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A Close Call

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Hoping his night was interrupted for good reason, a most dishevelled William Peel yawned wide, remembered to tie his dressing gown for decency just in the last second, and opened the front door of the chateau on…

‘Alfred!?’

He immediately glanced behind his once lover’s shoulder expecting to see his ever faithful and ever serious beau. But he was nowhere to be found.

‘Where’s Drummond?’

‘He doesn’t know I’m here,’ Alfred admitted, biting his lip guiltily. ‘Could I… could I come in?’

‘Uhh…’

‘Please.’

‘But… Alfred… I mean…’

‘William, I know we’ve a lot of water under the bridge between the two of us. But… I need you.’

William’s mind went reeling with all sorts of possibilities that that could mean.

But evidently Alfred seemed keen. Very keen.

In the end, albeit hesitantly, William stepped aside to let him in.

 

 

It was pouring down like mad when the carriage pulled to an abrupt halt in a village positively swimming in mud.

Lady Portman and her maid had barely enough time in the pub they ran into for cover to freshen up and for a bit of hot soup when Miss Drummond was already nagging them to go back in the carriage soon.

‘Do have some food first.’

‘I can’t, there’s no time.’

Emma tutted. ‘Where are you even taking us?’

‘To safety.’

‘Where?’

Charlotte glared pointedly at the barman and villagers dining in their earshot.

‘We are nearly there now, I promise. If he doesn’t catch up with us, which could be any minute, so…’ she said, wanting to grab Emma’s arm and get back on the road at last.

‘Charlotte, it is infernal out there!’ Emma hissed at her trying to be discreet but not quite appreciating being dragged across the countryside with mad haste like this.

‘But he won’t be far behind,’ Charlotte said and heartily sneezed. Her soaked through hat sprayed water on the dusty floorboards of the pub.

‘Look at us! And look at you! You’ll catch your death if we go on! Even if we haven’t shaken him off, he won’t see better in this ghastly weather than we do, what we’re doing is futile, we should take rooms for the night—’

But Charlotte wasn’t listening as she spotted something in the distance of the hills through the pub’s dirty windows.

Damn it, she had almost given into staying here for the night. She was exhausted beyond words.

‘Turner!’

‘I’m here, your- ma’am.’

‘Go outside, get back in,’ she said in a hollow voice. ‘And you, Emma. We have to go.’

‘Charlotte, you’re not seeing reason—’

‘No, I’m seeing more than enough reason,’ she said, pointing to a carriage approaching the village downhill. Even through the thick rainfall, she could recognise it from its green panelled sides and pure white horses. How many times she passed it while sneaking into the Fife house to see Agnes! Not sparing one thought to her brother, not when she was there. ‘That’s him. The Duke.’

Charlotte was on the verge of tears and collapsing on the spot. Instead she grabbed the handle and opened the door of the pub. But not without faltering…

‘Lady Portman, you… can stay if you want. I’ll go on on horseback, I’m sure you can find a driver in my absence…’ she offered, shaking from the wet cold or emotions she could not give into, she didn’t know.

Emma had such a strange look in her vivid green eyes.

‘No, let’s go on,’ she said at last. ‘Turner?’

The maid jumped and followed the ladies outside. And on they went.

 

 

An hour ago, Edward had felt like he was a bit lost.

Now, he was sure he was.

And he hardly seemed to mind.

He hopped off the horse he hired, his feet touching soft sands.

He took his shoes off and loosened his shirt. He had been out riding in the sun for hours and hours. In fact, the it was quite low on the horizon, beginning to paint the skies over the ocean all sorts of colours.

He felt the urge to turn to Alfred to show him, tell him to look before he missed it.

But Alfred wasn’t there, of course. He had come out here quite alone.

Was Alfred missing him?

He clenched the harness harder as he considered the heartbreaking possibility that Alfred was not. That all this time he missed another man. Not when he was probably with Captain Peel, doing God knows what behind his back. Who knows, maybe it’s no coincidence that they should have met on the same random isle off the French coast. Maybe Alfred and Peel wrote to each other and planned this…

Because he knew for certain that Alfred had gone to see him last night.

