A Marquess to Prove me Wrong Preview

A Historical Regency Romance Novel

About the book

“I cannot stop thinking about what might happen if we are alone.”


Feared by the men of the ton, Charlotte is the most obnoxious Lady. A sworn spinster, she will stop at nothing to help naive debutantes from the advantages of rakish men. 


After his failed engagement, Marquess William despises the looks of pity his peers throw at him. Furious with their condescension, he must find a way to restore his reputation.


Entering a false courtship they both have something to prove. She thinks love is overrated and he knows how much it can hurt. They may challenge each other in the best of ways but when keeping their hands to themselves becomes impossible, scandal will not be the only threat lurking before them.

Chapter 1



“Oh dear, do I feel there is much work to be done this evening.” Charlotte wrinkled her nose, her eyebrows turned down dubiously, as she studied the first ball of the season. Handsome couples spun by, entranced in their dances while waiters paced the ballroom, balancing trays of appetizers on their fingertips.


“Charlotte, that is no way to be,” Benedict grumbled.


“It is every way to be,” she refuted, digging her gloved fingers spitefully into her brother’s arm as he guided her onto the floor. “If I do not save the season’s debutantes from slaughter, then who will? All these mamas are parading their daughters about as if some terrible fate does not pursue them. It is positively sickening to watch.”


The ballroom of the mansion was bathed in a golden glow. On the ceiling, elegant chandeliers sent spires of brilliant light bounding across the room. On the far side of the floor, a violinist began a romantic, yet upbeat solo piece.


“Terrible?” Arabella frowned. “There is nothing terrible about marriage.”


“Marriage is not what I speak of.” It did take a moment for Charlotte to bite her tongue, as she was keen to make her own preferences known. Marriage was simply not for her. The very idea of giving oneself and all their agency and pride up for the hope of catering to a husband sounded far too difficult to stomach. “You simply have no idea how wretched and poorly behaved some of these men are. Isn’t that right, dear brother? Would you ever approve of our Arabella marrying that wicked Lord Lofton?”


“Absolutely not. The man is a brute.”


Charlotte smiled, having proven her point. “Precisely.”


When Benedict stepped aside to greet an acquaintance, Arabella was pouting, her soft brown bangs obscuring the tilt of her eyebrows. “It is not nearly the way you make it sound,” she said.


Charlotte crossed her arms, letting her gaze drift over the sea of faces—some familiar and some new to her eyes. “I do not detest marriage. I simply believe that if it is for you, then it is something that must bring joy. I want you to marry happily and with as much a romantic notion as can be achieved. Anything less is not worth pursuing.”


Arabella nodded, biting her cheek. “That is my greatest wish, as well.”


Charlotte smiled although she couldn’t help her disappointment that her sister would never question anything different than the status quo. Life had to be more than birthing children and embroidering pillowcases that scratched at your cheeks as you slept.


Ladies had been taught to be fearful of anything else. In fact, sometimes the word spinster seemed like it was forbidden from even lingering on one’s lips.




Everyone was afraid such a fate, but to Charlotte, it provided a comforting promise—a promise that she could be anyone she wanted, alone, without a man or child to define her. That was the greatest comfort in the world. When all was said and done, Charlotte desired to be someone great. The world seemed to only put praise on women that catered to a great husband or gave birth to a valuable man. Whatever she did now, whether people liked it or not, was to simply carve a space that was able to accommodate her talents alone.


“The night is wrought with possibility for you,” Charlotte said, ignoring her innermost thoughts.


Arabella giggled, nervously glancing up at the handsome men that passed them by. She was the luckier sister. She was naturally more beautiful, graceful, and polite than Charlotte. As the pair passed by, Arabella did not seem to be ignored by many of the bachelor’s at the evening’s ball. Every man was hungry for success and tonight set the tone for the whole season. A lovely, bright-eyed, and obedient wife was the making of any season’s diamond.


“For me, though…” Charlotte slumped just a little, straightening quickly when she imagined what her mother would say of her posture had she attended. “The season feels as boring and repetitive as it always has. It is as if everyone is too depressed to admit that I may spend the rest of my days enjoying the partnership of a parakeet and nothing else. Why am I here, but to keep up the charade?”


“You are so terribly pessimistic,” Arabella shook her head. “Besides, what would you really do without your most beloved hobby? If you are not protecting the virtue of this season’s debutantes, then where does that leave you? As a terrible pianist?”


“You are so cruel,” Charlotte snapped. “I certainly enjoy other prospects, nor is my playing that bad.”


Arabella giggled into her palm once more. “Yes, of course.”


Charlotte startled when she felt a hot breath tickle her ear. “Your playing is indeed that bad, and so is your subtlety.” Benedict leaned away, staring his sister down with a challenge in his eyes. He was older than his sister, and the heir to their late father’s fortune. This was the fourth year that he was the Earl of Pemberton. He was tall, well-bred, and liked by the ton. Throughout their lives, these two Elkins siblings were far more likely to overshadow Charlotte at most anything.


“Do you think I wish to be subtle? May the whole ton fear my judgment.”


He raised his eyebrows slightly as if to suggest that he doubted that she might enjoy being the subject of such gossip. “Do your sister and I a favor. Hate upon the sacred union of a man and wife quietly, but do not ruin the prospects of the young ladies in attendance tonight. What you fail to realize is that every encounter is precious, and some men have the capacity to change.”


