Authors: Allie Borne
Charles sighed. Setting his linen napkin upon his plate, he pushed back from his seat, appetite gone. “The truth is that my heart and mind have never been engaged to Charlotte Reynolds. You and I will speak with her father when they arrive this morning. But, Aiden, you have been philandering with my intended. If you ever betray my trust in that manner again, I shall take a sword to your throat and not think twice about it.”
Grinning with relief and budding anticipation, Aiden held out his hand and shook Charles’. “Agreed. And yet, you, like me, need financing. You just inherited the estate of your great uncle, and with no funds for its repair and upkeep. A dowry such as Lindsay’s could get you started. Don’t tell me you haven’t considered it.”
Charles shrugged, uninterested in sharing his plans with AIden. Peering at Lindsay through lowered lashes, he felt goaded to assert his manhood. “Perhaps, like you, I’ll marry and leave my wife in the country while I pursue my own pleasures.”
“Don’t even think of it, Charles. You are angry with Sir Richard, and I understand why, but if you act against your conscious, you’ll regret it. I, on the other hand, have no conscious. Speaking of... I hear a carriage arriving. I must go and seek my Mistress of Mayhem.” On that note, Aiden stood and strode from the room, a Roman god on a mission.
Lindsay quickly stared at her toast, fearful of being caught staring at the duo. They had been engaged in an engrossing conversation and although she could not hear their words, her interest was peaked.
Ignore! Ignore! Ignore!
she repeated the mantra in her head again to steal her reserve. It was not working.
I wish Charles had not grown so much more forceful and dangerously attractive. The very air around him crackles. He has been to foreign places and done daring things. I do so long to hear his stories.
Lindsay groaned, biting her lower lip in consternation at the weak nature of her thoughts. She was so troubled by her secret yearning that she did not notice his approach. Lindsay physically jumped in her seat when his voice rumbled behind her.
“I love the crease you get in between your eyebrows when your schemes are being jeopardized.” Before she could hide her thoughts, Lindsay gasped and turned in astonishment. “I thought as much,” he grinned cheekily, proud of his deduction.
Recovering, Lindsay retorted, “Whatever are you talking about, Charles? Why do you insist on assuming you can read my mind? It’s not as if we see one another regularly enough for that.” She hated to show her, but he was being tedious.
“It’s not as if anyone couldn’t, Linnie. Honestly, your face is like an open book. Never become a Whist
addict, my dear. It would prove your ruin.” His words seemed light and flirtatious, but his tone warned of a deeper, darker emotion.
Lindsay looked up into his face, concerned, and wanting, despite herself, to make amends for whatever rift the years of absence seemed to have placed on their friendship. “Fine, Charlie, I do not wish to quarrel today. There will be time enough for that, I am sure, after Charlotte arrives.”
“She arrived just a few moments past. Didn’t you hear the hoopla over your toast chewing?” Flushed, Lindsay turned her back on her companion, and gathered her skirts to stand. “I’m sorry, Linnie,” Charles laughed, “I am only kidding. Please walk with me and let me make amends for my foul behavior.”
Lindsay paused in her departure, a thought occurring. “You know, Charles, there are some acts for which one can never make amends.”
“Can a man not be forgiven his weaknesses, Linnie?”
“Forgiveness is for God and saints, Charles. Tell it to Saint Peter,” Lindsay snapped, lifting her skirts and sliding from the room, ignoring the sudden weakness in her knees.
~ ~ ~
Half an hour later, Charles and Aiden walked from Sir Stuart’s study much beleaguered, but well pleased. Reynolds had agreed to switch the marriage contract over to Aiden, seeing as how his daughter had practically initiated the consummation of said marriage already. If anyone were to ask, they were to let it be known that this was the plan all along and that gossip mongers had misinterpreted the beau to which Miss Charlotte had been attached.
Had Charles truly felt affection for the chit, he would not have been so accommodating. If he were to be fully honest with himself, Aiden and Charlotte had provided him with the perfect opportunity to pursue what he had truly wanted all along. Now it was time to find Sir Reynolds and have an honest-to-God confrontation and, this time, there would be no liquor involved.
