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Charlotte Alden bounded off the central stairway. The morning sun glittered red through the leadlight panels surrounding the main entrance. Bursting with her news, she sped across the hall to the library. Sarah, her only relative, sat sprawled on the lush carpet. Tumbled books surrounded her, and she rubbed her head.
Charlotte stopped. "What happened?"
"Nothing." Sarah glanced up with a frown.
Charlotte breathed out. "I thought the books had toppled off the shelves and hit you."
"I've been moving them around." Sarah pulled a pencil from the knot of her apricot hair and chewed the end. "I was wondering how I ought to sort them."
"You normally do your wondering on a chair."
"The floor's larger than the book table. What do you think? Should I file these by author or subject? I've tried each, and I still don't know which is best."
Charlotte picked up the nearest book and examined the cover. "Don't tell me you're going to read each one first."
"I couldn't possibly. If you wanted to read a story, how would you choose one? Yes, I know. You don't want to read a story."
Charlotte laughed. "When would I find the time?" She watched her cousin pick up a book and scan the contents. "Our visiting cards have been printed," she said, trying to sound casual. Now married into a wealthy family, she could give Sarah her chance to find a husband, one who would love her and give her adorable children for Charlotte to dote upon. "We will be expected to make morning calls soon."
Sarah moved two books to a pile of five. Outside, three squawking rainbow lorikeets fluttered past the window.
Charlotte waited, hoping for interest. "Perhaps in the next few weeks?"
"Perhaps," Sarah said, holding up a book covered with pale orange watered silk and marked with exquisite oriental writing. "Look at this one. I'm keeping it aside for later."
Charlotte took the volume. "It's full of illustrations. Is it Chinese?"
"It's from Japan. Look closely at the pictures."
"They're lovely, Sarah. The ladies are wearing such beautifully patterned fabrics. Look at this clever design. Such intricate ... oh." She clapped the pages together.
Sarah giggled. "I'm sure your father-in-law doesn't know he owns this, or he wouldn't have let me catalogue his books."
Charlotte couldn't blink. "I didn't know people printed such things."
"Why not? If people do them."
In the last picture Charlotte had scanned, the sight of the man's naked body had shocked her, let alone the female lying beneath him with her legs apart. "They do?" Her mouth dried.
"You should know."
For a moment, only the ticking of the clock broke the silence in the room. "But I can't discuss that, of course," Charlotte said, a slight constriction in her voice.
Almost two weeks ago, desperate for financial security, she had married Mr. Nicholas Alden, the only son of Mr. Alfred Alden of Alden House, Burnside, and Alden View in Stirling. A careful selection, Nicholas had the requisite income to support Sarah and herself, but Charlotte had chosen him because the façade of their marriage would benefit him as well. He had no interest in females. Adelaide's bustling society, however, didn't know that.
"The luckiest day of your blessed life was the day you met him," Sarah said with envy in her voice. "I wish a man like him would fall into my lap. Rich and indulgent. What more could a woman want?"
Charlotte tapped her forefinger onto her chin. "I'll admit the appeal of a man knocked unconscious with a cricket ball is hard to resist, but you know he didn't propose because of my skills with a cold compress."
"Just the opposite." Sarah made a face. "After you were caught with him, half naked."
Charlotte shrugged. "A gentleman would offer marriage, and he did."
But no more than marriage, of course. Nicholas had not, up until now, proved he remembered her name, which didn't bother her a bit. He had never laid one of his misleadingly masculine hands on her. However, not even Sarah, her closest companion, knew Charlotte had to use her knowledge of his secret life before he agreed to marry her. Like the rest of the world, Sarah assumed that Nicholas was simply a too ardent suitor.
"And soon we'll find the perfect husband for you as well."
"One who, I hope, will propose to me in the proper way."
Hearing the reproof in her cousin's tone, Charlotte nodded. "Decorum certainly has its place." She moved to drop the Japanese book on Sarah's pile, but at that moment, a presence loomed in the doorway. Embarrassed by the material she held, she hid the book behind her back instead.
Nicholas Alden was beautiful. Wearing his crisp brown hair fashionably disheveled, he stood propped against the doorjamb. His wide shoulders and lean hips made his unbuttoned evening jacket and his waistcoat of brocaded emerald look especially stylish. Charlotte experienced her usual intake of breath disguised by her carefully oblivious expression.
As if he had all the time in the world, he crossed one elegant ankle with another, aiming a thick-lashed impartial glance at Charlotte. "Are you stealing a book?" His voice was deep, and his tone, as usual, bored.
She breathed out. "Of course not."
"What are you hiding behind your back?"
"A book I was about to give to Sarah."
"But seeing me made you change your mind?" With a suspicious expression on his face, he moved toward her.
She took a step back, trying to pass the palmed pages to Sarah who glanced at her with a look of puzzlement.
