Charlotte Barley hastily brushed aside a curl of her black hair as she climbed onto her bed in anticipation of the story her stepmother was about to read to her and Clarissa.

Only when she was finally on her bed did she realize that her five-year-old friend, who was two years younger her, wasn’t quite tall enough to be able to climb onto the bed without assistance.

“Here, let me help you,” Charlotte said as she reached down for Clarissa and started pulling up as the latter tried once more to scramble up the side.

It was nearly enough to send Charlotte tumbling down off the bed herself, but she managed to keep her place, and a moment later, both girls were finding their way under the covers, while they waited impatiently for Charlotte’s stepmother to read to them.

“Settle down, girls,” Lady Lilian told them a little impatiently, as they kept wiggling to get cozy.

“Sorry,” Charlotte quickly apologized as she forced herself to be still. After all, her stepmother was being very nice by reading them a story.

Clarissa shifted just once or twice more beside her after that. Then, seemingly satisfied they were settled, Lilian picked up Charlotte’s favorite book, which her father had gotten for her and opened it where the ribbon was.

Charlotte instantly perked up as she tried to remember which story she was about to hear next. However, she didn’t want to think too hard about it, as that would spoil the surprise.

Grimms' Fairy Tales had all kinds of interesting stories in it, all of which Charlotte had heard many times over, but she never got tired of hearing any of them again. Still, she couldn’t help but sigh with happiness when Lady Lilian started to read, and it happened to be Charlotte’s favorite story of all.

Clarissa, who had already heard all the stories too, was apparently less interested in hearing the tale of Snow White yet again. But Charlotte was too entranced by the story to pay any attention to her friend’s light fidgeting and exaggerated yawns.

When Snow White’s mother in the story wished for her daughter to have hair as black as ebony, Charlotte reached up and touched her own black hair out of habit, glancing at Clarissa’s blonde hair and feeling perfectly satisfied that her own was the same color as Snow White’s.

She was always sad when Snow White’s mother died, as it reminded her each time that her own mother had died. Though sad about it, she always felt grateful to at least have a few memories of her own mother instead of none, like poor Snow White.

When the story reached the part where the evil stepmother asks the mirror who was the fairest of them all, Charlotte’s focus was suddenly broken; Just as the mirror was about to say that the queen was, of course, the fairest of them all, Clarissa broke in giggling, saying, “The pigs are!”

“Shh!” Charlotte shushed her friend, just as Lilian glanced up with a slight scowl at the interruption.

Clarissa was far too busy still giggling to care much as Lilian continued reading. However, when the story got to the point where the mirror told the stepmother that Snow White was the fairest of them all, Clarissa interrupted again, giggling once more and saying dramatically, “And you are a mean old witch, so die!”

Charlotte found the exclamation quite funny, but she didn’t want her stepmother to stop reading. So, she nudged her friend with her elbow to convince Clarissa to quieten down.

Peace lasted until the huntsman spared Snow White, at which point Clarissa apparently couldn’t hold off any longer; she sat straight up in the bed and said, “I will gladly spare you, Snow White. Come away and marry me!”

After making that announcement, Clarissa fell backwards onto the bed, so that she was laying down once more, even as Lilian sighed and half-closed the book to ask in exasperation, “Do you want me to read you a story or not?”

“We do!” Charlotte quickly exclaimed.

“Then stop interrupting.”

Seeing that her friend was pouting at the mild reproof, Charlotte tucked Clarissa under the covers a little better and pleaded, “We can talk about the story later. For now, can we please just listen to it?”

Clarissa grumbled a little at the loss of her fun, but reluctantly nodded her head all the same. After giving her friend a quick hug as a way of thanking her, Charlotte turned back to her stepmother, who then resumed the story.

Though the dwarfs didn’t have any names, she had heard the story so many times, she had named all seven of them herself. If those names happened to change every now and then, well, her father found it amusing, so she guessed it wasn’t a bad thing to make sure they had the best names she could think of.

Charlotte always paid careful attention to the ways the evil stepmother tried to trick Snow White to try to kill her, mentally resolving never to be tricked like that. And it was always sad when the poor dwarfs thought Snow White was truly dead, even if Charlotte knew how the story ended and that the princess wasn’t actually dead at all.

Her favorite part of the story, though, was when the piece of poisoned apple was dislodged, waking Snow White up so that she could meet the prince, who declared his love for her on the spot.

While she was glad the evil stepmother got properly punished in the end, the part where the prince asked Snow White to marry him was by far the most romantic part of the book, and it was enough to make her little seven-year-old heart inwardly sigh dreamily.

In fact, when Lilian finished the story and left, it was still that part of the story that was on Charlotte’s mind. Clarissa, on the other hand, clearly still had far too much energy, since, as soon as the door was closed and they were left alone, her friend jumped up and sat on top of her.

“So, what are we going to do now?” Clarissa asked, bouncing up and down a little.

“Well, we aren’t supposed to get out of bed . . . so, do you want to talk about the story?” Charlotte asked hopefully.

She was willing to do or talk about something else, of course—her father had made sure to tell her before agreeing to let her friend sleep over that she must be a good hostess—but she also really wanted to daydream just a little more.

“All right!” Clarissa replied. “What about the story? Oh, I wanted to say that I think it was silly of Snow White to fall for her stepmother’s tricks like that. She should have recognized her own stepmother.”

“I agree . . . but she couldn’t see past the disguise!” Charlotte pointed out.

