. You don’t need to be shackled to a woman you don’t love for the rest of your life. Perhaps you don’t even have to lose Charlotte.”

Sidney sighed. “I cannot think of another solution and what is done is done. The deal has already been arranged.”

“I have all of the money you need and then some. Just let me be your investor. Does that not seem like the most obvious and easy route?” Georgiana said earnestly.

He looked at her sternly. “Georgiana, I appreciate the offer but we have discussed this. Your inheritance is for your future. Your father certainly did not intend for it to be used to cover another man’s folly.”

“But it is not to simply save your brother or even you, it is an investment, one that I will gain from in time." She had more than enough money, she would be happy to temporarily set some aside in a venture, especially if it also secured her dear friend's happiness. And while her relationship with Sidney was still very strained she had to acknowledge that he was making strides in being a better guardian. He had also become more vulnerable with the loss of Charlotte and she quietly relished knowing intimate details about his life rather than just being pushed away. There was familiarity between them that had not existed previously.

Sidney leaned forward and dropped his voice slightly, "Frankly Sanditon is not an investment I would recommend or invest in myself if it wasn't in the interest of my own family. Any return you earn may be very far in the future, and it's just as likely that you could lose your money entirely. Without that familial tie I could not possibly allow you to gamble your own future on this town."

Georgiana’s anger rose. She tilted her head back and bit her cheek. "Because I am not a member of the Parker family?"

"Yes, exactly."

"I just wanted to be sure I understood that portion correctly. I am a woman with an inaccessible fortune, no ability to make her own decisions and no family. Thank you for your clarity. Good day.". Georgiana stood up and swiftly left the parlor.

Sidney groaned and dropped his head in his hands recognizing his blunder too late. Since Charlotte, since trying to be a better man, it seemed no matter how much he gave of himself It was still not enough.

 

Georgiana was surprised by how easy it was to convince Ms Griffiths to escort her to Sanditon House and to wait in the hall for her. Apparently arranging a private audience with a wealthy old widow was much more agreeable than taking a brief walk in public with a friend.

As the heavy doors to the receiving room pushed open Lady Denham’s booming voice immediately greeted her, “Well if this isn’t the most interesting surprise. I must say Ms Lambe I did not expect to see you in this room again.”

“Nor did I maam but I thank you for having me.”

“Sometimes curiosity is a greater motivator than pride. So out with it now, whatever do you need from me?” Lady Denham remained standing and made no motion for Georgiana to sit or make herself comfortable.

“I am interested in investing in Sanditon.”

“Oh are you? And what pray, does your guardian say about this?” she paced the room as she spoke.

Georgiana ignored that question and pushed on, “I don’t believe that Mrs Campion’s investment is a wise one. I would like to discuss how I could ensure the loan in her place.”

Lady Denham spun around to face her, “Gracious! You certainly don’t have any qualms about speaking your mind! Why in heaven’s name would you feel Mrs Campion’s investment is not wise?”

Georgiana’s eyes shifted out the window, avoiding Lady Denham’s gaze. “I just feel it could be withdrawn, that perhaps she is not as keen in the endeavour. But I am. I have many thoughts about how we could improve the allocation of the funds...”

“Don’t try to distract me with your ideas and schemes. Too many ideas and schemes is what got me into this mess in the first place! I cannot see how Mrs Campion’s investment would be withdrawn. She is marrying into the Parker family! It is an excellent match for Mr Parker, which is exceedingly lucky for him. And she meanwhile seems happy enough with his good looks, social standing and moderate fortune to see it as a beneficial match for her as well. I do not see any signs of insecurity in this arrangement.”

Georgiana continued to look out the window. She wasn’t sure how to proceed, if she could at all. The pause between them lingered.

“Unless you are privy to some personal information that I am unaware of.” She looked at Georgiana appraisingly. “Did she jilt him again?”

“No.” Georgiana said quietly but firmly, still avoiding Lady Denham’s gaze.

Lady Denham continued to watch her closely. “Is there another on his end?” she said with some interest.

“Surely, I would not know. That is not my business ma’am.” Georgiana raised her chin.

“Ah, but before you could answer ‘no’ and on this matter you can only state that it is ‘not your business’. Not as convincing Ms Lambe.” Lady Denham chuckled to herself and continued her pacing. Georgiana held still feeling trapped. “Now why would you advocate on behalf of his affections is what I must ask myself.” She puzzled over it, walking. “Ah!” she stopped and looked at Georgiana again. “It is Miss Heywood is it now?” She was immensely pleased with herself. Georgiana froze her face, giving nothing away. “Yes, they would make a pretty pair, that much is true. It is an excellent match for her - she who said she was not interested in marrying especially for money! Ha! Don’t ever believe the self righteous Ms Lambe. But for him it is a very poor match, very poor indeed considering the debt his family owes me.” Her tone changed as pride of her perceptiveness made way for her own self interest. “No, that would not stand. His match with Mrs Campion is the wise one and clearly the only one worth considering.”

Georgiana felt Lady Denham preparing to end the conversation and quickly jumped in, finally looking her in the eye again.

“I do not come to speak on the personal matters of my guardian.” Lady Denham scoffed but Georgiana pressed on firmly. “I come to speak of my own fortune and my interest in investing in Sanditon. I am prepared to put a very large sum of money towards the current debt in return for a determined percentage in the profits as well as a role in the decision making.”

Lady Denham put her hand up to stop Georgiana from speaking further. “Ms Lambe, I know your money is not yours to spend. You have no access to your fortune and no ability to make your own decisions as to how it is cared for. Unless your guardian sent you here on his accord, which knowing those Parker brothers I wouldn’t be terribly surprised…”

“Ma'am he did not!” Georgiana shot back.

“Regardless, you my dear are in no position to come here demanding an audience when you are only wasting my time. And frankly Ms Lambe seeing your particular situation in our society you need to reserve your fortune as a means of gaining acceptance and a good match for yourself. A woman of your...background must rely on that fortune as well as she can.”

Georgiana’s nostrils flared and her fists clenched. It seemed her degradation was never ending. She felt hopeless and angry and entirely degraded. She bit her lip and glared at Lady Denham. “You see money as something to be hoarded and held over others’ heads. Of course you would see that as my only worth in this life. You are a selfish, proud and prejudiced old woman!’ she shouted.

The doors opened and Miss Griffiths hurried into the room. “Miss Lambe! You certainly owe the great lady an apology!”

“Yes, of course you would be spying on me” Georgiana spat between gritted teeth. “And I owe Lady Denham nothing.” She turned and rushed out of the room. Miss Griffiths frantically bowed to Lady Denham, “She is a reckless and insolent girl Lady. I humbly apologize on her behalf.” She backed out of the room quickly while still nodding forward like a pecking chicken. “Forgive me. So young and thoughtless. All of my apologies.” All the way out of the room.

Chapter Text

Charlotte’s aunt and uncle traveled to Willingden in a fortnight and stayed on at the estate for a week with their two young boys. The cousins had a most happy and raucous reunion as the city boys were instructed in the playful, carefree way of country life. Stephen and Beatrice were thrilled at the prospect of taking Charlotte on. Stephen, Mr Heywood’s younger brother, had escaped to London as a young man for school and had gone on to be a lawyer. They didn’t live a luxurious life but they were comfortable and thoroughly enjoyed the hustle and bustle of city life. Stephen could never understand how his brother could be content to spend all of his life in the family home without any desire to travel elsewhere.

“Now Charlotte, my kindred spirit, let us make you a Londoner!” he exclaimed happily as their carriage pulled out of Willingden. Charlotte smiled broadly and felt truly happy. She was excited to see London through her aunt and uncle’s eyes. She had always admired them and looked forward to their letters to the family. It pleased her immensely that Uncle Stephen recognized himself in her. Being a well read and very educated man she greatly looked forward to several weeks of fascinating conversation and new book recommendations.

She had written to Georgiana and Mary to let them know she would be in town. She was anxious to see them both and tried not to think about how it would be to spend time with people who had regular access to Sidney. How she longed for the simplicity of the summer when he would come by for dinner with the family or just drop in to talk with Tom and visit the children. They certainly hadn’t always gotten along over those short months but now she would happily fight with him just for the chance to be back in his daily orbit. Charlotte promised herself though that she would not seek him out. As much as she longed to just catch a glimpse of him she knew it would only deepen her heartache.

Charlotte had also heard from Lady Susan who had inquired around to find her address in Willingden. Her letter had been kind and sympathetic. “I have heard the engagement news and I am much aggrieved on your behalf. Truly, this was not the outcome I expected. I expected Mr Parker to better know your worth.” She appreciated Susan’s concern and was terribly honored to hear from her but she hardly knew how to respond. She wrote briefly and said that she would be in London for the autumn. She didn’t know what to expect from their relationship now that the intrigue of her love life had fizzled. Perhaps Susan would no longer be interested in continuing their friendship. But if their friendship did survive Charlotte imagined with Susan’s frank manner the conversation would at some point circle back to Sidney and Mrs. Campion’s engagement. And then how could she even speak on the matter?

But she could manage all that as it came. For now, she already felt lighter and was so grateful for the change of scenery.

 

Sidney arrived in London and settled into Crowe’s house. With Tom and Mary and the children at Bedford Place for the month, along with Arthur and Diana, it was just more than he could manage. His time away in Antigua had led him to appreciate his family more than he had ever expected but right now the pain of his sacrifice for them was a burden he wasn’t sure he could bear with grace. Being in their presence would not be beneficial for anyone.

“Parker!” Crowe greeted him sloshing drink in hand. “Come in, come in. Welcome! You and Babbers and I are catching up tonight!”

“Thank you for having me Crowe. I appreciate it.” Sidney said seriously and shook Crowe’s hand warmly.

Crowe slapped him on the back. “Certainly! Your home is a bloody zoo right now! A man cannot live in that type of overcrowding. This isn't the East Indies after all!” Crowe smirked at his presumed wit. Sidney rolled his eyes.

The men settled in the sitting room with a bottle of whisky. “Not too much for me tonight gentlemen.” Babbington stated.

“Nonsense, your lady knows you’re with us tonight. She will expect nothing less.” Crowe said as he poured Babbington a tall glass. “Now Parker, you owe us explanations immediately, keeping us in the dark! One minute you’re packing Mrs Campion out of Sanditon and the next thing we know she’s your fiance at old Babbington’s wedding.”

“Yes, friend, that took me by surprise as well. What happened there?” Babbington said gently, peering at him closely. He wouldn’t dare mention Charlotte’s name as Crowe didn’t seem to be aware of what had been building between her and Sidney.

Sidney gazed into his glass, swirling the amber liquid, attempting to look distracted, casual. “Situations changed gentlemen.”

Babbington looked at Crowe and cocked his eyebrow, “Remind me to ask him again a couple bottles in.”

And true to his word later in the evening after Crowe passed out on the sofa Babbington pressed Sidney. “In all earnestness man, I saw you with Miss Heywood the night of the Midsummer Ball. Whatever happened? I’m afraid I must have neglected you as a friend in the weeks of my engagement to have not known what transpired.”

Sidney sighed. He was exhausted and drunk and tired of pretending everything was as it should be. “The fire Babs, the fire.”

Babbington looked at him. “Yes, terrible, that night. Did you just not go through with asking her afterwards?”

“Please know this is under the strictest of confidence but Tom had no insurance on the Terrace. The loss was crippling. Your dear new aunt was ready to send him to debtor’s prison right there on the spot. I had a week to find a solution and raise capital. Out of desperation I offered an investment role to Mrs Campion and she had a counter offer for a more … mutually beneficial situation.” Sidney scoffed into his drink.

“My dear man, why didn’t you call upon me?”

“I did Babbington. You were already off at your country estate preparing your affairs for the wedding. I didn’t hear back in time. It doesn’t matter, there’s nothing you could have done anyway.” said Sidney slumped and rumpled in his chair.

Babbington’s face fell. “I’m so sorry Sidney, had I realized…” Sidney grunted and waved him off. “But surely perhaps I could talk to Lady Denham and beg her patience while we raise the funds another way. I don’t want to interfere but it must be said that you’ve lost a lot of your spark since this engagement. We can fix this.”

Sidney’s eyes had been trained on the floor and he slowly raised them to Babbington. “The debt is just far too large, beyond your imagination. It’s large enough that I have given up the woman I truly love to marry another for her wealth. I am forced to marry for money man.”

“Parker, you’re no better than a common prostitute.” Crowe’s voice came drowsily from the sofa. Babbington flinched but Sidney simply chuckled sadly.

“Precisely, Crowe, precisely.”

Chapter Text

Charlotte had been in London for only a couple days when she received a note from Mary encouraging her to come for tea the following afternoon. "You must have left with an impact on them to receive word so soon! I have visiting to conduct in the area, I'll escort you there tomorrow." said her aunt.

“Oh Charlotte!” Mary rushed into the front hall and enclosed Charlotte in a tight embrace. “How I’ve missed you! Our family has not been the same without you. Children! Children! Charlotte has arrived!” The three oldest children came tumbling down the stairs and Charlotte was soon brought to happy tears as she was smothered by their hugs. It was so good to be back in the Parker family. In this moment it felt like nothing changed, as if they would all go for a walk on the beach shortly. The children filled her in on their schooling and their plans for their time in London. Mary filled her in on the rest of the Parker family’s wellbeing, with the notable exception of Sidney. She was clearly happy to see Charlotte but seemed a bit flustered and anxious throughout their visit. She kept glancing at the clock and Charlotte worried perhaps she had gotten too comfortable and overstayed her welcome.

“Mary, do you have another engagement? I’ll be happy to be on my way if you do.”

Mary motioned for the maid to take the children away. “Children, say goodbye to Charlotte. We’ll make plans for her to come play again shortly.” The children covered her in kisses and allowed themselves to be swept out.

Charlotte looked at Mary with concern, fearing more bad news from Sanditon. “Is everything alright Mary?”

“Yes, yes of course. Well, mostly. It’s Sidney, Charlotte.” Charlotte sucked in her breath. “He’s fine, well mostly. It’s just that he’s coming here for tea and I have business I must attend to with the children.” Mary said lamely. “I was wondering if you would feel dreadfully uncomfortable hosting him for me.”

Charlotte stared, mouth agape. What was happening?

Mary rushed on, “I don’t want to put you in a bad position. Just say the word and I’ll stay or we could even call for your carriage quickly before his arrival.”

“Mary, you say he’s mostly fine. Is he in good health?”

“Oh yes, he is healthy. This is… I...Please forgive me for meddling, but I feel he could benefit from seeing you. Perhaps a proper conclusion…” Mary trailed off flusteredly. “Charlotte, I apologize. This may be terribly foolish, or even worse, cruel. I’ve been thinking on this for so long but perhaps I haven’t thought about it well enough.”

Charlotte stared off distractedly. Sidney would be here shortly. Mary had arranged for them to meet privately. Her mind was somehow reeling and plodding along at the same time. She had planned on avoiding him as thoroughly as possible and now, within days of her arrival they would be together. He would be here. He would be here. With her. Alone. Very shortly.

“Thank you Mary. I think I can manage.” Charlotte gave her a tight smile feeling less than confident but unable to reject the opportunity.

“I will be close by. Please just call for me if you need me.”

Mary touched Charlotte’s shoulder and left the room and Charlotte was alone. She spoke to him in her head constantly. She had so many versions of what she would say to him if she were to see him again. But now it was happening and she was without a single coherent thought.

The bell rang, there was murmuring in the hall and then the doors opened and he was there.

Chapter Text

Sidney stopped short and stared. He thought he might be having a stroke, a moment of hallucination, some altered version of reality. “Charlotte.” Whispered in complete awe.

Charlotte stayed seated. She didn’t think her knees could hold her. Her eyes started filling with tears. “Mary. She arranged for us to meet. I didn’t know until just now. I…” Her voice caught and she had to cut herself short to hold back a sob. Seeing him was even more devastating than she expected. She felt a tightness in her chest that was making it hard to breathe.

