, Book 2|
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A poor widow, Lady Charlotte Collins returns to England eager to take her place in the ton, only to find herself shunned by all. Her one choice is to marry a groom with wealth, a title, and good looks, but Alasdair McGregor cruelly refuses to be the answer to her problems. In fact, she is forced by Dare’s obstinacy to take extreme action: the faulty codpiece that leads to this marriage, the wedding that is literally a circus. But nothing can stand between Charlotte and what she wants most: the love of her husband.
“You can’t leave me now! Not when I need you! How selfish is it to leave just when I need you most? I forbid you to leave! I absolutely forbid you to leave me in my time of Great Distress!”
â€śI have no choice. I must leave now.â€ť
â€śStop just where you are, Gillian. Don’t you dare take another step toward this door!â€ť
â€śCharlotte, give me the key.â€ť
“Mama, want to widdle!â€ť
â€śChar, Dante needs to use the necessary before we leave. Now please, if you have any love for me, hand over the key. Nobleâ€™s going to be in a terrible fury if he finds out youâ€™re holding us prisoner in his library, and I can assure you from experience that Dante does not announce his intention to widdle unless that event is nigh on imminent.â€ť
The petite blonde blocking the two oak doors cast a hesitant glance toward the small figure of a three year old child doing an urgent little dance before her. Two thin furrows appeared between her dark blonde brows.
â€śItâ€™s a trick. Youâ€™ve taught him to say that. Youâ€™re using your own childâ€™s plumbing as a weapon against me, Cousin, and I find that a completely nebulous act.â€ť
â€ťThe word is nefarious, Charlotte.â€ť Gillian, Lady Wessex, picked up her son and pointed him toward the blonde. â€śIf you do not unlock the door and release Dante and me, I shall allow him to widdle upon you.â€ť
The small child giggled in delight. Lady Charlotte di Abalongia nee Collins, sucked in a horrified breath and leveled a defiant glare at her cousin. â€śYou wouldnâ€™t!â€ť
â€śGillian? Wife, where are you hiding? This is no time for play, woman. We should have left an hour ago!â€ť The doorknob rattled ineffectually.
â€śPapa, have to widdle!â€ť Dante squirmed in his motherâ€™s arms.
â€śNow youâ€™ve done it,â€ť Gillian nodded, stepping back from the door. â€śNow youâ€™ve annoyed Noble. I would advise you to step back from the doorway since he is sure toâ€”â€ś
Three sudden bangs against the door at her back caused Charlotte to jump a good foot off the ground.
â€śâ€”want in. Weâ€™re in here, my love,â€ť Gillian called loudly. â€śCharlotte seems to have misplaced the key. We wonâ€™t be a moment finding it.â€ť
â€śWANT TO WIDDLE!â€ť
â€śWhatâ€™s that? Charlotte? What the devil is she doing here? I thought she ran off to be some Italianâ€™s mistress years ago?â€ť
â€śI didnâ€™t run off, we eloped!â€ť Charlotte bellowed at the door. â€śWe were married in Paris. It was romantic!â€ť
â€śIt doesnâ€™t matter. Open the door! Gillian, we have to leave. Now!â€ť
â€śCharlotte,â€ť Gillian said, her voice low and urgent. Charlotte, eyeing the door with alarm as the Black Earl pounded on it demanding immediate entrance, paid heed to the steely note in her closest friend and relativeâ€™s voice. â€śI understand youâ€™re terribly upset, and I know youâ€™ve had a horrible time returning to England from what sounds like a perfectly ghastly old ruins in Italy, but my dear, I have a child full of widdle, two impatient children in the carriage with Nurse, and a husband who,â€ť she paused as a particularly loud barrage of swearing accented the increased pounding on the door, â€śis fast losing a temper that has been extremely tried today. Please, please, Char, give me the key before Noble is forced to take drastic measures.â€ť