Clarissa gave an exasperated shake of her head, as though to imply that such a small thing as that either shouldn’t have mattered, or that it wouldn’t have fooled her, and Charlotte took a moment to push her friend off her.

In order to change the subject a little, she asked, “What was your favorite part?”

“Hm . . . I like the end best, I think, where the prince sentenced the stepmother to wear those hot shoes and dance until she dropped dead,” Clarissa exclaimed, standing up on the bed to demonstrate, only to fall down dramatically at the end before collapsing in giggles.

Charlotte rolled her eyes, having learned by now that her friend always grew dramatic when she was excited. It was something that had caught her by surprise the first time or two, as Clarissa was usually very prim and proper. That was why Charlotte’s father encouraged their friendship, even though he was a duke and Clarissa’s father was just a wealthy businessman from America.

“Well, my favorite part was where the prince tells Snow White that he is in love with her,” she stated once Clarissa had stopped giggling enough to be able to hear.

“I think that part is silly,” her friend replied. “They had just met, and all of a sudden they are in love with each other?”

“That’s not silly at all,” Charlotte instantly protested. “I think it is romantic.”

“People don’t fall in love like that,” Clarissa retorted, scrunching up her nose as she spoke.

“How would you know?” she challenged. “Father says that he knew almost the moment he laid eyes on my mother. If he says it, and the story says it too, then I think it is probably true.”

Clarissa apparently found that evidence irrefutable, as she didn’t try to argue against it again. She did say, “Well, I don’t want to fall in love like that. I still think it’s silly.”

“Then how do you want to fall in love?” Charlotte asked curiously.

“Like my parents did,” Clarissa replied simply. “They met, and then they got to know each other, and then they fell in love, without even realizing it at first, and they got to spend a lot of time together.”

Charlotte pursed her lips as she considered the idea. She knew it was how her father had fallen in love with her stepmother, and she could see clearly enough that they loved each other.

But she also remembered when her father had first started getting to know Lilian, before he had fallen in love with her. The memories made Charlotte scrunch up her nose and shake her head.

They simply weren’t romantic at all in her opinion, at least, not until later on, when the loving part had started. Charlotte honestly didn’t see the appeal.

“Well, I want to fall in love like the story,” she announced.

“But it’s so silly!” Clarissa exclaimed. “How will you know just by seeing someone? And what if there’s lots of people around and you see more than one person?”

“Hm . . . maybe I’ll have to be alone then, or something. I could go for a walk and meet a stranger and, since there won’t be anyone else but you with me—you know we are always going to go for walks together—there won’t be any way to mistake it,” Charlotte replied thoughtfully.

“What if you see a bear and fall in love with it?” Clarissa giggled, and Charlotte rolled her eyes at her friend’s silliness.

“Then I’ll just have to marry the bear and hope he doesn’t eat me,” she playfully retorted as her friend’s mood started to infect her.

“And I will run to get a huntsman to save you, and maybe you can end up marrying him!” Clarissa replied excitedly amidst more laughter.

Charlotte started laughing a little too, as Clarissa’s mood completely overtook them both. After a moment, she added, “And he can keep the fur of the bear for us to use as a rug in our new home.”

Clarissa gasped, obviously pleased to hear that Charlotte was finally feeling playful too. “Yes! And I will have met the woodsman through his brother, who I had known for a very long time. So, when you marry the woodsman, I’ll marry his brother, and then we’ll be sisters!”

“Perfect!” Charlotte exclaimed, and they both started laughing again.

A moment later, while they were still laughing, there was a light knock on the bedroom door. It opened, and Charlotte’s stepmother stepped inside, a disapproving scowl on her face.

“Girls, that is quite enough noise coming from this room; it is time to go to sleep,” Lilian scolded.

“Yes, Lady Lilian,” Charlotte replied formally as she tried to reign in her laughter. “We will go to sleep very soon, I promise. We just want to talk a little bit longer.”

“Well, I hope your little while longer isn’t very long at all. If you can’t sleep in the same bed, like good little girls, I think it would be best to not have any more sleepovers until you are old enough to contain your enthusiasm,” Lilian threatened.

Knowing her stepmother would do just as she threatened was enough to instantly put Charlotte in a serious mood, and Clarissa soon stopped laughing too.

“We’re quieting down right away,” Charlotte assured Lilian, who looked them over for one more long moment before turning to leave them alone again.

“I think your stepmother likes spoiling our fun,” Clarissa complained with a pout after a moment.

“Father says it is just because she is not used to little girls,” Charlotte replied as they both started to settle themselves under the covers once more.

“But she was a little girl too, once,” her friend pointed out.

“Yes, but Father says that, when people grow up, they forget what it was like to be a kid most of the time.”

“That’s sad,” Clarissa said as they both rested their heads on the pillows.

“I agree,” Charlotte replied, nodding her head with a seriousness that was the complete opposite of her mood just minutes ago. “But we should probably try to get a little sleep. If we get up early enough, we might have time to pet the horses in the stables before you have to go home.”

“Really? Do you think so?” Clarissa asked excitedly.

Charlotte nodded her head as a smile slipped back onto her face again. “I am sure Father will let us if we ask him.”

“Oh, then let’s go to sleep really quickly,” Clarissa said with a grin, instantly closing her eyes.

Charlotte closed her eyes just a moment later, a matching grin on her own face. It took a little while for her mind to settle down enough to drift off to sleep, but when she finally fell into dreamland, it was with thoughts of falling in love with a handsome prince—who fell equally in love with her the moment he laid eyes on her.

