Margaret Hartwell, daughter of the Earl of Lancashire, looked out over the bright green fields and sighed. Her heart fluttered as a figure appeared on the horizon, speeding toward her on a magnificent steed. “Charles,” she whispered. Ever since she had met the handsome boy five years earlier, she knew that she would someday be his wife.
“Hello!” she called, beaming up at him as he approached. He slid off the bare-backed horse before it had a chance to halt. The horse threw its head up and down, no doubt wanting to keep up the pace. Winter was over, and he had been cooped up in the stables for far too long. She placed her hands on the low rock wall and leaned forward, petting the horse’s velvet-soft nose in greeting. “Good morning, boys. How was your ride?”
Charles smiled at her, his handsome face bronzed by the sun. “Wonderful. Champion did very well going over the jumps and even cleared the stream this time.” Charles took the reins and led the horse parallel to the rock wall. They came through a wooden gate a few paces away to join Margaret.
She could not help thinking how handsome he looked in the early morning sunlight. At seventeen, he was a man in his own right. She hung her head. She was only thirteen, but they had been fast friends ever since he had come to live on the manor with his mother five years prior. His mother had taken a job as the head cook. She would be forever grateful that Fate had smiled on her, bringing her a true friend.
He nudged her shoulder as they walked side by side. “What are you doing up so early, My Lady?” he teased. He never called her that except in jest. There was no such thing as the barrier of class between them. She was simply Margaret, and he was Charles, two friends who enjoyed each other’s company.
She nudged him back, smiling. “I couldn’t sleep and fancied a morning walk with my best friend. Is that so out of the ordinary?” she shot back.
“Not at all. I am glad, actually. I have had something on my mind for quite some time that I have wanted to discuss with you.”
His deep voice sent shivers up her spine. Her heartbeat quickened, wondering what on earth he would have to talk to her about. Usually, he told her everything. There were no secrets between them–at least, none that she was aware of. Suddenly she was afraid that he had sad news for her. Perhaps that he had fallen in love with someone? He was a young man, after all. He was a brilliant one, too, and would not want to spend the rest of his days working in her father’s stables.
“Oh?” she asked, voice shaking. She tried to keep the nervousness out of her tone but did poorly. If she lost Charles, she was not sure what she would do.
“Yes. Come with me while I put Champion back in his stall. He’s had a good run and deserves a good rub down,” he said and patted the horse’s muscular neck. “Later, boy. Don’t you worry.” They walked in silence back to the stables, and Margaret waited outside while Charles put the horse in his stall. When he came back out, the sun was well above the hilltops. Sunlight streamed through the trees’ leaves as they strolled down the lane heading away from the manor.
Margaret looked up and sighed as the light and shadow played across her face. “I think this is my favourite time of day. The world seems so peaceful.”
“Yes, it does,” he agreed. She met his gaze, realising he had been studying her for some time. She felt the heat rush into her cheeks, her stomach fluttering strangely. Could this be what it was like to fall in love? Margaret cleared her throat. “What was it you wanted to discuss with me?”
He shoved his hands in his trouser pockets, letting out a long sigh. His well-muscled shoulders hunched forward, and she was suddenly nervous to hear what he had to say. “I suppose there is no easy way to say this, Peg, but I think you should know.”
Her heart jumped at the familiar nickname. Charles was the only one to call her by that informal moniker. “What is it, Charles? You know you can tell me anything.”
“I know. It’s just that this is unpleasant news. I mean to say–well …” He let out another frustrated sigh. “I’ll just come out with it. I’m leaving the manor, Peg.”
Margaret halted in her tracks, frozen in fear. “Leaving? Why?!” her heart sank, and it seemed to slow its wild beating with the dread of losing her best friend. “Have we done something to upset you? I’ll speak to Papa–”
Charles took her hand and kissed it fervently. Margaret was so surprised she nearly fell over in a dead faint. “No, never, Peg. You have all been so kind to Mama and me. I will never forget it. It’s just I feel that I must start to make my own way in the world. I cannot be a stable boy forever. Not if I am to–” his words trailed off for a moment, and his kind bright blue eyes searched hers. He seemed to be at war with himself. He raked a hand through his dark brown hair, a boyish gesture that had endeared him to her.
