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May 7, 1824
“And that’s how we met.” Charlotte leaned back in her chair and chuckled softly at her friends’ astonished expressions. The low chatter of the other patrons in the tearoom buzzed around them. Charlotte loved the familiar warm atmosphere of her local tea shop in Little Marbury. The town nearest to her parents’ estate sat right in the middle of Hertfordshire. Beautiful and green, she preferred the countryside of her home county over the London townhouse her father kept. She picked up a warm scone and took a bite as she waited for her surprise announcement to sink in. Her friend, Susanna, was the first to recover.
“That is the most romantic thing I have ever heard!” she exclaimed. “I cannot believe I missed all the excitement.”
“If you hadn’t misbehaved in such a grand fashion, you wouldn’t have been sent home early. Leaving me to face the ballrooms all alone, I might add,” Charlotte scolded, still a bit upset with her friend.
Susanna had been caught racing on Rotten Row. One morning, two months ago, they had been walking their horses in the park and came across one of the many impromptu races which happened along Hyde Park’s infamous King’s Road. At the starting whistle, Susanna surprised everyone by jumping into the race. Skirts and cape flying, she and her magnificent horse had outpaced the four other racers with ease.
Susanna’s companion, Lucy, and Charlotte sat in shock atop their horses while Susanna received congratulations and compliments on her horse from the other racers. Of course, the shocked expressions of the onlookers turned quickly to feverishly whispered disapproval. Word had already reached Susanna’s parents by the time she returned home. Her parents promptly banished her back to Marbury.
Susanna grimaced. “I let the thrill of competition overrule my good sense. And another perfectly good companion, fired. But that is in the past. We were speaking of your engagement.” She propped her chin on one hand.
Eleanor Spencer gave Susanna a disapproving frown before turning her violet eyes back to Charlotte. “Congratulations. But isn’t this a bit hasty? How long have you known Lord Hawksridge?”
Charlotte wasn’t surprised Eleanor would have concerns. She was the very best of friends, and as such, she tended to be a bit overprotective. Charlotte always felt guilty talking about her months in London while her friend was never permitted to visit the city. Eleanor’s father, the local vicar, did not approve of young women “traipsing off” to London to flirt and dance. Charlotte believed a larger part of his disapproval had to do with his lack of funds to support a season for his daughter.
“Oh, I know it happened quickly. But my mother is right; we make a smart match. Hawksridge and I will get to know each other better after we are married. But I can already tell he is kind, decent, and handsome. Look how fate intervened to bring us together. He saved my life, which has to be a sign.”
Susanna sighed. “It is very romantic. Tell us how he proposed. Have you kissed him? What does he look like?”
“He is very tall, not lanky but solid. He has sandy-blond hair and warm brown eyes.” Both ladies nodded their heads approvingly. “He escorted us to the opera one night, and he has his own box on the second level. He took me on a ride through the park in his carriage twice. Then he came and spoke with Father shortly after. When he asked me to marry him, he was quite gallant. Taking my hand in his, he earnestly told me all the reasons we make a good match. It was…endearing.”
“But did he kiss you?!” Susanna asked her voice echoed far too loudly in the small shop. The patrons at the tables nearby gave them disapproving glances.
“Susanna!” Eleanor hissed.
Charlotte flushed. He had not, in fact, kissed her, but his hand had been warm and strong. He stood so tall and was so very…male. She’d felt very safe standing next to him, like he could keep dragons at bay if need be. Or perhaps just one dragon-like mother.
“He did not kiss me,” she admitted. “But we stood very close, and he smelled splendid, like sandalwood.”
Her friends looked unimpressed. In all the Gothic novels they were such fans of, the heroine always felt something deep in her soul right away for the hero. But this was not a romantic novel. Charlotte had agreed to the marriage because it was a sensible response. Hawksridge was a marquess, young, good-looking, and she could hardly do better. Her parents were over the moon by the match. Plus, he had kind eyes.
She smiled at Ellie and Susanna, and placing a hand to her stomach, she told a small fib. “That fluttery feeling I felt in my belly when he is near has got to be a good sign, right? That’s how you should feel?”
Susanna nodded. “It’s a good sign. I have felt that flutter many a time dancing with a fine-looking gentleman.” She took a sip of her tea.
“Eleanor, tell us about what has been happening here this spring. I know Susanna hasn’t heard any good gossip since she has been locked away in her tower.”
