The vicarage in Dallington was a pleasant sort of place if one liked screaming children and having no space for one’s own thoughts. Charlotte sat outside in a crude swing that Mr. Wilson, the current vicar, had fashioned. Her feet swung back and forth, sweeping the grass to and fro.
Charlotte Browne had lived in this place for most of her life. Her father had been the previous vicar and although he had died four years earlier, thankfully Charlotte had been allowed to stay as a tenant of the current vicar and his wife.
The downside to that was that she spent a good deal of time helping Mrs. Wilson attend to her brood. As much as Charlotte longed to have children, she prayed fervently that they would not be the same sort as the vicar’s offspring. She could hear the children howling about some perceived injustice even as she sat outside.
She looked down at the letter. News had been slow to trickle in after the battle at Waterloo. In her hand she held the fate of her beloved brother Charles. It was one she had feared would come when the papers announced the end of the war but no word had come from her brother.
He was gone, dead on a battlefield somewhere. News of his death had finally trickled down to her, almost as if by happenstance. A tear rolled down her cheek as she promised her brother that she had not forgotten him as it seemed so many had.
Charlotte held the small clutch of letters she had received, including the last that informed her that her brother’s body was on the way home. That letter had been a bittersweet surprise. She had assumed her brother, a soldier of no great rank, would be left on the battlefield as so many others had. It was a kindness that she thought the lord himself must have visited on her.
“Charlotte.” Mrs. Wilson came bustling out of the house, a towel held between her well-worn hands. “Are you well? It has been some time since you stepped outside and I feared perhaps you had caught that sickness that Roger had the other day.”
With a forced smile, Charlotte shook her head. “I assure you that I am not ill. I was just reading the letter again.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Wilson said with a frown. “Have you given any thoughts as to what you will do now?” The woman’s voice was kind as she came to stand beside the swing and look down at Charlotte with sad brown eyes.
Charlotte’s brow wrinkled as she thought about the question. She had done little but think of that question since she had received the letter confirming her brother’s death. If she was more truthful, Charlotte might have said that she had thought of what she should do with herself long before the news arrived.
“I have thought about it. I just cannot seem to come up with any conclusions.” She looked up at Mrs. Wilson with a sigh. “You and the vicar have been most kind to me, but I cannot in good conscience stay on here without a stipend from my brother to cover my costs.”
Mrs. Wilson reminded her, “You do quite a bit around here to earn your keep, but a smart girl like you has other avenues. You could probably find a good job as a governess.”
Charlotte knew that Mrs. Wilson was trying to console her and be kind, but they both knew that the vicar did not earn enough to afford another mouth to feed. “I do not even know how to begin.”
Whatever Mrs. Wilson might have replied was lost in a deluge of wails as the woman’s two-year-old daughter came tumbling out of the back door. The indistinguishable babble of the child was of no use in deciphering why she was crying. Mrs. Wilson hurried over to the child and scooped her up.
“Now, now Dot, what is the matter?” Mrs. Wilson bounced the baby girl up and down on her hip.
Dot waved a hand still quite chubby with baby fat toward the door. Charlotte suggested, “Think Roger grabbed her doll again?”
“It is likely.” Mrs. Wilson placed a kiss on Dot’s blonde hair.
Charlotte gave Mrs. Wilson a smile. “I shall see if I can find him. He’s likely hiding himself, thinking he will get in trouble.” She turned and went into the house. The Wilsons’ ten-year-old son Josh was sitting at the kitchen table working on what appeared to be schoolwork.
Josh looked up as Charlotte came over to him. “Roger’s hiding in the linen closet,” he confided to her in a whisper.
Charlotte gave Josh a pat on the back and went to find the mischievous Roger. The boy meant no harm. He merely liked causing a bit of a ruckus to get some attention. It was difficult to garner focused attention from the middle of a brood of six children in the Wilson family.
That being said Charlotte, despite her love of children, held no deep affection for the Wilson children. They were unruly and determinedly dirty despite all of Charlotte’s efforts to help Mrs. Wilson with them. Charlotte felt a little guilt at the irritation that she felt towards them.
Perhaps she was not cut out for this mothering business. Charlotte thought of other children she had been around who did not fill her with such agitation. The Wilson children were their own special brand.
