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A Close Call

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It was a most splendid ceremony, with lilies made of ice decorating the columns, and all the attendees standing on skates fixed on their boots on the iced over floor of the church.

‘Edward Drummond, I take thee as my lawfully wedded husband,’ sounded Alfred’s echoing voice in the tall space.

‘And do you, Edward, take Lord Alfred as your lawfully wedded husband?’

‘I take thee, Lord Alfred Paget, as my lawfully wedded husband, from this day forth until my last day.’

‘You may kiss the bride.’

No, that sounded wrong. There was no bride.

Suddenly, the scene shifted. Charlotte was no longer watching from the benches but standing by the priest’s side.

‘Say yes, Charlotte,’ called the priest. ‘Say yes, I do.’

‘I… yes… yes, I do…’ she said, thinking of Alfred reluctantly. If she was doing this, it means things had gone terribly wrong.

But OH! No! To her horror, when she looked up, she saw not Lord Alfred’s tall, blonde frame but a wretched monster! He was most animalistic, sprouting hair from every surface of his face, fresh scars running in odd angles across it, and oh, there were nails and cogs holding his clawlike fingers together!

‘You may kiss the bride, my Creature,’ Doctor Frankenstein ordered where the priest had just stood a moment ago!

The monstrous devil was leaning ever so closer to Charlotte, yet her feet seemed frozen to the icy ground! No! No! No!

‘No!’ she woke with a start.

‘Are you quite alright, Miss Drummond?’ Lady Portman asked from the seat next to her in the carriage.

Charlotte felt most embarrassed, most embarrassed indeed!

‘Yes… I do apologise to all…’

Alfred merely hid a giggle of sorts behind his white gloved hand but Edward seemed concerned:

‘Are you sure? I know we have been rushing to make it to the wedding in time but if you feel indisposed I’m sure you are under no obligation to attend.’

Edward wasn’t lying when he said they’d been rushing. The ship north waded through the icy sea slowly for safety, which meant they arrived on Scottish soil almost a full day late, late at night. They stopped for a few hours at a village to freshen up and change but they had to get into a carriage as early as three in the morning to make it in time to Monteviot House, where the wedding was held.

Not that Charlotte had slept very well on the journey. Their rooms were comfortable enough but the air was pregnant with tension, and though she stopped snapping at people, nobody dared to prod at her too much. If they were inside she would excuse herself to take a turn on the deck, if they were out, she would retreat to have a lie down in her cabin. It was best she didn’t know for pride that her companions discussed strategies to protect her while she wasn’t there to listen, most imperatively that they would not leave her alone for a second.

‘No,’ Charlotte shook her head, rubbing her nightmare out of her eyes. ‘We’ve come this far, I shall attend Arthur’s wedding if that’s the last thing I do. Besides, I am not sick. I just had an awfully silly dream, that’s all.’

And indeed, she was almost glad of her hot sweats in the carriage, as the church at the very end of December was freezing even once it had filled with people.

‘There you are!’ Mrs Drummond shrieked, rushing to meet Edward and Charlotte. ‘We were wondering whether you would be here at all!’ she scolded them.

‘We sent a letter ahead, Mama,’ Edward said after giving his mother a kiss in greeting.

‘Have you?’

‘I suppose the winter sea and the roads have not been kind to messengers either. We had to come all the way from Windsor.’

‘Windsor? Why?’

That was Edward’s cue to step aside for some introductions.

‘Mama, this is Lord Alfred, from her majesty’s court, who secured us an invitation to celebrate Christmas with the royal family, including Lady Portman, also the best of our friends. They came as our guests, as requested.’

‘How do you do?’ Lady Portman greeted the stern looking older woman.

‘How do you do, Mrs Drummond?’ Lord Alfred parroted, bowing. ‘Miss Drummond was kind enough to invite us to—’

But he was ignored in favour of a disgruntled scoff. ‘What are you wearing?!’ Mrs Drummond asked from Charlotte.

‘Clothes, mother. What else?’

‘Oh, but that!’ she pointed to her neck. ‘A man’s tie?’

‘It is my tie, I’ll thank you very much,’ Charlotte said defiantly. ‘Come, Mama, you can hardly make me change now. Besides, everyone is wearing coats. Leave me be.’

‘But a tie…’ Mrs Drummond still lamented. ‘And what is that on your broach? A cat? Oh, what happened to the one with the swan? It was so charming.’

‘My maid must have failed to pack it…’ Charlotte excused it with a conspiratorial glance to Emma.

‘Perhaps,’ Lady Portman cut in smartly before more of this awkwardness could continue, ‘We ought to walk up the isle and find our seats?’

‘An excellent suggestion. After you,’ Edward said, prompting their mother to return swiftly to her husband in the front row. Then, he offered his arm to Lady Portman while Alfred and Charlotte walked up to the front rows ahead of them.

Lord Alfred and Lady Portman nodded and waved politely to acquaintances among the Lothian guests, and at the front they met more Drummond siblings: Charles was every bit a suave banker like many of their side of the benches, while Berkeley, the soldier in the family, reminded Alfred very much his own brother George.

‘Brother!’ Arthur’s booming voice sounded as he came down to greet them. ‘And sister! And Lord Alfred! And more friends! Oh, how splendid you made it through this dreadful snow!’

‘Well, one would be hard pressed to hope for sun at a wedding with such a date,’ Alfred joked, to great success. Arthur was even more animated than normally! Just positively bursting from excitement that he was marrying the accomplished, beautiful, virtuous Lady Florence Kerr!

‘Do take your seats, Florence will be arriving any second now! Wish me luck! Oh! I am the happiest of men!’ Arthur rejoiced and returned to his place where he awaited the bride with so much anticipation he could have actually sprouted wings and flown around the church thrice from happiness.

‘I’m afraid this is where we part,’ Edward said to Lady Portman and to Alfred and Charlotte. Having been wished good luck too, he went to stand by Arthur’s side as the best man, pleased with himself that he was not late after all. Hurray! Oh, well, he quickly toned down his smile after catching his father’s stern look from the front row.

‘Please, Lady Portman, after you,’ Alfred held out a hand most gallantly to Emma, helping her in the third seat in the second row on the Drummonds’ side. ‘And you, Miss Drummond… Miss Drummond?’

Miss Drummond did not move into a seat but swore something rude and cowered behind Alfred.

‘Miss… Miss Drummond?!’ Alfred blurted out, not sure he heard it right. He wasn’t a viciously religious man but he could not fathom what could have prompted profanity in a church! And really, this behaviour was most peculiar. It was as if she was using Alfred’s body as a shield! ‘Really, now, what is the meaning of this…?’ he demanded.

‘It’s… it’s her… she’s here,’ she whispered, wishing she had a larger bonnet so that she could hide her face with it properly even over Alfred’s shoulder.

‘Who?!’ Alfred asked, locking anxious eyes with Emma. ‘Oh—her?’

He absolutely had to turn towards the church gates against Charlotte’s protests.

Oh.

Right.

Alfred had experienced love’s keen sting – or at least that of desire – on many an occasion before so he had not belittled Charlotte’s feelings when it came to Agnes. But now that he saw her with his own eyes, he thought he perhaps he had underestimated just how painful all those tales were…

So that was the famous Lady Strathallan.

Though he had never had the faintest inclination of attraction towards the fairer sex, he had to admit, Agnes was objectively unfairly beautiful. She was very fashionable. He had no idea one could pinch one’s waist that much with a corset. That wasn’t to say she was skin and bones: her warm winter garments could not hide elegant curves she was naturally blessed with that he assumed would be quite a draw for those who liked that sort of thing. Her skin seemed to glow in the halo of light pouring in from the snow-covered gardens outside the gates of the church, her auburn hair long and lively with its seductive reddish hues, complemented by her dress. As she walked closer, Alfred could see her lips were naturally so red that one would not be a fool to mistake it for rouge such as French ladies wore. Indeed, her husband had no eyes for anyone or anything, not even where he was going, just so that he could look at his wife on his arm more, as if under a witch’s spell.

And it wasn’t just her husband whose breath seemed to be taken away, nor was he the only one who bumped into benches for being distracted by her. Indeed, Alfred wondered whether it mightn’t have been prudent to move the ceremony to a Catholic site, as many men in the room needed to be drenched with a bucket load of holy water. Tutting and well-placed elbowings in the side by their wives or mothers did the trick just fine, though.

Alfred turned back to Emma first, who was watching Charlotte intently, who was still trying to make herself smaller behind Alfred and not looking.

‘Oh,’ Alfred said simply.

‘You see now?’ she whispered.

‘I absolutely do,’ Alfred heard tutting from Lady Portman and mouthed an apology to her.

‘Oh God!’ Charlotte quietly cursed her luck again, cowering still more after another peek over Alfred’s shoulder. ‘She brought that silly brother of hers!’

