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Authors: Elaine Golden

An Imprudent Lady

BOOK: An Imprudent Lady
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An Imprudent Lady
Elaine Golden

 

As a young woman, Lady Charlotte Fortney learned what passion truly was from her handsome neighbor, Daniel Walsh. When they were discovered, her father sent the lowly doctor’s son far away from their precious daughter.

Years later, spinster Charlotte is content to watch others play the courtship game—until Daniel returns from India, rekindling a desire that time could never erase. But Daniel seems to have set his sights on another woman, the one match Charlotte would do anything to prevent. He may be willing to give her up—if Charlotte gives
herself
in exchange….

Book one of the Fortney Follies series.

 

What is it about historical romance that fascinates and delights us as readers? Is it the different lifestyles? Political intrigue? Unusual locations? Fashions? As a writer, I’m drawn to all of the above. I like to explore how people might have lived and loved, what they experienced throughout time.

It is with great delight that I am able to share with you this Undone! short story, my debut romance. It’s the story of Charlotte and Daniel, young lovers separated under the worst of circumstances and reunited years later. How will they overcome their past so they can explore a future together?

Most of all, I hope that you enjoy their story and I would love to hear from you! Visit my website at www.elainegolden.com or email me at [email protected].

To Rodney, for his unfailing encouragement and support. To Carroll, for never doubting I had it in me. To Linda, for taking a chance and publishing this unknown author. And to all of the wonderful folks at AbsoluteWrite who make writing less of a lonely craft.

CHAPTER ONE

“If it weren’t so early in the Season, Lady Charlotte, I’d declare your sister a singular success.” Lady Bromwell nodded toward Angelica on the far side of the room.

Charlotte Fortney smiled and nodded politely. At thirty-five, she observed the festivities from her usual place within the congregation of matrons and chaperones that watched the room with attentive eyes. As a confirmed spinster, Charlotte was content to monitor the courting rituals of others unfolding under the gilded candlelight of the ballroom. Her location had the added benefit of allowing her to keep a watchful eye on her young sister.

“Is that Stanwall dancing with Angelica?” asked her mother, the Dowager Duchess of Wainsborough, as she joined her.

“Indeed it is,” Charlotte said. “And the second dance set tonight. All of the gossips will be atwitter on the morrow.”

Her mother chuckled. “Excellent. Stanwall would be a brilliant match.”

“He would bore Angelica to tears.” Charlotte took a sip of lukewarm punch.

“I fail to see how that is a deterrent, Charlotte. One doesn’t look to a husband for diversion. Stanwall is wealthy, titled and from a prestigious bloodline. Angelica would do well as his countess.” Her mother studied the couple with the alertness of a predator watching its prey.

Stanwall returned Angelica to her throng of admirers then bowed with formal precision and took his leave. Angelica turned her attention and smiles to another suitor without a single glance at the departing figure.

“Drat,” her mother grumbled.

“Why the rush to wed her off, Mother? Allow her to enjoy this first Season and focus your wedding aspirations on one of the boys. Heavens knows they’re not making any progress on their own.” The sisters bracketed two bachelor brothers in age, so her male siblings were viable targets on the marriage mart and had been for some time.

“Don’t think I haven’t tried. They’re as slippery as eels,” she said and sniffed as if wounded. “Besides, I’d like to see
one
of my girls wed.” The words were careless, as if her mother had said her thoughts aloud without realizing it.

Charlotte stiffened. “I should have liked to have wed, as you well know.” At one time, Charlotte would have done anything to wed one man in particular. And she had given up everything as a result when she could not.

At least her mother had the courtesy to look appalled for her words, although if one didn’t know the duchess well it would have been difficult to tell. Her mother’s control was such that she froze when embarrassed with no undignified stammering or blushing. After a long hesitation, she inhaled and turned her full attention to Charlotte.

“Indeed. I should have said that I would like to see one of my girls
well
wed.”

And there it was—the admonishment for selecting the wrong man. A man who wasn’t
well
set in the eyes of her parents.

A long moment passed before Charlotte dared to speak. “Proceed with care, Mother, and reflect upon the last time you attempted to meddle with a daughter’s affections. And the consequences.”

“I recall all too well, Charlotte, and I won’t be as lax this time.” Her mother glanced about to ensure no one could overhear them. “She’ll be wed and secure before
she
has the chance to ruin herself. I won’t tolerate another scandal to suppress.”

Perhaps it was the stress of launching Angelica in her first Season that brought out the spitefulness; she’d been denied the event with Charlotte. But Charlotte had learned long ago to retreat in the face of parental opposition, and she followed that ingrained response now. After all, it wasn’t done to bicker in public. Charlotte sketched a curtsy for form’s sake and fled the room and her mother as discreetly as possible.

Memories threatened to swamp her as she left the ballroom. The images were oddly fresh for having occurred so long ago, although she had never entirely forgotten. How could she, when the course of her life had altered so completely? The exposure now, after so many years of burying them, was shockingly raw, washing her with pain.

She slipped into the ladies’ retiring room to hide until the despair was once again suppressed, and it was nearly half an hour before she recovered sufficiently. She needed to return, but she felt exposed, as if a tiny window to her soul had been revealed.

Charlotte studied her reflection critically in a gilt-edged mirror provided by their considerate hostess. At least she hadn’t cried, although it had been a near thing. Red, swollen eyes would have been impossible to explain away. Hopefully, she would be able to hide her vulnerability from the curious.

