About the book
“Now, I care too much, for the wrong man. The wrong brother.”
Lady Isadora is determined to do her duty, even if it hurts her. If her marriage is the only saving grace for her and her father, she will make sure it is a good one. But even if she is intent on making it work with her new betrothed, he is not making it easy. And when she meets his brother, things become much, much worse…
Adrian Cornwell, Duke of Northampton, returned from war a deformed and broken man, and people's reactions sealed his fate as a recluse. He has left all social responsibility to his stepmother with little reluctance and is happy to hear about his half-brother's betrothal. Until that is, he actually meets the young lady and hope ignites once more inside him, in all the wrong ways…
Their chemistry is as undeniable as it is unacceptable. For once in their lives, desire is stronger than duty. And they will learn just how punishing people are to outliers…
“If you don’t wish to attend, simply don’t go.”
Isadora Crawley lifted her gaze from the chess set they had situated in the garden. It was a beautiful day, and she couldn’t resist an opportunity to step outside. She wanted the fresh air, the sunshine, and the space to think.
Though she’d had plans to go for a ride this afternoon, the invitation she had received this morning had her too distracted. She wasn’t sure why Lucious Maderby, her dearest, and oldest friend, thought chess would be a good idea. She could hardly concentrate. The letter in her pocket felt like it was burning through her dress, and she could think of little else.
And I haven’t lost a game to him yet. He’s probably just using this opportunity to best me. I should be thinking about my pawns, but my heartbeat won’t calm down.
“It’s your turn,” Lucious reminded her helpfully.
Frowning, Isadora lifted her gaze and stared hard at him. But all he did was smile. They had grown up together. His father, the Earl of Sonehaim, had purchased a countryside estate next to her family’s out in Lincolnshire when they were children.
“I’m thinking,” she pronounced. “Don’t rush me.”
“Why? Are you afraid to lose?” he teased her. Then he tilted his chin toward her. “Or are you afraid of him? I told you I’ll come with you if you like. That, or you can simply refuse. As I already said.”
She shook her head. “You make it sound so straightforward.”
“Is it not?”
Spearing him with another look, Isadora dropped a hand to her pocket. The simple letter was an invitation to tea the following day. While she supposed she should have expected something like this since the announcement of her betrothal, she suddenly wasn’t certain she was ready to finally meet Charles Cornwell.
“Truly, I’m surprised you went along with it. Why don’t you move your knight?” Lucious added lightly.
Isadora glanced at the board and knew immediately why he wanted her to do just that. Instead, she brushed a curl from her face and nudged her bishop along to claim his rook.
Her dearest friend hissed in frustration. “How did I miss that? And how exactly are you paying attention? You’ve never been so quiet.”
“It’s not like I mean to be,” Isadora admitted with a sigh. She leaned back in her chair and glanced around the gardens. They were stunning, spreading color everywhere beneath the blue skies. Shifting her bonnet to keep the sun off her face, she turned back to her friend with a sigh.
At twenty years of age, she was in the midst of her second London Season. It was supposed to be a merry time where she enjoyed a few balls nearly every week. There should be gentlemen wishing to court her, countless activities, and wonderful fun.
Isadora simply sighed all over again.
“Why did you accept in the first place?” Lucious eyed her with a frown. It made the mole above his left eyebrow move. That had amused her since she was a child.
She considered her friend as he did the same. Lucious was a handsome young man five years her senior. Time and again, she expected him to fly away and forget all about her, but that hadn’t happened. He had written to her twice a week when he was off at school. Even though he didn’t need to be here every Season, Lucious had come to her once again while many of his other friends were off enjoying their grand tour.
With his wheat blond hair and bright blue eyes, he could be spending his time with any lady of the ton. However, he was painfully shy, especially around new acquaintances. He had spent years overcoming a stammer that tended to only disappear around those he was extremely comfortable with.
He was looking rather sternly at her as he awaited her answer.
“I…” Isadora sighed. She pulled the letter out from her pocket and put it on the small round table. “I suppose because it felt like the right thing to do.”
“Yet you haven’t met, and he never proposed.”
She forced a smile. “We have a family connection, albeit a small one. The late Lady Marion was my mother’s dearest friend. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in the family since this is only my second Season. Lord Cornwell was busy last year, from what I’ve heard.”
Lucious leaned forward to cup his chin in his hands, shifting in his seat. “And that is reason enough for this?”
It is a good question, but I’m afraid I can’t answer.
She wiggled in her seat and then shrugged. “It is what Father wants. And besides, tomorrow it’s simply tea at his townhouse. I will finally meet Lord Cornwell’s family, and he will meet me. It should be a… a happy affair.”
Eyes widening in disbelief, Lucious shook his head. “I do not understand you today, Isadora. This makes less sense than the time you tried putting your hat on that old goose.” Then he furrowed his brow. “When we talked last Season, you said you didn’t even wish to marry. But now you are going to marry someone you don’t even know?”
He looked rather hurt by her change of heart, and the look on his face made her think of a poor puppy who might have been kicked.
