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~ Miss Charlotte Tatlock’s Wedding Day ~

Some women’s lives are defined by a single trait: golden hair, perhaps, or a grating laugh. A woman might have feet as large as tubs, or remarkable musical talents. If someone had asked her, Charlotte Tatlock would have unhesitatingly pointed to her defining trait.

She was unlucky.

Unlucky is not the same thing as desperate. She had never been hungry, or beaten, or forced to work long hours in dim light. She wasn’t ugly or deformed or illegitimate. But good luck had always evaded her. A case in point? One evening she fell in love with a winsome, laughing man who seemed to share her delight in the evening. They danced all night, and she drifted home, her head full of dreams of marriage and babies. Her bad luck showed its hand when the man in question (Lord Reeves) was declared mad and carted off to the country shortly thereafter.

While her parents were alive, her bad luck was reflected in small things, like a favorite doll being grabbed by an organ-grinder’s monkey in the street. Her mother had been the daughter of a nobleman, and so family and friends invited the family everywhere. Her father’s income had been sufficient to clothe them, and feed them, and send them on a cheerful whirlwind of happy activities during the season.

Then her father was struck down by a man hauling turnips to the London market. As everyone whispered at his funeral: very bad luck.

Turnips and mad lovers combined with her mother’s small income to narrow Charlotte’s life. She and her sister May kept to a small circle of balls and fêtes each season. Shortly after her mother passed away of influenza, her sister May fell in love with an inestimable gentleman named Mr. Muddle. He was not only muddled in his thinking, but arrogant to boot. Charlotte could not stand to be about him. When May married Mr. Muddle…what would Charlotte do?

In all, there was a great deal of the bad kind of luck about, and it was enough to make a woman very cross.

Then one morning a letter arrived, brought to their house by luck of the other kind. It was a letter franked (and written) by the Duke of Villiers, a man of such magnificent elegance and high ton that Charlotte had only gazed at him from afar.

In this case, it was his bad luck that had instigated the letter: a fever, brought on by a duel, led to his letter being sent to an incorrect address (hers)…and a short time later she found herself in the duke’s bedroom, trading barbs and laughter with one of the most admired and feared men in all England.

That was how an unenviable, unexceptionable life, a chaste life, became something quite different. And that was how bad luck transformed into its altogether more welcome twin, good luck.

Before Charlotte knew it, she was attending a country house party held by the Duchess of Beaumont (and she had not spent much time previous rubbing shoulders with the highest in the land!).

And then the Duke of Villiers asked her to marry him.

Of course, there were many women who would consider this moment to be evidence of the greatest possible good luck. But not Charlotte. She’d grown terribly affectionate toward her bitter-tongued, ailing friend Villiers. She wouldn’t marry him on his deathbed, even if it meant not having to live with the Muddles. Villiers was dying, and he was asking her for the wrong reasons. Still, an offer from a duke was something to smile over, to hug to herself at night.

Naturally, Villiers’s heir, Lord Miles Dautry, thought she was a baggage, a good-for-nothing sharpster preying on his ill relative, planning to make herself into a duchess by a deathbed marriage. Yet even that unjust accusation was a pleasure. It was delicious to be considered a seductress and tempter of men. With her long nose and faded clothing? Charlotte Tatlock — a jezebel?

Lord Dautry stood on the other side of Villiers’s bed, a lean man with a rugged face and eyes black as midnight, and accused her of being up to no good. The thrill that Charlotte felt was worth every accusation he hurled. She could hardly stop herself from smiling.

Unfortunately, Lord Dautry was the type who got angry when a woman laughed at him. It was likely because he was so used to being captain-of-the-vessel; one had to assume that sailors didn’t tease their captain. Even now that Villiers had forced him to wear clothes fit for a duke’s heir, Dautry still had the air of a mariner – or perhaps a pirate. His hair tumbled to his shoulders, and those shoulders looked too broad to fit in his shirt, even though it was made of the finest linen.

It was when Dautry grabbed and kissed her that Charlotte’s life truly became enviable. When her good luck came home to stay.

“Marry me,” he growled. Nay, he commanded it and there was nothing uncertain in his voice. Of course he thought that she, a poor spinster, would leap at the chance to marry him.

Charlotte kissed him again, melted into his arms, loved him, loved it… “No,” she replied.

She was flaunting her luck. But no one had ever begged for her hand. Ever. In fact, no one except for Villiers had asked for her hand in marriage at all.

It was all different with Miles. He looked at her, and she didn’t feel faded anymore. He kissed her cheek and she felt the softness of her own skin through his touch. He pulled out her hair pins and she realized that her hair was thick and curled around a man’s fingers. He pulled her against his lean, hard body and she realized that Miles didn’t care if she were wearing a dress of faded linsey-woolsey. He wanted what lay inside, all those curves and valleys that she’d never considered. But now Miles brought her body to life, made it tingle and speak a language she’d never considered before.

