And indeed, the long missing Miss Drummond was standing in front of Emma in the flesh, eyes wide in surprise, holding onto what seemed like a woven basket full of flowers and eggs, dirt on her hands and boots, and just as lost for words as the unexpected visitor.
‘H-how?’ Charlotte asked at last.
‘Your note,’ Emma explained, quite breathlessly.
‘Did you ask…’
‘… Mr Drummond? Yes. He knew exactly what to do.’
‘Is he here?’
‘No. He’s with…’
‘Yes. In France.’
‘All good? They’re not---’
‘Right… Yes… good... Um…’ suddenly lost for words and for confidence, Charlotte faltered.
One second she was just getting flowers and things for the ladies, the next Lady Portman was standing there, with that mesmerizing gaze of hers, just as she remembered her.
‘You… you… changed your hair,’ she remarked stupidly, seeing Emma wore her ringlets in the back now.
‘So have you,’ Emma replied, taking in Charlotte’s most unusual appearance only now: she was wearing trousers, not the ladylike sort, but very manly ones, with muddy boots, a billowy sleeved shirt and a waistcoat and cravat. And her hair was cut much shorter, her natural curls barely reached her shoulders. She had tied it with a single ribbon and nothing else.
‘Do you hate it?’ Charlotte asked shyly, nearly dropping the basket as her hand shot up to her hair self-consciously.
‘N-no, not at all,’ Emma replied at once, unused to it but quite smitten all over again. ‘It suits you.’
Now Charlotte truly didn’t know what to say or do, except stand there awkwardly, holding onto her basket of goods, and staring at the vision that Emma was, as if she wasn’t sure she was dreaming again.
‘Was Doctor Evans home, then?’ Miss Butler broke the silence crudely.
‘Shush!’ Miss Ponsonby scolded her, but Charlotte was already roused from her ponderings.
‘Uh, y-yes, I… yes, he was, I got the… the uh… medicine for the…’ Charlotte tried to reply absent-mindedly.
‘I’ll take this, shall I?’ the cook appeared and slipped the basked out of Charlotte’s hand.
‘And we should go,’ Miss Ponsonby said to her partner. ‘Come on, my beloved Eleanor, let us leave them alone to talk.’
‘Oh, no, I wouldn’t dream of that,’ Lady Portman protested immediately. ‘Perhaps we could have the privacy of my carriage, or the gardens, or a room…’
‘I have my own lodging,’ Charlotte offered. ‘In the woods. It is but a short walk away.’
‘Oh?’ Emma’s ears perked up. ‘Yes, I think that would be agreeable.’
Their polite conversation did nothing to ease the tension, especially not that it was more apparent now that they were still rooted to the spot quite a few feet apart. Lady Portman smiled and nodded encouragingly.
‘Right,’ Charlotte muttered, straightening her muddy attire and beckoning to Emma to follow her out the door.
Charlotte walked past the groom and the maid again, as she did before she went into the house (or ran, more like, upon seeing the carriage that was exactly like Emma’s), and untied her horse.
‘We are going to follow Miss Dr-- Dawson, to her place of residence,’ Lady Portman informed her servants. ‘Follow behind us, please.’
Instead of getting in the saddle, therefore, Charlotte led the horse on the right path on foot, reins in hand, and Emma walking by her side, while the carriage with the groom, the maid, and her luggage, was following a little way behind them.
A simple walk side by side had seemed such an impossibility for over the past 6 months that neither of the women knew what to say.
After exchanging awkward smiles, Charlotte broke their silence.
‘I’m sorry about the ladies. They have never been the friendliest.’
‘They knew who I was, from Wellington of all men. As you know he has his opinions of me,’ Emma half-dared to laugh but nothing more.
She lost her confidence in these strange surroundings and in front of Miss Drummond, who had been such an enigma since her disappearance.
What she didn’t know was that all this was found utterly charming by Charlotte.
‘So, “Miss Dawson”, am I?’ she teased her.
‘I had no desire to give you away.’
‘Is my disguise not convincing enough?’ Charlotte gestured to her muddy, masculine attire.
‘It is quite different, I will say that.’
Charlotte bit back a smirk. ‘To tell you the truth, I feel less in a costume this way than otherwise.’
‘So, are you… happy? Charlotte,’ Emma had to reach out and touch the girl’s arm as she always did. Her delicate laced gloves such a contrast against the dirtied up sleeves. ‘Have you been happy here?’
Goodness, how would she get onto that? Charlotte thought as words failed her but the horse stopped of its own accord and she saw the house she could call home for now.
‘We’re here,’ she said, swallowing dryly. Emma was still touching her arm.