Seeing that, Isadora reached out and patted his cheek kindly. She gave him the sweetest smile she could muster. “Oh, don’t pout like that. I only wish to please my father. You know this.”
“Certainly. You’ve been very good to him. I suppose I just don’t see why you would be willing to marry someone you’ve never met when any number of gentlemen you already know would readily ask for y-your h-hand,” he added hastily and diverted his gaze.
The last couple of words came out in a stammer.
She tilted her head as she gazed at him, wondering why. Did something she say upset him? It didn’t make sense why he was so bothered. She was of an age to marry, and after all, that was the primary reason for the Season.
Of course, there were those who were awaiting another session of Parliament. Her father was one of them. As the Earl of Harleton, he took a very principled approach to his responsibilities as a peer of the realm. However, the London Season was more about making advantageous matches on the marriage mart than anything else.
If he can take his responsibilities seriously, then so can I. Father wouldn’t marry me off to an ogre. I trust him in this choice, even if I don’t personally wish to marry just yet. But I have a duty, and it is time I fulfill it.
But Isadora turned her thoughts back to the matters at hand.
Her gaze flickered over her friend, who appeared more troubled than usual. While it was fairly easy to ruffle his feathers since she never let a little thing like manners get in the way of her mischief, unlike him, today, he seemed a little different.
Oh bother, it must be me. He can tell I’m nervous. That must be making him uneasy, too.
Breathing a sigh of relief in making sense of this now, Isadora relaxed in her chair and then gave him a kind smile. One big enough to ease his worry. She saw something bright reflect in his eyes as he straightened in his seat.
“It will be fine, I am sure,” Isadora told him firmly. “And besides, no one else has actually asked for my hand, have they?”
His shoulders slumped. “I suppose not.”
“Then there is no reason for me not to accept this betrothal,” she pointed out. “I know I didn’t plan to marry so soon, but I was bound to do so eventually. Father knows me well enough. He knows what is best for me.”
“For you or for the family name?” Lucious asked.
It was a fair question. She knew she should expect people to ask her that. After all, why would the second son of a duke be willing to marry the only child of an earl?
Isadora took a moment to gather her thoughts before saying, “I am my family’s name, am I not? We are one and the same.”
That garnered a grunt from the young man. He then hastily moved one of his pawns before focusing on her again. She thought his attention was rather too probing, and it disconcerted her.
Perhaps I had best distract us with a different game. While I won’t embarrass him with a race in Hyde Park, maybe I could think of something to do in the gardens. Living in Mayfair does have its advantages. But why is Lucious so intent on talking about this? We’ve hardly brought up marriage before. I don’t see why he is so persistent on the topic now that I am engaged.
“I don’t believe you were thinking about your family name during your last stunt at the Serpentine,” Lucious muttered, barely loud enough for her to hear.
Grabbing her letter, she immediately whacked him on the arm with it. He playfully protested with a groan while she glared at him. “Stunt, you call it? I ruined my favorite pair of shoes because of that.”
“It was your idea to go treasure hunting. But never mind that,” Lucious added impatiently. “I want to talk about your betrothal. This isn’t like you, Isadora. I know it isn’t. You won’t be happy with someone you don’t know.”
Irritation flared. Jumping to her feet, Isadora frowned.
“Whyever not?” she asked. She shoved the letter back into her pocket and gave him her most stern expression. “I believe in possibilities, Lucious, and I don’t see why you insist on being contrary. I will attend that tea, marry Lord Cornwell and be perfectly happy. Oh, and one more thing. Checkmate.”
“What?” he cried, quickly glancing down at the chessboard to see that she had taken his queen with her last move. As she turned away, she heard him clumsily knock his chair back. “Wait, Isadora, I am s-sorry. I don’t mean to upset y-you. P-please.”
Turning, she forced a smile. She could not truly be so cruel to one of her dearest friends. Inside, she felt like a tightly wound instrument string that might break if given the slightest tug.
But she didn’t want Lucious to know that. So, she gave him a nod instead. “I know, Lucious. I’ve just realized that I must attend to my father. You and I shall meet up sometime soon, and I promise to share everything. You can see yourself out, can you not?” Fearing she may have been too abrupt, she added, "Thank you for the game, my dear."
His shoulders relaxed as she smiled at him, and she felt better. With a final nod, she turned back to the house and slipped in through the kitchen door as it was the closest.
It was, in fact, her favorite door from which to enter because there was always some freshly made delicacy to nibble on. Isadora greeted the cook and her assistants, snatched a warm roll, and started down the hall toward her father’s study before anyone could voice an objection to her cheeky pilfering.
“Ah, Isadora. Did you receive the letter?” Lord Henry Crawley, the Earl of Harleton, looked at her in earnest as she breezed into his domain.
Her father was fifty years old and already sported gray hair. It was her impression that she might have aged him too quickly with her childish antics and pranks. Though she had managed to temper them in recent years, for the most part, the damage was already done.
Still, he adored her, and she loved him. Since her mother had passed when she was but a child, they were all one another had. Even though she lacked maternal influence, she somehow still enjoyed a lovely childhood. Nearly every wish was granted to her by her indulgent father.
