Grantham Estate, 1803
Charlotte looked up when she heard someone shouting her name. Mrs Madeley was at the blackboard, her back turned as she wrote something. Another long sum that Charlotte had to figure out. She didn’t want to do that, not again. Sums were horrible, and they made Charlotte’s head hurt.
Her two brothers and sister didn’t seem to have a problem with them, though. They all had their heads bent, working hard on what was being given to them. Charlotte felt a pang of annoyance towards them. Why were they so good at their studies and she struggled? When it came to creative things or a task that involved going outside to explore the wildlife, it wasn’t a problem. But actually sitting down and having to write out mathematical problems or spellings, and Charlotte just couldn’t focus.
Especially when she knew they were simply doing this to keep her company. Simon and Daniel were fourteen, and they had been going to Eton for the last six years. They were both brilliant with their studies, very bright and hardworking boys. And Jennifer was seventeen, currently at finishing school. She was very sharp-minded and all of this came easily to her.
None of them needed to be here, but they were doing it, so Charlotte could actually sit still and not get distracted. Their parents wanted Charlotte to learn, and in the proper way. There was talk about sending her to a brand new girls’ school near Bath, but Charlotte didn’t want to go. The thought of leaving her home was terrifying.
If only this wasn’t so difficult. And it was a beautiful day. Charlotte wanted to go outside and explore again. There were some baby rabbits that were coming out with the spring weather, and Charlotte wanted to go and see them. They were adorable. But that wasn’t going to happen, not this morning.
She had to do her lessons before she could be let go.
Charlotte heard her name being called again, and she glanced around. It was silent in the schoolroom except for the scratching of pens on papers. Her siblings were concentrating, and Mrs Madeley didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything else.
Being as quiet as she could, Charlotte slipped out of her chair and tiptoed over to the window. She looked out, and saw the boy on the grass below, his sun-kissed face turned up towards her. He grinned and started beckoning her to him.
“Come on! Let’s go!”
Alex. Charlotte smiled seeing him. The mere thought of her friend was enough to lift her spirits. But she couldn’t come with him. Not just yet. She shook her head, gesturing towards the blackboard and hoping that Alex would understand.
“Really?” Alex shook his head. “You’re going to let that stop you? Come on out and play!”
Charlotte was about to signal a response when the sharp tone of her governess made her jump.
“Charlotte! What do you think you’re doing?”
Her heart racing, Charlotte saw that Mrs Madeley was watching her with a stern look. Her brothers were also watching her with bemusement. Jennifer was still focusing on whatever she was doing. Swallowing, Charlotte fumbled with the window latch.
“I was just opening the window,” she said quickly, pushing the window out. “It was getting warm, and I wanted some air.”
“I see.” Mrs Madeley’s tone said she didn’t believe her. “And I suppose you decided to gesture to the sun god as well, did you?”
Daniel sniggered. Charlotte hated being caught. She didn’t like getting into trouble, but it was hard to keep out of it when she didn’t behave as she was supposed to. Her father said that she needed to remember her manners as she got older, and that behaving like a wild child was not going to get her anywhere.
Even if it was more exciting. Nobody in society liked it, though.
“If you want to go outside and frolic around in the sun, I suggest you finish your work,” Mrs Madeley said stiffly. “The sooner you do that, the sooner you can go.”
“Yes, Mrs Madeley.”
Her cheeks burning, Charlotte went back to her desk and slumped into her chair. She was never going to get these done, at this rate. The sums were merging together before her eyes, and they were not making any sense. She had begged her father not to make her do so much mathematics, but Lord Hanbury had told her that she had no choice. She had to do it.
It made her want to cry.
She would not, though. Not in front of her brothers. They liked to tease her about her lack of ability when it came to her schooling. Somehow, they thought because they were educated at a good school and they were good at it meant that they were better than her in everything. Charlotte was aware that neither of them liked doing this, having to sit in the schoolroom with easy lessons, while she was getting on.
They resented her. She was not stupid enough to know that.
Despite trying not to, a tear escaped and landed on the paper. She couldn’t do it. This was too much, and her head was hurting. All Charlotte wanted to do was go and play with her friend.