‘That was indeed a short walk,’ Emma remarked sweetly, taking it in.
They were standing in front of a stone house that must have been fit for a small family of modest circumstances, on a clearing among tall trees. Behind the house, a jolly little stream ran. It was far from the luxury of the Palace but it was quite idyllic in a way, if one could disregard the chicken bones scattered in front of a shabby doghouse.
‘Graff,’ Lady Portman called to the groom. ‘Take my bags inside.’
‘Uhh,’ Charlotte immediately voiced her doubts. ‘Are you sure? It might be more comfortable at the big house, with the ladies.’
‘You can’t imagine I have any intention of returning there! They really were most unfriendly!’
‘That’s just the locals’ way here, do not take it personally. I’m sure they’d have a laugh about it if we dined at them.’
‘I will not return there for dinner.’
‘Then perhaps the hotel in the village, surely.’
‘Don’t you want me here?’ Emma asked more quietly, out of earshot of the carriage.
Her perfume hit Charlotte’s nose and she could have kissed the Baroness right then and there.
‘Emma,’ she said, weakening. ‘Of course I do, but… I can’t house your servants anywhere. There’s just not enough space.’
‘That shan’t be a problem.’
‘Are you sure? I can’t offer you the comforts you are used to.’
‘If it’s good enough for you, it will do just splendidly for me,’ Emma insisted, not quite believing it herself but her stubbornness was a force not even the Queen of England could contend with.
When she still saw doubts in the young woman’s eyes, she stepped yet closer.
‘Charlotte, I left all my engagements in London, in the middle of the season, to cross the country for you. I lied and cheated people I care for to get here. I have missed you. Can’t we at least… talk?’
Charlotte saw that Lady Portman was quite determined.
So she nodded her consent.
Emma, satisfied with her success, instructed the groom to take the bags inside, and told him and Abigail to return to the village to the inn where they would find a hospitable couple who could give them rooms for the night.
And so, at last, Emma and Charlotte were left alone.
‘Oi! Mr Graff!’ Abigail shouted out Lady Portman’s carriage window to the groom not long after they rolled away from the cottage in the woods. ‘What did they say?’
The groom had come out of the green building that was supposed to be the inn with the rooms they were to take, and instead of opening the door, he got back on the bench to steer the horses into motion.
Down the path. And out of the village.
‘Mr Graff!? Why aren’t we stopping? Did they have no rooms left?’
‘None,’ he barked testily.
‘Well, we must ask someone else, then! At the big house, Plas Newish, whatever it was!’
‘No, we’re off back to Dorset.’
‘That’s my business to know,’ the groom said, lashed the reins on the horses again, and drove right past the public house with great speed, into the night without stopping.
‘After you,’ Charlotte charmingly said to Emma, and they went inside her cottage.
It was very neat indoors, Emma first thought, despite the oldness of the house. She had perhaps expected it to be clattered and dusty but it was neither. Charlotte did not seem to have many possessions here to begin with. There was a single room downstairs with a large and ancient fireplace, and a kitchen opening from it with a backdoor with a little window that looked on the stream. A faded sofa, wooden chairs with embroidered cushions and carpets made the space cosy. Uneven windowsills were adorned with many tiny plants in pots, and a few shelves of books signalled further that someone lived here. There was also a rickety looking staircase leading upstairs. And, as Emma saw looking out the backdoor windows, there was a little terrace built over the stream behind the house. The sound of the water was quite calming, in fact, and thankfully softened the silence.
Charlotte was still standing in the doorway. Emma quirked an eyebrow.
‘You should make yourself comfortable,’ Charlotte told her, indicating the cushioned sofa with hands dirty from gardening and such. ‘I’ll be back in a minute, I’ll just have to clean up a bit.’
Indeed, her there was not only mud on her hands but on her clothes up to the knees, dirt under her fingernails and bits of grass and leaves in her hair, all in dire need of sorting out if she was going to have the Lady Portman as a guest.
Emma did as told gladly and took a seat in the downstairs room while Charlotte went upstairs to splash some water on her face and clean herself as quickly as possible… and pinch herself or slap herself or something. This was madness! She did not expect this in her wildest dreams!
In a few minutes, she returned downstairs in a simple clean linen dress she had got used from a former housemaid now wife to the baker, rid of every speck of mud. Her hair remained untameable but to hell with it, it was much easier to handle nowadays than when she had it down to her waist as her mother had always made her.
Though she was clean, when she came downstairs, she felt like the shabbiest farm girl compared to the glamourous baroness, who stuck out like a sore thumb in the modest cottage in her expensive, fashionable garments complete with a large feathery bonnet.
