Previously, in An Unlikely Courtship, Lord Anthony pairs Miss Anne with Tauney Easton in hope of earning her trust and learning more about Isabel’s deception. Isabel meets with her father in hopes of convincing him to change his will, and Lord Anthony sends Isabel a bouquet of lavender . . . signaling mistrust.
Anthony followed the other men into the drawing room. Small groups formed around tables and the room grew louder with chatter and laughter as cards were dealt.
Teirny brushed by him. “It’s too bad that the wagers won’t be more interesting tonight, what with the ladies present.”
Anthony ignored the comment and stood back, perusing the room, his gaze inadvertently drawn to where Miss Townshend sat, looking especially lovely in a light blue dress that accentuated her slender figure.
“There’s no doubt she’s a tempting armful,” Teirny said, following his gaze. “But she seems a bit overbearing. I prefer them a little younger and more naïve. Like her sister.” He nodded toward Miss Anne, who was crossing the room, heading in their direction. “And I’ve heard promising rumors about an increase to her dowry.”
Teirny’s commentary irked Anthony, though he couldn’t have said why. Miss Anne and her dowry had already been discussed at length over port this evening. He shrugged. “A rumor is just that, until confirmed.”
When Miss Anne saw him her face brightened. “Lord Anthony, good evening.”
“Miss Anne, good evening to you.” He bowed.
Instead of her usual smile, a worry line creased the center of her forehead. “This will seem very forward of me, but I wondered if I might have a word with you.”
Teirny raised his brows suggestively, but Anthony schooled his features to mask any surprise. “Yes, of course. Perhaps we could take those vacant chairs over by the window.”
She nodded and followed him to a quieter corner of the room. Anthony waited for her to take a seat, and then sat on the edge of his chair, perplexed by the way Miss Anne fiddled with the folds of her dress. He’d only known her a few days, yet these were not her usual mannerisms.
“I’m listening,” he said, urging her on after a prolonged silence.
“Last night, what you did for me with Mr. Tauney Easton—” Her blue eyes wouldn’t meet his. “As much as I appreciated it, as much as it meant to me that you noticed . . .” She rubbed her hands together, letting out a breath. “It won’t be necessary any longer.”
Anthony interlaced his fingers , remembering Miss Anne’s smile when Easton had offered to share his candle for the ghost hunt. “Has something changed? Did he do something that . . .” His voice trailed off as he tried to make sense of the protective feelings rising within him.
Miss Anne shook her head, her curls bouncing around her face. “Oh, no!” She lowered her voice. “No. Nothing like that. He is always a perfect gentleman. It’s just—” There was something battling within her, fighting against what she wanted to tell him.
“You may have full confidence in me, Miss Anne. Whatever it is you wish to tell me.”
Her face filled with relief and her hands stopped fidgeting. “It’s Isabel,” she said at last.
All sorts of conjectures filled Anthony’s mind, but he stayed silent, letting her speak at her own pace.
“She’s been a mother of sorts to me all my life; she tries to protect me. And I know she thinks I’m ignorant to our family’s financial troubles.”
Financial troubles? Anthony’s mind raced, sorting through this revelation. He met her gaze, waiting, hoping she would go on, sensing that it might be connected to the very thing he’d hoped to learn.
She paused for a breath, pursing her lips. “But I’m not as naïve as she believes. I notice things. Like the fact that her wardrobe was made on a much more frugal budget than my own. I knew she was up to something. And yesterday morning I overheard a conversation she had with my father.” Her eyes darted across the room to where Lady Du’Breven sat. “And the Countess. Despite my fears about the state of our finances I had no idea things had become so desperate. I’d never have . . .” She looked down at her light pink gown and shook her head. “Well, it doesn’t matter now. All that matters is what I heard. And Isabel has already set plans in motion to change my father’s will.”
His focus was now entirely concentrated on Miss Anne and the words coming out of her mouth.
“Perhaps you’ve already heard rumors about an increase to my dowry?” She looked at him steadily and Anthony could only nod.
“Well, they’re true.”
He shook his head. “But how? If your family’s financial situation is so dire, how is that possible?”
She heaved out a sigh. “Because Isabel is giving up her own dowry—half to increase mine, half toward my father’s accumulated debts.”
Anthony felt as though all of the breath had been sucked from his lungs. It took a moment for her words to sink in. Miss Townshend was giving up her own dowry to benefit her family? He had speculated about a hundred reasons why Miss Townshend might spread rumors about her sister’s dowry, but never had he imagined this. The rumors were true. And not only were they true, but the increase in Miss Anne’s dowry came from her sister’s own selflessness.
His gaze drifted across the room to where Miss Townshend now stood in conversation with her father. The very sight of her left him feeling unsteady, as if his world had shifted so drastically he couldn’t quite find his new sense of balance. What person would do such an unselfish thing? Could it possibly true? Or might Miss Anne have misunderstood?
He turned back to Miss Anne. “I don’t understand.” Those were the only words that seemed to find their way out of his mouth. “How can she give up her own dowry? What will she do?”
“Isabel hopes I can secure a good match and care for father. And she will become a companion or perhaps a governess.” She sat forward. “So you see, this is why I cannot encourage Mr. Tauney Easton’s attentions any further. I don’t wish to hurt him, but he’s a fourth son.” She blushed a little at her own frankness. “And after what Isabel is doing for me and my father . . . Don’t you see? I must make a profitable match the way she hopes for me.”
