The seas were wild in the grip of the storm that churned overhead, and the ship bucked and rocked beneath the crew and passengers as though at any moment it was to give up the ghost and sink at last into the depths. I sat below quarters with my hands clenched, white-knuckled, to the rim of the bed where I’d slept every night for the past few weeks. The bed was bolted to the wall and would provide some support if yet another swell slammed against the boat and sent it careening sideways, but I knew in my heart that if the boat were to sink a bolted bed would provide no succour. I tried to stop shaking with the trial before me; tried to remember that I’d been through worse than this. I closed my eyes and pictured the exotic land from whence I’d just come—the slow, enormous beasts with their long trunks and thundering feet; the lush greenery all around; the bird with the wild colours that had landed so close at hand as I’d passed beneath its tree. I had lived through so much to even make it to this place—I would have to survive one trial more.
Charlotte looked up from the book with a soft gasp and pressed it to her chest. A Life Abroad: the Memoirs of Lady Alice Montgomery had proved every page as fascinating as she’d thought it would be when she first laid eyes on the small brown volume in the village bookstore. She’d gone inside at once after sighting it in the window and demanded to know the content and value.
The bookstore owner, who knew the eldest daughter of Sir Francis Livingston of Pembleton well, had pulled the book off and flipped through the pages with a raised eyebrow.
“I’m not sure I would recommend it to the daughter of Lord Pembleton,” he had said warily. “Your father would probably think it shocking—an English lady of high society travelling the world without a chaperone…”
He had no way of knowing it, but that was the perfect argument to get Charlotte Livingston to buy something. She had always pushed back against what was expected of her, and an argument that hinged on the way society perceived an action always leaned her away from society.
Now, halfway through the memoirs, she was swept up in the life of Lady Alice Montomery, the woman who had laid aside her lace parasols and social occasions and had chosen instead the wilds of other lands and the danger of travel. It was thrilling, every word, and it stirred a desperate desire in Charlotte.
She looked around her at the garden on her family’s beautiful, grand estate. There were trees arching like footman in a perfect line towards the orchards; gorgeous expanses of brilliant green grass, manicured hedges, and pruned rose bushes. Everything was lovely; cared for. It was beautiful, she couldn’t deny, but it all felt so curated—as though she was just another feature in a museum, something on display without any real purpose. Lady Alice wasn’t in a museum. No, she was travelling the world to see things that were real, not trapped behind glass and societal perfection. Charlotte envied her.
She stood and made her way down the path with the book still open in her hands. It was impossible not to compare herself with the heroine of the memoir. Lady Alice was a tall and dark-haired beauty, so well-known that even before the book Charlotte had been familiar with her name and legacy. She was supposed to have been one of the most sought-after women in the world. In contrast, Charlotte had always been small for her age, with hair a little too red to be considered dainty and skin as pale as milk. Her freckles had faded as the years went by, but her mother still chased her around with bonnets and parasols lest a particularly long day in the sun should rouse them again to the surface. At nineteen, she had done absolutely nothing to make a name for herself. She was no Lady Alice, just another daughter in a wealthy family who would make a good marriage one day.
She opened the book again, walking as she read. Her mother hated that little tick of hers.
“Charlotte, a walk is not an opportunity for a young lady to cram more nonsense into her head. It is a chance to look about oneself and find the inner peace so lacking in young women these days.”
But Charlotte didn’t want inner peace. She wanted a rolling ocean and a churning sky. She wanted the wind in her hair and the sun unhindered on her cheeks. She wanted—
She heard her little sister’s voice and snapped out of her reverie, closing the book and holding it slightly out of sight behind the fold of her skirt. Lucy Livingstone was walking towards her as quickly as she could manage. Only fifteen years old, Lucy had somehow managed to soak up all the lessons and elegance that Charlotte had been resistant to over the years. Her hair was quite a few shades lighter than her sister’s—more blonde than strawberry—and her eyes were blue instead of the grey-green storminess of Charlotte’s. She would never run when she could walk; never call out when she could speak in a measured tone. It took her a full minute to reach Charlotte’s side.
“Lottie, Mama wants to know why you’re still out here when the dinner party is only hours away. She says you must come inside and get changed at once.”
Charlotte smiled indulgently at her sister, and then raised an eyebrow in friendly competition. “I don’t know anyone named ‘Lottie,’” she said.
