Authors: Allie Borne
“So, are you really in that deep?”
“Yes, but don’t breathe a word to anyone. I had hoped to pay off my father’s loans but proved unable to win at high stakes betting. I am no gambling addict, mind you. As soon as September rolls around, I’ll have the cash I need to pay off my creditors, and my father’s. I am an expensive spouse to be sure and I will make a good match for the notoriously constrained Miss Beaumont.”
“Okay, okay, perhaps frugal is a better word.”
“Aiden, you will soon discover how wrong either word is in describing Lindsay. Stubborn, unyielding, feckless, and selfish, perhaps, but she could not be mistaken as ‘frugal’ or ‘constrained’. Lindsay, well, God help the man that shackles himself to that baggage!”
Aiden just shook his head and dropped the conversation. The truth was that Charlotte was the one that left him panting in lust. If his predictions were right, he’d be the one dragging Charlotte down the aisle as Charles heedlessly pursued Lindsay. He’d soon be giving Charles his condolences. The man seemed smitten and oblivious to it.
~ ~ ~
Charles was intensely aware of his feelings for Miss Beaumont, and the rest of the Beaumonts for that matter. He loathed them. He detested the very air they breathed. He wished them all long suffering and misery and he hoped to arrange for himself a front row seat. Just watching Lindsay grin, seeing her round pink cheeks and pale soft skin, made his own, sun-hardened flesh crawl. How dare she smile and chat with him as if nothing at all were amiss between them; as if four long years ago his life weren’t torn asunder by her machinations. Seeing how she had moved on with her life with little thought of him, even daring to mention the navy as if it had somehow been his idea?!
All this time he had been hoping that, perhaps, she had been unaware of his suffering and therefore not gone to his aid. Even that pretense was now obliterated. She would pay for her duplicity. Shackled to a handsome gambler like Aiden would be her just reward for the shallow manner in which she had disregarded his welfare and their friendship in pursuit of superfluous frivolity.
He would take a walk before dinner to burn off some of this angst, or else shame himself by causing a scene the likes of which he was sure to regret.
~ ~ ~
Lindsay strolled through the gardens and sat with Whitney in the gazebo by the creek. “Thank you for encouraging me to take some air, Whitney. I feel much more myself, away from the crush indoors.”
“Well, to be true, I asked ye hear to tell ye a thing or two I heard from yer cousin, Lauren’s abigail.”
“Oh?” Lindsay encouraged, grinning at the delicious likelihood of some tasty gossip.
“Lauren, it seems, was fast friends with Charlotte Reynolds before she married this spring. So Ana, Lauren’s maid, spent quite a bit of time over at Charlotte’s household with Charlotte’s abigail, Lucille. And Ana says that Lucille would wax on and on over how Charlotte was to marry herself the handsomest and most devilish man on the market, Mr. Aiden Evers. She said, Lucille did, that she saw them panting over each other on more than one occasion. She even once opened up the linen closet during tea to find them in there, Aiden’s hand half way up Charlotte’s skirt.”
“And you believe this, this gossip, Whitney?” Lindsay guffawed, feeling more than a little put out.
“Course I do. Ana would not say it if she didn’t know it to be true.”
“I should feel poorly for Charles, that his betrothed has treated him so unfaithfully; yet I cannot. He was most disloyal to me when I needed him most. If it wasn’t for Charlie taking my father’s money and running off for a position in the navy, I might have my mother still with me today.”
“How do you figure that, Miss Lindsay? How is it Sir Charles fault that yer mother was sent away to molder in that awful asylum?”
“Because he promised to persuade my father to send Mama to Bath with his aunts. Instead, my father persuaded him to take his money and run.”
Whitney nodded, thinking. “Men are sometimes a practical lot. I bet he saw that yer father was not to be dissuaded, and not bein’ able to face yer disappointment, decided to make the best of it.”
“Sir Charles was always a good friend to ye. He just couldn’t bear to let ye down is all, I’m sure.”
“I can forgive much, Whitney, but cowardess and disloyalty, I will not. Now let’s speak no more of it. I need to return to my guests.”