Jennifer had gotten up from her desk and was standing by Charlotte’s desk. Charlotte hadn’t noticed that she had moved. Licking her lips, she managed a watery smile at her older sister.
“Forgive me,” she whispered.
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Jennifer said gently. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Speak for yourself,” Simon muttered.
Jennifer shot him a sharp look before leaning over and kissing Charlotte’s head.
“Do you need some help?” she asked. “You only have to ask if you need it.”
“Mrs Madeley doesn’t like me asking for help,” Charlotte said bitterly. “I ask for it too much, and she thinks that I’m trying to get her to do it instead of me. But I really can’t do it.”
Her sister was more sympathetic towards her. Jennifer was a kind-hearted girl. Charlotte missed her like mad when she was away. Having her sit in while she was getting her lessons done was embarrassing.
Jennifer went and got her chair, bringing it over to place it next to Charlotte’s desk. Mrs Madeley looked up and frowned.
“What are you doing, Lady Jennifer?”
“I’m just helping my sister,” Jennifer replied calmly, settling down on her chair. “She’s struggling.”
“She doesn’t need help. She needs to do it on her own.”
Charlotte winced at the tone from the governess, but Jennifer didn’t even blink. She gave the woman a bland smile.
“I’m sure everyone would be relieved that Charlotte completed her lessons sooner, right? The sooner she gets these sums done, the sooner we can leave and do what we want, yes? I’m just giving her a bit of a push.”
Mrs Madeley’s eyes narrowed. Charlotte recalled how she hated people talking back to her. Especially children. But Jennifer had been a good student, and she never spoke up to speak back with disrespect. She was the sweet, gentle girl who did what she was told. Charlotte wished she could be like her sister.
Finally, the governess let out a heavy sigh.
“Very well. Help your sister with her sums. But I’m not doing this every day. She needs to do it herself.”
“We’re finished now, Mrs Madeley,” Simon piped up, holding up his sheets of paper with neat scrawls all over them. “Can we leave now?”
“You and Daniel can leave, Master Simon. Your sisters will follow on shortly.” Mrs Madeley shot Charlotte a sharp look. “I’ll be having a word with Lord Hanbury. Don’t leave here because I’m not present, Lady Charlotte.”
Charlotte couldn’t answer. She simply nodded. Then Mrs Madeley swept out of the room. Daniel and Simon put their work onto her desk and also left, Daniel sniggering at Charlotte while Simon purposefully ignored her.
“Don’t pay them any attention,” Jennifer said, giving Charlotte a gentle nudge. “They’re just boys. They don’t think about anyone else except themselves.”
“Not all boys are like that,” Charlotte protested.
“You’re talking about Alex Grantham, aren’t you?”
“He’s really nice. He would never treat me badly.”
“Well, I’m glad you think so. And he is a nice, respectable boy.” Jennifer stood up and went back to her desk. “He certainly needs to mind his manners when his father is a duke.”
Charlotte didn’t know what to say to that. Alex had never minded his manners when it was just the two of them. They had been like that since they were very small. Alex was relaxed and honest around Charlotte, as she was with him. He probably knew her better than Jennifer did.
Ten years of friendship, since Charlotte was a small baby, just starting to roll over and crawl around, and it was still going strong. Daniel and Simon thought it was silly and that Alex must have a fancy for her, but Charlotte wasn’t interested in what they thought. They were never very nice to her, so why should she listen to them?
“I take it he’s the reason you were looking out of the window,” Jennifer said.
It wasn’t a question. Charlotte bit her lip and nodded. Giving her a knowing smile, Jennifer joined her at the desk again and sat down.
“At least you’ve got someone to play with. My closest friend was quite far away, so I had to travel by carriage if I wanted to see her. You have your friend on the next estate.”
“I’m glad he’s so close.”
“I’m sure. Although I’m surprised that Alex isn’t friends with Daniel and Simon. He does go to Eton as well.”
“Alex says that they’re not very nice to anyone. They behave as if they’re better than everyone else. He keeps his distance when they’re at Eton.”
“I supposed I shouldn’t have expected anything less from our darling brothers.”
“Why are they so mean to everyone? I don’t understand it. They’re just horrible.”
