Section I, Next Section
Part 1 ~ December 18
It is a truth universally acknowledged that grandparents are often the first people thought of for baby-sitting duties. Joshua Madison was always first on his daughter Kelsey's list of available baby-sitters, and he always agreed. This was partially out of a sense of guilt for his own lack of presence during his daughter's childhood, but also because he doted on his grandchildren.
Besides, with three children under the age of ten in the house, he felt that Kelsey and Alexander Darcy deserved some time alone. Especially when one of the children was an active seven-year-old named Emma and the other two were nearly six-month-old twins. And heaven knew that their other grandparents were unavailable for baby-sitting duties, being, well, one hundred and fifty or so years in the past.
Joshua had just settled in for an evening of watching "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" with Emma for the seventh time while making sure the twins were sleeping comfortably when he heard the tap on the back door.
"That'll be Tommy," Emma said, leaping up and running for the back door. "He said he might come over."
"Emma, let me get the door," Joshua called just as he heard Emma open the door and say hello to whomever was standing there.
"Grampa!!" Emma shouted.
Joshua groaned. Emma had a tendency to forget that there were babies in the house who wakened at the slightest shout.
He reached the kitchen and the back door and frowned when he saw what had caused Emma to shout for him.
The woman standing at the door was petite, not particularly handsome, and somewhere close to him in age, which would place her in her mid-fifties. She was wearing clothes, however, that would place her in the time frame of his daughter's in-laws.
Joshua looked up just in time to see the maze disappearing. The maze which had provided many a miracle before. Yet this woman who was standing at the door was a complete stranger.
"Can I help you?" he asked hesitantly.
"I was hoping you could help me," the woman replied. "You see, I somehow got lost in that dreadful maze that Lizzy and Mr. Darcy have, and I need to get back to Pemberley in time to greet my daughter when she arrives."
The maze, he could see, was gone completely.
"Why did you go through the maze?" he asked.
"Because everyone insisted I was upsetting their nerves. Following the death of my husband two years ago, I spent some time visiting relatives, which took me away from Longbourn and my youngest daughter. I spent nearly a year in America with my daughters Mrs. Ashton and Mrs. Connor...well, why I am bothering with all this nonsense is beside the point. I have not seen Victoria in two years, and I need to return, only where I started in that wretched maze is not where I ended up."
"What makes you think I'd know anything about how to get through that maze? I was lucky to get through it myself last year," he said.
"You have managed to escape it, however, and...and..." The woman looked past him into the house, where she saw gadgets she'd never seen before. Her eyes widened a bit. She looked at him. "You seem familiar."
"I wish I could say the same for you, but I've never seen you before."
"You look a little like...no. Never mind."
The woman sighed, then continued. "The last time my friend Mrs. Darcy's third son was visiting, he brought her a most extraordinary portrait. Most life-like. It was a portrait painted of his family. You look something like Alexander's wife."
Joshua smiled. He had determined that this woman was a friend of the Darcy family's who had accidentally stumbled through the maze, so it would be safe to tell her everything. "Perhaps because I'm her father. Joshua Madison."
"Oh!" The woman smiled as well. "I suppose that would explain it. I am Mrs. William Collins."
Joshua noticed that although the woman was not handsome, she had a lovely, warm smile. It almost made her pretty. "Your mother named you William?"
"No!" Charlotte Lucas Collins frowned at this unusual man, then noticed that he was still smiling. He had been teasing her. "Oh. My Christian name is Charlotte, Mr. Madison. William was the name of my husband."
"Charlotte." It suited her, he decided. "And you are well-acquainted with my son-in-law's family?"
"Then you are aware of how my daughter met Alexander Darcy."
Charlotte sighed. "Actually, no one seems to know how they met. Or where they go when they leave Pemberley. I suppose they live in America, though Beth and Julia have said they have not seen them at all. I sort of thought that Alexander would pay them a visit, since he was always close to Beth."
"Er...Charlotte, I think you may want to come inside with me. It's getting cold and there's something you really need to know."
"All right," Charlotte said, entering the warm house. She was marveling at all the unusual fixtures that were situated everywhere. "I did not know that there was a cottage on the Pemberley estate such as this."
"There isn't," Joshua replied. "You see, that maze isn't an ordinary maze. I think maybe you should sit down."
Joshua led her to the living room, where Emma, having gotten bored with the adult conversation, was sitting in the floor, watching the television show.
"Jane and Josh are still sleeping," Emma said. "I checked already."
"Thank you, Emma." Joshua sat Charlotte down on the couch, then sat beside her.
Charlotte frowned. This man was becoming all too familiar with her, and she was uncertain as to whether or not she wanted him to be thus. She inched away from him.
"What is going on here?" she asked.
"You said that no one had ever mentioned how they met," Joshua told her. "I'm going to have to, but I can't explain why you're here. You see, the year is 19--. My daughter lives in the present time, and Alexander lived in the past. They met when he came forward in time to try to save Elizabeth Darcy's life."
Charlotte said nothing for a moment, then she laughed. "That is the most absurd story I have ever heard, sir. I insist that you stop making a charade of this and--"
"I'm not kidding, Charlotte."
"It is Mrs. Collins, sir."
"Whatever. You've come from your time to the future." He saw the first thing that could give him the date, which was a copy of Cosmopolitan. "See?"
Charlotte picked up the book he handed her and looked at the date he motioned to. The world seemed to get rather dizzy around her, and even though she had always considered herself a sensible woman, and hardly one who was given to fits of foolishness, she fainted.
Part 1 Continued
December 18 continued.
"You did what?" Alexander gasped when his father-in-law told him about the woman laying prone on the spare bed upstairs. That's where Joshua had taken Charlotte after she had up and fainted on him.
"What was he supposed to do?" Kelsey demanded, frowning at Alexander's tone. "If she's from your time--"
"But a lady from my time wouldn't be expected to handle--"
"You don't give the women of your time enough credit, dear."
"Still, Cosmopolitan is something of a shock."
Kelsey grinned. Alexander seemed to think that her women's magazines were on some parallel with Playboy, and she still couldn't convince him otherwise. "There's been no sign of the maze since she appeared?" She asked.
"No," Joshua replied. "I've checked almost every ten minutes, but still no maze."
"I can't figure out what she's doing here," Alexander frowned. "That maze has never served more than a useful purpose. Holidays, birthdays, and of course--"
"The three times we needed it--when you came forward, when we had to go back, and when we had to return because you were..." Kelsey didn't like thinking of what had happened the year before.
