Hidden behind the heavy, dark green velvet drapes, Charlotte fervently prayed her aunt Mildred would stop looking for her. Charlotte was sure, given time, the woman would calm down and the crisis would be over, but as she heard her aunt stride into the room calling her name, her heart sank. It was nearing the dinner hour, and she still had to change her clothes. If she failed to appear in the dining hall properly attired and on time, she’d be in even more trouble.
“You’d better show yourself if you’re in here,” her aunt called. “One of these days you will test my patience too far. One of these days I will spank you, I swear I will. This might be the day if I have to search you out.”
Taking a deep breath and putting on her most remorseful expression, Charlotte stepped from her hiding place.
“I’m here, auntie.”
“You are a wicked child. That’s what you are, a child. You’re nineteen years of age and still you behave so badly. You are like a spoiled ten-year-old.”
“I’m sorry, auntie,” Charlotte mumbled, “but was what I did really so bad? I was just looking, and I didn’t mean to do any harm. I am sorry, honestly I am.”
“Sorry? You’re sorry?” her aunt chided, her voice an almost shrill shriek. “You enter my room, which you have been told is off-limits, you open my jewelry case, which you have absolutely no right to do, and then you break my best string of pearls! You think sorry is going to be enough?”
“My most sincere apology is all I have to offer,” Charlotte mumbled with a woeful frown, hoping she sounded appropriately remorseful.
“This time, young lady, you’ve gone too far. Get out of that dress and wait for me by that couch while I make sure we will not be disturbed.”
“Out of my dress? Did you say, out of my dress?” she gasped, “but, Aunt Mildred, why?”
“I’m going to bend you over that couch and spank you, that’s why!” she barked, marching across the room to lock the door. “I’m tired of all your nonsense. Do as I say, right now!”
Shocked by her aunt’s strident instruction, but telling herself it must be a big bluff, Charlotte moved to the small padded bench set against the wall and tried to remove her clothing.
“Charlotte, what are you doing? Why are you still dressed?” Mildred said impatiently as she saw Charlotte struggling with her clothes.
“I can’t do it without help from Helen!” Charlotte declared, rolling her eyes. Helen had been her mother’s lady’s maid, and had stayed with Charlotte when her uncle had taken her in. Dressing and undressing without Helen’s assistance was impossible.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Mildred muttered testily as she marched across the room. “Drop your hands. Why these dresses are designed so we must have our maids to help I just don’t understand. Men, that’s the reason. They’re designed by confounded men.”
With deft fingers Mildred popped the fasteners and helped Charlotte disrobe. In short order Charlotte’s dress and petticoats were laid on the couch, and she was standing in front of her aunt in her undergarments.
“Auntie, am I not too old for this?” Charlotte softly asked, widening her eyes and doing her best to make them appear pleading. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but—”
“Now you don’t mean to be disrespectful?” her aunt retorted, interrupting her niece mid-sentence. “Disrespectful is your middle name, and I don’t buy this woeful act for a minute! As I said earlier, you are no better than a spoiled ten-year-old child. I should have spanked you the moment you walked through my door and disrupted my house. Tonight you will behave! Tonight you will not embarrass me! I will make sure of it.”
“I’ll be good, honestly. Please don’t do this,” Charlotte begged. “I promise, I’ll be—”
“Kneel,” Mildred barked, interrupting her again, “and I warn you, I will not be holding back. This dinner tonight is important, and you will sit still and be a perfect young lady at the dining table. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, auntie, I will, I promise,” she said, almost meaning it.
Shocked and dismayed that her aunt was about to carry out her threat, and fearing any further protest would just make matters worse, Charlotte dropped to her knees and waited. She had often overheard other young women gossiping in hushed whispers about being spanked, and how they didn’t mind a spanking delivered by hand so much, but they would all shudder when comparing notes about the terrible sting that was delivered by the dreaded rod.
Why she had never felt the wrath of her aunt’s or her nanny’s spanking palm, Charlotte didn’t quite understand. It had certainly been threatened. Breaking her aunt’s pearls had been an accident, and it seemed almost unfair that she was about to experience her first spanking for something that had not been a deliberate and provocative act of defiance, even if she did go into her aunt’s room against her aunt’s wishes.
“I’m terribly sorry,” she repeated, hoping there was the right amount of tremble in her voice.
“That’s just not good enough,” her aunt snapped, “not by a mile, and if you think you’re going to be spanked over your drawers, you are mistaken.”
Seconds later, feeling the air kiss her skin as her aunt parted the thin cotton undergarment, Charlotte instinctively threw her hands behind her.
“Auntie, please, no,” she pleaded, wishing she owned the more modern bloomers that didn’t have the split in the back.
“You can forget your modesty,” her aunt snapped. “Lock your fingers together in front of you. Be quick about it. I don’t have much time.”
“Would you rather I call your uncle? I’m sure his hand will be much harder than mine, and if you’re embarrassed with me seeing your naked bottom, think how you will feel if you are exposed to his eye.”
Defeated and utterly mortified by her aunt’s suggestion, Charlotte clasped her hands in front of her, and seconds later the woman’s hand slapped down, landing with a significant sting.
“Wretched girl,” her aunt scolded. “You’re fortunate the housemaid found all the pearls and we can have them restrung, or I’d have you bent over your uncle’s desk in the morning and I’d find myself a rod. I might just do that anyway,” Mildred lectured, raising her hand in preparation for the next smack, “and mark my words, if the dinner doesn’t go well tonight, I will.”
“Ow, auntie, no more, please,” Charlotte begged as the second smack landed, shocked that her aunt’s swat could carry such a zing.
“I’ll say when enough is enough, missy. Going into my room against my specific instructions was bad enough, but going into my jewelry box? My hand isn’t severe enough. What else can I use?” she muttered as her eyes darted around the room in search of an implement.
Spying the large floral display on a tall brass pedestal by the door, Mildred noticed that between the blooms and leaves were several long, budded twigs.
“Yes, one of those will do nicely,” she said purposefully. “It appears you’re going to feel the sting of a rod after all. Those sticks are probably not as solid, but I can make up for that with a good, long stroke.”
Looking over her shoulder, Charlotte saw where her aunt was headed, and when her eyes fell on the nasty-looking, narrow wooden shoots, she let out a gasp of fright.
“Auntie, please,” she begged as an unexpected chill shuddered down her spine, “you don’t need to—”
“Be quiet,” her aunt bit out. “I fully intend to make your bottom burn. It’s the least you deserve, and as far as I’m concerned, this is well overdue. Corporal discipline will be the order in this house from now on. Your pranks and wicked ways will no longer go unpunished.”
Mildred wasn’t a tall woman, and was forced to stand on her toes and raise her arms to reach the display. Seeing a particularly thick branch at the side nearest her, she reached up and gave it a tug.
Still watching, Charlotte immediately saw what could happen. The vase appeared to be precariously perched on the pedestal, and if her aunt pulled on the twigs any harder the whole thing could come toppling down. In an attempt to prevent the disaster, Charlotte jumped to her feet and called out.
“Auntie, look out! It’s going to fall off the stand!”