“So…” Charlotte grinned, a sardonic dimple punctuating her cheek. “Then you are warming up to Lord Lofton?” She turned her gaze to her sister. “Good news. I hear the wedding bells so clearly!”


“That is not what I meant,” Benedict was quick to point out. His strangled smile wasn’t lost on Charlotte. He had always liked their banter even when it ended at his own expense.


“That is—dare I say—what it sounded like,” she said. At some point in their conversation, Mary Ann; Benedict’s wife, had met back up with them, after a friend tugged her away upon their arrival. She glanced between the two siblings, disinterested in yet another argument.


“Are you not ashamed of yourself?” Benedict lowered his voice so as not to fluff out his dirty laundry in front of his peers.


“Ashamed? Nay,” she assured him. “I rather like the idea of making a spectacle out of myself.”




Good,” she jeered back.




Mary Ann cleared her throat, interrupting his rebuttal. She leaned in close to their argument, shooting a decisive look her husband’s way that told him that he knew better.


“I do not recall the invitations including children,” she said. “So stop acting as such.” Delighted by all the admonishment her brother was getting, Charlotte lifted her head slightly to gloat. It wasn’t long until Mary Ann directed the same scathing look her way. She frowned, making an ugly face at her brother when their critic looked away from her. 


He didn’t make a face, but Charlotte could tell in his dark eyes that he really didn’t appreciate her taking the last metaphorical word.


Once they were released, Benedict fell back in line with her and they quietly observed the dance floor. If either of them had anything rotten to say to the other, then it was best kept under wraps so as to avoid the ire of Mary Ann. She was positively bothersome, which is how Charlotte had always known she’d make a fantastic mother. 


“Oh, my,” Charlotte smiled as her gaze settled on Lord Gouldsmith, a well-known rake. He was indeed very honeyed, his bed attracting an astonishing number of the ton into his grasp. It was very easy for a young lady to fall for a handsome face, but Charlotte likened herself to be completely immune to such charms.


That is, until she noticed the man shooting him a stern look. His gaze was so intense, it caused Charlotte to choke back a laugh. Benedict glanced at her warily, but couldn’t tell what had made her laugh, a sentiment that seemed all the more distressing.


The man that stood opposite Lord Gouldsmith was perhaps the most handsome man that Charlotte had ever laid her eyes on. He was tall, broad-shouldered, his brown hair softly coiled and his brown eyes intense and unfaltering. She was immune to the charms of marriage, but that didn’t mean that she was immune to the other charms a man might possess. It was best though to never get entangled in such matters. Even a fleeting look was an invitation too far to these louts.


The young lady was positively simpering under Lord Gouldsmith’s gaze. Beside her and the handsome man stood a woman so divinely similar in countenance that Charlotte could only assume she was the lady’s mother. She didn’t seem aware of the rumors either. Lord Gouldsmith had a penchant for attracting the attention of debutantes who were unaware of his desires.


“Is that…oh goodness, that is Lady Catherine.” Charlotte turned to offer a mischievous grin at her siblings. “I simply must offer my greetings.”


Charlotte began walking away, but after a few steps, it became clear that her siblings were aware that her attentions were turned elsewhere.


“Oh no,” Arabella whispered.


“Come back this instant!” Benedict had tried to whisper, but Charlotte was too far away nor did she care to take any heed whatsoever.


She had to rescue this poor debutante. It was her duty.




It had been a while since William had been surrounded by the ton. It had been best that way because now that he was back, he had noticed well-meaning, yet patronizing looks that were thrown his way. William didn’t like a lot of things, but most of all he hated pity. The thought that someone might think less of him because of what happened burned. Maybe if it were his choice, then perhaps he wouldn’t feel such shame with each passing look. It wasn’t though. None of this was his doing and that made it feel all the more pathetic.


William brushed off the looks and returned his attention to his younger sister Lavinia. She was debuting this season and as excited as could possibly be. Despite marriage being wrought with complications and anguish, she still retained such naivete and elation. Maybe she didn’t know better or maybe she was just luckier than he was. Her dream was to marry well and so it was his dream to help her make such a match happen.


“Do you know him?” Lavinia turned her attention towards a man walking their way.


William sighed. “Ah.” It was all he could say because he was surprised to see his acquaintance from college, Arthur, who was the Earl of Gouldsmith. Of course, he didn’t want his sister to marry down in rank, but he especially didn’t want his sister marrying someone with such bad intentions. In fact, it wasn’t his plan to marry. Lord Gouldsmith was attracted to all the benefits of marriage without making a commitment. Every season he vied for the debutantes. This was, however, bold of him, considering how well William knew of him. “Good evening,” William said to his acquaintance. “It has been some time since I last saw you.”


“My condolences,” Arthur said, turning back to William. “I heard of the news of your broken engagement. I truly thought Miss Dawkes and you were meant to be.”


William narrowed his brows, annoyed at the way he had phrased it, and even more annoyed that he brought it up. His mother shot him a sympathetic look. Everyone around him thought he was broken, and it was mortifying, considering that he felt just as bad.


William couldn’t help but grit his teeth before flashing an unbothered smile. “And you? Have you had better luck securing a betrothed?”


Arthur laughed lightly, shaking his head, but the hungry gaze he budgeted for Lavinia was painfully obvious. She seemed at least curious, and he couldn’t blame her. He appeared to be a perfect gentleman. He turned back, looking expectantly at William. He desired an introduction, but William was in no mood to be accommodating. He placed his hands behind his back, widened his stance, and attempted to make his boundaries clear.


