In the previous chapter of An Unlikely Courtship, Isabel enlists Miss Greystock’s help in spreading word of an increase in her sister’s dowry. Meanwhile, Lord Anthony devises a new strategy for uncovering Isabel’s secret—inviting Anne to the ghost hunt.
Anthony leaned against one of the busts in the Statuary Hall. The room was lit only by the moon streaming through the windows, making it all silver and shadows. He’d come early, feeling restless in his room, and he wanted a place to think. This place seemed as good as any.
His thoughts returned to his conversation with Miss Anne at the picnic earlier today. This new approach to discovering Miss Townshend’s deceit about her sister’s dowry had promise. It had been quite easy to talk Miss Anne into joining the ghost hunt once she knew Tauney Easton would be accompanying the party. And Anthony had a feeling that once he earned Miss Anne’s trust, she would be much more forthcoming than her sister. He began tapping his foot impatiently as he waited for her and the other members of the party.
How very different the two sisters were, in both looks and disposition. Miss Anne’s hair was golden instead of a rich brown and her blue eyes were wide and doe-like, holding nothing of the fire and passion that he’d seen so often in her older sister. And her manner was softer. Gentler. A woman who was welcoming and warm and didn’t always require him to be on his toes.
Earning Miss Anne’s regard would be much easier than that of her older sister, who put up all sorts of walls if she caught even a glimpse of him. Which made uncovering Miss Townshend’s deceit all the more enjoyable. Anthony had always enjoyed a good challenge.
Of course, the episode last night hadn’t helped. Anthony touched his nose, which still proved tender. He’d felt the slightest guilt at the sight of the bruising on Miss Townshend’s head today, but at least he could say it was not what he intended. In the future he’d have to remember how quickly the woman could rise from her seat.
Several voices echoed through the high-ceilinged room. Lord Ian and Tauney Easton. Anthony smiled, remembering how often Miss Anne’s gaze had been drawn to the latter over the course of the afternoon. He seemed to be a decent man at least, though Anthony had only spoken to him in passing.
The two approached and Anthony stepped forward. “I do hope we end up with more feminine company before the hunt begins. It is highly improper to chase after apparitions when the numbers are imbalanced.”
The men laughed. Easton’s mouth quirked in a smile, highlighted by the lines in the window. “And it is always preferable to have some women to blame the shrieks on.”
More people filtered in, the crowd growing until there was a group of eleven or twelve. A hushed excitement filled the room, though the whispers grew in volume as they waited for any final comers who might be joining them. Miss Anne came in at last, a timid smile on her face. Anthony crossed the room to welcome her.
Her face filled with relief when she saw him. “I’ve been second guessing my agreement to come all evening. But there is a certain thrill to the idea, isn’t there? Though I’m certain Isabel would not approve.”
Anthony lifted a brow. “You didn’t tell her?” She rose in his estimation by degrees.
“She still has a headache from the bruise on her head. I didn’t want to worry her needlessly. And it’s just a good bit of fun.” She motioned across the room. “Even Miss Easton is here, and you know how protective her brothers are.”
“Yes, indeed. I am sorry about your sister’s head, though. I feel responsible.”
She shook her head. “But of course it wasn’t your fault.”
Her presumption of his innocence brought back his earlier guilt, but he brushed it aside. “Perhaps there is some way to convey my apologies, even if it was unintentional.”
“You are very thoughtful. And a woman never rejects such gestures.”
Silently, Anthony doubted her words. But the thought of just such a gesture that might vex Miss Townshend was intriguing. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Candles were quickly handed out and Anthony took one, though he did not light it. He had only one more role to play in order to embed himself in Miss Anne’s good graces. Then, if all went as planned, he’d be in a position to inquire about the size of her dowry and the rumors behind it. And he could at last expose Miss Townshend for what she was: just another woman determined to further herself, who would stop at nothing to achieve her goals.
“Come,” he said, leading Miss Anne by the elbow, “let us find a spot near the front.” He came to a halt at Tauney Easton’s side. “Mr. Easton, could Miss Anne share a candle with you? I’m afraid we are several short.” He held his candle behind his back.
Miss Anne looked at him in surprise and he gave her a quick wink. Easton held his out, a pleased look on his face. “Would you like to hold it, or shall I?”
Miss Anne’s returning smile was far brighter than the candle. “I think you had better. I might drop it if I become frightened.”
Ian began leading the crowd forward but Anthony stayed back, leaving the couple to themselves. Once everyone had moved up the stairs, Anthony headed back to his room, feeling certain that he was one step closer to uncovering Miss Townshend’s deceit. He couldn’t help but whistle on his way.
The next morning Isabel sat with her father, wishing her stomach would stop twisting in knots. She glanced at the large clock on the marble mantle, the minutes ticking by. The Countess was late. Isabel wanted to get this conversation over with before church services; she couldn’t bear to let it weigh her down another moment.