To Charlotte’s horror, her outburst caused Mildred to jerk her arm, unbalancing the huge urn even further, and the oversized porcelain vase teetered towards her. Terrified that it would indeed tumble over on top of her, Mildred leapt backwards with a loud shriek, and seconds later the expensive vessel tumbled off its base, landing on the floor with an almighty crash.
“Oh, my goodness, oh, my goodness,” her aunt wailed. “Now look what you’ve done, you beastly child.”
“Auntie, I didn’t—”
“Ooh, you are such a wicked girl,” Mildred railed. “Wicked, wicked, wicked! You’d better be on your best behavior tonight, do you understand me? Lord Pemberly is looking for a bride and I am determined that I will see you married to him and out of this house!”
“No! I do not wish to be married,” Charlotte shot back. “Men are sniveling bores, all of them. I’m sick of all the suitors you’ve paraded in front of me. Who is this Lord Pemberly? You didn’t even tell me about him.”
“You will marry!” her aunt shouted. “Do you hear me? You will marry and you will leave this house. I will beat you every day until you do!”
“You will not, I won’t let you,” Charlotte shouted back. “I shall write to my cousin. He will come and take me away from here. You’ve been nothing but horrible to me.”
An unexpected banging broke into their battle, and her uncle’s voice boomed through the door.
“What the blazes is going on in there?” he demanded. “Mildred? Charlotte? Why is this blasted door locked?”
“One moment, Hugo,” Mildred called back. “One moment.”
“I can’t get into this dress by myself,” Charlotte exclaimed. “Do you wish Uncle Hugo to see me this way?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” her aunt growled, hurrying to help her. “You will be a proper young lady at dinner, do you hear me?” she scolded, bustling Charlotte back into her clothes. “If you are not, you will feel the rod on your bottom, so help me, you will! Do you hear me, do you?”
“Yes, auntie,” she said quickly, deciding their fight needed to end.
The fury was obvious in Mildred’s voice, and after the woman’s thwarted attempt to pull the nasty stick from the vase, Charlotte realized her aunt was deadly serious.
“There, you look presentable enough to get back upstairs to your room,” Mildred said tersely, tugging on the dress to help it sit right, then skirting the debris of flowers, dirt, and broken china in her path, she unlocked the door.
“What is all this?” Hugo demanded as he walked in and saw the mess on the floor. “Charlotte, what’s wrong with you? Your face is bright red. Mildred, what the devil is going on here?”
“I’ll tell you everything in a minute, Hugo,” Mildred replied, barely able to hide the anger in her voice. “Charlotte, go and dress for dinner. Our guests will be arriving shortly.”
Keeping her eyes lowered, Charlotte hurried past her glowering uncle and furious aunt, and moved quickly into the hallway, but risked pausing for a moment to eavesdrop.
“I’m at my wits’ end,” she heard her aunt declare. “I was about to punish her for breaking my pearls, but mostly to make sure she’d behave tonight so Lord Pemberly would be impressed. I was reaching for a twig to whip her bottom when she yelled at me. It made me jump. That’s what caused the vase to fall. It could have killed me, Hugo. She will marry that man, she will, she will. We must make it happen!”
“I’m sorry, Mildred,” her uncle grunted, “You’re quite right. It’s unfortunate she has been unlucky in love. We’ve certainly introduced her to enough young men that one of them should have found her acceptable.”
“I told you years ago to take the rod to her bottom,” Mildred snapped, “but you wouldn’t listen. She doesn’t treat her callers with decorum, or the right degree of respect. You know that, Hugo. She is a wicked girl, wicked. We shall never be rid of her. I am quite beside myself.”
“Mildred, my dear, please don’t get upset. Lord Pemberly is a man of the world. Perhaps that’s what she needs. The suitors thus far have been young men, barely a year or two older than she is. A gentleman like Lord Pemberly is better suited to deal with a spirited girl like Charlotte.”
Listening outside the door, Charlotte’s eyes grew wide. Lord Pemberly was a man of the world? She had assumed he would be like all the others; nervous, unsure of himself, unable to carry on a conversation for more than two minutes.
“Perhaps you’re right. She is so difficult, any of those young men would have been at their wits’ end in a very short time,” Mildred lamented. “Look at this terrible wreckage. Every day it’s something else. I want her out of this house, Hugo. I really am very upset, very, very upset.”
“There, there, my dear,” Hugo said, trying to calm his wife. “You must compose yourself. Our guests are about to arrive, and we will make sure the evening is a success. My niece may be a willful young woman, but she is very attractive. I’m sure Lord Pemberly will be taken with her.”
“Oh, I do hope so,” Mildred said with a heavy sigh. “It is said he has been searching for a bride for some time. He must be very picky. A man with so much to offer would be wed by now were he not. I’m afraid I do not share your optimism.”
“Come, my dear. We must have the servants clear up this carnage, and I would suggest a small sip of something to settle your nerves.”
“Yes, that would be helpful, thank you, Hugo, and I am depending on you to have a word with Charlotte. If we are to have any chance of a successful introduction, she really must be demure and properly behaved during dinner.”
“I’ll do my best,” he sighed. “You know my niece is her own girl, headstrong and willful, but I will do my best.”
“Thank you, Hugo. I’m relying on you. You might be right about her needing a gentleman. A man of the world would not put up her with nonsense, not for a moment.”
Strangely titillated and intrigued by the description of the mysterious Lord Pemberly, Charlotte scooted down the hall and trotted up the stairs.
“That’s why Aunt Mildred wanted to be sure I’d be on my best behavior tonight,” she mumbled as she entered her room, barely noticing Helen carefully laying out her clothes for the evening.
“Excuse me, m’lady?” Helen asked, looking up as her young mistress ambled towards her.
“I was talking to myself,” Charlotte replied. “Good, I see you have my clothes ready.”
“Yes, m’lady. Are you all right? Your face is awfully red.”
“I’m perfectly fine, thank you. Just get me dressed. I don’t have much time.”
“It’s not like you to worry about time, m’lady,” Helen smiled.
“No, but my aunt is in a hateful mood, so I think I should make an effort,” Charlotte replied, and I’m interested in meeting this Lord Pemberly. A gentleman is much more appealing that some sniveling boy who is all fingers and thumbs. I think I would like to be on time for once.
Having been together for so many years, she and Helen had perfected the complicated process of dressing for dinner. There was the lacing of a fresh corset, then the layers of undergarments before the gown itself. Styling Charlotte’s hair and selecting the jewelry followed, and going through the motions with the ease of practiced professionals, it wasn’t long before Charlotte was pulling on her long satin gloves.
Staring at her reflection in the tall, oval mirror, she was pleased with what she saw. A dark green beaded gown hugged her curves, sparkling gems were delicately placed in her hair, and with her mother’s diamonds gracing her neck, she looked every bit the aristocratic young woman that she was.
“This should please auntie,” she murmured, “and possibly this Lord Pemberly chap. Interesting we have not crossed paths before now.”
Hearing the sound of horses in the driveway, she moved across to the window to observe the arriving guests. There were several carriages slowing to a stop, but one visitor was galloping across the front lawn on a majestic, dapple-gray steed.
“That must be a stallion.”
“What’s that, m’lady?” Helen asked, hurrying across to join her.
