When You Wish Upon a Duke Online - Isabella Bradford

Ransom Manor, Dorset

June 1760

It was only in the middle of the night that Lady Charlotte Wylder could remember the past.

She’d learned to wait until after the rest of the house was fast asleep before she slipped from her bed. With a shawl over her shoulders, she opened her bedchamber window and leaned outward, her dark hair tossing in the breeze. The moon was high in the blue-black sky, and beyond the garden wall, the waves in the sea made no more than the softest shush as the tide retreated over the sand. She breathed deeply, making herself think of nothing beyond the sea and the moon and stars. And then, only then, could Charlotte remember the distant days when Father still lived, and Mama still laughed, and her home and her world had been full of magic.

She closed her eyes, letting the memories come. She had been only four when Father had died, and she was eighteen now. They had lived in a grand house on Berkeley Square in the winter, and in an equally grand house in Somerset in the summer, as was fit for the family of the fourth Earl of Hervey. There had been servants in powdered wigs and livery trimmed with gold lace to cosset her, and elegantly painted carriages to ride in with Mama and Father, and more silk gowns in Charlotte’s own nursery wardrobe than most grown women possessed in a lifetime.

But the memories she sought were more humble. She wanted to remember her parents as they’d been then, the merriest and most beautiful young parents in London. They had been young, too, younger than Charlotte herself was now when they’d wed. They’d sung to her, and talked in funny voices to make her laugh, and used her dolls for impromptu puppet shows in the drawing room. Each evening while Mama dressed for the theater or a ball, Father would come to the nursery. He’d play hide-and-seek with Charlotte, and soon with her younger sister Lizzie, too. He would roar like a bear to make them shriek, and then they would pretend to capture him, and tie him up with hair ribbons.

Then later, much later, he and Mama would come kiss them goodnight when they’d returned home from whatever ball or frolic they’d attended. Mama’s perfume always lingered, as sweet as a bouquet of flowers, while Father’s kiss had been redolent of brandy and tobacco. But the best had come when her parents had paused in the doorway, Father’s arms around Mama’s waist as he’d drawn her close to kiss her, both of them chuckling softly as if they’d needed nothing more than their daughters and each other. What better definition of love could there be? For Charlotte, their love had been warm and comforting and secure, so secure that, with her child’s certainty, Charlotte had been sure their life would always be so, and that—

“Charlotte?” whispered her youngest sister, opening the bedchamber door just wide enough to peek inside. “Charlotte, are you awake?”

Charlotte sighed and turned from the window. She could dream and fancy, but this was her world now, and had been for the last fourteen years: her two younger sisters and Mama and this ancient, windswept house overlooking the sea.

“You know I’m awake, Diana,” she said, drawing her shawl more closely about her shoulders, “because from there you can see that I’m not in my bed.”

Diana slipped inside the door, her eyes wide and her nightgown drifting ghostly pale in the moonlight. “You could be asleep somewhere else. In the chair, or on the carpet, or—”

“Or curled up like a dormouse, atop the tall clock.” As much as Charlotte regretted the interruption of her reverie, she could never be truly cross with Diana. No one could. Though nearly fourteen, Diana would always be the baby, round-faced and guileless. “What is it you wish, noddy? Why aren’t you abed yourself?”

“It’s Fig,” Diana said plaintively. “She went out the window and into the oak tree again, and now she’s too scared to come back on her own, but keeps crying and crying. You must come fetch her, Charlotte. She’ll come for you. You must come!”

“If only you’d keep the window latched, Diana, then Fig couldn’t climb out.” Fig was Diana’s pet cat, a small, scrawny patchwork creature of much obstinacy and little sense, and naturally the recipient of Diana’s slavish devotion. “If you love her as much as you claim, then you’d try your best to keep her safe.”

“But I do love her, Charlotte.”