Nicholas reached out to take the book. Charlotte swung her arm around, evading him. He grabbed her instead, holding her body against his, reaching for the book, which she lifted high over her head, even farther away from him. Not for the world did she want a man with his bent to think she would scan titillating pictures. Face-to-face with him, she noted his mocking expression.
"Come now." His breath had the aroma of mint. "Let me see."
"Let me go."
His mouth tilted. "No." He settled his body closer to hers. The long length of him fitted against her as intimately as her undergarments. His hand slid to the small of her spine.
Inexplicably, her body relaxed against his, and his eyes changed. The blue-green froze. The moment expanded into a silent challenge, which she realized she shouldn't even try to win.
"Take it." She swallowed. Her whole body thrummed with excitement, and she hoped he couldn't tell that he had such an embarrassing effect on her.
"Oh, that I could, my tempting treasure," he murmured. Sliding his hand along her arm, he reached his objective. Suddenly, he let her go. He opened the book and turned page after page while she watched, her face hot.
"You were about to give this to Sarah?"
"I was about to put it onto the pile." Her voice sounded thready.
"You said you wanted to give it to Sarah. It's hardly suitable for a young female, is it?"
"I, um, no."
He touched the tip of her nose with his finger as if reprimanding her. "I'll be taking luncheon with you today."
Sarah rose to her feet. "That will be nice. If Charlotte wants me to have the book, I'll take it." She stared wide-eyed at him, her hands pressed prayer-like in front of her mouth.
"Certainly not. If my wife needs to amuse herself with these illustrations, I'll keep the collection safe for her in our rooms." He left with the book.
Sarah fanned her hand in front of her face. "That was a little risqué. You shouldn't let him fondle you that way in front of others, though, Lolly, no matter how he feels about you."
"I could hardly stop him without embarrassing us both." Charlotte placed her cool palms on her cheeks.
Sarah gave a resigned shrug. "I expect most women wouldn't want to stop him. He's the catch of the year."
Charlotte nodded. "A landed fish."
"A landed gentleman, which is far more important. You were born lucky."
"I know." Charlotte gave a rueful smile. She was the luckiest woman in the entire colony.
Nicholas could have repudiated her after she'd proposed her bargain. He could have resented her and made a snide remark, but he had resigned himself to marriage with no more than a close inspection of her face and a terse nod. She would never let him regret his generosity. Never.
"I couldn't have done better if I'd tried."
A crease formed between Sarah's eyebrows. "A bad beginning with a good end. But if I had such a handsome husband, I wouldn't let him out of my sight."
"'We think caged birds sing when indeed they cry.'"
"It's something I read long ago. It had some meaning for me then, but I've forgotten the context. If Nicholas is staying, I must see the housekeeper and organize a more extensive meal. What would you like?"
Sarah waved a dismissive hand. "A peach. I'm not very hungry today."
"But you'll join us anyway?"
Sarah nodded and resumed sorting through the books, her way to contribute since she'd always talked of herself as a burden. Heaven knew she'd never had Charlotte's advantages — education at an expensive school and an opportunity to take her pick of the eligible bachelors. In a fair world, the cousins would have had an equal upbringing and an equal opportunity in life. Sarah could have that now.
Charlotte left for the housekeeper's room, still surprised by her body's untoward reaction when Nicholas had snatched her into his arms. Perhaps he would have preferred a man, but marriage protected him from accusations of the unimaginable act of gross indecency, now only a criminal offence rather than a capital one. She could certainly be loyal to a man who would never claim his husbandly rights, for in exchange she had security, the opportunity to be useful, and the chance one day to be a loving aunt. Since she didn't plan to exploit him again, one day he would like her, too.
Nothing she could do from now on would be as bad as compromising him.
* * *
Nick changed quickly. He had spent the night with his gloriously infertile mistress and he needed daywear. For the past two weeks since his marriage, he'd spent every night with Beth, not wanting to be tempted by a stunningly beautiful, young wife who he could take if he wished. Judging by today, she would let him, despite her amusingly convenient assumption that he was a daisy.
He had married the most admired debutante of this season. Added to a pair of wide blue eyes was a captivating smile, a charming voice, and the sort of elegant curves that made a man's palms sweat. His body craved the marital rights he wouldn't take, but he couldn't let a devious twenty-year- old tempt him to risk siring a child again.
After attiring himself more suitably in brown striped trousers and a red tie, he walked down to the breakfast room.
One of the maids, bearing a tray full of food, stopped and smiled. "Mistress is having luncheon served in the dining room today, sir."
With a tilt of his eyebrows, he changed direction to the indicated place, a vast area blessed with two sets of multi-paned Georgian windows. The sun beamed in, lighting a room furnished mainly in heavy mahogany furniture and dull pink velvet. For the last few months, he and his father had eaten in the breakfast room, a smaller annex closer to the kitchen. Apparently, his young wife had greater pretensions.
"Good of you join us," his father, Alfred, said, his face set on harsh lines.
