Sixty-Seven: Breathless

Previously on An Unlikely Courtship . . . Anthony crosses paths at the ball with Lady Emily who is determined to enact revenge for the way he snubbed her. She chooses the moment when Isabel approaches to kiss him, and Isabel flees, heartbroken.

Isabel wove her way through the ever-growing crowd, her vision blurry, a sick feeling spreading through her with each step she took. The music continued to play and laughter and soft chatter filled the air around her, but it all seemed far away. The image of Lady Emily, her knowing smile, and that disgusting display between the two of them . . . Isabel couldn’t shake it from her mind. How could she have let herself be duped so completely? Lord Anthony had wooed her, courted her, made her feel the possibility of a future between them, and she, in turn, had allowed herself to believe she saw something in him despite his reputation. To fall in love with a man who was and always would be a rake.

A dry, humorless laugh bubbled up inside her. Looking back, she’d been so naïve. She, who prided herself on seeing through men and guiding Anne through the tangled tapestry of fawning suitors and courtship. Right behind the laugh came a choked hiccup and then a stifled sob. Isabel covered her mouth, doing her best to keep her emotions at bay.

It took a strong tug on her arm to bring her back to the ballroom, where Anne was looking at her with concern, Mr. Tauney Easton right beside her. “Isabel, what happened?”

Something about the smell of the crowded ballroom—the mix of so many people and the burning candles—threatened to make Isabel faint. “Air. I need air.”

Mr. Easton turned on his heel to lead the way, and Anne laid a hand on Isabel’s back, guiding her toward the balcony doors, which had yet to be propped open. Soon Isabel was gasping in cool night air, one hand on the balcony to hold her up, one at her throat, as if such a gesture could hold back the torrent of despair threatening to crash down at any moment.

“Please,” Anne said from behind her. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

And in that moment, as much as Isabel wanted to keep the truth from Anne, to be the strong one who never faltered, she couldn’t. “Lord Anthony . . .” She swallowed, her mouth dry while tears threatened to fall. “I saw him with L-l-lady Emily,” she managed. She shook her head before going on. “I’ve been such a fool.” And with that she began to weep, her breaths coming in great heaving sobs.

Anne’s arms encompassed her, a fierce and determined strength in her slender figure. “I can hardly believe it,” Anne murmured, a muted anger in her voice. “I thought so well of him.” Isabel leaned into her sister, feeling her strength and for once allowing herself to be vulnerable.

“Are you certain you weren’t mistaken in what you saw?” Mr. Easton’s voice broke through the night air. “For I’ve heard some questionable things about Lady Emily’s character and just tonight, I overheard her telling Lady Summers that she was planning to retaliate against Lord Anthony for humiliating her.”

“Isabel, there you are.” A deeper, frantic-sounding voice came from the balcony doors.

Isabel stiffened in Anne’s arms, hating the way her skin tingled in reaction to hearing Lord Anthony’s voice.

He took several quick, shallow breaths. “I’ve been trying to catch up to you ever since you ran off. Please, allow me to explain.”

Anne didn’t move a muscle, her unspoken message that she would let Isabel decide and not try to sway her one way or another. Isabel let out a heavy sigh, angry that she couldn’t avoid this encounter. But Lord Anthony would have to be faced. Might as well do it here, tonight, and have it done with. Though dread pooled in her stomach, reminding her that she was not so coolly unaffected with this situation as she was with most.

Isabel cleared her throat, swallowing back any hint of reticence. She straightened her back as Anne slowly released her hold. “Why yes, Lord Anthony, I believe I would like a word.”

Anne shot Lord Anthony a threatening glare. “Mr. Easton and I will be right through these doors should you need anything, Isabel.”

Isabel nodded, wishing her pulse wasn’t thundering through her veins, each beat adding to the headache formulating behind her eyes. She bit her lip as Anne and Mr. Easton retreated through the doors, wishing she didn’t feel so very exposed, as if everything depended on this very moment.

