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Ransom Manor, Dorset
It was only in the middle of the night that Lady Charlotte Wylder could remember the past.
She’d learned to wait until after the rest of the house was fast asleep before she slipped from her bed. With a shawl over her shoulders, she opened her bedchamber window and leaned outward, her dark hair tossing in the breeze. The moon was high in the blue-black sky, and beyond the garden wall, the waves in the sea made no more than the softest shush as the tide retreated over the sand. She breathed deeply, making herself think of nothing beyond the sea and the moon and stars. And then, only then, could Charlotte remember the distant days when Father still lived, and Mama still laughed, and her home and her world had been full of magic.
She closed her eyes, letting the memories come. She had been only four when Father had died, and she was eighteen now. They had lived in a grand house on Berkeley Square in the winter, and in an equally grand house in Somerset in the summer, as was fit for the family of the fourth Earl of Hervey. There had been servants in powdered wigs and livery trimmed with gold lace to cosset her, and elegantly painted carriages to ride in with Mama and Father, and more silk gowns in Charlotte’s own nursery wardrobe than most grown women possessed in a lifetime.
But the memories she sought were more humble. She wanted to remember her parents as they’d been then, the merriest and most beautiful young parents in London. They had been young, too, younger than Charlotte herself was now when they’d wed. They’d sung to her, and talked in funny voices to make her laugh, and used her dolls for impromptu puppet shows in the drawing room. Each evening while Mama dressed for the theater or a ball, Father would come to the nursery. He’d play hide-and-seek with Charlotte, and soon with her younger sister Lizzie, too. He would roar like a bear to make them shriek, and then they would pretend to capture him, and tie him up with hair ribbons.
Then later, much later, he and Mama would come kiss them goodnight when they’d returned home from whatever ball or frolic they’d attended. Mama’s perfume always lingered, as sweet as a bouquet of flowers, while Father’s kiss had been redolent of brandy and tobacco. But the best had come when her parents had paused in the doorway, Father’s arms around Mama’s waist as he’d drawn her close to kiss her, both of them chuckling softly as if they’d needed nothing more than their daughters and each other. What better definition of love could there be? For Charlotte, their love had been warm and comforting and secure, so secure that, with her child’s certainty, Charlotte had been sure their life would always be so, and that—
“Charlotte?” whispered her youngest sister, opening the bedchamber door just wide enough to peek inside. “Charlotte, are you awake?”
Charlotte sighed and turned from the window. She could dream and fancy, but this was her world now, and had been for the last fourteen years: her two younger sisters and Mama and this ancient, windswept house overlooking the sea.
“You know I’m awake, Diana,” she said, drawing her shawl more closely about her shoulders, “because from there you can see that I’m not in my bed.”
Diana slipped inside the door, her eyes wide and her nightgown drifting ghostly pale in the moonlight. “You could be asleep somewhere else. In the chair, or on the carpet, or—”
“Or curled up like a dormouse, atop the tall clock.” As much as Charlotte regretted the interruption of her reverie, she could never be truly cross with Diana. No one could. Though nearly fourteen, Diana would always be the baby, round-faced and guileless. “What is it you wish, noddy? Why aren’t you abed yourself?”
“It’s Fig,” Diana said plaintively. “She went out the window and into the oak tree again, and now she’s too scared to come back on her own, but keeps crying and crying. You must come fetch her, Charlotte. She’ll come for you. You must come!”
“If only you’d keep the window latched, Diana, then Fig couldn’t climb out.” Fig was Diana’s pet cat, a small, scrawny patchwork creature of much obstinacy and little sense, and naturally the recipient of Diana’s slavish devotion. “If you love her as much as you claim, then you’d try your best to keep her safe.”
“But I do love her, Charlotte.” Diana’s voice rose to a wail. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have come here for you, and I—”
“Hush, or you’ll wake Mama.” Charlotte tossed aside the shawl and from beneath her bed pulled out the oversized fisherman’s jersey that she kept hidden there. The jersey was worn and not terribly clean, nor was it suitable dress for an earl’s daughter, as their scandalized housekeeper, Mrs. Bain, had repeatedly told Charlotte. But Charlotte didn’t care. She found the old jersey most useful and warm while on the beach or mucking about in boats, and especially for adventures such as rescuing Fig. She pulled the jersey over her nightgown and hurriedly braided her hair into a single untidy plait as she followed Diana to her bedchamber.
