Anthony yawned and stretched his legs, wishing that carriages were built with men of his height in mind. He sat forward, rolling his shoulders as he tried to ease out the knots from sleeping in an uncomfortable position. Pulling up the window shade, he blinked against the incoming light. Heavy gray clouds hung low in the sky, threatening rain. He massaged a sore spot in his neck, wishing he had chosen to ride. If only he’d known the weather would hold. A quick sweep of the scenery out the window told him they’d already begun the long approach toward Somerstone Manor.
Easing back in his seat, Anthony considered what awaited him upon arrival. The invitation from the Countess Du’Breven had come as somewhat of a surprise. Though he knew her quite well—she was his late mother’s cousin, after all—he’d always gotten the vague notion she disapproved of him.
As a young boy he recalled being hit by her punitive fan more than once, and now that he was older, her hawkish eyes always held a degree of censure when she saw the latest debutante on his arm. Which is why her invitation had caught him off guard. And so had the promise therein: My house party promises a selection of the season’s choicest morsels. I daresay even you will not be able to help yourself. As the carriage jostled along, Anthony almost laughed out loud, for he could imagine the Countess saying those very words with a gleam in her eye.
Although, it begged the question: what, exactly, did she mean by it? Did she actually think she might tempt him to settle down and tie the knot? The thought was preposterous. Yet he sensed a challenge in her words, the likes of which he hadn’t been able to resist.
But more than that, the invitation was an opportunity for escape. Anthony had been dreading returning home at the close of the season. The urge to deck his father became overwhelming after five minutes of being in the man’s presence, and self control had never been Anthony’s forte. He deserved a diversion, perhaps one with blue eyes. And this house party promised just that.
Straightening his cravat as the carriage rolled to a stop, he tapped his foot impatiently. The door opened and he stepped down, glancing over at the footman. They stared at each other for a moment, sizing each other up, as if sensing that were their stations in life more equal, they would be competition.
The footman gave him a stiff nod. “Shall I get your bags, Lord Anthony?”
Anthony waved a dismissive hand. “That will be fine. Have them taken up to my rooms.” The footman disappeared as Anthony moved toward the stairs leading up to the house. On the top step stood a pretty girl with dark brown hair that curled around her face. She clasped her hands in front of her, wearing a serious expression.
She smiled when she saw him and dipped into a low curtsey. “You must be Lord Anthony. I am Miss Greystock, the Countess Du’Breven’s companion. If you’ll just follow me.”
Anthony bowed and gave her his most charming smile. “Gladly.”
She turned quickly, as if trying to hide the blush that crept up her cheeks. The sight was gratifying. This was precisely why he had come.
Anthony caught up to her with several long strides. “And how long have you served as the countess’s companion? I do not recall meeting you at the musicale she hosted in London, and that is surely something I would remember.”
Miss Greystock stiffened, her mouth pulling into a disapproving line. “No, I have only been with her this past month.”
Anthony knew at once he had overstepped. This one would require a more subtle approach. He nodded to himself, planning out his next move. He would retreat a little, act every bit the gentleman. Sometimes these things required patience.
“I see. Am I the first to arrive then?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Several of the guests have already been shown to their rooms. Everyone is expected over the course of this afternoon. Tonight introductions will be made and we will all dine together.”
Anthony held his hands behind his back. “Then would you be so good as to direct me toward the stables? I’d like to take a brief ride and stretch my legs, see if I can’t outride the rain.”
Miss Greystock inclined her head. “As you wish, Lord Anthony.”
Isabel sat forward, trying to get a good look out the carriage window. Dark gray clouds rolled across the sky in a threatening manner. She sighed in resignation, knowing the storm would start at any minute.
“Any rain yet?” asked her sister, Anne, from the seat across from Isabel. She sat beside Father who had his head back against the seat, having fallen asleep to the endless swaying of the carriage just after lunch. His leg rested on an elevated pillow, to help with the pain of his gout.
“Not yet,” said Isabel, curling her hands into fists. If only they had departed from the inn on time. Though Anne was gentle as a lamb, and would never knowingly displease her sister, she had taken a fair amount of time with her hair and dress this morning, anxious about meeting the other guests at the house party. To be fair, some of the delay could be blamed on Dorothy, their lady’s maid, who was now blinking heavily, fighting to stay awake.
“Perhaps the storm will pass,” said Anne, glancing out the window.
Isabel forced a smile. “Perhaps.” It would not, but she could not just say so.
Anne clasped her hands in her lap. “I wonder how many of the other guests have already arrived. Do you think this dress is appropriate for introductions?”
“Yes, of course. You look lovely,” said Isabel, still frowning as she looked out the window. Her words were an understatement, for Anne was stunning. Her golden blonde hair always hung in perfect ringlets, framing her flawless skin. Long, dark lashes covered sparkling blue eyes. It was the type of beauty that made men walking with their wives stop and stare, to say nothing of gentlemen who were still single.
Anne sighed. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve prattled on, but just think of it, Isabel. Perhaps I’ll meet my future husband at this house party.”
“There will no doubt be a wide array of gentlemen who might catch your eye.” Anne had spoken of little else since they had begun their journey. As much as Isabel loved her sister, she knew what lay in store for her. Anne would fall deeply in love at least three or four times over the next several weeks, and Isabel would be stuck with the unenviable position of trying to talk her out of it.
The only reason Isabel had agreed to attend this house party at all was because of her father, for he was a long-time friend of the Countess du’Breven. When the invitation had arrived, he had expressed such enthusiasm. And he so rarely insisted on anything these days that she would have felt positively beastly saying no.
It was a good opportunity for them, and Isabel did want Anne to make a suitable match. Perhaps while she was distracted Isabel could talk to father about the matter of their dowries. She had only to catch him in the right moment.
