THE CHARITY CHRONICLES

Prologue

Charity Hill was just a cheeky young girl in a London pet shop, a "red-headed little nobody." That was before a lucky encounter with a Scots terrier named Chops. Rescuing Chops from under the wheels of a double-decker bus threw Charity into a whole new world – the elegant world of grateful Lady Beddington and her dark and sexy nephew Harry. But when her gorgeous, aristocratic new boyfriend Harry is photographed in the arms of a sexy Latin American singer, feisty and determined Charity strikes out on her own. This is her story.

Chapter One: A Journey Interrupted

Standing in line at Winchester Train Station for the Early London Express, Charity Hill let her tired eyes rest on the gaudy pop music poster that took up nearly half the opposite wall. A bronzed-skin beauty was standing nearly naked on a tropical beach, displaying the abundant talents that made her America's hottest new singing sensation. FEEL THE HEAT WITH LOLA MONTEZ, said the golden writing beneath the bathing beauty's bare feet.

Charity felt the heat all right. She felt like throwing up.

It had been a long day, escaping from Rotherwood Castle. There were pictures of Lola in every train station and newsstand, each one a reminder of the sexy singer that Harry had been kissing at the masquerade ball just two nights ago. After walking and riding in crowded trains all day Charity felt too tired to stare down Lola's sexy image on the wall. Instead she let her eyes skim the faces of evening commuters coming back from London.

That was a mistake as well.

Feeling tired and unobservant, Charity didn't really notice the glimmer of recognition in the clear blue eyes of the tall, strikingly attractive older woman. It was only when Lady Beddington called her name and began coming her way that Charity began to panic. Harry's aunt had missed the humiliating scene at the ball, but at the moment the last thing the heart-broken and travel-weary young runaway wanted was to tell her side of the story.

"Charity, dearest! What on earth are you doing here?" Lady Beddington put a slim, perfectly manicured hand on Charity's shoulder, her ice-blue eyes sweeping over the girl from head to toe.

"Nothing – I mean, the London train is coming – I've got to get back – school and all that." Charity flushed as she met the elegant older woman's appraising stare, painfully conscious of her dusty boots, wrinkled jeans, and travel-stained blouse. She felt shabby enough without lying to Harry's aunt. With her slim, queenly figure and perfectly coiffed golden hair, Lady Beddington was like the good witch in a fairy tale, and Charity could never look into her eyes without seeming to fall a little under her spell.

"Is something the matter between you and Harry?" The cool, searching gaze immediately became warmer, both knowing and sympathetic. "Running away won't help, you know. Some things are worth fighting for. Especially love."

The last word sent a jolt of panic through Charity's weary frame. "I'm not running away," she cried, raising her voice as the noisy express train came thundering in. "I want – I just want – I only want . . ." The rest of her words were swallowed by a roaring blast of noise.

"Good heavens, what a racket!" Lady Beddington's cheerful, ringing laugh seemed to bubble up and overpower the rapidly diminishing noise of the train. "Charity, dear, we can't possibly talk things over in this place. Let's go someplace quiet and have a wee bite to eat. You can tell me all about it over a good hot meal."

"But I want to catch the Early Express!" Charity was wary of being taken captive by Harry's doting aunt, who clearly had her heart set on making a match between the two of them. Yet at the same time she felt that a hot meal might put her back on her feet. At the moment she felt so exhausted she could barely stand. It was almost a relief when Lady Beddington picked up her flimsy little travel bag and slipped a firm, motherly arm around her shoulders.

"Now don't start worrying about the Express," the older woman counseled sagely. "There's sure to be another one later tonight, and another one in the morning as well. My dear mama used to say that running after a train was just as foolish as running after a man – another one's sure to be coming soon."

For the first time all day, Charity Hill laughed out loud.