One Room at the Inn – Cheryl Bolen

THROUGH ALL HER travails Charlotte Hale had managed never to cry in front of her children. But today, as she slipped the gold wedding ring from her finger and handed it to the aged jeweler for the insignificant sum of three guineas, she was incapable of staunching the tears that had pent up inside of her since her husband’s death the previous year. The jeweler’s craggy face collapsed in empathy, and he spoke in a gentle voice. “I cannot take your ring if it distresses you so, madam.” “No, please,” she said, panicked. Her tears abruptly ceased. She was in no position to be sentimental. She had to be strong for Susan and Eddie. “My husband would have been happy that the ring he gave with love will help feed our children.” Sniff. Sniff. Charlotte tossed a glance to the back of the shop where her wide-eyed young daughter was ogling the locked cases of brilliant jewels. The child was so mesmerized by an emerald and diamond necklace lying in a bed of ivory satin, she was not aware of her mother’s sorrow. Relief rushed over the mother. She could not have borne it if her children shared their mother’s melancholy.

“Then I’ll just put your guineas in a little pouch for you,” the jeweler said, turning his back as he unlocked a drawer. This was followed by the clanging of coins. He spun around, smiling, and handed her a small, well-worn leather bag the size of a man’s fist. “God bless you, Missus,” he said as he handed Charlotte the pouch. She smiled back, then turned to Susan. “Come, my darling. We must get home to your brother by dark.” It was not quite four in the afternoon, yet night was close to falling. Another thing she hated about December. “Bundle yerslelves up,” the kindly man said.

“They say it’s the coldest December in memory.” “It certainly is,” she agreed. As Charlotte and her daughter walked hand in hand along the busy Strand, Charlotte merely nodded as Susan rattled on and on about the lovely necklaces and bracelets she had seen. The widow’s thoughts were on far more grave affairs. How would she spend the three guineas? It wasn’t nearly enough to pay Mrs. Waddingham the half year she was behind in rents. Could she offer the landlady one guinea for now with a promise for the full amount when her modest widow’s pension came? At least she was assured she’d be able to feed the children for the next few weeks. “Lookey, Mama! A uniform shop that also sells ones for little boys! Can we get one for Eddie? Then he could be an off-ser like Papa!” Charlotte’s step slowed as she looked into the candlelit shop. It even offered thick woolen greatcoats for very young lads. How she wished she could purchase a little Guards uniform so Eddie could emulate his father, but it might as well have been the king’s own crown for its accessibility.

How grateful she was that children were oblivious to hardships—the missing father, the dwindling food, the wet chill seeping into their very bones. Just so long as their minds were occupied and the deprivation not complete, the little darlings never dwelt on grievances. As they neared a printer’s shop where men gathered to peer at Mr. Rowlandson’s lewd caricatures, her grip on Susan’s hand tightened. “Oh, look at the lovely white horse,” she said to distract her daughter from the offensive pictures in the shop’s window. “Wouldn’t Eddie love it?” “My bwother is mad for any horse of any colour.” “Indeed he is.” It saddened Charlotte that her son was deprived of a father who would have taught him to ride. Edward had promised to buy the lad a pony when he was old enough. But all Edward’s promises vanished when he’d been killed on a Spanish battlefield.

As they approached the corner and lost the buildings’ shelter, she feared the icy wind that sliced through them would carry away her small daughter. She scooped Susan’s tiny body into her arms as a large cart laden with coal swept past and sprayed them with freezing slush from the filthy streets. Just as sheets of rain fell from the blackening skies. Her half boots pounding in and out of conveyances to cross the busy street, Charlotte hurried home as quickly as she dared on the icy pavement. She must get home as soon as she could. Eddie did not always have the sense to get out of the rain, and little Oliver’s elderly grandfather, in whose care she’d left her lad, was often not mindful of the weather. When she reached Chappell Street where Mrs. Waddingham’s lodgings were located, merrily drenched Eddie and Oliver were running around the little triangular park that fronted their property. She didn’t know which emotion was strongest: anger with Oliver’s grandfather or worry that Eddie would take lung fever. Definitely the latter, she decided.

Then she saw that her son was not wearing his coat. The coldest December in memory. Certainly the coldest December in her four and twenty years. She thrust hand to hips and glared at her son. “Edward Thomas Hale, where is your coat?” Her fair-haired son stopped in mid stride and smiled up at her in a most boastful fashion. The gaslight’s glow revealed a lad whose cheeks were now exceptionally red and whose hair was exceedingly wet. “I gave it to the urchin.” Urchin? “I beg that you explain yourself.” “You always said to be kind and gen-rus to the poor urchins, so when the lad said he wished as he had a warm coat like mine, I gave mine to him.” Tears welled in her eyes.

