This one goes to Kris-She-Who-Writes-The-Parody (Her Majesty, The Parody Queen), because when I couldn't decide what to do she fixed it up for me.

And to Laursie and Kylie too, 'cause they listen.



Chapter ONE:

Bad News

There were many things in Charlotte's life that added to her unhappiness – her weak health and frail body, which had robbed her of a normal childhood; her apparent infertility and the fact that everyone thought she was going to drop dead any given second – but none of it hurt as much as her failed marriage.

And she knew about hurt, all her life had been filled with pain, either physical or emotional, she was always sick, she had to watch her sisters and brothers have fun, and play in the lawn and go to London and have their seasons and generally be alive. She had had to stay in the country all the time – where the air was better – most of that time she had been all alone roaming through the large estate, she had learned to love the country and to love books, she had taught herself many things –like Latin and embroidery – and done everything she could not to go out of her mind.

And from time to time, the handsome boy who lived in the neighboring state would come to visit her, usually during the summer or the holidays, and he would charm her nanny or her governess into letting him take her out for a horseback ride or a little picnic in the far edge of the garden. When her youngest sister had gone off to London for her first season, and Charlotte had been so sad because she realized she would never have a season, Stephen had come to visit her and had given her a puppy, to keep her company while he was away at university.

Naturally, Charlotte had fallen in love with him.

But university had made Stephen a little wild and reckless, and as he finished up his education, it became understood that he was to marry Charlotte as soon as he was out of university. She had even heard their parents talking about it sometimes.

"She might never breed," Her father had said once "But she'll make your son a fine wife for whatever time she has left in this world. Doctor doesn't think it will be much but I want my daughter to be happy."

"I agree," Stephen's father had said. "I like Charlotte; she's a calming influence on Stephen. And he'll have plenty of time to produce an heir later on… when the inevitable happens."

It had galled at Charlotte that they didn't think she would ever be able to have Stephen's baby, but she had swallowed both tears and humiliation for the opportunity of being married to him.

Charlotte was pretty sure Stephen knew of this agreement, and wasn't actually surprised when he decided to visit a friend before coming home to make official the betrothal both families wanted. He was about to be shackled to a sickly creature like her, of course he wanted to enjoy a bit of freedom before hand.

When Stephen had finally come, it had been to announce that he had met and fallen in love with a woman, and that he had asked her to marry him and she had agreed. Hurt and in panic, Charlotte had made her father force and speed her marriage to Stephen. There was much at stake and though Stephen's father was a marquis, Charlotte's still outranked him as a duke. They had been married within the month.

Stephen had resented her for it and never let her forget how she had ruined his life.

What followed was hell on its more pure form. Stephen had cheated on her and abandoned her, relegating her to the country estate they had gotten as a wedding gift. He was barely civil when they were forced to be together and never hid his displeasure with her.

The final bow had come during one of the few times he had agreed to take her to London with him. They had been invited to the coming out party of a younger sister of one of his childhood friends. Fate had been cruel to her that night, first she had met by accident the woman Stephen loved, Kate Parker was every bit as lovely and kind as Stephen had made her up to be, and she had been so nice to her, even after finding out Charlotte was the reason behind Stephen's desertion of her. Kate's forgiveness had felt like something of a benediction.

That night Charlotte had really felt like something good was going to happen that night, but just as she exited the ladies room, she had seen Kate and Stephen arguing, and Stephen's words just about killed her.

"I hoped you would be here."

"Stephen, I would advice you to call for your carriage and take your wife back home, she seems a bit indisposed."

"She always is. Has been sick all of her life." Stephen said uncaring. "My only hope is that she'll die soon and I'll have my freedom back."

Charlotte had choked down a sob and taken herself home. The next day, while Stephen was still sleep, she had left for the country and left a note letting Stephen know that she was never to upset him again, that she'll stay out of the way.

She had thought she would die soon, bad health, broken heart and all. But she found out that her spirit tended to cling to life. And hurt as she was, she found herself living her dull life day after day, hoping that one day Stephen would come to her, if not to love her, at least to see her again as a friend.

Nearly two years went by without sight or news of other than on the occasional social gazette that made its way all the way to the country. And then, one morning, the telegram arrived. It was twenty-one words in length and it had been sent by Mr. Miller, the butler at Stephen's town house.

My lady, come quickly. Lord Westman has been missing for over a week. No news of him. We fear the worst.


End of Chapter One