Arthur bowed. “Your son has always sought to vex me since our college days,” he nodded, regarding William’s mother. “Allow me to take the liberty of introducing myself. I am Arthur, Earl of Gouldsmith.”


 She smiled and curtsied. “Pleasure to meet you. And since my son is too inflexible to be of assistance, allow me to introduce my eldest daughter, Lady Lavinia Humphries.”


His sister bowed, holding up her wrist. Arthur kissed it, his lips lingering a moment longer than desirable.


“I must reserve a dance with you. You are positively bewitching.” His smile looked genuine, his eyes glittering with sincerity. He was telling the truth, but that was not what William was worried about.


Lavinia blushed, shaking her wrist as demurely as possible to bring his attention to the dance card that hung like an ornament on a tree. He smirked, penning his name in the booklet and gently brushing her inner wrist when he released her hand. 


“How interesting,” a voice said. “You must be careful not to fully book yourself so early in the evening.”


William couldn’t help but snicker even before he turned his head. The woman beside him was perhaps a bit plain looking, but something about her, maybe her feathery brown hair, or her impish green eyes gave him pause. She smiled, her soft lips parting, revealing a gap in her teeth that was as charming as it was unique. Perhaps she wasn’t so plain after all. Before he could even figure out exactly what he was feeling, a warmth fluttered up his chest and a thrilling rush trailed the back of his neck.


“I am sorry?” Arthur turned to the woman, who had come up to them without so much as an introduction completely unprovoked. Cheeky of her.


“Lady Charlotte Elkins,” she curtsied. “I just mean to say that you seem rather bewitched by nearly every woman here tonight. Am I wrong to assume?”


Arthur recoiled, glancing at Lavinia whose focus was glued to the mysterious stranger. “Well…well with so much beautiful company it is…”


“Of course,” Charlotte smiled. “I heard you making plans to meet in the study later with a young lady. All innocent I presume, so I imagine you will take a moment to peruse the shelf and see if there is a book that may entertain me tonight. It would be greatly appreciated. The company seems…” she paused, eyeing Arthur. “Well, some of it seems rather dull.”


Arthur scoffed, stumbling back. He hesitated for a moment, looking at the upset look on the women’s faces. He smiled awkwardly, reaching out and scratching his name out of Lavinia’s dance card before taking his leave.


“Oh dear, was that rude?” She asked, turning to William. “I think that may have been rude.”


“Um,” William paused, looking down at the young woman. Before he could stop himself, he ran his tongue across his bottom lip and swallowed hard. “I do think it came across that way.”


“Oh dear,” she repeated. 


“Was that true?” Lavinia asked.


The woman shrugged. “Must have been. He looked rather sheepish.”  She smiled lightly. “Truly, I am not one to interfere,” she said. “I simply could not bear to watch him lie to you. Almost laughable the way he attempted to convince you that his intentions were noble.”


“That is fine,” Lavinia’s shock melted into thankfulness. “I had no idea.” The woman nodded, smiling. She seemed almost flattered, which was strange enough. Most young women didn’t interfere in the affairs of others nor did they take great pride in being so meddlesome.


William cleared his throat. “You are, pray tell?”


“Lady Charlotte Elkins. I have already introduced myself. It is you that has not.”


“William Humphries,” he said. “Marquess of Holdford.”


“Oh,” Charlotte nodded, seemingly not very impressed at all. “You seem rather perplexed, Lord Holdford.”


“How could I not be?” he asked. “The insinuation that I was not apt to protect my own sister from ruination is insulting at best.”


“And at worst?” she asked, causing William to draw back, opening his mouth to reply before thinking better of it. 


“William, dear,” his mother interrupted. “I believe that she had only the best intentions. Had we not known that Lord Gouldsmith wasn’t vying for your sister’s hand in marriage, we might have accepted his influence.”


“I knew,” William pointed out. 


“Then speak up.” William frowned before Annette continued. “I suppose I am the one doing the introductions tonight. I am the Duchess of Seton, and this is my daughter, Lady Lavinia Humphries. We appreciate your rescue. Had we any idea he was so well-acquainted with the ballroom, we would have excused ourselves.”


“I realize I am doing something rather untraditional,” Charlotte admitted. “I am not the courting type, but I listen and in turn, I hear many things. Marriage, if pursued, should bring happiness. That is not something you will find with the Earl of Gouldsmith.” She turned her lip in. “And beware of Lord Lofton. If I say he is no good, you must believe me.”


“Absolutely,” Lavinia nodded, making a mental note to herself. 


“I will take my leave, then,” Charlotte curtsied and turned to walk away. Strange how William’s chest could twist with disappointment when he was so keen for her to stop talking.


“William!” Lavinia called out, startling Charlotte who looked back over her shoulder. “You should thank her.”


William nodded, studying Charlotte for a moment. She smiled lightly, and although it might have convinced another it was genuine, he knew it was full of challenge. The thought of her teasing him so simply made him lose his breath a little like she was drawing all the oxygen out of him on purpose. From what he knew of her, if she had such an ability, she would certainly capitalize on it. “I think that would be excessive.”


“I would have to agree,” Charlotte said.


“You should dance with her.” Lavinia turned her head up and smiled.


Under his breath, William cursed and from the way Charlotte looked at him, he was sure she had heard it. “May I have a dance?”


“How could I say no?” She asked, smirking. He closed the distance, reaching for her dance card. He couldn’t say no. In fact, he didn’t want to say no. With that said, however, he knew he should have said no if given the choice. Arthur’s rakish ways looked all the more appealing from this angle. Not that he would in good conscience ruin her. Not that she’d even let him get close enough.