“That horse. He must be a stallion,” Charlotte replied. “Look at his neck, and what a powerful stride he has. Not an easy ride, I would imagine.”
“I wonder why that man isn’t in a carriage,” Helen remarked. “He certainly strikes a dashing figure.”
“Yes, I wonder too,” Charlotte smiled. ”I think I’m actually looking forward to meeting him.”
“You are, m’lady? I’ve never heard that before.”
“No, and I could be completely wrong. He may be a frightful bore like all the others.”
“I doubt that,” Helen said with a knowing smile. “I can’t imagine a man on a horse like that would be a bore.”
“Perhaps,” Charlotte said thoughtfully, and as she watched the man pull his impressive horse to a stop, to her surprise, he gazed up at her window.
“Look, m’lady. He’s staring up at you?”
“I doubt it. We’ve never met, and he probably can’t even see me. He’s just studying the house. It is rather grand.”
She watched as the man dropped from the saddle and handed the reins to a footman.
“Do you know who it is, m’lady?”
“I believe he might be Lord Pemberly,” Charlotte replied. “He’s the only one I didn’t recognize.” Hmmm, maybe I will be a good girl at dinner after all. A very good girl, or maybe I’ll be extra mischievous.
Lord Edward Pemberly III strode into the elegant foyer of the grand house, and as he knew they would, the earl and his wife greeted him with warmth and enthusiasm. It was no secret why he was there. The earl had initiated contact, suggesting his niece would make some lucky man a most delightful wife and companion, and urging Edward to accept their invitation for dinner and an overnight stay. Edward had happily accepted the effusive request, but he had no illusions about Lady Charlotte Winthrop.
Though they were not close neighbors, his valet, Reese, had long been friendly with the earl’s valet, Walters, and with some gentle coaxing, Reese had shared some of the scandalous stories he’d heard from Walters about the beautiful, but willful young woman. Edward had found the anecdotes amusing, sometimes alarming, and always intriguing.
As he shook the earl’s hand and made small talk with his wife, a bird-like creature with oddly thin lips, he felt eyes on him, and lifting his gaze to the top of the stairs he saw a beautiful creature in a sparkling dark green gown. She made no effort to drop her stare as a proper, well-bred young lady should, but kept her eyes fixated on him in an almost challenging glare. It was Mildred who was the first to notice, and stepping back, she gestured for her niece to join them.
“Charlotte, come down, my dear.”
He noticed the corners of Lady Charlotte’s lips curl slightly before she began to move, and as she glided down the stairs he took note of her pale skin, graceful neck, and delightfully curvaceous figure. He could easily imagine stripping her down and casting his eyes over her corseted body. He did so enjoy gazing at a woman in her undergarments.
“Lord Pemberly, may I present my niece, Lady Charlotte. Charlotte, this is Lord Edward Pemberly the third.”
“Delighted,” Edward said with a nod of his head.
“My lord,” she replied with a soft smile.
“I understand I will be escorting you into dinner.”
“Shall we move into the reception room for a glass of wine?”
“I would very much enjoy a glass of wine, so yes.”
Hugo and Mildred shared a glance. Things were off to a good start. Charlotte was usually off-handed or unwelcoming at such times, and as the smiling earl of Cheltenham watched the couple walk slowly away, Mildred closed her eyes in a quick prayer.
“Do you enjoy music, Charlotte?” Edward asked as they entered the elegant reception room.
“Upon what?” he pressed.
“Who is singing. I prefer a man’s voice to a woman’s. A man’s voice is full and robust.”
It had been a bold statement, and Edward sensed a provocation. Already she was subtly testing his mettle.
“You are a woman of strong opinions.”
“Yes, I am,” she nodded, “and I’m proud of it.”
“A woman of strong opinions is a woman of passion,” he said, lowering his voice. “Such a woman needs a strong man.”
She had been keeping her gaze steadily ahead, glancing at the various guests in the room, but his comment made her turn and look up at him. Something strange had just happened. A funny flip had danced in her belly, and she could feel her face growing warm.
“I do not, uh, I’m not sure I understand,” she murmured.
A servant approached carrying a tray of crystal goblets filled with red wine, and apparently grateful for the distraction, Charlotte took a glass and immediately downed several swallows. The liquor left a red tint to her lips, and Edward suddenly found himself with an overwhelming desire to slide his tongue across the red stain, then sweep her into his arms and ardently kiss her. It was unnerving and rare to experience such an immediate and visceral reaction.
“This wine is excellent,” she declared.
“You have experience in wine?” he asked with raised eyebrows.
“Enough to know when it is good or bad,” she quipped.
“Another of your strong opinions?”
Much to her chagrin she could feel he was getting the better of her, and his eyes, when they met hers, made her uncomfortable. Not sure how to respond, she said nothing and looked away, but she could feel his stare.
“Tell me, Charlotte, do you have many young men calling on you?”
He already knew the answer. He’d heard on good authority that when a potential suitor stopped by the home of the earl of Cheltenham to pay his respects and meet his attractive niece, Lady Charlotte could be less than charming.
“None that I care for,” she said haughtily.
“How must a man win your favor?”
“That is something I must ponder,” she replied thoughtfully. “Perhaps I have not yet discovered it.”
“Perhaps it is something about which you are just now becoming aware,” he remarked softly.
“It is? What might that be, Lord Pemberly?”
“The idea of enjoying the company of a man stronger than you.”
She didn’t respond, but Edward witnessed a fresh blush crawling up her neck, and he was about to make further comment when the dinner gong sounded.
“If you would, to the dining room,” Mildred proclaimed, stepping into the center of the room.
Charlotte began to move quickly forward, but Edward kept pace, following her to the table and taking the seat next to hers. Still holding her wine, she finished the last of it as she sat down, then signaled for a servant to bring more.
As the ten-course feast began, starting with a savory soup, Edward was amused at her attempts to avoid his conversation, turning her back to chat with the woman seated on her other side, but when the second course was served she was forced to face him. He was sitting to her left, which meant her food was served from his side.
“The roast beef looks excellent,” he remarked as the meat was carefully deposited onto her plate.
Lifting her eyes, she stared directly back at him, broke into a smile, then giggled.
“Did I say something amusing?” he asked.
“You don’t have to say anything to be amusing,” she replied, “you just are.”
“I shall take that as a compliment,” he smiled.
“Take it as you wish, sir, but I wouldn’t object if you desired to walk the gardens with me tomorrow before afternoon tea.”
Moving to Edward’s left, the servant began to serve him the meat, but Edward paid little attention as he watched Charlotte reach for her wine glass and discover it once again empty.
“Bother,” she humphed.
“Lady Charlotte,” he said quietly. “I would be delighted to walk with you in the gardens, but on one condition.”
“Condition?” she quipped, her smile instantly transforming into a frown. “What do you mean, condition?”
“If you refrain from drinking any more wine this evening, I shall wander the gardens to your heart’s content.”
Charlotte stared back at him. Men did not dictate such terms; no one dictated such terms, at least not to her, and she was about to put him firmly in his place when she suddenly felt the strange fluttery thing in her belly.
“I shall leave this entirely in your hands,” he said with a beguiling look in his eye. “If you drink further, I shall take it as a sign that you would prefer not to walk with me tomorrow afternoon.”
