Fifty-Six: Unpredictable


Last time in An Unlikely Courtship, Isabel’s habit of making decisions without consulting Anne leads to a falling out between the two. Once Anthony learns what has happened, he does his best to repair not only the damage between the two sisters, but between Anne and Tauney Easton as well.


Anthony couldn’t keep a smile from lifting the corners of his mouth as he turned down the corridor to his bedroom. He’d gone on an evening stroll after everyone else had turned in for the night, but even the fresh night air hadn’t been enough to get Isabel out of his head. The way she’d looked at him tonight, the brush of her lips against his cheek . . . he sighed, wondering if he dared hope.

“Anthony,” came a faint giggle. There, standing in front of his door was a pretty young woman with red hair and pale skin. He’d been introduced to her when she had arrived at the house party a few days before, and though she looked familiar, her name now eluded him. But there was something about seeing her in this light, the way she looked at him—

“Er, Lady . . .”

“Emily. You needn’t be so formal, Anthony. I know you like to pretend we don’t know one another, but surely after our rendezvous in the gardens at the Gillingham ball . . .” She raised her eyebrows suggestively.

A sick pit formed in Anthony’s gut, for now he knew why she looked so familiar. She’d been flirtatious that night, and he’d had a little too much to drink. In the dim light of the hallway he recognized the look of resolve, of desire in her eyes, which told him tonight she sought more than just a kiss. Before he could say anything, she reached up and tugged at his cravat, leaving it hanging loosely about his neck.

He stepped back. “Lady Emily, I’m afraid it really isn’t appropriate for you to be here. Someone could walk by at any moment, and how would it look with you outside my bedroom door?”

“Why, there’s no need for me to stand outside.” She gave him a seductive smile, her hand turning the doorknob.

Anthony reached out and laid his hand over hers. “I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong idea before, but I really must stop you before you—” Just then he caught sight of a maid coming down the corridor, a box of candles in her arms. He firmly removed Lady Emily’s hand from the doorknob.

He waved his arm, attempting to get the maid’s attention. “Excuse me, but Lady Emily has lost her way and we were hoping you might escort her back to her room.” He laughed, trying to seem unaffected. “It’s a miracle anyone finds the right room in a house of this size.”

The maid’s wide eyes took in the two of them, her eyes lingering for a moment on his untied cravat. Anthony exhaled in frustration, for he knew what the girl must think. But at least she would get rid of Lady Emily. Then he could decide what should be done.

“Lady Emily, if you’ll just follow me. I believe your room is over this way.”

Lady Emily’s parting look was one of hurt and confusion, but Anthony was too upset to acknowledge it. It was almost impossible to believe that a few weeks ago he might have welcomed the encounter, perhaps stolen a few more kisses with the girl before sending her on her way. He made a point to never become truly involved; he’d had no desire to make a permanent attachment with any young lady. Until Isabel.

Anthony opened the door to his room, shrugging out of his coat. He removed his waistcoat and pulled off his boots, then lay down on the bed, trying to decide whether or not call for Alfred to help him finish undressing.

Thoughts of worry swirled around his brain, and for the first time Anthony truly regretted his careless behavior. No doubt Isabel had heard rumors of his roguish conduct, most likely quite exaggerated, much worse than any of his actual misdeeds. He would have to speak to her about it, though he dreaded the very thought.

Just as he’d put his mind to rest on the matter, determining to tell her the truth, a large thud in the room next door startled him. He bolted upright as a moan sounded. Anthony quickly got to his feet, worry lancing through him. Sir George was in the room next door.

***

Isabel struggled to clear away the fog of sleep as an urgent pounding pushed itself to the forefront of her mind. She forced her eyes open and sat up as the loud knocking came again. Who would be at her door in the middle of the night?

She cleared her throat. “Just a moment.” Isabel stumbled out of bed, feeling her way over to the vanity bench where she had laid her dressing gown. She slipped into it and crossed the room as another knock sounded at the door.

“Lord Anthony?” Her heart jumped a bit at the sight of him, dressed in only his shirtsleeves. Despite the candle he held, the shadows made his expression impossible to read.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but it’s your father. You must come quickly.”

Isabel was out the door before he could say another word. “Tell me,” she said, matching her pace to his long strides.

“He has the room next to mine. As I was retiring to bed I heard a thud. When I went to check on him he was so twisted in his bed sheets, he’d fallen from his bed.” Anthony shook his head. “I don’t want you to worry—I don’t think he’s badly hurt, but he’s delirious. We called for the doctor.”

