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The Elusive Miss Wakefield

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Adventure

Retribution.

Revenge most often harms those who seek to carry it out.

After a busy and tiring day with Miss Georgiana, Charlotte retired for the night to make entries in her journal. Henry had excused himself after dinner and had pleaded that he had an errand in the village, but would be back later that evening; and if he were not too late, they could all sit in the library as they had become used to doing.

After being at Stavely now for some months, she had made many entries, certainly a page or partial page for each of the days she had been there. Her letters from Anne were tied separately and kept in a locked drawer.

She reviewed what she had written up to that time in her diary, and reread some of her earlier entries. She had been careful what she had confided to those pages. Some—the early ones—were tear stained, and some had just a few lines of entry. Some, detailed her observations of the family in whose midst she found herself. The two families, the Stavelys and the Mortons, were so similar in essentials, and yet so different too. Henry’s father, whom she had met on those visits, which he often made, was a kindly man, and obviously not deserving of the blistering rendition she had mistakenly given of him to the real Miss Wakefield. She hoped none of that would come back to haunt her. She still felt pangs of guilt over continuing to misrepresent herself, but it seemed the safest course of action to continue.

Her eyes grew heavier. She yawned, put off her shawl, drank down the milk that she had brought to her room with her, turned down her bed, and climbed into it. Her last thoughts were of blowing out the candle and then a brief consideration of how she might best help distract Georgiana on the following day, from her own advancing condition.

She was awakened by a noise across the room. She listened as she tried to pinpoint where it was coming from. A mouse or a rat? Perhaps one of the dogs had got in. Then she realized that it was not an animal, but a person. Someone was making a noise near the wall at the foot of her bed. She recollected then that she had locked her bedroom door before she settled, as she had been told to do by both Henry and Georgiana, with that uncle of theirs in the house. He was not to be trusted.

“Who is there? Is that you, Henry?” Her voice was tremulous and uncertain.

A vague figure loomed out of the dark. It was a man, and from the way he moved, somewhat clumsily, it was the uncle. He seemed able to get about well enough without crutches. Before she could move, or do anything else he threw himself across her.

She could not avoid him as he lay upon her, trapping her arms beneath the covers, as she began to feel his weight upon her to hold her down. His weight was enough by itself to severely limit her movement under the heavy coverings. He had been a silent attacker, with unusual strength in his arms.

He had clamped his hand over her mouth but had not been prepared for quite such a violent struggle. He was bitten for his trouble until he put a sheet over the lower part of her face and held it tightly over her mouth to avoid her screaming or calling out for help and alerting others, as well as to stop her biting again. His weight and his trapping the sheets and blankets about her confined her struggles, as did the lack of air.

“Where did you put it?” She could vaguely see his eyes above her. He held her by the throat and spoke. “If you scream or shout out, it will be the last sound you will make in this life, but I need an answer. Where did you put it?” She felt his grip lessen so that she might answer.

“Put what?”

“The small box that was in that alcove behind the wainscoting. That hole is as empty as the others.”

“I know nothing of any alcove, nor of a box.” She filled her lungs now that she was free to do so, and seemed ready to shout out, except his hand tightened again on her throat.

“I underestimated Henry and his father letting me stay here. Keeping me a prisoner in my own house more like, and spying on me. You have all been cleverly working against me ever since I arrived. Henry, and now you. Why did you give him those letters I had written? I trusted you to get them to London for me without anyone stopping them, and then Henry threw them onto me just this afternoon.” His anger was obvious. “He is putting me out of my own house. My own house, would you believe, but I shall not go empty-handed or without something for him to remember me by. You gave ’em up to him deliberately. You ruined all of my plans when you did that. Too damned careless! He was the last one I needed to find out about those, and then he throws them back at me—all opened and read!”

“No . . .” He did not like to hear any further protest and shut her up by covering her mouth with his hand.

“I thought I might at least be able to count on you after what I learned of you and your own little secret.” There was a puzzled look on her face.