As he scrawled his name onto her card, he couldn’t help but keep his eyes on her. If she were to walk out the door, he would have followed her. It was exactly thoughts like that that made him realize how cruel it was to be a man. It was as if she had access to water and he had been wandering a desert his entire life. Lust was no good for anyone, but with distance, it was a great deal easier to cure than love.


She looked back at him, eyebrows knotted and lips wavering between a smile and a frown. It was as if she was going to laugh at him. Like she thought it was funny that they had so clearly repelled each other in spirit but were forced together for the sake of propriety. But something flickered in her face the longer he looked at her. Maybe it was the soft peachy blush that crawled across her cheeks or the feeling of their shared pulses roaring in each other’s veins as they each pressed a finger to the other’s wrist. Did she feel it too or was his ego getting the better of him?


When he finished, she looked at her card and raised her brows. “How I will always remember the first and likely only gentleman to sign my dance card so…” she paused, looking at his name. “So…chaotically.”


William frowned, glancing at her card. He probably should have paid some attention to his own hand when he was writing. His penmanship looked boorish.


When she finally walked away, William frowned, and his mother offered him an amused look. Short of death, there was no way he was getting out of this dance. That much was certain.



Chapter 2



“And so I looked at Timothy and I asked him ‘What on earth do you think you are doing?’ And he looks at me and you know what he says? ‘I am painting’ Oh, I could have killed that boy. The walls were destroyed!” Mary Ann was animated as she told her story, arms gesturing widely through the air, acting the part of both her and her son.


Arabella laughed hard and Benedict stood by, grimacing as if he remembered it clearly, but hadn’t decided if it were funny just yet. He had always been very neat and orderly. A child scrawling all over his walls with a pen made Charlotte laugh for the simple reason that Benedict would have done the exact opposite. She was glad that Timothy was acting up after all the annoyance Benedict had caused her growing up. It certainly served him well.


Benedict had married Mary Ann a few years prior, and within two months of their union, announced they were having a child. Mary Ann usually observed before she got involved with anything. It was her careful and analytical nature that had attracted Benedict to her in the first place. Their love was quiet and understated, but it was clear that the two were crazy about each other. They simply were very private people when they were around others.


Despite trying to laugh it off, though, Charlotte was still a little nervous about her dance. First of all, she was not an accomplished dancer. Usually, Arabella was the one that had a full dance card while Charlotte unapologetically rejected the attentions of suitor after suitor because she worried one might get the wrong idea and attempt to court her. No one had, and so she had considered herself quite lucky in that regard. Some might suggest however that that was completely her fault.


This was different though. Lord Holdford would never court her. In fact, it was very obvious to her that he liked nothing about her at all. He was certainly handsome, but he couldn’t keep up with her. Maybe if a man could, he might impress her, but as far as Charlotte was concerned, she was on a dais all her own. She was not better, per say, just wittier and sharper.


The ton liked to talk about men and women as if they were in different groups, and only certain ones had the pleasure of mingling with others. Visually, Charlotte likened herself to rank low. She wasn’t average enough to be considered handsome, nor was she exquisite enough to be rare. Intellectually, Charlotte liked to believe that she was somewhere above all the noise, but she also realized this meant she had a tremendous ego. And maybe that was simply why Lord Holdford did not like her.


Once this dance was over, Charlotte would avoid him. It was that simple. He did not wish to associate with her, and she certainly wished nothing from him, even if he appeared to be carved out of marble.


As the current song came to an end, Charlotte’s heart beat just a touch faster, and she tried not to look as Lord Holdford made his way over to the group. Benedict smiled easily, lifting a hand in greeting. Charlotte hadn’t been aware that the two were friendly. She’d never met Lord Holdford, but she was never one to gawk at her brother’s friends. There were far too many much handsomer and more emotionally intelligent men in literature. A fictitious beau was the only one Charlotte needed, because he rarely complained, and only spoke when she wanted him to.


“Holdford!” Benedict called. “How are you, my friend?”


“I was doing well,” he said. Everyone had missed the was except for Charlotte. William seemed pleased with himself when she soured her look. His gaze was challenging when he looked at her briefly, but he didn’t look angry. It seemed that he maybe enjoyed their rivalry.


“Allow me to introduce my wife, Mary Ann, Countess of Pemberton, my sister, Lady Arabella, and my other sis–”


“We are acquainted,” William stopped him, holding out a hand.


Benedict drew his mouth back slightly and sighed through gritted teeth. “My apologies for her behavior.”


“Brother!” Charlotte tried to stop him, but he ignored her.


“I fear…” he leaned in close and brought his voice down to a whisper. “She was dropped as a baby.”


Mary Ann nudged him, but he joined William in laughter. Charlotte angered, her face reddening this time with frustration rather than embarrassment. He had always seemed to love poking fun at her in a way that he would never have done to Arabella. She supposed it had something to do with him not having to worry about messing with her prospects.


“That is not true!” She assured the group. “I was far more advanced than most of my peers, I can promise. I have always been very intelligent.”


It seemed for once, Mary Ann was completely on her side. “How can you say something so awful about your own blood?”


“I am sorry,” he said, huffing on laughter. “Did I say dropped? That did not come out the way I intended.”


“You meant to say thrown?”


