(Miss Danvers Decides is a continuation of an earlier free short read, Lord Pennington's Proposal. If you wish, you can read that first part of the story here.)
“Marry me, Bella.”
Lord Jonathan Pennington’s words, spoken in his smooth baritone, echoed in Isabella Danvers’ mind as she stood in the cozy comfort of his study. Though a fire in the grate still gave off a bit of warmth, Bella pulled her shawl up around her shoulders to stifle the shivers that had begun to rattle her body.
Jack’s handsome face was as familiar to Bella as her own, but the words coming out of his mouth were strange as a foreign language. The eagerness in his tone and raw excitement in his gaze set her heart racing, while the three words shattered her composure. For a woman with a secret writing life, relying on words to write stories under a nom de plume, Bella could not rally a single phrase in response to Jack’s unimaginable proposal.
In the tangled jumble of her thoughts, she could only hear an echo of his words. "Marry me, Bella."
Marry Jack Pennington. It was a notion—an impossible dream—she had kept hidden within her heart and mind for more years than she could count. Her secret had been kept so close that even Father had been unaware of the feelings she harbored for the aristocrat who had been her childhood friend. When her father named Jack as her guardian in his will, he had bound them together but given the duty of finding a husband to the only man she had ever mused about marrying.
“Bella?” His tone had lost its exuberance and concern for her etched creases of worry across his forehead, just under the errant lock of black hair that dipped down toward his brow, always refusing to behave. “I’ve shocked you.”
Shocked, yes. That was it. Shock, fear, and a slice of unreasonable hope were among the riot of emotions making her tremble. Though she had suggested marriage to Jack moments before, she never imagined he might take the tease seriously.
The whole idea was ridiculous. Impossible. Jack might be the same man who had encouraged her strident opinions as a girl and derided her love of Gothic novels as a young woman, but he was, above all things, the Earl of Pennington.
He had never wanted the title; he’d made that clear. But she never doubted he would do his duty—to his father and the family name. Marrying the daughter of the Pennington’s longtime butler was out of the question. In fact, it would spark gossip and scandalize the society misses and mothers who would surely consider the Earl of Pennington a prime catch in the coming season.
From the moment he had inherited his father’s titles and estates, Jack had been the soul of propriety. He had always been a clever man, and as a child Bella adored his sense of adventure. But there had been little adventure since he’d assumed his father’s title, and she sympathized for the rounds of inane social visits and dusty estate ledgers with which he spent his time. Jack needed a bit of adventure, truth be told, but this—marriage to a completely unacceptable young woman—was precisely the kind of adventure he did not need.
“I am going to take a turn in the park.”
After finally finding her voice, Bella offered Jack a reassuring grin, but he seemed anything but reassured. When she stood, he shot up too and reached a hand toward her.
“Let me accompany you.”
Harsher than she intended, her tone wounded him. She could see it in the flicker of disappointment that shadowed his green eyes.
“I promise I won’t be long.” She smiled up at him again, but turned toward the door, not waiting to see if he returned her expression. Though she spent a portion of nearly every day in his company, looking at the beautiful planes and angles of his face was suddenly painful.
“You heard my question, did you not?”
That tone was familiar and a grin tugged at her mouth at the sound of it. It was Jack’s I-am-six-years-your-senior-and-not-at-all-pleased tone.
“Was it a question? I thought perhaps you were teasing me, in return for my making such an outrageous suggestion.”
Bella still couldn’t look him in the eye, but she turned her head in his direction. They might tease each other, but there had never been a moment of rudeness between them.
He stalked toward her, boot heels clicking on the polished wooden floor. Bella did not move, and she dared not meet his gaze. He came close, just behind her, close enough that she felt the warmth of his breath against her neck.
When he spoke, his voice was low, quiet, and bone-meltingly tender.
“It was a question. Perhaps the most important of my life.”
Bella swayed toward him, and he placed a firm, warm hand on her upper back to steady her. Such sweet pleasure emanated from his touch that she felt the word bubbling up. Yes. The answer she wished she could give him, ached to say again and again.
“You will give me an answer, won’t you, Bella?”
A flutter in her chest blossomed into an ache as she walked away from him, still unable to meet his gaze. She stopped at the door of the study and turned back.
He had honored her with his question and she owed him an answer. But not yet. She could not bring herself to shut out the possibilities just yet. “After my walk, Jack. I promise you an answer after my walk.”
“Then I hope it’s a pleasant walk.”
Hearing the humor in his voice, Bella finally turned to look at him. She relished the moment as the tension between them ebbed. The moment made it easier for her to walk away.
Once she’d wrapped herself in her cloak and faced the chilly October morning, she longed for the comfort of sitting with Jack beside the fireplace. But she couldn’t face Jack without giving him an answer, and before her answer, there was someone she wished to see.
She met no one as she made her way along Brook Street toward Grosvenor Square. Bella knew it was early for visiting hours, but she hoped Emily would make an exception for her.
Bella did not mind the brief wait in the Earl and Countess of Wharton’s drawing room. Emily’s Grosvenor Square townhouse was always filled with hothouse flowers and, perhaps because of its lavender wallpaper, the drawing room was usually dotted with bowls overflowing with violets. Their sweet, vibrant scent reminded Bella of Eastleigh, the Pennington estate in Hampshire where she and Jack had grown up.
