Unexpected Earl, page 36part #1 of Hearts and Ever Afters Series
Two weeks later, Isabella smoothed the front of her dress, enjoying the feel of the crushed velvet under her hands. It was finally Christmas, and the house was full of wonderful smells, including the pine boroughs that graced the doorways and the delicious food that was cooking in the kitchen. It was a lovely day, the snow falling softly outside of the windows only adding to the ambience that was her favorite time of year.
But inside, her heart was heavy with dread. Her father and Lord Vistley were due back from Scotland and soon she would be forced to move forward with her life and her future with the baron. The last few days had been full of planning for Christmas, her mother hovering over her as if Isabella were going to break at any point. After facing death, Isabella had a new lease on life.
The saddest part was that she had not seen Lillian or James since her encounter with Mr. Tellsman. It was a sad time for them, as they had just lost their father. She wished she could be with them to offer emotional support
With a sigh, Isabella stared out of the window. After being questioned about her role in uncovering the marquess’ true murderer, she had been seen by a physician, who had wrapped her wrist and stated that she was in shock. Before she knew it, Isabella had been bundled into a coach and sent home, where her mother had fretted over her the rest of the night and much of the next day. Lillian had sent word that Lord Rearden had been released from prison and they would be going to the country estate for Christmas and the burial of their father.
I cannot tell you enough how much I appreciate all you have done for us, the missive from Lillian had said. I consider you part of my family, and you truly have become like a sister to me. I know that our friendship will withstand whatever is brought our way in the future.
While Lillian’s words had brought tears to Isabella’s eyes, what she truly wished to know was what James thought now that his freedom had been restored.
But there had been no word from him, and now Isabella was resigned to the fact that her future, the one set for her before she had ever met James and Lillian, was going to take place.
The front door opened, and she heard her father and Lord Vistley coming through the door, their voices filling the otherwise quiet household. Isabella clasped her hands together and waited for them to join her and her mother in the parlour, watching as they walked through together.
“Merry Christmas,” her mother announced as her father took his wife into his arms, pressing a kiss on her cheek. “I am glad that you made it in time.”
“The snow nearly waylaid us,” her father said as he greeted his daughter with the same jovial demeanor. “But I am glad that we made it.”
“And I as well,” Isabella responded, releasing her father.
Lord Vistley stepped forward and looked at her, a joyful expression on his face. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” she said softly, allowing him to kiss the back of her hand, the hand which once again wore the large ring he had given her. When she had placed it on her finger that morning, it had seemed foreign to her. After not wearing it for the prior three weeks, it was going to take some time to get used to wearing it once more.
“Well now,” her mother clapped. “Shall we adjourn to the dining room?”
The baron proffered his arm and Isabella took it, forcing a smile onto her face. Lord Vistley—Henry—truly was not a bad gentleman, and she should be grateful.
But she could not be. James was on her mind and in her heart. He was the one who caused her to hold her breath, the one who flushed her cheeks and made her wish for a future with him.
As they started to leave the parlour, the front door knocker souned, and her mother frowned. “Whoever could be out in this weather?”
“A desperate sort,” her father replied as the butler opened the door. From her vantage point, Isabella could see a lone person on the doorstep, and as he raised his head, she nearly stumbled back. “Allow him entrance,” she said immediately, dropping her hand from Henry’s arm. “Please.”
The butler stepped back, and James walked through the doorway, removing his snow-laden outercoat and hat, his eyes never leaving hers. She could not breathe as he murmured his thanks and stepped forward. He looked like his old self once again, not the broken man she had seen in prison. The sparkle in his eyes that had been there the last time she had seen him was back, and Isabella felt relief flood through her veins.
“Lord Rearden,” she breathed as he stopped before her.
“Lady Isabella,” he said, a hint of a grin on his face. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you, Lord Rearden,” she said, suddenly nervously. What was he doing there? “I thought you were at your country estate?”
He drew in a breath. “I was, but my sister would not allow me to stay a minute longer than needed. She stated that I had left something very precious back in London and it was my responsibility to retrieve it.”
Isabella ceased to breathe as she saw the tenderness in his eyes. “I do hope you are able to find whatever it is that you seek.”
