Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam was a talented woman. Before they passed, Isabella’s parents made certain that she was educated in all the ways a young lady of her standing ought. She painted, sewed, sang, played multiple instruments, and spoke fluent French. Her parents doted on her and they gave her every advantage she could need to thrive in their circles. There was much they had not prepared her for despite their efforts. Chief amongst those things were the horrors her brother would visit upon her after their untimely deaths. She had, as was in her nature, survived—mostly intact—and learned the keenest of lessons: trust no one.
Despite her mother’s best efforts, Miss Charlotte Wells did not receive the lady’s education those of a station much higher than her own were afforded. She, however, learned lessons in lust at an equally young age. In the ensuing years, her experiences built up walls to nearly touch the sun with their impenetrability. She was a fortress of self-preservation, well educated in the ways in which a woman of her standing must earn a living and, to the extent that she could, had found a certain enjoyment in her vocation. She was cunning and from the moment Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam laid eyes on her in her parlor, knew that C.W. would be either a formidable ally or a vicious nemesis.
A small assemblage lounged on the chaises around the music room. Harcourt swirled red wine in his glass and glared at Charlotte with piercing eyes. It made Charlotte want to squirm but she kept still, guessing at the kind of man Harcourt hid beneath his wigs and fancy clothes. This was her third encounter with the Marquess and his sister. Charlotte smiled, instead, placidly at the men speaking to her. “Izzy, darling, a song,” Harcourt’s voice cut above the din in the room.
Isabella ran her fingers lightly against the embroidered silk of her skirt. Charlotte took in the instruments lining one end of the room: a harpsichord and harp stood next to two cases leaned against the wall: one middling sized and the other small. The small, Charlotte took to be a violin. The medium case, Charlotte guessed to be some relative of the violin though she knew little enough of musical instruments to do more than peck a vulgar tune from a harpsichord. Her sister Lucy was the musician of the family, not Charlotte. She watched Isabella nod minutely in Harcourt’s direction then walk to the harpsichord. She sat at the bench and began playing a delicate tune. Harcourt groused, “Such a dreadful song, clearly you wish to clear the room. Do play something more cheerful than Bach, dear sister.”
Barely hiding disdain that brought a small smile to Charlotte’s lips, Isabella pushed away from the harpsichord and sat on the very small stool behind a large harp. Isabella pulled the instrument back against her shoulder and smirked at her brother. She began strumming a fast tune that even Charlotte recognized as Bach. Charlotte watched Isabella’s fingers glide effortlessly over the strings. Plucking and strumming and occasionally her hand would come to rest against the strings to silence the instrument. Charlotte’s breath caught watching the woman lose herself to the music. Isabella’s eyes focused to the instrument against her shoulder. Her lips pursed in concentration. Over and again, up and down the line of the strings Isabella plucked then coaxed to quiet. The hum of conversation around Charlotte faded to something akin to waves ebbing and flowing against the shore. She was transfixed.
Isabella opened her eyes to watch her fingers effortlessly draw sound from the strings. Her breath, for the first time that evening became deep and even, almost calm. She glanced around her at the distracted conversations amongst her peers. Harcourt spoke in hushed tones to a group of men holding half full wine glasses. She noted a group of young women playing cards around a small table, laughing freely. When her eyes settled on Charlotte, she felt her breath hitch. Her fingers nearly stumbled at the rapt attention on the younger woman’s face. She felt the pace of her strumming change to match her sped heart rate. She forced the notes to slow back to the tempo she knew well. She looked down at her hands to re-center herself. When she looked up again, she saw Harcourt watching Charlotte watching her. Her hands smacked against the strings, drawing the sound to an abrupt and complete stop.
Charlotte jolted from the shock of silence. Polite applause filled the room. Isabella dipped her head in acknowledgement before excusing herself from the room. Charlotte watched the retreating form of Lady Isabella and, not for the first time in their brief acquaintance, wondered what secrets lay hidden behind the Lady’s mask. When Isabella handed over the 500 pounds to procure Quigley’s release, Charlotte began turning over in her mind all manner of scandal Mrs. Quigley could be hiding for the Lady. While she could not imagine a secret of that magnitude, clearly such a thing existed. Now, residing in her head beside the curiosity of her secret was the vision of the deftness with which the Lady moved her fingers across the harp. Charlotte felt herself warm involuntarily and blinked her eyes in effort to return to herself.
Isabella placed a hand on her stomach as she drew slow, deep breaths. She measured out her breaths 4/4 andante time. In, two, three four, she counted to herself, Out, two, three four. She did not notice the door behind her open and close. The footsteps drew her attention to the presence of a woman joining her in the hall. The clacks she counted until they slowed. Isabella affixed a docile smile to her face before turning to her new companion. “You play beautifully,” Charlotte said.
