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A lady carries herself with great poise and the sense that an egg sits atop her head.
June 9, 1887
What Charlotte Beck wanted, Charlotte Beck generally got.
Thus Charlotte stood on the doorstep of Fensworth House, poised to make her unofficial debut into proper society despite the fact that she’d not yet reached the age of introduction nor been presented to the queen. Won’t Gussie be surprised when I write her about the evening? The thought of her best friend, Augusta “Gussie” Miller, bolstered Charlotte’s courage and reminded her why she’d insisted on being included tonight. After much pleading, Charlotte had convinced Gennie, her stepmother, that she needed to practice her social graces before her first official events of the New York and London seasons.
As the door opened, Charlotte swallowed a flutter of nerves. A uniformed servant nodded at her, and she worried she would forget the litany of instructions on proper decorum that Gennie had again gone over with her on the carriage ride here.
Charlotte slid a glance that she hoped conveyed thanks to the man whose duty it had been to escort the Beck ladies tonight. The same man who’d successfully lobbied on her behalf. Colonel William F. Cody, who was not only her father’s business partner but also practically family, responded with a wink, then adjusted his lapels.
Her gaze swept past the colonel to the room a level below them, which glittered as much from the chandeliers above as from the jewels the nobility wore. The light was perfect for painting. She closed her eyes to memorize the scene then opened them quickly when Gennie touched her arm.
Had she any breath left, Charlotte might have sighed at the loveliness of it all. But under Gennie’s instructions, the maid had pulled her corset strings so tight that even mild exertion would likely send Charlotte plummeting to the floor.
Perhaps rushing her debut was not such a wise move after all. The combined effect of nibbling at almost nothing all day and then squeezing into the lace-covered instrument of torture was not Charlotte’s idea of a grand time.
Colonel Cody shifted positions to move beside her, and she glanced up to see him giving one last swipe to his well-tended mustache. A fellow clad in the livery of the Fensworth household stepped in front of them and cleared his throat. “The distinguished Colonel William F. Cody, Lady Eugenia Cooper Beck, and Miss Charlotte Beck.”
A hush fell over the room as Gennie allowed Colonel Cody to take her arm. “Show time,” he whispered to Charlotte before linking arms with her as well.
The name of the famous American showman had caught the crowd’s attention, and several dozen men and women moved toward them. The famed “Buffalo Bill” released Charlotte and escorted Gennie down the stairs to greet their hosts.
Left alone at the top of what seemed an impossibly high vantage point, Charlotte reached for the banister then thought better of it. A lady carries herself with great poise and the sense that an egg sits atop her head, said Miss Pence, the tutor who’d spent the last few weeks whipping Charlotte into some manner of good form.
Find a focal point and walk toward it, looking neither up nor down.
Easily done in her grandfather’s drawing room, but not here with half of London watching her performance. Charlotte took a shallow breath and focused on a lovely Adams mantel across the room. Leaning against the mantel was a much more interesting focal point: an impossibly handsome, dark-haired gent who appeared quite amused at her plight. He had the audacity to lift one corner of his mouth in a taunting grin.
A child might have stuck her tongue out at him, but a lady did no such thing. Shifting her focus back to the fireplace and, above it, a rather lovely Watteau painting of an idyllic countryside setting, Charlotte took her first successful, if halting, step. And then another, and another, keeping in mind the wobbling imaginary egg, until she’d reached Gennie’s side. Only then did she brave a look at her one-man audience, who applauded.
“Darling,” Gennie said, drawing her attention, “say hello to our hosts.” To the fellow in noble regalia and his strikingly beautiful wife, she said, “I’m so happy to present our daughter, Charlotte.”
Our daughter. Charlotte squeezed Gennie’s hand, and her stepmother returned the gesture. That the Lord had given her Gennie to fill the gaping void of living without a mother was still a blessing that brought tears to Charlotte’s eyes.
She shifted to balance the imaginary egg then offered her host a smile. Slowly her attention turned to the earl’s wife. Again, Charlotte smiled in greeting as Miss Pence had instructed her. Speak when spoken to and do not assume nobility cares one whit for your ramblings had been a favorite saying of the sour old tutor.
Lady Fensworth, resplendent in a gown of deepest blue, leaned forward, and her appraising gaze swept Charlotte’s length. “You’re quite lovely. Perhaps I should introduce you to my Martin. After he’s finished speaking with Colonel Cody, of course.”
The question was met with instant disapproval on the face of their hostess while their host seemed to be off in a world of his own. Charlotte looked to Gennie for guidance on how to repair what was obviously some sort of damage.
“The future earl,” Gennie whispered.
“Oh, yes, thank you. I would very much like an introduction,”
Charlotte managed. The woman’s cool stare kept Charlotte off balance as she turned to find the man in question. She spied the colonel’s silver hair and then, by leaning just a bit to the right, found a partial view of his companion. “Is that Martin?” she quietly asked Gennie.
