Home > Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(7)

Midnight in Austenland (Austenland #2)(7)
Shannon Hale

“Yes, I have your request on file and we will see to it.” Mrs. Wattlesbrook stared pointedly at the toiletries bag.

“Um … the papers said we could bring our own makeup and—”

“May I inspect your case?” Mrs. Wattlesbrook interrupted.

Charlotte stood back and watched the woman rifle through her powders and lipsticks and toothpaste. The tampons made her blush. The under-eye concealer made her blanch. The acne cream made her want to die.

Buck up, Charlotte, she told herself. You’re not the only grown woman in the world who still needs acne cream. From time to time. No big deal or anything.

Mrs. Wattlesbrook cleared her throat, nodded, and left without making eye contact.

Charlotte shut the door and noticed that it didn’t lock. She lay on her bed, clutching her toiletries bag to her chest like a teddy bear.

“You’re an idiot,” she whispered to herself.

Then she fell asleep.

Home, before

At first James said he was confused. He needed a break. He was unhappy at work. No, he was unhappy at home. He needed to re-center. He needed new hair products.

This dragged on for months until the truth came out.

Another woman? At least existential angst had its roots in the fine tradition of melancholy poets and misunderstood teenagers. But … a mistress? It was just so cliché. Charlotte, lost and hurt, wondered if she wasn’t also a little ashamed that the man she loved would succumb to such a hackneyed story.

If he was going to leave her, let the reason be explosive and alluring. Let him be overcome with a passion for trapeze artistry, or take an oath of silence and settle down in the foothills of Everest.

“He’s been fighting the impulse for years,” she could explain to her friends over tea and scones. “But he’s an artist at heart. And he’s never felt so fulfilled as he is now, living in Guatemala and painting gourds that he sells to support blind orphans. We’ll miss him, of course, but …” And she’d make a cute, bewildered shrug.

But no. It was “love.”

“I’m in love,” he said. “For the first time in my life, really in love.”

How blessed for him, and how opportune. Just when life was getting a little bit crunchy, a little stretched and strained, he conveniently falls in love with another woman. No more battling with kids, no more grumpy daughter or needy young son to worry about, no more slightly saggy wife who knows all his secrets and the scent of his back sweat. Falling in love in the middle of an old relationship was such a treat!

She handled the framed photo of their family taken the past Christmas. She dropped it in the garbage can. She fished it back out, wrapped it in tissue paper, and put it away with the holiday decorations.

Austenland, day 1, cont.

Charlotte woke to a knock. The curtains were drawn, the room dark and chilly. She sat upright, hugging something plasticky that was making her neck hot.

Toiletries.

Still clutching the bag, she ran to the door, rubbing the side of her face in case the pillow had left indentations. Why should she feel guilty? Mrs. Wattlesbrook said she could rest. She smoothed out her skirt before opening the door.

“Dinner is nearly served,” the maid said quickly. “May I help you dress?”

The maid was slim and petite, and Charlotte considered that she probably weighed as much as Charlotte’s right leg. The maid’s hair was pale, her skin and eyes were pale. She seemed to be fading away. Or Charlotte’s eyes were just dry. She blinked them hard.

“Thanks, I am dressed.”

The maid looked pained to have to speak again. “It is the custom … to wear an evening dress to dinner.”

Oh! Right! This was sounding familiar from her Austen read-a-thon and Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s “Notes on the Regency Era.”

“Sure, thanks.”

The maid curtsied and entered, lighting several candles before going to the wardrobe.

Wow, Charlotte thought. I am in a place where people curtsy. And this is where I’m going to refind myself? In her sticky postnap haze, the prospect seemed doubtful. She went into the bathroom and closed the door. The mirror revealed the truth of her pillow face, and she employed the previously prodded toiletries before coming back out.

“What’s your name?” Charlotte asked as the maid helped her out of her dress.

“Mary.”

A common Austen name. There were Marys in several of her novels. Charlotte wondered if the maid’s name was real or applied. Were the maids actors too, or were they just … maids?

Charlotte was practically naked now—in her corset, chemise, and bloomers. Standing before a stranger in her underwear was never a good time, but especially not in weird underwear.

“How long have you been at Pembrook Park?” she blurted. It was the sort of small talk she engaged in while undergoing a pap smear. If she was talking, she wasn’t thinking about how humiliated she felt.

She made it a point to never go to the same gynecologist twice. There was always a reason to disapprove: chilly exam rooms, sweltering exam rooms, a doctor who hummed while she worked. Her most recent visit had gone smoothly, leaving her no easy excuse, until her lab results were mailed to her on the clinic’s official letterhead: “Rock Canyon OB-GYN: We’re GYNO-MITE!”

“Just two months, ma’am,” said Mary. “Before, I was at Windy Nook.”

“What a pretty name,” Charlotte said, pulling the new dress over her head so quickly she tangled her hair in a clasp. “Is Windy Nook another estate like Pembrook Park?”

“It was.” Mary said it like she didn’t want to talk anymore. Or wasn’t supposed to.

Which intrigued Charlotte.

“What happened to Windy Nook?”

“It’s gone.” Mary’s voice was nearly a whisper.

Charlotte didn’t press her further, but her mind was buzzing now, working over the idea of another Pembrook Park, something gone, some tragedy. What a delightful diversion. Was it true, or was this a little clue that would become part of the ongoing story of Pembrook Park? How curious. That was when Charlotte began to suspect that she’d fallen down the rabbit hole.

Mary did Charlotte’s hair in silence and curtsied when she left. Charlotte curtsied back. Then thought maybe she wasn’t supposed to curtsy to a servant. It was all very confusing.

She blew out the candles, and her formerly cheerful room was quieted of color. A shiver chased her into the hallway. She’d slept through the remains of the day, and an overcast evening skulked outside the windows. All the doors were closed. She tiptoed down the hall, strangely afraid of disrupting the stillness with her passage.

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