Compromising Charis: Chapter One
"I will not marry a chuckleheaded lackwit and that's the end of it." Charis Forbes-Wilkinson put her hands on her hips, thrust out her chin, and glared at her aunt.
"You will do as you're told, young woman. Must I remind you that your appalling behavior brought this down on your own head?" The older lady glared right back at Charis, indicating how serious she was by narrowing her eyes and tightening her lips. "Had you not created such a dreadful scandal three years ago, you would be married and settled by now."
"Faugh." Charis threw out a hand to deflect the accusation. "That was no scandal. Barely a ripple through the Ton. You speak as if I single-handedly undermined the Duke of Wellington's battle plans."
Margaret Winston folded her hands in her lap, and stared at them for a moment or two before looking sternly back at her niece. "You were caught in flagrante delicto with a young man. A person you were not married to, I might add. He was--" She interrupted herself with a shudder, and raised a handkerchief delicately to her lips. "To say he was taking liberties would be to put too fine a point upon it."
"He wasn't doing anything I didn't want him to do." Charis' chin went up another notch.
"You shouldn't have wanted him to do anything. Young women of good character don't possess wants like that. Good God, girl. You were in bed with the man. Naked." Aunt Margaret's voice was harsh. "There was no getting past that. You were utterly ruined and you know it. Thank God, your father was able to hush the worst of it up."
"Oh, yes. Thank God for Father." Charis' lips turned down in a bitter curl. "He packed me off to Bridlington Manor and managed to get William sent to France. That turned out well for William, didn't it?"
Aunt Margaret callously dismissed the young man's early demise on the battlefield with a wave of her hand. "That's in the past, and not in the least germane to the subject under discussion. I command you never to speak of it again. You've been brought here from Bridlington because at last I've received notice of an offer for your hand."
"Which brings us back to the lackwit." Charis sighed, and turned away from her aunt to stare out the window at the neat gardens surrounding the small Hampshire estate. They were very different from the untamed wilds of Northumberland where Charis had spent the last three years.
"Lackwit or not, he seems willing to overlook your youthful indiscretion." Aunt Margaret's spine was rigid as she sat correctly in one of the two chairs beside the fireplace. "Which is quite an accomplishment, too. Not many men would wish to ally themselves with soiled goods, you know."
"Is that what I am? Soiled goods?" Charis snorted. "You make me sound like a lightskirt."
"Charis." Her aunt's tone was scandalized. "You will not use such a word in my presence. And for God's sake, try to comport yourself as a lady born. It's probably too late to suggest that, but you might at least make the effort."
"Now your suitor appears to be a gentleman, from what I hear. A cousin of Sir Jonathan Douglas. You may recall I have some acquaintance with dear Lady Susan Douglas. She has vouched for him, and his man of business is most professional, everything one could wish for."
"So you say. I still think he's a lackwit for wanting to wed me." Charis turned as her aunt's words sank in. "Wait a minute, from what you hear? You mean you haven't even met him?"
"Anyone willing to marry you is a blessing from heaven, one I'll accept without hesitation. The offer came formally from his representative to your father. You're an embarrassment to this family, Charis. It's no secret to anyone who knows about what happened. I should think you would be pleased to be able to go about in Society again, which you can do once you're properly wed." Aunt Margaret remained firm. "These things matter. You're a fool if you believe otherwise."
Charis clenched her teeth. Her aunt was right. Her father had not visited her in over two years. This summons had been the first contact anyone in her family had initiated since the 'incident' as they referred to it. Had her mother lived. . . Charis swallowed. Had her mother lived, things might have been different.
But, she mentally shrugged, she missed her mother to this day, but refused to dwell on the past. Especially now, with a suitor breathing hot and heavy down her neck. "So you haven't actually met the man. You know nothing about him. He could be. . .anything at all? Old? Disease ridden?" She winced.
Aunt Margaret stood and shook out her skirts. "You'll take him, no matter what he is, girl. For once, you'll do as you're told. The only other option is permanent exile to Bridlington, and a reduced allowance. I doubt that you'll fancy that once your horses are sold off?"
"You would sell my horses?" Charis was aghast.