Charlotte glanced from the squirming child to the look of concern in Gillianâ€™s emerald eyes. Tears had always worked well for her in the past, perhaps if she could work up a few, her cousin would see how serious she was. She waited for the peculiar prickling sensation to indicate that her cornflower blue eyes would soon be becomingly framed in a pool of tears, and allowed a note of raw desperation to creep into her voice. â€śGilly, I need you. I truly do. You’re all I have left. Thereâ€™s no one else left who will receive me, Papa saw to that. I have no where to go, and no money; I sold what remained of Mamaâ€™s jewels just to buy a few traveling gowns and passage to England on a merchant ship. Youâ€™re the only one in the family who will acknowledge me, and now you are sailing to the West Indiesâ€¦â€ť Her voice cracked as she brushed at the wetness on her cheeks, surprised to find her crocodile tears had suddenly become real. â€śOh, Gilly, please stay. Please help me. Iâ€™ve never been alone; I donâ€™t know what to do.â€ť
Gillian shifted the child in her arms and squeezed Charlotteâ€™s hand. â€śYou know I will do everything I can to help youâ€”â€ś
Charlotte shrieked in joy and hugged her cousin, widdly child and all. â€śI knew you wouldnâ€™t leave me!â€™
A tremendous splintering noise reverberated through the room as Noble Britton, known by the (in Charlotte’s mind, understated) sobriquet of the Black Earl, burst through the doors, followed by a tall, bewigged man with a hook where his left hand should have been, and two smaller footmen in livery.
â€śAre you all right?â€ť the earl asked his countess, rushing to her side.
She smiled reassuringly. â€śOf course we are. Charlotte just needs a moment or two of my time, and then I will be ready to be off.â€ť She forestalled protests on both her husbandâ€™s and cousinâ€™s lips by thrusting the squirming child into his fatherâ€™s arms just before she grasped Charlotte firmly and tugged her toward a nearby emerald and gold damask couch. â€śWhile youâ€™re taking Dante for his widdle, Iâ€™ll speak with Char. Crouch, please take Lady Charlotteâ€™s things up to the Blue Suite. Sheâ€™ll be staying here for a time. Dickon, Charles, tell the other carriages to start, weâ€™ll be along directly.â€ť
Noble shot his wife a questioning look before settling a glare on Charlotte, who was profoundly thankful it was short-lived in nature as she never could stand up to one of the earlâ€™s scowls. Both father and child hastened away when the latter announced his intention to widdle right there in the library.
â€śYou have five minutes until I must leave,â€ť Gillian told her cousin sternly. â€śYou are welcome to stay here for as long as you like. Now, what else can I do to help you?â€ť
Charlotteâ€™s heart underwent a peculiar motion that felt suspiciously like it dropped into her jean half-boots. â€śYouâ€™re leaving? Youâ€™re still leaving me?â€ť
â€śI have no choice,â€ť the calm reply came. A burst of pain flared to life within Charlotteâ€™s breast at her cousinâ€™s defection, but a momentâ€™s consideration led her to admit that Gillian really could not remain behind while her husband and children sailed to their coffee plantation. She shoved down the pain of abandonment and focused her energies on explaining what a shambles her life had become.
