Ophelia cleared her throat. “What is this I hear about you helping out Balstead’s friend?”
“She’s a widow, titled but penniless. She needs a new husband.” Her eyes were still trained on the men below. Craven hit Raithe in the ribs, but he fired back with a punch to the other man’s gut.
“Oh. That is terrible.” Ophelia shook her head. “It’s kind of you to help, of course, but I’m wondering why you would?”
Charlie nibbled at her lip. The truth would not do her any favors here. “I could use the diversion, truthfully. I’ve never liked being alone and Dane will be busy with Juliet. The companionship will do me as much good as I do her.”
Ophelia let out a soft breath. “I wish I could get up and hug you now.”
Peeling her eyes from the men, she turned back to the woman she’d call family soon, crossed the room and wrapped Ophelia in a large hug. “I’m so glad we’ll be family.”
“Me too,” Ophelia replied as she held Charlie tight. “I want to tell you that losing my mother was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. If you ever want to talk.”
“And me too.” Bianca came up behind her, wrapping her in a hug from the other side. “And can I just say that when Ophelia and then Adrianna got engaged, I started to worry. Our family, which had held me up through my grief, was changing and I didn’t know how that would feel, at first.”
Tears stung Charlie’s eyes as she sat there, wrapped in their arms. “I hate to be alone, dislike boredom. It gives my mind time to wander and remember.”
“Remember what?” Bianca softly asked.
“How awful it was. Knowing I’d never see them again.” Her voice shook. “Dane retreated to his room for several days. He’s a quiet man. And I just walked around wondering if anyone would hug me…” She stopped, her voice catching. “I was so afraid no one would love me ever again.”
“Of course they will,” Bianca cried, rocking all three of them back and forth. “We love you already. Your family loves you. And when you finally decide to settle down, your husband will—” Bianca stopped, looking at her sister.
Charlie turned back from Bianca to look at Ophelia, who brushed a stray hair of Charlie’s from her face. “Your husband will fill your heart to near bursting with love.”
“I believe you. I used to think that the attention of men was enough to fill this void I have inside. The one that still misses having a whole family. But the past few days, I’ve wondered if one man wouldn’t be far better.” The image of a particular man unfurled in her mind, and her heart skipped a beat.
“A man like Balstead?” Bianca asked, her voice full of teasing.
But Ophelia frowned. “I worry about that man. Even among rakes he seems dangerous.”
Charlie let out a long sigh. “I asked him how I would know the difference between a genuine man’s affection and a rake’s. He said that a genuine man would be far more concerned with my happiness than his own.”
“That is beautifully said,” Ophelia gushed. “And good advice.”
“How did you know that your men were the right men?” she asked, finally easing back from their hug.
Ophelia twisted her hands together. “I didn’t have anyone to ask for their advice. The unfortunate part of being the first of my sisters to wed and not having my mother. But I did know that he was hurting and I knew I wanted to help him. So, I suppose I too was more concerned for him than for myself.”
Bianca sat on the end of the settee,
patting Ophelia’s leg. “That is so like you.” Then she giggled. “For me, Chris made me feel beautiful and desirable when no one else did. And it helped that he beat up several men in my defense.”
Charlie had to smile at that. “I could see how that would have its appeal.” Then she crossed back to the window. “Mayhap, they hit one another to practice for the day they might need to defend one of us.”
Bianca clapped her hands together once. “That’s an excellent conclusion.”
Charlie pressed her cheek to the glass as she watched Raithe move with precision and grace. She’d take his attention over that of the entire army, she decided. Too bad he’d made it clear that he’d never marry.
But at least some good had come of this. She’d come to terms with what she needed in her life. It was time to find her future and the man who would fill it. Because the ladies were right. Filling her heart with love was the only thing that might help her to heal.
Raithe stretched his muscles, which were perfectly sore from all the punches he’d taken. He’d hoped that a good fight might slow the constant thoughts of Charlie but they didn’t. Hell, he shouldn’t be surprised.
Even back in London before he’d held her in his arms, he’d been completely infatuated. He rubbed his face with his hands. Every social engagement he’d attended, he’d been aware of her presence. Who she danced with, where she was in the room, the color of her dress and how it set off her hazel eyes.
He might have stayed away from her, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t constantly at the forefront of his mind.
And now he’d had a delicious taste of her mouth, had peeked under her skirts. He was moving from smitten to complete infatuation.