The wine she’d already imbibed was making her feel slightly giddy. It was a feeling she thoroughly enjoyed. It made the tedious dinners with the tedious guests and the tedious conversation much more entertaining.
“But you’re not tedious,” she mumbled.
“I’m sorry, Lady Charlotte, I didn’t hear you,” he lied.
“Oh, nothing, nothing important,” she replied, and feeling flippant and foolish, she immediately turned her back to him.
Sitting across from Edward was an attractive young woman whose acquaintance he’d made when attending a charity event in London. He had found her warm and companionable, and while he’d had no physical attraction to her, he had found her conversation stimulating. Purposefully he reached for his water glass and was able to catch her eye.
“Lady Jane. You are looking well,” he smiled.
“Lord Pemberly, how have you been?”
“Very well, thank you, and you?”
‘“London agrees with me. I’ve enjoyed being in the city,” she brightly replied.
“We must make it a point to chat after dinner. When might you be returning to your country home?”
“Soon, in less than a week.”
“Then five minutes before you depart.”
“Yes, we must,” she nodded.
Hearing the exchange, Charlotte felt an odd twinge of anger. Lady Jane was stuffy and traditional. Why would a dashing man like Lord Pemberly wish to chat with her? Slowly turning around, she glanced at him, trying to discern if he was particularly drawn to the young woman across the table, and as she did she automatically reached for her wine glass.
“Would you care for some more wine?” he asked, turning to face her and locking her eyes.
She gazed back at him, unexpectedly feeling trapped.
If I say no, will it make me seem weak? Too eager to please him? Does it give him the upper hand right away? If I say yes, and he still walks the gardens with me, then I will be on top. This is indeed a moment, an opportunity to score a victory. He is interested in me, I can feel it, and Uncle Hugo will put pressure on him. Surely I must come out ahead in this.
Her musings had rattled through her brain in seconds, and with a slightly imperious air she nodded her head.
“Yes, Lord Pemberly, I believe I would, and how fortuitous, here it comes now,” she said lightly, but as the servant reached for her glass in order to fill it, she saw Lord Pemberly’s brow crinkle. An unfamiliar feeling washed through her. It was like the strange butterflies that had fluttered in her stomach, but this new feeling wasn’t pleasant, not pleasant at all.
Though her glass was full, she found herself not wanting to reach for it. Throughout the remainder of the meal she sent covert glances his way, hoping he’d notice the wine continued to sit in front of her untouched, but to her dismay, not only did he show no awareness, his manner had changed.
He was removed, and made no effort to engage her other than the superficial niceties expected. By the time the last course was served, sweet cakes followed by ice cream, she was feeling quite dispirited. She wanted to find words to warm the chill that had descended between them, but her aunt had signaled for the servant to open the door. It was time for the ladies to retire from the table.
“Perhaps I shall see you another time,” he said formally.
“My lord,” she said quickly. “I, uh…”
“Yes, Lady Charlotte?”
“The glass,” she quietly stammered, “it is still full.”
“Of this I am aware.”
“Then, will I see you tomorrow, before afternoon tea, to walk the gardens?”
“It is a matter I’m considering,” he replied, his brown eyes capturing hers.
“Considering?” she whispered.
“Considering,” he nodded.
In a sudden, uncontrollable defiant gesture, her hand shot out, her fingers clasped the goblet, and she brought it to her lips. Their eyes were still locked, and as the liquid spilled against her tongue and down her throat, her truculent gaze did not waver.
“You may consider,” she said curtly, rising to her feet, “that, my lord.”
To her shock he did not scowl at her. There was no frown on his brow, no scorn in his eyes, only the slightest suggestion of a smile.
“Goodnight, Lady Charlotte. You were, and are, delightful company.”
For the first time in her young life Charlotte was utterly speechless. He was unlike any man she’d ever known. Confounding, exasperating, and wholly unpredictable, and staring at his dark wavy hair, strong jaw, and frighteningly wide shoulders, she decided he was also far too handsome.
She could feel his eyes on her as she moved briskly from the table to catch up to the other women, and as she heard the men gathering to retire to the library, she shot a quick last glance over her shoulder. He was still seated, and still studying her. Embarrassed that he’d caught her looking back at him, she felt a hot burn across her cheeks.
It was her aunt’s voice, and Charlotte recognized the subtle scolding tone. Charlotte had little doubt that the scene at the table, though discreet, had not gone unnoticed by the woman who was so determined to see her gone. Under normal circumstances Charlotte would not have cared, but the earlier events of the evening, and the threat of the rod striking her bottom, was still in the forefront of her mind.
Oh, dear. Have I just made a mess of things? Lord Pemberly may be insufferable, but perhaps I should spend some time with him. At least it would give me something to do, and it might calm things down with Aunt Mildred.
“Yes, Aunt Mildred,” she said turning her attention away from the dining room and moving forward.
“Come along, stop loitering,” Mildred said under her breath.
Though Mildred moved quickly back to her guests, she thought she had heard a change in her niece’s usually impertinent tone, and had discerned a subtle shift in her attitude.
Is it possible? Has Lord Pemberly touched her? Saints alive, please let it be. Whatever I must do to see this girl from this house, I shall do it.
A short time later, Edward was in the library sipping a brandy and idly listening to the conversation around him. The men were discussing the latest innovations in transportation. Edward was enthralled by the motorcar, though he always enjoyed galloping his horse from his country home into the city. He had heard it would only be a few short years before the automobile would be available to the general public, and he was already exploring the idea of learning how to operate one. Though he was genuinely interested in the discussion and contributed his thoughts, he had another matter at the forefront of his mind. How to handle the situation with Charlotte.
He was only there through the following day, and he wanted very much to walk the gardens with her, but he certainly couldn’t go back on his word. He would lose her respect, and she would most certainly be disappointed. A girl like Charlotte was unique. She needed careful handling, and above all, she needed to know he was reliable and consistent. If he said it, he meant it.
It was when the small group were readying themselves to leave that the idea came to him, but he would need the earl’s approval and cooperation. With the man so desirous of seeing his niece married, Edward had little doubt that he could garner both. The men slowly departed, but Edward lingered, making sure he was the last to leave the room, and as he approached Hugo to shake his hand and thank him for the evening, he paused.
“Sir, might I have a quick, private word before we join the ladies?”
“Of course, please,” Hugo replied, hopeful the handsome man wanted to discuss further meetings with Charlotte.
“Your niece is an interesting young woman,” Edward began, “but I find myself in somewhat of a quandary, and I would appreciate your help.”
“Whatever I can do,” Hugo nodded. “I do believe she was quite taken with you.”
“I did sense that, and I’m delighted to say the feeling is mutual, but if I may, I shall tell you my dilemma, and then my thoughts about how best to deal with it.”
“Yes, please, sir, tell me. I am most eager to help if I can.”
As Edward told him about the small scene at the table, then his plan to achieve the walk in the garden while simultaneously keeping his word and teaching the young woman a lesson, Hugo broke out in a wide smile.
“If I may say so, Lord Pemberly, you are indeed a match for my niece. You have my complete approval. I shall make sure she will be ready on time.”
“I am grateful, sir,” Edward smiled.