‘What…?’

‘The Duke of Fife! Tommy.’ she explained impatiently.

Alfred and Lady Portman turned around as one, confused.

He also had reddish hair and that freckly pale skin but he seemed quite plain. Boyish, in the way he seemed to smile ever so widely at everyone, youthful, in his step, but every bit an eligible young men in his twenties. He was craning his neck, as if seeking someone…

Oh! – he made direct eye contact with Alfred, causing him to turn back as if nothing had happened.

‘Might I suggest sitting down, Miss Drummond?’ he said, easing her into the seat next to Lady Portman, closing the row himself.

He caught Edward’s worried and questioning look and tried to return one that said nothing is the matter even though a great deal was the matter. Of course Edward didn’t buy it. So Alfred tried to indicate the newly arrived guests with a look and a nod of his head until Edward finally noticed them, probably the only man in the whole great building not to have been ogling Lady Agnes Strathallan all this time.

He resumed his impeccable posture as the organ sounded, practiced at self-control after years of standing still behind Sir Robert when Alfred was in the room during audiences with the Queen.

The guests settled and quietened. He meant to say something to console Charlotte but he saw from the corner of his eye that Lady Portman was already holding her hand covertly between their skirts. And now he had a myriad of other questions…!

‘Where’s Charlotte?’ Mrs Drummond spoke in the row right in front of them, turning around hastily. ‘Charlotte! Why aren’t you here? Come, sit with us at once.’

Though annoyed, Charlotte had no choice but to let go of Emma’s hand and make Alfred stand to let her out, and join her family in the front row.

‘I suppose this complicates a day already promising to be difficult…’ Alfred whispered discretely to Lady Portman, whose eyes never left Charlotte in front of them.

‘You have no idea…’ she replied.

And all rose as the bride arrived.

 

‘…and so I raise my glass to my beloved brother and to Mrs Florence Drummond. I wish them all the happiness in the world from the bottom of my heart! May God bless your union,’ Edward said at the end of his impeccable speech.

The wedding guests drank to the newlyweds’ health and happiness, who really could barely eat for being so radiant and excited to be husband and wife, and finished lunch in a pleasant mood now that they were in the warm dining room and not the frosty church.

Florence and Arthur decided not to travel immediately after the wedding because they were both so fond of dancing neither of them intended to miss out on the reception.

Thankfully, Charlotte thought pushing bits of her dessert around on her plate, the Strathallans were seated on quite the other end of the long table so it was only avoiding eye contact with her parents and letting them pay all their attention to their sons and the bride while Charlotte made herself invisible. Their Papa was mostly immersed with discussing business with Charles, and their Mama was over the moon about the happy couple anyway.

But now it was time for the ladies to filter out into the salons that could house the large guest count, while the men stayed to smoke in the dining rooms.

‘Hello, Eddy!’ someone said, coming over to sit nearer Edward and Alfred. ‘Good speech there!’

‘Tommy, hello,’ Edward greeted the jolly young man somewhat strained in return while lighting Alfred’s cheroot.

Alfred looked up at him with mild curiosity. Compared to the famous Agnes, her brother looked perfectly ordinary aside from his nose.

And he was looking expectantly at Lord Alfred, Edward realised.

‘Allow me to introduce Lord Alfred Paget to you, Her Majesty’s Chief Equerry and my good friend. Lord Alfred, this is the Duke of Fife, and confidant to many an embarrassing story from our childhood.’

‘Yes, so I’ve heard. Glad to meet you, Your Grace,’ Lord Alfred nodded.

‘Not as glad as I am to meet you. Say, Edward, did you and Charlotte come together? You’d have been without a partner, wouldn’t you?’

‘No, I brought the Lady Portman, as she so missed Scotland and we were just coming from Windsor.’

‘So it is you, Lord Alfred, who is Charlotte’s partner,’ Tommy addressed him, smiling widely. His eyes were very intense, Alfred noticed.

‘Yes, well, we all four of us came as friends together, really…’ Lord Alfred replied.

‘But you are her official partner. Ah, Edward, my chap, tell me, how is she?’

‘Very well,’ Edward replied with an air of forced nonchalance. He didn’t like to outright lie.

That was weird, Alfred thought. He behaved very differently with his friends from his youth. As if with his brothers. Albeit, Edward didn’t seem to be as carefree with his brothers as Alfred with his own either. But a childhood pal, that’s no reason to be tense, as Edward was.

‘That’s it?’ Tommy nudged. ‘”Very well?” Come on, Eddy, you can do better than that, the illustrious statesman you are, and after that bright little best man’s speech, too! Is she not living in your house anymore?’

‘Why, she is, as a matter of fact.’

‘Really,’ Tommy replied cryptically, but he recovered from a momentary lapse in his jolly manners quite quickly. ‘That’s strange. I haven’t heard word from her in a while. I assumed my letters were going to the wrong place! I would have thought she was missing Scotland.’

‘No, London agrees with her very much,’ Edward replied, honestly this time.

Tommy scrunched up his nose. ‘Ah, I don’t much like London, me. One cannot go hunting anywhere.’

‘Why, I believe London has plenty of other activities to offer, perhaps of different sorts,’ Lord Alfred offered kindly so as to save a lull in the conversation. ‘Music, theatre, libraries, riding…’

‘It’s not the same as a good shoot, is it?’

‘I take it you hunt a lot, Your Grace?’

‘Almost every day! You should come out with me while we’re here!’

 

While Edward and Alfred were listening to a frightfully detailed account of one particularly successful hunt of the Duke’s, Charlotte and Lady Portman were trying to find a place to sit in one of the drawing rooms far from his sister.

No room could hold all the guests together, therefore the ladies gathered in joint rooms opened up through their wide double doors, for tea, coffee, and a bit of a chat.

Charlotte was still stiff from constant anxiety, and now annoyed at her Mama who only spoke to her to beg her to go up to change.

‘I shall change when everyone else does, for the reception, not before,’ she stood her ground, until Mrs Drummond tutted disappointedly and left to do the rounds among the invited ladies.

It was one thing to avoid her. But Agnes seemed to be the life of the party, as always, which was harder to escape. Her tricks were working: if she sat with a parson’s wife, she highlighted the most pious side of hers, whereas if she was surrounded by young girls, she was a completely different person, laughing naughtily at covertly whispered jokes about the wedding night awaiting Florence with the handsome Arthur Drummond.

Charlotte became aware of Lady Portman watching her intensely.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, turning away from the hen party around the fashionable Lady Agnes Strathallan. Really, only the Duchess of Sutherland would have had an advantage over her as far as pulling focus at any occasion simply by walking into the room. ‘I’m just... surprised to see her. I did not think to expect it at all. Not with all the other worries on my mind.’

‘I understand… You are free to go talk to her, you know. You must not let me keep you,’ Lady Portman said with some sadness in her voice, and Charlotte forgot about Agnes altogether.

‘But I don’t want to. I want to be here. With you,’ she said as privately as she could to Emma.

‘Do you? You seemed quite keen on avoiding me on the ship.’

‘No, I… I wasn’t avoiding you. I think I was avoiding reality. To tell you the truth, I detested that voyage. I could feel my grave being walked over constantly. As if something terrible was about to happen. I still feel that way.’

‘But nothing has happened,’ Lady Portman tried to sooth her with a gentle touch on Charlotte’s arm.

‘It’s only ten past four. I’m dreading the rest.’

‘Your parents haven’t said anything to you yet. About the…’

‘Shh, don’t jinx it. Sorry, I feel like I’m about to be sick form nerves, like my corset’s too tight. But, see, that’s why I haven’t said anything since we...’ Charlotte implied, blushing.

It’s not like they did anything. Well, not much.

‘So you are not indifferent about me?’ Lady Portman asked, with such fragile hope in her beautiful green eyes that Charlotte felt a sense that she must be stronger for her, if not for her own sake. That was the best kind of push to keep her going.

‘Indifferent? No, Emma, I…’ Charlotte began, but as a group of ladies passed them she noticed herself. ‘Lady Portman, I have only tender feelings for you, I wouldn’t like you to think otherwise. Alas, let’s just get through this day. I am much too muddled to focus on anything but avoiding the pressing matter, with hardly any space left to care for anything else.’

‘Of course, if that’s what you want,’ Lady Portman said, somewhat relieved. ‘But you mustn’t drive yourself ill with worry.’

‘Easy to say… Will you stay by my side? Please. I can survive this with you here.’

‘Of course I will! That’s why I came all this way!’

Charlotte, though constantly breathless from anxiety, managed a bit of a relieved smile at Emma.

‘Thank you,’ she said barely above a whisper, wishing it all over so she could be with Emma alone. ‘Just let us get through this day, and after that, we can… talk. Is that agreeable?’

