Never a Lady
Unsuitable Brides #3
Having thwarted Lady Elizabeth's plans to snare Charlie, Clara finds herself without a position, Charlie feels responsible and decides to launch Clara into society so that she might find a suitable husband, though it becomes increasingly clear that there is only one suitable husband.
There is also the mystery of Clara's birth, she was never a lady, but she was never just a maid either.
The Christmas Ball will be the talk of the ton for generations.
Release Date: October 5, 2021
Genre: Historical Romance
~ A White Satin Romance ~
Charlie rubbed the face of the sovereign absent-mindedly, something he had done so often he had almost worn it smooth. It was not the original sovereign given to him by the Duchess of Bainbridge, Miss Helen Rockingham as she had been known then. That sovereign had been his change of fortune, but he always kept the first sovereign he made as profit as a reminder of who he was and where he had come from.
He stretched his long legs in front of him and stared into the flames, touching the sovereign once more. Looking at him now, no-one would guess his humble beginnings. He had been a street boy, an urchin, until a chance meeting with Miss Helen had led him to a job at Hatchard’s, the book-sellers. Mr. Hatchard had seen his potential, and within weeks, Charlie was no longer just doing odd jobs in payment for learning to read, he was living above the shop, earning a living, and being educated. He discovered he had a talent for figures and his newly learned skill of reading led him to devour Mr. Hatchard’s daily copy of The Times as well as anything else he could lay his hands on. The good and plentiful food served by Mrs. Hatchard saw him quickly develop from a skinny, scrawny boy into a tall, powerful, young man.
His first investments had been small and careful, bringing in small rewards, and by twenty-one he had garnered enough profit to take bigger risks. By three-and-twenty, with the help of a loan from the duchess, he had made several thousand pounds investing in canals and ship building before opening his own brokerage. Further investments in land with coal and mineral mining rights led to him adding a bank to his portfolio. Some thought he was lucky, but he knew that his luck was due to rigorous research and ensuring he was aware of technical developments so that he was always ready to invest in potential. Developments in science and technology particularly fascinated him. Consequently, by six-and-twenty he had accumulated a sizeable fortune.
Although they were usually contemptuous of self-made men, the ton accepted Charlie. What fascinated them was the fact he apparently did not care whether he was accepted or not. There was even a rumour he had turned down a title, which was true. He was not impressed by titles, especially when he saw some of the fools who owned them. Yet he also numbered among his friends the owners of some of the highest titles in the land, up to and including the prince himself. Perhaps that was what fascinated society; Charlie Hampton was an enigma to them.
“Bloody hell,” he grunted as he pushed one of the logs further on to the flames with the toe of his boot, releasing a shower of sparks. He poured himself a brandy from the side table. He, who had maintained rigid control over every aspect of his life, who pragmatically made decisions based on logic rather than emotion, now found it spiralling out of his control, and what annoyed him even more was that one of the reasons, the main reason if he were honest, was entirely of his own making.
A few weeks previously, Charlie had been at White’s. He had been particularly pleased, as the land he had recently bought in Yorkshire had a rich seam of coal running through it. Coal was going to be essential in the power of the future. He had seen some of the new steam engines working and was convinced they would change both the way things were produced and the potential for new transportation. So convinced was he that he had invested money with several engineers, though some associates said he was foolish to believe that people would ever trust in rocks and water when horses were much more solid and dependable.
Contracts had been signed and celebrations were in order. His closest friends, Lords Harper and Silcock, had started by the time he joined them and were already on their third bottle of claret.
“Congratulations, Hampton, I hear this latest deal will make you richer than the King himself,” Harper slurred.
“Kings of England and France together,” Silcock added, slopping wine into a glass and handing it to Charlie.
“Soon have more money than parliament,” Harper continued. “Should we need to go to war again, you can pay.”
“War is too costly,” Charlie replied evenly. It had taken the lives of two of his brothers, so he was acutely aware that the cost in human life was more significant than the money to be made. He never invested in anything to do with war. He would have no blood on his hands.
“Ever the serious one,” Harper grimaced. “Come now, man, have some more of this. It’s time you celebrated. Silcock, pour him another.”
“The trouble with you, Hampton, if I may say so, is that all you ever think about is making money. What’s the point?” Silcock asked, pouring another generous measure of claret. “You need to enjoy the fruits of your labours, man. Drink more wine. Come, tonight we’ll go to Madame Belle’s where there will be plenty of women to offer distraction. No matter what your pleasure, Belle’s girls do it all,” he grinned cheekily.
