Charlotte was a ton of fun to write. A little quirky, a little different, but also managing to hold onto that characteristic Brittler stubbornness that we all know and love. I hope you all enjoy her as much as I did!
Charlotte Brittler is content. Unlike her elder sister, Dianna, who headed west in search of a life of adventure, Charlotte thrives in the bustling, overcrowded Manhattan streets. If she could only find a husband, her life would be complete.
When the son of a local oil baron captures Charlotte’s hard-won interest, her most basic instincts come into play, and Charlotte is swept away down a path full of secrets and intrigue, in a twisting game that threatens her very heart.
Logan Drexel is the son of a professional con man. Nothing more and nothing less. His father has gambled away his grandfather’s company, wasting any funds they bring in on maintaining an appearance of exuberant wealth to the Manhattan society.
Charlotte Brittler is his only chance.
Logan knows that if he is to recover his dignity—and his family’s good name—he needs money, and a lot of it. So, he promises himself one more con. One last time, he will seek to deceive someone for monetary gain. If he can marry Charlotte, every debt collector can be safely swept under the rug, and he can escape the clutches of a father that has used him time and time again.
But Charlotte is not a prize to be won. She’s a furious, flame-driven storm that will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and Logan quickly realizes that the tables have turned. When he set out to steal Charlotte Brittler’s heart, he never banked on losing his own.
She couldn’t breathe. Charlotte held onto the bedpost for dear life as her mother cinched her stays even tighter than she had the day before.
“There,” she said, at last, tying off the ends and stepping back to admire the effect she had created. “You look perfect. Where’s your gown?”
“Mother,” gasped Charlotte, turning on the spot to face the woman with her hand pressed to her ribs. “I’ll be passed out in the middle of the dance floor within the hour. My toes are tingling.”
“Tosh,” said Samantha Brittler. She waved her hand dismissively, and moved to the wardrobe. Charlotte glared at her, already feeling light-headed.
“I’m quite serious, Mother,” grumbled Charlotte as she tottered over to the dressing table and began running her fingers through the rigidly fashionable curls her mother had wound about her head. “I won’t be dancing at all if you insist I go like this.”
Samantha ignored her. She was good at that. “This one will do perfectly,” she said, removing a blue silk gown from the wardrobe and laying it out on the bed. Charlotte sighed.
“Slide that on at once. I’ll send for Penny in a moment to help do up the buttons.”
Charlotte frowned after her mother as she exited the room, then she listened to her enter her sister’s room next door,
Her chest was already heaving as she struggled to take in enough tiny puffs of air to keep her body functioning.
“This is ridiculous,” she muttered to herself, eyeing her reflection. Her waist was pulled in so tightly that she could encircle it with her hands and her elegant fingers would touch on both ends. Her long red hair dangled down her back as she turned in the mirror to gaze at the laces of her stays. Her fingers were white and bloodless. She gasped and began fumbling with the ties behind her back.
She heard the bedroom door open and her hands dropped to her sides as she looked up to see who had entered. Noelle slunk into the room, looking quite as uncomfortable as Charlotte.
“I’ll loosen yours if you loosen mine,” she whispered.
Charlotte smiled in relief and waved her sister over to her, hardly having the breath left to speak.
Noelle let out a tiny gasp as Charlotte worked her fingers expertly over her sister’s laces. They fell loose at once, and Noelle’s face flooded with color.
“She’s been so much worse since Di left,” she said, turning around and nudging Charlotte’s shoulder, still breathing like a wounded horse. Charlotte spun her back to her sister and held her breath so that Noelle would have room to maneuver the strings.
At last, they came free, and she sucked in great lungfuls of air while her head spun dizzily. Charlotte made her way over to the bed and collapsed next to her blue dress. Noelle followed her.
“She’s worried,” said Charlotte, rubbing her temples and gazing at the face of her wardrobe without seeing it. “She thinks if she doesn’t get us married off, we’ll leave her, like Di.”
