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A Close Call

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‘There you go, Miss,’ Abigail said kindly as she put a tray of fresh tea on the table. ‘Anything else for now?’

‘No, thank you, Turner, you’ve been a godsend. Do take the day off, don’t mind me,’ Charlotte replied gratefully from her cushioned seat next to her brother. ‘I am in good hands now.’

The maid left and the Drummond siblings remained alone with Lord Alfred – all now cleaned up and (mostly) sand-free, and ready to tuck into breakfast in the garden in the shade of the ivy-covered chateau.

‘She really has been a godsend,’ Charlotte told the men confidentially. ‘Turns out, I am not a very good sailor. She held my hair for hours at a time when I found myself in an indelicate state at sea.’

‘But there is not much on your hair to hold anymore…’ Edward remarked.

‘Well, it was just more practical and, really, a fine disguise, I thought,’ she said with a shrug and picked the most delicious cakes from the selection on the table, cream, sugar, everything she had to go without while on the run. ‘Ooh, lemon tarts!’

Alfred stifled a laugh as he watched her tuck in as if she had been starving. Then, he caught Edward’s eyes and realised the idyll of the morning was a mere illusion.

He nodded to Edward in encouragement.

‘Say, Charlotte…’ Edward began.

‘Hm?’

‘What happened? Where have you been?’

Charlotte stopped in her tracks, swallowing a mouthful of cake as discreetly as she could. And postponing her reply yet more by washing it down with tea. And more tea.

‘Well…’

Half an hour later, Alfred had to pull up a chair closer to Edward to soothe him and his nerves as he digested just how much danger his sister had got herself into while he was happily scribbling away at the House and meeting up with Alfred and going on promenades like normal.

‘My dearest, do not fret,’ Alfred whispered sweetly into his ear while stroking his broad shoulders gently. ‘Your sister is here, safe and sound. Here, have some tea, it’ll make you feel brighter…’

Charlotte gasped as something glistened on Alfred’s ring finger as he reached for Edward’s cup.

‘What’s that?’ she asked, horrified.

‘What’s what?’ Alfred asked. ‘Oh! That!’

‘You’re not… married?!’ she whispered as if she had uttered a curse word.

‘Why, yes, I am!’ Alfred replied happily, confusing and horrifying her even more. ‘Well, that is, we are, Edward and I. Tied the knot! About time, really…’

‘What?! Wait, you can do that?’

‘No, we can’t but we did! Didn’t we, Edward?’

‘Yes, yes, we did!’ Edward replied, coming out of his shock. ‘Just last night, actually.’

‘But… how?’ she asked.

‘Well, with a little help from a friend…’

‘Good gracious, tie me up in seaweed and feed me to the sirens if that’s not Miss Drummond! Not you, too?’ came William Peel’s voice as he skipped up the stone steps to the breakfast table in the garden.

‘Put your chest away, Captain,’ Edward scolded him immediately.

But his sister needed no protection. She was not scandalised by William’s usual half-unclad appearance and cheroot hanging from his lips, but floored by his presence itself.

‘Peel? H-how? Did you know--?’

‘No, it was a horrible—I mean, fortunate coincidence that we should have moored on the same shores,’ Edward was quick to explain to Charlotte. ‘He has just… been around.’

‘Welcome to the island of misfits, Miss Drummond! I must admit I wasn’t sure if it was a man with your piercingly murderous eyes sitting here with Alfred and Drummond for a second but no, it is you! Here’s your shoe, Alfred,’ William added, placing Alfred’s lost-on-the-beach shoe wherever it landed by a shrub. ‘Now, confess, Miss Drummond, what is your crime?’

‘Leave her, she had a rough voyage,’ Alfred told him. ‘Tea?’

‘Thank you,’ Will said and invited himself to sit at the table as well.

‘But… but… but…’ Charlotte stuttered, utterly confused.

