Lincolnshire, May 1814
A single candle illuminated the library. Isabel could barely distinguish the outline of the massive desk at the far end of the room and the bookshelves lining three of the walls. But she had been here before and knew what she had to do. By the end of this night she would be betrothed to the Earl of Caenby.
Isabel stood in the middle of the library with her hands on her hips and squinted into the darkness. The dim light was romantic, but the room smelled a bit too much like leather and ink. She wished she had brought her perfume. No room would be the worse for a hint of jasmine.
The weak light of a waning moon picked out the low settee in the corner. Isabel smiled. There was her destination and, she hoped, her destiny. This damask-covered piece of furniture would help her accomplish what countless dropped hints and whispered enticements had failed to do. There, the Earl of Caenby would finally realize that she was meant to be his countess.
Isabel crossed the room, her slippers silent against the deep pile of the carpet. Taking care not to wrinkle the skirts of her elegant silk gown, she bent to position some cushions against the back of the settee. If there was one thing her ten long years with the late Baron Ashby had taught her, it was to take care of the details before setting a plan in motion.
When everything was arranged to her satisfaction, Isabel settled herself on the upholstered seat, removed the pins from her hair and leaned back. After a moment, she sat up again, loosened her tapes and shrugged her gown off one shoulder. Then she waited.
And waited. She had sent a note that should have brought the earl to the library ten minutes since. As the clock on the Adam mantelpiece ticked away the minutes, Isabel wondered, not for the first time, if a planned compromise might be an inauspicious way to begin a marriage.
But it was too late to wonder now. The door to the library eased open and Isabel could see the silhouette of a man’s head against the dim light of the hall sconces. “Come in.” Her voice was a low, intimate murmur.
The door swung inward and Isabel wriggled her gown a little lower around her shoulders. “Over here.”
The dark figure hesitated at the threshold, shrugged, closed the door with a soft click and crossed the room.
The cushions sank as he lowered himself onto the settee. She leaned forward, seeking him in the dark. Her hands met a solid wall of chest. She hesitated only a moment before sliding them over his broad shoulders and wrapping her arms around his neck.
Isabel inhaled deeply, imbibing the fascinating scent of clean linen, sandalwood and masculine flesh. She pressed herself against the hard chest and moved sinuously.
Strong arms came around her and hauled her close. A mouth came down on hers and demanded a response. Lips like velvet caressed her own and a tongue of tantalizing sweetness sought entrance to her mouth.
Isabel parted her lips and met the invading tongue, inviting it to continue the incursion, offering the access it demanded and that she suddenly could not wait to provide. Warmth flooded her body and left her light-headed. Had she known Edward kissed like this, she would have cornered him months ago.
His mouth was an unending source of delight. No sooner had Isabel adjusted her rhythm to the fierce duel of tongues than his retreated and the kiss became a field of pleasure. The pressure of his lips shifted from level to level, from demanding to coaxing, from ravenous to tender.
And just as Isabel was lulled into a voluptuous haze, he nipped at her lips and, drawing the lower one into his mouth, sucked like a boy with his first lemon drop.
The kiss went on forever. Floating in the warm stream of desire, Isabel forgot why she was there, forgot everything but the pressure of smooth lips, the wine-scented breath, the texture of his tongue, the comfort of his arms.
Gradually, Edward’s embrace eased and his hands drifted to her shoulders and lingered there, the palms making soft circles against her skin. He skimmed his hands down her arms and her loosened bodice fell away from her body. He hesitated only briefly before sliding his hands into the gaping front of her gown.
Isabel gasped as confident hands closed on her breasts, stroking deftly over the sheer lawn of her chemise until she ached. She emitted a low gurgle of surprised pleasure and arched her back, pressing her breasts upward, begging, inarticulately, for more.
Thumbs circled her nipples and then grazed the tips. With a soft moan, Isabel fell back against the cushions, breathing heavily. She had never imagined that Edward’s hands would be so hard and masterful, that they could bring such pleasure.
Burning, Isabel reached up and drew her dark lover down with her. Her lips parted and the library door opened.
Isabel came to her senses. This was what she had planned, was it not? There would be time enough for pleasure once she and Edward were wed. She sat up, making a show of covering herself, and looked toward the door. Her aunt appeared, holding a large branch of candles and with her, just as Isabel had hoped, stood the entire party.
Straightening her clothes, Isabel surveyed the group. Her aunt and her maid, the Broadribbs, Lady Augusta, Sir Henry and Maria Kendrick crowded the doorway. And, right behind Lady Louisa, Edward Burnet, Earl of Caenby.
Isabel whirled around to find Major Sidney Chamberlayne standing at attention beside the settee: half-pay officer newly returned from the Peninsula, younger son without a feather to fly with. No title, no fortune, no prospects. Her heart sank.
“But, you were…”
The major stood ramrod straight in stricken silence, his face drained of all color.
Isabel grabbed at her clothes and lurched to her feet, struggling to pull up her bodice in earnest. She faced the group who had by now crowded into the room. “It is not what you think.” She turned a pleading look toward the earl.
