James Selvick, heir to the title of Earl of Ashburnham, stood at the river’s edge and hurled a smooth, flat rock across its glistening waters.
“One, two, three, four!” he counted aloud as the rock skimmed across the surface. “I bested all of you!” His shoulder-length brown locks fell into his eyes, as they often did, and he pushed them aside with the back of his hand.
Charlotte Clarke, daughter of Sir Everette Clarke, stepped up beside him, her wild blonde hair billowing in the wind. She had tucked the back of her ankle-length skirts up into the front of her belt, effectively creating Indian balloon pants like they had seen in books. Her face was smudged with dirt, but she looked incandescently happy. Her blue eyes sparkled with mischief as she bumped James’ shoulder, sending him careening to the side and nearly toppling into the water.
“Hey!” James laughed, pushing her back. “Calm down, you wild cat.”
“That wasn’t anything special,” she said, kneeling on the river’s rocky shore as she looked for the perfect skipping stone. James rolled his eyes. Charlotte was nine years old, the only girl of five boys in the Clarke family. Her eldest brother, Thomas, was his best friend. Ever since her family had come to the neighbourhood, the children of the Selvick and Clarke families had been fast friends. Charlotte was always tagging along with them, even though she was a girl. She could out-climb all four of her older brothers as well as James and threw a mean left-hook. Charlotte so much like one of the boys that they had affectionately dubbed her “Charlie.”
“There, now,” she said when she had found a thin, smooth white stone. She stood up and closed her left eye, taking aim at the surface of the water. She threw the rock, flicking her wrist expertly.
“One, two, three, four, five!” she yelled, counting as James had done. “See? I told you. I can do anything just as well as a boy. Better even.” She said haughtily. She planted her hands on her hips, giving him an impish grin. That was an invitation, James knew. He turned on her and growled like a bear, chasing her up the embankment. She gave a squeal of delight and ran, her laughter mixing with James’ as it echoed over the water.
“Get back here!” he cried, giving another bear growl. He threw his arms out and pretended to have giant claws, swiping the air as he chased her.
Charlotte did not look back as she hurried up the steep bank, scurrying up a large oak tree near the river. James was right on her heels, but he knew that she was a faster climber . Bark and crusty moss fell into James’ eyes from above, impeding his pursuit. He wiped them and darted after her, nearly grabbing her ankle—but she was too quick for him. When he reached the highest branch, she was already shimmying down on the opposite side of the tree.
Charlotte’s brothers joined them at the base of the tree trunk, yelling encouragement to James.
“Come on, old chap! Catch her!”
Her four older brothers looked like hunting hounds, baying at the prey.
“Charlie, you’ve done it again,” the youngest brother, Benjamin, said. He was just a year older than Charlotte.
When Charlotte landed on the ground with a thud, her eldest brother, Thomas, grabbed hold of her arms. She struggled to get free, but she was no match for him at the ripe old age of fifteen, even though she was scrappy. “Hold tight, there, Charlie. You’ll tear your dress even worse, and then what would Mama say?”
James landed with a thud next to her, smiling at her with a satisfied grin. “You beat me again, Charlie. I don’t mind it so much, ’cause you’re lighter and thinner than I am.”
Charlotte stuck out her tongue at him. “I could best you even if I were the same age and height. You’ve never been as good at climbing trees as me.”
The group all agreed. Daniel and Francis, Charlotte’s two other brothers had joined in. Twelve-year-old Daniel was tall and lanky, like James; conversely, Francis, at thirteen, had acquired the height and muscle of a full-grown man. James thought it was because he mainly ate meat, sneaking the vegetables under the table to the dogs every chance he got.
The Clarke home was much more relaxed than his own. Charlotte’s father had made his fortune as a merchant, rather than inheriting his fortune as James’ father had done. Her father allowed the dogs to sit under the table while they ate, and their meals were far less formal than the ones James’ mother put on.
“Come on, let’s go swimming,” Benjamin suggested. Charlotte hung her head. Her mother had agreed to let her play with the boys, but under no circumstances was she allow her to swim with them, afraid that she would drown.
Her four brothers filed off down toward the bank, but James hung back, wiping the sweat from his brow. “It’s alright, Charlie. I’ll stay on the shore with you. We can put our feet in, at least.”
