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Authors: Georgie Lee

Lady's Wager

BOOK: Lady's Wager
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Charlotte Stuart is an
heiress dedicated to charitable causes who’s been betrayed by the false love of
a fortune hunter before. Ridiculed by Paris society for her mistake, she vows
never to fall victim to the weakness of love again. Driven back to England by
the collapse of the Peace of Amiens, she enters London society and meets Lord Edward
Woodcliff, a handsome Viscount in straightened circumstances. Falling for
Edward means risking being humiliated again.

 

Edward has come to London
to find a wife. Made leery of marriage by his father’s disastrous second marriage,
Edward feigns poverty in order to find a woman who loves him and not his
wealth. He loses his heart to the independent and spirited Charlotte, but her
fear of being betrayed, and his hesitation to make a matrimonial mistake, prove
difficult to overcome.

 

All
seems hopeless until Edward challenges Charlotte to a wager. If he wins, he
gains her hand in marriage. If he loses, then Charlotte is free of him.
Charlotte accepts the wager only to lose her hand and her heart to Edward. Now
Charlotte must put aside her fears of being betrayed by love long enough to let
Edward into her life and admit he is the man of her dreams.

 

 

Lady’s Wager

by

Georgie Lee

 

Please
visit
www.georgielee.com
to learn more about Georgie and her books.

 

Chapter One

London, 1803

 

“Have the portraits been hung and the extra seating
arranged?” Charlotte Stuart called to her aunt as she bounded into the drawing
room. With her terrier Minnie tucked under one arm, Charlotte inspected the
newly rearranged furniture and art. Everything had to be perfect, each piece
displayed to its best advantage, for the improvements to St. Dunstan’s
Charitable Hospital depended on tonight’s success. The large, rectangular room,
normally an eclectic blend of Queen Anne and neoclassic, had been carefully
rearranged to resemble a salon. Charlotte’s collection of paintings from abroad
hung two high on the red walls, while a selection of her Grecian urns and
Italian marble statues graced the small tables scattered about the room.

Charlotte placed Minnie on the floor and the small dog
dashed over to greet Aunt Mary, who perched on the edge of the settee.

“Charlotte, I don’t know if I approve of this,” Aunt Mary
replied in a high voice as she absentmindedly patted Minnie’s head. “What will
your uncle say?”

“Uncle Charles will say very little, as usual.” Charlotte
hoped this would put a quick end to her aunt’s concerns, but the thin, tight
line of Aunt Mary’s lips told her otherwise.

“Had I known you intended to entertain apothecaries, I
never would’ve sent the invitations. You tricked me.”

“I did no such thing.” She struggled not to roll her eyes
as a long morning of calming her aunt’s frayed nerves stretched out before her.

“You did. You said you wished to host a small soirée. I
was so happy to see you finally showing an interest in proper society, but this
is not what I had in mind.” She shook her handkerchief at the mahogany table in
the center of the room which supported a fine collection of evaporator glasses,
vials and burners.

“Don’t fret Aunt Mary, it’s all very proper,” Charlotte
tossed over her shoulder as she moved a delicate Grecian urn to a sturdier
table in the corner.

“But what if it isn’t? What will people say?”Aunt Mary
followed Charlotte as she moved about the room straightening and adjusting
paintings. Minnie trotted behind Charlotte, jumping at the folds of her light
green walking dress as Charlotte continued her inspection.

“It doesn’t matter what they say, so long as they donate
to the hospital.” She picked Minnie up and handed her to Aunt Mary, who tucked
the squirming dog under her arm.

“Then think of what the
gentlemen
might say?”Aunt
Mary insisted, her voice growing increasingly higher. “This is your first Season
in London, you don’t want to turn off all the men at once.”

“Which men? The lord who wants my fortune? The handsome
barrister who’ll gamble it away? A merchant’s son who’ll spend his nights at
the club while I mind the children? I’d be better off if they did stay away.”

“Charlotte!” Aunt Mary collapsed onto a nearby settee,
rapidly fanning herself with her handkerchief.

“Bring madam a cordial,” Charlotte called to a nearby maid
who hurried out of the room.

“I wouldn’t need a cordial if you’d only listen to
reason,” Aunt Mary spat through short gasps, her face turning a deep shade of
red as she struggled to breathe.

How Aunt Mary survives her stays, I’ll never know
,
Charlotte mused as the maid handed her a crystal glass filled with a dark red
liquid. She held the glass out to her aunt.

“Drink this or you’re sure to have quite a fit of the
vapors and then you’ll miss tonight when Dr. Walter dazzles us with his new
theory.”

“I’m not a child. Don’t treat me like one,” Aunt Mary
snapped, taking the cordial and sipping it delicately. Her composure appeared
to have recovered.