Chapter 1

Fifteen Years Later. . .

Charlotte bit back her sigh as she stepped into the dining room and saw her stepmother already there. Apparently, she had been there for a while, if the half-eaten plate of food sitting in front of her was any indication.

Knowing as she did that Lilian was not an early riser whenever she could avoid it, her presence could only mean one thing. So, Charlotte stood there for a moment and mentally debated the possibility of skipping breakfast, wishing once more that it was a fine day instead of a rainy one, so that she could go for a ride.

Unfortunately, she stood there in thought a moment too long, as Lilian looked up and saw her before she could make up her mind to leave. Knowing she now had no choice, Charlotte braced herself for whatever her stepmother had to say as she calmly walked over and took her seat.

“Good morning, Charlotte.”

“Good morning,” she replied courteously, starting to make herself a cup of tea, mentally calculating just how long it would take for her stepmother to say whatever it was she had to say.

As it turned out, the answer to that question was barely two minutes. “Oh, by the way, I wanted to tell you, I ran into an old family friend the other day when I was out shopping.”

Charlotte had a fair idea that this family friend was most likely a man of good family and not married—in other words, not someone whom she was the slightest bit interested in hearing about—but she simply nodded her head as she made her tea and started putting food on her plate.

Giving a small smile, she politely inquired, “That sounds nice. Did you enjoy talking to your friend? Is it someone I might know of?”

She caught the flicker of a scowl across her stepmother’s face, before Lilian replied with matching politeness, “Yes, I did enjoy the visit. We were able to talk for hours about his parents, whom I haven’t seen in years. You have probably heard me talk about the McCarthys.”

“I think you have mentioned them once or twice. Don’t they live in Scotland? Perhaps we could take a trip to see them sometime, since you miss them so much,” Charlotte suggested, trying to keep the conversation as civil as possible, while also trying to avoid talking about the man, whom she was now sure her stepmother was on the verge of trying to set her up with.

“That’s not . . . Neil’s father is a Scottish nobleman, so of course they live in Scotland, and it is a lovely place to live, though a bit quieter than this part of England,” Lilian informed her.

“Well, you know, I am perfectly willing to make a trip to Scotland with you,” Charlotte pointed out, glad she had at least temporarily distracted her stepmother.

“Yes, well, trips such as that cost money, especially for two. And, since your father died without an heir, leaving the duchy to his nephew, we can’t afford to take such trips just for the sake of our pleasure,” Lilian stated, her tone turning slightly bitter.

Charlotte might have pointed out that they could probably have managed to afford going places if her stepmother was not so keen on keeping up with fashions and things of that nature. But she knew by now that such a remark would be pointless.

Even after two years, she still missed her father too terribly to want to argue about anything that even slightly reminded her he was gone. Besides, however much she and Lilian didn’t get along, she knew her father had truly loved his second wife and that he wouldn’t want them to fight with each other.

“Now, if you were to get married, then your husband could pay for your trip, and I would have enough to go to Scotland for a visit myself,” Lilian said after a moment, apparently getting tired of waiting for a reply.

“I believe you have made that exact point before,” Charlotte replied with a sigh, continuing to eat her breakfast in spite of an increasing lack of appetite.

“And neither of us are getting any younger,” Lilian replied. “Your friend is already in a courtship that seems to be going well, I hear.”

Charlotte was too used to her stepmother trying to make her out to be a spinster for those words to have much of an effect. So, she simply replied, “Clarissa’s courtship is indeed going well, unless something has changed drastically from the last time I saw her two days ago, which I doubt.”

“And she is quite happy to have such a catch, I am sure. I fear you will be left alone a lot more often when they get married. You really should let me set you up in a courtship of your own.”

“No, thank you,” Charlotte replied, having no doubt that her stepmother would simply set her up with the most advantageous match possible. “I am happy for Clarissa, and I don’t feel left out at all,” she added, even though the last part wasn’t technically true.

“Yes, well. . . Oh, back to the previous subject, I didn’t tell you why Neil McCarthy is here in England.”

Charlotte knew what was coming next, but there was no real way she could see to get out of asking. “And what might that reason be?”

“Well, he is here to do some business. But, more importantly, he is also here to find a wife,” her stepmother announced with an obviously pleased smile.

Not feeling at all surprised, she simply nodded her head and took a bite of her food. It only took a moment of silence before Lilian dropped her façade completely and stated exasperatedly, “Well, the least you could do is show a little interest when I tell you there is an eligible man in town looking for a wife, and who might be the sort to be interested in you.”

“But I rarely even like the men you have in mind for me,” Charlotte pointed out, trying to keep her own growing frustration out of her voice. “And I would know, as I have met . . . how many men now whom you have introduced me to in the last few years?”

“Well, I would stop pushing for you to meet someone new if you would actually court one of them!”

“And why would I want to court someone I don’t like spending time with,” Charlotte retorted, partially wondering why she even bothered to reply at all, as she and her stepmother had been through these same arguments countless times before.

“You don’t have to like someone in order to agree to let them court you; that part comes after you have gotten to know them a bit, which happens when you have courted for a while!”

Charlotte didn’t reply, though she was strongly tempted to remind her stepmother once more that she didn’t want to fall in love like that, and she had said as much more than once.

However, Charlotte didn’t like feeling angry; neither did she like arguing, especially when she knew it was pointless. Retorting now would only keep the argument going.