“Roger,” Charlotte called as she neared the linen closet. “Where oh where could Roger be?”
There was a lilting laugh from the closet and Charlotte opened the door to find Roger hiding his face as if the grown-up could not see him if he could not see Charlotte. “Found you,” Charlotte called in a sing-song voice.
Roger peeked up at her through his hands and gave her a grin showing the gap where his first tooth had recently fallen out. “You always find me,” he complained, but not enough to stop grinning at her.
“That is because you laugh a lot.” Charlotte held out her hand and helped the boy up.
He scuffed the floor with his foot. “Can’t help if it’s funny.”
“Where is your sister’s doll?” Charlotte noticed the doll was not in the closet where Roger had been.
He shrugged. “I threw it.”
“You should go and find it then.” Charlotte tried to keep the irritation out of her voice as Roger dashed from the room. She sighed heavily. All she really wanted to do was take a nap, but she heard one of the children scream and she trudged toward the uproar.
The other three children seemed to be lost in mirth, punctuated by ear-splitting shrieks as they dashed up and down the stairs. “Stop that or you will fall,” Charlotte said as she caught sight of the children.
The children burst into giggles and all took off in different directions, up the stairs and out of the front door.
Charlotte leaned against the railing at the base of the stairs. She turned on her heel and went out the back door. The room that she shared with two of the children was no place of solitude. Charlotte walked the path toward the gardener’s shed.
There had not been a dedicated gardener in some time and the chores were left to Charlotte and the oldest children mostly. The inside of the shed was dark and inviting. Charlotte shut herself inside and sank down on a little stool that was set to one side near a workbench.
Ever since Charlotte’s father had died, the only thing that kept her going was the idea that when her brother returned, she would move with him away from here. Her dream of an escape died with Charles, and Charlotte had only this shed, a shed that was not even hers by rights. She allowed herself to cry quietly, but she would not let herself wallow. After a few moments of weakness, she drew in a shaky breath and dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.
She would go and see the children. Charlotte left the shed and her grief there. It would do no good to allow it to take over. She had things to do.
Mrs. Wilson was waiting for her at the back door. “There you are,” she said with quiet concern. “I have given some thought to your predicament.”
“That is kind of you.” Charlotte slipped past the woman into the house.
Dot, now reunited with her ragged doll, toddled towards the table where Josh still sat working. Mrs. Wilson shut the door behind Charlotte. She put her arm around Charlotte’s shoulders and guided her toward the kitchen.
When they were alone in the kitchen, or as alone as anyone can be with so many children underfoot, Mrs. Wilson ventured, “I do think that you should apply as a governess. I know you tend to dismiss the idea, but a position in one of those grand houses would be a stable life for a young lady such as yourself.”
By young ladies such as Charlotte, Mrs. Wilson meant unmarried, childless, and without family. Oh, ladies such as herself had very few options and Charlotte was all too aware of it.
“Again, you are kind, but I have no idea where I would start in finding such a position. Dallington is a small village with few families that fit your description and even less with children that might benefit from a governess.” Charlotte sighed with frustration, but she softened her exasperation with a smile. “I am sorry to sound like such a… well, I do not know what I sound like really.”
Mrs. Wilson gave her shoulder a squeeze. “You sound like a girl who needs some help.” She released Charlotte’s shoulder and stepped over to a basket of vegetables from the garden. As she picked up a carrot to rinse, she said, “You could try Lord Easterly.”
Charlotte shook her head and clasped her hands together. “Why would he help me?”
“Your father and he were close. Were you not close to his daughter? Surely that counts for something.” Mrs. Wilson gave Charlotte an encouraging smile.
As good as Mrs. Wilson’s intentions might be, Charlotte held no true hope that Lord Easterly, Earl of Atcham, would consider that enough of a bond to aid a destitute girl. “I have not seen or spoken to any member of the Easterly family in years.” Charlotte looked down at her feet.
She could remember quite clearly the last time she saw Lord Easterly. He had been at her father’s funeral. Not since that day had she seen the Earl of Atcham or his sister Amanda. Charlotte shook her head and laughed. “I doubt they would even remember me.”