‘It is. After the wedding.’

‘After the wedding.’

 

‘Edward, you haven’t told me about your meeting Sir Robert the other day,’ Lord Alfred cut into Tommy’s telling of his hunting stories that were boring and gruesome in equal measures, in fact as he began complaining about the veal course not being rare enough for his taste, Alfred felt his lunch wanting to make a reappearance. He wanted to put an end to it at once.

‘Right, well, it wasn’t exactly a meeting so much as bumping into him by chance,’ Edward replied, thankful for the change of subject, too.

‘How is he? After…’ Alfred said no more but Edward knew what he meant.

‘I think he’s realised his priorities might not be what he thought they were, but you know him, a man of principle if there was ever one. Hard to say. It is most unlike him to be on the fence.’

‘Yes, Her Majesty and the Prince seem to have got off on the wrong footing with Sir John and particularly Palmerston, after being so used to relying on Sir Robert’s sound advice. It’s quite a change for them and…’

‘Do you spend all your days at Buckingham Palace, Lord Alfred?’ Tommy interrupted.

‘I do, most of them. Why, I didn’t know you were interested in the court, what with your apparent favouring of the countryside.’

‘No, I’m not, not really,’ Tommy quipped cheerfully. ‘Only, I’m surprised. I wouldn’t have thought Charlotte really found your type attractive.’

Lord Alfred nearly spat out his sip of sauvignon blanc. ‘Sir?’ he asked, trying to mask his offended sensibilities by this bluntness.

‘Or do you not have an understanding with her? Having come as her partner? And you and Edward being such kind friends, you would tell me if Lord Alfred’s acquaintance if not courtship of her was anything serious, would you not? Such news, eh? Say, Edward, does she still read so much?’

‘That’s her, yes, you wouldn’t find her without a book,’ Edward replied, appeasing Tommy’s last question instead of defending Alfred’s privacy, wanting to move on.

‘Golly! You bore her so much, Lord Alfred?’ Tommy jested.

Alfred pretended to laugh, sort of. ‘She’s a very bright young woman. I believe she might do well further educated formally, as a matter of fact.’

Tommy seemed to think this was a joke on his joke, or maybe he was just always so keen to have a laugh, Alfred was not sure. He felt like he was missing a trick.

‘Shall we join the ladies, gentlemen?’ Tommy stood, and the men, especially Arthur who couldn’t wait to see Florence again, agreed it was time.

 

‘Give me a glass of that, will you?’ Lord Alfred said having made a beeline to the champagne and turned to Lady Portman and Charlotte. Glancing back, he saw Edward could not quite escape Tommy so quickly as he was still stuck catching up on childhood stories, but Alfred, who was free, exhaled in relief.

‘What?’ Charlotte asked, noticing the slightest sheen of sweat on Alfred’s forehead. ‘Alfred, come on, did something happen? Did Papa say anything?’

‘No, gosh, no… I just sat through some vivid tales of highland hunts, that’s all.’

‘What?’

‘The Duke of Fife, he was very keen to talk with us, or rather at us, about his kills.’

‘Oh him,’ Charlotte said relaxing. ‘Don’t pay him any attention, he’s always been a bit odd.’

‘Odd, how? He didn’t seem odd, he seemed… I don’t know, as if I had offended him somehow. There you are!’ Alfred said, smiling up at Edward once he finally made it to their side of the rooms. ‘Champagne? It’s good.’

‘Edward,’ Charlotte turned to him. ‘Alfred says Tommy was being odd.’

‘Odd?’ Edward frowned.

‘So he wasn’t? As in, other than usual?’

‘No, he was the usual. And also very jealous!’ he said, rubbing his temples and taking a glass of champagne for himself.

When he emerged from a long sip of the blissfully cold drink, he noticed he was being glared at by three pairs of eyes.

Alfred laughed. ‘That was jealousy? Of whom?’

‘You.’

‘Me?! What did I do? I do not even know him!’

‘It’s who you know,’ Edward replied as if Alfred should know what he’s talking about.

He frowned at him in utter confusion. And at Charlotte. And at Lady Portman.

‘What?’ Alfred spluttered impatiently, feeling left out of the loop evidently!

‘Don’t you know?’ Charlotte asked, then turned to Edward. ‘Didn’t you tell him?’

‘I thought I did!’ Edward defended himself. ‘Did I not?’ he asked Alfred.

‘I don’t know whether you told me or not unless you tell me what it is! Do you know what this madness is about?’ Alfred turned to Lady Portman, the only one with a level head.

‘She mentioned it when she explained the situation about the duel. I thought you knew.’

‘Knew what!?’

‘The Duke proposed to me in the summer,’ Charlotte finally put him out of his misery.

‘Excuse me?’

‘God, Edward, I thought you told him.’

‘But I did… didn’t I?’ Edward asked himself. ‘Perhaps in passing, surely…’

‘If you have, it was in such vague passing I’m afraid I missed it completely!’ Alfred said, panic rising in his throat. ‘But… All this time, we’ve been talking about nothing but…’

‘Shhh!’ Charlotte was quick to hush him.

Alfred inclined his glass of champagne ever so subtly in Agnes’s direction. ‘…her. And yet, you failed to mention to me the utterly insignificant fact that you’ve been proposed to by her brother!’

‘And I turned him down and I stopped replying to his letters and so he stopped writing and that’s the end of that.’

‘Don’t shoot the messenger but he doesn’t seem to think so,’ Edward remarked, earning a tut from Alfred for the bad phrasing and from his sister for the actual bad news. ‘Sorry.’

‘Is that a serious concern?’ Lady Portman asked, thinking strategically.

Charlotte rolled her eyes. ‘Not really. He’s just a bit of a silly boy, that’s all. Just added annoyance, really.’

‘I see. Then I must ask, purely for the sake of avoiding further annoyance to an already trying day: would you like to go upstairs to change into our evening clothes now or shall we wait until the Duke reaches us for a chat in about ten seconds?’

Charlotte’s eyes bulged and she didn’t dare look behind herself to follow Lady Portman’s eyes that glanced at the slyly but surely approaching Duke over her shoulder.

‘On second thoughts, one cannot start changing early enough!’ Charlotte said and the ladies left the drawing room.

‘Can’t we also disappear?’ Lord Alfred asked Edward discreetly. ‘I’d much rather get you out of your clothes than listen to one more story about a bloody shoot.’

Edward bit back a grin, glancing around lest they were overheard. ‘Ah, that won’t be necessary. Funny, Tommy changed his mind about coming up to us.’

Alfred checked, the Duke was indeed walking away now that the ladies weren’t here, to congratulate Arthur and Florence perhaps.

‘Yes… Funny…’

 

‘I know what you’re doing,’ Charlotte said to Emma not ten minutes into the reception.

By the time they changed and the rooms were rearranged so as to allow for more space, and the ballroom opened, night had descended on the northern lands, and the evening dances could begin, led by Florence and Arthur, who were the first on the dance floor.

The guests were applauding their first steps politely as the Waltz began to play for the happy couple.

‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,’ Lady Portman replied innocently.

‘You’re taking turns nannying me.’

‘Nonsense…’

‘Guarding me, then.’

‘Yes, that sounds rather more dignified,’ Lady Portman quipped and Charlotte could not be cross with her.

‘Shouldn’t I be initiated into the plan? You wouldn’t have to pretend you want to show me another painting of the bare highlands or the remarkable trimming on a curtain. You could just tell me if you see danger approaching.’

Lady Portman smiled, found out. ‘Alright. Perhaps we might walk over there to the cakes as your mother is about to finish talking to the Marchioness of Lothian and she is looking very keen to step over here.’

‘In that case, Lady Portman, the cakes do seem very enticing.’

And on they moved, treating the ballroom as a battlefield: the objective was to keep removing any physical proximity from potential threats: bachelors strolling around alone looking for dance partners, either of Charlotte’s parents, and of course Agnes and just to be sure Tommy by proxy, by walking away to the other side of the room or by distracting them. Edward needed only to bring up yet another accolade of his career, earning the praise of Mr and Mrs Drummond’s friends every time, and Lord Alfred used his expert courtier tricks and connections on others. Lady Portman stayed by her side for the most part.

Though Mrs Drummond acknowledged the fact that Charlotte came with a partner, she didn’t seem to have any great interest in Lord Alfred for some reason. Not at all, in fact. As time passed relatively uneventfully on that front, having survived the wedding, the lunch, the tea, and some of the reception now, they were really beginning to think she was sufficiently appeased for now and forgot about the whole engagement and indeed about Charlotte altogether.