Even this short dispute was making her feel terrible. She was sure her father would have been disappointed at both of them. Her stepmother was used to this style of living; it was only natural that Lilian wouldn’t want to give anything up, especially after already having lost her husband.

Biting her lip for a moment, Charlotte decided she had lost her appetite. So, pushing her still mostly full plate away, she looked up at her stepmother and took a deep breath to calm herself.

“I am glad you met someone able to give you news on how some old friends of yours are faring, and I am perfectly glad to meet him should you invite him to tea, but I am not interested in anything further, so do not presume to tell him otherwise,” she stated calmly and directly.

They both sat there for a long moment in silence, as though measuring each other’s resolve. Then, Lilian’s expression changed to one of extreme disappointment, clearly deciding there was no changing Charlotte’s mind.

But the apparent defeat was not enough to keep her stepmother from remarking, “I am quite sure that your father would want you to be married by now.”

The statement somehow put a bitter taste on Charlotte’s tongue, even though she had talked with her father before his death from smallpox, and he had told her that he wanted her to marry for love.

“Father never cared much about me needing to be married, you know. But, if that is all that you wanted to say, I think I will go to my room now, to read for a while,” Charlotte said, looking out of the window and wishing once again that it was a nice day instead of a rainy one, so that she could go for a ride or a walk rather than being stuck inside.

“No, that is all. Though I do hope you will change your mind. Perhaps you will decide you like him after you meet him,” Lilian told her, looking as though she had lost her appetite to some degree as well.

“Maybe,” Charlotte replied as unencouragingly as she could as she rose from the table.

Apparently, seeing she wasn’t going to speak further, Lilian stated, “I will probably lay down for a while myself. Make sure you are here for tea in . . . say, two days from now so you can meet Neil.”

Charlotte didn’t even pretend to hide her sigh as she nodded her head and left the room. She knew she would be hungry again soon, so she took a piece of fruit with her for later, when her appetite came back.

She didn’t bother to pause on her way back to her room, finding the sound of the rain outside to be dreary in town—though that might have had something to do with the mood she was in. It didn’t help matters that she had woken up in a melancholy mood to start with.

Sitting down at her writing desk, she set the apple in her hand aside, before looking over her personal books on the nearby shelf to try to decide what she wanted to read.

One of the first books that met her eye was her well-loved volume of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Just the sight of it was enough to put a slight smile on her face at the many memories associated with it.

Out of curiosity, she went over and picked the book up off the shelf. She then opened it where the ribbon marked it, not at all surprised to see it was on the story of Snow White. Even now, that particular story was still her favorite.

So, with no one in her room to tell her otherwise, Charlotte sat down with it on her bed to read the tale once more, getting herself comfortable before starting.

She soon found herself just as immersed in the story as always, lingering over her favorite parts, even though she had probably memorized it all by now.

Charlotte sighed as she reached what was still her favorite part, remembering the conversations she and Clarissa had shared on the subject over the years as they grew up together.

Even now, Charlotte still felt in her heart that, whenever she met her true love, she would know him at first sight. True, there were the occasional moments when she felt inclined to doubt, and Clarissa still thought the idea was a silly one, but Charlotte planned to hold on to her own convictions on the matter, regardless of what anyone else said.

Still, even though she wasn’t doubting at the moment, she couldn’t help but close the book with a deep sigh as she mentally wondered just how long she would have to wait for her prince charming to come.

While she knew she was perfectly willing to wait a good while longer, she also knew that her stepmother wasn’t nearly as patient. Part of her was afraid that Lilian would eventually wear away at her, until she gave in and courted someone whom she didn’t love.

Charlotte knew that, realistically, she could be mostly content if she had to marry someone she liked instead of getting to marry someone she loved. However, she also knew that, if that happened, she would forever wonder what she might have had.

Even worse, there would always be the chance that she would meet the man she felt she was destined to love at first sight . . . and who would love her just as much.

The mere thought of being trapped in a marriage and having that happen simply because she could not hold out, was enough to both send a shiver down her spine and strengthen her resolve never to let her stepmother push her into that situation. Even that resolve didn’t entirely do away with her worry, however.

Chapter 2

Lucas Johnson was having a good morning. At least, he had been having a good morning—until the butler told him that his father wanted to speak with him in his study.

While there was a possibility that nothing was wrong, there was also the fact that his parents had been pushing him lately to try to find a wife.

It was an argument that went around and around, with the same points repeated, and Lucas felt a sinking feeling in his stomach at the thought that the familiar scene might be replayed once more.

Still, he went into his father’s study, just as he had been told to, hoping it was for some other reason that his father wanted to see him.

He had to take a deep breath as he entered, and he was glad he had done so when he saw that his father’s expression was hardly encouraging.

“You wanted to see me about something, Father?” he asked as he stepped forward and took the seat before the desk which his father was sitting behind.

“Yes,” Alan replied with a sigh, apparently not looking forward to the conversation he had in mind any more than Lucas was.

Lucas was tempted to ask what the conversation was going to be about this time, but he knew that he wouldn’t be able to get those words out in a polite tone of voice. He rather missed the conversations they used to have, years before.

So, quickly deciding he could at least try to have a more relaxed conversation with his father, he hastily remarked, “Oh, I haven’t told you yet, but I got a letter from Marcus just the other day. It seems he is courting someone, and he thinks it very likely they will end up marrying.”

Then, realizing marriage was not something he wanted to talk about just then, Lucas quickly added, “Marcus also invited me to go and visit him, and it has been quite a while since I have seen him.”