“I did!” And again, the two began cackling. Charlotte squinted and crossed her arms. If she had said that he wasn’t witty or clever before, then she stood corrected. It was irritating that he was now controlling the conversation just outside of her reach when only moments before, she had done the same to him.


“Well, on that note,” he smiled sheepishly at Charlotte, holding his arm out. “I believe the next song will begin shortly.”


When Charlotte grabbed ahold of his arm, she made sure to configure herself in the most obnoxious and uncomfortable way possible so as to convince him that she had never been led by proper society. If anything, it was to prove to him that she might have been thrown as a baby if that is what it might take for him to leave her alone.


Out on the side of the floor, the family gawked at them, Benedict amused that she was feigning ignorance, and Mary Ann simply embarrassed. Anyone could tell it was a rotten idea. She would have hated for anyone to take the idea of her finally entertaining a suitor to be serious. That was mortifying.


William drew her in, grabbing her hand and adjusting forcefully when she tried to pretend that she didn’t know how to hold him. He was calling her bluff, so she turned her nose up and looked to the side.


“You did not have to do this.”


William was snickering about something. “Oh, but I did.”


“I would not have been offended.”


William began to laugh again before motioning for her to give him just a minute to collect himself. “No, no really, this is not about you. I want my family to see me as respectful.”


“Even if you are not?”


William laughed again. “Pardon me, I cannot stop thinking about how amusing it would have been if your mother was around to hear me accuse her of throwing you as an infant.”


Charlotte glared at him, tightening her grip to his hand in an attempt to show off her strength. “Could you let that go, perhaps? Such a silly jest.”


“I do not think she meant to do it.” He laughed, trying to suffocate his amusement.


“You are just being cruel now,” she said. “Like every other lord out there. Cruel, loutish, and cavalier.”


“Oh, no do not compare me to Lord Gouldsmith. That is ridiculous.”


“Are you upset now, my Lord, that the joke is now in your expense?”


He paused, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief before quickly depositing it back into his pocket. He made a noise, somewhere deep in his throat as if to convince himself that he no longer found the thought humorous. “I believe we can easily agree that you are odd and perplexing, but it cannot be agreed that I am loutish.”


“But you will accept cavalier?”


After some thought, “I will.”


“So then if we are bargaining, I will take perplexing, but not odd.”


William shrugged. “Then it is settled. I am cavalier and you are perplexing. Does that not make an attractive couple?”


“Couple?” Charlotte couldn’t help but to bare her teeth. A couple? How could he accuse them of all of that? She had trusted that he disliked her but now he was likening himself to be with her? “I will never be part of a couple, I will assure you.”


He pressed his lips together and made a face that would suggest he was thinking. He thumbed his ear, and the silence grew, until it was fizzing at the top of Charlotte’s chest. “I think we are more similar than you realize. I too, have been hurt while courting.”


Charlotte made a point of accidentally stepping on his foot as they spun in circles. “Then we are not similar at all. I am not the courting type. I never have been. I never will be.”


The two broke away, as per the choreography and looped hands with another partner. Maybe she would have recognized who she was sharing a dance with, if her eyes hadn’t been on William as if he was the only man in the room. It was ridiculous. She was uncomfortable, but she was also keenly aware of a heat growing at the top of her thighs. It felt sort of miserable as if it only served to remind her that even on her best days, she was still bound to desire and want.


When the dance brought them back together, Charlotte was acutely tuned in to every touch–his hand on hers, his fingers just a touch lower on her back than what should have been, fingertips grazing her curves and sending a tremor down her legs. “You have never been hurt by these so called cruel, loutish, and cavalier lords? Never?”


The space between her eyebrows twitched momentarily. She understood his words, but not the context. The thought that he might be leading her into a conversation designed to get the better of her made her feel sick.  “I am sorry. I wish I had some desperately pathetic backstory for you to sink your teeth into. I am unaffected, untethered, and simply uninterested.”


“Never? You have never been hurt?”


“How could a man that I am not in want of hurt me?” When she phrased it like that, and it was too late to take back, she could hear just a tinge of pride. Did she really believe it to be some supernatural ability like she said? When everyone else was falling in love around her, it made her feel invincible to have avoided it for so long.


It was true. She likened herself to be capable of things others were not. Her pride rested upon it, no matter how stifling it might be. One man couldn’t make her doubt herself, though. She had never fallen in love. If she was twenty-three and unattached, then it was very clear that she never would be. The only difference now was that she was eager to prove it to anyone who doubted her, because maybe a small part of herself was also doubtful.


“I do not believe you,” he said.


“Is that so?”


“I think you are lying to me. It does not make you appear nearly as tough as you think. We all feel things.”


“I am not doing it to be tough. I am not doing it at all. It simply does not happen.”


William scoffed, fingers dancing slightly on her back. She shifted uncomfortably, but it was clear that he had hardly registered his own touch. “You are speaking of things you have no experience with. If you have come here with every intention to avoid marriage yourself, then you are so entitled, but do not bring every other lady down with you. For many of us, marriage is exactly what we desire,” he hissed. “There is not much more assuring than the promise of a good life.”


“For you as well?” She couldn’t help but ask. He had said as much, but just as he doubted her, now she sensed he was lying in turn.


“Well maybe not…” he made that same noise at the base of his throat again, animal enough to make her fingers feel fuzzy like she was craving a bit more than such a simple touch. There it was again, that pesky feeling of want. Of course, she was not immune to that after all. It was a far cry from love. The forces of nature were designed to push and pull. If they repelled each other this much, then they were bound to pull back in the other direction. That was just the way the world worked. Magnetism was sort of sick like that. Made absolutely rubbish sense. “Maybe not now,” he finished. “But eventually, yes.”