“Oh yes! The carter that brought me here. He saw you and my niece in the garden. So that’s where she wound up, he said. There was talk of her being in London, and now I see her here—Ms. Morton of Fallowfield.” He felt her go still beneath him. “Aye, I thought that might get your attention. I stored it away, not realizing that it might have value to me. So we both have secrets we would rather not have discovered, especially when I find you are known here, to the family, as Miss Wakefield—a lady’s maid. Except Henry seems to have discovered most of my secrets now, no thanks to you, and even knew about my little hiding places. I should have seen him dealt with all those years ago when I had the chance on board that ship—him and his father both.

“Perhaps I should have told you what I knew of your little deception before I asked you to see my letters sent off, and you may have been more careful. No doubt Henry or his father knew of these other hideaways and emptied them years ago. Had you known of them, you would have been long gone. Damn! They would have seen me settled comfortably away from here, and now I find that I am to leave with nothing to show for my being here. Less than nothing. Not even a feather to fly with.”

He looked down at her, beneath him, with other thoughts growing in his mind. “But all is not entirely lost. I’ve seen the way he looks at you, and you at him. I should tell him who you really are. You wouldn’t like that, I expect, but why waste such an opportunity? There is something that you and I shall share together before I leave—a featherbed jig, the beast with two backs, and then we can both keep our mouths shut.

I am sure that such things are rarely spoken of after they have happened, or if they are, it is the woman who usually has the most to lose by it.” She could see the way his mind was working. “Then again, once I am gone from here, as I soon shall be, I can send him a letter, giving details of what happened here between us tonight. I would think that would cool his ardor for you and curtail any other more lofty ambition you might have, except to continue with what he may already have begun with you. I would have done. You both seem ripe for it from what I glimpsed of you.” He felt her test his grip on her and begin to physically resist once more.

“Oh yes. I shall send him a letter. I shall describe how you welcomed me into your bedchamber so eagerly that it was positively overpowering to the emotions. I shall describe how we went forward with this together. I imagine that would work quite well upon his feelings for you. Something good may come of this disaster after all.” He could see her response to all of that, and could feel it too, the way she began to struggle with renewed energy and desperation beneath him.

“Oh come now. You have no need to be so coy, Miss Morton of Fallowfield. You have too much to hide, to look down your nose and to be persnickety with me. You cannot be entirely unfamiliar with what I intend if you have been in service for any length of time. It is a common fate for women who work away from the security of their own homes—though even that may not be secure. I doubt Henry has been able to keep away from you that way. Some women even seek such attention to secure their position, but whether she does or not, it happens to women employed in such a place, sooner or later, and you have been here all of three or four months. Long overdue if he hasn’t cornered you somewhere already. No servant girl ever avoided me for that long if I intended to have her.”

He kept her face and head covered, as he moved himself down upon the bed, relieving her of some of his weight, as he moved the covers from the bed to uncover her lying there. He knelt across one arm to hold it still while holding the other, and then taking hold of her nightdress in the open neck, ripped it down and off her, and then changed his grip on the fabric, tore it further, and threw it off to one side to leave her naked beneath him.

Free of at least some of the restriction on her, she fought harder and scratched at his face and whatever was in reach of her free hand, drawing blood. She suffered some bruising, scratching, and marking as she fought him, and as he cursed at her and tried to pinion her again and to hold her still before he might go forward with his intention. He laughed at her. “That’s the spirit. Hardest won, most enjoyed!” Her feet, also now uncovered, lashed out around her to try and displace him, but her foot encountered only the chair by the side of the bed, sending it flying with some noise as she struggled. He lay close above her to try and hold her still. She could smell his breath, and the brandy on it as well as, the rancid smell of sweat from his body. It was all, quite sickening to her, though it was thought of what he intended with her that was the more sickening.