This is why I will do anything for him and the family now. Anything. If only Lucious could understand that.
Isadora stood in the doorway and leaned against the wall as she studied her father. He hadn’t shaved, his whiskers much longer than usual. He had pale green eyes, and his weathered face was made soft and wrinkled with age. Even his perfect posture seemed a bit stooped lately, and he looked fatigued, with deep circles under his eyes. While she had pressed him to be more mindful of getting proper rest, it appeared he had not listened.
“Letter?” she asked blankly, wondering about his question. “Oh! Do you mean the missive from the Cornwells?”
“Northamptons,” her father corrected her. “One calls a family like that by their dukedom, not their family name.”
“Even if we are to become family?” she queried playfully. When he gave her a stern look, she walked further into the room and placed a placating hand on his shoulder. “I am just playing, Father. I shan’t embarrass you tomorrow. I promised I would be on my best behavior, did I not?”
He patted her hand absently. When she looked at the desk, she saw he was working on the estate ledgers. And as usual, he used red ink to mark debts and other concerns. There were several red lines, which was cause for concern. She sighed and looked away with a silent promise to tend to them properly when her father was resting. He had never been particularly good with numbers, and she might find some places where they could save a pound or two.
“You did,” her father replied. “Please see that you keep that promise. They are an excellent family, you know. You could hardly do better, my girl.”
His words made her cringe inwardly. She had not enjoyed lying to Lucious about how she felt regarding this match. Isadora had done her best to be as truthful as possible with her good friend, for they had sworn a long time ago to always be honest with one another.
It felt even worse to lie to her father. She inhaled deeply, closing her eyes for a moment before she gave him her answer.
“Of course I will, Father. You are entirely correct,” Isadora reassured him. “The family is excellent, and we are most fortunate indeed. I am certain the tea will go well. Then the betrothal documents shall be signed. We will get to know one another as family, and we can happily enjoy the rest of the Season.”
After all, she thought, happiness could mean many things. It could mean joy, contentment, satisfaction, or bliss. Isadora was willing to accept any of those.
Or less, I suppose, if it comes down to that.
She took a seat and chatted cheerfully with her father, turning the subject elsewhere. All the while, Isadora could feel the letter like a heavy stone in her pocket. It was distracting, but she didn’t know what else to do with it.
We need this. The condition of the estate is hardly promising. The little we have is entailed and does not bring enough income. Father has good connections, but that is not enough. He has also made some poor investments. What else can I do? My marriage is the only chance we have to ensure the welfare of the estate.
And I am willing to do whatever it takes to do that.
After a long morning attending matters within Parliament, all Adrian Cornwell wished to do was soak in a hot bath and forget how to think.
However, that was not to be.
As he made his way into his London house, he was inundated with matters at once. Stalking down to his office with two solicitors and his butler, Adrian forced himself to attend business until everyone was satisfied.
When finally allowed a moment alone, he sank into his burgundy leather armchair with a huff.
“You missed the luncheon.”
With a grimace, he straightened. The censorious feminine voice assured him that he would get no rest soon. But he restrained his impatience. Lashing out would only prolong such issues.
Of course, his stepmother took the fact that the door to his study had been left open a hairsbreadth as an invitation. Although, she never even bothered to knock when it was firmly closed.
Camelia Cornwell stood in the doorway with her eyes narrowed for a moment before her expression cleared. She smiled at him without any genuine merriment in her eyes.
He didn’t think the false look flattered her. Blinking, he considered his words while reminding himself that it did him no good to argue with her or try to explain his parliamentary duties. They had managed to survive one another’s presence for twenty-two years because he knew when to leave well enough alone. He wouldn’t let her attitude be the instigator of trouble now.
All I wanted was to relax in peace and quiet. But apparently, I can do no such thing even in my own home.
“To what luncheon are you referring?” he forced himself to ask as he stood in her presence, as propriety dictated.
“Why, with the Hargreaves, of course,” the squat Dowager Duchess of Northampton said as she pouted at him.
Adrian's stepmother was short, and her figure was rounded from her penchant for having sweet almond cakes with every meal. Her ashy blonde hair was piled on top of her head in a complex maze of curls and frippery. Her face had softened and wrinkled in the years since she had married his father. However, the hardness in her dark brown eyes was as familiar as his own hand.
Considering her words, Adrian frowned. “There was no mention of a special luncheon when we dined last night. Regardless, I had duties to attend to today. Did you not have Charles at your side?”
“Certainly. Charles is the portrait of an exemplary son who knows his place and duties,” she started with a huff of temper.
Adrian interrupted her skillfully before she could launch into a tirade about his shortcomings. “If Charles was in attendance, there was no need for me to make an appearance. I am sure that it was entirely more pleasant with my absence. Is there something else that you wish to discuss with me? Otherwise, I must be off.”
“You expect me to allow you to shut me out?”
“I expect you to find something more suitable to do with your time than hover over my shoulder while I go over the estate ledgers. You do wish to retain your pin money to make purchases this Season, do you not?” he added with a stern expression of his own that let her know that he could swiftly curtail her spending if he wished to. Camilia loved nothing more than spending money on extravagances, and the possibility of losing that ability would enrage her.
