“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
Miss Charlotte Richardson smiled softly as her mother’s hand was pressed to the lips of her new husband, the Earl of Hardwick. Her mother had eyes only for the earl as they left the church, making Charlotte’s heart fill with joy. She had seen the pain her mother had been in over the death of her first husband some years ago, and now, it seemed, that pain was gone. The Earl of Hardwick was a kind man, and certainly a generous husband, and that made Charlotte more than glad over the marriage.
“It seems as though we are to be sisters after all.”
Charlotte turned her head to see her new stepsister, Lady Emma, who was tossing her blonde curls in frustration. Her blue eyes were filled with regret and irritation, which was quite the opposite of what Charlotte felt.
“It seems we shall be,” Charlotte replied quietly, without even the slightest hint of malice. “And I, for one, am glad of it.”
“Humph!” Lady Emma huffed and moved away from Charlotte almost immediately, making Charlotte more than aware of her stepsister’s dislike.
If only Lady Emma had been more open to Charlotte’s presence, then this might have been the perfect happy ending for both her and her mother. But, as it was, Charlotte was simply going to have to make the best of it. She smiled broadly as her mother waved delightedly from the carriage, which began to trundle away. The wedding breakfast was to take place at the earl’s townhouse—which was to be Charlotte’s new home—and from there, the earl and her mother would go on a brief honeymoon and leave Charlotte and Lady Emma in the care of his older, widowed sister, a Lady Perrin, whom Charlotte had only met on one prior occasion. The lady was kind enough, but it was all a little overwhelming, given that things had already changed so drastically in her life.
Settling herself in her own carriage and ignoring the baleful looks Lady Emma shot at her as she sat down, Charlotte smiled softly to herself and allowed her eyes to drift closed as swathes of emotion draped themselves around her. Pain and happiness twined together, bringing both tears and smiles. She missed her father, her kind, loving, gentle father, who had left them all too soon.
A heart problem, the doctor had said. At the time, Charlotte had not been able to make any sense of what had occurred, lost in the grief of losing her parent. It had been so sudden. One moment, her father was laughing and smiling, continuing with his duties and his engagements as he normally would—and the next, he was gone. The coldness of his hand was something Charlotte knew she would never forget.
She had been left adrift for a while, trying to comfort her mother whilst dealing with her own pain. How grateful she had been that her uncle, the new viscount, had allowed them to return to London and live in what had been their townhouse, even though it now belonged to her uncle. He had been most generous towards them, for which Charlotte had been most grateful. There, she and her mother had spent their year of mourning—and then two more years after that.
It meant that Charlotte had been late in her coming out. For even the year her mourning had ended, she had not felt able to join in all the parties and soirees going on around her, but her mother had been quite the opposite. She had thrown herself headlong into all the joys life could hold, as though the loss of her husband had shown her that she had to make the most of what she had. And, as luck would have it, her mother had been blessed with the gift of new love and a new husband.
The Earl of Hardwick would never replace Charlotte’s father, but at least he was a kind man. The love in his eyes whenever he looked at Charlotte’s mother brought a joy to her heart that began to heal the pain and sorrow that had been etched there for so long. Charlotte was quite sure her mother would be more than happy with the Earl of Hardwick, especially now that they would be financially secure and no longer a burden to Charlotte’s uncle.
If only her new stepsister could see things that way. Opening her eyes, Charlotte dared a look at Lady Emma and saw that her blue eyes were still harsh and cold, her lips thin and expression haughty. Sighing inwardly, Charlotte closed her eyes again and chose to ignore her.
Lady Emma was not in any way happy about her father’s marriage, although she was always kind and respectful to her new stepmother. However, towards Charlotte, she made her feelings quite clear. There was no kinship between them, no understanding of the pain and grief they had both gone through in losing a dear parent.
But, then again, Lady Emma had never really known her mother. From what Charlotte knew, the lady had died in childbirth, along with the baby, when Lady Emma had been but three years of age. But still, Charlotte had reasoned, that brought a loss of its own. There would be something missing, something gone from your life that could never be replaced. However, Lady Emma had never once mentioned it. It was as though she cared very little for the loss of her mother. After all, she was the only one her father needed to think about, and Charlotte knew that Lady Emma disliked being somewhat replaced by the new Lady Hardwick.
No longer would Lady Emma be the only focus of her father’s attention. No longer would she be the only one her father thought of, the only one her father cared for. That must bring some irritation, of course, but Charlotte would have expected the lady to be glad that her father was happy once more, that he was no longer alone and destined to live his life without the companionship and friendship of a wife. But apparently, she was quite wrong on that count. Lady Emma seemed more put out than anything else.
