One year later
Charlotte, who was now known as Lottie to her friends in Bath, took a final look in the mirror, pleased with her appearance. She rarely dressed so formally since she didn’t attend the Assemblies and other social events in Bath where she’d lived for the past year, preferring to keep to herself, always afraid someone would recognize her.
However, today was Addie Mallory’s wedding day. She, Addie, and Pamela were the best of friends and met for tea every day in Addie’s bookstore, Once Upon a Book. Recently, Addie met Lord Berkshire and his adorable son, Michael, a deaf child. When his lordship asked Addie to accompany him, Michael, and Michael’s governess to London for the purpose of seeking help for his son, he and Addie were caught in a compromising situation forcing them to marry.
From what Lottie saw when they were together, though, a marriage between them didn’t appear to be much of a hardship for either the bride or the groom. There was definite affection between them. Maybe even more than that.
Addie had asked Lottie and Pamela to be her bridesmaids. Pamela was happy to do it, but Lottie had declined and thankfully Addie didn’t question her further. They were both aware that Lottie had some sort of history in London and since that is where the wedding was taking place, Lottie preferred to stay in the background.
She was confident that her deep blue gown with the modest neckline, long sleeves, and loose-fitting skirt would not attract any unwanted attention. The guest list was quite small, and she hoped no one on the list recognized her as Mrs. Danforth’s daughter. The clear glass spectacles she’d had specially made changed her appearance a bit.
Lottie slid a pearl-studded pin into her wide-brimmed straw hat, with the lovely blue flowers that matched her gown, to anchor it to her head. She glanced out the window, thankful that there were only a few clouds in the sky, so she needn’t worry about rain ruining her outfit.
Satisfied with her appearance, she left the room she’d been given in the Mallory townhouse in Grosvenor Square. She knocked lightly on the door to Pamela’s room. She opened the door and, as always, Lottie broke into a smile at her friend’s current dilemma.
Pamela had a terrible stutter that only grew worse when she was flustered—as she was now—or when she met new people—which she was about to do. Pamela’s dress was buttoned incorrectly, leaving the hem sort of on an angle. Her chignon was not doing a very good job of keeping her blond curls out of her face.
She took one look at Lottie and burst into laughter. “I k-know I’m a m-m-mess.” She held her arms out to display the disaster.
“Here, let me help you.” Lottie quickly refastened Pamela’s gown and did her best to smooth back her curls. “Have you any more hairpins?”
Pamela nodded and hurried across the room to her satchel withdrawing a small box that she held out to Lottie. “Here.”
Within minutes, Lottie had Pamela looking well put together. They linked arms and walked down the corridor to Addie’s room.
“Oh my, you look beautiful,” Lottie gushed as she and Pamela burst into Addie’s room.
“I look like a bride.” Addie smirked. “Something none of us ever planned on.”
When the ladies first became friends, they assured each other that they were finished with the husband hunt. Though unusual, they were happy to make their own way as single women living on their own and providing their own income. It was quite freeing.
Lottie had not had the benefit of suitors or a ‘husband hunt’ since her unexpected arrival at her mother’s house, and her subsequent quick move to Bath, squelched any idea Mama had for finding her a husband.
“Yes. And that is what you are,” Lottie said in answer to Addie’s statement. “Who would ever have guessed when Lord Berkshire walked into your bookstore the morning I was there to pick up my books, that he would end up your husband?” Lottie shook her head.
“I am sure stranger things have been recorded throughout time.” Addie adjusted the top of her veil with a ring of fresh flowers that Addie’s mother must have had a devil of a time finding at this time of the year.
“Adeline, it’s time to leave for the church, dear.” Mrs. Mallory entered Addie’s room, studying her hands as she pulled on her gloves. She looked up and came to an abrupt halt. The woman’s eyes filled with tears and she raised her hand to her mouth. “Oh, my.”
Lottie felt her own eyes tear up, thinking of her mama, who, while she had certainly not forgiven her, she still missed something dreadful. She longed for her mother in little ways every day. Every time she smelled roses or fresh baked cookies like she and Mama used to eat in the bakery near school. Even though Lottie had spent all those years in France in a private boarding school, Mama had made the strenuous trip to visit her at least twice a month. They would stay in a fine hotel, eat decadent meals, and shop for ribbons, hats, perfumes, and jewelry. They saw the shows and visited the museums and laughed a great deal.
Unable to bear any more hugs and kisses between Addie and her mother, Lottie swiped at her eyes. “Enough of this,” she said, waving her hand around. “I believe it is time for the church.”
The four women made their way downstairs where Addie’s father, Mr. Mallory, and brother, Marcus, waited to escort the ladies to the church.
“What a bevy of beauties,” Marcus said as he made his bow to the ladies.
Lottie immediately froze at the man’s words. A quick look in his direction assured her that he was not looking directly at her, but at his sister. Lottie let out the breath she’d been holding. She’d been nervous when she and Pamela had first been introduced to the young Mr. Mallory, but he didn’t seem to know her, much to her relief.