"It let me come through to tell you that John was facing a prison term," Joshua said. "And it let John himself through."
"Yes, but we always thought it was because of Emma." Kelsey glanced upstairs where the woman-- "Who did you say she was?"
"Charlotte. Charlotte Collins."
"Beth's mother!" Alexander exclaimed. "What on earth could Beth's mother need here in the future?"
"Charlotte Collins?" Kelsey thought for a moment. "Was she married to--"
"William Collins, of Longbourn. But I can't imagine why she was at Pemberley, or what she was doing in that maze. She never liked it, was always afraid of getting lost in it."
"She was there to see her daughter Victoria," Joshua said. "She said that she'd been visiting her daughters in America for the past year and hadn't seen the girl since her husband's death."
"Mr. Collins died the winter before we met," Alexander said. "Since he died without a son, the estate went to my--"
"--older brother," Kelsey said. "You told me that once. He married Mr. Collins' youngest daughter."
"Yes." Alexander thought back to his rather eventful seventeenth summer, when Mr. Collins had tried to manipulate his daughters into marrying the wrong men. Thankfully, fate and circumstances had allowed things to fall into the right place. "Has she awakened since fainting?"
"No," Joshua said. "Perhaps she's sick like your mother was when you came here."
"She didn't look sick, did she?"
"No. She looked quite healthy, actually."
"Then it has to be something else," Kelsey said. "I guess the reason will come out in time. We can't force anything. And in the meantime, we have a woman one hundred and fifty years out of her element to adjust."
"I don't think she's going to accept this quite as well as I did," Alexander said. "Mrs. Collins is far more sensible than I was."
"Sense has very little to do with this," Kelsey told him.
"Which is why she's going to have more trouble."
"Especially since I don't have as much time to devote to her than I did to you." Kelsey frowned. "I have the twins--"
Alexander grinned. "Who better to get Mrs. Collins through this transition than one who has already been through it? Who can explain things as well as I can?"
"I admit you can explain a lot of things better than I can, as much as you've read up on recent world history and electronics. You should see him, Dad. He's fixed just about everything around this house, including the washer. And they've never run better."
Joshua smiled at the pride in his daughter's voice.
"I only wonder where we might be today if we had had such technology in my time," he said. "Perhaps we would be colonizing other planets--"
"He's been watching Star Wars again."
"I still think the idea of interplanetary travel is feasible--"
"In a few hundred years, perhaps," Kelsey teased. "In the meantime, just stick to having fun around the house and playing on the Internet."
"Then we're agreed that since she knows Alexander, and he knows what she'll be going through, that he'll be the one taking care of her until the maze opens again?" Joshua asked.
"Yeah, I think so." Kelsey smiled.
"Then...then I'm done here for tonight." Joshua sighed. "I guess I'll go on home, then."
"Okay. Thanks for watching the kids, Dad...and sorry this happened to you."
"It's okay, Kelsey. You couldn't prevent this." He gave her a kiss on the cheek. "See you later, then."
Joshua drove back to his apartment, the same apartment he'd lived in since his divorce from Kelsey's mother several years earlier. Laura Madison still lived in the home that they'd had since Kelsey and her twin sister Madeline had been babies, but he didn't begrudge her the house. It hadn't mattered to him at all.
Joshua had a lot of guilt where his children were concerned. The marriage had been in trouble when Laura had announced her pregnancy, part of it centered on her obsession with having children, and part of it because he'd started to realize that he didn't love her anymore. Kelsey and Madeline had changed everything. He decided to stick with the marriage for his children's sake and then buried his head in the sand, not noticing that his daughters were growing up under the influence of his wife to think they weren't equal. Maddie received the attention and Kelsey received the criticism.
If he'd had to do over again, he would've left Laura as soon as it was decently possible after the girls were born. If he'd noticed how she was treating them, he would've taken Kelsey under his wing and let her know how special she was, that she was just as smart and pretty and good as Maddie. And he hadn't, and it was his cross to bear. His actions had led Kelsey into a dreadful marriage that had nearly destroyed her self-esteem and nearly caused another man's death.
He wasn't going to let her down now. There had to be a reason for that woman to have come into this time, and he would find out, so Kelsey wouldn't have to worry. And if it allowed him to come into contact with Charlotte, well, he wouldn't mind it.
He wouldn't mind it at all.
Charlotte hadn't awakened at all through the night. Kelsey had worried for quite a while that the shock might have killed her, but Alexander checked on her when he'd been up for the twins at three in the morning, and Charlotte was snoring softly. Alexander figured that she'd awakened again, been rather tired from the experience and still somewhat dazed, and had fallen asleep.
It used to be in the Darcy household that Emma woke everyone up, either in anticipation of school or of watching cartoons and then playing with Tommy Wallace and other friends of hers who lived in the neighborhood. In the past six months, however, the culprit was either Joshua James Darcy or Jane Elizabeth Darcy, wanting to be fed or changed or just needing some attention, darn it. They were usually up before Emma, who was sleeping later because school had lost a lot of its luster. Only on weekends was she up before them, because, although school was boring, Tommy and her other friends weren't.
The morning after her arrival, however, Charlotte was the first to awaken, hearing gurgling coming from the nursery. It disoriented her, because she knew she didn't have any children young enough to be making that sound, and she knew she wasn't in the home of either Julia or Elizabeth, both of whom had just had babies. (It astounded her that those two had their children within days of each other. Elizabeth always quipped, "We wanted to be certain our children would have playmates their own age.")
Charlotte looked around the dark room. It was barely past six, and the sun wouldn't be up for at least another half hour. Charlotte was surprised that the room felt so warm, since she saw no fireplace. She pulled the covers back and swung her legs around to touch the warm floor. It was then that she noticed that she was wearing something other than the dress she'd arrived in.
Dear God! That man undressed me! Charlotte's face flooded with color as she remembered him--Joshua Madison. Hair that was slowly turning silver, grey eyes, a bemused smile. He'd been tall and in good shape for a man of advancing years. As Charlotte thought about it, the man was in better shape than her late husband in the prime of his life. The thought of any man, much less a rather attractive one, undressing her...
Charlotte would have screamed except she had heard a child. She did not wish to wake them. They must be Mr. Madison's children, although he certainly seemed a bit too old to be having children of such a young age. Of course, if there was a baby in the house, that must mean he had a wife.
Charlotte frowned as she recognized the symptoms of disappointment flooding her body. Why should she care whether or not the man had a wife? She was a widow of barely two years. For all practical purposes, she might as well be buried beside her beloved husband.