‘See, all that worrying for naught!’ Edward said once they were relaxed enough to have a glass of champagne and congregate all together. ‘I admit I was a bit apprehensive about Florence but they are so in love they don’t care about me! Looks like we’re quite forgettable, dear sister. You just need to lie low for an hour or so more and it’s over.’

Charlotte couldn’t help but allow herself a laugh despite her nagging anxiety that just wouldn’t leave, that sense that something might go wrong any second, but then she had been nursing that feeling for so long she was beginning to second-guess its validity. It felt very anticlimactic but… maybe it was actually going to be alright?

‘Well, to celebrate our insignificance, might we entice you ladies for the pleasure of a Quadrille?’ Lord Alfred asked.

Lady Portman inclined her head at Charlotte as if in question.

‘Oh, no, Lady Portman, no, please Lord Alfred…’

‘Oh, please, it’s one of my favourites,’ Lady Portman asked.

‘Please, Charlotte,’ Edward pleaded when she looked like she would object more. ‘It’s only a Quadrille and you would complete our quartet perfectly!’

‘That’s not why you are so keen, it’s because of that part of the dance where—‘

‘It is also for that part of the dance, yes,’ Alfred cut in, proudly admitting it. They were thinking about the part when the men broke away from the circle to meet and then swing about in a trio, two men with one woman, which gave Alfred and Edward a few seconds of actually dancing with each other. ‘And because if you don’t join us, we shall leave you standing here alone while we have all the fun.’

‘Oh, that’s quite different!’ Charlotte admitted, not feeling quite so safe as to risk being left alone yet.

She accepted Alfred’s arm and the four of them took their places, joining another quartet of Arthur and Florence, and a Miss Cecilia Wyndham who looked as if she would have preferred any of the other men in their circle over her partner for this dance, the Marquess of Queensberry.

The music began, the pairs bowed and curtseyed to each other, and began the dance.

Charlotte would have loved to roll her eyes at the ulterior motives of her brother and Alfred – the Quadrille indeed allowed for much contact between men – but she was too busy stealing glances at Lady Portman, who seemed to come alive from the joy of the dance. She was radiant, with every stupid step, and Charlotte found herself unable to stop smiling. As the dance progressed, she was no longer cross at her partner either – Alfred’s facial expressions helped a lot at shaking the feeling that this was all looking really ridiculous! Skipping and hopping and twirling here and there… It fell on the bride, of course, to be the one to link arms with Arthur first, then Edward, who stood opposite, before the men all linked hands to encircle her, before the last steps of the dance. It really did have a cheering effect! Even the stern looking Marquess seemed to lighten up by the end of it, joining in on the applause.

‘Another one?’ Lord Alfred was the first to ask.

It was easier to give in, if only for Lady Portman’s sake, who partnered up with Alfred for this next one, a good old Scotch Reel, though who was whose partner hardly mattered here, as the dancers would all switch many times. This allowed for Alfred and Edward to jump around hand in hand, though much more briefly than at the servant’s dance in the woods back in the summer.

‘You dance well!’ Lady Portman said happily to Charlotte when they happened to meet during the choreography.

‘Of course, Lady Portman! It’s a reel!’ she replied, catching Emma’s infectious cheer, before they had to move on away from each other.

A Polka followed, and a Schottische, and the sense that this night might just be survived without any troubles at all!

As the Galop ended with an applause, Emma forgot herself and reached up to Charlotte’s face briefly.

‘How lively your colour is, Charlotte!’ she said though, marvelling at her beauty unabashedly.

If Charlotte’s cheeks were rosy before, they must have turned bright red from the compliment. Emma was looking at her as if she was sure she could find the world’s greatest treasures in Charlotte’s warm brown eyes.

Just as Charlotte had that foolish thought, yet more dancers joined for another reel. Including Lord and Lady Strathallan, and her face fell.

‘I must dance this with you, Miss Drummond,’ Lord Alfred turned to her. ‘I saw you and Edward earlier, the step must have been in you both since you barely learned to walk!’

Agnes was not at all too shy to keep eyeing Charlotte, something which filled her with anxiety again, and suddenly she realised how overheated she became from the dances.

‘I… I’m not… not sure, Lord Alfred,’ she stuttered, out of breath. Damn her corset, damn it to hell!

‘Perhaps you should drink something,’ Lady Portman suggested, catching sight of Agnes too and, though she wasn’t thrilled at the idea, she knew this was what made Charlotte suddenly want to escape. ‘Let me take you.’

‘Oh, no, Lady Portman, never mind me. Do keep on dancing. But me, I will sit this one out.’

‘But let me come with you.’

‘Nonsense! Who’ll dance with Alfred, then? I will not spoil your fun,’ Charlotte said reassuringly, and though it was easy to smile when her eyes fell on Emma’s beautiful face, she backed off the dance floor. ‘Really, don’t mind me. Just this one dance. I’ll be back for the next!’

Charlotte thought Edward might have follow her but she saw across the crowd that as soon as he was without a partner his way was hindered by a young unmarried lady and he did not have it in himself to be rude by turning her down. She had to laugh at Edward’s foolishness: with this spirit, he’d be dancing non-stop until daybreak.

From the dances and Agnes, she really forgot that wandering around this reception alone was a perilous act but she really needed a drink indeed before she fainted. She wasn’t imagining it, she was actually out of breath. So she stumbled to the nearest table for a glass of champagne kept in an ice bucket.

Unfortunately, a group of chattering young women swarmed the tableside – why did everyone suddenly want champa---

‘Miss Drummond!’ one of them sporting tight blonde ringlets and a humongous pink bow said to her. ‘Oh, I did not mean to startle you! I’m Miss Gwendolyn Chatterton and—’

‘I am Miss Flora Scarbury,’ said her immediate friend who looked very like her, only brunette and sporting vivid green accessories.

‘… and, we should like to ask you…’ Miss Chatterton battled with a fit of giggles.

‘…ask you if…’ her friend Miss Scarbury tried to help but overcome by silly giggles just as quickly.

‘We… we’d like to ask, for our friend, Rosie, that is to say, Miss Hepplewhite, over there,’ Miss Chatterton or Scarbury or whichever of them Charlotte could not remember said, pointing to a third girl a little way away, hiding her own giggles behind her fan and resuming her ogling the dance floor, ‘Rosie, I mean, Miss Hepplewhite should love to know if… if…’

If?’ Charlotte asked much too testily.

‘If Mr Drummond has a scar!’ Miss Scarbury blurted out at last.

The silly women nearly collapsed on each other, their amusement was so big.

Charlotte wondered whether it would be far too painful to smash the ice statue of a swan on the table and stick a sharp piece of it in her own eye.

‘I believe he does,’ she said curtly.

‘Oooooohhh!’ the ladies said as one.

Just to seem busy and to ward off men who might have asked her to dance, Charlotte tried to keep up some level of small talk with them until the end of the reel.

Which, she noticed, did not include Agnes anymore…

Where had she gone?

‘Do you like to read, Miss Drummond?’ one of the ladies asked.

‘Of course I do,’ she replied offhandedly, still scanning the crowd for Agnes.

And she found her. She had somehow abandoned the crowd and was walking to the table for refreshments also. This was not a straight business for her: she was the darling of the reception, everyone adored her, wherever she went.

Yes, that was Agnes, Charlotte thought bitterly, a master of conversation, knowing exactly which side of her to present with whom, spreading everyone on toast with a few well-placed words.

But unnervingly, she kept stealing glances from Charlotte, ever approaching her across the crowd. And though Emma has helped her begin to get over what Agnes did to her, she was not ready to face her. What would she say? What was there to say?

‘What are you reading right now?’ Miss Scarbury asked, evidently trying to become friends with the sister of the most handsome and eligible man at the party.

‘An assessment of the diplomatic tactics used in the past two years of the India-China boundary problem.’

Agnes was terribly amused at something Mr Hardcastle said, her face lighting up with laughter.

Charlotte became aware of silence around her.

‘Oh,’ she noticed herself, glancing back at the ladies, who looked at her as if she had spoken in Cantonese. ‘And yourself?’

‘I confess I am reading Jane Eyre again,’ Miss Scarbury replied as if she had said something wild.

‘Oh so am I!’ Miss Chatterton shrieked.

‘It’s a marvellous novel, is it not? Do you know it, Miss Drummond?’

‘I do,’ she said absent-mindedly.

Agnes was eating cake and she could swear she looked right at Charlotte twice more now.

 

From the reel, Lady Portman relied on Lord Alfred to keep her from stepping on anyone’s toes as she could see the problem from her vantage point better: Charlotte was being approached by Agnes slowly but what she didn’t notice in her distraction, she thought not without searing jealousy, was that the Duke of Fife was circling her unawares, too, only stopping for a chat with Mr Drummond but Emma knew that look when she saw it and she felt very protective of Charlotte suddenly. Maybe it was a mistake to think the night would sail by smoothly.