At Gennie’s nod, Charlotte studied the dark-haired man. When he turned his head her direction, their gazes collided. It was the same awful fellow who’d taken great delight in mocking her as she made her entrance into the ballroom.
This was Martin Hambly?
As Charlotte contemplated this fact, the man in question winked.
Of all the nerve.
“Come dear,” Gennie said.
But she was too stunned to move. Rather, Charlotte’s eyes narrowed. Whatever sort Martin Hambly was, he certainly was not a gentleman.
“Charlotte, do join me.” Gennie’s insistent tone caught her attention.
“Yes, of course.” Charlotte offered a hastened version of a bow then scurried off a step behind her stepmother.
As she made her way across the room, she kept the dark-haired man in sight. She saw him duck behind a group of party goers, and though she searched for him, Martin Hambly was nowhere to be seen.
Gennie joined several society matrons engrossed in a conversation regarding the queen’s upcoming Golden Jubilee, and Charlotte found her tolerance for this event, as well as her ability to take a decent breath, waning. The room began to spin, and she searched for a remedy. Colonel Cody stood against the far wall, a crowd of men surrounding him. He gestured animatedly with his arms, no doubt telling an exciting story about his time as an army scout. She longed to join the conversation, but Miss Pence would find it most improper.
She took another shallow breath, and her vision shimmered at the edges. To sit was unthinkable, especially given the limitations of the contraption that held her not only captive but upright. Escaping back up the stairs to freedom and the carriage that delivered her was also an impossible dream.
Charlotte sighed. She now knew without any doubt how a horse felt when it had been hobbled. Surely the New York parties would be much more fun.
As for the Pence egg, she’d been amusing herself for the last halfhour by imagining it as a ruined mess on the lovely ballroom floor, one that certain guests found too slippery to avoid. It was an evil way to pass the time, but any amusement was better than fainting dead away. “Are you unwell?” one of the matrons asked her.
Charlotte once again looked to Gennie for the proper response.
“Perhaps a bit of fresh air might help,” Gennie whispered. She nodded toward a large bank of windows overlooking what appeared to be a lovely garden. Heavy curtains lifted slightly at the edges, indicating the promise of a breeze. Gennie caught Charlotte’s wrist. “Mind your manners.” She pressed her lips to Charlotte’s cheek. “And don’t get caught,” she whispered in Charlotte’s ear.
Charlotte gave her stepmother an incredulous look. Had she just been instructed to climb out a window? When Gennie winked before returning to her conversation with the ladies, Charlotte had her answer. “Excuse me, please,” Charlotte said to the wagging tongues. She set the Pence egg back in its imaginary place and moved toward the makeshift exit as if she owned the place.
As few knew her, no one impeded Charlotte’s progress. She spent only a few moments standing at the edge of the room to assure she’d gone unnoticed before turning to slip behind the curtains. Then it was a simple matter for Charlotte, who had been sneaking out of her secondfloor bedroom since she was eight years old, to disappear under the open sash and out into the fresh night air.
Or it should have been simple. But her slippered foot caught on the sill, and the stupid corset kept her from bending. She hit her head on the sash, tipped over, and plummeted off the edge of what turned out to be a balcony with an extremely low and unsteady railing.
The stars above tilted and whirled as she grasped blindly for something to stop her fall. Only when she ceased tumbling did Charlotte realize that she’d not landed on the ground. Rather, she’d been caught by a man.
Worse, a second look confirmed it was Martin Hambly, the awful mocker who’d previously been posed beside the Adams mantel. Charlotte’s mouth opened to order the awful man, who stared at her with that insolent grin, to release her at once, but instead she gave in to her strangling corset and fainted dead away.
Even when Viscount Alexander Hambly didn’t go seeking trouble, it found him. This time trouble had come in the form of a girl playing dress-up. Or that had been Alex’s opinion from afar as he watched the would-be Cinderella descend the staircase to join the ball.
Up close, however, Miss Charlotte Beck gave a different impression. While he determined her to be of an age at which some men preferred their companions, Alex didn’t find the woman-child type to his liking. Worse, she was American, and not one of those interesting Yanks like Colonel Cody. No, from head to toe, it was apparent this was a female
of the pampered variety.
He considered disposing of his duties by offering the vapid Miss Beck up to the frontiersman. Surely one man to another, Alex’s explanation that he’d been minding his own business, watching for the appearance of Jacob’s Comet on the western horizon, when a flying guest landed in his arms would be taken seriously. But then he remembered that the girl had arrived with Colonel Cody, making him a close acquaintance at least and possibly a dear family friend, and that Colonel Cody tended to shoot things for a living.
Indeed it was a predicament.