His eyes narrowed and she saw suspicion flash across his eyes. He probably thought she was secretly planning to marry Villiers. She smiled at him like a coquette, like the girl she was when she first met her mad lord, before the turnip cart took her father.

He didn’t bother with words, just kissed her so hard that her toes curled. “I’ll think about it,” she said, compromising.

It was the Duchess of Beaumont’s costume ball in celebration of Twelfth Night. Charlotte was dressed as the Queen of Sheba, and Miles had come as himself: a sailor. He said, “You’ll marry me, Charlotte.” There was a note of certainty in his voice that she didn’t like.

It wasn’t the way to start a marriage. Not that Charlotte had ever given much thought to beginnings; she had longed so much for someone just to look at her, to dance with her, to offer for her hand…and yet now that the offer arrived, she found that she was finicky.

“No.”

His eyes were dark as midnight, and still they darkened. Miles Dautry was heir to a dukedom through a younger daughter two generations back who ran away to sea. He was the sole ruler of a shipping fortune. He was the kind of man who stood before the mast and believed all the undiscovered countries before his prow could be his — and Charlotte knew instinctively that he saw her as his as well.

He was silent for a moment. Then: “Why not?”

That was like Miles. He didn’t think to say that he loved her, or even that he thought she was attractive (never mind beautiful).

It wouldn’t do. Charlotte knew that instinctively. He had to understand that she was precious, and not easily won. Men were pirates. They had to win their treasures, not have them fall into their laps.

“You’d have to truly want – want to marry me,” she said, stumbling over the words. For all she was a virgin, she wasn’t stupid. There was something in his eyes that made it plain as day that he wanted her in that old, bawdy way.

“I do.” Obviously, he thought those two words were enough. And they weren’t. So she had to trust that her luck had truly turned, that he loved her.

She shook her head and slipped out of the small curtained chamber off the ballroom.

It was the hardest thing she’d ever done, walking away. If May had been there, she would have squealed – nay, screamed. Plain old maid Charlotte had turned down the heir to the Villiers’ dukedom? Had walked away from him?

Charlotte clenched her hands together and kept walking, slipping along the side of the room, heading for her bedchamber. It was the right thing to do. She had to believe in that Miles wouldn’t give up. Trust in him.

Every moment that he thought she might not be his would lay the foundation for the right kind of marriage. Not – never! – a marriage in which he thought he had done her a favor, or a marriage to which she accepted with an audible gasp of relief.

It had to be a marriage of the kind he was worth. He was beautiful, with his tumbling hair and honey skin, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes, from standing before salt waves, the muscles in his shoulders and legs.

I did the right thing, Charlotte told herself silently. I did the right thing. He has to want me. He has to be afraid that he might not win me. He can’t know how desperate I am to even stand next to him.

She glanced back once, and he was watching her go. She couldn’t read his eyes.

Charlotte returned home the next day by mail coach and never said a word to May. Her sister was full of flustered commentary about her own upcoming wedding so Charlotte satisfied her curiosity with minute descriptions of every gown she saw worn by the Duchess of Beaumont. She didn’t tell May that the Duke of Villiers had asked for her hand in marriage, nor that his heir had done the same, nor that her heart wasn’t living in her bosom anymore. It was gone – given into the care of a sailor who had likely sailed to the far shores, and left her without a second thought.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not.

There had been a connection between them, from the moment she saw him leaning against the wall in Villiers’s bedchamber. A week passed. Two weeks.

Finally she received a letter. It was very short, and very to the point. “Will you marry me now?” She smiled, and hid the letter in the fold of her skirts to answer in private.

“Who wrote you?” May asked fretfully. And then, “Do you really think that I should offer tea at my wedding breakfast, Charlotte? It seems so terribly new-fangled.”

Charlotte just smiled.

She meant to reply to Miles as briefly as he did her, with a simple “no.” But she couldn’t resist adding details about May and her muddled wedding, because they had laughed so together, and she loved his laugh.

“Do you wish for a wedding breakfast with orange tarts?” came his reply. “Because you may have whatever you want, darling.”

She cried over that letter. It was the word darling. She was someone’s darling? She, old-maid-Charlotte who couldn’t even attract a suitor as dull as Mr. Muddle?

“You are having a correspondence,” May accused her, some days later. “I saw you had another letter this morning. I demand that you tell me who is writing you!”

Charlotte smiled a bit. “Or?”

“Or I shall tell Mr. Muddle,” May said impressively. “You know, Charlotte, he is to be the new head of our household now, and I’m sure that he will be as keen to protect your reputation as our own father would have been.”

That threat was enough to drive a woman to marriage with the knife-sharpener, in Charlotte’s opinion. Not that she didn’t intend to marry. The letters sometimes came twice a day now, full of details about the house Miles had bought in the east end of London. Not, perhaps, the most fashionable of all locations, but just right (Charlotte thought) for the two of them.