Like Nick, Alfred was tall. During the past years, his neatly trimmed beard had begun to fleck with gray, though his hair was still dark. Dressed as a country gentleman, he wore buff trousers and a brown jacket. "Can the racing fraternity spare you?"
Nick moved to the foot of the table. Charlotte, her dark hair perfectly knotted on the nape of her neck and wearing a smart layered crinoline, sat on his father's right. Plainly dressed Sara sat on his left.
"There's no meet today, otherwise, as you know, I wouldn't be here."
"Serve yourself from the side-table." His father eyed him. "There's food aplenty, though this little miss" — he indicated Sarah — "never eats luncheon."
The waif contemplated the empty plate in front of her, her mouth firm. "I'm not hungry. I said I only wanted a peach."
Nick rose to his feet and jerked the bell pull. "We'll have a peach," he said to the maid who answered.
"The peaches is preserved, as Cook told the mistress."
Nick caught Cousin Sarah's catlike glance. "Won't that do for you?"
Sarah nodded and heaved a sigh.
A manservant stepped into the doorway. "Your pardon. The coachman wants a word with Mr. Nicholas."
"Could you relay the message?" Nick shook out his table napkin.
"He says not."
"Send him in, then."
The coachman, Bookmaker Harvey, a stubby knowing fellow with gray side-whiskers, who had apparently been standing just out of sight, smacked his hat on his moleskins as the manservant retreated. "Got this letter here, Mr. Nicholas. And a horse."
"You're not considering bringing a horse into the house." Alfred almost rose to his feet.
"Got the horse outside. Got the letter here in my hand."
"Stay where you are. The ladies won't want your great dirty boots in the dining room."
Nick eyed Harvey's well worn but clean boots. "I'll see the letter." He perused the page signed by his friend of twenty years and massaged his forehead. "Walk the horse. I might send her back."
Alfred frowned. "Who would send you a horse?"
"Tony." Nick quickly scanned the papers that came with the letter. "He says Blue Bobbin jumped into the wrong paddock and met with an unsuitable mare." He lifted his glass of wine and finished half.
"Bound to happen." Alfred reached for the salt. "A ruddy great stallion like that. He belongs to Tony Hawthorn," he explained to Sarah and Charlotte. "Bred by his father. Been dead eight or so years — his father not the horse. He made a tidy sum on the stallion at the racetrack, Tony that is, and he put him out to stud. That's, er ..." Glancing at Sarah, he cleared his throat. "Used him for breeding purposes."
"And in the intervening years, Tony has made a fortune from him. I've made a guinea or two as well." Nick finished his wine and refilled his glass. "His progeny are the best blood stock in the country, except, Tony says, for the mare outside. Her sire had a pedigree a mile long, but her dam was a hack. Tony thought Charlotte might like the mare for a riding horse." His jaw clamped.
Sarah gasped. "A horse. Charlotte, you've always wanted a horse of your own."
Charlotte sat unmoving. "Yes, I have always wanted a horse of my own. I happened to mention that once in conversation with Mr. Hawthorn."
"He is calling this a wedding present." Nick watched her with narrowed eyes, hoping she would have the good taste to reject the gift. Hawthorn ought to know better. His delightful wife would surely be hurt if she knew he was handing out gifts of livestock instead of leaving well enough alone.
"Is a horse a common wedding present?"
"Would you have preferred rubies?"
"I would rather have a horse than anything else in the world."
"And so, we will accept the gift, although you can hardly expect to ride."
Her eyebrows drawn, Charlotte met his gaze. "If you won't let me ride, I see no point in having a horse."
Nick, shrugging, turned to the coachman. "Stable the mare with the others."
At that moment, the fruit arrived. Cousin Sarah decided to out-stare her plate.
Nick glanced at her. "Not to your taste?"
She gave him a placating smile. "I'm sure it will be delicious."
Nick wondered why he had bothered. He didn't care whether she ate or not. Nor could he maintain interest in a conversation with his wife that appeared to be going nowhere. He quaffed his wine, made his apologies, then left, arriving at his club in the city center some half hour later.
Dixon, the owner, greeted him. "Lookin' for a meal or a bout, sir?"
"More like a fight," Nick said, still annoyed that he had been forced to accept Tony's reprehensible gift.
Dixon inclined his head and indicated the large gymnasium sited down a flight of stairs. Most of the light came from the high windows, leaving the walls lined with punching bags. A few were being treated to a pounding. Two boxing rings filled the center of the area. Currently, both rings were being used, and Dixon's bruisers were either idling or skipping the ropes to warm up for a bout with any likely club member. "You ain't been here for some weeks. How's your condition?" Ben, his usual sparring partner, asked.
The man grinned. "Best you work off your choler with a bag rather than me, then, Mr. Alden."
Excerpted from "Charlotte"
Copyright © 2015 Virginia Taylor.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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