What a lie that statement is. William Collins was my beloved nothing. Still, now was not the time to reflect on past mistakes. Now was not the time to faintly wish she'd had a bit of romance in her life. She was too old for regrets, too old to wonder what could have been. And certainly too old to be regretting the fact that a complete stranger was married.
A young woman appeared in the doorway. Charlotte nearly gaped at the woman's indecency in appearing before a stranger in her nightdress.
"I see the twins woke you," she said. "Sorry about that."
"It is all right," Charlotte replied. "I usually awaken early."
"I'm Kelsey Darcy." Kelsey walked into the room, extending her hand.
"Oh! Then the man who I met last night--"
"That was my father. He was just watching the kids last night while Alexander and I went out to dinner and a movie."
"I see. Why did you not ask your mother to do that? Would she not be the more appropriate person to watch the children?" Charlotte wanted to bite her tongue, thinking that Kelsey's mother might not be alive.
The look on Kelsey's face, however, told her a different story before she said, "My mother is hardly an appropriate person to be watching my children. But that's a long story and not really one I like going into. My father told me your name is Charlotte?"
"Yes, Mrs. Darcy." How strange to be calling someone other than Lizzy that!
"Just call me Kelsey. Mrs. Darcy sounds like Alexander's mother, Mrs. Collins. May I call you Charlotte?"
"Yes. May I ask one question?"
"Why did your father play such a trick on me?"
Kelsey sighed. "It wasn't a trick, Charlotte. You've come forward into the future."
Charlotte started to feel dizzy again and was grateful she was already sitting on the bed. "I was afraid of that."
"Tell you what. You get dressed, I'll fix you something to eat, and we'll try to figure out what you're doing here. How does that sound?"
"That would be all right."
"Okay. I...uh, I brought you something to wear." Kelsey looked over the older woman. Charlotte was a bit heavier than she was, which was why Kelsey had brought a couple of dresses she'd bought back in the early days of her last pregnancy when she'd first started getting rounder. She figured that they would more or less fit until Kelsey could get Charlotte to a store to buy her something that fit better.
But all that could come later. First, Charlotte needed to talk to Alexander.
"I'll leave you alone to get dressed. If you have any problems, let me know."
Charlotte flushed but nodded. Kelsey left the room and Charlotte picked up the clothing items that had been set on the chair. The dress looked to be an ordinary, durable fabric of dark blue. The sleeves, however, were little more than thick straps at the top, and Charlotte shuddered at the idea of having her arms unprotected in the winter. Beneath the dress was a long-sleeved man's shirt of some type. Beside the shirt were what appeared to be undergarments, but they were hardly appropriate ones.
Blushing, she picked up one of the garments, which seemed to be for...
Charlotte turned even redder. Dear heavens, what sort of world was this? What did they use for corsets? What was she doing here?
"I cannot possibly fathom anything that would have made me...go through your maze," Charlotte said for the third time. "I am not sick. None of my children are sick. I have need of nothing, except to return home to my family."
Alexander had explained what they believed the main purpose of the maze was, which had led to Charlotte's confusion.
"Alexander, maybe she doesn't know if there's something wrong," Kelsey said. "I mean, just because she looks healthy doesn't mean that she's actually all right."
"What do you mean?" Charlotte asked, her face ashen.
"I don't want to scare you, Charlotte, but cancer can sometimes take a while to appear. You could look perfectly healthy now, and perhaps only be a little tired, but it could be going through your body and soon claim your life. I'm not saying that's the problem, but it's just a possibility."
"Oh, God." Charlotte put a hand to her forehead, wondering if even then, she was dying.
"I think you should see a doctor today," Alexander said. "Just to rule out any problems you might have. If you have come forward because you are possibly dying of something that can be cured, then you can receive medical treatment as my mother did and still live."
"I'll call Dr. Hayes," Kelsey said. "He's a good doctor, Charlotte. If something's wrong with you, he'll find it out."
Charlotte nodded. She looked down at her bowl of food, some peculiar thing called cereal. It had an unfamiliar but not unpleasant taste, and if the little girl next to her was any indication, it was a favorite in this household.
Kelsey was about to ask Charlotte if she'd had any problems dressing when someone knocked on the front door. Kelsey walked out of the room, and when she returned, Joshua Madison was following her.
Charlotte flushed a bit, even though she realized that it had to have been Kelsey who had put her in the nightdress.
"Grampa!" Emma exclaimed, waving to him.
"Hello, Emma." Joshua smiled and kissed her on the cheek. "Good morning, Alexander. Charlotte, you look..."
There he hesitated, since Charlotte looked a little unusual. She had put on the foundation garments (blushing all the while) with only minor trouble, but the straps of the top part hadn't been covered well by the dress, so she'd put the shirt on over it. She knew she looked strange, but she couldn't help it.
"Nice," he finished.
Kelsey wondered if sending Charlotte a jumper had been such a good idea. It had looked okay when Kelsey had worn it, but it didn't suit Charlotte well. Still, it was all she had that might fit, and it fit all right. She'd take her shopping after they went to the doctor.
"Good morning, Mr. Madison," Charlotte said.
"So, Kelsey, have you figured out why she's here?"
"No," Kelsey replied. "Charlotte doesn't think she's sick, but we thought she might be...so I'm going to take her to the doctor and then perhaps we'll go shopping."
"I think I should take Charlotte to the doctor so she knows what to expect," Alexander said. "After all, I'm the one who has had to go through this before."
"You got a crash course of modern medicine, that's for sure," Kelsey muttered.
"What else do you have planned for the day, Kelsey?" Joshua asked.
She sighed. "Well, Emma needs dropped off at school, that's the first thing. We'll do that on the way to Dr. Hayes. Then I have to go to the grocery store to pick up stuff for Christmas dinner, I have to call Maddie to see what she's making and bringing over. I have to call Mom to see if she's still planning on joining Carl's family for Christmas or if she's changed her mind and is planning to make my Christmas miserable."
Alexander choked back a laugh. Although things had been eased a bit after last year, the habits of twenty-eight years could not be erased, and Laura Madison still had a tendency to criticize her older daughter.
"Then I have to run back to the school this afternoon to help decorate for the Christmas program tonight, and pick up Emma, then get her ready for the program and...that reminds me, I need to ask Maddie if she'd be willing to watch the twins tonight. All that noise will have them screaming."
"It sounds as though you're going to be too busy to do much," Joshua said. "So how about this? I'll take Charlotte to the doctor, and--"
"Are you going to take her shopping?" Kelsey was amused.
"Why not? Clothes are clothes."