The sharp tension in the air threatened to stab him. He felt the itch between his shoulder blades but fought the urge to squirm under the weight of her furious gaze. Although he repeatedly told himself there was no need for concern, sometimes the look in his stepmother’s eye made him wonder just how dangerous she actually was.
Not that she’s the violent sort. She just wants me to stay out of her way. I’m not biddable like her servants or handsome enough for her to parade around like Charles. Overall, the fact that I have power over her as the Duke is what really bothers her.
The Dowager Duchess of Northampton was a determined sort of woman who ran her household to her precise demands and style with no room for deviation. For years, that had included ruling him as well. At least until his father passed and he was forced to return from the front lines of the war. Although that had been two years ago, they were still adjusting to the new dynamic his becoming the Duke had brought about.
“As you wish, Your Grace,” the duchess finally said with a brazen smile and a sneer. She lifted her chin regally like she hadn't just been on the verge of losing her temper. “Of course, it would be splendid if you were to take care of the most recent household bills in a timely manner. We won’t expect you for dinner tonight since I am quite certain this task will keep you occupied for hours. However, I do require your presence during visiting hours tomorrow.”
He jerked his head up in suspicion. “Visiting hours? Whatever for?”
While he didn’t have business with the House of Lords in the morning, Adrian had been looking forward to attending Gentleman Jack’s for a pugilist match or two. He wasn’t used to all this sitting around and socializing. And he had little desire to start living a sedentary life as a duke.
Visiting hours are pointless. Who should want to spend time with the likes of me?
Adrian needed the physical release provided in the pugilist matches. Afterward, he had intended to visit Sussex, where one of his smaller country properties was located. A short letter he recently received from the vicar there requested his support in rebuilding the ruined chapel.
“I doubt my presence should be necessary,” Adrian stated. “Besides, I’m needed elsewhere. I do not have time for social inanities.”
She gave him a childish look of annoyance and shrugged one shoulder before saying, “Oh well, don’t attend, if you would prefer, my son.” The throwaway phrase at the end of her sentence slid off her tongue, and he couldn’t help flinching, just as she would have expected. “Charles is meeting with his betrothed for a family tea. I had thought you would have wanted to support your brother, but if you are too busy...” She hummed as she trailed off, flicking her wrist at him in disdain as she turned and left the room.
A faint memory came to mind. Lady Camilia had mentioned at the start of the Season she had thought her son would be well-matched with a certain young lady. Then she’d left papers on his desk, stating their solicitor had already reviewed them and he simply needed to sign.
I signed, but I could have sworn there was no rush. The conversation had just begun––it was not finishing up. To move so swiftly… It is hardly sensible.
“Already?” Adrian stiffened and then hastened to the doorway where he could still smell the sickly-sweet floral perfume she always wore. “When did Charles become betrothed?”
“Why, you signed the papers, Your Grace,” she trilled over her shoulder.
Frowning at the thought of being forced to chase after her, Adrian held back a curse of irritation. “I wasn’t aware the other party had signed. Have Charles and the Earl of Harleton both signed? I may be busy, but this is something that you cannot keep from me,” he called out.
His stepmother turned in the hall to offer an almost mocking curtsy. “I would never dream of doing such a thing, Your Grace. I am informing you, am I not? We are to have tea with the Earl of Harleton and his daughter, Lady Isadora, at precisely one tomorrow afternoon.”
While he was not close with his younger half-brother, who was five years his junior, Adrian thought of the quiet and gentle young man with a frown.
“When is this marriage to take place? I assumed it would not be until next Season at the earliest. They are quite young, after all,” he added pointedly.
The Dowager Duchess just tutted. “Why should they wait?”
“Why do they need to marry so young? Why the haste?” he countered. “Charles has only recently returned from Oxford. He has not even had a chance to embark on any youthful adventures. Why, just last year, he spoke of wishing to enjoy his own grand tour. And now he is content to be wed so quickly? I don’t think this is the wisest course for him.”
“I’m his mother, am I not?”
Narrowing his gaze, he clapped his hands behind his back and stalked toward her. “And am I not his older brother? His caretaker? And the head of this household? I don’t intend to break this union if this is what Charles really wants, Stepmother, but I fail to see why it is necessary to move with such haste.”
“Do you intend to wed?”
He stepped back, caught off guard by the question. The woman had schooled her face to look calm and pleasant with an innocent smile on her lips. It left him with an uneasy dread, but he told himself he had no reason to be suspicious and felt foolish for his reaction.
Then he told himself he was making unnecessary assumptions about the woman. His stepmother was not a villain. Just a human he did not respect. She was more selfish than cruel. The woman was indeed trouble, but not the perilous kind. She was merely an annoyance when she was intent on getting her way.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Adrian asked at last.