Alfred and Edward were married, somehow, God knew how, and William Peel just happened to be there, and he was currently tapping the top of an egg gently to crack it open while Lord Alfred was perfectly happy to pour him a cuppa, all without Edward lunging at Peel’s throat over all the muffins.

‘Care to catch me up as well?’ she demanded when she found her voice.

And by God they did, so much so she forgot about her lemon tart in favour of listening to the men’s news with her mouth open.

‘So… do I take it… that you, Captain… wed… my brother… and Lord Alfred… and it’s just… binding?’

‘Well, no, it’s not legally binding, but look at them,’ William said with a bit of an eye-roll. ‘Napoleon wouldn’t have torn these two bon-apart.’

William was the only one laughing.

‘What’s wrong, Miss Drummond?’ Alfred asked, picking up on something darkening her face. ‘You’re not about to tell me you disapprove, do you?’ he asked, half-afraid she might. She could be unpredictable.

‘No, I... I most certainly do not disapprove. I just… I wish I…’ she made the mistake of looking Alfred straight in the eye.

And he knew.

‘Did Lady Portman find y---’ he began but she stood from the table and stormed back inside in rage.

It was not directed at them, Edward and Alfred, she wouldn’t have wished them a second less of their obvious happiness, and how lucky they were to have help from the most unexpected people of all!

‘Shh, shh…’ Edward soothed her when he caught up with her and held her (or rather held her down) on the balcony overlooking the seaside, until she calmed down.

‘I’m sorry, Edward, I want you to be so happy… I just can’t… Why can’t I… it’s so unfair…’

‘I know, I know…’ he said kissing the top of her head.

‘Oh, you don’t, not really… you are so lucky…’

‘I am… but it is difficult.’

‘I know but… I envy your difficulties.’

Alfred joined them, and, to all their surprise, William, who was still buttering and eating a croissant.

Alfred shot him a murderous look to absolutely no avail before turning to Charlotte.

‘She wasn’t brave enough, was she?’ Alfred asked, slightly annoyed and feeling for the young woman.

One look said it all and he made a mental note to give Lady Portman a good talking to once he was back at the Palace.

‘I’m sorry, what’s all this about?’ William asked, oblivious to both the story and to the fact that he had a smudge of butter on his cheek.

‘I don’t believe Miss Drummond would like to reveal her private matters to—’

‘No, Miss Drummond is happy to,’ Charlotte said bitterly but not with the embarrassing vulgarity she resorted to the last time she met the captain. ‘Miss Drummond is utterly unlovable and is therefore cast aside like a used rag by everyone after they squeezed her dry. That’s all I’m good for, that or doing what everyone else does. Marry. They all do anyway, sooner or later. Women are never themselves – they are either married, like Emma, or about to be married, like Agnes was! And Violet, and Esther, and Miss W-- but enough about that. And so it happens again and again. A husband, with money, a house, a reputation, security, even a title perhaps? I cannot compete with that. Who would choose me? And who would choose this life? If they could have all the comforts of the highest society? Maybe this is truly the end of the road, maybe this is where I have to realise I have failed. Maybe I should… maybe I should marry Tommy after all. It would all be easier, wouldn’t it? Well, for everyone. Everyone but me. I’m the problem here, aren’t I? I am.’

Alfred paled at the ridiculous notion at once, wanting to shake some sense into her.

‘You are not the problem,’ he said seriously. ‘Few are as brave as you are…’

William swallowed a mouthful of his croissant somewhat guiltily at Alfred’s pointed glance.

‘…but some do come around sooner or later. You have to stay strong and you cannot give in. And you should certainly not marry Fife. You’d be miserable all your life!’

‘What then? I am tired. I am so tired.’ Charlotte leaned against the balustrade, exhausted just from accessing how many miles she had travelled for months and months.

This really was a real paradise but she had spent the last of her money on the journey here – the bag Alfred had given her for the road once – and aside from that, she did not see how she could go on.

