About the book
For she had eyes and she chose him...
Isabella Addison, daughter of the Viscount of Gefferton, is forced to marry a hideous man...or so she thinks. Her view of the world changes entirely the day she meets him for the very first time.
Emmanuel Beckett, Duke of Helmsfield, lost himself twenty years ago—the day his parents were killed and his leg was amputated. Enraged by the upcoming marriage his aunt arranged without his consent, he realizes he has no other choice but to comply.
But a smoldering attraction between them burns all initial doubts and a relentless courting begins…
When an unexpected encounter awakens old memories for Emmanuel, he realises Isabella was the one holding the key to his redemption all along. In the blink of an eye, he will be led to the moment he had been waiting for his entire life: finding out what really happened the night his parents died.
A Chance Meeting
Diana Addison, Viscountess of Gefferton sat down at the table to write to her dear friend Helen, who she had not seen since they were both debutantes, nigh on thirty years ago.
She paused, marveling at how fast time flew. The last time they were together, both were unmarried and breathlessly hopeful of catching a man’s eye during the Season. Now they were wives and mothers, whose husbands served at Whitehall together. It was quite unfortunate that they had not seen each other in all that time.
She had heard at Lady Caldwell’s Venetian breakfast that Helen, Lady Edric Beckett, was in Town, seeking a bride for her nephew. There was a lot of talk as to why her nephew—whom Diana understood was a Duke, and extremely well off—would not simply participate in the Season. Quite a lot of conjecture, some of it very uncharitable, had been bandied about as to why this was so. Some said he was utterly hideous, while others had heard rumors that he was crippled. The on-dits were rather varied and some quite vicious. Diana felt bad for her former friend.
If, indeed, Lady Edric was seeking a bride for her nephew, Diana might know just the girl.
“Mother? Have you seen my book? I cannot seem to find it.” Her daughter, Isabella, walked absentmindedly into the room, eyes everywhere except on her mother, searching for whatever book she had lost.
“No, I have not seen your book. I do not know which book you have currently pilfered from your father’s library. I suspect that if the servants ran across it as they cleaned, then they would have done the proper thing and returned it.”
Her daughter sighed at her, large aggrieved brown eyes regarding her with disappointment. She tossed her chestnut hair haughtily over her shoulder, causing it to cascade in waves down her narrow back, framing her pale skin quite lovingly and highlighting the freckles across her nose. “I was reading it, Mother. They cannot just...take things as they please.”
“Well, if you’re reading it, perhaps you shouldn’t leave it lying about.”
Isabella glared daggers at her before she turned and flounced dramatically out of the room. Diana shook her head resignedly and with a sigh, returned to her letter. Yes, she was convinced that she and Helen could help each other. Helen required a bride for her nephew and Diana required a groom for her Isabella—bluestocking that she was, her daughter would probably not get married otherwise.
Emmanuel limped tiredly up the front steps, the edge of his prosthetic leg digging into the tip of his stump and causing him pain. He wanted nothing more than to take it off and rest. Pulling at his beard to distract himself, he absently nodded to the butler who greeted him as he walked through the front door. The butler was reaching for Emmanuel’s coat but he demurred, not wanting to stop until he could sit down.
Stevens, the butler, obligingly followed him down the hall to his bed chamber. Because of the nature of his injury, this sometimes made climbing stairs a bit of a chore; it made sense to have his bed chamber on the first floor, right next to his study.
Stevens waited—poised to help if needed—until Emmanuel had fallen into his leather armchair, before crossing to the armoire where a tray of drinks waited, to pour the Duke of Helmsfield a brandy.
“Where’s Andrews?” Emmanuel looked up at Stevens as he handed him his drink.
“Your valet shall be down momentarily, Your Grace. I have sent for him.”
“Good man, Stevens. What would I do without you?”
Stevens gave a stiff nod and the very ghost of a smile. “I expect you would manage, Your Grace.”
Emmanuel opened his mouth to reply but at that moment the door opened and Andrews stepped in. He helped His Grace take off his breeches and then proceeded to unstrap his prosthetic leg at waist and thigh.
“Shall I bring your soothing cream, Your Grace?” he asked as soon as he had set the leg to lean against Emmanuel’s chair.
“If you would be so kind, my good man.”
The door had scarcely closed behind Andrews when a tentative knock had Stevens opening it again to take the tray proferred. He placed it on the table so that it was accessible without Emmanuel having to move anything but his arm.
“Some refreshments to tide you over until dinner time. I believe your aunt has invited company.”
Emmanuel sighed. “What kind of company?”
“A Lady Gefferton, I believe.”
Emmanuel slumped further into his seat in defeat. “Will Lord Edric be joining us for this dinner?”
Stevens cleared his throat to disguise his amused smile. “I believe he said something about a meeting at White’s.”
