Tea with Charity

Charity Smith waited in the beautiful parlour to which she had been shown. Built to a more human scale than the gargantuan halls and stairways along which the butler had whisked her, the parlour was still rich and elegant, but she sensed that the paintings had been chosen to suit the pleasure of the room’s owner; that the duchess herself had the pretty wallpaper above the carved wainscoting and the plush drapes that picked out the cornflower blue of the wallpaper pattern. The chairs and sofas had been upholstered in darker blues or sea greens; here a floral, there a stripe. And here and there a bold red vase or cushion set off the more muted colours. And gold, or at least gilt, was everywhere: in the frames of paintings, on cupboard doors, inlaid into table tops, gilding the curves of carving.

Above, the same colours repeated in the ornately painted ceiling. This room was a far cry from the humble cottage in which she had been hidden for six years, or the farmhouse in Oxfordshire she shared with two other women and all their children. She stiffened her spine. The Charity of six months ago would have slunk away, intimidated by the gap between her and the woman she was about to meet. But the loss of her reputation, her marriage, and her home had paradoxically taught her her own strength. She would not be returning home without the child.

She stood and curtseyed when the Duchess of Haverford entered the room, unconsciously squaring her shoulders ready to fight. But the duchess surprised her. “Mrs Smith, I am so sorry to have kept you waiting. You must be beside yourself with worry about your dear sister. But I am confident that David will find her, and all will be well in the end. And, of course, you shall take your niece home with you when you go.”

As she spoke, she took a seat and patted the place at her side. “But come and sit down. Take tea with me and tell me about your children. Did you leave them well?”

Charity is the sister of Prudence Virtue, my heroine in Revealed in Mist. This scene happens after the end of Revealed in Mist, and during the events that start Concealed in Shadow. The first (which is a complete romance and thriller plot, and a stand-alone story) is released tomorrow. Follow the links to find out more, or read on for an excerpt.

“Are you sure Mr. Wakefield will not mind?” Charity asked for the hundredth time.

Prue reassured her again. Of course he would not object to her bringing Charity to his town house for a few days. Would he? Weeks of separation had left her yearning for him, but had it given him time for second thoughts? One slightly used spy, no longer in the first flush of youth, and with a secret that would surely give him a disgust of her, if he ever discovered it.

But Mrs. Allen made them welcome and told Prue the mail had brought a letter from David yesterday, saying he and Gren were leaving for London. They should be home tomorrow or the next day. Prue left Charity to settle into the bedroom Mrs. Allen prepared for her, while Prue wrote a note to Lady Georgiana, asking for permission to call.

They had talked it over at length while with Charissa, and in the carriage on the way from Essex. At inordinate length.

Charity could not, would not, stay in Selby’s cottage. She would go somewhere she was not known and introduce herself as a widow, using another name. Mrs. Smith, she said, for who was to find one Mrs. Smith among thousands?

But how she and the children were to live was a problem. Prue would help, of course. She could double the allowance she was paying, would triple it if Charity would allow. Tolliver’s work paid well enough, and she had a little set aside.

Charity wanted to borrow Prue’s nest egg. She had some idea of setting up a milliner’s shop. Not in London, but somewhere cheaper to live and safer for the children. “Even you said I make beautiful hats, Prue,” she argued.

True enough, but running a business required more than an eye for fashion and an artistic touch with a needle. Prue didn’t want her savings to be frittered away and leave Charity and the girls in a worse situation than before.

“We need somewhere for you and the children to stay while we consider how best to make your plan work,” she told Charity. “I know a lady who supports women in your sort of trouble. She may have a place.” Or she may never wish to speak to Prue again, in which case they needed to think of something else.

On one thing Charity was determined: Prue was not to ask Selby to support his daughters until they moved somewhere he could not find them. “It is not as if he is going to give us any money, anyway, Prue. He barely gave us a thing when I thought I was his wife. Just a few pounds now and again, when he visited. The servants’ pay is several quarters in arrears. Oh, dear. Should I not pay them before I let them go?” Another problem for her to worry at, until Prue was ready to leap screaming from the carriage with her hands over her ears.

The note sent, Prue went to check that Charity had everything she needed.

Her sister was sitting next to the window in her bedchamber, looking out.

“It is very grand, Prue, is it not? Not your David’s town house, though that is finer than I expected. But the streets, the carriages, the people. We are not even in London here, are we? Not really?”

“This is Chelsea,” Prue told her. “We are not in the City, but nor are we far. What would you like to see while we are here, Charity?”

“I will just stay here, Prue, please, except when we go to visit your friend. I want to make arrangements for somewhere to live, then go and collect the girls to take them to their new home. I miss them so much. Besides, imagine if I bumped into Selby!” Charity shuddered.

Perhaps she was wise, though in a city the size of London, the chances of her meeting Selby were slender.

“I need to go out, Charity. I received a note from the agency.”

Prue had told Charity about the mythical agency that placed her with people who needed temporary staff to fill a particular short-term need, and Charity anxiously grasped Prue’s hand.

“You are not going alone, Prue? Is there a footman you can take to protect you?” She shook her head, dismissing whatever thoughts of assault and robbery had entered them. “How silly of me. You know how to…” She made a vague gesture with one hand. Prue had been teaching Charity a few tricks to save herself from attack, some of which would discourage the most persistent man. Charity had been both repelled and intrigued.

“I will take a hackney, Charity, and my little gun.” And the knife strapped to her calf. And the pins in her hair.

“They will not want to send you away, will they? Oh, I am being so selfish. But Prue, I do not know what I would have done these past weeks without you.”

“I will not leave until you and the girls are safe,” Prue assured her. “If it is a job, I will tell them to find someone else.”

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