‘Er… Miss Drummond…’ William, of all people, broke the silence. ‘So… Admittedly, we do not know each other very well… and correct me if I’m wrong but… you once told me you were not the marrying kind, much like myself… like these chaps, in a manner of speaking, but they’ve obviously gone insane so just ignore them…’

‘William!’ Alfred snapped at him.

‘ALL I’m trying to say is… you do not seem like London society agrees with you, if I may say so.’

‘You are not wrong there, Captain,’ she said, defeated.

‘Then why do you so wish to return there?’

‘Because I…’ she said but stopped to think. ‘I am not sure anymore. I don’t, as a matter of fact. Not anymore.’

‘But, Charlotte,’ Edward spoke up gently. ‘I miss you so.’

‘And so have I you, but…’

‘I have been worried sick – you can come back and we will make sure no harm—’

‘You cannot protect me from harm, Edward. But thank you. I know you mean it. I know you do.’

Edward wanted to argue, wanted to tell her how he would be able to prevent the Duke from eventually having his way – after all, their parents were all for it, and he was a powerful man. He feared he wouldn’t be able to guarantee her safety after all. He could not in the past, and look where that got her.

‘Miss Drummond, if you married me--’ Alfred said timidly.

‘Do not be ridiculous, Alfred. After all you are already married.’

‘I…’ Alfred asked for Edward’s help without words and he understood. ‘Well, not legally… we need only to sign a paper but if we do not go to a church or swear oaths on the Bible…’

‘You don’t mean that at all, Alfred,’ Charlotte shot him down at once. ‘You might be able to separate those things but in my eyes you and Edward are as married as two people can be. Thank you for still being relentlessly generous and selfless but I will not marry you.’

‘And what about me?’ William asked out of the blue.

For a second, Alfred, or the others, doubted they heard it right.

What – and I cannot stress this enough – the bloody hell did you just say, William?’ Alfred heard himself ask.

‘Why not? What’s wrong with me?’ William asked.

‘How much time do you have?’

‘Now, Alfred, no need to be rude.’

‘Not being rude, just honest!’

‘Alfred…’

‘No.’

‘Alfred?’

‘No!’ Edward repeated, completely bewildered by the very thought! He even stepped slightly between her and the captain without thinking.

‘But…’

‘No.’

‘But if—’

‘No!’

‘When—’

‘William, no!’

‘My father’s—’

‘N-‘

‘SHUT UP!’ Charlotte snapped to put an end to it all. ‘Let him speak! Well, Captain? Explain yourself.’ she demanded, not sure why.

‘Well,’ Will gathered his thoughts, finally buttoning up his shirt and wiping the butter off his face. ‘I know what it’s like to be on the run your whole life. It’s difficult, sometimes truly horrible, and of course wildly dangerous, you have to get used to a lot of close calls and quick getaways, and it is hard work and above all…’

And here William thought how best to phrase it…

‘… the most terrific fun.’

Charlotte’s eyes lit up with a spark that hadn’t been there for ages.

‘Go on,’ she instructed him cautiously.

‘I don’t want to return to London to settle down any more than you do. But I don’t feel like we are on the run - my companion and I, you’ll get to know him, he’s gorgeous and very good with—’

‘William!’ Alfred scolded him.

‘With string instruments, I wanted to say! By God, Alfred, just because you are a naughty little bugger… Ouch!’ William received a slap on his arm at that. ‘However,’ he continued, ‘in spite of myself, I wouldn’t mind making my peace with my father at last. I have seen… damn it, I have seen men die on the battlefield enough times to understand how short life is and how swiftly it can end. My biggest achievement thus far is being lucky enough to be out of the way of bullets – for the most part – sorry, Drummond – but that was hardly in my control. Perhaps belatedly but I find I have grown up at last. And I believe that sorting out the mess between father and I has to be a part of that. Now, I cannot return to London alone, as I would find myself in gaol before I set foot in my father’s club for a chat. Unless…’

‘…unless you returned married,’ Charlotte finished for him.

