My story starts with what should have been my happy ending.
I was eighteen, I was beautiful, and I was about to marry.
I was prepared for the whole happily-ever-after-10-kids-and-50-grandchildren-thing.
I had grown up as a little princess; my father, Richard Hale, was a doctor and so money had never been a problem for us. I had always been a Daddy’s Girl—my brother Marcus was my mother’s pride and joy. We had always been the perfect family: My father, in his late fifties and still a very handsome man. My mother in her frail beauty, whom I had never seen without make-up on. My brother, seven years my senior, who had the girls after him like flies from the moment he turned seventeen on. And then there was me – the little girl who had gotten her mother’s blonde hair and her father’s golden eyes and looked just like her brother (something everyone but me and my brother agreed on).
My mother was proud of that image, a little too proud actually, if you asked me, and since Marcus had gone to war, she had always been desperately trying to keep it up. But we were falling apart without him, nobody could deny that.
That was when she decided to marry me to Jasper Fox.
I could’ve definitely had worse. I was in the age to marry, and he was about the greatest catch one could make. The Fox family was the richest in town and their eldest son, Jasper, was looking for a wife. Or rather, his mother was.
She found me.
I was beautiful, from a respectable family, and “Jasper and Charlotte Fox” would look nice on a door bell nameplate.
It took him three weeks of courting and approximately £3,000 to make me fall in love with him.
And today, we were getting married.
My mother was surprisingly emotional for a woman who had groaned ‘Why?’ when they had laid her baby daughter in her arms.
I looked into the full-length gold-framed mirror in my dressing room. The girl staring back at me was beautiful; her white gown glittered like snow in the sunlight. Everything was perfect.
Except, of course, Marcus was not here, but he had written to me saying he couldn’t make it. He’d come in a week.
I smoothed out imaginary wrinkles on my dress.
That was when they came in and told me.
One of them I knew to be a military officer of high rank; I didn’t now the other. He looked the exact opposite of my brother, all calm, quiet aura, with a tan skin and black curls. Very tall. Dark eyes. Solemn. Frowning.
He looked a bit shocked as well.
I guess I was a shocking image, standing there, my proud shoulders slouched, in a bride’s dress, ready to go and marry, tears not smearing my make-up yet.
I hated him in that moment.
I swayed, the last thing I saw was Brooding Guy hasting across the room to catch me.
When I woke up again, three days had passed.
I had lost my brother.
The Fox’ had broken off the engagement.
The weird thing was that I couldn’t care less.
I missed Marcus.
I missed him so much.
In the next few days, Brooding Guy visited us on a daily basis. I found out that he was my brother’s best friend, and a navy officer. His name was Lucas Wentworth.
He was quite a nice man, and it didn’t take long for me to like him.
He sat with me often, telling me stories about Marcus and even a bit about himself, and, in return, asking me about myself. He asked me what I thought.
He was the first person who seemed genuinely interested in me, in what I thought. It surprised me. I was used to people asking me how I was (expecting nothing else but the standard answer ‘fine’), or how I got my hair to look the way it did. Nobody had ever expressed any interest in what I thought.
Which could be because they all thought I was the personification of the term ‘Dumb Blonde’.
I wasn’t, but I had figured out quite early that life was much easier for me if people thought I had the intellect of a slice of bread.
He told me that he had joined the navy on his eighteenth birthday, on his own wish. He had no family, no girl, no friends. I cried when he said that. I cried even more when he told me not to cry for him. I thought he needed someone who cared enough to cry for him, and I was happy I was there to do so.
Very quickly, I came to understand why my brother had liked him that much. Lucas was his exact opposite; not only in looks, but also in behaviour.
My brother had been a very open and optimistic person, always happy and wearing a smile. Lucas was more distant, he could—like he had when I had first seen him—seem almost emotionless and disapproving, but he was very sensitive to other people’s feelings. He was very quiet, private and thoughtful, and the most loyal person I had ever met.
And I liked him as well.
It scared me that I could become so addicted to a person in such a short time.
Every day when he came, I almost bounced down the stairs to greet him; and when he left, I anticipated the next day feverishly. He made me feel better, every day.
Maybe because I didn’t know him.
Maybe just because he was a nice person.
But probably because he spared me the pity.
That was what I appreciated so much about his presence—other people’s pity reminded me even more about what had happened.
And, without even knowing, I started to fall in love with him.
It was more of a gradual process than anything else, growing with time. In the beginning, I didn’t even notice. When I did, it was far too late.
It was more than what I had had with Jasper Fox, much more, because it was real.
I wasn’t imagining myself in love because of flattery; I actually was, against all reason. I didn’t want to be, didn’t want to be dependent on others.
Because real love just works in a way that makes you feel dizzy and powerless and everything but happy, except for the times he smiles at you. These are the only moments in which love actually feels good, well, for me. He had been my brother’s best friend, and I was only Marcus’ little sister to him.
He had promised him to be there for me, and to protect me. He told me that, the day he told me he had to go back to his ship. It was a mere slip, but I noticed. When he said it, there was something in his eyes saying that he wasn’t telling me everything, but I was too angry to notice.
He wasn’t here for me, because he liked me.
How could I have been so stupid to believe so?
Of course there was nothing that I could give him.
I was nothing.
“So why don’t you just leave?” I screamed at him, knowing that I was acting emotional and that I would regret it later, but unable to stop myself. “Break your goddamn promise, I don’t care!—Marcus broke his.”
He tried to say something, but I interrupted him. “He promised me he would come back to me. He promised!—But he didn’t.” I sniffed. “He doesn’t deserve your promise, and I don’t want it! I don’t need you!” That had to have been the hardest thing I had ever said to anyone.
He looked like I had slapped him. Slowly, he rose.
“I reckon I’d better go then. If you really don’t want me.”
No! “Yes! Leave!”
When he had reached the door, he turned. “You know, I’ve had this for a while, I guess you should have it. I don’t want to remember you. Not like this.” He threw something on the sofa I was sitting on, and left.
I stared after him like in trance.
When I heard the front door shut, I jumped, and looked at what he had thrown next to me.
It was a photograph.
I recognized it; it was the one I had given my brother when he had left. I wasn’t smiling in the picture, I was staring at the photographer with my head tilted slightly to the side, biting my lip, peeking up through my lashes. It was a snapshot, and my brother’s favourite. Marcus had said it showed exactly what I was like.
I stared at the little piece of paper in shock, and then I jumped up and ran after him.
I had just let the most important person in my life go.
I ran down the street and gasped in relief when I saw his dark blue coat.
“Lucas!” I wheezed. “Lucas!”
I didn’t care I was behaving embarrassingly, in a public place at that—all I cared about in that moment was him.
He stopped, and turned slowly.
“Lucas,” I breathed when I reached him.
“Charlotte,” he said, as if my name was the most beautiful sound in the world.
And then he kissed me.
On the lips.
It was better than anything I had ever felt; better than life itself; like sunshine and spring rain, like cherry blossoms and the ripe fruits in our gardens. It was perfect.
He was perfect.
“You know,” he said when we parted for breath, resting his forehead against mine, “When I first saw that photograph, I fell in love with you. I was so fascinated by you that Marcus gave it to me. He knew I would not rest until I had you, and had you as mine. When he died in that military hospital, he made me promise to look after you, and gave me his blessing. I guess it was pretty obvious to him that I’d ask you.”
I smiled. “He was quite a wise man, my brother.”
“The best.” He buried his face in my hair. “Marry me?”
I smiled into his neck. “Of course.”
And then he kissed me again.
So, I guess, my story ends with a happy ending, too.