â€śVery well. You received my letter which mentioned that Antonio died of sweating sickness in November?â€ť
Gillian nodded. â€śAnd you wanted to leave Villa Abalongia because you had a difficult time with his family, but you mentioned going to Paris, not home to England.â€ť
Charlotteâ€™s eyes threatened to fill once more with scalding tears she suspected would leave her with unattractive swollen, red eyes and a nose that would require much attention with a handkerchief. â€śAnd I donâ€™t even have a handkerchief any more,â€ť she wailed, unable to stop the tears. Charlotte seldom had recourse to real tears, but they were just as uncomfortable as she recalled. â€śEverythingâ€™s gone, everything! The Contessa took it all for her two horrid, fat daughters. She said I wouldnâ€™t need my fine gowns when I was in mourning for Antonio. She said Iâ€™d have to go live on a tiny little farm in the mountains and tend a bunch of smelly goats, that I wasnâ€™t welcomed to stay in Florence as I wasnâ€™t truly a member of the family, all because I hadnâ€™t given Antonio an heir!â€ť
â€śThat was very cruel of her.â€ť
â€śYes,â€ť Charlotte sniffed. â€śIt was. Especially since it wasnâ€™t my fault. I wouldnâ€™t have minded a childâ€”you seem to enjoy yours so muchâ€”but Antonio refused to do his husbandly duty by me.â€ť
Gillianâ€™s eyes widened. â€śHeâ€¦ he refused?â€ť
Charlotte nodded, her eyes filling again at the memory of such a grave injustice. â€śIt was all he could do to consummate the marriage. After thatâ€¦oh, Gilly, he wouldnâ€™t even try. And the Contessa was forever making nasty remarks that I was not doing my duty properly! I tried, I honestly tried! I wore naughty nightwear, I allowed him to catch me en dishabille on many occasions, and I even sought advice from the local strumpet as to how to arouse the passion of Antonio’s manly instrument, but to no avail. His instrument resisted all my efforts. I think it hated me,” she added darkly.
“Oh, I’m sure that wasn’tâ€””
“It wouldn’t even twitch for me!”
“Well, really Charlotte,” Gillian looked a bit embarrassed. “It’s not as if it was an animal trained to jump on your command.”
“I know that, but the strumpet said it should at the very least twitch once in a while, and not lie limp and flaccid like a week old bit of blancmange. It wouldn’t make even the slightest effort on my behalf. If that’s not cruel and petty-minded of a manly instrument, well, I just don’t know what is!â€ť
Gillian blinked once or twice before patting her cousinâ€™s arm and handing her a lace-edged handkerchief. Charlotte viewed it with sorrow. â€śI used to have handkerchiefs like this,â€ť she cried, mopping at her eyes and blowing her nose in a less than dainty manner. â€śBut that evil woman took them away from me, just as she took everything else, even my husband!â€ť
â€śOh, surely she couldnâ€™t have taken Antonioâ€™s affection from youâ€”â€ś
â€śNot his affection,â€ť Charlotte sniffled loudly. â€śHe was fond enough of me, although he never dared act so before the Contessa. No, she took him away and sent him to a nasty little town on the Mediterranean for his weak lungs. And he died there!â€ť
â€śChar, Iâ€™m sorry about Antonio, I know you must have loved him greatlyâ€¦â€ť
Charlotte stopped dabbing at her eyes, a look of utter astonishment on her face. â€śLove him greatly? Where did you get that idea?â€ť
Gillian stopped patting her cousinâ€™s hand. â€śWellâ€¦that isâ€¦you eloped with him! You dismissed all your suitors and eloped with the son of a minor Italian nobleman. Why else would you sacrifice everything you held dear if you didnâ€™t love him greatly?â€ť
â€śOh, that,â€ť Charlotte responded dismissively, gently prodding the region below her eyes to ascertain if they were swollen from her recent tears. â€śIt was my third season and I didnâ€™t care for that year’s suitors, and Antonio was just like the hero in Castle Moldavia, Or, The Dancing Masterâ€™s Ghost. He was so very romantic, but Papa was being stiff-rumped about my marrying him, threatening to cut me off without a shilling if I didnâ€™t marry someone suitable instead. Papa became ever so tiresome, and the Season was really quite boring, so I did the only sensical thing.â€ť
“Sensible not sensical,” Gillian corrected automatically, staring at her cousin with eyes filled with disbelief. â€śAre you telling me you ran off to marry knowing that your father disapproved of your choice of husband, knowing he would disinherit you, knowing that such an elopement would cause a scandal that would even now keep all of the doors of Society closed to you, and yet you did it not for love, but because you were bored?â€ť
Charlotte frowned. â€śMost of the doors of Society, not all, and I donâ€™t see what that has to do with anything. You said you would help me. I really donâ€™t think spending my five minutes discussing the past four years is helping me. Rather than chastising me for actions which were viewed by some as romantic and daringâ€”â€ś
â€śNot to mention heedless, hen-witted, and hasty.â€ś
â€śâ€”is going to benefit me now,â€ť Charlotte ended, ignoring the interruption. â€śAs I said, I simply cannot see my way out of this dreadful moil.â€ť
â€śCoil.â€ť Gillian chewed on lower lip for a moment. Charlotte watched hopefully; whenever her cousin got that peculiar light to her eyes, it meant she was about to come up with a truly magnificent plan. â€śWhat of Lord Collins?â€ť
â€śMatthew?â€ť Charlotte snorted the name. â€śHeâ€™s cut from the same cloth Papa was. When Papa died almost four years ago, Matthew took up the banner of ostriching me.â€ť
â€śOstracizing, Char. You really should make an effort to use the correct word.”