“Just not now,” she reiterated.


“No, not now.”


“Fair enough,” she shrugged. “Just not now,” she repeated. The repetition was designed to provoke because likewise, she believed hardly anything he was saying to her.


Just not now because you are unlucky? Just not now because you are heartbroken? Just not now because you are taking advantage of your youth while it still serves you? Why not now, but certainly later?


He scoffed once more. “You do not believe me?”


“Oh, I never said that.” She didn’t have to. “It is you that I believe has been hurt before, but if you think you can rise above it, then by all means. That is a beautiful sentiment.”


He looked angry for a moment, his brows narrowed, his brown eyes swirling like a storm on the horizon, and his shoulders squared. After a moment, however, he relaxed. “And if I admit it? Then what will you admit?”


Charlotte could not help herself. She stifled a laugh with her palm, looking back up at him to see if he was serious. He was. Talk about odd. “If you so fully believe that I am lying, then maybe I should court someone just to prove it.”


He laughed again and he leaned in close enough that his heated breath sent a shiver down her spine. “I should very much like to see that.”


“Who should it be then? I have no prospects. I do not know if you can tell, but I am not the standard of beauty.”


He shook his head. “That makes you all the more lovely,” he said. Now it was him that was blushing. Naturally, Charlotte refused to blush to establish her superiority, which was incredibly difficult and perhaps not even possible. William cleared his throat, obviously flustered by his lack of control. “Nothing? Not one prospect?” he asked. Yet the whole time, Charlotte’s lips burned as she was certain he was staring at them.


“Not one.”


“You are right,” he said. “I did get my heart broken. That is not to complain, only to say that my family has been worried about me, and their pity is only serving to make me miserable.”


“Now you are being forthright?”


“If you believe yourself up to the challenge, then allow me to court you, but do not fall in love with me. I will not want to marry you and, in addition, my family will not worry about me any longer,” he said. “We both have something to prove, so what is to stop us from some competition this season?”


The way he had so easily suggested it gave Charlotte pause. She tried to swallow, but all of a sudden it was as if she forgot how to complete basic functions. Could he be trusted? Could she be sure that he would pose no danger to her reputation moments ago he was so eagerly looking at her mouth?


She knew it was a terrible idea. It almost beckoned disaster. If anyone found out that she had made such an arrangement, she would make a fool out of herself and her family. Arabella was still unattached. Charlotte didn’t want to make it difficult for her to find a good match.


But the idea that Lord Holdford so much as doubted her was enough to annoy her. The implication that a handsome man could have such control of her was insulting. She would love nothing more than to prove to him that she was the one in control. She always had been. No one could make her falter.


If Charlotte was one thing, it was not odd or even perplexing. She was stubborn, defiant, and pigheaded. She nodded assuredly. “I can certainly handle that. One season?”


“Just one,” he confirmed. And with that, the song ended, and he let her go. Without his touch, she stumbled back a step feeling only the memory of his desire coursing through her veins. He bowed, smirking, and offered his arm. She hesitantly accepted, and together they walked back towards Benedict. Halfway across the floor, William went rigid and he stepped to the side. Charlotte turned to look at him but he was as pale as the full moon. 


“Are you ill, my lord?”


“You must…” he paused, stumbling to the side and glancing over his shoulder. “You must excuse me.”


And without even a bow, he left, walking in the direction of the double doors that led out to the garden. Charlotte looked back, but Benedict hadn’t seen her yet, so if she disappeared a moment, he wouldn’t know where she had gone. She followed William, stopping short at the doors before she exited, waiting to catch her breath. She had to make sense of how in the span of ten minutes, she had fully agreed to a courtship just to prove that she was not interested in courtship. How ridiculous.


She could do it, but the feelings that had bloomed inside her when he so much as looked at her were beginning to make her nervous. From her side it was simply desire, but she worried about the possibility that it might be more for him. She wasn’t exactly interested in breaking any hearts herself. What if he fell in love with her? What if, worst of all, she fell in love with him? That was something that could not easily be remedied. Taking a breath and steeling herself, Charlotte opened the door and snuck out into the darkness of the gardens.



Chapter 3



Charlotte lifted her skirts and raced down the steps of the garden. Out on the grounds, the music inside the manor was dulled, rumbling like a heartbeat in the chilly night. Something felt poignant about nights like these. Far enough away from the city, the sky was a thick blanket of stars, and the moon was like a pillow. There it sat, neatly tucked above the world, soft, inviting, cool. Once Charlotte stepped into the grass, she worried she would stain her slippers, giving away her whereabouts, so she kicked them off and tucked them under a bush. She hadn’t come out here to misbehave, but if anyone found out, they would likely believe nothing else.


The gardens twisted into a labyrinth of hedges. The long corridors of greenery slowly dissipated into a lush clearing of flowers, with romantic nooks for sitting, and other areas that boasted tables for sharing a morning tea. It was quiet and peaceful and even though it was still quite early in the year, hardy flowers withstood the chill, dabbling the night in watercolor purples, blues, and passionate pinks. As Charlotte turned another corner, she stopped when she saw William sitting on a bench underneath a domed hedge that shielded him from the outside world.


“My Lord,” Charlotte whispered. He looked up at her and suddenly his melancholy drained. Her presence kicked up a fire in his eyes so vibrant that Charlotte no longer felt cold. 


