Authors: Allegra Gray
It is incumbent upon me, I feel, to warn the mothers of London, that they may keep their daughters safe from impropriety
. This author has, like many others, often taken part in the festivities at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Just two nights ago I attended a wonderful performance. But, oh! Dear readers, the pleasure of those gardens was thereafter tarnished forever to me. Whilst walking the paths, my sister and I lost our direction, straying into the unlit portion of the gardens. Dear readers, these gardens are not, as I had thought, off limits when unlit. Or, if they are, they have gone too long without policing. The improprieties I witnessed there! My heart nearly failed me. A certain Miss M was spotted in the dark, with no escort aside from a certain Scottish earl—though indeed, this author cannot be entirely certain of their identity, given that their faces were joined so closely only their hair could be seen. Such lack of comportment must be routed from our youth, lest we mothers find ourselves with daughters rendered unfit for the station to which we strive to raise them. Mothers, protect your daughters!
With sincerest concerns,
“No. No, no, no.” Charity dropped her head into her hands, the scone rolling unheeded toward the edge of the table. She stayed that way a long time.
Why, oh why did she never seem to get away with
anymore? It was only a kiss.
That was no mere kiss
, her mind argued. “Not helping,” she muttered to herself.
The creak of a door and footsteps alerted her that her mother was awake
. Hurriedly she stood. She grabbed the
. On second thought, she set it back in place. Everyone would know soon enough. Better to let her read it here.
Still, Charity was smart enough not to stick around for the carnage
. She retreated to the safety of her room.
She expected she’d have, at best, twenty minutes or so to gather herself before her mother stormed in, face white with rage.
Twenty minutes passed, and then another twenty. And another.
The curiosity was killing her
. Charity crept back into the corridor, feeling sheepish for sneaking in her own home, but too nervous to stop. She snuck down the stairs and around corners until she had a line of sight into the breakfast room. The remnants of Lady Medford’s breakfast served as evidence she’d eaten, but the lady herself was nowhere to be seen. The gossip rag lay open to the page of doom. She’d definitely read it, then.
She was ruined
. Coming so close on the heels of her last scandal, there would be no escaping the backlash of this one.
here would be no engagement announcement. Lord Maxwell was sure to hear the flood of rumors that would resurface with the publication of this letter. He could do so much better than someone like her.
The duke might pressure him to go forward with the engagement
. After all, he’d been mentioned in the letter too. But he was a man. A noble one, at that. Different standards applied.
She’d rather be put on the shelf than know her husband had been forced to marry her
. Somehow, she knew this was not a storm that would blow over. This was the death knell for her chances in the marriage mart.
In which Charity learns why Scotsmen are so often considered stubborn.
For once, both Charity’s mother and sister agreed with her
. She didn’t see them until late afternoon, and the house was eerily absent of other callers. If she’d lived five hundred years ago, she’d have thought someone had put the mark of the black plague on their door.
Only when Elizabeth
arrived with her baby in tow did their mother show her face. Charity gave her nephew an extra-long hug, inhaling his sweet, innocent scent. What she wouldn’t give to go back to her worry-free childhood days.
No one bothered trying to pretend the matter away.
did at least try to convince her the engagement could still happen. “He may not even see this letter. How many men actually read the
Charity shook her head
. “It won’t matter. He was mentioned as well. Certainly
will think to tell him.”
two are all but engaged already. Perhaps, if the duke talked to him, they could agree to put out the word that the engagement became official on Thursday and that…kiss…was celebratory. It was just a kiss, right?”
. “Yes. Maybe more than one. But nothing more than that.”
Lady Medford, for once, kept her mouth shut
. In fact, she had it shut so hard her lips were turning white and Charity was afraid her face might crack.
“Even so,” her sister said
. “I daresay duels have been called over accusations less damning than what that letter in the
contained. If you’re telling me the letter was true, I think Alex
have words with your Lord Maxwell.”
No duels. Don’t even think of it. Elizabeth, please, please, tell the duke not to put any undue pressure on Lord Maxwell.” She knew her sister too well. If there was a way to fix things, she would try to do it.
