The moment Charlotte Dunthorpe stepped inside Blickton, the elegant and expansive country estate where her dear friend Cecilia, Lady Cosford resided, she knew she was completely out of place. Actually, her sense of unease had started when Lady Cosford’s coach had arrived in Birmingham to bring her to the house party. All this was simply beyond Charlotte’s normal life.
It was one thing to be friends and correspond with a countess and another to accept an invitation to that countess’s house party. Particularly a house party where the purpose was for attendees to form romantic associations—either temporary or permanent.
As a footman carried Charlotte’s things upstairs to her room, Charlotte followed the butler to the drawing room, where Cecilia awaited her.
Despite Charlotte’s anxiety, she was very much looking forward to seeing her friend. Her nervousness was caused by her surroundings and the coming week with people she’d never met. Would they look down on her? Find her lacking? Wonder why Cecilia had invited her?
Stepping over the threshold of the large, gorgeously appointed room decorated in rich golds and greens, with accents of blue and coral, Charlotte had to stop herself from looking about the space in wonder. Instead, she fixed on her hostess, who immediately rose from a settee and came toward her with a wide smile.
“Charlotte! It’s been far too long!” Cecilia was so beautiful and elegant, her blonde hair always styled to perfection. She was also exceedingly kind and generous. They’d met at a salon in Birmingham five years ago and become instant friends. That Charlotte was a widow with a modest household and no family or connections hadn’t mattered a whit to the countess.
They embraced for a long moment, and Charlotte couldn’t help smiling. Cecilia’s effusiveness and charm were ever present, even in letters. To be together with her in person for the first time in—what, two years?—was a gift. It was the reason Charlotte had summoned her courage and accepted the invitation to an event she wasn’t sure she wanted to attend.
Cecilia stepped back. “I’m so very glad you are here. I trust your journey was pleasant?”
“Your coach is exceedingly comfortable.” It was, without question, the nicest and most well-sprung equipage Charlotte had ever had occasion to use. Granted, she’d rarely been in a vehicle these past ten years she’d been living in Birmingham. “Thank you again for allowing me to use it.”
“I can’t very well insist you attend my house party and not ensure you can get here,” Cecilia declared with a laugh. “Come and sit with me for a few minutes. I’m so pleased that you’re the first to arrive. This will give us some uninterrupted time together.”
Charlotte followed her to the settee and sat down, her gaze moving about the room. “Blickton is beautiful,” she said, trying to tamp down her unease. But why should she? Cecilia had been a good friend. “I confess I’m nervous to be here.”
Cecilia’s brow creased briefly. “Because of how I’ve arranged the party? You don’t need to make a match. Just enjoy yourself and get to know everyone. I’ve invited a lovely array of people. You’ll meet many who may even become friends.”
“As we did,” Charlotte said with a smile. “I almost didn’t go that night we met—it was my first salon.”
“It was, wasn’t it? I’d forgotten. Well, it was my first one too, in Birmingham, that is. I’d only just arrived the day before to visit my godmother. And now look at us. I have treasured our friendship so much. Your letters never fail to brighten my day.”
“I’m so glad. Yours do the same. I appreciate hearing of your children’s antics.” Charlotte had hoped to have children of her own, but now accepted that it wasn’t likely to happen. Not unless she wanted a husband, and she wasn’t entirely sure she did after ten years of independence. Or perhaps it was just that she’d become used to thinking she wouldn’t have the chance to wed. But really, most of all, it was the lie she’d been living the past decade and the fact that she couldn’t wed without risking everything.
And so, childless she would remain.
“I would have loved for you to meet them, but they aren’t here this week as that would be inappropriate.” Cecilia laughed. “The boys are at school, and the girls are visiting their grandmother. Since we are discussing letters, in your last one, you mentioned young Hilda. What happened with her?”
Charlotte took in young women, some of whom were still really girls, in search of work. They were often alone in the world or trying not to be a burden on their families. Charlotte gave them the opportunity to train as maids, usually starting in the scullery and then learning other tasks. “She’s still with me, though I expect she’ll find a position in the next month or two. If she were a little older, I’d think she could even train as a lady’s maid. My maid has shown her how to style hair and care for my wardrobe.” Such as it was. Charlotte lived comfortably, but without excess.
“Indeed?” Cecilia cocked her head. “Do you think she’d mind leaving Birmingham? I’ve a need for an upstairs maid. And who knows, perhaps one day she’ll become a lady’s maid to one of my daughters.”
Charlotte tried not to gape at her. “Truly?” Hilda was just sixteen, but she was bright and enthusiastic. “You’d be more than pleased with her.”
“If she’s coming from your household, I’ll be lucky to have her. You’ve quite the reputation for training and placing excellent maidservants, according to my godmother.” Cecilia’s godmother had introduced them five years ago at that salon.
“I’m only trying to help some young women have a chance.” Charlotte knew how close a woman was to complete disaster, particularly when she wasn’t born into any kind of stability. Without a family or means, what could she do to protect and provide for herself?
“It’s incredibly admirable,” Cecilia said warmly. “Whenever you think Hilda is ready, I’d love for you to bring her here. If you don’t mind visiting again. Then you can meet my children.”