Charlotte brightened at the idea and was soon running off down the bank toward the water. James laughed at her childlike anticipation. Her blonde curls were a mass of tangles, with twigs and leaves woven throughout. Her once-white frock was caked with mud and grass stains. Her little blue apron had been discarded somewhere along the riverbank and was probably floating helplessly downstream by now. James walked up beside her and sat down on the pebbly beach.
“You’re never going to find a husband, looking the way you do,” he teased.
Charlotte sank down into the muddy earth and grimaced. “I keep telling Mama that I do not want a husband. I shall stay here with her and Papa always.” She took off her shoes and stockings and threw them up onto the grass-covered bank above them. He followed her example, and they both stepped out into the shallow water. He squished his toes into the sandy mire. The water felt good as it swirled around his ankles.
“You have to get married someday, Charlie. All girls do—if they don’t want to end up a spinster, or in the workhouse.”
“Papa said I would never end up in the workhouse, even if I don’t marry. He has plenty of money. Besides, I could always get a job as a cook, or a gardener.” Charlotte seemed very sure of herself, and James had to hold back a laugh. He was nearly four years older than Charlotte and had been exposed to the outside world. It was a cruel place at times. It would be good for him if she stayed with her parents, as she planned to do. He could not imagine Glendoe Manor without her.
“People don’t hire women gardeners, you silly.” James nudged her shoulder, and she prodded him right back. Laughing, he bent down and splashed water all over her front. She sputtered for a moment and then sprayed him right back. She kicked water up into his face, squealing with joy as she did. By the time the water fight was over, they were both dripping from head to toe.
They ran out of the water and up the bank, collapsing in a fit of giggles. After a moment, Charlotte quieted, looking sad.
“James, I don’t want to marry a stranger and go live somewhere far away. We all have fun, don’t we? Why can’t things just stay as they are now?” She picked up a pebble and threw it into the water, her anger apparent from her deep frown.
James shrugged, using his pinkie to try and dig some of the water out of his ear. “We will all have to grow up someday, Charlie.” He lay down on his side in the grass, propping himself up on his elbow to face her. “How about this: if you don’t find a husband by the time you’re twenty, I’ll come back from my travels and marry you myself. What do you say to that?”
James had grand plans to travel all over the world when he was old enough. He would see every country and culture before he had to come back and be tied down to life as an earl. His father was grooming him for taking over when he passed away, and James was not eager for the responsibility. Still, he comforted himself that he would likely be in his thirties or forties before his father passed away.
Charlotte’s eyes shone with unshed tears. James sat up straighter, feeling a pang of guilt stab at his heart. Charlotte tried to act tough, but when she showed her fear or anxiety in these rare moments, a fierce protectiveness rose inside him. He had been teasing her, but she looked at him with such seriousness that his heart began to hammer.
“Would you really do that for me?” she asked. “Do you promise? Truly?” Her eyes held such fervency, and he was almost sorry for teasing her about such a serious subject.
He sat up straighter and took her hand. “I swear it, Charlie. You won’t have to go to the workhouse if you can’t find a husband. I promise.” A slow smile crept over her features, and he noticed for the first time how pretty she was. She would probably be quite beautiful when she grew up and cleaned the mud off of her face.
“Ewww!” Francis declared as he splashed out of the water, dressed only in his breeches. His bare chest heaved, out of breath from wrestling his brothers in the river. “Charlie and James are holding hands!” He screwed up his face at them. James let her hand drop as if it were on fire.
“It was nothing,” James said, standing and wiping off his hand on his trousers. Hurt filled Charlotte’s eyes for a moment, but then she also stood and wiped off her skirt.
“Yes, it was nothing,” she agreed quickly. When she looked up at him once more, all signs of her hurt feelings were written on her features.”I’m going home.” Her announcement was flat as she turned to walk away. James followed her for a few paces, whispering a rushed apology.
“Charlie, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“No,” she interrupted. “You’re right. It was nothing. Silliness! Go back and swim, James. I know you want to. I won’t get in your way.” She then stomped off up the hill toward her house, her blonde tangles bouncing against her back.