“If you don't plan to provide a legitimate heir for the dukedom, the burden must fall upon Charles. I am only thinking of the family,” she said far too sweetly. “Anyway, there is no need for doubts. After all, Charles must marry at some point. I have taken it upon myself to arrange a suitable match for him. I rather thought you would be thanking me for taking the responsibility from you, as you are so plagued by challenges as the Duke.”
Adrian shifted uncomfortably. He hated how she had turned the conversation to make him look like an ungrateful lout. “And this is what they want? Charles and this Lady Isadora?”
She turned her head to the side as though listening for something. He watched as she stepped out into the next hall and called, “Charles? Come here, my darling boy.”
Both of them waited as footsteps in the hall beyond grew louder. After an interminable wait, Adrian spotted his half-brother strolling toward them. The young man was but two and twenty. He was of medium height with feathery blonde hair and sparkling green eyes, a trait passed down to every Cornwell for generations. While the two men shared some facial similarities, Adrian's hair was of a darker shade and the texture thicker. And there was a wariness in his striking mossy eyes that his trusting younger brother lacked.
“Good morning, Adrian, Mother,” the young man said with a slight bow.
“We were just talking about tomorrow’s tea,” Lady Camilia interrupted before Adrian could respond. “Your brother is worried that you are being pushed into this betrothal. Do you desire to marry Lady Isadora? Of course, if you do not, we will end the courtship at once, even if she would be swiftly snatched up by another gentleman.”
Charles glanced at Adrian and then shrugged. His words were barely audible but decisive as he said, “I wish to do whatever you think is best, Mother, you know that.”
Always the good boy, the more well-behaved child, the better son. She could praise Charles all day long if given the opportunity. But what has he done to garner such esteem? He has done nothing more than attending school and doing as she bids without question. But perhaps that's what makes him the perfect child for a woman who looks me in the eye solely out of spite.
“Good lad. You see?” The woman turned to Adrian with a triumphant smirk before adding, “The boy is amenable to the match, and time is of the essence if we wish to secure the estimable young lady's hand and ensure Charles' future happiness. Tomorrow's gathering will support that.”
Giving his younger brother a contemplative look, Adrian finally nodded. It didn’t seem there was much more he could do. He wouldn’t get in the way of the affair. Adrian wouldn't interfere if they wished for Charles to be wed to this girl so desperately. The boy could be married that evening if that was what they wanted.
“Well then, I will gladly attend the tea tomorrow to meet this paragon you are to marry, Charles,” he said at last.
Adrian knew he had lost this battle and accepted it. There would be more opportunities to best his stepmother in the future. But since this matter hardly included him personally, Adrian refused to put too much effort into changing it. Not while there was so much more for him to address with his estate.
He considered the conversation with mild aggravation on his way back to his study. He had again allowed his stepmother to needle him into thinking emotionally; that happened too frequently for his taste. His plans for avoiding her––not a problem during the months between Seasons with the countless properties he owned––were quickly falling apart due to this precipitous betrothal.
He frowned. Grabbing a cut-glass decanter from the mahogany sideboard, Adrian poured himself some brandy before absently gazing up. A large brass plate hung above the counter, declaring the portrait adjacent to it as that of Adrian's father. The plaque had been recently shined and now reflected his image.
That made him pause.
Adrian had destroyed most of the mirrors in his private rooms upon his return home. He did not need the visual reminder of what had become of his appearance during the war. Even though his stepmother winced nearly every time she saw him, he was getting used to the stares leveled at him by everyone he encountered.
But he wasn’t accustomed to the image before him now. It was too easy to think of himself as he had once been if he didn't have to see his reflection.
Echoes of cannonballs raining down and terrified screams played in his mind as he considered the twisted and gruesome scars creeping out from the felt mask he wore. Fortunately, his clothes hid the damage to his neck, left shoulder, and arm.
Fortunate. That is certainly one word for the fact that I didn’t die when I very well should have, even though I sometimes wish I had. Yes, fortunate, indeed.
The pain was minimal these days, but he knew the puckered pink and white scars would never fade completely. The mask he donned only protected others from a part of himself. He knew it was better than hearing the ton's shocked cries if they saw his damaged visage. He often felt ridiculous, like he was forever attending a masquerade, but it was the lesser of the two evils.
He growled and looked away, wrenching the brass plate off the wall so he wouldn’t have to see his reflection any longer. It was better to ignore his appearance and concentrate on what he could control. Even with his scars, he could manage his estates, attend to his duties, and support his family.
As for Charles, Adrian would need to keep an unobtrusive eye on this betrothal to see if it indeed was best for his brother and the family.
Isadora stepped out of the landau with the help of the footman. She sucked in a surprised breath at the sight of the house before her.
I have never seen such a beautiful building.
The Northampton family resided on Park Lane. She had not been dazzled by that fact. The finest families in London resided in this neighborhood. Isadora was indeed expecting something quite fine, but she feared she had not been prepared for such magnificence.
She had been so caught up admiring Regents Park that she hadn’t considered how fine the homes might be on the other side of the square. Her eyes roamed the creamy brick facade and noted the picturesque ivy artfully clinging to the corners. She took in the stately Corinthian pillars flanking the large double doors. Then she admired the sizeable windows on each floor that would bathe the inside rooms with natural light.