She lowered her eyes
. “I just…I don’t want him to someday look back on this past week and think it was one giant mistake that ended in a forced marriage. And then I’ll be stuck somewhere in Scotland with a husband who resents me.”
h.” She thought about that. “I wish I could say you’re being silly, but you have a point.”
A good point,” Lady Medford cracked her lips long enough to add.
. She’d been certain her mother would absolutely insist on pressing for the engagement. Instead, she was once more standing by her daughter’s side. After years of conflict, Charity didn’t know what to make of that. “Lovely. We are all in agreement.”
“Sarcasm does not become you,” her sister chided gently.
Charity sighed. “Very little does these days.”
Little Noah, l
ying on a small quilt near the sofa, stretched up his arms and cooed. Before Elizabeth could reach for him, Lady Medford scooped him up, not even cringing when he took the fingers that had been in his mouth and patted her cheek. Having a grandson who was heir to a dukedom had gone a long way toward mellowing out persnickety Priscilla Medford. “I had hoped to see both my daughters make good matches,” she said finally. “But I have begun to think, Charity, that your penchant for trouble would make you a difficult wife.”
She almost laughed
. It probably would.
“I also know the pain of feeling trapped
. You are too young for me to wish that upon you. But if Lord Maxwell were to come to you of his own accord…”
.” Tears welled, threatening to spill over her lashes. The last thing she’d expected was for her mother to actually be
to her. “Why should he? Nearly every encounter we’ve had so far has resulted in awkward moments and embarrassment for him.”
“Perhaps it is time to give some serious thought to a life in the country
. You would not be turned away at any of our estates,” Elizabeth offered.
Maybe,” she managed past the lump in her throat.
Cousin Lily did finally leave Montgrave around Christmastime, but I’m sure if I wrote to her, she would return in a heartbeat. You’d have company.”
“Cousin Lily who filled the liquor bottles with water after consuming their contents in secret?”
“Charity! You weren’t supposed to repeat that.”
She gave a horrified laugh
. This was what it had come to. Crazed Charity and tipsy Cousin Lily, rusticating the years away as guests of the benevolent duke? “I will think about it,” she promised. Maybe when her emotions settled down, the idea would hold more appeal. “Right now, though, I just want to go lie down.” She felt like she could sleep for a year.
In fact, she did sleep for much of the next few days, which was a strange blessing indeed
. Somehow, being a confirmed pariah lifted the strain of being a near-pariah. She had nothing to worry about, because no one had any expectations for her to live up to at all. As long as she stayed tucked away in her room, and the duke’s men maintained the guard, she was safe.
The deep loss that left her chest hollow and aching was another matter
. The night of the masquerade, Lord Maxwell had swept into her life, swept her into his arms, and nothing had been the same since. She’d been almost in love with him. Maybe more than almost. But whether he’d ever had that audience with the duke, or what the outcome had been, she didn’t know. She’d heard nothing from him personally since the night at Vauxhall. Unless she missed her guess, he’d finally learned the truth about her.
the following Friday, Charity had accepted her fate. She spent the entire day and well into the evening in her morning dress, reading books and beginning to wonder,
wonder, what she would do with a life in the countryside. She couldn’t imagine just mouldering away as a permanent guest in one of her sister and brother-in-law’s houses. Perhaps she could go to America and become a teacher. One of her cousins had done so, some years ago. She should write her a letter. See how the adventure had come out.
A tap on her door signaled the entrance of the butler
. “Miss Medford, you have a caller.”
“You must be mistaken.”
“No, miss. Lord Maxwell is here.”
Charity popped to attention, going from listless to heart-thudding anticipation in the span of a second
What did he want?
“He says you have an engagement at the theater
.” His carefully-schooled expression gave no hint that he’d noticed her attire was anything but appropriate.
? Oh!” She
agreed to attend the theater tonight, but that had been ages ago. Another lifetime. She’d been certain, with all that had happened, the plans had been canceled. “Tell him I am running just the tiniest bit late, and will be down shortly.”
.” He bowed and left.
The maid rushed in, and Charity stared worriedly into the looking glass
. At least she hadn’t been crying in the past hour. Her face was pale, but not blotchy. “I have to get dressed.”
“Your blue silk is pressed
. Will that do, miss?”