Next to her, Susanna guffawed. But the laughter didn’t reach her eyes, and Charlotte regretted her joke. Despite Susanna’s good humor, her friend was desperately unhappy being stuck at home. Her parents had only let her come to the tearoom today because they approved of her friendship with Eleanor. They hoped the vicar’s daughter would be a good influence.
“Nothing.” Eleanor sighed. “Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary, as usual.” Then she leaned forward quite suddenly. “Oh, except we have a new mysterious resident in town. In fact, I see her across the room, over by the window. Nobody knows who she is. She lives alone in the cottage which used to belong to the Greenwoods.”
Charlotte looked causally to her right. A lady sat by herself reading a book. The sunlight filtering in through the window highlighted her raven hair and olive skin. She wore a dress of deep purple and a matching hat.
“I know who she is,” Susanna piped up. “Her name is Mrs. Kingsley.”
“Of course you know who she is. Honestly Susanna, how do you always manage to know everything about everyone?” Eleanor shook her head in disbelief.
“She traveled from Italy with my aunt Margaret three weeks ago. I overheard Aunt Margaret tell my mother Mrs. Kingsley was in desperate need of a way off the continent. But then they noticed I was listening, and they ceased discussing her.”
“I think she looks rather lonely. Perhaps your aunt can arrange an introduction.”
Mrs. Buxley, the tearoom’s proprietress, bustled over to their table.
“Do you need more hot water, ladies?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Buxley. Everything was delicious today. I do miss your scones when I am away. They are the best in all of England,” Charlotte said.
Mrs. Buxley beamed and made a tut-tutting sound as she gathered their empty plates. Her husband, Mr. Buxley, ran the book and stationery shop adjacent to the tea shop. Mrs. Buxley was as cheery as her husband was dour. But despite his less than friendly service, the bookshop was Charlotte’s favorite place in town. She glanced again at the woman by the window. If Mrs. Kingsley liked to read, then she might make the very best kind of friend, the kind you could borrow books from.
“Congratulations on your engagement, Miss Grisham. A marquess! What a fine catch indeed.”
Again Charlotte found herself the object of sideways looks from the other patrons. This time curiosity filled their eyes instead of censure.
Charlotte’s cheeks flushed. “Thank you, Mrs. Buxley.” Of course, Mrs. Buxley knew already. Even though they had been home only two days, mother had probably spent the entire time finding ways to mention Charlotte’s engagement to all of her closest friends and acquaintances, therefore ensuring the news spread widely throughout the county.
Mrs. Buxley left to bring the dishes to the kitchens. Eleanor laid a comforting hand on hers. Eleanor understood better than anyone how private Charlotte was, how she hated being the center of attention. Grateful for Eleanor’s quiet support, she gave her friend’s fingers a squeeze. Charlotte didn’t know how she would survive the upcoming house party without her friends. Everything had to be perfect. She needed to prove to everyone she could handle the social responsibilities of being a marchioness.
Straightening her shoulders, Charlotte placed a smile on her face. “Let’s go to the bookshop. Perhaps Mr. Buxley has received something new.”
The sun hid behind a thick cover of clouds today. As they left the tea shop, the wind kicked up. Charlotte grasped hold of her bonnet, and her friends had to do likewise. Luckily, they didn’t have far to go, as the bookshop lay just one door down, tucked in between the tea shop and the bakery. Charlotte opened the bright blue door, and she and her friends tumbled into the musky interior of the shop. She smiled brightly at the proprietor. “Good morning, Mr. Buxley.”
Mr. Buxley did not raise his head from the book he read, merely let out a gruff “Morning.”
Charlotte, Suzanna, and Ellie sailed past him, well used to his grouchy demeanor. They headed to the shelves along the right side, which held the new arrivals. Charlotte perused the top shelf. It was her job as she was the tallest of the three and could easily see the titles. She was pleasantly surprised to see there were lots of new books on the shelf.
“Did you just receive a shipment then, Mr. Buxley?” she called out.
She received a noncommittal grunt from the man behind the counter. Shrugging, she looked down at Ellie, who crouched down scanning the bottom shelf. “Are you finding anything new, Ellie?”
“Yes, there is a novel by Frances Burney, Evelina. It looks promising.”
