The Duke's Dark Secret (Historical Victorian Romance)

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The Duke’s Dark Secret


Regency Romance




By: Emily Brant



The Duke’s Dark Secret

It would never do to be late to the social event of the year, and Charlotte Woodhall had every intention of arriving on time. But her sisters Margaret and Catherine were conspiring against her, as usual. Consequently, she was beyond frustrated as she rushed about trying to get her dress just so.


“You’ll never make it, you know.” Margaret mocked her, putting the last of her ribbons in her hair. “Mother said the carriage was to leave at 7:30 sharp.”


“Sharp, she said” Catherine piped up. She was the youngest of the sisters, but was always ready to support the eldest of the three of them in torturing Charlotte. “And you may as well not even bother, as once they see me, there won’t be anyone interested in dancing with you anyway. It
my debut.”


Charlotte held her tongue. Though certainly the youngest, Catherine was also by far the homeliest of the three, and with Margaret for competition, that was saying something. The eldest of the Woodhall daughters was rapidly approaching spinsterhood. Though known as a social climber and having some residual hint of aristocracy to claim offsetting the family’s dire financial circumstances, Margaret was able to compound a lack of physical refinement with the social graces of an artless butterfly. She would dart from conversation to conversation, seeking the nectar of gossip and distributing the same in equal portions, whether it was known to be true or false. Though it initially may have warmed her to the “right sort” of people in Bath society, she had managed to develop a questionable reputation by her eagerly wagging tongue.


While Margaret had harmed the family stock in social circles, it was Catherine who was noted for scandal. It was her social debut, but already she was noted for sneaking out, partaking in drinking, and stepping out with gentleman callers known to ride roughshod through the town in their carriages. On one such outing, a village blacksmith in a remote Somersetshire village had broken his foot and barely escaped being trampled by Margaret and her beau of the moment.


Charlotte- well, Charlotte was Charlotte, and as she gazed into the mirror feeling frumpy and frazzled, she began to dread the notion of being out at all. As though it were a charitable duty, her mother and sisters dragged her along to all such events, perhaps in the theory that there was greater safety in numbers. While she did not think herself plain with her smart, raven hair and pleasant cheeks and lips, the loud and greedy nature of her kin seemed to put off all interested parties. She was starting to fear that unless she were able to escape the vortex of her family’s sins, she would be left to languish alone at every dance, overlooked by men already unnerved by the Woodhall reputation.


She was becoming known as a wallflower, and it was a reputation that bothered her greatly.


“And still you dally.” Catherine mocked, and realizing she’d been staring forlornly into the mirror thinking about her plight, Charlotte let out a huff of impatience.


“I tell you I’d have been done long ago had you both not helped yourself to my things. I thought I’d misplaced them, but I see you’re using my good brush, sister, and Margaret is using ribbon I purchased not a week ago.”


“It’s not as though you were going to look any good in them.” Margaret sneered. “If you put a ribbon on a sow, it’s still a sow, isn’t it?”


Both girls cackled at this and before Charlotte could respond, the two flounced out of their shared room, crying, “We’re ready, mother, we’re ready!”


Charlotte rushed to fasten and clasp the last portions of her dress and quickly snatched up the brush to try to do something respectable with her hair. Fortunately, she’d had the foresight to get her short curls set early on, but wearing a bonnet as she’d gone for a walk and to read in the countryside had taken a slight toll on her intended appearance. As she was getting the bun reset, her mother slowly allowed the door to the room swing open as she darkened the doorstep.


“Why are you not ready, Charlotte?” The large-framed, unsmiling woman demanded. Before she could receive a response, she glided behind her daughter and roughly took hold of the back of her hair. “Wrong. This is not how I taught you to do your hair. You will sit in silence as I do this so that you will not make the rest of us any later.”


“Mother, I have it-”


“You will kindly observe silence.” She replied crisply. “I would prefer you to be seen and not heard, which would be a proper policy for you to observe at the dance. I shall never find you a husband if you can not learn to mind your tongue.”


“Yes, Mother.”


Beatrice Woodhall pulled and shaped her hair quickly and without mercy. In short order, Charlotte’s hair was a rough approximation of what she’d wanted- a little old fashioned for the dawning of the 1820’s, but near enough she knew she had little grounds for complaint. Complaint was the furthest from her mind among considerations, anyway. It would do no good. Her mother was unkind, but not normally cruel; there would be no physical punishment for rule-breaking. However, if she spoke out of turn, word would be put round to their two remaining servants and the girls not to speak to her under any condition. A week or two of pure silence was not entirely unwelcome, yet just unnerving enough that Charlotte had determined to avoid it if only for the sake of peace in the family.


“There. You are presentable.” Charlotte’s mother proclaimed. There was no father to admire the handiwork; Charles Woodhall had died two years ago and the family was saddled with his debts. They’d gone from a modestly comfortable, upper class lifestyle to giving up their apartments in Bath for their country cottage. The people in service to the Woodhalls had gradually gone from nearly one dozen to the elderly couple that seemed to have born into Woodhall employment, and Charlotte suspected even their days of cooking and cleaning for the four women were dwindling.


“Let me get a look at you.” Beatrice insisted, and after Charlotte spun around slowly, her mother sighed. “Very well. You are a pretty girl, Charlotte, but you must stop shrinking into everything you wear. How a girl can be so timid around men and yet clomp about without any hint of femininity is quite beyond me.”