She began to walk again, and he hurried to catch up with her. “Peg, please try to understand.”
“I am trying,” her voice broke, sudden tears stinging her eyes. “I would never wish to hold you back, Charles. But I shall miss you.” She met his gaze once more, trying to be brave.
He made her stop, taking her hands in his. Her breathing quickened at this simple touch. Up until then, it had only been a friendly gesture from a boy who was far above her in age and wisdom. However, now she felt much more was held in that simple touch.
Charles bowed his head. “I shall miss you, too, Peg. You are my dearest friend in the whole world. More so, really.” It was the first time she had ever seen him blush. She held her breath, waiting for him to go on. His eyes pierced hers. “I am in love with you, Peggy. I have been for a long time now.”
Margaret’s breath caught. Could this really be happening? Her chest was flooded with so many emotions she did not know which to settle on and process first. Joy, elation, confusion, and trepidation. The joy that he had finally confessed what she had suspected for some time. Worry at what her family would think. Her parents were kind and easy-going sorts, but what would they say about their eldest daughter having a relationship with their cook’s son?
Charles let out a nervous laugh. “Do you not have anything to say to that, Peg?” He hung his head, releasing her hands, and walked a few paces from her, his shoes crunching on the gravel. All was still quiet, as the family had not yet awoken. True, the servants had been up for hours, but there was little fear that they would be disturbed on the lane. Margaret stepped up to him, touching his shoulder with her dainty hand. He turned around, his eyes tortured and longing. She could break his heart or make it soar with her next words.
“I love you, too, Charles. I always have. I never dared to hope that you would return my feelings since I am so much younger than you.” She shook her head, feeling more embarrassed than she had in her entire life. He took her by the shoulders and bid her look up at him. She was pleased to see the brightest smile on his face when she did.
“This is why I must leave, Peg. I want to make something of myself–to be worthy of you.” It was as if he was trying to convince her of something, his voice persistent.
“You already are worthy of me. You are kind and compassionate. You are honest and work harder than anyone I know.”
He shook his head. “You know that I respect his lordship. He has been a fine master, but I am not the kind of man he would have to marry his daughter. You can be certain of that.”
Margaret’s heart seemed to jump into her throat. Marry? He wants to marry me? She could not help the smile that crept across her face. “What are you saying, Charles?”
The sunlight filtered through the trees, illuminating his face. He took her hands once more, the warmth enveloping her fingers. She closed her eyes as he held her close. “I cannot speak with your father yet, but you must know that I want to marry you, Margaret. You are the only girl I could ever imagine spending my life with. I wonder, would you make a vow with me now? That we will wait for each other. You have a few years yet before you are ready to marry, and that will give me time to earn my fortune.”
“I do not care about money, Charles. You know that.”
“But your family does. No matter how accepting they are, they will still want a good match for you. You are an earl’s daughter, and I am but a lowly cook’s son. Perhaps if I can make something of myself, your father will give us his blessing?” He sighed heavily. “I do not want to leave you, but this is the only way.”
Margaret sniffed hard, trying to keep the tears at bay. If Charles could be brave, then so could she. She closed her eyes and buried her face in his strong chest, breathing in the scent of earth and horses. To any other well-bred young lady, it might be repulsive, but to her, it was the familiar scent of the boy she had come to love. “I know. I just wish I could come with you. Can we not run away together? Please, I am a hard worker. At least, I can learn to be,” she pleaded, knowing that it was futile. She felt her heart was breaking at the prospect of being separated from Charles for even a day.
“You know we cannot do that. They would come looking for you, and then we would never have a chance to be together.” He put her away from him for a moment so he could look into her eyes once more. “It will not be forever, Peg. I promise, I will come back for you when I’ve made my fortune. And then nothing will ever come between us again.”