As she tired, all he did was chuckle as he held her still by grabbing her by the hair and using his full weight upon her. He continued to try to divest himself of some of his own clothing. His intent was the worst nightmare of any young woman caught up in a supposed gentleman’s residence—of encountering those who were not inclined to gentlemanlike behavior. They usually got away with it too and were immune to any repercussion, apart from those rare ones of angry relatives who might or might not find out about it until it was too late, if at all. Even then, they might be persuaded to judge the matter less harshly if they were led to believe some cooperation and encouragement from the young lady. Mostly, there was the fear of such a stigma being openly gossiped about. It was not surprising that such events were usually never discussed with anyone.

She heard a noise she could not immediately identify and felt herself suddenly freed from all weight upon her. The hand holding the bedding over her face was removed as she still fought, but there was no one within reach of her. She almost fell from her bed in her haste to get away from the presence she knew was still close by, and huddled herself in a corner of the room to recover her wind and her wits as her eyes darted about the dark room to see what might have changed.

In the weak moonlight, which flooded across the floor, she saw two men struggling together. Both were deadly silent. The younger man—she could see that it was Henry—had his hand tight about the throat of his uncle, who seemed to be held clear of the floor as he tried to kick, while his arms, powerful as she had felt them to be, tore futilely at the younger man’s hands slowly choking the life from him. Once Henry had him pinned up against the wall, he struck at him, in his face, several times. The blows landed with a dull impact and drove the older man’s head back against the wall. As his uncle’s struggles became less, Henry let go of his throat and then grasped him from behind with his arm around his neck, dragging him over to the window and squeezing about his neck with additional force if he seemed inclined to struggle or resist. No words were spoken. They were just two shadows, breathing heavily and seeking advantage, one over the other in a life-or-death struggle. It was an uneven contest. Everything moved forward in silence and with but one inevitable outcome.

The window had been left partially open despite the cold, as the room had been far too warm. Henry reached out and opened it even wider as their audience watched, not even sure at times which of the two was Henry and which was his uncle. The noise of the chair being kicked over must have disturbed Henry from his own rest. He must have responded immediately.

His uncle could see the way it would go, and resisted as he could, with his feet and arms trying to block Henry’s efforts to see him gone, and fighting back in desperation rather than allowing himself to be ejected from the window. However, nothing could resist Henry’s anger at that moment; and the older man, already tired from his earlier struggle with Charlotte, could do nothing about it. He was pushed from the window with a last effort to grasp at the edge of it and breathing heavily, and possibly pleading for his life but making little sound with any sense, before Henry’s fist drove into his face and sent him backward out of the window to fall to the garden twenty feet below.

Henry watched him fall, hearing him scream with sudden terror into the shrubbery. His uncle must have believed that his last moment had come, but his fall had been cushioned by the bushes. He survived, though probably injured, if the cries of pain were any indication. After some moments of watching, as the motion of the branches settled down, Henry saw him crawl painfully out from the darker shadows and collapse in the open area at the edge of the driveway. He knew he should have had that shrubbery cut away, and the outcome would have been more certain. The problem still remained, but not for long. He had Charlotte to see to first.

The doors into the house were all locked at that time of night. If the older man had not suffered any broken bones to hinder his movement, the only place accessible to him might be the stable or one of the nearby barns. He would be easy to find. Henry closed the window and fastened it. He turned back to Charlotte, still bundled up in the corner, vaguely illuminated by the moonlight and terrified even of moving, and still not sure what she had seen, or perhaps even what her fate might be.

Henry was not sure, but he thought he could see blood on her hands and on her legs and her body. She was still terrified of what had happened. He ignored her nakedness, took her hands, and gradually raised her to her feet and into his arms where he held her close as he tried to comfort her. She felt cold and was almost ready to fight him off too in her nervousness, but then realized that she had escaped the real danger and might now be safe.

She sobbed and moved protectively into him. If she began to recognize her lack of clothing covering her, then she would need to be buried out of sight, close to him, rather than being so openly revealed in the somewhat brighter light from the window. He felt her arms go around him tightly and felt her uncontrollable sobs begin at her relief of being delivered from that fate that had almost enveloped her.