Voices on the balcony above sent Alex toward the hedge. Unfortunately, he’d not considered the limp bundle in his arms when he slid into his hiding place. A slight whack on the head from a tree branch was all it took to awaken the sleeping beauty.
And she didn’t appear the least bit happy about her predicament. “Release me this—”
Out of necessity and self-preservation, he pressed his palm to her still-moving lips with his free hand. “Shhh,” he hissed with as much authority as he could muster. The ploy seemed to work. “All right, then,” Alex whispered. “What do you think you were doing?”
The woman in his arms merely glared at him.
“Well then,” he said slowly as he stared down into the loveliest pair of green eyes he’d seen in some time, “while I can say with all honesty that I was watching for Jacob’s Comet to appear, my guess is you have no such excuse.”
Her eyes widened and then slowly narrowed. A moment later, her teeth clamped down on his hand and he let out a yelp. Taking her advantage, the woman slid from his grasp and bolted from the hedge.
“Why, Charlotte Beck, is that you?” a man called.
Alex froze. Following at this point would only invite scandal. While he cared not a whit about the wagging tongues of London’s elite, his parents were much more sensitive to such matters.
“I’m sorry,” the Beck woman said. “Do I know you?”
Alex couldn’t hear all of the man’s response, but it appeared he was explaining just how they’d come to be introduced. At a tea, perhaps? Or was he saying at sea?
“I see,” Miss Beck said quite clearly to the unknown man. “I was just taking the air and hoping to catch a glimpse of Jacob’s Comet.”
Jacob’s Comet? Had the Beck woman just stolen his alibi?
The rest of her conversation was lost on the breeze as the two moved back inside, though her laughter floated through the hedge to settle somewhere between his heart and that place where irritation arose.
And rise it did, especially when he took a step and found the American’s fan beneath his foot. Alex picked up the crumpled piece of finery, ruffled and covered in the same pale fabric as Miss Beck’s dress. Shaking off the leaves but not bothering to remove the smears of mud, Alex went off in search of Charlotte Beck.
For the first time that night, Charlotte was thankful for the awful corset. Without the instrument of torture, her spine might have turned to jelly somewhere between the stairs leading from the back garden to the ballroom and the spot on the edge of the dance floor where she almost literally ran into Uncle Edwin. At least this way her back remained straight and her shoulders square. Only the best posture for a woman properly dressed.
“Do take me home,” she said as she linked arms with her uncle, then offered her cheek for his kiss. The orchestra struck up a waltz.
“Home?” His laughter reminded her of Papa, as did the way he made her feel that anything she said was of great importance. “After all the fuss you made to be allowed to attend? I’ll do no such thing. Gennie would have my head. Now perhaps a dance?”
He gave her a look that told Charlotte her ruse had not worked. He knew her too well. She needed a stronger excuse for leaving Fensworth’s home post haste. Or at least before the fellow she’d landed on could catch up and tell on her.
“All right then,” she said. “Escort me back across the room to Gennie so no more of these awful men accost me.”
“Accost you?” He halted and lifted a brow. “Explain yourself.”
Charlotte took a breath, or what passed for one whilst imprisoned in the corset, and offered a downcast look. “Promise you won’t tell Gennie this, but…” She paused for effect then slowly swung her gaze up to meet her uncle’s stare. “Suffice it to say one fellow has received an injury for his trouble.”
As she spoke, Charlotte slid a peek around the edge of the crowd in case the fellow from the garden had appeared. Her conscience prickled at her uncle’s change in expression.
“I, well, that is, the room was warm and the garden lovely, so…” She looked down at the mud on her slippers then back up at Uncle Edwin.
“I was merely trying to catch a glimpse of a comet.” At her uncle’s confused expression, she paused. “I admit I bit him, but he deserved it.
Thus, there truly is no further cause for action.”
“Where is the scoundrel? I’ll have his—”
“Forgive the intrusion, Miss Beck,” a decidedly familiar male voice called.
Charlotte looked past her fuming uncle to see the man from the garden moving toward them. In his hand he carried the mangled remains of her fan.
“Hambly,” Uncle Edwin said in an ugly hiss. He touched her arm. “Is that the man who accosted you?”
“Well, actually…” She grappled with an answer as her conscience began to sting.
“Just a moment of your time,” the man said.
“Charlotte?” When she couldn’t find any words, Uncle Edwin turned to face the dark-haired man head-on. “You’ll speak to me and not her, Hambly.”
Martin Hambly held up his hands, the fan still dangling from his fingers. “I mean no harm.”
“Uncle Edwin, please don’t make a scene.” Charlotte moved between her uncle and Hambly. “I must confess that I might have instigated the situation by—”
“Move,” her uncle said as he pressed past her. “This family’s been asking for…”
And then Uncle Edwin punched him.
From the Trade Paperback edition.