“But what will you do?” Margaret clung to him, wishing she could go along. However, she was soon to embark on a new adventure of her own–learning how to become a sophisticated young lady of the Ton.
“I am joining the Navy. They pay well, and I’ll have a nice sum once I finish my five-year term.”
“Five years!?” Margaret stepped back, unwilling to deal with the fact that she might not see him for such a long period. “There has to be another way, Charles.”
“There is no other way.” His voice was filled with compassion and longing as he drew her back into his arms. “I know it seems like an eternity, but it will pass quickly. I, for one, know that you are a girl worth waiting for,” he whispered, his lips brushing against her blonde curls. “Will you wait for me, Peg?”
She tilted her head up so she could look into his eyes once more. “Of course, I will. I vow to wait until the end of time if I must.”
He chuckled softly. “Ever the dramatist, aren’t we?” he teased. “It will not be forever. And I promise to write to you every day while I am away.” He turned, steering them back towards the house. She did not want to go but knew that it would not bode well for her father to find them walking the lanes alone together. Her father and mother had grown stricter over the last few months, scolding her for galavanting around the estate. That was no way for a young woman of her class to act. She knew that she needed to act more her age to think of her future. However, she was also afraid that the lessons her governess forced upon her would change her. She did not want to be a shallow debutante who only cared about clothes and shoes–and finding a husband.
“And I promise to write to you–every day, Charles.” She leaned her head against his shoulder until they came into view of the house. She tried to soak up every second she could, wishing that she could freeze this moment in time. What other changes would the next years bring?
Sunlight filtered through a large bay window, casting a delicious golden light over Margaret’s slender form. Blonde curls framed her face, and her bright blue eyes stood out from her creamy white complexion. She looked at herself in the floor-length mirror, marvelling for what must have been the hundredth time at how grown up she looked. It was still hard to believe that she was a young lady heading to a garden party at the queen’s invitation. She turned, fanning out the yards of silky white fabric, the silver embroidery catching in the rays of sunlight.
“You look breathtaking, my dear.” Her mother came up behind her, squeezing her shoulders with a quick hug. Margaret smiled at her, smoothing down her dress.
“Do you really think so?” she asked nervously. Since being presented the year before, she had worked very hard not to catch anyone’s eye. Although she had not always succeeded, the cold shoulder she had turned on the gentleman who did come calling was enough to send them away after a short acquaintance. And when asked by her parents why no man was ever good enough, she came up with every excuse to put them off. The truth was that her heart still belonged to Charles Grant, and she was not quick to forget the vow they had made all those years before.
Her mother smiled at her in the mirror, raising her brows with a mischievous air. “You are blushing, dearest. What are you thinking?”
Margaret turned away from the mirror, giving a self-deprecating laugh. “Nothing,” she replied. “Should we not join Papa and the others down in the foyer? We would not want to be late, would we?” She started towards the door, wishing to better conceal her feelings and thoughts. However, no matter how hard she tried, she always seemed to display everything that was going on in her mind. She had not the talent to mask her feelings as other young ladies her age could do.
At seventeen, she was reticent, preferring to be in the background. She enjoyed watching people, seeing how they played their games. If only they knew how utterly ridiculous they looked. She had determined a long time ago that she would not be one of them. Indeed, why should she engage in their useless games? She already had the love of her life waiting for her. Even so, it did not make the waiting any easier when the gentlemen tried to draw her out of her safe little shell. She would much rather have stayed home and read a good book rather than socialising with the London elite.
“You are quite right,” her mother said as she came up to her, helping her don a light shawl. Margaret pulled a pair of white gloves on and took a parasol from her maid before heading out the bedroom door.
“Thank you, Taylor.” Her maid curtsied and gave her an encouraging smile. Taylor was the only one who seemed to understand. She and Jane, of course. Her younger sister was a hopeless romantic and liked Charles better than any of the other gentlemen they had been presented with the last year.
“There you are!” Jane said as they came out into the hall. “Had enough time to preen, I hope?” she teased. She linked arms with Margaret, and they all headed down the hall together.
