Read Midnight in Austenland Online

Authors: Shannon Hale

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Midnight in Austenland

BOOK: Midnight in Austenland
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For Jerusha and Steph, the muses of this book, who, unlike a certain British actor, will at the very least acknowledge this dedication and probably even swear to me their eternal love.

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.

“I'm dumpy,” Charlotte said without emotion.

“You're not dumpy,” said Sabrina. “You're five eleven. How can you be dumpy?”

“I feel dumpy.”

“Wait … did Kent call you dumpy? I warned him to keep his mouth shut.”

“No, he was fine. I'm done complaining. And done dating. For now. Sorry. Thanks.”

But it wasn't over. Word had gotten out among Charlotte's female network: she'd been on a date! That meant open season. Those weekends each month when Lu and Beckett were with James found Charlotte dressed up and trundled off on blind dates. To clarify, no men actually asked Charlotte out, but every married woman of Charlotte's acquaintance had a reserve of unmarried men just waiting to take her out once and never call again. Well, some called, but those were the “artists”—hopeful novelists, painters, glassblowers—who found dating women like Charlotte more convenient than applying for grants.

Charlotte was standing in the supermarket checkout, contemplating a strategy of dating avoidance that mostly involved never answering her phone again, when she saw a women's magazine advertising the article “10 Tips to Saying NO!” She bought it. The ten tips were mildly helpful (“Be gentle but firm, like a good flan! After all, no one wants a slouchy custard.”), but it was a different article that tipped her world upside down.

Common wisdom used to assert that a son needs his father more than a daughter does. Someone to play catch with, right? Well, don't neglect the daughters. New research warns that daughters of divorced parents can suffer from a dangerous drop in self-esteem.

“Whether they like it or not, teenage girls do identify with their mothers,” offered Dr. Deb Shapiro, researcher for the Minneapolis Center for Family Studies. “When her father leaves her mother, a girl often feels she is being rejected too. We're finding more and more that these girls can be desperate for male attention and approval, and are much more likely to become teenage pregnancy statistics.”

The accompanying photo gave Charlotte chills: a pretty, somewhat sad teenage girl dressed in a short skirt and halter top, sauntering past a group of ogling boys. “This could be your daughter!” the photo seemed to scream. “She is out there fishing for affection in a swarm of sharks and it's YOUR FAULT because you weren't interesting enough to keep her father home!”

Charlotte put down the magazine and cracked the door of her home office. There was Lu on the couch with her new boyfriend, Pete, her legs dangling over his. Charlotte had instituted a no-boyfriend-behind-closed-doors policy, but what was this boy doing when Charlotte couldn't keep an eye on him? The thought haunted her like an overdose of MSG. She was not a woman who could statically fret—she had to
do
something.

Coming home from an errand the next afternoon, she just happened to pass by Pete's house. Oh so casually she parked across the street and watched for a few minutes. Or an hour. When a Jeep pulled up and Pete hopped in, Charlotte followed it to another house. She sneaked out of her car and peered in the basement window. Three boys, including Pete, were sitting on a couch playing a video game.

This is crazy, Charlotte, she told herself. You're crazy. You've lost it.

You really have, said her Inner Thoughts. You weren't this paranoid before James left.

I know, Charlotte thought back, hoping her Inner Thoughts would shush up and leave her be. If she stuck to Pete, she'd discover a secret, a greasy side, something she could tell Lu that would convince her to stay away from boys until she was older. Say, twenty-five.

It was getting dark. Charlotte crouched down to wait. A bush hid her from the neighbors, and with the lights on inside, surely the boys couldn't see out. Wait, where had the boys gone? The couch was empty.

She turned.

Pete was standing in the backyard holding a can of cola, squinting at her.

“Mrs. Kinder?”

Charlotte stood up, brushed the grass from her skirt, and said with forced nonchalance, “Hm? What was that? Oh, hello, Pete. Do you live here?”

His squint became even tighter. “It's my cousin's house. Are you looking for Lu or something?”

“No, no, I was just examining the various landscaping styles of various properties in various neighborhoods and so on and so forth. You know. For my work.”

Without looking away, he took a long, slow drink from his soda.

“Okay then, nice to see you again, Pete. And such a great placement of a juniper bush! Excellent roots and foliage. Very healthy.”

She hobbled down the slope of the front lawn, her heeled shoes aerating the grass. Not very practical footwear for examining various landscapes in various neighborhoods. Maybe he hadn't noticed.

No more stalking, Charlotte! her Inner Thoughts demanded.

Sure, okay, but by the way, did you know there's an entire section in the yellow pages devoted to private investigators?

Two weeks later she received an envelope of information and photos: Pete with his friends in the mall, Pete getting on a school bus, Pete at soccer practice. What had she been expecting? Pete sneaking into seedy motel rooms or sliding paper bags under bathroom stalls?

She put the PI's file into the shredder then went to find her daughter, who was in the basement, watching commercials on TV. It was time to try the direct approach.

“Hey, Lu. How are you doing?”

Lu sighed and pushed Mute. “Mom, if you want to talk to me, don't try to be all sneaky about it.”

Charlotte sat beside her on the couch. “I have some concerns about Pete.”

“Of course you do. He's a boy and you're my mom and Dad left. It all makes sense.”

Charlotte shut her eyes and recalled an image of a three-year-old Lu in pigtails, twirling unselfconsciously in the living room of their old apartment.

“You're fourteen, honey,” Charlotte said, returning unwillingly to reality. “That's just so young to be serious with a boy.”

“Mom, please. Can't you remember being fourteen? You were my age once, and you came out okay. So lighten up.”

Did I really come out okay? Charlotte wondered. For Lu's sake (and for fear of legal repercussions if she were caught hiring men to take photos of a teenage boy), she tried to remember what it was like to be young. That Easter weekend, when they visited her mother in North Carolina, she dug out some old boxes and uncovered a diary from her middle school years. The first page arrested her:

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.

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