Lord Jonathan Pennington had always considered himself a patient man, but as he sat listening to the steady drone of Arthur Lanham, he began to reconsider. Perhaps impatience was the better choice. In this instance at least, brevity was certainly preferable. He cut the man off just as Lanham took a breath to begin another sentence.
“Yes, of course, Lanham.” He had no idea what he had agreed to, but it seemed to satisfy the man and, more importantly, silence him. “Do let us get to the matter at hand.”
Lanham smiled at that, and Jack noticed that his lips were inordinately wide. It made him look hungry. Voracious even.
“Isabella,” Lanham said, still smiling.
Jack hated the way Lanham said her name. His tongue stuck on the s, and he hissed a moment before continuing on to the other syllables. Like a snake—a voracious snake. Jack leaned forward in his chair, the buttons on his brocade vest clicking against the edge of his desk, and stared directly into Lanham’s pale blue eyes. “Miss Danvers, if you please.”
The man’s overfamiliar way of addressing Jack’s ward would most definitely count against him. Jack dipped his pen into his inkwell and scratched far too familiar onto the piece of paper in front of him.
Lanham leaned over as if to read Jack’s writing.
“Are you compiling notes about me, old man?”
It was Jack’s turn to smile, but it was a gesture that held no warmth, no true mirth. His every impulse told him to turn the young upstart out on his ear and forbid him from ever calling on Isabella again. But he had done that with the five other men who had asked for her hand in marriage over the years, and he could no longer shirk his responsibility. Though she was beyond the age when any young woman should require a guardian, her dear, foolish father had insisted Bella’s guardian remain her caretaker until she wed. The late Harold Danvers could never have imagined his daughter would remain unmarried at four and twenty.
“I am a busy man, Lanham. I take notes on virtually everything. Helps me sort out what’s what. I have two estates to run and a ward to marry off. Too much for a man to remember without the aid of paper and ink.”
“Well, I am more than happy to take Isa—, er, Miss Danvers off of your hands.”
The smile was back on Lanham’s face, broad and gleaming. The very sight of it made Jack’s stomach churn and he took up his pen again. He wrote Unpleasant smile and underlined the words before settling back in his well-worn desk chair and giving Lanham his full attention.
“You make her sound like a pony I wish to be shot of. I have known Miss Danvers since we were children, Mr. Lanham. I will not give my approval lightly, and she is quite discerning. Tell me, what do you find to admire in my ward?”
“Pardon?” The man looked truly befuddled, but not enough for Jack to feel an ounce of sympathy.
“Why do you want to marry her, man?” Jack knew that Bella’s dowry made her an appealing catch for most bachelors of her acquaintance, though it was, thankfully, not great enough to attract fortune hunters. Yet he was determined to secure her a betrothal based on true admiration. He couldn’t bear the thought of her wed to a man who did not appreciate her many fine qualities, especially her sharp mind and even sharper wit.
Lanham cleared his throat and sat up straighter in his chair. Jack clasped his hands in front of him and waited—impatiently.
“Well, she is a very fine-looking lady. Isn’t she, my lord?”
Good God, did the man truly need confirmation of Isabella’s beauty? She was a vision, truth be told. Jack always found pleasure in looking at her, yet it was only one of her many fine qualities, and the one she least concerned herself with. Jack knew Bella wished to be loved for her mind, for her character, not for the blush of her cheek nor the extraordinary shade of her violet-grey eyes.
Lanham droned on. “Her hair is a most attractive shade of brown…”
Chestnut, actually. Bella’s hair was chestnut, richly burnished with hints of gold and red. When she wore it in a braided coil and left a few tantalizing curls to brush her shoulders, those strands shone like gold. The man hadn’t even bothered to identify the true color of her hair.
“And her skin is so very—“
“Yes, thank you, Lanham. That will be all.”
“The answer is no, Mr. Lanham. I will not give my approval for you to marry my ward, and I ask you not to call here again.”
The young man sat gaping, his mouth open and eyes wide. He did not look like a snake now. More like a fish that had inadvertently flopped onto the riverbank. When he made no move to leave, Jack stood and approached the door of his study. He opened it and turned back to Lanham.