Isabella’s lips quirked, betraying a ghost of a genuine smile. “Thank you,” she replied.
Charlotte searched the mask the Lady wore before nodding, “I’m taking my leave.”
“So soon?” Isabella asked, disappointment plain in her voice though hidden from her face.
Charlotte nodded. Isabella slipped her arm into the crook of Charlotte’s, “Then I shall accompany you to the door.”
Charlotte warmed under the delicate press of Isabella’s fingertips against her arm. The butler opened the door, letting in the cool evening air, blessedly chilling Charlotte. When she turned to thank Isabella, she felt only her rouge coloring her cheeks. “Good night, Lady Isabella,” Charlotte said.
“Good night, Miss Wells.”
Weeks passed as the machinations set into motion by Charlotte and Isabella drew themselves to a close. Their alliance lending itself to friendship then to intimacy and climaxing in betrayal. Isabella wrote. More than once. Her letters lay folded neatly in the pages of Charlotte’s ledger book. Lady Isabella had made a fool of her and she would be damned if she would ever allow another to take from her the justice that had been ripped from her fingers. She kept the letters as a reminder that her fortifications had been dismantled and must never fall again.
Charlotte tripled her efforts to remove the memory of Lady Isabella’s body beneath her own, the feel of her fingers coaxing and plucking her strings as deftly as those of her harp. Weeks became a month, became two and then on the third, a knock at the brothel’s door brought the most unexpected visitor Charlotte could imagine.
“Sophia, what’re you doin’ ‘ere?” Charlotte demanded, wincing at her own harshness, “Come in,” she motioned.
The girl nodded back at the coachman and he sat back in the driver’s seat to wait for her. Charlotte led Sophia into the parlor and gestured for her to sit. Sophia dropped elegantly onto the couch. “Did you receive the letters my mother sent?” Sophia began without preamble.
“I did,” Charlotte replied, folding her hands over her lap.
“And yet you have not replied. Do you need someone to read them to you?”
Charlotte’s eyes narrowed to slits as she glared at the young woman. “I don’t owe your mother a response and I certainly don’t owe you one.”
Sophia stared back, unflinching, a near exact copy of her mother’s determination in those last days. Entirely against her will, Charlotte felt a pang of fondness which made her set her jaw in defiance. “Did you dispose of the letters? May I see them?” Sophia continued, undeterred.
“I don’t see how its any of your business,” Charlotte started.
Sophia sat calmly across from Charlotte, “My mother would not have said anything truly scandalous or inflammatory in a letter which could be compromised at any point between leaving her hand and your door. I do not believe you have all the facts you require to make an informed decision about abandoning my mother the way you have.”
Red flashed across Charlotte’s vision. Before she could think better of it, she ripped the letters from the ledger book and flung them at the teenage girl sitting so calmly and composed in front of one of the most notorious—as she reminded herself she was—harlots in all of London. Sophia took the letters and quickly read the words from her mother’s precise handwriting. One by one she folded them until all sat neatly on her lap. “As my mother pointed out,” Sophia began, “and I have learned in my very brief knowing of the company my uncle keeps, your trust in the law and justice to run its course fairly is naïve at best and damning at worst. You are lucky to have someone like my mother protecting you from your own folly.”
“I beg your pardon,” Charlotte felt the rage in her chest push violently against the walls around her.
“My uncle and Mrs. Quigley would have disposed of your girls, your sister, your Pa, your brother and then finally once you had been stripped of all you hold dear, they would have disposed of you in the manner in which they are so fond.”
“I see you’ve not picked up your mother’s tact in ‘ese months with ‘er,” Charlotte laughed incredulously.
Sophia smiled prompting Charlotte to continue, “You could make Nancy question even her ability for directness,” the unease in Charlotte’s chest began to unknot, “I take it your mother don’t know you’re ‘ere.”
Sophia looked down at her lap and shook her head. Charlotte nodded, “She’ll ‘ave your hide.”
“Perhaps, but it is worth the risk if it means you will come to her house at St. James,” Sophia replied.
“Part of my mother’s deal. If you would share a cup of tea with me, I will tell you how events played out while your ill-conceived revenge plot fell apart.”
Another month passed before Charlotte could digest all she learned from Sophia. In that time, she received no further letters from Isabella. She did not expect to feel the sting of loss as acutely as she did. It made her question the strength of her fortifications. She sat at the desk in her parlor and ran her fingers over the dried ink on the pages of Isabella’s letters.
“Oh, go ‘n see her already, Charlotte,” Lucy leaned against the doorframe behind Charlotte.