“They’re arrogant little brats who think they’re better than everyone else because they’re smart. That’s all it is.” Jennifer shook her head as she glanced towards the closed door. “They’ll come back to reality with a hard thud, I’m sure of it. Anyway, shall we get on with these sums? I’ll show you what you need to do. And I promise you, it’s not that difficult.”
Charlotte didn’t know if she believed that. But she wasn’t about to argue. She just wanted to finish.
“You’re still out here, are you?”
Alex looked around. Simon was coming out of the house, sauntering across the terrace with that arrogant stride that Alex had seen on him whenever they were at Eton. The sight of the older boy wasn’t intimidating; Alex could handle the entitled twins.
He just wished that he could get them to stop being as they were. Charlotte was certainly frustrated with it.
“I’m just here to play with my friend.” Alex folded his arms. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Why don’t you play with children your own age? Or do you not have any friends?”
“I have plenty of friends.”
“I doubt that. You always were a bit of a loner at school.”
“That’s only because you see what you want to see,” Alex shot back. “I have plenty of friends, and Charlotte is one of them.”
“Why would you be friends with a stupid girl like my sister?”
Alex’s temper flared hotly. He didn’t like hearing anyone speak ill of Charlotte, even when it was coming from her older brothers.
“She’s not stupid!”
“You didn’t see her in the schoolroom. She was practically in tears over her work.” Simon shrugged. “I don’t know what else you would call that, except stupid.”
Alex had no idea why Simon and his twin brother were so horrible to everyone, especially Charlotte. There was no need to behave in such a manner, but they seemed to take some glee out of it. Alex kept his distance at Eton, keeping with his group of friends while Simon and Daniel walked around as if they owned the place. Nobody was keen on their attitude, but they were top of the class, so they were tolerated.
If they didn’t have such intelligent minds, they would have been thrown out long ago. Alex was sure about that.
“Anyway, I’m sure she’ll be out eventually,” Simon said as he turned away. “If you want to wait out the day for that dumb girl, go ahead. I’m not going to stop you.”
“You’re horrible, Simon Sinclair.”
Simon ignored him, walking along the terrace. Daniel had appeared from somewhere, and they met at the far end of the terrace. Both boys looked back at Alex before Daniel visibly rolled his eyes and they disappeared around the side of the house. Alex guessed they were going to join a few friends in the small village at the foot of the hill. What they were going to get up to, he had no idea, but they were probably going to cause some sort of trouble of their own.
They were good at that, and good at getting away with it. Alex wondered how they managed that.
Alex jumped at the sudden shout and turned to see Charlotte hurrying out of the door. She beamed as she slowed to a stop, her dark hair already starting to come out of the braid that her maid had put on her that morning. Her hair was so curly that it never behaved itself, even when it was washed and brushed to within an inch of its life. Her smile was bright and eager, her eyes showing her relief.
Alex grinned at her.
“You ready to go?”
“Absolutely!” Charlotte declared.
Jennifer was coming out of the house. Charlotte’s older sister looked radiant, and Alex couldn’t help but stare at the older girl. She was so graceful and stunning to look at that it was hard not to. Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, Jennifer gave Alex a smile.
“Just make sure you don’t go off the estate, alright? Mother and Father are taking us to watch a play this afternoon in the amphitheater, so Charlotte needs to be back for lunch.”
“What time is it now?” Alex asked, trying not to look like he was watching Jennifer with his mouth open.
“It’s ten-thirty. You need to come back by twelve-thirty.”
“We can do that,” Charlotte declared.
Jennifer raised her eyebrows.
“And just how are you going to know the time when there are no clocks?”
“We’ll figure it out.” Charlotte grabbed Alex’s hand. “Come on, Alex! Let’s go!”
Alex allowed his friend to tug him away and onto the lawn. They ran across the grass to the maze that Charlotte’s father had erected shortly after he and Charlotte’s mother were married. As they reached the entrance, Alex looked back to see Jennifer still standing on the terrace watching them. There was a smile tugging at her mouth as she looked across the garden.
Charlotte giggled and tugged on Alex’s arm.
“Stop staring at Jennifer!”
“Your tongue is practically hanging out.”
Alex felt his face getting warm, and it was nothing to do with the sun.
“It is not!”
