Chosen Mistress

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Charlotte Ashford will do anything for her cousin Lydia. She never could have imagined it was to become a mistress. Chosen Mistress...a scandalous tale of two women in early Victorian society exposing the underside of love, sex, and relationships.
First 10 Pages

Charlotte stared at the letter in disbelief, the ink-stained paper crumpling between her fingers. She pressed her temples trying to halt the dizziness swirling in her head, questions flooding her thoughts as she read the words for the third time. The realization sank to the pits of her stomach causing her breathing to become shallow. Life as she knew it was about to be turned upside down–a life that had been so busy caring for her father, she had failed to create one for herself.

She pressed her back against the seat, and rubbed her neck, stiff and strained, as the carriage rattled across the cobblestone streets through Boston heading to the bustling ports where Charlotte’s father’s business resided. Her heart raced listening to the horses’ every stride of their hooves clicking against the pavement. Prudently, uncrumpling the paper clenched in her gloved hand, she read the letter one more time. Holding back tears, she tried to make sense of the words written boldly across the paper:

You are to vacate the premises within a fortnight.

Unbeknownst to her, following her father’s death, his business, bank accounts and assets, including the family home, had been bequeathed to his business partner, Giles Milford.

She ran her hand over the wrinkled papyrus, smelling the tannic acids of the freshly inked words, folded it, and shoved it into her pocket.

Charlotte could never have imagined her father would leave her penniless. Merrill Ashford claimed he was building his import/export business for her and future generations of Ashfords. Making a name for his family in America was important to him. For the last eight years, he had taken the greatest of risks, leaving England with his wife and daughter, and severing his ties to the prominent Ashford ancestral dynasty for dreams of greater prestige and wealth. Proving to his brother he could be a business success in his own right. There was no explanation that could account for losing the Ashford legacy he had been creating.

As Charlotte neared the waterfront, her hand pulled away the curtain, carefully unveiling the world outside her carriage window. The foremasts of the cargo ships soared above the rooftops indicating she was close to her destination. The streets clamored with patrons–ladies, maids, sailors, and gentlemen alike–making their way from shop to shop of the surrounding port streets. A bakery and a tailor shop filled the spaces below her father’s office. Merrill Ashford Trade resided on the second floor, where her father could have an advantage of watching the ships arrive. Large floor to ceiling windows fronted the office space where Charlotte often spied on her father buried deep in thought at his desk. On rare occasions, while shopping, she would catch a glimpse of him from the streets below, where he would wave, inviting her upstairs.

Surprise visits were no longer an option.

Her father was dead, buried with her mother in a small cemetery overlooking the sea, underneath dirt covered mounds with squared marble headstones simply bearing the names and the dates of their short lives.

The horses slowed and eventually came to a stop in front of the tailor’s shop.

Mr. Spidey, the manager, waved to Charlotte as she exited the carriage, but she ignored the gesture, not wanting any distractions.

Dumbfounded by the letter, but more scared of what was to become of her, it took all her willpower to push herself to confront her father’s business partner. Her father’s lawyer and friend left the letter for her in the early morning, leaving his carriage with instruction to meet him at his office after she arose. Charlotte’s first allegiance was to obey. For surely, her father’s lawyer would help clarify the situation. As she dressed, an anger began to crawl from her gut, forcing her jaw to tighten and her fists to clench, suppressing the tears that should have overtaken her upon the news of being left destitute. She promptly instructed the carriage driver to proceed to the waterfront instead.

She halted at the street door leading to her father’s office, allowing herself a glimpse of the windows above. How she ached to see her father’s tall and lanky stature, a smile spread across his face at the sight of her. Instead, she spotted a short, bulbous man in a blue suit bending over her father’s desk, a greasy, balding head distinguishing her father’s business partner from the other full-haired men who worked in the office.

Charlotte shuddered; a cold tingling spread from her spine to her shoulders.

Giles Milford was a short man, but his gut made up for his lack of height. He waddled to the window and looked to the ports in the distance, eyeing his watch before putting it back in his pocket.

Eager to address her current situation, Charlotte hurried up to the office, her shoes pounding firmly against the stairs.

She found two of her father’s employees hovered over papers on their desks. The swishing of her skirts dragging across the wooden floors alerted the well-groomed men she had entered, and they looked up simultaneously. They stood immediately and nodded at her presence.

“Good afternoon, Miss Ashford,” the men said in unison.

Charlotte returned the greeting with a slight bow but did not allow for her usual smile.

Cameron Taylor, her father’s secretary, suddenly appeared to greet her. “Miss Ashford, what a pleasure to see you.”

She surmised by his speedy attentiveness that he was sent by Giles Milford to waylay her.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Cameron. I wish to see Mr. Milford.”