.” She wasn’t even certain what Graeme would say. Perhaps he just wanted to formally end things. She might not be leaving the house. But she could hardly see him
. Faster than they’d ever managed before, Penny got Charity dressed with her hair pinned up. The hurry brought a flush back to her cheeks, at least enough to confirm her standing among the living. Pearl earbobs, a present from Elizabeth on her last birthday, completed the look.
Charity flew down the stairs and stopped dead at the entrance to the salon
Lord Maxwell stood in full theater-going attire
. He wore a black jacket and trousers with a stark white shirt and cravat, his form filling them so perfectly, so
that her mouth went dry.
“Miss Medford, you are a vision.”
Was it possible? Had he somehow spent the last week hidden in a cellar and not heard that his almost-fiancé was unfit for polite company?
lifted her chin ever so slightly. Meeting his gaze, she saw the knowledge there. No, Lord Maxwell hadn’t been hidden in a cellar, under a rock, or anywhere else news didn’t travel. He was just too honorable to ignore a prior commitment. Still, he’d kissed her just as thoroughly as she’d kissed back and they both knew it. But she could be honorable too. There was no sense in ruining a second life. She would go down with whatever dignity she had left.
I fear there has been a mistake.”
Graeme hated his role in causing the paleness in her face
. It had been so hard to stay away this week, when he wanted to spend every waking moment wooing her. Now she stood like a vision, pale but determined. Beautiful. Not to mention stubborn.
So stubborn that her benefactor, the Duke of Beaufort, had given his approval of Graeme’s request, then told him he’d have to work out the details with Charity herself
. Knowing where she stood on that matter, he’d tried to up the ante by publicizing their courtship.
His ploy had hurt her
. But if the second part—the part he’d set into motion tonight—worked as planned, he would make it up to her in a thousand ways. He could spend the rest of their lives making it up to her, and would do so gladly.
He cleared his throat
. “Nay, no mistake. We made plans to attend the theater, did we not?”
“I thought—” she started, then stopped
. “You should not be seen with me.”
He’d been dumbfounded when
, during his next audience with the duke, Beaufort informed him that,
, he would not insist on an immediate marriage. “
the duke had confided, “
if I thought there the slightest chance that Charity could be dragged to the altar and made to comply. Unfortunately, though her virtues are many, compliance is not among them.”
A diplomatic way of saying that in spite of any fondness he might hold for his sister-in-law, he’d written her off.
“I have every intention of being seen with you.”
She looked tempted. And tempting. Still, she protested. “You should save yourself while you still can.”
He stepped close
r, holding back a smile. “You told me that once before. Lass, it is too late. Even then, I was already lost.”
She took a shivery breath
closed the distance between them, his hand coming up to caress the bare length of arm between the tiny sleeves of her gown and the top of her gloves.
.” Her eyes widenened at his use of her given name. “I can offer what you seek.”
“You have no idea what I seek
.” It was hardly more than a whisper.
Something solid to hold onto
A modicum of wisdom made him keep that thought to himself.
A distinctly female shriek echoed from somewhere above, followed by a voice whose words were indistinguishable, but whose tone was clearly that of a mistress berating her maid
. In answer to Charity, he suggested “Peace?”
A reluctant giggle escaped her
. But when she said, “Peace, indeed,” he caught a wistful tone to her words.
“And protection,” he offered, struck by the fierceness of his desire to shield her from hurt.
Charity, quick to recover, tossed her head. “What makes you think I want your protection?”
. “Nothing in all this world has led me to believe you want my—or anyone else’s—protection.” A husky note entered his tone. “But, lass, I’m going to give it to you anyway.”
She said nothing, just stared at him with those huge blue eyes that we
re somehow both soft and wary. Finally she tipped her head in acknowledgment. “How very chivalrous of you, Lord Maxwell. Allow me to collect my wrapper, and I shall be down directly.” She turned to go, but he heard the last words under her breath. “If only it were that easy.”
He clasped his hands behind his back and took long breaths, trying to quiet the thumping of his heart
. So far, so good. He’d feared, especially given the wait when he first arrived, that she would refuse to leave the house entirely.
He heard female voices above, and the berating voice of moments ago let out a happy squeal
. Lady Medford approved, then. He wondered if she’d feel the same way tomorrow.