‘Are you cold?’ Charlotte asked lamely as Emma was still wearing said bonnet and her traveling cloak. ‘I can make a fire. Let me just go and cut up some more wood---’
‘Cut up more wood? Make the fire yourself?’ Emma asked, laughing in disbelief and awe at the idea of rich Miss Drummond making her own fire, a scullery maid’s job! But Charlotte was serious, apparently, as she had already grabbed an axe and opened the door. Perhaps she was in need of an escape?
Emma took her coat and hat off quickly and sat on the sofa.
‘I’m not cold, I’m just silly, all that travel has exhausted me. Please do stay. And put that down.’
Charlotte put the axe back to its place by her muddy pair of boots and instead very gallantly took Emma’s clothes and hung them up on hooks by the front door, next to the coat she was wearing when she got on a horse in Scotland and fled into the night all alone.
As brave as she was on that night, now she had no clue what to do at all, except try to keep from fainting as her heart seemed to drum in her ears.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t really have anything to give you,’ she blurted out. ‘I’ve wine and tea, and fruit I think…’
‘I don’t want anything, thank you.’
‘You came all the way for nothing?’
Emma smiled at her, a thousand unsaid words in her eyes.
‘I didn’t say that. Au contraire…’ she said, holding our her hand for Charlotte. ‘Come. Sit with me.’
‘… please do not forget to see to the maids cleaning the silver at least once, Mrs Quibell…’
‘Of course, Mr Clarke,’ the housekeeper replied, refraining from rolling her eyes so hard they’d permanently stick on Mr Drummond’s Lower Grosvenor Street house’s kitchen ceiling.
‘…including the candlesticks in the library.’
‘Of course, Mr Clarke.’
‘Yes, Mr Clarke?’
‘… thank you.’
The housekeeper dropped her attitude. It was true, she was annoyed at the new developments – now that Mr Drummond named Clarke the butler, his authority was unequivocal, despite her advantage in years and experience in running a household. Nevertheless, the poor lad had just lost his mother and he was about to catch an early train out of the city to return home and take care of the funeral.
Before she could get all emotional and motherly, the doorbell rang.
‘Who could it be at this hour?’ she asked. ‘Not even the knocker-up has come!’
‘I don’t know… I’ll get it.’
‘No, let me, you’ve got to catch your train.’
‘I can get the door yet.’
‘No, I’ll get it.’
‘No, I’ll get it.’
In the end, they both went upstairs. A stranger stood at the door, tall, broad shouldered, with reddish hair, and a very friendly, open smile.
Clarke didn’t like him: far too cheerful for this time of day.
‘Hello!’ the man said.
‘Good morning, who do we have the pleasure of meeting?’
‘I am a friend of Eddie’s. Mr Drummond, I mean. And her sister.’
‘May I take a name, sir?’ Clarke asked, suspicious.
‘I wouldn’t like to spoil the surprise. Could you just tell him I’ll be waiting downstairs? When he wakes?’
‘I’m afraid I cannot. Mr Drummond is not at home at present.’
‘Not to worry, I’ll wait for him here anyway.’
Mrs Quibell laughed. ‘You’ll be waiting a long time!’
Clarke shot her a dark look. Didn’t anybody have manners anymore?
‘What Mrs Quibell meant to say, sir, was that Mr Drummond is on the Continent and will not be returning until the end of the month.’
The visitor’s smile dropped.
‘What? Where is he?’
‘In France, sir. Would you like to leave a message to forward?’
‘No, I…’ he thought. ‘May I have his forwarding address, rather?’
‘I’m afraid we were instructed not to share that.’
‘Do you know who I am?’ the man flared up suddenly, towering over the servants with his large frame.
‘No, as a matter of fact, we do not, as you have not shared it with us, sir,’ Clarke stood his ground.
The man ate his own words. ‘Well… can you at least tell me with whom he is traveling?’
Clarke debated whether he could but it wasn’t a secret, the whole world, including Her Majesty knew.
‘He is exploring and studying the language with Lord Alfred Paget as his instructor, sir.’
The man’s face changed quite the opposite of the jovial, cheery expression he had started out with. Cold fire in his eyes flared up.
‘I see,’ he said curtly and turned on his heels.
‘Whatever was that about, then?’ Mrs Quibell wondered.
‘I don’t know, but… I suggest not providing him with any further details, should he return to pry. I trust you will keep to this, Mrs Quibell?’
The housekeeper most certainly was not planning to deal with this or any other troublemakers in Mr Clarke’s or Mr Drummond’s absence, not at all! A quiet month, that’s what she deserved at her age!