‘Quite right you are, Miss Drummond.’

Charlotte considered this, much to Edward’s horror.

‘You do know I have been promised to someone, do you not?’ she asked. ‘Someone powerful and determined.’

‘Right, who is that again?’

‘The Duke of Fife,’ Alfred supplied for Will. ‘Red hair, tall, robust-’

‘He shot my dog,’ Charlotte mused out loud.

‘Yes, that too,’ Alfred seconded awkwardly. ‘Not the nicest chap in the world, you see. And he does not refrain from violence.’

‘That shan’t be a problem – he might hunt for deer in his tweeds but forgive me if my knees aren’t shaking from fear at the sound of him.’

‘And if he sues?’

‘My father used to be the Prime Minister!’

‘Still, William, you will have to sort him out if you do this.’

‘Do what? Alfred, you don’t support this, do you?’ Edward asked, aghast.

‘Well, it’s not an entirely idiotic idea…’

‘My dearest---’

‘”My dearest”’, William mocked Edward between giggles, and Charlotte found herself snorting, too.

‘Edward, my love,’ Alfred replied, ignoring these children, ‘You must see that it is an incredibly favourable solution to all our woes. Two birds with one stone, really. I do want you, William, to try and smooth things out between you and Sir Robert. And you, Miss Drummond, as brave as I think you have been, perhaps it’s time to take a break and come back to London with us.’

‘But I won’t be going back to London,’ she replied. ‘Not for long, that is. Is that right, Captain?’

‘No, that’s exactly what I had in mind. We should of course make our due appearance, call on the tribes, present ourselves in society – a month, two at most, I should think. Then, I was thinking Tangiers…’

‘Boston.’

‘Why, in the winter? No.’

‘Then Sicily.’

‘Doable.’

‘Fine.’

‘Fine.’

‘Fine!’

‘Just—one question…’ Alfred interrupted, particularly before Edward actually fainted. He eased him into a chair by the balustrade, massaging his chest before his heart suffered an attack. ‘The maid you were traveling with? I recognise her from court. Her Majesty has remarked on her outspokenness. How much does she know?’

‘Nothing at all,’ Charlotte replied. ‘It’s true, she was Emma’s lady’s maid for her journey but your mother insisted I bring her with me to France, as she was sneaking me out of the house – for which I am eternally grateful. But Emma arranged everything so that we were alone in Wales…’ Charlotte swallowed, still cut up about it. ‘Without Turner. In fact, the silly girl even told me it was romantic of me to come all this way for my true love. He must have meant you, Alfred, though at the time I thought she was just delirious from her own sea sickness.’

‘You’re predisposed to be sea sick?!’ William asked, horrified.

‘N-no, not as a rule,’ Charlotte defended herself before the deal was off. She could get used to the seas, right? She had no problem with the journey between Scotland and London… most of the time…

‘So the maid doesn’t know about… the truth,’ Alfred confirmed for sure.

‘No. Why?’ she asked.

‘Because there’s no point in any of this if she gives you away.’

‘I don’t think it matters what she thinks…’

‘No, Alfred has a point,’ William spoke up. ‘Never underestimate valets and maids…’

Edward and Alfred exchanged a heavy look – it was only because of Edward’s butler’s conscience that they didn’t have to be on the run as well.

‘... hm… I wonder…’

‘What is it, Captain?’ Edward asked him.

‘Ooh, seriously, Alfred, every time Drummond calls me Captain I get shivers down my---‘

‘FOCUS, William!’ Alfred scolded him again.

‘Sorry. Anyway, we all agree that we have to find a way to make sure the marriage is not only legally binding but believed as legitimate once we pull into the harbour in London.’

‘And how do you propose we do that?’ Charlotte asked.

‘I have an idea… but you won’t like it.’