Just then several large raindrops spattered on the roof of the carriage, distracting Isabel from her thoughts. They fell slowly at first, little veins of water shivering down the windowpanes. The drops began to fall with more regularity, and soon the severity of the rainfall grew to a deafening roar.
Her father awoke, looking confused. “What is it, my dears?”
Anne set a comforting hand over his. “It’s just the rain, Father. Nothing to fret about.”
Isabel wanted to disagree, but held her tongue. In a torrent like this, the roads would quickly become impassable. There was nowhere to stop between here and Somerstone Manor. They had passed the last village several miles back.
The rain pounded so hard that Isabel clenched her teeth, wondering how on earth the coachman could continue in weather such as this. Just then a large jolt knocked the carriage forward, almost unseating the rear two occupants before stopping completely.
Dorothy screamed in fright. Isabel righted herself and put out an arm to steady the terrified maid. It was at times like these she wished she’d hired someone with a bit more mettle.
“Oh dear, what do you think it was?” asked Anne, her eyes darting around.
Her father groaned, adjusting his leg.
“Something must have happened to one of the wheels. Perhaps it got stuck in the mud,” said Isabel with her usual practicality. She peered out the window, trying to see what had happened. Several minutes went by; to her surprise, the coachman didn’t come to check on them.
Isabel fought back her annoyance at Dorothy’s constant whimpering as the rain continued to fall, the sound covering any noise outside the carriage. Anne bit her lip as she always did when she was nervous, keeping her arm around Father.
“We should have departed earlier, that’s all there is to it,” he murmured.
Isabel rapped on the roof of the carriage several times with no response. Finally, she had had enough. She stood and made her way to the door.
“What are you doing?” asked Anne.
“Well, someone needs to see what is going on. We cannot sit here all day.” Grabbing the umbrella she had set in the carriage for just such an occasion, she released the latch on the door and swung it open. The front of her skirts were soaked in an instant, but she knew there was nothing for it. She jumped down, feeling the mud squish around her boots. By the time she opened the umbrella and raised it over her head, her travelling dress was all but ruined.
Isabel slogged through the mud up toward the front of the carriage where the horses whinnied nervously. The umbrella did little good since the rain was coming down at a slant, and her gloves soon became wet and slippery. She looked around for a moment, still unable to locate the coachman. A slight moan sounded from the other side of the carriage. Isabel worked her way around the horses, where she found the coachman lying in the mud. “My leg,” he cried. “I think it’s broken.”
And indeed, it was bent beneath him at an awkward angle. “Oh dear,” she said. The poor man grimaced, but there was little she could do for him. She hadn’t the strength to lift him and she could hardly ask Anne or her Father. And she knew, instinctively, that Dorothy would be of no help.
“How far is Somerstone Manor from here?” she yelled over the rain.
The coachman breathed heavily through his teeth. “About three-quarters of a mile up the road, miss.”
A breath escaped Isabel, though it could not be heard over the rain. “I don’t dare move you, but I’ll be back as quick as I can with help.” The man nodded, almost delirious from pain. Isabel pinched her lips together, glancing at the umbrella. It would do her little good, but at least she could keep the rain off this poor, suffering man. She set the umbrella over him, sticking the handle down in the mud so it wouldn’t move.
“Thank you,” the man croaked.
Isabel slogged back to the carriage, opening the door only a fraction. “The coachman is injured. I will walk ahead and bring back help. Do not, under any condition, leave this carriage.”
“Be careful,” warned her Father. “I wish I could go.”
“Nonsense, not in your condition.”
Anne shook her head. “Oh, Isabel, you’re soaking.”
The observation was not appreciated. Isabel shut the carriage with a great deal of force, turning to face the rain, which continued its downpour. She went to the front of the carriage and unharnessed the horses. Better for them to run off than become spooked and drag the carriage along without a driver.
Trying to get her bearings, she turned to face the road. Through the curtain of rain Isabel could just make out Somerstone Manor. Although she considered herself a fine walker, each step required a tremendous amount of effort as she struggled through the endless mud. Her dress, heavy with water, felt as though it weighed a ton.
A loud whinny made Isabel whirl in surprise, turning to find herself right in the path of a galloping horse. She took an unsteady step backward to avoid being trampled and the rider seemed to catch sight of her, pulling up at the last moment. The horse’s hooves landed with a sucking sound, spraying mud all over her person.
The rider dismounted, keeping ahold of the reins. “What on earth are you doing out in this sort of weather, and without an umbrella?” He tipped his hat up, as if to take a better look at her.
Soaked by the torrent of rain and now spattered in mud, Isabel’s nerves were frayed to a breaking point. She cleared her throat, trying for composure. “I might ask you if you have a habit of nearly running over women caught in a rainstorm, instead of stopping to help.”
The man inclined his head, removing his hat with a flourish, as if it were a sunny day. He was tall, with unruly light brown hair, his face perfectly chiseled. His warm brown eyes looked her over from head to foot in an overly familiar manner.
All of the sudden Isabel was all too aware that her dress was sticking to her in an unseemly manner, and that her hair was hanging down around her ears like a wet mop. The man gave a slight bow. “By all means, let me be of service.” He raised his brows in an almost invitational way. “I’ve been told by more than one woman that my assistance is always appreciated.”
That the man would waste time flirting as they both stood in the rain was infuriating. Isabel had seen far too many of his type fawning over her sister. Ignoring his insinuation, she huffed. “My father and sister are stranded in a carriage and our coachman has been severely injured. I highly doubt you are the man this situation requires.” With all of the hauteur she could manage, she turned on her heel and strode through the mud, in search of someone who could actually be of use.