Edward could not assume such awful things of his love, not for one second. But he did step outside into the garden to follow Alfred, saw him, saw him with his own eyes knock on William’s door and go in after a very brief conversation, in the middle of the night!

Edward tried and tried to explain it away, surely Alfred had his reasons but… it was plain and simple, wasn’t it? He had had immensely naïve moments in the past but even he who never assumed the worst would have berated himself if he had been naïve enough to think Alfred had merely sought William out at night for a bit of tea and a chat.

He wiped salty tears off with his billowing shirt sleeve.

How could he go on now? How? He had built so much on Alfred, he had shared too much with him… how could one go on after such closeness with someone? He really felt Alfred was his soulmate, his other half, the mirror of his soul and he Alfred’s.

But it seemed Alfred was no longer as devoted as that…

The horse fidgeted.

‘Bored of me too?’ Edward asked it wetly.

But the horse was not bored – it sensed the appearance of company sooner than Edward. Someone was riding towards them down the sandy beach.

Edward waited for him to arrive and get off his horse.

‘Remembered I exist?’ he heard himself ask him.

Alfred was so affronted but what was greater was his worry, his eyes wide and blue and earnest.

‘Edward, my love, where were you? I’ve been searching the island for you all day!’

‘I left a note.’

‘It only said you went out riding.’

‘Still more verbose than you.’

Alfred frowned. ‘Edward? I kept thinking you broke your neck somewhere out there, my dearest,’ he tried and stepped closer but Edward evaded his touch. ‘Edward?’

‘You could have just told me you were unhappy.’

‘Me? Unhappy? When… what?’

‘Surely, I have failed to make you as happy as I thought we were, which we are obviously not. Otherwise you wouldn’t have gone to… him.’

It started to dawn on Alfred what was going on in Edward’s head.

‘I didn’t—’

‘I saw you, Alfred. You sneaked out from our bed in the middle of the night and went to him. I saw you walk into his house, do not insult either of us by denying it.’

Alfred’s heart was pounding like mad. He knew whatever he said next would have to be strong enough to better the situation before his dear Edward spiralled into the worst imaginable thoughts.

‘I did go and see him, yes,’ he admitted clearly and honestly.

Edward laughed mirthlessly but he couldn’t stifle a sob.

‘Why… why would you do that, Alfred?’ he asked so desperately Alfred’s heart truly broke for it.

His vision clouded by tears, Edward couldn’t step away this time and Alfred touched him gently and soothingly, one hand over Edward’s heart and the other caressing the curls falling on the back of his neck just as he did when they first kissed.

‘I did it for you, my love. My only love,’ Alfred said calmly and rested his forehead against Edward’s. He fought a bit but craved Alfred’s touch and for everything to be like it had been until a day before too much, so he let him. ‘Shh, Edward, I merely asked him to do us a favour, my love…’

‘Your only love?’

‘Yes,’ Alfred said seriously. ‘Yes, Edward, of course, yes. How could you imagine otherwise?’

‘Well, you—’

‘I know what I did and I know how it might have seemed to you. I apologise for that. Profusely, my love – Good Lord, have you been out all day thinking I had… with William?’

Edward’s face said all.

Alfred had to shake him and kiss him, and kiss him some more.

‘Were you not listening to me at all last night?’ Alfred asked him, grabbing and holding their matching lockets together. ‘About these? And what they mean?’

Alfred stood up straight and looked right at Edward, into those warm brown eyes that felt more like home by now than any place else.

‘Edward, my love. You were right to say what you said last night. You’re right… perhaps it has all been a tad unorthodox. I do not know what we are meant to do or how or when any more than you. But I do not believe it is any less natural than the lives of those who marry. Marry for love. True, we might have done things backwards… we had our wedding night before our honeymoon, our honeymoon before our wedding…’

‘Wedding?’

Alfred gasped and bit his lip – had he given it away?

‘…but it would make me the happiest of men if you allowed me to do something. It might not be good enough, as it will not be binding legally, but… in our hearts and in the eyes of God, we can.’

‘We can what, Alfred?’

‘Be married.’

Edward’s heart skipped a beat despite his puzzlement.

‘H-How?’ he ventured to ask.