“Pheasant feathers! Language should be fluid, it should work for me, not the other way around. And don’t distract me, I have only a few minutes remaining. I wrote Matthew when Antonio succumbed, but all I received back was a terse note to the effect that I was reaping what I had sown. There will be no help from my brother or the rest of the family.”
“Hmmm. Well, you do have certain assets we can work withâ€¦â€ť
Charlotteâ€™s dark lashes fluttered as smiled depreciatingly and gazed down at her hands in what she knew to be an extremely fetching approximation of modesty. â€śYes, of course, thatâ€™s very kind of you to say, especially considering the fashion is for dainty, blonde-haired nymphs not red-headed, green-eyed amazons like yourself.â€ť
Gillian gave her a puzzled look. Charlotte allowed her dimples to peek out in a manner she had been told by several gentlemen was utterly charming. â€śMy appearance.â€ť
Gillianâ€™s look of puzzlement deepened as her cousin explained. â€śYou mentioned my assets, Cousin! It would not be meet for me to point out my many and various charms, but I am not so foolishly modest that I donâ€™t recognize them. If you recall, Lord Darnley did write a sonnet to my eyes.â€ť
Gillian rolled her eyes. â€śOh, that.â€ť
â€śHe called them limpid pools of ceruzean, whatever that is. And Lord Beckstand composed several lines about the gilt tones of my hair.â€ť
â€śIt’s cerulean, but I wasnâ€™t speaking about something so trivial as your appearance, Char. I was speaking of your assets, your true assets.â€ť
â€śTrivial!â€ť Charlotte recoiled from such blasphemy. â€śTrivial! Cousin, marriage has addled your brains! There is nothing trivial about oneâ€™s appearance. Why, without a comely countenance, one would have no suitors! No inamoratos! Society would shun one! No invitations to balls and routs and breakfasts would be forthcoming! One simply could not attend the opera nor the theatre, nor expect to be received by anyone of discerning tasteâ€¦â€ś
Gillian was nodding even before the words dried up on Charlotte’s lips. â€śExactly. You are the picture of loveliness, and yet you find yourself in a position exactly as you describe, hence my comment on the trivial nature of something so shallow as beauty. What you need is to focus on your assets, namely, your status as a widow, your good breeding, your congenial manner, andâ€”â€ś she took a deep breath. â€śâ€”your willingness to marry again.â€ť
â€śMarry?â€ť Charlotte blinked in surprise at her cousinâ€™s words. â€śWho said anything about my marrying? You just said my widowhood was an asset, why would I want to give it up?â€ť
Gillian cast a quick glance at the door. Voices could be heard in the hallway beyond. “Charlotte, you have limited choices. You can either resolve the argument with your familyâ€¦”
“I’ve tried. Matthew is just as bull-headed as Father was.”
