Wager on Love – Isabella Thorne

Lady Charlotte Keening tossed back her disordered strawberry blonde curls. The wayward locks had managed to work their way free of their pins during her reckless gallop. She drew her horse up with a sigh. No matter how wildly she rode, she could not quite manage to escape the feeling of discontent that had been afflicting her for months. The persistent melancholy was all the more infuriating for it being entirely uncharacteristic. Lady Charlotte was not the sort of girl to accept irritation patiently. Trotting her mount back to the stables, she spied her older brother, Randolph, in the yard. As the Earl of Keegain, Randolph stood as head of their household since their father’s death over eight years ago, and the sight of him always warmed Charlotte’s heart. “You have been enjoying another leisurely ride, I see,” Lord Keegain laughed as he strode over to help Charlotte dismount from the lively Arabian. “The grooms have been congratulating themselves on the marvelous stamina and endurance of our horses, but we all know the credit truly lies with you and your grueling training methods, little sister.” “Oh, Jamari enjoyed the gallop just as much as I did myself,” Charlotte replied breezily, patting the bay gelding’s foam-flecked neck affectionately. “You shall never convince me that he does not sometimes crave the freedom to run as fast as he is able.” “He is not the only one, I believe, considering your recent preference for racing about as if there were a pack of hell hounds on your heels.” “It is a pity then that I never seem to outrun them,” Lady Charlotte said ruefully. “Lately, restlessness nips at my heels no matter how far or fast that I ride.

” “I noticed.” Her brother placed a gentle hand on Charlotte’s shoulder and gazed down at her with concern. “Walk back to the house with me and tell me of your troubles.” “That is just the thing.” Charlotte lamented as she passed the reins of her mount to the stable master. “Thank you, Griswold,” she said to the elderly man, and then turned back to her brother. “I do not have any troubles, or at least none that I can discern.” Lady Charlotte took her brother’s arm and matched his long strides with her own fast pace, as they walked back toward the manor. The ancestral family home of Kennett Park, stood gracefully in the light of the evening mist. The grand old manor house was resplendent and seemed to glow in the last rays of sunlight.

The sight always struck Charlotte with pride and warmed her heart no matter how many times she beheld the grand edifice. “No troubles? That sounds rather unbelievable for a girl of eight and ten,” Lord Keegain pointed out humorously. “I have been given to understand that young ladies of your age are positively besieged with trouble.” “Well, I am not. The only thing that besieges me is a restless, discontented mood. It is like an itch between my shoulder blades. I cannot quite quell the sensation, and yet I cannot ignore it, either. And there is no reason for it that I have been able to distinguish.” “It does not, by chance, have to do with the matter involving Lord Marley?” her brother inquired shrewdly. “No.

Of course not,” Lady Charlotte said with a dismissive sniff. “Are we still to go shooting on the morrow?” she asked, deliberately changing the subject. Keegain chuckled. “Mention Marley and the next topic from your lips is shooting. I think you are still sore, little sister.” “I am not,” she said petulantly. “I do not see how you can think that I am. I refused him, after all. It isn’t as though I am pining away for the man.” “Good,” Keegain said.

“Pining does not suit you, nor does being so prickly.” “Prickly, am I?” Charlotte demanded, narrowing her eyes in playful sternness. “Do not be angry with me for saying so, but you have been rather irritable if anyone dares to broach the subject. I just wonder if the whole situation hasn’t affected you more than you know. If I recall correctly, you did consider Marley rather seriously, then it turned out that he was, regrettably, not the man you had hoped him to be.” “What of it?” Charlotte said with a huff, noting her brother’s arched eyebrow. “I am not irritable.” She protested and poked him sharply in the forearm. “I am not.” Lord Keegain laughed aloud at her antics rubbing his arm where she had jabbed him.

“No wonder I have such a difficult time finding suitors for you.” “You do not,” Charlotte argued. “Do not worry, little sister,” he said. “I know our mother has worried you with talk of spinsterhood, but there is no need to rush. The right gentleman will come along.” “Do you truly think so?” Charlotte asked hesitantly, revealing just how well her brother knew her, because although she would never admit it, she was worried. “I know you have been feeling unsettled, but do not let it upset you. Your image of love and romance has suffered a blow, even if your heart did not. You may not have loved the man, but I know that the loss of a cherished ideal can cut just as deeply.” He put an arm around his sister as they walked.