It was their oldest battle. Since Lucy had begun speaking she’d tried to shorten her older sister’s name, and Charlotte always pushed back against it. Her full name sounded so much stronger than “Lottie,” and in its original meaning it spoke of freedom. She liked that.
Lucy rolled her eyes as she always did. “You know what I mean.” Her eyes fell on the book half hidden behind Charlotte’s skirt. “Are you still reading that Montgomery drivel?”
“You sound like Mama,” Charlotte said, trying to keep the annoyance out of her voice. Her sister didn’t mean to be condescending, after all—she was only copying the speech and mannerisms of the most elegant woman she knew, Lady Eleanor Livingston, their mother. “And yes, I’m still reading it. You should try picking it up sometime yourself, Lucy. It would be romantic; exciting even, to travel the world. If you only read the stories she describes, you would be won over in an instant.”
“I don’t need to read them,” Lucy said, tossing her blonde curls and sliding her slender arm into the crook of her sister’s elbow. “You’ve talked about nothing but Lady Alice Montgomery since you got that book, and you’ve told me tale upon tale of her adventures. Not one of your stories has made me want to run off and emulate that woman. I can’t imagine giving up the comforts of home for an unpleasant adventure such as she describes.”
“What?” Charlotte pretended to be shocked, although she knew her sister’s feelings well by now. “You wouldn’t want to ride horseback over the African plains?”
“Dusty; smelly …”
“You don’t yearn to see the world and smell the sharp tangy salt air in your nostrils?”
“In the belly of a ship, at the mercy of all sorts of strangers? No, thank you.”
“And what about interesting people and cultures. There’s something so intoxicating about the idea of not knowing anyone or anything, and learning as you go.” Charlotte shut her eyes for a moment and imagined herself wandering through the lowlands of India and the jungles in the mountains.
“You really oughtn’t to use words like ‘intoxicating,’” Lucy said with almost comical severity. “It’s vulgar.”
Charlotte opened her eyes and levelled a laughing glance in her sister’s direction. “I would gladly give up the wealth and comfort of my position to go on a voyage of exploration.”
“I know you would.” Lucy shrugged, “I just don’t understand it.”
They walked for a few more moments in silence, and then Lucy lapsed into one of her favourite topics in a teasing voice.
“And what does your fiancé think about this yearning of yours?” she asked in a sing-song tone. “Is he desirous of travelling all around the world and seeing the dusty deserts of Africa and the wild, open ocean?”
Charlotte forced a smile. “General Wallace has already done all those things,” she said softly. “He’s already been to Africa and gone out on the wild seas. He would understand.”
“Or he would know enough of the wilderness to want to avoid a return trip,” Lucy said. Charlotte knew the young girl was only teasing; carrying on with the fun, but unknowingly the girl had hit on one of Charlotte’s deepest misgivings about her intended.
She’d agreed to marry General Lionel Wallace after a brief courtship for a number of reasons. Firstly, he was her father’s long-time friend and confident, a good man with a solid reputation and a career of fighting that had moved into diplomacy on English soil. It was a reasonable match for a girl as wealthy as Charlotte Livingston, and the General wasn’t a bad sort of man. Charlotte didn’t even mind the fact that he was much older than her nineteen years of age—it was normal, even expected for girls of wealth and circumstance to marry more distinguished gentlemen. He was kind in a distant sort of way and had said some pretty things about her appearance and grace on their first few meetings, but he was also stiff and mired in the ways of society.
Charlotte had agreed to the arrangement at her parents’ bidding, and she tried to have a good attitude about it all. What’s done was done, and she saw no way out of it. Blessed with an optimistic train of thinking, she had decided to make the best of the situation and think of ways to accept the life ahead of her with some measure of happiness. On most days, though, it felt like more of an effort than she’d thought love would be.
“The General understands that I like to read,” she said slowly.
“Mama said he told you at the last dinner engagement that you read quite a bit too much for a young girl,” Lucy said quickly. There was no malice in her voice, just that earnest, engaged way little sisters have of trying to be the one with the most inside information at all times.
Charlotte remembered that conversation. He’d also told her that there was no place for dreamers in high society; that if she would always be talking about the poets and the wilds of other cultures, she would push away those in her particular sphere who were uncomfortable with such topics of conversation. She’d listened quietly to his gentle scolding, and he’d ended it at last with a rather paternal pat on the head and a murmur about what was going on in “that pretty head of hers.” It had galled her and worried her deeply. She felt sometimes as though she was marching ever steadily towards a cage, and there was no turning to the right or the left. The days of reading Alice Montgomery’s memoirs and walking in the garden were close to an end.
