Nineteen: Too Close


Previously in An Unlikely Courtship . . . “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?”


“And now,” said the Countess, getting up from her seat, “if the men will be so good as to forego their port this evening, we will retire to the grand drawing room for an evening of music.”

Like clockwork, everyone stood, including Anthony. Leaving dinner was a relief after being seated by Mrs. Bloomsbury and her incorrigible son, Mr. Bloomsbury, for the last hour and a half. Anthony was sure that finding a more aggravating duo was quite impossible. His only entertainment had been in throwing out opinions he knew to be offensive to them, and then watching as they rose to the bait most vociferously. Well, that and the smiles he’d earned from Miss Standish in the endeavor.

Normally, he would have made use of that sort of investment and stayed by Miss Standish’s side for the evening, for he found her dark hair and soft features quite becoming. But tonight, he had other plans. Miss Townshend had made a concerted effort to avoid him before dinner. Now, Anthony was all the more determined to have a word with her.

He jockeyed for position as the large group moved through the dark cherry wood doors of the dining room and followed the Countess down the maze of corridors. Miss Townshend saw him out of the corner of her eye just as he fell into step beside her. One side of her mouth ticked down. “Come now, Miss Townshend, are you not looking forward to the evening? Do you enjoy music?”

“I am sure the performers will be of the highest quality.” She kept her head facing forward, not even sparing him a glance. Did she somehow suspect what he had overheard?

He could see that this would not be a battle easily won, but Anthony was nothing if not persistent. “And will you be among tonight’s performers?” His arm brushed hers and she moved her arm away, pretending to tighten her glove.

Miss Townshend swallowed, her words stiff. “I’m sure there are plenty of others who will be more than willing.”

Anthony’s mouth quirked up, enjoying the amount of effort Miss Townshend was exerting to put him off. They approached the door to the grand drawing room where he was forced to let her go ahead. Once through, he lengthened his stride to catch up. “Ah, but I’m quite partial to music. And the possibility of hearing you display your musical talents.”

Finally, Miss Townshend turned to face him. Her dark brown eyes crackled with annoyance, and though she stood a full half-foot shorter than him, he had the impression that she was looking down on him. “And I find that I am quite impartial to your partiality.”

With that she ducked past him, taking the last open seat on a sofa next to her sister and Miss Easton.

Anthony shook his head. He should feel disappointed, but the slightest thrill coursed through him. Anthony took a seat behind the threesome, taking pleasure in the fact that she was well aware of his presence.

The Countess took a seat of prominence near the front of the room and surveyed her guests as they took their seats, no doubt determining who would be the first to perform. Despite his earlier words to Miss Townshend, the night did not promise much enjoyment. Even among such an accomplished crowd as this it was rare to find much real talent.

The Countess’s eyes came to rest on Miss Barton. “Miss Barton, would you care to start us off?”

Miss Barton looked up in surprise, then nodded her head to acquiesce. Her talent was passable but forgettable, and Anthony found himself growing bored, wishing he’d taken a seat near Lord Ian or Beauchamp.

Next, Miss Standish was called to the front. When the music began, she took a deep breath that almost sounded like a hiccup and then began singing very off key. Anthony struggled to keep a straight face, despite the pity he felt for poor Miss Standish. Everyone in the room looked around helplessly, wishing to somehow put a stop to the girl’s embarrassment.

Suddenly Lord Ian stepped forward, joining Miss Standish at the piano. Anthony could hardly believe his eyes—or his ears, for that matter—for if Ian was trying to be noble by shielding Miss Standish, which was quite unlike him, he was having quite the opposite effect. Though they sang the same words, their notes were blatantly discordant and it seemed each was trying to outdo the other.

After singing the final notes of the second verse, the two looked at one another with perplexed expressions and Miss Standish gestured for the accompanist not to go on. Shoulders sagged as the whole room breathed a veritable sigh of relief to be spared more of the painful rendition.

As Ian escorted Miss Standish back to her seat, the Countess whispered to Miss Greystock, who sat off to her side. “Perhaps in the future it will be necessary to choose our participants more carefully.”

The whole room sat in silence for a moment before Miss Winters was called forward. Though she performed beautifully, Anthony found his gaze drawn more and more toward Miss Townshend. The words he’d overheard the Countess say this morning ran through his mind. And you wish me to spread the word that Anne’s dowry is more . . . substantial. What could Miss Townshend mean by it, except to deceive the other houseguests into a pursuit of her sister? Anthony was surprised at the disappointment he felt just when he’d begun to believe that Miss Townshend might be different from other women . . . but she was just as much a vixen as the rest of them.

