Fourteen: Eavesdropping


Previously in An Unlikely Courtship . . . Isabel and Anthony meet in a rainstorm, where she is less than impressed with his flirtatious manners . . . Anthony is intrigued to see her father and sister at dinner . . . and Isabel goes to bed plagued by a host of financial worries, only interrupted by bothersome thoughts of Lord Anthony .


Usually Isabel expected to get her exercise out of doors, but after a tour of Somerstone Manor with some of the other houseguests, there was no need. Isabel was sure she had walked at least three miles, and they hadn’t even seen a tenth of the three hundred some odd rooms. Miss Greystock had proven to be a capable and entertaining guide, however, and the morning passed quickly.

As the group started to disperse, Miss Greystock walked over and pulled Isabel aside. “I apologize for not mentioning it sooner, but the Countess requested you and your father join her for tea right after the tour. She was sorry not to have met you last night.”

Isabel was surprised to be singled out, but given her father’s friendship with the Countess, she supposed it was to be expected. She nodded, glancing over to where her sister stood in conversation with several of the Easton brothers. Anne had the besotted look on her face that Isabel was all too familiar with. “Of course. And shall Anne attend as well?”

“Only if she wishes, but she appears to be engaged for the moment. The Countess specifically requested your attendance.” Miss Greystock leaned in with a vague look of enjoyment, keeping her voice down. “She likes to keep tabs on all of her guests, and I think it irks her that she hasn’t met you yet.”

Isabel allowed herself a small smile. “Very well, then. Better not to leave her in suspense. Lead the way.”

Miss Greystock led her down several long corridors, and Isabel was struck again by what a labyrinth the place was. “How do you do it?” Isabel finally asked her companion. “Even after the tour I’ve no idea where we are.”

“I assure you, my familiarity with this manor is hard won,” said Miss Greystock, slowing her pace. “But I don’t know the grounds at all—I’ve hardly had a breath of fresh air since I arrived. The Countess keeps me very busy.”

This morning at the breakfast table, Isabel overheard many different pictures painted of the Countess, and now she was all the more intrigued. A few minutes later, Miss Greystock led Isabel around a corner, where a door was propped open, leading to a small but bright sitting room. Isabel’s father sat on a small sofa, while the Countess sat in a chair across from him, a sleeping pug on her lap.

“Miss Townshend for you, Countess,” said Miss Greystock before leaving.

Isabel dipped into a curtsey. “It a pleasure to meet you, Lady Du’Breven.“

“Miss Townshend, I hardly recognize you, except for your eyes.” The Countess stroked her pug. “They’re no more demure than they were ten years ago. Have a seat. Your father and I were just catching up.”

As Isabel took a seat on the sofa, the woman scrutinized her thoroughly, and Isabel had the impression that the Countess could discern more in a head-to-toe glance than most people could in a quarter of an hour. It was a little unnerving. Isabel took the moment to do some appraising of her own, and decided that despite the woman’s hawkish eyes, there was an underlying kindness in her features.

Isabel glanced at her father, pleased to see that after a night of rest he looked much recovered from the strain of the journey. She wondered what the Countess made of her old friend, and Isabel had no doubt that she’d already surmised much of what Isabel hoped to keep hidden.

“I hope you are quite recovered from yesterday’s incident,” said the Countess, as she leaned forward to pour the tea. The pug blinked, looking disgruntled.

Isabel set her hands in her lap. “Yes, feeling quite refreshed. I thank you for the assistance you provided.”

“I heard that Lord Anthony assisted you. I hope you were not put off by his . . . rakish manners. He’s a good deal too much like his father, but there’s more to him than meets the eye.”

Isabel’s brows rose involuntarily. “Of that I have no doubt. And yet, I believe I’ve seen all I ever wish to.”

The Countess gave her a wry smile. “Be careful. You are just the sort of challenge Lord Anthony enjoys.” And with that, she placed a cup of tea in Isabel’s hands, which Isabel took, open-mouthed. Fortunately, before she was required to respond, the Countess returned to her conversation with Isabel’s father.

“Now where were we, Sir George? Oh, yes. I was telling you how positively heartbroken I was when Mary Dockett caught your eye.”

Her father shrugged, the smile lines around his eyes creasing. “That’s not how I remember it, for I am certain I introduced you to Vernon and he swept you off your feet long before I met Mary.”

The Countess gave a barely audible sigh. “Yes, perhaps that is how it happened.”

Isabel sat back, enjoying their banter, their memories. Her father positively glowed under the Countess’s attention, reliving the stories of their youth.

A few minutes later they were interrupted by a light knock. “Come in,” said the Countess, her gaze drifting over to the door as she scratched under her dog’s chin.

Though the last time she’d seen him he was drenched from head to foot, it didn’t take Isabel a moment to recognize the tall stature and confident stride of Lord Anthony.   “Ah, there you are,” said the Countess, as if she’d been expecting him. “I was just finishing up tea here with Sir George and Miss Townshend.”