“I see you’ve informed your aunt of tonight’s
entertainment.” Uncle Charles strolled into the room with
The Gazette
tucked
under his arm. Charles Stuart was a gentleman of five and fifty, ten years
older than Aunt Mary, of medium height with a slender build and a full head of
silver hair. The youngest son of an old Salisbury family, Charles had never
expected to inherit and had made his fortune in shipping, transporting tobacco from
the Colonies and spices from India. When Charlotte’s father had passed away,
Uncle Charles had inherited, and his status as one of the landed gentry
afforded him a measure of privilege usually denied to those in commerce.

“You must reason with her,” Aunt Mary demanded as Uncle
Charles settled himself into a large armchair near the fireplace.

“My dear, I gave up reasoning
with her years ago.” He snapped open the newspaper, placing the pages between
himself and the ladies.

“You both make me sound like a hoyden when all I want to
do is display my art and raise money for St. Dunstan’s. When people hear Dr.
Walter’s theory, I know they’ll be generous.”

“Proper young ladies should confine themselves to the
pianoforte and painting screens,” Aunt Mary sniffed, eliciting a small chuckle
from behind the paper.

Charlotte stared at her aunt, aghast. “How can you say
such a thing when I’ve never played the pianoforte or painted a screen in my
entire life?”

Aunt Mary sighed as her nervousness dissolved into
resignation. “I know. I can’t believe I said it. But London is different from
Paris and I feel I haven’t done my duty preparing you for society. It’ll only
make the Season more difficult for you.”

“I see Mrs. Knight has called again,” Uncle Charles
muttered from behind his paper, and Aunt Mary shot
The Gazette
a
disapproving look. She turned to Charlotte, her large blue eyes filled with
genuine concern.

“We’re only looking out for your future.” Aunt Mary tucked
her handkerchief in the ample bodice of her dress. “Your uncle and I won’t
always be here and we want to see you well settled.”

“I have my inheritance, how much more settled must I be?”

“My dear, there’s great benefit in having a good partner
in life.”

Charlotte went to the table to straighten the glass vials,
eager to avoid this topic. In Paris, she’d seen too many young ladies with
large fortunes marry men who professed love but only wanted money. By saying
their wedding vows, the women had relinquished control of their fortunes to
husbands who did nothing but waste them while ignoring their wives. Charlotte
had come close to making the same mistake with the Comte de Vimeur and wasn’t
about to risk her heart or her independence on such an uncertain contract as
marriage. “Science is perfectly acceptable, even in London during the Season.”

Aunt Mary sniffed. “In the London of my day, a young lady
didn’t concern herself with science, or so my mother said.”

“Your mother said a great many things and like Charlotte
you listened to none of them,” Uncle Charles reminded, the newspaper pages
rustling as he turned them.

A mischievous smile played at the corners of Aunt Mary’s
lips. “And my life is the better for it. But never you mind.”

“See, can I really be so bad?” Charlotte laughed.

“My dear, I’m only trying to do my best for you,” Aunt
Mary sighed, smoothing the wrinkles in her dress. “But I suppose I’m too old to
be of any real use to you.”

Charlotte threw her arms around the plump older woman.
“How can you say such a thing when you’ve done so much for me? Who nursed me in
Rome through the fever? Who helped me collect all the blankets for the
foundling hospital in Venice, and who always instructs Cook to distribute the
kitchen scraps to the poor?”

“I suppose you do need me. But I wish you’d listen. I’m
only trying to help.”

“I know.” Charlotte pressed a kiss to her aunt’s cheek
then rose. “Now I must go. Lady Treadwell and Elizabeth will be here at any
moment. We’re visiting Hookham’s this morning.”

She hurried out of the room,
Minnie following obediently behind her, relieved to have something to attend to
besides soothing her aunt’s nerves.

*****

“I fear for her, Charles,” Mary sighed once Charlotte was
gone.

Charles peered over the top of the paper at his diminutive
wife. She’d been a beauty in her time, with blonde hair and blue eyes and a
nature as vivacious as Charlotte’s. Now she was older, her eyes a touch dimmer,
her face and figure rounder, her manner a little more reserved. They had no
children of their own, but eleven years ago they’d become Charlotte’s guardians
after Charles’ older brother and sister-in-law had died of the fever. Charlotte
was like a daughter to them both but unlike Mary, he worried less about their
niece’s future.

“Charlotte has a good head and more sense than most young
ladies. She has her mother’s fortune and where it could’ve made her selfish and
silly, she spends her time helping others. I trust her to make the right
decisions. Besides, I believe life and all its mishaps will do more to temper
her high spirits than any of our lectures.”

