Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(3)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(3)
Shannon Hale

Things to do before I’m 30

• Get married [check]

• Have a baby [check, check]

• Walk in high heels without wobbling [check]

• Climb Kilimanjaro [um …]

• Understand physics [check-ish]

• Help save whales or other animals in danger [check! Thank goodness for those Greenpeace donations!]

• Read Jane Austen [???]

It was strange discovering forgotten goals in her own handwriting, as if she’d woken up at a dance club wearing fishnet tights with a group of strangers who called her “Sahara.” Some of the goals made sense—who doesn’t like whales?—but, Kilimanjaro? Wasn’t that a bit much to ask? Jane Austen was doable. The only author Charlotte had read as an adult was Agatha Christie. She’d inherited a fifty-book set from her grandmother and slowly worked her way through them whenever circumstances demanded a book. She couldn’t remember why Austen had intrigued her younger self but was curious enough to take a trip to the bookstore. Jane Austen wasn’t hard to find.

The next weekend the kids went to their father’s, and Charlotte played the sick card to get out of blind dates. She was alone in the house for forty-eight hours and spent most of them with a book in her hand. She read like a woman drinks water after nearly dying of dehydration. The stories pulled out of her sensation after sensation: a fluttering in her belly, a laugh on her lips, a pounding in her heart. Austen’s books made her feel, and that was new, and intoxicating too. And so hopeful. Hope had been that thing with burnt feathers buried in her soul, but now it was waking up, stretching, beating fresh wings in the ashes.

Maybe … maybe it would be all right to allow herself to feel … just a little? Not immediately, nothing rash. But fluttery hope suggested that when she was ready to open back up, perhaps all emotions wouldn’t be stones-pressing-chest horrible. She had no specific expectations. She just contemplated that bird’s heartbeat inside her and considered it was time to take a chance.

The chance came that summer.

“Take a trip, Charlotte,” her sister-in-law Shelby said over the phone. “When the kids are with James, go somewhere exotic. Meet someone.”

There was no one Charlotte wanted to meet. Except the characters in Austen’s books. Which was a ridiculous idea. Right? Wasn’t it?

“Maybe I’ll go to England,” Charlotte said.

She called Sunny, the travel agent she used for business trips.

“I have three weeks this summer and I’d like to go to the U.K. Maybe … I don’t know, do they have Jane Austen tours?”

“Oh sure,” Sunny said, sounding up to her name. “There’s some super great tours that take you through towns where she lived or places from her books. Bath is popular. It’s so effin’ quaint.”

“That sounds nice.” Maybe if she stood in the places where Austen wrote, where her characters lived, she could feel again as she had when reading her books—not like a girl who’d been wadded up and tossed aside, but like a woman with possibilities.

“Divorced nearly a year and never a vacation,” Charlotte said to fill the silence while Sunny clicked away on her computer. “I should stop feeling like I don’t deserve it and just do it. And it’s not frivolous; it’s literary, right? I mean, Sunny, have you read Austen?”

“Sure—well, not since high school.” Clickety-click.

“There’s something about those stories. That’s where I want to be right now. Even if just for a minute, to be there would be so nice.”

Sunny’s keyboard stopped clicking.

“Charlotte, hang on a sec, okay?”

Hold music. Disco. Charlotte’s toes tapped along. Charlotte’s toes loved disco.

The phone clicked and a new voice spoke—deeper, velvety.

“Ms. Kinder, this is Noel Hess, owner of Endless Summers. Sunny told me of your desire for an Austen vacation. I have a suggestion for you—one we reserve for our exclusive clientele.”

Charlotte listened. Charlotte swallowed. Charlotte rubbed the goose bumps on her arms. This Austen vacation would cost four times what she’d thought she’d spend. But Charlotte was breathless. She felt as if she were Ponce de León being guided to the fountain of youth and invited to dip in his toes. Surely Ponce de León would have preferred full immersion, but, hey, immortal toes are better than nothing. Even if they love disco.

The travel agent overnighted a glossy pamphlet emblazoned with a grand estate, a man and woman in Austen-era clothing walking arm in arm. It wasn’t a drawing. It was a photo of an actual, brick-and-mortar, flesh-and-blood venue.

Charlotte opened the pamphlet and read the scripty font:

Pembrook Park, Kent, England. Enter our doors as a houseguest come to stay two weeks, enjoying the country manners and hospitality—a tea visit, a dance or two, a turn in the park, an unexpected meeting with a certain gentleman, all culminating with a ball and perhaps something more …

Charlotte closed her eyes and clutched the pamphlet. Lately the nonfictional world had been thin and drab. But in Austenland, life could be lived in full color. It was real! Well, real-ish. If she went, would the dead and frozen part of herself revive? Austen’s words had started the thawing process. Imagine what could happen if Charlotte could actually step inside the story.

Everything was about to change.

Austenland, Day 1

An Aston Martin, complete with hatted and jacketed driver, picked her up at her London hotel. She’d been in the city for a week, ostensibly to start her vacation early, though she spent most of her time working on her laptop. Why relax and think when there was wonderful, numbing work at hand?

She’d been to England once before, while touring Europe after college with a backpack, a rail pass, and a “best friend” who’d ditched her in Vienna for a guy from Albania. She’d had no romantic notions of England then, her experience mostly revolving around the question “Will it rain before I can book it to the next hostel?”

Now she looked over the landscape with expectation. With hope.

Come on, she willed through the car window. Come on, change me. I dare you.

They entered a drowsy countryside of low green hills and hedged pastures. Trees engulfed any sight of the nearby town, and a building styled as an inn came into view. A woman of sixty waited in the threshold. She wore an Empire-waist dress, a lacy cap over her hair, and a smile that seemed to pinch a bit. Charlotte wanted to pat her on the back and say, Don’t worry, you don’t have to smile on my account.

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