Charlotte frowned. "I do not wish to be anyone's burden. Merely take me to the dressmakers and I shall choose my own clothing. I know what is suitable."
"Things are a little different here," Kelsey, Alexander, and Joshua said in unison. The three of them burst into laughter.
Charlotte had a feeling that things were more than a little different here, but said nothing as Kelsey agreed to let Joshua take Charlotte out for the day.
Part 2 Continued
December 19 continued.
Charlotte could not remember ever feeling so humiliated in all her life. Nothing Mr. Collins had ever done to embarrass her had done as good a job as this morning had. She now sat waiting in a doctor's office, which was perhaps the best place for her after she had vomited into the bushes outside his building.
But for the love of God, Joshua Madison was a madman! He had been driving so fast that Charlotte had felt dizzy the entire trip. Indeed, she could not remember ever feeling so nauseated as she had through that wild ride, not even the ride she had taken the day Anne de Bourgh had attempted to kidnap Victoria. Yet this contraption Joshua had been driving went ten times faster than any horse, and unlike back home, there seemed to be thousands of similar vehicles on the roads.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Joshua asked again. When Charlotte had been sick in the bushes, he'd thought that maybe Kelsey was right about Charlotte having a serious but as-yet undetectable problem. He was holding the paperwork which they'd had yet to fill out on her.
"I am not certain," she admitted.
"Well, if there's something wrong, we're going to find out. When were you born?"
"February 2, 17--"
"How old are you?"
Charlotte glared at him. "A lady does not reveal that information."
Joshua looked at her with a calm expression. "I have to write down a year of birth on this, and I can't put down that you were born two centuries ago. Therefore, I have to know how old you are so I can write down a year that will make more sense."
"Sixty," she mumbled in a low voice.
Joshua was a bit surprised. She didn't look that old. She looked like she was in her early fifties, and yet she was only a year younger than he was. He calculated the year, wrote it down, then tried to fill out the other questions to the best of their ability. He returned the form to the front desk, was told that the doctor would be with them in a little while, and sat beside Charlotte again.
"You're looking much better than you did earlier," he said.
"Thank you," she replied.
"Was it just nerves? Kelsey said that Alexander didn't take to riding in a car too well the first time she took him out, although you couldn't tell anymore as good as he drives."
"Alexander knows how to operate one of those...vehicles?"
"Yeah. If he's seen it, he's been fascinated by it. Alexander is insatiably curious. Fortunately, thanks to his father, Alexander has the time to explore all his projects."
"What did Mr. Darcy do?"
Joshua smiled. "He gave them money."
"I did not know he did that."
"The thing is, since the money he gives them whenever they visit is nearly a hundred and fifty years old and in mint condition, it's worth quite a bit in this world."
"I don't quite understand."
"Collecting money has become a passion for a number of people in this world. They're willing to pay quite a bit of money for what Kelsey and Alexander have. I told Kelsey that old Fitz could probably stop giving them something whenever they see him, because they've got plenty of money from the exchanges and what they receive from their investments provides for them quite well. She said she told him, but he wants to make sure his grandchildren are provided for."
"Have they...have they visited here, then?"
"They did once, when Kelsey and Alexander got married. It was quite a sight. They arrived the morning of the wedding in Kelsey's backyard, just like you did, all in their finery that was quite old. Laura--Kelsey's mother, my ex-wife--was having fits when Kelsey called to tell her that the groom's family would be attending after she'd been told they wouldn't be there."
"Your ex-wife? Why do you refer to her in such a fashion?"
"Because that's what she is. We're divorced."
Charlotte turned pale. Here she'd thought this man was rather charming, and now she found out that he--
Well, she did not know the particulars. This was such a modern age that perhaps divorce was common. Perhaps it had been his wife who had left him, instead of the other way around. She had heard a rumor that Kelsey herself had been divorced, but no one in the Darcy family had ever said one way or the other and the possible scandal had died out when Kelsey and Alexander had disappeared again.
"I see," she said.
"You're not shocked?" Joshua's eyes were full of surprise. "Alexander was floored when Kelsey told him she was divorced. He thought all sorts of things about her, but he eventually picked up on the fact that this world was different from his own."
"I consider myself to be an enlightened woman," Charlotte said. "But I must admit that I am somewhat envious."
Charlotte sighed. "I suffered through thirty years of marriage to a buffoon without half the sense God gave horses. Mr. Collins was worse than a buffoon--he was a man, and therefore he was the one people listened to, not I. People did not care much for my opinion on things. When Mr. Collins gave sermons, people were...well, before we married, I imagine they were quite bored. After we were married, people paid attention. They were impressed. They would have been horrified to know that a woman had thought them up."
"Why did you marry him in the first place?"
"Because he was a man. He was interested. He had just been rejected by Elizabeth, and he needed someone to make him feel wanted."
"I don't think I'd marry someone for those reasons."
"Then you shall like this one better. I was twenty-seven years old, considered by everyone in Meryton to be well on the shelf, and unlikely to find anyone else who would possibly be interested in me. I had little fortune. My family despaired that I would become a burden to them, and I could not bear the humiliation of that. In short, sir, in marrying him without love, I was no better than...than a lady of the evening." Charlotte flushed. "I gave Mr. Collins the support he needed, along with five children, and he gave me the protection of his name. I did not pretend to love him, and although he said he loved me, I do not think he was ever cognizant of the emotion."
"Why are you envious of me?"
"Because I could not leave him. There would have been a great scandal if I had. My daughters had little enough chance to marry, because they had no fortune. It was bad enough that they had a foolish father. I would not make it worse for them."
After her speech, they were silent for a while. Finally, she asked, "Why did you leave your wife? Or did she leave you?"
"It was mutual," Joshua replied. "We left each other. We had a marriage like yours, I think. The love was gone long ago. All we had were the girls, and when they were grown up we decided it would be best if we divorced."
"You mean you did not divorce until recently?"
"It's been about ten years. I always thought that being together for the children was important. I didn't know that it was probably far worse than divorcing when they were young. I've admitted that I made a mistake, but fortunately for me, my daughters are fairly well-adjusted. And they're both happy, which is the most important thing."
"I am pleased to say that almost all of my daughters are happy with their lives. My eldest, Isabel...well, Isabel has had her disappointments, and I cannot help but feel sad for her. Still, a good portion of them are her own fault, and were brought about because of her father's encouragement of her vanity."
"What do your daughters do?"
"Do about what?"
Joshua smacked his head. "Sorry. I forgot that you're...you know. They wouldn't be like women of today who have careers. Where do they live?"