Sidney was immediately across the room, kneeling before her. He took hold of her hands, which she had been wringing tightly in her lap, and looked up into her eyes. “Charlotte.” A prayer. He buried his face in her lap. Her tears spilled out and she leaned forward to nestle her face in his hair. “Sidney” she breathed shakily. It was the first time she had said his name aloud although it played in her head constantly. Its utterance had different effects on each of them.

For Sidney hearing his name fall from her hushed lips had undone him, had further encouraged his wild abandon. He immediately started kissing her fingers fervently.

For Charlotte it was an alarm that she was allowing her dreams to come to the surface where they did not belong. She quickly righted herself. “This. This is wrong. Please Mr Parker.” He stilled his lips but did not raise his head.

“No. No. No.” she pleaded in a hushed tone.

He lifted his head and looked at her, a broken man. “How can I bear it?” Indeed he looked changed. He was still incredibly handsome and his clothes were still fine and well taken care of but she could see the quality that Mary had described as “mostly fine”. Down on the floor, looking up at her, his eyes were like those of a lost little boy searching for safety.

“The tea service will be here shortly.” She said, her voice still hushed and shaky.

That roused him enough. “Yes, yes. Of course.” He said in a resigned voice. He lifted himself to his feet and stood before her. His eyes looked tired and sad. “Forgive me please. I put you in a terrible position. I have no excuse.” She nodded, looking away, blinking back tears.

He settled in the armchair next to her. “Are you well Mr Parker?” She couldn’t speak in a regular volume if she tried.

His low volume matched her own. “Miss Heywood, I am not. Are you?”

“No.”

The tea came in and they watched in silence as it was arranged on the table between them. Both keeping their eyes on the maid’s hands rather than risking a look at each other. The maid left and Sidney quietly poured Charlotte’s tea, remembering precisely how she liked it.

“May I ask you an improper question if I promise to be on my best behavior afterwards?” he asked hesitatingly.

“I suppose although I can’t guarantee I will answer it.” She was so overwhelmed by his presence, by his reaction to her presence.

“That is fair.” he said with a trace of a smile. His brows then furrowed and he opened his mouth a couple times before he could bring himself to force the words out. “It occured to me that you knew of my intentions but I never knew of yours. Charlotte, Miss Heywood, did you feel the same?”

Charlotte looked at him. Surely it didn’t matter now.

As if reading her thoughts he continued, “I don’t mean to cause you pain. I...I feel I know the answer.. You always were free with your opinions” He chuckled softly. “But on this, a matter that has left me bereft... I just need to hear it from your lips. To know for certain if I’m not alone in this.”

Charlotte continued to look at him. It felt like her heart had simply stopped beating. She dropped her eyes and whispered slowly, “Yes, yes I very much wanted to be your wife.”

He sighed. “Thank you.” Charlotte's hand was resting on the table between them. Sidney reached out and gently placed his hand over hers.

"That's enough indulgence. We can't speak of this anymore." Charlotte said trying to make her voice firm, not daring to look at him again but also not moving her hand.

"Yes, you are right. We shall move forward. I do wish you so very much happiness Miss Heywood."

She twisted her hand and he assumed she was about to pull it away but instead she turned her palm upward in order to entangle her fingers in his. Surprised he glanced at their hands together and then darted his eyes up at her face. Her eyes were closed and she had leaned her head back to rest in the chair. He looked at her longingly, feeling like his heart was being pulled directly out of his own chest towards hers. He then followed her lead and leaned back and closed his eyes.

They stayed like that silently holding hands, eyes closed until eventually they heard Mary coming down the hall, clearly talking to be heard. "Miss White, I will be in the parlor with my guests if you need me."

Charlotte's hand shrunk away. She opened her eyes and for a moment allowed them to lock with Sidney’s. He held her gaze as Mary bustled into the room. Charlotte stood, "I should be going. My aunt and uncle will be expecting me. Thank you Mary for your hospitality. Please tell the children I will call again soon."

Charlotte was hurrying out. "Good day Miss Heywood.". She turned and looked at him, unsure. He stood, His lips remained parted, his eyes so piercing.

His desperate, gutted look made Charlotte feel guilty, an engaged man. "Good day Mr Parker." She mumbled and ducked out of the room.

Mary had watched their parting closely and then turned to Sidney nervously. "Oh, was that a poor idea? I hope you do not mind. I know that was hardly a proper arrangement."

Sidney pulled himself together. "To hell with propriety". He smiled sadly at her.

Mary hesitated. "I am only too aware of the debt we accrued between you and Miss Heywood, a debt we can never repay. It haunts me, Sidney, truly." She looked at him, eyes wide and tearful.

"Thank you Mary" he said sincerely, taking her hands in his. He kissed her cheek and left.

Chapter Text

Charlotte was still standing out on the sidewalk when Sidney emerged from Bedford Place. He couldn't help but smile. It felt like a welcome relief to once again not be able to escape her.

"Miss Heywood."

"Mr Parker. I am afraid I left before giving proper notice for my carriage."

"Ah, I will wait with you." Her voice was still slightly muted but his had regained its regular volume and confidence.

"Please don't wait on my account."

"It would hardly be acceptable for you to be waiting alone on the street, even in this neighborhood."

She nodded. "Very well"

"Miss Heywood, how do…"

She cut him off and spoke quickly in a hushed tone, "I don't think we should speak without a third party present. We have just clearly proven that we do not deserve the privilege of privacy."

"Ah, yes, quite." An edge of hurt tinged his airy response but Charlotte continued to stare straight ahead at the street. They stood side by side in silence until her carriage pulled up. He opened the door for her, gave her his hand for assistance and then nodding closed the door and walked off.

 

Charlotte carefully collapsed back in her seat.

"Who was that gentleman?" Aunt Beatrice asked, sensing the tension between them.

"Mr Sidney Parker. Tom Parker's brother."

Beatrice looked at Charlotte carefully, assessing her features. She hesitated briefly. "Your mother told me you were quite taken with him this summer. Should you be alone with him as you were?"

Charlotte huffed defensively, "He only waited for the carriage with me. How scandalous can it be if we are in full view of the street?."

Beatrice was surprised by her heated reaction. She had never known Charlotte to be short or rude. But she only nodded and said meaningfully, "Perhaps I only mean to look out for your heart" She looked out the window as they rode on. "He is quite handsome." Charlotte had no response. But Beatrice vowed to herself that she would have to be more careful monitoring Charlotte’s invitations and excursions.

 

Sidney stalked back to Crowe's house. He was restless and in a state after the afternoon's surprising turn. How good it felt to be in her presence again. To touch her. He touched her! He not only touched her, he threw himself at her feet and put his head in her lap! Did that really happen? And then the peace of simply holding her hand in silence. That alone had been heavenly. But nothing was changed. He should not have done that to her. That was certainly not the behavior of a gentleman, not the behavior she deserved. Goddamn him.

Crowe was out when Sidney arrived home but he took the liberty of retiring to his study. He took off his coat and poured himself a drink. He didn’t drink it. He looked out onto the street from the front windows. He paced. He took the drink. He removed his vest. He perused the books on the shelves. Paced some more. The cage was constricting tighter and tighter. He felt hot, suffocated. And then by the most ironic luck his fiance, Mrs Campion, herself called on him. The butler showed her to the study.

She took in Sidney’s appearance, his frantic face. “My goodness Sidney, whatever is the matter?”

He looked at her stunned, confused by her arrival.

“Well??”

He still didn’t answer.

“Goodness, this will not do. Have you been drinking again?”

“Hardly.”

Eliza walked to him and grabbed his hand gently. She looked up at him. “Please dearest you know you can share anything with me.”

He looked at her blankly "Do you not regret our engagement?"

She looked as if she had been slapped and he immediately regretted the question and the hurt it caused her but he was not interested in keeping up the charade. "Heavens, what a question Sidney!"

He pulled his hand from hers “But do you?”

Eliza was shocked. She knew things certainly had not been as happy or exciting as their first engagement. An engagement born of financial necessity is never terribly romantic. Surely Sidney was embarrassed. He had gently spurned her advances at the regatta and probably still harbored feelings for that Sanditon girl but this was all temporary. They would fall back in love once he came to terms with everything. She truly believed it and kept her composure as she answered, “My love, we were parted for ten years and now we are to be married. Why would I ever regret this reunion?”

Sidney walked across the room, back to the front windows. He briefly hesitated and then said quietly, “Because I will never love you.”

“Sidney, you ARE drunk. I will not abide by this!”

He looked at her sadly. “I am not drunk. And while in time I may grow to be accustomed to our partnership it will never result in love. Does that not bother you?”

“I came here to see if you wanted to go for a stroll and this is what I am met with?!” She was deeply hurt and angry but quickly leveled her voice and settled on her narrative. “I do not appreciate you drinking like this during the day. It is most unbecoming and will not do. We will speak again when you are in your right mind.” She strode out of the room.

He knew he should feel shame and a strong fear of Eliza’s potential to destroy him and Tom and all of Sanditon but he simply didn’t have the heart to care what was to come next. Perhaps he was subconsciously trying to sabotage the union. Perhaps he felt if he pushed her enough she would leave him again. Perhaps he should just stay in for the rest of the day as this seemed to be a day for reckless and potentially dangerous behavior.

Chapter Text

Charlotte passed the next few weeks peacefully. She went to the circus with her aunt and uncle and it was just as thrilling for her as it was for her young cousins. She went to restaurants and visited some relatives she hadn't seen in years with her aunt. She sat and sketched the grand architecture in the city and reminded herself she needed to write to Mr Stringer and encourage him to reapply for his apprenticeship immediately. She and her aunt and uncle even dined at Bedford Place a couple evenings. Mary had been sure to mention in private notes that Sidney would not be present. Overall it was a very pleasant and leisurely way to spend the autumn. Uncle Stephen and Aunt Beatrice were in a different social sphere and neighborhood than the Parkers so on most occasions she had little reason to fear running into Sidney. Yet she was still haunted by the apprehension of seeing him. It felt she was always glancing around, making sure he wasn’t there and then feeling a twinge of disappointment when he wasn’t.

She saw Georgiana fairly often, each time her aunt accompanied her on their visits, either waiting downstairs reading in Mrs Griffith’s parlor or walking several paces behind them on the sidewalk. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Charlotte but it seemed likely that being Georgiana’s guardian, Sidney could turn up at some point in these visits and he certainly would not be a suitable chaperone for the two girls. She felt she must respect the confidence of her sister in law and be cautious.

Georgiana teased her for her aunt’s vigilance. “How does it feel to be a carefully watched captive after your freedom in Sanditon? Finally you can feel my pain.”

“Oh no” Charlotte said as they lounged on the sofa in Georgiana’s private sitting room together. “I certainly have more freedom than Mrs Griffiths allows you. And I don’t know the city well anyway. Aunt Beatrice is just being a fine hostess.”

“She knows of your relationship to my guardian does she not?” Georgiana grinned.

Charlotte blushed and picked a piece of lint off of her dress. “She knows something of him. Certainly not the extent of our relationship. Our past relationship.” she corrected herself.

“The extent of your relationship? It sounds like there are still details I do not know Charlotte.” And it was true. Charlotte had not told Georgiana that she and Sidney kissed, or that he caught her as she was leaving Sanditon to tell her he didn’t love Mrs Campion or about their private tea at Bedford Place. Charlotte couldn’t even imagine sharing such intimate moments with Georgiana, especially considering her tie to Sidney.

“How is the book you were telling me about?” she asked awkwardly.

“Charlotte, you are abominable at evading questions but I shall not press. A lady needs her secrets.”

The girls were happy to be reunited and enjoyed their time together but Charlotte could tell that something was weighing on Georgiana’s mind. She knew she had not been in contact with Otis again. They had spoken freely on that. Georgiana had other acquaintances to call on and was able to get out more than she had in Sanditon. It seemed that she should be happier in her beloved London but Charlotte could see the unrest in her.

“I am just contemplating what comes next Charlotte” Georgiana had answered one afternoon when Charlotte questioned her in the park.

“What a mysterious thing to say!”

“No, in all honesty, I feel, with the exception of my relationship with Otis, my interests, my goals, my life has been designed by others. I must find a way to break free. I will go mad otherwise.”

They walked on, Charlotte digesting her words. “I certainly understand your reasoning and do not feel you are in the wrong. Just please, please do not be reckless.” Her eyes conveyed the deep concern she felt. They didn’t speak of the trauma of Georgiana’s abduction directly. But Georgiana understood that Charlotte’s reluctance stemmed from the seriousness of that event and the sincere love she felt for her.

“I am being most cautious. I swear to you.” She smiled reassuringly and they walked on admiring the fall foliage.

 

“Now let us speak on Mr Parker, shall we?” It was exactly what Charlotte had been dreading since she first received her letter from Lady Suan back in Willingden. She had arrived for tea and their reunion had been lovely. Susan’s solarium had astounded Charlotte and she very much enjoyed discussing botany with her and seeing her exotic plant species from the Americas. She remembered immediately how easy it was to be with Susan, how bright she was and how smoothly conversation flowed. But at this question Charlotte’s guard automatically went up.

“Oh there is not much to speak of. He chose Mrs Campion, it is a very sensible match.” Charlotte had practiced this answer and was relatively pleased with her casual tone.

"Come now Charlotte! I thought we were more intimate than this. I heard from one of my sources that he had sent her home early from the regatta but if you do not wish to speak on it we do not need to."

Susan’s comforting voice reached Charlotte deeply and she couldn't resist the opportunity to fully unburden herself to someone. "I believe he did encourage her to leave early. He and I came to an agreement of sorts shortly afterwards."

Susan smiled knowingly, "An agreement of sorts sounds most positive. But then why did that agreement not hold?"

Charlotte squirmed. She felt very uncomfortable sharing information about Tom’s poor management and lack of insurance. Susan had been such a great asset at the regatta. She didn't want her to think poorly of Sanditon now. "Our agreement was not formal in any way and then that very evening there was a terrible fire. The Terrace, which was so close to completion, burned down. The Parker's then owed a great debt that they could not afford to repay. Sidney went to London to get funding.". She stopped. She thought of their parting, at that moment they had been a team, working together. Things had changed so drastically. "Mrs Campion is sponsoring the loan now.". She said quietly.

Lady Susan sat for a moment. "Dear Charlotte, that is a very tragic story, ripped straight from the stage even! I am very sorry."

Charlotte sniffled and quickly wiped her eyes. "Thank you. I confess it has been most difficult."

"Well I suppose it doesn't make anything easier but I have seen them out together and he looks miserable."

"Oh he is so lost! He is not the man I first met." Charlotte blurted out.

Susan looked at her curiously. "Have you seen him recently?"

Charlotte went red and nodded. Susan sat and waited.

Charlotte looked down at her hands "I have seen him and in fact we've spoken quite frankly with one another and …. of our enduring feelings. I know it is hardly the way to behave but we can't seem to…". She broke off, thinking. "You understand romantic relationships better than I, is it terribly uncommon for a, well, parted couple to speak so honestly with each other?"

Susan was careful with her words. "It can happen and I think honesty certainly has its benefits. However, in the vast majority of these cases it is the woman who pays for any indiscretion and sometimes pays quite dearly. You do understand me, my dear?"

Charlotte nodded solemnly.

"You have not, your intimacy has not extended beyond honesty has it?". Susan had underestimated Charlotte and the depth of this relationship with Sidney. She wanted to make sure she could offer real support and guidance if things had truly gone further than they ought.

"No, we embraced on our last meeting, which I know was very wrong. I told him we could no longer indulge our feelings.". Susan reached over and rubbed her knee gently. She felt conflicted over these revelations. It pained her own heart to see a couple so well matched pulled asunder. But Sidney and Charlotte were being reckless and while she certainly had no right to preach morality she worried for Charlotte. She was too young and unestablished to gain a reputation. Perhaps it was time to introduce her around and see if a new romance could shake her from the spell of Sidney Parker.