After some moments of that, he picked her up into his arms and carried her across to her bed. He lay her down and brought the one sheet that remained within easy reach across her, where she clutched it close about her. He would see to the rest later.

He lit the candles beside the bed with a taper from the almost-dead fire (he would make it up later) and looked over what he could see of her and the turmoil in the room, some of which he had caused, though the blankets and sheets had been torn from the bed by his uncle. Her torn nightdress was also there.

He looked into her eyes, wondering how she might believe she could trust him. “Are you seriously injured anywhere that I should know about? I would like to know. I will not leave until I do know.” She was not yet able to speak, but she did shake her head.

He picked other coverings up from the floor and covered her with those too. “Would you like me to get someone else to help you?” Her eyes seemed alarmed at that happening.

She reached out and held his arm as she spoke. “No. No one else must know of this. I will need to trust you, or risk the entire house learning of it. I would rather that no one else learned of this.”

“I can assure you that Mrs. Forster would say nothing. I shall get her if you wish.”

“No! Not Mrs. Forster, and not your sister. No one.” He watched as she closed her eyes as a sudden tremor shook her body. She was still shocked by what had happened. He reached out and sat her up into his arms once more until he began to feel the emotion begin to drain from her, and the trembling stopped. Such an emotional blowup was likely to ensure that she would get no further sleep that night. Neither would he. He felt torn between staying to provide her support and comfort as well as help, and seeking out his uncle to complete what he had begun and to wring his neck like a chicken.

“You are safe now, you know. The outside doors are all locked, and windows too. He will have a cold night out there with the likelihood of frost by morning. He knows that if he were to return, I would not hesitate to put him out of the window again, head first, and from a higher floor, and where there will be no undergrowth to soften his fall.” He sat by her and held her hand. “I will say that you put up a plucky defense of yourself. Who taught you to go for the eyes like that? You made it difficult for him. Remind me not to get into a fight with you, Charlotte, or to invite your wrath.” She seemed to try to smile. “The marks to his face alone will cause some speculation, but if neither of us betrays anything nor confirms any of it by our behavior, it will mean little. It can seem to have been a contretemps between only him and me when I found him wandering the house, and that is what I will suggest. They will understand that at least. You can let go of me, you know, so that I may find what you need. You are no longer in any danger.” That was not entirely true, the way he felt about her. “I cannot help being concerned about you. I have too much to lose if I frighten you as I fear I might. I am not entirely disconnected from this situation, nor as disinterested as I might be. As I should be.” She knew that and felt the better to learn that.

Somehow he had survived both temptations—to kill his uncle out of hand and to reveal his feelings, suddenly felt so overpoweringly, to this special woman whom he unreservedly loved. He felt privileged to have been trusted at all, for he was not sure that he deserved to be. He sat beside her as he took her hand in turn. “I hope we, both of us, survived that experience, though I find that I am trembling with emotion over it now, while you seem to be so calm.

“From the little I saw of you, none of your wounds seems to be that serious. I suspect and hope that the blood is all his.” He looked at her with a gentle smile on his face. “You are a courageous young woman. I do not know of anyone who might have dealt so well with this, or have dared to trust me after that, as you did. Everything that took place here, this evening, and now, will be our secret, Miss Wakefield.”

“Charlotte!” She corrected him, as she looked up at him intently. “You never had such difficulty with my name before. We seem to have a growing number of secrets to hide from the rest of the house.”

“Yes, we all do. It is time they were spoken of, even between us. I never came so close to losing everything that I find I value in life, as I just did.” She knew what he was saying. “My mind is still in turmoil after that.” She tried to reassure him now, as she held his hand. A strange reversal of roles, and seeming to trust him, as though they knew everything about the other, and knew each other’s every secret and were comfortable with it.

“You will not leave me, will you? I do not wish to be left alone.” She still held his hand.