"Oh." Charlotte still wasn't sure about the meaning of that first question, but she loved talking about her children. "Isabel, as I said, is the eldest. She is married to Mr. Phineas Hollis and they live in London. Mr. Hollis is an attorney with a modestly successful practice."
"You sound as though you do not like him."
"My judgment about the man is tainted by the fact that he and my late husband attempted to force another of my daughters to marry him when she was in love with another man."
"I can see why." Joshua remembered his deep hatred of John for everything he'd done and empathized.
"My second daughter, Caroline, married Sir George de Bourgh and lives at Rosings Park, a large estate in Kent. My late husband worked for the great Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and we lived at Hunsford Parsonage until Mr. Bennet's death, at which time we inherited Longbourn. Caroline has two children, a son and a daughter."
"You like her husband?"
"Very much so. He is quite the gentleman. He was knighted a few years back by the queen." Charlotte smiled. "Then there are my twins."
"You have twins?"
"Yes. They are identical, and Julia is the elder of the two. She is married to Mr. Robert Connor and lives in Philadelphia. Elizabeth is married to Mr. Connor's dear friend Mr. Anthony Ashton, and they live not far from the city. They are happier in the country. Julia and Beth have three children each. All three times, their children were born within weeks of each other."
"Are they competing with each other?"
"No. You couldn't find a pair or sisters closer than Julia and Beth. It just seems to be the thing with them. They do almost everything together. My last daughter is Victoria, who is married--"
"To Alexander's older brother. I met her once."
The thought of Victoria brought back the fact that Charlotte was now many miles and many years removed from her daughter. Victoria was going to be excessively disappointed--and quite likely frightened.
"I wish I could go home," Charlotte murmured. "They must be frantic over my disappearance."
"Did you tell anyone you were going to walk the maze?"
"No. Indeed, I did not intend to walk through it, but for some reason, I felt the urge to. Perhaps it was because I wanted to get over my foolish fear of it."
"Something from this side of it called you over, most likely."
"I somehow doubt that. There is nothing over here that needed my attention. My entire life is..." Charlotte realized that she had accepted what seemed to have happened to her far too calmly. She was a woman of good sense, or reason, of intellect. None of those things applied to this situation, and yet she was treating this as though there were nothing wrong with what happened. "My entire life is back there."
"Well, my dear Charlotte, you are talking to a man who has read far too many mystery novels. I'll help you figure out what's brought you over here."
Charlotte stared at him for a moment. He looked utterly sincere, and she felt as though things were going to work out just fine because he had reassured her. He would discover what had brought her here, and then she would be able to leave.
"How about if, after this is over, we go get something to eat before I take you shopping? I know of this great Italian restaurant not far from here."
"An...an Italian restaurant? What about American restaurants?"
"I'm not sure there is such an animal, except maybe for McDonald's, and that's not a place I like to take a lady on her first day in this world."
"Charlotte Collins?" The nurse called.
Charlotte dragged herself away from his gray eyes and looked up. "Yes?"
"The doctor will see you now."
"I think maybe I should go with you," Joshua said. "Just in case there are some questions you are hesitant about asking, or aren't sure of the answers to."
"Thank you. I would feel a great deal more comfortable if you did."
With great trepidation, Charlotte allowed herself to be escorted to an examining room.
December 19 Continued
Charlotte was out of the doctor's office within half an hour. She had thought that the incident outside the building had been most humiliating, but she hadn't realized that it could get ten times worse. Well, at least Joshua had been gentleman enough to leave the room when she had been ordered to remove her clothing, though she had almost died when she realized that the doctor would be remaining. No man had ever seen her unclothed until now, and the fact that that man had not been her husband made her feel like every kind of fallen woman.
Yet she was strong, and she had survived it. Besides, when she had mentioned her fears of someone finding out, the doctor--Hayes? He had reassured her that it would be kept in the strictest of confidence.
He had also given her cheering news.
"Mrs. Collins," he said, "I don't think there's anything wrong with you. For a woman of sixty, you seem to be in perfect health."
Which meant that the reason she was here--if there were a reason--was not related to her health.
"That's good to hear," Joshua said when she told him. They were once again in his death-trap of a vehicle, and although she wasn't going to admit it, Charlotte felt much better about this trip. Apparently, Joshua had full control of the thing, and compared to many of the people who passed them at dizzying speed, he was not going all that fast.
"Yes. Do all the people in this time subject themselves to..."
"To such examinations. I was never quite as embarrassed as I was when the doctor made me remove my gown. No man had ever seen me...in the altogether."
Joshua laughed. "You told me you had five children, right?"
"How did you have five children without a man seeing you completely nude? I mean, at least five times in your life your husband..."
Charlotte reddened. "Please do not joke about something so private."
"You're right." Joshua sighed. "I'm sorry, Charlotte. It just didn't make any sense to me. You were married for thirty years. I can understand why you were shy around the doctor and why you wanted me to leave, but to say that no man ever saw you..."
"Then how did the two of you--"
"Mr. Madison! Stop this contraption, I wish to leave your presence now."
"I can't stop the car."
"Because we're in the middle to downtown St. Louis traffic, and if I stop I'll have no fewer than two dozen angry drivers flipping me off and yelling out their windows. I'd just as soon not expose you to the language. If you don't want me asking about your sex life, I won't."
More blushes from his passenger. Joshua started to feel like a major jerk. Clearly she didn't want to talk about things like that, and he supposed he couldn't blame her.
"If you must know," Charlotte said huffily, "my husband...was not an amorous man. He considered our marital duty an embarrassment, one that should be done with utmost secrecy and with as little flesh exposed as possible. He felt that we should only be together for the purpose of having children. After our last daughter was born and the doctor informed me that we should not try again to have a son, Mr. Collins never returned to my bed."
Joshua had already formed a rather unflattering picture of Charlotte's husband, and her words only made the picture worse. "Do you suppose he had another woman?" he asked.
Charlotte almost screamed and hit the man with the first object she found, but the urge--which was most unlike her--faded quickly. She realized that he was not insulting her. He was merely curious. She just wasn't sure why.
"I somehow doubt he did," Charlotte said. "He was embarrassed enough with me. I cannot imagine what he would have been like with someone he was not legally entitled to share a bed with."
He nearly ran them off the road. He had expected another lecture, and instead he got an outright answer.
"Why did you ask me?"
"Because...in the experiences I've heard about, when a man no longer becomes interested in his wife, it's usually because he's got someone else on the side. It's what happened to my daughter."