Charlotte pinched her cheeks for color, took a deep breath and summoned a broad, false smile. She could do it. She could return to the gathering and leave the past where it belonged—in the past. And, somehow, she’d find a way to stand up to her mother, for her sister’s sake if not her own. It was too late for Charlotte.

Her pace picked up as she hurried down the corridor toward the ballroom, eager to reclaim the evening. Then she rounded a corner and plowed, nose first, into the wide chest of another guest. Her heart lurched and she swayed a moment before a strong grip steadied her.

Lud, she was clumsy. If she’d been paying proper attention, she wouldn’t have nearly run the poor fellow down.

She withdrew a step and looked up, but the apology died on her lips. Her pulse seemed to slow and the world dimmed to a narrow point. The orchestra and the din of the crowd faded, muffled like sound carried underwater.

Him.

Her past, her heartbreak and her perpetual purgatory wrapped in one starkly masculine package.

CHAPTER TWO

“Don’t you dare faint, Charlotte,” Daniel Walsh snapped. “I won’t catch you.” The fact that he had already reached to steady her belied his words.

If he hadn’t spoken, she’d have believed it another dream. How many times over the years had she imagined suddenly coming upon him in a crowd or finding him in some random place? Somewhere along the way, the bittersweet dreams of love and passion and reunion had curdled into a nightmare of hopelessness.

Daniel’s grip was hot upon her skin despite the evening gloves that encased his hands, and she was reassured that this was no dream; it was her nightmare come to life.

He looked both the same as she remembered and altogether different, if that were possible. He still stood precisely three inches taller than she, and broad shoulders gave evidence that he was no longer a gangly limbed youth. Deep wrinkles were now etched into his face, baked by the same harsh sunlight that had darkened his skin to the patina of well-aged oak.

But his eyes were the exact same shade of melted chocolate that she remembered. She hadn’t been able to choke down a cup of the stuff in years because it reminded her of the rich depths of his gaze.

Charlotte had no idea how long they stared at each other in awkward silence.

“I’m perfectly fine now, thank you,” she said, amazed that her voice barely wavered. For good measure, she added a courteous, “Mr. Walsh.”

His blond brows rose, and he dropped his hands as if scalded. His mouth twisted, but not with amusement nor disdain. It was an expression she had never seen before and had no idea how to interpret.

“Mr. Walsh,” he murmured as if he’d never heard his name before, and he stared at her as if trying to read her mind. Then the moment broke and his familiar manner transformed to aloof courtesy. He bowed slightly.

“My lady,” he said, but it sounded like an admonishment. “I beg your pardon. Entirely my fault.”

Her chest tightened at the distance in his voice; it was as if he were gone all over again. She wondered, for the countless time, why he had left, what she had done and why he had never seen fit to write.

“Where—?” she began, reaching out with words that ended up failing her.

She simply didn’t know where to begin. What does one say to a former lover after nearly twenty years? Age and time separated them now. This was not the boy that she had fallen in love with; this was a man she didn’t know. They simply didn’t prepare young ladies for this sort of thing in finishing school.

“If you’ll excuse me,” he murmured and then pointedly stepped around her, fastidiously avoiding further contact.

Charlotte watched in dismay as his coattails twitched around the corner and he disappeared. She battled the urge to dash after him.

To what purpose? To stop him and beg him to…what? Take her back after all of these years?

Despite her soul’s clamor that she knew him still—had always known him—she didn’t really. It had been too long. For all she was aware, Daniel Walsh could have a wife, half a dozen children and a blissful life.

Just the thought of it twisted her stomach. She leaned against the wall, feeling flushed and ill. Lud, what if he did?

“There you are! I’ve been looking all over for you, Charlotte.” Her mother sailed toward her with all of the hauteur of His Royal Highness’s best warship. “We’re leaving. Now.”

She seized Charlotte’s wrist and set off toward the entryway. Charlotte trailed behind like a moored lifeboat in her wake.

They found Angelica already huddled in her cloak and looking pleased that they were leaving early. Three suitors circled, pouting and carping about their leave-taking and generally making a nuisance. Irritated, Angelica waved away the men and their promises to call in the morning.

“Mother,” Charlotte said, heart still pounding from the encounter with Daniel. “You cannot imagine who I just—”

“Not now,” her mother snapped and looked about as if she expected to be attacked by miscreants. Angelica’s eyes widened as she watched their mother’s unusual behavior. “Wait until we’re in the coach, if you please.”

“But you’ll never believe who I just saw, Mother,” Charlotte said and turned back to stare at the spot of the collision. “I can’t leave without—”

“You can and you will, Lady Charlotte Fortney,” her mother said in the low tone that she had perfected to manage her progeny. “Don’t you dare embarrass me and ruin your sister’s chances for a good match.”

“But—”

“You will get into that coach right now, Charlotte, and return home with your sister and me. No further questions.”

Charlotte continued to stare down the hall, silently willing Daniel to return. To prove the encounter wasn’t the wild imagination of a broken woman.

She recalled his beloved features, sharpened and toughened now by time. The familiar eyes with the unfamiliar distance and coldness. Her heart might ache for him as much as ever, but Daniel Walsh was a man she no longer knew. He had a life and a history apart from her, and she was unlikely to find a place in it again.

So, like the dutiful daughter she had always tried to be, she followed her mother into the night.

BOOK: An Imprudent Lady
11.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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