Loving the Scarred Soldier – Rose Pearson

I will get you, Lady Charlotte Pierce,” James whispered into her ear as he leaned just a smidge closer. Charlotte looked over her shoulder to where Mrs. Crosby, her plump companion, was walking some feet behind them. “Oh no you will not, James Watts, for I already have you,” Charlotte replied cheekily, a playful grin on her face which exaggerated her dimples and the small cleft in her chin. “Ah, but you only think that you have me. Truth be told, I have already laid claim to you these many years, but I allowed you to believe otherwise.” He raised his chin slightly, the sun shining down on his handsome face. “There is no escaping it.” James folded his arms behind his back and Charlotte peered up at him. James and her brother William were the same age, but James was minutely taller, with broader shoulders and a more relaxed air about him. William, unfortunately, was often far too austere – a characteristic for which he could thank their father, the Duke of Mormont. Charlotte kept watching James in silence, waiting until he turned back in her direction. The moment he did, she grinned at him and promptly stuck out her tongue. “You always like to best me James, but I tell you, one day, I will be the one who claims victory. Not you.

” He grinned, his bright smile illuminating his oval face and gently sloping cheekbones. “I look forward to it. You could win me over for the rest of my life,” he whispered. Charlotte’s heart fluttered in her chest. “You should not say such things, James,” she replied. “Someone might think you mean what you say.” Her fingers rose to coil a tress of dark brown hair. She wrapped it around her index finger several times as she kept her eyes to the ground, waiting for his reply. “You know I always mean what I say,” he answered tersely. Charlotte’s feet faltered with her heart.

What was he saying? Lately, James’s conversations were more and more personal, much more than they ever had been before. They’d long had a closeness between them, ever since her former governess, Mrs. Northam, had married his father, John, who acted as the Duchy of Mormont’s solicitor. Now, however, things were changing. Slowly, she looked up at him again and was met by the intensity of his emerald eyes. It made her heart gallop. She could not maintain the connection and quickly looked away. “James, do not toy with me.” “I would never toy with you about such things,” he replied calmly. Again, Charlotte’s eyes could not refrain from looking at him.

In recent years she had often found herself admiring the man he had become. He was no longer the boy she’d run after and played games with all those years ago. He was a man of twenty, two years her elder, and more esteemed in her sight than any of their acquaintances, save her brother. Charlotte stopped walking when she realized that James had failed to follow. She turned to face him, perplexity filling her heart. These feelings were strange to her. She had no mother to teach her, and with Mrs. Northam, now Mrs. Watts, no longer in her family employ, she was left to decipher the world on her own, for her nurse, Mrs. Crosby, was not someone whom she felt she could ask about important matters.

“Charlotte.” The sound of her name on his lips was a cherished utterance. She was very fond of it, more than she ever dared to admit. They knew each other too well – what she felt could not be what she thought it was. Could it? When he looked at her the way he was doing now, she believed that it could be. “We have known each other for what seems a lifetime,” James continued. The soft timbre of his voice was soothing. “We have played together and argued, cried, and laughed. We have seen each other in every… circumstance.” She laughed as the memory of their foray into his family’s lakes, in nothing more than their undergarments as children suddenly flashed into her mind.

Her father had been most upset by the indiscreet incident, which had left her soaked through, on the eve of a special dinner party. He had been equally displeased with the subsequent chill that had confined her to her bed. None of which had bothered her. “We have.” James’ brow furrowed slightly and she had the urge to smooth the wrinkles with her thumb. Customarily, she would have done so, but at that moment, with her feelings teetering on the brink, she dared not, lest they both fall over the edge. Charlotte watched in curious fascination as the lump in James’ throat bobbed up and down, and her dashing friend, ever confident, seemed to falter in his words. It was surprisingly endearing to see him so undone. She bit back a smile, but still felt the tug of it on her cheeks. “You have to know… that is… you must be aware,” James stuttered.

His eyes were still lowered to his feet, but then, in a sudden burst of confidence, he forced himself to meet her gaze. “Aware of what?” Charlotte questioned. It took all of her strength to muster the words of the questions which curiosity demanded be answered. Did he feel as she did? Did his heart flutter at the sight of her as hers did whenever she saw him? Did he get cold, and his skin prickle when they touched? Was his head as full of her as hers was of him? The more she thought of it, the more her emotions threatened to get the better of her. She quickly turned away, sure that her feelings were now evident on her face. She did not want to lose to him in this. She did not want to be the first to make her feelings known. In this one thing, she wanted to best him. Charlotte’s heart thundered in her ears. Her hands folded into defiant fists, as she determined not to be swayed by her emotions.

She would be strong. She would let him speak and not give herself away, though she was aware that she may have already done so. “Charlotte?” James’ voice was a whisper. Then, she felt his hands settle gently on her arms. She was acutely aware of the proximity of his body to hers. This was not their normal interaction. Yes, they were close, had even embraced, but the feelings which filled her at that moment were far greater, more powerful – consuming. Her stomach felt as if it would take flight. “You feel it too, don’t you?” he continued to whisper. “Feel what?” Charlotte replied as her voice shook.

She glanced in the direction of Mrs. Crosby. The woman was pretending to look at the leaves on one of the potted plants, but glances in their direction made Charlotte aware that she was keeping a close eye on them, in case things went too far. “She will not come. I asked her not to.” Charlotte’s eyes widened and her breath caught in her throat at James’ confession. “You did what?” “I asked Mrs. Crosby to give us a moment of privacy,” he continued. “There is something very particular which I wish to say to you, Charlotte. Something best said to your face and not your back.