“Dianna didn’t abandon us,” said Noelle, a dreamy look coming over her face. “She left to find love.” Charlotte snorted and Noelle glared at her. “She did!” she insisted.
“We haven’t heard from her weeks, ‘Elle.”
“She said she would write when she came into town. She said Greyson was very pleasant, but that she wouldn’t be able to write much,” Noelle quoted stubbornly.
“She’s glossing it over. You know as well as I do Dianna was searching for an adventure. She’d be happy with or without this man.”
“They’re going to fall in love,” muttered Noelle. “Just you wait.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes as her sister headed for the door and opened it a crack. She peered out into the hallway beyond and then looked back over her shoulder.
“Mother’s in Sarah’s room.”
“You go in and rescue her once mother sends for Penny.”
Noelle nodded to show she understood and then slithered back through the door, closing it softly behind her.
A few moments later, Charlotte heard a bell ring in the downstairs kitchen. Penny, the housemaid, entered her room.
“She’s got you trussed up like a thanksgiving turkey, she has,” giggled the girl as she deftly tugged Charlotte’s gown onto her shoulders and began buttoning the back of the bodice. “How are your stays?”
“Noelle loosened them a bit,” responded Charlotte with a grimace. Penny nodded and moved out of the room. Charlotte was left alone with nothing to distract her but her very irritable thoughts. She listened to the sounds of her mother readying her sisters for the night’s event and a spark of anger lit in her chest.
It was a few moments before she realized what had infuriated her. Dianna. Stubborn, wonderful Dianna. Her eldest sister. If only she were here, she would be able to calm their mother’s anxieties.
Thomas and Samantha Brittler had four daughters. Four, stubborn, idealistic daughters with enough will to flatten a mountain range. Dianna had been the first, and so, she was also the first to go. She had left them. Quite of her own volition.
Left her mother and father and three sisters behind in Manhattan to travel across the country and marry a man she had never met. Well. Noelle might find that romantic. She, Charlotte, found it tasteless. And though she would rather bite off her tongue than admit it, a small part of her agreed with their mother’s blatant opinion on the matter.
Of course, she knew why Dianna had left them. She knew it as surely as she knew that the sun would come in the morning. Dianna had left, not out of selfishness or spite, but out of need.
Charlotte understood that Dianna had needed something more. She’d never been happy with their way of living. With the day-to-day calls and charity work and sewing. She had wanted to live, and Charlotte couldn’t blame her, but it didn’t stop her being angry with her.
Dianna was the only one of the four girls who could ever manage to curb their mother’s overzealous nature. Samantha Brittler was a former debutant with a taste for the social aspect of Manhattan. She liked to see and be seen, and she did not approve of Dianna’s decision to travel westward, not in the slightest. Dianna had been the only one of the Brittler sisters with enough of Samantha’s own genes to contradict her ridiculousness.
She had been logical, to the point of being irritating, but then there were times when some whim or feeling had taken hold of her and she would throw her logic to the wind. Her personality was a kaleidoscope of contradictions. Next to her eldest sister, Charlotte always felt robustly sane. She knew what she wanted, and she knew how to get it. She did it quietly and without fuss. If Dianna had been logical, but reckless, Charlotte was clever and fierce. She liked that about herself. She liked the ability to see past dreams and frivolities. She did not ache for change. No. If she could only find a husband, she would be content with life in Manhattan. Or in some closely related facsimile.
A husband who would care for her, and most importantly, love her. She’d seen examples of loveless marriages. She’d had friends who had been matched with wealthy men so that their families could profit. They were lonely.
If Charlotte was sure about anything, she was sure about this. She would marry one day, and she would marry for love. She wouldn’t take a chance on a stranger. No. She would love the man she married, and she would be absolutely certain that he loved her in return.
A knock sounded on her bedroom door once more and her mother entered without waiting for a response.
“Are you ready?”
Charlotte stood up. She was within an inch of her mother’s height, but while Samantha was slender, Charlotte’s silhouette was full of curves. She was shapely, with long legs. Her waist dipped in pleasantly, and her long red hair was rich and thick in texture.
