Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage

Page 74

Why did he not tell me? Isabella had asked Mac in indignation. If I'd known I needed to marry to help him, I might not have let my head be turned by the first handsome gentleman who danced with me.
Your father is proud and wanted to orchestrate all without anyone guessing. You were supposed to be dutiful without incentive. I'm afraid, love, that your father had no idea that you had any thoughts in your head at all.
But why did he object when I married you? You and Hart could have dug him out of debt and sent him and Mama off on a long holiday.
Mac had smiled. And be beholden to Hart Mackenzie, the Scottish duke, the rest of his life? Never.
Bloody fool, Isabella had muttered. This was before Bellamy had woken Mac in the wee hours and handed him the message from Inspector Fellows, who'd gone to investigate when he'd heard of the sudden death of Isabella's father. A natural death, Fellows had said. A sad one.
"I'm here now, Mama," Isabella said. "I won't leave you alone again."
Lady Scranton leaned into Isabella as another flood of tears escaped her.
Isabella stayed with her mother until Lady Scranton declared she needed to lie down. Isabella helped her upstairs, delivering her to her redoubtable lady's maid. The maid whispered her gratitude to Isabella-Lady Scranton hadn't shut an eye since the earl's death, no matter how much the servants had tried to get her to sleep.
Isabella left Lady Scranton in her maid's capable hands and went down the painfully familiar hall to Louisa's room and tapped on the door. To a tired, "Yes, what is it?" Isabella entered.
Louisa rose from the chaise on which she'd been reclining and dropped the quilt that had covered her to it.
Isabella's breath caught. Louisa had filled out from the lanky colt Isabella remembered to a lady of soft curves, her eighteen-year-old face clear and strong. Louisa's eyes were as green as ever, and framed with rich, brown-red lashes. She wore black now, though without the veil her mother had donned, but Isabella's little sister had grown into such a lovely young woman. When she had her coming-out ball, she'd stun every gentleman senseless.
"Isabella." Louisa took a hesitant step forward. "They told me you were here, but Mama wanted me to stay in my room."
A sob wedged in Isabella's throat. Louisa started for her, slowly at first until she was running the last few steps to throw herself into Isabella's arms.
They ended up on the chaise, Isabella pressing her cheek to Louisa's wet face.
"Why did you not come that day in the park?" Louisa asked when they could speak again. "Mrs. Douglas planned so carefully, but you weren't there, and we dared not wait."
"I know." Isabella wiped her eyes, not wanting to lie, but she did not want to tell Louisa about Payne just then . "I had taken ill. It came on me suddenly."
"Mrs. Douglas said that. I was worried."
"Nothing I did not throw off quickly. But I was unhappy to miss the appointment."
"You are here now. It doesn't matter." Louisa clung to Isabella's hands, much as their mother had. "Isabella, what is to become of me?"
"Become of you? If you mean, where will you live, you and Mama are both welcome to stay with me. In fact, I think you should come home with me tonight."
"I don't mean that, although it's very kind of you." Louisa released Isabella's hands and stood up. Her dress was black taffeta with a three-tiered skirt-likely it had been an afternoon dress quickly dyed for mourning. Louisa's pale skin and red hair stood out against it like ice and flame. "It sounds so selfish with everything Papa did and what Mama is going through. But I can't help feeling as though I've walked off a cliff and still have not landed. Yesterday I was being fitted for my ball dresses; today I am not allowed to have any of them. I'll not have a Season; I'll not marry. I'm not clever enough to be a governess or anything like that, so I'll end up a ladies' companion with nothing to do all day but wind wool and brush dogs." Her hands fell with a thump against her skirts.
"Darling, of course you won't," Isabella said. "You'll live with me, and I'll take care of you. You'll have your ball and your Season, and any number of young men will want to marry you."
"Will they?" Louisa laughed, anger in her eyes. "I am not much of a catch now, am I? My father died a ruined man, and he cheated others, so many others. What respectable gentleman will want me? They'll be afraid my blood will taint their family."
Isabella wished she could tell Louisa she was wrong, but Isabella was well acquainted with aristocratic marriages. Breeding was very important to the upper classes, and any flaw in a young lady was considered insurmountable-unless the gentleman in question needed a large influx of cash and the lady came with a huge dowry. But Louisa without money would not hold that kind of attraction.
"You might not be a match for a gentleman wanting to make a brilliant social marriage," Isabella conceded. "But I wouldn't wish you to marry a gentleman who wants only your money or connections in any case. I want you to marry a man who loves you-who loves you so much it is of no matter to him what your father did. Papa's mistakes aren't your fault, and any man worthy of you will see only your beauty and sweetness. I urge you not to regret that you can't make a society marriage, and instead follow your heart."

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