“What is the worst that could happen? Is it that they could simply refuse? You will still be no worse off in that situation, so it seems to me that you have most everything to gain.” Mrs. Wilson sighed. “Do not give up on something before you actually attempt it.”
Charlotte smiled. “That would make a very good topic for church.”
“I might just pass that along to my husband,” Mrs. Wilson said with a smile of her own.
Charlotte thought for a moment. “I suppose I could try. Right now though, I have to focus on my brother and how to handle his funeral.”
“There was a little set aside for that, was there not?” Mrs. Wilson asked the question as she turned back toward the vegetables she was washing in preparation for the meal.
Charlotte frowned and gave a little nod of her head. “There was a stipend for it. It should cover most things. I received it with the letter that told me his body was coming home.”
“I cannot imagine,” Mrs. Wilson said in a soft voice. “You will bury him here in the cemetery?”
Charlotte heaved a sigh. “He shall have a place beside my father and mother. Charles would want that.”
Mrs. Wilson nodded her acceptance of Charlotte’s words. “I never met him, but he must have been a brave man.”
“He was. After father died, Charles stayed in the army because he wanted to make a good living to send money to me.” Charlotte pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. “I wonder sometimes if he is really dead. Maybe they are wrong and he is still out there somewhere.”
Mrs. Wilson set a fresh bowl of vegetables on the table in front of Charlotte. “I think those sorts of thoughts are normal. Without a body, it is bound to cross one’s mind. But you know that he would be here if he were not dead. Surely you do know that?”
“Of course,” Charlotte said as she helped Mrs. Wilson begin chopping up the vegetables to go in the day’s meal.
As they worked, they fell into a companionable silence, leaving Charlotte to her own thoughts. She followed those thoughts all the way back to her childhood when she and Amanda Easterly were tutored together by Amanda’s governess and Charlotte’s own father. Charlotte felt a pang of lonesomeness at the thought of her old friend.
Too much time had passed for Charlotte to simply show up with some self-held belief that she was somehow worthy of Amanda’s benefit. There was no way she could bring herself to throw herself on the mercy of Amanda or the Earl of Atcham. It was far too likely that they would simply banish her without a thought, and it would be inexcusably rude to push herself on them so.
Charlotte was many things, but she was not rude. She had always sought to make her father proud by being every bit the lady that he had proclaimed her mother to be. Charlotte could not very well dishonour her mother in such a way now.
She set her mind to just simply getting through the funeral and then she would see what she needed to do next. Perhaps she could wash clothes or do needlework. She was not much on sewing but she could try. Charlotte squared her shoulders and put her mind back on her work. A step at a time would get one down the road in front of them, as her father had always said.
On the day of the funeral, the sky was covered with a stubborn layer of clouds that not even the persistent wind that blew through the trees could budge. Charlotte felt that was right and proper. There should be no true sunshine in the world on the day she said goodbye to her brother.
Charles deserved for the whole world to join Charlotte in mourning him. Even the clouds wept, and Charlotte walked down the steps of the church proud to walk through those raindrops. Her dark mourning dress and hat kept the drops from hitting her, but she could hear the taps that the rain made as it hit the world around her.
She still had two of the white roses she had brought to leave at her brother’s grave in her hand. Charlotte tipped her hat back and a drop of cool rain hit her cheek. Her feet quickened their pace as she walked down the lane towards Dallington.
It might be a small village, but it was all that was close by and Charlotte could think of no likelier place to find a better situation for herself. She could not continue staying at the vicarage, nor did she truly wish to do so. Perhaps she could find work as a maid at the inn, or wash dishes at the tavern.
Most of those places probably used family labour, but Charlotte had to hope. She would trek into the village and see if she could find something suitable. If she was quick, she could be back at the vicarage by nightfall.
Charlotte kept the tears at bay because, although she was sad, she simply had no time to indulge the emotion. She had to move forward and find herself a suitable place before she could even think of such things. It was not likely she could marry at this point as she was without dowry and of such a lowly position that she was a virtual social pariah.
She became aware of another sound over the din of the rain. It was the sound of a carriage. There was a creaking as the driver called on the horses to slow. Charlotte looked around but did not recognise the carriage or driver. The man dipped his head to Charlotte and she gave him a little curtsey in return for his deference.