“But she’s stubborn and proud—too proud for her own good.
She doesn’t defer when it would be more prudent to do so.”

Charles nodded, folding his paper. “I agree, she’s
stubborn and a little proud but she’s also practical. Were she not, I’d share
your concern. But, my dear, you must also see the opportunity in this.”

Mary gaped at him. “What opportunity?”

“She’ll be near young gentlemen. Eventually one will catch
her fancy and solve the matter.”

“Not if she creates a scandal.”

The small clock on the mantle chimed nine times. Charles
rose, tucked the newspaper under his arm and approached his wife,
placing his hands lovingly on her shoulders. Her pale blue eyes met his and his
heart fluttered just as it had twenty years ago, on the day they’d first met.

“Charlotte is a pretty young
woman with a large fortune. She’ll always be attractive to gentlemen.” He
kissed her gently on the forehead, inhaling the soft scent of rosewater before
retiring to the quiet of his office and the beginning of another business day.

*****

Charlotte entered the library, placed Minnie on the floor
and set to collecting the books due back to Hookham’s. She suspected, as her
uncle did, Aunt Mary’s sudden change of opinion was the direct result of Mrs.
Knight’s visit the evening before. Mrs. Knight, being an old acquaintance of
Aunt Mary’s mother, often reminded Aunt Mary of how proper young ladies should
behave by pointing out where Charlotte fell short. Charlotte knew Mrs. Knight
was only trying to help, but the matron’s meddling created a great deal of
anxiety with Aunt Mary and therefore Charlotte.

She looked down at Minnie who watched her with eager eyes.
“Be glad you don’t have old ladies telling you how to behave.”

Minnie cocked her head as though to contradict Charlotte,
who knelt to pet the little dog. “But I order you around, so of course you know
how tiresome it is.”

With an exasperated sigh she returned to her books,
examining the cover of a medical treatise from Germany. Aunt Mary had never
worried like this in Paris. In fact she’d said very little on the subject of
Charlotte’s intellectual pursuits. Everything had changed when they’d been
forced to return to London. While her uncle and aunt enjoyed the company of
their old friends, Charlotte found the Season’s parties and balls a poor
substitute for the witty discussions of the Paris salons. At three and twenty
years of age, she possessed little desire to parade herself through the
ballrooms and drawing rooms of London as though she were a green girl of
sixteen. She’d rather stay on the shelf than subject herself to the ridiculous
hopes and disappointments of much younger girls.

She stacked the books on the corner of the desk, counting
to make sure she had them all. As frustrating as she found London, the city was
not entirely devoid of interests. Charlotte enjoyed the friendship of Mrs.
Knight’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, and there was Aunt Mary’s childhood friend,
Lady Redding, whose salons provided Charlotte with the intellectual company she
craved. Her most engrossing pursuit was her charity work. In every city in
which the Stuarts had lived, Charlotte had chosen a hospital to help.
Immediately upon arriving in London, she’d taken St. Dunstan’s under her wing. Her
work there was a welcome distraction from the trials of London society.

At the sound of the front door knocker, Charlotte gathered
up the books and made for the entryway to meet the dowager Lady Treadwell and
Miss Elizabeth Knight.

Lady Treadwell was short, her figure full but not fat. She
wore a pelisse and walking dress in the dark purples and grays favored by most
widows. They highlighted her faded blonde hair with faint streaks of silver and
did nothing to detract from her jovial nature. Despite the dowager countess’s
interest in fashion and society, Charlotte enjoyed her company for she and her late
husband had been friends of Charlotte’s parents.

“Good morning Elizabeth, good morning Lady Treadwell. How
is your nephew?” Charlotte asked. The young man had lost his wife in childbirth
the previous year and had since retired completely from society.

“He’s doing much better. My niece is hopeful they’ll both
come to London for the Season next year, though I’d wish he’d come this year.
It would do him good to be among people again,” she replied wearily before Aunt
Mary’s appearance drew her from her deep concern. “Speaking of people, Mary, I
have the most delightful
on-dit
to share with you.”

Charlotte didn’t hear the gossip as Elizabeth approached
her with news of her own.

“Did you hear? Lord Ashford made a generous donation to
St. Dunstan’s. He’s sure to set the example for the
ton
and soon Dr.
Walter will have enough money for the improvements!”

“I knew you’d inspire him,” Charlotte congratulated. She’d
introduced Elizabeth to Lord Henry Ashford the week before during their outing
to view the new paintings on exhibit at the Royal Academy. She’d sensed her
friend’s sweet, shy nature would complement the Earl’s outgoing, friendly
personality, and she’d been right.

BOOK: Lady's Wager
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