Authors: Manda Collins
“Damnation,” Trevor muttered. “I told the bastard to leave her alone.”
“What’s going on, Trevor?” Lucien asked. “You told me before that the fellow had been a crony of Wharton’s, but this seems more serious than that.”
“He’s blackmailing her,” Trevor said in a low voice. “He forced her to meet him last night in the garden, not knowing I’d followed her. I mean to see to it that he leaves her alone for good.”
His back straight, he looked across the ballroom where Thistleback was holding court with several of the local ladies. His type was manipulative enough to charm those who had no suspicions of his true nature. And unless Trevor wished to ruin Isabella’s reputation, he could say nothing publicly about the fellow.
“He looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth,” Lucien muttered. “I’ve always hated a bully. Especially one who preys on females. Just say the word and we’ll ensure that he doesn’t try it again.”
Trevor was grateful for his friend’s support but said, “I would if I didn’t think it would harm Isabella’s reputation more than his. We’ll just keep a careful eye on the bastard and if he hasn’t left the neighborhood tomorrow morning we’ll ensure he’s on the next mail coach back to London.”
The current dance ended then, and Trevor looked across to where Isabella’s partner bowed low over her hand. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said. “I must go waltz with Isabella.”
“Lucky bastard,” he heard Lucien mutter as he walked away.
As he approached her, he saw Isabella’s eyes soften as she spotted him. When he reached her side, he greeted her partner, Mr. Fellowes, a local gentleman who had made his fortune with several cotton mills. “Fellowes, haven’t seen much of you this spring.”
The other man bowed. “Ormonde. I’ve been in London. Business, don’t you know?”
Trevor had always been impressed by the other man’s plain speaking when it came to his business dealings. He wished that more people would be so open. “Understood,” he said. “I believe I’ll be making a trip south before too much time has passed. Also on a matter of business.”
Trevor felt Isabella’s gaze on him but did not betray his awareness as he chatted a little with Fellowes about local matters. Finally when the strains of the waltz began, the other man bowed, thanked Isabella for the dance, and took himself off.
“So,” she said as Trevor took her in his arms, holding her slightly closer than was allowed, “you weren’t joking about your plans to go to London.”
“I’ve only just decided it tonight,” he said as they began to dance. “I’ve decided that it’s time for me to visit the dowager, and to make my bows at court.”
“What brought about this change?” she asked, her eyes narrowed, as if she suspected him of some trick. He couldn’t blame her, given the men she’d been accustomed to. “I thought you were still thinking matters over.”
“I thought it might encourage a certain gentleman to leave you be,” he said firmly.
She colored at the mention of Thistleback. “I hardly think he’ll be dissuaded from pestering me by your decision to go to London. He knows London. He’ll have little trouble finding somewhere to run to ground.”
“I will simply have to be persuasive,” Trevor said with a flash of teeth. “I can be, you know.”
“I have little doubt of that,” she said lowering her lashes.
They’d neared the doors leading to a side terrace, and with ease Trevor swept them both through the doors and out onto the flagstones.
Most of the guests had chosen to take the air on the main terrace. This was a smaller, more intimate garden that was formed around a large fountain with the god Pan very prettily spitting water back into the pool below.
“What are we doing here?” she asked as she walked around to the back of the fountain, where they wouldn’t be seen from the doorway. Her face was flushed from the dancing, and Trevor was having the devil of a time keeping his eyes from the creamy skin exposed by her gown. In answer to his question, he merely raised a brow. If possible, she blushed even more. “Oh,” she said as he stepped closer, unable to keep his hands to himself anymore.
He’d expected some sort of protest from her, but she said nothing as he slid his hands up her arms and touched her gently on the face. “Isabella,” he said, even as his mouth descended upon hers and took her lips in a surprisingly gentle kiss.
She made a soft sound of acquiescence as she opened her lips beneath his. Trevor nearly growled with approval as she slipped her hands beneath his coat and pulled him to her.
“Ah, god,” he whispered as he took her bottom lip between his teeth and sucked. She was intoxicating. There was no other way to describe the effect she had on him, he mused as he kissed his way down her chin, over the soft skin of her neck, and down, down to her cleavage, where he dipped his tongue before tugging down her bodice for a glimpse of her bare breast. “This gown has been begging me to do this all evening.”