Emmanuel grimaced. “Coward. He would leave me to parry his wife’s friends on my own?”
Stevens almost grinned. “He said to tell you that he would have invited you along but Lady Edric was quite adamant that you attend her dinner.”
Emmanuel frowned in suspicion. He loved his aunt, but her endless scheming to ‘ensure his happiness’ as she put it, was wearing on his soul. He had been quite content to sit out this trip to Town, but she had been quite insistent that a man of two-and-twenty could not be left to potter about on his own at his vast Helmsfield estate. Oh no, the only thing for it was for him to accompany his aunt and uncle for the Season.
When he had pish-poshed that notion, she had declared that she and Lord Edric were far too old to be traveling on their own. Would he abandon his own living relatives...and on and on. It had been easier to simply give in to her demands.
He and Uncle Edric had learned early on that doing whatever Aunt Helen said was the quickest path to peace.
He just did not see why he had to sup with her friends while Uncle Edric went free. There was no doubt about it; Aunt Helen was up to something.
“Stevens? Pass me the bottle of brandy, would you please? If I am to dine with the Devil, I must fortify myself.”
Stevens inclined his head, “Yes, Your Grace.” He went to the drinks tray, retrieved the rest of the brandy, and put it carefully down next to Emmanuel’s glass.
“Is there anything else I may get you, Your Grace? Some laudanum, perhaps?”
Emmanuel shook his head. “Thank you, but no. The brandy alone will do.”
Andrews came back in, brandishing the soothing cream triumphantly. Stevens bowed to Emmanuel. “I shall leave you to it, then.”
He walked out of the room, leaving Andrews to rub the cream carefully into Emmanuel’s stump. The Duke leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, determined to enjoy what peace was available to him before his aunt’s latest scheme came to fruition.
“Emmanuel dear, so glad you could join us,” his Aunt Helen said, as he walked into the drawing room later that evening.
He smiled as well as he could while still feeling quite put out about having to be there. “I would not have missed it for the world.”
His aunt turned to their guest with a smile. “May I introduce my nephew, Emmanuel Beckett, Duke of Helmsfield?”
The lady curtsied with a smile. “Very pleased to meet you, Your Grace.”
“And this is Diana Addison, Viscountess of Gefferton,” Aunt Helen said to Emmanuel.
He bowed to her. “The pleasure is all mine, Lady Gefferton.”
The ladies took a seat and then Emmanuel followed. There was an awkward moment where both Lady Gefferton and his aunt began speaking at the same time. Emmanuel smiled, wondering at the air of tension in the room. He cocked an eyebrow at them both.
“Lady Gefferton and I knew each other back when we were both still debutantes. She very kindly wrote to me when she heard that we were in Town.”
“How nice to have a reunion with an old friend. I expect you have much to talk about. Perhaps I should—?”
“Oh no, no, no, Nephew. Stay.” His aunt knew exactly what he was trying to do. “I’ve just been telling dear Lady Gefferton everything about you and she was so eager to make your acquaintance.”
Emmanuel’s brow furrowed with concern, not inclined to believe any of that. Nevertheless, he endeavored to smile and prepared to be as sociable as he could manage.
Isabella looked up as her mother came into her room, smiling in welcome. “Did you have a good dinner?”
Diana smiled. “I had an excellent dinner, my dear, thank you so much for asking.”
Isabella frowned in confusion at the air of happiness bubbling around her mother. “You’re welcome.”
She waited for her mother to say something else to explain her excessive joy, but Diana simply stood bouncing on her feet and smiling widely at Isabella. It was most strange.
After waiting a while with no forthcoming clarifications, Isabella returned to her reading of Gulliver’s Travels. A story that was also quite strange, and unbelievable.
“Isabella?” her mother spoke just as she was sinking back into Lilliput. She looked up with barely disguised annoyance. “Yes, Mother?”
“I have some news for you. I hope you will like it.”
“Indeed, Mother? What is it?”
Diana took a deep breath and closed her eyes; when she opened them they were shining with glee. “I think I have found you a husband.”
Isabella blinked incredulously at her mother. “I beg your pardon?”
Diana leaned forward, sighing with happiness. “I said, I think I have found you a husband.”
The color drained from Isabella’s cheeks and she felt her hands go cold with the shock of it. “No.”
Diana stiffened, looking taken aback. “What do you mean, no?”
Isabella’s nerveless fingers let the book drop to the carpet. She got to her feet. “Mother, I am a grown woman of almost one-and-twenty and that means I am perfectly capable of making up my own mind. You cannot simply present me with your choice of husband as if we are barbarians.”
Her mother was not going to stand for it. “Isabella, you have shown no interest in any man. Your father and I are getting on in years. You know that. All your sisters are married and settled. It is just you. We are beginning to fear that we shall pass away before you choose a groom. It is time, Isabella, and he's a good man.”