At the feel of something on her arm, Isabel jerked, surprised to find Lord Anthony right next to her, the sleeve of his jacket brushing her elbow as he joined her at the balcony. He let out a despondent laugh. “I tried so hard to tell you, to warn you of my past, but it seems inevitable that it would catch up with me. If not here and now, somewhere in the future.”

Isabel grew cold and stepped back from the balcony, wrapping her arms around her core. “So you and Lady Emily do have a past.”

Anthony turned, giving her a half-hearted smile. Despite the dim-lighting, there was something in his coffee-colored eyes that tugged at Isabel, despite her determination to remain unmoved. “Yes, if you can call it a past. We flirted at a ball a few months ago, and once her interest in me became clear, I took her out to the gardens where I kissed her, several times. Nothing more—that, I can promise you. But she clearly thought more was a possibility. She approached me a few nights ago outside of my room. I rebuffed her advances and it offended her. Tonight was nothing more than a ploy to cause trouble between us.” His shoulders sagged uncharacteristically and he shook his head.

“Isabel, I feel sick knowing what you must believe of me. And to think I had begun to hope you might see me differently, that you might seriously consider a man with a multitude of past transgressions. But I suppose one can only be careless with so many hearts before he ends up breaking his own.”

It felt like minutes since Isabel had drawn a breath. Her insides tensed, like a coil wrapped too tightly. There was something about Lord Anthony that frightened Isabel, for when he spoke she couldn’t help but listen as he slowly undid her defenses, making her listen when it was the last thing she wanted to do.

And with his hair mussed from his dash across the ballroom and the moonlight reflecting in his mournful eyes, her heart wanted to believe him. But her logical side, the side she’d always given preference to, couldn’t allow his words to take place in her. She gave a derisive laugh. “Your words almost convince me, Lord Anthony.” Her voice was cool and distant, so unlike what she felt. “In fact, in this moment, I believe them. But this little charade must come to an end. I suppose it’s possible you’ve changed, and perhaps you believe you have. But what about the next time a beautiful woman flirts with you? How can I trust a man who has admitted to repeated past transgressions? To such carelessness with other hearts? I suppose the danger is I would never really know. And that would break my heart over and over again.”

Anthony pulled back from her a little, and Isabel wondered if he knew that even though her words were directed toward him, each one was like a knife to her own heart. “I can’t trust you, Lord Anthony. I can’t trust us.

Something akin to determination lit his eyes, and he stepped forward before she had a chance to walk away. “No. Please.” He reached up and the back of his knuckles traced a line down Isabel’s jaw, his touch like white fire that rooted her feet to the ground. His gaze roamed over her face, searching and hungry and desperate. In a moment his lips were on hers, and Isabel felt as though she’d been struck by lightning. Heat poured through her, each millimeter of contact between them blazing, awakening all of the feelings she’d been so determined to tamp down. With each brush of his lips against hers, Isabel felt herself to be a starved woman, ravenous for Anthony’s love, for who she was when she was with him.

Her lungs seemed to sputter, to choke when he pulled back, touching his forehead to hers. “Trust this, trust us.” He kissed her again then, this time without the heat and passion but with a soft tenderness that went straight to her heart, as if pleading with her to feel the depth of his devotion. The warmth, the surety she felt with his arms around her seemed to belie every protest her head could make.

“Isabel, are you all right? Is Lord Anthony . . .” Anne’s sharp intake of breath broke the moment, as the two of them hurriedly stepped apart.

The warmth Isabel had felt receded, all the former doubts rushing back in.

“I brought you a drink,” said Anne, looking back and forth between the two of them. “Why don’t you come inside for a moment?”

Despite the temptation to stay with Anthony, Isabel knew it wasn’t wise. Not when he could convince her so easily. Not when his kiss stole her breath, making it impossible to think.

As she turned to go he leaned forward and whispered, “I won’t push you anymore tonight, but please, I beg you, meet me tomorrow? Down by the bench in the gardens before breakfast. There’s something I must speak to you about.”

Isabel nodded dumbly as Anthony gave the sisters a brief bow, his gaze unrelenting as Anne took her arm and whisked her back into the ballroom.

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