Francis was waiting for him when he came back down the hill. He shook his head, letting a long sigh escape through his barely parted lips.
“What was that all about?” He asked, slapping James on the back good-naturedly. “I hope Charlie wasn’t being a nuisance. Mama says we can always send her home when she starts to be too much of a handful.”
“No, she is fine,” James said. “I think I hurt her feelings, that’s all. It’s nothing. You know her. It’ll blow over, and then she’ll be back to her old self in no time.” But in the back of James’ mind, he wondered if this time was different. Charlie was not the emotional type, but James had to remind himself that she was still just a girl under all her brave display.
He walked back down to the water’s edge, pasting a smile on his face for Francis’ benefit. But deep down, he wondered if Charlie ever would get married someday. Or would she forever be one of the boys?
“Curve your hands more, Charlotte. You must round your fingers as if you are holding an orange. Like this.”
Her governess held up both hands, clasping one over her fist and then taking it away to show just how much curve she needed. Charlotte sighed heavily. Would she ever be able to get this right? A yelp sounded outside the open window of the parlour, and Charlotte looked out, gazing longingly as Francis and Daniel rushed by with their fencing swords. Daniel laughed as he rounded a tree, dodging a thrust from Francis.
Her governess, Miss Hegarty, clapped her hands loudly, startling Charlotte out of her reverie.
“You must focus, Charlotte. Now, try it again.”
The older woman had been employed when Charlotte was thirteen in hopes of moulding her into a fine young lady. Miss Hegarty was strict and demanded perfection in everything. Charlotte couldn’t help but wonder if she would ever rise to Miss Hegarty’s exacting demands.
She curved her hands and placed them gently on the ivory and ebony keys. She began to play, wincing apologetically as she missed several notes. It did not help that Miss Hegarty stood over her shoulder, staring through her very soul, it seemed. She glanced out the window once more as the boys made more racket. They looked like they were having a wonderful time.
Charlotte forced herself to look away, pasting her gaze to the sheet music in front of her. Being a well-bred young lady, as her mother called it, was not her idea of fun. No matter how much she longed for the old, carefree life she had shared playing and roughhousing with her brothers, she knew it could not go on. She had made enormous strides over the last two years. She had learned to play the piano tolerably well, even if Miss Hegarty was disappointed; she had learned to draw and embroider, as well—all of these qualities were things that a man looked for in a wife. Soon, they would all know whether or not all of her hard work had paid off.
Her fingers stumbled again, and Miss Hegarty let out a frustrated sigh. “What is the matter with you today, Charlotte? Do I need to close the window?” She moved to do so, and Charlotte was disappointed when her brother’s voices were silenced. That was the one thing about being a lady that drove her to distraction. Why did everything have to be so quiet? A lady does not raise her voice. A lady does not share her own opinions.
Charlotte was still not used to holding her tongue. Miss Hegarty said she was worse than a mule braying in the stables sometimes. “You will never find a husband if you don’t learn to bridle your tongue!”
Her mother looked up from the novel she was reading and gave her a worried frown. “What ever is the matter, dearest?”
Charlotte looked up, silently pleading for her mother to save her from the gruelling piano lesson. “I am nervous about the presentation.” She let her hands fall off the keys, clasping them in her lap.
Her mother set her book aside and waved her over.
“That is enough for now, Miss Hegarty. Thank you,” she said to the other woman. Charlotte breathed a sigh of relief when her governess gave a slight curtsy and left the room.
“It is a wonder I do anything right with Miss Hegarty breathing down my neck. Believe you me, if I had known how difficult it would be to turn myself into a proper young lady, I would have never set out on this endeavour,” Charlotte teased.
Her mother reached over and patted her hand, trying to give encouragement. “You are doing very well, my dear, no matter what Miss Hegarty says. And try not to worry about the presentation. I am sure you will do just fine.” Her mother picked up a small silver bell and rang it several times, its high-pitched tinkling shrill in its proximity to Charlotte’s ear. She scooted away, holding a hand over her assailed eardrum.
Her mother laughed, setting down the bell on the side table. “Really, Charlotte. You can stand your brother’s yelling and screaming, but not a tiny bell? You are a conundrum, sometimes.”