"That must have been painful but certainly for the best. Charlotte, dear, you have been through so much. Let me take you out a bit while you're here. Let me spoil you a little." Susan smiled kindly at her and Charlotte wondered how she had been so lucky to fall into this friendship.

Chapter Text

Georgiana and Sidney were in his carriage on their way to the Opera. He had desperately wanted to invite Charlotte. He wanted to be the one to take her to the Opera for the first time, to walk in with her and see her reaction to the building, the grandeur of it all, to take in the music, the costumes, the sets. He had considered inviting her aunt and uncle as well so that she would feel comfortable and he would be forced to behave. He simply wanted to be in her presence, no agenda, no ulterior motive. And yet it would still mean something. It would still signify a tie between them. He meant it when he said he wanted her to be happy and he knew that meant he had to remove himself from her world. So it would just be him and Georgiana. Luckily, because he had debated inviting the Heywoods, he had not extended an invitation to Eliza making it a more relaxed night.

"And what is the latest news on the Terrace rebuild?". Georgiana asked him politely as they bounced along the cobbled streets.

"They are still working on repairing damage to the foundation. It is careful work but it should be done soon and then we will be able to bring in a variety of laborers all at once to work on the various interior jobs.". Sidney received updates from Tom but also directly from Mr Stringer as well. Both Eliza and Lady Denham had demanded that he was to have the final say on all future work. He had immediately hired a separate bookkeeper to organize all the past expenses and keep track of things going forward but it was still an immensely stressful job. Appeasing, scolding and gently controlling Tom was certainly the most difficult and careful work of the whole blasted mess.

"I think you should be cautious about the scope of the next phase of the Terrace project. I believe it was foolish of Tom to try to finish such a large project in one go." Georgiana said carefully.

"What would you have us do, have our summer guests pay to stay in a construction zone?” Sidney replied gruffly, obviously annoyed.

“I simply mean that the whole venture should be excessively careful in its spending and not over extend itself in any way.” She paused for a few moments. “If Mrs Campion were to withdraw her funding then Sanditon would be in an even more precarious position than before.”

Sidney looked at her sternly. “You have been reading too many sensational novels. You wish that things will change and that…” He couldn’t even bring himself to say it. “But it is only foolish dreaming. Engagements are not to be made and broken at will. It simply is not to be done and especially when there is so much at stake.”

“Did you not do exactly that to Miss Heywood?”

He was angry now. “Indeed not! We were not engaged.”

“But she knew of your intentions does that still not count? I warned her about you and then you immediately proved me right!” Georgiana’s voice rose in anger.

“The circumstances were beyond my control!” Sidney banged his fist on the carriage wall and then took a couple deep breaths. He hardly wanted to lose his temper moments before stepping out into the glittering society of the opera. He started again, more composed. “I deeply regret the mistakes I made. My intentions towards Miss Heywood were most sincere and I certainly never meant her any harm. However, we must all simply move forward. She will surely find love again.”

“And so you mean to simply avoid her for the rest of your life? She is a dear friend to me, perhaps the only authentic friend I have. I will not give her up.” Georgiana said obstinately.

Sidney sighed frustrated. “Of course, I would never ask you to relinquish your relationship with her. Do you not realize that I clear your schedule with Mrs Griffiths? I know your scheduled social visits. I know when Miss Heywood is there.” He dropped his voice and looked out of the carriage window. “If only you knew how closely I have come to using your schedule as a way to see her. But I have vowed that I will stay out of her way, that I will do nothing that can bring her any further pain.” He cleared his throat and resumed his regular volume again. “But of course, you and Miss Heywood shall maintain your relationship with no trouble on my end.”

Georgiana eyed him carefully, “I do not like when you reveal yourself to be of good character. It makes it more difficult for me to rebel against your guardianship.”

Sidney laughed out loud relieved by the break in the tension. “Yes, I am quite a brute in that regard.” He patted her hand, “Let us have a nice night.”

Georgiana gave him a genuine, if small, smile and nodded.

 

The comfort they shared in the carriage did not last long however for on entering the lobby they immediately saw Eliza. She was there with her friends, Mr and Mrs Darlington and Lord Braxton. Georgiana immediately rolled her eyes. “I suppose we cannot simply pretend we do not see them.”

Sidney drew his eyebrows together as if briefly considering it. “No, here we go.” he said taking her elbow.

“Sidney, darling, well met!” Eliza gushed in a manner that Sidney instantly recognized as false.

“Eliza, you did not mention we were meeting Mr Parker.” Mrs Darlington. Sidney couldn’t quite read her expression but it wasn’t difficult to see that under her forced and polite social facade she was not thrilled by his presence either.

“Oh yes, I must have forgotten. We will be seated separately though.” Eliza said with a strained wide smile. “This is Miss Georgiana Lambe, Sidney’s delightful ward. Miss Lambe this is Mr and Mrs Darlington and Lord Braxton. Please excuse us, I must speak with Sidney for just a moment.”

Georgiana shot Sidney a look that threatened him not to leave her but Eliza quickly whisked him to the side before he had a chance to even think of an excuse to stay. “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming tonight?” she hissed at him.

“Georgiana and I had plans. I did not think to tell you.” He said casually, looking beyond her at the relief decor on the walls.

“Do not pretend like this isn’t improper! I am your fiance. It makes me look terribly foolish to not only attend the opera separately from you but to also not know that you are attending at all! I will not have you make a mockery of this relationship Sidney. It is enough that people are talking about the fact that we do not have a date set yet.”

“Are people talking about that?” he asked with a trace of genuine interest.

“Yes! Of course! It reflects very poorly on our relationship. Now we will simply say that you are here for a quiet evening with Georgiana.”

“Yes, well I am.” he said trying not to let too much frustration seep into his voice.

“You are intolerable sometimes.” she said angrily. “Now smile and be social for a moment and then go to your seats.” Sidney nodded silently and was happy to be led back to the relative safety of Georgiana.

Chapter Text

Lady Susan proved to be a very good distraction for Charlotte. They didn’t speak of Sidney again after their first conversation although Susan kept a watchful eye on him and Mrs Campion whenever she saw them out. If Sidney knew of Charlotte's feelings there wasn't much meddling would do. The cards were on the table. So for now she worked on entertaining and distracting Charlotte. She enjoyed taking her to the museum and a gathering with some of her most interesting and intellectual friends. Both events captivated Charlotte and left her very inspired. But as Charlotte’s London visit was drawing nearer to a close Lady Susan couldn't help but allow her young lovers one last meeting.

“Charlotte” Susan said as she bustled into the parlor one afternoon followed by a maid loaded up with a rainbow of beautiful gowns. “Mrs Maudesly is having her harvest ball this Saturday and I am in desperate need of your accompaniment. Come let us choose your dress.”

“Mrs Maudesly? Is she not the hostess of the ball where we met?” Charlotte asked slowly.

“Yes, yes, you are correct. She holds one major ball for each season. The spring is the most lovely perhaps but the Harvest ball is very nice as well. Come now.” Susan said, plainly ignoring Charlotte’s consternation, as she started unloading her old gowns from her maid’s arms.

They had chosen a rose colored gown with delicate gold and ivory beading and had it fitted to perfection. Lady Susan had taken control of everything in the days leading to the ball. “The rose gown matches the color of your natural flush so nicely. It is most becoming on you to be sure.” “Mrs. Hankins, her hair is so lovely with its natural curls so we will embrace that by pulling it up more loosely and then accentuating the waves by stringing this strand of pearls throughout.” By the time she was ready on Saturday evening Charlotte felt she never had and never would again feel so elegant. It was such a glamorous way to bid farewell to her time in London.

As they were putting on their jewelry Charlotte built up the courage to ask, “They will most likely be in attendance will they not, Susan?”

Susan smiled at her gently. She didn’t need to ask who Charlotte was referring to. “Yes, it is most probable. Mrs Campion is not one to miss a ball such as Mrs Maudesly’s. I daresay it’s a little late to ask you if you are up to the challenge but by all means we do not have to go if it brings you great anxiety.”

“No, I love to dance and this is the last grand ball I may ever attend once I return home. Your kindness has been so great in inviting me and giving me this gorgeous gown...No, no, of course I will attend. A brief greeting with them will be of no real consequence.”

“Yes, precisely my dear. And you may take much courage knowing you will certainly outshine Mrs Campion.” Susan smirked naughtily.

“Oh, that is not my aim at all!” Charlotte protested, suddenly self conscious by her elaborate appearance.

“Well, no, of course not but you cannot help if it is the truth.”

Charlotte could not help but smile wide and shake her head.

 

The decor for the harvest ball was as breathtaking as the summer if not more. The lights were more dim and there were lanterns glittering with candles hanging all above the ballroom floor. Beautiful gold and orange dahlias were paired with large sunflowers and then delicate sprays of blue bachelors buttons and forget me nots in large arrangements all over. Charlotte was thrilled to find Georgiana very early on and even more relieved to see that she had come with Mrs Griffiths rather than Sidney. She introduced Susan and Gerogiana.

“Ah, Miss Lambe, I have heard things of you that have made me most interested to make your acquaintance.” Susan greeted her.

Georgiana bit her lip and cast her eyes sideways assuming that as always someone was referring to her great inheritance and sordid family history. She couldn’t believe this was the great Lady Susan that Charlotte had gushed about so many times. She had thought she would be better than the rest of these fake, money obsessed societal ladies.

But then Susan lowered her voice conspiratorially, “I admire a woman who is willing to take matters into her own hands when it comes to love, even at great risk. I also hear you have been quite involved in the Sons of Africa in the past and would be very interested to hear more of their work and aims.” Georgiana was dumbfounded. “And yes, yes, I hear all of the other gossip about you as well but the common gossip is rarely what interests me most.” Susan smiled and like that, she had another young protege.

 

Sidney was settled at the edge of the ballroom floor with a drink, his eyes glued to Charlotte as she was offered dance after dance. She looked even more lovely than he could ever imagine. Her dress was complemented beautifully by the golds and oranges of the decor. As she spun it shone and flowed around her as if made of liquid. Babington came up beside him. “Sidney, chap, you are hardly subtle with your attentions.” he said smiling, hoping to casually pull him away and save him from the inevitable gossip of the party and wrath of Eliza.

Sidney still didn’t avert his eyes, barely even blinked. "I have only felt alive once since coming to London and that was when I was in her presence. Every other moment is just like being lost in a trance."

Babington looked at Sidney eyebrows raised. "You've seen her since arriving in London? I don't believe you shared that previously."

Sidney tightened his jaw and ignored the question. "I could manage my way through life if she just married and lived her life in Willingden but whatever will I do if she finds love here in London? If our paths are to cross continually in society? God, I am a sad, pathetic fool." he scoffed.

Babington looked at Charlotte thoughtfully. When Sidney had lost Eliza years ago he had been heartbroken but also so angry and embarrassed. He felt he had been cheated and misused and it fueled his temper, his wild behavior. Now on losing Charlotte he had completely lost himself. He was right, he was a shell of himself simply living his days through habit. Sidney Parker was gone.

Babington hesitated and then spoke, "We have one life to live Sidney. Perhaps we should make it our best.". He looked at him meaningfully and raised his glass. Sidney nodded tensely and they both took a drink.

Esther came through the crowd, "My love, I tire of polite conversation. Come dance with me so I do not have to speak to any more rouged old ladies.". Sidney watched as Babington's face lit up at her arrival, her voice. He nodded his departure at Sidney and floated off with his wife. Sidney was too happy for him to hate him but only just.

He looked around and saw Eliza on the right side of the room. She was standing talking to her regular elite group of friends and associates. She nodded at him and clearly expected him to come and perform along with her. He was tired of performance. He turned and saw that the song was ending and before he could even stop to think, to remember that he was breaking all of the vows he made to himself, undoing all of his self restraint, he was striding across the dance floor to Charlotte.

He came up behind her and she was startled when she heard his unmistakable deep voice ask for the pleasure of the next dance. She looked around the room nervously and slowly extended her hand to his. The music started and they began seamlessly.

"I felt perhaps this was admissible as they are many third parties present."

"Yes, but your intended is among them. Don't you think this will make her dreadfully unhappy?" Charlotte said nervously.

He did not care to speak on Eliza. "I...it has…" Everything he yearned to say was inappropriate. He wanted to tell her how difficult it had been to stay away from her, that he had looked up her uncle's address and then had to force himself not to purposefully wander into their neighborhood. He wanted to tell her all of the places he dreamed of taking her while she was in London, all he wanted to share with her. He wanted to tell her she was all he would ever want, that she was the most radiant woman he had ever met. But of course he could not. "Perhaps you are right. Perhaps we should not speak."

She dared to look up at him and his eyes looked back at her so tenderly, with so much yearning. She involuntarily sighed and relinquished her defenses. She melted into the moment and it was suddenly like they were living through the summer ball again. Here in this same ballroom the love that forged so suddenly in just one dance came bursting up to the surface again. Swirling together, no one else existed. Every touch, every shared movement between them was magnified, electric. She let herself enjoy his warmth and closeness, to know she was dancing with a man who loved her deeply.

And then the music stopped and they lingered for a moment not ready to let go. It was then that the memory of seeing him with Eliza for the first time flooded through her. She swallowed hard. The weight of their situation was crushing her. She had to get out before she burst into tears right there on the floor. She curtsied and then slipped quickly away.

She made her escape to the same room where she had first met Lady Susan. She remembered there had been a balcony off of the room. She needed fresh air. She pushed open the French doors and let the frigid air cover her body, to shock her out of her emotional state. But then almost immediately she felt his touch on her waist. If she hadn't been so thrilled by his touch she would have been furious. He had no right to follow her, to keep her thinking they somehow had a chance. He was to be married and then where would that leave her? But she couldn’t resist the feeling of his large, warm hands enveloping her waist and she allowed him to guide her behind the open door so that they could not be seen from the inside. He turned her to face him and leaned down, their lips dangerously close, hovering.

"Just choose me."she begged. It came out of her lips unintended, like breath. His hands tightened around her waist, pulled her hips to his territorially. She was immediately mortified. This certainly was not the way to speak to an engaged man. But then why not? He was the one who instigated all of these terribly inappropriate encounters. She thought of Lady Susan’s words to Georgiana, “a woman who is willing to take matters into her own hands when it comes to love, even at great risk”. If he was taking liberties then she would too by speaking what was truly on her mind.

She straightened her back and looked him in the eyes. She said it quietly but clearly, "Choose me." He was obviously surprised by her forthrightness but she didn't give him time to react further. She slipped from his grasp and back into the throngs of guests.

Chapter Text

It was the lifeline Sidney needed to pull him out of his fog of misery. It offered no solutions. In fact, it really only offered more problems but hearing Charlotte's two word command he realized he was willing to do anything to follow it. He stood on the balcony looking out into the dark night, his brain already filing through what needed to be done and in what order. First on the list was clearly Eliza.

 

Eliza had watched Sidney watching Charlotte. She couldn't place her for a moment but then she couldn't believe it when she realized it was little Charlotte Heywood. What in God's name was she doing here in London, at Mrs Maudesly's Harvest ball? How had she gotten an invitation? She wondered if she had been in town long, if Sidney had already seen her elsewhere. When he disregarded her signal and moved on to dance with Charlotte she felt she might explode. How could he do this to her? The song ended. The girl ran off and Sidney ran after her.

She quickly started calculating in her head. Certainly people had noticed Sidney watching her, dancing with her, leaving with her. What was the best way to cope with this, to lessen the gossip? She said casually into her circle of friends, "I feel I would like to dance." Lord Braxton immediately offered her his arm and off they went.