“Bella, my dear, I did not expect you today. Have you brought me another?” The countess clasped her hands together like a child eager for her first gift on Christmas morning. “I read the last one in single sitting. I could not put it down. Charles actually scolded me for spending too much time reading.”
Thrilled to hear her story had so enthralled her friend, Bella giggled. “I am afraid I haven’t brought you another story. I’ve come to ask you a question. And to tell you of a question Jack has put to me.”
“How intriguing. It sounds as if tea is in order.”
After ringing for refreshment and settling themselves on the settee, Emily looked at Bella expectantly. Though their stations were as different as Bella’s from Jack, Emily had always treated Bella like a sister, an honorary member of her large, wealthy family. Nothing had changed when she'd married the Earl of Wharton, and Charles and his family had embraced her as readily as Emily had.
“So tell me of Jack's question.”
“First tell me what it’s like to be a countess.”
Emily laughed, a rich, throaty sound that made Bella smile.
“Are you considering becoming one yourself?”
Her question, asked with a smile and laughter lingering in her tone confirmed the foolishness of the very notion to Bella. How could she ever be Jack’s countess?
“Jack has asked me to marry him.”
For a moment Emily didn’t move, her bow-shaped mouth hanging open in a most unladylike manner, but then Bella's words seemed to ignite her. She shot up from her spot on the settee and clasped her hands to her mouth, stared back at Bella wide eyed, and then sat next to her again. When she reached for her hands, Bella noticed tears in Emily’s eyes.
“Darling Bella, what happy news. I am bursting with happiness for you.” She did cry then, tears slipping down her cheeks as she clasped Bella in an embrace.
Bella hugged her friend back, and felt tears well in her own eyes. “I have not given him an answer.”
“What? Why ever not? My dear, you must. You simply must.”
Pulling back, Bella swiped at her cheek. “I cannot marry him, Em. It’s impossible.”
Emily stared at her as if she’d gone mad. “I don’t understand.”
“I am a butler’s daughter. Butlers’ daughters don’t become countesses.”
“Apparently they do. You will. Bella, you and Jack… Well, it has always been clear to me. You’re meant for each other.”
“He does not know about my writing.”
“Then you must tell him.”
“He loathes Mrs. Radcliffe and all Gothic novels.”
Emily shook her head as if Bella spoke nonsense.
“He’s never read one of yours, Bella dear. You’ve never given him the chance.”
“What will people say? I couldn’t bear to bring him shame.”
Bella continued on, voicing her fears and anxiety, her belief that she might tarnish the Pennington name by marrying Jack.
Emily listened patiently, holding her hand through much of the tirade, offering her a reassuring squeeze now and then.
“Are you quite finished?”
Surprised by her friend’s tone, Bella looked up into the young countess’s clear blue eyes. Her face was set in a firm yet benevolent expression.
“Yes, I’m finished.”
“I have only one question for you.”
Bella nodded her head and took a deep breath. No question the countess might ask could be more daunting than Jack’s.
“Do you love him?”
The question was ridiculous, perhaps as ridiculous as Jack’s. Of course she loved him. She had always loved him. Bella could barely recall a day of her life before she loved Jack Pennington.
Though Bella had not said a word, Emily beamed.
“Well, that’s that.” The countess lifted a gold fob watch pinned to one of the many folds of her elaborate skirt. “You mustn’t keep him waiting. He is an earl, after all. If he’s anything like Charles, he will detest waiting.”
“Give him the answer of your heart, my dear. Do not allow fears to steal your happiness.”
Emily led Bella to the foyer, helped settle her cloak around her, and kissed her on the cheek before giving her a gentle nudge out the door.
As Bella descended the stairs, her friend called to her.
She turned back to Emily.
“I think you will be a magnificent Lady Pennington.”
He rubbed his hands together as he watched her. It was a gesture that indicated Jack was nervous, worried, and Bella instantly felt a pang of guilt for keeping him waiting so long.
“Come sit by the fire.” He gestured toward her favorite chair and Bella was relieved to sink into it again.
“Your walk. Was it pleasant?”
“It was short. I didn’t go to the park as I’d intended. I went to visit Lady Wharton.”
He edged back, sitting stiffly in his chair, but he rested his hands on the chair's arms. For some reason, hearing of her visit to Emily’s seemed to ease his anxiety.
“Did you indeed?”
“Yes. I suspect I will be visiting her quite often. Perhaps she can give me lessons.”
Jack opened his mouth as if he meant to speak but then closed it again. He eased forward in his chair, leaning toward her.
She smiled at him, willing him to read her meaning, eager to banish the anxiousness she could still read in his gaze.
“You see, I know nothing at all about being a countess.”
He ducked his head, his shoulders sagging as if a great weight had lifted.
“Bella, I am a simple man. Tell me simply.”
He was anything but a simple man, and if the moment had not been so full of joyful anticipation she would have told him so. Instead she spoke one simple word as simply as she was able.
“Yes? Is this the yes?"
Since the word seemed inadequate on its own, she nodded her head before repeating it. “Yes.”
He reached for her hand as he had a hundred times before, with a warm, easy familiarity. But when he pulled her close and pressed his mouth to hers, everything was new. Heart bursting with bliss and relief, Bella knew theirs would be a wonderful adventure.