A Lord's Chance, page 1
A Lord’s Chance
A Passport to Romance Novella
A Lord’s Chance
About the Author
A Lord’s Chance
Southern coast of Spain, October, 1852
* * *
The smell of deck tar warming under the Mediterranean sun made Miss Isabelle Strathmore smile beneath the brim of her second-best bonnet. She was shipboard once again and in the climate she loved best. Despite the memories lodged within her like hard pebbles, she could not help but surrender to the dry light and warm air as the steamship Floramay turned south, toward Morocco.
Even her stalwart companion, Mrs. Hodges, had given a satisfied harrumph at their first sight of orange groves reaching down to the sea, the heady fragrance borne offshore so that the air was a mix of salt and sweet.
“Look there.” Mrs. Hodges pointed toward the shore with the tip of her ever-present black umbrella.
In the distance the white buildings of Cadiz shone in the sunshine, the pale towers of the cathedral clear against the blue sky.
Isabelle turned her back to the railing, her mood dimming.
“I shall not recall it.”
Five years ago, she had argued with her cousin in those very streets, her foolish heart set on a course for disaster.
But she was older now, and wiser, moving through the world with a guarded heart and open eyes. This journey to the Mediterranean, she would not fall in love, nor suffer the awful consequences of that emotion.
“At least the sea has learned to behave, instead of plunging up and down in a most nauseating fashion.” Mrs. Hodges frowned at the water.
“I’m glad you’ve found your sea legs at last,” Isabelle said.
During their last trip out, her companion had often been laid low by seasickness. But despite her curmudgeonly exterior, Mrs. Hodges possessed the soul of an adventurer. Why else had she agreed to accompany Isabelle on a Grand Tour culminating in Greece?
“I don’t know if your family will ever be done gallivanting about the globe,” the older woman had said. “What with your father’s scientific inclinations, I’m sure he’ll end up traveling to the farthest reaches of the globe before he’s done. Botanists!”
Isabelle had not suggested that Mrs. Hodges stay at home instead of accompanying her on this trip, of course. It would be rather an insult, and besides, Isabelle was still of an age where a companion was necessary.
Maybe in a few more years, Isabelle herself would take on the role of companion or governess to some gently bred young lady. She’d never marry, of course. Even though her parents enjoyed a happy life together, she knew that path was not for her.
She let out a quiet breath and turned back to the railing, staring pensively down at the glittering waves. The sea was as impenetrable as her own future—the surface clear, but the depths beyond quite impossible to look into. Nothing but blue-green shadows shading into black.
“Miss Strathmore!” A man’s voice rang out across the deck.
Isabelle glanced up to see a sandy-haired fellow striding toward her. It was Lord Weston, who, upon coming aboard in Lisbon, had commenced flirting outrageously with her. While she found it a bit annoying, he was an amiable gentleman and harmless enough.
He was accompanied by the dark and quiet Lord Jasper, who, like a shadow, seemed to follow his friend about as though he had no choice in the matter. Where Lord Weston was a boisterous, happy retriever, Lord Jasper was an aloof black cat who hardly deigned to glance at the humans among whom he found himself.
“Good day,” Isabelle said as the gentlemen joined her at the railing.
“It very much is, now that we have discovered you in it,” Lord Weston said. “Are you planning to go ashore this afternoon? I most fervently hope you say yes so that we might accompany you.” He shot a look at his friend, who was staring at the water and seemingly paying no attention to the conversation at hand. “What do you think, Gav? A jaunt to Morocco will be just the thing.”
“Certainly.” Lord Jasper flicked a disinterested glance at Isabelle, his dark-gray eyes barely resting for a moment on her face before he looked away again.
What an irritating fellow!
While she was not overfond of the fawning attentions of Lord Weston, at least she was accustomed to such regard. It was unpleasantly novel to be treated as though she were scarcely there.
She’d gathered that Lord Gavin Reed, the Earl of Jasper, was traveling with his friend in the wake of some unfortunate personal circumstance. Unlike Mrs. Hodges, he apparently had not been softened in the least by the sunshine and balmy air.
“When we dock in Tangier, we’ll be sure to look for you,” Isabelle said to Lord Weston, pointedly ignoring his friend. Two could play that game, after all.
And if Lord Jasper’s dark good looks reminded her too much of a certain other lord on a certain other journey, then it was all to the good that they had as little to do with each other as possible. The last thing Isabelle needed was another reminder that her heart could never be trusted.
Gavin Reed, the Earl of Jasper, frowned at his friend Lord Weston as they returned to their elegantly appointed cabin.
“In my opinion, you should stay away from that young lady,” Gavin said. “A fortune hunter if ever I’ve seen one, and she’s old enough to be getting desperate.”
William Tuttle, who bore the title of Viscount Weston, laughed. “You’re just afraid that any pretty young lady is after your money and title. Which, considering your last affaire de coeur, I can understand. But not all women are Rosalie.”
