Never Play with a Rakish Duke – Emily Honeyfield

Isabella Northwood leaned forward in the chair, sipping her tea thoughtfully, as she contemplated the young gentleman sitting opposite her. The gentleman who was talking so politely with her mother. But she had noticed the shine in his eyes as he gazed at her from time to time. Isabella looked down at her teacup, pretending to contemplate the delicate floral pattern on it, as the conversation washed over her. His name was Mr Laurence Wilson, a local gentleman, who had been very correctly wooing her recently. A walk in the park, properly chaperoned, of course. Morning tea, a few times a week, as they were doing now. She gazed back up at him, her eyes sharp. He was a moderately handsome man, pleasant- looking rather than striking, with brown hair and dull brown eyes to match. His conversation was perfectly respectable if a little on the dull side. But Mr Wilson was from a well-to-do local family, with status rather than much wealth, and she could do a lot worse. She was two and twenty now, after all. Teetering on the edge of turning from an eligible young lady into an old maid if she wasn’t careful. He turned to her now, fixing her with those brown eyes in an almost speculative manner. “You enjoy painting, then, Miss Northwood?” he asked slowly.

“I am a rather prolific amateur artist. A keen interest.” Isabella nodded. “I do enjoy painting, Mr Wilson,” she replied. “But I would not boast that I am particularly talented in that regard …” “Oh, you are being too modest, Isabella,” interjected her mother. “You are very talented, my dear. Why, your drawing master praised you mightily when you were a girl.” Isabella stared at her mother. It was a downright lie. Mr Kite, the drawing tutor her parents had hired for their daughters when they were growing up, had never praised her at all.

It was Jane, her eldest sister, who had been the talented one, in that regard. But then, maybe Mama had just got them mixed up. “If you say so, Mama,” she said slowly, sipping her tea. Mrs Northwood nodded decisively. “My youngest daughter is very accomplished, Mr Wilson,” she said, turning to the gentleman. “Isabella is a credit to her father and I. We are both extremely proud of her.” Mr Wilson looked pleased. “I can discern how exceptional your daughter is, Mrs Northwood,” he said, nodding. “She has a very special aura about her, which I noticed immediately.

It does not surprise me in the least, that she is as accomplished as she is lovely …” Isabella bristled, just a little. They were both talking about her as if she wasn’t even sitting here in this room. As if she were a prize calf being paraded at auction. She wasn’t sure if she liked it at all. She knew how the courtship game played out, but this part of it was always mildly offensive to her. It seemed so … bloodless and calculating. She had played this game with other young gentlemen over the years. A game which had led to tame flirtations, but never an offer for her hand. Her best friend in the world, Eleanor, assured her she just hadn’t met the right gentleman yet. Isabella wasn’t so sure.

It wasn’t as if she had any wildly romantic notions about courtship and marriage. She had read all of the Gothic romances as a girl but had never believed that the contents were real, as some young ladies in her acquaintance did. All she had ever wanted was a decent, respectable gentleman who would treat her well. Romantic love was for the fairies, as far as she was concerned. She sighed deeply as Mr Wilson and her mother kept talking about her accomplishments as if they were ticking off a list. No, she did not have any romantic expectations, but suddenly, she strangely yearned for something more. Mr Laurence Wilson left her cold, as polite and respectable as he was. She berated herself silently. Mr Wilson was a catch, and she should be very grateful that he was paying any attention to her. She wasn’t so young anymore.

She would end up on the shelf entirely. Her two older sisters, Jane and Fredericka, were already well married and settled by her age, she reminded herself. And Mama was always saying that she had been married at the ripe old age of eighteen. Mr Wilson turned to her now, crossing his legs as he balanced his teacup in one hand. She squirmed slightly, beneath his gaze. “You enjoy music, Miss Northwood?” he asked. “I have spare tickets for the symphony next week at the Palladium.” He paused. “Perhaps your good mother and you could accompany me if you are so inclined.” Isabella smiled.

“I am already attending with my dear friend, Miss Eleanor Weston, and her parents, Mr Wilson,” she replied quickly. “But I am sure that we can mingle at intermission …” His face turned a bit sour. “Yes, of course,” he said. A pause. “But my family has a private box. You would see much more if you attended with me. A bird’s eye view of the orchestra …” “Oh, you are so lucky, Mr Weston,” said her mother, her eyes sparkling. “A private box, no less! Perhaps we could be so inclined to let Isabella attend with you, instead of going with Miss Weston and her family, if I chaperone, of course …” “Mama,” said Isabella sharply. “I have already promised Eleanor. It is not a polite thing to refuse her invitation.

Especially if it is to take up another offer.” Mrs Northwood reddened slightly. “But I am sure that dear Eleanor would not mind so much, my dear. You go everywhere together, after all …” Mr Wilson laughed. “Oh no, Mrs Northwood, your daughter is correct,” he said. “I should not have put her in such a position.” He turned to Isabella. “I should not have put you in such an awkward spot, Miss Northwood. It was not polite at all. Please, accept my apologies.