“Who is this man who'd agreed to marry me sight unseen? What is wrong with him? Is he some kind of ogre? Or is it some old man in search of one more wife to warm his bed as he dies?”
Diana frowned. “Don’t be crude, Isabella.”
Isabella pouted. “Well, then, tell me. Who is this man?”
“He is the nephew of a friend of mine, a Duke even, and very amiable. You shall like him.” She puffed herself up. “And I take great exception to the notion that I would throw you to the wolves, Isabella Caroline Addison.”
Isabella had the grace to look shamefaced. “I apologize, Mother, but it is a shock. You had not even said anything about looking for a husband for me.”
“I was not looking. But when Lady Edric invited me to dinner and introduced me to her nephew, I knew you would make an excellent match. Lady Edric agreed with me.”
“And what does this Duke have to say for himself?”
Diana looked away. “You shall have plenty of time to find that out, my dear.”
Isabella narrowed her eyes at her mother. She knew her mother well, including all her little quirks.
What are you hiding from me, Mother?
She knew there was something afoot because Lady Gefferton was behaving too strange for this to be a run-of-the-mill matchmaking venture. It was not like her mother to be so evasive while making sure to reveal the man’s most obvious attribute, that he was a Duke.
Is the title supposed to compensate for some horrible failing? Oh dear…I really hope not.
Isabella trusted her mother, she did, but she could not shake the feeling that there was more going on than she was being told. She could not help being suspicious. With all the stories that she read, with devious villains getting one over the hero or heroine, it was almost second nature to her now.
In this story, this Duke is definitely the villain.
Already, he was casting a long, dark shadow in her life and they had yet to meet.
Isabella had no real interest in marriage, an institution she knew was inescapable. At her coming out, her mind had been filled with visions of Prince Charmings who would come and sweep her off her feet. They would understand her passion for books and even share it. It would be something they had in common that would cement an everlasting love for each other.
However, throughout that first Season, she had met not one man who fitted her criteria. Over the years, her disillusionment had only deepened. Her parents indulged her foibles for she was the last-born child. She had always known it could not last forever.
Isabella hoped fervently that her prospective husband would at least let her keep her books.
“Good morning, Emmanuel. I trust the new day finds you well?”
Emmanuel nodded. “Aunt,” he said shortly.
She did not press him for further conversation. The Duke was always a bit slow and grumpy in the morning before he had an invigorating cup of coffee. He pulled at his beard as he waited for the footman to fill his cup to the brim and serve him a plate of kippers.
Helen thoughtfully watched him eat, wondering how best to break the news to him. He focused on his plate, to the exclusion of all else, until he was done with his breakfast. Then he leaned back and turned to face her. “What news, Aunt?”
She dropped her spoon, startled. “Hmm?”
“You have been sitting there staring, clearly dying to tell me something. So go ahead, tell me.”
Helen sat frozen, caught quite wrong-footed. “I...what makes you say that?”
Emmanuel snorted, stroking his long roan beard, a shade lighter than his copper-tinted chestnut mane. “I know you well, Aunt, and you have been plotting and scheming for days. Now put me out of my misery and tell me what dastardly plans you have made for me behind my back.”
Helen sputtered. “I have done no such thing.”
Emmanuel folded his arms and waited, his blue gaze fixed on the fresh faced, round cheeked, green-eyed innocent visage his aunt presented.
She sighed. “All right, then, I shall tell you.” She took a deep breath and favored him with her brightest smile. “I have found you a bride.”
Taking Matters to Hand
Emmanuel closed his eyes. “I beg your pardon? I did not hear you clearly.”
Lady Edric sighed, “You did, indeed, hear me clearly, Nephew. I have found you a bride.”
“And how did you manage that without my knowledge or participation?” Emmanuel glared at her. His eyes might have shot actual arrows at her if, indeed, he was capable of such a thing.
“You have been evading this issue for years, my dear. I had to take matters into my own hands.”
“And who is this paragon you have found for me to marry? And why has she agreed to marry a man sight unseen?”
“Well…” Lady Edric looked away and Emmanuel tensed for her next words. “The truth is, she hasn't seen you…but her mother has.”
“Her moth—” Emmanuel stopped, his mind going back to the dinner party. The one his aunt had insisted he attend. With her friend, Lady...Emmanuel could not recall her name.
“Did her daughter know of these machinations?”
“What machinations, Emmanuel? You make us sound like a couple of villains.”
Emmanuel simply rolled his eyes. “Did you tell them of my infirmity?”
Lady Edric inhaled sharply. “How many times must I tell you, Emmanuel? It does not matter. But I informed Lady Gefferton of what happened to you.”
“And? Was she not scandalized that you expected her daughter to shackle herself to one such as I?”
“No, she was not. She met you and she saw that you are a good man who would make a great husband to her daughter.”