She noticed that Charlotte came back through the ballroom shortly, alone, so at least that was over. She decided the best course of action was to just keep dancing. Sidney eventually returned and settled on the edge of the room again. She knew he couldn't properly leave without her so she continued to dance taking whatever partner would have her, making it apparent to anyone who might be watching that he was on the sidelines waiting dutifully for her.

The carriage ride home had been silent. Sidney knew Eliza had seen everything. She made it obvious by the way she ignored him and kept him waiting for the rest of the night. It was hardly reasonable to start their necessary conversation so late at night though so he let the silence settle. When they arrived at her home he stepped down to help her out of the carriage. He walked her to the door and said he would call on her tomorrow morning. She nodded. He glanced at her face for the first time since leaving the ball and was surprised to see that her silence was not born of rage and jealousy but instead she seemed sad and fearful, smaller than the confident Eliza the world knew.

 

He arrived back at the Campion townhome at 10:00 the next morning. He simply wanted to get things settled as quickly as possible. Eliza met him in the parlor and smiled as if last night had not happened. "Good morning Sidney! It looks like it is a very brisk day. You must be cold. Come take the seat closest to the fire."

"Thank you. It is very windy today, quite cold.". He sat down on the chair offered. Eliza sat on the sofa facing the fireplace. The unexpected civility, warmth even, caught him off guard and for a moment he wasn't sure where to begin.

Eliza saw this and took advantage of his hesitation. "Do you know, I heard the most interesting story at the ball last night. You will enjoy this dear."

"Eliza." Her face froze. He dove right into the matter. "Eliza, I have come this morning because I must break our engagement. I hate to cause you any pain but I feel we are not as well suited as we originally hoped and I cannot in good faith go forward."

She sat quietly. She spent her life rearranging truths, conversations, and situations in more beneficial directions. It was perhaps her finest skill, to make things seem better than they were. And now she was adrift, unable to respond. She had been so pleased to arrange their engagement. Since returning from Antigua Sidney had been well known around town as being devastatingly handsome, moneyed and completely unreachable. He gave only the most bare, polite attention to the women that attempted to catch his eye and it was well known that he had no interest in marriage. So while he wasn't the most sought after bachelor in London she did have the immense pride of catching the one that had previously seemed entirely unattainable. But of course beyond all of the societal games losing Sidney meant losing a man she had loved since she was a girl.

"I suppose this harkens back to your cruel profession of never being able to love me?". She looked at him challengingly. "Spoken like a naive man. If the arrangement isn't perfectly to your specifications why go through with the marriage? You have options, what a luxury. Women always must marry for benefit. We have no other choice. Heaven forbid one man be put into our degrading position of marrying for money." Sidney winced, of course it was all true.

“But Eliza, you have money, you are well esteemed in society. You can marry, or not marry, as you please now. Why do you even want this? You certainly cannot be happy with the way things have been?” he asked earnestly as he stood from his chair.

Eliza gave a sad laugh as her eyes welled with tears, "Is it really so hard to see? I want this because I love you! I have loved you always Sidney! You think I’m cold and aloof but I have had to protect myself, my heart for ten years, wanting a man who was not my husband. And now I finally had you but in name only, not in your affection.” Sidney paced agitated and then settled on the sofa next to her.

“If you have always loved me why did you break our engagement in the first place?” he asked softly.

“Oh Sidney, you knew my mother. Our family fortune was running down and you were a decent match, she was happy for it but when Mr Campion came along he was much preferable. I was merely seventeen and she convinced me that marrying for love only resulted in heartbreak and disappointment over time. She claimed men were fickle and lost interest in their wives regardless of early passion. Marrying for societal gain was a clear contract with clear expectations and the room for love or at least fondness to eventually grow.” She looked at him through tearful eyes and his heart ached for her.

“That does sound like your mother.” he added wryly.

Eliza let out a mirthless chuckle. “She was a most calculating and stubborn woman.”

“Very similar to someone else I know.” Sidney smirked and Eliza playfully pushed his shoulder.

They sat quietly for a moment with this rediscovered intimacy. “Could we not make this work? If I was not so desperate to keep you I could be kinder. I know it.” Eliza pleaded.

Sidney stood up and stepped away from the couch, shaking his head. “I will always hold you in high esteem and affection but I still don’t believe we could ever truly make each other happy. We’ve grown in very different directions over the last decade. I’m a sulky brute and you’re a glittering society jewel." He smiled sadly at her.

Eliza whimpered and her bottom lip trembled. He was leaving her. After years of daydreaming about being his wife she had come so very close and now it was all over.

Sidney went on, "I can barely even hope for your forgiveness but I truly am sorry. I should have never entered into this engagement knowing it was not what I wanted. Tell the beau monde whatever you wish. Make me a villain. I will not hold it against you.” He hesitated wincing a bit, “Just please perhaps do not do harm to the Sanditon venture for my brother’s sake.”

Eliza rolled her eyes. “Damned Sanditon. Precious Sanditon.” She started and quickly turned her head to him. “Miss Heywood.”

Sidney froze.

“I am losing you to a farm girl, am I not?!” she said, suddenly incensed. He didn’t respond. He couldn’t bear to tell Eliza that she had never even been in the competition. There was no losing if you didn’t even qualify. A misstep before the regatta but otherwise Charlotte had always been the clear victor, the woman who reigned over his heart.

"You may not pursue her immediately Sidney. I will not have it. I will not be made a fool. A country girl with no money, over me!” He could see that her sadness was quickly hardening over. In some ways they really were so alike, always protecting themselves with anger or pride.

“I will certainly not do anything untoward, I understand Eliza. I will protect your image and follow your lead as long as you do not do anything to harm the reputations of Sanditon or Miss Heywood. I will also work with my banker to have your investment reimbursed immediately.”

Eliza laughed haughtily. “However will you do that my dear? My money was what saved you. You have nothing without it.”

Sidney understood that it was time to leave before things continued to escalate. He also had absolutely no answer to the question posed. He walked over to her and kissed her hand. “I bid you farewell and wish you the very best Mrs Campion.” He grabbed his hat and was quickly gone, out of her home, out of her life. The moment she heard the door shut Eliza threw herself face down onto the sofa and sobbed.

 

Sidney went home feeling a dull ache all over for having momentarily seen the Eliza he once loved, now knowing that her heart had stayed true to him despite her abandoning him years ago. He hated to hurt her when she had made herself so vulnerable to him. For a brief moment in the parlor he did wonder if maybe once married they could be comfortable enough that they would fall back in love but then he knew their priorities, preferences and goals were so desperately different now that they would simply live a life apart together. And Charlotte. There was Charlotte.

By the time he reached Bedford Place though he was already feeling immensely lighter. He ran up the front steps two at a time and went straight to his office. He wrote three letters, one for post, two for immediate delivery.

 

"Dear Tom,

Mrs Campion's investment is no longer. Immediately cease all work. I will be in Sanditon tomorrow evening to discuss this further.

Your loving brother,
Sidney"

 

"Dear Babington,

I am making strides towards living the best version of my life as you recommended. I will call this afternoon unless you send message of an objection. Can you possibly clear your schedule to arrive in Sanditon in a fortnight?

Your dear friend,
Sidney"

 

"Dear Mr Heywood,

The Parker family would be most pleased to host your family for dinner this evening. We regret the late invitation but would so much enjoy the pleasure of Miss Heywood's company before she travels home.

Our very best,
The Parker siblings"

Chapter Text

"I don't know what to make of this late invitation. It does seem odd does it not?" Stephen asked Beatrice.

She read it over. "Yes indeed."

"And have not Mr and Mrs Tom Parker already left for Sanditon?"

"Oh yes, I believe that was two or three weeks now."

"So I suppose it is Arthur and Diana who are hosting us. It does seem strange that they would not simply sign their names. Although, the late invitation and awkward signature would perhaps match Arthur Parker's character." Stephen mused. "Do you think he fancies Charlotte?". He asked suddenly.

Beatrice shook her head, "No, they seem quite friendly but I do not see a sign of romantic interest in either." She was thinking, debating how much to share with her husband. "Do you think their brother Sidney is staying at Bedford Place now that Tom Parker's family has vacated?"

"Oh yes, I had quite forgotten there was another sibling. Well I suppose that would make more sense to sign as siblings rather than three separate names. Well no matter anyway, we will attend as it would make Charlotte quite happy I'm sure". Stephen set the card aside and picked his newspaper back up, his little mystery neatly solved and promptly forgotten.

"Hmm.."

"Yes dear?" He asked, lowering the paper enough to peer over at her.

"I must put you in my confidence on a matter pertaining to Mr Sidney Parker before we attend a dinner in his home." Stephen folded the paper and put it down, all ears.

 

When Charlotte heard they were dining at Bedford Place she panicked internally. Obviously her aunt and uncle had not attended the ball, did not know that just the night before their niece told an engaged man to choose her over his fiance. She was internally screaming. Why did she say that? Did it encourage him to continue to act inappropriately? Did it make him think she wanted to be his mistress?! Oh God. Oh God. It was as Lady Susan warned her. She could not beg off from the dinner. The invitation was already accepted specifically on her behalf. She tried to convince herself it was only from Arthur and Diana, that Sidney would be absent as he had been at the other dinners they attended at Bedford Place. But the timing was too suspect. She knew it came from him. Oh God.

 

They were shown into the front room on their arrival and there met by Diana, Arthur and Sidney. Port was poured and the awkward little party was on its way.

"Oh I was so pleased when Sidney told us he had arranged this little gathering!". Arthur pressed Charlotte's hand and Charlotte immediately glanced at her aunt to see her reaction. She was looking straight at Charlotte, her face set with a concerned and serious expression. Charlotte couldn't help but notice that Uncle Stephen seemed to react to this statement as well. She groaned to herself, he knew. This was going to be a stressful evening.

The polite conversation flowed easily enough. Beatrice and Stephen had built a friendly relationship with Diana and Arthur over their weeks hosting Charlotte. The four of them carried the conversation well and Charlotte was happy to sit quietly on the edge of their circle. She felt Sidney's eyes on her constantly though. He was restless. He sat on the far side of the room for a while and then got up and walked the room a bit, pretending to arrange the decanters on the table. He lingered at the bookcase for a while. He then walked over and stood close to her chair. She felt he was trying to attract her attention but she refused to look his way.

"Charlotte, how was the ball last night? Did you enjoy yourself?" Diana asked and then continued to prattle on, "I, myself, find I can no longer attend Mrs Maudesly's balls. They are simply too crowded and overwhelming. I feel I could faint the moment I enter the ballroom."

"I quite know how you feel. They are overwhelming." Charlotte said quietly. She felt Sidney's eyes on her intently. He cleared his throat.

"I detest to bring business into a family gathering but Miss Heywood, I received a letter from Tom today and he has sensitive Sanditon business that he would like to hear your opinion on if you don't mind terribly?" Sidney's voice sent tingles down her spine.

"Oh?" Arthur started but Sidney quickly shot him a look. "Oh." he muttered looking down, chastened and confused.

"We could perhaps just very briefly discuss it in the study?" Sidney continued.

It was Beatrice's turn to now shoot Stephen a look. "Oh, business talk at a dinner is hardly appropriate. And while I don't don't underestimate my niece's brilliance, quite the opposite really, I don't know if her opinion is so critical that we must break up our party right now." Stephen tried to sound casual and yet authoritative.

"I assure you that Miss Heywood's ideas and opinions are quite critical to the Sanditon endeavour. It will be but a moment and then we shall all go through to the dining room." Sidney said more confidently then he felt. He hardly wanted to make a poor impression on Charlotte's family but he needed to speak to her before she left London. "Miss Heywood?"

Charlotte looked over at her aunt. She nodded at Beatrice trying to assure her that this was fine and reasonable. But inside she was terrified. He was taking her privately out of the room in front of everyone. Was this the start of her ruin? She would have to be very firm with him once they left earshot that this was hardly her intention at all and that they should simply vow to never see each other again so that this could finally end.

She followed him out of the room and up the stairs to the study. He motioned her in before him and her heart stopped when she saw him turn to close the door all but for a crack. "Mr Parker, I hardly think this is appropri-"

"Charlotte, please" he cut her off striding to her side from the door. He was all nervous energy. She wasn't sure if he was going to grab her or fall at her feet again or run laps around the room. He took a deep breath to calm down and gently picked up her hand. "I have sinned greatly against you. I must beg your forgiveness for ever engaging myself to another when you were all I ever wanted.". She went to pull her hand away. This was more of the same, more of what they had already been through, suffered through.

He tightened his grip on her hand. She looked up at him and was startled by the intensity in his eyes. "I have broken my engagement to Mrs Campion. I choose you."

Charlotte stared at him, was she imagining things? Could this be the truth? Sidney watched her. She was shocked, struggling. "You're… You're not marrying her?"

"No" he breathed.

Tears began to fill her eyes. "You're free?"

"Yes. Well free from my engagement". He paused and she looked at him concerned. He swallowed. "I cannot ask for your hand in marriage. Not right now. I have nothing, less than nothing. I could be in debtors prison shortly. I also have to take some time to preserve Mrs Campion's reputation. The scandal would fall too much on her and you if we were to be together so soon. I know it is not ideal and I so wish I could offer you everything now. But in the meantime I want no promises from you. If Sanditon fails, if you find love elsewhere I... I hold you to nothing."

"I am yours Mr Parker.". She whispered, voice breaking.

"But truly Charlotte we cannot let this one blessing blind us to the reality of what could come. I don't want you tied…"

"I am yours." She said again.

She reached her arms up around his neck and his arms circled her waist. They embraced tightly. Charlotte's tears of joy transformed into laughter as the weight of their separation began to melt away. Sidney lifted her off her feet, still embracing her and spun them both in circles. He placed her back on her feet and they looked at each other both smiling so widely it felt their cheeks would burst. He leaned down and kissed her lips softly, gently, happily over and over. She reached her hands into his hair and pulled his head down closer to her, deepening the kiss, showing him the desire she had been holding in all of these months. The passion and urgency that built in their kiss was like nothing either had experienced before. Her hands traveled down his body and slipped in his coat and up his back. The simple intimacy of her warm hands under his coat made Sidney groan and he walked her backwards, stumbling against a wall. He left her lips and kissed her ear, down her neck, his hands traveling around her body hungrily, desperately. With Sidney pressing her against the wall Charlotte could feel his hardness pressed at her center. She felt a delightful tension shoot through her body, a building warmth between her legs. She gasped and Sidney pulled back, both of them panting.

"Oh God Sidney.". His name from her lips. Something about it. He dove for her lips again, his hands cupping her face, his fingers in her hair, his hips pressing. Charlotte wondered if they could just call a minister and get married this very minute, put her out of this new exquisite torture. Sidney groaned again, frustrated, and pulled himself back again clearly feeling the same intense desire.

"Charlotte, you will be the death of me and I suddenly have a life I very much want to live for." He whispered in a ragged voice. She smiled coyly and stretched up to kiss his stubbled chin, his jawline.

"Your aunt and uncle are waiting downstairs."

Charlotte's eyes widened. She forgot they were downstairs. She forgot there was anyone else in the world. "Oh! What do we…? What will we…?"

He stepped back as she smoothed her dress. He straightened his coat and then reached out and intimately tucked a portion of her hair back into its comb. "We will have to keep our love secret for now, until I can properly give your father my intentions, until it doesn't cause scandal.". She looked at him and felt overwhelmed, everything was still so uncertain. He took her hands. "I leave for Sanditon tomorrow. In a fortnight I will come for you in Willingden and bring you to Sanditon. We will be meeting to make decisions about how to move forward on the endeavour. I will need you and your problem solving skills."

"I am not sure my parents will allow me. My mother...I told my mother about you…" Charlotte said quietly, a little embarrassed.