"Did it happen to your wife?" Charlotte dared to ask. She was a bit tired of answering personal questions and not knowing anything about him.
Joshua, rather than becoming upset, laughed again. "No," he said. "I buried myself in my work and the belief that I was providing well for my family. That's not to say I wasn't tempted a time or two, but Laura would've put me through more hell than I can imagine if I had."
Charlotte watched him as he drove expertly. He turned a corner and headed down another rather busy street.
"What was Laura like?" she asked softly.
Joshua remained silent for a few minutes. He turned into a parking lot, found a space, and turned the car off. Finally, he said, "In the beginning, she was so much different than she is now. Laura was so pretty and lively. She made things happen. She was funny and sassy and if she had a tendency to be too critical at times, I overlooked it. I was crazy about her. I was terrified the night I proposed that she would say no. When I finally got around to asking, she just laughed and said, 'Of course I'm going to marry you, Josh. Did you think I wouldn't?' How could I tell her that I had thought just that?"
"She loved you, then."
"I think so. You can't really know what someone thinks or feels, not truly."
"I do not know if that is true," Charlotte said. "I think four of my children have something special with their husbands, that they know for certain they are loved."
"Luckier than you, then?"
"I suppose so."
"Did you ever want something more than what you had?"
The answer escaped before Charlotte could stop it. "Yes."
Joshua looked into her brown eyes, seeing for a flickering moment the vulnerability and the sadness, seeing the woman who had told her dearest friend that she was not romantic and never had been, but secretly, in her deepest heart, she had been. The woman who had told the world she was happy with her husband, but screamed inside and wanted to be held and kissed and loved, just like Lizzy. Just like her daughters. He saw the woman who had wasted almost half her life with a man who never loved her enough to respect her. He saw a woman capable of great passion, a passion that had remained untapped all this time.
And then she was gone, and it was the ladylike, businesslike Mrs. Collins again. "We were talking about you and your wife."
Joshua smiled. He didn't want to talk about Laura anymore, but he knew he had to. Perhaps, in a way, he knew he should, so that Charlotte knew that although he'd loved another woman, he felt as though he'd wasted as much of his life as she did.
"Where were we?"
"You said that you thought your wife loved you, but you were not certain."
"Right. Laura told me she loved me all the time, but there were times when I never got a true sense of her meaning it. Do you know what I mean?"
"I do." Charlotte remembered Mr. Collins' words the day he had proposed and she had asked him to wait to tell everyone.. "I wish to make known my prosperous love..." His love was prosperous because she'd accepted him, not because he felt anything.
"Well, I married her with no misgivings. We were happy in love together. For the first few years, things were great. I worked hard and made partner in seven years. Laura was content to stay at home and spend my money, like women did in those days. Things were fine, and then we found out why we were having trouble having children."
"Why was that?"
"The doctors told us I have a low...er, well, suffice it to say the problem is mine." Now he was blushing. "I never thought Laura to have that great a desire for children, but she did. She was furious with me when we found out. She said that it was bad enough she was older than me, but now her 'younger' husband was sterile, and she'd never have children and fit in with everyone else."
"How much older was she?"
"A little over two years. Not that great, but nothing she wanted the world to know, either. The fact that she thought children were her ticket to fitting in with the other people in our neighborhood was the first time I realized that things were changing between us. I thought things were fine, but her anger stunned me. It wasn't as though we wouldn't ever be having children. It was just that it was going to take a lot of luck. I was still holding out hope, but Laura had given up."
"Yet you did finally have a child. Two of them. Perhaps your doctors were wrong."
"No, they were right. Kelsey's an identical twin."
"Yet the fact that Laura got pregnant was practically a miracle, because our sex life had..." He really should stop shocking the poor woman, he thought as her cheek pinkened again. "Deteriorated. In fact, when Laura told me she was pregnant, I thought that she might've cheated on me. The twins were born, and they looked so much like me that I was glad I hadn't accused her of it."
"So she had her greatest desire."
"Yes, but I had the memories of what she'd said before it happened. I think that's when I started to fall out of love with her. It can happen, you know. Or maybe I never loved her as much as I thought I did when we married. I never should've stayed with her."
"I'm sorry," Charlotte said.
Joshua smiled. "You shouldn't be. At least, as you put it, I was able to escape. You had to remain married to a man who had...how did you put it? Who didn't have half the sense God gave horses."
"But I understand how you felt. I would've stayed with him for my children."
"You would've made the same mistake I did, then." Joshua leaned closer to her. Charlotte did not recoil. "I never met the man in all my life. I don't think I would've wanted to, either. But I think you're right when you say that about his lack of sense, because any man who can so blithely ignore you is a fool."
Charlotte gazed into his gray eyes, thinking a million things all at once and not able to hang on to one single thought. The sensations she was feeling were most peculiar, but not unpleasant. "You hardly know me," she murmured.
"I'd like to get to know you," he said. His lips were inches away from hers when there was an abrupt, loud knocking on his window.
Joshua turned back to look out of it. Just past his shoulder, Charlotte saw Kelsey, and she was frowning at them.
December 19 Continued
Joshua glanced at her for a minute, looking at her closely. He then rolled down his window, smiled, and said, "Hello, Maddie."
"Hi, Dad. I thought this was your car."
"Maddie?" Charlotte murmured.
"Yes. I told you Kelsey was in identical twin."
"Yes, but that looks remarkably like the outfit I last saw Kelsey wearing."
Madeline looked at Charlotte again, and Charlotte suddenly got the feeling that she wasn't being approved of. She shrunk back in her seat a bit, then realized that there were far greater things to fear in this world than one young woman's approval or disapproval of her, and she straightened up and stared back at Madeline. She wouldn't swear to it, but she thought she saw a glimmer of admiration in the younger woman's eyes.
"Kelsey and I have a habit of wearing clothes that are similar," Madeline said. "We don't plan it, it just happens unless we plan not to dress alike. I'm Madeline Geiger."
"Sorry, Maddie. This is Charlotte Collins. She's a friend of Alexander's parents."
"Alexander's parents?" Maddie's nose wrinkled, and she looked Charlotte again. "Then what is she doing here?"
"That's what we've been trying to find out all morning. So far, the only thing the doctor has said is that she's in good shape physically, but the blood work should be back in a couple days, depending on how much loafing around there is due to the holiday."
"This sounds like my place of business. We're backed up a month, but we're still planning a Christmas party tomorrow afternoon. I suggested that we wait until Christmas eve, but everyone's got plans that evening, so I was vetoed."
"Aren't you supposed to be at work now?" he asked.
