Last time in An Unlikely Courtship, Anthony does his best to put Isabel at ease as they begin their charade of courtship. They spend an evening on the verandah together, where Isabel sees a side of Anthony she’s never seen before, convincing her that they may be able to start again.
Isabel glanced between the tree that marked the path down to the lake and her poor attempt of a sketch. She frowned and put down her vine charcoal, absentmindedly rubbing the spot just above her lip. A sigh escaped. She’d made the trunk far too wide and now the whole picture looked out of balance.
“Oh, it isn’t as terrible as all that,” said Miss Greystock with a smile.
“The fact that you feel the need to say that indicates it is.”
Miss Greystock’s eyes stayed steadily on her own work, a fleck of green paint on her cheek. “I am just happy you could join us. How is your father feeling?”
“A little peaked I’m afraid. I took him to his room after lunch.” Isabel glanced back at Somerstone Manor, hoping that her father was resting. All of the activity of the house party was taking a toll on him.
The sun shone overhead, its rays filtering through the overhanging trees. Isabel’s poor sketch seemed to mock her, interrupting the tranquil afternoon. Several rows back, Miss Fairchild offered small bits of advice to those who seemed to be struggling. Biting her lip, Isabel stared at the tree, wondering how to repair such a faux pas on the canvas.
Her eyes wandered and she spotted Anne near the middle of the group. Worry lines ran down the center of Anne’s forehead, marring her usually mild expression and Isabel wondered what could be bothering her sister. Unfortunately, in such a setting, it was nearly impossible to have a private word. She tucked the thought away, determined that she would visit Anne’s room tonight and ask her about it.
She turned back to her canvas. Instead of starting over she tried to cover some of the awkwardness by sketching in the trees foliage, but her mind couldn’t quite seem to focus, for last night’s conversation on the verandah with Lord Anthony persistently weaved toward the forefront of her thoughts.
He’d shown a side of himself last night she hadn’t known existed, and it intrigued her more than it ought. What had he said to her about the omen of rain? I’d like to think it might mean we could start anew. Could they? Last night, out in the restful canopy created by the drizzling rain it had almost seemed possible. Now, in light of day, away from Lord Anthony’s charm, Isabel doubted once more.
The sound of distant angry voices broke through her reverie, and she put down her charcoal, trying to make sense of the sound. No one else seemed to have heard, engrossed as they were in their artistic endeavors. Isabel arose, curious. She’d heard the gentlemen were engaged in fishing down by the lake and hoped there hadn’t been some mishap.
She’d only just reached the tree that she’d been trying to draw with very little success when Mr. Tierney, wet from head to foot stalked toward her. Isabel stepped back in order to avoid a collision with the man, whose face was contorted in anger. And was that blood dripping down his chin? What on earth?
Quickening her pace, she continued down the path toward the lake. Several minutes later Lord Anthony came into view, sitting on the bank, shaking his head. He removed his boot, and held it upside down, a steady stream of water pouring out.
“Lord Anthony?” She said his name with some hesitance.
He turned his head.
She gasped a little, for a dark welt was forming just under his eye. “Did you and Mr. Tierney . . .”
“Yes,” he said gruffly. “But he got the worst of it.” Lord Anthony stood, pulling on his boot with more force than necessary. His breeches were soaked up to the knees and his hair fell across his forehead in disarray.
“I gathered that.” Isabel tried to gauge his mood. “Do you mind if I take a look?”
He stilled, the disgruntled look on his face turning to surprise.
She stepped forward. “I’m no doctor, but I do have some recent experience with bruising.”
Lord Anthony gave her a chagrined smile. “Yes, I suppose you do.” He winced.
Isabel reached out a tentative hand, touching the skin on his cheekbone as she tried to determine how severe the swelling was.
His eyes closed, and he gave a sharp intake of breath as her fingers touched a tender spot.
She flinched and pulled back, worried she had hurt him. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” He met her eyes, the force of his gaze sending a jolt through her middle.
Isabel looked away. “Perhaps we should head back to the house, see if we can find something that might bring down the swelling.”
He nodded, falling into step beside her. “Otherwise I won’t dare show my face at dinner.” A grin crept across his face. “The Countess may throw me out.”
She smiled. “I wouldn’t doubt it. She is a formidable creature.” Several of the ladies painting on the lawn glanced in their direction. They walked in silence as they passed the group before Isabel ventured to ask, “Do you mind if I ask what your . . . disagreement was with Mr. Tierney?”
A shadow passed over Lord Anthony’s face. “Have you spoken with your sister today?”
She shook her head, confused about the change in subject. “No, why?”
His bottom lip jutted out and he blew out a slow breath. “How aware are you of her intentions with Mr. Tierney?”
Isabel laughed. “Whatever her intentions may be, they never last longer than a day or two. Why you must have noticed how besotted she was with Mr. Tauney Easton and how quickly her attentions have turned.” Her amusement faded at the concern in Lord Anthony’s eyes.
“I have reasons to believe she may do something foolish, just as I have reasons to doubt Mr. Tierney’s honor. I won’t claim to know Miss Anne better than you, but perhaps you should speak with her about the matter.”
Her ire rising, Isabel came to a halt in front of the doors on the west side of the house. This was the same pretentious Lord Anthony she’d known him to be all along. “How you presume to know my sister as well as doubt my ability to look out for her, is quite offensive.” Her words were clipped and cool, but inside she seethed. She turned and reached for the door. “I’ll let someone know that a salve should be made up for your bruise. Good day, Lord Anthony.”
