Last time in An Unlikely Courtship: Isabel comes upon Lord Anthony, who has a bruise after engaging Mr. Tierney in a fist fight. When Lord Anthony warns her of Anne’s interest in Tierney, Isabel at first takes offense. Yet when she discovers Lord Anthony was defending her sister, she sees things in a different light. For the first time, she begins to see him as a true suitor.
Isabel knocked on Anne’s door, unease creeping into her stomach. She waited for a murmur of assent before entering.
Anne sat at her vanity, struggling with the clasp on a string of pale pink pearls. She turned as she caught sight of Isabel in the mirror. “Am I late for breakfast?”
“No, I hoped to speak to you for a moment. Here, let me.” Isabel took the necklace and fastened the clasp around her sister’s neck. “Lovely, as always.”
Anne smiled, her doe-like eyes meeting Isabel’s in the mirror. “What was it you wished to speak with me about?”
“Mr. Tauney Easton,” said Isabel quietly.
“Mr. Easton?” Anne stood quickly. “Why whatever for?” Her tone conveyed disinterest, but she began to pace the room, smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles in her dress.
Isabel knew her sister too well to believe Anne unaffected. “Because I thought I saw something between the two of you, something different. But now you won’t even spare him a glance. At least not when you think anyone is looking.”
“Someone new has caught my eye.” Anne clasped her hands together.
“Mr. Tierney?” Isabel raised a brow.
“Yes, as a matter of fact.”
“Anne, you’ve never been interested in men like Mr. Tierney.” Isabel shook her head, trying to be forthright but not wanting to raise her sister’s defenses. “Why the man is quite rude, always making jokes at the expense of others. And I heard he was a good deal less than gentlemanly during that game of charades the other night.”
Anne wouldn’t meet her eyes. “It was merely a joke. A jest.”
“But you’ve been out of sorts ever since.” Isabel walked over to her sister, taking her hand. “And I’ve seen him flirting with several other young ladies, as well. Mr. Tierney is not the kind of man who will make you happy. Yet you seem determined to pursue him. Why?”
Anne remained silent a moment before letting out a sigh. “You aren’t the only one in this family who can make sacrifices, you know. How can I allow you to give up your dowry—for me, for our family—and then not give a thought to what kind of position you might find yourself in?”
Isabel blew out a breath, wishing Anne would not concern herself with such matters. “How did you find out?”
“I overheard you speaking with the Countess.”
Her stomach dropped. “And here I thought I’d done a fine job of sheltering you from the truth.”
“But that’s what I don’t understand, Isabel. Why is it that you think you should have to? Are we not sisters? Allies?”
Isabel studied Anne, remembering her as a girl of five or six. “I’ve always thought of myself as more than a sister to you. More like a . . .”
“A mother?” Anne supplied.
“I suppose so.”
“You’re only five years my senior. That hardly makes you a matron.” Her tone grew clipped. “And you certainly won’t be allowed to dictate my interest where men are concerned.”
“I know I’m often heavy handed where you are concerned, Anne, but please, put aside this pursuit of Mr. Tierney.”
Anne pulled away, frowning. “Isabel, I’m grateful for all you’ve done for me, but you aren’t my mother. I shall pursue whomever I think best. And as I see it, it now lies on me to marry well and secure all our futures.”
Isabel’s control of the situation seemed to be slipping away. She had never seen her sister so determined, so strong-willed in any matter. “Anne, I don’t understand. At least consult with me. Can we not discuss the matter further?”
Anne whirled, her mouth set in a resolute line. “As you discussed the matter of your dowry with me?” She shook her head. “You’ve made all sorts of decisions without consulting me, and now I shall do the same. You’ll have to excuse me, for I don’t wish to miss breakfast.”
Isabel’s stomach churned, her mind racing. Never had she felt such a chasm between the two of them. She missed her father fiercely, for she wanted someone to confide in, someone who could help her fix this disaster she had unwittingly created. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, Anne turned on her heel and walked to the door, not even turning back to see if Isabel would follow.
Anthony caught sight of Miss Townshend outside of one of the smaller music rooms. She leaned against the wall, rubbing at spot between her eyebrows, her mouth pulled down in a frown.
“Oh, Lord Anthony.” She quickly smoothed her face into a smile.
“Is there something amiss?” He came to stand beside her.
She bit her lip, hesitating. “I tried to speak with Anne this morning. About Mr. Tierney.” The spot between her brows creased once more and she began to rub it, her gaze growing distant.
“Here, let’s take a seat in here.” Anthony motioned to the open door of the music room and Miss Townshend nodded, following him in. He left the door only slightly ajar that they might speak in privacy.
After they had been seated, he turned toward her. “Isabel?”
Her dark brown eyes grew wide, unblinking.
Anthony cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, Miss Townshend. It slipped out.”
“No . . . I like it.” She ducked her head. “It’s friendlier.”
The way she said friendlier awakened a host of feelings in Anthony, which he did his best to put aside. “You tried to warn your sister against Mr. Tierney, I take it?”
She nodded, her mouth pulling down at the corners. “It was rather a disaster. I’ve never seen her so determined, so intractable. Perhaps I was wrong to do what I did without consulting her.”
“You mean the matter of changing your dowry?” he prodded.
“Yes.” The way her shoulders slumped, as if defeated, tore at him.
Anthony inclined his head. “Isabel, you were only doing what you thought best—for her and your father. No one can fault you for that.” Her selflessness still astounded him, made him wish to be half the person she was.