When Anthony looked up next, Miss Easton was singing. Her voice was clear and pure, if a little high for Anthony’s taste, but even he had to admit the girl was accomplished. His eyes drifted back to the woman who sat in front of him, and he took the moment to study Miss Townshend’s profile. All of her attention was turned toward Miss Easton, and her face had a soft, almost tender look to it. It irked him, knowing how easily she could conceal her schemes.

The song ended and everyone applauded, and Miss Easton returned to her seat. Miss Townshend leaned toward her and whispered a word of congratulations.

“And for our final performance tonight, shall we have the Miss Townshends?” called the Countess as the group quieted again.

Miss Anne shook her head. “To follow such accomplished performers . . .” she breathed.

“Oh, come now,” encouraged Miss Easton, “surely you are equal to the task.”

“If Isabel will agree to play for me.” Miss Anne looked toward her sister.

Miss Townshend hesitated briefly before nodding.

They rose together, and Anthony saw the opportunity he’d been seeking. As soon as Miss Townshend was comfortably seated and she and her sister had determined which song to perform, he rose, walking toward the piano in brisk strides. “Allow me to turn your pages,” he said, giving a slight bow. He smiled to himself, for this time Miss Townshend could make no quick escape.

***

Isabel couldn’t believe the audacity of Lord Anthony, and it took every ounce of effort she possessed to hold her tongue and act unaffected. The man had been hounding her all evening, for what reason she couldn’t surmise.

There was little choice but to move forward; she wouldn’t allow him the satisfaction of a reaction. Instead, she glanced up and gave him a slight smile. “Thank you, Lord Anthony. Your goodwill knows no bounds.” Then she turned to face Anne, waiting for a nod to indicate she should begin playing.

Anne had chosen a simple folk song, which Isabel was grateful for, since it would be impossible to outdo Miss Fairchild. Her sister had a fair voice, but it was nothing in comparison with some of the other talent they’d heard this evening. Anne took a deep breath and then nodded, and Isabel began to play, forcefully ignoring the man who stood over her left shoulder.

He bent down, shuffling the page for her and whispered. “So, Miss Townshend, would you care to explain why you’re asking the Countess to spread false rumors about your sister’s dowry?”

Only years of practice kept Isabel from missing a note at these shocking words from Lord Anthony. Had he overheard her entire conversation with the Countess this morning? What a scoundrel! Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment as his words repeated in her head. He thought she wanted the Countess to spread false rumors? Perhaps he hadn’t heard everything.

“That, sir,” she said, keeping her voice inaudible to the others, “is none of your affair.”

He leaned over her to turn the page, and the faint smell of bergamot and leather reached her nose. “Ah, but it is my affair to assure that no gentlemen is duped into marriage under false pretenses.”

She played the next half page, trying to concentrate on a more difficult section of the piece before answering. “You have no idea of what you speak, especially if you think the Countess would help me in such an underhanded endeavor.”

The next passage of the song was a piano solo, and Isabel fought to keep her composure while feeling the force of Lord Anthony’s gaze burning into her. Once Anne began to sing again, Lord Anthony leaned over once more, preparing for the final page turn. “Miss Townshend, I may not know precisely your motives or what you plan to do, but let me assure you, I will find out.”

The threat hung over Isabel as she played the last few measures of the song. Inwardly, she was seething. How dare he eavesdrop on a private conversation and then riddle her with accusations? The gall! She cut the last chord short, too upset to sit another moment.

She stood abruptly, colliding with Lord Anthony’s nose right as leaned over to gather the music. All at once white pain crackled through her temple. She heard a low moan as she swayed on her feet and sunk back down onto the bench, head in her hands.

“Are you quite all right, Miss Townshend?” Lord Anthony asked.

As if he hadn’t been the cause of her distress. She couldn’t bear to respond, to even speak to him. Luckily, Anne appeared at her side a moment later, followed by Miss Easton. “Oh dear, it’s already swelling. Someone should get some ice.”

In the background there was a great deal of talking and commotion, but the throbbing pain in Isabel’s brow drowned it all out. The only coherent thought in Isabel’s mind was that Lord Anthony must not find out the state of their financial affairs.

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