Sidney couldn't help but smile, his eyes sparkling with a teasing he wouldn't inflict, not now anyway. "I will have Tom write to them requesting your presence and will do my best to appease them when I come. You prepare them as best as you know how." He kissed her on the forehead. "Come now. Downstairs."

Sidney apologized to the group for keeping them waiting and then invited them to move through to the dining room, mostly to give himself and Charlotte a moment to compose themselves in the shuffle. Charlotte was not so lucky however. Aunt Beatrice was immediately at her side.

“You look flushed my dear. Was the news of Sanditon terribly serious?” Up close Aunt Beatrice noticed the redness on Charlotte’s chin, her lips swollen. “You’ll be sitting next to me my dear.”

“Yes aunt.” Charlotte loved her Aunt Beatrice and her usual lively spirit and sense of humor. She was only eight years older than Charlotte and she had always greatly looked up to her, almost like the older sister Charlotte never had. This stern side was one that Charlotte had never seen before and a side that she could tell that Beatrice felt uncomfortable having to take on. She felt dreadful that her behavior caused Beatrice to worry so, was causing so much strain to their relationship.

Dinner had passed without further drama. Charlotte stayed quiet mostly. She did her best not to even look at Sidney because she wasn't sure how she could control her face if she did. Sidney meanwhile had fallen into good, easy spirits. Uncle Stephen was seated at his side and seemed to unconsciously enjoy their conversation until he remembered himself and abruptly turned to join another discussion. Sidney took it in stride, he understood that there was obviously distrust owed to him after he had gone against propriety and Stephen's wishes. He felt however, that in time, they could potentially get along quite well. This thought made his heart expand, that he could be spending future holidays with Stephen and Beatrice, that they would be doting relations to any children he and Charlotte had. His future was beginning here at this table and he couldn’t help but look up at Charlotte with a gaze full of such love and wonder that when she felt his attention and looked up it made her smile and blush so furiously that her dinner roll fell right out of her hand and onto the floor.

Chapter Text

The following morning Beatrice called Charlotte downstairs. She was sitting at her writing desk. "Charlotte, it is my intention to write to your mother and strongly urge her not to allow any contact or correspondence between you and Mr Sidney Parker, perhaps the whole Parker family."

"Oh Aunt, please do not!" cried Charlotte.

Beatrice looked at her, completely exasperated. "I honestly do not know what to make of you Charlotte! You were always such a bright girl with such strong principles and yet the deep shame of seeing you disappear with that man only to reappear clearly after having some sort of illicit dalliance! I…. He is to marry another Charlotte! Engaged! What could you be thinking?! How could you bring such shame to your family?! And now to beg for the opportunity for it to continue?!" Her voice had risen and Charlotte was deeply hurt, but certainly not surprised, by her aunt's estimation of her.

She dropped her head and stood for a pause, then quietly, "He is not engaged."

Beatrice looked at her carefully, waiting for more.

"He broke off his engagement yesterday."

"And then immediately had you to his home?" Beatrice said disdainfully.

Charlotte’s pleading eyes sought hers, "He cannot properly ask for my hand right now as it would only encourage scandal. I beg you to keep this in the strictest confidence. I only tell you so you will not think so poorly of me."

“I do not like this and I must admit I do not trust him. Regardless of his being engaged or not you can hardly argue that your time spent together yesterday evening was chaste or appropriate. I saw you on your return Charlotte, flushed, in disarray. Frankly I am sick over this!” Beatrice exclaimed.

Charlotte felt the tears welling in her eyes. “It is not my intent to make you unhappy Aunt, I swear on it!”

“Charlotte, promise me you will not see him again until you have received a proper, public proposal? I do not trust your behavior in his presence. I fear for you.”

Charlotte began to cry in earnest. “I cannot promise that, I cannot. I am so sorry.”

“However do you expect me to let you fall into his arms unwed? I must warn your parents.”

Charlotte dropped to her knees in front of her aunt, “Please, please do not. I am going home. How will I see him anyway? Please keep my confidence. Please.”

Beatrice took Charlotte’s hands. “This is not the Charlotte I know. I worry, I truly worry.”

“I will be most cautious, I swear it.”

“I cannot talk on this matter anymore. I can barely stand to think on it. That is all.”

Charlotte hesitated, then sighing lifted herself up and went back to her room to finish packing.

 

Sidney had stopped by Mrs Grifftiths to say goodbye to Georgiana. He had sent word yesterday afternoon that he would be leaving for Sanditon. He was shocked to walk in and almost immediately trip over a trunk. Mrs Griffiths came hurrying nervously over to him.

“Forgive me Mr Parker! She has taken it into her head that she is going to Sanditon with you. I told her that was not your intention but she ordered Crockett to pack and bring everything down. Please, you will have to speak with her.”

Sidney rolled his eyes and stormed up the stairs. He impatiently rapped on the door with his cane. “Georgiana!”

She opened it and came face to face with his angry countenance. “Sidney” she said enthusiastically, “I am so excited for our trip. I will be ready to leave momentarily!”

“You know you were not invited. This is an urgent business trip, nothing more. There will be no time for pleasure or keeping track of you for that matter.” he growled.

“Most excellent, for I am also traveling purely for business reasons. It is most fortunate that our plans lined up so well.” Georgiana replied hurrying around the room with her maid, Crockett, finalizing their packing.

Sidney looked at the ceiling and tried to compose himself but couldn’t keep the annoyance out of his voice. “For heaven’s sake, what business do you have in Sanditon?”

“Why investing of course. We have spoken on it in the past!”

He pounded his cane on the floor. “We have spoken on it and I have told you it is not only unadvisable but also completely impossible. I will not relent on this matter.”

Georgiana motioned for her maid to leave and she sat down calmly on her bed. She watched Sidney for a moment, thinking. “What business do you have in Sanditon right now that is so incredibly urgent? It is almost winter already, what could be so very pressing right now in a seaside resort?”

“The season has nothing to do with it. Business doesn’t stop just because the visitors are away.” he replied gruffly.

“I see. Still, you have been able to conduct all of your business by letter since August. It just seems surprising I suppose.”

“No matter to you. You will not be coming, you will not be investing. That is final.”

“Crockett, please have Mr Parker’s driver load my trunk.” Georgiana called to her maid through the closed door. She smiled archly at Sidney. “I am going to Sanditon with you.”

Sidney clenched his jaw tightly, his temper on the edge of explosion but then thought that perhaps it might be easier to fetch Charlotte from Willingden if he had Georgiana with him. “Fine. Bring Crockett. I will need some sort of help keeping you in line.” he said gruffly.

Chapter Text

Aunt Beatrice did not come to see Charlotte off at the carriage. She begged off with a headache. Stephen had his young sons give their farewells inside the house so he could walk Charlotte out privately. “You have put her in a very difficult position Charlotte. Truly. Asking her to keep a secret from her own in-laws. And she worries about you terribly.” Stephen said gently as they stood outside the carriage.

“It causes me great despair Uncle. I am so very sorry.”

“Well, it is hardly an easy situation. I have convinced Beatrice that I will take care of this. I am used to earning my brother's disapproval.” He took a deep breath and exhaled it. “I am not sending warning to your parents. I know them both well enough and know that Mr Parker would not be their ideal candidate for marriage in any situation. He is too worldly for their taste.” Stephen chuckled a bit to himself. Charlotte felt a wave of relief building. “If you are so set on this union you hardly need further reasons for your father to refuse him. That said Charlotte, I am still not comfortable with this arrangement. I pray that you will be on your guard. Guard your heart and your reputation most closely. Promise me.”

“I will Uncle, I will. Thank you. Thank you.” Charlotte threw her arms around him in a loving hug.

Uncle Stephen sighed and then mumbled, “I may have also sent Mr Parker a very strongly worded and threatening letter.” Charlotte laughed and hugged him tighter.

 

Georgiana and Sidney barely spoke the whole ride to Sanditon. Georgiana knew she had pushed her luck by insisting to come and trying to converse with him would probably be more trouble than it was worth. During the drive though, she couldn't help but notice that a change had occurred in him; his posture was straighter, his eyes were keener. And yet he also seemed more relaxed. Something had shifted, he had regained himself.

As they got closer to Sanditon however Sidney seemed increasingly conflicted. He kept glancing at her, intaking breath as if about to speak but then stopping himself. Finally as they were about an hour from Sanditon he spoke. “You will be staying at Trafalgar House so no doubt you will be hearing all of the news shortly.” He glanced at Crockett. “Miss Crockett, you will keep this under strictest confidences I know.” She nodded and proceeded to look out the window, allowing for some semblance of privacy. Georgiana subconsciously leaned in eagerly.

“Mrs Campion is no longer investing in Sanditon. We are in fact no longer affianced.” He quickly glanced at her and then averted his eyes.

She pressed her lips together trying to hold back her smile. “Yes, go on.” She said with false casualness.

“There is no more to elaborate on. While in Sanditon Tom and I will simply be trying to decide on the best path forward. Ideally one that keeps us out of prison.” he added under his breath.

"This is a fascinating turn of events. And to imagine, I had heard that engagements are not to be broken. How interesting." Georgiana said smugly. Sidney exhaled loudly and refused to look at her. "Does Charlotte know yet?" She added in a gentler tone.

"Charlotte has nothing to do with the financial matters we are discussing." He answered shortly.

She nodded with fake gravity and decided not to press. Instead she straightened up and made her pitch, "Well this seems as good of a time as any to propose my investment plan."

"Good God Georgiana! Give it a rest! This is your father's money that he set aside for your future!"

"No! Enough!". He had not expected such a ferocious response and was taken aback. "This is not my father's money! This money rightfully belongs to my mother and all of the other slaves that gave their lives so that my father could attain wealth! He may have been a savior figure to you and a good father to me but to those men and women and children he was a thief. He took everything from them Sidney! Everything!". She began to cry. She had meant to be firm in these statements but the emotion of them was too heavy.

Sidney reached across the carriage and put his hand on hers. He looked her in the eye and said earnestly, "Your father was a good man. He saw the error of his ways. He freed all of his slaves. You know that is not common practice."

"At his death! AT HIS DEATH Sidney!!!! He didn't do it when he married my mother! He didn't do it when I was born! Did he not see that we were the same as those people he considered property?! Did he even think we were equal to him? Or were we also lesser? Were we also worthy of being bought and sold?!". Her chest heaved in sobs as she fell into Crockett's arms. Sidney looked on helplessly as Crockett comforted her.

Once she had regained some semblance of composure she apologized wiping her eyes, "Forgive me, I certainly did not mean to unburden myself like that in front of you."

"Goodness Georgiana, please do not apologize. I cannot answer for your father or his actions. All I can do is assure you that he adored both you and your mother. Please know that."

She exhaled shakily. "Yes, I know. It does not make the matter easier to handle however. Sidney you must see, this money weighs on me. If I were to spend it on a country estate and a London townhome and lavious society events it would be an act of further degradation against those that earned it.". Sidney went to speak but she raised her hand to stop him. "I do not intend to waste this fortune away but I want it to help others. I plan in time to give a portion to the Sons of Africa and a portion to other abolitionist causes as I see fit. But if I can also invest money in something that will benefit those I….care about then why would I not? You have never been my favorite person but what good would it do me if you were jailed? I would probably just be assigned another foul tempered male guardian." She smiled weakly.

Again Sidney went to speak and again she stopped him. "In addition, the world is full of Edward Denham's who look down on me but want my money. Heaven forbid one is charming enough to fool me into marriage and then make my life miserable. I do not want to be a target. I believe Otis's intentions were pure and yet my money still came to ruin us. It is too heavy a burden for me, truly. $40,000 Sidney. I know it is not enough to cover your expenses and debts but that is my investment offer."

He looked at her carefully. He was still greatly conflicted on the matter but at her age he was already in Antigua, becoming his own man. Who was he to say that she couldn't begin to make her own life decisions? She clearly had strong feelings on this choice and had been thinking about them for a long time. He reached out his hand to shake hers. "Parker Brothers Development accepts your investment offer, perhaps not in the full amount but we can discuss that later."

Georgina happily shook his hand. "Just know also that I do not plan to be a silent investor. I have many ideas and many opinions. Prepare yourself Mr Parker."

Sidney shook his head and chuckled. “Perhaps let’s consider this a conditional acceptance then.” and then said softly, earnestly, "Thank you Georgiana."

Chapter Text

"Dear Mr and Mrs Heywood,

I hope this letter finds you and yours in excellent health and spirits.

I write requesting the great benefit of Charlotte's presence in Sanditon. We are at a critical juncture in the Sanditon endeavour and great decisions must be made now to prepare for the spring and summer season. Charlotte was a most excellent assistant to me this past summer and I am afraid I cannot manage now without her.

If it pleases Charlotte and you can bear to spare her for a fortnight I would be most indebted to all of you. If you are in agreement I can send a chaperoned carriage for her on November 27th.

Humbly,
Thomas Parker"

Her mother reread the letter several times, as if trying to discern what exactly would be happening in Sanditon, who would be present. She pursed her lips. "You have just returned Charlotte! We have barely seen you since last spring now!"

"It would only be a fortnight Mother. Much shorter than my trip to London."

"Yes, but that does not mean you need to go."

"Well, yes, I don't need to go. I would like to go but if you and father need me here…". She trailed off. Was she really going to lose this chance? She knew that she and Sidney would be fine now, that they could go without seeing each other but she certainly didn't want to.

Mr Heywood came in through the back door and into the kitchen. "Hello my loves. Is lunch prepared?". He noticed the letter in his wife's hands. "Anything interesting?"

"Another chance for Charlotte to run off." Mrs Heywood hadn't meant to come off sounding so bitter.

"Run off? Our intrepid traveler? Where to now dear?" he asked Charlotte as his wife handed him the letter. He read through it quickly. “Ah, back to Sanditon. To work? Are you interested in this work Charlotte?”

“I did quite enjoy doing it. I found it very exciting and rewarding to be part of a town’s development.” Charlotte said trying to find a balance of sounding enthusiastic but not over eager.

“My dreamer. Yes, that sounds like something you would enjoy. Well what do you say Mother? Shall we pack her off again? I feel I barely know her.” her father said with a bit of sadness but mostly pride.

“Well it will be very close to Christmas by the time she returns. I rely on Charlotte quite a bit for all of the holiday preparations.” her mother stated.

Mr Heywood glanced at the letter again. “Well it looks as though she’d be back with at least a week to spare and the younger girls can certainly help out more this year with Allison’s guidance. You decide Mother. We know you know best.” Mr Heywood smiled and kissed his wife's cheek. He could tell his wife was reluctant but he wasn’t sure if she had a specific reason or was just feeling overwhelmed by her first child getting so close to leaving their home permanently.

Charlotte watched the whole exchange with bated breath. Her mother obviously still had not shared Charlotte’s summer heartbreak with her father and her uncle had obviously not written as he promised. She felt relieved but still anxious. When would she see Sidney again if she could not get to Sanditon? Would she have to wait until he was ready to ask for her father’s permission? That could be months, a year, even more perhaps by the time he settled Sanditon’s debts and was financially stable enough to propose. And what if he was jailed? She quickly pushed that from her mind. She couldn't even stand to think about it. She supposed they could send letters but when could they properly start writing without her mother wondering about the timeline of his broken engagement and her trip to London? She just wanted to be with Sidney but she was seeing, now that she was home, that this would certainly involve more family disapproval before everything was said and done.

 

With the cold weather, and everyone in the house more often than not, Mrs Heywood was finding it difficult to find a quiet moment to speak to Charlotte privately. “Charlotte, come help me gather eggs.”

“Oh Mother, I already did.” Allison piped up not realizing she was being the opposite of helpful to her mother.

“Well Charlotte and I will check again.” her mother said pointedly. Allison looked perplexed but she could tell something was afoot. She had heard murmurs of a letter from Sanditon. Charlotte had told her bits and pieces about her Mr Parker after coming home from Sanditon and she had confessed since coming home from London that she felt there might be hope although she swore Allison to secrecy and told her that she couldn't tell her anything more. No matter how much she might pester. Allison felt it was most unfair to share only part of what must be a very interesting secret.