“It is! You and almost every other boy in the area. You all look at Jennifer the same way.” Charlotte shook her head, still smirking. “As if she would look at any of you like that.”
Alex felt slightly affronted. It wasn’t as if he would be wooing Jennifer. Certainly not at his age. But how could he not stare whenever she was around?
“Your sister is really nice,” he protested.
“And really pretty.” Charlotte poked him in the side. “You can’t deny that.”
“Race you to the middle!” Charlotte gave him a little shove and then took off into the maze. “I bet you can’t catch me!”
Alex groaned and chased after her. They had been in the maze so many times that they didn’t need to guess where they were going. The route to the middle was easy. What wasn’t easy was trying to keep up with Charlotte. Despite wearing skirts, she was more sure-footed than Alex and very light on her feet. She had an uncanny ability to run fast. Alex could never keep up with her, darting away and disappearing from sight.
He was worn out when he finally got to the middle to find Charlotte sitting on the ground by the ornate fish pond. The water fountain in the middle trickled the water into the pond, making the lily pads bounce when they were splashed. Alex even saw a frog on one of the pads, shifting so it didn’t get hit.
Charlotte grinned at him, her cheeks flushed and her eyes bright from her exertion.
“I win!” she declared.
“You cheated! You pushed me away!”
“I have to win somehow.” Charlotte giggled at him. “As a girl, I have some disadvantages.”
Alex couldn’t help but smile at him.
“You’ve never been at a disadvantage.”
“That’s not what my brothers say.” Charlotte’s mirth faded a little. “Simon and Daniel are just…they like to tell me that because I’m a girl that I’m not as important except when it comes to carrying on a family line.”
“They really say that to you?”
“Pretty much. The one time Father overheard them, he smacked both of them around the head, so they’re careful not to say it around our parents.”
Alex knew that Simon and Daniel were mean boys, but this was horrible. How could they reduce Charlotte to something as demeaning as that? She was a lot more than just being the reason a family line carried on.
He settled down beside her, seeing her head bow as she stared into the water. The fish were swimming around, not caring that they were being observed. One came up to the surface and then went back down again when water from the fountain splashed onto its head.
“Do you tell the earl and countess about this when it happens?” Alex asked. “Because that’s just horrible.”
“I thought about it, but when it’s just us, they can say whatever they want, and then I’ll get tormented even more.”
“What about Jennifer?”
“They wouldn’t dare. Jennifer won’t let them speak a bad word about women. You don’t want to see her when she’s lost her temper. It’s not pretty.”
Alex couldn’t see Jennifer losing her temper. She was always a level-headed, mild-mannered girl. If Simon and Daniel were making her get angry, they were really pushing it.
“Then maybe you should tell Jennifer. She could sort them out.”
“I don’t want to hide behind her all the time. I want to take care of myself.”
“Against your brothers? One is bad enough, but two of them?”
“I’ve grown up with them all my life. I’ll get used to it.” She cast him a sidelong glance. “I’m sure I’ll be able to figure out how to deal with them.”
Alex didn’t like the sound of that. He didn’t want Charlotte to be left alone handling the two bullies she knew as her brothers. He wanted to help, but he didn’t think it would be appreciated.
Nevertheless, he wanted to try.
“If you need me to do anything, anything at all, just let me know.” He tried to sit up straighter. “I’ll do whatever you want if you tell me to.”
Charlotte gave him a smile that softened her face.
“Thank you, Alex.” She leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder. “You’re a really good friend. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“I’m sure you would be fine if I weren’t here.”
“I don’t think I would. You’re always there for me, always making me feel better.”
Alex felt a little awkward about this. He cleared his throat, not sure if he should shift Charlotte’s head off him or not.
“That’s what friends are for, isn’t it? We look out for each other.”
“And we’re always going to be friends, aren’t we?” Charlotte looked up at him, her expression hopeful. “We’ll always be there for each other.”
Alex couldn’t deny her something like that. He nodded.
“We’ll always be there for each other.”
Even as he said it and looked at the frog jumping from one lily pad to another, Alex did wonder if he had just made a promise that he wouldn’t be able to keep.
