Three Schemes and a Scandal (The Writing Girls #3.5)(7) by Maya Rodale

Her pet fox, Penelope, sat attentively at Charlotte’s feet politely begging for scraps of food. She never missed a meal.

“Charlotte, you’re awfully quiet this morning,” Sophie said.

“You know how your silence terrifies me,” Brandon said. He gave her one of those Serious Looks, which invited her to be honest and good and confess everything.

Charlotte developed a sudden fascination with the intricate embroidery on the tablecloth. Such detail! Such marvelous craftsmanship!

“Charlotte?” Sophie asked.

“Oh, I’m just woolgathering,” Charlotte said. Then she smiled for extra effect. Nothing to see here! Other than this stunning embroidery on the tablecloth! Has anyone considered framing this?

“Why do I find that prospect more terrifying than reassuring?” Brandon asked dryly.

“Are you perchance thinking about the mysterious events of yesterday’s garden party?” Sophie asked. Then she sipped her tea and allowed the words to hang in the air.

Charlotte dangled a piece of bacon for Penelope, who leapt up for the treat, snapping her jaws and narrowly avoiding Charlotte’s fingers.

“I trust you are feeling better after fainting into a muddy bramble bush,” Brandon said. She might have told him the dirt stains on her dress and her disheveled hair were the result of a slip and fall into a shrubbery. As one did.

“What a dreadful experience that must have been,” Sophie said, shuddering delicately.

“Dreadful,” Brandon echoed. “And curious, too, for it has not rained in a fortnight.”

Stupid weather. Stupid facts. Who kept track of when it had last rained? Her brother, that’s who.

“I presume the landscape had been watered for the garden party,” Charlotte replied evenly. One must not let pesky details like a lack of rain get in the way of one’s alibi.

Especially considering what was on the line: Marriage. To James. Who thought her a nuisance, at best, and probably still saw her as a twelve-year-old girl aiming an arrow at an apple on his head. Hardly the romantic relationship of a girl’s dreams.

“How silly of me. Of course they watered the garden for the party. Particularly the bramble bushes,” Brandon said. Pointedly.

“Attention to detail and nourishment of all life is such an admirable quality. I think we ought to applaud Lord Hastings for the dedication to the life in his garden,” Charlotte said grandly.

She debated actually applauding, but Sophie cut in.

“Speaking of Lord Hastings, you would not believe what Julianna told me,” Sophie said, referring to her best friend and secret gossip columnist for The London Weekly. “She has learned that Hastings is so livid about James’s speech that he is refusing to see his own son! The family butler was instructed to turn James away on three separate occasions since yesterday’s calamity.”

Charlotte gasped. Penelope fortunately chose that moment to yip, though her yip was a bloodcurdling sound.

Brandon sighed in that long-suffering way of a man who is stuck with a sister who thinks it perfectly suitable to keep a pet fox in London.

“I thought his speech was fine. What I heard of it, at any rate,” Charlotte added in a mumble. She had been swiftly hurried away from the party and bundled into the carriage.

“James also looked as if he had tumbled into a muddy bramble patch,” Brandon remarked. “Curious, that.”

“It’s one of the many hazards of garden parties. They are appallingly dangerous situations,” Charlotte said sagely.

“What we heard of his speech wasn’t terrible. I thought his joke about his valet rather funny,” Sophie said.

“He did well, though he might have practiced more,” Brandon said. “Instead of tumbling into a muddy briar patch.”

“I’m sure James and his father will mend this breach. After all, one cannot stay angry at family forever,” Charlotte said pointedly. “Forgiveness and unconditional love is the essence of familiar relations.”

“Lord Hastings has again repeated in public that James is the price he pays for his perfect son, Gideon, and that he thanks his Lord and Maker that Gideon is the heir,” Sophie said, undoubtedly repeating intelligence from Julianna.

“I have heard him make similar remarks at the club,” Brandon said in a quiet, disapproving voice that reminded Charlotte why she would lie down in front of a team of charging horses for him: Her brother might not approve of her behavior, but he would always love her and stand by her.