A warm morning breeze blew through open French windows, bringing with it the distant sounds of seagulls and port merchants.
They should have had difficulty sleeping in this never ceasing heat but their bodies were as tightly entangled as on the coldest winter nights, seeking each other’s warmth, though the sheets had long been kicked off and away.
Alfred’s nose was smooshed against Edward’s jawline while the gentlest of breaths coming through his ever so slightly gaping mouth tickled his lover’s Adam’s apple sweetly.
A noise that was too far away to care.
Edward’s sharpish intake of breath as he stirred… then a comfortable exhale.
A kiss on the forehead.
And the warmth was gone.
But not for long? Yes, the mattress dipped under his weight… he was back… and all was well again as Edward lay back on the bed, welcoming Alfred’s half-conscious reclaiming of his place on and around him. Who needed pillows when they had Edward’s chest to rest their head on?
God, their bodies were sweating where they touched – how could it be so hot and humid so early?
Edward seemed to read Alfred’s mind, because it was on him checking his pocket watch that Alfred opened his eyes.
‘Ne…n…nnn… nearly noon,’ Edward yawned.
Noon? Alfred giggled.
Well, they did exhaust themselves quite a lot the night before. They had sailed early, true, but then the late evening with all that champagne and oysters, followed by the longest, most heated night they had ever spent together… As far as he could remember, it was beginning to dawn by the time they thought it best to sleep at last.
Alfred nuzzled against Edward’s chest, kissing a slow trail up his neck, his jawline, and finally his lips. Lazy, loving kisses – no rush this time, no Palace to run back to, no Parliamentary session to attend.
‘You’re scratchy,’ Alfred remarked with another sweet giggle of his, rubbing his chin against Edward’s to feel the slightest stubble.
‘So are you,’ Edward teased back, his voice so raspy and deep just yet.
‘Hmm,’ Alfred moaned against Edward’s skin until Edward kissed him and flipped them over for good measure so that he could deepen their kisses yet more.
Alfred pulled him closer, enjoying Edward’s heavenly weight on his own body, and wriggled until—
‘What’s that?’ Alfred pulled away, realising something was clinking at the foot of the bed as he moved.
‘Ah, that’s our breakfast. They just brought it up,’ Edward explained, feeling foolish at forgetting he’d put the tray on the bed just minutes before. But Alfred, with his natural beauty, and golden hair sticking into every direction, could be such a distraction.
Oh, so that’s where Edward had gone. ‘Did you answer the door like this?’ Alfred teased, looking Edward up and down, in his entirely unclad state.
‘Yes, Alfred, I thought I’d give the concierge a fright.’
‘A delightful treat, rather.’
‘You’re biased but thank you. No, funnily enough it occurred to me to wear clothes, my dearest.’
‘And didn’t they…?’
‘No, nothing could have seemed amiss, I made sure of it. Relax, my love,’ Edward said and kissed Alfred sweetly. ‘Hungry?’
They sat up on the bed lazily, poured coffee and fed each other croissants with jam.
‘Oops,’ Alfred muttered when he dropped a bit of jam on his stomach. He reached for the napkin but Edward grabbed his wrist.
‘Let me,’ he said simply and cleaned Alfred’s skin off… with his own tongue.
‘Edward!’ Alfred giggled, fighting his ticklishness because Edward was behaving like he very, very rarely did and it was delightful!
Though Alfred was licked quite clean, Edward wouldn’t stop… so Alfred thought he’d be naughty and smeared some jam on Edward’s cheek.
‘Oho! Alfred?!’ Edward instinctively reached for his face, making it a lot worse.
Seeing as his hand was all covered in jam, he smeared it on Alfred’s face in retaliation.
Pretty soon they were covered in blotches of sweet raspberry, breakfast forgotten.
Alfred meant to reach for more jam but Edward was quicker and straddled him, pinning him down on the bed. Alfred of course felt excitement rush through him – being overpowered in this way did things to him and Edward was so beautiful and his eyes so dark with lust...
He stopped fighting and waited with anticipation for Edward’s lips to crash down on his but just before he felt them, Edward changed course, raised one of Alfred’s hands to his lips and started licking and sucking jam off his fingers slowly, sensually, and sinfully…
‘Edward, we’ll never finish breakfast at this rate,’ Alfred said but his warning was feeble and breathy.
‘What a shame that would be…’ Edward replied, already having decided his breakfast was going to be Alfred.
‘Victoria!’ Albert called as he walked into the study without looking up from his newspaper. ‘There is a most fascinating new discovery of—’
Victoria cleared her throat. ‘Albert, we have a guest.’