The earl examined the disheveled couple standing before him, an astonished smile stealing over his face. “I take it I am to wish you happy.”
As Isabel stammered, searching for a response, Sidney Chamberlayne stepped forward and stood beside her, his face a grim mask. “I thank you, Lord Caenby. We thank you. We hope, of course, to be married as soon as possible.”
Sidney watched the earl usher his guests out of the room and Lady Louisa close the door firmly behind him. Then he returned his attention to the insensate woman sprawled on the sofa. His head spun. How had this happened? One moment he had been thoroughly enjoying the favors of a willing lady and the next moment he was betrothed. Had she meant to entrap him? That hardly seemed likely.
Without doubt, she was lovely. Sidney had been fascinated by her creamy skin and generous figure the moment he laid eyes on her. And, although she had greeted him graciously and possibly even given him a second glance, it was obvious that Lady Ashby was not interested in a half-pay officer even if his brother was an earl.
When he looked up again, he found Lady Louisa examining him with a critical eye. He remembered her vaguely. He had met her once or twice when he was a boy and he knew his mother spoke highly of Louisa Colton.
Sidney read the question in Lady Louisa’s keen gaze and straightened from his contemplation of her somnolent niece. “I will marry her.”
“Indeed you will, young man.” Despite her age, Lady Louisa could have faced down Sidney’s entire regiment. “Be at Bruton Place by the end of the week and bring a special license.” When Sidney remained mute, she continued, “I know your mother and brother, young man, and most likely your commanding officer. I will see you ruined in society and in the army if you do not make this right.”
Sidney could feel his jaw tighten. “Madam, if you think I will not do my duty by Lady Ashby, you do not know me very well.”
“I do not know you at all, sir. But I believe that is about to change. I will see you in London.” Opening the door to admit Isabel’s maid, Lady Louisa turned on her heel and stalked out.
On a gasp, Isabel regained consciousness. “Get away from me.” She jerked herself upright and flung out an arm, knocking the vinaigrette out of her maid’s hand. “What?”
Why was she in her bedchamber at Caenby Castle? The maid offered the vinaigrette that must have brought her to consciousness. Isabel grimaced at her. “Where did you find that vile stuff?
When the maid abruptly drew back her hand, Isabel shook her head. “Pay no attention to me, Willington. I think you had better just go away.”
As the maid closed the door behind her, Isabel threw herself back on the bed and inspected the hangings. They were expensive and elegant like everything else in Caenby Castle, damn it all, and they were meant to be hers. How had someone other than the earl found his way into the library at just the wrong moment?
Isabel had given Willington explicit instructions about how to get the earl into the library and then the rest of the guests. Her ploy had failed miserably. Isabel could feel tears of frustration threatening to spill over. She groaned and buried her face in her pillow. It was a foolish idea to begin with. She probably deserved her comeuppance.
Isabel slammed her fist into the mattress and gritted her teeth, vowing to find a way out of this mess. She rolled back over and pulled herself up against the headboard to review her options just as her chamber door opened to admit Lady Louisa.
“What do you want?” Isabel was in no mood to face her Aunt Louisa’s acerbic tongue.
“I came to see if you were well, my dear. Why else would I come?” Louisa Colton approached Isabel’s bedside.
“I imagine you came to read me a lecture.”
“Do you believe you deserve a lecture?” Lady Louisa assumed an expression that Isabel knew all too well.
Cringing, Isabel hoisted herself up higher on the bed. “I was remarkably stupid.”
“Indeed you were, young lady.” Louisa plumped herself onto the nearest armchair. “What were you doing in the library in the dark?”
“Oh!” Isabel slid off the bed and began to pace the room, taking care not to step off the cream-colored Aubusson carpet, lest she damage her delicate stockings. “Oh, it is a disaster. It was to be Edward. Why was he not the one to come to me? I gave Willington explicit directions. What was that… that… major doing in the library?” Isabel stopped suddenly, aware that, in her agitation, she had spoken too plainly.
When Lady Louisa responded with a single raised eyebrow, Isabel decided she had nothing to lose.
“I must see Edward right away.” Isabel turned and sat at her dressing table, trying to tuck her hair back into its pins. After several unsuccessful attempts, she dropped her brush onto the table. “Where is Willington? She’s never around when she’s needed.
“If I am not mistaken,” Lady Louisa said, “you sent her out just before I arrived at your door.” She gave Isabel a trenchant look.
“Well!” Isabel shrugged eloquently and turned back to her mirror. “Nevertheless…”
“Nevertheless, my dear, I would suggest you refrain from chasing after the earl.”
Isabel regarded her reflection as she spoke, leaning forward to search for a sign of wrinkles. Finding none, she sat back. She may have turned thirty in the past week, but she had retained her youthful appearance. Hadn’t she?
She glanced at her aunt. “Chasing? Have I been chasing?”
“If you haven’t then I would like to know what you might call that little scene in the library?” Lady Louisa’s gaze narrowed as Isabel straightened in her chair.