Margaret rolled her eyes at her. “You know how nervous these social functions make me. I wish we could stay home. Or perhaps you could go in my stead?” She looked back at her mother, who gave a firm shake of the head.
“You know Jane cannot come out until you are safely married.”
“You make me sound like a prize horse, Mama.”
Her mother gasped. “I hate it when you speak like that, Margaret. And I will have none of it at the party this afternoon, is that understood?”
Margaret tried to hold back a heavy sigh of dread. “Yes, Mama,” she replied obediently. Jane took her hand and gave it a light squeeze.
“Do not worry,” Jane whispered. “Take all the time you need, for I am perfectly happy to stall my coming out until next year.” And with a wink, she let go of Margaret’s arm and skipped down the remaining yards of the hall and bounded down the steps two at a time.
Her mother rolled her eyes, expelling a loud sigh. “That girl. It is a wonder that we have got her under control at all. I blame you, partly.”
Margaret chuckled. “And why is that?”
“You know that she looks up to you. You have not been in any great hurry to marry, and she takes after you in all things. If you were to show some interest, perhaps it would spur her along as well?” Her mother pulled on her white gloves, and Margaret turned her gaze on Jane as she skipped about the foyer. She went from one of her brothers to the other as they played an impromptu game of tag. Sarah, her youngest sister, joined in, too.
Margaret started down the steps. “Do not be in too great a hurry to be rid of her, Mama. She is a far better daughter than I could ever hope to be.”
Her mother gave her a sideways glance. “Whatever makes you say that? You are both good girls and have never given your father and me cause for regret or worry. Really, Margaret, you are in a mood today.” Her mother did not stop at the bottom step to hear Margaret’s reply. Despite her mother’s kindness and love for her children, she sometimes forgot to listen to them.
“You do not know the secret I have been carrying all this time,” she mumbled under her breath, staying aloof from the activity going on in the foyer. Jane had whipped up her younger brothers and sister into a frenzy by now, and her mother was getting them to quiet back down with some difficulty.
After a few moments, her father joined them, and all was quiet with one stern word from him. “Now, boys! Sarah!” he bellowed, turning to Margaret’s three younger siblings. “You are to mind the governess while we are gone for the afternoon. And if I hear of anything untoward, it’ll be the switch for all of you. Is that understood?”
Henry, Sebastian, and Sarah lined up shoulder to shoulder, straightening as their father paced in front of them like a colonel inspecting his troops. He gave them a mock, churlish glance and then cracked a smile. The children then smiled and gathered around to hug their father. “Now, Margaret. Are you ready?” he asked, coming to stand in front of her. He beamed up at her, the top of his head at eye level since she was still standing on the last step of the staircase. She came down, taking his hand.
“I am, Papa.”
He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and started for the front door. “Splendid. Now, let us hope we can find you a good match today,” he teased. She laughed, but her heart dropped nonetheless. Just a few more weeks, she thought to herself. You only have to hold out for a few more weeks–a few months at the most.
Her father gave her hand a pat, then let her go. She smoothed her dress one last time and then stood in front of a small hallway mirror to put on a bonnet. A footman came up beside her and bowed slightly as she tied the strings under her chin. She straightened. “Yes, what is it, Michael?”
He held out a silver tray, on which was a single letter. “This just arrived for you, My Lady.”
Margaret’s heart began to beat wildly as she picked it up, recognizing Charles’ familiar handwriting. “It’s from Charles,” she said, answering her mother’s unspoken question.
“Ahh, you shall have to read it to us on the way to the garden party. How is the lad?” her father asked. Margaret had always kept them abreast of what was happening in Charles’ life, his campaigns, and the countries he had visited. His stories were always filled with adventure and detail that they felt they were standing on the bow of his ship with him.
Margaret broke the seal and scanned the letter’s contents before she even had a chance to pass through the front door. They climbed into the carriage, her heart soaring with the news.