"I would be, but I'm meeting Mom for lunch today."
"Here?" Joshua almost groaned. How could he have forgotten that this was one of Laura's favorite restaurants as well?
Joshua sighed. "Charlotte, I'm going to give you the choice here. We can eat here, at my favorite restaurant in all of St. Louis, and run the risk of having an unpleasant confrontation with my ex-wife. Or we can go somewhere else and stay out of the line of fire."
"What do you wish to do?" Charlotte asked.
"I don't care either way. It's up to you."
Charlotte stared at him. A man, asking her what she wanted to do in this situation? Mr. Collins would've made her decision for her and expected her to be happy with it. She normally would've had to resort to subterfuge to accomplish what was right.
And here was this man, asking for her opinion. Although her original opinion had not been favorable of the man when she awakened this morning, she was beginning to think of him much higher than she had before.
"I think I shall be brave and wish to stay," Charlotte said. "Why should it be so unpleasant, though? From what you have said, your wife has gotten on with her life, correct?"
"She has," Joshua said. "She just thinks that mine shouldn't. She thinks that--"
"Dad, you know she doesn't think that at all. You'll give Mrs. Collins the wrong idea about her."
Joshua sighed. He'd forgotten which twin he was speaking to. Kelsey, of course, would've agreed instantly with what he'd been about to say--that Laura thought it was okay for her to have a social life, but as punishment for wanting the divorce, he should have to give up his for life. Maddie had been closer to her mother, and still was, in spite of some events which had happened for the past couple years. Maddie, who had always been the golden girl in her mother's eyes and could do no wrong.
Joshua stopped himself before he finished the thought and started feeling guilty again. Kelsey had forgiven him long ago. He just had trouble forgiving himself.
"Right," he said.
Maddie hopped into the back seat of the car. "Sorry," she said. "It's freezing out here."
"Sorry for not inviting you to do so earlier," Joshua said. "Have you talked to Kelsey today?"
"No, I've been out of the office all morning and now I'm having lunch with Mom."
"Then I might as well ask you, or she'll be stuck tonight--what are you doing this evening?"
"Hopefully, I'll get to relax and enjoy my evening."
"Then I suppose it wouldn't be the best thing to ask whether or not you'd be willing to take the twins for the evening because Kelsey has--"
"Emma's Christmas program. Damn. I was hoping I could leave Annie with you and go to it. Emma made me promise I would." Laura Ann, named after both her grandmothers and called Annie, was Madeline and Ben's daughter, born a few weeks before Jane and Josh.
Joshua looked at Charlotte. "How would feel about spending the evening with three babies under a year old?"
Charlotte smiled. "I have been living with one or the other of my twin daughters this last year. They both have had young children in their houses, so I am not out of practice."
"Then I guess that will be okay, Maddie."
"Kelsey also wanted to know what you're bringing over for Christmas dinner."
"Oh, my usual...everything except the dessert."
Joshua and Maddie laughed, for Kelsey's lack of prowess in the kitchen was a running joke in the Madison family. Kelsey had quite a talent for desserts, but was lucky to get anything else requiring major effort to the table in recognizable form.
"Alexander's been learning to cook, I hear," Maddie said.
"Yes, he has. I think he's doing about as badly as Kelsey is, but bless his heart, he tries. Poor Emma would be a toothpick if it weren't for macaroni and cheese, Cheerios, and school lunches."
"Well, I guess I should go inside and get a table. Mom should be here in a few minutes, so..."
"Right. See you later, Maddie--and I'll let Kelsey know what you're bringing."
"Thanks, Dad. It was nice to meet you, Charlotte. I hope you enjoy your time here, and I hope there's nothing seriously wrong with you." Maddie opened the door and got out of the backseat.
"I suppose we should go in as well," Joshua said. "We've been sitting in this car so long that the windows are almost fogged up."
Had Charlotte understood why he winked, she would've blushed. It was probably best that she did not.
Charlotte marveled at everything--the elegant decor of the restaurant, the people rushing around to take care of their needs, the soft music she heard coming from somewhere (she saw no musicians, but then there hadn't been any in the car, so she figured that some sort of modern gadgets were involved). She admired the comfort and ease of modern fashions. She had not realized it since she had been so embarrassed while clothing herself, but the clothes she was wearing allowed for a great deal of freedom moving about. She felt the thick knot at the top of her head, where her silvery gray hair was bound to keep it out of her way, and saw the shorter hairstyles of other women. She wondered if she would have courage enough to do that to her hair.
She rather thought she would.
Charlotte also became keenly aware of how unfashionable she looked in her outfit, and was sorely embarrassed by it. She had never been a woman of beauty but always tried to be one of good fashion, and here she was, looking like a dowd.
Joshua smiled at her as he sipped his water. It was almost as though he could see her every thought, but she knew he could not.
"Why is Madeline closer to her mother?" she asked.
"What makes you think that?"
"From something Kelsey said this morning. She said that she intended to call her mother to see if she was coming for dinner...she said 'to make my Christmas miserable,' I think. I does not sound as though they are close. Just a while ago, you were about to say something about your ex-wife which did not sound as though it was going to be flattering, and Madeline stopped you."
Joshua wished he'd ordered a drink stronger than water. "You're very observant, Charlotte. Maddie is closer to Laura than Kelsey is, and if it's so, it's Laura's fault." He hesitantly told the story of Laura's upbringing of the twins. He did not know what Kelsey did--that Laura's differences in dealing with her daughters stemmed from a saying she had heard many years earlier, and her misinterpretation of it. He left nothing out, including his own fault in the matter.
"Things improved slightly after...last Christmas, but not so you could really tell, except when dealing with her grandchildren. I always figured Laura would put Annie ahead of Emma and the twins, but she's done a good job of looking like she loves them all the same."
"Do you not think she does?"
"I hate to say it, but no. I know Laura too well, having been married to her for more than twenty years. I think she and Kelsey had it out last year and Kelsey said something to the effect that she wouldn't let Laura get away with treating them differently. I think she's resigned herself to the fact that she'll never be as good as Maddie to Laura, but she won't let her children be treated in the same way."
"It is a shame," Charlotte said. "I cannot imagine a woman who would be so foolish as to neglect one children while the others suffer. I tried my best to love my children the same. I admit that I had my favorite, but I never allowed the others to know."
"It's Elizabeth, right?"
Charlotte's eyes widened. "How did you know that?"