“What?” Charlotte stared at her father, wondering if she had heard him correctly. “You want me to…”
Lord Hanbury sighed and sat forward in his chair, leaning on his desk. He looked like he was in an important meeting with a fellow peer rather than with his own daughter.
“I want you to find yourself a husband by the end of the Season, Charlotte. And it’s not a suggestion, it’s an order.”
Charlotte snorted. She put her hands on her hips.
“I am not one of the household staff, Father. You can’t order me around.”
“But I can tell you what to do. Until you get married, you’re under my charge.”
“I’m all too aware of that,” Charlotte snapped. “But you can’t force me to find a man to marry.”
Hanbury sighed. He looked tired, as if he wanted this conversation to be over. Charlotte wanted it to be over, but she wanted to get her point across. The news he had just dropped on her couldn’t have been more shocking for her. Yes, she was three-and-twenty years and still unmarried, but she didn’t see it as a problem. She was still young enough to fall in love and marry if she so chose.
Until now, her parents had been allowing her to make her own choices about it all. But in recent weeks, things had changed. Her parents had been nudging her towards finding a potential suitor, and it had become less subtle. Charlotte didn’t want to do it their way; she wanted to do it in her own time. Love wasn’t something she could force.
And she certainly didn’t want to be forced into a marriage she didn’t want. Her father knew that, so why would he change it now?
“I think you’ll find that I can, now that you’re getting older,” Hanbury said, rubbing his hands over his face. “You’re getting to the point where you won’t find a suitable marriage for yourself…”
“I’m not!” Charlotte protested.
“And it’s going to reflect badly on the rest of the family if you’re still unmarried. Our reputation gets questioned as well.”
“I don’t see how that will be the case. It’s not your fault if I’m not with a husband by now.” She pointed at the closed door. “Also, what about Simon? He’s still unmarried, but you’re not pushing him to find a wife, as far as I know. Why does he get to have more freedom about his partner and I don’t?”
“It’s different, Charlotte.”
“How so? Because he’s a man? Because I’m a woman, I need to be told what to do all the time, while it’s not the case with a gentleman?” Charlotte couldn’t keep the sneer out of her voice. “Because he doesn’t lose value as he gets older?”
Hanbury’s jaw tightened. Charlotte knew she had hit the mark, and her father was trying not to squirm. He fixed his daughter with a cool stare.
“Simon has his own reasons. He is looking for a wife, as he told me himself.”
Charlotte barked out a laugh.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. He’s not a very nice person at all. Even if he’s the son and heir to an earldom, nobody wants to be around someone who treats women less than they deserve.”
“That’s not a way to speak about your brother, Charlotte.”
“Why not? He’s been tormenting me since we were children. Daniel left for Canada once he realized he couldn’t find himself a wife here with his attitude.” Charlotte wished Simon had gone with him, and then things would be better for her. “If they’re going to be disrespectful towards women and possess that arrogant attitude they’ve carried around since they discovered they were intelligent, then they should expect to be unmarried and have nobody willing to put up with that for the rest of their lives.”
Hanbury smacked his hand onto the table, making Charlotte jump.
“That’s enough!” he snapped. “You will not talk about either of your brothers in such a manner.”
“If you don’t want me to, either treat us the same and stand over him while he’s looking for a wife, or leave me alone! It’s not fair that you treat us differently just because of our gender!”
“It’s for the family…”
“It’s for you to save face with the ton!” Charlotte shouted. “Nothing more! And I don’t want to be a part of it!”
Hanbury’s eyes narrowed. Charlotte knew she was pushing it and upsetting her father, but she didn’t care. Her parents knew how she felt about being forced into something she didn’t want to do, but they kept forgetting about it.
“You will do as you’re told, Charlotte,” Hanbury said quietly, his tone steely. “It’s not a request.”
“Are you going to say the same to Simon? Because if not, I’m not going to be listening.” Charlotte headed towards the door. “It’s not fair that he gets to behave differently because he’s a gentleman. If he’s not going to be forced, then I certainly won’t be.”
“Charlotte, get back here! We’re not done!”
Charlotte ignored him, storming out into the hall and slamming the door. She knew she was going to make her father angry for defying him and she would get a scolding for her actions later, but she didn’t care. It was either leave and find a place to calm down or stay with Hanbury and lose her temper.