“Charles writes that he is on his way home! Is that not wonderful?” She felt a tremendous weight lift off her shoulders. He was coming home sooner than she had expected. Her heart fluttered with anticipation. Soon, she would be reunited with her childhood sweetheart. Perhaps they could convince her father to allow them to marry before the Season ended. Then she would not have to endure this constant parade of gentlemen callers like she had last year.
“Ahh, that is wonderful news,” her father replied as they were all getting settled in the carriage. “Does he say when his ship is due to dock?”
Margaret scanned the letter again. There was nothing especially romantic in its nature, that is, not until the end. “Here, I will read it for you:
“Dear Margaret and family,
I am pleased to announce that I am on my way home. I cannot tell you how much I have longed for the shores of my homeland and to be reunited with my mother. And, of course, I am most eager to see you and your esteemed family once more.
I have much to tell you, but I will leave off until we are all face to face …”
Margaret skipped down to the salutation, as the rest of the letter was for her eyes only. Her heart skipped a beat as she read a sentence, her face growing warm. “I think of you often, especially during the lonely hours of the night and dream of when we may be together again …” She, of course, did not read this section aloud, instead skipping to the end.
Please give my regards to your family and tell them how much I long to see them all.”
“With kind regards,
She quickly folded the letter and placed it in her reticule. She would reread the latter sections of the letter privately, for she did not want to share them with her family. Least of all, her parents, who would take some convincing if they were to give their blessing on their marriage.
“Well, I do hope he is able to stop in and see us before he heads to the estate. I am sure he has changed much in the last few years. How long has it been since he left us?”
Margaret looked up at her father. “Five years, Papa. He will be very grown up by now, I am sure. I wonder if we will be able to recognize him after all this time.”
In reality, Margaret knew precisely how much time had elapsed. Four years, eleven months, and three days. Even if her family did not recognize him right away, she would know him instantly. His kind eyes and slightly lopsided smile would be all she needed to see to find him.
“Well, we can think about that later. Enjoy yourselves at the garden party, and be sure to stay close so that I might make introductions of any young men that come your way.” Their father was the first to descend the carriage steps when it came to a halt. He helped their mother down and then handed Margaret and Jane out in turn.
The sunshine washed over the park, lighting the bright green grasses and brilliant flowers. Butterflies flitted from petal to petal as they made their way over a small, curved bridge to a place that had been set with small round tables and chairs. Many desserts and delicacies lay on silver trays on long banquet tables. And the queen sat on a small dais that had been constructed especially for the occasion, a tremendous umbrella open over her head to shield her from the sun.
Margaret made her way to the dais, trailing behind her mother and father. They dutifully paid their respects to the queen, curtsying low as was the custom. The queen only nodded to them and then looked behind them to greet the next guests who had filtered in. Margaret was glad that this event was not as strict and formal as the coming-out ceremony she had been forced through the previous year.
She let out a breath, feeling more at ease now that that was over with.
“You lit up as soon as you saw Charles’ letter. It is a wonder that Mama and Papa have not figured out your secret yet,” Jane said. She linked her arm through Margaret’s, and they were strolling along a small stream off to the side of where the main festivities were taking place. Margaret let out a laugh, nodding in agreement.
“It is good that they have not figured it out all this time. They might have forbidden me to write to him.”
Suddenly, they spotted their mother waving and hurrying in their direction. “Uh oh, what have you done now?” Jane asked, teasing her once more.
“What makes you think I have done anything?” Laughter tinged her tone, but she still observed her mother for any signs of agitation or frustration.
It did not take long for their mother to join them, and she quickly dismissed Jane, sending her back to their father’s side.
“What is it, Mama? Is something wrong?”
“Must there be something wrong for me to want to speak with my eldest daughter in private?” She motioned that they should continue in the direction that Margaret and Jane had been walking. Margaret lifted a brow.
“I suppose not. But I have a feeling there is something on your mind.”
“Well, yes,” her mother admitted. “I just wonder if it is wise to continue your correspondence with Mr Grant? After all, you are trying to find a husband this Season, and it would not be right for a young woman to continue to write to a man who is more than half her age.”