“Or Amanda? Or Faith?” Gavin couldn’t help the edge in his voice.
Will’s smile turned wry. “It’s true, you have the worst luck with women. You’re simply too handsome, more’s the pity.”
“Not to mention rich. What is that so-called universal truth . . . that I must be in want of a wife?” Gavin shook his shoulders, trying to dislodge the notion.
He strode the few paces to his bunk and stood there, balancing against the gentle rolling of the ship. The porthole showed blue, and paler blue, and blue again as the sea and sky traded places in his view.
“When I let you talk me into this jaunt,” he said, “you promised no romantic entanglements.”
“For you!” Will removed his hat and hung it on the tiny bentwood stand. “I’m perfectly happy flirting with any pretty girl who comes my way. That doesn’t mean you have to.”
“Yes—but I don’t like having to watch as some young miss sets her claws in you.”
“Miss Strathmore is perfectly delightful,” Will said. “And you are too suspicious. I know that the young women you’ve encountered of late are less than ideal, but at some point you’re going to have to take a chance on one of them.”
Gavin crossed his arms. It was useless to argue with his friend. The whole conversation was stirring unpleasant emotions, and he’d come on this trip to try and get away from such things.
And if he were being quite honest, he was, in fact, more than ready to settle down, take up residence at his vast country estate, and run it, he hoped, as deftly as his father had.
He wanted a companion—very well, a wife—who could take on the management of the household and bear him heirs. His mother had hinted quite strongly that she was not growing any younger and greatly desired grandchildren to dandle upon her knee.
He could have had a wife by now if he’d been less particular.
So here he was, embarked on a tour of the Mediterranean with his friend Will and not finding much to enjoy about it. His failure to find a wife perched on his shoulder like a black crow, claws digging into his skin every time he turned his head.
The luncheon bell interrupted his unhappy musings, signaling it was time for the passengers to gather for their next meal.
“Don’t look so glum,” Will said. “The world’s full of delightful young women just waiting to meet you. We’ll find you the right one yet, mark my words.”
Gavin did not bother to reply to this transparent attempt to cheer him up and merely gestured for his friend to precede him to the dining room.
The ship’s horn sounded, summoning passengers to the deck, but Isabelle and Mrs. Hodges were already there, watching their approach into Tangier. The city spilled down to the bay in a rumpled collection of white and cream buildings with a few red and yellow houses providing a splash of color.
Isabelle turned her attention to the passengers collecting near the stern. Among travelers there seemed to be certain characters one could always spot. There, the studious older man—a scholar or writer, no doubt. The group of matrons off on a well-deserved holiday, giving reproachful glances to the clot of boisterous young men and their harried-looking tutor.
And there, echoing herself and Mrs. Hodges, another young lady with her unsmiling companion. Isabelle watched as they made their way forward. The girl glanced about with a fresh, curious expression, while her companion seemed even more humorless than Mrs. Hodges appeared to be.
The young lady fetched up at the railing next to them and turned her open smile upon Isabelle.
“Hello,” she said. “Isn’t this exciting! I’ve never been to Africa before. I’d love to see Egypt, too, but—”
“Ahem.” The companion stepped forward. “I apologize for my charge—she is a bit outspoken. Allow me to introduce ourselves. This is Miss Sarah Taylor, and I am her governess, Miss Primm.”
Isabelle swallowed a laugh. The governess was aptly named, and she wondered whether the woman had always had such a tight-lipped and disapproving expression or whether she’d decided to grow into her name at a later date.
“Lovely to meet you,” Isabelle said. “I’m Miss Isabelle Strathmore, and this is my companion, Mrs. Hodges.”
“A pleasure, I’m sure.” Miss Primm inclined her head. “As you have no doubt guessed, this is our first journey abroad. Am I correct in thinking the two of you are seasoned tourists?”
“We have been to the Mediterranean before,” Isabelle said.
“I guessed as much.” The governess gave her a slightly superior look, as if to imply that there was something unbecoming about being an experienced traveler. “I’m certain we’ll benefit from your wisdom. Though no doubt this will be our only excursion. Miss Taylor comes from an excellent family and is merely getting a touch of polish before she goes home to England to make a brilliant match.”
Mrs. Hodges’s bushy eyebrow twitched up the merest fraction.
“I expect that travel will be good for both of you,” she said in a dry voice. “It does tend to broaden the mind.”
Miss Primm’s expression became even primmer, but her charge, Miss Taylor, grinned.
“No matter what my governess says, I don’t want to get married. Not yet, anyway. There’s so much of the world to see!”
She waved at the port they were rapidly approaching, the colorful fishing boats docked along the smaller piers. Above the turquoise waters, dun-colored medieval walls enclosed the old city, while newer buildings spilled around the edges on either side, some of them dome topped, others with doors painted so brightly that the colors were clear even at this distance.
As they were admiring the view, Lord Weston arrived at the railing with Lord Jasper in tow.