She would be happy when this wedding was over, and she and Pamela were on the rail back to Bath.
They all trooped down to the two carriages to carry them to the church. Lord Berkshire had loaned one of his rented carriages so they could all travel at the same time to St. Paul’s Cathedral where the wedding would take place.
The time passed quickly, and the ceremony was lovely. Lottie tried very hard not to wish for things she would never have. She was truly happy for her friend and was looking forward to helping her out by minding her store while she took her wedding trip and dealt with a legal problem involving her new stepson.
Lottie and Pamela had been taking turns running Addie’s bookstore while Addie had been in London with Lord Berkshire. Lottie managed to take several shifts in addition to the work she did teaching young girls every week on the finer parts of being a lady. She tried not to laugh every time she thought of that term and how fast her student’s parents would pull their daughters out of her lessons if they ever found out about her mother. They wouldn’t be able to get their daughters far enough away from her.
But Lottie’s years of training at the exclusive school she attended in France gave her the knowledge and confidence to take young girls under her wing and teach them dance, manners, watercolors, polite conversation, embroidery, and all the other things their parents wanted them to know before they were launched into Society.
The attendees at the wedding ceremony were joined by about fifty other guests for the wedding breakfast at Mr. and Mrs. Mallory’s townhouse. Lottie was seated between Lord Berkshire’s elderly uncle, Mr. Filbert, and the man who acted as witness for Lord Berkshire, his friend and business partner, Mr. Carter Westbrooke.
Mr. Filbert was slightly deaf and charming, trying his best to keep up a conversation even though she suspected he missed just about every other word. On the other hand, Mr. Westbrooke made her extremely nervous.
He was young, not deaf, but unquestionably charming. And quite handsome. His black as night wavy hair fell in loose curls around his head. As startling as his hair was, his blue eyes were of a shade so deep she had not seen it before.
Mr. Westbrooke was the sort of man who gave his entire attention to the person he was speaking with, making them feel as if they were the most important person in the room. His eyes were riveted on her face when he looked at her, and she felt as though he looked at her far too much.
He was dressed quite fashionably in charcoal gray trousers, a silver and blue waistcoat with a crisp white shirt, black ascot tie, and a fine wool jacket in black.
“So, Miss Danvers, the new Lady Berkshire tells me you have been friends with her ever since she moved to Bath.”
“Yes.” She picked up her fork and continued to eat, staring at her plate. If any of her students saw her, they would be aghast. She gave several lectures on polite conversation at balls, dinner parties, and other social events. Every rule she gave them was slowly but surely being broken by their teacher.
“Do you live with your family in Bath?” Mr. Westbrooke took a sip of his wine and continued to look in her direction.
Be polite. This is your best friend’s wedding.
“No.” She wished the blasted wedding breakfast over. So far no one had approached her to see if she was Mrs. Danforth’s daughter. In fact, no one even gave her more than a glance. Except for Mr. Westbrooke.
The man in question was apparently not daunted by her abrupt—and very impolite—answer. He continued, “I don’t remember seeing you about town.”
She sucked in a breath in horror. “Do you live in Bath, Mr. Westbrooke?”
Please say no.
“I do. I have a legal practice in Bath where I run my various businesses as well. Lord Berkshire and I are long-time friends. We attended Harrow together.”
“How very nice.”
Avoiding men had been her strategy from the time she had fled London and made her home in Bath. She did not want to have anything to do with someone who might have spent time in her mother’s bed. Just the thought made her stomach cramp. Since she had no way of knowing who Mama’s clients had been over the years, it was best to avoid all men.
“Lady Berkshire also said you and Lady Pamela, have been running her store since she’s been in London. That is quite nice of you.”
It appeared Addie had done quite a bit of chatting about her and Pamela to this man. “I would do anything for Addie.” She hesitated. “I apologize, I mean Lady Berkshire.”
Mr. Westbrooke laughed and took another sip of wine. She decided at that point that his smile should be illegal. “You need not apologize to me. I’m sure no one would be surprised to hear you refer to your close friend by her first name.”
“Nevertheless, it is poor manners and not the correct thing to do.”
He leaned in close, causing her to move back. “Do you always do the correct thing, Miss Danvers?”
She did not want this man’s attention. She wanted no man’s attention. They were always after one thing. That one thing had destroyed her mother’s life and consequently her life as well.
“Please excuse me.” She stood abruptly, knocking her glass of wine onto his leg. One look at his surprised expression and she turned on her heel and left the room.
Carter jumped back as the contents from Miss Danvers’ glass of wine hit his thigh, the glass bouncing off and landing at his feet. The liquid—thankfully a white wine—splashed a bit onto his waistcoat as well, but not too much damage had been done, for which he was grateful, since he and a change of clothes were in different locations. Luckily, Miss Danvers had consumed most of her wine. He reached out and accepted a napkin from the footman’s hand.
“My goodness, Mr. Westbrooke, what happened?” His hostess, the new Lady Berkshire viewed him with concern.
“Nothing to trouble yourself over, my lady. Miss Danvers merely had an accident with the wine.” He blotted the liquid, hoping it would dry before the meal ended.