"Don't be ridiculous. Personally, I would have nothing to do with it." She gestured to papers on a small side table. "These are your father's instructions. Naturally, we communicated after he received the offer. If you refuse, you will return to Bridlington, and take up residence there. But, your horses and other nonsensical extravagances like books will be sold. The monies will go to your Cousin Frederick for your upkeep. He and his wife will be moving into Bridlington soon. Your father has approved Frederick's request to take up residence there. They are expecting their fourth child, and need the room for their growing family."
"Oh, dear God." Charis closed her eyes. If she refused the lackwit, she would be little more than a maiden aunt. Which translated into someone who was neither fish nor fowl in anyone's household. And she loathed Cousin Frederick and his annoyingly superior wife.
"You are reaping the rewards of your folly. You have no one to blame but yourself." Aunt Margaret looked down her nose at her niece, which was quite an accomplishment since Charis was a good six inches taller. "I make no bones about the fact that I never liked you, Charis. You are headstrong, impetuous, and bound to come to no good. I told your father what I thought in no uncertain terms, but at the time he was clearly under the influence of that woman. Thankfully, he's now come to his senses where you're concerned. Especially after you revealed your unfortunate true nature three years ago."
Charis bit down the surge of fury her aunt's words engendered. Hearing her mother referred to in that way was bad enough. To respond would only make matters worse. If she'd learned anything over her years of exile, it was to keep her tongue still when she was angry.
"The gentleman is to arrive soon. The marriage will then be arranged. The entire matter ends here." And good riddance.
The words hung unspoken in the air between them. Charis' aunt erect and supercilious, while Charis fought down impotent rage. She harbored no illusions about her aunt. The dislike her aunt had confessed for her was mutual.
Dipping her head in a miniscule gesture of respect, Charis watched Aunt Margaret exit the room with a satisfied swish of her skirts, leaving a thousand questions deliberately unanswered. She hadn't bothered to tell Charis his name. If ever the word bitch could be applied accurately, it would be to Aunt Margaret. No wonder Uncle Martin had passed on to his reward only two years after they'd wed. Charis wondered if he knew what a lucky escape he'd had.
She turned once more to the window. They thought they had her trapped, her father and her aunt. Trapped her into marrying the anonymous lackwit. She huffed out a snort. It would come as no surprise to her to learn he'd been paid to take her off their hands, and thus relieve the family of their embarrassment.
Well, they might think she was trapped. But she hadn't been sewing samplers in the past three years. She'd been breeding horses. She knew horses. And she'd befriended a traveling band of people who knew as much, if not more, than she did.
Of course, they were completely unacceptable to the gentry since they were gypsies. But Charis hadn't cared a whit. When it came to her little stable, Charis was focused and desperate to learn all she could. And, truthfully, the friendship of the Romany, especially Jenny, had helped the summers pass more happily for the lonely woman Charis had become.
Neither her father nor Aunt Margaret knew that Jenny and her family were traveling to Hampshire right now. They might already be camped somewhere in the New Forest. All Charis had to do was follow the signs, the subtle indicators that one band of gypsies left for another.
A twig bent a certain way meant that food could be purchased at a fair cost in the village ahead. A grouping of stones told followers that gypsies weren't welcome and they should detour another way on their journey.
Charis knew what to look for. She might not be familiar with the roads, but north was north no matter where you were standing. A small valise, her carefully hoarded purse full of coins. Charis nodded. She would make it work.
The best time to leave would be early in the morning, before her Aunt left her room for breakfast. The servants wouldn't stop her. They were scared of their own shadows. Laughter was seldom heard in this house, no joking in the kitchen as meals were prepared.
She could easily come up with a solid reason to leave. A walk to the vicarage with some worn clothing for charity perhaps? A trip to the draper's in the village for ribbons?
Once she was gone, who would really care? Aunt Margaret would simply heave a sigh of relief, and then go on with her petty little socially conscious life.
Yes. She would make it work.
She had to, because there was no way Charis Forbes-Wilkinson would ever wed a lackwit.
Thoughts of any kind of marriage faded rapidly the following morning as Charis' footsteps took her away from Aunt Margaret's. Everything had gone as planned. She'd evaded notice by keeping her gaze downcast, muttering inanities at the few servants she'd passed, and giving up on the notion of 'borrowing' a mount.
