Charlotte Holbrooke, Charlie to her family and friends, trudged along the walking path around the house, her slippers kicking at the gravel. She’d left her sisters and cousin in the library, poring over the latest fashion plates. Uncle Theodore’s news during dinner had heightened their excitement. News in which Charlie found no pleasure. Why now? She didn’t want to leave while Sapphire was due to give birth any day now. While she wouldn’t be the one who delivered the foal, Charlie wanted to offer comfort to Sapphire during the birthing process. Who wanted to prance around like a lady trying to capture a gentleman’s interest during the London season? Not her. Charlie found it unpleasant when Uncle Theo made her wear a dress during dinner. She had followed Abigail out of the library, but lost sight of her in the darkness. Charlie understood why Abby left and wanted to ease her discomfort. Even though they were all wards of Uncle Theodore, because their fathers were his brothers, Abby wasn’t. She had been the maid’s daughter to her Aunt Paulina. When tragedy had struck Charlotte’s family, killing her parents, aunts, uncles, and their servants in a boating accident, Abigail was left all alone. Uncle Theo took her under his wing and included her in their family. Since Abby came from a servant’s family, the ton wouldn’t accept her.
Charlie’s family considered Abigail as one of them, but others would not. Raised voices bellowed out from the open window further along the path. Charlie gathered her skirts in one hand, stepped into the grass to muffle her footsteps, and made her way closer to the window. She pressed against the stone façade, listening to her cousin, Lucas Gray, arguing with Uncle Theodore. Only Uncle Theo wasn’t so much arguing back, but laughing off Lucas’s points on why allowing the girls a season in London all at once was madness. “Are you quite mad, old man?” Lucas asked. “On the contrary, I am quite sane.” “Well, I disagree. First thing tomorrow, I will consult with the lawyer on how to lock you up in Bedlam.” Uncle Theodore laughed.
“Pour me one of those too, since you want to argue this out.” Charlie watched Lucas’s reflection in the window while he poured them each of glass of whiskey. She noted Lucas filled his glass near the rim. Charlie wrinkled her nose, grimacing at the drink. She had tried it once before and didn’t have a pleasurable experience with the toxic liquid. How they took enjoyment from it was beyond her. “First off, dressing four females at one time for the London season will break the bank,” Lucas replied wryly. “We have plenty of money to spoil on these ladies and they deserve it. However, not four, but five.” Five? Charlie mouthed.
“Five?” “Yes, you are forgetting Abigail.” “But she is not a lady, father. The best you could offer to Abigail is to present her as a lady’s companion.” Charlie fumed. At times, Lucas could be an imbecile. Not a lady? Abigail acted more like a lady than Charlie. How dare he insult Abigail? “I will pretend you did not utter those remarks concerning Abigail. We have raised her to be a lady, and so she is. I am ashamed of your blatant disregard for the girl.” C Lucas sighed.
“I meant no disrespect, Father. You know I do not consider Abigail as such. I only argue on how others will perceive her.” “Well, I have never cared for how others think, only for how I do. As should you, my boy. Now, let us hear your other arguments, and then I shall inform you of my plans.” “Never mind. I do not wish to insult my cousins, any more than I meant to insult Abigail. You know of their faults, and how others will judge them. If you believe they are ready, then I must accept your judgment.
However, for the record, let it be known that I still think this is madness.” Uncle Theo laughed again. “Duly noted, my boy. Before the season begins, I thought we would host a house party. Introduce the girls to some gentlemen, so they can practice their flirtation skills. At the end of the party, we will throw a ball. This will also give them some practice on how to organize an event. They can help your Aunt Susanna with the planning.” Lucas shook his head in defeat. Charlie’s ire at him grew.
Obviously, he found fault with all of his cousins’ qualities. While Uncle Theo was a relaxed man who went along with the mood, Lucas was a stickler for all things proper and planned. He never veered off course. Even down to accepting his fate of marriage. Uncle Theo had arranged a betrothal when Lucas was a lad. It was to the daughter of another prominent duke. Upon their marriage, as the only children of dukedoms, they would amass a substantial fortune. It was a shame that Uncle Theo didn’t wait to see how the lady’s character would shape. As it stood, her cousin would end up married to a shrew. Maybe after Lucas married his shrew, he would appreciate how amazing Abigail was.
By then, it would be too late. “Each girl will require a new wardrobe. Can we not introduce one lady at a time? Since Jacqueline is the oldest, why not let her have a season this year? The following year, the twins can have their chance, then the year after, Gemma and Abigail can make their debut.” Lucas continued to reason with his father. “All those seasons will not be necessary.” “Do you believe each lady will succeed in their first season?” Lucas scoffed. Charlie growled. Lucas had gone too far. She wanted to step in front of the window and inform him so. But she wanted to listen to her uncle’s response more.