It was now clear to Lindsay that Aiden, dashingly handsome and debonair as he was, was not the man she had believed him to be. After all, he actually found Charlotte appealing! No, more to the point, a man marrying for money was not what she desired. Instead, she would be better served to find a young man willing to marry her for her charm and wit.
If he admired her person, rather than her money, he was much more likely to remain kind and considerate towards her, after he gained control of her dowry. Yet, she would avoid any man that she was predisposed to feel too strongly about. After all, Charles and Aiden had proven painful lessons in love and affection, had they not? It was much safer to marry a man that she felt would make a reliable and steadfast partner, one who hadn’t the magnetic presence necessary to evoke scandalous gossip, or captivate her soul.
So, why was it, as she settled down at her desk to write her daily journal, that her thoughts continued to settle on the turncoat Charles, making her breasts tingle and her soft spots pulse?
~ ~ ~
Back at his grandparents’ estate, Charles slept fitfully in the tiny guest bed. Could the conversation he had overheard between Lindsay and her maid be true? Had Aiden really betrayed his trust to court Charlotte right under his nose?
Well, he should’t be surprised. Scarred and grave, he had hardly been the image of a doting and attentive bride groom. He had avoided more events than he had attended with Charlotte, and, even then, barely offered her meager slivers of attention. No wonder she had turned to the overly zealous affections of his ne’er-do-well friend.
Pride being what it was, Charles would not marry Charlotte now, even if she would have him. A possibility he highly doubted. So, who was he to marry? He needed a young and wealthy bride. A ready dowry was needed to fix up his decrepit estate and a gently raised lady needed to maintain it. Besides, lack of laborers meant many a field lay fallow. If he couldn’t raise the funds to buy grain soon, the cotters would face starvation come winter.
Aiden’s words from earlier that afternoon echoed in his head, “Charles, I doubt Lindsay had anything to do with her father’s betrayal. Besides, what other choice have I, really? There are few eligible young ladies in these parts. Charlotte and Lindsay are the only two with sizable enough dowries.”
If what Lindsay told Whitney was true, then she believed he had been the one to betray her. She was under the assumption that her father had bought him a position in the navy, and for that he had given up her mother’s well being. She knew nothing of his being impressed against his will. The epiphany set his mind free, relieving him of his caustic anger towards her. A flood of affection for his age old companion left him feeling giddy with joy. Lindsay had always been his to look after and protect, and she still was.
Now that he knew she had never betrayed him, a self-righteous sense of outrage for Sir Richard’s actions surged, goading him to take immediate action. How could Sir Richard have sentenced him to four years of hard labor and his wife to long suffering death within a sanatorium? How could he have lied to Linnie, leaving her to feel abandoned in the worst way? His actions were narcissistic at best and sadistic at worst.
The best way to save his heritage and protect his friend was to marry Lindsay. The idea was easy to accept in that Lindsay had always been a part of his family, but, could he really pursue Lindsay, as a lover? She had turned into a curvy and seductive treat for the eyes but Charles was conflicted. Lindsay had always seemed more like a younger sister to him than an attractive woman.
It mattered not. Sir Richard owed him recompense and he would get it, in the form of a hefty dowry and the return of his dearest friend. Getting Lindsay away from her diabolical father would assuage some of the guilt Charles was feeling at realizing he failed to save Linnie’s mother. He could marry Lindsay to offer her his protection and then seek his pleasure elsewhere.
Most ton marriages ended up this way and few could claim they had married someone they respected and admired. Charles would get satisfaction from Sir Richard without having to sacrifice his own honor. Lindsay was sure to agree, when she discovered what had really happened to him, by her father’s hands.
He would speak with Charlotte and Aiden first, to insure himself of their intentions. Then, he would deal with Sir Richard.
And what if Lindsay does not wish the match?
his conscious niggled. She could be brought around. He always could persuade Linnie to see his side of things, Charles smiled, looking forward to the various ways that he might go about “convincing” Linnie.