“What are you doing?”


“You left so suddenly,” she said, but it was hardly an answer. “And If I am being honest, I was very curious as to why.”


“So, this is not about compassion?”


Charlotte tilted her head, thinking it over. “No, I suppose not.”


“You must leave at once. If someone sees us, your reputation will be ruined.” He stood up from his seat, urging her to leave, but all she did was shrug and sit beside him. She placed her palm flat on the bench, pulling her white gloves back up over her elbows. 


She glanced over at him, raising her eyebrows slightly. “That is not an issue. Your implied ruination of me will only serve to hinder a wedding I do not want.” 


He paused, taking a deep breath and sitting beside her. For a moment, she thought he might tell her what was wrong. “How can I have only known you for shy of two hours and I can already feel you grating on my nerves?”


“I have been known to have that effect,” Charlotte shrugged. “What made you leave?”


He shook his head. “If I say that I saw my former betrothed, would that be enough for you?” he asked. “It was the first time since she ended our engagement and as you have already figured out, it is all still very raw.”


Charlotte nodded her head and smoothed out the wrinkles on her seafoam green dress. The satin shimmered, catching what little light illuminated them in the gardens. His face was nearly a shadow, but he still drew her in, his lips soft and lonely. “And you still love her?”


William started from the question, shifting in his seat, he turned towards her more, his knee pressing against hers. “What kind of business do you have asking me such things?”


“We are courting,” she reminded him.


He scoffed. “Not until tomorrow morning. Tonight, we are nothing but strangers.”


She shrugged. “Hm.” She paused. “That does not persuade me from asking.”


He narrowed his eyes at her, and relaxed, his knee pressing more against hers. “Yes,” he said.




“Yes, I am still in love with her. Are you happy?”


“Delighted,” she said, biting her lip hard to stop it from stinging as she’d already shredded it throughout the course of the conversation. “It makes me feel better to know that you are too occupied to fall in love with me.”


“Fall in love with you?” He nearly fell out of his seat.


She nodded, eyes widening to assure him that he was the daftest man she’d had the pleasure of meeting in quite some time.


“How insulting,” he said. “With you? No. I have better things to do.”


“Then may I ask why you look at me the way you do?”


“The way I do?”


“So…” she laughed. “It is strange. I have never noticed a man look at my mouth so much. I am hoping to learn that you hear by manner of reading lips because I do not…well I think it would be complicated if you sought anything from it.”


William released a breathy laugh, his mouth hanging open at her forwardness. He frowned. “Are you insinuating that I am physically attracted to you?”


“How rude!” She swatted his shoulder with her hand. “But yes, that is precisely what I am saying.” 


“Mmhm,” he nodded. “And if I were, would that be unwelcome?”


“Um,” she paused. She knew what she wanted to say, but wording it elegantly was not so easy. “This is an interesting turn of events. If I admit to such feelings, then I would not be surprised to hear that you duped me into a confession when you yourself are against the very feeling. You are precisely the kind of man to trick me, but I am no fool.”


“I am doing no such thing.” William paused. “It seems ignoble to tell a woman that you find her physically pleasing and nothing else. I am not a rake.”


“Oh,” she said. “Never have been? Never? Not even once?”


“Not even once, what?” he asked.


“I can only hold my suspension of disbelief for so long, my lord. I am sure you are as much a sinner as the next man.”


He frowned. “I am not a rake,” he repeated.


“But if you were,” she suggested.


He stilled, looking back at her mouth. It was a fleeting glance, as if he caught himself and looked away as soon as he could. “If I was? I am not.”


“Yes, I know, but look at it as an exercise in theater. If you were a rake, might you be so forward as to state your desires?”


There was a pause and a light breeze passed through the gardens, forcing Charlotte to wrap her arms around herself for warmth. William couldn’t help but laugh. He rubbed a palm against his forehead. “Okay. For the sake of theater, yes?”


“Yes, the theatric arts are dying, Lord Holdford.” She was only half telling the truth. The last time she had gone to the theater was particularly grueling, but that may have had more to do with her seatmate breathing heavily through his mouth the entire time and not any fault of the actors themselves.


“If I am on stage? On stage I am attracted to you,” he said.


“Oh dear, now that is very interesting.” She held a hand over her lips for a moment. “You see, on stage, I am attracted to you too.”


“But that is where it ends?”


“Oh yes. I couldn’t imagine you being any more than a thrill.”


William cleared his throat and stood up. “Ah, but alas, we are not on stage, so we must never act upon it.”


Charlotte couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. She wasn’t one for marriage, but she would still find her blood ran just as red as anyone else’s. “How presumptuous of you, to think I even considered it.” She was starting to think that she might actually contemplate the theater with how effortless it was to lie to men.


“I apologize,” William said. “Do you believe I had considered it?”


Charlotte stood up, turning to him, to match his closed off stance with her own. “Men are not capable of much less, I am afraid.”


“There you go!” he shouted. “You are always making generalizations. Do I look, act, think, breathe, like anyone else you have ever met?”


Charlotte wanted to draw back once she stirred his ire, but she stayed firmly in place, posturing to look more commanding than she was. “How should I think you to be any different? Have I missed something that sets you apart?”


He opened his mouth to respond, but no noise came out. He simply stared back at her, dumbfounded by her reply. She did not miss him accidentally looking at her mouth again. That was right. He was just like the rest. He wanted one taste of her, and then he’d discard her with the remains of his last feast. It seemed after all of their conversation, he couldn’t get her out of his head. That might have made Charlotte feel good, if not for the fact that she wanted him just as desperately.


