Runaway Duchess – Jillian Eaton

“I WİLL NOT MARRY HİM.” Standing with her arms crossed and her jaw set, Charlotte Vanderley shook her head from side to side, sending her unruly mass of red curls whipping across her face. “He is old and grotesque and I would not want him if he were the last man on earth!” “Pin your hair up dear, you look like a heathen.” Unimpressed by her daughter’s belligerence, Lady Bettina Vanderley sipped her tea and smoothed a wrinkle from her skirts. Always impeccably dressed and well put together, nothing grated on Bettina’s nerves quite like a coiffure that was loose or a stay that was not pulled tight. A woman of quiet reserve and a spine of steel, she blamed every single one of her gray hairs on Charlotte and often wondered what she had done so wrong to deserve such a troublesome child. There was no denying the girl her beauty (and for that Bettina took full credit) but as for everything else… Well, it was well known the late Lord Vanderley had always been much too indulgent with his only daughter. And this, Bettina thought sourly as she took in Charlotte’s flushed cheeks and the rebellious gleam in her hazel eyes, is the result. Ignoring her mother’s demand to tame her hair, Charlotte stalked across the parlor and stared broodingly out the window to the street beyond. It was late in the afternoon, and as a result the notoriously busy London traffic had slowed to a crawl. It would pick back up again once the supper hour drew near, but for now all was quiet and uncharacteristically calm. A group of raggedly dressed young boys raced passed, disrupting the temporary solace with their loud, raucous laughter. They kicked a dirty red ball between them and Charlotte released a wistful sigh when they disappeared from view. What she wouldn’t do to be outside right now; to feel the sun on her face and the wind in her hair. To be able to run and yell and do all the things proper young ladies were never allowed to do.

Instead she was stuck indoors with nothing to occupy her time save the thought of her recent engagement to the horrible Duke of Paine, an old lecher thirty years her senior who had already seen two wives dead and buried. Why he had need of a third Charlotte was not certain for he had two living sons, the “heir and the spare” as the saying went, and both were in good health. Why he wanted her in particular she was even less sure. They had never even crossed paths until three weeks ago when she nearly tripped over his cane at a garden party. Flowers began arriving with her name on them by the dozens the very next day, and she had been unable to shake him loose since, no matter how persistently she ignored him. Her dearest friend and closest confidant, Miss Dianna Foxcroft, was of the mind that the duke wanted another wife so he could succumb to his “manly urges” whenever he pleased. Having read more than her fair share of dime novels, Charlotte knew exactly what sort of “manly urges” Dianna was referring to, and just thinking of the duke’s wrinkled hands on her body made her sick to her stomach. Now, less than a month after their initial meeting, she woke to find herself engaged to a man she despised. All things considered, it was not a very good way to begin one’s week. “I still cannot believe you allowed the announcement to be printed without my permission.

” Catching her mother’s frown out of the corner of her eye, Dianna spun in a half circle and tossed back her hair. “This is not the Dark Ages. If I do not want to marry him, you cannot make me!” “You are behaving like a petulant child.” Fluffing a hand through her auburn hair, now streaked liberally with gray, Bettina straightened even further in her chair and linked her hands together over one demurely crossed knee. “It is a great honor to be engaged to a duke, especially one of such wealth and social status.” “I do not care how titled or rich he is!” Charlotte cried. “I want to marry for love, not money.” For the first time a hint of true annoyance flashed in Bettina’s blue eyes and twin blotches of color appeared high on her cheeks. “You are a foolish girl with foolish dreams who knows nothing of the real world or the perils that exist within it,” she said scornfully. “One day you will thank me for this, mark my words.

” “Well it will not be today,” Charlotte declared dramatically before she spun smartly on her heel and stormed out of the parlor, taking great satisfaction in slamming the door behind her. The loud noise echoed through the silent town house, startling a maid who had been making her way up the stairs, her arms piled high with fresh linens. “I am sorry,” Charlotte said automatically and the maid, a quiet girl with long brown hair by the name of Tabitha, shook her head and mustered a shy smile. “Not to worry, Lady Charlotte.” “Here, let me help you with those.” Bounding up the staircase, Charlotte whisked half of the linens out of Tabitha’s arms and into her own. The maid darted a nervous glance towards the parlor. “You know your mother does not like you to help the staff, Lady Charlotte,” she whispered. “Do you remember how upset she became when she found you planting bulbs with the gardener?” “What she doesn’t know will not hurt her,” Charlotte said dismissively. “Are these going to the closet on the third floor?” “Yes,” Tabitha said, her face drawn tight in apprehension.

Charlotte sighed. The maid’s fear of being caught doing such an innocent thing as accepting help was yet another reason she was constantly at odds with her mother. Bettina was of the (popular) opinion that servants were to be neither seen nor heard. She ruled her household with an iron fist and had been known to fire a maid over the most trivial of grievances. Charlotte, on the other hand, was of the firm belief that a person’s title – or lack thereof – did not dictate who they were or how they should be treated. She knew her views were considered outlandish by most, but she clung to them nevertheless, and took every opportunity to help the overworked staff whenever she could. After all, it was not their fault her mother was stingy with her coin and refused to hire the adequate number of servants a town house of this size demanded. Having a knack for figures, Charlotte knew her mother could comfortably afford four household maids instead of the two currently employed, and she felt a constant sense of guilt that Tabitha and the other maid, Rose, were forever hustling from one chore to the next with nary a break in between while she sat around day in and day out wasting hours of her life on pointless embroidery patterns. “Leave my Mother to me,” she commanded briskly, “and lead the way.” With one last, furtive glance at the parlor, Tabitha hurried up the winding staircase with Charlotte right behind.