“We?” asked Isabel, still trying to convince her heart rate to slow.

“I summoned Miss Greystock, and she was speaking with the Countess, so Lady du’Breven knows as well. She is actually with your father now.”

They turned down the hallway where her father’s chamber was located and she nodded. “The Countess likes to be made aware of everything, does she not?”

“She does.”

The door to her father’s room was open, and though he was now lying down, there was a wild expression on his face, and his arms waved about restlessly. “Mary, please come at once. I need you.” His voice was soft but urgent, and it twisted Isabel’s heart to see him so distraught.

The Countess stood as Isabel approached, and Isabel would have felt quite embarrassed of her attire had the Countess not been in her bedclothes as well. “Thank goodness you’re here. I’m assuming Anthony informed you that we sent for Dr. Hill. He doesn’t live far.”

Isabel nodded, wondering what might have triggered her father into such a state. He’d been quiet at dinner and at the poetry reading. Perhaps a little too quiet.

“He keeps asking for Mary.”

“My mother,” said Isabel softly. She went and stood at her father’s side, taking his hand in hers, but he quickly jerked it away, muttering to himself. “He’s not even lucid.” She spoke mostly to herself, worry coursing through her. Though her father was often not himself, she’d never seen him like this. What would become of them if he lost his mind completely? Or worse—

Anthony came and stood beside her. “The doctor will be here soon. Should I fetch Anne?”

Isabel almost shook her head, thinking it might be best to wait until the doctor had some news. But then she remembered their conversation from this morning, the look of hurt on Anne’s face when Isabel had kept so much from her. She looked up and met Anthony’s eyes, grateful he had thought of it. “Yes, if you would.”

She sat near the Countess in silence as her father continued to mumble to himself, occasionally raising his voice. Her legs trembled no matter how she tried to still them, and even though the evening was quite warm, the room felt drafty. Isabel held her arms around her middle, trying to calm herself.

A slight knock sounded at the door, and a distinguished looking gentleman with a gray beard entered the room, a black bag in his hand. “As always Lady du’Breven, it takes me as long to make my way through this home as it does to reach it.” His gaze went to where her father lay, murmuring to himself.

“Now is no time for your protests. This is Miss Isabel Townshend, Sir George’s daughter.”

Once Isabel had shared everything she thought might be of use to him, Dr. Hill asked everyone to leave the room. Isabel thought the Countess might object, but she muttered something to Miss Greystock about wanting to be kept informed and left.

Isabel made her way into the corridor, letting out a deep sigh.

“Is there anything I can get you, Miss Townshend?” asked Miss Greystock. The poor woman looked dreadfully tired, and Isabel felt guilty she hadn’t even acknowledged her earlier.

She shook her head. “Oh, no.”

“Some tea perhaps? With light refreshments?” Miss Greystock’s face grew soft with sympathy. “It may be a long night.”

“Yes, thank you for thinking of it. I’m afraid my mind feels a little fuzzy.”

“And with good reason. I’ll send someone up right away.”

Once alone, Isabel leaned against the wall, sapped of all energy. The door to her father’s chamber remained closed, and she wondered how much longer until the doctor would have any sort of news.

“Isabel?” Anne’s voice echoed through the long hall.

“Anne!” The sight of her sister and Anthony coming towards her brought a wave of relief. In moments like these, it was better not to be left alone. “The doctor is in with him now.”

Anne nodded. “Thank you for sending for me.” Her voice was timid, as if the words from earlier stood between them.

Isabel reached out her hand. “I need you here with me. And so does Father.”

The door opened and Dr. Hill emerged. Anthony stepped back as Isabel and her sister turned to him.

“There is no immediate cause for alarm. Your father has a high fever, but he doesn’t seem to have been injured by his fall. I gave him some fever powders as well as laudanum to help settle him down. He needs rest, but with a fever as high as his, he also needs to be watched. Is there someone who might be called in?”

Isabel glanced at Anne. “We’d prefer to be the ones who stay with him.” Anne nodded her agreement.

Dr. Hill stroked his beard. “Come with me and I’ll give you some instructions about what to look for.”

Isabel and her sister both fussed over their father for a few minutes after the doctor left. Though still awake, his eyes had a faraway quality, and he seemed much more restful.

“Anne, do you mind if I take the first shift? I am far too alert to sleep right now.”