“We’ve read all the ones on this shelf,” Susanna muttered.
Returning to the top shelf, Charlotte’s eyes traveled across the spines. The store’s shelves were not organized in any particular way. Mr. Buxley put books where he found space. Some might think it impossible to find anything, and they’d be right. But Charlotte liked to browse, so the disorder didn’t bother her in the least. The hunt was half of the fun.
She plucked a book with a green cloth spine, The Reformed Coquet. That sounded promising. She turned it to look at the cover, by Mary Davys. Hmmm, she hadn’t read anything by that author yet. They needed to choose books for the next month of their informal book club. She and her friends started it several years ago. The club was really more of a book lending group. They picked a book each month, read it, and if they thought it worthy, passed it along to the other members. When they got together for the official book club meeting at the end of the month, the discussion was lively, and having an official gathering gave them a chance to meet regularly, no matter their social schedules.
Charlotte swiveled to show Susanna what she found and knocked her elbow against the edge of the wooden bookshelf. “Oww.” The book she held dropped to the floor, nearly missing Ellie’s head. “Oh dear! I’m sorry, Ellie.” She rubbed her elbow, waiting for the sharp pain to fade. Why did it always hurt so much when you knocked your elbow?
Ellie gathered the book from the floor. “What’s this?” She reached for two folded pieces of parchment lying next to the book. Ellie stood and showed them what looked to be letters.
The heavy cream-colored letters were embossed with two words in black ink, my love. Charlotte raised her eyebrows, how interesting.
“Ooh, let’s see.” Susanna grabbed one of them. The letter was not sealed, and she unfolded the parchment carefully. “My dearest love, it is torture to be so near you but not able to reach out and caress the smooth skin of your cheek. To taste the sweetness of your lips.” Susanna broke off, her eyes wide as she looked up at them. “This is a love letter.”
Charlotte glanced over at Mr. Buxley, but he paid no attention to them at all, still engrossed in his book. She moved next to Susanna to peer over her shoulder at the letter. I should have never accepted the invitation knowing we would have to act as strangers for the protection of your reputation and mine. But the chance to see you, to hear your melodious voice was too much temptation. Oh my, how romantic. “Ladies, let us put this back into the book.”
“What? No, I want to finish reading it!” Susanna whispered.
“Yes, I mean, let’s buy the book and take the letters elsewhere to read.” She glanced pointedly over at Mr. Buxley.
Ellie nodded. She snatched the letter from Susanna, who appeared to be frantically reading ahead. Then Ellie tucked it back into the book and handed it to Charlotte. Susanna took Evelina from Ellie’s hands with a sigh. “Here I’ll buy this one. I just received my pin money for this month.” Ellie frowned but let her friend take the book.
Charlotte placed The Reformed Coquet on the counter with a thump. It was the only way to capture Mr. Buxley’s attention. He finally glanced up at her, a bemused expression across his wrinkled face. “I’d like to purchase this one, please,” she said.
“Ah yes, of course, Miss Grisham. That will be sixpence.”
“Mr. Buxley, where did you receive this book from?” she probed casually.
“I bought a crate of books recently at an auction in London. Might be it came in with that.” He turned to Susanna. “Sixpence for you as well, Lady Susanna.”
Charlotte and her friends emerged from the store, and none of them could hold back their excitement at finding such a treasure.
“A real love letter!”
“What were the letters doing hidden in a book, I wonder?”
Charlotte took charge of the situation. “Here, let’s sit down in the square and finish reading the one we started.” She led the way down the street to the town square. The green space held lovely garden beds rioting with early spring flowers. Cheerful tulips and sunny daffodils waved in the breeze and added color to the gloomy day. They chose an iron bench and sat together with Charlotte in the middle. She pulled out the letter and began to read aloud from where they left off. Susanna and Ellie leaned in; their excitement palpable.
“Our time together this summer haunts my dreams, filling them with images of you. Your face turned up to the sun, the tall seagrass, and the blue sky framing your beauty. Your laughter as I regaled you with stories. Your eyes alight with fire just for me as we lay in bed. I wish I had any talent for drawing. For if I did, I would have sketched a thousand pictures of you. I would wallpaper my bedroom with your likeness. But alas, all I have are my words. Please know my dearest, I love you with a passion which cannot be doused by time or distance. Keep hope that we can be together sometime soon.
End of Excerpt