The resignation in her voice awoke Anthony from his daze. Two sisters, both equally determined to help their family. It was a truth he couldn’t quite come to terms with, this sort of family loyalty and devotion, for he’d never known it in his own. He shook his head, pushing away unpleasant thoughts from the past.
“I must say I am rather stunned by what you’ve told me. The way your sister cares for you is quite enviable.” Anthony felt ashamed of the assumptions he’d made about Miss Townshend, how he’d tortured her in his attempts to uncover the truth. “It is only matched by your own selflessness.”
“Oh no. If it weren’t for Isabel . . . well, I don’t know what would become of us.” Miss Anne ducked her head. “And please, don’t share this with the others. I only told you because, well, I don’t want Mr. Easton to be hurt . . . I’m sorry for the way it all slipped out.”
“I assure you of my absolute discretion.”
A gasp of enthusiasm came from the card tables on the other side of the room. Several people called out with excitement. “Yes, a dance.” Several giggles. “A waltz!”
Miss Anne stood. “I won’t monopolize you any further.”
Anthony followed suit. “After what you have told me tonight, Miss Anne, I hope you know I have the highest regard for you. And for your sister. Please let me know if I can ever be of service to either of you in any way.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Lord Anthony. Your kindness means a great deal to me, and it’s a relief not to share the burden of my knowledge alone. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
He bowed as she slipped into the crowd. Servants rolled back the rugs and moved some of the larger furniture. Someone took a seat at the piano and began playing as the room was readied for dancing.
But Anthony found his gaze drawn to Miss Anne’s sister, who was still bent in conversation with her father, a smile playing at her mouth. The sight of her did something to him. Without conscious thought, Anthony crossed the room.
“Miss Townshend, may I have this dance?”
Isabel looked up in surprise to see Lord Anthony standing over her. Immediately she felt herself bristle, until she met his eyes. There was something different about them, something she couldn’t put a finger on. The cool arrogance, the gleaming self-satisfaction seemed to have faded away. But replaced with what? Wonder, maybe. But that hardly seemed likely.
Her father nudged her from behind. “Isabel,” he murmured under his breath.
Somehow, like always, Lord Anthony had caught her in a moment where it was impossible to escape. “Why yes, Lord Anthony.” She touched the fading bruise on her temple. “I feel I am enough recovered that I might risk close proximity to you once more.”
Lord Anthony smiled, but his smile was different too. “Proximity is certain, Miss Townshend, as it’s the waltz.” He held out his hand.
Isabel, still wary of the sudden change in him, put her hand in his with some reluctance. The rush of warmth that flooded up her arm was so unexpected she almost pulled back. Instead, she allowed him to help her up, that same warmth spiraling toward her heart and making it beat uncomfortably fast in her chest.
“Are you all right?” Lord Anthony held her hand, but turned toward her, his brown eyes so full of sincerity she hardly recognized them.
She had no defense against this new version of Lord Anthony. His usual flirtatious manner and mocking tone raised her ire and sharpened her tongue, but now she struggled to say anything at all. “Yes, yes. I am fine. Perhaps the room is a little warm.”
Lord Anthony led her adeptly through the press of couples to the far side of the room. He released her hand for a moment, his fingers grazing the inside of her wrist as he turned to one of the staff. “The room may be a little warm for dancing. Perhaps we could open the doors to the verandah.” The man nodded and hurried to acquiesce.
Without warning Lord Anthony turned to face her, guiding her into the marching position for the opening bars. Isabel hoped he didn’t hear her sharp intake of breath as he set a hand upon the small of her back and wrapped her fingers with his own. They walked forward, following the other couples in the march.
“Miss Townshend, I do believe this is the first time in our acquaintance that our conversation has remained civil for more than two minutes. Whatever can it mean?” His tone was teasing, but he smiled, and the warmth almost made Isabel melt into him as they began to turn about the room.
“That you haven’t said anything terribly provoking, of course.” She smiled without meaning to.
He inclined his head a little. “Of course. But though I am tempted to turn to my old ways, I think I shall prolong this cordiality for a little longer.”
“You will almost force me to rethink my opinion of you.”
Lord Anthony opened his mouth, and Isabel half expected the old Lord Anthony to emerge, with some sort of banter meant to provoke. Instead he gave her a half smile. “I wish you would.”
He turned to take her in his arms as the waltz began. Their hands entwined in an arch over their heads, and she was pulled along as they began to spin around the room. His gaze met hers, so fierce she could scarcely breathe. No man had ever looked at her quite this way, as if she was to be admired, adored. Worshipped even.
Isabel forced herself to breathe, to look away for a moment. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Anne flash by in her pink silk, dancing with Mr. Teirny.
Lord Anthony drew her in, tightening the pressure on her waist. The warmth of his hand burned through the satin of her gown. “You waltz beautifully, Miss Townshend, if I may say so.”
The compliment sounded genuine, yet she sensed the words were a cover, that he was holding something back. She glanced up, meeting his gaze. “I’ve had plenty of practice. It was quite the thing in London this season.”
“And yet a waltz during an impromptu dance at a house party is still rather shocking.” His eyes roamed over her face, searching, scrutinizing. Isabel was quite unprepared for such an intimate inspection.
She swallowed, hoping she didn’t sound as breathless as she felt. “The waltz is the result of a wager, one of the groups playing cards. Just a bit of harmless fun.”
“No question about the fun.” His hand guided her ever closer, his breath warm on her cheek as he whispered in her ear. “But whether it is harmless remains to be seen.”