Anne turned back to look at their father. “You’ll send someone to wake me when it’s my turn?”

Isabel nodded. “Of course.” She embraced Anne briefly, hoping to convey how much her sister meant to her.

Once Anne had departed Anthony cleared his throat. “I’ll be right next door if you need anything . . .” He gave a slight bow.

Watching him walk away, Isabel’s legs began to tremble once again. An invisible weight descended on her shoulders, but tonight she wasn’t sure she had the strength to bear it. Isabel tried to speak but her voice caught in her throat; why was it so hard to admit how vulnerable she felt?

Anthony reached the door before she finally forced the words out. “Won’t you stay? I hate the thought of being here alone.”

He stopped, turning to face her. “Of course. I will stay as long as you need me.”

“Thank you,” she replied, her voice small.

Anthony took two chairs from the corner of the room and brought them over near the bed. They both sat, and within moments her father had closed his eyes, his deep breaths filling the room.

“Isabel?” Anthony murmured.

“Hmmmm? I’m sorry. I’m afraid I’m not very good company tonight.”

“No one expects you to be in such a circumstance.” He placed his hand over hers, and with neither of them wearing gloves, it felt both intimate and reassuring. “I confess, I feel more concern for your father than I would for my own in a similar circumstance.”

Isabel glanced over at him and wondered if she dared broach the topic. “Will you tell me . . . about your father?”

Anthony hunched over, resting an arm on his leg, and stared down at the rug. “I’m afraid what I say might shock you. My family is nothing like yours.”

Suddenly Isabel longed to know this other side of him, to understand him better. “Please,” she whispered.

He sighed aloud, and tugged at his cravat, seeming surprised to find it already untied. He must have been undressing when he’d heard her father. “My father is an arrogant, overbearing man. We never got on well.” He turned to look at her. “But once I found out he was unfaithful to my mother I could never look at him the same.”

Though Isabel knew philandering was commonplace, she could still hardly imagine it. But she kept her face expressionless, afraid if she showed too much Anthony might hold back. “I’m sorry, Anthony. How awful for you. And your mother.”

“She turned a blind eye to it, because what else could she do?” His voice grew bitter. “But I swear my father made her so unhappy he drove her to an early grave.”

Isabel winced. Though she’d grown up without a mother, she’d always known the love her parents had shared. “How old were you when she died?”

“Sixteen.”

She sat quietly, waiting for him to go on.

“In some ways, after her death, things between us improved. My father’s indiscretions didn’t bother me so much when they couldn’t hurt my mother.”

Isabel nodded, wondering what he would say next. She sensed a darkness in him, but couldn’t imagine anything worse than what he’d already told her.

“When I was nineteen, I began courting a young woman who lived nearby. We’d grown up together and I’d always held a tendre for her, but it grew into something much deeper. I knew we were young, but there was really no reason to wait to marry. I hadn’t yet proposed, but it was understood between us. Or at least I thought it was.”

The change in direction confused Isabel, but she didn’t wish to interrupt.

“When I came home from school on a break, I planned to propose to her.” Anthony stared straight ahead, his voice devoid of emotion. “I came home a day early, unable to wait any longer. But clearly my presence was unexpected, for when I entered my father’s study, I found her with my father—in a compromising situation.” Agony crept over his face for only a moment before it disappeared under a mask of indifference.

Horror washed over Isabel, her stomach turning. “Oh, Anthony.”

“It was a long time ago.” He shook his head, as if it didn’t matter.

Isabel struggled to understand the man at her side. How he could he be so nonchalant, so carefree with such a history? But the answer was in the façade she’d just witnessed—it was all a show, an act. To distract himself from the betrayal of his own father and the woman he’d once loved.

She tightened her grip around his hand, wishing to take away some of the pain. “I can’t make sense of your father’s behavior. It was wrong and he may never change.” Isabel reached up and traced a path down Anthony’s jaw, willing him to look at her. “But I can promise you that not every woman is so careless with a man’s heart.”

The candles in the room flickered, and Isabel’s pulse stuttered as Anthony’s eyes met hers, unguarded and burning with something she couldn’t name. “Almost, you make me believe it,” he whispered, leaning toward her, just a breath away.

A knock sounded at the door and they both jerked back as a maid pushed her way into the room, carrying a large tray. She set down the tray on a small side table and curtseyed. “Miss Greystock wishes to know if there’s anything else you require.”

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