Trying to distract herself, she gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on a small garden, blooming with color in the early days of summer after the spring rains.
Her father’s brows furrowed. “Goodness child, what ails you? Your cheeks are rather flushed.”
A hand went to her cheek. “Are they? I was out in the sun all yesterday afternoon. With my bonnet on, of course.”
He peered at her closely. “Are you sure you didn’t catch cold when you were caught in the rainstorm? I’ll never forgive myself for not being able to fetch help myself.”
“Nonsense, Father.” She set her hand on his knee, attempting a smile. “You know a little rain has never bothered me. Though that rainstorm rather tested my limits.” Or perhaps it was the man she’d crossed paths with during the rainstorm.
The swish of skirts signaled the Countess coming through the door. “I do apologize for keeping you waiting.” She crossed the room and found a seat, for once her lap noticeably empty. “Sir George, how did you find the rest of yesterday’s picnic? Did you get drawn into a game of battledore? I realized after I left yesterday that I should have had you row me across the pond.”
He chuckled, creases forming around his eyes. “Ah, that would have been a delight. But no, I stayed on the picnic blanket and watched the young ones in their lively competition. Twenty years ago, yes. Perhaps even ten. But not now. Not with my gout.” He adjusted his leg, as if talking of it reminded him of the pain.
Isabel let the two chat for a moment, grateful the Countess saw the wisdom of easing her father into the conversation that was coming. Her father looked happier, more relaxed than she’d seen him in a good while. Being in the Countess’s presence seemed to keep his mind from wandering too far. Hopefully that would make this conversation a bit easier.
Her father shifted in his seat, turning toward her. “Did you hear Lady Du’Breven, my dear? She asked you a question.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was lost in thought.”
The Countess dipped her head in understanding. “I merely asked if any of the gentlemen here had caught your eye? I know for a fact you’ve turned a few heads.”
Isabel clasped her hands in her lap. “Well, I’ve banged into at least one.” She smiled briefly, trying to keep her tone light. “And I know that Anne is already all aflutter, though I daresay by tomorrow someone new will have caught her eye.”
“One of these times she’ll surprise you and find someone who has the power to keep her affections,” said the Countess with some authority.
Sometimes Isabel wondered. “Nothing would make me happier. I do hope to see her favorably settled—sooner rather than later.”
“I believe there is another matter you would like to see settled.” The Countess looked toward Isabel’s father. “Now is as good a time as any.”
Isabel drew a breath, trying to force down the nerves that had lodged themselves in her ribcage. With both sets of eyes on her the awkwardness of the situation seemed to stilt the words on her tongue. “Father, I know I shouldn’t have . . . but I took the liberty of writing to your solicitor.”
“My solicitor?” Her father’s eyes grew cloudy with confusion. “Whatever for?”
“I requested that he come and meet with us while we are here. There’s a matter of grave importance that we must speak to him about.”
“I cannot imagine what could be so important that it could not wait until after the house party. Really, Isabel, it’s quite unpolished to conduct business while we are guests here, among our friends.” He gestured toward the Countess.
The Countess shook her head. “Not at all. Some things won’t wait, and I am difficult to offend. At least when it comes to old friends.”
Her father’s brows bent together in consternation. “And what is so urgent that it cannot even wait a fortnight?”
Isabel swallowed. “My dowry.”
She hesitated for a moment but the Countess nodded, giving her courage. “Yes. And there isn’t an easy way to say this, but it is imperative that some changes be made. For all our sakes, but Anne’s especially.”
An hour later Isabel made her way back to her room to gather her things for the church service. Her steps were lighter, the weight on her shoulders considerably relieved. Her father’s opposition to her proposal had not been easily overcome, but thankfully, the Countess had been there to smooth things over and reassure him that Isabel’s proposition was the right course of action. But, oh, the hurt in his eyes, the defeated expression on his face had been almost unbearable.
It was necessary, she assured herself as she reached her room. And much better than the other alternatives, even if her father’s pride was a bit bruised. She opened the door, in a hurry to collect her reticule so she could meet Anne to ride over to the church. As she entered, she was assaulted by the overpowering scent of lavender. Confused, she looked around. There, on her dressing table, rested the largest flower arrangement Isabel had ever seen. The height and width of the arrangement completely obscured the mirror.
Isabel took off her gloves and traced one of the stems. Who might have sent the flowers? She rubbed one of the rich purple petals, soft as velvet, between her fingers.
Finally, Isabel searched for a card. There, it was, hidden in the back under some greenery. She hastily opened the envelope.
May these flowers serve as my sincerest apology for the bruise on your head. – Lord Anthony.
Isabel scoffed, ripping the card in two. Apology, indeed! More likely it was his way of taunting her, a reminder of his threat to uncover the truth about Anne’s dowry. For every woman knew the different meanings of flowers. And lavender conveyed only one thing: distrust.