Forty-One: Misfortune . . . or Serendipity


Previously in An Unlikely Courtship, Anthony learns of Miss Townshend’s unselfish plan to aid her family by giving up her dowry, completely shifting his view of her. Sparks fly when he asks her to waltz, and for a moment, they finally see one another in a different light.


Anthony reigned in his horse, waiting for the others to catch up as they approached a small stream where they could water their mounts. Tauney Easton came up first, dismounting. He wore a dejected expression, his mouth pulled down in a frown.

Letting his horse walk for a moment longer, Anthony patted the gelding before climbing down and leading him over to the stream for a drink. The midmorning sun began to beat down on Anthony’s back through his thick riding jacket. Once he picketed his horse, he took a seat under a shady tree and removed his jacket. The air under the tree was still cool, and leftover morning dew in the grass provided a welcome relief as it seeped through his shirt.

Easton came over and joined him, removing his jacket and folding it carefully. A moment later, Beauchamp walked up with his horse, who appeared to be limping.

Anthony sat forward. “Is your horse injured?”

Beauchamp shook his head. “No, but he lost a shoe. I’m not sure I can ride him back.”

“Get him a drink and come sit. We’ll figure something out.” Though Anthony didn’t say it, they were miles away from help, and this morning’s ride could very well turn into a day-long venture with a mishap such as this.

Beauchamp examined his horse’s hoof before joining them under the tree’s canopy. He lay down on his side, scrunching up his own jacket and using it as a pillow as he lay back in the grass. “Why the long face, Easton? I noticed you left the dance a bit early last night.”

Anthony raised a brow. Had he? Anthony hadn’t noticed. Of course, he’d been quite preoccupied.

Easton heaved out a sigh, crossing his legs and bringing his hands to rest behind his head. “I just don’t understand women.”

Beauchamp laughed. “They are a mystery that eludes us all.”

By women, Anthony knew precisely who Easton meant. Miss Anne. Who had told him just last night that she didn’t want Anthony encouraging anything between the two of them. The pressure rested on her to marry well, and even though it was obvious that she cared for Tauney Easton, she planned to brush her own feelings aside and set her sights higher.

Easton drew a hand across his forehead. “It’s only that I finally thought I’d found one who was unpretentious. Whose intentions were sincere. Now, I’m not so sure.”

“You’re taking it all too seriously.” Beauchamp picked a seeded dandelion growing next to him and blew the fluffy white seeds into the breeze. “You need to relax and enjoy yourself.”

Anthony felt bad for Easton. But his own thoughts wandered to Miss Townshend, for last night he’d seen her with new eyes. That such a woman could exist had never crossed his mind. He’d only seen a woman’s beauty and wit employed in the most underhanded and deceitful of ways. And yet Miss Townshend’s character, as revealed through her sister, seemed the very opposite.

He shut his eyes, remembering the way she’d felt in his arms, his hand at the small of her back. Anthony had danced and flirted with plenty of attractive women, but those moments seemed pale in comparison for what he’d felt for Miss Townshend last night. . . He couldn’t quite put a name to the feeling; he only knew that it had lit a fire in him—made him feel alive and engaged and very much altered. It was that same feeling that had kept him up all night, tossing and turning, and willing to contemplate something he’d always considered completely out of the question: marriage.

He pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers as the feeling melted away. Even if he resolved to change, he’d lost any chance with Miss Townshend. She would never believe he could be anything other than a cad. Regret pumped through his chest, heavy and dark. One night of gentlemanly behavior could not make up for the way he’d treated her.

He blew out a breath, picking idly at the grass, struck by the notion that he wished to do just that—convince her that there was more to him than womanizing and rakish behavior. But even if he attempted such a feat, what chance was there that she could ever think of him as a true suitor?

***

Isabel held in a yawn, trying to focus on what Mr. Bloomsbury was saying with little success. She took a bite of her eggs, her mind wandering to the previous night. To the waltz . . . and Lord Anthony. Try as she might, she couldn’t shake the fluttery feeling in her middle. She told herself she should be immune to the attentions of such a flirt, one who, by all accounts, had made her stay at the house party thus far quite miserable. It was silly and naïve to harbor any sort of hope, and she determined to banish the feelings at once. But then she would remember the feel of him taking her hand, his smile, the way he had looked at her—

“Don’t you agree?” asked Mr. Bloomsbury, taking such a large bite of ham Isabel was astonished at the way he forced it into his mouth.

“I don’t quite understand what you mean,” she stalled, not having the faintest idea about what he’d been speaking.

Mr. Bloomsbury swallowed, clearing his throat. “As I was saying, I think there are some members of our company who are not quite up to standard. Miss Fairchild, for example.”

“What on earth do you have against Miss Fairchild?” Isabel scooted back her breakfast plate, looking for an opportunity to escape.

“Have you not heard?” The look of horror on his face was almost comical. “She is the daughter of a stable master!”

She arced her brows in surprise. “I never would have guessed. Especially since her manners are better than several members of this house party.” She had no hope that Mr. Bloomsbury would pick up on the irony of her implication, so she picked up the napkin from her lap and set it on the table, unable to bear his company another moment. “And now you’ll have to excuse me.”

Not bothering to look back, Isabel hurried out of the breakfast room. But a moment later, the door opened and she heard Mr. Bloomsbury’s squeaky shoes indicating his pursuit. “Miss Townshend, wait!”