Emmanuel snorted, “You aver that she gave no thought to my appearance?”
Lady Edric deliberately misunderstood. “She thought your appearance was very pleasing to the eye.”
Emmanuel was very skeptical of his aunt’s plans but he was used to her taking the most outlandish liberties with his own and his Uncle Edric’s lives. However, even for her, this was going too far.
It was only his love for her, and his knowledge that everything she did, she thought was for his own good, that stopped him from becoming extremely angry.
I shall just let it all play itself out and when it ends in disaster, then Aunt Helen will have learned her lesson.
Emmanuel sat back with a sigh. “All right, then, we will bury our heads in the sand and then act surprised when this eminent bride runs away screaming as soon as she sees me.”
“I am quite confident that will not happen.”
“Does he like to read?”
Diana was not surprised that Isabella was still on the subject of her prospective husband. This had been going on for three days now, and nothing she said seemed to reassure the girl. “I’m quite sure he enjoys stories, my dear. Perhaps you can read to him.”
Isabella's eyes narrowed. “Why? Is he blind?”
Diana sighed tiredly, getting to her feet. “Do me one favor, darling child, and save your questions for your future husband. All right?”
“Am I not to be offered even the appearance of choice?”
Diana deflated, dropping back into her seat. She reached for Isabella’s hands. “Of course, darling. Of course, you get a choice. All I ask is that you give this man a fair chance.”
Isabella sniffed, wiping a lone tear off her cheek. “Fine, Mother. I shall give him a chance. When am I to meet this paragon of virtue?”
Diana smiled. “I shall write to his aunt and propose a date.”
Isabella nodded and then got to her feet, releasing her mother's hands. “I shall retire to my quarters now. The Count awaits me.”
Diana shook her head. “Darling, when we meet these people, try to speak in everyday conversation, would you? I do not want him to think you mad?”
Isabella laughed. “I promise nothing, Mother. If he cannot stand me just the way I am, then how are we to deal with each other?”
Diana groaned under her breath. “You shall be the death of me one day, Isabella.”
She pinched her mother's cheeks. “You’re ever so dramatic, Mother. And you wonder where I get it from.”
With that, she skipped out of the room, greeting the butler amiably as she passed him at the door. The butler bowed solemnly back, before turning to Lady Gefferton. “Will you be needing anything else, My Lady?”
Diana merely groaned again, getting to her feet as well. “Yes. Bring me a brandy. I shall be in the library if anyone needs me.”
“Yes, My Lady.”
“I understand you are getting married.” Emmanuel’s Uncle, Lord Edric Beckett, came into the library where he was reading and sat in the armchair opposite him.
“Wherever would you have heard that?” Emmanuel’s tone was droll and he did not look up from his book.
“Your aunt was asking me about a date, for when our two families can meet. Apparently, she has a letter from Lady Gefferton enquiring about the same.”
That made Emmanuel look up. “Is that so? And what did you tell her?”
“I told her that I am not the one whose availability she should be ascertaining.”
Emmanuel dropped his book on the side table, leaning forward with a sigh. “What am I to do about this, Uncle? This girl has agreed to marry me sight unseen. No doubt, she shall change her mind when she learns who her groom is fated to be. I feel that we shall subject ourselves to a huge amount of worry and pain for no reason.”
“Lady Edric says she has already apprised the family of the situation.”
Emmanuel loved his aunt and uncle, and he knew they loved him, but sometimes he wished that they would just face facts. He was a cripple. He did not have a situation or special circumstances—he was a one-legged duke—as his staff called him behind his back. He had accepted it, and he did not need to be coddled. He gave a deep sigh, picked up his book, and went back to reading it.
“I told her that this weekend would be a good time,” his uncle said.
Emmanuel looked up. “I shall be sure to avail myself.”
Lord Edric leaned forward, patting Emmanuel on the thigh. “It’s going to be all right, you shall see.”
Emmanuel stretched his lips in imitation of a smile and nodded. “I know that, Uncle. Do not worry about me. I shall be fine. I think I shall go up to the pond tomorrow and do some fishing. We could serve our guests fresh fish for dinner.” Emmanuel got to his feet before his uncle could say anything else, and walked out of the room.
“Mother, are we quite sure about this dinner? I don't have a thing to wear,” Isabella said.
Diana laughed. “I feel sure if you look inside of your armoire you will find several gowns that are suitable for a dinner with a prospective mate. I know this because I have had these gowns made for you, including a purple beauty that the dressmaker delivered not last week!”
“Oh. That. I had forgotten about that gown. It did fit me very well.”
“Indeed. And the purple brought out the ivory of your skin quite becomingly.” She brushed a stray auburn curl off her face as she blinked at her daughter, hazel eyes shining with tired amusement.
Isabella grinned with delight. “Why, thank you. How very nice of you to say.”