Charlotte shook her head, “I can’t, sprat. She betrayed us. We ‘ad them in our grasp and she betrayed us.”
Lucy sat at the harpsichord bench next to the desk. “She did what she thought she ought to keep her daughter safe. How is that any different than Ma? Haven’t you forgiven her?”
The sigh that pushed past Charlotte’s closed lips vibrated and left her lips tingling. “I know and honestly, sprat, I don’t truly blame her. Harcourt Fitzwilliam is the foulest villain. I’d move London to the sea to save you from his grasp,” she looked up at Lucy, “And you’re just my sister.”
“Then why won’t you see her?”
Charlotte shrugged. Lucy nodded and toyed with the jewel at her throat, “You love her.”
“I’m a bawd, sprat.”
“Ma loves Pa,” Lucy replied.
“And you see where that got ‘em. Naught but misery and hurt between ‘em.”
“And you, me, and Jacob,” Lucy added with a squeeze to Charlotte’s fist, “That’s not nothing.”
Charlotte stood in front of the massive whitewashed wood door in St. James Square. She listened to the clopping of the horse’s hooves as her coach drove away and debated calling it back even as she raised her hand to the knocker. The door swung open before her hand fell back to her side. A strict looking older gentleman stood in the doorway waiting. “Miss Charlotte Wells,” she began.
The man turned as a small hand appeared on his shoulder. He bowed his head and moved aside. Sophia smiled politely. “Miss Wells, please come in.”
Charlotte lifted her skirts to step, unimpeded, over the threshold and followed Sophia through the hallway. The walls were lined with bookcases in a style similar to the house Isabella used to share with her brother. Where there were no bookcases, the walls were covered in fine wallpapers with fleur-de-lis patterns. “Mama is in the music room,” Sophia explained, “I shall have the maid bring you both a pot of tea and then excuse myself to the farthest reaches of our home.”
Had Charlotte been drinking, the liquid would have been spat onto the floor at Sophia’s implication. The grin plastered on the young girl’s face made Charlotte like her more. “I attended an all girls’ school, Miss Wells, I am not so naïve as you might believe.”
Charlotte laughed and felt a tension in her chest ease. As they turned the corner down another hallway, deep, rich tones drifted from the room at the end of the corridor. “Mama is playing the violoncello. It was the only of her instruments she was able to bring with us. She has not yet replaced the others.”
Charlotte nodded, “’n what exactly is a violoncello?”
Sophia smiled and explained, “It’s an overlarge violin that sits on the floor between the player’s legs,” she put a finger up to her lips and opened the door to the music room, holding a hand up to Charlotte to wait.
Isabella glanced up from her playing and smiled at her daughter. “I’m just here for a book,” Sophia replied.
When Isabella smiled and resumed playing, she motioned Charlotte into the room. Charlotte felt like a voyeur and shifted uncomfortably near the door. Sophia took a book from the shelf and motioned for Charlotte to sit on the divan near the entry. She sat for a moment with her and listened to her mother playing. Isabella wore a pale blue dress which made her downcast eyes glitter like jewels. Her hair was free and hanging in loose curls around her shoulders. She clearly was not expecting visitors. Charlotte wondered when was the last someone called on the Lady Fitzwilliam.
Isabella dragged the bow across the strings evenly, producing a sound faster than the speed at which she moved the bow. Charlotte followed the neck of the instrument up to where Isabella’s other hand glided up and down the long neck at a pace that matched the frenetic pace the bowing elicited. Isabella pinned the bow against her palm and began plucking the strings while softly humming a harmony that floated above the violoncello. The door opened and Charlotte jolted when a maid sat a tray with a teapot and two cups with saucers on a table next to her. “Thank you, Ginny,” Sophia replied.
Isabella looked up at her daughter and froze. Charlotte smiled apologetically. Isabella straightened in the chair, holding the violoncello against her front like a shield. It caused a pain in Charlotte’s chest. Isabella gave her a polite nod as the maid, Ginny, took the violoncello from Isabella’s reluctant hands. Isabella watched Ginny place the instrument in its case and latch the wood lid. She turned to Sophia, “Nous allons en discuter, ma fille.”
“Oui, mama,” Sophia replied with a small curtsy and followed Ginny out of the room.
Charlotte answered when the door clicked closed, “Don’t be too hard on her.”
Isabella raised an eyebrow, “You speak French?”
Charlotte poured a cup of tea and offered it to Isabella, “Enough to get by.”
Isabella’s hand trembled when she took the saucer from Charlotte. She carefully lowered herself onto the divan next to Charlotte and waited while she poured herself a cup. She took a drink once Charlotte turned back to face her. “What was that song you were playin’?” Charlotte asked.