“I would enjoy that.” Charlotte’s nerves had settled slightly, but she was still anxious. “What sort of people have you invited to the party?” She didn’t want to ask if anyone was like her, for she knew Cecilia paid no mind to the difference in their stations.
“People or gentlemen?” Cecilia asked with a mischievous look. She didn’t wait for Charlotte to answer. “There are a few noblemen and noblewomen, but also several commoners, if that’s what you’re wondering. And zero Lord Sleafords,” she added conspiratorially.
Cecilia relaxed a bit more. She hadn’t expected Lord Sleaford to be here, as she knew that Cecilia didn’t care for him. Which proved her good taste and intelligence. He was an overbearing, self-important arse, and the one person who could ruin Charlotte’s life. She hoped to never clap eyes on him again.
“I can see that pleases you,” Cecilia said. “While I may not know what Lord Sleaford did to earn your disfavor, I can well imagine it involved him being a pompous knave.”
“Pompous is an excellent description, as is knave.” Even if Charlotte did encounter him someday, she had to hope he wouldn’t recognize her. She, on the other hand, would forever recall his dark, piercing blue eyes as they surveyed her down his long nose.
“I can promise that the gentlemen attending the party are not of his ilk.” Cecilia hesitated before adding, “Is there any chance you may wish to wed again?”
That simple word told such a huge lie. She’d come close to marriage, and indeed would have done if not for the untimely death of her betrothed—the day before the final banns were read. The situation in which she’d found herself had necessitated her immediate departure from the only home she’d ever known, Newark-on-Trent. And that was in some part due to Lord Sleaford. He’d offered to make Charlotte his mistress the day after her betrothed—Sleaford’s cousin—had died. He’d been offensive and had tried to take liberties, but they’d thankfully been interrupted. Putting distance between herself and Sleaford had been one of the reasons she’d left Newark-on-Trent and adopted a new identity.
Once she’d settled herself in Birmingham, she’d pretended as though she had been married. It had been a necessary fabrication, in the event that she was carrying a child, and even though there hadn’t been a baby, she hadn’t wanted to return to what she’d fled: the sadness of losing first her father and then her betrothed and the possibility that Sleaford would force her to become his mistress. Furthermore, she’d established a wonderful life for herself and for those who depended on her, including her household and the young women they trained for domestic service.
Consequently, the lie had become the basis of her entire life. Correcting it now would be pointless as well as jeopardize everything she’d built. Nor did the lie harm anyone except Charlotte’s sense of honor, which was why she tried to live her life above reproach and to be as kind and generous as she could.
“I don’t think remarriage is for me,” Charlotte said with a faint smile. “I’m quite content with my life in Birmingham.”
“I do understand. In some ways, it’s most enviable.” Cecilia’s eyes sparkled with curiosity. “Have you come to seek a liaison, then?”
“I don’t know.” Charlotte had engaged in just one affair in the past decade—if a single unforgettable night with a dashing Irishman could be considered an affair. “Mostly, I am here to see you.”
“And I am so very glad.” Cecilia patted her hand. “If you decide you’d like to…indulge, there will be several gentlemen here who would be amenable to that. I would say Lord Pritchard, who is twice widowed, and his children are nearly adults. Also, Sir Godwin Kemp, another widower with children. His charm can be slightly…aggressive, but he’s a lovely fellow. I daresay Mr. Jacob Emerson may be your best option. He’s just a couple of years older than you and has never been married. I am not sure if he’s here to wed or not.” Cecilia’s expression turned pensive. “I’m also not certain if Lord Audlington is here to find a wife or engage in one of his famed liaisons—I do think he’s tried to leave his rakish reputation behind.”
Goodness, there were several choices, it seemed. Not that Charlotte was looking for that.
The butler appeared in the doorway. “Lady Cosford, another guest has arrived. May I present Lord Rotherham?”
A gentleman stepped into the room, and immediately, the air around Charlotte changed. It thickened and heated, as if she’d stepped outside into a hot, still summer day where the sun warmed every shadowed place, even those best kept hidden.
“I hope I’m not intruding, Lady Cosford,” the gentleman said with a smile that could only be described as wickedly alluring. His eyes, round and perhaps green, though it was hard to be certain at this distance, seemed to smile too. Indeed, his entire face, from his wide forehead to his jutted chin with its slight cleft, lit with cheer, making her think he must be a regularly happy person.
“Not at all, Roth. Do come and meet my friend.” Cecilia looked toward Charlotte. “This is the Earl of Rotherham, though we all call him Roth.” Then she moved her attention back to the earl. “Allow me to present my very dear friend, Mrs. Charlotte Dunthorpe.”
The magnificent earl walked toward them, his tall, athletic form moving with an easy, masculine grace. He bowed, his golden-blond hair shifting against his temple, before saying, “It is my esteemed pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Dunthorpe.”
Charlotte wished she’d been standing so that he could take her hand. Though she was sitting, should she offer it? She wanted to. So that she could feel his bare fingers against hers.
Why hadn’t Rotherham been on Cecilia’s list of potential liaison partners?