No, a friendship was not particularly likely to blossom between the two of them.
“And are you intending to find yourself a husband this season?”
Charlotte’s eyes flew open as she looked across at Lady Emma, who was regarding her with a look of distaste.
“A husband?” Charlotte stammered, a little taken aback by the lady’s questions. “I had not thought about—”
“Well, you ought to be thinking about it!” Lady Emma replied, with a toss of her head. “My goodness, Miss Richardson! You cannot intend to live off my father’s charity for the remainder of your life now, can you?”
Charlotte bristled, her normally calm demeanor a little riled. “I have no intention of living off anyone’s charity, Lady Emma. As it stands, I view him as my guardian, just as I ought. He has been very kind to me and has not made any kind of request regarding my presence in his home.”
Lady Emma let out a soft little laugh, shaking her head mockingly at Charlotte. “Come now! You should know that my father is only kind towards you simply because he has to be. You are just an additional burden that he has no other choice but to shoulder. The sooner you are married and settled, the happier he will be.”
Charlotte narrowed her eyes, her fingers curling in her lap. “Lady Emma, as much as you try to paint your father in this disagreeable light, I must warn you now that I have no intention of believing a word you say about him.” Seeing Lady Emma’s eyes narrow even further, Charlotte continued in a rush, desperate to finish what she was saying before Lady Emma could shoot any more spiteful barbs her way. “He loves my mother, of that I am quite sure, and would not wish to push me out of his home. I know that you find my presence here most disagreeable, but I can take no responsibility for that.” Hardening her gaze, she fixed her stepsister with a look. “And I can assure you that I will take your father’s words over yours any day.”
Sitting back in her seat, Charlotte watched in satisfaction as Lady Emma spluttered, apparently stunned that Charlotte would speak to her in such a way. She was not about to let Lady Emma think that she could get the better of her. A show of strength meant that Lady Emma would be in no doubt as to Charlotte’s determination to ignore her spite entirely. Charlotte knew that Lady Emma was not happy about her changed circumstances, but that was none of Charlotte’s concern.
“After all,” she finished, seeing Lady Emma still searching for a response. “Mayhap you will be the one to marry first, Lady Emma, and you will not have to put up with me for too much longer.”
Lady Emma let out a screech of frustration, which made the carriage jolt as the horses jerked in surprise. It was enough of a shock so as to force the lady to hold onto the strap and forget her torrent of anger that she clearly intended to direct towards Charlotte, which meant that the rest of the carriage ride continued in silence.
Charlotte sighed in relief, wishing the carriage could go somewhat faster as they made their way through the streets of London. Lady Emma had already had two seasons and still, as yet, had not found herself a suitable beau.
That was not to say that she did not have a great number of gentleman callers. From what Charlotte had heard, there had been at least two proposals, but apparently neither had been up to snuff. It was not that Lady Emma was searching for love or the like, but rather that the gentlemen in question had not been of a high enough title for her liking. Lady Emma wanted nothing more than to better herself, so—even though her father was an earl—she would not consider anyone of the same or lesser title than that. No, Lady Emma wanted a marquess or even a duke for herself. After all, she was the daughter of a rich and well-respected earl, and with her fair curls and sparkling blue eyes, she would be a pretty piece for any gentleman to have on his arm.
Charlotte gave her auburn locks a self-conscious tug. Red hair was not a particularly sought-after trait, especially when one did not have the green eyes to go with it. Her eyes were a dark hazel, courtesy of her father, which meant that Charlotte would never truly be considered a beauty. Nor was her dowry anywhere near as large as Lady Emma’s would be, given that Charlotte’s late father had been a viscount and not a wealthy one at that.
It is probably just as well I have no great urge to marry, she thought, as a wry smile crossed her face. I shall just be content in our new situation and, mayhap in time, I shall find someone who cares nothing for looks, but rather esteems character over the brightness of one’s eyes.
The carriage drew up to the townhouse, and—with a sigh of relief—Charlotte alighted from it and looked up at her new home. Lady Emma brushed past her with a tirade of irritation and annoyance already erupting from her lips, but Charlotte heard nothing of it. Instead, she was lost in a flurry of memories, remembering how she had stood on these very steps with her mother only a few days ago, overseeing the last of their things being taken within.
“This is home now,” she said to herself, carefully walking up the steps and through the front door. “And I intend to be very happy here.”