Last time in An Unlikely Courtship, Anthony has a run-in with Lady Emily before retiring to his room, and Sir George falls ill. Under the duress of the moment, Anthony shares some of his past with Isabel and the two share an almost-kiss.
Anthony combed a hand through his hair, deep in thought as Alfred finished tying his cravat. He loved Isabel. He was more certain now than ever that he would offer for her hand. A smile crept across his face, thinking of the woman who had so completely caught his heart off guard. Something had changed between them the night her father had fallen ill. He supposed moments of insecurity revealed vulnerability in people, brought it to the surface.
The last several days had been a blur. Mostly time spent with Isabel as she’d been watching over her father in his sick bed. They’d read together, played cards, even tried whistling some duets, which had been just as disastrous as their duets on the pianoforte. Last night before she’d fallen asleep on his shoulder, Isabel had even confided in him about her tendency to mother Anne and how hard it was to let go of that propensity, even with Anne all grown up.
Luckily, just this morning Sir George’s fever had broken and he was on the mend, though he seemed more disoriented than he had before his illness. But as much as they’d both worried over Sir George’s health, Anthony was grateful for the past few days, which had brought more certainty to his and Isabel’s relationship, and how could he regret that?
“Is there anything else you require of me before dinner, Lord Anthony?” Alfred bent over, rubbing at one last spot on Anthony’s shoe.
“No, thank you, Alfred.” Anthony pulled at the front of his jacket, hardly noticing as his valet slipped out of the room.
However, as he studied himself in the mirror, looking at his perfectly tied cravat, a niggling worry wormed its way to the front of Anthony’s mind. The look on that maid’s face when she’d seen Lady Emily outside his door wouldn’t leave him. Likely nothing would come of it, but to be safe he’d speak with Isabel, for he knew if she found out from someone else her own expression would be that much worse—shock, anger, disappointment. No doubt Anthony was deserving of just such a reaction, and he’d had plenty of time for self-introspection that had left him unhappy and disappointed in himself, but since he’d met Isabel . . . Well, he couldn’t stand the thought that she might believe his attentions had been anywhere but on her since he’d forced her into this sham courtship.
But with so much worry about her father these past few days, Anthony hadn’t had the heart to weigh her down with yet another burden, and so the matter had gone unaddressed. Yet every moment that passed made him more uneasy, for Anthony knew better than anyone how quickly rumors could fly. In the past, he’d relied on it. Enjoyed it.
The only thing for it was to tell her. He would be candid, painfully blunt if necessary, of what he was—or had been—and hope she could overlook his past flaws and see in him the desire to change, to be a better and different man. He shook his head, still marveling at the change one woman had wrought in him.
One thing was certain: time at the house party was running out. Anthony needed to speak with her tonight. Tomorrow the Countess was throwing a large ball, and Anthony had toyed with the idea of proposing to Isabel there, hoping to make things official between them before the party ended and things grew infinitely more complicated as they both journeyed in different directions. In truth, Anthony couldn’t abide the thought of watching Isabel leave without any sort of understanding between them.
“Isabel, that lavender is stunning on you,” said Anne, who had shooed away Betsy and was now repinning Isabel’s hair.
Isabel smiled, blushing when she couldn’t seem to stop. The thought of dancing with Anthony tonight filled her with a girlish giddiness unbecoming of a woman of twenty-three. She’d spent the entirety of last night in her father’s room, and with the household all a bustle today, she and Anthony hadn’t run into one another. It was a little embarrassing to think how much she missed him over the course of just a day. “Thank you,” she said, biting her cheek, hoping her sister wouldn’t tease her.
Anne just gave her a knowing look. “Oh drat, now I’ve ruined the curls around your face. I should have just let them be.”
“We’re going to be late.” Isabel frowned. “I’d hate to have the Countess think us rude after the doting hospitality she’s shown to us these past few weeks.”
“Here, you just wait a moment.” Anne held up a hand. “Betsy was telling me about one of the maids who is a wonder with hair. I’m sure she can fix the mess I’ve made in no time.”
Knowing her sister wouldn’t take no for an answer, Isabel nodded. She sat at her vanity, sighing at the languishing tendrils around her face. Perhaps agreeing to a new hairstyle for tonight’s event hadn’t been the wisest thing. But she’d so hoped to look—and feel—different tonight. Knowing that Anthony would be in attendance, tonight seemed so full of possibilities, and Isabel couldn’t remember the last time she’d been excited for a social event. Usually these sorts of things felt like an obligation, one in which she’d act as a chaperone for Anne, feeling lucky if she was surrounded by people who were more witty than dull.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock on the door. Anne peeked her head in. “This is Margaret, who has agreed to come and undo the damage I’ve done. I have to go and get my gloves, but I’ll meet you downstairs.”