“No, Charlotte. If you can stand my company after this, I am not going to leave you at all tonight. I am going to stay close to both you and my sister until after my uncle leaves this house, and likely for a longer time after that.” She looked relieved to hear that, though in truth, he was more relieved than he might ever say over the trust she seemed to feel for him.

“You need to come closer—here, to me, please!” He did not know why, but he followed her request as she looked up into his face. “You do not need to be shy with me now. Not after what almost happened, and after what you did for me, I am not.

"You have marks about your face too, you know, and there is also blood, his blood I hope, on your nightshirt. I fear he tried to scratch at you as you choked him, and not just at your wrists and hands.” She moved the candles closer to him and got him to lean toward her as she touched his head. He could feel her hand trembling with suppressed emotion.

He smiled and leaned over to kiss her. She did not object or retreat from that. It was a comforting kiss and did not alarm her as it might have done just a short time before. “Nothing that happened was your fault, Charlotte. If anything, it was my fault for allowing him too much freedom and tolerating his insidious presence here. I should have known he might try to be revenged on someone, after I exposed his reasons for being here.”

“None of it was your fault either, Henry. You were not to know. You are not to blame.”

“I feel that I am. I should have known. How easily we forget and . . . We are supposed to protect those we love, far better than I did. You know by now what my feelings for you are, Charlotte.”

“Yes. I have known for some time, Henry. Since that first night. The whole house knows it, but we were never properly alone after that to speak of it, though we both knew it.”

“Yes, so Georgiana told me. I fell in love with you that first night in the library, but was too afraid to admit it for fear of alarming you more than I already did.” He looked closely at her. “Dare I say . . . might I hope . . . believe . . . that I do not feel that I have been mistaken in assuming that my feelings are returned?”

She was able to smile at his seemingly being unsure of what she felt for him. “You have known for some time that they are returned, sir. Your sister knew that first morning we were together. I knew even as you caught me and stopped me falling into that fire, and as you say, you knew that first night in the library. We should both have had this discussion a long time ago and have saved ourselves from such difficulty, but I expect we each had good reasons of our own for not doing so. Until now.”

He recalled that he would need to find another nightdress for her. In the top drawer, he found what he was looking for. He sorted out the neck and organized it to slip over her head and arms more easily. As he approached her, she let go of the sheet and raised her hands as the sheet fell away from her. She did not seem to be shy with him in any way now, after what he had done for her and as he pulled the nightdress down and around her. He sorted out the rest of the bedding and covered her tidily with that too. He would see to it and get it into the laundry before anyone else was stirring and bring up new, to make up the bed properly. He retrieved her torn nightdress from where it had been thrown aside and put that out of sight. He would clear it all away himself in the morning, sheets and all, to the laundry, along with the slightly bloodstained sheet covering her and the one beneath her. He would do that before anyone else might be stirring to recognize where they might have come from. He would also find replacement bedding down there. There was no other obvious sign of damage in the room, though he was sure that there would be some blood spattering visible to sharp eyes in daylight, from the scratches she had given his uncle, as well as from the beating he had given him.

He was still struggling with various emotions that pulled him in different directions. “I should have looked after you better than this, Charlotte, my love. I am sorry, but I feel this, perhaps . . . I should have made sure he . . . I shall deal with it tomorrow and ensure that he cannot do anything like this again.” He began to relax for the first time that evening.

“You will not leave me alone, will you?” She seemed concerned that he might do so, and had asked him that again.

“No, my dear. I told you I would not. I am not about to leave you. I am going to spend the night in that chair over there, where you can see me. I doubt that either of us will be able to sleep easily.”

“Thank you, but I may not rest, just yet. I will need your escort, for I must also go and see to your sister first. She is getting closer to her time and is not having a comfortable time with it, and I have been away too long!”

Then I shall go with you. I doubt you would feel completely relaxed wandering the dark hallways at night, with that other individual still alive and somewhere out there. What a spectacle we shall present, wandering the halls like this together. Me in my blood-spattered nightshirt and you in your nightdress. The gossip may never cease if we are seen like this.” She was able to smile.