Charlotte shared a laugh with her mother. “It is strange, isn’t it?” She did not say that she much preferred her brothers’ obnoxious bellering to the silence that now enveloped her life.
“No matter. I’ll call for some tea. You are simply over-tired from your preparations for the presentation. You’ve worked hard these last two years. You should take some time to rest before we leave for London.” Her mother turned to speak with the butler, calling for tea and sandwiches for both of them.
When the servant had disappeared once more, her mother took Charlotte’s hand. “Is there something else worrying you, dearest? You have dark circles under your eyes.”
Charlotte unconsciously touched her face, looking for the unwanted intruders. “I have not been sleeping well lately. I’ve been so worried about being presented at court. Is it not possible to forgo the whole affair and still come out into society?” Charlotte chewed her lower lip in her anxiety.
“Nonsense. You have worked too hard for too long to eschew such an honour. A well-bred young lady of means like yourself cannot enter society without being presented to their Majesties.”
They both turned as the door opened and in poured her three older brothers, now with her younger brother, Andrew, trailing behind them. At nine years old, he was significantly younger than the rest of them. Mama had always called him her surprise baby. They were all talking in a jumble, each one trying to be heard over the other.
Charlotte smiled at their antics, missing her place in the midst of them. Their mother waved a hand at them, shushing them.
“Really, boys! Quiet down. Your sister is under enough stress as it is without you adding to it.”
“What does Charlie have to be stressed about?” Francis’ eyes sparkled with impish delight. “All she does is sit in here and play piano or knit, or whatever it is young ladies occupy themselves with.”
Charlotte stuck out her tongue at him. “You couldn’t do any of the things I am required to do.”
“Charlotte,” her mother corrected him. “You must not call her Charlie anymore, boys.”
“Why not? Daniel pouted. “I can understand while we are in company, but why can we not call her Charlie when it is just us?” He sauntered over to his sister and sat beside her on the couch, tousling her long, blonde curls. She swatted him away but laughed nonetheless. Charlotte fixed her hair, brushing the long wisps out of her eyes. Daniel tugged at the back of her hair, ignoring the glare she shot up at him as he listened to his mother scold them all. A sideways grin played at his lips, and he winked at her.
Charlotte tried not to play favourites with her brothers, but Daniel was the one she confided in. At twenty years old, she had no doubt that he would soon find a wife and have no further use for his little sister. She was trying to soak up all the time she could with him.
“She is seventeen now. It is not right that you continue to call Charlotte by a nickname given to her when she was six. Especially a boys’ nickname.”
“Charlie isn’t really a girl, is she, though?” little Andrew asked. “I mean, not in the regular way.”
“Of course, she is, stupid,” Francis retorted. Their mother threw him a warning look. Francis was the more serious type, quiet and methodical, with strength like a bear. Charlotte would have classified his temperament as more suited to a dark mosque, studying ancient scripts in a dimly lit room. She would be surprised if he ever married.
“Don’t call your brother stupid,” their mother reprimanded. She turned to her juvenile son. “Andrew, Charlotte is a young lady and deserves respect as your older sister. We must all pull together and help her make the best impression this Season.”
Andrew rolled his eyes and sat down on the rug at her feet.
“I liked it much better when we could climb trees together,” he mumbled. Charlotte tousled his hair and gave him a knowing look. I liked it better, too.
Andrew looked up at his mother and sighed. “Why does she have to go away and get married?”
“It isn’t like she is leaving tomorrow, Andrew,” Daniel interjected. “Even if she does find someone she wants to marry, it won’t be for a few years, will it mother?”
Charlotte blushed at the daunting task before her. As the only daughter in her family, she would need to marry if she was going to secure her place in society. Her father had set aside a sizable dowry for her, but the bulk of his wealth would go to her brothers.
“Not necessarily. If she finds a gentleman whom she wants to marry, I do not see why she could not find herself married by the end of the summer,” her mother responded cheerfully.
Daniel shot Charlotte an alarmed grimace. “This summer?”
Charlotte looked up at him sadly and nodded. “Yes. And you will be happy for me, won’t you, brother?” Daniel would be the hardest one for her to be separated from. He shifted uneasily in his seat, draping his arm over the back of the couch.