” She could hear the slight lilt of laughter in his voice, but also nervousness. “James,” she replied. “You can tell me anything. You always have.” Her words were answered with a gentle tug on her arms, turning her to face him. She did not resist. She could not. All strength was gone from her limbs and she was at the mercy of her feelings, which would not be hidden. Their eyes met and Charlotte thought she might faint. Her head felt light, her heart was gone, only large butterfly wings remained, beating frantically in her chest, as smaller ones filled her belly.

What was happening? He did not remove his hands from her arms, Instead, he stepped closer, and Charlotte felt sure that the world had stopped and she no longer remembered how to breathe. “You and William have always been my dearest friends,” James stated. “But you, Charlotte, you have become something infinitely more dear to me.” Warmth washed up her neck and she was sure that her cheeks were now painted in crimson. Yet she could not speak. “I know that you have only ever considered me as a friend, and for a long time, I had accepted that fact. I thought I could live with it, but I cannot. I cannot be content with simply being your friend when I desire to be something much more.” Charlotte raised a hand and placed it on his chest to stop him, but the beating beneath her fingers caused her to pause. His heart was racing just like hers.

James looked at her delicate fingers and then placed his hand over hers, holding it over his heart. “This is what I feel every time I am near you. I cannot stop it. I have tried, but nothing works. I think it is because I do not wish it to. I like that you do this to me. You are the only one who can.” Her breathing erratic, Charlotte tried to think. She knew all the proper things to do, the decorum that was required, but how did one have such decorum with someone who had nursed your wounds and wiped your tears, often after having been responsible for causing them? One who knew you better than anyone else did? “I know there are many who desire you,” James continued. “I am not so foolish as to believe that I am the only one who cares for you, but I would hope I might have some advantage over those others.

” “Of whom do you speak? I know of no one,” Charlotte questioned, bewildered. His emerald eyes were ablaze. “Do you mean to tell me that there is no other who wishes your hand?” Charlotte’s hearing became hollow, only the sound of what seemed to be rushing water could be heard as the words left his lips. She was eighteen. She had never had anyone desire her hand, at least not that she knew of. Such matters were for her father, and none dared speak to her before presenting their proposal to him. None but James, that is. He was allowed certain liberties that other gentlemen were not, being such a close family friend. “What are you saying?” she whispered, “Be plain.” He smiled at her.

“Always so straightforward.” “Always skirting around the subject,” she replied. “Just tell me. Do not keep me on tenterhooks.” She squeezed his hand lightly. “I want to hear the words.” James stepped closer, the space between them almost entirely gone as he lowered his head to her ear and whispered. “I love you, Charlotte. I have always loved you.” The smile his words elicited could not be contained, and as their eyes met, she answered him.

“I love you, too, James. I always have.” CALDOR HOUSE, Alnerton, 1809 “LADY CHARLOTTE. LADY CHARLOTTE.” A soft voice repeated her name, but Charlotte was doing her utmost to resist. “You must rouse yourself, Lady Charlotte. The day is already upon us and you must get ready.” It was Sophie Lefebvre, her new companion. Her father had finally been swayed to Charlotte’s view that Mrs. Crosby was no longer suitable and that a woman closer to her age would be a far better choice.

Sophie, who was also almost twenty, the daughter of an Englishwoman and a Frenchman, her family in exile from France as a result of the war, had seemed a good choice to replace Mrs. Crosby. Charlotte forced her dark brown eyes open. The room was still mostly in darkness, but Sophie had the chambermaids already at work opening the blinds, while she set about laying out Charlotte’s attire in readiness. “Please, Lady Charlotte. You do not want to keep your brother and the duke waiting. It would be disrespectful to Monsieur Watts if you were to arrive late,” Sophie pleaded. “You would not want to do that.” Sophie knew those words would force Charlotte from her bed, though no words could change how Charlotte felt, not on that day. Charlotte forced herself to rise from her four-poster bed, then padded to the window, her bare feet making no noise as she crossed the room.

She looked out to where grey mists covered the gardens. The sky was overcast and the sun was completely hidden. It was as if the day shared her feelings. “Quickly, Lady Charlotte,” Sophie continued. She came to stand beside Charlotte. “I know that you do not wish to go, but you must.” “Must I?” Charlotte retorted weakly. “It will change nothing.” Sophie sighed. “No, it will not.

It is not supposed to. It is for you to show the respect which Monsieur Watts deserves. Please, come from the window and let me help you dress.” Charlotte was a doll in Sophie’s hands. She turned her and twisted her, made her sit, and stand, all while Charlotte uttered not a word. Finally, once her shoes were on and her black dress laced and every adornment in place, she sat her before the mirror. The young woman who looked back at her was foreign to her eyes. Her skin was far paler than it used to be. Her eyes less bright and her long dark brown hair seemed a dull greyish-black. Everything seemed to be cast in shades of grey.

The white collar which rose around her neck itched, but Charlotte cared little about it. It was the only contrast to the black of the rest of her ensemble. Once her hair was curled and pinned, Sophie placed a black feathered cap on her head. “C’est fini! You are done!” Charlotte didn’t reply. Instead, she stood and strode out of her chamber. She found William loitering in the hall, waiting for her. Her brother was not himself either, as was evident from the solemn expression on his face. He walked toward her and took her hand, hooking it gently over his arm. “How are you this morning, Charlotte? We missed you at breakfast.” “How should I be?” she answered absently.

Her eyes glanced over the balcony to the floor below. “It was a foolish question,” William replied. “Forgive me. I do not know how to deal with these matters.” She turned to her brother. “Save Mother, we are unaccustomed to such things. You are forgiven.”

.

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