Charlie’s smile was thin. “I think not, gentlemen.” In the early days, when he had begun to make serious money, he would have gone with them, happily taking the pleasure Belle’s girls gave, but for some time now, drinking and whoring had bored him.
“Ah,” said Harper, “do I detect a man who, having made his fortune…”
“And ours,” Silcock put in.
“And ours,” Harper agreed. “A man who has made his fortune,” he repeated, “is now looking for a wife, so that he has someone to inherit after he’s gone. Must have someone to inherit, otherwise, what’s the point? And a bastard by some common woman just wouldn’t be enough, is that it?”
Charlie looked at Harper in surprise, for a man who was frequently drunk and usually completely insensitive, he had shown an uncanny insight. It was time, he considered. He wanted a well-bred young lady who would grace his dinner table and bear and raise his children. A son who would inherit and build on his empire and a daughter, perhaps. Such a woman ought not impinge on his life. In exchange, he would provide for her comfort and luxury. He could not think of a more practical arrangement. They would both benefit and there would be none of the emotional entanglement that came with the notion of love. A noble lady would surely have no expectation of love and partnership, and he had seen love firsthand and could not conceive that the rewards were justified by the cost. His own parents had married for love and that had been a disaster. He shut down the thought and refused to return to it.
“So we must find you a suitable bride.”
He jerked his head round at Harper’s words, the last thing he wanted was for his friends to even know he was contemplating marriage, let alone try in their misguided and he had no doubt clumsy way, to help him. “Even if I were thinking of matrimony, which I am not, I am quite capable of finding my own wife,” he replied.
“No, no, we are your friends. We want to help,” Silcock put in. “A toast to your future bride,” he said as he raised his glass.
Charlie raised a dark eyebrow. “I would not trust you two to choose my neckcloth, let alone my wife.”
“I am hurt,” Harper thumped his chest, “as one of your closest friends, I only want what is best.”
“Best for whom?” came a voice followed by a man who sat with elegant ease at their table.
Sir Taylor Rufford. Charlie’s eyes narrowed, since he had beaten Rufford in a deal a year ago there was little love lost between them. Rufford was an inveterate snob and had not forgotten the insult to his pride having been bested by someone of lower status. The fact that the land had since yielded a fine seam of coal had added fuel to the fire.
“Hampton here wants to find a wife,” Silcock explained, grinning.
Sir Rufford’s eyes glinted with malice. “I doubt that any woman of quality would want to associate herself with young Hampton,” he drawled. “Better to look on the streets of Cheapside, or better still, St. Giles.”
“Steady on, Rufford, Hampton has the blunt to secure a match with any woman,” Harper shot back.
Rufford inclined his head. “I daresay, it is no secret he has money enough,” he paused before adding, “but no breeding.”
“Sod your breeding, Rufford, clearly any brains were bred out of your family generations ago. Along with the family fortune,” Charlie heard himself saying, he would not usually have risen to the bait, but a bottle of claret had loosened both his control and his tongue.
“Really?” Rufford drawled. “Well then, what about a wager, if you are so confident? By the end of the season, you must have secured the hand of a woman of quality. Obviously, it will have to be some woman whose family is in need of cash, for no others would look at you, I suggest Lady Jane Whistowe, the Honorable Kathryn Hadfield, even Lady Caroline Omrod or her sister Lady Susan, or perhaps Lady Elizabeth Morgan. Their fathers are all in need of funds.” There was a pause before he added, “Shall we say £1,000? Come, Hampton, I am making this easy for you. Whistowe is within a whisker of bankruptcy, Hadfield’s castle is all but fallen down, Omrod has already had to provide three dowries and his lands have never been enough to support him, and Morgan as everyone knows, is mortgaged to the hilt, any of them should welcome your proposal with open arms. If you are as confident as you think you are, it will be the easiest £1,000 you have made this year.”
“Very well,” for the second time, Charlie heard himself speaking. “But let us make this more interesting: if I win, I’ll have the money and Rufford III,” he challenged, calculating even an idiot like Sir Taylor Rufford wouldn’t gamble his famous racehorse, virtually the only asset he owned.
“Done,” he replied, “But if the lady or her father refuses you, as well as the money, you must marry her maid, who surely would have no objection to the union.”
“Capital, capital,” Harper guffawed. “Bring brandy,” he yelled to a passing servant. “An excellent wager, Rufford, I had no idea you could be such a joker.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, a lady knows what she is getting into in the marriage mart, but a maid? I refuse...” Charlie began to argue before his voice was drowned out by the men’s laughter.
As far as Charlie could remember, that was what had occurred. He hoped to God as he pocketed the sovereign and poured another brandy, that Rufford had indeed been jesting.