“Very well. If you insist on discussing this. I just thought to give Edward a little nudge. It’s obvious we are meant to be together and he has been dragging his feet for months. And I’m not growing any younger.” In truth, she had thought to be married to the earl before she turned thirty. Now it was too late for that.
Thirty and unwed. As the date had approached, Isabel had conceived an overwhelming desire for the security of a ton marriage. The round of gaiety on which she had embarked when her mourning ended did not promise much in the way of certainty. The thought of spending the rest of her life as a merry widow, with no children or husband, loomed cold and lonely.
“It is obvious to me that the Earl of Caenby is smitten with Maria Kendrick and has not turned an eye on any other woman since he met her.” Lady Louisa leaned back and ran a smoothing hand over her violet skirts. “But that is neither here nor there. You are now betrothed to Mr. Chamberlayne.”
“What nonsense!” Isabel whirled around to face her aunt. “Mr. Chamberlayne no more wants to marry me than I want to marry him. It is absurd to think that we should marry simply because of a minor indiscretion and I will not hear of it. Not another word.”
“He seems a perfectly nice young man and you obviously want to marry again or you would not have played out this evening’s little farce.” Louisa’s expression plainly said she would brook no argument.
“I want to marry the Earl of Caenby.” Isabel could hear her own voice rising and strove to calm herself. She would not permit herself to sound like a petulant child. “Lord I was such a fool.” Good. Her voice sounded under control.
“You have acted foolishly, my dear, but you are not a fool. However, I think you have failed to see that Lord Caenby doesn’t wish to marry you.”
“Well, you may be right.” Isabel sighed gustily and rose from her chair. “But that has nothing to say to my marrying a penniless nobody who happened to…” Isabel’s speech faltered at the memory of what Mr. Chamberlayne had happened to do. “…happened to enter the library at the wrong time.”
Lady Louisa’s face set in a determined expression. “You have been compromised – and by your own hand. You will have to pay the piper.”
“Compromised? Nonsense.” Her temper returning, Isabel stalked to the dressing room door and flung it open. “I am a widow, not some milk and water miss.” She peered into the darkened room with no notion of what she was seeking.
“And yet,” Lady Louisa said, “you intended to trap the earl with just such a compromise, did you not?”
“Oh, honestly. Must you be so reasonable?” Isabel gave her aunt a frustrated glance. “This is a matter of the heart.”
“I think not.” Lady Louisa rose from her chair and moved toward the chamber door. “I think this is a matter of the will and you have had yours thwarted. Get accustomed to it, my dear. I do not believe Sidney Chamberlayne will be easily led. Sweet dreams.”
As Lady Louisa closed the door behind her, Isabel threw herself on the bed and grabbed a pillow. Burying her face in the soft cushion, she groaned. She was as annoyed with herself as she was with the outcome of this night’s adventure. Furious, really, that she had allowed her fear of growing old alone to drive her into an alliance she had never contemplated and certainly did not desire.
Sidney Chamberlayne was packing when his host tracked him to his room.
The Earl of Caenby strode into Sidney’s room and made himself comfortable before the banked fire. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I am to London to procure a license, as I am sure you must be aware.” Sidney did not look up from his trunk.
“This is not necessary, you know.” The earl shifted anxiously in his chair.
“Oh, I’m afraid it is,” Sidney said.
“Don’t tell me it’s because of that stupid remark I made about wishing you happy. Isabel Ashby has been trying to haul me before a vicar ever since I inherited the earldom. I didn’t mean anything by it. And she will survive a jilting.”
Sidney snapped to attention and whirled to face the earl. “This is my betrothed you are speaking of, Edward, regardless of the circumstance. And I will thank you not to drag her name or her reputation through the mud.”
“You mean to marry her?” The earl’s tone was incredulous.
“I do. I compromised the lady and I intend to meet my obligations.”
“Your obligations?” The earl stood and walked to the other side of the trunk, facing Sidney. “She is a widow, man. She can take care of herself.”
Sidney straightened from his task and glared at his friend. “She is a lady who has been found in dishabille in my arms. Do you intend to marry her?”
“Me?” The earl’s voice broke on the word. “No. No, I mean to marry Miss Kendrick. I mean to marry for love.”
“Most commendable,” Sidney said, dryly. “I mean to marry for honor.”
“Oh lord, Sidney, return to your regiment. It is where you belong.”
“My regiment is not presently engaged, as I am sure you read in the papers, Edward. I am slated for a glorified clerk and have very little taste for it.” Sidney peered into his trunk. Had he forgotten anything?
“Are you marrying the little widow for her estate, then? It is not a bad match in that respect.” The earl seemed truly puzzled.
Sidney looked up, striving to keep his expression empty. “Not for the money, no. Nor for the widow, although I will admit that kissing her was a delectable experience. I am marrying her because it is what I should do.” He hesitated and then went on. “What I will do.”
The earl shook his head despairingly. “I got you into this mess, Chamberlayne. What can I do?”
“You have already done it, Edward. Wish me happy.” Sidney bent to fasten the straps around his trunk.
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