Jaclyn woke an hour later, Eli still asleep in her arms, Tessa at the side of her bed with whispered hush.
“You must rise at once. Lady Charlotte is here to see you.”
“Have I been very indiscreet?” Jaclyn asked with a gentle hand over Eli’s sleeping hair.
“I’ve seen to you,” Tessa assured her. “No one but I know that you’re here but you must hurry if you want it to remain thus. I’ve put his clothes there. You come to the dressing room once you have roused him and I’ll make quick work of your appearance.”
“I know pet, now hurry,” her old friend said with understanding smile before hurrying off to the serviceable little room pulling up the door discreetly as she went.
Jaclyn pressed her lips to Eli’s ear and whispered his name over endearment, “Eli it’s time we rose.”
He stirred, but only to nestle his body closer to hers and sigh his contentment. She increased the octave of her call to action while dragging her lips over his brow and shaking him with sure hand. Then he with eyes still shut, tightened his hold on her, his voice a sweet rumble as he said, “Have mercy, my love, I’m bone weary.”
Jaclyn’s heart took flight at the endearment though she knew he more than likely did not mean his love in the sense in which she felt it in fact, she would be surprised if he was dreaming of someone else altogether. Then he snapped open his eyes as if suddenly aware of where he was and said, “What’s the matter my sweetheart?”
“Charlotte is awaiting an audience.”
“You’ll have to send her away,” he purred and kissed her deeply before lifting his lips to add, “You’ve melted all my bones and rising is now an impossibility.”
“But you must,” Jaclyn said frantically, “For I do not trust myself to face her alone. Besides, we have been very reckless and my parents have already found us here in this bed together. Another time will more than likely kill them.”
“And that because of Charlotte for whom you want me to rise.”
“Be reasonable, sweetheart. Besides, I’m very nearly happy and she has done it.”
“As am I and she won’t like being surprised,” he said with devilish grin.
“Yes, I know,” Jaclyn with a wicked smile all her own. “Shall we go give her treacherous little heart a start?”
A quarter of an hour later, the two re-entered the little salon via the secret passage before exiting for the hallway leading to the grand salon at the front of the house. When they entered, Charlotte was perched prettily on one of the sofas at the centre of the room. Dressed to advantage in her signature pink, her pale locks in intricate coiffure atop her beautiful head looking for all the world the perfect lady.
She smiled in the way of one without a day’s worry then said, “I will not be chastised when I’ve done so great a service to you both so I’ll thank you to smile at present.”
“She has nerve, I’ll give her that,” Jaclyn said to Eli.
“Now, my dear,” Eli said with accommodating smile, “We should at the very least sit and allow her the opportune to tell us the service she has preformed on our behalf.”
“So long as you entertain no hope of my repentant tears,” Charlotte said as the two sat on an identical sofa facing her.
“Your rueful tears, I have no doubt, will come once you settle into marriage with my now scorned dependant,” Eli said with matter-of-factly.
“Is his presence here entirely necessary?” Charlotte demanded of Jaclyn.
“You, my lady, are a guest in my home and his grace is your better,” Jaclyn said with bite, “And you would do well to conduct yourself in accordance.”
“So I’m to be made to suffer your temper now I’ve made you a duchess,” said an undaunted Charlotte.
“Why are you here Charlotte?” Jaclyn asked bluntly.
“To secure my future and that of my family, which will now incidentally include you both once we’ve all married our intended others.”
“The devil you say?” Eli said with easy menace.
“You will mind your language with me, your grace, for in spite of it all I’m the daughter of an earl and will in two days marry the grandson of a duke so I’ll thank you to remember it when next you address me,” Charlotte said with dignity.
“She goes too far,” Eli said with murderous calm.
He had had his fill of the proceedings and was fully ready to demand that Charlotte leave when Jaclyn took charge of the interview.
“Now Charlotte, I encourage you to say what it is you intended and I ask you to measure you words with care not to provoke overmuch.”
“I did not come here to mind your feelings but to make clear to you the hardship I’ve been made to suffer on your behalf,” Charlotte said irritably.
“You suffer?” Jaclyn asked incredulously.
“Yes, me, and all for your lack of propriety, have you any idea what I’ve had to endure while you were off gallivanting in France?”
“You see here –”
“I’ll have my say,” Charlotte said with a staying hand. “I’ve loved Brian my entire life and would have long ago married him had you not allowed that silly painting to fall into this one’s hands. Do you know how Ravensworth and I came to be engaged?”
“I had no more control over that instant than you,” Eli said defensively. “Besides we were both aware of all the facts going in so for you to now use it as justification for what you’ve done here is disingenuous.”
“I owe you no explanation so I’ll thank you not to pretend injury me,” Charlotte countered. “You have fault here and well you know it. You put that portrait on display and then goaded your grandfather into cutting off your own parents by insisting you would marry her.”
“Is that true?” asked a bewildered Jaclyn.