The moment they reached the safety of the third floor the maid’s shoulders relaxed and she released the pent up breath she had been holding. They were now in the servant’s quarters; the one place in the house Bettina would never dream of entering. Comprised of a narrow hallway, two small adjoining bedrooms, one large linen closet, and a washroom hardly big enough to stand upright in, the third floor was little more than a finished attic. It was also where Tabitha and Rose lived, as was common in most households of the nobility. In exchange for working day in and day out the maids received a monthly stipend, but what they really worked for was their room and board. Despite the long hours and grueling work it required, being a maid was considered a luxurious position amongst the lower class, especially if the family they worked for was well off. It meant a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, two things that were in alarmingly short supply out on the streets. “Thank you, Lady Charlotte,” Tabitha said once all of the linens were put neatly away. “That was very kind of you.” Tucking up a stringy piece of hair that had come loose from her cap, the maid managed another small smile, although she kept her gaze carefully averted, no doubt the result of being told never to look a member of the peerage directly in the eye for fear of being perceived as insubordinate.

Time and time again Charlotte had attempted to draw Tabitha out of her shell, but the maid was too terrified of losing her job to ever risk befriending her employer’s daughter. It was with some surprise, then, that Charlotte felt resistance on the back of her skirt as she turned to leave. “Yes?” she asked, her brows knitting together in puzzlement when she saw Tabitha had purposefully stepped on the train of her dress to detain her. “Is there something else you need help with?” The maid’s face was pale and her lips trembled as she struggled to form words. “I… May I speak frankly, Lady Charlotte?” “Of course. Please say whatever you like, Tabitha.” It appeared that was all the urging the maid required. “If I were you I would not want to marry the duke either,” she said in a rush. “He is a wicked, wicked man. Servants talk, and I have heard… Oh,” she gasped, her eyes darting from side to side as if she feared the thin plaster walls had ears.

“I do not know if I dare repeat it.” Charlotte grasped Tabitha’s slender arm and squeezed. “Tell me what you know,” she said urgently. “Please, Tabitha.” But it seemed the maid’s temporary surge of courage withered. “I cannot, Lady Charlotte.” She bit her lip and hunched her shoulders. “Someone might hear.” “Who? My mother is still downstairs and the last I saw of Rose she was in the kitchen cutting up carrots. If you were ever to tell me something, now is the time and this is the place.

I will not tell anyone I heard it from you. I promise.” But Tabitha only gave a quick, fearful shake of her head and remained silent. “Very well.” Not wanting to bully the poor girl into giving up her secrets, Charlotte released her arm and gently asked, “Is there somewhere else you would feel more comfortable speaking? Somewhere you will not be afraid of being overheard?” “Do you know where Twinings is?” Tabitha said after a long pause. She nodded. “Yes, of course.” “Could you meet me there tomorrow? At noon?” Charlotte had no idea why Tabitha would find more comfort in divulging her secrets at London’s busiest teahouse than a, but she nodded in agreement nevertheless. If the maid truly did have damning information about the duke then she needed to hear it, and soon. Considering how fast her mother had been able to have their engagement announced in the papers, she shuddered to think how quickly she could have a wedding arranged.

“Will you be able to get away from the house?” she asked the maid. “Tomorrow is errand day. Her ladyship will not expect me back until late in the afternoon.” And Charlotte already had an idea forming of how she could escape without arousing suspicion. Feigning a bright smile, she passed a hand through her curly locks, sweeping the fiery red mass over one shoulder. Her thick hair really would be easier to tame in a tight twist or even a braid, but since she knew having it unbound irritated her mother to no end, she wore it down as often as she dared. ““Very well,” she said. “Tomorrow it is.” “You had best be on your way now, my lady.” Charlotte nodded and headed for the stairs, secretly eager to return to the second floor.

It was sweltering in the attic and she could feel a line of sweat making its way down between her shoulder blades in a slow, uncomfortable trickle. She couldn’t imagine having to sleep up here. If her mother would have allowed it, she’d have gladly shared her bedchamber with the maids rather than force them to endure such cruel heat. But she knew Lady Bettina would have been horrified at the idea of her daughter sleeping in the same room as a servant, and thus she’d never bothered to bring it up. At least, not yet. “Wait!” Tabitha called out shrilly as Charlotte began to descend the stairs. “Yes?” she said, her slippered foot hovering in mid-air. “Is there something else?” “I know it is not my place, but I…that is to say…you should not be alone with the duke.” Tabitha spoke so quickly that her words came out in one long, nearly indecipherable stream: Youshouldnotbealonewiththeduke. Removing a daintily embroidered handkerchief from the pocket of her dress, Charlotte dabbed at her perspiring brow.

“Not to worry. I have no intention of ever seeing that man again, let alone being caught in the same room with him. I should quite rather die first.” Smiling in what she hoped was a reassuring manner, she picked up her skirts so as not to trip over her long hem and hurried down the stairs, taking the narrow steps two at a time. LEFT ALONE İN the attic, Tabitha closed her eyes and said a quick prayer. “Yes,” she said softly, “that is exactly what I am afraid of.

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