She turned to him, an acute look of misery in her eyes. “Yes, but at what cost? I can’t bear the thought of this coming between us. And of her with Mr. Tierney. Or anyone like him.”
“Would it help if I talked to her, do you think?” He knew he was taking a risk, for the last time they’d discussed the matter Isabel had taken offense at his interference.
“I really couldn’t say. Perhaps she’d be more willing to listen to you.” She fiddled with the seam of her glove. “I just can’t bear to have such feelings between us.”
Anthony cleared his throat. “I probably have no right to speak so frankly, but even knowing you both for such a short time . . . I can’t imagine either of you holding on to bitter feelings for long.” He gave her a half smile. “Except perhaps, where I am concerned.”
Isabel laughed, and the sight of her nose wrinkling in delight filled Anthony with such warmth he became determined to do something to help repair whatever was amiss between her and her sister.
“I’ll think on it. But for now, could I interest you in joining me for a duet?” He motioned toward the pianoforte, hoping to distract her from her misery.
“You play?” Her tone was doubtful.
“I . . . try,” he hedged.
She stood, a look of intrigue upon her face. “By all means.”
They settled on the small bench, Isabel blushing a little at their proximity. She shuffled through the music. “Perhaps you should choose.”
Anthony chose a duet he’d played once before, hoping he could at least muddle through. He took a moment to study the notes.
“Shall we give it a try?” She removed her gloves, resting her hands gently on the keys.
He nodded and they began. Anthony tried to focus, but seated next to Isabel, his heart raced. He played slowly and missed a good many notes. When Isabel tried to wait he would speed past her as he tried to catch up. They laughed, struggling to stay together, but Anthony soaked in every moment, trying hard not to stare at her. Though he’d never admit it, Isabel’s closeness, the faint scent of rosewater that reached his nose, made it almost impossible to concentrate.
“Perhaps we could try something simpler?” she suggested, reaching across Anthony for a new piece. Her gloves fell to the floor and they both grasped for them, Isabel’s head colliding with his shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she said, laughing.
He handed her the gloves, chuckling as well. “I think we’ve established the fact that the two of us near the pianoforte is a dangerous affair.”
“Fortunately, Lord Anthony, your shoulder is much more forgiving than your head.” Isabel rubbed at her temple, face aglow with delight. “That night seems ages ago now.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” He shook his head in wonder. “And please, call me Anthony.”
“Anthony,” she repeated, laying the music sheets in front of them. “Perhaps this time you can take the melody.”
For the rest of the day Anthony considered on what he might do to help smooth over the situation between Isabel and Anne. He was still considering the matter after dinner as he chatted with Ian and Reginald over port. Ian bore the burden of conversation, as Reginald was in a foul mood and Anthony had caught hold of an idea that he thought might work.
While the other two were still talking, Anthony bowed out of the conversation before the other gentlemen dispersed, and hurried to the library, hoping he could find what he sought. After a few minutes perusing the shelves, he found a small book of sonnets that was just what he was hoping for.
Poetry had, to Anthony, always been a means to an end. A way to flirt and trifle with women while never really saying anything of meaning. Tonight, as he settled onto a small settee next to Isabel, he hoped to use it in a much different way.
Several of the recitations were quite amusing, one even bordering on scandalous. The Countess seemed to enjoy it all. During Lord Bloomsbury’s performance, however, things took a turn for the worse. It was hard to believe one man could show such an absence of self-awareness. Though one glance at the man’s mother made it a bit more understandable. When her son finished, she stood and boisterously applauded, amid the quiet and reserved applause of the audience, who was mostly just grateful it was over.
“Are there any other couples who are planning to share a recitation?” asked the Countess.
No one spoke until Anthony broke the silence. “Oh, Mr. Easton, I believe you left this behind from your practice this afternoon.” He pulled the book of sonnets from his dinner jacket and held it out. “With Miss Anne.”
Anthony quite enjoyed the look of shock upon both their faces, yet they both stood, unwilling to publicly deny his claim. Just as he’d hoped. Easton came forward, taking the book, a look of warning in his eyes.
Anthony merely smiled. “I left the passage marked as I found it.”
Miss Anne moved to the front, wringing her hands and looking very perplexed.
At his side, Isabel touched his elbow, giving him a questioning look.
“It is a risk, no doubt. But one I hope will pay off,” he whispered, then settled into his seat, intrigued to see what would come of it.
Miss Anne gave Easton a hesitant glance as he opened the marked passage. He cleared his throat and began. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds. Admit impediments. Love is not love . . .” He turned and looked at Miss Anne, his eyes full of longing. “Which alters when it alteration finds, or bends with the remover to remove.” He paused, giving her a slight nod.
She leaned into him so she could read the next lines, a soft blush stealing over her cheeks. “O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken . . .”
An ever-fixed mark. Isabel’s rapt attention was on her sister and Mr. Easton, but Anthony had become distracted by the beauty of Shakespeare’s words, of how completely he’d begun to feel them for the woman sitting by his side.
Easton resumed once more, but the words faded to the background when Isabel turned, as if sensing his gaze. Her dark eyes were full of warmth, her lips slightly parted.
“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error, and upon me prov’d, I never writ . . .” Easton paused.
Anthony placed his hand over Isabel’s, whispering the final words of the sonnet into her ear. “Nor no man ever lov’d.”
For a moment neither of them moved, their eyes fastened on one another. As the room broke into applause, all focus on the front of the room, Isabel intertwined her fingers in his. A rush pulsed through him, a warmth like he had never known. “Thank you, Anthony,” she murmured, then turned and brushed a kiss upon his cheek.