“I do not care about that. Not now. I would welcome your company now, and I may need your support at least a little. But I am not an invalid, and it was not too serious.” He knew better than that. “If she is awake and wonders why we are together, we shall tell her something that will not alarm her. She shall learn none of the other from me to upset her, nor I hope from you, though we shall avoid disturbing her if possible and having her question us both about . . .”

“About what is obvious?” She would not see any minor splashes of blood on his nightshirt in the low light in her room, and he would stay over by the door. “If she sees us both in our nightclothes, with you in my company at this advanced hour, as well as both of us ruffled, she will suspect the worst. Or the reality.” He smoothed her hair a little.

“The reality, Henry. Your sister may think ill of me and that I trapped you! She is very defensive of you.”

“I am her brother. Of course, she is defensive of me, but will think nothing of the kind where you are concerned. She has also seen us together many times. She knows that we love each other. She told me almost before I knew it myself. She approves of you in every way and loves you almost as I do.”

They went off together, arm in arm, strolling in a relaxed way along the corridor, as they conversed quietly, almost as though nothing had happened.

“You don’t hurt anywhere, do you, now that you are walking? No soreness? Pulled muscles? Nothing I missed or that I should know about?”

“No. They are just minor scrapes, Henry. I am more rattled and annoyed that I was taken off guard and frustrated that, as a woman, I am not as strong as I sometimes need to be. Thank you for coming to my rescue when you did!”

“I would like to be there for you all of the time, Charlotte. There is so much we need to discuss and clear out of the way. We should have said more to each other than we did in the last few months.” She rested her head against him as they walked slowly. They would have presented a shocking yet comforting sight to anyone who might also have been abroad in the house to see them, but no one else was stirring.

“Not just the last few months, Henry. We should have spoken more openly with each other that first night we met. Though neither of us dared. There was too much we left unsaid, each not sure of the other at that moment, and scared of where it might lead.”

I was sure of what I knew then! What I had learned! I know now that I fell in love with you as I walked through that library door and saw you sitting before that fire and asleep, but I dare say nothing and possibly offend you by showing how excited or eager I was, though I am afraid my drawings gave me away. You were like a goddess, sitting in front of that fire, with the firelight reflecting off you. You captivated me even then. I was sure I must be dreaming and that it could not possibly be happening to me.”

“I was sure too. When I looked up and saw you there, making up the fire and then looking at me as you did with that look on your face, I too thought I must be dreaming and seeing what I wanted to see and that you would disappear even as I woke up a little more—that you were a mirage. I thought for a moment you were . . . someone I lost recently.” They paused and held each other close at that moment as they turned into each other and kissed.

“Our first real kiss. I hope I did not cause more pain with your lips.”

“You were gentle. There was no pain. Our first real kiss, as you said, but not our last, and we must see where our first gentle kiss shall lead, sir. I seem to recall pointing out to you that a kiss often leads on to other more serious things.” He could only hope so. So did she.

After some few moments, they continued along the corridor to see to Georgiana. He let them both in quietly, and saw that she was resting easily. Charlotte made sure that she was covered and had some lemonade still with her if she woke up thirsty, as he quietly made up the fire, and they returned the way they had come.

Once they were back in her room, Henry turned back her covers and saw her into her bed and then found that she was holding on to him and not wishing to let him go across to his chair where he had planned to spend the night. She no longer seemed as afraid as she had previously been. There was a strange look in her eyes. “I would like to be held in your arms, Henry. After what almost happened, I only regret that we seem to have wasted so much time in not openly admitting our love for each other until now.” She reached up and pulled his head down to her bosom as he slowly dropped to his knees by the bed and pulled her closer into him in turn, as she kissed him. He turned his head up to her and found that she continued to kiss him and hold him close to her in a way that left no doubt as to her vulnerable emotional state and possibly her intentions at that moment. She was crying.