Lady Berkshire moved to stand, but her husband placed his hand over hers. “I think Miss Danvers is fine.” He glanced over at Carter, a slight nod telling him he’d witnessed the mishap.
With everyone resuming their meal, Carter considered what had just occurred. Miss Danvers had looked both terrified and repulsed when she scrambled from her seat and made her quick exit. He felt the need to follow her and assure her whatever he’d said that caused her to run like that was meant in jest and he had no intention of harming her or seducing her.
Truthfully that last part wasn’t quite accurate. Even with the spectacles, Miss Danvers was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. And he’d seen, danced with, conversed with, and slept with, enough of the fairer sex to make such a statement. He would not be a healthy young man if he didn’t like the idea of bedding her.
She fascinated him. He’d been watching her since she’d caught his eye as she arrived at the church with Lady Pamela and the Mallory family. She was skittish, and nervous around him, but seemed quite relaxed when conversing with Lady Pamela and Lady Berkshire. She had remained with the receiving line once they’d entered the house, chatting with her friends, giving Carter an opportunity to study her further.
For a woman with such beauty, she did not seem at all vain or self-centered, which he’d seen in so many women who had more than average looks. In fact, given her dress for the occasion, it was almost as if she was trying to downplay her unusual countenance.
Carter glanced at Miss Danvers’ plate which still had quite a bit of food on it. He hated to think he caused her to miss her meal. He argued with himself and then finally, wet trousers or not, he pushed his chair back and stood. “Please excuse me for a moment,” he said to the lady on the other side of him.
Perhaps what he was doing was foolish, but nevertheless something he felt he needed to do. A quick search of the house brought him to the drawing room where Miss Danvers stood, gazing out the window, a peaceful look on her face. So very different than she’d appeared when she had hurried off.
In order not to startle her, Carter cleared his throat. When she turned, he said, “I hope whatever it was I said didn’t chase you from the celebration for your friend’s nuptials.”
She didn’t appear quite as jumpy, and that encouraged him to slowly enter the room.
“I apologize if I alarmed or upset you in any way. That was certainly not my intent.” He was mesmerized by her deep brown eyes and delicate demeanor. He wanted more than anything to wrap his arms around her and assure her he would never allow any harm to come to her.
She offered him a slight smile. “And I apologize for drenching you with my wine. It was accidental, you know.”
He grinned, pleased to see she didn’t move back as he approached her. “I believe you. I see no reason why you would purposely want to douse someone you just met with wine, unless he was truly offensive.”
“No. That was not the case.” She turned back to look out the window again.
“You left quite a bit of food on your plate. If you don’t return, I shall feel guilty all day for denying you sustenance.”
That brought a delightful laugh from her. The sound flowed over him like warm water: comforting yet enticing. Then she said, “I hardly think missing one meal will see me wither away.”
He held out his hand. “Please. I will feel much better if you rejoined the party. I believe Berkshire and his bride are getting close to cutting that delicious looking wedding cake, and I do not want to miss the opportunity to assuage my sweet tooth.”
She ignored his hand and moved around him, giving herself a wide berth. “In that case, I must return.” She glanced back over her shoulder and smiled, stopping him dead in his tracks, his jaw slack. “You see, I have my own sweet tooth to satisfy.”
Carter followed behind her like a puppy panting after its mistress. He had never in his entire life reacted this way to a woman. He knew deep inside it was not just her beauty, but her vulnerable demeanor and the sense of sadness that surrounded her. She’d been deeply wounded, and if it had been another gentleman to cause her such pain, he would find the man and teach him a lesson in behavior toward women.
Especially this woman.
“Is everything all right, Lottie?” Lady Berkshire glanced at the two of them as they arrived together. Hopefully, being alone with him for a few minutes would not cause a problem for Miss Danvers. The last thing he wanted was to endanger her reputation.
Carter pulled out Miss Danvers’ chair. He eyed her plate with the now cold food and waved a footman over. “Please bring Miss Danvers hot food.”
The man whipped away the plate, bowed, and left.
Miss Danvers shook her head. “That wasn’t necessary. I had enough to eat.”
“No. You didn’t, and I don’t wish to be subjected to you swooning because of a lack of nourishment.”
She lifted her adorable little nose in the air. “I do not swoon.”
“Never?” His brows rose.
“Never. A proper young lady keeps control of herself at all times.”
Carter’s eyes grew wide. “You sound like a teacher or a governess. Have I guessed correctly?”
“You are quite clever, Mr. Westbrooke. In fact, I am employed to prepare a group of young ladies who will shortly make their debut into Society.”
Another footman appeared with a new glass for Miss Danvers and then proceeded to pour wine for them both. Carter raised his glass. “Here is to wine that lands in one’s stomach, and not one’s person.”
Miss Danvers offered that mesmerizing smile again and lifted her glass. “Here is to women who accidentally upend their wine onto gentlemen who do not return the favor.” After taking a sip, she said, “You don’t intend revenge, do you?”