“I suppose. If I must,” he mumbled.
A knock sounded at the door, and the butler entered.
“Ah, Danby, there you are,” Lady Clarke said. “Would you bring more cups please? And we will need more sandwiches and petitfours. These rascals have gobbled them all up before Charlotte or I got one of them.”
Charlotte smiled. Her brothers had indeed made short work of the refreshments.
“Of course, my lady. And Sir Clarke wanted me to tell you that all is ready for your departure in the morning.”
“Will he not join us for tea?” her mother asked, disappointed.
“He had to ride over to Faldwell Park and speak with Lord Selvick, my lady. He will be back before the gong, though.”
“Very good, Danby. Thank you,” she said, dismissing him.
Charlotte envied her parents. They seemed to miss each other if they were separated from each other for even a few moments. Charlotte hoped that she found a husband with whom she could share a close relationship. Her parents had their troubles, of course, just like any married couple. But they never let the sun go down on their anger, just as the Good Book advised.
Not all couples were so lucky, however. Would Charlotte be able to find a man that would not only provide for her needs but cherish her heart and dreams, as well?
Just then, the door opened, and her eldest brother, Thomas, walked in with his new wife, Sarah. Charlotte’s mood brightened immediately. She had become fast friends with Sarah. Her feisty nature and unadulterated good sense made her the perfect addition to the Clarke family. As she made her way into the room—the only brunette in a horde of blondes—she bent and kissed her mother on the cheek.
“Well, are you all ready for our trip to London tomorrow?” Sarah then came to Charlotte’s side and linked her arm through hers.
“As ready as I can be,” Charlotte answered. Thomas followed his wife, nodding in her direction. At twenty-three, he rarely joined in with their brothers’ shenanigans, butevery once in a while, he could be persuaded to take part in a foot race or an impromptu wrestling match.
“Hello, Charlotte,” he greeted her. He then sat down to listen to Andrew recount the morning’s adventures. Charlotte loved to watch her eldest and youngest brother interact. Even though there was a sixteen-year gap in their ages, Thomas always made time for little Andrew.
Sarah patted her hand and leaned in close to whisper in her ear. “Do not worry. You will be splendid at the presentation. It is not as daunting as everyone makes it seem.”
Charlotte thanked her, but in the back of her mind, she could only hope that she would be deserving of her family’s faith in her.
James was in his study, attending to some last-minute business with his tenant farmers. He was due to leave for London with his mother and younger twin sisters soon. Lyda and Jewelle were thirteen now, something that was hard for James to believe. Within a couple of years, it would be their turn to be presented at court. James was not looking forward to the pressure of finding his sisters suitable husbands.
His mother did little to help him these days. Ever since his father’s passing three years prior, she had seemingly retreated; she mostly kept to herself, reading novellas, or embroidering cushions.
As a result, James, Lyda, and Jewelle had grown even closer. His sisters were dear girls, like opposite sides of the same coin. Lyda was the quiet, logical sister, while Jewelle was more compulsive and spirited. She reminded him of Charlie in many ways.
Smiling, he penned the last few words of his missive and set down the quill. He then put it through the blotter, folded it and sealed it.
As he put the letter on a pile with several others, a knock sounded at the study door.
“Come in!” he called, not bothering to look up.
“What are you still doing in here, brother?” Jewell asked as she came in, Lyda trailing a few paces behind with her nose in a book. Jewelle came around the desk and poked at the pile of letters. “We are due to leave for London tomorrow morning, and all you can think about is your dreary letters.”
James laughed, leaning back in his chair. He let out a long sigh, glad that his work was done for the day. “I had several things to take care of so that I can enjoy myself once we get to London.”
Jewelle shrugged, saying nothing more about it. He raised a brow at Lyda. Her lips moved as she read the last few pages of her book.
“I suppose that book is more fascinating than your big brother?”he teased. Lyda’s eyes flicked up to meet his for a split second before they flew back down to the page.
“Almost done,” she said in a hurry. Sitting down in the chair before the desk, her eyes darted from side to side as she read. He was glad she had a love for the written word, although she sometimes got stuck in her own world. He wished that some of that love would have transferred to Jewelle, who found it hard to apply herself when it came to her studies.