“I am the one who is grateful,” Hugo replied. “Very grateful.”
They meandered into the drawing room to join the ladies for a short while before the guests departed, and when Edward glanced across at Charlotte, he could see she was clearly tipsy.
That last gulping of wine has done that to you. What a willful young woman you are. Given the opportunity, I shall take immense pleasure in reining you in.
Charlotte looked up as the men moved into the room, and without meaning to, she caught his eye. The funny butterfly thing happened in her stomach again, and she couldn’t stop the smile that fell across her lips as she looked back at him.
What on earth is the matter with me? He has such a strange affect. Oh, I do hope my uncle convinces him to walk with me tomorrow before afternoon tea.
By the time Charlotte had said goodbye to the guests, and had been able to extricate herself from her aunt to retire to her bed, she wasn’t feeling well at all. Her head began to spin as she laid it on her pillow, but she fell asleep immediately, dreaming dreams of a gallant knight riding to rescue her from a huge palace, and whisk her away from the evil machinations of the queen who ruled over her. She was about to mount the knight’s noble grey steed when she was abruptly woken by Helen drawing the drapes, allowing the bright morning sun to spill into the room. Shielding her eyes, Charlotte grumbled in protest.
“Helen, what are you doing? Close those drapes. I’m not ready to get out of bed.”
“I’m sorry, m’lady. I was instructed to wake you and bring you down to breakfast.”
“You were? By whom?”
“Your uncle, m’lady,” Helen replied as she began to ready Charlotte’s clothes.
“Good heavens. Did he say why?”
“I believe Lord Pemberly wishes you to show him the gardens, m’lady. I must say, m’lady, he’s ever so handsome.”
“Ooh, my head,” Charlotte groaned as she slowly sat up and blinked her eyes. “I feel terrible. I’m not going down.”
“Um, sorry, but your aunt told me that if you said no, I was to remind you about the vase, whatever that means.”
“Ooh, this is a pickle,” Charlotte whined. “A big, fat pickle.”
“I’m sorry, m’lady. I’ll mix you up some powders, shall I?”
“Yes, I think you’d better,” she griped as she slipped from the bed. I’m very confused. This walk was supposed to take place before afternoon tea, not first thing this morning. I don’t understand this at all.
It was a little while later that she made her way unsteadily down the stairs, and though her eyes were slightly bloodshot, and she still felt tired and out of sorts, the fact that Lord Pemberly was waiting to walk with her inspired her to put a smile on her face as she entered the dining room. Her aunt and uncle were already seated, but Edward was at the buffet.
“Good morning, everyone,” she said, hoping her voice sounded brighter than she felt.
Moving to the array of food on offer, she picked up a plate and studied the eggs and bacon. The smell made her feel slightly ill, but experience had taught her that downing some food and a cup of tea after a night of too much wine could help her feel better.
“Good morning, my dear,” her uncle said warmly. “I’m glad you’re here to join us.”
“Thank you, uncle,” she replied. “Good morning, Lord Pemberly.”
“Good morning, Lady Charlotte. You look slightly pale. Did you not sleep well?”
“I slept very well,” she said quickly.
Edward had loaded his plate with eggs, sausages, bacon, and potatoes, but not up to such a feast, Charlotte opted for only a slice of toast and a cup of tea.
“Surely you need more than a piece of bread,” Mildred remarked.
“Perhaps the countess is right,” Edward suggested. “We will be walking for a while. You’ll need your strength.”
“I thought we were walking this afternoon,” she frowned. “I do not care to walk until then.”
“Then I suppose we must not walk at all,” Edward sighed, “and I was so looking forward to seeing your gardens.”
“I’m sure she can manage it,” her uncle said, his eyes shooting her a reprimand.
“Yes, I’m sure she can,” Mildred agreed, “can’t you, Charlotte?”
Lifting her eyes towards her aunt, she removed her gloves and picked up the toast. Her aunt’s threat of the rod was rippling invisibly and silently across the table.
“Uh, yes,” Charlotte nodded. “I just need some tea.”
“I insist you have more to eat,” Edward said firmly. “I can’t have you growing faint halfway through our tour.”
Rising from his chair, he returned to the buffet, scooped some eggs and bacon onto a plate, and briskly returning to the table, he set it in front of her.
“There, that should stand you in good stead.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly, but lifting her eyes, she shot him a frown. To her surprise he answered her dark look with a happy smile, then took his seat and resumed his meal.
“Lord Pemberly is quite right,” her uncle declared. “Thank you, sir, for looking out for my niece. You eat that, my dear, and then take Lord Pemberly to the rose garden. It’s quite splendid at the moment.”
As she ate her eggs and bacon, she began to feel slightly better, but she was still confused as to why she’d had to be hustled out of bed. Was Lord Pemberly leaving early? Was he simply fulfilling his duty to walk with her, and would then depart? It was all a mystery, and while Charlotte generally liked a good puzzle, this was one was not appealing in the least. When she’d taken her last bite and had finished her second cup of tea, she looked across at Lord Pemberly expectantly. He had been discussing the automobile with her uncle, a topic she found quite confounding.
“I think the whole thing is preposterous,” she declared. “How can you have these, these machines, carrying people all over the place? It sounds very dangerous.”
“Perhaps I can explain more about them on our walk,” Edward suggested. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, I am. I would like to take in some air very much. It feels rather stuffy in here.” Please, take me away from all this boring conversation. Cars. Who wants to talk about them, and I’m so tired of Aunt Mildred glaring across the table at me.
“Have a nice time,” Mildred nodded. “The gardens have much to offer.”
“I’m greatly looking forward to seeing them,” Edward said, rising from the table. “I’m planning on making some changes to my back lawns, adding some new flower beds, making it more of a colorful area. I’m sure I’ll find inspiration in what you’ve done here.”
“I would suggest starting from the terrace beyond the drawing room,” Mildred offered. “There’s a delightful path that leads directly to the roses, then beyond through the hedges to a small forest.”
“Yes, I had planned on starting there,” Charlotte said as she stood up and pulled on her gloves. “It is the most direct route.”
“Do have a lovely time,” Hugo said warmly, eyeing Charlotte as she started from the room.
“I’m sure we will,” Edward replied, hurrying to catch up.
As Charlotte walked down the hall, a flurry of mixed emotions rattled through her. She was angry she’d been woken from her lovely dream, not to mention so early, and she’d much rather breakfast had been brought to her in bed, but she found Lord Pemberly enigmatic and interesting, and was glad her aunt and uncle were allowing them to walk the gardens alone. Entering the drawing room, she opened the French doors and walked out onto the terrace.
“I don’t understand something,” she declared, turning around to look at him.
“Please, continue on to the roses,” he said. “Talk to me as we walk.”
“Why we are doing this now?” she asked, leaving the terrace and starting down the path. “Are you leaving early? Will you not be staying for afternoon tea?”
“It is a delightful day,” he remarked as they ambled forward. “White clouds coasting across the sky, a gentle breeze—”
“Um, excuse me,” she interrupted, “you didn’t answer my questions.”
“No, I did not,” he said, smiling at her.
“Do you not wish to tell me?”
“I’d be happy to tell you,” he replied, “but only if I’m asked politely.”