Perhaps because he was only here to find a wife. That was a terrible pity.
Cecilia waved him toward a chair nearer to Charlotte. “Sit, if you would, Roth. Unless you’re fatigued and wish to retire?”
“Not at all. I had a very good night’s sleep at the Sheep and Dog in Lutterworth.”
“Splendid, as we have a lovely dinner planned for this evening with dancing to follow.” Cecilia turned to Charlotte. “Roth is well known for his dancing ability. You won’t find a better partner.”
How Charlotte loved to dance! Alas, she had little occasion to do so. When she did attend an assembly, she was typically ignored along with the wallflowers and spinsters. Which made sense because she was, in truth, a spinster.
He fixed her with his stunningly attractive eyes, which she could now confirm were green. Specifically, they were the color of a fir tree in the forest one might encounter on a Yule log hunt, which Charlotte hadn’t participated in since she was a child. “I trust you’ll save me a dance this evening, Mrs. Dunthorpe?”
“It would be my privilege, my lord.”
“Roth, if you please.” He flashed another smile, and Charlotte’s heart, which had already sped when he walked into the room, ticked up its pace.
Charlotte noted the fine lines fanning from his eyes. He had to be at least five years older than the thirty she possessed. How had a man with his charm gone this long without marrying? Perhaps he didn’t really want to, but now needed to submit to duty and provide an heir to his earldom.
“How do you know Lord and Lady Cosford?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ve met you at any of their balls or soirees. I surely would have remembered you.”
Charlotte allowed a half smile even as she narrowed her eyes at him skeptically. “As it happens, I have not been to any of their social events, nor have we met. I would have recalled a gentleman as flirtatious as you.”
The earl laughed softly, almost with a tinge of embarrassment. “That is not typically how one would describe me. I only meant that you have a most memorable face.” The faintest marks of pink rose along his sculpted cheekbones.
Charlotte would have apologized for causing him discomfort, but the butler came again to announce that more guests had arrived.
Cecilia stood. “I suppose it is time for me to step fully into my role as hostess.” She gave Charlotte a warm smile. “I’m glad we had a few minutes alone. Please, both of you stay if you’d like. As the guests arrive, we’ll get to know one another here. Then we’ll play a game of introduction.” She arched her brows with an anticipatory look before walking toward the butler.
Charlotte turned to the earl. “I should not have assumed you were flirting. My apologies.”
“I might have been, subconsciously even. I’m afraid my skills have been somewhat neglected.”
“Is that why you’ve come to the party?” Charlotte asked. “To hone them once more?” There was a slight flirtatious edge to her question. Perhaps she would sharpen her skills as well, for they were also quite decrepit.
He grinned. “Indeed, I have. I have been widowed five years, and it is time I consider remarriage.”
He was a widower, then, and he was here to find a wife. Disappointment flashed through her. A brief, sparkling liaison with Roth would have far exceeded any expectation she’d possessed for this party.
“How long have you been widowed?” he asked.
“Ten years. I wasn’t married long.” How she hated lying. In truth, she was surprised at how difficult it felt in this particular moment after becoming so used to it over the past decade. She’d thought she was nearly immune to the feelings of shame and frustration—not because of what had happened ten years ago, but because of the position she was in as a woman. Because her choices had been almost nonexistent. She refused to feel regret for choosing a life of independence, comfort, and, most of all, safety. Her father had raised her to do what was best, both for herself and those around her. She’d striven to do exactly that.
The earl’s handsome features creased with genuine concern as his gaze met and held hers. “I’m sorry you lost your husband so soon. And ten years is a long time to be alone. Unless… Do you have a child? I have two daughters.”
Daughters! How lovely. While her life was undoubtedly easier because she hadn’t conceived a child with Sidney, she sometimes wished she had. “I do not have children. I have been alone, but don’t feel sorry for me. My life in Birmingham has been full and content.”
“I’m glad for you,” he said earnestly. “Since you’re here, may I presume you’ve decided you no longer wish to be alone?”
Put like that, Charlotte wanted to say yes. She couldn’t deny that she yearned for a companion—in every way. Not marriage, of course, but to spend a few nights in the arms of a man like Rotherham would not be unwelcome. “That remains to be seen,” she answered coyly, because she had to. “But I am…open to the party’s possibilities.” That was sufficiently vague so that she could either entertain an affair or not.
His eyes danced with anticipation. “How splendid to hear.”
Charlotte stood abruptly, desperate for some space to breathe. The earl had quite set her equilibrium off, and she needed to put it to rights.
He also got to his feet.
“Please excuse me, your—I mean, Roth.” She inclined her head. “I think I must retreat to my chamber for a respite. I’ll look forward to seeing you later.”
He smoothly clasped her hand. “It’s been my pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Lifting her hand, he bent his head and pressed his lips to her knuckles.
The touch was slight and brief. It should barely have registered. Instead, the connection shot straight into the very depths of Charlotte with a distinct heat, a desire that made her want to invite him to join her respite.
What a shocking thought.
Except, wasn’t that what this party was for?Return to The Make-Believe Widow