Her heart was racing as she closed her eyes, taking a moment to try and calm herself. How dare he talk about finding herself a husband? Hanbury had said that he wouldn’t push her into anything. He was aware that Charlotte wanted a love and marriage like Jennifer’s. Her sister was married to a good man, and they clearly adored each other. Charlotte had hoped she would find something for herself eventually. Love was not to be rushed.
And now Hanbury was taking that away from her. There were only a matter of weeks before the end of the Season and they would be back at their estate in the country. How was she supposed to find someone that she wanted to marry in such a short space of time? That couldn’t be possible.
Besides, she didn’t really want to marry anyone in the ton. There weren’t any gentlemen who caught her attention and made her want her to get married and settled down. Nobody made her heart race and her stomach flutter. No one made her want to stay in their company longer.
Well, there had been one person, but Charlotte had been too scared to push it beyond what they already had. And she hadn’t seen him in a long time. There was a good chance that he was already married and had children by now. She had missed her opportunity to tell him the truth.
Maybe it was for the best. It could have ruined things between them.
“I see Father’s been talking to you about doing your duty, then.”
Sighing, Charlotte opened her eyes and fixed on Simon, her older brother slinking towards her. He sneered at her, the only expression he seemed to have whenever he was around her.
“Am I that obvious?”
“It’s written all over your face. Plus, I did hear you shouting at Father.” Simon sniggered. “I thought you would argue against this, but not as much as what I heard. You’ve still got some fire, little sister.”
Charlotte didn’t know if that was a compliment or not. But coming from Simon, it probably wasn’t. He was not known for paying compliments to anyone except Daniel. The twins didn’t think they deserved to give anyone except each other respect. While their loyalty to each other was admirable, it was also frustrating.
“Someone has to point out the discrepancies in his logic. And I’m not about to be forced into something.”
“Even though you’ll be seen as an old maid if you don’t?”
Charlotte glowered at him.
“If I’m an old maid at my age, does that make you an old man?”
“Nonsense.” He ran a hand through his thick dark hair, which now brushed at his collar. “I’m still showing my good looks. Which is more than some people.”
“You’re so horrible, Simon.”
“With my brains, I’m allowed.”
Charlotte had been through this argument before. She could understand that Simon and Daniel were incredibly smart. They had graduated from Eton at the top of their class and had even gone on to university. But they hadn’t done anything with it since, and the way they treated everyone was just horrible. Charlotte couldn’t understand why the twins would behave as they did, and it was at a detriment to them. Both were still unmarried at their age, and the young unmarried ladies in the ton gave them a wide berth.
“I wish you had left for Canada along with Daniel,” she said. “Then you could go and harass people in another country and leave us alone.”
“Daniel is scouting the area for us. Once he thinks that we’ve got a chance over there, I’ll go and join him.”
“It’s been a year now. You think he’s going to tell you to join him when things are ready? Or that you’ll find a woman who will be willing to put up with the way you treat others?”
Simon’s eyes narrowed.
“At least we’re making steps for our future. Unlike someone in this family.”
Charlotte knew that was a comment aimed at her. But she wouldn’t rise to it; Simon kept thinking that he was still a child, making cruel remarks towards her because he liked to upset her. It had been worse when it was both him and Daniel doing it; they just did everything together. Charlotte had been relieved when Daniel said that he was going to Canada to start out on his own. Their parents had been dubious about it, but Daniel was adamant. He thought it would be perfect for him, and he promised Simon that he could join them once things had settled down and it was all ready.
Charlotte wished they had left together. The fact that they barely heard from Daniel since he left was interesting, but she wasn’t about to complain.
“I think I’m going to head out,” she said, pushing off the wall and walking towards the main foyer. “I’m going to be meeting Betty shortly.”
“Waiting around for him to come back isn’t going to do you any good, you know.”
Charlotte froze. She heard Simon laugh, a sound that made her shiver.
“You think waiting until Grantham returns is going to have him falling into your arms will be the way out of this mess you created yourself? I doubt Grantham will ever look at you like that; you’re not worth a duke’s time, Charlotte. Better to look for someone below you. That’s what is best for you.”