The words stung, but Charlotte bore them up as she had before. “I will do my best to reflect well on us tonight.”


“See that you do. That’s enough tarrying, we must leave now before we become the very last guests to arrive at the Sedgewick’s..”




They arrived late, but still within the range of fashionably late enough that Charlotte was not to incur too great of an amount of wrath from Beatrice. As soon as they were announced and had entered the rooms of the Segewick’s fete, Charlotte’s family abandoned her. On some occasions, this might be cause for irritation, to be left alone with nobody to talk to. Fortune favored her this time, though, because Frances Cook spotted her and immediately made her way across the room to her.


Frances was a waif of a thing, much more petite than Charlotte, with equally dark hair and a penchant for laughter. She was already laughing over some funny comment that was either told to her or that she’d shared with a fellow guest when she took Charlotte’s arm. “Thank heavens you’re here,” she declared, leading her across the room towards a servant carrying a tray of punch. “I nearly died of boredom! There’s no one to talk to within our station- all right, I’ll be candid, within my station- and I have taken to accosting lonely and shy girls to trade jibes about the worst-dressed.”


“How terrible of you!” Charlotte teased her friend.


“It is, it really is. Punch?” Frances asked, and the uniformed man provided the women with drinks.


“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean about my station, dear Frannie.” Charlotte added. “You know the Woodhalls have taken a fall in the world. I can’t say we don’t deserve it.”


“Nonsense. The right man and you’ll be back on your feet in no time. Look there,” she said, pointing out a well-groomed young man with brown whiskers. “There is the sadly widowed Captain Howard Bannister, recently returned from India. If you don’t mind the warmer climes, I think you’ll find he’s worthy of the pursuit.”


“Recently widowed?” Charlotte asked?


“No, the mourning period is long past. He has been to a few such events and though your sisters have fluttered about him and made what I’d deem brazen flirtations, he has merely yawned at their antics.”


“A man of taste. I like him well already.” Charlotte joked. The women laughed and, to her surprise, the Captain both spotted her and proceeded to approach her from across the room.


“Oh dear. Here he comes. What do I say?” She whispered to Frances.


“Nothing stupid, I should think.”


The man offered a polite bow and Charlotte and Frances curtsied. “You are looking well today, Mistress Cook.” He offered politely.


“You are too kind. May I present Miss Charlotte Woodhall of Waverly Lodge?” Charlotte thought he had something of a weak chin, but his eyes were bright and he was clearly fit from his duties.


“Charmed.” He announced. When they’d dispensed with the niceties, he came directly to the point. “A lively tune!” He cried, as music began. Dancers took the floor. “Would you do me this kindness and honor, Mistress Woodhall?”


“I should be delighted.” She wasn’t at all sure she was. She would have preferred to have had a chance to speak with him first, and dancing wasn’t her strongest asset. But there would be some opportunity during the dance itself to get to know one another, or so she hoped.


His conversation proved meager at first, as they both tried to find things to talk about. “I have met your sisters, I believe.” He informed her as they met during the carefully choreographed dance steps. She was trying to recall the correct way to perform a contratem and settled for watching others and taking their lead.


“Oh?” Was all she could say.




“And may I ask…” She struggled as she tried to remember her travelling steps. “May I ask how you found India?”


“Hot.” He informed her. “India is a place that is far too intemperate for my taste. I have been stationed here for the time being. Strange to live in peace for so long, speaking as a soldier, but I can say I don’t mind it terribly much. I’ve been keeping occupied.”


As the dance progressed, she found she was attracted to him, but it felt like a surface attraction, a curiosity that piqued her interest without giving her any clear indications. It was odd, though; she took note of a man with a grim face and a shock of red hair dancing nearby who kept glaring at her. She wasn’t sure what she was doing wrong or why she had offended him, but he was clearly disturbed.


The dance came to an end and the dancers clapped for the musicians. After stepping away from the floor, she noted the man with red hair positively scowling in their direction. But she couldn’t get any intelligence on who he was; Howard seemed to have warmed up to her and was vividly describing the places he’d seen in his travels, in particularly in Greece, India, and even at home. It was an interesting conversation, and she’d initiated it by asking him to elaborate on some of his trips, having never travelled much herself. But soon she excused herself to catch up with Frances.


“I do hope you’re not leaving just yet?” He asked hopefully.


“Why no! I can’t recall when I’ve had such a nice time. Only give me a moment to speak to Frances.”


She rescued her friend from a man Frannie called a ‘crashing bore’ and from whom she was grateful to be led away. “Do tell me,” Charlotte asked, pointing to the red-haired man. “Who is he? I don’t recall seeing him before.”


“And no small wonder.” She was told in a confidential whisper. “The Duke of Dorset, George Mandeville the Younger. The elder died just last year while the young Duke was away at school.”


“I recall hearing that!” She marvelled. “I had no idea he had a brother.”


“Isn’t he in a black mood?” Frances asked, looking over at him. He was seated, arms folded and apparently being spoken to by a young woman who was trying to keep the mood light. But he was having none of it. After a short time, he got up and the two left the building.


“He doesn’t seem to care much for his wife, I should say. I wonder why he should have singled me out for ire.” Charlotte said, not realizing she was speaking out loud.


Frances caught what she was saying and quickly corrected her. “No, you goose, that’s his sister. As to you, I have no idea. Did you do or say something?”

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