“Where do you stand on your affections for Mr Sidney Parker now? I’m sure you can tell that I am reluctant to send you back to the Parker family. I do not want you reopening any healed wounds.” her mother asked, as they crossed the cold yard, coming straight to the matter.

“I think I could feel comfortable around him if I were to see him while staying with the Parkers.” Charlotte said carefully, doing her best not to lie.

Her mother studied her. Her face softened. “Charlotte, I only want what is best for you. Pining for a married man will bring nothing but heartache”

“I know Mother, truly. And I know you want what's best for me. I feel time has helped me to move past the disappointment of the summer’s end.”

Her mother was pleased to hear it but not yet convinced. “Your letters spoke of much time spent with Georgiana. Did you see him as well in London?”

“Georgiana does not stay with him. She boards with her governess. So no, I did not see him then. I saw him briefly in passing...but I felt at peace with our standing.” It was a bit of a struggle but she felt pride at being able to tell the truth while skirting facts.

Her mother took a deep breath and released a long sigh. She looked uncertain but resigned. “I suppose Charlotte, I suppose.”

 

Waiting for the 27th seemed like ages for Charlotte. She had a running countdown going through almost every moment of each day. Lunch is complete so now only afternoon chores, tea, an afternoon walk, dinner, evening with the family, bedtime, and then on to the next day. She went to bed early every night anxious to just keep the days moving, anxious also for the peaceful darkness to quietly yearn for him.

Finally the day arrived and Charlotte was a mess of anticipation. Sidney had said he would come for her but certainly he would send Tom and Mary instead so that they would have less trouble with her parents. But maybe he would come. She knew that would not be the easier option but she also was thrilled by the prospect of seeing Sidney in her home, having the opportunity to show him where she grew up.

By 9:00 in the morning three of Charlotte’s brothers were running to the house announcing that the Parker carriage was already pulling up over the bridge. “Oh! So early! I had expected to serve them lunch!” Mrs Heywood exclaimed, flustered.

They all rushed out of the house and congregated on the drive watching as the carriage pulled to a stop. The doors opened and….it was Sidney. He was here. Charlotte wavered in her spot, using all of her self control to keep from running into his arms. He immediately sought her face in the crowd and gave her a small smile and nod as he walked directly to her father.

The Heywood family stood confused. This was not Mr Tom Parker. They looked back at the carriage and saw two more people step out, one being another dark haired but heavy set man. And the other being a dark skinned young woman who must be Georgiana. This was all quite unexpected and surprising but to Charlotte it was the most exciting possible development. She transferred her restrained energy in Georgiana’s direction, running into her arms instead.

Sidney held out his hand to Mr Heywood, “Mr Heywood, I presume? Sidney Parker, Tom Parker’s brother. This is my younger brother, Arthur Parker and my ward, Miss Georgiana Lambe.”

Mrs Heywood and Allison were floored. They had assumed Sidney resembled Tom, had expected a younger version of him, similarly with limp, light hair and a jovial, easy face. This man, for he certainly was no less, had dark hair and eyes, a chiseled face and carried himself with a confidence Tom could only wish to possess. Allison immediately hoped she would be able to get a private moment with Charlotte before she left so she could demand to know why she had left out that her love interest resembled a Greek god. Mrs Heywood, however, immediately regretted her approval of this trip. He was a handsome Londoner through and through. Her limited experience had prejudiced her exactly against this type of man. She assumed he had more swagger than modesty, was more superficial than hardworking. And why was it that he was here to pick her up at all? Why was he going out of his way to spend time with her?

“Tom and Mary send their deepest regards and gratitude. I am afraid he is so busy right now he could not pull himself away to travel. We figured we would make the most of it by creating a jolly party to pick up Miss Heywood, did we not Arthur?” Sidney said, trying to strike a balance between formality and ease.

“Oh yes! We are so thrilled she will be joining us. Sanditon is hardly the same without her.” Arthur gushed. Mr and Mrs Heywood were simultaneously thinking that they had never known three brothers that were so different in looks and seemingly personality.

“How lovely for our Charlotte. I’m sure it will make for a merry return for her. This is my wife, Mrs Heywood.” Mrs Heywood stepped forward. Her face was not hardly as relaxed and welcoming as her husbands.

“It is a pleasure to meet you Mrs Heywood.”

Sidney shifted on his feet as Mrs Heywood looked at him appraisingly and said nothing in return.

 

They all went into the house for a morning tea. “You’ll have to forgive me, we were not quite prepared for your morning arrival. Our maid will be in shortly with the tea. Mr Heywood, I require your assistance.” Mrs Heywood said with a tight smile.

Charlotte watched them leave the room nervously. Her mother was clearly upset that Sidney had come to get her. She was going to tell her father and then what? She had not trusted herself to really look in Sidney’s direction but now that they were out of the room she glanced across the table and found that his eyes were firmly set on her. When their eyes met they couldn't help but both breaking into wide, happy smiles. Charlotte looked away blushing deeply and Sidney quickly cleared his throat and desperately tried to think of a reasonable topic of conversation but Charlotte's smile, her eyes had him thrown.

"What is Sanditon like this time of year? Does it snow there in the winter?". Allison asked. She had been watching Charlotte and Sidney closely, trying to figure them out. Whatever was happening, Charlotte was right, there seemed to be reason for hope. But she felt she must take over the role of host with her parents out of the room and her sister completely indisposed.

The conversation rolled seamlessly from that awkward start and the Heywoods returned to a happy and easy room full of chattering young people. Mr Heywood immediately looked around and Charlotte was mortified to feel his eyes shifting from her to Sidney and back again. He watched them throughout tea and said very little.

 

They were loading up Charlotte's trunk when Mr Heywood pulled Sidney aside. "I need to know that Charlotte will be treated properly and kept in good, moral company."

Sidney looked at him seriously and nodded. It seemed Charlotte's mother was not the only one that knew something of their past now. "You met my brother and his lovely wife. They are most upstanding people. I know Charlotte feels very comfortable with their family and in their home. I will not be staying with them but I can make sure that Mary watches after her closely ". He felt it was important to make sure Mr Heywood knew they would not be under the same roof.

"Hmm." Mr Heywood was not sure how to proceed. "My daughter is very beautiful and has a lot of spirit. I heard from my wife that she may have had a suitor this summer. I will not stand for anyone tarnishing her honor or bruising her heart. She is... she is remarkable and deserves only the best."

"She is remarkable sir, you are right." Sidney said softly. "You have my word that she will be treated with only the most respect...by everyone.". He looked Mr Heywood in the eye and held out his hand to shake it. Mr Heywood felt this exchange may have left him with more questions than answers but he felt Sidney' sincerity and wasn't sure what else he could say anyway so he shook his hand and let the conversation fall.

Charlotte gave her family one last round of hugs and they all piled into the carriage. As they trotted over the bridge leading off of the estate Sidney dropped his head back and exhaled loudly in relief. He then looked over at Charlotte seated next to him and gave her a crooked smile, "Miss Heywood, I am so glad you are here to join our party."

Chapter Text

"Are they both sleeping already?". Charlotte asked, looking at Arthur and Georgiana sitting across from them in the carriage. They had only been on the road for about thirty minutes.

"Well we did leave early to come get you. Perhaps I pushed them too much. Perhaps I was a little overanxious to come get you." Sidney admitted. Charlotte smiled to herself at this.

They took this relative privacy to really make eye contact, to take each other in.

"How are you Charlotte?" he asked softly, taking her hand.

Her joy was clearly written on her face. "Oh Sidney, I am so happy I feel I could fly. To be at your side again is almost more than I can bear."

He smiled a wide, toothy smile, a rarity from Sidney. "I quite agree, my love, I quite agree."

As he raised her hand to his lips to kiss it they heard snickering. They looked across the carriage to see Arthur, his eyes wide and mouth agape and Georgiana doing very little to hold back her laughter. "Did I not tell you?!" She shrieked as she hit his knee with her gloves.

Charlotte glared at her, "Were you two just pretending to sleep all along?!"

Georgiana could not contain her mirth. "I could not be the only person to figure out your sordid secret! I needed to have a partner in crime or I would have burst!"

Charlotte tried to be angry but just ended up grinning madly. "You are a most devious friend!"

"Wait! But when did this happen?! How long have you loved Miss Heywood?!". Arthur blurted exasperatedly.

Charlotte and Sidney both blushed at the word “love”. Sidney was surprised that he found such relief in being able to share his feelings for Charlotte with others. He genuinely smiled at Arthur and then looked at Charlotte thoughtfully. "How long have I loved her? I suppose I first realized it the day of the cricket match." he said with a tenderness that surprised Georgiana and Arthur. But Charlotte was surprised for other reasons.

"But you were so angry with me that day!"

Sidney chuckled and shook his head. "Very angry, furious, and yet I kept finding that even so I wanted to be near you. And then when you took the risk of joining the game to help save face on Tom's behalf? I knew…". They gazed into each other's eyes.

"But you were since engaged to Mrs Campion!!" Arthur looked like he was about to have a fit, his eyes still wide, body agitated.

Sidney pulled his eyes from Charlotte. "A lot has gone on brother. I will fill you in but now that you are in on our secret, you must realize you cannot share it with anyone, not even Tom or Diana". Arthur nodded eagerly feeling his meager relationship with his brother was about to grow.

 

Their reunion with the rest of the Parker family at Trafalgar Square was a happy one but the light hearted mood from the carriage was stilted by Tom’s obvious anxiety and preoccupation.

 

“Charlotte! Charlotte! Very good. Splendid that you are here. We will be moving forward as a team. All together as a team. It is excellent. Is it not excellent?” As Tom blustered on Charlotte realized he was really only talking to himself so she nodded and said a few words in the affirmative and then tried to bow out of his direct range. She could tell that Diana and Mary were also on edge with the loss of Sanditon funding. Surely they worried about Tom and of course their own livelihoods and futures. But as they sat around the table for dinner everyone relaxed into each other’s company. Sidney led the conversation for the most part. Charlotte sat across from him and was struck by his wit and banter. She had experienced bits of his social charms over the summer but never over such an extended time, there had always been some stress hanging over his head it seemed. Georgiana also seemed to be blooming in the Parker’s company. She had stayed at Trafalgar house for the last two weeks and it was obvious that she and Arthur had become quite good friends. Charlotte wondered how Diana was taking that but for tonight, everyone seemed happy to be in each other’s company.

After dinner Sidney and Georgiana got ready to take their leave. They would now be staying at Denham Place. Babington had arranged for it through Lady Denham. Charlotte knew it made sense, and appreciated that Sidney deliberately chose to give her proper space especially since their relationship was not yet common knowledge but she still couldn’t help but be disappointed to see him leave.

“Georgiana, I’ll walk you to the carriage” she said brightly as they were putting on their cloaks.

“Yes, I imagine you will.” Georgiana said smirking.

They walked out and Georgiana got straight into the carriage. “Thank you for escorting me out Charlotte.” she called back, her eyes twinkling as she looked at Sidney and Charlotte standing on the steps. They chuckled.

“Oh, I do wish you would be staying here tonight. I hate to part already.” Charlotte said softly.

He took her hands in his and leaned in. “Charlotte, I do not think I could manage being under the same roof. I would lay in bed awake all night willing myself to stay put.” Sidney whispered next to her ear. Her eyes widened in shock. His breath gave her goosebumps while his words made her flush warmly. He lingered close to her, she could feel the heat between them in the cold night air. “I will be here first thing in the morning. I won’t be able to stay away.”

“Guardian! I am your chaperone now! Get in the carriage, I’m freezing!” Georgiana called.

“Oh she is enjoying this too much.” Sidney said a little gruffly.

“Not as much as we are.” Charlotte smiled.

He kissed her hands, “No, not nearly. Until tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

The following day after breakfast Sidney, Tom, Arthur, Georgiana and Charlotte walked over to tour the current state of the Terrace. This was mostly for Charlotte’s good, as the others had been immersed in the predicament for a couple weeks.

As they walked Mr Stringer came up to greet them. “Good morning Parkers, Miss Lambe.” And then his eyes fell on Charlotte. They widened in happy surprise but then immediately darkened and flicked over to Sidney, taking him in. “Miss Heywood, well met! I did not know you were back in town again. What a surprise.” He spoke happily but Charlotte could hear the tension in his voice. He understood too much of her history with Sidney to take this as an innocent visit.

"Mr Stringer! It is so nice to see you again! Your work on the Terrace is most impressive. It almost looks complete."

"Well, as you will see the foundation and exterior are near complete but the interior remains the same." He looked tired and worn and she wondered how he could work on the site that his father had perished in. She couldn't help but despair for him.

"Let's be on our way. Mr Stringer please lead us through! We need to get Miss Heywood up to speed and then discuss the third floor which I believe is secure and we can access now." Tom said, falling back into his role as leader.

They walked through the raw interiors of the Terrace. Blackened walls were braced by rough wooden timbers, plaster crumbled and strewn all over the floors. Sidney, Tom and Mr Stringer had all made detailed notes of what still needed to be done and now they went through confirming everything carefully. Charlotte walked through the immense building feeling overwhelmed. Without Mrs Campion's almost unlimited funds how could they ever afford to pay off the original debts and then still rebuild? She looked at Sidney, talking seriously with the other men. His brow was furrowed, his face tense. She could see his concentration. He had made a difficult choice to sacrifice their happiness for his family. And now he had undid it, he chose their future over his family's. She had always understood the situation but now, in the charred building the magnitude of it all was really hitting her.

After their tour was over and they were back on the street Mr Stringer approached her. "How have you been Miss?" he asked kindly, but without the brightness that used to shine through his voice, as he casually steered her away from the group.

She knew he would have questions, concerns and felt it best to just face it now. "I have been quite well. I was in London visiting family this fall."

Stringer's face grew darker and his eyes scanned the rooflines on the street and then settled hesitatingly on her face. "Miss Heywood, it is not my place surely, and I am pleased to see you, but I worry about why you might be here. I know of the broken engagement. I… I worry." his voice dropped as he finished, unsatisfied with his words but unable to more eloquently express himself.

She looked at the ground. "I know that perhaps you might have perceived more of the situation than most. I cannot speak on it now but please, do not worry on my behalf. Really." she said gently.

"So shall I suppose you are spoken for then?" He asked. Charlotte met his eyes but did not answer. He nodded curtly and then said quietly. "He did not know your worth before. I hope to heaven he does now."

She desperately wanted to defend Sidney but she knew she couldn't before they were properly courting and deep down she knew Mr Stringer did not want to hear it anyway. She responded softly, "I thought of you while I was in London, all of the grand architecture. You belong there Mr Stringer, not here. You shouldn't be working in that building. I worry about you."

He shook his head and laughed almost angrily. "If I cannot worry about you Miss, then you cannot worry about me." He turned to the rest of the group and called to them, "I will see you all tomorrow." and turning to Charlotte, "Good day Miss." And then headed home.

 

 

That afternoon Sidney was seated in the drawing room of Denham Place. It was quite a strange house and he found that it had fallen into such disrepair that only several rooms were furnished or even inhabitable. Georgiana complained of the draft throughout the house but he felt she was also happy to have so much more space and privacy than she was used to.

He was reviewing estimates for summer profits from his bookkeeper when Crockett came in only steps ahead of Lady Denham to announce her arrival. Sidney started. He was not prepared to see her. He had been hoping to have a more established plan of action first. She walked in, crinkling her nose at the room. “Heavens, what will I ever do with this mess of a house? But I suppose you are comfortable enough to be staying for free?”

“Yes, Lady Denham, thank you, it is most kind of you to allow us to stay here.”

