turned in their direction as they trotted past.

“Lady Isobel, delightful as your bonnet is, can I ask you not to wear it on our next excursion?”

She shifted sideways in order to reply. “I know, it has more the appearance of a coal scuttle than a hat. I cannot imagine what possessed me to buy it.”

His chuckles sent shivers up her spine. He was all but irresistible when he smiled in that particular way. “Excellent, my lady, we are already on agreement on one matter.”

“I have never ridden in one of these before, it’s an exciting experience. However, being so high from the ground and exposed to the elements is not something I would care to do unless the weather is clement.”

“Shall we ride together tomorrow morning, Lady Isobel? I shall collect you at …” He hesitated as if not sure what would be a suitable time to suggest.

“I normally go out at seven o’clock, your grace.” This was pure fabrication, she rarely left the house before half past eight. She doubted if he was aware that such an hour existed.

“Seven o’clock?” He smiled at her and her insides somersaulted. “I had no notion you were such a dedicated rider, Lady Isobel. I believe you must have been out for three hours this morning.”

Hoist by her own petard! Suddenly she felt comfortable in his company, able to speak naturally to him. Laughing at his perspicacity she nodded. “I am discovered, I thought to frighten you by insisting you joined me at dawn. I leave at half past eight and should be honoured to have you accompany me tomorrow.”

She returned from her drive fizzing with excitement. Unbelievable as it might seem, he appeared to find her as appealing as she found him. Had she already met the man she would one day marry?

Chapter Three

The next two weeks Isobel hardly had time to gather her thoughts. Lord Bentley was constantly at her side and she was whisked to the opera, to the theatre and escorted to all the most prestigious social events. It could only be a matter of time before he made her a formal offer. He was to dine with them tonight and had asked for a private audience with Uncle Benjamin who stood in loco parentis.

She was sitting in front of the fire in her sitting room drying her hair when Aunt Laura came in. “My dear, I must speak to you. As your dear mama is not here it falls on me to do what she would do.”

“Aunt Laura, there’s no need to explain what is required of me when I become a bride, I am well aware what my duties will be.”

“That’s a profound relief, my love, I can now move onto the next matter. Rochester intends to speak to your uncle this evening. If you have any doubts about marrying him then you must say so now.”

“I had thought there would be longer to make up my mind. I have known him only three weeks. I know I should not hesitate; I shall be a duchess, have everything I could possibly wish for, but I keep remembering his anger. I could not marry him, even though I am almost in love with him, if I believed I should spend my time in fear of what might happen if I upset him.”

Her aunt settled herself comfortably on the chaise longue before replying. “There are things about his past that it is only right I should tell you. He was married before— this was, like yours, a marriage of convenience, but from all accounts he came love his wife and they were content together.”

“I had no notion this was to be his second marriage. What happened to his wife?”

“Rochester was in London on business, his wife and two small daughters at home in Newcomb when they were struck down with the sweating fever. All three had died before he could be sent for.”

“How dreadful!Poor man, to lose all three like that, and so suddenly too. Small wonder I detect a darkness in him. This explains a lot to me.” Isobel scrambled up and pushed her hair to one side. “I shall make him happy, bear him children and help him forget about the sadness all those years ago.”

“In which case, my love, I shall tell your uncle to accept the offer. We are both delighted— when you came to us I knew you would take, but had no idea it would be Rochester who offered first.”

“Is there anything else you wish to discuss with me, Aunt Laura?”

Her aunt smiled and patted the chintz covered seat beside her. “Sit down, Isobel, there were one or two things I don’t expect your mama told you. Your husband will be vigorous in his attentions until you are increasing. From that point you will be left in blessed peace until several weeks after the baby is born. With luck you will become pregnant the first month— it’s what all new wives pray for I am sure.”

This was indeed a strange conversation to be having. Could it be true that what took place between a man and wife in the privacy of the bedroom was so unpleasant it was preferable to be permanently with child?

“I hope I am able to provide the duke with an heir, after all it’s why he’s marrying me. I am not so naive, Aunt Laura, to imagine he feels the same way I do. But underneath his reserve I believe there’s a loving man waiting to be discovered.”

That night Mary laid out her newest acquisition. The gown was not the usual white of a debutante, but of palest green, silk chiffon, the over skirt in sparkling, silver sarcenet. She was like a princess from a fairytale; although the neckline was a trifle daring for someone of her age her emerald necklace filled the expanse of creamy skin and she felt less exposed. This stunning item had once been her mother’s and was handed to the oldest daughter on her come out.

“Mary, do you think I am doing the right thing?”

Her abigail shook out an invisible crease in the gown before answering. “It isn’t for me to say, Lady Isobel. If you’re happy then I’m content also.”

With this unsatisfactory reply ringing in her ears Isobel hurried out to join her cousin who was waiting impatiently in the parlour. They intended to descend together.

“Pet, damask rose is perfect for you. I’m so glad you have been allowed to wear a coloured ensemble tonight.” She slipped her arm through her cousin’s and twirled her round. “And when do you expect to receive your first offer? Have you decided which of your many admirers to accept?”

“La, Isobel. I have decided not to accept any of them. I wish to have a second season as it’s so much fun. I’m sure being married could not possibly be nearly as exciting. Eleanor, now Mrs Eleanor Watson, was at school with me and she’s already a mother and was only married last summer.”

“Unlike you, my dear cousin, I much prefer to be in the country and not gallivanting all over the place attending balls every night.”

Petunia’s tinkling laugh echoed along the corridor. “Fustian, Isobel, and you know it. You have enjoyed every minute of these past weeks that you’ve spent with the most attractive man in London at your side.”

Giggling, Isobel squeezed her cousin’s arm. “But it will be so much more enjoyable having him all to myself in the country.”

Still laughing at their daring conversation they arrived pell-mell at the head of the stairs. Isobel all but tumbled headlong in her effort to stop. Halfway up the staircase was the gentleman they had been discussing. From the amusement in his eyes she was certain he had overheard. She wished the floor would open and swallow her. She was scarlet from her toes to the tip of her ears. Petunia abandoned her and ran past leaving her to face him alone.

“Lady Isobel, every night you appear in a different gown and each time you take my breath away. I apologize for eavesdropping. This was not my intention, I assure you. Come, sweetheart, I have permission to take you to the library. There is something most particular I wish to ask you.”

Unable to do more than mumble a response she allowed him to guide her down the remaining stairs and along the wide passageway. The door was standing open, no servants lurking to overhear. He almost bundled her inside and she heard the door click shut behind her. Her heart raced. She was about to receive a marriage proposal from the man of her dreams — so why did she feel so apprehensive?

Should she find herself a seat or remain trembling in the centre of the carpet? From what little she knew of these matters the gentleman was obliged to go down on one knee in order to ask her that all-important question.

“My love, do not look so scared. We both know why you’re here and we both know my question is a formality.” He walked towards her and she was unable to move. Her feet seemed to be glued to the floor. “Before I ask you to marry me there’s something I must do.”

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