Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)
Shannon Hale

Prologue

No one who knew Charlotte Constance Kinder since her youth would suppose her born to be a heroine. She was a practical girl from infancy, only fussing as much as was necessary and exhibiting no alarming opinions. Common wisdom asserts that heroines are born from calamity, and yet our Charlotte’s early life was pretty standard. Not only did her parents avoid fatal accidents, but they also never locked her up in a hidden attic room.

At the very least, she might have been a tragic beauty. Though she eventually grew into her largest inheritance (her nose), she was never the sort of girl who provoked men to do dangerous things. She was … nice. Even her closest friends, many of whom liked her a great deal, couldn’t come up with a more spectacular adjective. Charlotte was nice.

Eventually Charlotte met a nice man named James, whom she was convinced she loved passionately. They had a very nice wedding and two children who seemed perfect to their mother and adequate to everyone else. After raising them to the point that they no longer needed her constant vigilance to stay alive, Charlotte wondered, what now? That’s when Charlotte Constance Kinder, who was nice, discovered that she was also clever.

She started a Web-based business, grew it to seven employees, then sold it for an embarrassing profit. With Lu and Beckett in elementary school, she had time, so why not start another? Her retirement fund was flush. She gave to charities. She bought James a fancy car and took the kids on cruises. Charlotte was content—toes-in-the-sand, cheek-kiss, hot-cocoa-breath content. Her childhood wishes had come true, and she wonderfully, blissfully, ignorantly reflected that life just couldn’t get any better.

Until it didn’t.

We may never know what turned once-nice James away. Was it the fact that his wife was making more money than he was? (A lot more.) Or that his wife had turned out to be clever? (That can be inconvenient.) Had Charlotte changed? Had James? Was marriage just too hard to maintain in this crazy, shifting world?

Charlotte hadn’t thought so. But then, Charlotte had been wrong before.

She was wrong when she assumed her husband’s late nights were work-related. She was wrong when she blamed his increasingly sullen behavior on an iron deficiency. She was wrong when she believed the coldness in their bed could be fixed with flannel sheets.

Poor Charlotte. So nice, so clever, so wrong.

Charlotte came to believe that no single action kills a marriage. From the moment it begins to stumble, there are a thousand shots at changing course, and she had invested her whole soul in each of those second chances, which failed anyway. It was like being caught in her own personal Groundhog Day, only without the delightful Bill Murray to make her laugh. She would wake up, marvel anew at the bone-crushing weight in her chest, dress in her best clothes, as if for war, and set out with a blazing hope that today would be different. Today James would remember he loved her and come home to the family. Today she would win back her marriage, and her life.

Eventually the time came when Charlotte sat in the messy ruins of her marriage and felt as weak as a cooked noodle. She would never be nice or clever enough. Hope had been beaten to death. She dried her eyes, shut down her heart, and plunged herself into an emotion coma. So much easier not to feel.

Once numbness shuts down a damaged heart, a miracle is required to restart it. Things would prove rough for our heroine. Her only hope was Jane Austen.

Let’s skip ahead. No need to dawdle over lawyers and assets and custody, the sound of ten-year-old Beckett crying in bed, the glazed expression that thirteen-year-old Lu was perfecting. No need to belabor the Valentine’s Day Charlotte alphabetized her magazines.

But before we leap too far, pause for one moment. Charlotte has just stepped out of the shower. The mirror is breathy, the air stifling. It’s been months since her heart has felt Stonehenge-heavy each time she thinks of James; frankly, it’s been some time since she’s felt anything at all. She wipes the fog off the mirror and freezes, struck by the eyes of a woman she doesn’t know. Does she always look this way? That line in her forehead—is she scowling?

Charlotte concentrates on the muscles in her brow, telling them to relax. Still they bunch up. She rubs the spot. Is she having a muscle spasm? Should she see a doctor? Then—oh. She understands. She can rub all she wants, but that line isn’t going away.

“Wrinkle,” she whispers. She didn’t look the same as she had the last time she was single.

That’s what she was thinking when her college friend Sabrina took her out to lunch.

“Kent is a couple of years younger than you, but really great,” Sabrina was saying while salting her cheesesteak. “He’s a paralegal, rides a bike to work, and, you know, only has as much baggage as your average unmarried thirtysomething.”

Charlotte rubbed at the wrinkle between her eyes, pluckily trying to erase it again. It was this same can-do spirit that secured her the Ohio Woman Entrepreneur of the Year (or OWEY) award.

“I’m not getting remarried,” Charlotte said.

“Marriage schmarriage. When are you going to let a little romance into your life?”

Romance. That word seemed silly to Charlotte now—so cheap, mass-market, high-discount. It was temporary insanity caused by the brain. It was a biological trick to ensure the survival of the species.

“One date,” said Sabrina.

“Yeah, sure, okay,” she said, then added, “Thanks,” so Sabrina would feel she was doing Charlotte a favor instead of manipulating her into volunteering for torture.

Friday night arrived after Thursday, just as the calendar warned it would. Charlotte changed her comfy work-at-home clothes to irritating look-at-me clothes and found a mirror to take stock of herself. Her hair looked awful. It just hung, floppy, off her head, like … like … It was so pathetic that when she tried to think what it was like, her mind got overwhelmingly bored and slipped off to think about something more interesting. Such as the tax code.

Being single was ridiculous, with all its demands of blind dating and stock taking and hair doing. Could that be why James had left? Because she hadn’t taken her coiffure seriously enough?

Charlotte flat-ironed her hair, rubbed at her brow wrinkle, and met Kent at a sushi bar.

She called Sabrina as soon as she got home. “I’m damaged. I’m sorry.”

“Oh, Charlotte, what happened?”

Not much. Surely other women would have found Kent’s informal lecture on the merits of homemade dog food fascinating, but Charlotte left the sushi bar with mild food poisoning and a heart that threatened to feel again. And what it almost felt was not good. She shut that right down. Be numb, cruel heart.

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