Isabel nodded and Margaret, who couldn’t have been more than sixteen or seventeen, crossed the room, greeting her with an unpolished curtsey. “Thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor, I’m sure. I’ve only been brought up to the big house to help during the house party and it’s an honor to serve you.”
“The Countess must be quite impressed with you if she trusts you with such a grand event.” Isabel smiled her encouragement.
“I doubt she even knows who I am, but it’s of no consequence.” Margaret shook her head. “I can’t wait to watch all the fine couples dancing together in such elegance.” She grinned, examining Isabel’s hair from all angles. “And I hope to see if I was right about who might be partnered together. The past few weeks I’ve seen all sorts of goings on, and me and the other maids have made slight wagers about who might dance together, or meet for a rendezvous out in the gardens.”
Margaret wound a small section of Isabel’s hair around her finger, then pinned it back in perfect form, making sure the pin was invisible. Isabel raised her brows, surprised at how good it looked. “And who do you predict might be together this evening?” she asked absentmindedly, wondering what Anthony would think when he saw her.
“Oh, well.” She blushed and then giggled. “Since you asked. “I’ve no doubt that both Lord Beauchamp and his brother will be flocking near Miss Fairchild. It’s difficult to know who will come out ahead, though if you ask me Miss Fairchild prefers Lord Beauchamp, though I’m sure I can’t understand why. His younger brother is much more dashing.” The girl hardly took a breath between sentences. “And then I’m fairly certain Lord Anthony and Lady Emily will be dancing together this evening, and perhaps more than that.”
Isabel’s voice caught and she cleared her throat. “Lord Anthony, did you say?”
“Yes,” she went on. “Why, just a few nights ago I caught the both of them outside his bedroom door, and I don’t think I imagined the disappointment on their faces when I interrupted their little meeting.”
Margaret seemed completely unaware of the sinking feeling in Isabel’s stomach. “Though I admit, I don’t think he looks well paired with a red head.” She twisted back one last piece of Isabel’s hair. “There. You look perfect.”
“Thank you,” Isabel whispered, feeling oddly distant from what the maid had just said, as if her mind was incapable of truly comprehending its meaning. The girl had to be mistaken. In the past, she might have believed it, but now, knowing what she did . . . the sincerity and devotion Anthony had shown Isabel the past few days . . .
She breathed in courage and determined she would just have to ask him herself. They had such an open way about them now, Isabel could almost feel comfortable broaching such a topic. And once she did, she was sure it would all come to naught. Glancing at the clock, she pulled at her gloves and ran her hands down the front of her skirts before hurrying down to the ball.
Anthony looked around the room again, feeling impatient when he couldn’t find Isabel. Somehow, with all of the day’s goings on, they hadn’t run into one another, so Anthony still felt restless with the pent up need to tell her the truth. As much as he’d hoped to avoid it, it would have to be here. Tonight.
After spending a few moments with Regi and Ian, Anthony excused himself and worked his way back to the balcony doors of the ballroom where he could more easily survey the room. What could be keeping Isabel?
He jerked his head up, only to find Lady Emily at his side. He bit back a groan. “Lady Emily, what do you want?”
She clicked her tongue. “So harsh, Anthony. You would think we weren’t even friends.” Her pout, which he used to find charming, grated on his nerves, her manners girlish and shallow in comparison with the authenticity he admired in Isabel.
Lady Emily stepped closer and rested her hands on his chest. He peeled her hands away and stepped back. “We cannot be friends if you insist on being so . . . friendly. People will get the wrong idea.”
“You’ve never cared what people think. Tosh, Anthony.” She slid closer. “Or is it Miss Townshend you are worried about?” Her eyes narrowed.
“Miss Townshend, the Countess, anyone at this party. Take your pick.” He glanced around the room, looking for an escape. “There is nothing between us and there never will be.”
She let out a slight hiss through her teeth and glanced to her left, but Anthony didn’t follow her gaze until too late. Lady Emily put her hand around the back of his neck, and slinking closer, pulled him into a kiss. Stunned, it took him a moment to draw back, but as he did so Isabel came into view. She stared at the two of them, slack jawed, and Lady Emily didn’t waste a moment.
“Oh, Anthony,” she giggled. “Don’t make me swoon.”
Isabel’s face crumpled and before Anthony could speak or even move she picked up her skirts and darted away, disappearing from sight.
He jerked away from Lady Emily, as if he’d been burned. “Isabel, wait!”