She waved her hands as if to shake away the formalities and small talk. “You have been avoiding me Mr Sidney. You have been in and out of town for over a fortnight now without requesting an audience.”

“I apologize deeply. I have had much business to attend to.”

“As I remember it, you work under my patronage. Your business is my business. So I must assume that lately you have been consumed with the business of trying to stay out of jail.” she said with a cruel smirk. Sidney had no answer. “How lucky you are that Lord Babington is such a faithful friend to you. It is good to have someone that will soften the blow. When he came to me with the news of your broken engagement, well you were lucky that it was him. Him, who I hold in very high esteem, unlike you.” her voice dropped in disdain. Sidney simply listened knowing she was not finished anyway. “Is she really worth it?” she said with a mocking smile. “I imagine you are starting to feel that you did not think this through properly.”

“Mrs Campion was unhappy and broke off the engagement.” Sidney said quietly, firmly.

“Yes, so I heard. But I'm referring to someone else, someone who seemed to arrive yesterday, in your own carriage." Lady Denham raised her eyebrows suggestively. "That seems rather reckless I think." Sidney kept eye contact but did not respond. "And now I hear you're having some sort of meeting tomorrow. I will attend. This is my money you're talking about, my money that you have already lost."

"Forgive me Lady Denham but I cannot extend an invitation to you for tomorrow. After the meeting we will make our presentation to you. Tomorrow will be lengthy. The finalized proposal will be a better situation for you." Sidney said, his face clearly showing his resolve.

"Do not tell me what will be best for me! The better situation would have been not allowing your foolish brother to throw everything away with his poor management! Or you maintaining the engagement that would have paid for his mistakes! All of you Parker's! A completely incompetent lot!" She cried indignantly.

"Lady Denham, I look forward to presenting to you in two day's time." Sidney's jaw was clenched and his body tense.

She studied him closely. “You think that you have me at bay because of Lord Babington but I will still press charges if you cannot fix this. Do not expect that you will be safe.”

Chapter Text

Sidney traveled back to Trafalgar Square for afternoon tea. He was disturbed from his conversation with Lady Denham and felt sitting in Charlotte’s presence would restore his mood, his resolve. Unfortunately Tom’s mind was also ill at ease after their morning tour through the Terrace.

“I know we have spoken at length about the proposed plans of our new investor but I really feel they are missing out on what makes Sanditon a cut above everyone else. We cannot be the best if we do not offer the absolute best.” Tom began.

Charlotte felt the danger of this conversation and tried to divert it, “Is there a new investor? That is great news, is it not?” Who is it?”

“They have decided to reveal themselves at the meeting tomorrow. They have a bit of a flair for the dramatic.” Sidney said, casting his eyes sideways. He then set his teacup down and shifted his eyes firmly on his brother, “Tom, we cannot keep having this same conversation. Your plans are no longer feasible. They were barely feasible before the fire. They are certainly not feasible since.”

“Sidney, they were feasible until very recently! You pulled the rug out from under me! Everything had been righted and now?! Are you so incapable of settling down that you cannot even do it to save your family?”

“Tom!” Mary said sharply. “Do not speak to Sidney like that. You certainly have no right to make such demands on his life. Or do you feel marriage is so insignificant to be taken so lightly?” She glanced over at Charlotte feeling deeply shamed by her husband’s ignorant outburst. She did not know what was going on between Charlotte and Sidney but she felt it was no accident that he had recommended to Tom that they send for her and request her help.

Tom's face fell. “Of course Mary is right. Forgive me brother. I feel I am at my wit’s end. I am seeing my dream fall apart before me. But no matter, I have no excuse for such an outburst.”

Sidney was unmoved and stood up stiffly. “I find I am in need of fresh air. Miss Heywood, would you care to accompany me?”

Charlotte looked nervously at Sidney and then at Mary. “Go ahead dear but bring your muff. It is quite cold.” Mary said reassuringly.

 

She could feel his anger. He fairly stalked down the street. It was too cold and windy for the cliffs or the beach so they headed for the wooded path on the other side of town. “You need to be gentler to him.” she said at last.

“I need?! I do not need to be anything to him. His expectations are exorbitant, simply because I am his blood. He cannot make these claims on my life.” Sidney said hotly.

“It is plain to see that he is suffering though. He certainly did not mean for things to go so very badly.” she said insistently.

It was too much. How could she side with him after all they had just been through, all they would still have to go through just to rightfully court? “His incompetence almost tore us apart Charlotte!” Sidney cried incredulously.

“No, you did Sidney!” She shot back. “No one told you to engage yourself to….her! That was a choice you made of your own will.”

“A choice I made to save my family!”

“You do not need to be the savior! You do not need to protect every person and fix every problem! You certainly do not need to do it alone! You...”

He was on her lips, her words lost. She was surprised and quickly pulled back, her eyes still flashing with frustration. But her lips rushed back to his. They kissed in the cold secluded woods, savoring the freedom, the release.

Sidney eventually broke the kiss but kept her close, his forehead pressed to hers, his arms wrapped around her tightly. “Are you angry with me for...for it? Will you ever be able to forgive me?”

She sighed and thought it over. “I don’t think I am angry at your motive. It hurt me deeply that you threw me off so quickly without warning.”

He dropped his arms and pulled his head back defensively. “But it was not so quickly! If you knew how I struggled that week, desperate to find a solution. It was agony Charlotte. I finally went to her with an investment offer only but she was adamant about the terms.”

“But Sidney you did not need to go save Tom, not alone at least. You get angry at him for expecting so much of you but you did not include him in your search for a solution.”

His hands found themselves on her hips, pulling her back towards him. He thought of all of the times they fought over the past summer, the fire she ignited in him. Her precious face screwed up in anger. For whatever reason it had always made him want to sweep her into his arms and now he finally had that privilege. Their relationship would clearly not be without arguments. It was in both of their nature to be stubborn and principled. But he would happily fight with her for a lifetime if it meant being always near to her.

“I did not include him because he is truly incompetent in these matters my love.”

Charlotte couldn't help but chuckle. “Well I am not. I am not to be underestimated and you should henceforth be well advised to consult me on major decisions.”

“Duly noted.” Sidney said as he kissed her nose.

“Also, you cannot put a halt to our arguments simply by kissing me. That will not do.”

“Won’t it?” he asked innocently as he gently kissed her eyebrow, her eyelid, her cheekbone, the corner of her lips.

“No” the clouds of their warm breath lingering between them. “It will not.” And her lips again found their way to his. She did not want to lose this argument but in the end losing the opportunity to kiss him was far more dire.

Chapter Text

They met around the dining room table in Trafalgar Square. The three brothers, Georgiana, Charlotte, Mr Stringer, Lord and Lady Babington. Charlotte had loved the chance to be so close to Sidney in Sanditon again. After months of thinking they were lost to each other it was heaven to simply see him throughout the day. But she had also been very eager for this, to hear the latest developments, to perhaps lend her own thoughts and ideas. She had been tasked with taking notes and it made her realize how much she really did miss helping Tom and being involved in the day to day planning of Sanditon.

"Well this is a ragtag group if I ever saw one." Esther scoffed as they all sat down. Lord Babington laughed. Charlotte immediately felt offended but then truly, it was. This was not the group of people you would expect to be running the development of a resort town.

"Ah Lady Babington, before you, you see a group of intrepid dreamers, ready to finally establish Sanditon's place in the sun!" Tom said theatrically.

Sidney, reclined in his chair rolled his eyes to the ceiling and then cleared his throat and sat forward. "Yes, well thank you all for being present today. As you all know the project has had a change in funding and we are once again finding ourselves, for lack of a better word, struggling for capital. We believe in Sanditon and the greatness that the natural landscape and the town itself have to offer. Therefore we are very pleased to introduce our latest investor, Miss Georgiana Lambe." Charlotte gasped out loud her head whipping towards Georgiana. She realized everyone else at the table were casually smiling and nodding in Georgiana's direction. They all already knew.

Georgiana laughed, "Sorry Charlotte, I did not really have a chance to write to you before you arrived and then it seemed more fun to simply make it a surprise."

Charlotte was gobsmacked. She had so many questions but they would have to wait obviously.

Georgiana straightened up in her chair. "Thank you Sidney. I will take it from here. Now I have discussed many of my terms and ideas with the Parker brothers over the past week but we still have particulars to go over and will need input and suggestions from all of you.". She took a deep breath and smiled. She couldn't hold back the pride and excitement she felt as she began outlining her ideas, her own future.

"Mr Tom Parker often advertises that Sanditon is "better than Brighton" which is all well and good but truly it does not matter if it is better than Brighton or not. People flock to Brighton because it is already an established society resort town. We are not established and therefore it will always be a battle to pull the beau monde here. We do not need to be better than Brighton, we need to be different than Brighton. We need to offer an entirely different experience. My suggestion is that we limit our spending substantially while focusing it on specific amenities that will draw a specific crowd."

Tom was fidgeting in his seat. "When, when Miss Lambe means limiting spending we are not quite set on the…"

"Let her speak please brother." Arthur said simply.

Georgiana gave Arthur a grateful smile and continued. "I believe our goal should be to pull in young eligible people. If we succeed we will have a vibrancy that will draw young men looking for entertainment, families looking to marry off daughters as well as the general beau monde looking to join in the fun. Now this does not need to incur great expenses. We should focus on the diversion and the rest will follow in course. My greatest suggested expense, and we shall need your assistance and feedback Mr Stringer, is a section of covered boardwalk with a large bandstand in the center."

Georgiana went on to express her vision of regular cricket matches, two or three a week, men's and women's. Teams would be comprised of villagers that would be paid a small stipend to play each season. Vacationers could also create their own teams but only if they were staying for a minimum of three weeks. Refreshments and seating could be set up in the shade of the boardwalk for games but then cleared away for bands and dancing in the evening. Georgiana stressed that while balls were lovely they were very costly. It made sense to cut down on the number of balls in a season and simply offer consistent live music and dancing on the boardwalk. She also had visions of bonfires along the beach every week well into the fall.

The table, which admittedly was composed of young people, were all enthused over the ideas. Esther chimed in, "If you want to win favor with my aunt you should inquire about renting out her asses for picnic and painting excursions."

Charlotte wrote it down and then cleared her throat, "Perhaps we should also consider a small boathouse on the river? I think renting rowboats could be quite popular and cost effective as well." She was clearly thinking of her time in the rowboat with Sidney. She allowed herself to glance down the table at him. His head was tilted down but his eyes were looking up at her in a way that made her heart skip. This man.

"A capital idea Miss Heywood." he said and his deep voice, his focused look were enough to make her want to melt to the floor.

 

The conversations continued. Charlotte was so impressed by the range and depth of Georgiana’s ideas. She thought back to the fall when Georgiana had been so preoccupied. This must have been what was on her mind. She must have been planning and researching this for months. Charlotte smiled to herself, Georgiana certainly did not do anything halfheartedly. Her passion for action extended beyond her romantic entanglements and now into the world of development.

"Now as for the Terrace. I feel it is an expense we simply cannot safely handle. The vast majority of my investment will go towards covering the costs formerly funded by Mrs Campion. I will also be backing the bank loans now in her place."

Sidney quickly interrupted, "And we must also thank Babington for temporarily covering the interest on some of our personal loans, most notably with Lady Denham.” He nodded appreciatively in his friend’s direction. “We believe she will not be withdrawing her funds if we can present a decent proposal and then have a successful season. And well, if she does, we are sunk.” Sidney stated simply, lifting his hands upwards as in defeat. He cleared his throat. “And thus, why we need brilliant and enthusiastic minds now.” he finished. He looked back at Georgiana, “The floor is yours again Miss Lambe. Forgive the interruption.”

“Certainly. My proposal for the Terrace is that we complete the lobby, the hallways and three apartments. One apartment shall be gifted to Lady Susan. I have spoken with her and she has standing engagements in Brighton she must uphold but she has agreed to spend several weeks in Sanditon as well. Her assets are not quite...liquid...but her standing in society is gold so we feel it is well worth the cost of housing her. I will be finishing and furnishing an apartment for myself…” Charlotte glanced over at Sidney and saw the barely concealed, but contained, disapproval on his face. “And then we will finish and furnish a third apartment so that we have spare space for any surprise prestigious guests. All the other apartments will only be touched once they are under contract.”

Arthur jumped in, “Diana and I would like to purchase an apartment as well. We would be happy to rent it out for this first season and put the proceeds towards the debt if Tom doesn’t mind us staying here in Trafalgar Square.” Tom absentmindedly nodded in agreement as everyone else nodded at Arthur in appreciation.

“Now, now I must, I must interject that I don’t agree with the Terrace plans.” Tom said flusteredly, standing up. “I feel we will be turning people away which is certainly not in our best interest.”

“Yes, Mr Parker, I understand. And we have discussed this but we simply cannot take the financial risk of finishing the building in its entirety.” Georgiana said calmly but sternly. Charlotte was struck by the realization that Georgiana had been dealing with Tom for two weeks now and they officially had a developed working relationship. She was amused to see that it was clearly influenced by Sidney’s own working relationship with Tom.

“But, but, please you can all see…” Tom looked down the table for support, his eyes resting squarely on Lord Babington.

Babington looked away from Tom’s beseeching eyes and addressed the table at large, “I think finishing the apartments by contract only seems very reasonable. There are cottages available for rent as well as rooms at the Crown.”

“But you can hardly call the Crown a hospitable location for the beau monde!” argued Tom.

“Oh believe me, I know the Crown and its shortcomings all too well.” Babington and Sidney laughed together.

“I think” Esther started slowly “that creating a demand and making people desire something that is just out of their reach is a very powerful motivation.” She looked at Charlotte. “Do you not agree Miss Heywood? What do you say Sidney?” Each person at the table, with the exception of Tom, reacted, looking subtly from Charlotte to Sidney and back. “At least that’s my thought. Excellent, well done Miss Lambe.” Esther finished, quite pleased with herself. Babington looked down smiling and shaking his head at his wife’s mischief.

 

As the meeting ended Sidney turned to Georgiana seated at his side. He looked at her with clear pride. “I must say Georgiana, you reminded me of your father today. You had the poise of your mother but the clear mind for business that your father possessed. You did quite well, quite well.”

Georgiana blushed, “Thank you Sidney. Thank you also for your guidance with all of this.”

“The ideas were yours and I think they are brilliant.” he stated matter of factly.

Charlotte wanted to go up and talk to both of them but hung back a bit. Esther’s pointed comments towards the end had her feeling self conscious. In the meantime Mr Stringer was near and she felt she needed to work to cover the discomfort of yesterday’s conversation.

“Are you excited to design the boardwalk Mr Stringer?”

“Yes, it should be an exciting challenge.”

“I’m sure it will be quite lovely with your talents behind it.”

“Thank you Miss Heywood.” he said and then bowed out of the conversation as he turned to pay his respects to Tom before leaving. Charlotte felt dejected. She admired James so much and hated to think of losing their friendship.

“Would you have interest in living in the Terrace Miss Heywood?” Sidney asked casually, suddenly at her elbow. Turning, she looked up at him and saw that his easy manner disguised the seriousness of his question. His hand, out of sight from the group, slowly ran down her arm.

“Oh! Well I think they are quite lovely and a wonderful design nicely situated in town” she dropped her voice and turned a little to the wall so that only Sidney could see her mouth “...but I feel if I were to have a residence in Sanditon I would like a little land for a garden.” She slowly raised his eyes to his again, nervous that maybe she had been too forward, made too large of a request.

Sidney smiled warmly at her and replied very softly, “Yes, yes, I think that is what I would prefer too if I were to have a residence in Sanditon.”