She put another weak smile on her face and nudged her sister in the side. “Let us speak no more of fiancés, little one. Tell me—if you don’t want to go travelling the world and discovering new adventures, what is it that you wish to do with your youth?”
“Marry young,” Lucy said promptly. “Mama says I’ll make a good match; that I’m taking to my lessons well and that my accomplishments are just what a young man would like.”
“And after marriage?” Charlotte probed. “Then what?”
“Why babies, of course,” Lucy let go of her sister’s arm and gave an impulsive little twirl. “And everlasting happiness. What else?”
What else indeed. That was the question that chased Charlotte down even when she was most eager to hold on to optimism and have a good attitude about what her life held. What else was there for a girl in a society like this? She secretly held onto hope that everyone around her was misguided; that there was adventure after all to be had for those that would step up and take it.
It would have taken Charlotte no time at all to prepare for the dinner party on her own, but as usual Lucy snuck into her room with lace and petticoats in hand and demanded that they primp and preen together. This meant a long conversation about what would be worn, a search for ribbons that were just the right colour, and then an even longer wrestling match with the ladies’ maid over hairstyles.
In the end, Lucy looked a picture in a pale pink gown trimmed with ribbon rosettes; her curls up atop her head with the tight rag curls framing her face, her feet in white satin slippers, and a white ribbon looped around her hair. Charlotte chose simplicity, much to Lucy’s frustration; dressing in a deep blue gown with only a single ribbon of silver embroidery as trim. She put on the silver cross she always wore around her neck and pinned her red hair up off her neck in the simplest fashion possible.
“You ought to wear earrings,” Lucy said with a worried frown. “Mama will notice.”
And so silver earrings with a sapphire centre were added to the ensemble. Charlotte was about to pull on her gloves and tend to her mother’s needs when the sound of a muffled commotion came floating up the stairs to the two girls. There was firstly the crashing of a door, and then the sound of footsteps retreating quickly down the hall. Then, alarmingly, a muffled cry.
Charlotte leapt to her feet. “Something’s wrong.”
Lucy was putting the finishing touches on her hair and looked up with concern. “What was that?”
“I don’t know.” Charlotte started out the door. “Come with me, and we’ll see what we can find out.”
They stumbled over each other down the long marble staircase that poured into the foyer and then followed the sound of loud talking and arguing through the hall, past the dining room and parlour decked out for the coming dinner party, and into the private library. Charlotte opened the door, Lucy breathing down her neck, and stepped into the room quietly.
Their mother, the Lady of Pembleton, looked up from where she was sitting with her head in her hands on a settee. In a glance, Charlotte saw that her father was there as well, his hand on his wife’s shoulder, as well as a man dressed in plain clothing. The man was young, and Charlotte could tell from the respectful, slightly removed way that he stood with his hands folded that he was one of the many messengers who worked in the area.
“I don’t know more than what I’ve shared—” he paused suddenly when he saw the girls and looked at Lord and Lady Pembleton with a question in his eyes.
Sir Francis looked up at his daughters, hesitated for a moment, and then seemed to think better of protecting them and raised a hand to summon them into the room. Charlotte and Lucy walked in on slipper feet and sat beside their mother on the settee. It reminded Charlotte of a time when they were young and had heard of a death in the family—the awkward silence, the feeling of intrusion, the confusion.
“What happened, Mama?” She reached over and laid a hand on her mother’s arm.
Eleanor Livingston opened her mouth as though to speak, and then sank her head again into her hands and began softly crying. Francis cleared his throat uncomfortably and tried his best to fill in where his wife could not.
“Something’s become of Hester,” he said softly.
Hester Russell. The girls’ cousin on their mother’s side, and so dear to them both that, aside from parentage, they were essentially sisters. Hester was Charlotte’s age, a sweet, doe-eyed girl with brown hair and long limbs and a penchant for all living things. She had a heart of gold, and a way about her that put other people at ease. Charlotte felt her heart catch in her chest.
“Is she hurt?”
“We don’t know!” Eleanor wailed, the noise startling the uncomfortable messenger. “We don’t know anything.”
Francis reached out again and laid a hand on his wife’s arm. Turning to his daughters, he explained, “She’s run away from home. She left a note saying not to look for her, but there was no other information.”