 

 

The bell to Miss Drummond’s bedroom was rung at seven in the evening. Abigail sighed and hurried upstairs in the chateau before a local maid started to shout at her in French she couldn’t understand. The wedding was simple but it was hurried and she really wouldn’t have minded some rest! But alas, dinner had to wait and, yes, yes, she was going, she was going, no need to urge her…

‘AHH!’

She shut Miss Drummond’s – that is Mrs Peel’s – bedroom door as quickly as she had opened it and ran right away!

What a nasty prank to play to tell her it was her mistress that rang for her! Oh, these French and their jokes… But what a story she had to tell at home!

 

 

Five minutes earlier…

‘Stop it,’ Charlotte muttered strictly.

‘Stop what?’

‘Just… stay as you are, she’ll be here in a minute.’

William sighed tried to make himself comfortable in Charlotte’s bed.

They had dressed the room quite well, he thought: his shirt and trousers were thrown on the carpet, her dress hang from a chair clearly visible from the doorway, and after some convincing, her corset had also been put on display at the foot of the bed.

They got between the sheets and got into a position they assumed was every bit as convincing as it could be – neither of them having any real idea whether that was how men and women were really supposed to lie in their marital bed, but they gave it a shot.

Always making sure there were layers of sheets between them.

‘You should slide that off your shoulder, you know,’ he told her, nodding towards the visible strips of fabric there.

‘I will most certainly not!’

‘But it’s obvious you are still not unclad as you ought to be if we were actually…’

‘Shut it, Captain, I have already taken off my corset, what more could we do?’

‘At least I look as if I could be completely naked!’

‘Yes, and I am hoping you will keep yourself at a respectable distance from me after tonight, thank you… is that really how hairy your chest is?’

‘What’s wrong with my—’

‘AHH!’ Abigail screamed from the door. ‘I’M SO SORRY I---’

‘And scene!’ Will remarked happily after the door was shut tight, rolling away from his wife – he still cracked up at the thought that he now had a wife – and lit up a cheroot. ‘I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.’

Charlotte shot him a look but had to laugh.

Honestly, she was just relieved. She had a plan now. He lit up a cheroot for her as well, and she started to dress.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘What does it look like? And stop looking,’ she replied grumpily, trying to fix her corset back on herself while balancing the cigar in her mouth.

‘You can’t leave, though.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, we are supposed to be here all night, aren’t we? I’m afraid you are stuck with me for the whole night,’ he pointed out, patting the space in the bed next to him. ‘Don’t worry, I could find better ways to spend my time, too.’

‘Oh. Right,’ Charlotte realised with disappointment. She donned a dressing gown and went back to bed. William held an ashtray for her. ‘Thank you,’ she said and smoked some more, thinking.

Thinking.

‘Did you really love him?’ she asked. ‘Alfred.’

‘I’m glad we’re talking about this on our wedding night, my dearest.’

‘If you ever call me my dearest again, I’ll—’

‘What, marry me? That’s already the worst thing that could have happened to me!’

She wanted to slap him.

But she snorted. And so did he, and soon enough they were having to catch their breath from laughing, the whole thing was so ridiculous.

‘And to answer your question,’ he said once he calmed down. ‘Yes, I think so. It was a long time ago, though. And I knew he was not meant for me.’

‘You believe in all that? That someone is meant for everyone?’

‘I haven’t quite made up my mind yet,’ he said after some hesitation. ‘When I look at them, though, I believe in it a little more.’

‘I know… they’re just…’

‘Perfect.’

‘Made for each other.’

‘Frustratingly so!’

‘Yes…’ she agreed, falling into despair again at her own lot.

‘Tut-tut… such a long face for someone so young. Wait till we get to India. The women there are truly beautiful!’

‘India?’

‘Why not?’

‘Just not Egypt.’

‘No, not Egypt.’

‘And first, back to London.’

‘Back to London.’