A moment passed while he and Jewelle waited for Lyda to finish. When she finally did, she closed the book with a satisfying thwack and looked up at them with a contented smile.
“There. Another happy ending, I’m afraid.”
James couldn’t help but chuckle. “Is that a bad thing?”
“No, I suppose not. But sometimes it is awfully predictable.” Lyda stood, setting the book down in the vacated seat. “Did you tell him?”
James looked up at Jewelle. “Tell me what?”
“We saw Charlotte riding up the drive a few minutes ago with Daniel and Francis.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” He stood abruptly and went over to the window. The drive was void of visitors, save for a few flitting birds searching for seeds in the gravel. The butler appeared in the doorway at that moment, announcing his friends. James turned and greeted them, shaking both of the boys’ hands. “How good of you to come by. I did not think we would have the pleasure of seeing you this afternoon with all the preparations for leaving for town.”
“Mama wanted us to stay, but I wanted to go for one last ride before setting off in the morning. Perseus deserved one last hurrah before we are gone for the summer.” Charlotte said with an air of sadness.
James chuckled. “You almost sound like you would rather stay home.”
Charlotte shrugged, smoothing down her skirts. She put on a brave face, but he could tell that she was trying to conceal her nerves. “I will be more at ease once the presentation is over and done.”
James nodded. “I am sure you will do well. You always excel at everything you put your mind to.”
“Not everything,” she mumbled.
He decided not to press her, at least not in front of her brothers. “Shall we go for a stroll in the gardens? I’ve just finished with some estate business, and I could arrange for tea to be brought to the Greek pavilion?”
His father had ordered the garden folly before he was born—a round structure with great Greek columns that held up a dome with a tall spike on top. It had been meant for a mere decoration when it had first been built, but it had become a favourite haunt of the Clarke and Selvick children over the years.
“That would be lovely,” Charlotte said. Daniel, Francis, and the twins led the way out of the study and out into the gardens. Charlotte took a deep breath as they stepped into the sunshine, and a bit of her unease seemed to melt away. James stopped in the doorway to speak to the butler and order the tea and refreshments and then joined her on the terrace.
“Are you really that anxious about the presentation?” James asked.
Charlotte looked up at him, shielding her eyes with her delicate hand. She had a light shawl draped over her shoulders, and as they walked, it slipped down her back and hung loosely over her arms. Her back was straight, with her head held high. When had she become so graceful, so elegant? James tore his eyes away, clasping his hands behind his back as they walked. The others were a rambunctious lot, Daniel and Francis arguing some point of the law. Francis was always trying to start a fight when it came to politics.
“I am nervous, to be sure. But Mama says I don’t have anything to worry about, either.” Charlotte’s profile was lit by the late afternoon sun, giving her skin an almost ethereal glow. Wisps of blonde hair framed her face, and for a moment, James could not find his voice. Why was his heart beating so fast?
He cleared his throat and tried to gain control of his racing pulse. “She is right, Charlie. You will be radiant when you meet the king and queen, I am sure.”
Charlotte halted in her tracks, a slight frown marring her lovely features. “You mustn’t call me Charlie anymore.”
James was taken aback for a moment, and he looked around as if she had forgotten who she was talking to. “What do you mean? We’ve always called you Charlie.”
Charlotte let out a frustrated sigh. “Yes, but I am not a child anymore. It was just as well you all called me Charlie while I was climbing trees and running through the creek. But I am a young lady; Mama says you must all call me Charlotte now.”
“What a pity. Are your tree-climbing days over, then?” James tried to make light of the situation and continued walking. He offered her his arm, which she did not take right away.
“Promise me, James. I need to look the part if I am to win a husband. If you and my brothers continue to call me Charlie, how will that look?”
At last Charlotte took his arm after a long pause, and they continued to stroll down the winding gravel path. Pink, yellow, and white roses in full bloom stretched toward the sunshine and seemed to nod their heads up and down in the gentle breeze. James plucked a delicate blossom, twirling it in his fingers before presenting it to her.
“I promise,” he said, feeling an aching sadness come over his heart as he did. Why should he care whether she wanted him to call her Charlotte or Charlie? It should make little difference to him. But it did make a difference, and James could not put his finger on exactly why. “So, who is this new Charlotte that I shall have to get used to addressing like a lady? Does she have her eyes set on a certain duke or viscount?”