Lucy gasped and held a delicate hand to her mouth. Charlotte wrinkled her forehead in confusion. It was so unlike Hester to do something so rash, so unexplained. A seed of doubt took root in her heart, and she wondered if perhaps there was more to this situation than met the eye.
“What did the note say exactly?” she asked, directing her question at the messenger.
The young man bowed his head nervously. “I didn’t read it, My Lady. I was just told to let you here at Pembleton know the truth of the matter—that the lady Hester Russell has gone missing, and that she left a note saying not to seek her out.”
“It will be a scandal.” Eleanor raised her head, showing a tear-streaked complexion and a well of emotion in her eyes. “This is unheard of! Why would a happy, well-adjusted girl run off and leave her parents in a place of confusion? Why would she not leave a way to contact her?”
Charlotte thought of Hester’s quiet nature and thought the action was doubly confusing. The thought had crossed her mind before, on days when her attempts at optimism failed and she wanted to be free of all that society put upon her shoulders, but she could not imagine Hester ever running off and leaving her family.
“What is being done?” she asked softly.
“The whole countryside has been mobilised to search for her,” Francis said quietly. “This messenger is one of many who were sent out to alert family in case she should contact us. Have you girls heard from her at all lately?”
Both Lucy and Charlotte shook their heads. Their mother gave a small sob into her hands and their father shook his head sadly. “The best we can hope for, then,” he said soberly, “is that she will be found before anything bad happens to her.”
“Anything bad?” Lucy asked, her voice quavering. “Like what?”
Charlotte, who knew a bit more of the world than her sister, exchanged a worried glance with her father and then laid a hand on her sister’s arm. “We don’t have to think about all the possibilities right now,” she said quickly. “We just need to focus on ways to help Hester.”
The door opened suddenly and the butler stepped into the room with an air of concern. “I’m sorry to interrupt, sir,” he said, “but General Wallace has arrived early for the dinner party and was wondering if he could steal a few moments with Lady Charlotte.”
“Now is not the time,” Charlotte said, raising her hand quickly in dismissal. “Ask the good general to wait in the parlour. I’ll be with him when this situation is handled.”
“Charlotte,” her father snapped quickly, an edge in his usually sedate tone. “That is no way to talk to or about your fiancé. Lionel has been a dear friend for many years, and as he will soon be the decision maker in your life, I think it quite acceptable that he should be here to offer advice and assistance if he can.”
Charlotte opened her mouth to object but could see that she was causing more harm than good. Why was it, after all, that she was so reluctant to have her fiancé hear the whole affair? That wasn’t the way it should be. She should feel desperately grateful for his presence and wisdom. Instead, she felt mildly annoyed and fearful of what he would think.
The general came in moments later. He was dressed perfectly in his fine uniform with the tasseled shoulders and the gold trim on a navy background. His hair, dark but mottled with grey, was swept back from his face and tied at the base of his neck. Long sideburns set off the distinguished affair, and Charlotte had to look closely to see any expression in his eyes. She wondered at that—usually eyes were the first thing she noticed about a person, but with the general they always came as an afterthought to her.
“Lord and Lady Pembleton.” He bowed austerely, directing his attention first at her parents as he always did. Then he took a few more steps into the room and bowed again in her direction. “Lady Charlotte.”
She lowered her head in brief acknowledgement. “General Wallace.”
A frown wrinkled his brow as he looked around the room at the sober faces. “I came early to take a few moments of conversation with you, Lady Charlotte, but it appears I am trespassing on a private family moment.”
Charlotte didn’t open her mouth to contradict him, and so Sir Francis interjected with gusto. “Hardly. Something quite serious has befallen our family, old chap, but I assure you your advice and involvement could only be of help in solving this problem.”
The general nodded again and then sat on the same settee as Charlotte, as removed to the side as he could manage for the sake of propriety. “I’m sorry to hear as much. What has happened?”
“My cousin,” Charlotte said quickly. Something about the situation of her father and the general made her wish to speak of the events herself. She felt suddenly defensive of Hester. “She’s gone missing.”
The general looked genuinely surprised. “Miss Russell?”
“The very same.” Charlotte’s father cleared his throat. “Although ‘gone missing’ is a bit misleading. She left of her own accord it would seem, with only a brief note behind telling her family not to follow her.”
“This is most alarming indeed,” the general said. “What is being done to track her down?”
