Charlotte found she could not sleep. The starlight coming through the window was fading, and through the glass she could see the faintest beginnings of the dawn, creeping like a blush over the horizon. The few clouds that were there touched upon the edges of gold and rose, the colors of happiness. So why, when she had so much, did she feel so empty? Rising, she made her way down the familiar stairs which had so quickly lost their haunting grandeur once Emma had shown her how to slide down their banisters and railings, and play cat and mouse upon their treads. There were no candles lit in the golden toned candelabras, but it was easy enough to see. What was it about the quietness of the moors so early in the day that drew the people she loved? Emma had gone there, the day she recovered from her illness, and Jane, when Mr. Westfield had asked her to marry him. Susan had loved them, and she had died for that love, wandering in their grasses and playing in their hollows until she had contracted Jane’s illness. So now, when she, Charlotte, who was not dying, and had no fear of falling ill, and who would die an old maid, wandered their silent expanses, she could feel nothing other than peace. It was almost as though the souls of those special people where there with her, speaking the same soft words that they had laughed upon, and sang with, in the time she had known them. From the wood of the park behind her, a morning dove trilled to greet the dawn, and she turned slowly upon the small hilltop which she had crested. She remembered another day when she had seen the sun lift himself over the earth and embrace the sky, and as if in memory, the wind brought the impossible taste of summer roses, and violets blooming in the mists of the hollows. As she watched, Mr. Darkington himself appeared, walking toward her without the arrogance she had later upon their acquaintance marked him with. He was not smiling, but when he saw her, there did appear the faintest of softenings in his eyes, and the smallest twinge of laughter in the corner of his mouth. The selfsame wind as before picked up a lock of her hair and tossed it gently about her face, causing it to fall in her eyes. He stood for so much to her, so many moments of joy, sorrow, or irritation, that she felt like crying. So instead she stood with her arms wrapped around herself and her eyes trained upon his face, standing out enormously amid the whiteness of her own. The dawn light was behind him, thus his face was thrown into shadow, and she could barely make out his expression. “I could not sleep,” she murmured softly, turning her gaze from his face, for it hurt too much to relieve those few, horrible moments. He looked down at her bent head, and for a brief second she thought she heard a sigh escape him. “Do you really hate me so much?” he asked her, and in startlement she raised her eyes, frowning a little. “Hate you? No, no I do not hate you.” She bit her lip, and pulled her coat tighter about herself as the wind strengthened and tugged firmly at her. He took a step toward her, forgetting propriety at the moment, which was that which kept them apart. Startled, she stepped back, and found herself caught, not by social rules, or even by physical restraint, but by her own unwillingness to leave him so soon again. She knotted her hands before her, tensely. “After what you have done, after giving so much happiness to Jane, and for all the love that Emma clearly feels for you, I could not hate you, nor even find a decent reason to dislike you.” She moved her hand away as he reached for it, and put another step between them. “But I am so wrong here, so very, very wrong. I know what you are feeling, what Emma hopes will come true, but I cannot help but feel that it would be almost sinful for me to marry you. People talked, my family was forced to deal with all sorts of wild stories when you sent for me to be Emma’s governess, and if I should accept…I would not slander anyone I love with such ugly rumors.” Her voice caught, and she cleared her throat, turning aside as though she were to flee. He caught her arm and though he held her gently, as he had caught her that time when she had run into him, she could not leave. “Miss Lott…Charlotte. Do you really care what people say? If I told you that I have seen your face in dreams too numerous to count, that I have spent days working just to hear you laugh, to see you smile, what would you say?” His face reminded her of that day, that warm, summer day by the lake. It frightened her, and yet she could not run away as she had before. “Nicholas…” The word slipped out before she could halt its progress, and she knew the reason. She could not call him Mr. Darkington when he was being so open, so honest with her. He waited, and the sun rose fully over them, spreading gold across their features, highlighting their hair. She drew in a deep breath. “Charlotte. It does not matter what others think. It need never matter. Here, there is only the now, the present.” They were standing face to face, the sunlight falling between them. He was holding her by both arms now, his eyes pinning her before him. “If I were to ask you again, what I have once before, and if you were to know that I did so this time out of love, not the demands of a family member, or the social etiquette that binds all of us except perhaps for Emily, who could not care less for it, what would you answer?” She gave a little cry, halfway between a sob and a laugh. “I would say yes, and be more happy than anyone else in the world,” she whispered. His hands on her arms tightened, and there was a light in his eyes that she could call only hope. They were very close now, almost touching. “I would say yes, Nicholas Darkington, yes I will marry you.” And when he pulled her close and whirled her around so that the hem of her skirt whispered above the grasses of the moor, she knew then why she had gone walking that dawn, and she knew also that he was right, she could not care less what people thought.
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