“â€¦or come with us to the West Indiesâ€¦”
Charlotte made a moue of disapproval. “It’s hot there. I would perspire all the time, and I cannot think of anything worse than being in a continual state of perspiration.”
“â€¦or find a position as a companion to an elderly ladyâ€¦”
An unladylike snort was the answer to that suggestion.
“â€¦or you can marry again.”
A frown wrinkled Charlotte’s brow as she smoothed out the drab olive green traveling gown her limited funds forced her to buy en route to England. “Marry. I hadn’t thought to marry. All I wanted to do was to come home. Marriage meansâ€¦well, there would have to be a husband, wouldn’t there? I’m not sure I want another husband.”
“Well, what do you want?”
Charlotte tried on a little pout. “I want what I had before Antonio swept me off my feet and dragged me to that godforsaken castle in Italy. I want to be the Season’s reigning Incomparable, I want my court of suitors, I want lovely gowns and dancing and stolen kisses in the garden!”
“But you’re not eighteen any more, Charlotte,” her cousin protested. “You’re a grown woman. Surely you want something more meaningful than the mere glitter of life in the ton?”
“There’s nothing wrong with glitter,” Charlotte objected, her pout dissolving into another frown. “It’s bright and pretty and it entertains.”
“It’s also shallow, unsubstantial, and unimportant. Oh, Char, I want you to be happy, but I don’t see how that’s possible if all you wantâ€””
Gillian rose as the voice in the hall took on a strident note. “Blast! I really have to go now. I’m sorry I can’t help you. Crouch and the other staff will take care of you here at Britton House for as long as you like, and I’ll have the household funds put at your disposal. If you get in a terrible bind and need advice, write to me.”
“It will take forever to hear from you, not to mention the fact that you’ll only lecture me and say improving sorts of things that are of no practical use whatsoever.” Charlotte plucked at the ugly trim on her equally ugly gown and tried not to covet her cousin’s smart green and white striped gown with matching green pelisse.
“It wouldn’t hurt you in the least to listen to a bit of improving advice, Charlotte. Do think about what I saidâ€”I wouldn’t wish for you to be in another unhappy marriage, but it’s the only solution I can see.”
Charlotte nodded sadly and accompanied her cousin to the hall, kissed Gillian’s and Dante’s cheek, tried not to flinch under the earl’s stern, disapproving look, and rallied a smile and a wave as the last of her familial connections drove off in a sleek black and scarlet coach.
“She’s left me here alone with no one but the servants. Damnation!” Charlotte swore as the carriage disappeared from view.
“Ye can say that again,” a voice muttered behind her, but when she spun around to pin the ears back on the speaker, she was faced with a line of servants wearing faces so innocent they could have doubled for cherubim.
“Hrmph,” she snorted, eying the collected servants. “Much as I would like to dissolve into tears over my desperate and completely tragic situation, I shall give in to a well-earned megrim at a later time. Right now I have a more important dish to fry. Crouch, fetch me writing paper, and have the footmen standing at the ready.”
“Ehâ€¦fish to fry, d’ye mean, m’lady?”
Charlotte raised her brows in the manner that had never failed to intimidate Graveltoes, her father’s butler, but it appeared that the giant pirate the Wessexes employed was made of sterner stuff. No doubt it was the hook that made him feel superior. “I simply do not understand this unreasonable fixation you and Gillian and others have with something so unimportant as language, Crouch. It’s unwholesome. I urge you to get over it. And don’t think you can put on airs as you do with Gillian, I shan’t tolerate it as she does. I’ll have enough of that as I contrive to make my stunning reappearance in the drawing rooms and ballrooms of the ton.”