It was then that a face appeared in the carriage window. “Charlotte Browne, is that you?”
Charlotte peered at the window, but it was not until the footman hurried over and opened the door that Charlotte connected the voice with the face before her. “Amanda,” she breathed in surprise.
“What are you doing walking in the rain? Get in the carriage.” Amanda leaned forward and waved Charlotte over eagerly, as if she were trying to save her from drowning.
Charlotte’s situation was such that she decided that she had little choice. She climbed up into the carriage with Amanda. “This is such a treat,” Amanda continued once Charlotte was seated next to her, but the carriage did not move. “We have not seen each other in so long that I feel as though we are not the same people.”
“That is probably true,” Charlotte said with a smile. “Time does change people. How have you been, Amanda?”
Amanda gave Charlotte a bright smile that most likely set young men’s heart’s racing as Charlotte noted the twinkle in her old friend’s eyes. “I am preparing for the season, but I do not want to talk of such dull things. Do you recall how we used to hide from my governess?”
“I believe that was mostly your doing,” Charlotte reminded her. “But yes, I do recall. You liked to climb up into the attic and hide among your mother’s old dresses.”
Amanda agreed with a nod. “I still love visiting those old dresses, although we have got rid of a good amount of clutter in the attic.”
“That is a shame. There were so many interesting objects in there.” Charlotte felt genuine sorrow for the loss of the treasure that held childhood memories for her.
Amanda waved off her concern. “We still have plenty up there. My brother just takes these whims of generosity and decides to donate things.”
“And is that really so bad?” Charlotte thought it was rather a sensible thing to do when one had such a cluttered space.
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Oh, I should have known you would end up like your father. What was it he always said, if you have something then you have something to share?”
Charlotte giggled and nodded. “He did use to say that, especially when we had some treat that one of us refused to share.”
Amanda shifted, causing Charlotte to take in the lovely dress the girl wore. It was of a brilliant blue and the shawl around her shoulders was a crisp clean white that made Charlotte wonder if her friend had ever worn it before. Amanda seemed to only then register how Charlotte was dressed. “Why are you dressed so?” Amanda frowned at Charlotte as if she did not really want the answer.
Charlotte looked down at her dress. It was her best one that was suitable for mourning. It was nothing fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but it was respectable. “Charles died in battle in the war,” Charlotte said as she smoothed her dress. “I have just come from his funeral at the church.”
Amanda gave her a look of disturbance. “You went to a funeral? Are they not those usually held at night?”
Charlotte straightened her shoulders. “I would not abandon my brother no matter the social decorum. I chose to have it during the day as my brother hated those long night-time processions.”
“I am deeply grieved to hear of his death. He was a nice man from what I knew of him,” Amanda said.
“It is quite fine. We had not seen each other since before my father’s death.”
“Had we known, we would have made an appearance,” Amanda continued. “You could have reached out and said something.”
Charlotte remained silent and looked out of the window. It was a small village. Surely Charles’ death would have reached their ears had they been listening.
Amanda continued, “Come to think of it I think I do remember my brother on his return saying something about it all. I must admit that I was not paying attention and thinking it merely another war story. He has war stories aplenty.”
Charlotte eyed the woman curiously. Lord Easterly had known? He had not made a point to come to the funeral. Amanda was still talking. “Still, you should not be out walking so in the rain. Where is your husband or escort?”
“I have neither,” Charlotte said with great effort. “I have been living with the new vicar and his family as a tenant. Charles and I had planned to move away when he returned from the war.”
Amanda looked at her for a long moment before she clapped her hands together like she used to when she had come up with a grand game for them to play as children. “Come and stay at Berwick Manor!”
Charlotte’s mouth fell open and she snapped it shut with her very manners. “I could do no such thing.” She fought not to feel scandalized. She knew that Amanda had probably offered the invitation from the best possible place, but Charlotte could not in good conscience bring herself to accept such an offer, even if she did have nowhere else to turn.
“Are you rejecting me or the offer?” Amanda put her hands on her hips.
