Continuing the first draft of the free read prequel to Lady Doctor Wyre (see last week’s snippet for the beginning, remember first draft, subject to revisions later)
Still studying the awaiting missives, Queen Majel said, “You will of course be attending our Solstice Eclipse ball in a fortnight.”
The strangely absent tone of the queen’s voice sent chills of foreboding creeping up Charlotte’s arms. Since every House’s attendance at the queen’s ball was required by tradition more binding than any law, she had no reason to emphasize the invitation. Unless it’s a deliberate message. A warning, perhaps, that it shall be the last party I ever attend?
Charlotte drew herself up, tipping her chin to a haughty angle. If the queen thought to intimidate her with subtle threats, then she would be gravely mistaken. However, a volley of blatant desperately-cast threats in return simply wasn’t Charlotte’s style. Instead, she put on the role of the bored, privileged lady of Society.
“Oh, I honestly don’t know, Your Majesty. The endless rounds of balls and parties are so tiring. I still haven’t recovered from the horrors of Lady Marlborough’s distasteful gown last week. Besides, so many desperate mamas will be there casting their precious little sons at my feet hoping to catch a rich Duchy. I think I’d rather retire to Wyreton and hunt instead.”
Majel raised her head, eyes narrowed to dangerous slits.
At least she’s looking at me now instead of pretending I’m invisible.
“If I must order you to attend, then you’ll pick one of those adorable dandies to dangle on your knee for the entire evening.”
Charlotte let out a husky laugh and glided toward the door. “Might as well order me leg-shackled while you’re at it.” She paused, looking back over her shoulder with a saucy wink designed to infuriate the queen as much as a slap to the face. “Just because you’ve endured matrimony doesn’t mean I won’t kick and scream all the way to the altar.”
She shut the door behind her and summoned every inch of pride and confidence she possessed to stride down the hall as the Duchess of Wyre and Queen’s most trusted Physician. Not someone fearing for her life, especially after she’d drawn such a line in the sand.
Years ago, Majel had selected the purest and most venerable House from which to marry and had produced two heirs on her much younger noble husband. Although she’d taken great pains to project a fairytale image of love and happiness, there’d been no love on her part, merely the grim duty to secure her royal line with a man no one in the realm could dispute as a handsome, well-bred Britannian.
Unfortunately, said well-bred young man had conducted himself most poorly. First, he’d dallied with every maid and servant in the castle, which Majel probably would have allowed as long as he’d kept his escapades at least somewhat discreet. But the young man had made the dreadful mistake of allowing a Francian ambassador a little too close. Majel had caught him red-handed, trying to steal documents from her office.
That very evening, an assassin’s blade found its mark in his lithe young body. So regrettable, so sad, the nation had mourned his sweet face, while Majel had played the part of the grieving yet regal widow perfectly. The Francian ambassador found a ship that very night and departed for her homeland, only to be blasted from the sky by pirates.
Whose ship, I’ll wager, was hired at none other than the Thames port.
Charlotte passed the last row of Queen’s Ravens standing guard at the South Wing exit and began the long trek down the Long Walk to her carriage. She allowed herself a deep breath of relief to relax the stiffness in her shoulders, but the battle had only just begun. Who shall be hired to assassinate me?
Then she had a thought that made her lips curve into a smile so wickedly pleased that a petitioner disembarking from an unmarked carriage stumbled and nearly tumbled on her nose in the gutter. Swathed in gray veils that hid her face but did little to disguise her finely tailored gown, the woman recovered her balance and rushed past, but Charlotte recognized her as the Royal Duchess of Lizbonne, Majel’s cousin and heir if anything ever happened to her own children.
Ridiculous woman. Does she honestly think a little gauze will keep people from recognizing that red-gold hair that Majel always coveted?
Smoothing her face, Charlotte took her footman’s hand and allowed him to help her into her carriage. Open carriages were all the rage this Season with the driver seated high above the engine and the poor footman clinging to the tiny rail installed at the rear, whisking through Town at speeds that would threaten to tear both men off their precarious perches.
Charlotte preferred the older enclosed model that both lent her some privacy and included a built-in keyboard and uplink to her home network. Of course she’d worked on the engines long ago and knew without a doubt that she could outrace any carriage which dared challenge her. The latest engines were based on her design, but she hadn’t released all her secrets.
She’d been concerned for too long about what the queen—or her subjects—would do with that knowledge.
“St. James Square, Your Grace?”
Settling her skirts, she pressed a button and a keyboard slid out. “I need to go home to Wyreton.”
“As you wish, Your Grace.”
Majel cleans up her messes most efficiently. Perhaps I can make a larger mess myself before she has the opportunity to wipe me out.