She wished such unconditional love for James. Her heart ached to think of him without it. She must do something. It was her fault that James’s speech had been terrible and his attire a mortifying mess and thus it was her fault that his father had practically disowned him.

She must repair what she had broken.

It was the right thing to do.

“I do believe it is time for me to walk Penelope,” Charlotte said and on cue her little fox yipped wildly and dashed to the dining-room door.

Not for the first time did Charlotte think that every lady must have an exit strategy. She personally had seven.

She removed a length of ribbons from the pocket of her dress and tied one end around Penelope’s neck, thus fashioning a makeshift lead and collar for her. As they walked, Charlotte would concoct the perfect way to mend the relationship between James and his father.

“Charlotte, you are not going to meddle in the affairs of the Hastings family, are you?” Brandon asked.

“Me? Meddle?” Charlotte queried, the picture of innocence.

Sophie snorted, in a most unladylike fashion, and nearly spit out her tea.

Lady Charlotte’s Bedchamber

Two ladies schemed over a pot of tea. To be precise, one lady schemed, and another sipped her tea and nibbled on freshly baked scones with strawberries and clotted cream. Charlotte’s fox curled up in a little ball of red fur, resting atop the plump pile of pillows on Charlotte’s feather bed. It was her favorite place.

“Harriet, I must repair the damage I have done,” Charlotte said as she paced around her bedchamber. Her heart ached with the knowledge that her antics had been the lethal blow to the weakened relationship between father and son. Fixing it was the only way to soothe her conscience and repair the damage.

“How?” Harriet asked, as she idly stirred a third spoonful of sugar into her tea.

“I could write an apology—as James, of course—and send it off to The London Weekly. I’m sure they would publish it.”

“James might not like forged documents on private matters appearing in the most popular newspaper in London,” Harriet pointed out.

“You’re right,” Charlotte agreed, reluctantly. “This is a private family matter, and thus should be repaired in a private manner.”

“I heard that Lord Hastings will not even see his son! My mother and her friends were discussing it. Apparently the family butler told James that his father was not at home, when he was in fact examining the decorative Corinthian columns in the foyer.”

“That’s horrible,” Charlotte said. Tears stung at her eyes.

It was tremendously useful to be able to summon tears on command, and one had to practice.

“Absolutely devastating,” Harriet concurred. “Too busy examining his column. Hmmph.”

“So you agree that we must do something to remedy this,” Charlotte said, and she resumed her pacing across the plush Aubusson carpet.

“Well …”

“I know!” Charlotte exclaimed whirling around. “I could write a letter to Lord Hastings. As James.”

“You could do, but …”

“Though he will probably toss it straight into the fire without reading it,” Charlotte said, frowning.

“Maybe you should not write a letter. To anyone. About anything. Ever.” Harriet suggested.

“You’re right—we should endeavor to get them in the same room together.”

“Lord and Lady Capulet are hosting a ball on Thursday. Perhaps then?”

“That would be the perfect occasion. I really feel that if we all had an honest, heartfelt conversation then all will be well,” Charlotte said confidently.

“We?” Harriet echoed. “We?”

“Hastings, James and myself,” Charlotte explained.

“Why must you be there?” Harriet asked, and Charlotte stifled a feeling of peevishness. She knew she had different definitions of what was her business and what was considered other people’s private personal matters.

“I must explain that what happened was not James’s fault. Since Hastings will not listen to his son, perhaps he will listen to me.”

“So you will admit to being compromised?” Harriet gasped. She fell back against the settee, dramatically. One had to practice such arts.

“Hastings wouldn’t make anything of it. He’ll be so happy to learn that James was not at fault. I think. I hope.”

“But Charlotte, what if he makes you marry James?” Harriet voiced this question with the same level of horror with which she might ask what if Lord Hastings horsewhips you? What if you are transported to Australia on a convict ship?

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