“I am glad for your friend,” his father replied. “I just wish you would follow his example and start courting a young lady.”

“I will, I promise, just as soon as I find one I feel I can fall in love with,” Lucas assured him.

“And when will that be? We both know that my health is failing, and it is doubtful that I have even another year or two left in me.”

“Yes, and as your only child and son, I will be the next Duke of Broadway, which is why I must get married and have an heir,” Lucas finished, barely refraining from sighing.

“You know that, and yet you are making no progress getting married. I want to die in peace when the time comes. And how do you expect me to do that when there is no sign of you having an heir?”

“I don’t want to marry someone just for that reason,” Lucas retorted. “I refuse to do it, nor did you expect that of me a few years ago.”

“A few years ago, I was in good health and did not have consumption, or the need to stay in bed for most of the day, while leaving the businesses to either run themselves or go to waste.”

Even knowing that his father was simply vexed and frustrated at not being able to be out and about like he used to be, it still rankled with Lucas that he would say such a thing.

He couldn’t help but point out before his father could catch his breath, “That is why you have been teaching me to take over everything. That is also why we have been over all the details of practically every business deal you have ever made, as well as everything that you planned to do to expand in future, if you hadn’t caught consumption.”

Lucas was a little disappointed in himself for the slight edge of bitterness in his tone of voice, but those recent conversations had hardly been pleasant ones.

“And I suppose you have done well enough, though you could stand to go over a few more things in that area. . .” Alan replied.

When Lucas said nothing in response, his father continued after a moment. “You may be passably ready to take over the estates, and everything else, but you simply must find yourself a wife.”

“And I have told you I will,” Lucas said as calmly as he could.

“Why won’t you just let me pick a nice young lady for you? You must know that I wouldn’t pick anyone you would dislike, or whom I didn’t think you could fall in love with. It is not as though I want you to be miserable.”

He found that last statement to be somewhat debatable, though part of him felt it was wrong of him to feel that way. So, instead of saying anything about it, Lucas made the same point he had the last time they had this conversation, “You didn’t used to care all this much when I got married, and, as I recall, you told me I could marry when I wished to.”

“Things change, Son; you know that,” Alan replied, and Lucas was almost sure he heard a hint of regret in his father’s voice. However, that quickly disappeared with his next statement. “You must start courting relatively soon, to get to the point of marriage before I am too weak to be at the wedding. We never know when I might take a turn for the worse.”

“No,” Lucas said flatly, already feeling tired of trying to reason with or convince his father to let the subject drop. Rising to his feet, he stated, “If the only reason why you called me in here was to try to convince me once again to get married for your pleasure, then I think my time will be better spent at my own desk, looking over those ledgers you found fault with yesterday.”

When his father paused for a moment, either in surprise or displeasure—he didn’t really care which—Lucas rose to his feet and turned to leave without hesitation.

“Fine,” Alan finally said. “Show me your work when you are done, and don’t forget to add up those numbers properly this time.”

Lucas felt his jaw tighten at the reproof, but he didn’t say a word as he gladly left the study. The relief of being away hit him as soon as he was at the end of the hall.

Part of him did feel bad that he was relieved to be away from his father. After all, the memory that he used to love being around him was still fresh.

This didn’t prevent Lucas from simmering with anger for just a little longer. He found himself sitting at his desk and feeling somewhat mutinous. He didn’t even open the ledgers he had said he would start going over, instead just letting himself stew for a bit.

It felt as though, as soon as he knew he was slowly dying, his father had felt the need to cram all the information about everything into Lucas as quickly as possible.

There was very little concern as to whether or not Lucas was ready to learn the information. Truth be told, he had still been reeling from the terrible news and not at all mentally prepared to take it all in—and his father became increasingly irritated whenever Lucas didn’t show, what he considered, enough interest in learning.

It had all been such a sudden and drastic change from the way t Lucas had grown up, which had been with very little pressure from his possibly over-indulgent father.

Lucas knew, logically, that his father had simply thought he had plenty of time to teach his son everything he needed to know, and he had believed there was plenty of time for his son to get married.

When the realization came that the time they had together was limited, Lucas knew it had been a hard blow to his father as well as himself. He tried really hard to be as understanding as he could, he really did.

But that was hard to do at moments when his father was criticizing everything he did, insisting that Lucas learn to do everything perfectly.

There were the occasional moments, it was true, when his father would act almost like his old self and would give Lucas more leeway.

There were even moments when he knew that his father felt guilty about the sudden change, and the fact that he was now requiring Lucas to do so much work to learn everything so suddenly.

It was by focusing on these particular times, though they seemed to be getting farther and farther in between, that Lucas finally felt his anger leaving him.

After a moment or two longer, he opened up the ledgers and did his best to fix the small errors he had made, as his father wanted him to.

When he had finished, he sat there for a while, having no desire to see his father again soon. Even though he felt perfectly calm now, he was half afraid that more faults would be found with the ledgers, and he didn’t feel in any sort of mood to deal with more criticism just yet.

So, he just sat there for a moment and let his thoughts drift. That soon led him to thinking about his friend, Marcus, and how long it had been since they had seen each other in person.

He heartily wished he could take Marcus up on his offer to go and visit him, and he was quite curious to see what the young lady was like whom he was courting.

True, Marcus had written a fair bit about her in his letter, but Lucas didn’t really feel that information from such a biased source was all that reliable.

When a sudden thought struck him, Lucas instantly rose to his feet. He couldn’t help but start pacing the room as he considered the idea. What was preventing him from going to see his friend?