Alfred smiled, heart racing ever faster.

‘That’s why I sought out William,’ he explained. ‘Not at all for what you thought. Quite the opposite. No, I… Put your boots on and come with me…’

Alfred kissed Edward’s hand quickly before jumping on his horse and egging Edward on to follow him, laughing freely again as they rode, wind in their hair, racing each other playfully here and there, until they reached the boardwalk, where they left their horses and continued on foot in the moonlit evening darkness now.

‘Where are you taking me?’ Edward asked. ‘To the yacht?’

‘No, just here,’ Alfred replied and stopped on the pier. ‘I needed William for this because he is a captain, is he not? I asked him if he could wed us.’

Edward frowned. Surely that was impossible…

But… he followed Alfred’s glance up and saw only now that William was waiting for them aboard his own ship, a Bible in one hand and a cheroot in the other. Behind him, there were candles glistening everywhere, and an arch of ropes decorated with flowers.

‘Alfred?’

‘We don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. We cannot go to a priest, but there will be a midnight mass where we can take communion together if you’d like. And we can swear oaths on the Bible and that can be as enough as we want. It will be just as binding between us, and God. You need never to feel guilty or in the wrong on that front. We might not be lawful spouses on land but we will be honest-to-God married on the seas and we can have some form of blessing on our love this way. We can do it all, properly, too. We shall swear to love and to cherish each other, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, to remain forever faithful, and to do so till death do us part. We shall take it as seriously as if we were doing this in Westminster, or in front of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.’

‘Alfred…’ Edward uttered, feeling tears pooling his eyes again, but happy ones this time. His heart was racing so, and singing with joy. ‘Alfred, my love…’

‘Shall we?’ Alfred asked leaning into Edward’s touch – because he was clinging to him for support, for strength just as much as Alfred was to Edward.

‘I should have worn something better,’ he said, not sure why but Alfred just giggled sweetly.

‘You are perfect the way you are. So? Would you… would you marry me now?’

Edward took in Alfred’s beautiful, sincere sight despite the darkness, and broke out in a bright smile despite his tears.

‘Yes. Yes, Alfred, let’s do this.’

Never had Alfred been so relieved – so relieved he teared up easily as well.

‘Yes?’

Yes.’

‘HEY!’ William interrupted from above, cigar in hand and hair actually combed for once. ‘NO KISSING UNTIL I SAY YOU MAY! That’s the BEST PART! And HURRY UP, I don’t have all night!’

Alfred and Edward allowed themselves a little giggle, wiped their eyes, and nearly ran up to the ship’s deck, hand in hand.

 

 

Charlotte was seeing stars from the endless journey, too tired to cry when she saw the bridge at last. Her hands were like stone, beyond shaking, beyond pain.

And as if by some miracle, candlelight could be seen from the sitting room and she thought she saw them through the window... try the front door, then…

‘By God! What on earth is this ghastly banging at this hour!? Wilcox, do see what’s all this about!’

The butler set down the tray of brandy and hurried to the entrance hall as instructed before the visitor punched a hole in the front door!

‘…Lord Anglesey?’ Wilcox called, hurrying back in a minute as white as if he had seen a ghost. ‘My lord, my lady, forgive me but you’d better come.’

Henry and Charlotte Paget were no strangers to surprises but it had been a long time ago since they were expected to be roused from their hard-earned, quiet, after-dinner brandy à deux in their country home because of an unexpected guest. Which child of theirs was making trouble this time--?

‘Henry! It’s Lady Portman and – oh!’ Lady Anglesey exclaimed, hurrying down the entrance hall once she saw who had come. ‘Is that…?’

‘Lady Anglesey, Lord Anglesey,’ Miss Drummond said at once, still fighting for breath. ‘Forgive us… Em—Lady Portman needs rest. And her maid, please. And my dog and the horses, and the bags must be taken into the house, uh, Wool-’

‘Wilcox, Miss,’ the butler said.

‘Yes. Please. Now. We’ve had rather a strenuous journey.’

‘I say you must have!’ Lord Anglesey remarked heartily.