Albert looked up from his paper at last and saw that indeed, Victoria was not really his wife at the moment but the Queen of the land giving audience to a visitor.
‘My apologies, I shall return later.’
‘Ah, no, do not leave, Your Highness, please,’ the visitor said so very kindly, a friendly smile on his face drawing Albert in, as well as Victoria. ‘I was just wondering where I might find Lord Alfred.’
‘I’m afraid you just missed him, Duke,’ Victoria said very amused at his Chief Equerry’s adventurous ways. ‘He has sailed his yacht to France just yesterday!’
‘Yes, I was told he went with Mr Drummond. I called at Eddie’s house and I was so very sad not to find him there! Imagine my surprise!’
‘Are you good friends with Mr Drummond?’
‘Good? The best! We are childhood pals. Of course we lost touch for a while but I saw him at his brother’s wedding last year and now that I’m back in London for the season I thought I’d say hello. But goodness, France… Did he say where exactly?’
Tommy listened with rapt attention to the detailed account of Lord Alfred Paget’s travel plans from the royal couple, who were indeed so very, very helpful.
‘It is most inconvenient, I do miss Lord Alfred’s assistance!’ Albert remarked.
‘Yes, so do I,’ Victoria lamented, too. ‘But I must say I miss Lady Portman’s sound advice the most! The Duchesses Sutherland and Monmouth are very fashionable but Harriet is still in half-mourning and Sophie is still unsure of her place here. I have come to rely on the baroness the most lately.’
‘Sorry, who?’ the Duke asked, thinking he had caught a familiar name.
‘Baroness Emma Portman. She was at the wedding, too, was she not?’
‘Ah, of course…’
‘She said she was such good friends of Miss Charlotte Drummond I simply could not say no to her accompanying them all the was to Scotland in the icy sea and the snow! But, see, I esteem the baroness very highly, and so does Miss Drummond. They are almost as good friends, I am told by Lord Alfred, as he is with Mr Drummond!’
The Duke was soaking this all up eagerly. ‘Has she left the court?’
‘Only for a while. She fancied a trip, too.’
‘Whereabouts, may I ask?’ Tommy asked, pretending it was all the smallest of small talks.
He had arrived at the Palace determined to follow Lord Alfred’s footsteps, sure he and Eddie were traveling with or to Charlotte, absolutely certain. However, he might just change his plans after all, in light of his new findings. Perhaps he was foolish to follow the men, after all he would have to chase them to the Continent potentially for naught. Should he instead try to find a more pliable informant in Lady Portman after all?
‘We shouldn’t have…’ Alfred said absolutely unconvincingly between kisses after Edward was done with him. He could still taste himself and the jam on Edward’s lips.
‘You don’t mean that,’ Edward breathed against his lips.
‘No, I don’t,’ Alfred admitted gladly. ‘But… we’re sticky… God, we’re such a mess!’ he laughed. ‘We are meant to be sightseeing and yet look at us, still in bed, still... We should go and bathe.’
‘Just five minutes,’ Edward asked, flopping down on the bed, snuggled tightly against Alfred.
They lay there comfortably until they caught their breaths and calmed down.
‘I love you,’ Alfred said, nuzzling into Edward’s wildly curly hair.
‘I love you too,’ Edward replied slowly as if he was about to fall back asleep.
Alfred’s gaze fell on the bright light outside, the skies the clearest blue, and smiled.
‘Do you know what this feels like?’
‘A bit like… like a… a honeymoon,’ Alfred admitted shyly.
Edward pushed himself up so as to be able to look at Alfred properly, his smile just as bashful but feeling as strongly as ever about their love.
‘I think it’s exactly like a honeymoon, Alfred.’
Alfred beamed up at Edward and then held him tighter than ever. This is what happiness, true happiness felt like, then.
Sightseeing could wait.
Charlotte’s head was swimming with all the things she heard from Emma the night before as they, too, stayed in the bed they had to share until very late.
Emma was always stunning but this morning it felt like birds had come to sing in the little clearing in the Welsh woods just to praise her beauty in her sleep.
Charlotte didn’t dare lie closer to her… the only contact she allowed herself was an arm over Emma’s head on the pillow so that she could caress her loosened locks of hair ever so gently without rousing her.
She had said she was exhausted from her journey, and Charlotte didn’t blame her, as last night was taxing on her also.
Because the night before, she sat on the sofa next to Emma when she asked, and they had to talk at last.
There was so much left unsaid between them. They knew they had to talk but where to begin? She stood up first to light candles around the room. Then to put the kettle on for tea. Then---
She didn’t manage to pop up again for some trivial task again. As always, Lady Portman had more tact and experience in soothing people, especially fatalistic Miss Drummond, by reaching out to take her hand.