Diana snorted, raising her eyes heavenward. “Now if there are no more protests, please have your lady’s maid coiffure your hair so that we may attempt to be on time.”
Isabella had, of course, done her research on the Duke. First, she looked him up in Debrett’s Peerage, which wasn’t very helpful. Then she had asked her lady’s maid to tell her all the gossip that was said about him. So far, she was not impressed.
She could well anticipate the ton’s reaction should The Times publish a paragraph announcing the engagement of His Grace, the Duke of Helmsfield to The Honorable Isabella Caroline Addison. She imagined the opinions people up and down the country would quickly form. The thoughts they would feel compelled to share with one another.
“Did you hear about the strangest match yet? A cripple and an on-the-shelf bluestocking?”
“Is he deaf as well as a cripple? He will need to be to tolerate her endless opinions.”
“Well, I do not know which of them is the more desperate.”
Some would be vocal and others through the written word. Tongues would wag, letters would be written, and telegrams swiftly delivered. All because the notorious bluestocking had finally found a person to tolerate her strangeness in the form of an equal outcast. A man with a missing limb.
She had a substantial dowry, which would mean that some—mostly the unmarried men she had turned down—would grumble that the eccentric Duke had no business getting married.
With the nature of his injury, there was no way he could give his wife the full attention she needed, they would argue. Besides, who would represent all those flawed bachelors now? Who could they point to, to show the world that a man’s happiness did not depend on a coquettish woman hanging off his arm and spending his hard earned blunt on new bonnets?
Isabella smiled as she imagined the uproar. It was almost worth it to agree to this madness, just to see it.
However, the majority of the gossipers would undoubtedly be quite happy about the announcement. It would only be right and proper, they would say, that a Duke should take a wife and start a family.
The country needed titled gentlemen to father children. The future depended on it. It was their Duty. Not to marry and accept all its trappings would be the height of selfishness. Many would spare a thought for the many, many men that came back from the Napoleonic Wars missing legs, or arms, or eyes.
Of course, a sizeable number of women would despair over Isabella's well-being and sanity. They would see themselves in her, one way or another, depending on the fortune or lack thereof of their own marriages.
“His Grace does not know how to keep a wife,” they might moan.
“He does not behave like nobility!”
“He is known to be eccentric!”
“He does not mingle with the ton at all.”
He would drive a delicate, sheltered lady like Isabella insane even before their First Anniversary.
Isabella could well sympathize with his imaginary detractors.
How would we even—?
Despite all her wide reading, Isabella did not even know how to complete the thought.
She could hear carriage wheels and horse hooves rumbling and clattering on the cobblestones. The fashionable hour was coming up and it would only get noisier as the evening drew on.
She had become quite accustomed to the din and by now, Isabella barely heard it unless she was specifically listening for it. This evening, however, in the midst of her restless impatience to have this evening over with, Isabella found it impossible not to hear every creak and clatter and clip-clop that rang out over the street.
She got to her feet, drawing an infuriated hiss from her lady’s maid, Samantha, who was still tending to her toilette.
Isabella padded across the hardwood floor, pulled on her slippers, and wrapped her dressing gown tightly around herself. She crossed over to her dressing room to find the gown her mother had been talking about earlier.
Isabella considered herself fortunate to have such a room all to herself. She had once shared it with her three older sisters, but one by one, they had gotten married and left. Now she was alone, and content to be so for as long as possible. It was another point of gossip amongst the ton—she could not blame them—it was unusual not to have set one’s cap at someone by now.
And it’s not as if I wouldn’t like to set my cap at someone; it’s just that nobody has come along who interests me.
Simply and comfortably furnished, the dressing room had a wide wardrobe, full-length mirror, and dressing table. In the corner, behind a screen, were a washbasin and chamber pot.
Although improving her looks was not a matter she dwelt on, Isabella did have her ornate remedy box. In it were jars of face creams to improve the quality of her skin, pots of powders, flasks of perfumes and even exotic oils, and brushes to apply her powders. Whilst she favored the natural look worn by all the heroines in the books she read, she had no desire to appear at dinner with blemishes or spots on her face. Especially if she was wont to be judged by her sisters. She was very careful, too, to cover the freckles that blossomed on her nose every time she went in strong sun without an appropriate hat. She was so tired of hearing that lecture from her mother.
She shifted a few things around in the box until she found the red paper she had purchased from the local stationery shop. She carefully cut off a small square with her sewing scissors, then dipped it into the bowl of water, before pressing the square to her lips and cheeks.
The red dye transferred from the paper to her face, coloring her features slightly, but not blatantly so. Next, she used burnt cork to darken her eyebrows. She knew that her mother would know what she did, but she would never comment on it. She would pretend not to know about it, just as Isabella would not comment on her mother’s rouged cheeks. Some secrets were between a lady and her lady’s maid.