He had seen some things in his time but he could not make any sense of the lost Miss Drummond showing up on his doorstep in Wales at midnight, nearly unrecognisable, wet and muddy from head to toe, not to mention that she should show up with Lady Portman on her own, looking not quite as dishevelled but obviously having seen better days!

As the baroness and her maid were ushered upstairs already, Lady Anglesey stepped over to support Miss Drummond.

‘Come, my dear.’

‘I can’t, I must go on.’

‘Whyever would you say such nonsense? You look as if you’re about to faint!’

‘I don’t faint, and I must go on, otherwise I’d bring such trouble on you.’

‘But what is it, what is the meaning of all this, Miss Drummond?’ Henry asked, perplexed to the core.

‘Lady Portman will fill you in. I’m afraid I must hurry.’

‘But Miss Drummond?!’

‘Henry, can’t you see she has not the strength? Let us talk later. Come.’

‘No!’ Miss Drummond insisted, even as Alfred’s mother was ushering her upstairs without objection tolerated.

It was the better part of an hour once they finally gathered in the bedroom allocated to a now bathed, warm, and resting Lady Portman.

Not that Charlotte wasn’t glad of her own hot bath and dry clothes, but time was not on her side, as she kept telling everyone to no avail. As she paced by Emma’s bedside, she cursed the rain and the mud for the trail the carriage left was probably quite clear on the path. But there was nothing they could do about that now.

‘You should go and rest, too, Turner,’ Charlotte told the maid who was tending to the baroness as if nothing had happened and they hadn’t been on the road without stopping for more than minutes at a time for three whole days.

‘I can manage, Miss. I was just a passenger, after all,’ Turner said, immediately wanting to slap herself under the baroness’s sharp glare. ‘I mean, it was a long journey, my lady, but I’ve been in worse situations. I’m made of sterner stuff is what my father says,’ she remedied her blabbing, handing Lady Portman her cup of tea.

‘May we come in now?’ Lady Anglesey asked from the doorway. She and her husband were most generous to want to check on the ladies despite the late hour and their shockingly worn out appearances… but they were fine when asked.

They were. Really.

Couldn’t complain.

Everything was satisfactory.

Yes…

‘What the ruddy hell is going on, then!?’ Henry burst out. ‘I mean… Lady Portman!? Care to explain just what I am supposed to make of your showing up like this? Not running from Palmerston or some such cad you cast aside again--?’

‘It’s not her doing, Lord Anglesey,’ Miss Drummond was quick to say. ‘It’s all because of me.’

‘Well, then you explain it, Miss Drummond!’

‘Henry!’ Lady Anglesey scolded him. She stepped over to Charlotte and fixed her hair and collar unnecessarily – she couldn’t help it as a mother of many.

‘I’m sorry, really, I am! But… this is most bizarre! What happened? I mean, for starters, where have you been, Miss Drummond? Your brother was most distraught about your disappearance, my son said so, of course they always—‘

‘He knew I was going away, he was there when I left.’

‘And Alfred—’

‘He told me to hide in the first place…’

‘But Alfred also says he had proposed to you and thus I confess I am still puzzled by every piece of this story! Seems to me I should be in the know about these things, about what my own son is getting himself into! And what’s this trouble you find yourself in? I cannot act to help you unless I am aware of the facts! Well?’

Miss Drummond was lost for words as everything in the past year flooded her head. Agnes, and her marriage, and moving to Edward’s house, and Lord Alfred, and then her mother pushing that engagement and Tommy with his obsession, and Emma, God, Emma was sipping hot tea in her bed not helping at all, exhausted because of her, and she could barely think she had been driving that carriage for so long, and for what? If she was stuck here in the marchioness’s night clothes stretching her legs by the fire as if there wasn’t a madman in her wake about to barge in and…

‘Where to begin?’ she asked herself rather than others as she slumped in an armchair, defeated.

‘Wherever you please, my dove,’ Lady Anglesey said kindly, bringing her a blanket.

She shushed Henry a few more times. But in the end, Miss Drummond gave in and told them everything.

Well, nearly everything. She left out small details such as the true nature of her affair with Agnes and her brother being Lord Alfred Paget’s lover or that Lady Portman hadn’t found her in Wales by chance while on an excursion at all.