” Isabella inclined her head. At least he had backed off gracefully. It was true he should not have asked her again after she had told him the circumstances. It was not proper etiquette in any way. And she was a stickler for proper etiquette. Eleanor often teased her about it, saying that she needed not to be quite so rigid. That etiquette wasn’t everything in life, after all. “Of course I accept your apology, Mr Wilson,” she said. “I trust you do understand that it would be entirely rude to suddenly decline my dear friend’s invitation, to accept another, to the very same event.” He smiled, looking very pleased.

“I think that is another thing that I greatly admire about you, Miss Northwood,” he said slowly. “Your propriety. You are obviously very aware of what is the proper process. Unlike some young ladies, who are rather more flexible in that regard. It shows a lack of respect, in my opinion.” Isabella’s smile froze on her face. Had his insistence that she go to the symphony with him rather than Eleanor been some kind of test to see if she followed proper protocol? Again, she was beset by how calculating it all was. Sizing her up shrewdly to see if she was a proper young lady in all regards. But before she could answer, he stood up, placing his teacup on the tray. “I am afraid that I must be away,” he said, still looking pleased with himself.

“I have another appointment, and it would not do to be late. Would it, Miss Northwood?” Isabella stood up, smoothing down the creases in her gown. “No, of course not, Mr Wilson.” Her mother stood up, too. “Thank you for your visit, Mr Wilson.” He bowed slightly towards both ladies. “Thank you, Mrs Northwood, for letting me into your charming home and having the company of two such lovely ladies.” Her mother blushed slightly. “Oh, the pleasure has been entirely ours, Mr Wilson.” He walked up to Isabella, taking her hand and pressing his lips against it in a perfunctory manner.

“I hope to see you at the symphony as promised, Miss Northwood.” Isabella inclined her head. “As I hope to see you there, as well, Mr Wilson.” The next minute, he was gone, striding out of the room. Isabella turned to her mother. “Well, that was interesting,” she said slowly. “I am not quite sure what to make of Mr Laurence Wilson at all.” She paused, biting her lip. “But he is a respectable, polite gentleman, to be sure.” Her mother nodded.

“He is a catch, Isabella. His family is genteel and moderately wealthy if not flush with it.” She raised her chin. “You could do far worse, my girl. Time is ticking. Your sisters were married and had their own homes at your age, remember.” Isabella reddened. “Yes, Mama, I am well aware of that fact,” she said, feeling diminished, as she always did when her mother talked about how she wasn’t getting any younger. But at that moment, before she could say anything else, her father suddenly strode into the room. His face was mottled slightly with some strong emotion.

Isabella felt her heart start to beat a little faster. It was unlike Papa to look animated. He was usually so self-contained. What was going on? “Isabella,” he barked, without further ado. “I have good news, daughter. Very good news, indeed.” “What is it, Papa?” she asked slowly, mystified. He beamed at her, looking like the cat that had just eaten the canary. “I have just accepted an offer for your hand in marriage, that is what,” he said triumphantly. “A very good offer, indeed.

” “From Mr Wilson?” asked Mama quickly, looking shocked. “Well, that was quick work. He only just left us …” Her father looked irritated. “No, not from Wilson,” he said. “Who the deuce is he, anyway? Just another dandy, idling with our girl’s affections, from a moderately well-to-do family.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “No, my dear, this is a far better proposition, I must say.” Isabella’s heart started hammering. What on earth was going on? This morning was taking a very strange turn, indeed. “Well, from whom then, husband?” asked her mother, looking gobsmacked.

Her father took a deep breath. “From a duke, no less, my dear.” He turned to Isabella. “Jasper Blackbourne, the Duke of Penthurst! Now, what do you think about that?” His eyes gleamed with triumph. Isabella’s head began to spin. A duke had offered for her hand? Impossible. She was a perfectly respectable young lady from a good family, but she didn’t run in those circles. They were very far above her, indeed. But as her father’s words started to sink in, something jarred within her. Quite violently.

She had heard of this duke, before. His name was strangely familiar to her. “The Duke of Penthurst?” she repeated. “But … I have heard of him …” She strained to put her finger on what she had heard. Vague rumours. A dashing duke, who had led his family on a merry dance. Running wild. Ruining his reputation in every way possible. Her blood ran cold. “No, Papa,” she gasped.

“The Duke of Penthurst, while having great title and wealth, is not a respectable gentleman, at all.” She paused, feeling herself begin to shake. “You cannot accept him. You must see that.” Her father glanced at her sharply. “I am afraid it is too late, Isabella,” he said. “I accepted the offer. It is done.” He drew a deep breath. “You are now betrothed, my dear.

Well, what do you have to say to that?” She stared at him, not believing it on any level. And yet, he looked serious. He was serious. Her father had just got her engaged to a rogue duke. A gentleman she had never met, not once, in her life. And a gentleman who was no gentleman at all if the rumours about him were correct. Her heart sank into her feet. Her life was over. There would be no hope of any happiness for her now. None at all.

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