‘Emma…’ Charlotte shook her head at the sight of their touching fingers. ‘I can’t believe you came here.’
‘You thought I wouldn’t care enough?’
‘Not that you wouldn’t… But to travel all the way here? Alone?’
‘I wasn’t alone, I came with the groom and the maid.’
‘You must have been on the road for three days, four, at least!’
‘I have been traveling for nearly two weeks, as a matter of fact. I didn’t want to expose you accidentally and I had to find an excuse so I came by way of Dorset.’
‘Dorset? Why? That’s a big detour.’
‘I went home first, to be as inconspicuous as possible.’
‘To the baron?’
‘Yes. It would have been unseemly not to,’ Emma said and continued quickly before Charlotte fell too deep into that strange sort of despair that any mention of one’s husband brought out in her. ‘Only for a night. Then I left to Gloucester to visit my only younger sister Louisa. I had to wait for the rain to stop but as soon as it did, I told the groom to drive here by nightfall no matter what. I understand your fear of the shackles of court life only now, truthfully, the lies I had to tell everyone… I slipped my husband some valerian to be able to get back on the road… I fought with my sister about the weather endlessly…’
‘Good heavens, Emma, you did all that for me?’
‘Of course, I came as soon as I got your note. Well, as soon as I deciphered it. Not I, Lord Alfred, I hope you don’t mind that I showed him because he was the one who realised it was a riddle of sorts, and then Mr Drummond—’
‘Oh, how is Edward?’ Charlotte asked, scooting closer and squeezing Emma’s hand tighter. ‘Tell me everything, anything! I ache for news!’
‘He is well. Very well. As I said he is in France with Lord Alfred.’
Panic crossed Charlotte’s face. ‘They haven’t been discovered, have they?’
‘What? No! The purpose of their voyage is a recreational one. Mr Drummond wanted to join me but there could not be a sensible reason for it and wherever he goes is a trail in itself. So it’s really the best he could have done to go the other way entirely! Of course, officially Lord Alfred’s purpose is to gather experience at sailing his new yacht and Mr Drummond is accompanying him to study the language and whatnot…’
Charlotte laughed, for the first time in forever it felt like. ‘Did anybody believe them at all?’
‘Apparently so… He misses you desperately.’
Charlotte’s laugh faded quickly. ‘Oh, dear Edward… I miss him, too. Terribly.’
‘And… did you miss me?’ Emma asked daringly.
Charlotte held her head in shame, too overwhelmed by Emma’s piercing green eyes to answer right away. She felt Emma’s gentle hand on her face and leaned into the touch, breathing in that sweet perfume on Emma’s wrist that she had so missed.
‘What happened?’ Emma asked. ‘Have you been here all this time?’
Charlotte have a mirthless laugh. ‘Hardly. I only made it here two months ago.’
Emma leaned very close, utterly unnerving the young woman. ‘Charlotte…’
Ah, but she was saved by the whistle of the kettle.
She jumped up and scurried away to the kitchen, returning with a fresh pot of tea, cups, milk, very practised at all of it. She enjoyed having something to do, it was certainly easier than fighting Emma’s spell, which she couldn’t do for long anyway. She had nearly given up on seeing Emma again.
‘Talk to me,’ Emma asked. ‘You owe me an explanation. We were worried sick.’
Charlotte wasn’t even teary, just exhausted in her melancholy. There were times she appreciated this time that she could be alone, but loneliness crept into that bliss already. And with Emma there, it felt more acute than ever.
‘I’m sorry. I truly am.’
‘Where did you go? That night.’
‘It’s a long and tedious story.’
‘I have all night.’
Charlotte tried to ignore any implications in that, and took a deep breath and a calming sip of her tea.
‘At any rate it is definitely not one for the ear of a lady.’
‘I might surprise you.’
Charlotte sighed. ‘Very well… I rode to Glasgow without stopping. I did exactly what I said I wouldn’t do and rode with full speed. But I was scared and somehow the horse was still going strong after two days riding in the snow and the cold. I didn’t know where I would go next until I arrived there. There was an early morning ship to Belfast, where a ship would be leaving for Boston that day. I was determined to catch it.’
Emma gasped just listening to it.
‘But they would not allow the horse on board,’ Charlotte continued. ‘I wondered if I could sell it before the ship left. They offered a ridiculous price for such a fine steed, so instead I sold a necklace and a pair of earrings. Thank you for packing them… I stayed in a public house for a night.’
‘A… a real one?’
