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For a long time Charlotte Fagan sat alone in the close confines of her small, elegant sports car, huddled in the darkness, hands clasped in her lap. An icy January rain pounded hard against the canvas roof just above her head and ran in rivulets down the windshield, blurring her view through the glass. But the storm that raged outside her car was nothing compared to the storm that raged in her heart.
Charlotte hadn't been sure that she was making the right choice when she left the small town of Mayfair, Louisiana, almost three hours earlier and had begun the long drive to New Orleans. Her gaze fixed upon the tall old town house tucked deep in the heart of the French Quarter, she still wasn't sure.
There had been a time when she could have, would have, asked anything of her husband without the slightest hesitation—a time when she had been able to trust him with her deepest, most intimate needs and desires. He had willingly, lovingly, tenderly given her everything that had been within his power to give.
Now, however, she knew that convincing Sean to help her was going to be a challenge. Separated by a physical distance of two hundred miles and the emotional distance of living apart for half a year, with only the tenuous-at-best connection of a telephone line between them, she was certain that the odds of winning him over were zero to none.
Unbeknownst to him, Sean held the possibility of a dream come true, an opportunity for her happiness—in fact, the very key to her happiness—firmly in his hands. She needed his cooperation—she needed it desperately. But for the first time since that summer day ten years ago when he'd promised to love andcherish her always, Charlotte wasn't sure that he would offer it.
She had spotted his signature red SUV at the curb on her first pass down the street. She had also detected the faint glow of light sliding through the wide wooden slats of the shutters covering the long, narrow front windows on either side of the equally long, narrow front door. No doubt about it, at least in her mind. Her husband was most certainly at home on this stormy night.
But was he home alone?
Never in the past had Sean given Charlotte reason to believe that he would be anything but faithful to her and the vows of their marriage. But the distance between them had grown so great lately that she could no longer be absolutely sure of him in any way.
Unclasping her hands, Charlotte reached across the car's console, picked up the bulky brown envelope she'd tossed on the passenger seat less than five minutes after retrieving it from her mailbox in Mayfair, and rubbed a finger over the neatly printed return address on the shiny white label.
After ripping the envelope open and scanning the contents, she hadn't even thought about continuing up the long gravel drive to the old plantation house she and Sean had so lovingly restored early in their marriage. She had wanted only to show the paperwork enclosed to her husband and know that he felt the same excitement and the same joy that had blossomed in her soul, as she'd quickly read through the various documents.
Though it had already been early evening and a steady rain had been sluicing down relentlessly, Charlotte had wheeled her car into a narrow U-turn and headed back to the two-lane highway that would take her to the interstate leading straight to the city.
More than once along the way, she had considered turning around and returning home again. The storm had made driving slow and tedious.And though flooding wasn't likely in the French Quarter, Charlotte was nervous about traveling through the rest of the city, post-Hurricane Katrina.
Her initial impulse to share with her husband what had been good news to her had also faded, taking with it the flurry of hope in her heart, and the sense of urgency that hope had engendered.
Pragmatic once again, Charlotte had acknowledged that the sheaf of papers and the small glossy photograph in the plain brown envelope she now held in her hands contained no magic elixir that could remedy all that had gone wrong with her marriage. But there was also the promise of a dream about to finally come true and with it the opportunity for another kind of happiness—her happiness, at least.
A gust of wind rattled up the narrow street, rocking Charlotte's car. The gaslight half a block away flickered ominously, sending shadows scuttling along the deserted sidewalk. Instead of letting up as she had been hoping, the rain drummed even more insistently outside her meager, not to mention increasingly cold and damp, little shelter.
Though her hasty drive to New Orleans now seemed rather foolish, she had no desire to drive all the way back to Mayfair without talking to Sean. She not only had important news to share with him—news that affected him as well as her—but also a duty to do so without delay. She wouldn't intrude for long. She would simply state the facts of the matter. Then she would express her need for his assistance, and hope for at least some consideration from him in return.
As she tucked the envelope inside a zippered pocket of her tote, then fished for the compact collapsible umbrella she'd stashed under her car seat, Charlotte knew that approaching Sean wouldn't be such a big deal if she could anticipate how he would respond. But after half a year apart there was very little she knew for sure about how her husband felt about anything or anyone, including her.