“You can be very difficult,” she frowned.
“If being difficult means I demand a certain respect and appropriate manners, then yes, I suppose I am.”
Charlotte took a quick breath. Her head was still hurting, but the fluttery thing had abruptly and unexpectedly sprung to life in her stomach.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she muttered.
“Am I not worthy of the title ‘sir’? Would it not have been more polite to say something like, may I ask, sir, do you plan to leave early?”
“Well, do you… sir?” she said, with a sarcastic emphasis on the word ‘sir.’
“No, I do not. I shall be here for afternoon tea.”
“Then why was I roused from sleep?” she grumbled. “Could we not have taken this stroll later?”
“No, we could not,” he replied. “My goodness, this is lovely.”
They had reached the rose garden, and Edward paused to study the configuration of the rose bushes. They were planted around a picturesque fountain that offered stone benches upon which to sit.
“Why not, uh, sir? Why couldn’t we have done this tour later today?”
“I made it very clear to you at the dinner table last night,” he said with a slight edge to his voice, “that I would only walk with you this afternoon, if you refrained from drinking. I am a man of my word, Charlotte, so when you downed that wine so defiantly, it left me with no alternative but to make sure you were out of bed first thing this morning. I was determined we would walk now, not before afternoon tea.”
“That is why I was woken so early?” she demanded, her eyes wide in disbelief.
“Indeed, and I would point out, it is not so early, as you put it. You only felt tired when you were woken because you drank too much wine,” he said firmly. “I saw from your pallor when you entered the dining room for breakfast you were not feeling particularly well, and we both know that is why.”
“You are so rude, and so—”
“You chose to test my will,” he said solemnly, cutting her off, his eyes locked onto hers. “Now you know I am a man of my word.”
“Test your will?” she repeated, the statement circling around in her head. “A man of your word?”
“Perhaps your bright brain is a still a little muddled,” he said patiently. “We are walking together, but not in the afternoon, and you were made to get out of your nice warm bed in order to join me.”
“Ooh, I see,” she said slowly, feeling a warmth redden her cheeks.
“We will not discuss this matter further,” he said sternly. “You have been put in your place, and you know it.”
No man had ever dared to scold her, or had spoken to her with such confidence and conviction, and the fluttery thing in her stomach was becoming almost too much to bear.
“Is there something the matter?” he asked, seeing the flush spread across her face.
“No,” she lied.
“Please, sit with me a moment,” he said, his voice softening.
Feeling completely discombobulated, Charlotte settled on the narrow bench, and though she knew her face was crimson, she squared her shoulders and met his eyes.
“Lady Charlotte,” he began warmly. “I find you most attractive, and I desire to spend more time with you, but you must understand I will not tolerate lack of manners, and rest assured, I am completely reliable. I do not deal in empty promises.”
She had been drawn to his lips as he spoke. They were moist and full, and though lips were not something she’d noticed in the past, to her great consternation, she found herself wondering what it might be like to kiss them.
Her experience with the opposite sex was limited at best, but she had secretly watched couples fervently kissing in the gardens during parties at her uncle’s house. The sight had mesmerized her, and late at night, when she was alone in her bed, and the moon was smiling at her through the window, she would fantasize about enjoying her own passionate embrace.
“Lady Charlotte? Did you hear what I just said?”
“Yes, sir,” she murmured. “I, uh, will remember.”
“Good, and now that you have a clearer understanding of the type of man I am, would you like to continue my tour, or would you prefer to return to the house and have nothing further to do with me?”
“Continue,” she mumbled, wishing her stomach would settle.
“Excellent. Please, take me to the small forest your aunt spoke of. I very much enjoy wandering through a thicket of trees.”
Rising from the concrete bench, they ambled down the path, and though there was little conversation, there was a comfort between them, a comfort she’d not felt in the company of other men. The trees loomed ahead, and as they approached the forest, she realized she wanted to see more of him, much more.
“May I ask, sir,” she began, being sure to start the sentence courteously, “will you be returning to London in the next few weeks? I understand your house is almost an hour away, is that true?”
“Yes. By carriage it takes longer of course, but I travel to London at least once a week. I would enjoy making it a point to stop in and visit. I must also say, I am truly complimented that your aunt and uncle have allowed me to walk with you unattended this way. It is not usually allowed.”
“My uncle speaks very highly of you, Lord Pemberly. He wishes us to become better acquainted, and, uh, I would like that as well,” she added quietly, feeling amazingly and wonderfully shy.
“Then I will, provided you continue to behave as a young woman should.”
“I will do my best, sir.”
“Ah, the woods, how delightful. Will you step into the trees with me?”
“Yes, definitely,” she smiled. “I’ve only been in here a few times. It’s out of bounds.”
“If it’s out of bounds, why were you here?”
“Because I wanted to be,” she said honestly.
“My goodness,” he laughed, “you are a willful girl, aren’t you?”
“I didn’t see any good reason why I couldn’t explore,” she said decidedly as they fell under the canopy of the bountiful overhead branches.
“If your uncle forbade it, should you not have obeyed him?”
“If I had obeyed every rule my aunt or uncle laid down, I’d never have left the house, or talked to anyone, or done many of things I have,” she exclaimed. “I’d have been completely idle, and lost my mind from sheer, unadulterated boredom.”
“I suspect that’s an exaggeration,” he remarked, “and I should tell you, if I ever forbid you to do something, and you defy me, you will regret it.”
“Why, sir, will you scold me?”
“My dear Charlotte,” he said, stepping in front of her to face her, “you will receive much more than a scolding.”
“I, uh, what on earth do you mean?”
“If we should continue to keep company, and if we should marry—”
“Marry?” she whispered.
“I said ‘if,’” he said pointedly. “If we should marry, and you were to defy me, I would not hesitate to put you over my knee and spank you.”
A searing heat suddenly scored through Charlotte’s body, but she somehow managed to find her voice.
“That is not something a man says to a woman in civilized society,” she said breathlessly. “How dare you, sir?”
“Quite the contrary, such things are often said, but in private, and in places where there is no possibility of being overheard.”
“But, uh, why would you say such things to me? I barely know you, sir.”
“I intend to court you, Lady Charlotte. To do so without making you aware of the kind of gentleman I am, or advising you of my expectations and my rules, would be unfair. If what I have told you does not sit well with you, and it is something you cannot accept, then I shall not bother you again.”
“I, uh, I don’t know what to say,” she stammered. “This is shocking. You have left me quite taken aback, sir.”
“Perhaps you should think about it. I shall be riding into London following afternoon tea. I have a townhouse in Mayfair. It’s where I stay when I’m in town on business. As I travel home I can stop back here, and you can tell me if you wish me to continue to visit.”
“You don’t need to do that,” she said, gazing into his infinite brown eyes. “I can give you my answer now.”
“Very well. What might that be?”
“I would welcome your courtship, sir, and I thank you for being so sincere.”
Staring into her dark green eyes, he saw a merry sparkle.
“This makes me very happy, Lady Charlotte,” he said softly. “Let us see where the next few months takes us.”
