Twenty-One: Ever at Odds


In the previous installment of An Unlikely Courtship, Isabel makes every effort to avoid Lord Anthony at dinner and the musicale. Not one to be put off, Lord Anthony takes advantage of an opportunity to turn pages for Isabel. He assures her of his intention to find out what is going on with her sister’s dowry, and leaves her with a welt on her head.


Isabel eyed the breakfast Dorothy had left on bedside table. She eased herself up, gingerly touching her temple, wondering if she dared look in the mirror to assess the damage. A dull pounding still echoed in her head, and she could only hope that Lord Anthony had suffered equivalent damage. The nerve of that—

A knock sounded at the door, and Anne walked in. “When I came to check on you before breakfast, Dorothy said you were still asleep. How does your head feel this morning?” She took a seat on the bed, taking Isabel’s face in her hands and turning it toward the light from the arced window.

“Like I banged it into a very hard-headed man,” said Isabel dryly.

Anne smiled. “Ah, but Lord Anthony was so attentive to you last night, volunteering to turn your pages. It was merely an accident.” She sighed a little, her mouth turning downward. “Well, it won’t be easy to hide. But everyone knows what happened, so it isn’t as though people will speculate.”

There was a sing-songy quality to Anne’s voice, and her cheeks were flushed with the kind of happiness that could only mean she was already well on her way to falling in love. Despite her aching head, this was all the motivation Isabel needed to get out of bed and join in the day’s activities.

Hopefully, after the debacle at the musicale, Lord Anthony would have the decency to keep his distance. Either way, after his threat last night—I may not know precisely your motives or what you plan to do, but let me assure you, I will find out—it was imperative that Isabel keep an eye on him. Heaven knew what artifice he would use to uncover her secret.

“You haven’t touched your breakfast yet,” said Anne, reaching for the tray from the table and setting it on the bed next to Isabel.

“Yes, and my stomach is protesting,” said Isabel. “Thank you.” She picked up a scone from the tray and buttered it.

“The breakfast room was quite crowded today, despite your absence. Several more guests arrived last night after the musicale. The table seems to expand with every meal.”

Isabel swallowed her bite and took a sip of her chocolate as Anne chattered on.

“Thank heaven there was a spot open near the Eastons, or I would have floundered awkwardly for names I could not remember.” Her mouth was raised in a half-smile, as if remembering.

Isabel waited to see if Anne would mention which of the Easton brothers had caught her eye. Having been denied their sisterly chat for the second evening in a row thanks to the head-thumping incident, Isabel realized how much she’d been missing her sister. “It seems you and Miss Easton are developing into fast friends,” she volunteered.

“Oh yes, I feel as though I’ve known her for months instead of just a day or two. Did you know that yesterday she fell in the river with . . .” Anne stopped, growing flustered. “Well, I promised I wouldn’t say anything about it. Her brothers, they’re very protective, you know.”

Isabel gave her sister a knowing look. “So I’ve noticed. You should feel for me—I must do for you what it takes four grown men to do for Miss Easton.”

“Yes, yes, you’ve been quite a slave to my protection. And I shall repay you by making you look magnificent for today’s picnic, bruise and all,” said Anne, setting aside the tray.

“Are my efforts not at least deserving of a second scone?” asked Isabel, reaching past her sister for another.

“Very well, one more I suppose. I shan’t starve you.” She scooted the tray back and rose from the bed, going over to the large wardrobe where Dorothy had hung all of Isabel’s dresses. “You must wear the white muslin today. With my gray bonnet.”

When the sisters joined the group congregating out on the back lawn, picnic blankets had already been spread in a circle, and baskets were being unloaded from a large wagon by some of the staff. Several of the gentlemen were already staking out territory to be used for battledore, and two small boats sat docked on the lakeshore for guests who wished to go rowing.

Anne squeezed Isabel’s hand. “There’s more to do here in one afternoon than I can imagine doing over the course of several weeks at home. As long as we don’t get stuck seated next to the Bloomsburys, I have a hard time imagining this afternoon being less than perfect.”

Isabel smiled at her sister’s enthusiasm. “Well, don’t feel as though you must wait for me, I’m going to check on Father.”

“Yes, of course. But he’s in good hands with the Countess. You’re allowed to enjoy yourself as well, you know.”

Isabel smirked. “I know. Now go find Miss Easton or Miss Standish.” Anne found a seat at a blanket with several ladies and gentlemen and quickly fell into conversation, but her eyes darted around, no doubt looking for one of the Eastons.

While Isabel didn’t know any of the brothers well enough to have formed an opinion of them, the family seemed respectable, and it was hard to find fault with such a protective set of brothers. At least for now.

Isabel found her father seated next to the Countess. “Lady Du’Breven,” she said, curtseying.

The Countess sat forward, scrutinizing Isabel. “Your bruise looks rather ghastly, my dear. I am sorry for what happened last night. I’d like to promise you a day free of incident, but I don’t dare.”

Isabel only wished for a day free of Lord Anthony. When she caught herself scanning the crowd, looking for his tall form, she puffed out a small breath in annoyance and quickly turned to her father. “Is there anything I can get you, Father?” A twinge of guilt surfaced as she thought of the letter she’d sent off to her father’s solicitor just before the picnic, but she brushed it aside.