“So, you just let me handle Mother.” “Thanks Ruddy,” Charlotte said softly. Charlotte considered her brother’s words and weighed them against the confusion of emotions that had been drifting through her spirit of late. She had been prepared to feel a little regretful when she refused Lord Marley this summer past. He was uncommonly handsome, and he had doted on her, but she didn’t love him. Still, she had not been prepared for him to become engaged to another young lady almost at once. He had clearly been courting the simpering Miss Church at the same time as Charlotte herself. Which begged the question, had he cared for Charlotte at all? Was she loveable at all? She pushed aside the horrid notion, suddenly angry at herself for even caring what he thought of her. The man was a cad and not worth her notice. “Oh, but how ridiculous, if that is indeed the source of my trouble,” Lady Charlotte said with a casual wave of her hand, as if to dismiss the thought.

“I do not find it ridiculous at all.” Keegain replied. “You ordinarily bounce back from disappointment, but you have been accustomed to enjoy high spirits nearly all of your life, and are perhaps ill-equipped for this particular experience.” “It is just that it is so frustrating to know that I was misled so handily. Before last summer, I thought, I should be easily able to discern if a gentleman felt sincere affection for me. Now I see that this is not the case. It is galling, and I suppose, I am not quite over the sting of it.” “You will be soon enough. I promise,” Lord Keegain assured his sister fondly. “Sooner, I should think, now that you have discovered the root of your discontent.

” “Are you congratulating yourself now, on the success of your advice, brother?” Charlotte asked saucily. “I have not said that I feel better.” “You do, though,” he teased. “You might deny it, just to be contrary, but you feel at least a small amount better than you did before we spoke.” Keegain nudged her gently as they walked and Charlotte smiled at him. “If I am congratulating myself,” He continued. “It is on having the courage to risk your temper by mentioning anything at all.” “My temper is hardly as fearsome as all that,” Lady Charlotte retorted. “I will admit to feeling slightly more at ease. Still, I do not see how I can look forward to my coming out this Season, knowing that I cannot put full confidence in my judgment of my suitors’ character.

” “Perhaps you might consider relying, at least a little, on the judgment of your family,” her brother suggested. “You know that we all want the very best for you, and we are reasonably intelligent as a whole.” “Perhaps.” Charlotte grudgingly agreed. Keegain chuckled. “In the meanwhile, enjoy the little time we have at Kennett Park before we must reenter into the whirl of the Ton. Put your worries and doubts aside if you can, and we shall go shooting tomorrow afternoon if this fine weather holds.” The butler, Mr. Hughes, met them and held the door for Charlotte and her brother. “The post has arrived,” he told the Earl.

“I took the liberty of placing it on your desk. There is a missive from the Duke of Ely.” “Thank you, Hughes,” Keegain said, nodding his assent. He parted ways with his sister, heading toward the library. Charlotte crossed the sweeping foyer and climbed the staircase to her room, catching hold of the balustrade which was carved with an intricate scrollwork of fruits, flowers and leaves across the dark wood. As Charlotte made her way to her chambers to change out of her riding habit, she felt considerably more cheerful than she had in weeks. Ruddy was right, of course, and she was somewhat ashamed of herself for letting a scoundrel like Lord Marley shake her belief in love, and worse, in herself. Lady Charlotte had witnessed true love in a marriage. Her own parents had been desperately in love before her father passed. She remembered how happy they had been, and she wanted that feeling for herself.

She saw the same happiness between her brother and his new wife, Jane. It was a trust so whole and complete nothing else mattered. Everyone could see it. Charlotte did not know how such depth of emotion was to be achieved, but she was hardly the type of woman to give up at the first sign of trouble. Lady Charlotte Keening was not someone to be trifled with. Consequently, she almost always got exactly what she desired. She was certain love could be no different. S 2 ir John Ashbrooke of Southridge, Baronet, leaned back from the piles of letters and bills that cluttered his desk, sighing with dismay. He ran long and elegant fingers through his dark hair; then pressed them over his eyes to block the sight of so many discouraging figures. He was well and truly in dire financial straits now, and there remained no sense in dodging the fact any longer.