Her fingers threaded through his hair, Isabella sighed with pleasure as his lips closed over her peaked nipple. “We shouldn’t be doing this,” she exhaled. “Eleanor—”
“Is being watched by Lucien,” Trevor said, moving to Isabella’s other breast. “God, Isabella,” he said, moving back up her body to take her mouth in a fierce kiss. “You make me lose all semblance of civilized behavior,” he muttered. “I want to carry you off to bed and keep you there until neither of us is able to walk.”
“Trevor,” she whispered, kissing him with flattering abandon. “I stayed awake for hours last night thinking of you. Of this.”
“Me, too,” he said, thrusting his tongue against hers. The heat of her mouth made his erection, if possible, even harder. “God, me, too.” He let his hands wander down to grasp her bottom, pulling her body against his.
With one hand he slid the sleeve of her gown down over her shoulder, and allowed his mouth to follow a path down her neck and lower. She was beginning to grind her pelvis against him when a voice called from the terrace doorway, “Perhaps they are out here, Miss Eleanor.”
At the sound Trevor froze and pulled back from Isabella. They both stood panting for a moment. There was no disguising the fact that Isabella had just been thoroughly kissed. He helped her pull up the bodice of her gown and smoothed her hair, though it had escaped enough pins to look wanton. Allowing her to smooth his own hair a bit, he pulled his coat back into place, took her hand, and led her around the fountain to face their search party.
“Ah, here you are, Your Grace,” Mrs. Palmer crooned, her face alight with excitement as she took in their disarray. “And Lady Wharton.”
“Mrs. Palmer,” Trevor said, his coolness revealing that he had no doubt that their hostess had deliberately sought them out. He saw Eleanor slightly behind the older woman, looking apologetic.
“I only asked if she’d seen you,” his sister said. “I did not ask her to go looking for you.”
“It’s all right, Eleanor,” Isabella said with a smile. “You did nothing wrong.” Her voice implied that Mrs. Palmer was not so innocent.
A silence descended upon them before Trevor made a split-second decision that would affect all of them. But he had to do something to save Isabella’s reputation. He was the idiot who’d risked it by taking her into the garden, and he was the one who must make it right. “Mrs. Palmer,” he said, his voice sounding hoarse to his own ears. “You and Eleanor may be the first to wish me happy. Lady Wharton has just consented to be my wife.”
* * *
Isabella felt every muscle in her body tense. She turned to stare at Trevor. “What did you…?”
“Darling,” he said, squeezing her hand. “I know we said we’d wait to make the announcement, but we’ve just been caught out. And I, for one, cannot wait to inform the world that you have accepted me.”
Trust me, his eyes said. And Isabella found herself unable to contradict him. He clearly had some sort of plan, and he had thus far proved to be an honorable man, so she would let his announcement stand. For now.
“I know, sweetheart,” she said, squeezing his hand more tightly than absolutely necessary. “I merely wished for a bit of time. To inform my own family, you know. How surprised they will be.”
Mrs. Palmer looked from Trevor to Isabella, then back again. It was clear she found the timing of the announcement to be suspicious, but she was hardly one to look a gift horse in the mouth. “My dears,” she gushed. “I am so happy for you both!”
She rushed forward to step between them, taking them each by the hand and leading them into the ballroom, where, conveniently, the current dance was just ending. “Everyone!” she cried. “Attention! Please!”
The guests in the ballroom turned to face their hostess, looking expectant.
“I have just had the most wonderful news! The Duke of Ormonde and Lady Isabella Wharton have just informed me that they are engaged to be married!”
The room erupted in chatter as the assembled guests took in the news.
Sir Lucien stepped forward to grip Trevor’s hand. “Congratulations, you old devil,” he said. “You are a complete hand! I never guessed for a moment that you’d planned to announce this tonight.”
At a speaking glance from Trevor Sir Lucien’s eyes sharpened and he nodded. Not betraying his suspicions, he turned to Isabella and kissed her on the cheek. “Congratulations, Lady Wharton,” he said.
Still unable to reconcile herself with what had just happened, Isabella accepted Sir Lucien’s congratulations and was soon engulfed by ball guests eager to offer her their felicitations. It was a far cry from her first engagement announcement, which had been a private affair among her, Wharton, and her parents, who had been less than enthusiastic at the match.