Charlotte sighed. “The offer, of course. I have not seen you or Lord Easterly in years. It would not stand for me to impose on his household in such a manner. My mother would rise up and scold me herself.”
Amanda shook her finger at Charlotte. “We might not be the children we were but you are still very much the same old Lotte.”
“Well, when you were called to go off and be a lady of high society, I was called into the community to be a vicar’s daughter. The two lives are hardly comparable,” Charlotte said with a smile. Lotte was an old nickname that she had not heard in a very long time. It warmed her heart toward her friend and softened her resolve against Amanda’s well-intentioned if ill-advised, words.
Amanda gave Charlotte a smile. “There is no reason we should be separated any longer, though. Why this could be a splendid opportunity for us to get reacquainted. Do you not see that this could be fate?”
“You believe in fate now?” Charlotte gave her friend a knowing smile. “You have not changed that much either. You still cannot stand to not get your own way.”
Amanda pushed her lips out in a pout then grinned. “I admit that I do like having my way. I shall make you one final offer.” Charlotte started to refuse before Amanda even finished speaking but decided to hear her out. Amanda leaned forward slightly in her seat. “You should come and be my companion and chaperone, lord only knows I probably need one. Just think about it, Lotte. It will be a lady’s maid position but without all the grubby parts.” Amanda seemed most amused with herself as she giggled.
Charlotte sighed. The shadows were growing longer and still the carriage did not move. She had thought Amanda meant to give her a ride, but that was becoming less likely. No, Amanda had probably only been trying to satisfy her curiosity. Charlotte would be walking after dark at this rate to even get to the village.
Amanda could have ridden her to a larger town that was not that much further away, but here Charlotte felt trapped by the movement of the sun and her own situation. “I do not know that I can accept such a position. It seems rather frivolous.”
“There will be work involved,” Amanda assured her with a laugh. “I shall work you until your fingers bleed. Does that meet your requirements?”
Charlotte could not help but laugh along with Amanda. “I am not that bent on punishment, but I would like an honest pay for honest work. Do you even really need such a person as that?”
“You ask me if I need a chaperone? You grew up with me. What do you think, Lotte?” Amanda leaned back in her seat as a look of smugness settled over her face.
Amanda had her there. Charlotte very much did think Amanda needed someone supervising her, but Amanda had always been a mischievous child, more so than one out to do harm. Charlotte sighed. “I suppose you have this all worked out somehow in your mind.”
“I do,” Amanda assured her.
“Should you not run this all by your brother before we agree to anything? He may have reservations.”
“Nonsense,” Amanda batted the word back to her. “You just want to find a way out of it.”
Charlotte gave her friend a smile and shook her head. “I appreciate your generosity, but I also know that taking on a person such as myself can have repercussions.”
“I am hiring you. I should think that my brother will look upon me kindly for that. He is always on about how I should be a better person and such. Here I sit trying to do better and you throw it in my face.” Amanda folded her arms, but Charlotte could see no offense on the woman’s face.
Charlotte slowly nodded. “I will tentatively agree. It is a generous offer that you have made me.”
“Good. Then we should go home at once!” Amanda seemed quite dizzy about everything suddenly.
Charlotte interceded. “I really must return to the vicarage and let Mr. and Mrs. Wilson know that I have other arrangements. It would be only right.”
“Oh,” Amanda said with visible disappointment. “I suppose you are right. I would not want people out looking for you while you sip tea at the manor.”
Charlotte sat for a moment more, but Amanda did not offer to take her to the vicarage. “Very well,” Charlotte said. She stepped out of the carriage and gave Amanda a smile. “When shall I expect you?”
“I shall send the carriage around to the vicarage tomorrow morning if that is suitable?” Amanda asked the question and it surprised Charlotte that she was even being consulted.
Charlotte nodded. “That sounds fine.”
“See you then,” Amanda said with a wave. The footman closed the door and managed to get on the back of the carriage before it rolled away.
Charlotte stood in the light rain starting after the carriage for a moment before she turned and walked toward the vicarage. As she stepped towards her home, the clouds let loose and fat, heavy drops of rain coated her quite thoroughly.
Charlotte groaned. “For the love of all that is pure,” she muttered. Her dress would be ruined, but there was no helping it. She trudged on in the downpour.
