Seventy-Two: Garden Tête-à-Tête


In the previous chapter of An Unlikely Courtship, Anthony pursues Isabel out to the balcony where he tries—with the help of a kiss—to convince her that he is devoted solely to her. When they are interrupted, Anthony begs her to meet him in the gardens the next morning.


Tired of tossing and turning, Isabel climbed out of bed well before the sun crept over the horizon. She’d slipped in a few snatches of sleep, but mostly her thoughts had been consumed with Anthony. His eyes, his smile, his words. And his kiss.

Isabel blew out a sigh and padded across the rug in her room, snatching her wrap off the chair and pulling it around her before taking a seat at the vanity. She gently teased out her braid, using her fingers to comb through her hair as she tried to reign in the wild tangle of her thoughts. She vacillated between allowing herself to hope, to believe Anthony’s sincerity and the promises he seemed so eager to make, and giving into the dark despair that spread through her whenever her mind conjured up the image of him with Lady Emily.

How could she know, with any certainty, that she could truly trust Anthony? The thought of letting him go and closing her heart against the love she felt for him seemed impossible; but the other alternative—opening her heart and loving him seemed just as unbearable, for she would be giving him power over her, and she feared he might ultimately betray her trust and shatter her heart. Isabel traced the dark circles under her eyes. For such a large house, this morning her room felt awfully small, closing in around her as she tried to think.

She needed to get out of this room at once, but she couldn’t face Anthony just yet, even though he might already be waiting by the bench in the gardens. The thought of meeting him, seeing him after last night, made her insides tremble, but a quick glance out the window at the rising sun and Isabel knew exactly where to go. Making her way to the wardrobe, she put on the first dress she touched, and then quickly put her hair back in a low chignon. Her father was a well-established early riser and speaking with him would serve as a welcome distraction.

Once she reached the hallway where her father’s room was located, Isabel hesitated. Anthony’s room was situated next to her father’s, and she didn’t want to see him just yet. Taking a sustaining breath she quickened her step and knocked softly on her father’s door before slipping into his room.

He sat back against the pillows in his bed, but he was wide-awake, his eyes turned toward the window. “Isabel, my dear. How are you this morning? I didn’t expect to see you so early, what with the late hours of the ball last evening.”

Isabel gave him a brief smile, glad to see his blue eyes sparkling this morning. “I didn’t do very much dancing, I’m afraid.”

One side of her father’s mouth turned down, as if trying to discern what she meant. “Well it can’t have been for lack of willing partners. The Countess invited half of the county.”

She shook her head. “I think the whole of the county might be more accurate. The ball was lovely. I was just a bit distracted.”

He grinned. “Distracted, were you? Perhaps by that Lord Anthony fellow?”

Heat rose in Isabel’s cheeks as she remembered the passion in Anthony’s kiss, the smell of him, like warm cedar.

“Why there’s no need to be embarrassed, my dear girl. You two passed quite a bit of time in here while I was ill and I saw how he looked at you.” He gave her a knowing smile. “Very much the way I imagine I used to look at your mother.”

***

Anthony double-checked his pocket, making sure the necklace was where he had put it. He raised his eyes at the sound of a soft knock, but by the time he opened his door no one was there. Odd. He left his room and shut the door quietly behind him, wanting to be at the bench early, just in case.

He made his way through the house with long strides, his thoughts so occupied that he didn’t see the Countess standing near the library doors. “You’re up a good deal earlier than usual,” she said, one eyebrow raised. “Where on earth are you going at such an hour?”

The directness of her question provoked his honesty. “To make a desperate attempt to convince Isabel Townshend to marry me.” Saying the words out loud made him feel the enormity of his task, the impossibility that such a woman would want him. He’d never felt so insecure, so unsure about anything.

“I see.” The Countess folded her arms across her chest, eyeing him.

Anthony turned to go, but the Countess’s words stopped him. “For what it’s worth, I’ve always believed you have a great deal more of your mother’s heart in you than your father’s. It’s part of why I invited you to this house party. Remember that.”

Her eyes were soft with sincerity and a lump grew in his throat, remembering his mother. Her devastation at his father’s infidelity. He gave the Countess a nod, silently vowing that he would never bring his wife—whether it was Isabel or someone else—such heartache. He nodded. “Thank you.”

“I wish you the best,” she said, before turning away, an impish smile lifting the corners of her mouth.

Once Anthony arrived at the bench, he took a seat and interlocked his fingers, then just as quickly released them, checking his pocket again. The birds seemed unnaturally loud this morning, or maybe it was just that their cheerful songs grated on his nerves when he had so much on his mind.