“Wait just a moment, Isabel—Miss Townshend.” He laid a soft hand on her arm, and instead of the usual impertinent expression on his face, his brows were furrowed with what looked like concern. “Hear me out and then if you wish to go I won’t keep you. But I’ve been privy to enough information to know your sister may do something rash—because she is concerned about you. As well she should be. You try to shoulder everything in your family without a thought for yourself. Are you seriously considering becoming a governess?” He let out a noise of disbelief and shook his head.
How had Lord Anthony come to have such an intimate knowledge of her plans? His words shocked the anger from her, and she stood frozen, open-mouthed.
He inclined his head, his voice softening. “And despite what you may think, I believe that you are more than capable of looking out for your sister. Which is why I’m giving you a word of warning about Mr. Tierney. The man can’t be trusted.”
His words struck something inside Isabel, like a dissonant cord, a vulnerability and fear that hummed through her constantly, whispering that she was failing both her father and sister. She lashed out. “And I suppose you consider yourself an excellent judge of character.”
His voice remained calm, not rising to her bait. “Before this house party I may have, but since I found myself quite mistaken in my judgment of you, I would refrain from claiming as much.” A muscle pulsed in his jaw.
His candor took Isabel off guard and she took a slight step back.
Lord Anthony turned, exposing the pronounced welt on his cheek “But I do know this, if any man talked about my sister the way Mr. Tierney spoke about yours, there would be no doubt in my mind as to what kind of intentions he may have, none of which are decent or honorable.”
Isabel opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it again. She needed a moment apart, a moment to process this strange turn in their conversation. “If you’ll meet me in the small parlor off the library, I’ll just go and see about that salve.”
Anthony stared at the floral mauve carpet, occasionally glancing up at the clock on the mantle. He waited almost a quarter of an hour as he silently berated himself for revealing so much to Miss Townshend. He touched the rising bruise on his cheek. That was twice today his frankness had gotten the better of him.
He sighed aloud and stood. She wasn’t coming and he could hardly blame her.
Just then, Miss Townshend opened the door. She looked down, blushing. “I’m sorry to have taken so long. I had to find my maid and ask where she had put it.” She held out a small jar. “It’s the salve I was given for my bruise. There’s still plenty left.”
Anthony inclined his head, needing to look anywhere but at Miss Townshend. Her flustered blush made his pulse beat through his veins.
“Won’t you sit?” She walked toward him and gestured toward the settee where he’d been sitting a moment before.
They sat down in unison, awkward silence filling the space between them as she twisted the lid off the jar.
Hoping to make her smile, Anthony attempted to lighten the mood. “To be clear, this salve will help my bruise and not make it worse?” He raised his brows. “Not that you wouldn’t be justified.”
Her cheeks twitched. “Fortunately for you I know very little about mixing tinctures and salves. Your safety is assured.” She took a breath. “If you’ll just turn your cheek . . .”
Anthony turned and her soft fingers met his skin, rubbing a bit of the salve on his cheekbone.
Her lips puckered in concentration. “Careful not to move, I don’t want to get it in your eye.”
He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. The salve brought relief to the sting at once, but Anthony was surprised at how the gentleness of her touch soothed something inside of him as well.
Miss Townshend looked up and met his gaze, her eyes full of hesitant curiosity. “So this,” she gestured toward his face, “was in defense of Anne?”
He nodded, trying to read her expression.
“Then my earlier outburst was undeserved, and I apologize.” Her fingers came to a halt, as she finished rubbing in the last of the salve.
The minute she withdrew Anthony missed her touch. Impulsively he reached out and took her hand in his own. “It was not undeserved. You’re under a great weight. More than most people could bear.” His hold was light, giving her the opportunity to pull away if she so chose, but she didn’t move.
Her voice dropped so low it was almost a whisper. “Might I ask what you meant when you said you were mistaken in your judgment of me?”
He rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand, debating how much he should reveal. But given what he said earlier, honesty seemed the only way forward. “Past experience prejudiced me and I made some erroneous assumptions about your character. I have your sister to thank for correcting me, and now, knowing what I do, I realize I could not have been more wrong.”
She blinked twice, biting her lip. “I’m not sure I understand.”
He pushed his hair back from his forehead in agitation. “Miss Townshend, I must be candid; anything less would be a disservice. The first day I met you—yes, even soaking wet—I was quite certain you were the most beautiful creature that had ever crossed my path. Yet seeing how much you would sacrifice for your sister, your father . . . you possess a greatness of heart I did not believe existed.” He cleared his throat but didn’t break their gaze. “Perhaps I’ve done this all wrong. When you mistakenly entered my bedroom the other day, I should have been a gentlemen and let you go.”
Miss Townshend’s silence, the stiffness in her posture filled Anthony with tension. His collar grew tight and he tugged at his cravat. “But I was certain you loathed me and I justified my actions by the thought that I’d be a fool if I didn’t at least see if you might be willing to consider me a true suitor.”
The air between them grew taut as he waited for her response. She glanced down at her hand in his before meeting his eyes. “Perhaps you are not the only guilty of misjudgment, Lord Anthony.” A soft smile stole across her face. “Much as it surprises me to say it, I believe I could.”