She shooed Crouch on his way and marched upstairs to take possession of Gillian’s personal sitting room. It wasn’t going to be easy re-establishing herself after the scandal, but that was all of four years ago, and certainly people must have forgotten the details by now. With a little finesse and sweet-talking to the right matrons, the doors would surely open to her again. It wouldn’t be pleasant to be forced to listen to lectures by the very same women who called her foolish and headstrong all those years ago, but she could endure a few “I warned you!” comments if necessary. Besides, there were the gentlemen to think ofâ€”she had charm and vivacity, and despite her cousin’s doubts of the effectiveness of a pretty face and a neat ankle, Charlotte had always found she could have her way if she fluttered her eyelashes and dimpled just so.
“It will be as easy as taking honey from a flea,” she predicted, sitting down to write her letters.
“I can’t believe it! I just can’t believe it! How dare she refuse me a voucher! How dare she tell me I was not welcome to her blasted masquerade ball next week! How dare she tell me that no polite person will recognize me!” Charlotte ripped a cream-colored sheet of paper to shreds and threw it into the unlit grate. “Who would have thought that Lady Jersey had a memory likeâ€¦likeâ€¦like a lion?”
Charlotte made a dismissive motion with her hands as she paced by the figure sitting in the blue and gold brocade chair in her cousin’s sitting room.
“A lion, Caro, a lion. You know, one of those big grey beasts that live in Africa. They have prodigious memories.”
Lady Caroline Beverly looked confused. “Are you sure? The lion I saw at the menagerie was sort of a yellowish-brown color and no bigger than a very small pony.”
Charlotte spun on her heel and paced a line back toward the fireplace. “Brown, grey, it doesn’t matter, they come from Africa and they have excellent memories. Just like Lady Jersey.”
Caroline frowned. “I thought Lady Jersey’s family came from Devonshire?”
Charlotte stopped pacing, put her hands on her hips, and glared down at her friend. “What on earth does Lady Jersey’s family have to do with anything?”
“You mentioned it! You said she came from Africa just like the lions.”
“There are times,” Charlotte said, breathing heavily through her nose, “when I find myself regretting that I returned to England. Memory, Caro, I likened Lady Jersey to the lion because of its exceptional memory. Just as she has.”
“Oh. Does she? What about?”
Charlotte tossed up her hands and resumed pacing, reminding herself not to snap at the only person who had responded to her plea for help. “I can’t afford to be discriminating,” she muttered.
“No, you said you were quite pockets to let, but that doesn’t explain why it is you’re upset with Lady Jersey’s memory.”
Charlotte took a deep, deep breath, and sat down on the loveseat next to the brunette. “Caroline, listen to me very carefully. You remember four years ago when I left England to marry the Conte di Abalongia’s eldest son?”
Caroline nodded her head. “Yes, of course I do. It caused ever such a scandal! Mama said it would all end in sorrow and that you’d come to a bad end, and for me not to even consider running off with Raoul the drawing master, which of course I wasn’t considering because dearest Algernon was about to offer for me, and why would I want to be married to a drawing master when I could be a viscountess instead? Although Raoul did have the most attractive moustacheâ€”do you remember it? The ends came to two lovely points. And of course dearest Algernon tried to grow a one just to please me when I admired Sir Ralph Henderson’s moustache, but he did not seem to have much luck at it, although I rubbed pomade onto his lip faithfully every night.”
A small headache pulsed to life at the front of Charlotte’s head. She opened a window that gave out onto the tiny garden below and welcomed the sweet summer air, tainted though it was by the ever present hint of coal.
“I must admit I was glad when he gave it up. The pomade smelled of garlic, and you know, really, it’s impossible to go to sleep when the person next to you has a garlic-perfumed lip.”
The headache blossomed into something deeper. “Caroline, do you think we could get back to matters at handâ€”namely, the fact that Lady Jersey has poisoned everyone’s mind against me by recalling my romantic and dashing elopement all those many years ago?”