Diana’s farthest window was open wide, with the twisting branches of the manor’s oldest oak tree just beyond the sill. In those twisting branches was Fig, her mewling cries clear enough.
“Fig doesn’t sound frightened to me, Diana,” Charlotte said as she peered into the leaves from her sister’s window. “I think she simply wishes you to know where she is, that is all.”
“She is frightened, Charlotte,” Diana insisted, “and she needs you to rescue her. Unless you want me go to her instead.”
“Don’t consider it for so much as an instant,” Charlotte said. “Mama’d have my head if I let you into the tree.”
Mama would likewise have Charlotte’s head for climbing trees again, which Mama declared was both dangerous and unladylike. But Charlotte would be punished only if Mama learned of it, which Charlotte would take care not to have happen. Being that Mama was inclined to be both forgetful and tenderhearted, avoiding her rare punishment wasn’t really much of a challenge.
“Then you’ll go?” Diana asked eagerly. “You’ll save my poor little Fig?”
“You know I will,” Charlotte said. She had rescued poor little Fig far more times than Fig truly wished to be rescued, and she’d earned the scratches on her forearms to prove it. “Hurry now, fetch me something to wrap her in.”
Quickly Diana brought a cloth from the washstand, and Charlotte tied it loosely around her neck in readiness. She slung her bare legs over the stone sill, took a deep breath, and reached out for the nearest branch. It was dangerous, with the ground a good twenty feet below and the oak swaying gently in the breeze, but it was exhilarating as well, a challenge to be conquered. She’d always been the best tree climber in the family, pretending herself kin to the rope dancers at the midsummer fair in the village, lithe men and women in gaudy silk costumes who skipped and pirouetted with breathtaking skill. That was how Charlotte imagined herself to be now, balancing deftly on the oak’s branches with her nightgown fluttering around her.
“Do be careful, Charlotte,” Diana called. “You can’t fall. You must save Fig first!”
“I won’t fall,” Charlotte scoffed, her bare toes sliding over the smooth bark. “Rather, you should be telling Fig to be an agreeable pet, and come to me without a fuss.”
Fig was within reach now. The little cat was sitting comfortably in the crook of a branch, her tail curled around her as she watched Charlotte’s progress.
Charlotte inched closer, slowly pulling the kerchief from around her neck. “There’s a good kitten,” she coaxed. “Come, Fig, come to me, before Diana expires from worrying fits.”
The cat stretched, her eyes gleaming in the moonlight, but made no move to come to Charlotte.
“Come to me, you base-born whiskered wretch,” crooned Charlotte. “If you make me fall, mark that I shall be sure to take you with me.”
A rumbling sound rose faintly in the distance, drawing the cat’s attention. Quickly Charlotte grabbed her and wrapped her snugly in the cloth, only her head with its pointed ears poking free.
“Safe at last,” she declared. “You see, Diana, that there was no reason whatsoever to worry.”
But Diana’s attention, like her cat’s, had turned toward the unexpected sound.
“Look, Charlotte,” she said. “It’s a carriage. Why would a carriage be coming here in the middle of the night?”
“Why would a carriage be coming here at all?” Holding the swaddled cat tightly beneath her arm, Charlotte dared to learn forward over another branch for a better view. It was indeed a carriage, a rare sight when most of their neighbors consisted of fishing folk and farmers. Beyond the dutiful weekly call by the Reverend Mr. Ferris, there were precious few visitors of any kind to Ransom Manor. Fashionable London had long ago moved on to other tragedies and scandals and entirely forgotten the dowager countess and her daughters. Besides, the road to Ransom Manor was long, rough, and disheartening, and served as surely to keep the Wylders away from London as it kept Londoners away from them.
From the Paperback edition.