Margaret halted, her mouth dropping open in disbelief. “Charles is not more than half my age! He is only five years my senior. And he was always kind to me,” she said, starting to walk away as the heat flooded her face. “Besides, he is one of my dearest friends.”
“That may have been the case when you were a child, but I can assure you that your father would not approve of you thinking of Mr Grant in that light now. You are a young woman on the brink of matrimony, Margaret. It is time you turned your attention away from Charles and these silly adventures he writes of.”
“They are not silly–” Margaret was about to argue. As they came around the corner of an oak tree, they suddenly came face to face with a strapping young gentleman in a fashionable blue coat.
“Good afternoon, ladies. I beg your pardon.” He said with a smile. Her mother squeezed her arm with the strength of a vice. Margaret masked the pain with some difficulty, trying to smile at the young man.
“Ahh, Lord Winston, if I am not mistaken?” her mother said with a simpering tone. Margaret’s heart nearly jumped into her throat, feeling uncomfortable under Lord Winston’s genuine appreciation.
“You are not mistaken, Lady Hartwell. It is a pleasure to see you again,” he said and then turned his attention to Margaret. “I do not believe I have had the pleasure of meeting your companion, Lady Hartwell. Might she be your sister?”
Her mother visibly blushed. “Oh, Lord Winston, you always were such a tease. You are too kind to this old woman. Alas no, this is my daughter, Lady Margaret. She came out last year if you will remember?”
“I do. I seem to recall that she was named the Star of the Season?”
“She was indeed.”
Lord Winston bowed slightly at the waist, offering her his hand. She took it, hands shaking slightly. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Margaret.”
“And you,” was all that Margaret was able to squeak out. He kissed her hand, sending goosebumps up her arms. She took her hand away as quickly as etiquette would allow and clasped them behind her back.
“May I introduce my mother, Lady Winston?” he asked, motioning to an older woman whom Margaret had not seen until that moment. She had been so overwrought with Lord Winston’s arrival that she had not even noticed the mouse of a woman.
Pleasantries were exchanged, and then Lord Winston again turned to her. “I wonder, Lady Margaret, would you do me the honour of a stroll about the pond?”
Margaret’s heart again jumped into her throat. “I–well, I–”
“Oh, she would be delighted. Your mother and I can catch up while you two get acquainted,” her mother offered before Margaret had a chance to object. She gave a nervous smile and then took his arm.
But all she could think as they began to walk around the pond was of Charles. Hurry home, my love. Please, hurry!
Charles filled his lungs with salty sea air, looking out over the ship’s railing as it came into port. Home. Oh, how he had missed its shores, not least because it felt as if he had left his heart behind all those years ago. He had enjoyed a brilliant career in the Navy, but now he was ready to embark on his next adventure.
“Hey there, old chap. I can see you are eager to be away. Is the little miss still waiting for you back home?” His friend, Phillip, placed a snap sack filled with all his earthly possessions next to his feet as he came up beside him. He leaned his elbows against the railing and looked out over the water.
“Lady Margaret is waiting for me, yes,” Charles shot back dryly. “And what of you? Is there someone special waiting for you?”
“You know me, Charles. New lass in every port. Who wants to be tied down until it is absolutely necessary?”
“And what would make it absolutely necessary?” Charles raised a brow, turning to regard the other ships coming into port. Men yelled over the screech of seagulls as they unloaded cargo from every destination in the world. Charles nodded his head towards the ship to their left. “I’ll have a ship like that soon.”
“Yes, ever the ambitious young businessman. You know that the wages you’ve earned from the Navy won’t be near enough to purchase yourself a ship? You’ll need backing by some rich old magnate.” Phillip straightened, studying him. “Or is that why you’ve fostered this relationship with Lady Margaret for so long? Is her father keen to invest?”
Charles did not like his tone but knew that his friend’s coarse nature was part of his charm. Phillip never minced words, no matter how many times Charles wished he would. “That is not the reason I have asked Lady Margaret to be my wife. But if her father wishes to invest, I will not stop him.”