“Oh, stop smothering me and go enjoy yourself, Isabel. Wherever you end up, you’ll be well within shouting distance should I need you.” He gave her a charming smile and motioned for her to be off.

“Very well,” she agreed. “But do shout—if you need something.” Isabel sighed, wondering when she had become so dull.

From behind her, Miss Greystock called her name from an adjacent blanket. “Do come join me, Miss Townshend. At least until I am called on some errand.”

Isabel smiled. “Yes, you are in great demand,” she said, taking a seat. “Though the Countess seems to be taking an inordinate amount of satisfaction in an afternoon orchestrated entirely by you.”

Miss Greystock raised her brows, her expression friendly, but kept quiet, perhaps not wanting to speak ill of her employer.

Isabel smiled, wishing she hadn’t come across as quite so harsh. “But I suppose she has a right to take satisfaction in the knowledge that she hired someone so very capable.”

Miss Greystock sighed, her eyes wandering over to where several gentlemen stood chatting. “It has been rather therapeutic to throw myself into the long hours of work required by the Countess.”

“Which I am sure have increased with the hosting of this house party.”

“Tremendously,” said Miss Greystock with a great deal of feeling, and they both laughed, surveying all of the guests from their spot on the blanket.

Isabel leaned her head in, lowering her voice. “If I had to guess, I’d wager that the Bloomsburys require more attention than anyone else here.”

“Right again. They are guests at one of the finest homes in England, and yet you’d be amazed by how many things they find to be displeased with.”

They shared a knowing smile, and Isabel gained the courage she’d been seeking. “Miss Greystock, I wonder if it might be possible for me to seek your assistance without adding to your burden . . .” Hesitancy made her voice trail off.

“I’d be happy to help if I can,” Miss Greystock encouraged.

“It’s a rather sensitive topic, and one I’ve addressed with the Countess, but I thought you might also aid me in my endeavor. You see, Anne’s dowry has increased—”

“Anne, your sister?”

“Yes, and I’d like it to be made known to increase her chances of making a suitable match.”

Miss Greystock turned to Isabel with searching eyes. “Her dowry has increased, but not your own?”

Isabel shook her head. “Just Anne’s,” she said firmly.

“I see.”

“It’s a complicated situation, you see, but I feel it important to see my sister favorably settled as soon as possible.”

“I am, of course, happy to help. My position allows me a certain ability to . . . spread information among the guests.”

“I hoped as much,” admitted Isabel. “Thank you. If there is anything I could do for you in return . . .”

“Not at this moment, but I’ll keep your offer in mind.”

“Please do.”

Silence filled the space between them, though the air around them was filled with conversation, shouts from the battledore game, and laughter. Isabel absentmindedly touched the bruise on her temple as she searched for Anne. To find her deep in conversation with Lord Anthony was disconcerting to say the very least.

***

Anthony took the vacant seat on the blanket near Miss Anne. Her eyes followed Tauney Easton as he went over to cheer on the heated game of battledore taking place over in the field to their left.

“And how are you enjoying the house party thus far, Miss Anne?” he asked.

She looked over in surprise, a blush rising to her cheeks. “Lord Anthony, I didn’t even see you sit down.”

“Perhaps I should have asked if the seat was reserved.” He tipped his head toward the battledore field.

She shook her head. “Oh, no. I don’t think Mr. Easton will be back for some time.”

“Fortuitous for me.”

Her wide blue eyes met his, and she blushed again. She turned her face away, motioning toward some of the food laid out on the blanket. “Have you already eaten?”

“I have. And though I’m tempted to eat more, Mr. Teirney challenged me to a game of battledore later.”

“Mr. Teirney is one of the latecomers?”

Anthony nodded. “Yes. He rarely shows up on time—for anything. He enjoys the attention of a late arrival.”

“You must be good friends to know him so well.”

“Yes. Along with Reginald—Mr. Beauchamp, and Lord Ian. We all met in school.”

Miss Anne’s eyes widened, trying to hold back a smile. “Lord Ian is the one who sang last night? With Miss Standish?”

Anthony laughed. “Yes, although describing his efforts as singing is perhaps too generous.”

Miss Anne’s smile turned to a giggle. “Well I thought it was very chivalrous.”

“That is not a word I’ve often heard used to describe him. I’m sure he’d be flattered. But the fellow does have a good sense of adventure. In fact, he mentioned to me that he and several other guests are going to meet up quite late . . . for a ghost hunt.” He lowered his voice. “Apparently Somerstone Manor has its very own apparition. I thought to see if you would like to join us.”

Miss Anne hesitated for a moment, her eyes flicking up the hill to where her sister sat. “I’m not sure . . .”

“There will be a decent sized group, nothing to worry about. And,” he inclined his head to where Tauney Easton was now playing battledore, “several of the Easton brothers will be there as well.”

A smile crept across her face. “It sounds intriguing, you may talk me into it yet.” Despite her attempts to measure her words, there was no hiding her eagerness.

With that, Anthony knew she would come. He turned his head slightly, following Anne’s gaze up to Miss Townshend. Even from this distance, her scathing glare could not be misunderstood. But Anthony just grinned.

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