“Good day, Mr. Lanham.”
The young man stood, straightened his tie, and tipped his chin a notch, recovering all of the over-confidence with which he’d entered Jack’s house less than an hour before. He moved toward the door and Jack itched with eagerness to close it behind him, but Lanham stopped just on the threshold. He did not look at Jack and spoke in a clipped, tight voice.
“It is no wonder Isabella is an old maid at four and twenty. You turn away every man who wants her. Take care, sir. Soon no one will.”
Wilkins, Jack’s ever-watchful butler, scuttled down the hall, presented Arthur Lanham with his coat and hat, and escorted him to the townhouse’s front door. Without another word, the young man strode out—chin still aloft—into the frosty London morning.
Jack closed the door of his study and sank into his comfortable chair, stretching his legs until the heels of his boots rested against the grate of the fireplace. The fire had waned long before, but there was enough heat to provide a measure of comfort.
He had to tell her, had to acknowledge that he had turned away another of her suitors. Would she understand he had no choice? Would she see that he could not give her away to any man ignorant of her true worth?
As he pondered what to say, how to explain, he heard the study’s door handle turn and the slight creak of hinges as it swung open. He knew she was there without turning. Her presence ignited his senses, as if the air around him had changed, and he could smell the faint scent of rosewater she wore.
He heard her footsteps approach and sensed her standing behind his chair.
“I take it I have reason to thank you.”
Jack turned to look at her and Bella moved to take the seat next to his, her favorite chair. As he met her gaze, a burst of relief surged through him. He read nothing like regret in her expression. If anything, she looked relieved and slightly bemused.
“You did not wish to marry Mr. Lanham?”
She gave him a look—the look she gave him when he said something ridiculous and she could barely conceal her disdain.
“Certainly not. But I would have done so if you told me to. Papa trusted you to help me choose a worthy husband, and so do I.”
Jack tried not to stare at her. Bella was highly animated whenever she spoke, and she said as much with her eyes as she did with her mouth. They had known each other so long that much of what they said to each other was contained in gestures and glances; even the silences between them held meaning.
“What if I find no man worthy, Bella?”
She settled back in her chair and stared into the fire, though there were only a few glowing embers to draw one’s eye. Jack turned his gaze from Bella’s face and glanced into the fireplace too. One ember glowed particularly bright and suddenly burst into a tiny dancing flame. He saw Bella grin out of the corner of his eye and wondered—not for the first time—if she affected everyone and everything as she did him.
She turned her head to gaze at him. “Then I suppose you will have to do the deed yourself.”
Jack didn’t move, didn’t speak, but his heart began a frantic tattoo. He could hear it pounding in his ears and felt certain it would burst from his chest.
Bella gave voice to the notion he had kept hidden away in his heart and mind for so many years.
When he returned from the war, he had been determined to ask her. Then word had come of his brother’s death. He had never expected to be heir to an earldom, never anticipated the responsibility. Never wanted it.
After a year he had come to London with one thought—to ask Bella to be his wife. But then her father had died and left a will naming Jack as her guardian, the man tasked with finding her a husband. Harold Danvers had seen them simply as childhood friends, or perhaps he thought only of their six year age difference. It was a difference which had seemed so much greater in their youth than it did now.
“Don’t look so frightened, Jack.” He heard the smile in her voice, though he could not meet her gaze. “I was only jesting. It’s nearly time for tea. Shall we have walk in the park after? I won’t mind the cold if you won’t.”
His heartbeat began to steady as a soothing sense of certainty rushed through him. Marry Bella. It was there before him all the time. How could he ever approve of any of her suitors when he wanted her for his own?
“Jack, please say something.”
He had lost track of time and was unaware of how long he sat pondering their future, leaving the woman he loved to mistake his silence. He turned and reached for her hand.
She smiled at him—that warm, open Bella smile—and lifted her hand to meet his.
“Marry me, Bella.”
Will Bella accept Jack's proposal? Check back in October for Miss Danvers Decides