“Oh, it is, but his grandfather got wind of it and forced him into offering for me by throwing their entire family into chaos. Tell her how he cut you off and when it did not work how he extended the punishment to your parents and all the cousins.”
“I couldn’t believe he would continue to hold then prison to his will in order to punish me but they became desperate and then the pressure had been tremendous,” Eli offered.
“Yes, and you convinced me to go along until you found a solution only to leave me in wait while you went off to God only know where to make your own fortune. You squandered my youth without care or thought and had your father not died heaven only knows what would have become of me,” Charlotte charged.
“But I’ve been home nearly two years and I’ve given you full leave to marry where you choose.”
“My parents expected me to marry you and not even rumours that you murdered the old duke had deterred their want so you see I had to take action to facilitate my own end.”
“We were friends a lifetime Charlotte, you could have come to me,” Eli said.
“I did come to you but you were reeling from the death of your father then your grandfather died so suddenly and it became impossible. You kept talking about doing what was best for the family.”
“Alright, you didn’t feel you were getting through to Eli so why didn’t you come to me?”
“Eli is it?” Charlotte all but yelled. “A hundred years our families have been acquainted and for five of that I’ve been engaged to you yet you have always been Hastings or Ravensworth to me. It says something to me that after but a day’s acquaintance you should allow her such a liberty.”
“It comes from having shared an ordeal,” Jaclyn said defensively.
“For you perhaps but it’s been long held knowledge in his set that you are his ideal and have been since he came upon that cursed painting,” Charlotte said with bane.
Jaclyn looked to Eli and he without meeting her eyes said to Charlotte, “You and Brian have my support. Now go.”
Charlotte rose gleefully her attention squarely on Jaclyn and said, “You’ll forgive me won’t you Jack?”
“I’ll need time,” Jaclyn said her mind elsewhere as the petite woman rushed forth and kissed her cheek.
“I love you both and in spite the seemingly selfish nature of my conduct you must both know that I only meant what was best for us all,” Charlotte said before offering Eli her hand so he could see her out.
Eli rose and saw the troublesome lady out the door where she whispered to him, “Be patient with her and in time she will come to love you.”
“Goodbye Charlotte,” was all Eli could manage without strangling the smug little agitator before closing the door in her face and returning to Jaclyn’s side.
The two sat by side without word for a few heartbeats then Jaclyn took hold his hand and asked, “Would you like to talk about it?”
“I haven’t the words.”
“So the things she said…”
“Are all true,” he said with sad vulnerable smile his face straight ahead terrified to look at her and see disgust or worse pity.
“You loved me without having known me?”
“I saw you as you intended, you know. It wasn’t just that you were beautiful it was the certainty and answer in your eyes that made me question. I wanted to know what it was you were looking at that made you smile so.”
“Could it not simply be an infatuation,” Jaclyn asked desperately. “A sort of fascination with a naked stranger...”
“I understand there is a degree of distress to be had in hearing that someone you only just met believes himself in love with you but to presume I don’t know my own heart,” Eli said with injury.
“It was not my intent to wound, you know,” she said turning to face him. “It’s only I worry I won’t be able to live up to the image of me you have conjured from my idealized painting of self.”
“Impossible,” Eli said turning now to face her, his heart in his eyes, “For you have from the very first moments of our acquaintance exceeded every expectation.”
“Yes but those were extraordinary circumstances,” she said fretfully, “And it’s only natural for you to feel gratitude.”
“What of our clear attraction and the easy way with which we relate?”
“You’re very handsome. What woman would not be full of lust at the sight of you? Besides, we share an affliction which makes commiseration appear deeper than it may actually be,” Jaclyn offered reasonably.
“The idea of loving me is new to you and I don’t expect it to be on par with what I feel for you but I would hope you could respect what it is I feel for it is after all genuine and long won.”
“You are not afraid I’ll disappoint you?”
“I can’t see the point in it with you here fretting about my wellbeing. Not to mention that I’m convinced you’re already in love with me,” he said with a confident smirk.
“Oh, is that right?”
“Do you deny it?” he asked his voice holding a challenge.
“It terrifies me.”
“You know I believe it aught to,” he said with gentle hand on her face, “If only to stop us being reckless where we love, but I will take care. You have my word.”
Jaclyn swallowed over the emotion forming in her throat then said, “Spend the day with me.”
“Gladly,” Eli said with a suggestively raised brow and kissed her passionately. Jaclyn kissed him back with a happy smile.
The two spent the afternoon in a private upstairs salon exchanging stories of their childhood while she, with charcoal and sketchpad, made a study of his face in between bouts of passionate kisses. By the time the sun had set outside, her parents’ home in St James she and Eli were well in love.
They had supper with her parents then they played together at the pianoforte until her parents said their goodnights and then they stole away to her chamber and made love until the sun rose on their wedding day.
On their tenth wedding anniversary, the two, in homage to their lovely beginning, recreated that very day at her parents home in St James Square.
The very best to you all,