Prologue, 'Tis Her Season
September 1803: Somerset, England
Charlotte sat bolt upright in bed. Screams echoed across the frozen grounds to Brittlestep Manor, seemingly all the way from Evercreech. She lit the candle at her bedside, pulled a dressing gown on over her nightrail, grabbed the iron fireplace poker from the hearth, and flew out her bedchamber door and down the hall. By the time she reached the front door, Viscount Effingale’s butler was already there with a pistol in his hand. When she nodded, he flung open the door.
“You bloody bitch! Come back here!”
A young woman threw herself through the entryway as if blown by the hard wind that whipped around her into the foyer. Almost falling at Charlotte’s feet, she managed to remain standing only by leaning against a wall, bent over, her breathing heavy and coarse, sobs threatening to overwhelm her reason—if they hadn’t already.
“Remove yourself from the grounds, Mr. Smithson,” the butler intoned, pistol pointed directly at the forehead of the pursuer. “You will not be warned again.”
“Go now, Jeremy, or I swear, I will beat you to death myself!” Charlotte yelled, brandishing the poker.
Snarling, slurring his words, stumbling across the graveled drive, the man fell back, barking, “It’s not over, you hatchet-faced whore. You can’t hide in there forever, and Effingale’s not here to stop me. I’ll be back for you with the magistrate.”
The girl fell against the wall, choked by the same sounds made by animals caught in traps. Holding her arm at the elbow, she slid to a seat on the floor. Wild, red-blond hair framed a bruised cheek and blackened right eye; her cut and swollen lower lip oozed blood. Terror-filled blue-green eyes squeezed shut when she flinched away from the butler’s offered hand—a man she had known since birth, who had never been anything but kind.
“I think he’s broken my shoulder, Charlotte. I can’t move it.”
The butler sighed and sent the night footman to ride for the doctor, no stranger to being called to the Effingale’s manor house for this purpose. The housekeeper rushed to help Charlotte support the girl, clucking her tongue.
“Your bedchamber is ready for you, Miss Smithson. And I’ll send up some tea.” Taking in the thin nightrail hanging on her lanky form, the motherly old woman added, “Haven’t eaten a bite since last time you were here, by the look of it, but I don’t suppose you’ll want a meal with your lip in that state. Perhaps some broth.”
Balancing her cousin, Bella, against her shoulder, Charlotte opened the door to the bedchamber adjoining hers, easing her over to the canopied bed while the housekeeper laid a fire in the stone hearth. Carefully settling Bella back into the pillows, listing slightly to the right to accommodate the shoulder, Charlotte sent a maid for hot water, towels, and the medicine box, and told her abigail to find a clean nightrail in Bella’s wardrobe.
“Only Jeremy?” Charlotte asked, voice more gentle than her countenance.
Bella shook her head, then set her hand on her forehead, as though trying to clear away a mental fog. “No, Father, too. He is the one who hurt my arm, but he is floored now. They were drinking.”
“Are they not always drinking?” Charlotte snapped. “And John, I presume?”
“No, he is in London.” Bella’s tears fell faster. “I wish it were John. He isn’t so…”
Charlotte patted Bella in the hand. “I know. Though ‘not such a monster’ is hardly a recommendation. Can you remove the nightrail over your shoulder?”
Cradling the elbow, Bella shook her head, so Charlotte cut the bloodstained linen off her cousin’s body with scissors, then draped the dressing gown over her shoulders, arranging it in a semblance of modesty, covering it further with the quilt. “Perhaps one good thing will come of this.”
Bella’s laugh cut into Charlotte’s gut.
“I’m quite serious.” Charlotte had never seen Bella so disheartened, even on countless other nights like this. “Father will never allow you back there if Uncle Jasper has broken your arm, no matter what Mother says.”
’Tis Her Season, a Royal Regard prequel novella
Charlotte Amberly would rather eat a lump of coal for Christmas dinner than marry the Marquess of Firthley, so when her parents cancel her London Season in favor of a rush to the altar, the feisty debutante takes husband-hunting into her own hands.
Alexander Marloughe, reluctant heir to a marquessate, would rather not spend his holiday dashing through the snow after a flibbertigibbet just out of the schoolroom, but no woman before Charlotte has ever led him such a merry chase.