When Edward and Charlotte had returned to the house, Charlotte felt as though she were floating on air, and as she glided through the foyer and watched Edward ask her uncle for a quiet word in his study, she thought her heart would burst with happiness. There was no doubt that Hugo would be delighted with the news of Edward’s wish to call on her, and she knew when Hugo informed her aunt, the woman would be positively thrilled. Mildred was more than thrilled, and over the days and weeks that followed, Charlotte watched her buzz around the house in a frenzy, making arrangements for the wedding, but her uncle wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about the frenetic planning.
On more than one occasion Charlotte had heard her uncle try to stop her aunt’s frantic preparations, claiming they were premature.
“I am determined,” Charlotte had heard her aunt exclaim, “and you must push for a short engagement when Lord Pemberly comes to discuss such matters.”
As much as Charlotte disliked her aunt, she was more than happy with what she’d heard. A short engagement! Just what she wanted, and each time she overheard the debate, her aunt had refused to surrender.
Somewhat superstitious, Charlotte had stayed clear of her aunt’s maniacal bustling around. She didn’t want to tempt fate by becoming involved in any wedding plans until Lord Pemberly, or Edward, as he now allowed her to call him, fell on bended knee and swore his undying devotion.
To Charlotte’s delight, and she was sure to her aunt’s relief, it was only a few visits later when her uncle took her into his study sporting a broad smile.
“Charlotte, my dear, Lord Pemberly will be arriving for lunch tomorrow, and has requested that we discuss the details of your marriage contract before the meal. I’m telling you this so you can be prepared. He may very well make his formal request of you after lunch.”
The joy in her uncle’s face appeared to be sincere, and he seemed so genuinely happy for her that she had spontaneously thrown her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly.
“My dear girl,” he’d beamed, though taken aback by her impulsive gesture. “I must tell you, I truly am delighted. That man is a good influence. Whenever he is here, you’re really very charming. Even your aunt has commented on it.”
“If Aunt Mildred thinks something good of me, then he must be,” she’d giggled.
While Charlotte had been entertained by her aunt’s feverish planning during the day, and dreaming about Edward, trying to imagine her new life as she laid in bed at night, Edward had been putting certain affairs in order, and preparing quarters for her at his London townhome and his country estate.
He was a decisive, self-assured man, and he had been seeking a bride for some time, but not only were his erotic needs unique, he found nothing interesting or stimulating about the well-behaved, polite young women of society. Charlotte was a maverick. She had spirit and zest, and he discovered she possessed a keen mind and a tremendous curiosity. Her beauty had been instantly appealing, but it was her rarer qualities that had enchanted him. He had no qualms about launching into a speedy engagement, and though he didn’t doubt their relationship would have some tumultuous times, he was eager to take Charlotte home to his estate to begin their life together, and to lead her into his garden of dark, decadent delights. With the earl’s hearty blessing and the business matters in place, Edward was ready to make his formal proposal to the young woman who had won his heart and captured his imagination.
He had arrived at Kimberwick Hall late morning with a clear idea of how the day would unfold. Assuming his meeting with the earl went as smoothly as he anticipated, after enjoying a pleasant lunch, he would walk the gardens with Charlotte, as was their habit, and when the right moment presented itself, he would propose.
It had been nerve-racking for Charlotte, sitting at the table and attempting to behave as if everything was normal. Nothing was normal, and would never be normal again! Normal was living in the huge house with her annoyingly strict, cackling aunt, and well-meaning, but incredibly boring uncle. Normal was an endless string of tedious suitors, most of whom had her yawning in the first five minutes. Normal was about to be over, and every minute she had to wait felt like an hour.
Edward was never tedious. Edward was a mystery, and the more time she spent with him, the more mysterious he became. He would laugh when she thought he would scowl, and he would scowl when she made a comment she thought highly amusing. Oftentimes the scowl was followed by a shaking of his head, and the withdrawal of a small notebook and pen. He would write something, always refusing to tell her what it was, then put it away. The confounded thing was always with him, making itself known by the slight crease it made in his pocket, and she’d fall victim to the strange fluttery feeling in her stomach whenever it appeared.
Lord Edward Pemberly III was exasperating, witty, frustrating, clever, strict in an oddly appealing way, and never tedious!
“It is such a lovely day,” Edward remarked as luncheon came to a close. “Charlotte, would you join me? I’d like to go beyond the woods today, and visit the meadow on the other side.”
“I’d like that very much, Edward,” she sweetly replied.
As she rose to her feet, Mildred shot Hugo a happy smile, gladdened that the dratted young woman would soon be out from under her roof.
“Perhaps you should take a parasol,” Mildred suggested.
“Thank you, auntie, but I like to feel the sun.”
“We don’t want you becoming overheated, or sunburned,” Edward said, believing her aunt’s suggestion was a good one.
“I won’t,” she said airily as she rose to her feet.
“Have a nice walk,” Hugo offered, standing somewhat nervously from the table.
While his niece certainly appeared to be taken with the dashing Lord Pemberly, he knew all too well that the young woman could be temperamental and capricious.
“Thank you, sir,” Edward nodded, sending Hugo a grateful smile as he followed Charlotte to the door.
Entering the hallway, Charlotte turned to walk towards the drawing room so they could exit through the French doors and out onto the terrace, but Edward paused.
“I’d like to walk the long way around,” Edward said. “Across the front lawns and through the woods from the other side.”
“Oh, very well,” she replied, and happily turned and headed to the foyer.
“Are you sure you don’t want the parasol?” he asked as they passed the hall tree. “It’s quite a walk, and the sun is at its highest point.”
“No, I’ll be fine,” she insisted.
They set off, walking across the lush green carpet, but about halfway to the woods Edward noticed Charlotte’s cheeks were rosier than normal, and she appeared to be breathless.
“Charlotte, are you all right?” he asked, slowing his pace.
“Perfectly fine,” she panted.
“You don’t look perfectly fine,” he frowned, bringing their brisk gait to a slow amble. “Should you have brought the parasol after all?”
“It is warmer than I thought it would be,” she admitted.
“I think we should rest a minute,” he said firmly.
“I told you, I’m fine,” she retorted.
Breaking into a smile, he stopped, pulled out his little notebook, and scribbled.
“What is that blasted thing?” she demanded, deciding to press for an answer.
“Oh, dear,” he sighed, pausing to write a second time.
“I apologize, sir,” she said quickly, feeling the butterflies and sensing the notebook did not bode well for her, “and I am grateful to catch my breath for a moment.”
“Your apology is accepted,” he nodded as he put the small black book away. “I suspect your little outburst was because you’re not feeling very well. You’re overheated and out of breath.”
“I suppose I am… a bit,” she said quietly.
“Do you mind sitting on the grass in your lovely dress?”
“No, I don’t mind at all.”
It was another of the many things Edward found appealing. Charlotte was a very beautiful girl, but she wasn’t vain. She had excellent taste and style, but it didn’t rule her. Most of the young women with whom he’d kept company would have been appalled at the idea of sitting in the grass in their finery. As they settled on the ground, he saw Charlotte close her eyes for a moment, and let out a long breath.
“Better?” he asked.
“Yes. I’ll be fine to continue in a few minutes.”
“I’m curious, Charlotte, are the stories I heard about you true? Were you short with the young men who would call on you? Did you really reject almost everyone who asked you to dance when you attended the various balls this season?”