“Oh, but it isn’t Lady Jersey,” Caroline protested, smoothing the soft grey kid of her gloves. “At least, that’s what dearest Algernon said two nights past, when we were at the opera and he was talking to Lord Collins. Have you seen your brother since you’ve come home again? He has the most divine moustache, with just the shortest little beard, which I don’t quite like, but I think you will find his moustache is all the rage. Many of the gentlemen are adopting them now. Except, of course, dearest Algernon. I told him I simply cannot endure more sleepless nights smelling the garlic on his lip.”
Charlotte frowned in concentration as she picked through the other woman’s mental meanderings. “What did my brother say to Lord Beverly?”
“About his moustache? Well, it seems he uses a special pomade that contains the glands of aâ€””
“No, what did Matthew say about me?”
Caroline pursed her lips as she searched the dark, dusty hallways of her memory. “Oh, yes, that. Evidently when dearest Algernon mentioned that I was calling on you today, Lord Collins told him not to allow it, that after The Event your father had made sure you weren’t accepted in polite society, and he had taken it as a sacred duty to see his father’s wishes carried out, and that he would be contacting Lady Jersey and other preeminent matrons to let them know of his feelings. So you see, it’s not Lady Jersey’s fault at all that you received so many cuts yesterday when you went out. I suspect it was all your brother’s doing.”
“That beast!” Charlotte stood up, her hands balled into fists as she stomped over to the fireplace. The stomping didn’t make her feel in the least bit better, so she spun around and stomped to the other side of the room, anger seething from every pore. “I knew he wouldn’t do anything to welcome me back into the family, but to deliberately sabotage my chances, why, that’sâ€¦that’sâ€¦that’s a calligraphy!”
“A catastrophe,” Caroline nodded. “Especially if you hope your plan to find a husband goes forward. What gentleman will offer for you if he knows your brother does not recognize you?”
Charlotte snarled silently and strode by, two fingers pressed to her forehead.
“Of course, you could always look outside of the ton for a husband,” Caroline said tentatively.
Charlotte drew to a halt before her and gave a haughty glare down her nose. “Bite your tongue, Caro! I am an earl’s daughter, the widow to the heir of a count, and I shall be a nobleman’s wife, so help me! No, I shan’t look outside of the ton, but I will defeat my brother nonetheless.”
A look of interest sparked in Caroline’s dark grey eyes. “How will you manage that?”
“It’s evident that Matthew will not be quiet about my arrival in London. No doubt he’s been carrying out his plans to keep me from my rightful place by spreading his foul slander at his clubs, filling the ears of all of the eligible gentlemen with warnings against me.”
“I could ask dearest Algernon if he has heard anything,” Caroline offered helpfully.
“Mmm.” Charlotte twisted her borrowed handkerchief as she paced, her mind a whirl of thoughts. “There must be someone imperfidious to Matthew’s evil plan. Who’s in town, Caro? Unmarried and wealthy and titled gentlemen only, of course.”
“The word is impervious, not imperfidious.”
Charlotte paused to glare. “Not you, as well? What happened while I was in Italy, did some sort of language plague strike everyone?”
“Did you or did you not agree to help me?”
“Yes, of course I did, butâ€””
“Even after my brother warned your husband about you being seen with me?”
“Yes, I told you that I reassured dearest Algernon that you were blamelessâ€””
“Then would you kindly construe your mind to matters of importance, and not blether on about silly things such as mere words!” Charlotte shot her a penetrating glance before turning to the window to breathe in calming gulps of air.
“Constrain not construe,” Caroline said softly.
Charlotte spun around. “What?”
Caroline blushed and lowered her eyes to the gloves twisted between her fingers. “Nothing. What did you want to know about the gentleman?”
“Everything. Who is in town now, who has a fortune and title, and of course, whether they will look good against me.”
“Whether they will look good against you?” Caroline blinked in surprise.
“Yes, yes, will they look good against me! That is to say, will our appearances compliment one another? Will we have handsome children? I must have a husband who will give me handsome children. Can you imagine having ugly children?” She shuddered. “It wouldn’t be tolerable at all. Therefore, I must select a husband who not only has the fortune and position I require, but he must also have looks that will compliment my own.”