Lord Anthony’s gaze landed on Isabel, and she had the distinct impression his mind was wandering back to what she looked like in a rain-soaked dress. She set down her tea, meeting his stare directly.

He bowed, addressing her father. “Sir George, so good to see you again.”

Her father inclined his head. “And you as well. Have you been formally introduced to my daughter, Lord Anthony?”

“Only by a rainstorm, sir.” His cheek ticked with amusement.

“Sir Anthony, this is my daughter, Miss Isabel Townshend. Isabel, this is Lord Anthony. His mother is a cousin of the Countess.”

“Lord Anthony,” Isabel murmured through gritted teeth, hoping her disdain was not apparent to her father. Or the Countess. She hadn’t realized the two were related.

Lord Anthony tipped his head, the look on his face suggesting he found the entire situation amusing. “Miss Townshend, it is a pleasure to meet you under . . . drier circumstances.”

Before Isabel could say something that would shock her father, the Countess spoke up. “Sir George, you are looking a little fatigued. Would you like to retire to your room until luncheon?”

“Ah, yes. Perhaps that would be for the best. It’s almost impossible to keep pace with these young ones.”

“Anthony, will you escort Sir George back to his room? You can meet me back here when you are finished.”

“Of course, Lady Du Breven.”

As he walked by Isabel she stiffened, feeling wary, as if his nearness required that she be on her guard. He approached her father, his movement full of easy grace.

“Sir George?” Lord Anthony picked up her father’s cane and held it out, allowing him the dignity of standing by himself, which Isabel unwillingly appreciated.

Isabel reached out and touched her father’s arm as he passed. “I’ll come to check on you later.”

Her father smiled. “Don’t worry, the Countess has me in good hands.”

Lord Anthony gave her a knowing look, and the memory of his hands on her waist and their shared proximity during yesterday’s ride brought a fierce blush to her cheeks.

Once they were gone, Isabel relaxed, leaning back into the sofa. She wished she had a fan, for the day was already growing warm.

The directness of the Countess’s gaze brought her back to herself. She smoothed her skirts and moved to stand. “Thank you for having us to tea. I don’t wish to overstay my welcome.”

“Sit,” said the Countess. “I have a few questions for you.”

Wide-eyed, Isabel regained her seat.

The Countess looked Isabel over from head to foot and her eyes narrowed. “Would you care to explain why in the world your sister’s dresses cost three times as much as yours?”

Isabel couldn’t recall ever being so taken aback. She’d vastly underestimated the woman’s inspection. She straightened her posture and took a breath before she answered. “Because she still has a chance at making a good match.”

“And what makes you think you do not? You are not exactly on the shelf. You can’t be older than twenty-two.”

“Twenty-three,” Isabel corrected. “Soon to be twenty-four. And my age isn’t the only reason.”

The Countess adjusted the pug in her lap. “Please enlighten me.”

Isabel considered for a moment, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of confiding in a woman she hardly knew. The truth was, the Countess had probably already deduced most of what Isabel might tell her. And, as a friend of her father’s, the woman might even be able to help Isabel’s endeavors.

“My father,” she finally began.

The Countess sat forward, her features softening. “I’m not sure you need to say much on the matter, Miss Townshend. How long has it been since that cloudy look replaced the twinkle in his eye?”

Isabel exhaled. “Several years, but it’s gotten steadily worse these past few months.”

“It pains me to see it. He was one of the sharpest men of my acquaintance, full of wit and charm. It reminds me I’m not as young as I once was.” She gave Isabel a fleeting smile.

“We never speak of it.” Isabel picked up her tea and took a sip, though the beverage was now only lukewarm.

“The truth can be hard to face,” said the Countess, setting down her pug. The dog stretched his short legs, yawning. “So help me understand. You seem to think your father’s condition is somehow related to you giving up hope of making a match.” The Countess’s nostalgia had worn off, and she was back to her brusque manner.

Isabel traced the stitching on her sleeve. “Our financial state is precarious. We have very few options. The only reason I’m confessing all of this to you is because I could use your help in appealing to my father.”

“And how, exactly, might I be of assistance?”

***

Anthony hurried back after seeing Sir George settled, cursing the enormity of the house. If he knew one thing, it was that the Countess never arranged to speak with anyone alone unless she had something very interesting to say, and Anthony was determined to hear as much of it as possible.

He approached the sitting room, quietly leaning against the wall and inclining his head toward the crack of the open door.

“And you wish me to spread the word that Anne’s dowry is more . . . substantial,” said the Countess. Anthony raised his brows, vastly intrigued.

“Precisely,” came Miss Townshend’s response.

A slight creak came from the floor above, and Wellington, the Countess’s pug, let out a short yip.

After a moment of silence, the Countess spoke again. “Anthony, is that you?”

Anthony took a few silent steps back, before letting his footsteps be heard as he entered the sitting room. He cast a surreptitious glance toward Miss Townshend, for at once she’d become a thousand times more interesting.

He gave an exaggerated bow. “At your service, Lady Du’Breven.”

 

 

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