Charlotte Miller stood at the baggage claim in Charleston International Airport, staring at the carousel as it dispassionately turned. She was home, but she didn’t feel any immediate sense of comfort or belonging. A decade of living in London had changed her irrevocably, and she wondered if she could ever fit back into the mold that Charleston had made for her ten years ago.
Charlotte waited until everyone else had retrieved their bags before finally giving up hope of hers appearing. She trudged to the airline’s customer service in the airport, hoping for good news. It wasn't. They had no record of her baggage, and the only answer they could offer was to file a claim and wait for them to turn up.
Discouraged, Charlotte shook her head and walked towards the exit, a sour taste in her mouth. It was already terrible being back, but not even having her luggage with her felt like a particularly cruel twist of fate.
Despite the anxiety that had clung to her all day, Charlotte managed to hail a taxi and settled into the backseat, grateful for the chance to finally relax. The neighborhood she grew up in passed by in a blur until they reached her destination- her parents’ house.
It was a stately, sprawling plantation house her parents had restored and updated over the years. It was home, but it was the past. For the time being, it was the only place for Charlotte to go.
She could hear the sounds of laughter and chit chat even before she stepped out of the cab. A party was in full swing and dozens of people mingled on the expansive lawn. Charlotte took a deep breath and stepped out of the cab, pulling out a small clutch before hurrying towards the entrance, hoping she could slip in unnoticed.
It wasn't to be. Immediately her uncles called out her name, and then aunts, cousins, acquaintances, and family friends descended upon her, asking how it was like living in London for ten years. It was overwhelming, in an instant Charlotte was once again absorbed in Charleston's high society, expected to know all the social rules and dances.
After some time of meaningless small talk, Charlotte snuck away, relieved to escape the noise. She headed straight upstairs, climbing the staircase to her old bedroom. It was a pale comparison to the room she shared with four girls in an overpriced flat in London, but it was home– at least, it used to be.
Charlotte pulled out her phone, deliberating whether she should text Henry, a man she had met on her flight and had already intrigued her. It was reckless, more than she would ever normally do, but if it led to some sense of freedom and living in the present rather than dwelling on the past, the risk was worth it.
The message composed, she took a deep breath before hitting send, climbing into bed as she waited for his reply.
The next day, Charlotte stood in front of an easel, her eyes focused on the painting she was restoring, and longed to be lost in the work. Instead, her thoughts were consumed with Henry and their first conversation the day before.
She couldn't believe how easily she had opened up to him after years of keeping her guard up. And when he had offered her a safe haven by way of a thirty-day tryst, it felt like a sign.
But then again, Henry was a businessman and a stranger. The offer was tempting, but the more Charlotte thought about it, the more she wasn't sure. They had only just met, and thirty days seemed like an awfully long time.
As the hours dragged on, her internal turmoil remained a constant, and it was only by the closing of the day Charlotte noticed the woman who had been hovering at the back of the restoration room, watching her work for hours.
“Can I help you with something?” Charlotte asked politely, smiling.
The woman stepped forward, offering her hand to Charlotte.
"Ava Smith," she introduced herself. "I’m the new gallery director, and I must say, I'm rather impressed with your work," she said, gesturing to Charlotte's current project.
Charlotte smiled and felt encouraged by the compliment.
“Thank you. It’s nice to meet you, Ava. I’m Charlotte Miller.”
"I know who you are, Charlotte Miller," Ava said with a grin. "You're something of a local celebrity, aren't you?"
Charlotte's smile faded, afraid of what being in the limelight would mean for her if she decided to go ahead with Henry's proposal.
"I don't know about that," she said, attempting to be humble.
Ava shrugged. "You come from one of the oldest families in Charleston, and you're an accomplished artist and restorer. You're well-liked, and you know all the right people. Isn't that what society wants out of its elite? If you weren't already a member, you'd have been made one by now."
Charlotte had to look away, putting the paintbrush down, and Avery's words settled in under her skin. She thought the fact that she had left Charleston would have been enough to save her from its hold, but it appeared as if the grip was stronger than ever.
"I don't care about any of that anymore."
Ava raised a questioning eyebrow. "And what about Henry?"
Charlotte swallowed, surprised by how easily Ava had guessed her thoughts.
"What do you mean?"