 

Agnes wasn’t even being coy about it now, she was actually glaring at Charlotte from just a few feet away, licking custard off her ungloved finger, knowing Charlotte’s only ways out were through the dance floor or by running right into her father and Tommy.

‘I cried so much when Rochester went blind!’ Miss Scarbury chattered on next to Charlotte. ‘But at least they were all happy in the end!’

Right, even Charlotte’s attention was diverted upon hearing this. ‘Happy?’

‘Well, yes! I was so pleased he married Jane – I was so worried she would remain alone! A dreadful thought!’

‘But Rochester was an awful cad. And his wife, he locked her in the—’

‘Oh, what a horrid wife he had! And he could not divorce her! Lucky things turned out this way – I so wanted him to be with Jane instead!’

‘But that’s---’ Charlotte began but her breath hitched as she realised Agnes joined them.

‘Hello, ladies,’ Agnes said in her most charming, melodious voice. ‘I wonder if I might steal Miss Drummond away for a moment. She’s a dear, old friend.’

Agnes had a way about her, she seemed to ooze a sense of authority. No, not authority, Charlotte could never put her finger on what exactly, but she needed only to ask and before Charlotte knew it, the ladies stepped aside to allow them space to talk more privately.

‘Well… How beautiful you look, Charlotte,’ Agnes began in an almost genuine tone of awe, the formality of small talk injected with far more meaning in her mouth.

Charlotte did not know what to respond to that so she said nothing. She hardly dared to look at her former lover, for fear of tearing her wounds open anew. It was difficult, after all Agnes made such an effort to look her best that night, and Charlotte could not look at her without vivid memories surfacing, without remembering what her red lips tasted like, without catching a whiff of her perfume, without hearing her voice and knowing what it sounded like when she was writhing in her arms… Besides, she knew her Achilles heel, as she knew everyone’s.

Agnes still managed to fill Charlotte’s cheeks with blood: it was both the ghost of passion and a deluge of shame.

‘I must congratulate you on your brother’s happiness. He and Florence look a most becoming couple, do you not think so?’ Agnes continued in that confident, sing-song voice and glanced at the newlyweds danced around by a circle of reelers.

Charlotte nodded ever so slightly. There was hardly any difference between her and the ice statues, she was frozen stiff from tension. Agnes stepped closer.

‘I was hoping I would see you here. It’s been such a long time. Did you miss me?’

Charlotte pulled a face of disbelief and rolled her eyes.

Agnes’s enchanting smile faltered.

‘Are you still so angry at me, my dear?’

‘I’m not angry,’ Charlotte managed to say through gritted teeth. It was true, angry wasn’t what she was. She had been angry, she had been heartbroken. Now she had solved the puzzle that she had fallen victim to, she only felt resentment and a touch of embarrassment.

‘Well, that’s good to hear because I’m obliged to ask you if you should like to have a drink and a chat with me and my husband and…’

‘Your husband?’ Charlotte asked, totally unimpressed.

‘Unless you’d prefer to follow me to a parlour alone.’

Oh, Agnes knew and enjoyed the power she had over people. Charlotte fought it tooth and nail, turning away from her in favour of watching Emma dance. But she seemed to have left the throng, too. Where was she? Where was Emma? This is exactly why Charlotte asked her to come, so that she would be there when this situation arose!

‘Well?’ Agnes asked, biting her lip in anticipation, mistaking Charlotte’s hesitation for a promise.

Charlotte swallowed. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’

‘To come alone or with my husband?’

‘Neither.’

‘Alas, that’s a shame… He always seemed fond of you, even when you were most aloof. Though not as much as Tommy. You should be careful with him, he seems to have great designs about you.’

Charlotte scoffed at this nonsense.

‘Come on, join us for a drink. You seemed rather tense just now with the ladies here… It would cheer you.’

‘You think it would cheer me to converse with you and your husband? I’m sorry, do we know each other?’

‘I’m just trying to make amends, Charlotte. Friends do such things, do they not?’

‘You think we can be friends? After what happened? After you just propositioned me to… to…’

‘Well, why not? I do miss you,’ she all but purred to Charlotte.

‘Miss me?’ she seethed in response. ‘You miss certain things, I assume, but not me.’

‘I do miss you,’ Agnes said, which would have been lovely if she hadn’t added: ‘Too.’

Charlotte laughed to herself in disbelief. ‘Why is that? Does your husband not satisfy all your needs?’

‘He has been the most perfect of husbands, I’ll have you know.’

Charlotte made a noncommittal hum. ‘That’s an answer, I suppose…’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Nothing. Doesn’t his beard annoy you?’

‘No, I believe it makes him very handsome,’ Agnes mused, seeking the Viscount in the crowd, pleased to find him, throwing him a little wave to his utmost delight.

‘Really? Only I seem to remember you complaining such coarse hair “gets in the way”…’

‘What?’ Agnes asked absent-mindedly, still distracted by the Viscount.

‘Nothing.’

‘But, really, Charlotte,’ Agnes finally turned back to her. ‘How have you been, my darling?’

‘I’d really rather prefer you ceased calling me that,’ Charlotte said, grabbing the nearest glass of champagne she could find and nearly swallowing it whole. ‘Excuse me, Lady Strathallan, I ought to greet an old friend over there…’ she said, pointing anywhere and attempting to leave.

‘Charlotte, wait,’ Agnes pleaded, making Charlotte stop and hate the fact that she stopped. ‘After the last time… That ghastly argument… I was thinking about it and… I know I might have hurt you…’

Might have?’ Charlotte asked, not believing she could ever love someone like this. But then Agnes had been acting the whole time, surely she would have forgotten her own falsities. But their last argument was objectively awful, even if she wasn’t affected by it as Charlotte was.

‘…I’m sorry. Truly sorry. I don’t know what to say, I simply did not expect you to be so…’

‘So what?’

‘Easily attached. You, who is always so remote, and reserved, and unfeeling on the surface. I didn’t imagine you would ever entertain such deep feelings.’

‘Rubbish,’ Charlotte said, dropping all pretence now. ‘I never pretended to be unfeeling with you. Not with you. Your blame is misplaced, Agnes. You know it is.’

‘Fine. I know. I still believe we are friends. And we are family now. I just wanted to apologise nonetheless.’

‘Will you also apologise to Lady Portman?’

For once, Agnes found herself speechless.

‘Or was that also her fault for being so easily attached?’ Charlotte pressed on. ‘How many others were to blame for being easily attached, when you gave them every sign that they were allowed to be so? People are not to play with, feelings are not a game.’

‘I… I’m sor-’

‘Oh, worry not, Agnes. It doesn’t matter.’

Charlotte finished her champagne, put the glass back down on the table with such force it nearly smashed, excused herself quickly and walked the other way, away from Agnes, away from Agnes, away from…

‘Miss Drummond!’

Damn. Charlotte wasn’t watching where she was actually going in her attempt to escape confrontation with Agnes, so much so that she found her way blocked by her lover’s silly brother.

‘D-Duke,’ she said quite incorrectly in her surprise at being ambushed.

‘Oh dear, whatever happened to calling me Tommy?’ he jested jovially, flashing her a radiant smile. He didn’t seem to want to blink so as to see her more. ‘May I have the pleasure of this dance, Charlotte?’

She really had no say in whether she wanted to dance or not, as they were quite in the middle of the ballroom and before she knew it Tommy had taken her hand and waist and swept her along with the line of couples.

‘Come on, put your hand on my shoulder properly, else I’ll drop you!’ he joked. She had no choice but to rest her previously hovering hand on his frock coat. She felt much more clumsy than with Alfred, as Tommy was so broad shouldered. ‘A splendid wedding, was it not?’ he asked.

‘Right,’ she replied curtly, wondering how long this dance was going to last. She only needed to get through it with minimal awkward small talk and she could be on her way.

‘And what a becoming dress you are wearing tonight, Charlotte! I must say your daywear was most peculiar. With the cravat.’

‘It was a gift. I enjoy it.’

‘But it looks so unfeminine. I prefer you as you are now, if you ask me. It is so much more graceful. Any man would agree with me.’

‘I must say what opinion men hold about my appearance is not of any particular concern to me.’

‘Not even the splendid Lord Alfred’s?’

‘Actually it was he who gave it to me.’

‘What a funny man!’ Tommy cracked up. ‘If you were my wife I would buy you all the prettiest dresses you should ever want!’

Oh here it was again… ‘Let’s not bring up—’

‘I should like my wedding also to be as glorious and beautiful as this. I would have statues build out of cake!’ he said with a slight manic glint in his cheerful eyes, cracking himself up. ‘Cake statues! Imagine! In the shape of dragons! And all sorts of animals. We shall cut right through them! It would be a wondrous sight! But of course nothing could surpass the beauty of my wife, if that was you.’