When she reached the vicarage, Mrs. Wilson gave her a look of horror. “I apologize for dripping.”
“Not at all. Go on and change quickly,” Mrs. Wilson said, ushering her up the stairs.
Charlotte was grateful to change out of her wet clothes, which she laid aside with dismay. Mrs. Wilson came in with towels. “Here you go,” she said, handing Charlotte one.
“Thank goodness for my hat,” Charlotte said as she set the wet thing aside and eyed her nearly dry hair. “Thank you, Mrs. Wilson.”
“I thought you would be in the village by now,” Mrs. Wilson said with visible curiosity as she lingered nearby.
Charlotte tugged on a new and blissfully warm dress as the chill from the damp set in. “I would have been, but I stopped to speak with Miss Easterly. She saw me walking along the road and wanted to catch up.”
“Oh, did you talk to her about your situation?” Mrs. Wilson meant well, but Charlotte cringed at the harsh reminder of just how desperate she really was. “Sorry,” Mrs. Wilson whispered.
Charlotte sighed. “No. It is true that I am quite bereft of options,” She sat down on the bed behind, which creaked. “We did talk about my situation. She offered to let me live with them, but I refused. That is just too much of a handout for my dignity to withstand.”
“Oh no,” Mrs. Wilson said mournfully. “I am sure she did not mean it that way.”
Charlotte waved off the woman’s concern. “She did not, but I still refused. Then she offered me a position working as a companion. Against my better judgment, I have accepted that offer.”
“She is your friend. You should be happy to have a position working for someone you like. This is a marvelous opportunity, Charlotte.” Mrs. Wilson was positively beaming and seemed confused as to why Charlotte was so reserved about it.
Charlotte nodded. “It is. I just do not know if Lord Easterly will feel the same way. She offered me a position without his knowledge.”
“But it is a household position, surely she has some sway in that area,” Mrs. Wilson said with a cluck of her tongue. “You are simply so accustomed to the worst happening that you have come to expect it.”
The idea made Charlotte laugh, even as the truth of it stung. “You might have a point.”
“I am sure the children will be sad to see you go and so will I, but I do think it will be a good thing for you.”
Charlotte nodded and tried to convince herself that Mrs. Wilson was right. It was harder than one might expect. She had learned the hard way to not place her hopes on something.
Mrs. Wilson left her and Charlotte decided to forgo the evening meal. She could scarcely think of food with her stomach tied up in knots as it were. She had to pack and there was little enough time for that and sleep.
Charlotte went to her desk and lay her hand on the newspaper that lay there still open at the page telling of how the king was going to bestow a new title of viscount upon Lord Easterly for his commendable service to the crown in the war. Her brother would get no titles, but the very thought that she would soon see Lord Easterly set the knots tighter in her stomach. She wondered what the man was like now.
She tried to recall from her time as a child in Berwick Manor the man’s face. He had been older than her and Amanda. He had married shortly before Charlotte stopped going to the manor and their lives diverged.
She still remembered the day that she had heard of Lady Easterly’s death. It had been such a sad affair that mourners from all over the county had come to show their respects. Charlotte had not told the man how sorry she had been for his loss. She understood what it felt like to have someone ripped away like that.
Charlotte frowned. She shook herself out of her revelry and opened her wardrobe with determination. She had to decide what clothing was worth taking with her. She had no idea what sort of clothing a lady’s maid and companion would need to have on hand.
Being a lady’s maid was not a horrible fate and, in fact, could be seen as a very respectable position. It might even make her somewhat appealing for marriage, which Charlotte would not mind. She sighed and took dresses out of her wardrobe to lay on the bed.
The only issue Charlotte had was that she did not have the skills of a lady’s maid. As much as she had tended to the Wilson children and helped around the home, she was still lacking in other areas she felt sure would haunt her. Charlotte learned things from books because she did not have a mother or a governess to teach her.
She sat on the edge of the bed and wiped away a tear. All the grief and loneliness came back in a wave that left her shaking from the exertion to not sob. She had no time to break down and cry.
Charlotte drew in a breath and set about going through her dresses. She was still sorting when Mrs. Wilson came to check on her. “Are you certain that I cannot offer you some tea?”