“It is quite fine, is it not?” her father asked hopefully.
She scoffed. “Fine is a bit of an understatement, I would say.”
Fussing with his cravat, the earl nodded to their footman and then turned to her with a worried brow. “You will exhibit your best manners here, will you not?”
“Certainly,” Isadora replied automatically.
But she took a minute to consider what he meant. Scoffing was off-limits, as was sarcasm, of course. Neither were deemed ladylike. While it had been years since she’d had a governess drilling the rules of manners and etiquette into her, she did know how to act in polite society. She just often chose to skirt the edges of propriety with her wit and antics. Her usual impish behavior would not be appropriate in this setting.
I shall have to suppress my very nature while drinking tea with perfect strangers poised to become my closest family. How irritating that I cannot be myself in front of them. They’ll probably all be dreadfully staid and serve Imperial tea. Just splendid.
Isadora inhaled sharply, realizing that she was not as prepared for this as she had believed. A lump in her throat wouldn’t go away no matter how many times she swallowed. She chewed on her bottom lip until her father nudged her lightly with his elbow.
“How nervous might you be, my dear?”
“Not very,” she promised, lying more easily than she was ready to admit. “It is all rather exhilarating, is it not?”
“Admittedly. Now, let us go inside. It is time for you to finally meet your betrothed,” her father added with a chuckle. He put out his arm to her, which she readily took as they ascended the steps to the front door.
They came to the top, and her heart began to hammer as they stood before the imposing black doors.
“All will be well,” her father murmured gently.
Isadora nodded, but she rather feared she might cast up her accounts. Now would be the best time for her to do so. The door had not yet opened, and there were large flowerpots on either side. It would not be the first time she had done such a thing. When she was ten and four, she had pilfered her father's brandy after Lucious dared her to, and her resulting illness was one to be remembered. The bushes next to the terrace had never been the same, much to the gardener's dismay. She vowed never to imbibe in anything stronger than sherry after that.
She lost her chance when the door opened, and they were bowed inside by a stoic butler. Crossing the threshold, she noted the scents of vanilla and bergamot. The warm fragrance caught her by surprise as she wouldn't have attributed the welcoming scent to such a grand manor. Its familiarity began to calm her anxiety.
“Ah, what a glorious day for your visit!” a melodious voice rang out from down the hall.
Isadora finished handing over her cap and shawl before finding the figure of the Dowager Duchess of Northampton hastening down the hall. The woman was even shorter than Isadora, who was petite herself, and was twice as round. The smile that graced her face was almost as large as the feather in her hair. Isadora couldn’t shake the notion that the expression was not a natural one for their hostess.
Not that it should surprise her. Most of the aristocracy donned false smiles to hide duplicitous characters. And once they got to know Isadora, the smiles typically appeared more forced as her exuberant personality tended to grate on society matrons, who preferred young ladies to be demure and accommodating.
“Welcome to our humble home, Lord Crawley, and Lady Isadora. Please do come into the parlor. My son is already settled there, eagerly awaiting your arrival. We are so pleased you could join us on this fine day,” the lady said, practically gushing as she ushered them out of the foyer and down the hall.
Overwhelmed by the rush of energy, Isadora struggled to keep her own smile on her face. She straightened and reminded herself that she had accepted this fate; there was no turning back now.
A smattering of polite words was exchanged as they walked with the Dowager Duchess. Soon, Isadora found herself expertly guided into a room done in a shockingly pink color palette and onto a stiff settee where her betrothed greeted her.
“Good afternoon, my lady. It is lovely to finally meet you,” Charles Cornwell said softly with what she considered a weak smile as he resumed his seat after stiffly bowing to her.
“And you, my lord.” Isadora took a moment to study him.
They had glimpsed one another at a handful of events this Season. However, she had hardly given the reserved gentleman much consideration. After her father announced their intended betrothal, she had searched out Charles, Lord Cornwell, but had missed any opportunity to speak with him until this occasion.
She could finally observe the man she was to marry. He was of average height with soft blond hair and sincere green eyes. While he was indeed classically handsome, he almost appeared too perfect. His flawless features and impeccably styled hair made her think of the angels she'd seen depicted in medieval art.
That perfection annoyed her for some unknown reason.
“How do you take your tea, Lady Isadora?”
The question pulled Isadora out of her musings, and she jerked her head up to face the lady of the house. Lady Camilia hovered over a delicate tea table. Isadora realized that the others had been served. The Dowager Duchess looked at her pointedly, indicating that this had not been the first time she had posed the question.
“Oh, one sugar, please,” Isadora murmured, instantly correcting her posture, and moving to the edge of her seat. She fixed a smile on her and then looked at Charles. “It is a lovely day, is it not?”
The young man turned his head toward his mother. He looked at her for so long that Isadora wasn’t sure he had heard her speak to him at all.
I know he cannot be slow-witted. The gossips have little to say about him except that he is handsome and a decent dance partner. If he was impaired somehow, she would have heard about it. Is he simply bored? Distracted? I don't blame him for either, but this is not the time for woolgathering.