Charlie knew eavesdropping benefited no one. But if their season was part of a bigger plan, Charlie needed to learn as many details as necessary. Then she could inform the other ladies what was at stake. “Have you heard anything interesting?” A voice whispered from behind her. Charlie stilled, rolling her eyes. Another insufferable male with whom they were expected to share the evening. She had forgotten about Lord Jasper Sinclair. He had joined their family for dinner. Again. Charlie had gotten so lost in Uncle Theo and Lucas’s conversation that she didn’t notice Sinclair wasn’t present and taking part in the lively discussion.
She was positive Sinclair would have had his own opinion, if so. Charlie turned and put a finger to her lips. “Shh.” And turned back to listen. “If they wanted you to listen, they would have invited you to join them,” Sinclair whispered louder. Charlie closed her eyes, gritting her teeth. If she couldn’t get rid of Sinclair, then she risked Lucas discovering her. Charlie turned back, raised her hand, and gave Sinclair the motion to move on. However, she couldn’t deter the marquess. She tried, “This does not concern you, Sinclair.
” “Ahh, then it must concern you. Perhaps, I wish to listen too, you know, just in case. Move aside, love. I am a bit curious myself.” Sinclair placed his hands on Charlotte’s waist and lifted her effortlessly behind him. Charlie growled. The brute. He would get them caught with his high-handed ways. Sinclair looked over his shoulder and winked at Charlie. His smile was contagious.
Charlie shook her head—Sinclair’s smile was her downfall. No matter how much he infuriated Charlie, all he had to do was to flash that sparkling smile her way. And she melted. Literally melted. Melted into a simpering maid at his beck and call. Jasper Sinclair sensed Charlotte was shooting daggers at his back. The smile would only halt her for so long before Charlotte would shove him to the side. She shouldn’t be spying on her uncle and cousin anyway. However, Sinclair’s curiosity had grown when Gray asked Sinclair to excuse himself after port. He’d wondered what Gray needed to discuss with his father so urgently.
Sinclair thought it had something to do with the announcement the duke made at dinner. A very generous offer for the young ladies, who became excited and exclaimed with glee. Except for Charlotte and Abigail. Sinclair understood why Abigail wouldn’t find joy with the news. With her standing in society, Abigail wouldn’t be able to attend most functions to which the other ladies would receive invitations. If she did, it would have to be as a companion, not as a lady seeking to draw the attention of a gentleman to court her. Sinclair had a few connections who would find pleasure in having Abigail Cason for a wife. Sinclair would follow up on them when they traveled to London and make the necessary introductions. He, like the other families in the county, held a soft spot for the miss. He also understood why Charlotte would balk at the idea.
Sinclair laughed to himself, knowing full well Charlie hated being in a dress at this very moment. He could only imagine her forced into silk and lace, acting all prim and proper. Sinclair’s shoulders shook while he pictured the storm Charlie would create in the ton. “What is so humorous, you buffoon?” Charlie hissed. Her comment set him off. Sinclair let out a bark of laughter, drawing Gray’s attention to the open window. When Gray drew closer, Sinclair shook his head and mouthed Charlie to him. Gray nodded and spoke louder. “We should join the ladies in the library, Father. We can continue this discussion at a later time.
” “Nothing more to discuss, my boy. My decision is final.” Sinclair waited until the duke and his son left the study before he turned around. Charlie’s glare only made his smile grow wider. He loved provoking her into a tiff. Sinclair shrugged in apology. “Sorry, nothing more to learn.” “Do you not have a home to return to?” “Yes, my lady, I do. But I shall return here soon.” “Whatever for?” “Your uncle has extended an invitation to his house party.
I do not wish to miss it for the world.” Sinclair bowed and walked away towards the house before Charlie responded. He knew he left her irritated and took great pleasure from it. From what he overheard, it appeared the duke had a plan for the house party involving his wards. The duke meant to play matchmaker, and Sinclair wanted no part of it. However, it would be enjoyable to observe. He must steer clear of ever being alone with any of the ladies. Especially Charlotte. There was something about the chit attracting him to her. Probably just the amusement of her mischiefs.
It had nothing to do with … no, of course not. Charlie watched Sinclair round the corner of the house before she breathed again. She rested her hands on her waist. Her body still tingled from his touch. Why did the one gentleman who was so infuriating hold such an effect on her? Not only had Sinclair flustered her this evening, but he also prevented Charlie from learning what her uncle had planned for them. At least she learned some of his agenda. She would wait until tomorrow morning to share the information. For now, Charlie only w a nt e d t o s a v o r S i nc l a i r ’ s t o uc h a l i tt l e w hi l e l o ng e r.