Besides the fact that her aunt's idea of a stable was two broken-down nags, and a donkey, if she'd taken a horse she wouldn't put it past them to have her arrested for thievery, and brought back in even more disgrace than she was in already.
Anyway, it was a lovely morning for a walk. A long walk, admittedly, but Charis' years in Bridlington had taught her the value of sturdy shoes. And her time spent roaming the moors now paid off with what she considered healthy endurance. She was certainly up to several miles of country lanes and brisk breezes.
Wiping her face and spitting out a few dusty particles, she looked around and nodded, confident she was on the right road to Lark's Cross. Once there, she knew there would be gypsy signs since that was a central location in this area, and one frequented by many a Romany traveler.
Charis strode on, her cloak tossed back from her shoulders. Her simple dress was relatively comfortable although snug in a few places thanks to the late development of her feminine assets. Not that those assets had done her much good.
She marched along, eating up the miles with her long stride, enjoying the blue sky with its scudding puffy clouds, and the songs of the birds as they busied themselves with their day's work. Her thoughts drifted to her past, now intermingled with her future. William had been. . . well, yes, a mistake. There was no other way of looking at it.
But, Charis had fancied herself deeply in love with him. She'd wanted all those things she apparently wasn't supposed to want. She'd been well past nineteen, and fully intended to marry William. What was the harm in anticipating their vows?
And it had been exciting, the touch of naked flesh against hers. She'd liked it, and hadn't felt the least bit embarrassed or ruined. He'd touched her with heated affection, passionate wanting mixed with youthful trepidation, arousing her body and her heart. Charis had come to the conclusion she definitely enjoyed the sexual act.
Unfortunately, while she was enjoying it with William, they'd been discovered. And the ensuing chaos, featuring the two of them doing their best to hide their nudity. . . was not a time she cared to dwell on.
Pushing those bittersweet memories aside, Charis concentrated on where she was going instead of where she'd been. Nothing was to be gained by rehashing what had gone before, to her way of thinking. William was dead and buried, along with Charis' reputation.
She missed the first but didn't give a fig for the second. And, in one or two moments of brutal honesty, found herself hard pressed to remember what William had looked like. He'd introduced her to the world of sensual pleasures, but, oddly enough all she could remember was the blinding surprise of her own release, not much of anything about the man who'd given it to her.
Since then, buried in the wilderness that was Northumberland, Charis had passed the nights in her darkened room, experimenting, touching, teaching herself about her own body since there was no man around to do it with, and no woman who would tell her what she so craved to know. She could now bring herself pleasure whenever she chose. It had been quite a heady experience the first time it had happened, and now had become part and parcel of who Charis Forbes-Wilkinson was. A woman accepting of her physical desires. A woman determined to live her life the way she wanted rather than follow the dictates of others.
And a woman with a stone in her shoe.
Cursing beneath her breath, Charis moved off the road to a convenient wooden stile and sat down. She struggled with her laces wondering how on earth anything had managed to drop into the shoe itself? Sure enough, a lace had worked itself just loose enough to admit a small pebble.
The sound of horses and carriage wheels didn't make her look up. No, she kept her head tucked down, just in case Aunt Margaret had sounded the alarm and someone was looking for her.
The hoof beats stopped and a harness jangled. "Good morning." The voice was cultured and deep, and possibly contained a slight edge of amusement.
Charis risked a glance upward, beneath the brim of her serviceable bonnet. Not that it provided much shade since the sun was still in the morning sky, and right behind whoever sat in the driver's seat of the curricle now halted on the road in front of her.
She nodded, and returned to her task, shaking the offending pebble onto the grass then slipping her shoe back onto her foot.
"May I be of assistance?"
"No, thank you." Charis retied the lace, being careful to keep her skirts modestly pulled down over her ankles.
"Lovely day for a walk."
"Yes. Isn't it?"
Charis stood and straightened her cloak. "Maybe."
"Chatty little thing, aren't you?"