~ ~ ~
Lindsay was up and out of her room by seven. Last night she had tossed and turned, uncertain of how to face Aiden, Charlotte, and Charles. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, inspiration struck. Why did she need to do anything at all? This was her party and she was going to make the most of it. Forget Aiden’s womanizing, Charlotte’s gossiping, and Charles' betrayal.
There were plenty of mild-mannered young men and women at this party with whom she could better spend her time.
Doctor Evers was right, why should I allow others to determine my fate when I have my own free will to do with as I please!
Unbeknownst to her, the sense of power with which this new awareness had gifted Lindsay, bestowed a fresh bloom to her cheeks and a becoming sparkle to her eyes. She added a calm assurance to her fresh complexion by going for a relaxing meander in the garden.
Upon entering the breakfast room, her breath caught to see Aiden and Charles helping themselves to the continental buffet. Already her resolve was being tested. Looking askance at her old companion, Lindsay was yet again startled by just how imposing a figure Charles had become. His well-muscled shoulders and chest ran cleanly into a trim waist and sculpted legs. The thick muscle of his youth had streamlined and hardened, rendering Charles a man who seemed to be carved of steel and stone.
His once rounded cheeks were chiseled, and, as the light from the picture window struck his left side, she noticed a thin scar running along his neck. Absurdly, the knowledge of the danger and pain he had likely suffered, resulting in that military scar, sent an overwhelming deluge of concern, compassion, and...lust? A bubbling, simmering heat emanated from him and she felt inexplicably drawn into the dangerously magnetic pull of Charles’ intensity.
Was it possible that the four years they spent apart had rendered some irrevocable changes in Charles. Mayhap he had left a vacillating and callow youth, only to have the navy turn him into the gallant and heroic gentlemen she always thought he would become. Clearly, there was more to his story than she once imagined. Perhaps she should investigate further. No! She chided herself silently. Stick to the plan. Charles was a danger to her sense of integrity...to her very sanity.
Ignore! Ignore! Ignore!
Taking a plate herself, she perused the spread. Settling on apples, eggs, and toast, she sat alone to eat her feast. The wicked grin upon her face matched the wicked thoughts of Charles, who planned to put his lips across much more than just her knuckles.
Although she sat several chairs down, Charles’ attention was continually drawn to her mysterious smile. The third time he turned his head to glance at the solitary Lindsay, Aiden growled, “Why don’t you just go and sit by her, if my company is so dull.”
“I am not interested in sitting by Lindsay! It’s just, she looks like the cat that’s just eaten the canary and is now eyeing her master’s cream. It is making me nervous.”
“Why? You are not her master.”
No, but I intend to be
, he thought, despite himself. Shaking off his reverie, he explained to Aiden, “When Lindsay sets her mind to something, trouble follows. Once, when she was eight, she decided that she would prove her right to participate in the boys’ affairs by beating us in a horse race. We laughed it off, but come dawn the next day, she was in the line up, dressed as a stable boy, as if we wouldn’t recognize her! She had to be dragged off her horse, kicking and screaming. In the end, her nanny had to march her back into the house by her hair.”
“As she trudged away, I couldn’t help but call out, ‘You thought to beat us at men’s sports by riding a horse, but look who is under reigns now!’
“She wouldn’t speak with me for six months after, due to my clever tongue. I did feel a bit guilty, but it was the quietest six months I’ve spent in this part of the country, I must say! You see, she’d had an awful tendre for me before that time, following me around like a puppy dog. Being a fourteen year old boy, I was more than a bit irritated by her. After that, she wouldn’t give me the time of day, even if I wanted her to.”
“It sounds to me like you’re the one whose heart holds affection.”
“Please! We were once chums but now I feel only concern and pity for her. And what do you care? From what I hear, you seem to be holding a candle for our Miss Reynolds.”
“What have you heard?”
“So you do not deny that you have been seeing her behind my back?”
“I will not deny that Charlotte and I hold a certain...affinity with one another.”
“And would that ‘affinity’ include coupling in the linen closet?”
“You needn’t be so coarse, Charles. It’s just that I can’t help myself when she is around. I had no intention of denying you her dowry, but the woman is an addiction I cannot seem to break. Will you forgive me, Charles?”