“I just wish to be done with this so I can sleep. I fear most of my dresses are not worth packing.” Charlotte waved her hand at her meager pile of dresses.
Mrs. Wilson came over and smiled. “They will do for a start and you can always get new dresses once you start earning your wage.”
“I suppose so,” Charlotte whispered. There was no point in getting worked up over it. She would simply have to deal with this as she had everything else.
Mrs. Wilson reminded her, “You have to sleep as well.”
“I will very soon,” Charlotte assured her. “I just want to do most of this tonight. I hate leaving things until the last moment.”
With a nod, Mrs. Wilson wished her a good night. “I shall see you in the morning.”
“Goodnight.” Charlotte gave the woman a smile as she folded a dress and put it in her old suitcase. She had never really had occasion to use the suitcase, but it was well-worn from the time it had been her mother’s. She put the other dresses away that she was not talking with her and laid out one to wear in the morning.
It seemed to Charlotte that she had no more than closed her eyes before she had awakened to Dot crying. She sat up and rubbed her face. With a laugh, Charlotte realized that she had fallen asleep while packing.
She sighed and got up to get ready. There was little she could do but carry on with her packing. She would have to forsake it soon enough to get food, but she wanted to have her bag ready.
There was no telling when Amanda would see fit to send the carriage after her. She wondered if the girl would come herself or simply send someone to pick her up. Charlotte was not sure which she would prefer.
She set aside her bag, at last satisfied that she had packed as well as she could. The dress she had decided to wear was simple of design but of a lovely light material that would keep her cool in the warming air. She liked the way the dark green looked against her skin and blonde hair.
She looked at her reflection as she pinned her hat into place. “I look terrified,” Charlotte told her reflection. “That is only right as I am rather ill at ease about this whole thing.”
She sighed and adjusted her hat slightly. Her big brown eyes watched her back as Charlotte pondered how the Easterly household would find her. She would simply have to make the best of it, no matter what.
Charlotte made her way downstairs and found the vicar and his family still eating breakfast. “Good morning,” Mr. Wilson called to her.
“Good morning, Mr. Wilson,” Charlotte replied respectfully. She admired anyone who dedicated their lives to what they believed in. Her father certainly had done so.
Mr. Wilson told the children, “Miss Browne is leaving us today to live in a new place. Should we not thank her for all she has done for us?”
The children all mumbled various forms of thank yous and Charlotte smiled. She was sure they had practiced, even if it did not sound so. “And I will miss you,” Charlotte told them. She was surprised by how true those words actually felt.
For years the children had been a torment for her but leaving them today made her sad. Dot waved chubby fingers and Charlotte could not help but wave back at the child. Mrs. Wilson beckoned her. “Come and eat while you can.”
“Thank you, I am quite hungry after not eating last night,” Charlotte said. “I did not mean that to sound like a complaint. After all, it was my own doing.” She blushed and took the plate that Mrs. Wilson offered her.
Mr. Wilson waved off Charlotte’s words. “We would never think you are a complainer. You are always there with a helping hand and not an ill word on your lips.”
Charlotte felt a little guilty for leaving as she eyed Mrs. Wilson and her children. The woman would be alone, but that was the lot of womenfolk. Charlotte tried to remember that she had to think of herself and not just others.
She had just finished her egg when there was a noise outside. “Oh dear, is that the carriage already? I have to fetch my trunk.”
“I shall get it,” Mr. Wilson declared. “It would not do to have you carrying luggage about. Women’s cases are often quite heavy.”
The man was gone before Charlotte could voice any protest. She had no doubt that the suitcase was, indeed, quite heavy. When the vicar returned, he sat the trunk down by the door with a sigh. “Quite heavy,” he said with humor.
“Oh, I am sorry that you had to carry that,” Charlotte said.
Mr. Wilson chuckled. “Think not of it. I may not be a young lad but I can still handle myself.” He swung open the door and greeted the carriage driver. “Are you here for our Miss Browne?”
“Suppose I must be,” the driver called with amusement. “Miss Easterly said for me to come to fetch her lady’s maid from this address this morning.”
Mr. Wilson nodded. “Very good. She shall be right out. Do you fancy anything to drink or eat?”
