Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(4)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(4)
Shannon Hale

“Welcome to 1816,” the woman said as Charlotte stepped out of the car. “I am Mrs. Wattlesbrook, proprietress of Pembrook Park and your hostess for the next two weeks. Please come in.”

The inn was cozy and quaint, with a fire in the fireplace, a table set for tea.

“Have a seat and refresh yourself while we get acquainted,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook.

“Would it be all right if I changed first?” It was weird standing there in jeans beside Mrs. Wattlesbrook in her old-timey attire, like being the only person at a dance who’d worn a costume. (Tenth grade: Charlotte went as a disco queen.)

Mrs. Wattlesbrook sniffed but escorted her to an upper room, where an ancient maid awaited. A full forty-five minutes later, Charlotte was dressed: socks, garters, boots, bloomers, chemise, corset, dress. The maid scooped Charlotte’s shoulder-length hair into a well-pinned twist, and Charlotte inspected herself in the mirror. She squinted. She gaped. She flared her nostrils menacingly. Nope. No significant change yet. Her insides still felt chilled. She might as well have been dressed as a disco queen.

So it’s not the corset that does the trick, she thought. It’s not the dress. But it’s a start.

Lately she’d become the Divorced Woman. She’d let herself be defined by what James had done to her. Now it was her chance to redefine things.

I choose this, she told the reflection.

The reflection didn’t change. She hoped it wouldn’t take its time. She only had two weeks.

Charlotte returned to the tea table. The corset was as stiff as a life vest. She couldn’t lean back comfortably or bend easily to scratch her ankle. Which was the point, she supposed. Austen ladies didn’t have itchy ankles or desires to lounge. Austen ladies were grandly pretty—like marble statues.

She kind of hoped she was pretty. She’d forgotten to check for that in the mirror.

Mrs. Wattlesbrook opened her folder and reviewed etiquette rules and the schedules for each day and, with the help of two silent maids, taught her to play the card game whist.

“You have read all of Austen’s works?” Mrs. Wattlesbrook asked, playing a card.

“Mm-hm,” said Charlotte.

“And in your papers, you selected Pride and Prejudice as your favorite.”

Mrs. Wattlesbrook had sent her a thirty-page questionnaire to fill out beforehand, requiring more information than if she’d been applying for Special Forces.

“It strikes me as a completely perfect novel,” Charlotte said.

“So it is,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook said, making Charlotte glad she had chosen it.

Initially Pride and Prejudice had been her favorite, but two other books had impacted Charlotte even more upon rereading. Northanger Abbey made her laugh out loud. And Mansfield Park resonated because it was the only Austen novel that had an actual affair—married Maria Bertram with single Henry Crawford. The affair was exposed; Maria was ostracized and divorced. The starkness of it put into relief the rest of Austen’s era, when marriage usually lasted all life long. No one in Austenland would pat Charlotte’s hand and say soothingly, “Don’t feel bad. Half of all marriages end in divorce, you know.” In Austenland, leaving your wife for another woman would be shocking! She wanted to live in such a place, even for just two weeks.

“By the way, my dear, have you given thought to what you would like your name to be?” Mrs. Wattlesbrook played the winning card, a slight gloat in her voice. “If there is no particular name that takes your fancy, I can design one for you.”

Charlotte was relieved she wouldn’t have to carry around the burden of his last name, not here anyway. She’d kept it after the divorce because it also belonged to her children. But it pinched, like Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s smile. It reminded her each time she reported her name to the bank teller or insurance agent that she’d been someone else once, a missus to someone’s mister. She’d been a wife, a lover, a companion—so much so that she’d abandoned her parents’ name and taken his. Become for him.

An unwanted name was a heavy thing to bear.

“I could be Charlotte Cordial.”

“Lovely,” said the proprietress.

It was the first name to pop into Charlotte’s head, her maternal grandmother’s surname. Charlotte had been named after her grandma—a lovely woman with a wicked laugh and a keen eye, whom everyone had called “Candy.” Now it sounded like a stripper’s moniker, but in the early twentieth century, “Candy Cordial” was a darling name.

“But you wish to retain your Christian name?” Mrs. Wattlesbrook asked, peering over the top of her reading glasses.


“Hm …” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook, as if to say, So, you’re one of those. “ ‘Miss Cordial’ it is.”

“Actually, better make that ‘missus.’ ”

“ ‘Miss,’ ” Mrs. Wattlesbrook said firmly.

“ ‘Missus,’ ” Mrs. Cordial said more firmly. She didn’t care about disowning James, but in 1816, a “miss” could not have children and be accepted in society. She could change her name, her hair, her dress, her way of being, but one thing she could not change was her status as mother. She felt it etched into her very face, as indelible as her brow wrinkle.

“Mrs. Cordial,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook with a sniff, her approval rapidly dwindling. “A widow?”

Charlotte nodded. “Yes, my husband died tragically. It was a gruesome and exceedingly painful demise.”

For the first time, Mrs. Wattlesbrook really smiled, and in such a way that Charlotte half expected the woman to extend her fist to knock knuckles.

“It is a shame when they die young,” said Mrs. Wattlesbrook.

Charlotte nodded with mock solemnity, but she couldn’t help smiling a little as well. She had a feeling Mrs. Wattlesbrook understood about unfaithful husbands. Maybe Mrs. Wattlesbrook was a fellow jilted wife.

The smile lasted a lightning flash, then the woman cleared her throat and cleared her face of expression.

“So, Mrs. Cordial, I would have you know that I take extreme pains to ensure all my Guests have a Satisfying Experience,” Mrs. Wattlesbrook said, certain words clearly capitalized. “From your detailed profile, I have matched you to a gentleman character suited to your temperament and personality. My clients enjoy discovering their intended Romantic Interest and pursuing an innocent love affair under the rules of Regency Etiquette. We have had troublesome clients in the past. I trust you will not be one?” She raised her eyebrows.

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