“It’s a bright day. Very bright,” Charles said at last.
The tone in his voice was so flat that no one else said a word in response. Isadora shifted in her seat and glanced around at the Dowager and her father, feeling out of her depth. The thought was unsettling as Isadora had always prided herself on being a match for any challenge sent her way.
I cannot fail at this. I shall not be found wanting by these people. It will simply take a little more work than I expected, that is all.
“Indeed,” her father said after a slightly uncomfortable cough. “I was just telling my daughter that it was a spectacularly sunny day on our ride over. I expect we shall see even brighter days now that the worst of winter is over. Would you not agree, Your Grace?”
Isadora accepted a cup from the lady, murmuring her thanks before settling back on the settee. One of her heels caught in the hem of her skirts, but she would upset her tea if she tried to untangle it, so she ignored it and took a sip.
Imperial tea, as predicted.
Restraining herself from scowling at her least favorite tea blend, she delicately rested the cup and saucer in her lap. The drink was much too bitter for her liking. She sighed as she realized she should have asked for more sugar.
Her father and the Dowager Duchess carried on the conversation without any input from her or Charles. The man sat straight as a reed at her side. But somehow, Isadora couldn’t help but feel that he wished he could slouch. While she knew her own thoughts on this affair, she had no idea how he was handling things. She swallowed her apprehensions and decided to try talking to him.
“My lord?” she murmured softly.
Charles ran his hands on his breeches. They were of fine fawn-colored material, and the gesture seemed like something of a habit. As absent as he appeared to be, he still looked perfect.
“Lady Isadora,” he replied with a nod. “It is lovely to see you.”
She managed a small smile. He had already said that to her. It was the closest they had gotten to a conversation nearly five minutes prior. If it went on like this, she feared the rest of her life would be an endless cycle of commenting on the weather and being told that it was nice to see her.
“You have a beautiful home,” she murmured, keeping her voice low so as not to startle the man who seemed lost in his own world.
Perhaps if she could find the right thing to say, they might enjoy a real conversation, even though it pained her to compliment this particular room. The varying shades of pink were each more vibrant than the other, and the result was quite nauseating.
“Hm? Oh, thank you. My mother maintains the decor. She dictates… well, everything,” Charles responded.
The air of despondence in this statement gave Isadora pause. She tilted her head to the side as she considered the young man she was bound to wed. Was he simply in a mood, or was this how he always behaved?
He doesn't seem to be a meanspirited or angry fellow, which would cause deep concerns. Even if he is a bit melancholy, I could have wound up betrothed to someone much worse, so this union still has a chance to be happy enough.
“Ah, there you are, Your Grace,” Camilia’s voice rose an octave, catching Isadora’s attention. “We were wondering if you might join us.”
Isadora's head rose in confusion. She was unaware anyone else was meant to join them. And then she realized her mistake. What a silly chit she could be. The Duke would wish to meet her, of course. They had never come across one another as Charles' elder brother rarely attended societal functions.
As the man entered, Isadora forgot all about her tea and anyone else in the room.
He had already bowed and moved forward. She saw without seeing, finding herself dazed. It took a minute to focus on anything. And, of course, she wanted to focus on him.
The first thing she noticed was the perfectly polished black Hessians striding across the salmon-colored rug. The man rounded the table and halted near the windows, with his back to the open curtains.
Tightly fitted tan breeches disappeared into the tops of the gleaming boots. Large hands tugged at the lapels of a chestnut-colored jacket that parted over a brown waistcoat. The cravat was simply but elegantly tied. Everything was perfectly tailored to showcase wealth while appearing somewhat understated.
A breath escaped her lips as she looked up at the man’s face.
His Grace, the Duke of Northampton, was unlike anyone she had ever seen before. His face appeared carved out of the finest marble. And the mask he wore only emphasized his grandeur. The man practically seethed with a fierce beauty she couldn’t ignore if she tried.
And yet she did. She tried her best to feign disinterest and turned her attention to Charles. But her eyes kept straying back to the Duke.
“Hello, brother,” Charles murmured.
The Duke nodded, and Charles turned back to her. “That’s my brother.”
That’s all he can do by way of introductions? Goodness, and I thought I was a menace to proper society.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Your Grace,” Isadora told him, though he had yet to address her. “I am… I mean, I wish to get to know you and your family better now that my betrothal to your brother is moving forward.”
“Betrothal?” Charles looked at her blankly. “Oh, yes.”
Swallowing, she nodded. “Yes, I… yes.”
She wasn't sure what else to say. The Duke hadn't even responded to her, and every time she tried to say something to Charles, their conversation fell flat. Her gaze kept returning to the tall Duke standing across the room. The sunlight coming in at his back left much of him in shadow. Isadora wondered if he knew how intimidating that made him appear or if he did that on purpose.
“I believe we will be married at Season's end, is that correct?” Isadora asked her betrothed, searching for anything to break the tension she felt. “By the way, where will we live after the wedding?”
“Hm? Oh, anywhere.”