What was she to do? “Come, love. We must get you warm.” Still holding Susan, she took Eddie’s hand, walked to their house, and began to mount the stairs to their chambers on the second floor. As she approached their rooms, her heart began to drum. A padlock had been put on the door, as well as a sign that read EVICTED. Thank God my children cannot read. “Oh, darlings, I’ve just thought of something. I shall have to leave you with Oliver’s grandfather for a few minutes while I go on an errand. You mustn’t get out in this freezing rain again.” “I don’t want to get out in that rain again,” Susan said.

“Can’t I get Augusta?” “Later. It won’t hurt you to do without your doll for a few minutes.” Charlotte left her children in Mr. Leeming’s single garret room and went to the ground floor and knocked on Mrs. Waddingham’s door. The landlady’s maid answered. “I must speak to Mrs. Waddingham.” “Who shall I say is calling?” “You know very well I’m Mrs. Hale.

” The maid closed the door in Charlotte’s face. A moment later she returned. “Come this way.” The plump matron, whose red hair was threaded with gray, sat on a faded green silk sofa as Charlotte entered the drawing room. “Have you come to pay your rent, Mrs. Hale?” she asked. “I have come to pay a guinea. For now,” Charlotte added hopefully. “I’m sorry, but I shall have to have the entire sum.” “I can’t pay you the entire sum at this time.

” “There’s a large demand for your rooms. I have to turn away paying tenants every month. I need the money.” How could the woman possibly understand what it was to need money? She was well fed, well clothed, and owned a fine home in a well-situated location. “Please. This is the coldest day of the year. We have nowhere else to go.” Charlotte indicated her wet clothes. “Even our dry clothing is locked in our chambers.” “I’m sorry, but whatever is locked within those chambers is now my property.

After all, you now owe me nearly thirty guineas.” “Is there nothing I can do to soften your unyielding stance?” Mrs. Waddingham rang the bell for her servant. “I do not run a charity, Mrs. Hale. Good night.” IF HER FAMİLY was going to be forced to the streets, it was imperative that Eddie have a warm coat. She returned to the military shop on the Strand. The lone shopkeeper, a woman a decade older than Charlotte, was assisting a solidly built officer of middle age. Charlotte went straight to the woolen great coat, a Guards replica which appeared to be designed for a lad of about four—a little large for Eddie, but he would grow into it.

In fact, it should keep him warm for at least the next two years. Its workmanship was superior, and the wool’s heft of high quality, as were the brass buttons. She examined every inch of the garment but could not determine the price. Finally she turned to the shopkeeper. “What is the cost of this item?” “That’s a bargain for only twenty guineas.” Charlotte’s heart fell. A king’s ransom. She paced the shop’s entire children’s section, pondering her next move. There was only one clear choice. Desperation breeds corruption.

She waited until the shopkeeper’s back was turned, then she took the coat and fled. “Hey! Come back! Thief!” As she reached the door, she bumped into a man entering the shop. Their eyes locked. This man had served with her husband. “Mrs. Hale,” said he. Ignoring him, Charlotte pushed past him, then she started to run. As the distance between her and the shop grew, two voices now called out, “Mrs. Hale!” The shopkeeper and Edward’s fellow officer. She’d been recognized.

Her heartbeat pounded. Her pace quickened. She mustn’t let them catch her. AS ANXİOUS AS he was to join his family for Christmas, Lord Philip Fenton—who, in the army, preferred to be known as Captain Fenton—had an obligation to fulfill before seeking his own family after several years of absence. He had vowed to a dying Edward Hale that he would look after his family. In the year since his friend’s death in the Peninsula, all Philip had managed with that impotent promise was to send his own sister to deliver Hale’s widow the shattering news of her husband’s death and for Georgiana—who’d become a duchess since Philip had left England—to offer Mrs. Hale any assistance she could. Philip was aware such offers from a complete stranger were unlikely to be accepted, as his own offers would be spurned, but he was determined to make a valiant effort. For Edward’s sake. What a pity he had to return to England during the coldest December in a generation.

Ships were unable to travel the frozen River Thames. A person could freeze to death in this numbing, windy, wet chill. Even those frigid Eton mornings he’d always accounted to be the most miserable of his life when he’d been forced from his warm bed now seemed like basking in front of a fire compared to London this evening. His hired coach stopped in front of a four-storey house on Chappell Street fronted by a slender, triangular parcel of grass, now colourless. Looking at the scrap of address in his hand, he saw that he had reached the house where Mrs. Hale lodged. Her chambers were number 222. He bundled up, left the coach, entered the darkened building, and began to climb the stairs lighted from wall scones. On the second floor, a paper sign was affixed to number 222. He came closer and read.

EVICTED. Oh, God. I’m too late. If only he had come earlier. He raced to the ground floor. It appeared to be occupied by a single tenant. Would it be the property owner? Was that not always the case? He rapped at the door. A moment later a maid answered the rap. This was one time he did not mind using his title. “Lord Philip Fenton to see the landlord of these premises.