~ ~ ~
Trussed up in a delectable blue riding suit, which showed her trim waist and plump bosoms to perfection, Lindsay’s small frame hummed with anticipation. “I’m riding Doc today, Harry,” she told the old groom as she entered the stable with her sister.
“Linnie! You’ll look ridiculous,” countered Leah, appalled. “Why, Doc’s a full sixteen hands and broad to boot, do not ride him in front of this group, please! You’ll look like a tiny monkey atop an organ grinder’s box.”
“It’s Doc or none at all, Leah. You know how I can’t abide tiny horses. They are sneaky and antsy. Besides, I feel as if my bulk will break their little backs!”
“Well, at least take the side saddle, Miss. Let’s not completely offend the lot o’ em with your headstrong antics, I’ll be finding myself other employment to be sure.”
“Oh, very well, Harold, do what you must, but I’ll be back at dusk. Then, you’ll have to accompany me on a true and glorious run. Promise me!”
“Aye, little Linnie, I promise. But not without my qualms, I still have ‘em, mind ye.”
Leah simply shook her head as she mounted her petite pony. Leah’s unconventional yellow riding habit gave her maid fits, but as Betty herself had claimed, keeping it spot free was worth it. Leah was breathtaking. At sixteen, she was every bit a handsome and elegant young lady. Her hair, lighter and thicker than Lindsay’s, swooped up in a practical twist beneath her tiny satin bonnet. There was still plenty of hair to run in ringlets around her face. The yellow had her shining like the star that she was. If only Lindsay could dispel the cloud that hung over the female reputation in this family, Leah would make a brilliant match.
Charlotte soon approached in her hunter green attire. She glided like a queen inspecting her troops, observing the riders on horse back as she bent an ear elegantly to listen to Aiden’s wry comments.
“Why what a grand horse you ride, Lindsay, plan you to plow the fields a bit after our ride today?” Charlotte batted her silver lashes innocently at Lindsay. She was striking with her yellow and tawny streaked curls and swanlike neck. Looking down at Charlotte and Aiden from her perch on Doc’s back, however, Lindsay felt nothing of the old jealousy or resentment.
“No, Charlotte, I simply must ride Doc as he is the only horse I’ll trust. It is my belief that horses, like men, are best kept when big, strong, and dim. It is in this way that they follow one’s whims.”
“I see,” said Charlotte, surprised but pleased at her hostess’s change in approach. “Then, let us see what you think of my steed. He is a gelding after all!”
Lindsay flushed and giggled in delight and continued on to greet the other guests accompanying the ride. The dark look on Aiden’s face had been enough to make Lindsay’s day. Those two had made a good match of it, after all. She would tell Charlotte so at the earliest convenience. If they were to be neighbors, this feud must end. With whom would her children play in summer, if not with Charlotte’s?
Newly resolved, she headed out, behind the game warden and her father. The men, unsurprisingly, had decided to accompany the women half way, then go for a bit of sport hunting while the women strolled the rocky ledges and listened to the poet hired for their entertainment. The men would return to the hill for the picnic lunch.
Riding up beside Lindsay, Charles looked stoic. “What?” she asked, on guard.
“I need to speak with you, alone,” Charles dipped his head and murmured, sidling his grey stallion up to Doc.
“Do not concern yourself. I already know that Aiden and Charlotte are to be wed. News travels quickly at a house party.”
Swallowing his frustration, at her aloof manner, Charles took a deep breath and pushed forward. “I had hoped to speak with you about another, more personal matter.”
“What could be more personal than our two prospects throwing us over to marry one another, Charles?!” Lindsay guffawed, entertained by the all-too-serious set to his shoulders she remembered from their childhood.
“It is about your mother,” Charles offered, goaded into pulling out his most powerful method of persuasion.
Lindsay stilled upon her mount, causing Doc to snort and throw his head about anxiously. Both riders surveyed one another. Charles looked, really looked at Lindsay for the first time since his arrival. Her hair, a shiny, dark chocolate, framed her face, as the wind blew its wispy curls across a smooth cheek. Her cheeks were rosy and the light in her blue eyes flickered with the rise and fall of her chest. Four years worth of needy, cloying longing rose up, threatening to crumble his carefully constructed mask.