The truth was unavoidable. Ever since the French government had seized control of his mother’s property across the Channel, he had been forced to make do with the scanty inheritance that his father had left behind. The late Sir Richard Ashbrooke had come from a long and well-respected line, but very little remained of the Ashbrooke legacy aside from their good family name. It had been a mistake, perhaps, Sir John thought, to keep the residence on Henrietta Street, but it was most convenient to both Covent Gardens and Drury Lane. If he were to sell the house, it would only lead to questions. How then would he be able to keep up the pretense of affluence and woo a wealthy heiress? Which at this point, he was forced to admit, was the only course of action that he could realistically consider. He was not the first of the Ton to be found in such a state, nor would he be the last. “Lord Henderson to see you, sir,” announced Carlton, Ashbrooke’s manservant, in a formal tone, startling John from his depressing reverie. “Send him in, by all means,” Sir John said, glad for the chance of a distraction. He could not think of any visitor he would not welcome at this moment, and Charles Hale, The Earl of Henderson, was always excellent company.

Lord Henderson was one of Sir John’s closest friends. Both handsome and titled, the two gentlemen enjoyed the roguish existence of London bachelors in their mid-twenties. With Lord Henderson’s fair hair and pale grey eyes as a counterpoint to Sir John’s dark roguish looks and distinctive blue gaze, the pair struck fear in the heart of every respectable chaperone in the Ton. “You look most weary for a man enjoying a leisurely afternoon at home,” remarked Lord Henderson after the two gentlemen had exchanged greetings. “You are not still recovering from last night’s opera?” “If I were, it would be from the miserable quality of the show rather than the lateness of the hour from which I needed recovery,” Sir John remarked ruthlessly. “How it ever came to be produced is beyond my comprehension.” “It was wretched,” Lord Henderson agreed. “That will teach us to attend anything financed by Blakely, I suppose.” “As if we had not already had that lesson a half dozen times over. He is a dear friend, but the poor man has unerringly bad taste.

” “Poor judgment, at the very least. He cannot seem to resist investing in any theatre company that flatters him; and bless them all, they know it. Still, he has the money to toss around. It is a harmless enough sort of hobby, I do suppose.” “After sitting through that nonsense last night, I am surprised that you can still consider it harmless.” Sir John scoffed somewhat bitterly. “But perhaps I am simply not in a charitable frame of mind just now. I would wish that I had a fortune like Blakely’s; that is, one that requires squandering.” “So that is what has you so ruffled, is it?” Lord Henderson eyed his friend’s piles of correspondence and documents with a considering look. “Financial trouble?” “I do not exactly care to admit it, but yes, as a matter of fact.

Ever since Napoleon’s supporters seized my mother’s property I have been rather plagued with that particular woe. It is quite dull, actually,” Sir John lamented. Lord Henderson would not be able to relate, having been blessed with a fortune just as large as their friend Lord Blakely, but John knew at least that he would sympathize. “It is unconscionable, the wretched French getting away with such a thing.” Lord Henderson proclaimed indignantly. “I do not see how it is allowed, even in a time of war.” “It is neither here nor there, really,” Sir John replied evenly. “As there isn’t a single thing I can do about it. The fact remains that I have very little left to my name. Thanks to that, I fear, I must marry some wealthy heiress, and soon.

” “Well, it is rather hard to give up a carefree bachelor existence such as you and I have enjoyed these past five years, but I suppose that is always the way of things sooner or later?” “Yes,” Sir John agreed blandly. “Unfortunately, I am afraid it is now sooner.” “No need to look quite so grim, old boy,” Lord Henderson told him bracingly. “The Season is just beginning and the prospects are rather lovely. Wasn’t I just saying the other day that this Season’s crop of young ladies is even more fetching than the usual lot? We’ll have a grand time picking a most attractive one for you.” “Appearance may not be such a great consideration as all that, if you take into account my most pressing reason for marriage,” Sir John pointed out, but he felt a little cheered in spite of himself. “No reason you cannot fall in love with some tender young thing who is in possession of both beauty and wealth, now is there?” asked Lord Henderson reasonably. “I imagine it would be decidedly easier to do so, as beauty and wealth are the two main hallmarks of any woman’s claim to a man’s affections, are they not?” “So cynical, Ashbrooke.” Lord Henderson exclaimed laughing. “No, I do not think so.

I am simply being practical and speaking plainly. While it would certainly be preferable to find an heiress who is simultaneously wealthy, lovely, pleasant and charming, I must acknowledge at least to myself, that wealth is the most vital criteria.” Sir John grimaced even as he spoke, still not resigned to the necessity of matrimony. “We shall see, my friend.” Henderson laughed again. “We shall see.”

.

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