“The county has been mobilised to seek her out, but I’m not sure what else can be done under the circumstances,” Sir Francis responded.
“I will offer my assistance in any way possible,” the general interjected gallantly. “I have a network of friends across the country from my time in commission to the Crown, and I will of course spread the news at once so that they can keep their eyes out for any mention of her name. Perhaps the runaway attempt was somehow connected with a soldier. These things happen with the young and spirited.”
Charlotte felt a stab of annoyance that the general would jump to such an assumption.
“She could be in some kind of trouble,” she said slowly. “I cannot think of anything else that would have convinced Hester to do such a thing.”
“Can you not?” The general raised his dark eyebrows and levelled a stare on his soon-to-be wife. “My dear Lady Charlotte, your kindness does you credit, but you have that purposed blindness so often cultivated in the fairer sex. You are choosing to overlook warning signs that the rest of us have seen for years.”
She looked at him; blinked. “Pardon me, General, but I wasn’t aware you knew my cousin so very well. Do you run in the same circles?”
He shrugged and lowered his voice so that only she could hear. “I run in your circles, and she is dear to you. I’ve met her on occasion and was more than usually concerned with how flippant and relaxed she is about basic issues of propriety. I confess that I had been concerned about the influence she had over you, but of course now such things are behind us. We must focus on the task at hand.”
Charlotte felt a slew of retorts run through her mind. She wanted to tell him how shortsighted and bigoted he was—that Hester had never been the rebellious one in the family; on the contrary, she had always acted out of love and patience and gentleness. Those were her main motivators. She would not have done anything just for the sake of flying in the face of propriety, and it seemed to Charlotte that the general was taking more than usual liberties in assuming he knew the situation well enough to speak.
All these thoughts simmered just below the surface, but Charlotte could not bring herself to say them. Her mother’s training, that a woman was to have few opinions and share none, was too ingrained in her psyche to be so easily thrown aside. She just looked at the general for a long moment in silence and then dropped her eyes into her lap where they could do no harm.
Charlotte laid her head down on the desk for just a moment, letting her rest ever so lightly on yet another scrap of paper she was filling with notes. Her eyes slid closed for what seemed like only a minute, and then she felt a light hand on her shoulder shaking her awake. She sat up, eyes blurry, head wild, and saw her sister crouching beside the desk.
“Lottie, did you sleep here all night?”
Charlotte looked at the clock in alarm and saw that it was already eight in the morning. The sunlight from a half-drawn shade spilled over her bed but hadn’t yet reached her desk.
“Oh no,” she said, running a hand across her eyes. “I hadn’t meant to sleep so long.”
“You cannot mean that,” Lucy said with a frown, rising to her feet and going to the window to draw the shade the rest of the way open. “You’ve hardly slept at all over the last few months since we learned about Hester’s disappearance. You’re always up here scribbling letters, or out in the country talking to strangers Father tells you to avoid: it’s dangerous and reckless, and the one time I find you actually resting you’re sitting upright at your writing desk. Lottie, I’m worried.”
“It’s Charlotte,” Charlotte corrected her out of habit rather than spite. She stretched her neck to the side and felt the ripple of tension from her overnight rest shoot painfully down one shoulder. The letter she’d been working on was to a friend of the family in Dublin, an unlikely source of assistance, but some information was better than none.
“Have you had any leads at all?” Lucy asked quietly. “Anything that would make you think this strange quest of yours was justified?”
“Of course it’s justified, Lucy.” Charlotte stood up and walked stiffly across the room to the floor-length mirror in the corner. She was a sight to see, dressed in her nightgown with a walking coat over—she must have been cold last night and grabbed the nearest item of clothing—with her red hair loose and wild around her face and her eyes ringed with dark circles. “Anything to get Hester safely home again is justified.”
Lucy came and stood next to her, speaking to Charlotte in the mirror. “I know you love her, Charlotte. I do too. But if she hasn’t been found it’s because she doesn’t want to be found. It took the rest of us some time to come to terms with everything, too, but we accept it now. Hester ran away because she wanted to leave the family.” She ventured a smile in her sister’s direction. “You don’t need to look for her anymore. You could, say, take a bath? Comb your hair? Stop looking like a Scottish selkie for one day, at least?”