‘What else? We have family and acquaintances all over Scotland, I had to stay out of sight. But I absolutely had to stay somewhere, even if it meant being stationary for a while, I was nearly frozen to death by then. Again, thank you for packing my boots.’
Charlotte took a sip of her warm tea, shuddering at the mere memory. How lost and afraid she felt!
‘In the morning, ironically, I headed to Gretna Green. There, I could board a ship with the horse to Dublin, where I stayed for a month, living on the money I got for my jewels. But then the new landlord didn’t like that I was English, and when I argued that I was Scottish, he didn’t believe me. It dawned on me that I had to find work…’
‘…but couldn’t find anything without a reference. I had never worked in my life, of course… Needless to say the sobs of all the lady’s maids and housemaids I had ever complained about haunted me.’
Charlotte swallowed guiltily.
‘I went to Liverpool, got mistaken for a prostitute on the docks – forgive me – thus fled into the city in a fright, met a young woman…’
Emma’s face said all she thought.
‘…Not like that, she was a child, barely sixteen! She was having tea in town with her mother. I overheard their conversation and they ended up hiring me as a governess to teach the girl French. I went with them to Halifax, which was an odd little place – I met a woman at the book shop who pointed at me and said she saw a ghost! I didn’t know what to make of it but I didn’t care – I do miss my books. It seemed like I was going to be fine for a while at least but I was at the family’s house but for a week because my second cousin showed up to visit! Apparently he is courting the girl that happened to be my student! He would have certainly recognised me so again, I had to flee.’
Charlotte poured Emma more tea. ‘There’s more.’
‘Well, yes. But I can stop here if you’d like.’
‘No, whatever did you do next!?’
‘Well, I packed my suitcase, left through the mews, jumped on my horse, and practically begged a fisherman to take me to Anglesey without hesitation, as Lord Alfred advised me in the first place. I knocked on the servants’ entrance. Thankfully, a kitchen maid answered the door, who didn’t recognise me. She told me Lord and Lady Anglesey were not there. Seeing as I was in quite a state by that time, they housed me for the night and they were kind enough to level the horse’s hooves without any charges, too. I was tempted to reveal who I was but… I was still too scared to trust them. I knew I couldn’t stay there because of the maids and footmen who knew my face, so I left. I tried to find shelter at the cottages but they were locked. And so I had to try at the ladies here in Llangollen. Truthfully, Emma, they saved my life, I think.’
Emma was horrified by virtually every aspect of this.
‘They gave me a room, like they did that night I got lost, and when I got my strength back I thanked them by helping around the house. Gardening, shopping, mending, anything that I could learn to do. I had nothing left, nothing but the money Alfred gave me, of which I refuse to spend any. I had sold my evening gown, I had sold all of my jewellery, except for the brooch and…’
And the sapphire ring that she was wearing even at this moment.
‘They took you in? The ladies?’
‘You forget. I had broken them in before.’
‘Still…’ Emma really did not take to the Ladies of Llangollen.
‘Well… at any rate, I didn’t mean to be a burden on the ladies, so I began teaching children to read and write in the village, for what it’s worth,’ Charlotte exhaled heavily. ‘Honestly, that of all things has been the most challenging task I had to do since leaving Society, I say! I truly understand and respect you now, I’ve no idea how you have managed to deal with your children, I find them intolerable! Well, perhaps a bit less so, the ones that actually pay attention and do as told! I was useless at teaching a classroom, I did not want to start smacking them, I knew the problem lay with me… but I am still tutoring the inn owners’ little girl at art in exchange for a hot meal whenever I want one. Most days I supper with the ladies at the big house anyway. And the school let me keep this teacher’s lodging. It was a pile of rubbish when I moved in, nobody wanted it anyway. But I think I cleaned it up nicely, have I not?’
Emma was frozen in her seat from shock.
‘It’s not so bad…’ Charlotte defended herself feebly. ‘I am not “Miss Dawson”, by the way. I am Miss Ponsonby’s great-niece. I have to speak in an Irish accent when I am among the locals,’ she explained, laughing at the ridiculous situation.
Emma put down her cup of tea.
‘You’ve gone awfully silent. Do you find me very monstrous now?’ Charlotte asked. ‘I can walk you to the inn or the house, you don’t have to stay with me---’
Charlotte fell silent as Emma lunged at her, hugging her so tightly Charlotte hadn’t expected she had the strength for.
Emma was the one crying, not Charlotte, who now had to soothe her in return for all those times before when she got that from Emma. But she didn’t know how else to do so than finding Emma’s lips and kissing her, gently at first but giving into easy passion until they kissed as if no time had passed at all.
