Charlotte Hawthorn had everything she could ever want. She lived alone, enjoyed freedoms that few women ever experience, was a governess and an artist, and she had not seen her husband in four years. Theirs was a marriage in name only, a convenience.
Victor Hawthorn, Viscount Blackmar, had not wanted to marry a stranger at the age of one and twenty. However, when a wealthy merchant purchased all his father’s debts, Victor was given the choice to either marry the man’s soon-to-be sixteen-year-old daughter or his family would face complete ruination. Victor had chosen marriage then left his young bride on a small estate and returned to his life.
When he reluctantly returns four years later, Victor doesn’t find the girl he left behind, but an enticing, independent woman who not only creates beautiful art but would rather be a governess than married to him. Will they find their way to love and happiness or will all be ruined by an enemy who sets out to destroy their future.
Hartfield Hall, Cheshire, England, May 1812
Victor Hawthorn was so angry he could not think straight. Disgusted by how his life had been manipulated, Victor stomped out of the house and into the gardens. The spring flowers may have been bursting with color, but they did little to soften his mood. On any other day, he may have allowed the quiet of the country to calm him. But not today. He was far too livid.
If only he could wipe his hands clean of this entire mess. He would too, if not for Marcus and Maria, his younger siblings.
The unacceptable position that Victor found himself in was all his father’s doing, yet it fell to Victor to keep his family from being completely ruined, shunned from society, and his father out of debtors’ prison.
A bee buzzed past his ear and Victor swatted it away in irritation. Even the bloody chirping birds were putting him on edge. Damn his parents for ruining what should have been a pleasant visit to the country, away from the crowds, filth, and noise of London. It was the middle of the Season and he had welcomed the break, until he learned the reason they were here. His father had ruined much more than a holiday, he had just altered Victor’s life and future.
Somehow Mr. Thompson had managed to purchase all his father’s notes—the amount staggering, and now Thompson held control over Victor’s father, thus the entire family. However, the whole of that debt would be cleared, as well as a substantial fund gifted when Victor married the man’s daughter, thus providing the elusive title Thompson had always coveted. It would not be his but would eventually belong to a grandson by way of the merchant’s daughter. If Victor did not follow through, the debts would be called due, and his family would lose what little they had left. The only exception was Thornhill Park, the crumbling estate in Shropshire, and that was only because it was entailed.
Victor kicked a few stones along the path in the garden and turned toward the house. The one conciliation in this arrangement, if one could be found, was that his father would receive none of the funds himself. Victor would have full control of the purse strings and Victor had made it perfectly clear that he would never again bail his father out of gambling debts. His funds would be limited to the allowance Victor provided and not a shilling more.
Charlotte Thompson strained to look out the window on the nursery floor where she’d been sequestered when the important guests had arrived. She honestly didn’t mind and preferred to be up here, away from her father and not being reminded that she was forever a disappointment. This was where she could paint and be herself.
“Are you certain that is Mr. Victor Hawthorn?” she asked her maid, Tilly.
“He and his father, Viscount Blackmar, arrived with Lady Blackmar this afternoon,” Tilly confirmed. “They were meeting with your father for the longest time.”
“Perhaps Lord Blackmar is seeking a loan,” Charlotte mused aloud. Why else would the Viscount be here? If gossip sheets were to be believed, Blackmar was a gambler who had taken the family to the brink of financial ruin several times. He was also rumored to be a womanizer and imbiber. “Father is richer than most and it would not be the first time a lord has shown up on our doorstep.”
“Your father must have denied the request, given all the yelling I heard,” Tilly responded.
“Thank goodness I am to stay up here. I do not like to be around father when he is in a foul mood.” Charlotte frowned. “Then why are they still here? Others with similar requests have left immediately upon rejection.”
Mr. Hawthorn’s walk through the gardens was not a casual stroll, but more of irritation. He’d stop, push his fingers through his hair, or shake his head. His shoulders rose and fell with some frequency as if he were taking deep breaths before blowing them out. What could have happened in the meeting with Father to put Mr. Hawthorn in such a foul mood?
If the gossip rags received from London were correct about Blackmar, then they must be correct about his son as well. “Do you suppose Mr. Hawthorn still keeps Lady Cartwright as his mistress?” she giggled. Their names had been linked only a month ago with speculation as to whether it was a courtship or more intimate. Lady Cartwright was a widow of only two and twenty while Mr. Hawthorn was one year her junior. Charlotte supposed a gentleman could marry a woman who was older, though it was usually the man who was the oldest in a marriage, and why Society decided that they must be lovers and nothing more.
“Hush, Miss Charlotte,” Tilly chastised. “You should not know about such matters, nor should they be discussed.”
“It is only you and I with nobody to hear,” Charlotte reminded her. “Besides, you know how much I enjoy the gossip sheets. It is the only outside entertainment we have.” Mr. Hawthorn had turned back toward the house, and she could now view his face. “I see why so many ladies are smitten with him.” He had to be the most handsome man she had ever seen. No man in the village came close to his exquisite appearance. His hair was light brown, streaked by the sun. His shoulders were broad, and he seemed to stand tall, at least from her angle three floors above. Graceful elegance. She wished to see the color of his eyes, but already knew they were green, as had been reported.
Tilly leaned over her shoulder and looked out the window. “He is a handsome gent.”
“That he is.” Charlotte sighed. A gentleman with his reputation and appearance could have his pick of any beautiful lady being offered, which numbered dozens each year. A man like Victor Hawthorn would never be interested in a girl like her, even if she were old enough to enter Society and marry. No, he would want someone like Lady Cartwright who was rumored to be a true beauty and had been named a diamond of the first water during her very first Season. That was the same Season when she had wed. Tragically, her husband had died two years later.