She left out the parts that were key to everything else, without which a lot of their actions seemed mad.

The parts that made it worth it.

That they made love every day in that peaceful little cottage yet Emma could barely look at her at the moment she was so inconsolable.

Lord Anglesey’s bewilderment easily subsided, though. If to anything, he could relate to an adventurous tale.

Even with obvious gaps. But he wondered whether she knew…

‘Ye-es, Alfred did mention you had an understanding but that Mr and Mrs Drummond were not keen.’

‘Not keen? That’s one way to say it,’ Charlotte remarked bitterly.

‘And were you? Keen?’

The girl looked up at Lord Anglesey, put on the spot.

‘Because Alfred said you were rather reluctant.’

‘I don’t want to—’

‘Offend me? You won’t.’

‘No, I meant to say I don’t want to marry, as a matter of fact.’

‘Why not?’

‘Lord Anglesey…’

‘Because I would have thought my son would share your reluctance.’

‘I… I… I… It’s complicated,’ she said in the end very cryptically.

Henry saw right through her – she must have known everything about it all.

‘Turner,’ he spoke, ‘you have done enough. You must rest.’

Abigail gave a brief little curtsey and left the room as instructed.

Perhaps the absence of servants might allow for more of Miss Drummond’s honesty. He pulled up a chair for himself – his leg was killing him as much as his curiosity.

‘The question is not whether you were keen, but whether he was, if I am correct. And he wasn’t. He is not. And never will be.’

Charlotte cursed internally in every way she could.

‘It was his idea.’ Well, she wasn’t lying.

‘Your brother, was he against it?’

Caught out and too exhausted to find her wit, that’s what Charlotte was.

‘Edward didn’t say much about it, and it hardly matters as whether I am engaged or not, the Duke is on his way and---’

‘I will help you if you help me.’

Charlotte was struck with nerves. She knew where this was going. ‘It’s not my place to say,’ she said.

‘But you can. You know, don’t you?’

‘Henry…’ Lady Anglesey warned.

‘Emma?’ Charlotte pleaded for help. But those piercing green eyes were so cold for her.

‘It is your choice,’ Lady Portman said simply. Not spitefully, but not very helpfully either.

Perhaps she was wrong to imagine anything better in the first place? She wondered now. Their brief weeks were tempestuous, certainly, but she attributed that to passion. And there was more, only a few days ago, they were reading by the fire and was it not Emma who snuggled into Charlotte’s arms? Was it not Emma that demanded all her time? Was it not her that came all the way for Charlotte?

How much did she really know her after all?

‘Well?’ Lord Anglesey demanded – strange, though, the softer, more fatherly his voice was, the more Charlotte felt compelled to talk.

She sent a prayer for Alfred, wherever he was.

‘You stand here,’ he told Edward once they were aboard the ship and under the flowery arch. The stars were their canopy and the seas were their temple. So be it. This was the moment he really became Edward’s and Edward his, in a way he hadn’t been till now.

‘So, are we all ready?’ William asked, highly amused at the whole thing but determined to do this as asked. Aharon nodded from the side – he was to be the witness. And Will, if his father saw him now! He was being a proper priest here--

‘Ah, one moment,’ Edward said and reached over to William’s mouth to take out his cheroot and put it out. ‘Now we are. Go on, Captain.’

‘Well,’ William said with a flair, ‘Alright, Alfred, I do see what you see in him now!’

‘Shush, and do it at last,’ Alfred retorted, though he was all smiles, just like Edward.

‘Fine. Ahehehem. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here…’

Charlotte searched for the right words.

‘I don’t want a husband, just as Lord Alfred does not want to take a wife. Therefore we thought we would marry, to live as friends. Should the time come when we would need protection.’

Henry knew this but he didn’t know until now. Must be getting soft in his old age, he nearly had to sniff back tears.

‘Such as tonight?’

Charlotte nodded, already horrified at what she had done.

‘And Drummond? Your brother? Is he also…’

And another prayer went out for her brother, too. ‘H-he…’

‘With this ring, I thee wed,’ Edward said, slipping a golden ring on Alfred’s finger.

They had just about got through their vows – William only telling them off for weeping a couple of times, and that’s saying something! It was soon complete.