Though she didn’t say so. Instead, she spent two hours every morning, crafting a letter that laughed, and teased, and spoke to the heart – but never agreed to marry him.

And every evening another letter would be delivered, and at the very bottom would be the magical words, Will you marry me?

“Just tell me that you’re not carrying on with a married man,” May said, with an impressive swooning swoop onto the sofa. “Please give that small comfort to my conscience!”

“I’m not corresponding with a married man,” Charlotte said, with the smile that she couldn’t seem to keep inside these days.

“Then why hasn’t this man paid you a visit like a proper suitor?” May demanded. “Why, we could invite him to supper, and have Mr. Muddle. What’s the matter with that man, Charlotte?”

Since Charlotte could hardly say that she hadn’t invited Miles, she just shook her head sadly. “His situation is…vexed.”

“Married!” May cried, pouncing on it. “Mark my words, Charlotte Tatlock, this is worse than when you were flirting with the Duke of Beaumont. You shall be ruined!” A horrible thought struck her. “You aren’t corresponding with Beaumont, are you, Charlotte?” She almost fell off the sofa at the hideous thought. “Oh, tell me that you’re not?”

“I’m not,” Charlotte said agreeably.

But she was starting to long to see Miles. His next letter was much shorter. “I’m off to Italy in two days. Will you come with me?”

She wrote back with a trembling hand. “I can’t! I could not do such a thing to my sister as elope…when will you return?”

But she despaired. Inside, she despaired. In her vanity and stupidity, she’d let him slip away. He would go to Italy and meet a cherry-lipped, black-haired Italian miss who would wind him around her finger and he’d be lost to her.

She sobbed into her pillow, knowing, knowing that he would remember her. He wouldn’t forget her – how could he? But he would remember her as a chilly-hearted Englishwoman who refused to marry him time and again, and finally chose to stay as in her sister’s household rather than ride the seas.

There was no letter the whole following day.

Charlotte didn’t give up hope until late at night, when the small house had settled into its usual creaking sleep. May was snoring down the corridor. Their one maid was tucked away in her attic room. It felt as if the world had shrunk to the size of her room.

There was only Charlotte and her sturdy cotton nightgown, and her huge sobs. When the house creaked, it felt as if her heart creaked with it.

She had made a mistake. Perhaps he hadn’t left yet; perhaps she could catch him before he left for Italy. She knew his residence. The moment the thought entered her head she knew it was the right thing to do.

She would never let Miles go to Italy without her. Without a second thought, she rose from her bed and pulled out the battered trunk that she had taken to the Duchess of Beaumont’s house party. She would say farewell to May at dawn, and then take a hackney to the address to which she sent her letters.

Her hands paused for a moment as she put a nicely folded pile of nightwear into the trunk. A young lady was not supposed to arrive at gentlemen’s houses, unaccompanied, let alone with all her worldly belongings. But Miles…

She couldn’t help smiling as she bent over the trunk again. Miles would be there.

May was much less sanguine the following morning. She collapsed in hysterics, begging, pleading, screaming for Charlotte to rethink her foolish plan. “Save yourself!” she sobbed, throwing her hand to her brow. “Oh, Mother, mother, what would you think?”

Charlotte didn’t need to wonder about what their mother would think. She wouldn’t like it. So she kissed May goodbye, unfortunately on her elbow as she couldn’t reach her cheek, and left the room with a light step.

Their maid was in the hallway, at the door, curtsying in that clumsy way she had. Charlotte frowned. Who could –

It was Miles.

The door swung open and there he was, part duke, part sailor, part pirate. He stepped forward three large steps and put his hand under her chin.

“You’re mine, Charlotte.” He said it quietly. He said it the way a man talks when he’s never going to swathe you in fancy words and lots of compliments, because that sort of flummery wasn’t in him. He said it like a man who knows when he’s met his heart’s match, and doesn’t have a doubt in the world.

“Oh, Miles,” Charlotte breathed.

And then she was in his arms, and his lips, chilly from morning air, were on hers. She could dimly hear May’s little screams, and the maid laughing, but Miles just pulled her closer.

Finally he said, not letting her go, “I’ve brought a special license, Charlotte.”

She couldn’t even speak; she loved him that much.

“Unless you truly loathe and detest me, I’d like you to marry me now.”

Since she could no more say no to the man than she could dance with a flea, so she nodded. He kissed her again, and kissed her once more, and she realized that she was wrong all along. For whatever reason, Miles saw her as a treasure from the moment he saw her. He didn’t have to be convinced or conjoled or refused…

“My wife,” he said soft into her ear. And something changed in her heart forever: her certainty that she was the owner of bad luck.

“I love you,” she said, and held her breath.

“I’ve loved you since I saw you at Villiers’s bedside,” he said, “and I thought you were marrying my uncle.” He kissed her hard just at the thought.

Charlotte Tatlock was one of the luckiest women in all England, if not in the world, and she knew it.

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