The umbrella was all but useless in the face of the stormy onslaught she battled from car to curb, then along the slick sidewalk and up the three narrow stone steps to the front door of the town house. Though her calf-length black wool coat worn over gray wool pants and a turtleneck sweater kept her mostly dry, her feet, shod in black leather pumps, were soaked after only a few steps.
Finally standing on the small stone porch, her hands numbed by the cold and damp, she almost lost her grip on the handle of her umbrella as another blast of wind swirled around her.
Too bad she hadn't thought to take her gloves from her tote when she'd tucked the envelope safely inside it. Bundling her chin-length chocolate-brown curls into a headscarf wouldn't have been a bad idea, either—if only she'd had one with her. She would have preferred not to look like a mad woman tonight, but there was little she could do about that now.
Pressing one trembling finger against the brass button that rang the doorbell, Charlotte reminded herself that her appearance mattered not at all. Sean had seen her in a worse state on more than one occasion in the past, and hadn't shunned her. Of course, he had still been in love with her those other times that she hadn't been at her best—
Without any warning—not even the sound of the bolt sliding in the lock—the front door of the town house swung open. Huddled close to the facade, as she was, not to mention totally unprepared for her husband's sudden looming presence in the doorway, Charlotte took a startled step back.
At the same instant that the heel of her right shoe slid over the rain-slick stone, another gust of wind caught the umbrella. Thrown completely off balance, Charlotte let go of the umbrella, and as it sailed into the night, she stumbled again and started to fall.
Sure that she was about to land in a heap halfway down the porch steps, she uttered a small, frightened cry. Then, as suddenly as she'd begun to go down, she found herself caught up in the grip of her husband's arms. With a smooth, steady swoop, he lifted her neatly off her feet, then cradled her securely against his chest.
Blinking up at Sean in dismay, the full force of the rain soaking her hair, her face and her coat, as well as his hair and face and rumpled white dress shirt, Charlotte was overcome by the most disconcerting urge to…giggle. The situation into which she'd gotten herself was so utterly unexpected and so utterly ridiculous that despite the stern and disapproving look on her husband's face, she really couldn't help but laugh.
Not a little burble, either, but an irreverent, unrestrained ripple of hilarity that first brought tears to her eyes, and then with a startling shift, drew darker, more painful tears from her soul.
Sean swung around with her still in his arms, a muttered curse rattling deep in his throat, walked back into the town house and unceremoniously kicked the door shut with one well-placed foot. Caught up so protectively in his firm yet gentle grip, Charlotte leaned her head on his shoulder and sobbed like an exhausted, overwrought child.
Though she knew she was making a spectacle of herself, she couldn't seem to stop the tears pouring from her eyes. She had dammed them up deep inside of her for so long that getting a grip on her runaway emotions now seemed all but impossible.
As if oblivious to the fact that they were both sopping wet, Sean strode through the entryway, heels rapping on the hardwood floor, crossed the very old, very exquisite Oriental carpet in the living room, then settled on the equally old, equally exquisite burnished brown leather sofa.
His hold on her remained determined, perhaps even a little tender. But as her sobs finally began to subside, he spoke to her in a tone that blended exasperation, anger and reproach in an all too familiar way.
"I'd really appreciate it if you'd tell me what, exactly, is going on here, Charlotte." His slow, deep, delectably Southern voice drawled over her, around her, inside of her, soothing her, although likely not by design. "Are you all right?"
She hadn't been all right for longer than she could remember. Living through six months of long, lonely days and even longer, lonelier nights had left her feeling bruised and battered.
But she knew that wasn't what Sean had meant, and even if it had been, making such a reply wouldn't have garnered her the least bit of sympathy. Not when she had been glad to see him go that sunny Sunday afternoon just days before they would have celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary, and, much to her regret, had made no effort to hide her feelings from him.
"I'm okay, really—okay…"
Not quite able to look at her husband eye to eye yet, Charlotte breathed in his familiar scent as she rubbed her cheek against the rough wet texture of his cotton shirt.
"You didn't sound okay a few minutes ago," Sean pointed out, not unkindly.