Charles picked up his own snap sack as the ship pulled into the peer. They had much work to do before they would be allowed to disembark. And then he must get his discharge papers from his captain. But he was eager to do his part as quickly as possible.
“You really think that Lord Hartwell will agree to let you marry his daughter? Even though you are a distinguished Navy man, you have not the fortune to convince him.” Phillip followed him, adding to Charles’ annoyance.
“Why do you think I have plans to start my own shipping company. A man’s fortune can be made if he only has the wherewithal to go after it.” Charles spat. Phillip chuckled, slapping him good-naturedly on the back.
“Alright, old fellow. Don’t be cross with me. I am glad for you if that is what you really want, and I’ll help in any way I can.”
Some of Charles’ anger dissipated. “I know you are only trying to protect me, in some annoying way. But do not worry, I’m able to take care of myself. And Lady Margaret. I only have to show her father that I am able, now.”
Charles walked down London’s bustling streets later that evening, his honourable discharge papers stowed safely in his jacket’s inner pocket. He could not help walking with his chest puffed out, a proud smile on his face. He had his wages from the Navy, which he would use to save for a small ship of his own. If he worked hard, he might have enough in two or three years—less if he could find an investor, as Phillip had said.
He turned onto the lane where Lord and Lady Hartwell resided when they came to London. He had been there several times with his mother, working in the gardens and stables whenever the family came for the London Season. Now, he had begun to make a name for himself. He could only hope that it would be enough to convince Lord Hartwell of his merits.
Charles walked through the side gate and came to the servant’s entrance. He smoothed down his blue navy coat, the gold buttons polished to a bright shine. He opened the door, making his way down the long, claustrophobic hall towards the kitchens. He ducked as he came into the steamy kitchen, and all activity came to a stand-still as he appeared. His mother looked up and let out a squeal of delight when she saw him.
“Oh, my boy! My handsome boy, how much we’ve missed you!” She came around the long table in the centre of the room where much of the prep work was done for the meals. The kitchen maids all nodded to him with a smile of greeting. He leaned down to hug his mother, beaming at her.
“It is good to be home, Mama. You look just as beautiful as ever.”
His mother gave him a playful swat on the arm. “Cheeky.” She sighed, smiling from ear to ear. “Let me look at you.” She took his hand and led him into the servants’ dining hall so they might have a few moments of privacy. “It’s been so long. Five years.” She reached up, brushing her fingers gently over his cheek and down his jawline. “Lady Margaret will be mighty glad to see you.”
Charles drew her close to the table and pulled out a chair for her. He sank into one, positioning it so they faced each other. “How is Lady Margaret? I wrote to her as soon as we started for home.”
“She received it a few days ago. She seems happy, from what Taylor says.”
Charles breathed a sigh of relief. “And there have been no other gentlemen hanging around?” He bit his lip, having worried over this for some time. Ever since she had come out the year before, he had lost many nights’ worth of sleep, hoping and praying that she would continue to wait for him.
“She remains true, Charles. But her father is making it difficult for her. And her mother has been pushing every eligible gentleman at her; you can be sure. It’s a strong woman who can keep her wits about her when she’s been paid as much attention as she has.”
His mother’s tone did nothing to set his mind at ease. “I see. Well, I suppose I’ve returned just in time.”
He started to rise when his mother took his hand. She gripped it tightly, and he knew this meant he had better listen. “Charles, I know you love the girl, but please be careful. It rarely works out for someone in our position to marry above their station. And Lady Margaret is so far above you. I’m not saying in character or mind, but things have a certain way of being done. I just don’t want to see you get your heart broken if Lord Hartwell does not give you two his blessing—”
Charles hung his head. “I know, Mama. I shall be careful. I know that it may take some time, but I believe Lord Hartwell will give us his blessing. He always was kind to me.”
He stood, eager to go in search of Margaret, while his mother rose, still wearing a worried expression. “I hope for your sake that you are right, boy.” She sighed heavily. “Now, go along with you. I can see you’d rather be with Lady Margaret than your old mama.” She swatted his arm again as he bent to kiss her cheek. “Go on, now.”