“That is kind of you, Vicar,” the driver said. “I do not think Her Ladyship would take kindly to me being idle for so long.”
Mr. Wilson turned and called, “Miss Browne, I do think this man is in a bit of a hurry.”
Charlotte was already pulling on her shawl as she walked to the door. “On my way, Mr. Wilson.” She stepped out of the door and gave the driver a smile.
“Good on you, Miss, for being punctual. Shall we be off then?” As the driver spoke, the footman leaped down and opened the door for Charlotte.
Charlotte nodded. “I suppose we should.” She accepted the hand the footman offered her as she got into the carriage. She did not feel that distressed until she waved goodbye to the children and the carriage lurched forward.
There was no turning back now. She was off to Berwick Manor, whether she wanted to be or not. She shifted on the seat and looked at the passing trees.
There was nothing now but the future. The feeling of standing at the edge of a cliff came to Charlotte. She could fall or she could fly, and she did not know which was going to happen. But she hoped it was the latter.
The ride was longer than she remembered from being a child traveling to the manor. When the carriage finally did stop, Charlotte’s limbs felt stiff from sitting. The footman opened the door. “Do you need help, Miss?”
Charlotte shook her head but accepted his hand down all the same. As soon as she was on the ground, he quickly scooped up the stool and put it back in its place at the rear of the carriage. Charlotte took a faltering step toward the large house.
Berwick Manor had never seemed so foreboding to her before. She remembered it as a magical place. But it stood cold and stark in the morning light. Charlotte drew in a breath as she stepped up onto the first step.
Charlotte did not see the steps before her. She saw the steps from her childhood memories. She and Amanda raced up these stairs and through the door without a care for the doorman’s stern warnings.
They had raced along the hallways and earned chuckles from Amanda’s parents. Too far away were those memories. Her hand slid around the heavy, metal door-knocker. Its loud, echoing sound against the door brought Charlotte firmly out of her reverie.
The doorman opened the door. Charlotte did not recognize the man, but why should she? They would not still have the same doorman surely. “Can I help you, Miss?”
For a moment Charlotte really hoped the man might be able to help her. She sighed. “I am expected by Miss Easterly. She sent a carriage to fetch me this morning.” Did Amanda not warn the household of her arrival? It might seem preposterous, but Charlotte knew all too well how much Amanda loved surprises.
She did not like the idea that this very much meant that Lord Easterly would be caught unaware by her arrival. She fidgeted with her gloves while the doorman gave her a considering look. “Just a moment, Miss.”
Charlotte was not surprised that the door closed again. She half-expected the man to tell her to go away, and this was the more tender of the options that lay before. The man would be wary of letting in some girl without a chaperone, of course.
She looked up at the sky. If Amanda had warned him, then the man would have ushered her inside. There was a ripple of thunder. “Please, spare me” she whispered to the sky that was gathering clouds.
“Under the Seductive Lady’s Charm” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Miss Charlotte Browne’s life turns upside down when she finds out that her brother died in the war. She had been clinging to the hope of moving with him upon his return, but now that misfortune hit her hard she will have to find her own way in the world. Or maybe not? A coincidental meeting with an old childhood friend will bring a new choice. Charlotte is a fierce woman who doesn’t like to be pitied. But when faced with an offer from Miss Amanda Easterly, will she risk it all and take it?
Graham Easterly is a heartbroken man. The last thing he needed in his life is having Charlotte live with them, after his sister’s invitation. But his irritation is bound to turn to indignation when he finds out that Charlotte will be Amanda’s maid. He has returned to England from the war, full of nightmares and unable to dismiss the guilt he still feels about the death of his wife and child, to be confronted with his sister’s spoiled behavior. Will Charlotte’s presence in the house help him find inner peace or will it start a new fire inside him?
Charlotte’s role also proves to be harder than she thought. Will she be able to overcome the obstacles that Amanda sets trying to ruin her reputation? Graham must also face his own demons, which might prove to be more than he can bear. But the tension between them is undeniable. Will Charlotte be the one to heal his wounds or will he stay in the dark forever? Can his broken heart beat again?
“Under the Seductive Lady’s Charm” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.