"I'm perfectly fine. I just need to…to talk to you about something," she said, finally shifting in his embrace so that she could look up at him and meet his questioning gaze.
She'd had no more than a glimpse of him before she'd slipped on the step and he'd so gallantly saved her from a nasty fall. With the light at his back, he'd been only a silhouette then, mostly shadowed by the darkness of the night. In the soft glow of the living-room lamps, Charlotte now had a chance to study his features for the first time in half a year.
His appearance hadn't changed much in the time they'd lived apart. His face—defined by high cheekbones, square jaw and hawk-like nose—was still as ruggedly handsome as ever. But his short, thick, very wet, raven-black hair was more liberally salted with silver than she remembered.
There was also more than a hint of weariness evident in his expression and wariness in his pale gray eyes that held, as well, a definite chill.
"Must be something serious or you wouldn't have driven two hundred miles in the middle of a rainstorm on a weeknight," he said. "I seem to remember that you don't like being on the road in bad weather and that your workload at the high school rarely allows you an evening off."
Sean was right. Whenever possible, she avoided driving any distance at all during stormy weather. She was also extremely conscientious about her job at Mayfair High School. One of three guidance counselors, she was quite busy during the spring semester when the eleventh graders were busy sending out college applications and the twelfth graders were engaged in a scramble to find student loans and/or jobs at local businesses around town.
"Yes, it's serious, at least to me," Charlotte replied.
"I'm assuming it's not a simple matter, though—something we could have discussed over the telephone." Sean hesitated, eyeing her with the first indication of alarm, the frown already furrowing his forehead deepening incrementally. "Are you ill, Charlotte? All those fertility drugs—have they caused a problem with your health?"
He paused again, the brush of his fingertips against her cheek as soft, and fleeting, as a butterfly's wings, reminding her of the warmth and tenderness he had once shown her so freely.
Then he added with very real concern, "You have to know I would certainly take something like an illness seriously."
The hope that all was not lost between them after so many months spent apart sparked anew in Charlotte's heart. Obviously, Sean hadn't stopped caring about her completely, though she had given him good reason to do just that during those last few weeks before he'd finally walked out on her.
Of course, he had been the one to call a permanent halt to what he'd so inelegantly termed their baby chase. And he had been the one to say with undeniable certainty that perhaps it was just as well that they weren't able to have a child—the child she'd wanted so desperately for so long. He couldn't have said anything more hurtful to her if he'd tried.
Charlotte had always believed that she was meant to be a mother. Her mother and grandmother—now deceased—had told her so many times. Yet she had failed to live up to the legacy left to her by the two strong women who had devoted their lives to raising her after her father's death. She had accomplished everything else she had ever set out to do; everything except conceiving a child. Now she might have one last chance at motherhood, but she had to play her cards just right.
"I know you would take it seriously if I were ill, but I'm not." Charlotte offered her husband a slight smile meant to be reassuring. Then, in an attempt at levity, she added,
"But I'm likely to end up with a raging head cold before the week is over if I don't get out of these wet clothes soon." She pushed a lock of dripping hair away from her face, shivering as a few drops of icy water trickled down the side of her neck. "You wouldn't by any chance have a spare pair of sweatpants, a sweatshirt and some heavy socks I could borrow, would you?"
At five foot eight, Charlotte was only a few inches shorter than Sean, and with her slim, boyish figure she could also wear some of the same clothes he did, and in the past, often had.
"Of course, I would." Though he didn't actually return her smile, the grim lines on either side of his mouth softened just a bit. "I'd also like to suggest that we each take a shower then meet in the kitchen for sandwiches and coffee. I don't know about you, but I haven't eaten since lunch."
"That's an excellent idea," Charlotte agreed. "I haven't eaten yet, either."
Looking away from him, she scooted off his lap as gracefully as possible, encumbered as she was by the wet wool of her coat, pants and turtleneck sweater. She also tried to ignore, as best she could, the painful stab to her heart as she recalled all those nights in the past when they had showered together.
Sean stood, too, shoved his hands in the side pockets of his suit pants, and shifted a little uncomfortably. Charlotte risked another glance at him, but he kept his gaze averted, obviously as ill at ease with their situation as she admittedly was.