“Yes, the stories are true,” she replied, “and I offer no apology.”
“Do you not?”
“The men were tedious and simpering,” she remarked. “I cannot abide anything tedious, and when one adds simpering, it becomes impossible.”
“You are a very forthright young woman,” he remarked. “It is one of the qualities I do admire about you, but sometimes it can be taken further than it should.”
“Perhaps,” she quietly agreed. “I feel better now, shall we continue?”
“Very well, if you’re sure.”
“Yes, Edward, I’m sure.”
He rose to his feet, then offered his hand to help her up. Charlotte gazed at his open palm. So many times she had wanted to touch him, to loop her arm around his, and since that first day in the rose garden, when she’d been unexpectedly captivated by his lips, she had imagined many times what it would be like to touch her mouth to his. Now, suddenly, he had extended his hand. As was the custom she was wearing gloves, and she paused, a slight crease crossing her brow.
“Charlotte?” he softly inquired, seeing her fixated stare.
She lifted her eyes, then pulled off her glove and placed her naked fingers into his palm. He curled his hand around them, firmly but gently, reminding her of the energy he seemed to emanate as they would walk. His manner was always tender, but supremely confident.
“My goodness,” he said with a broad smile. “Such naughtiness.”
“If I’m going to hold your hand for the first time, it will not be gloved,” she declared, then added, “may I have one moment?”
“Of course,” he replied.
She was still sitting on the lawn, and he stared down at her as she closed her eyes. Her soft fingers squeezed around his, sending a warm pulsing joy through his loins.
Lady Charlotte, if I could I’d marry you tomorrow. You are completely unique, and I know you will constantly surprise me.
Charlotte was losing herself in the warm flush moving from his skin into hers. It was invading her body, sending ripples of tingling pleasure through her limbs and into her most secret places. Skin on skin; it was taking her breath away, and making her heart beat with a rapid heaviness.
“Thank you, sir,” she breathed, fluttering her eyes open.
“Thank you, Charlotte. This was a special moment, and one I shall never forget.”
“Please, Edward, may I continue to hold your hand as we walk?” she asked as he helped her to her feet.
“I would like that very much,” he nodded, “though you should put your glove back on when we return to the house.”
“Auntie would have a fit if I wasn’t wearing it, so perhaps I won’t.”
“Charlotte,” he said sternly, but wearing a smile, “we don’t want to upset your aunt, and that was a very naughty suggestion.”
They started towards the wooded area with renewed vigor, and were soon walking through the trees, the cool, shaded air filled with the subtle sounds of forest life.
“May I ask, why did you wish to come this way?” she asked.
“I wanted a longer walk with you,” he replied, “and I wanted to see this side of the woods. It appeared denser than the area we usually explore.”
As if on cue, the trees grew thick, the overhead branches blocking out more of the sun, sending shards of light that seemed to hit the ground like gigantic, golden swords.
“It’s breathtaking,” Charlotte whispered. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Yes, quite breathtaking,” Edward agreed, staring at her; you are truly, remarkably beautiful. “Charlotte…”
There was a strange tone to his voice, and as she turned to face him she saw something peculiar in his eyes, something sparkling, almost mystical.
“Yes, Edward?” she breathed.
“Please place your back against the tree behind you.”
Looking behind her, she saw a wide trunk, and though the wood looked rough and uninviting, she shuffled her feet until she was able to lean against it. He was moving towards her, and she felt her pulse begin to race.
He’s going to propose, here, right now, he’s going to kneel and ask me.
But to her shock, he didn’t kneel. He walked up and stood just inches from her, so close their bodies were almost touching. She could scarcely breathe, and when he raised his arms and rested his palms against the tree on either side of her head, she was sure she would faint from the sheer overwhelming thrill of the moment.
“Charlotte, you know I am not like other men,” he said softly. “I believe a woman should be free to follow her pursuits, to explore, to question, to learn, and she should be allowed to indulge her physical pleasures, whatever they may be. She should be free to learn about her body without shame or fear, and surrender to all it has to offer.”
“Edward,” she gasped, “you speak so plainly.”
“Yes, I do, and you want me to, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she panted.
“I want to live my life with you. I want to teach you, to reward you, and to punish you when it’s deserved. Charlotte, will you consent to becoming my wife?”
Her mouth had fallen dry, and she was finding it difficult to breath, let alone speak, and unable to find her voice, she slowly nodded her head.
“Say it, say you will,” he said, his voice deep and husky.
“I will, sir,” she managed, “most gratefully. Uh, please, sir, please, will you kiss me?”
“Such a naughty girl,” he breathed, his entire being filled with an aching need to rip off her clothing and take her maidenhead where she stood. “Yes, I will, Charlotte. Close your eyes.”
Slowly moving his mouth against hers, he gently pressed, then glided, and softly suckled her lower lip. He lingered, moving his lips over and around, then pulled back and watched her eyelids flutter open.
“You have made me weak,” she whispered. “I hope you will do that many times after we are wed.”
“I shall,” he promised, “and many times before.”
“Ooh, sir,” she whimpered, “such things you make me feel, and such things you say. My heart sings at your words. Would it be wrong to ask you to embrace me?”
“No more than you asking me to kiss you,” he murmured.
Wrapping his hands around her arms, he pulled her against him, then engulfed her into his hold. As he felt her yield to him, he swallowed back the intense desire to ravage her on the cool, damp forest floor, and mumbled in her ear.
“My dearest Charlotte, we shall have such a splendid life together.”
“I know this, Edward, in all of me, I know this.”
Slowly pulling away, he let out a heavy breath and gazed down at her, not sure what other words he might say, but when he saw a quizzical look cross her face, he knew she was about to speak.
“There is one thing,” she said softly.
“What is that one thing?” he asked, locking her eyes.
“Will you please tell me about the notebook?”
“The notebook?” he repeated in amazement.
“Sorry, but I must know.”
“Don’t be sorry, you have no need to be sorry,” he said, smiling. “You are simply being who you are, and I will tell you right here, right now, I love who you are.”
“Really,” she said, her eyes growing misty, “you love who I am?”
“I would not have asked you to be my bride if it weren’t so,” he winked.
“I feel so much love for you too, and it shocks me,” she confessed. “I never thought these feelings would be in my life. I know I’m… different.”
“You are, you are wonderfully different,” he assured her, “and that is why you have my heart. Do you still wish to know about the notebook?”
“I do, sir, if you’re willing to tell me.”
“One kiss, and the damsel drops her demanding ways.”
“You have put a spell on me,” she sighed.
“Since you asked so nicely, I will tell you, though it might not be what you want to hear.”
“I believe I already know, or rather, I have some thoughts.”
“I have kept a log of your misdeeds, Charlotte, and in the early days of our marriage, you will be punished for each of them.”
“Oh, sir, may I not offer a defense?” she protested.
“Yes, you may, and I will listen, and I will be fair, but rest assured, you will be spanked.”
“Yes, you will be spanked. My hand will slap your bare bottom until it is red and stinging.”
“But why, sir?”
“Because you need it, and because you want me to.”
That’s all until next week’s installment! If you’re aching to finish right now, though, just click below and buy the book!
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