So why was Charlotte in the morning afraid to hold Emma properly, to wake her with more kisses, to show her the passion she had missed out on thus far? Any other time, with anyone else, she would have long given her friend whatever they desired of her in the heat of the moment and would have taken what she could get. She was used to lapping up puddles between long stretches of deserts and sucking up her feelings. She managed it more easily with some than others but she had to do it eventually.
But for some reason, last night was different. Lady Portman had really been exhausted from traveling by carriage for so long, so Charlotte warmed some water for her and showed her upstairs where she could wash off the dust of the road and change into her night clothes before they went to bed to rest. Just to rest. And that was Charlotte’s decision, as Emma’s kisses even in the darkness of the bedroom were asking for more. But she was fine with it and didn’t insist as everyone else did.
Eventually, they fell asleep. And now Charlotte wondered when Emma wished to be woken up. Surely, her servants would be waiting for her, that is if they weren’t about to knock on the door any second.
‘Emma… Emma…’ Charlotte whispered sweetly, kissing the baroness’s hair.
Why did she have to smell so sweetly? Her heart was breaking and all Emma did was sleep in her bed. She was so fine, clad in nothing but a lace collared, silk nightgown, long dark lashes resting on her striking cheeks. Her dark hair was lusciously resting on her shoulders and the pillow. She even seemed younger in her peaceful rest. Certainly younger in her soul than Charlotte felt, with her tired, disillusioned outlook on her fate. She began to understand why she was more distant than desires would have dictated: she felt she would spoil Emma, who was so fine and glamorous and elegant even in this shabby cottage in her sleep. And now Charlotte was going to have to disturb her.
‘Emma, it’s very late. It wouldn’t do to let your maid find you here.’
Emma stirred, blinking her green eyes open on Charlotte’s face so young but so troubled.
‘Good morning… When must you leave, Emma?’
‘Not just yet.’
‘You won’t make it far by nightfall if you leave too late…’
‘Who’s talking about nightfall?’ Emma asked, reaching out to touch Charlotte’s cheek, running her thumb along the curves of her lips. Always so harsh and fighting the world, Charlotte was as soft as the heavenly white sheets hugging them.
‘My husband is not here.’
‘But he is expecting you to return to him at some point, is he not?’
Emma sighed. ‘Not yet.’
‘Shhh,’ Emma silenced Charlotte, getting up to kiss her. She couldn’t get enough of the girl’s sweet kisses now that she had a taste again.
Charlotte pulled away with difficulty. ‘I don’t want to be raided by a search party. I would have to run again. I have only just got comfortable here. It’s not forever but I don’t have the resources to go on yet.’
‘Charlotte… you really want to make a life here?’
Charlotte did not miss the tone – it wasn’t unkind but it was not devoid of a sense of being underwhelmed and doubtful.
‘You could come back…’
‘There are other ways. I mean… it’s not… horrible, but… what’s that sound?’
‘The neighbour has chickens, so what?’
Emma made a face.
Then… burst into laughter.
She was not entirely convinced but it really was so ridiculous and she was rather sweet all the same so Charlotte found she could laugh along, too… eventually. Once that subsided, Emma caught a glimpse of fear still lurking in Charlotte’s brown eyes, so like her brother so often anxious to please or just plain anxious.
‘I promise I won’t bring trouble on you,’ Emma said seriously.
‘I think you already have.’
Emma smiled. Charlotte was obviously smitten.
‘I shall send a note to my maid and groom to return to Gloucester until next Friday.’
‘Y-you’d like to stay here without a maid until next Friday?’
‘Yes. You have been doing perfectly well here. Why couldn’t I? You’ll have to do something about that spider web above the bathtub, though.’
Charlotte groaned. ‘But the ceiling is so high there… must I?’
‘Yes, you absolutely must! And yes, I will stay. Unless… unless you don’t want me.’
‘Emma…’ Charlotte didn’t know how to express it other than in kisses how happy she was. Emma was offering nearly two weeks together. She would have to go back eventually, of course, but this was an unimaginable luxury.
Though Charlotte had a mountain of reservations about all this, a few pebbles of that weight were lifted by the knowledge that she had Emma this time, and the heady awareness that such forbidden fruit was in arm’s reach, closer than that, in her arms between shared sheets.
Maybe she could say to hell with the past, to hell with the way things turned out, maybe just for now they could make the most of their time together while it lasted.
In London, the Duke of Fife pulled on his traveling gloves with no clear plan but all the determination he had. He was glad of this season, his sister wasn't there to keep him from doing anything he liked, too busy being married.
Well, he had his mind on marriage too, only the bride seemed to be rather elusive thus far.
Where to begin, to find her?
East or west... East or west... East or west...?