Isabel took brisk strides and turned down the third corridor, hoping to escape to her room before Mr. Bloomsbury caught up with her.

“Miss Townshend!”

The second door on the left. She began to run, propelled by the thought that if he caught her now he’d know the precise location of her room. Her hand was on the doorknob when she saw Mr. Bloombury’s shoe appear at the end of the hallway. She pushed the door open, doing her best to close it quickly without making any noise.

The footsteps halted and Isabel stiffened, her pulse pounding in her throat.

“Why Miss Townshend,” said a familiar voice from behind her. “I believe it breaks every rule in propriety for you to be in my bedroom.”

Her head whipped around to see Lord Anthony standing before her, a gleam in his sinful eyes. Without thinking Isabel stepped forward and placed a gloved hand over his lips.

“Quiet!” she mouthed, her mind drastically searching for a way out of this mess. How could she have miscounted the corridors?

“Miss Townshend?” Mr. Bloomsbury’s voice came from just outside the door.

She forced her lungs to take in air slowly, closing her eyes as if that might somehow banish the awkward state she now found herself in.

Lord Anthony’s hand encircled her wrist, slowly prying her hand from his mouth, revealing a casual grin. Coming to herself, Isabel pulled her hand back, but Lord Anthony held on for another moment, his thumb brushing the skin just above her glove. She hated the way her blood pulsed beneath his touch.

“Miss Townshend?” came Mr. Bloomsbury’s voice from further down the hall.

Before Isabel could exhale in relief, Lord Anthony leaned toward her, all but eliminating the space that remained between them. “Now, just what am I supposed to think when a woman of your beauty and charm enters my bedroom and practically throws herself into my arms?”

Breathing was impossible with his eyes staring into hers, the color of burnt caramel, making her forget all resolve against the feelings that had unwillingly surfaced during the waltz two nights before.

Isabel gave a shaky laugh stepping back, trying to dispel the tension between them. She needed a moment to clear her head.

“Lord Anthony, I . . .”

All words, all thoughts fled. Just yesterday she’d spent the entirety of the day reminding herself of his rakish reputation. The man was a cad, an experienced rogue. She loathed herself for falling so easily into the web he so carefully spun, for her and every other woman that happened to walk by. His handsome face and devilish grin, his eyes . . . he knew the effect they had on women. On her.

He stepped closer, so close that now they shared the same air.

Isabel panicked—she could not think clearly with Lord Anthony so near, the masculine smell of bergamot and leather filling her nose. She glanced past him, seeing the four-poster bed where he slept, alarmed at the intimacy of being alone with a man in his bedroom. She took two quick steps backward, her shoulder blades brushing the door, but Lord Anthony was faster. He reached over her shoulder and placed his hand firmly against the door.

“Lord Anthony, please. I—”

Just then the sound of Mr. Bloomsbury’s squeaky shoes approached. Lord Anthony brought a finger to her lips, cutting off her plea. All of the blood pumping so madly through her heart rushed to her face in response to his touch. Neither of them moved as the squeaking sound slowly faded away.

Even once the sound was long gone they stayed locked in place, and it seemed Lord Anthony had no intention of releasing her. When he finally stepped back, Isabel’s knees almost buckled as she leaned against the door.

“Lord Anthony, I beg you . . .”

One eyebrow went up. “Miss Townshend, I have no intention of revealing your indiscretion this morning. I will safeguard your honor and make sure no one ever learns of this situation.”

Isabel’s shoulders sagged in relief, and she grasped the door handle, needing something to anchor her.

A smile played at the corners of his mouth. “On one condition.”

Her breath caught.

“You must allow me to court you for the remainder of our time at this house party.”

“Court me?” Isabel couldn’t even pretend to be anything other than completely astonished. Lord Anthony had never shown anything but a wish to trifle with her! “But surely you don’t wish to—”

He leaned back against the wall adjacent to the door, as if ready to take on her every protest. “I assure you, I do.” He ran a thumb over his bottom lip. “During the next week you must allow me to seek you out and stay by your side. You will at least pretend to welcome my attentions, well enough to convince your father and sister, even the Countess.”

“But why?”

“Well our ruse won’t work very well if you make your distaste for me so obvious. But, if at the end of the house party, you wish to never see me again, I will let you go and never breathe a word of this encounter to anyone. That is my offer.”

Isabel could hardly keep up with the words coming out of Lord Anthony’s mouth. Why on earth would he wish to court her? And why was he so adamant that she play along with the ruse? The idea was preposterous.

“You’re very highhanded,” she finally said, for it was the only thought that came to mind.

He leaned in, as if to tell her a secret. “And you’re in my bedroom,” he whispered. “Do we have an agreement?”

Saying yes felt like a betrayal of everything she knew. The man was a cad, a society rake. Since her arrival she’d heard plenty of rumors regarding his numerous conquests. Was she just to be one more? “And if I don’t?” she challenged.

“I know what you think of me, Miss Townshend. I know what my reputation is. Do you really wish to find out if the rumors are as awful as they seem?”

He was right—what choice did she have? If it were known that she had come into Lord Anthony’s bedroom, she’d be ruined. She met his eyes, and a trace of the gentleness she’d seen in them last night appeared. Could it be that somewhere in this strange turn of events Lord Anthony had actually come to care for her? Impossible.

He held out his hand. “Do we have a deal, Miss Townshend?”

Pulse pounding in her ears, Isabel reached out and took his hand. “Yes.”

 

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