She looked very little like the rest of her family. It wasn’t just her brilliantly red hair, it was in her facial structure, and in the way she moved and talked. She was different.
“I just need my necklace,” she said dispassionately. She retrieved it from her vanity and allowed her mother to fasten it about her neck.
“There,” said Samantha, bestowing a rare smile on her. “You look lovely. Let’s be off then.”
Charlotte rode in the carriage next to the window. It was another dreary Manhattan evening. Their weather had been abysmal as of late. Noelle and Sarah chatted amicably, but Charlotte couldn’t even muster the energy to feign interest in their conversation.
“How do you think he’ll do it?” asked Noelle from the other side of the carriage.
“I don’t even know that he will, ‘Elle,” giggled Sarah. She blushed.
“You do too. He’s absolutely smitten with you. He’s bound to ask you to marry him.”
Samantha Brittler cast Sarah-Jane an approving look. Sarah had recently managed to capture the attention of Fredrick Carson Williamson. The son of a wealthy coal merchant from England, whose father their mother had been acquainted with in childhood. Carson had traveled to America on business and now seemed quite taken with Sarah. Their mother could not have been more pleased to make the introduction, or to take the credit for their running courtship.
“He’s wonderful, isn’t he?” sighed Sarah, her breath steaming against the window. Her eyes were wide and dreamy. Charlotte had the impression that Carson Williamson could have been a pauper in the street and Sarah-Jane would have fallen for him in a heartbeat.
“Oh, good. We’re here,” said Thomas Brittler as the carriage drew to a halt in front of a large manor house. The gardens surrounding the vast dwelling were magnificent, even given the season. Neatly manicured hedges, leaves swaying in the cool evening breeze, lined a stone walkway. The house it led to was ablaze with lights, and Charlotte caught the sound of string music echoing out over the lawn. It was a captivating atmosphere, and she followed her sisters from the carriage, thinking that perhaps the party would not be a complete waste of time after all.
The house belonged to a man called Berkley Drexel. A man whom her father heartily disliked. He was an oil baron with, she had come to understand, considerable ingenuity in swindling others out of their money. Charlotte had never met him, of course, but she had listened to her father rage against him at the dinner table enough times to know that, had it not been for her mother’s insistence, they would not be attending this gathering at all.
“Think of the people that will be in attendance,” she had pleaded. “Think how it will look if we do not make an appearance. Everyone shall assume that you do not approve of Mr. Drexel. That you think he is beneath you.”
“They would be right,” Thomas had huffed, his great mustache blowing hither and thither in his agitation. “That man is a thief. His company is built on the backs of his unwilling and unknowing investors. He hasn’t a cent to his own name.”
You would never know it, thought Charlotte as she mounted the front steps of the manor. The foyer was decorated with marble and gilded gold. It was a rather ostentatious display. Her family had wealth, thanks to her father’s sound investments and intelligent business decisions. His steel mills were flourishing, but their home did not display such a dramatic exhibition of their means. She could tell that the Drexel estate was designed to inspire envy in those less fortunate, and the thought made a hard lump rise in her throat. Whoever this Mr. Drexel was, he was bound to be a pretentious snot.
As they entered the lavish ballroom, Charlotte caught sight of a black-jacketed band in the corner. She hummed quietly under her breath along with the familiar notes of the 1812 Overture that emanated from their beautiful instruments. How she loved music.
A few onlookers milled around a crowded dance floor in the center of the room. Ornate gold and crystal chandeliers decorated the ceiling.
“Look,” hissed Sarah in her ear as they made their way around the room, “He’s here.” She was indicating the tall, black-haired gentleman in the corner that was eyeing their party with every appearance of delight on his face.
“You knew he would be,” said Charlotte, a crooked grin sliding over her lips as she took note of the excitement in her sister’s voice. She didn’t think Sarah heard her though as she strode forward to greet her suitor with their father by her side. Thomas Brittler made no secret of his approval for Sarah’s beau. He received Carson enthusiastically, clasping his proffered hand in both of his own.