That all taken care of, it was time to get dressed.
Isabella went behind the screen, took off her dressing gown, and replaced it with a pair of split-drawers and a chemise. It was starting to get cold, away from the fire as she was. However, once they were in a warm drawing room, the easily washed chemise would be good for absorbing any perspiration at dinner, protecting her corset and silk gown.
“Would you like me to help you with anything, Miss?” her lady’s maid was hovering between her bedchamber and dressing room.
Isabella tended to dress herself daily and sometimes Samantha did not know whether to go or stay. Isabella waved vaguely at her—she would need her to adjust her stays. Samantha’s hands were usually sweaty, and Isabella had found that she just did not like to be touched all willy-nilly.
She came out from behind the screen and once again sat down in the chair to pull on a pair of white, woolen stockings, which came above her knees, followed by her black boots. She knew it was strange to be sitting there in her underclothes and boots, but she also knew it was the least cumbersome way to get dressed. Her mother had told her so, and she believed her.
She was proud of her boots. They had become wildly popular, even for daywear. This was the first time she dared wear them to dinner. This pair had been a present from her father. They were of good quality, reaching up to her calves, but fastened by a long row of lacing. Samantha did them up, bent over quite awkwardly. Her experience in the task meant that she did not, thankfully, take too long.
After her lady’s maid was done, Isabella got to her feet. It was time to don her corset. She stood still while Samantha draped it on her and then deftly laced it as Isabella watched in the looking glass.
Samantha, behind her, tugged her corset laces one final time before Isabella secured them into a bow across her stomach. Samantha smoothly inserted the busk in its pocket, running down the front of the corset. Isabella paused to admire her figure in the glass.
She reached for her bustle pad, and tied it on so it was at her back. It was an older fashion but her mother insisted she use it with this gown. Her new gown had a narrower skirt than usual, with all the fullness at the back. The pad helped the skirt stand out from her body, elegantly flowing, rather than hanging like a rag.
Quickly, she donned her cotton petticoat, and allowed Samantha to adjust it across the bustle pad. It was very important the cut of the petticoat bodice neckline matched her gown, and that the gathers of the skirt also followed the style of her gown. Her mother had already checked this, but Isabella was impatient to see for herself how the gown lay over the petticoat.
Thankfully, the foundation gown was a less fussy item of clothing, no buttons for a start. It was made of purple silk; Isabella was able to easily lift it over her head and pull it down into place on top of the petticoat.
The purple apron over-skirt, with gold trim, followed. As before, Isabella lifted it over her head and pulled it into place. It was secured in place by cords, so Isabella stood still to allow Samantha to tie it so that the knots were hidden. The waistline was quite high, and the bodice wide but short. The puff sleeves also drew attention to her bust. Isabella checked her reflection in the mirror. The gown lengthened her silhouette, made her waist look tiny, and her skin the coolest ivory.
The Duke might be pleased with what he sees.
She looked over her appearance once more and judged herself quite presentable. A glance at the carriage clock told her that today it had only taken her eleven minutes to dress, twenty if she wanted to include the time spent on her hair.
It was a well-known fact that the Duke of Helmsfield, of note for having lost his limb in some tragic accident in his youth—said accident also having killed his parents—had some queer ways about him.
Amongst the more notable was a luxuriously crafted prosthetic lower leg and foot that he used to move around with. It was made of a wooden shank and socket and had a steel knee joint as well as an articulated foot that was controlled by catgut tendons from knee to ankle, as the maker, James Potts, had designed it to do. There was a great deal of curiosity, talk, and legend around his leg. People whispered that he kept the knife that had killed his parents in there.
Her mother had told Isabella all these things as they rode, together with her father, Colin Addison, Viscount of Gefferton, to Helmsfield House. Isabella listened quietly—a rather unusual thing for her—mostly because to her surprise, she felt quite sorry for the Duke.
His Grace had been embroiled in a situation that was far beyond his control. He had lost a limb in the process. Now the ton thought him strange for trying to live within his changed circumstances to the best of his abilities!
It was sad that he had to endure such suffering and censure.
It must be so lonely for him.
Suddenly, Isabella could not wait to meet him. People had called her eccentric, too, for her love of books and stories about pirates and other villains.
She did not understand why people always disparaged what they did not understand. It was the height of ignorance. She decided there and then that however repulsive he looked, she would take care to treat him with the utmost consideration and respect—just as she would anyone else.
At the very least, we could be friends.
Therefore, she was quite taken aback, when they arrived, to be introduced to a tall, strong man, who was quite attractive with his well-groomed beard, his warm blue gaze, and his genuine smile. It seemed she had been misled. Now she was wondering why he needed his aunt to help him find a wife.
