Last time in An Unlikely Courtship, Anthony decides he wants to court Isabel, but knows she would never agree . . . until an unexpected bedroom encounter gives him the leverage he needs to convince her otherwise.
Anthony was surprised by the sudden onset of nerves that hummed through him as he entered the drawing room, intent on seeking out Miss Townshend. The last time he remembered being nervous to spend time with a woman was almost nine years ago with Rebecca . . . He swept aside the unpleasant thought, wishing he’d taken the second glass of port he’d been offered.
Miss Townshend sat on a small settee next to her father. The glow of candlelight made her dark hair shine. With her head turned Anthony took a moment to appreciate her profile, her slender neck and the graceful slope of her shoulders.
Before he could cross the room, Miss Anne stood and approached him. “Oh Lord Anthony, do come join us. We were just speaking of you.” She motioned toward her father and sister, an inviting smile on her face.
As he approached, however, Miss Townshend gave a little start, smoothing her dress in an obvious attempt to cover her surprise. “Lord Anthony,” she murmured.
He did not miss the color that rose to her cheeks, likely remembering their encounter in his bedroom earlier this morning. “Sir George, Miss Townshend.” He greeted them with a slight bow. “Miss Anne assures me I am not intruding.”
“Of course not.“ Miss Anne inclined her head as they both took a seat. “Why, your presence makes our gathering acceptable. Otherwise we would appear very closed off to the rest of the party. But the truth is, we’ve missed our time together as a family.”
“Yes.” Miss Townshend arched a brow at Anthony. “We aren’t accustomed to such persistent attention.”
She accentuated the word persistent, in a way that let him know that just because she’d agreed to his little charade did not mean she would make this easy on him. His mouth quirked up a bit. “Surely the desire for your company cannot come as a surprise.”
Sir George piped in. “I’ve always felt that Isabel is a little standoffish to those of the opposite gender.”
The insight intrigued Anthony, for he’d been certain he alone raised her hackles.
The indent above Miss Townshend’s upper lip became more pronounced. “If you mean I don’t flirt with every man who passes by, you would be correct, Father.”
Miss Anne shot her sister a look of exasperation, then turned to Anthony with a smile. “Come now, Lord Anthony. We’ve heard rumors of your adventure from yesterday, but wish to hear the story from your own lips. Please oblige us.”
Sir George placed a weathered hand on his cane. “Oh, were you one of the fellows out riding yesterday? I’d love to hear a firsthand account.”
Anthony nodded. “I’m afraid the story is very anticlimactic.”
“That is quite at odds with the account I’ve heard.” Miss Townshend turned toward him, her eyes extending a challenge.
“Very well, then.” He sat back in his chair, stretching out his legs, grateful at least that they were engaging in conversation. “Beauchamp, Easton, and I were enjoying a scenic ride through the countryside yesterday morning. We’d gone about ten miles when Beauchamp’s horse threw a shoe. Do you know what exists ten miles outside of Somerstone?” He paused for a moment, making sure he had their attention before continuing on. “A wretched lot of nothing, that’s what. We had to walk nearly two miles before we reached a small tenant farm where the owner could only offer us an old and cantankerous donkey.”
The corners of Sir George’s mouth tugged upward. “Heavens.”
“I have not even reached the worst part of the tale,” said Anthony, shaking his head. He was determined to make Miss Townshend laugh, even if it required embellishing the story some.
“Go on,” Miss Anne urged.
“When Beauchamp tried to mount the beast, it bucked him off most determinedly. And I’m afraid Easton shared the same fate.”
Sir George began to chuckle and Miss Anne covered her erupting giggle.
Even Miss Townshend’s mouth twitched. “Well,” she prompted, curiosity lighting her eyes. “What happened when you attempted to get on the donkey?”
“The worst thing you can imagine.” He held her gaze, though he knew he should look away. “The donkey was as docile as a lamb, and allowed me to ride him the entire seven mile journey into the village.”
Miss Townshend joined the laughter then, and Anthony reveled in the sight. Her eyes crinkled at the corners and her nose scrunched up in a manner Anthony found quite charming. Several of the other guests stared in their direction, wondering what could be so amusing.
Sir George’s laughter faded to a smile. “What a sight to behold. If only I’d come across you while I was out riding yesterday!”
“You were out riding yesterday?” Anthony asked, trying to hide his surprise.
“Oh, yes.” He nodded firmly, gripping his cane as if it were a riding crop. “Why just yesterday Mr. Tillbury and I wagered a bet on whose mare was faster.” A faraway look entered his eyes, one that Anthony couldn’t quite place.
Miss Townshend gave a slight shake of her head, her mouth pinched.
Anthony looked carefully at Sir George once more, and understanding dawned. He had seen the same distant expression in his uncle in the few years before he died. The confusion and forgetfulness. The blending of past and present. His heart went out to Miss Townshend and Miss Anne, for the pain of having to watch their father fade away.
Anthony leaned forward. “And who was the winner, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Sir George huffed. “Why me, of course.”
“I can imagine you are quite the rider, sir.” He patted the man’s shoulder.
Miss Townshend’s lips parted, her studious gaze upon him.
“Why yes, I am,” replied Sir George. They continued in that vein for several minutes, Anthony asking questions while Miss Townshend’s father recounted old stories as if they’d only just happened.