Charlotte turned serious eyes in her sister’s direction. “This isn’t a joke, Lucy. This isn’t about me, either. It’s about Hester, and I’m telling you Hester Russell wouldn’t have run away from her family if there wasn’t a reason.” She took a deep breath, knowing what her family thought of her most recent theory. “I still think she was kidnapped.”
“No, hear me out.” Charlotte ran across the room and fumbled through some pages she’d found during the last few months of research. “Look at this—something similar happened just last year in Derbyshire—a girl disappeared and it was later discovered that she had been kidnapped. Then, only a few years before that, another young lady missing. It was all a ploy to get money out of the family; a ransom tactic.”
Lucy frowned. “If they wanted ransom, wouldn’t we have heard from her by now?”
“You’re parroting Father,” Charlotte said crisply, unable to keep the edge out of her voice. “In the two cases I mentioned the girl never made contact, and the kidnappers didn’t either. Their initial plan was thrown away when they decided to keep the lady for more nefarious means. What if Hester is a pawn in some game; if she is kept captive somewhere against her will? I would never be able to live with myself if I learned that was the case, and I can’t imagine how you all find yourself so comfortable with that situation.”
Tears came into Lucy’s eyes, and Charlotte felt an instant stab of remorse. She reached out and laid a hand on her sister’s arm. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said softly. “I just mean that we should be taking this whole thing more seriously than we are.”
“Father says she doesn’t want to be found.”
Charlotte sighed and dropped the pages she’d picked up back onto the bedspread. She didn’t want to argue anymore. Every conversation since they’d first heard of Hester’s disappearance had gone the same in the house. Everyone thought she’d run off to make some sort of rebellious point, and they thought she’d come back home when she’d had her fill of the hardship outside the walls of the Russell mansion. It hadn’t happened, though, and every day that passed filled Charlotte with more dread.
Lucy bit her lip and ventured another question, this one even more muted and shy than the other.
“And General Wallace?”
Just three words, and they had the power to bring a conversation Charlotte had been trying to forget crashing back into her mind.
It had been two weeks since the initial news of Hester’s disappearance, and the general had come over for tea. Lucy came to fetch Charlotte from the garden, where she’d laid aside her copy of Alice Montgomery’s adventures and was penning a letter to someone in northern England in search of Hester’s whereabouts.
“Your General’s here to see you,” Lucy had said with that teasing chatter she always adopted when discussing Lionel.
Charlotte had looked up, unable to banish a feeling of growing annoyance at the frequency of the man’s visits. “You can show him back in a few minutes. I’m finishing something important here.”
“Something more important than me?” There was his voice, rich and serious, and it had jerked her back to reality at once.
“I didn’t know you were there,” she’d stuttered.
“I followed your sister out; I couldn’t wait to see you.” He’d cleared his throat, shifted from foot to foot until Lucy finally took the hint and scampered off to leave the couple alone. When at last he spoke again his words had been strained. “Lady Charlotte, I feel I’ve hardly seen you these past few weeks.”
“I’ve been occupied in the search for my cousin.”
“Yes, the matter of missing Hester Russell.” She’d hated the way he waved his hand like he was dismissing an annoying fly that kept reoccurring in his sphere. “It has taken so much of your time as of late.”
“As it is taking up no one else’s time, I thought the sacrifice of a few of my own hours was well worth it.”
“You are offended.” His voice had barely masked his frustration.
She’d sighed, stood up from the garden bench, and laid her letter to the side. “It seems I am easily offended as of late.”
“I just feel as though I rarely see you, and when I do there is much standing between us.”
There was always much standing between us, even before this latest development. She’d swallowed hard. “That’s not what I want.”
He’d turned his hat in his hands, studying the brim as though it alone offered him the answers to the riddle that was Charlotte Livingston’s heart. “I came here today to discuss the matter of our impending marriage. The engagement was announced almost a month ago today, and I cannot see any reason why we should not move forward with the ceremony and marriage summarily. There is no reason to have a long engagement, not when we know that we are well suited and we live in close enough proximity to avoid difficulty with planning the logistics. It is my understanding that young ladies such as yourself indulge in frequent trips to town to choose a wedding tailor; visits to the village to determine a venue; questions with the parson to ensure the ceremony is standard. You have done none of these things.”
“What are you saying?”
“Is there any reason you can think of to delay our wedding?”