‘Your Grace, I…’

‘Tommy, please.’

‘No, Your Grace, I really feel that—’

‘Ah, I am not listening until you call me by my Christian name,’ Tommy beamed expectantly.

Charlotte sighed ever so discreetly, wishing he wouldn’t hold her quite as tightly. Why did this have to be a Waltz? Though he was ever so jolly, up close she seemed to notice all his flaws even if he seemed tolerable from a respectable distance. That nose was really quite crooked.

‘Fine, Tommy, I was hoping you would have understood by now that I do not wish to marry you. There’s no need to bring it up again.’

Far from discouraged, Tommy laughed.

‘We are friends, Charlotte. You do not have to play this game on me.’

‘Game?’

‘Oh, of course you must say no a few times before you say yes at last. Everyone knows that to do otherwise would seem wanting. But I know you, you are a modest, demure, uncorrupted, and virtuous woman who would never dare to break any of those rules.’

Charlotte frowned at the hideously misplaced description. ‘Tommy, I…’

‘We will live in the castle, on Fife. There are very few people there, sometimes we do not see a soul for weeks that’s not from our household. There are wolf skins and bear rugs everywhere! You would never have to lift a finger, everything would be done for you.’

‘That sounds maddeningly boring,’ she said, snorting at the ridiculous idea.

‘Why, you could revive the gardens – you know it is a challenge to keep them blooming in the harsh weather so far up North. I would install a winter garden for you, so you could fill it with flowers with which we would decorate the rooms.’

‘Flowers,’ she repeated, wholly unimpressed. One, two, three – she craned her neck: the garden doors were open, ah, an escape… perhaps after the next dizzying turn around the room…

‘You would do a splendid job of it, I’m sure.’

‘Is that what you think I want to spend my life on? Or any woman with intellect?’ she had to say, snapping, almost. But he was being truly annoying now. ‘Flowers and dresses?’

‘Well, yes, one must do something between hunting, shooting, and stalking. What else would you want to do?’

‘And you wonder why I am saying no.’

‘Oh, right! Children, of course! You women… I can assure you I should like to have a big family, like yours! Bigger!’

‘No, I do not want to—’

Infuriatingly, he laughed again. ‘I can assure you of my own enthusiasm, you need not object so.’

‘But I actually object, for God’s sake. Quit this and move on at last.’

Charlotte heard her own voice but its iciness was nothing compared to how she truly felt.

‘I’m sorry. But really. This surpasses your usual silliness, this is bordering on offensive. Please just accept it and let us just finish the bloody dance without more of this nonsense,’ she blurted out, exhaling shakily now that she had got that out.

Tommy faltered in his step ever so slightly. She thought she could escape his grip now but he strengthened it uncomfortably and moved on before the other dancers could run them over.

‘Your parents said you were looking forward to getting engaged soon,’ he said in a less cheerful tone now.

‘My parents wish I were. I’m sorry but I am not. As they very well know.’

‘But… the letters…’

‘Tommy, I wrote to you about three times that I did not wish to marry, yet you kept alluding to it so I got tired of replying at all. When you stopped writing I thought it was clear to you.’

‘Your parents said my letters must have missed you.’

‘No, why would they? Besides, I’m sorry, I was rather busy with more significant matters, I couldn’t seem to find a firm enough way without offending you but once again of course it’s a no, Your Grace, now please let us move on.’

‘I asked you to call me Tommy,’ he said squeezing her hand and waist more.

Something was off.

She felt uncomfortable all day, though she forgot her troubles while dancing before, but the night was reaching new lows. She felt her anxiety in her throat quite suddenly again.

‘I feel rather out of breath, would you excuse me now if—’ she said moving away once they rounded back at the garden gates but the more she tried to free herself the tighter he was gripping her.

Something akin to obsession flashed in his eyes that did not sit well with Charlotte. She couldn’t really look him straight in the eye at all.

Over his shoulder Charlotte spotted Emma at last – there she was! – standing on the side with Alfred. Edward, of course was still dancing with someone or other.

‘Alas, I imagined you would be more grateful, Charlotte.’

‘Grateful?’ she asked, clenching her jaw to mask the fact that he was actually causing her pain now with his tight grip. Probably didn’t realise his strength… did he?

‘People talk.’

‘Oh, really? What about, pray?’ she talked trying to catch Emma’s eyes when the crowd allowed for it – she was watching them anyway, thank God.

‘They say you are a peculiar woman.’

‘Peculiar?’

‘That your mind is unbalanced.’

‘They say I’m mad? Who?’

‘People. Now, you’ll be glad to know that my love for you is such that I can see past your insanity and I’m sure Fife will prove a most excellent cure for your eccentricities.’

‘Seriously, stop this, Your Grace—’ she demanded, trying to yank her arm free but at that he gripped her wrist yet harder so that she couldn’t help but hiss and stumble in her step.

It wasn’t that he didn’t know his strength, this was on purpose, she realised with dread washing over her hot and cold.

Off to the side, she saw Emma whispering something to Alfred, who had been immersed in watching Edward dance but now that he was distracted, he caught Charlotte’s eye and paled.

He sought Edward out among the dancers at once.

But Emma left! God, where was she going now? Was she angry at her for talking to Agnes earlier?

‘I have wanted to marry you since we were children, don’t you see?’ Tommy insisted as they came to a dizzying stop at the end of the music, his grip still unforgiving.

‘Let me go, Tommy. The dance is over.’

‘I have done things for you, and ever since we were little. Your dog, you used to play with it so much. The black one with the blue eyes…’

‘What? Sapphire?’ Why bring her up now?

‘Yes, that. Your time was taken up by that dog so completely, you would not care for anything else.’

‘Yes I loved her dearly, until she died on a shoot—’

‘Yes, it was fast, don’t worry. I aimed well.’

Charlotte’s eyes bulged with horror at him.

‘I knew you would cry. But you finally played with me now.’

What are you saying?’ She felt sick to the stomach with fear and disgust.

‘I did it for you. And many other things, the castle, the seasons: I’ve told men at balls you were not for the taking, why do you think they left you alone after just one dance! With you? I did it to save you from men undeserving of you. I did it all for you. You must say yes, Charlotte, don’t you understand? I won’t stop until you do. I have and I shall go to any lengths. I love you.’

‘Let me go,’ she tried again to no avail against his strength, wondering why no one noticed this and when it was appropriate to actually cry for help.

‘Say yes.’

‘No!’

Say yes, Charlotte--’

‘Excuse me, may I have the pleasure of this next dance?’ Alfred cut in, appearing at their side, forcing a pleasant tone on his voice but she had never seen Alfred look so coldly at anyone, not even William.

‘You may not,’ Tommy spat at Alfred at once, barely glancing at him.

‘You misunderstand me, sir, I was talking to the lady, not you. Miss Drummond?’

Taking advantage of the Duke’s surprise at the nonsense Alfred was saying, she tore her arm out of his grip, and before he knew it, Charlotte was twirling away from this corner of the ballroom with Alfred, the steps in her muscle memory from years of ghastly lessons, but her heart’s pounding dulled the music in her ears.

‘Are you quite alright?’ Alfred asked her seriously, his voice and her mood clashing completely with the Redowa they were barely dancing. Though her hand was shaking, he barely touched her at all, only so as to give off the semblance of nothing being amiss to the guests.

‘I’m fine,’ she said, still obviously tense.

Alfred observed her.

‘Want some fresh air?’ he said suddenly when they circled back to the garden doors, just in time before they had to start hopping around. Upon her nod, instead of moving on in the circle of dancers, he swept her out of the room with ease, right out on the lawn.

One outside and free from that infernal ballroom, she let out a big breath.

‘Better?’

‘Yes,’ she replied quietly. She was as pale as a ghost. ‘Thank you,’ she added begrudgingly.

‘What for?’ Alfred pretended for her sake, knowing she did not like to think of herself as needing to be rescued in any way. ‘Only he seemed like a bad dancer, that is all.’

She followed his gaze when he glanced back – Tommy was fast approaching. But Edward was there to step in and hold him up, much to the chagrin of the unmarried lady he had abandoned but he didn’t care. The plan was complete.

Well, not quite…

‘We should take a walk,’ Alfred said mischievously once she calmed down a tad.

Between that crowded, stifling house and the fresh air of the snow covered gardens, she did not need to think hard.

‘After you…’ he said gallantly, showing the way.

‘Where are we going?’ she asked a while later.

‘That’d be telling.’

‘I’m not in the mood for this, Alfred.’

‘A friend would like to talk to you. I promise that is all.’

‘Here?’ she asked sceptically.

‘Not quite…’ Alfred said, stepping behind a snowy hedge of well-kept bushes that was tall enough to hide a grown man. When she followed, she realised he was leading her into a labyrinth.