Isabella carefully avoided Charlotte’s gaze. She lowered the cup back to the saucer and held the items aloft between them. “A trifle of my own creation.”
“Truly?” Charlotte gawped.
Isabella shrugged as she felt a blush rise to her cheeks. “What brings you to my home, Miss Wells?” Isabella sat the cup and saucer on her lap and stared carefully into the pale brown liquid.
“Sophia came to visit me a month past.”
Isabella clicked her tongue against her teeth. “That beautiful child will drive me to Bedlam.”
“Has more’n a touch of her mother’s spirit in ‘er,” Charlotte replied after a sip of her drink.
Isabella covered her mouth with the back of her hand to stifle the laugh that spilled out.
“I don’t know how to get us back to where we were before all this,” Charlotte admitted.
Isabella nodded, “I am not certain that such is to strive toward. Plotting the utter ruination of half the peerage does not suit either of us, I think.”
Charlotte laughed lightly at this, “Perhaps you’re right. Though I should like to believe that there’s hope for us as friends.”
“Friends, Miss Wells?”
Charlotte felt an uncharacteristic twinge of insecurity, “More than friends, perhaps.”
Isabella observed Charlotte. Her dress was a muted forest green. It was not quite the garish colors most harlots wore but bright enough to draw the attention of those who knew her trade. Isabella mused to herself how lovely Charlotte would look in a ruby gown, how it would draw out the fullness of her lips and the brightness of her eyes. Isabella felt a gentle warmth spread through her body and so took a drink of her tea to drown it.
Charlotte knew the charge in the air between them, knew what it spoke to and to pretend that she did not desire to act upon it would be against her nature, but she wondered how to bridge that gap. She sat her cup and saucer on the tray, then turned to take Isabella’s. “We both did what we thought we must,” Charlotte offered as the woman across from her carefully turned over her cup.
Isabella folded her hands in her lap and studied the slight lines forming on her skin. “I pulled my daughter from the mouth of a lion in the only way I knew how.”
“And I put the bitch in a kennel,” Charlotte replied.
“My brother has fled back to Paris,” Isabella supplied, “Licking his wounds.”
“My ma is alive,” Charlotte whispered.
Isabella slid close to Charlotte and squeezed Charlotte’s hands, “Blessed news!”
Charlotte smiled as Isabella brought Charlotte’s knuckles to her lips. It was the most forward Isabella had ever been with Charlotte and it drew the breath from her lungs. Isabella quickly dropped Charlotte’s hands and returned her own to her lap. “Apologies,” she said.
“Don’t,” Charlotte replied, “Don’t apologize again. I can’t hear it. My grief and rage, I let it—I owe you one far more...”
“We both made rash decisions that served our own needs first,” Isabella retracted into herself and fell into the decorum from which she drew comfort.
“We did and I am sorry I was willing to sacrifice your daughter to avenge my ma. It’s unforgivable.”
Isabella blinked slowly to contain the tears that stung her eyes. “You have been forgiven already, Miss Wells.”
Charlotte studied the small creases at the corners of Isabella’s eyes. The years of mask wearing painted on her skin. She felt a protective urge rise up in her which made her flinch. Charlotte’s instinct was to make a crude joke. She did not, however, feel that would land well in present company but the words were already out of her mouth before she thought better of it, “Your daugh’er seems to think we’ll be ruttin’ like dogs in heat.”
Isabella’s jaw dropped open, “Sophia said no such thing.”
“She told me she would bring me to you ‘n busy herself in the farthest part of the house. Apparently that boarding school you sent her to had a course in playing flats,” Charlotte laughed.
“Charlotte Wells, you are incorrigible.”
Charlotte bowed her head, “Was your daugh’er thought it, not me.”
“It seems I must have a conversation with her on proper manners,” Isabella smirked.
The silence that fell over them was, graciously, a comfortable one. “I have missed you, Charlotte Wells,” Isabella’s voice was so quiet Charlotte almost missed it.
Charlotte reached to run her thumb along the lines framing Isabella’s lips. “And I you, my Lady.”
Charlotte leaned forward and waited, allowing Isabella the space and right to refuse. Isabella gently pressed her lips to Charlotte’s. Charlotte breathed in the fresh scent of rose and lavender on Isabella’s skin. She felt high with the rush of affection for the woman guiding her hands around her waist. Charlotte pulled back to look into Isabella’s lust blown eyes. Those eyes drifted to Charlotte’s lips. Charlotte rested her forehead against Isabella’s, “I would very much like to see how those deft fingers can compose a tune on my body.”
Isabella rose from the couch with a smile, broad and free, “I shall write a concerto on your skin,” she said as she turned the lock on the door.