Would Isabel even come? He could hardly blame her if not. First the scene with Lady Emily last night, and then his frightful attempt to repair it, which had ended in . . . well, that part he couldn’t regret. His kiss with Isabel had been just a perfect as he’d imagined it would be, so much more than it had been with any other woman. The shallow blandness of what all other stolen kisses had been before, Anthony had had no idea what it could be like when he felt so much, and he was quite certain Isabel had felt it, too. If only Anne hadn’t interrupted.

At the sound of rustling leaves, Anthony glanced up, only to find a small hare slowly working its way across the path. He ran a hand through his hair and stood, unable to stay still any longer. His own words from last night came back to him, echoing through his mind: I suppose one can only be careless with so many hearts before he ends up breaking his own. Once again he berated himself for his past carelessness, for the hurt he’d seen in Isabel’s eyes. For even though he hadn’t intentionally caused it, he’d been the source of it all the same. The thought caused him intense pain, while bringing the newness of hope: if she didn’t care for him at all, she wouldn’t be hurt.

Just as he was about to reach into his pocket for a fourth time, Isabel’s soft voice broke through the morning air. “Anthony?” The chirping of the birds seemed to recede into a soft background chorus as she walked toward him from the east, the sun shining behind her, a vision in a dress of sky blue and soft tendrils of her dark hair framing her face. Anthony couldn’t help the wide smile that crept across his face. “You came.”

***

“I did.” At the sight of Anthony’s smile a wave of shyness rushed over Isabel and she toyed with her shawl, unsure of where to look.

He gestured toward the bench. “Won’t you take a seat?”

They both sat down on the bench, his knee brushing hers and Isabel glanced up at him, her eyes wandering to his lips and then immediately dropping to her lap where her hands were clasped together. Anthony reached out and covered her hands with his own and her heart jumped to her throat, wondering what he might say.

“Isabel, I used to believe myself charming and irresistible . . . until I met you.” He gave a soft laugh, his mussed hair falling across his brow. “For years I handed out trite phrases and banal compliments to women without a second thought.” He shook his head, his lips turning down before he looked up and met her eyes. “But I spent the whole of last night thinking of what I might say to you this morning. Nothing seems adequate.”

Anthony reached toward his pocket, fiddling with something there, and Isabel could tell he was nervous. Her heart warmed to see him so anxious, so different from his usual self-assured self.

He took a heavy breath and tightened the hand that rested over hers. “Isabel, I think I fell in love with you the moment you gave me a verbal tongue-lashing in that storm. Ever since then, you have consumed my thoughts, though I convinced myself I felt nothing more than passing attraction.” He paused, his brow furrowing. “But the love I have for you is more than that—it is more than I thought it possible for one man to feel. You ground me, you anchor me, you have given me reason to be something more than I was, for you deserve more than a charming fool whose head is turned as easily as a—” He shook his head, as if frustrated with his inability to complete the thought.

Isabel held her breath unknowingly, her ribs constricting as the force of Anthony’s words stormed through her.

He met her gaze, his eyes shining with emotion. “I love you, Isabel Townshend, and I want to marry you. But I can’t ask that of you without giving you some gesture of my devotion, some token to show you that I am determined to never betray your trust.” His hand came out of his pocket and he held it toward her, slowly opening his fist. There, resting in his palm, lay a silver chain with a pendant.

Hesitantly, Isabel reached out her hand and turned the pendant over. Encased in the glass was one pressed violet. Another purple flower, yet this one with a very different meaning from the last he’d given her. Faithfulness.

Isabel’s finger traced the smooth round pendant, heart pounding against her chest, spreading warmth through her entire body.

“I cannot change who I was in the past,” Anthony went on, his deep voice striking chords in her heart. “But I can promise who I will be from this moment on. I wish for nothing more than to spend the rest of my life proving my love, my fidelity to you, Isabel.”

Isabel reached out and stroked back his hair from his forehead, and gave a little laugh. “If that is your wish, who am I to try and stop you?” He smiled, but his eyes were filled with such unwavering sincerity that it was impossible to disbelieve him, and she was suddenly choked by emotion. “Oh, Anthony. I love you.”

“Is such a thing really possible?” Anthony’s voice was full of wonder as he leaned forward, his movements hesitant, tentative.

Isabel closed the distance between them, placing a hand on his chest as their lips met. He reached up and caressed her neck as he pulled her closer, and a flutter raced through her stomach. Certainty surged through Isabel, a contented peace unlike she had ever known.

When Anthony pulled back, a mischievous grin crossed his face. “Perhaps we’d better go in before your sister catches us again. If we don’t tell her you’ve agreed to marry me she’ll think me quite the rogue.”

She laughed, her heart light and full. “Yes, we must tell Anne at once. And my father.”

Anthony stood and reached out to help her up from the bench. The warmth of his hand around hers confirmed all that she felt, and for once, Isabel’s head and heart were in accord.

 

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