A few minutes later, the Countess cleared her throat from across the room. “Miss Greystock has organized some games, for those of you who wish to participate. I believe it will be quite diverting.”
Anthony watched Miss Townshend carefully, trying to decipher her reaction to the announcement, but she kept her eyes in her lap. Teirny approached the four of them. “Miss Anne, would you care to join me for some of the games?”
“I’d be delighted Mr. Teirny.” She took his hand as he helped her to her feet.
A frown pulled down Anthony’s mouth as he watched the two of them join the others. Teirny was wealthy but Miss Anne certainly deserved better.
“I must be off to bed,” said Sir George. “But perhaps the two of you should join in as well.”
Miss Townshend set a hand on her cheek. “I am not certain I am up for games tonight. In fact, I’m feeling a little warm.”
Anthony’s heart began to race, for this is when the real experiment of their time together would begin. “It’s cloudy outside but it hasn’t yet begun to rain. I could escort you to the verandah for some fresh air, Miss Townshend,” Anthony volunteered.
Her posture stiffened.
For a moment he questioned his earlier wisdom in forcing her into their agreement. Perhaps it would have been wiser this morning to act the gentlemen and let Miss Townshend escape, but Anthony feared losing his only chance to court her. And now that the decision was made, he would not waste a moment of it. He rose from his chair. “But first, let me fetch you a drink.”
“How thoughtful of you, Lord Anthony,” he heard Sir George say, and all Anthony could do was hope that his choice had been for the best.
Isabel watched Lord Anthony cross the room, the thought of spending time with him sending a tumult of confusion through her. The man was far too handsome for his own good, and their waltz the other night was proof that his proximity dulled her good senses and made her feel more than was prudent. Especially for a man of his reputation. What a fine kettle of fish she now found herself in.
She’d spent the afternoon isolated in her room, thinking about her predicament and Lord Anthony’s motives. What could he possibly hope to gain by pretending to court her? Was this all some ploy, some trick to get her to fall in love and then leave her broken hearted at the end of the party? Was she just another—albeit more challenging—conquest? She pursed her lips together, the thought rankling.
Lord Anthony returned with a cavalier smile on his face, drink in hand. She took a small sip and set the glass down on a side table, raising her guard.
“Miss Townshend?” He held out his arm.
She placed hers on his, this time not surprised by the flutter of warmth that radiated up her arm at his touch. Instead, she was annoyed by it.
The verandah doors were slightly ajar, but Lord Anthony pushed the door back, leaving it wide open so propriety might be maintained.
“Tell me truthfully.” He tugged at his cravat, loosening its hold. “Did you only agree to come out here so you would not be forced to pretend you tolerate my company any longer?”
His candor took her off guard, and she ducked her head. “It did cross my mind. I have never been one who has excelled at covering my feelings.”
He laughed aloud, and she found she enjoyed the way it erupted from his chest, the free sound of someone determined to enjoy life.
“I suppose I should have expected as much.” His eyes gleamed with amusement. “You’ve never left me with any doubt as to how you feel about me.”
Isabel flushed anew, grateful for the soft breeze that cooled the night air. “There is something about you that ruffles my feathers.”
“And it started when I came upon you in that rainstorm.” His voice grew gentle, and he turned to face her, focusing the whole of his attention upon her.
She laughed quietly. “Yes, I suppose it did.”
Smoky gray clouds filled the night sky, and she remembered the absolute indignation she’d felt at Lord Anthony’s insolent flirtation when she’d first met him, in such dire need of help. But then, inside just now, he’d been so gracious and understanding with her father. How was she to reconcile these different versions of the man who stood at her side?
Confused as Isabel was, he deserved her appreciation. “I’m sorry about my father. He is not himself these days. Thank you for humoring him.”
Anthony put his arms on the railing, leaning over it. He looked out into the distance. “I’m sure his moments of confusion are difficult to watch, but I assure you, there are worse things to see in a father.” His features hardened, mouth pressing into an unforgiving line.
Much as she wished to ask what he might mean, she wasn’t sure she dared. “Well, thank you all the same.”
“It was nothing.” He shrugged off her thanks but his face remained tense, the muscles in his neck taut.
What could so disturb a man like Lord Anthony, who never seemed to take anything too seriously? “Does your father suffer from something worse then?”
He gave a short laugh, full of bitterness. “You could say that.”
They stood in silence, but for once Isabel’s mind wasn’t full of censure or disdain for the man that stood next to her, only mere curiosity. “Forgive me for prying.”
He blew out a breath. “You weren’t prying. It’s only that I don’t wish to speak of him. Not tonight.”
There was a raw quality to his voice that pricked Isabel, making her wish she knew what to say, how to smooth over the hurt that seemed to be eating at him.
Lord Anthony broke the silence with a sigh, holding out his palm, several droplets of rain hitting it as it began to sprinkle. “I am not sure what kind of omen this new bout of rain might indicate.” He gave her a brief glance. “I’d like to think it might mean we could start anew.” He said the last words softly, as if speaking to himself.
But they grabbed hold of Isabel, easing their way through her, settling into the tiniest fissure in the wall guarding her heart.
Lord Anthony shook his head. “Should we go back inside?”
For a reason Isabel couldn’t even have explained to herself, she demurred. “No, let’s not.” She joined him at the railing, her shoulder brushing his. “I like the rain.”