Their siblings were already halfway to the Greek pavilion, marching quickly over the rolling grass-clad hills. Their laughter rang out over the meadow, reaching James and Charlotte. They were still far behind in the landscaped parterre. They came to the garden’s edge, separated from the open field by a long, low stone wall. James led her down the three steps that took them out into the meadow, and then she let go of his arm.
“I have no prospects as of yet, but Mama says I should have no trouble finding any number of suitable prospects once I am out. I think it helps that I am pretty and have a sizable dowry.” She said this very matter-of-factly, without an ounce of arrogance. Charlotte had never been pretentious; it made her all the more lovely.
He couldn’t help but chuckle at the casual way she discussed her own beauty. “I am sure the dowry helps. But do not let yourself be charmed by just anyone. You are too predisposed to trust people. Not everyone is as they seem when you first meet them.”
Charlotte brushed this last comment off with a laugh and a wave of her hand. “You sound like Thomas. Do not worry about me. I shall be careful with whomever I choose to give my heart to, I promise.”
James felt his throat go dry with her flippant remark of giving her heart away. He lowered his gaze for a moment, and when he looked back up at her, she was smiling at him. He had always looked at Charlotte like another little sister. But she was right—she was not a little girl anymore. She was a young woman, and a beautiful one at that. Soon she would be facing all sorts of gentlemen in London. Some were honourable, and others were cads. How could he protect her? He supposed it was not his job but her father and brother’s responsibility.
He cleared his throat once more and motioned for her to continue with him to the pavilion. Daniel and Francis were re-enacting a sword fight of some sort, drawing thrills of laughter from the twins. “At any rate, you should be glad. If I do find a match, as Mama supposes, you will not have to make good on your promise.” Charlotte was teasing him now, but he did not recall what she was talking about.
“Oh? And what promise is that?”
“Do you not remember? When I was nine you promised that you would marry me if I had not found a husband by the time I was twenty.” She laughed, shaking her head. Her blonde curls bounced as she moved her head, making his throat go dry once more. “I was such a fool back then, thinking I could get away from marriage. You were right. We have all grown up and now it is time to look to the future. Thomas was the first to marry, and I suppose we will all not be too far behind him. It is not all bad, though, as I had feared when we were younger. Sarah and Thomas are a good match, and they love each other, so it must be possible for the rest of us.”
James had forgotten about his long-ago promise, but her reminder made his heartache in a way he could not quite understand. “Yes, I hope so. That is all I want for you Charlie, I mean, Charlotte. I beg your pardon. It may take me a while to change that habit.”
“It is perfectly understandable. I’ve had to change so much the last couple of years. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself when I look in the mirror.”
James said nothing to this. To him, he would always see her as the feisty, strong, independent girl with whom he had spent his childhood. Now, all of that was coming to a close, and he resented that the years had flown by so quickly. James could not help but feel at a loss as they neared the pavilion and joined the others. Everything about their lives was about to change.
“An Earl’s Cherished Wildflower” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Turning from a little tomboy to the most desirable debutante, Charlotte Clarke’s life faces the most unexpected challenge. Even though Charlotte’s upbringing with her brothers has fashioned her for an adventurous life, her success as a proper lady will thrust her into the ton’s glamorous but dangerous world…
Will an unfulfilled love from the past manage to save Charlotte before it is too late?
Lord James Selvick has grown up with Charlotte, but he would never admit his romantic feelings for her. Even though he enjoys teasing her about her rise in society, when men start falling at her feet, jealousy will conquer his soul. Little did he know he would have to compete with his long-lasting enemy to win his best friend and soulmate back…
If only James could turn back time and find the strength to confess his deep love…
As Lady Charlotte feels lost within high society and James is trying to protect her, they will both find themselves forced to finally face their true emotions for each other. Yet, when the wicked Lord Martin shows his true colors, Charlotte will be trapped between her reputation and a loveless future. Will James finally find the way to Charlotte’s heart? Will the two soulmates overcome the grim reality and create their own special fairytale?
“An Earl’s Cherished Wildflower” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.