Charlotte couldn’t stop herself from clenching her fists. He was not meant to bring up Alex. That had nothing to do with him. And yet Simon knew just what to say to make her lose her temper.
But she wouldn’t do it. Not this time. Taking a deep breath, Charlotte walked away. She would not give her brother the satisfaction. However, even as she did, Charlotte felt the emptiness in her chest seep through her body. She missed Alex, and she wished she could see him again. The day he left had been the hardest she had ever experienced.
And it just kept breaking her heart more, knowing that there was a chance she might never see him again.
Much as Charlotte hated to admit it, Simon was right. Waiting for Alex to come back to England was not going to help anyone, least of all herself.
Alex jumped off the boat and immediately went down onto his knees. He had forgotten about how different it was walking on land compared to walking around on a boat riding the waves. It had been five years since he last went on a long sea journey, but as he sprawled on the dock, Alex was reminded about how he had ended up flat on his face again.
There were chuckles behind him as someone else alighted from the boat, catching himself before his legs gave way as well. He knelt beside Alex.
“Are you alright, your grace?”
“I’ll live,” Alex muttered. “It’s not like I’ve got a reputation to maintain, after all.”
“At least you haven’t lost your sense of humor on the way over. Do you want some help up?”
Alex nodded, and his valet helped him to his feet. It took a moment more for him to get his legs sturdy enough to stand on his own. His stomach wasn’t lurching anymore, but the smell of the London docks was pushing it. He would never get used to that stench.
But it did mean that he was home. Finally, he was back in England.
Turning towards the boat, Alex saw the captain climb off and onto the wooden dock, his gait showing that he had no problem with his sea legs. It did make him feel a little jealous that he couldn’t cope with the same, but he wasn’t about to complain. This man had done him a great favor, and Alex was in no position to grumble.
He stuck out a hand.
“Thank you so much for bringing us here, Captain Steinbeck.”
“It was no problem at all.” Captain Steinbeck’s massive hand practically covered the entirety of Alex’s, giving him a firm handshake that made Alex’s shoulder throb. “It was an honor to have you aboard, your grace. I must say, it’s not every day that I have a member of the nobility helping out on my ship.”
“I’m not one to be sitting around idly and doing nothing.” Alex shrugged. “I like to help when I can.”
“Well, you certainly helped. You’re definitely faster at learning than some of my newer recruits.” Captain Steinbeck winked. “If you ever want to renounce your title, you have a job here. You and your manservant.”
“I’ll remember that, Captain. How much do I owe you for bringing us home?”
“You’ve already paid me.”
“Just an occasional drink in a tavern whenever I’m in London. It would be an interesting story to brag about, having a duke pay for my drink.”
Alex couldn’t argue with that. He managed to pull his hand away before his fingers got crushed.
“Of course. Just let me know when you’re leaving for Canada again.”
“Will do.” Captain Steinbeck nodded at Vaughn before turning away. “Safe journeys home, you two.”
And with that, he vaulted back onto the ship. They had some cargo to unload before they spent a few days relaxing and prowling around the docks. Alex was sure they would be drinking and being merry tonight after spending several weeks on the ocean. He would definitely be having a few drinks and eating a hearty meal that didn’t have lots of little beetles crawling around inside the biscuits or worrying about the meat and if it had gone off.
He was grateful for the journey, and he had found something fascinating about working on the ship itself. But he wouldn’t miss the food.
“Shall we, your grace?” Vaughn asked, still at his side. “Your luggage is being unloaded right now.”
“Oh. Right.” Alex turned to his valet. “I think I’m still back on the ship. Why don’t you go and see if you can find a carriage for us to use?”
“I don’t think I need to do that, your grace.” Vaughn pointed towards the end of the dock. “I can see someone is here for you.”
Alex was confused. Who could be here to meet him? There was only one person who knew when he would be returning…
Then he saw the stunning young woman walking through the throng of people, sailors who openly watched her move by, merchants who paused in their business deals to look, and ladies gutting fish who raised their eyebrows at her attire. The lady didn’t seem to notice her focus on Alex.
It took a moment for Alex to realize who he was looking at. Carole had been fourteen and a thin, wiry girl with wild red hair who looked like she was more at home climbing trees. Now she was tall and willowy, graceful in her walk, with her flame-red hair pinned back into a chignon at the base of her neck.