James whispered, “You, Isabella. I left you.” He then proceeded to address her father. “Lord Gareden, I must apologize for interrupting you on Christmas day, but I must speak to you about an urgent matter. Lord Vistley, I would like to include you in this conversation.”
Isabella begged her father with her eyes to agree to meet with James.
The three men met in private.
Isabella’s mother spoke to her in a very concerned tone. “Isabella, you must tell me that you did not do anything improper. Why is Lord Rearden here? I have had quite the challenge trying to distance you from that treacherous murder. Lord Rearden must not create another scandal for you. Although I am sorry to say it, you know that you must marry Lord Vistley.”
“Mother,” Isabella interrupted her, “I know this to be true. I promise you that I have never been unfaithful to Lord Vistley. He is a respectable man. Although, I have to admit that I have feelings for Lord Rearden. However, I know that I must put those feelings aside and be a dutiful daughter.”
As she finished speaking, the three men came back into the room.
James spoke first. “Lady Isabella, I would like to speak to you in private.”
Isabella looked at her father, and then at Lord Vistley, embarrassed that James would request a meeting that could ruin her reputation. “Lord Rearden, I will have to decline your request. As you remember, I am engaged to Lord Vistley.”
“Go ahead, my dear,” said Isabella’s father, nodding his head in the direction of James.
James stepped forward and offered his arm. When they were alone in the study, he did not waste one minute explaining himself. “I love you, Isabella, and I will do all I can to ensure your happiness.”
Had James just professed his love for her? Could this truly be happening? They had known each other for a very short period of time, but her feelings for him…well, they were for a lifetime.
“James, I love you, too,” she responded. “But I am engaged, and nothing can be done.”
“Oh, but something has been done,” said James with a knowing smirk. “I have told your father and the baron that I am in love with you. I have also told them about your help in solving my father’s murder.”
Isabella’s heart rate sped up and her palms began to perspire from her nerves. Was she nervous about James professing his love, or that the baron would think she had accepted another man’s affections while engaged? Oh, the scandal that would ensue!
James seemed to read her thoughts. “I have told your father and the baron that you have been the perfect example of propriety. They both know that you have not made promises to me, or offered your affections, while still being engaged. You need not worry about your reputation.”
Isabella exhaled, relief coursing through her body.
“There is more,” said James. “I offered Lord Vistley the same amount of your dowry, so your father will be released of any financial obliga
Isabella frowned then. “You cannot purchase me,” she said, annoyed that he would think she was for sale, like some trinket. “I am not anybody’s property.”
“Do not think of it like that, my love,” James argued. “I did not purchase you. I bought your freedom.”
Isabella bit down on her lower lip, trying to hold back the tears from falling.
“Will you marry me?” asked James. Before Isabella could answer, James continued, “Even if you choose not to wed me, I will still pay Lord Vistley the dowry, and you are free to marry whomever you wish.”
Her tears began to fall, hard. “I choose you, James. I would choose you a million times.”
James lifted Isabella’s chin and gazed into her eyes before planting a soft, sweet kiss on her waiting lips.
“That went better than expected,” James remarked excitedly as he slid an arm around her waist, pulling her toward him once more. “Now, all we must do is make this official. The banns are to be called this week and then two weeks hence. I shall make all the arrangements.”
“Is this truly happening, James? It is like a dream.”
“It is a dream come true for me, and I will spend the rest of my days making you the happiest woman alive.” James pressed his lips against Isabella’s lightly. “I promise you will never regret the day that you consented to be my wife.”
She kissed him again as happiness overwhelmed her. “I never regret anything when it comes to you.”
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Joyce Alec, Unexpected Earl
JOYCE ALEC SERIES:
Other author's books:
- A Lady's Mystery: Regency Romance (Ladies, Love, and Mysteries)Alice's Arranged Marriage (Home for Christmas Book 1)An Earl's Redemption: Regency Romance (Brides of London)A Viscount to Remember: Regency Romance (Brides of London)Diamonds of the Marquess: Regency Romance (Season of Brides)The Viscount's Promise: Regency Romance (Weddings and Scandals)The Aristocrat's Charade: Regency Romance (Brides of London)Promise of the Earl: Regency Romance (Season of Brides)
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