“Come, Henry. It is too cold out there for you. Hold me close. There have been too many things neglected between us, and it is time to ensure that they do not escape us again. Life is too short and throws so many unexpected blocks in our way. I would like to be held, and kissed, and loved. We have delayed far too long. After what almost happened to me, I shall not allow such unimportant considerations as morality or protective virtue get in our way again.”

He knew what she was asking of him. “Are you sure, Charlotte? There will be no recovery from that, and no possibility of going back, and I am only a weak man where you are concerned. You present me with a circumstance that I have not the strength of character to refuse. It is something that I know we both have wanted to have happen for some time.”

“I am sure. We will have too little time together after Georgiana’s baby is born.”

“Then we must marry. I should have asked you before now, but I was afraid of your answer. I am not afraid now. You shall go to India with me.”

“Yes, Henry. I will, to both suggestions.” He felt as though a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

“You will no longer be needed quite so well here once Georgiana is delivered. I have long-overdue business there that will take me away from London for some time, and I fear I would not survive long over there, with you here, constantly on my mind as you would be, and are. We, you could ask your sister, Anne, to come here and stay with Georgiana and take your place. She is as welcome here as you are, and is as much of our family as anyone can be with what we intend. Once we leave, then Georgiana will go and live with our parents in London, so it will not be as though your sister is to be trapped in this rural fastness forever. But you realize that we should marry, Charlotte.” He corrected himself. “No—that we now must marry, and soon. The sooner the better. I would like you to.” She liked what she was hearing and turned her face up to be kissed again. “Should I approach anyone in your family about this—ask their permission?”

“There is no one you need to ask other than me, Henry.” He was pleased to hear that.

“Georgiana’s confinement is still two months off, so we have plenty of time to make plans for that. We should tell Georgiana of this and see that she approves of it—after all, I was hired here to look after her.” Long before then, however, Charlotte’s own secret would need to be revealed, though she was not sure how she might do that at this time without causing some awkward and hurtful questions to deal with, and some admissions she had rather not have had to make quite so soon. Everything had been going better than she had ever thought they might, but it could also change quickly. Perhaps she should say nothing. Who might know? She recalled those threats of Henry’s uncle. He knew, but his own problems were so much greater than they had been, that what he might know of her real identity would have become of little consideration with the future that now seemed to await him.

Perhaps it might be safer if she kept the name of Wakefield, continuing her deception for longer, and got married to Henry only when they were on that ship together. That is what she would suggest. She had not had time to think beyond that. She would need to confide in Anne, however, and possibly ask her what she might think.

“Georgiana must come first in all of our plans, Henry. We can tell her about us later. If you do not mind, sir, with all that is happening here and with too little time to plan everything or do it all as we might like, I believe it might be wiser if we married on board that ship, once we have left, and with minimal ceremony or fuss.” If they could marry free of public scrutiny, she could remain undiscovered and could remain Charlotte Wakefield.

“But that is still some time off. Possibly two months away, Charlotte, and what we begin here . . . I doubt I could stand being parted from you for that long.”

“We do not need to be parted. This was your room before, and it can be our room from this moment on. I am not ashamed of my feelings for you. I doubt any of the servants will dare say anything. I suspect this circumstance is more common in even the most respectable of families than one might know. Others may hide those feelings away, but I will not. Love is not something we need to be ashamed of.”

“You are a remarkable woman, Charlotte.”

“Georgiana already knows what would soon happen between us anyway. She is amazed how we have been able to hold off from each other until even now, and she is not about to judge either of us, but will accept it. I can carry this off, if you can.” He answered her with a gentle kiss and felt his affection returned.

“Thus, are all men disarmed! And we refer to you as the weaker sex. Just when I think I might begin to understand a woman, I realize that I do not. You are all most confusing. You are all propriety, when it is least called for or needed, and all compliance when one least expects it, though I suppose this is a time when one could not avoid it, considering what happened to us both—where we are; as we are, and feeling as we do for each other. However, a lot can happen in two months. What if . . . ?”