"There's something in your eyes when you talk about her. It's much like Laura's when she talks of Maddie, and probably mine when I talk about Kelsey. You hide it much better." Joshua glanced over at the table where Maddie was still awaiting her mother. "And at least you take great care to prevent your other children from knowing you have a favorite."
"Yes. My husband did not take great care. His favorite was Caroline, and all his hopes were pinned on Isabel. Julia was a sweet girl, Victoria was too sickly to worry about, and he found Beth positively frustrating. It made for some extremely difficult times when the girls grew up."
"Did things change after they were married?"
"In some ways. Elizabeth and Julia were in America, Victoria lived at Pemberley with Edward, awaiting the day...it sounds morbid to say that they were waiting for Mr. Collins to die. It is what happened, however. Caroline lived at Rosings, and it was there that we spent a good deal of time. Caroline was still Mr. Collins' favorite child. Isabel did not marry until a few years ago, just before my husband died, so she was always around."
"I'm surprised she didn't replace her sister as the favorite."
"Isabel resented him. She blamed him for the loss of her other beaux, not realizing that she was to blame."
Their food came just then--lasagna for them both. Joshua thanked their server, who walked away just as Laura walked in.
"Oh, Lord," he said. "I was hoping she might've changed her mind."
Charlotte turned her attention to the object of his gaze. The woman wasn't too tall, her hair was almost completely gray. She was standing too far away from them to see the woman's eyes, but the expression on her face was almost glowing, whether from good health or the cold weather she didn't know. She appeared to be quite pretty. The woman looked into the restaurant, and a few seconds later saw Joshua sitting with her.
The moment she did, her face got redder than it had been a moment ago, and Charlotte did not think her quite so lovely anymore.
"Here she comes," Joshua said. "Charlotte, forgive me for what's about to happen."
The woman was indeed walking--no, marching--to their table.
"Good afternoon, Josh," she said.
"Hello, Laura. You're looking nice today. Maddie's over there." Joshua pointed to where Maddie was sitting. Maddie noticed them and stood up, hoping to head off disaster.
She would be too late.
"Who is this?" Laura glared at Charlotte as though she were some evil force.
"Forgive my manners. Laura, this is Charlotte Collins. She's a friend of Alexander's parents who is in town for a few days. Charlotte, this is Laura Kelsey."
"Laura Madison," the woman corrected coldly.
"And here Maddie told me you'd taken back your maiden name. That's how you were introduced to Carl's family, isn't it?"
"If this is a friend of Alexander's, then where is he?"
"Oddly enough, he was a bit busy today. So was Kelsey, so rather than leave the poor woman alone all day I invited her to take a tour of the city...and what business is this of yours, anyway?"
"Idle curiosity," Laura said.
"Mom," Maddie was now at her side, "we're sitting over here. Come on."
Laura glared at them one last time before allowing Madeline to drag her away.
Joshua motioned for the server to appear again, then ordered a Jack Daniels. "Thank God for Maddie," he muttered when the drink arrived. He drank it all in one gulp then looked at Charlotte. "Sorry about that. It could've been much worse, believe me."
"She still loves you," Charlotte said. She took a bite out of her meal...it was absolute heaven.
"No. She's upset because she doesn't think our marital property was distributed properly. Soon after the divorce was finalized, I took on a client who provided a great boom in the income for my firm. Laura took me back to court, wanting more in alimony, claiming I had hidden assets. The judge denied her claim. She's been bitter ever since, thinking she lives in such poverty that she can barely hold her head up in the neighborhood."
"I think there is something more there."
"On my side, there isn't. Laura pretty much killed any affection I had left for her in the divorce proceedings. Sometimes, I think that maybe it was a good thing we divorced after the girls were adults. She undoubtedly would've used them to get more money. Anyway, Laura believes I'm worth a great deal more than I really am, and she thinks that if I die without remarrying, then that money will somehow come to her."
"How is that possible?"
"I think she's under the mistaken impression that she's remembered in my will."
Joshua grinned. "She is. She gets all the photo albums from the years we were married. I insisted on having those when we split. Emma, Annie, Jane and Josh get everything else."
"You leave nothing to your daughters?"
"Well, Kelsey is well-provided for. Maddie and Ben both have good incomes. I just want to be sure that when my grandchildren are adults that they have some money to help them get started."
"How is all this linked to her clear dislike of me?"
"It's not personal. Laura would dislike any woman I dated. I asked for the divorce, and therefore I should be banned from ever having a social life again."
"I thought you said you two left each other."
"We did. Laura readily agreed to the divorce. She just tends to forget that part. Now, we've spent enough time talking about my ex-wife and the twisted motives she has for the things she does. I'd much rather talk about you. Before we were interrupted by Madeline..."
"I think perhaps it was best that she interrupted us. Things were going far too fast for me."
Joshua smiled. "It's okay. We can take this at any speed you would like."
"I think maybe we should try to think of reasons I am here."
He had been leaning on his elbows, and Charlotte suddenly didn't feel all that hungry. When he leaned back, she breathed a small sigh of relief...and disappointment.
"Okay. I'm thinking back to the original reason Alexander came here...to save his mother's life. I remember that he told me once that he'd been in the maze and had prayed to God to save her. He said he was willing to do anything to accomplish it."
"I was not praying while in the maze, except perhaps that I would be able to find a way out of it."
"Well, you certainly did that."
Charlotte smiled and took another bite of her lunch.
"So what were you thinking about when you entered the maze?"
"I was thinking of how much I was looking forward to seeing Victoria again. Everyone told me to go somewhere private where I wouldn't pester them with my worries. I sounded a great deal like Mrs. Bennet, who was always complaining of nerves."
"Seeing your daughter again after a long absence can cause that. Are you sure you weren't thinking of anything else?"
"Not that..." Charlotte did think of something. It had been an idle thought, just as she had been entering the maze and thinking about Victoria and Edward. "Wait. I do remember something. I thought that...I was thinking of how lucky my daughters were, to have found men who loved them so much. I was thinking of Victoria in particular, since she was of course on my mind the most at that moment. I got to thinking about my own relationship, and...and I was envious."
"Yes. For just a second, I wished that I could have had someone to love and respect me just as much as my daughters did. Then, of course, I told myself that I was being foolish. I had been lucky to have Mr. Collins, because without him I never would have had my daughters. But I could not help wishing things had been a little different for me, because I had never known what true love was like and I never...would."
Charlotte had been toying with her lasagna. When she looked up, she saw stunned realization in Joshua's eyes.
"You don't think..." she started to say.
"I'm beginning to think so. You're not sick, none of your children are sick. What other reason could there be? You're here to find what you never had...romance."