The Duke’s aunt stepped forward after their introduction and wrapped her in an embrace. Isabella stiffened, not having been held so close by a stranger in her entire life.
“I am so happy to meet you,” Lady Edric gushed as her husband smiled indulgently, smoking a cheroot by the fireplace. The Duke stood next to his aunt, hands clasped loosely behind his back. He gave a commiserating smile as if he knew exactly what she was thinking about his aunt. Isabella hoped not because she was thinking that Lady Edric might be a sixpence short of a shilling.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too,” she replied in the most mild-mannered tone she could find, hoping that would quell Lady Edric’s enthusiasm. She turned to her mother. “I believe you know my mother, Lady Gefferton?”
Lady Edric veritably beamed. “Yes, I do.” She proceeded to give Diana the same treatment she had given Isabella. “I am so happy to have you in my home again. And for such a happy occasion.” Her smile could light up the world.
Isabella snuck a glance at the Duke, to see how he was taking all this excess emotion. He had a slightly amused smile on his face, eyes downcast, as if he was used to these mawkish displays. Her father cleared his throat and Isabella jumped. She had almost forgotten he was there. Thankfully, her mother was turning to present him to the company.
“Your Grace, Lord and Lady Edric, may I present my husband, Lord Gefferton.” Her father stepped forward, a solemn look on his face as he bowed to the Duke, Lady and Lord Edric. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is all mine.” His Grace bowed his head at her father and smiled. Isabella could not help smiling, too. Things were going well so far.
“Please, have a seat. What will you have to drink?” Lady Edric hastened to make them feel welcome. Isabella took her cue from her and smiled widely, sitting on the couch Lady Edric pointed to, being not in the least surprised when the Duke took a seat next to her.
Emmanuel settled himself in the seat next to Miss Addison, feeling his hands shake slightly at her nearness. She smelled of daisies and honey cake, she was young and innocent in the purest sense of those words. She could not want to be here, with him. She turned to him with a demure, expectant smile, eyes bright with interest.
He returned her smile, casting around for some trifle to begin their conversation with. A compliment, he decided, would do nicely.
“Your gown is most becoming, Miss Addison.”
Her smile grew wider. “I like your beard, Your Grace.”
That got a raised eyebrow from him. It was captivatingly direct. “Why, thank you, Miss Addison.” He stroked said beard, unable to keep from smiling happily, “I devote many hours to keeping it well groomed.”
“It shows.” She gave him an impish grin and he glanced around at the others in the room, wanting to be certain that they were not eavesdropping on this most unusual conversation.
His aunt was prattling on about something while the others pretended to listen, giving Emmanuel and his intended as much privacy as they were able. He heaved a relieved sigh before turning back to Miss Addison with a grin of his own.
“Would you like to touch it?”
Her laugh was quiet but heartfelt. “Not just at the moment, no.”
“Oh,” he let his face fall theatrically as if she might have thrust an arrow through his heart with her refusal and her laugh was louder and more delighted. That caused everyone else in the room to stop speaking and begin smiling indulgently at them.
“Is everything all right?” Lady Gefferton asked, an eyebrow raised at her daughter.
“Yes, Mother.” Miss Addison’s tone was a trifle sharp and Emmanuel looked from one to the other, wondering at the unsaid things beneath the look that flashed between mother and daughter. In a trice though, the girl’s attention was back on him, and her mother was speaking with his aunt.
“Do you read?”
He was slightly taken aback by the abrupt change in subject but went along with it. “Why, yes, I do.”
“Oh, and what are you reading now?” She looked so earnest, her large brown eyes swallowing her face. He stiffened as he noticed the line of freckles dotting her nose.
What would she do if I leaned down, stuck my tongue out and licked along that line? Would she lean into me? Or push me away?
The question made his britches tighten in a most uncomfortable way and he hoped he would not be required to stand for quite a while. Her freckles seemed to wink knowingly at him and he transferred his gaze to her lips.
He swallowed as he tried to recall her question. “Well, currently I am reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”
Miss Addison gasped, stiffening and straightening her spine and inadvertently causing her bosom to thrust out at him. He was hard pressed to pay attention to her words. “Is that so? I have been asking and asking for my father to purchase it, but he will not.”
“Well, it is not really suitable reading for a young lady such as yourself. The subject matter is a trifle disturbing.”
Miss Addison thrust her chin defiantly at him. “I am not afraid of words in a book.”
“Oh no, it is not the words you should fear, but what your imagination might do with them.”
She stared at him as if he had just recited the Sermon on the Mount. “That is a very profound thought.”
To his absolute horror, Emmanuel found that he was blushing. “Oh, well…I thank you.” He reached up to his neck, loosening his cravat slightly. The temperature in the room seemed to have risen. To his relief, the butler chose that moment to announce that dinner was served.
Aunt Helen rose to her feet excitedly. “I arranged for us to eat under the stars, in the conservatory. I must say that the staff have outdone themselves. Follow me.”