“Mr. Milford is rather busy at the present. If you would like to discuss anything of importance, I would be happy to address the issue with him at his earliest convenience,” he replied.

Charlotte’s fear was palpable. Beads of sweat rolled down her spine, her underarms moist with perspiration. A ruthless man was swindling her of her father’s legacy, and nothing was going to stand in her way to get to the truth, not even this well-dressed, well-mannered secretary. Charlotte moved towards Mr. Milford’s office without invitation, as if her father’s hand was pushing her forward.

Cameron Taylor’s mouth gaped, but he moved aside, allowing her to enter with little resistance.

“My father trusted you,” Charlotte stated through clenched teeth, announcing her presence to the man sitting in her father’s office. “He is barely in the ground, and you are going to deny his legacy?”

Mr. Milford rose and walked around his desk to greet her, a lame left leg dragging his shoe across the wooden floor. “Please sit, Miss Ashford,” he insisted, grabbing her elbow and leading her towards a chair.

She wrenched her arm away from him, refusing his invitation. She was not so naive to understand her advantage was towering two inches above his stance.

“You are obviously upset concerning matters out of your control, my dear,” he muttered, flapping his long lashes over his deep-set, ice-blue eyes.

They were a shade of blue most would consider handsome in a man, but to Charlotte, his double chin distracted her from admiring his one and only handsome quality about his face.

“A young woman should not have to be burdened by such problems,” he continued. “It is unfortunate one so lovely should come to these circumstances.”

“You stole my father’s business!” Charlotte declared.

“I see you are going to make this difficult,” Mr. Milford replied under his breath, and summarily walked back to his chair and sat.

“Difficult?” Her voice pitched. Firmly gripping the edge of the desk, she leaned in. “You are taking possession of my home, leaving me with no inheritance, and you accuse me of being difficult?”

“It is such a shame your father did not anticipate this. He had hoped you would be married and taken care of before these matters would come to fruition. As you have been informed by your father’s lawyer, Mr. Commons, the matter has been legally authenticated by the courts that I am the sole beneficiary of you father’s business and his accounts.”

His words did not shock her but confirmed the news in the letter she received that morning.

Her shoulders sank and her head fell. She swallowed hard to dispel the tears threatening to surface, suppressing the depths of despair pitted in her stomach.

With forced composure, she lifted her head, raised her chin in the air, and eyed him from across his desk. “How can this be? My father would never have given you his business. He built Merrill Ashford Trade with his own two hands. He made sacrifices. He would never have been so careless with his future, or mine.”

“Ah, my dear, you women know so little about business. I am the one who helped finance your father’s business. It is I who took the risk, and thus, he gave me his trust.” A smirk slowly crossed his face, his blue eyes disappearing behind fat hooded lids.

“Trust? What do you know of the word? How can you do this to him? To me?”

Mr. Milford rose slowly from his chair. He walked to the door and closed it, causing Charlotte to turn at the click of the latch. Leaning into her, he moved his lips close to her ear.

Words slithered from his lips. “I did not do this to you. The blame is your father’s burden. He was careless in his finances and thus it fell to me to be more diligent. The roof over your head and the clothes you are wearing are yours because of my business savvy. Not your father’s. You would be homeless and naked if it were not for me.”

Charlotte wanted to flee, but he grabbed her and pulled her closer. She winced as his sweaty palm wetted her wrist and his sour breath blew across her face.

“I am not as heartless as you presume. I will allow you to stay in your home as your father would have wanted,” he proposed.

Charlotte looked at him, comprehending the weight of his statement.

Sweat moistened his brow as his eyes met hers. His breathing became heavy. “I am but a simple man. I will not be demanding of you, only… I will expect companionship.” His gaze followed the lines of her neck, sliding over the pleats of the fabric tightly framing the curvature of her breasts and stopped at her cinched waist.

Charlotte raised her hand to slap him, but he was too quick and halted it from coming down on his face.

“You are no match for a man, my dear. You are a mere woman, barely twenty-four, with nothing but the clothes on your back. If you are smart, you will take my offer. For it is far better to be a mistress to one than a whore to countless others.” His tongue flopped from his mouth and lingered at the corner before he swooped it back to add, “I can assure you; no one will please you the way I will.”

Charlotte stood still, fighting to keep her legs from buckling underneath her. All the fight she had come with vanished. What he was offering was despicable, but his assessment of her situation unfortunately could become a reality. The city streets welcomed many desperate women who found themselves penniless and nowhere to go.

“You loathsome man!” Charlotte exclaimed. “I would choose the streets as my bed before accepting your appalling proposal.”

She threw the door open and stalked into the outer office, finding her father’s once loyal associates with their heads bowed towards their desks.

The men did not dare to risk eye contact.