"The man from your flight," Ava clarified. "The one you were talking to all night at the party yesterday."
Charlotte shifted uncomfortably.
"He asked me to spend thirty days with him, but it's not like that. It's not even serious." At her own words, Charlotte knew she was lying, or at least trying to.
Ava raised an eyebrow.
"Don't try to kid a kidder, Charlotte. I can see the way you look at him. Whether it's serious or not, what are you really afraid of?"
Charlotte was silent for a moment, pondering her reply. "It's just a lot right now in my life. A lot of transitions and change."
"Change is good, Charlotte," Ava said, her voice taking on a genuine quality. "But it's also hard. You have to decide what you want and whether it's truly worth it. Otherwise, you'll be stuck in a rut."
Charlotte nodded, feeling the truth of Ava's words.
Charlotte arrived at the bar early, dressed in a simple dress, oddly nervous at the prospect of meeting Henry again.
But as they sat down together for a drink, Charlotte began to feel at ease. They spoke about their respective careers, their interests, and discovered they both shared a love for Italian cooking.
It was the way that Henry was looking at her, though, with such warmth and admiration that had Charlotte's heart racing. She had never felt so appealing, so alive.
"So, Charlotte," Henry started, setting his drink down and looking at her intently. "About our arrangement."
Charlotte felt her stomach drop. She knew that Henry was more serious about the thirty days than she was prepared to argue for.
"And what would that be?"
Henry paused, "Well, as lovely as this evening has been, I'd like to propose something to you."
Charlotte listened intently, curious about what he was going to say.
"I’ve lived a life feeling like I had to prove myself, constantly running from my past. But with you, Charlotte, I feel like I’ve found home.”
At Henry's words, Charlotte felt tears prick the corners of her eyes. It was if he had seen through her, seen her past, and yet accepted her just the same.
Charlotte didn't know what to say except to lean into him, letting out a small sob.
Henry enveloped her in his arms, holding her close, and for that moment, nothing mattered except that it seemed like they had each found their corner of the world.
The days turned into weeks, and their thirty-day arrangement ended ambiguously, neither wanting to commit fully to the other— yet. They spent time together exploring Charleston, going to the beach, and cooking dinners in Charlotte’s restored historic carriage house.
It was like she had found a new place in Charleston, and in Henry's embrace, the world felt new and full of possibility.
But even as they forged ahead, Charlotte couldn't shake the looming feeling of dread, the social expectations getting stronger, the pressure for her to conform.
She thought back to her conversation with Ava, to her brother- who had married young and started a family, to her parents, who had never once talked about anything other than the importance of her social standing and heritage.
How could she ever fit into Henry's life, and how could she force the man she was falling deeply in love with to adapt to hers?
It was a conversation that Charlotte knew was coming sooner rather than later, but with each passing day, it seemed more impossible.
It was on a small boat in the harbor, watching Charleston's skyline grow smaller as they went further out to sea that the conversation finally took place.
Henry sighed, his hand warm on hers. “What is it, Charlotte?”
Charlotte felt like the words were lodged in her throat, impossible to say, so she let out a deep breath.
“I just wonder… do you see a future for us?”
Henry hesitated, once, twice, before he spoke. “I want to. I really do. But…”
“But?” Charlotte prompted, feeling something inside her sag.
“I just… I can't ignore the fact that our worlds are very different,” Henry said, his voice laced with hesitation. “London is my home, and my company is there. It's where I belong. But you, Charlotte, belong here in Charleston.”
Charlotte took what Henry said to heart, unable to deny the pull of family and culture she felt that was coming back with such force.
Charlotte felt the tears welling in her eyes as she thought about all she'd left behind for London, where she found success and her own identity. But now, with Henry, she realized that she didn’t have to choose between being happy in love and being at home. She had spent too long living her life for others, conforming to their expectations that she had almost lost the chance to find herself.
"I don't want to lose you," she whispered, her voice small.
Henry smiled, the warmth of his hand drawing her closer. "You don't have to. We’ll make it work, Charlotte. Together."
Charlotte nodded and let their embrace last a moment longer, the two of them in silence as the boat bobbed up and down, the water shifting around them.
Maybe it wasn't an answer, but it was a start. She couldn't control the past, but she could control what her future looked like, and maybe, with Henry's help, she could finally find a place in the world she could call home.