Emmanuel got to his feet, proffering his arm so that Miss Addison could take it. She slipped her arm into his with a smile and Emmanuel felt something in him let go…all the worry he had been carrying about this meeting dissipated.
Isabella did not watch him as they walked, or ask if she should adjust her steps to accommodate his gait. He was grateful for that. In spite of his doubts about it all, he had spent hours upon hours practicing how to walk without the slightest indication of a limp. She smiled at him, letting him lead her to the glass-framed room, the front wall of which opened onto a large veranda.
Lanterns had been strung up in the trees outside and several musicians were employed with providing a soft and romantic musical background just out of sight, on the veranda. Torches were set at intervals along the garden paths just beyond a large grassy area.
Then they all sat down to their meal.
Emmanuel had to admit that his aunt had outdone herself when it came to setting the scene. Every ton hostess pursued the new and unusual, wanting to create a memorable event that would be talked about all Season. With the weather turning from spring to summer, it was cool enough that they could enjoy the soft air that carried the delicate scents of white blooming flowers, eerily glowing in the moonlight. The seemingly infinite number of candles allowed them to eat comfortably yet didn’t impinge on the romantic shimmering of the stars and moon. The light played upon Miss Addison’s face, casting her in a warm glow that made her seem almost ethereal; a creature from another realm come to enchant him.
She spoiled the illusion by turning to grin at him, her almost childlike delight in the setting making his chest swell with happiness, even though he had nothing to do with bringing it about. “This is lovely.”
He nodded his agreement. “Indeed. My aunt wanted this night to be very special for us.”
“Well, she succeeded….or at least, I think so.” She suddenly looked uncertain and Emmanuel could not have that.
“I think so, too. Here, may I get you a glass of claret?”
“Oh, thank you, Your Grace. That is so kind.”
Emmanuel nodded, at a loss for what to say and signaled for the footman to pour the wine. The soup was served soon after and the dinner table quieted down as everyone focused on their meal.
Emmanuel took the chance to study the girl’s father. They had barely spoken two words to each other and Emmanuel thought he should remedy that fairly soon. If Lord Gefferton were to be his father-in-law, it would be good for them to be on friendly terms. Especially since he did not look as comfortable as his wife and daughter with this arrangement.
Isabella was floating.
The atmosphere, the wine, the conversation…everything was exceeding her wildest expectations. She had expected to meet an ogre, a repulsive man, a man for whom she might extend a charitable hand of friendship and feel at the very most, pity for him.
Instead, she had been introduced to the Duke of Helmsfield. The manner in which he was unfazed by her ‘mad’ talk—as her mother would put it—his wise words, his captivating blue eyes, and warm smile all served to intoxicate her as much as the wine. She was beginning to think that this match might just have been made in Heaven.
She turned to watch the Duke as he ate his pudding slowly, his eyes guarded as he studied her parents. She wondered what he could possibly be thinking. She turned her head to study them, too, trying to see them through his eyes.
Her mother sparkled with wit—and a myriad of jewelry—as she was wont to do. She made one feel at ease with her grace. She was poised, the very epitome of a lady. Continuously despairing of making a lady out of Isabella, she nevertheless accepted all her foibles without judgment.
Her father was a different case.
He was aloof, cold…he concerned himself with their financial welfare and general well-being, but he was not one to engage with his children. Isabella was aware that she hardly knew him. They lived like ships passing in the night; she occupied by her reading and her mother’s attempts to teach her to sew, knit, and do needlework, play the piano and sing.
She had been unsuccessful in all but the knitting. Isabella did enjoy the rhythmic clackety-clack of needles as she forged a scarf out of bits of wool. She could sew as well, because it was a necessary skill, but found no enjoyment in it. Her piano playing was mediocre at best and she dare not sing in company, though she was not above belting out a ribald verse or two, when she came across it in her reading. Only when she was alone, of course.
In her father’s company, she tended to be silent, the very picture of demure obedience. She knew he liked it that way, and imitated her older sisters in that regard. He had barely spoken a word to His Grace or his family. Isabella supposed that was bordering on rude. She did not think that was his intention, however, perhaps he was simply uncomfortable in their company.
He was not normally an amiable man but he was generally unflappable. A Gefferton always kept calm in a crisis. Yet Isabella could detect a film of sweat on his forehead. It was barely warm even with the soft breeze and so Isabella could not imagine why her father would be perspiring…unless he was anxious in some way.
A Gefferton always moved forward—Isabella felt her life was moving more tonight than it had since her Presentation and first Season.
Perhaps he is worried that I will reject the Duke because of his leg?
Isabella turned at once, to smile at His Grace, and to show him in every way that she was interested in furthering their acquaintance. The music swelled as the footmen brought a syllabub.
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