by Jessica Cale
Gothic Regency Romance
Content warnings: Contains transgender and bisexual characters falling in love, getting married, and enjoying themselves.
Actress Charlotte Halfpenny is in trouble. Pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and out of a job, Charlotte faces eviction two weeks before Christmas. When the reclusive Earl of Somerton makes her an outrageous offer, she has no choice but to accept. Could he be the man of her dreams, or is the nightmare just beginning?
“There are two ways to look at everything.” Charlotte paused for dramatic effect, curling blue fingers over the side of the bridge. “All beginnings are endings in disguise. Place of arrival or means of escape; will I find my end at the bottom, or fall clear through the other side?”
The wind swallowed her famous voice and carried it away, taking the last thing she had of any value. It was the ice in the air that had caused her voice to shake, she reasoned. She was far too cold to feel the fear lurking in her heart, insulated as it was by dread and resignation. It was too dark to see anything but a great growling blackness over the side, but the smell assured her she had reached the right place.
“It’s only a river,” she reassured herself, though the observation brought her little comfort. Ravenous beast or churning waves, it would swallow her just the same. “Would it be better to drown or be devoured?”
She turned to face her audience, but they paid her no mind. Not ten paces away, they shuffled their wings, dark feathers gleaming in the moonlight like polished knives as they pecked at a murky spot beyond. The play had been over perhaps an hour, and now she couldn’t even command the attention of crows.
Her laugh brought a welcome puff of warmth to her lips as she turned toward the river once again. The night was worse than cold, it was merciless, and it carried with it a dampness that seeped into her every pore, chilling her to her bones and invading her weary heart. Perhaps she would freeze before she could drown.
The bridge was as famous as she was, a dubious honor. The fastest way between London and the poorest boroughs to the south, the city’s whores frequently threw themselves off of it as they returned home from long days servicing the wealthier streets in rented gowns and sagging feathers. It got them all, in the end. Perhaps it was not the easiest way to go, but it was there. Living the way they did, all that silver had to look tempting from time to time.
What was an actress but a whore? Her father, a playwright, loved his quill to distraction but had nothing but disdain for the painted players who brought his words to life. The last time she had spoken to him, he’d asked her that very question and Charlotte, in her wisdom, had asked him why he had married one.
“Prescient as ever, Father,” she addressed his memory, straddling the railing of the bridge, the only barrier between her sort and their inevitable end. She didn’t want to die, but what choice did she have? Cast out by her lover and sacked by her theater, she had no family, no income, no future. All she had was an expanding belly and a week to vacate her ex-lover’s rooms.
“A week until Christmas,” she muttered. “Prick.”
She didn’t kid herself she’d be able to get back onstage after the baby came. After ten good years of drawing crowds, she was already being replaced by younger, fresher women, actresses from the country who couldn’t enunciate if she took their jaws into her own hands and moved their lips herself, but didn’t London love a new face? She’d passed for twenty-two for years now, but it was only a matter of time until someone remembered she’d been nineteen ten years ago. Christ.
Before long, she’d be little more than a buttock broker’s bunter. If her child survived, it would be destined for the workhouse.
That was not something she could abide.
“Wesley Thomas Cheltenham Sneed,” she seethed, searching her overdeveloped imagination for a curse befitting the man who had abandoned her, noble by birth if not character.
She let out a long sigh. There was no point to it.
She had met his betrothed. He deserved precisely what he was getting.
The sound of wheels popping over the stones startled her and she gripped the edge, struggling to keep her balance. Oddly enough, she didn’t much care for the idea of falling in.
She clung to her perch as the coach passed, hoping the darkness would shield her from prying eyes. What would it matter if they saw her, really? She was just another Drury Lane Vestal succumbing to the inevitable, after all.
Her jaw clenched in protest at her morose line of thought. She didn’t really believe that, did she?
The wheels stopped.
Charlotte turned as she heard her name.
The coach was old and cumbersome but meticulously maintained, set high above the street on wheels the size of card tables. Unadorned but for a coat of lacquer, it was dark as the team of blacks that idled before it. The door stood open and a man leaned out, his youthful appearance illuminated by the glass-encased lantern swinging from a hook on the side.
He regarded her with an expression caught somewhere between confusion and terror. “Might I be of assistance?”
Clean shaven and slight of form, she might have mistaken him for a boy, albeit a remarkably pretty one. His hair was short and neat, dark as his horses. His jaw was angular and his mouth more serious than generous, but his eyes were bright and pale. She never forgot a face. She tried to place his.
“Somerton.” She smiled as the name came to her. She was face to face with the reclusive Earl of Somerton.
He alighted from the coach and approached her as though she were a frightened animal. “Please, will you come down from there?”
His voice was mellow, sweet, and very expensive. It sounded like tea with the Queen. He held out his hand.
She took it with only a moment’s hesitation and he visibly relaxed as she climbed down. He was taller than she would have guessed and elegant as a dancer, not a thread out of place on his immaculate suit. Even his cravat looked as though he’d just tied it.
There was something odd about him, but she couldn’t quite place it. He was unlike any man she had ever been near, too composed, too perfect. “You’re freezing,” he observed, the vapor of his breath the only cloud in the night. “May I escort you home?”
She shivered, remembering her unfortunate circumstances. “I don’t have a home anymore.”
His eyebrows drew together in concern, or perhaps distaste. “Then I suppose you shall have to come to mine.”
Charlotte blinked, taken aback. “With all due respect, Lord Somerton, if you’re looking for a poke, you can piss off. You’re a handsome bloke, but I’ve had quite a day.”
The only hint that he had heard her was the slight widening of his eyes.
They were silver, just like the river.
He cleared his throat. “I meant no disrespect, Miss Halfpenny, only it is very cold and I hate to think of you out here on your own. Would you consent to joining me for supper? I give you my word as a gentleman that I will not touch you.”
She looked him over, seeking signs of good character in the shine of his boots and the fit of his coat. His character may be questionable, but his tailor was a damned genius. He was leaner than most and held himself with a grace that was both authoritative and arresting in its beauty. It was his eyes that drew her gaze once again. She saw no ill-intent there, but a sort of quiet desperation that mirrored her own.
He was lonely.
Her heart began to thaw even as her mind warned her against accompanying strange noblemen back their homes in the night. A man of Somerton’s standing could drown her himself in sight of the King and half of Parliament and never get done for it.
She shrugged off her foreboding. There’s no harm in it. You were about to drown yourself, remember?
“You wouldn’t mind? Your wife isn’t likely to welcome an actress to her table.”
“I’m not married, and you’re most welcome. Indeed, I would be honored to have you as my guest. I am a great admirer of your work.”
Charlotte blushed at the compliment. Somerton had seen her? “I do not have the most spotless of reputations. I would not wish to cause you dishonor.”
He raised a dark brow playfully. “My household is very good at keeping secrets.”
Something about the way he said this made her want learn them all.
“I would be delighted to join you, Lord Somerton.”
His smile was a mystery, a shadow on the face of the moon.