Chapter Text

Charlotte was not included in the presentation to Lady Denham the following day. It did not bother her to be left out but she was so incredibly anxious to hear the outcome. She sat with Mary and Diana for a good while, reading and having halting conversations. All three women were apprehensive, each worrying about their own respective Parker brother, their own respective futures. Additionally, it was clear Mary had some inkling of the renewed relationship between Charlotte and Sidney and it added to Charlotte’s unease. It made her feel guilty not to share any news with her as Mary had been so perceptive and kind in the past. Finally she gave up on being social, choosing solitude over expected companionship, and she excused herself to go for a walk.

She wandered contentedly along the clifftops. The water below was dark gray and choppy. The grasses were brown and still holding some of their morning frost. It was exhilarating to see the change of season in Sanditon and she allowed herself to think of Sidney's question yesterday about living here. If they were to marry and live here she would become accustomed to Sanditon year round, well versed in the seasonal changes. She beamed just thinking of it. She could not believe how much her fortune had changed over the last month.

 

When she arrived back at Trafalgar Square an hour later she was met at the door by a flushed and rosy cheeked Jenny.

"Charlotte! We are playing hide and go seek. Go hide! I have twenty more seconds to count!"

Charlotte giggled and threw off her cloak. "I must rush then!". She scampered into the drawing room and dropped quickly behind the sofa when she found herself landing right into Sidney's lap.

"Ah! You have also found the only hiding spot of suitable adult size." He smiled at her immediately moving his hands to her waist, adjusting her comfortably on to him.

"Oh! How was the--"

"Shhh…". He put this finger to her lips and whispered. "We don't want to be found."

She bit her lip and smiled. She loved how seriously he took play with his nieces and nephews. She was also loving this feeling of being on top of him. Sidney too was greatly enjoying the feeling, the weight of her body pressed on his, her lovely breasts against his chest. Good God, what he wouldn't do to see them unclothed, to touch them. The effect they had on him. It was downright embarrassing how many times her breasts had crossed his mind since he first met her. He looked at her, gauging her reaction as he let his hand slowly travel up her side and gently cup the side of one. Getting her approval he then leaned in to gently, sensually kiss her.

Charlotte was struck by the beauty of this kiss. It seemed every kiss they shared was urgent, desperate. This was different. She kissed him back savoring the feeling of their soft lips discovering each other slowly, sweetly. His hand was resting on the side of her breast and his thumb tentatively reached out and started circling towards the fullness of her, tantalizingly close to her nipple. She had never felt such a sensation before, didn't realize her breasts were sources of such pleasure. Her breath hitched as she leaned into his touch, silently begging for him to go further.

"Found you!!! Alicia! Henry! I found them!". called Jenny. Charlotte quickly rolled off of Sidney as the sound of scampering feet came rushing. "Uncle Sidney… Were you kissing Charlotte? Come quick, Uncle Sidney's--."

“Who wants to see Uncle Sidney juggle?!?” he called out boisterously, cutting Jenny off. The children jumped up and down, squealing. Charlotte laughed admiring his quick thinking. Sidney stood up and then realized his lower half was in no state to be seen by his nieces and nephew. He tilted his hips to face the sofa in front of him. “Go! Fetch me something to juggle! Run up to the playroom and find as many balls as you can!” They bolted for the stairs. Sidney noticed Charlotte was still seated on the ground and turned to help her up. He found her, her full lips slightly parted, staring directly at his erection. It was a sight that made his heart slam to a halt but being mindful that the children were due to be back shortly, he forced himself to keep his wits, his restraint.

"Charlotte, you wanton creature!" He whispered with false condemnation.

She blushed furiously, quite abashed. "I ..I.." she stammered but had no excuse and could still barely shift her eyes away from it.

“Well that type of behavior is hardly going to ease my predicament.” he chided laughingly, pulling her to her feet. He let his hands linger on her wrists, his thumbs tracing circles on her bare skin just as they had been doing moments before on her breast. “Really I should write to Aunt Beatrice immediately.” he said, still joking but his voice lower, slower, deeper.

The mention of her aunt helped clear Charlotte's fog. She pulled away, grabbed a needlepoint pillow off of the closest chair and threw it at him in mock indignation. Sidney caught it. “Finally some sort of assistance.” he said, holding the pillow in front of himself.

“Wicked, wicked man.” Charlotte laughed as she headed to check on the children.

 

"Damnit Charlotte!"

"Good gracious Stephen, whatever is the matter?!" asked Beatrice, startled, looking up from her book.

Stephen groaned. "A letter from John. Charlotte is in Sanditon with Mr Sidney Parker."

Beatrice gasped, "Oh goodness have they…?"

"No, no, nothing so scandalous. It seems Tom Parker requested her assistance there but then Sidney was the one to come pick her up in Willingden. John and Tilda find the whole situation terribly unseemly and I don't believe they know that his engagement was called off. They said Charlotte told Tilda she had come across Sidney in London and they want to know what we know of their meeting. Damnit. Why couldn't she simply behave?"

"Oh my. Well we have to tell them the truth, our own concerns right?

"Yes but what even is the truth at this point? We know she had feelings for him that he may have reciprocated over the summer. We know he engaged himself to another woman for her fortune and left Charlotte devastated. He then saw Charlotte when she first arrived in London and broke his engagement before she left."

"And invited Charlotte to his home the very day he broke his engagement, where he then met with her in private." added Beatrice pointedly.

"Yes, hardly decorous. She then told me she would not be seeing him but in fact two weeks later he came to get her at her parents' home."

Beatrice jumped in again, "Also the papers have been saying that the engagement was broken because he's a drunk, a gambler and a fighter."

"Yes, yes, well we mustn't let that color our thoughts too much as we know the paper tends to sensationalize society stories. Although it hardly helps.". Stephen sighed. "As a lawyer, if I were arguing the other side my only points would be that she clearly loves him and that he in turn, seems to love her and seems to be, generally, a good man."

"You only say that because he has the same taste in books as you. Being well read alone hardly makes one a good man."

"Yes, well argued love. So mutual affection is the only point on their side. It is certainly no small thing when it comes to a marriage.". He looked at his wife fondly and gave her a small smile.

She smiled back. "No, surely, love is a perfectly good reason to marry." her face straightened again, "But for a couple that has no set wedding plans, as far as we know, they seem to be acting dangerously and out of character for our Charlotte. I don't think we know enough of Mr Parker to feel comfortable with this."

Stephen groaned. " Well I will have to at least tell them that he is no longer engaged and that we dined with him just before Charlotte left. Oh they will not like that we kept this from them."

"No." said Beatrice frowning. "They certainly won't. Well in that case I must also write to Charlotte as she told me of the broken engagement in strict confidence. I should warn her that I've shared the information."

"What a mess" Stephen said, shaking his head. "Thank God we don't have daughters "

Chapter Text

The Parker family hosted Georgiana and Lord and Lady Babington for dinner after the meeting with Lady Denham. All things considered, the presentation had gone relatively well. Lady Denham was very skeptical about dedicating the town to the frivolity of young people. She worried about drinking and carousing and all the dangers that come along with too many youths potentially having too much fun. But Lord Babington had mentioned ahead of the presentation that he was in strong support of the plan. And she couldn't help but be intrigued by the thought of Lady Susan taking up seasonal residence in Sanditon.

However she kept the axe hanging over the Parker brothers' heads just where she felt it rightfully belonged. She still held all three brothers in great contempt and wondered how she ever was foolish enough to get caught up in Tom's outrageous enthusiasm. By June she said she wanted a wing of the Terrace fully occupied and would reevaluate her funding at that point.

Yet that was enough cause for celebration for now and the dinner was casual and boisterous, everyone feeling relieved that the first step had been successfully taken. They weren't sunk yet. Sidney was cautiously pleased but exhausted. The last three weeks had seen him end an engagement, reunite with Charlotte and toil endlessly over plans to save his family. What he wouldn't give to just sit quietly with Charlotte rather than play host in his brother’s house. But the Babington's and Georgiana certainly deserved the honor of being celebrated. Without them the Sanditon dream would most likely be lost and he and Tom would both be in jail. And Tom, well Tom was still not really in a place to preside over these events. He was slowly coming back to himself but he would still vacillate between fits of melancholy and mania. So hosting fell to Sidney and he took it on.

Throughout it all he was just so thankful to have Charlotte there in the room with him. Her sweet smile from across the table kept him going. Their playful interlude earlier in the afternoon had been wonderful and left him breathless with the desire to just be hers already but he was also starting to feel guilt. He had exposed his hardened state to her, he could argue that it was accidental but he had certainly enjoyed her reaction. He was treating her like their future together was ensured but truly it wasn’t. They really couldn’t afford a chance of scandal. He would have to be more cautious, more respectful.

“I was thinking it would be quite jolly for Charlotte and I to come visit Denham Place tomorrow. What say you brother?” Arthur asked Sidney at the table. Arthur looked over at Charlotte giving her a glaringly obvious smile.

“Yes, yes, that would be quite fine. Georgiana and I would like that very much.”

“Oh but Arthur” Diana’s high pitched voice rang out. “We have our appointments with Dr Fuchs in the morning.”

“Ah, so we do. Could we impose on you for lunch then Sidney? I think that would fit our schedule just fine sister.” Arthur said airily. Charlotte could see Diana deflate. She had probably been hoping to keep Arthur with her for the day. The cold weather kept her inside almost fully and she was obviously lonely with Arthur now putting more energy and time into the endeavour. Charlotte felt for her but also felt a thrill at the thought of being with Sidney at Denham Place.

 

Arthur and Charlotte arrived at Denham Place for a casual luncheon. Sidney and Georgiana didn’t have a cook on hand so they had simply sent Crockett out for cold meats and bread and it was delightfully easy and relaxed for everyone. Charlotte and Sidney truly relished being in the company of people who shared their secret. They sat next to one another and found moments to touch each other’s arms, to simply look at each other unguarded.

After lunch they adjourned to the strange upstairs drawing room. “Arthur, would you like to see…”Georgiana trailed off trying to think of something of worth to show him, an excuse to give Charlotte and Sidney privacy. “Oh, I do not know. I’m sure we will come across something.”

Arthur laughed happily and wiggled his eyebrows at his brother as they left the room.

Once they were gone Charlotte smiled slyly at Sidney and moved to sit closely to him on the sofa. "It is quite nice to be alone."

Sidney hesitated reluctantly, “Charlotte I need to say something that is weighing on me. I must apologize. I feel I have let my ardor allow me to be too forward with you--”

“Oh!” Charlotte quickly interrupted but then didn’t really know what to say. Could she really tell Sidney how much she enjoyed the intimacy that was growing between them? Could she tell him how much she enjoyed learning his body, that she desperately wanted to know more especially after seeing his arousal yesterday?

Sidney took her two hands in his. “You understand that I love you and” he dropped his voice and looked her squarely in the eyes, “I desire you immensely.” Charlotte’s breathing shallowed and her face grew warm. “But your uncle may have my head mounted on his library wall if I lead you astray” he said grinning, trying to lighten the mood, trying to restrain himself from leaning forward and sucking on her full, bottom lip. He shook his head slightly, trying to shake these invasive, unseemly thoughts. “Your father also was very clear that you were to be treated in only the most proper manner. I can’t say I have upheld their expectations.”

“You are not courting them! You are courting me.” She hesitated and dropped her voice. “I enjoy...your ardor.” She looked shyly at him. She could see his chest rising and falling, his jaw tightening. She let her fingers slowly caress his hands, drifting up under his shirt sleeves and gently skating on the sensitive skin on his inner wrists. He closed his eyes, focusing on her touch. How could something so simple have such power to undo him, his resolve? She let her fingers softly wrap around and slide down the length of each of his fingers, as if measuring them, memorizing them through feeling alone. His cock stiffened and his mind wandered. How easy it would be to swing her on his lap, push her skirts up and feel her ride down the length of him. He almost shuddered in ecstacy at the thought alone.

He groaned. “Charlotte, I cannot” referencing more his own carnal thoughts than their actual conversation. He came back to himself. “Your family is important to you. I want to have a relationship that pleases them, that does not give anyone reason for discomfort or distrust. And our future simply isn't secure enough yet. I need to make sure I can take care of you before we take our intimacy too far.”

“Damn your honor.” she muttered, putting his hands down his lap.

He kissed her temple and pulled her to lean against his side, laying her head on his shoulder, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “Ah damn my honor indeed. We shall make it up to each other and thoroughly dishonor ourselves in time.” He chuckled to himself. “For now, tell me about Willingden. Your home was lovely. What are the grounds like?”

Charlotte smiled despite herself and exhaled a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding as she regaled him with stories of life in Willingden.

 

 

Georgiana and Charlotte decided to spend the rest of the afternoon shopping. They strolled through town, Charlotte picking up some things to bring back as Christmas gifts for her family. It was the first time they had really been alone since London and they suddenly had so very much to catch up on.

"So… It seems you will be my step guardian or some such nonsense." Georgiana started a bit awkwardly. She laughed it off but Charlotte could tell she was a bit concerned about this affecting their friendship.

"Well at the moment we have no plans and cannot really make any until things are more settled. Or so Sidney keeps insisting.” she huffed rolling her eyes.

“Do not tell me there’s trouble with our young lovers already? You cannot make me say I told you so after I have already invested my fortune!” Georgiana said in jest.

“Oh, no. I should not have said anything.” Charlotte paused, knitting her eyebrows together. Georgiana knew that look, there was more to come. “It’s just...he’s so determined to have everything set right before he proposes. I understand but with things being so uncertain I would rather be with him than waiting for him.”

Georgiana looked thoughtful. “I can see both sides.”

Charlotte’s head jerked. “Well that’s a first. I thought you’d always choose my side over your wretched guardian.” she said smiling.

Georgiana rolled her eyes smiling and then thought for a moment and spoke seriously. “Perhaps the most important thing to know about Sidney, that I have learned over the years, is that he lives by duty, responsibility. He acts as if he’s a renegade that doesn’t care for societal norms but really he needs structure to anchor himself, to give him direction. And he holds himself strictly to it until it all becomes too much to take and then he lashes out, drinking, fighting, disappearing for days, even weeks on end. Then he comes back full of self loathing for not being good and strong enough and he falls back into line, holding himself to even higher expectations. Previously I had thought toying with the heart of his brother’s pretty and naive houseguest was just another aspect of his self sabatoge. Although I see now, that instead of lashing out, pursuing you is one of the rare acts that he has made against his sense of duty, that he has made clearly for his own best interest.”

Charlotte mulled this over for a while. It certainly sounded familiar. She wondered about what it meant for them, their future as a couple. “Georgiana, when did you become so wise? Where did my willful, rebellious friend go?”

“Ah, well I am now the patroness of a seaside resort. I am a great lady now. Apparently wisdom accompanies the role." she smirked.

Charlotte laughed and then looked at Georgiana fondly. "Georgiana, I really am so proud of you. And I am so pleased the men were able to sell Lady Denham on your plan yesterday."

"Yes, I'm certainly glad it went through. Heavens knows though that if she heard even part of it were my ideas she would have turned it down immediately." Georgiana scoffed.

"Do you think she really still holds you in contempt after the luncheon?"

"Oh no, I haven't even told you! I met with her in September and ended up calling her selfish, proud and prejudiced!" Georgiana laughed.

"You did not!". Charlotte gasped, shocked but laughing.

"I especially love that you are bringing aspects of Antigua to Sanditon. The public conservatory with tropic plants? It is brilliant and such a lovely tribute to your home."

Georgiana smiled, "Yes, I must admit I am quite excited about that. But that is an extravagance so we shall see if it will come to fruition. Certainly not for another five years or more."

They walked down the street quietly for a block. Charlotte cautiously circled back to Georgiana’s step guardian comment. She knew that Georgiana must be feeling insecure about her place as Sidney and Charlotte grew closer. She knew Georgiana had been through so many traumatic changes over the last few years and to her, their relationship was just another shift in her life that she would have to deal with. "You are still my dearest friend and if anything I imagine we will see more of each other as things...change.”

"Perhaps. Time will tell." Georgiana shrugged it off, closing herself off.