” Titles did have their usefulness. Soon he found himself addressing the smiling landlady who was all reverence. “What can I do for you, my lord?” “I’m looking for Mrs. Hale.” “I regret to say she has just moved out.” His brows lowered. “Moved out or been evicted?” “One must pay one’s rent, my lord.” “What a pity you could not have waited. I had come to pay her rent in full—and for the next year in advance, too, but it seems I am too late, madam.” He moved to the door, then turned back.

“Would you know where she’s gone?” The middle-aged woman’s eyes were like slits. “She said she had nowhere to go.” “How kind of you.” He strode to the door and slammed it as hard as he could. He could hear her asking him to pay the money owed. That merciless woman would not get a farthing from him. How did one live with oneself after evicting a widow and children who had nowhere to go? And during the coldest winter in memory! As he climbed back into his coach, he shook his head. How in the bloody hell did one find a woman with two small children in the world’s largest city? He didn’t even know how old the children were. As a disinterested bachelor, he had never properly listened when Hale spoke of the children. Philip was doing well to know one was a lad and the other a girl, though he would be hard pressed to know which was the eldest.

As to the lassie’s name, he was clueless, but he thought perhaps the boy was named Edward, like his father. Perhaps. His coach offered little shelter from the bitter cold, but at least it was dry. He pitied anyone who had to be out on a night like this. Coachmen and ostlers commanded his most profound respect. And soldiers, too. They were all a hardy lot. They knew how to dress to insulate themselves against the cruelest nature had to throw at them. Now that he was coming home, he’d put aside his own uniform in favor of civilian clothing for the first time in almost a decade. Philip had always eschewed anything that would call attention to himself, whether it be the aristocratic title that indicated he was the younger son of a peer or the uniform a high-ranking military officer.

His gloved hand swiped at the window glass. Beneath a gaslight on Piccadilly he beheld the heart-wrenching sight of a young mother and two bedraggled children walking in the cold. He might not have given it another thought—other than that of niggling sympathy—had not Mrs. Hale and her children been dominating his thoughts. He indicated for the coachman to stop, and he leapt from the coach to approach the woman. “Mrs. Hale?” She turned around to face him, her eyes wide and frightened. She was remarkably pretty, even with her face slickened from the freezing rain and her hair—was it dark blonde? It was difficult to tell in the damp darkness – plastered to her head. She looked to be about a quarter of century in age, about the same as Mrs. Hale would be, and the children appeared to be one male and one female.

Surely this was Edward Hale’s recently evicted family. She shook her head, and began to stride forward again. He was not to be deterred. He walked beside them. “I say, it’s a dreadfully nasty night for a proper lady like yourself to be about.” For even though she had not uttered a single word, he intrinsically knew this was a well-bred woman who should not be walking these dangerous streets at night. He wondered, too, if she even had a place to go. “We’re walking to the posting inn at Chelsea.” The children would never make it. Not in this weather.

“Madam. If you don’t fear for yourself, have a care for your children. It’s too far to take them in this cold.” She drew in a deep breath, continued on, but made no response. “Permit me to carry you in my coach. I assure you I’m a gentleman whom you can trust with your life.” “But,” she said in her cultured voice, “you are a stranger to me.” “A stranger you must trust if you don’t wish you children to become dangerously ill.” Her great sad eyes beheld the children, both fair haired. The girl was the eldest, not more than five years of age, her brother probably a year younger.

The mother slowly nodded. “I assure you, I can scream quite loudly.” He stifled a laugh. It was no short distance to the posting inn in Chelsea. Thank God she had permitted him to get them out of the freezing rain. Once they were in the carriage, he tossed them a dry rug. “Where is it you will travel by coach?” “Lincolnshire.” “Ah, it’s the same with me. You will also be visiting with family for Christmas?” He would be exceedingly happy to see his family, especially his mother. He’d been worried about her ever since she’d suffered apoplexy, even though his sister had taken excellent care of her.

It saddened him to think of all that had changed since he’d left England. Papa had died, and now Philip’s brother was the new marquess. Georgiana had fallen in love and married a duke. And, thankfully, Mama was regaining strength every day. Georgiana said she was finally able to walk without her cane. “A friend, actually.” “Allow me to introduce myself,” he said. He always felt a bit deceitful when he abandoned both his aristocratic and his military titles, but he found doing so more easily put others at ease. “I’m Mr. Fenton.

” She did not respond for a moment. Finally, she said. “Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Fenton.” As the coach drew near the busy inn yard, he thought of a plan that might be advantageous for the woman. “I do hope you realize I am a gentleman.” “I do hope you are, Mr. Fenton.” Since she obviously lacked funds to procure a hackney to take them to Chelsea, she must have precious little money. “I thought perhaps I could persuade you to share my coach to Lincolnshire.

After all, it’s much warmer with the body heat of four as opposed to the body heat of one.”

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