True, his father could take a turn for the worse at any time, and that was not a pleasant thought. It was also true that his father would likely have a fit about him leaving, when there was so much he supposedly needed to learn.

However, Lucas couldn’t help but feel that, maybe, this was just what they needed. Perhaps a bit of time apart would help settle both their tempers.

If nothing else, Lucas felt that having a bit of a break would help him be better able to bear his father’s criticisms. Then, there was also a small chance that his father’s mood would improve by having a break himself.

Now all he had to do was tell his parents. . . Perhaps he should tell his mother first? Maybe she might have an idea of the best way to broach the subject with his father.

So, picking up the ledgers to take with him, Lucas went to try to find her. When he did find her, in the sitting room, however, he found his purpose foiled by his father also being there as well, reclining on one of the sofas next to his wife.

“Ah, good, I see you have finished. I hoped you would be done earlier, though. It is nearly time for dinner now,” Alan said, as soon as Lucas was spotted in the doorway.

Brushing off the mild reproof and reminding himself of his new goal, Lucas sat down on the other sofa. He set the ledgers down on the small table in front of him as he replied, “I am done now, and you can look them over whenever you please, but I do have something to say.”

“If this is about the fact that you fail to see the point of keeping a neat ledger with numbers that people besides yourself can read—”

“It isn’t,” Lucas quickly interjected, wanting to get to the point before his father got on his nerves again.

“And what is it that you want to say,” his mother asked gently, clearly wanting to avoid any anger between her husband and son.

Lucas turned his sole attention to her, finding it easier to talk to her with more openness than his father. He said, “You know I had a letter from Marcus recently? I am fairly certain I told you a bit about how he was doing, at any rate. Well, I am quite sure I didn’t mention the fact that he wants me to go and visit him for a while.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” his father asked before his mother could speak. He was still partially reclining, even though he had started glancing over the ledgers.

Lucas nearly had to bite his tongue, but he managed to keep his eyes on his mother as he replied as firmly as he could manage, “I have decided to take him up on his offer to visit him.”

“What?” Alan exclaimed, bolting straight up into a sitting position so quickly that it set him coughing.

This gave Lucas a moment to mentally prepare himself for the objections he was sure he was about to face, though it also gave his mother a chance to give him a look of understanding.

It was a look that went a long way towards keeping him calm, when his father finally caught his breath, only to say, “You can’t possibly be thinking about going somewhere when you are needed here! Out of all the selfish things to do, how could you even think about leaving your mother and me, when you should be focusing all your attention on learning how to take over everything when I pass?”

Lucas found himself almost grateful that his father had to stop there to catch his breath, as it gave him the chance to say, “I think both of us need a break from that. Even if you don’t, I know I do.”

“I forbid you to go! You have too much to do here.”

“And I am also a grown man, one whom you cannot control, and I have decided I am going. That is all there is to it,” he replied, fighting down his growing irritation as best he could.

“For someone who can supposedly make their own decisions, why haven’t you decided on a wife yet?”

Lucas bit back the first reply that came to the tip of his tongue, which would have started up the whole argument about that subject again.

Instead, he rose to his feet and stated, “I will be sure to keep my eyes open for a bride while I am there. I am leaving first thing in the morning. You can say farewell to me as I leave if you wish, and if you feel up to it, but you are not going to change my mind.”

And, with those words, he walked out of the sitting room with his head held high. Lucas made his way directly to his room and started packing his things, choosing to have a servant bring a plate of food up for him to eat instead of joining his parents for dinner.

When he was almost done with both his food and his preparations, he heard a light tap on his bedroom door. He had a fair idea who it was, so he was not at all surprised when his mother walked in a moment later.

He only realized then that he hadn’t exactly paid too much attention to how his mother had taken the news of his upcoming departure. The thought of her possibly disapproving made him far more nervous than his father’s anger had.

“I think it is for the best if I leave for a while,” he stated simply, carefully watching his mother’s expression.

She appeared to understand, seeming resigned as she nodded her head and gently asked, “How long will you be gone?”

That was a question Lucas hadn’t considered yet, so he replied honestly, “I don’t really know. I don’t intend on staying away for a long time, though.”

“Well, I will miss you while you are away, and I know your father will too, but I think you are right to leave for a short while,” his mother told him with a sigh. He was reminded once again how many of the lines around her soft, blue eyes were recent additions.

“I will be staying with Marcus. So, if Father takes a turn for the worse . . . I will come home directly if you send me a telegram. Marcus only lives one day’s hard travel from here,” he assured her, feeling the need to let her know he was not deserting her entirely.

“Good,” she told him with a slight smile as she reached one hand up and patted his cheek. “And don’t forget to write long letters. However much your father might pretend he is angry at you leaving, I know he will be listening when I read your letters out loud.”

Lucas couldn’t help but crack a smile at the mental picture of his father pretending not to listen. “Maybe he should have to wait until I get back to hear about everything directly from me,” he remarked.

“Now, Lucas, don’t be too hard on him,” his mother scolded mildly, but the slight smile on her face showed that she really wasn’t upset with him.

Then, as she turned to leave, she added in a more serious tone of voice, “I just wanted to let you know that I won’t be there to see you off in the morning, but I hope you will be able to spot your father and myself at the library window, that is, if I can convince that stubborn old husband of mine that he can watch you leave without you knowing.”

The wink she gave him then was enough for Lucas’s smile to turn into a grin as he replied, “Well, goodbye then, Mother.”