He counted directions and gates between hedges – left, right, left, left, right, on, and left…

‘Here,’ Alfred said, stopping at a nook of carefully cut shrubbery.

‘There’s no one here, Alfred.’

‘No, you must go in alone, through there,’ he said, smiling reassuringly. Behind him, she noticed squinting in the dim moonlight, was a little gate to another path or dead end or something in the labyrinth. ‘Trust me.’

She shot him a sceptical glance, not quite sure of this. But Alfred wouldn’t do anything bad, surely.

Curiosity winning out, she walked past Alfred and through the little gate.

‘Lady Portman,’ she uttered, heart skipping a beat. She wondered where she’d gone before. Her presence seemed to soothe her always, and now it was needed more than ever.

‘Come here,’ Emma said, holding out a hand.

Charlotte hesitated.

‘Aren’t you angry at me for speaking to Agnes? Isn’t that why you left?’

Emma just smiled. ‘Come here, please,’ she asked again.

Charlotte did, taking Emma’s hand apprehensively.

‘I could never be angry at you of course,’ Emma said gently, holding Charlotte’s arms to herself to warm her. ‘I understand what it means to lose someone like that,’ thinking about a Melbourne. ‘Perhaps it’s cruel on us but we never really stop if we ever loved someone once.’

‘But I don’t love her anymore. I don’t want to have anything to do with her, any of them. Did you see – did you send Alfred to--?’

‘Shh,’ Emma soothed, holding her even closer as her panic resurfaced. ‘You are here with me now. That’s all that matters.’

They stayed like that for a few minutes in comfortable silence.

‘How do you do it?’ Charlotte asked. ‘I was a mess only a few minutes ago, but now I feel so much better.’

Emma smiled up at her, glad.

Charlotte gathered her little confidence and leaned closer, resting her forehead against Emma’s. It was this that she wanted and never got, the small intimacies, to be allowed to take her time.

She rubbed the tip of her nose against Emma’s, and her cheek, moving in for a…

‘I know I’m too old for you,’ Emma whispered against Charlotte’s lips.

Charlotte smiled, pulling away just an inch. ‘You’re not.’

‘But I am.’

‘You are not and it matters not. You’re lovely. You are beautiful,’ she whispered sweetly, reaching up to play with Emma’s dark ringlets, enjoying that her words and actions clearly had an effect on her. ‘If you are, that would mean I am too young and foolish and brash and indecorous for you, as I feel compared to you, yet you have never called me any of those things. No, wait, you have accused me of ungallantry!’

‘Accused, not proven.’

Charlotte laughed a little, feeling safe again.

‘Can we talk now?’ Emma asked.

‘The night isn’t quite over,’ Charlotte replied, not wanting to jinx her luck. ‘And anyway, we can talk about the details but as a wise man once told me, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.’

‘Was that wise man perhaps Lord Alfred?’

‘Perhaps… We can talk all we want later…’ but now, she slowly reached up to twist her fingers in the hair at the nape of Emma’s neck and leaned in, silencing all their worries at last.

 

Alfred shivered in the cold. He had agreed to stand guard but he did not know for how long his services were needed. He had already smoked a cheroot – was there enough time for another?

Then there was the time they were all gone from the reception. The more passed, the more difficult it would be to explain themselves.

He really must check.

Glancing around to make sure no one was nearby, he stepped back a little and peeked through the little gate.

Oh.

He jumped back behind the cover of the hedge. Manners have been beaten into every inch of him indeed. Years and years of schooling and court life have made sure of that.

Still, his curiosity getting the better of him, he looked again.

The ladies were not talking anymore.

They were quite lost to the outside world, in fact.

Kissing.

Well… there’s a sight he’d never seen before!

He bit back a grin and stepped back to move away from the gate when---

He gasped!

… then, feeling foolish, he exhaled. ‘Edward… you scared me!’

‘I’m sorry,’ Edward said, coming over closer so that he wasn’t a mere towering black shadow in the dark but Alfred’s beautiful beloved. ‘Have you seen Charlotte?’ he asked with some urgency.

‘Yes, she’s here with Lady Portman,’ Alfred inclined his head. And then had to stop Edward. ‘No, no, no, leave them be. Trust me.’

‘I’m afraid I cannot. Tommy was livid, he was… really quite odd. Mama is looking for her everywhere.’

‘She can’t go back to dance with that cad, Edward.’

‘I know and thank you for what you did while I was occupied but she can’t be here either.’

‘Edward?’ Charlotte appeared with Lady Portman in the gate.

‘I’m sorry but…’ Edward bit his lip as he did when he was stressed. ‘He saw you two leaving alone. Don’t you see what this looks like? Mama is furious.’

‘Right, I didn’t think about that. We just wanted to get her out of there,’ Alfred said, feeling bad now.

‘I know, and thank you, my darling. But it’s time to go back.’

‘Perhaps,’ Lady Portman suggested, ‘Charlotte and I should go together, you can follow a few steps behind, gentlemen.’

‘Excellent idea,’ Edward said, stepping aside to allow the ladies to proceed ahead.

‘Or, you know, we could just stay here,’ Alfred whispered in Edward’s ear, indicating the hidden nooks and corners of the labyrinth. The darkness could not even hide Edward’s blush.

‘There you are!’ Mrs Drummond’s voice sounded shrilly ahead of them all.

Though Charlotte had walked back towards another entrance of the house to avoid the ballroom with her arm linked with Emma’s, her mother dragged her away quite swiftly.

‘But I-- I was talking to the Baroness there!’ she protested.

‘And now you no longer are,’ Mrs Drummond rattled, taking her away, stopping round the corner in the cover of the building and an ancient tree. She wanted to do this privately before they returned to the throng.

Seeing she was not in the position to successfully fight this alone, Emma ran back to get the men to hurry up.

‘Why did you not tell us?’ Mrs Drummond demanded furiously from her daughter.

‘Tell you what?’ Charlotte asked, freeing her arm from her mother’s grip. Really, she was fed up to the brink with this.

‘Do not feign ignorance with your mother, Charlotte. You know perfectly well what I am asking.’

‘Please, Mama, I truly do not.’

‘Tommy, of course!’

‘What about him?’ she asked, not liking this.

‘When were you going to tell us he proposed to you?’

‘He… what…?’ Charlotte spluttered. ‘H-how did you…?’

‘He just told us, as if we ought to have known! And we haven’t! You have embarrassed us enormously! He said you were not replying to his letters. So he thought you were back at our address and wrote to us.’

‘He wrote to you?’

‘He did.’

‘But… to you?’ she insisted, seeing though her mother.

‘To you, thinking you were living with us again. So, Charlotte—’

‘And you saw fit to open my letters?’ Charlotte cut in, her veins already on fire, hands shaking from anxiety, anger, and sheer annoyance.

‘Do not take that tone with me, Charlotte.’

‘You had no right.’

‘I had every right. To open your letters, and to know you have been proposed to by a duke! I hope you have written to him to come to an understanding, girl.’

‘I did not,’ Charlotte replied defiantly.

Her mother eyed her with frustration. ‘Yes, I thought not. It was apparent from his wording. And his fury now! And quite rightly! Well, when are you going to tell him then?’

‘Tell him what?’

‘That you accept, of course!’

‘I shall not tell him anything of the sort as I shall not accept.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Mrs Drummond nearly shouted. ‘You cannot refuse him. I do not permit it.’

‘I shan’t.’

‘Stop this, I won’t hear it.’

‘I shan’t, he’s vile, he’s deranged, Mama!’

‘Now, listen to me, you—’

‘Mother,’ Edward called as soon as he made it there. Alfred stayed behind the tree while Emma left to check on where the Duke was now. ‘I should remind you, you are talking to your daughter.’

‘I am well aware of that, Edward,’ Mrs Drummond spat back at her son bitterly. ‘Unfortunately, I am well aware.’

‘I should also remind you we are in public. Thus, you will address her with due respect, if not for her sake, for that of the guests, for Arthur and Florence.’

‘I would, if only the same respect was shown to me, Edward. You don’t know how hard it is to raise children. I thought you boys were going to be difficult. But Charlotte…’

‘It is not a sign of disrespect not to marry a man you chose for her. Particularly not one who is clearly forceful and not of sound mind.’

‘What on Earth are you talking about, Edward, Tommy is the loveliest boy!’

‘I’m sure he pretends so before you but he is not so when he shows his true face.’

‘Balderdash! I was nearly crying form happiness they looked so splendid during the Waltz!’

‘If you could ignore the fact he was hurting her!’ he raised his voice now.

‘Hurting you how?’ she asked Charlotte with a clear tone of disbelief.

‘Just… twisting my arm and… being forceful…’ she admitted shamefaced.