The only outward manifestation of Lindsay’s inner turmoil was a telltale tightening of her hands on the reigns. “I will speak with you at the picnic, after the hunt,” she offered so quietly that Charles had to lean in to capture her words.
Tilting forward, Lindsay goaded Doc into a canter and met up with a larger group of young men and women ahead. The fleeting look of fear and longing she offered him, as she glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder, nearly undid Charles.
Despite his nobler intentions, an image of Lindsay, her arms wrapped around his neck came into mind. Like a tidal wave, other images followed, Lindsay holding their babe, Lindsay laughing as she lay beneath him in their marriage bed. Charles’ blood began to warm at the thought of being married to such a complex and beautiful young woman. No, that was not possible. She was like his little sister. It was wrong to feel this sexual attraction, wasn’t it? Besides, Lindsay could never truly love a man such as he-average in appearance, beggared in wealth. She had proven that much with her easy dismissal of the far more handsome, yet impoverished Aiden.
No, Lindsay might not want him, but she needed him. How long could she survive, attached to a grasping wastrel or a conniving bastard, such as her father? Charles knew what was best for her, and, true to form, he would act to make it so. Thus resolved, he rode off to join the hunt.
~ ~ ~
“What do you mean, he refuses to see me?” Charles growled, aghast at Sir Stuart’s calm demeanor. “The man abducts me, has me wrongly impressed in the navy, ships his wife off to die in some abysmal hell hole, and
can’t deem to see
“Calm yourself, Sir Charles. I am certain that my son is feeling...uncomfortable about the way he left things with you. It is just that, well, you were indecent in your approach to his daughter and you can’t really fault a man for wanting to protect his own.”
“Indecent? I was indecent. Oh, I’ll show him indecent. And then he’ll have to deal with me, whether he likes it or not.”
Stomping from the clearing where the men had felled a large buck, Charles mounted his horse and rode off toward the picnic area to find Lindsay.
~ ~ ~
Lindsay entered the copse of trees in which the picnickers were encircled. After half an hour of laughing and chatting with Leah and her other female friends, Lindsay noticed Charlotte wandering by herself, along the conifers which lined the clearing.
It serves her right for being such a snake
, thought Lindsay, but she immediately felt poorly, for, by not forgiving others their slights, how could she, in turn, expect to be forgiven?
Striding with purpose across the grassy knoll, Lindsay approached Charlotte. Not being a missish sort, she came directly to the point. “I’ve been feeling rather put out with you, Charlotte, after the gossip that I endured during my London come out.”
Charlotte paused in her flower inspection to look up at Lindsay, a contemplative look upon her goddess face. “Yes, I suppose you would be.” Charlotte responded forthrightly. “It was my mother’s opinion that I would not fair well on my own merits. Therefore, eliminating the immediate competition was her focus. She insinuated your fragile state, Audrey’s lack of ready funds, Beatrice’s likely inability to bear sons; it was a no end gossip mill. The effect was not what I would call a success for me. You may have been avoided, but more in a hope to avoid the gossip likely to be headed their way. I became a pariah in the worst sense, my only two companions, vicious gossips themselves.”
“I suppose I hadn’t thought of the consequences for you. All of this controversy has been a trial for us both.”
“Do not trouble yourself over much. After the wide swath of damage my mother has wrought, it is nothing I haven’t endured before,” Charlotte smiled sadly, “shall we call a truce?”
“Truce,” agreed Lindsay, smiling and offering her hand. Like men closing a business deal, they shook on it.
“Now, how do you feel about getting a bite to eat?” Charlotte asked. “I am famished and I see the gentlemen have just returned.” As they walked back to the center of the clearing, they began to discuss their plans for the remainder of the house party.
Charles and Aiden dismounted their horses, handed them to a groom, and turned to see Charlotte and Lindsay walking amicably together. “Oh, this cannot be good,” Aiden groaned. “Charlotte and Lindsay together...all of that stubbornness and cunning rolled into one. Charles, we must end this!”
“And end our summer visits? No, we’ll just have to put our tactics of evasion and humor to good use. Come, let’s see how we fair.”
Greeting the young women, Aiden and Charles escorted them to a thick, red blanket, beneath a giant elm. “Tis encouraging to see the two of you getting along, in a genuine sense. What caused the change?” Aiden queried.