“Well met again, Miss Strathmore, Mrs. Hodges,” Lord Weston said. “We are looking forward to accompanying you into Tangier.”
Miss Primm eyed the gentlemen, her expression moving to grudging approval as Isabelle made the introductions.
“A viscount and an earl,” she said. “How marvelous. And how gallant of you gentlemen to offer to escort Miss Strathmore and her companion into the city. I must admit, I’m a trifle apprehensive at the prospect of setting foot in Morocco without the company of the stronger sex.”
Miss Taylor rounded on her governess. “But you promised we could go.”
“I did not promise.” Miss Primm’s lips thinned. “I said we might go on deck to observe the ship as it made port, then see what transpired.”
The Floramay docked with a soft bump, men on deck and the dock below making quick work of securing the ship. The smell of frying onions and spices drifted past, and Isabelle sniffed appreciatively. She’d always been adventurous in her tastes and looked forward to reacquainting herself with the delicacies of North Africa.
“Stand back from the railing,” the purser called. The buttons on his uniform shone as he bustled up, three deckhands behind him.
The crowd shifted back, and the sailors ran the gangway down to the dock with a rattle and bang. Once it was secured, the ship’s bell rang out crisply.
“You have the entire afternoon to sightsee,” the purser said from his station at the head of the ramp. “Return to the ship by sunset, however. While Tangier is safe, we do not recommend that our passengers remain onshore after dark.”
“Oh,” Miss Taylor said in a soft voice.
“Have no fear.” Lord Weston made her a slight bow. “Nothing would please us better than to accompany all four of you ladies into Tangier to see the sights. Don’t you think so, Gav?”
He nudged his friend with his elbow. Discreetly, but Isabelle still saw the motion.
Lord Jasper glanced at Lord Weston.
“Certainly,” he said, his tone as dry as the sere hills rising above the city.
At least he was too much of a gentleman to argue. Even if he was dismissive of most people he met.
She shouldn’t be glad that the earl had looked at Miss Taylor with the same studied disinterest he displayed toward her, yet she had to admit it had brightened her mood a bit. Not that she cared what Lord Jasper thought of her, or of anyone. His opinions were none of her concern.
Miss Taylor bounced up and down on her toes. “You’ll let us come with you? Thank you so much! I would have perished from envy if I’d been trapped aboard the ship while everyone else was off exploring Morocco.”
“Then it is a good thing we happened upon you, to avert such a dreadful fate.” Lord Weston offered her his arm. “Shall we?”
While Isabelle was relieved he’d transferred his attentions elsewhere for the time being, it unfortunately left Lord Jasper to be her escort.
He did not seem delighted with the prospect either. Mouth set, he held out his elbow to her.
“I don’t bite,” she murmured, a bit stung, as she set her hand on his forearm.
“Indeed.” His voice was as chilly as his eyes.
“Unless provoked to it,” she could not help but add.
This made him glance at her. “Dare I ask what would provoke you?”
They stepped down the gangway behind Mrs. Hodges and Miss Primm, and Isabelle cocked her head, considering how forthright she might be. On the one hand there was no need for impoliteness—though Lord Jasper had skirted that line with his dismissive behavior toward her. On the other hand, she possessed the hard-won courage to speak the truth to scoundrels. No gentleman should be able to act callously and escape unscathed.
Lord Jasper had not been callous, however. At least, not yet—but perhaps it would be wise of her to put him on notice, seeing as they were now forced into each other’s company.
“Then I am to consider them bared in my direction, I suppose?”
She smiled at him, letting her lips part to show her teeth. To her surprise, a glint of amusement sparked in his eyes—so quickly tamped down that she wasn’t even sure she’d glimpsed it.
“I shall consider myself warned,” he said.
Mrs. Hodges let out a cough. No doubt her keen hearing had caught the entire conversation. There was not much her companion missed, and Isabelle now considered Mrs. Hodges as much a friend as a chaperone, despite the disparity of years between them.
“Sarah,” Miss Primm called to her charge as they stepped onto the dock, “do put up your parasol. We must preserve your complexion.” This last was said with a pitying glance at Isabelle.
For a moment, Isabelle wished she could actually growl at the governess.
But to be fair, despite the fact she wore her bonnet today, she’d been careless in the past about shading her face—as the smattering of freckles across her cheeks attested. It had been rather freeing to let go of the notion she must remain beautiful at all times in order to catch a husband, and to instead let the warm sun touch her skin as the mood struck her.
“Where to?” Lord Weston paused on the wharf and let the rest of the party catch up. “I admit, I’m unfamiliar with the sights of Tangier.”
“We certainly should go to the medina—the old town,” Isabelle said. “The market there will be well worth visiting. And while we’re there, perhaps a viewing of the casbah—the sultan’s palace. Though it is unlikely that foreigners will be admitted without a prior appointment.”
“The sultan.” Miss Taylor gave a little shiver of excitement. “We truly are far from home, aren’t we? Which way do we go?”
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