“Mr. Williamson. A pleasure to see you again.”
Charlotte let her eyes wander over the crowd while they exchanged pleasantries. Her eyes fell on a young man that was sitting apart from the rest against the far wall. His eyes were closed and, for a moment, Charlotte thought he was asleep, but then she realized that he was listening to the music. He was on the shorter side, with a beard to rival her father’s. Charlotte could tell that when he stood, he would only be an inch or two taller than her five feet and six inches. He was olive-skinned and gave an impression of great warmth, but he looked drawn, weary even. His broad, muscled shoulders were slumped. She cocked her head to the side, wondering if someone should attend to him, as he obviously wasn’t well. Then his eyes opened, and they pierced her where she stood. They were the coldest shade of blue she had ever seen, almost colorless. His gaze stole the breath from her lungs, and she felt an eruption of sorts take place in her stomach.
The young man looked away from her to take a sip of his drink and Charlotte could breathe again. Her corset was feeling uncomfortably tight once more. She lifted her fan and spread the lace wide as a dull flush crept into her cheeks. She couldn’t take her eyes from him. Who was he? She’d never seen him before.
Noelle nudged her gently with her elbow. “What are you staring at?” she asked. Her voice was low so as to not draw the attention of the others.
“Nothing,” snapped Charlotte, recovering her senses. She turned her mind back to the conversation taking place before her, but she could feel the man’s presence like a cold breath on the back of her neck.
They moved on after Sarah had promised a dance to Carson and the sisters made their way to a set of vacant seats against the far wall. Charlotte, embarrassed by her reaction to the blue-eyed stranger, did not look around for him again. Although, strangely, she sensed he was trying to catch her eye.
The music drifted over her and the evening made its own slow progress toward the dawn. Two hours later found Charlotte quite at her ease. She was conversing with an old acquaintance about the lessons she had been taking on the pianoforte when a shout of anger drew her attention across the room. She spotted the source of the disturbance at once and recognized the speaker with a jolt.
“I certainly do not take kindly to the idea you are suggesting, sir, and I would thank you to check your facts before leveling such accusatory contention in my family’s direction.” Blue-eyes turned from his adversary in a huff and straightened his waistcoat with a flourish. Then his gaze found Charlotte’s once more. To her absolute shock, he made a beeline straight for her.
Charlotte could do nothing but watch him as he crossed the room to take hold of her gloved fingers and bow over her hand.
“Miss Brittler, might you favor me with this dance?”
After his none-too-quiet disagreement, every eye was upon them. Charlotte looked around for her mother or her father, wondering what on earth she should do. She was not acquainted with this man. They had never been introduced, and yet he spoke to her in the most familiar of tones, as though this dance he was asking for was a long-standing arrangement between the pair of them.
She hesitated for as long as she could whilst saving him from further embarrassment. “Yes, Mister-?” she prompted, rising to her feet as a soft violin began to play just behind her.
“Drexel, Miss. Logan Drexel.”
Charlotte felt her eyes go wide as he led her onto the floor. She swallowed uncomfortably as Logan Drexel’s arm encircled her waist and he pulled her into a flawless waltz. She blinked rapidly as those icy blue eyes found her, suddenly feeling like a mouse caught in the eyes of a snake.
“We have not been acquainted, miss. No. But I must admit, you caught my eye the moment you entered my father’s home.”
She felt her face color at his complement and she narrowed her gaze at him. “Is that so?” she asked suspiciously.
“It is,” he said. He lowered his voice conspiratorially so that his warm breath brushed her ear and his lips quirked up delightfully in the corner. “I’ve an eye for beautiful things, you see.”
“And an ear,” said Charlotte. His hand was cold on her back. She could feel his touch through her many layers, and she felt gooseflesh rise up her arms. “I’ve noticed you seem to have a fondness for music.”
He nodded as they spun in time with the fluid pace of the Gran Duo. “As I said,” he responded. “Beautiful things.”