“My father was a decent man who gave you a good life,” she shouted at them, her voice crumbling as she continued. “He was generous and grateful for your service. He loved you like sons. You, too, are accountable for the deception that man is committing.” Charlotte gulped down her tears. “Shame! Shame on you all.”

No one spoke, their mouths apparently sealed by their adoration to their pocketbooks.

Charlotte understood she had no power. Mr. Milford had stolen that, too.

She bolted from the office, down the staircase, and into the waiting carriage. Charlotte did not sob. She would not give Giles Milford the satisfaction as he watched the carriage pull away.

It did not take the driver long before the carriage arrived at its destination–the office of her father’s lawyer.

Mr. Commons promptly greeted Charlotte at the office front.

Her face paled and hands shaking, he put his arm around her and ushered her inside.

“Tea… quickly,” he ordered his secretary, closing his office door for privacy. “There, there, my dear. It’s not as bad as you imagine.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to her.

“Thank you,” Charlotte said, accepting his offer and dabbed at the falling tears. “Tell me it is not true. Did my father truly give that loathsome man everything?”

“Your father never intended for Giles Milford to inherent his business. He and I discussed his financial affairs on numerous occasions. You were always to be cared for. I showed the courts proof of his intentions. But it seems Mr. Milford has provided the courts with signed financial documents to the contrary. And they have ruled in his favor.”

“How is it possible? And why was I not informed?”

Mr. Commons tried to explain, “I did not want to concern you until I sorted through the evidence. The courts ruled on the issue yesterday. I had hoped for good news. But I fear I miscalculated.” His hands shook as he pulled the spectacles from his face and placed them on the desk. “You see, Giles Milford has succeeded in swindling your father’s legacy, and you of your inheritance. There is nothing more I can do.”

Mr. Commons’ words punched her in the gut. She groaned. Thoughts twisted in her head. What was to become of her?

“My dear?” Mr. Commons said, seeing the last of the color leave her face.

Charlotte leaned back and stared at the thin man across the desk.

His lips pursed and his brow furrowed, the lines on his forehead exposing the worry he harbored.

“He has taken everything,” she whispered.

“I am afraid so.”

Charlotte fell silent as she contemplated the situation.

She finally asked, “What am I to do?”

“Well, I have done work to prepare for such an outcome,” he replied. He walked back to his chair, sat, and pulled out papers from a folder. Placing his spectacles back on the bridge of his nose, he browsed through the documents. “You have relatives in England. But it is a Mr. Nathanial Hammond who has been corresponding with me.”

“Yes, my cousin Lydia’s husband.” Charlotte nodded.

It had been a half a year–longer really– since she had received letters from Lydia. One was an announcement of the birth of their son, Peter Sebastian Hammond. Then came the news of the death of her parents, Charlotte’s aunt and uncle–a tragic carriage accident. Their losses devastated Lydia, and the letters stopped. Charlotte understood why. She, too, knew the unbearable sadness of losing her mother, then her father.

“Mr. Hammond has requested you return to England to live with his family and share companionship with your cousin. He has made arrangements if you choose to accept his offer.” Mr. Commons looked up from the document to gauge her response. He continued, “Your cousin, Mrs. Hammond, added a personal note, ‘Without delay, send my dearest Charlotte to me at once. Please do not spare any expense for her care and comfort. My home is hers for as long as she will grant me the honor to care for her.’”

“Lydia will take me in?” For the first time since her father’s death, a glimmer of hope surfaced in Charlotte’s thoughts. The possibility of returning home to England was more a dream than a reality. Her father had little intention of returning to his homeland. Hopes for a reunion with Lydia were merely a long-lost fantasy.

“Yes, she was quite adamant.”

“But she has a family now, and her own life. She cannot assume the role of caretaker for me. There has to be another option.”

“My dear Charlotte,” Mr. Commons said, “I cannot take the place of your father, but you are as dear to me as if you were my own child. I have seen you change from a young girl to a beautiful woman. You have had more than your share of grief. Let me give some advice you may not want to hear. The waterfront is no place for a woman without money. You have been born of privilege, which I fear leaves you at a disadvantage. You have no one here to keep you safe. I could find you employment as a governess if you choose, and I have friends on the waterfront willing to employ a woman with your education. But those options are limiting for a young woman’s future. I’m afraid it will be only a matter of time before you succumb to a life unworthy of you.” He stood and walked to her, taking her hand in his. “Accept your cousin’s generosity and be glad you have family to go to. What Mr. and Mrs. Hammond offer will be far better than a life here, I fear. Your cousin seems fond of you and has much more to offer. There is nothing left for you here.”


Stewart Carry Fri, 24/05/2024 - 15:08

At present the quality of the written word fails to do justice to the characters and the set-up of what promises to be a compelling tale. More editing should sort that out.