Charles laughed and headed back down the hall and out the servants’ entrance. The garden was awash in an amber glow as the sun began its downward descent. He passed several under gardeners and began lighting lanterns all over the garden. Soon the paths would be alight with the soft glow of candlelight, making the atmosphere perfect for his and Margaret’s reunion.
He headed to the side of the house, picking up a few small pebbles. He threw them at Margaret’s window until her face appeared behind the glass. Her smile was incandescent, and she quickly disappeared to come to him.
He smoothed down his naval jacket once more and raked a hand through his hair. His heart quickened with anticipation. He had dreamed of this moment for so long, and the minutes seemed to pass slowly as he waited for her to appear at the patio door.
Lady Margaret was a vision, dressed in a white silk gown. Her golden hair was pulled back with silver combs, her face framed by wisps of blonde curls. Her blue eyes sparkled, and she met him at the railing. He looked up into her lovely face, his heart nearly stopping at her beauty. “My Lady,” he breathed, taking in how much she had changed. She had been a girl when he left, and now she was a woman—elegant and refined.
She came around the railing, and he offered her a hand as she came down the stairs. “Charles,” she said, his name sounding sweet on her tongue. He folded her hand into the crook of his arm and quickly drew her away from the house. They had to be careful that her parents did not see.
“Margaret.” He touched her cheek tenderly, running his fingers down her jawline. How he longed to kiss her now. But he mustn’t get ahead of himself. First, he must ask for her hand properly and wait until they were formally engaged. “I’ve missed you so.”
She clung to his arm, walking briskly away from prying eyes that might catch them alone together in the garden. “I have missed you, too. I do not have long, I am afraid. We are going out to dinner, but I could not wait to see you.”
“Of course. I will not keep you long.” He pulled out a leather bag filled to the brim with coin. “All my earnings from the past five years. There is enough for me to purchase a modest house in the country—perhaps by the seaside. We can marry by the end of the summer if your father is agreeable. And then I shall embark on my shipping venture, just like we always talked about.” He took a deep breath. “I’d like to speak with your father as soon as possible.”
Margaret hung her head, sadness leaching into her gaze. “Let me speak with him first. I fear—” she halted, hearing her mother call from the terrace. She glanced over her shoulder, looking towards the house with trepidation.
“Fear what, Peg?”
She smiled. “Never mind. We can talk about it later. Right now, I have to go.” She started to turn but then changed her mind. She stood up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. His face instantly flooded with warmth, and he watched her go with a combination of pride and longing swelling in his chest. She was so lovely it made his heart hurt. But a niggling doubt started to whittle away at his confidence. What was she so afraid of, and why was she hiding it from him?
“Sailing towards a Lady’s Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
A dashing debutante like Lady Margaret Hartwell, could have anyone and anything, if only her heart wasn’t devoted to Charles, the son of her family’s cook. As childhood friends and sweethearts, they both vowed to marry, but society’s necessities and Charles’ enrollment to the Navy later tore them apart. Now that Margaret’s parents demand her union with a notorious gentleman of the Ton, Charles’ unexpected return will bring an awakening storm in both her heart and already turbulent life.
Will Margaret go against her father’s will for a chance at true love?
Charles Grant returns to England, to finally pursue his beloved Margaret. Yet, when he realises that he might have lost her forever and tries to ask for her father’s blessing, he is quickly dispelled from the house. As he is forced to sail away once more to secure his fortune and a future with Margaret, her evil fiancé will prove to be his worst enemy…
If only Charles’ return to Margaret wasn’t caught between the devil and the deep blue sea…
With pressures closing in on every side, Margaret decides to take things in her own hands and drastically search for Charles. However, while Charles also has a plan of his own, he didn’t expect that Margaret’s manipulative fiance would not let her go without a fight. If only their sweet romance wasn’t sabotaged by the dark threats of high society… In the end, will these soulmates find their bright path to happiness or will their tender bond break once and for all?
“Sailing towards a Lady’s Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.