She was all grown up now. It was hard to believe that the woman walking towards them was Alex’s little sister.
His heart swelling at the sight of her, Alex hurried towards her, not caring that people were staring as he swept Carole into his arms into a fierce embrace, spinning them around. Carole gripped onto him just as tightly, and Alex could feel her smile against his shoulder.
“Now that is a greeting,” she said, her voice laced with amusement and affection.
“It certainly is,” Alex put her down, stepping back a little to look at her. “My God, Carole, I hardly recognized you. You’re…different.”
Carole laughed and swatted his shoulder.
“You don’t need to be like that, Alex. I’m nineteen now. Of course, I’m going to be different.”
“Are you sure you should be here, though? On your own?” Alex looked around. “This isn’t exactly the best place for a genteel woman…”
“Since when have I been a genteel woman?” Carole pointed back along the dock. “Anyway, I’m perfectly safe. Archer is with me.”
Archer. One of his father’s servants. Correction: one of his servants. Even after five years, Alex was still not used to thinking of the dukedom as his own. He could manage with being addressed formally, but whenever it came to his home, his land and several estates and business, Alex naturally thought of them as his father’s.
Archer had been all of sixteen when Alex left, one of the junior footmen who ran around after everyone, doing the most menial and boring of jobs. Now Alex had to stare as the servant walked towards them, towering over even Alex with his huge height, his massive shoulders and his bulky frame. His hair, which had been slightly long and wavy and always tied back from his face, was cut short to reveal a square, strong-looking face.
If Carole had grown up, Archer had done that and something more. Alex found himself taking a step back as the footman approached and then bowed.
“Your grace.” His voice was low and gruff, not like what Alex recalled at all. “Welcome back to England.”
“Thank you, Archer.” Alex looked at Vaughn, who was staring at Archer in equal surprise. “Help Vaughn bring my luggage to the carriage. I’ll escort my sister.”
“Yes, your grace.”
Archer and Vaughn fell into step, causing Alex to fight back a laugh. Vaughn was over six feet tall himself, but Archer was somehow even taller. He didn’t think he would ever see that.
“Has everything changed since I’ve been away?” he asked his sister. “I’m not going to come home and find out the servants are a foot taller than the last time I saw them?”
“Goodness, no! Archer just suddenly grew shortly after you left.”
“You know, everyone physically grows as we grow up. Archer just hit it a little later than everyone else.” Carole slipped an arm through Alex’s. “He’s also good at keeping trouble away.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Alex murmured. He grinned at her. “Well, shall we go and wait in the carriage? I’ve been mostly on my feet the whole journey here, and I want to sit down for a while.”
And, hopefully, by the time they returned to the London townhouse in Mayfair, his legs wouldn’t be as wobbly as they were now.
“The Duke’s Unspoken Vow” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Charlotte Sinclair, poised at the precipice of her first London Season, is eager to reunite with her childhood friend, Alex, after his return from the Americas. Yet, her parents have other plans for her, orchestrating a match with a suitor of their choosing. As Charlotte navigates the intricate dance of high society, she grapples with the conflicting demands of her own heart and the familial expectations forced upon her…
Will she find the courage to follow her true feelings, or will she be confined to a life chosen for her, forsaking the promise of love?
Alex Grantham, back from his American sojourn, carries a long-held secret—he has loved Charlotte for as long as he can remember. As societal pressures mount, Alex must confront his own hesitations and the attentions of an Irish beauty vying for his affections. With time slipping away, Alex faces a choice that could alter the course of their lives forever…
Will he summon the courage to confess his feelings to Charlotte, or will he let the constraints of society keep him from the woman he desires?
As Charlotte and Alex waltz through the nuanced complexities of Regency society, a sudden tragedy strikes Charlotte’s family, casting a dark shadow over their blossoming connection. Together, they embark on a quest for truth, determined to unravel a web of secrets. Yet, as they seek answers, a mysterious figure in their social circle holds the key to the puzzle. Will their pursuit of justice strengthen their bond, or will it unveil a danger that threatens to tear them apart?
“The Duke’s Unspoken Vow” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.