When Eleanor stepped forward, Isabella was surprised to see tears in the girl’s eyes. “I am so sorry, Isabella,” Eleanor said quietly. “I had no idea Mrs. Palmer would go looking for the two of you like that. I merely inquired if she’d seen you and before I knew it she was scouring the terraces for you.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Isabella soothed the girl. She had enough to worry about without adding guilt over trapping her brother into marriage. “Mrs. Palmer is a force to be reckoned with and I have little doubt that she’d have gone on a search sooner or later without any prompting from you. I am only glad that it was your brother I went outside with and not someone else.”
Eleanor frowned. “You wouldn’t have, though?” she asked. “Gone out on the terrace with anyone else, I mean?”
“Of course not,” Isabella assured her, though she was not quite ready to forgive Trevor for his announcement.
The girl relaxed a bit. “Good. Because I think you will make him a splendid wife. He is so serious, you know. And I know the duty of the dukedom weighs upon him no matter how he might pretend that it doesn’t. He’s seemed much happier since you came to stay. Though I know he protested at first.”
Isabella filed the girl’s words away for further examination later. Now she said, “Thank you, Eleanor. No matter what happens between your brother and me, I wish you to know that you can always come to me if you have need of advice or just a sympathetic ear.”
Eleanor didn’t seem to like the implication that this business between Isabella and Trevor might not last, but she did not say so. She simply embraced Isabella and turned to wish her brother congratulations.
The next well-wisher was as unwelcome as his hostess had been.
“I see that you have once more landed on your feet, Lady Isabella,” Sir Lionel Thistleback said, his smile wide so that if anyone was to see them talking they would assume he was merely offering his congratulations to an old friend. “I hope that His Grace realizes what sort of woman he is getting entangled with. I wonder if he knows just how Wharton used to—”
Before the man could continue, Isabella felt Trevor step close to her, slipping his arm about her waist. “Thistleback,” he said, his mouth smiling but his eyes deadly serious. “I am well aware of how you spent last evening, and I would advise you to quit this neighborhood before your health becomes, shall we say, endangered.”
Thistleback’s eyes narrowed with hatred, but he did not betray any trace of his true feelings in the rest of his posture. “I was just telling my hosts that I will be heading back to London tomorrow, Your Grace,” he said jovially. “I was merely saying my good-byes to Lady Isabella. Her late husband would be quite pleased to know she was being so well looked after.”
Perhaps realizing that he did himself no favors by continuing to press his attentions on Isabella, he turned and walked away, leaving Trevor and Isabella to themselves.
“If he approaches you again,” Trevor said quietly, “you are to let me know at once. I will not have him threatening you again.”
She knew well enough that Thistleback had only left the field for now. But to Trevor she simply said, “Of course.”
Thistleback, she was afraid, would need to be routed by Isabella, and Isabella alone.
* * *
There was no time for further discussion with Isabella at the Palmer ball, and in the carriage on the way home, accompanied as they were by Eleanor, was hardly the place either.
When they arrived back at Nettlefield, it was to find that Belinda—against Miss Nightingale’s orders—had snuck back downstairs after bedtime to wait for her sister.
Before Isabella or Trevor could stop her, Eleanor burst out with the news. “Bel, you’ll never guess it! Trevor and Lady Wharton are going to be married!”
Since the girl had been quiet beyond a brief congratulations in the carriage, Isabella found her enthusiasm over the match when she shared the news with her sister to be a bit surprising, but it seemed genuine enough. Belinda, however, was the one who was truly impressed with the news.
“That’s so wonderful!” she screeched, throwing herself into Isabella’s arms to give her a huge hug. “I knew that Trevor wasn’t so foolish as we thought him to be!”
“Thanks indeed,” her brother said with mock enthusiasm. “I’m glad I finally meet with your approval.”
“Oh, you know what I mean, Trevor,” his younger sister said with a grin. “It’s just that you haven’t done a very good job of choosing a wife. And we’d quite given up hope.”
“Belinda, dearest,” Isabella told the girl, “you musn’t be so outspoken. You’ll hurt your brother’s feelings.”