“Goodbye, my son,” she replied, and then she was gone, leaving Lucas in a much better mood than he had been in all day.

He didn’t know what his trip to visit his friend would be like, but he was already starting to feel as though it was one of the best decisions he had made in a while.

Chapter 3

Charlotte sighed quietly as she sat down to have tea with Neil McCarthy and Lilian a couple of days later. While there were moments leading up to meeting Lord McCarthy where she had felt hopeful that he might be the one she was meant to love, those hopes had been dashed within a few minutes of meeting him.

She already knew it was going to be a long afternoon, and the gentleman who was visiting them had barely spoken a few sentences.

“Well, I am not certain I mentioned it, but I am so glad that you accepted my invitation to join my daughter and myself for tea,” Lilian was saying as she started pouring their tea.

Charlotte knew her stepmother had, in fact, said how glad she was more than once already, and she was fairly sure that Lilian was simply trying to get Charlotte to say she agreed with her. Unfortunately for Lilian, Charlotte had no intention of lying just to make a good impression on the gentleman whom she was already starting to dislike.

“Well, I am glad to have been invited,” Neil replied after a slightly awkward pause. “Perhaps I can come again sometime, if that is all right with you both?” he added as he put one cube of sugar in his tea and began to stir it.

“Oh, feel free to come by as often as you like,” Lilian quickly replied. “Charlotte and I would be delighted to have your company.”

Instead of wasting her time trying to send an inconspicuous glare at her stepmother, Charlotte simply said, “I am sure you will be quite busy with your business affairs, though, and I doubt my stepmother and I will be any help to you in that area.”

Apparently, the man was completely unable to take the hint, as he just looked at her, almost as though he was evaluating her potential as a bride, and remarked, “Yes, well, thank you for wanting to help with that, it is very thoughtful of you, but I am sure I have plenty of time to talk.”

Charlotte wanted to choke, as the thought passed through her mind that he might have somehow taken her hint to look elsewhere for a bride in completely the opposite way than she had intended.

It was no surprise that before she could gather her wits to say something a little more direct, Lilian cut in by saying with barely concealed delight, “Oh, I meant to apologize the other day, by the way. I asked you so many questions about you and your family, but I didn’t give you a chance to ask very many questions of your own in reply.”

“That is quite all right.”

“Not at all; feel free to ask any question you wish,” Lilian assured him with a smile, while Charlotte felt like a helpless spectator.

“Well, tell me a bit about yourselves,” he replied after a polite amount of hesitation. “What things do you enjoy doing?” he asked, and Charlotte did not feel at all pleased that the question seemed more directed at herself.

Still, he was a guest, and she must be polite, so she sipped on her tea, before replying honestly, “I like to ride, go for walks, and read.”

She could tell the middle one puzzled him, as he then asked, “But where do you walk to in a town like this? I didn’t see any parks nearby, and you don’t seem to have a park of your own on the estate.”

Her stepmother was quick to interject, “Oh, she has a friend whose father’s estate is further out of town. I have never walked there myself, but I believe it is quite lovely.”

Charlotte was not about to let it go at that, however, so she innocently added, “Yes, but Clarissa really doesn’t live that far away, so I often like to walk there, even if part of the walk does take me through town.”

She was pleased to note that this made him look shocked for a moment, before he quickly covered it up. In the meantime, she did her best to pretend she didn’t realize that it was inappropriate for a young lady of her station to walk through town like that, even though part of her was already wanting to wilt under her stepmother’s gaze.

“I, um, I see,” Neil replied uncertainly.

“Oh, our servants just adore Charlotte, so there is always at least one of them who is willing to go with her,” Lilian quickly assured him, and Charlotte could hear the tightness in her stepmother’s voice.

She didn’t dare to admit that she often walked alone, as she hated being a bother to the servants, not when she knew that her stepmother was so demanding of them.

He apparently decided it was advisable to change the subject, as he asked, “So, what sort of books do you like to read?’

“My favorite is Grimms’ Fairy Tales,” she replied, without a second thought as to how childish her answer might sound.

Even though it was the truth, she did have other books she likes as well, and just then, she wished she had named one of those, so that her stepmother’s glare wouldn’t be boring into her quite so much.

“I see. . .” Neil replied, sounding slightly disappointed.

“That is one of the books which Charlotte’s father got for her for one of her birthdays, so it will always hold sentimental value to us,” Lilian told him with a melancholy tone of voice.

Charlotte could tell that her intent was to elicit sympathy, as well as to excuse why a children’s book would be the first thing to come to her stepdaughter’s mind in reply to his question.

“We sometimes still have a servant read it to us while we are doing our needlework,” her stepmother continued, and Neil seemed to be slightly more pleased to hear that.

“What types of needlework do you do? I don’t know much about that sort of thing, but I find myself interested,” he asked.

Charlotte quickly set herself to drink her tea and eat her scones as quickly as she could without making it obvious, while Lilian turned the conversation towards the embroidery project she was working on.

She felt the sooner she could excuse herself from tea, the better. To help with that, she knew the key was to keep Neil and her stepmother talking to each other, so that she was left free to finish her cup of tea . . . and a certain number of the small scones and sandwiches on offer.

To set about her plan, she took the first break in the conversation to ask, “What things do you enjoy doing, Lord McCarthy?”