Charlotte had wracked her brain and was for a moment frozen by the one thought she knew she couldn’t say aloud: because I do not want to be with you. It was a childish thought, she knew, the kind of whimsy that dairy maids could entertain but was denied to women of wealth and status. In the end, her eyes had fallen on the letter and she’d blurted out, “I want to marry you, really I do, but not now. Not until I have found Hester and done away with all the mystery surrounding her disappearance.”
“How does that in any way relate to our wedding?”
“It’s a matter of my heart and mind being otherwise engaged in a time and place where they ought to be present,” she’d answered, honestly enough. “It would give me much peace of mind to put the matter to rest. Then I can focus fully on everything that lies ahead—our marriage, our union before God and man, and our life together.”
Now, remembering the conversation in the safety of her bedroom, months after the fact, Charlotte found herself dropping her gaze from Lucy’s enquiring stare. “I already told you,” she said softly. “General Wallace has graciously agreed to postpone the wedding until the matter of Hester’s disappearance has been solved.”
“And he’s alright with that?” Lucy asked, her young face betraying the same suspicion that Charlotte felt in her heart.
“He has agreed,” Charlotte said in reply. “And that is enough for me.”
“I heard Mama last night,” Lucy said, sobering considerably, “and she would probably beg to differ with you. At least, she would ask whether you were enough for him.”
“One day very soon,” Charlotte said, walking back to the mirror and running her fingers through her wild red curls, “you will understand what it is to court and marry a man so closely interwoven with the fabric of your family and the attentions of society. It seems like it is everything that a girl would want, but it is in fact the quickest way to disappoint everyone in your sphere in a single blow.”
“What do you mean?” Lucy asked, and Charlotte could see with a single glance that she meant the question innocently enough.
“Never mind,” Charlotte said. She left the mirror and walked behind the screen that unfolded nearby to block her from the rest of the room. She slipped out of her nightgown and into a corset and undergarments, putting each on as quickly as she could. Lucy slipped behind and helped with the buttons, lacing up the back of the gown.
“I’m glad to see you’re at least making an attempt at making yourself presentable,” Lucy said. “Mama says that she’ll take me into town for a new bonnet if I will wait and travel with her next week.”
Charlotte was amazed, as always, that Lucy could turn so quickly from serious topics to matters of lace and style. She bit her lip and tried to remember that her sister was younger, and therefore could not be expected to have a mature view of the world, not as of yet at least.
“I am going to get dressed,” she said quickly, putting up her arms to shrug into a pale green dress with simple styling and sleeves down to her wrists. “But only because I’m running into town to do business today. Lucy, I know you mean well by coming up here to intervene and entreating me to leave the business of Hester’s disappearance behind, but I can’t do it. I can’t abandon her. I will try to rejoin the family and make social appearances so that you don’t feel as responsible for me, but I won’t stop searching until I find her.”
Lucy finished buttoning the last button and then followed Charlotte back to the mirror while Charlotte twisted her hair into a simple bun and pinned it with pearl-studded pins.
“Alright,” she said at last, her voice uncharacteristically cowed. “I can’t stop you from searching. I wish I could help, really I do …” her voice trailed off, then after a moment’s silence, she added, “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
“Don’t worry about searching on your own,” Charlotte said, putting the last pin in her hair. “I know that it’s a strange obsession I’ve begun on, and I wouldn’t want to bring you down with me.”
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Charlotte Livingston has never known anything but comfort and security. She was raised in a wealthy Regency family, she is engaged to a man of good social standing, and her life seems to be more than settled. However, deep inside she knew that she would gladly give up the wealth and comfort of her position to live an adventure. When she discovers the news that her dearest cousin goes missing, Charlotte’s only option is to take action, and set out on an expedition in order to find her. But will she dare to lay aside what society expects of her to embrace the yearning for adventure she’s always harboured in her heart?
Ewan Sinclair is old enough to be experienced but young enough to retain youthful vigour. Having fled his home for years now, he is tracing his own path in life, making a name for his ability to find lost people. When two desperate sisters ask for his help in order to find their missing cousin, his financial situation gives him no choice but to accept the offer. Little had he known, before asking the older sister to join him in his investigation, how his life was about to change at that moment. Will he eventually let his prejudice aside and leave a space for love in his heart?
A thrilling adventure soon brings Charlotte and Ewan closer than they ever thought they would be and creates unprecedented emotions between them. But when the situation is about to get harder and harder, will they be ready to conquer their fears? Will they choose to risk everything in the name of freedom and love?
“A Fearless Lady Craving Freedom” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.