‘Oh, that’s not being forceful, that’s just being a man.’

‘Mama!’ Edward exclaimed in indignation. ‘That is not true!’

‘Real men, I meant, boy.’

Edward opened his mouth to argue more.

‘Shush, you,’ Mrs Drummond cut in. ‘Did the Lord also not tell you that you must also respect thy father and thy mother, Edward? You would do well to remember our generosity in allowing you to follow your peculiar choices. You cannot have a say in this matter, unless you would like to dance with Miss Wyndham over there.’

Miss Wyndham, they saw through the frosty windows, was waiting for a dance partner in the ballroom, all alone.

‘But I’ve already danced with her before, she’d think I—’ that I favour her in particular.

‘Precisely.’

Charlotte shot Edward a glance, and saw with horror that he was about to go over there and do as told just so he could argue her corner against their mother. Stay, you idiot, she screamed inside, hoping he would hear it. Thankfully, she caught his eye and with the slightest shake of her head, she got him to stay standing there.

Somewhere behind the tree, Alfred exhaled in relief and gratitude for her… In fact, she spotted an abandoned glass of champagne left on a nearby window ledge and nicked it. It wouldn’t have been Edward if he didn’t want to jump in to sacrifice himself! Honestly, Edward…

‘Thought so,’ Mrs Drummond remarked triumphantly before turning back to Charlotte. ‘Now, you listen to me, girl: you will straighten your dress, put on a lovely smile, and walk over to Tommy for the next three dances…’

‘Three?!’ Charlotte asked, not even sure why this was what she was taking issue with.

‘…and tomorrow morning we can discuss it all among family.’

‘But—’

‘Tonight, then.’

‘What?!’

‘Right after the dances, then – one more word and I will march you to him right away to fix the engagement right this second. He’s waiting in the green parlour with your father, discussing the details men need to discuss, I am sure. He has already been told he needs only to ask the question again and that he can expect you to accept, it’s really only a formality, so whether you wail or shout or make a scene or—’

‘Did I hear the sounds of a quarrel?’ Lord Alfred intervened at last, stepping over smoothly, champagne in hand and a winning smile put on his handsome face as if he hadn’t heard absolutely every word thus far.

‘Not at a—’

‘You did, Lord Alfred,’ Charlotte cut in defiantly before her mother could pretend otherwise. ‘I’m afraid we were indeed arguing. Bitterly.’

‘Tut, tut,’ he said, trying to ease the tension. He saw Charlotte was as tense as he imagined from the other side of the tree. ‘What about, may I ask?’

‘It is not your concern, Lo-’ Mrs Drummond began but Charlotte interrupted through gritted teeth again.

‘My mother intends me to marry the Duke of Fife, against my express wishes.’

‘Silence, Charlotte! Others need not be dragged into this row over your insolence.’

‘But they do. I shall not marry Tommy. I cannot.’

‘Enough, Charlotte,’ Mrs Drummond said but Alfred stepped over to speak, ever so smoothly:

‘But she cannot, Mrs Drummond.’

Mrs Drummond nearly broke her neck looking round to him. ‘And whyever can she not?’

‘Because…’ he said, looking at Charlotte, trying to communicate something with his eyes. ‘I was hoping I could marry Charlotte.’

Mrs Drummond now rounded back on her daughter, then back at Alfred, then back at her.

‘Is that so, Charlotte?’ she asked, not very pleased, Edward noted.

Charlotte squared her shoulders and looked up at Alfred, knowing the jig was up. It was still an insane idea in her opinion but damn it, damn it all.

In the end, the final push that convinced her was Emma appearing on the scene in the cover of the tree. Their eyes locked, and though it wasn’t ideal, she braced herself and spoke:

‘It is, Mama,’ she said, not fully believing she was saying this. ‘I wish to marry Lord Alfred. I was going to tell you tonight.’

Mrs Drummond said nothing for a few long seconds. The tension was palpable in the air.

Edward frowned, seeking her expression… Something was wrong.

You are Lord Alfred?’ Mrs Drummond asked Alfred.

‘I am, ma’am,’ Alfred replied, trying to keep up a perfectly pleasant manners even though his heart felt like it was about to escape through his throat. Perhaps it was the realisation that he might actually marry Charlotte now that they announced the idea to Mrs Drummond herself.

But it was something else. He felt it too, something was amiss.

‘I have come to know Charlotte through Drummond here,’ Alfred added. ‘We have found we have much in common.’

‘You are Lord Alfred. Lord Alfred… Paget?’ Mrs Drummond asked.

Alfred tried to ignore the tone she used for his last name. ‘Indeed, ma’am.’

‘Lord Alfred is Her Majesty’s Chief Equerry and Clerk Marshal, and close confidant of the crown, Mama,’ Edward added but was completely ignored.

‘You,’ Mrs Drummond turned back to her daughter. ‘Want to marry… a Paget?’

And she laughed mirthlessly.

A glint of fear appeared in Charlotte’s eyes as she glanced back at Alfred. He seemed less surprised by it.

‘Why, yes, Mama. I should like to marry Lord Alfred,’ Charlotte withstood. ‘Wouldn’t it be splendid? I would be part of Her Majesty’s court and I have met his parents, Lord and Lady A—’

‘Oh, I know his parents,’ Mrs Drummond stopped laughing but spoke with an air of disdain now. ‘Anglesey and his wife. I am well aware of who they are. I abhor the whole race of them. You will not marry a Paget, Charlotte.’

No.

Alfred’s heart sank. Could it be that their failsafe plan was not going to work after all? He truly had not expected that he would have to fight for it… Well he had to now! But how?

‘Mrs Drummond, I—’ Alfred began without a plan but Edward stepped in.

‘Mama, I can assure you, Lord Alfred is an honourable man, indeed the best of men I know.’

‘A product of divorce, Edward,’ Mrs Drummond spat, nearly not even daring to utter the word that she treated like a downright curse. ‘I’m sorry, I cannot allow it. Especially not when a Duke, and a family friend at that, is his rival.’

‘Mama, I truly vouch for Alfred. He is an incredible man,’ Edward insisted, trying to find a way to praise Alfred without giving himself away. ‘I have known him for nearly four years now, he has been nothing but the most gallant, remarkable, splendid gentleman you can imagine. Ask the Queen herself!’

‘Indeed,’ Charlotte forced herself to say though her voice was threatening to crack. ‘He is well loved and trusted by all.’

‘His accomplishments and virtues are endless,’ Edward went on, stealing a little smile on Alfred’s face despite his nerves. ‘And he is Her Majesty’s favoured dancing partner!’

‘Yes, he’s just a marvellous dancer,’ Charlotte was saying – Alfred’s was quite touched. If he hadn’t quivering from Mrs Drummond’s venom, he’d have laughed out loud.

Edward stepped closer to his mother. ‘It would be a blessed union, Mama. Charlotte would be lucky to take his name. Anyone would be lucky to marry Lord Alfred,’ he said with more conviction than she knew he had…

Alfred’s heart swelled. But it was pounding wildly.

Because Mrs Drummond seemed to consider this.

Charlotte had to dig her nails into her palms to stop from fainting or crying, hoping desperately her mother was coming around. How she cursed herself for all the times she expressed her doubts about this match, when she was standing there now and her heart’s utmost desire was to be allowed to be engaged to Lord Alfred! Else she would be engaged to a brute of a man within the hour.

Every passing second meant more build to this terrifying tension oozing from Mrs Drummond and the cogwheels turning in her head, debating whether she could overcome her disdain for the Pagets’ boy. Her icy sentiments alone seemed to drown out the sounds of a cheery Polka inside that seemed to so clash with the atmosphere out here.

She seemed ready to shake her head…

Alfred had to do something. He shot an apologetic look at Edward before downing his champagne, handing the empty glass to Edward, and taking it upon himself to step over to Charlotte.

‘Please, Mrs Drummond,’ he said, taking Charlotte’s hand. And waist. And stood far too close, making her eyes go wide. ‘I love your daughter with all my heart.’

And Alfred kissed Charlotte.

It was chaste but it was very much a kiss.

Edward’s eyes went about as wide as the moon too, and despite his own panic, he resisted the strange urge to snort.

Alfred released Charlotte at last and hoped he did not earn a slap to be banked in later. From either of the Drummond siblings present.

Blinded by nerves, Charlotte just hoped this clumsy (and unexpected!!!) display was convincing enough a sight for her mother.

‘Please, Mama,’ she pleaded, on the verge of tears. ‘Please.’

Please say yes, she heard herself downright beg in her heart, please say yes, say yes, say yes…

Mrs Drummond stood stoically, eyeing the pair of them, dragging it well out, thinking, thinking…

Eventually, she held her head high…

…and decisively said:

‘No.’