‘With this ring, I thee wed,’ Alfred repeated in turn, slipping a ring on Edward’s finger, too.

‘I now pronounce you husband and husband, gentlemen,’ William declared, pocketing the Bible. ‘And now for my favourite part: you may kiss each other, chaps. Make it a good one.’

Charlotte licked her lips, dry from nerves. ‘He… they… yes.’

Henry was unreadable as he sat there, listening.

‘Henry?’ Lady Anglesey asked him gently, a soothing hand on his shoulder.

He simply nodded at her as if in confirmation. They had evidently discussed it before. Well, if they had any doubt left, Charlotte gave them their answer.

‘Why?’ she asked. Should Edward ever ask why she blabbed about their most cherished secret to his lover’s own father, she should know what to answer him.

‘Do not worry, my dear girl, you did nothing wrong. I already overheard them talking in the bathroom at Alfred’s birthday party last month. They must… love each other very much.’

Charlotte’s heart was beating wildly. ‘Yes, they do,’ she said defiantly.

She waited for Lord Anglesey’s reaction – whether she would now be thrown out of the manor, preparing to defend her brother if---

‘Thank you. That’s all a father needs to hear,’ he said simply. With the ghost of a smile?

‘Well, it’s hardly a surprise,’ Lady Anglesey said confidentially to her husband, patting his shoulder familiarly. ‘And it’s not as if we are short on grandchildren.’

Lord Anglesey gave a laugh.

But it didn’t drown out Charlotte’s sobs.

She didn’t like to fall apart as such but she was relieved.

She didn’t destroy Edward’s and Alfred’s lives just now… She instinctively stole a glance from Emma, surely she would share her happiness… but Emma’s cold, green eyes bore into her so mercilessly over Henry’s shoulder, she wanted to kneel by her bed and plead for forgiveness right now, right now.

‘Emma…’

‘Don’t.’

That was all the baroness replied. And Charlotte knew she wouldn’t get the same relief as she had won for Alfred.

She could tell them about her brother’s romance but not her own. Because of course some people still had their husbands and reputations to keep up. So once again, she had to pretend there was nothing splitting her heart in two, that it was nothing, that it didn’t matter, that she felt nothing – and she could not do so anymore, so she wept.

‘Do not be afraid, little dove,’ Lady Anglesey said to her as she sat with her, so motherly and so kind. ‘We will not let His Grace in.’

‘Where’s my gun?’ Charlotte asked ridiculously through sobs.

Maybe she was going crazy, she would end up at the hospital just like that M’Naughten who nearly killed her brother! Well, if it came to shooting Tommy, she might do it and use the same law to avoid the noose. Though as the way things were going, she might have welcomed an end to it all.

‘There, there, Miss Drummond. You are overtired. You should go to bed, you are safe here.’

‘I’m not. Neither are you, if you’re hiding me.’

‘Housing not hiding.’

‘I have to go. Please, let me go now. I’ve told you everything.’

‘Everything?’ Henry asked.

Charlotte glanced at Emma who was pointedly ignoring her.

‘Everything,’ she lied.

‘See, Henry, we are satisfied, now let them sleep.’

But Henry didn’t stand.

‘No, alas, I think Miss Drummond is right, my dear,’ he said with a heavy heart. ‘I knew Fife, the older. He was… odd, too. Hot and cold. He could be scary when he wanted to. If what you say is true… I think you should find a place he doesn’t expect indeed, for the time being.’

‘You want to send her on the run, Henry?’ Lady Anglesey asked, bewildered. ‘In this state?!’

‘Well, if that’s what it takes…’

‘No, Henry, no.’

‘Charlotte, my dear—’

‘No,’ Lady Anglesey said firmly. ‘Miss Drummond, I think you should stay here, under our protection. Surely we can do more for you than a gun.’

‘I agree with Henry,’ Lady Portman cut in suddenly, from her throne in the gilded bed. ‘Do it, Miss Drummond. Run on.’

She was measured but her voice carried authority all the more for it.

‘What?’ Charlotte asked her, feeling disarmed by her completely.