As for Charlotte, she didn’t ever expect to marry. If any man were to court her, it would be for her father’s wealth and nothing more. At least she was realistic as to the type of man whom she might attract and therefore, refused to marry for anything other than love and as that was unlikely to happen, she had planned a future for herself.
At the scratch on the door, Tilly rushed over to open it and a downstairs maid stepped inside. “Your father asks that you join him in the library.”
Charlotte groaned and pulled herself away from the window. What could her father possibly want? He usually ignored her existence when guests were in the house. Why was today different?
With a sigh, she put her paints away, scrubbed her hands and changed into a dress. So that she did not run into the guests, Charlotte chose to use the enclosed servant stairs that led her to the library.
“It is about time you answered my summons, Charlotte,” her father barked as she entered.
“I apologize, Father.”
“I have called you here to share your good fortune.”
Charlotte waited patiently.
“I have received an offer for your hand in marriage.”
“I am not old enough to wed.” She was only fifteen, soon to be sixteen. Charlotte could only hope that the agreement was for a marriage to take place years from now to give her plenty of time to dissolve the betrothal.
“You most certainly are, and you will never receive an opportunity like this again,” Thompson stated firmly. “Luckily for you, Mr. Victor Hawthorn’s family needs my money.”
“Hawthorn?” Charlotte choked. Her face felt suddenly cold. “I cannot marry him. He could have any heiress.”
“True,” her father agreed. “But none are so rich as you or will inherit her father’s entire estate at his death.”
“What have you done?” Charlotte cried, horrified by his actions. “It will never work.” She then quickly reminded herself that a betrothal was not a marriage and there may still be time to undo this debacle.
“It will work because you will make it work.” Her father pounded his fist on the desk. “Need I remind you that you lack anything resembling ladylike grace or skill? Your hair is atrocious, nor is your form one to attract a suitor. I had hoped that you would grow into a beauty by this age, but clearly that will not happen. Your face is not one to which poets would pen sonnets.”
Charlotte had heard his criticisms several times before, and they had grown especially more frequent these past few years. The only one true compliment she had ever received from him was her gift for numbers, arithmetic and investing. Had she been born a son, her father would have been confident leaving his riches in her capable hands. But, he hadn’t wanted a son. He had always wanted a daughter because she could marry a title and thus, complete the one thing left that her father coveted—a title connected to his name.
She just hadn’t turned out to be the daughter he had hoped for and no matter how much he complained, she had no control over what he would change. Her hair was a wild mass of curls that she could not control, she had yet to develop any curves of a woman, and her breasts were nearly non-existent. There was also a mass of freckles across her face that had not lightened with age. One only need look in the mirror to know that she would never be considered pretty, and certainly not beautiful.
“You cannot sing a note, play an instrument or dance. Heaven knows I have hired tutors enough, yet you still lack any ladylike talents or skills. However, what is important is that you are wealthy, and that is why you will one day become a viscountess and my future grandson a titled gentleman. Further, you will do your duty without complaint.” He wagged a finger at her. “You have been a disappointment for fifteen years and you will not disappoint me in this.”
Charlotte grasped the back of a chair to steady herself, afraid she would faint from the shock. She couldn’t believe that her father had arranged for her to marry the Victor Hawthorn. His family must be in dire straits if Mr. Hawthorn was willing to marry her, sight unseen. “When shall I meet him?” she asked with dread.
“Tomorrow, when you wed,” her father answered triumphantly.
“Tomorrow?” Charlotte squeaked in panic. She wasn’t even given time to get used to the idea or figure a way out of the betrothal.
“We cannot risk him seeing you before then. Hawthorn is honorable enough not to disgrace his family by walking out on his bride. We just want to assure he arrives there.”
Charlotte’s stomach churned and the library seemed to tilt. Of course, in her silly, romantic fantasies, she fell in love and married a man just like Victor Hawthorn and he would love her too. This wasn’t a romantic fantasy, but real life. A gentleman like Hawthorn would only resent and grow to hate her every time she stood next to a beauty of Society.
Charlotte raised her chin and looked her father in the eye. She needed to be strong in her convictions before he ruined two lives. “What if I do not wish to marry him?”
“Are you mad girl? Need I remind you to look in the mirror? No one will ever offer for you.”
“I had other plans for my life.” She rarely stood up to her father, and always regretted it, but this was her future he had just arranged.
He laughed. “What exactly did you plan on doing?”
Father never took her seriously, and continually dismissed her. Charlotte forced down the rage she often experienced but never exhibited, and took a deep, steadying breath. “I planned on becoming a governess.”
“A what?” he practically yelled.
“A governess,” she said once again. “I am intelligent, with an above-average understanding of financial matters, mathematics, and sciences. I speak French and am proficient in literature. I would make a fine governess,” she announced proudly. “You have said several times that my marriage prospects were non-existent.” She lifted her chin a notch higher. “Therefore, I have already planned my own future.”
Her father came to his feet, planted both fists on top of the desk and leaned forward.
Charlotte took a deep breath and continued even though her father looked like he was ready to come over the desk and strangle her. “It is what I intend to do.”
His hand was lightning quick. A blur before the searing sting connected with her cheek, shooting fire from her jaw to her eye.
“How dare you defy me? You will marry Victor Hawthorn if it is the last thing you do. What he does with you after the vows, I do not care, so long as I end up with a grandson.”
Tears flooded her eyes, but Charlotte refused to let them fall and blinked several times.
“Oh, good God. Get out of here before you further disgrace yourself by crying. What is done is done and you should be thankful for your good fortune.”
Charlotte didn’t need to be told twice and ran from the room, choking back the tears, not thinking to take the servant stairs, and practically ran over a couple in the corridor.