Caroline gaped at her open-mouthed.
“Come along, Caro, I don’t have all day, I have to make plans. Who of the gentlemen in town possesses suitable fortune, rank, and appearance to meet my needs?”
Caroline snapped her mouth shut. “Iâ€¦youâ€¦.wellâ€¦there’s Sir Everett Dillingham.”
Charlotte seated herself on the loveseat and picked up an ebony-figured fan. “Everett? Is he still alive? Too old, Caro, much too old. He must be all of forty, if he’s a day! Think of someone younger.”
“Well,” Caroline sucked on her lower lip in thought. “There’s the Marquis of Chilton’s son. He’s cutting quite a swath in town.”
“His eldest son? The Earl of Bramley? I thought he married Lucy Gordonstone?”
“Not his eldest son, his youngest. Lord Thomas.”
Charlotte stared at her friend in horror. “Thomas? He’s nineteen!”
“Well you said you wanted someone younger.”
“Not infantile! I’m three and twenty, Caro. I would like a husband of an age with me, not one who still rides ponies!”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t think of anyone else.”
Charlotte snapped her fan closed. “Then think harder. I’m not an unreasonable woman, there must be someone with the title, fortune, and appearance to satisfy me.”
“Well,” Caroline drawled the word out as she eyed her friend carefully. “I did hear that there was a gentleman in town who might suit, but he doesn’t attend many functions.”
“All the better,” Charlotte smiled, her dimples flashing. “He shan’t object to my making a splash in society as is my due. What is his name?”
“I’ve heard it said that he has a terrible temper, and Mama once told me that he fought a duel over a lightskirt.”
“That shows he has passion and an interest in matters of the bedchamber. I swear, it will be a nice change from Antonio. Who is this gentleman?”
“Being an earl, most of the mamas have him in their sights,” Caroline warned. “You will have heavy competition for his attention.”
Charlotte’s dimples deepened. “Let me worry about that. Who is this charming earl?”
Caroline hesitated, watching her friend warily. “It’s someone with whom your name was linked five years ago.”
“Really?” Charlotte drummed her fingers on the arm of the loveseat. “An earl? I don’t remember attaching an earl to my court before I met Antonio. Which earl?”
“He wasn’t in your court, as such,” Caroline replied carefully. “The attraction was more one-sidedâ€¦”
A face began to appear in the mists of Charlotte’s memory. A long, lean, rugged face, perhaps not handsome by conventional standards, but a face that had great character, a face that haunted her dreams for the last five years.
“â€¦although some said you would do the impossible and he would make you an offerâ€¦”
It was his eyes that she remembered the best. Deep, dark sapphire blue, almost indigo at times, with a distinctive black ring. Framed by two dark blond brows a few shades darker than her own hair, those eyes could pierce through even the most formidable appearances to see the soul.
“â€¦but then your cousin married and he returned to his estates in Scotland. I’m speaking, of course, ofâ€””
“Alasdair McGregor, Lord Carlisle,” Charlotte breathed the words as Caroline was about to pronounce them.
“Yes,” Caroline agreed, still watching her friend closely. “The only man you were interested in that Season.”
“Alasdair,” Charlotte murmured, seeing again the face of the handsome Scot. “He was so very handsome, so dashing, so enigmatic. Everyone wanted to be seen on his arm, all the ladies fought to catch his eye.”
“He seemed fond of you,” Caroline said slowly.
Charlotte closed her eyes, swaying a little as she remembered the pleasure of dancing with him, of having him next to her as he drove her through the park. Once she thought he was going to kiss her, but they were interrupted before she knew what it was to feel his lips upon hers. “Alasdair McGregor. He was everything I wanted in a man.”
She opened her eyes to find Caroline’s knowing gaze on her. With a lift of her chin she rose and went to the window, staring blindly out at the garden as she played with the curtain tie. “And he still is.