She opened her mouth to retort that 'anywhere' was too vague an answer to her question. However, she bit her lip before uttering her sarcastic remark. Her father had offered her gentle scoldings for blurting out the first thing that came to her mind. She needed to remain circumspect if she was to impress her betrothed and his family.
She wanted to set her teacup down, fearing her nerves would cause the fine china to rattle. Still, she had hardly had any of the beverage, and setting it aside untouched would be rude. She forced down a few sips and managed a smile for those around her as she inwardly recoiled at the nasty flavor.
This tea is horrid. How anyone can enjoy it is beyond me. The only way it could be worse was if there was actual dirt in it instead of just its taste. Oh, wait, now it has grown cold. That is indeed worse.
“I went on a lovely promenade yesterday. There were many people taking advantage of the early spring weather. Do you enjoy going to Hyde Park?” Isadora asked.
When Charles shrugged, his gaze directed at his hands, she glanced at her father and the Dowager to find neither of them paying her any mind. This meeting was essential, yet no one seemed to care to converse with her, not even her intended.
That is what it means to be a woman, I suppose. So long as I don’t spill my tea, no one minds what I do or say.
The indifference of those around her had her turning to the Duke again. She marveled at how striking he was. It was as if he was lightning personified. The room fairly hummed with his presence.
Stop staring, Isadora, stop staring.
“Did I tell you,” Isadora murmured, reluctantly returning her gaze to Charles lest she be caught gawking at his brother. "That I fell into the river during my walk yesterday? I was covered in mud from head to toe and lost a boot. When I climbed out, I danced a jig so lively that a nearby constable threatened to arrest me for creating a public nuisance.”
Her eyes narrowed on her betrothed when he didn’t react to her nonsensical tale. Biting her bottom lip, Isadora wondered if a soul could wither and die from boredom.
Don’t be ridiculous. Perhaps life will be a trifle lonely with Charles, but at least I'll probably have the freedom to do as I like as he won't notice anything I do.
His apathy would be ideal as she could easier access the funds she needed to support her father. But she had to endear herself to the Northamptons if she was going to marry into the family.
Wondering about marriage had been a pastime of hers only on rare occasions, preferring to amuse herself by riding horses or reading poetry or novels. She had always enjoyed being in control of her activities and time. She wondered if Charles would be the type of husband to allow her to continue to keep that control.
Would he wish to join her in any of her escapades? Her eyes scanned over Charles, and she thought it unlikely he would care to.
“Perhaps we can celebrate ourselves once we are married with a public jig,” Isadora said quietly. She decided she should at least pretend to converse as the Dowager Duchess and her father ignored them. “We could each wear five different fruits on our heads and bells on our ankles, dance in circles, and consider ourselves part of the next Royal Academy of Arts exhibition.”
Although this garnered no response from Charles, she was surprised to hear a quiet, amused grunt elsewhere.
She jerked her head up to see the Duke look away from her. His lips were pressed tightly together but curled slightly up at the corners. It seemed as if he wanted to comment on her outrageous suggestion but stopped himself.
She wished he would say something, as he had yet to speak, and she wanted to hear if his voice was as striking as the rest of him.
Then he turned his piercing gaze back to her, and it was her turn to dodge, shifting her eyes back to Charles. Even though she was sorely tempted to stare at his elder brother, it felt more appropriate to keep her attention on the man she would marry.
Usually, she had excellent manners when the occasion called for it.
Even Lucious––and her other friend, Lady Penelope––agreed she could be charming when she chose to. However, there were many times when she couldn’t convince herself to behave. Anything became a possibility as she fought against the tedium of predictable ton events.
Clearly, I am failing to charm anyone at the moment.
At least the Duke seemed somewhat amused with her. Isadora glanced at Charles and then peeked at the Duke quickly, hoping he wouldn’t notice how often she kept looking his way.
The man was utterly intriguing. While her betrothed was princely looking, the Duke was something else altogether. She couldn’t make up her mind what. All she knew was that she wanted to see more of him.
It wasn’t that he was handsome, though she certainly could tell that he was––even with the mask that hid his burns, he cut a fine figure. He exuded a power that she couldn’t ignore. Every part of him, inside and out, intrigued her.
Even with the mask, she could see he had a rugged jawline, and his hair was luxuriously thick. That was more distracting as she suddenly wanted to run her fingers through the strands to discover if the locks were as soft as they looked. His tailored mask was of brown leather. It covered a portion of his forehead, shadowing his eyes, and reached down to brush against his jawline. It was obviously used to cover scars similar to those she could barely see above his high collar that must trail down his neck.
She had once seen an old beggar wearing just such a mask, although of lesser quality. She read about soldiers who had barely escaped with their lives after the war and now lived with horrific injuries. Injuries that many in society looked down upon, as though the men had any choice in their disfigurement as they served King and country.
But firstborn sons of dukes don't go to war. They are meant to stay safely at home while the lower classes go off to fight. Why did this man choose to do what no other of his rank would? And now, he is all but shunned from society for his noble choice as his peers are repulsed by his wounds.
And yet I find myself inexorably drawn to him.
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