The voices of two or three men startled them into quiet. By the sounds of it, they were just around the corner and none the wiser of who they were about to run into. William reached out, grabbing ahold of Charlotte, and pulled her towards him in the shadow of the alcove. She whimpered and he pressed his hand against her mouth to quiet her. They stilled and so did the sounds of the other party.


“Did you hear that?” One of the men said. 


“Might be a cat?”


“Do you suppose it is hurt?”


“I am not sure. Can you see it?” Rustling followed their voices as if they were looking into the shrubbery and flowers. 


Charlotte’s heart hammered away in her chest, so loud that she feared they might hear her. She thought she wasn’t afraid of being found, but now all she could think of was the reputations of her family if she were caught in such a way. The fact that they had shared an improper conversation made it all the more inappropriate. If people called her a lightskirt, then maybe she was one, after all. 


“Shh,” William whispered, his warmth permeating his fingers and warming her lips. His scent was intoxicating, like sandalwood and lavender. Just that was enough to get her lost for days in thoughts of him. He was a troublesome man, but his countenance could certainly make up for all of that if he didn’t speak. 


The men shuffled around more, their voices getting closer. Charlotte’s heart nearly jumped out from her chest when they passed by the hedge corridor, However, due to their spot in the shadows, they remained hidden and before long, the voices faded.


William removed his hand from her mouth, steadying her body against his. They were still pressed up close against one another, the heat from each other’s body warming them through the early April chill. In the space between their mouths, the air fogged up, a visual representation of just how hard they were breathing now that they had crossed a line of physical touch that they were never meant to.


Now it was Charlotte who was admiring his lips. He had given her the idea and it was starting to sound like a tempting one. She exhaled, melting against him. He leaned towards her. In the most hesitant of ways, his nose brushed against hers. She parted her lips, and together they moved, as if wanting nothing more than to meet, but realizing with every part of their minds that they shouldn’t.


While they hesitated, their hands moved, roving over the other’s body. Exploring his muscles and the curve of his waist, the rigidness of his hips and the strength in his shoulders was thrilling. Charlotte bit her lip, feeling frustrated. She wanted him in a way that she wasn’t supposed to. She wanted him in a way that was strictly forbidden and yet that only made her more hungry.


The pull was too much. Once William’s lips met with hers, their kiss was intense, pulling every last bit of reservation under the surface and drowning it. His lips were hungry, his tongue searching, his hands pulling at her shoulders as if he couldn’t get her close enough. She ran her hands down his chest, wishing that she could rip apart the fabric and take what she could before she was forced to move on. 


His lips were soft, yet strong at the same time. Guiding her, drinking her in like she was sugar water. She pushed up against him, until he was leaning on the not-so-sturdy branch of the topiary. His hands ran down her back-across the valley in between her shoulder blades, over her spine, across the small of her back before stopping. She wouldn’t have objected if he had gone further, but she had surely made it sound as if she would.


She shivered, whispering his name back into his mouth. She dragged her fingernails down the back of his neck, causing him to lean back and exhale softly. She pressed her lips once more to his and thrilled in the taste of his mouth. It was impossible to describe, as indelible as the scent of someone. She stilled, savoring in the moment while he continued to kiss her lips and jaw. She gasped, closing her eyes, parting her lips, and savoring the moment as if it was only designed to end.


He pulled away, hesitantly. Their eyes were closed, both afraid to look at the other. Their hands released each other and drew back, almost in a gesture of surrender. They both knew what they had done was wrong, but it had felt impossible to avoid. Coming to, Charlotte stepped back, nearly tripping over the concrete bench and falling into the topiary on the other side. She caught herself before hiking up her skirts. She looked back at William sheepishly and he appeared to take a deep breath.


“And you are definitively not a rake?”


He rubbed his face with his palm, likely internally shaming himself for having lost his control. “Not…not typically, no.”


“Oh my, Lord Holdford. With such saccharine words, I am sure you will sweep me off my feet in no time,” she mocked him. 


“I will, um,” he cleared his throat, still cloaked in the shadows. “I will call on you in the morning to mark my intent to start a courtship.”


Charlotte wrinkled her nose, surprised at how easy it was to resume their back and forth even after a passionate moment. “Maybe…” she paused. “You do not have to do that. Maybe we are better off just…” she swatted at the air. “Moving onward. I am afraid you may lose if I am being honest.” She was not being honest. Something in her chest was starting to act up and the miserable realization that it might have been that easy to develop an interest in someone. The feeling was bearing down heavily on her.


“Oh no, no,” he replied, straightening his cravat. “We are just getting started and I am not even close to forfeiting. Are you?”


“No,” she interjected quickly. “Not at all.”


“Perfect,” he said. “Then I will see you tomorrow.”


“Absolutely perfect,” she whispered, gritting her teeth. She lifted her skirts and ran off back into the night in search of the specific bush she foolishly left her shoes in. Her brain was so addled at this point, she’d be lucky to so much as remember her own name.


She shouldn’t have done it, but it sounded so cathartic when William had cursed under his breath earlier, so she took the liberty and indulged herself. It sounded quite crass coming from her lips, but it felt good.  


This was bound to be a night she would relive for a very long time, but she wasn’t sure if it was simply because it made her heart race and her skin prickle or if it was because she was already too deep to let go, but too stubborn to forfeit. 

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