“What if I become pregnant?” She had no hesitation or shyness in broaching that possibility. She laughed softly at his understandable concern, dismissing it. “I suppose we should consider it, but it does not matter. Not now. I might actually welcome it, if that were to happen. It will not be noticeable by the time we leave. When we arrive in India, we will be starting out in a new place, on a new life as husband and wife. We will be unknown, in a new society, with nothing hanging over us as to when we were married, except in a ship’s log from some months earlier, and where nothing behind us need concern anyone. Georgiana will know, of course, as well as your parents, and I must tell Anne. We both know the way forward. I care nothing for what anyone outside of this house might say, though how might they know of it without us telling them? Neither Anne nor Georgiana are likely to be surprised by this, or will say anything. I am of age, I am independent, I can choose to live as I will, and I will not be separated from you now, not for one second longer than I need to be. By the time we return, who might know what had happened before we left if there are several children running around?” He could find no fault with her reasonable logic or forthright planning of events. He watched as she began to remove her nightdress and then slowly climbed into bed with her. They took each other into their arms as they kissed. Neither of them had any doubt at that moment where such kissing would lead them. It was no longer of any empty philosophical concern.

Their uncle left at first light that morning. His face and neck showed some of the difficulties of the previous evening, and he moved only with considerable pain. He was not sure how he had survived that encounter, and being thrown so easily from that window. It had sharpened his mind about what was truly important in his life. He would have his revenge on his brother and his nephew in other ways, but would keep himself to himself until he was far away from Stavely, and not rashly invite further pain and trouble. He could easily see that Henry had a great desire to continue what he had begun on the previous night, and to punish him as he wished he had done, even killed him, but had held back.

Henry would, of course, say nothing of what had happened either before or after their confrontation, but he might almost have thanked his uncle for bringing him and Charlotte closer together as he had, and as they had both wanted for so long. The servants could see for themselves what had happened to Henry’s uncle, but did not know any of the details. They also saw more than that, but whatever was happening between Miss Wakefield and Master Henry, was not open for discussion.

Before he had left, Matthew had packed his trunks as he was told to do, and they were brought into the hall until the cart could be organized. His trunks were unlocked as he stood there helpless, fuming, as they were emptied and searched in every way, with some items of some small value that did not belong there put to one side, and that would not be going with him. Only then did Henry allow the trunks to be taken out to the cart. Matthew was not consulted nor given any choice on the time or means of his going, nor of his destination. Henry did not even see him off after that.

Only as he climbed painstakingly into the carriage was he told where he would be dropped off—at the Rack and Ruin, down between the brickyard and the river. He was thankful that it was out of the way and not frequented by any of those who might remember him. He knew of it—a hostel that catered to the raff and scaff of society, a whorehouse, where there were women for rent for a few pence by the moment in the stable yard outside, or by the hour, the day, the night, or the week, in only slightly more comfortable, but just as filthy a setting, whatever might be afforded or agreed upon. No one could sleep for long, or comfortably, with the vermin that all such hostels had. He would soon get used to the lice and fleas again, but he would be there only the one night and would find some other place to stay, not known to Henry Stavely.

He had some money of his own if it had not been taken from his trunk, and felt sure he could soon get more. If he were careful, he would not be discovered by his former friends, other than those he might be able to trust—few as they had become, thanks to his damned nephew. He knew at that moment, that all ties with his own estranged family were severed forever.

As his uncle was driven off, Henry sat down and wrote a letter to an old friend, a Mr. Silas Grundy, who lived down by the docks. They had first met seven years earlier under exceptionally difficult circumstances on exactly the day that Matthew Stavely had left England and had helped each other over the last few years. Both had thrived because of their mutual association, but Mr. Grundy had an old score to settle with Henry’s uncle, and now was to be the time when he could do so.

When that letter was delivered later that same day, Mr. Grundy realized that a long-held wish of his was about to be fulfilled. He dug out an old satchel from the back of a cupboard and checked the contents, satisfied with what he saw there.

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