Charis grasped her valise and squared her shoulders, ignoring the tiny voice in her head that was screaming about proprieties, and the danger to young women alone on country roads. "I don't believe we've been introduced, sir. It's most improper of you to address me so familiarly." She turned sharply on her heel and stepped out onto the road to resume her journey, hoping that would conclude the interaction. "Good day to you."
Instead of ending the conversation, however, the stranger met Charis' setdown with a muffled chuckle. "Easily remedied." The curricle drew even with Charis, and the horses matched her pace, held in check by a firm hand. "I'm St. John Randall." Sinjun, he pronounced it, Charis noted. "And you are?"
"Going to ignore you." Charis gritted her teeth and marched on, refusing to be distracted by the fine pair of horses beside her.
"Oh, come now. It's a lovely day, the birds are singing, we're basking in the sunshine. What's the harm in telling me your name?"
Oh, good heavens. Charis closed her eyes, briefly counted to ten, and turned to look at him, responding to his friendly banter in spite of her reservations. "The harm, sir, is that should you use my name without an introduction, you'd be doing us both a disservice. And God knows I don't need any more fuss and bother around me, thank you. And another thing. . . ."
What the other thing might have been hung in the air as Charis got her first real glimpse of Mr. St. John Randall. He was smiling at her with eyes the color of rich, clover honey-- brown and gold in the sunshine. His hair was almost the same golden shade, dappled here and there with lighter streaks, and pulled back casually to the nape of his neck. His teeth were white, his attire neat to a pin, and he took Charis' breath away, replacing it with a sharp and unexpected jolt of sexual awareness.
For about thirty seconds.
She cleared her throat. "And. . . and. . . another thing. . . " Damnation! What was the other thing? Her first glimpse of him had wiped coherent thought from her mind. "Oh yes. I don't talk to strange men."
"I'm not strange. Actually I'm rather boring. Dull even. Ask my friends, they'll tell you." He grinned, and assumed a decadently casual accent. "Frightfully boring fellow, that Sinjun. Straight as an arrow."
Charis managed to stop the tiny smile that wanted to curl her lips. "Well, this has been a delightful interlude, Mr. Randall. However, I'm sure you want to be on your boring way, so. . . ." She waved him down the road, dismissing him.
"Can't do it." He shook his head. "Can't leave a lovely young lady alone in the wilds of Hampshire. Never know what sort of cad may be lurking behind the hedgerows, you know."
Charis rolled her eyes. "I doubt there's a cad within ten miles. Unless you lied about being boring." She lifted an eyebrow at him, noticing his quick grin at her words.
"Come now. Tell me your name, then I can move on to part two of my morning's activities."
Curious, Charis couldn't help herself. "Part two?"
"Getting you up here with me, and taking you wherever it is you're going." He patted the cushioned seat next to him. "It's my first time out in this curricle, you know. It won't be half so much fun if I don't get to show it off to somebody."
Charis sighed as she looked at the gorgeous grays harnessed to the shining vehicle. "That is a splendid pair of matched tits." Using the stable term unconsciously, she glanced up as Sinjun's gaze drifted to her breasts.
"Yes, they are, aren't they?"
Doing her best to ignore the heat she knew was probably coloring her cheeks, she turned back to the grays. "Sweet goers, too, probably?"
"Indubitably. Under the right touch, of course."
"Yours, I presume?"
"I'm beginning to think so, yes."
Charis blinked, wondering if the conversation had gone off track. Riding behind these beauties in this lovely curricle was a really strong inducement to set aside her upbringing, toss caution to the winds, and obey an impulse for the first time in ages. And it would put a lot more distance between her and Aunt Margaret, which would be important. As long as she started to watch for gypsy signs once she reached Lark's Cross. . . .
"Oh, well. You win." She held out her hand for Sinjun to help her into the curricle. "If you can take me as far as Lark's Cross, I'll be very grateful."
"Happy to." He smiled and flicked the reins. "And your name?"
"Mmm. I like that. It means grace in Greek, you know."
"So I've been told. Sadly, I never quite managed to live up to it." She leaned back with a sigh and removed her bonnet, letting her cloak drop to the seat as the horses picked up speed. "By God, I knew it. Those are truly awesome tits."
"I couldn't agree more."