‘Better yet, go to France. Marry Alfred. Be done with it. You need a husband. We all do. Isn’t that right, Lady Anglesey?’

The marchioness wouldn’t have said so, not by the looks of the girl. She thought these two were friends but evidently, she was missing something yet.

‘Well, it’s not such an unreasonable idea,’ Henry mused. ‘You make an odd couple, I say, but…’

‘We are NOT a couple.’

‘Not in that sense, of course, but…’

‘There’ll be no dowry if that’s what you’re thinking, not if it’s all done behind my father’s back, no contracts signed, nothing. And the Duke, he’ll target Alfred, he won’t be safe. Quite the opposite.’

‘Huh! He can defend himself, I daresay. He is a Paget after all! And so should you be, if I judge your character correctly. You’d fit right into the family.’

‘Well, he’s in France anyway, isn’t he, and Tommy’s on the doorstep here, so I think what we ought to consider rather is--’

‘Then don’t. But go to France anyway,’ Emma cut in.

Charlotte tried to read her but she had a hard enough time standing on her two feet without weeping like a child because of Emma. It was as if she was trying to hurt her.

‘Even if you think you can run forever, you should go there. If you leave now, you can avoid His Grace and we shall misdirect him.’

You shall?’ Charlotte asked, scratching at her nails so hard they were bleeding. ‘You mean you will not come?’

‘Miss Drummond—’

‘Do not “Miss Drummond” me, Emma – you do not intend to come with me, do you?’

‘How could I? You have quite exhausted me as it is!’

‘You mean with the journey or else?’

Emma’s glare was meant to warn her not to go further in front of Lord and Lady Anglesey, she knew. She scrambled for a rope to hang onto – the clock was turning the hour so very soon, the rain was still pounding against the windows, and the colder Emma was the more stifling the air in the room felt.

‘Fine, I’ll go to France. But come with me,’ she pleaded.

‘I cannot,’ Emma replied firmly.

‘Come with me,’ she pleaded again, losing sense.

‘No.’

‘Emma, if you do not come with me that means---’

‘See reason, for God’s sake, I do not have the strength!’

‘That wouldn’t matter, if you’d—’

‘Stop it, Charlotte.’

‘But—’

‘Stop. Now.’

‘Emma…’

‘No wonder Agnes—’

‘Miss Drummond,’ Lady Anglesey tried but she didn’t get that motherly words wouldn’t do here, no, what would is screaming, screaming like the madwoman she was – that was exactly what Charlotte did, ran out to the balcony in the rain and screamed into the night in anger, at the world, at everyone in it that had a hand in this, at her own stupidity, what a gullible fool she was, stupid, stupid---

Lady Anglesey came up to her once she had calmed down.

Her own mother never held her like that and let her cry as she was now, or soothed her as her namesake the marchioness was as if it was the most natural thing in the world, even through fresh sobs as they could hear a carriage pull in on the gravel somewhere below and the bell rung and Lord Anglesey’s uneven footsteps as he left to take care of it as best as he could.

‘Please don’t think badly of my brother,’ she had to say, sensing the end of her stay.

‘Nonsense. I shall invite him and Alfred for luncheon first thing when we are back in London,’ Lady Anglesey said kindly. ‘But you, my dear… Lady Portman is wrong, you know. We do not all need husbands. We just need to find the right person to whom to give ourselves. That’s the trick of it. As simple as that. Or should I say difficult?’

Lady Anglesey winked conspiratorially at Charlotte, easing her up the slightest bit.

‘I really need to go on.’

‘So you do, my dove. But not forever. You must stop one day. You might run now because of someone else but make sure you stop of your own accord, on your own terms. I do not say this lightly. You understand, don’t you?’

‘Y-yes. A-Alfred talked about you when he p-proposed it all. He knows I couldn’t do what you did, I can’t…’

‘Be with a man? Yes, dear, that much is obvious.’

They could hear shouting in the hall even from that far in the grand house.

Charlotte knew it was no good.

‘I should go now,’ she said, desperately trying to dry her face and pull herself together. ‘Is there a way out?’

‘Is there? If there’s one thing I learned since being with Henry is that there is always a secret passage somewhere. Come, I’ll show you the way.’