“Well, I like riding, for exercise, and I also enjoy attending the gentleman’s club where I am a member. There, we talk about either hunting or business mostly. There has also been quite a bit of talk lately about all the new inventions being made. It is all very interesting and, when I establish my own home, I will be sure to have all the latest features installed,” he told her, as though sure she would be impressed by the luxuries he was hinting at.

Charlotte couldn’t help but inwardly wince. Part of her wanted to outright tell him that she actually didn’t want any of those things.

Her dream manor was an old, quaint one, which looked like it belonged in one of the fairytale stories she loved and was partially hidden by trees. Not the modern, pretentious manor he was describing, which would, no doubt, come with a well-manicured lawn and shrubbery.

However, Charlotte didn’t feel she could say any of that with her stepmother glaring at her, or the gentleman in question looking at her almost hopefully.

“That sounds . . . progressive of you,” she said hesitantly, with a fake smile, refusing to say she liked the idea.

Fortunately, this reply seemed satisfactory to him, as he nodded and told her, “I try to be very forward-thinking in all of my business dealings as well. It won’t do to fall behind the times, after all.”

She paused, nearly biting her lip before she remembered that Lilian didn’t like it when she did that. Still, she gathered up her courage to remark, “Do you feel that way about finding a wife? It seems to me that more and more people are marrying for love these days instead of for social reasons, which I think is quite progressive.”

Even though she kept her eyes on the plate in front of her, so she wouldn’t have to see either of their expressions, she still nearly winced at the prickling feeling along the back of her neck. She knew her stepmother would give her a long scolding later.

At least her words finally seemed to have the effect she desired. Lord McCarthy cleared his throat and almost visibly shifted in his chair further away from Charlotte.

“Yes, well, I think that some things are better done the old way, like family and honor,” he quickly stated, keeping his tone polite, even though it was less warm than it had been so far.

Charlotte exhaled as quietly as she could, not wanting to draw any attention to her sigh of relief on learning that he was apparently making the mental decision to look elsewhere for a wife.

It was no surprise that her stepmother’s voice sounded higher pitched than usual when she said, “Well, it is most girl’s fantasy to fall madly in love and get married, isn’t it? I have lost count of how many fairy tales have something like that in them.”

“I suppose you are right about that,” he admitted, but Charlotte noticed he still didn’t seem all that pleased. “It is mostly children who feel that way, though.”

It was at the tip of Charlotte’s tongue to ask him if he had never heard of being a child at heart, but she let Lilian reply, “Oh, I agree! In fact—I am quite sure that the whole notion of falling in love with someone outside your station, who can’t possibly relate to you on an intellectual level, is really quite ridiculous.”

“I think it is romantic,” Charlotte added before she could stop herself.

She instantly regretted it, though, especially as she knew that her point had already been made, and she was only making her stepmother even more angry.

Before she could say anything further, or make the situation worse in any way, she quickly took one more bite of her food, finished the last of her tea, and then announced with as much of a smile as she could manage, “Well, I have enjoyed your visit, Lord McCarthy. But, with your permission, of course, Lilian, I have finished my tea and must ask to be excused.”

She could tell Lilian didn’t really like the idea of letting her leave. But, at the same time, her stepmother obviously felt the wisest course of action was to let Charlotte go elsewhere, so that she wouldn’t be able to make an even worse impression.

“That sounds fine, dear,” Lilian said with a sharp smile.

“I hope you have a lovely evening, Lord McCarthy,” Charlotte said, her smile more genuine as she stood to leave.

Then, deciding it would be the wisest course of action to try to mollify Lilian a little, in preparation for the discussion they would no doubt have later, she added, “As my stepmother said earlier, please feel free to visit us again, if you have the time to do so.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t really see— That is, I am afraid I have responsibilities to attend to while I am here that might prevent that from happening,” he replied with reserved politeness.

“I see. In that case, I do hope you accomplish everything you have come for, then,” she told him as she walked out of the room, having to carefully make sure she didn’t appear to be walking too quickly, as if to get away from them.

Charlotte was unspeakably glad that her stepmother had to stay with Lord McCarthy and, therefore, couldn’t prevent her from going where she pleased.

Just now, that happened to be going to see her friend, Clarissa, in order to vent a little about the latest man her stepmother had just tried to set her up with.

She had been scolded for years by Lilian for her habit of dropping by to visit Clarissa anytime she felt like it. However, as long as her friend didn’t mind, then she saw no reason to change her habit.

Best of all, with Lilian busily engaged in conversationmost likely trying to soothe any ruffled feathers the young lord might have because of Charlotte’s responses to his questions—she was free to leave without her stepmother insisting that she take an escort with her.

Charlotte knew the way to Clarissa’s house by heart. She actually knew a handful of different ways to get to her friend’s house, depending on the weather, what mood she was in, and how quickly she wanted to get there.

Today, the weather was absolutely lovely, and she wasn’t in any hurry, so she decided to take the long way and to go on foot. Taking the carriage would be sure to get her in trouble with her stepmother should Lilian want to go out after Neil McCarthy had left anyway.

Knowing that her friend wasn’t expecting her, Charlotte decided to take the long way through the forest, so she could spend just a little time by the pond.

With that in mind, she grabbed some old bread from the kitchen—Sara, their cook, was such a dear as to make sure she almost always had some for Charlotte, just for such days—and left the manor. She took a deep breath of the fresh air the moment her home was out of sight behind her.

She would deal with her stepmother later. For now, she was just going to enjoy herself—and maybe dream, just a little, about how nice it would be when she finally met the man of her dreams and married him, so that she wouldn’t have to deal with Lilian anymore.

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