Excerpt from Isabella
"Disappeared!" the earl repeated in a dangerously quiet voice. "What the devil do you mean, 'disappeared'? Seven-year-old girls don't simply vanish."
The thin governess trembled. She had never heard quite that tone from her employer before, and would have preferred that he shout at her, for his suppressed fury was far more terrifying. Edward Trevelyan, seventh Earl of Hartleigh, was an extremely handsome man whose warm brown eyes had often set Miss Carter's forty-year-old heart aflutter. But at the moment, the brown eyes glittered down at her with barely contained rage. And though his voice was low, the temper he so carefully controlled showed in his long fingers, which now, as he questioned her, were angrily raking the thick dark curls at his forehead.
Stammering and tearful, Miss Carter tried to explain. She'd taken Lucy to the circulating library. They'd then decided to see if they could find a ribbon to match Lucy's newest and favorite dress. Miss Carter had stopped only a moment—to admire the cut of Lady Delmont's pelisse as that grand and rather scandalous personage entered the shop across the street. Apparently, the governess had let go of Lucy's hand. Not that she actually remembered letting go—she was so sure she hadn't—but she must have, for when she looked down beside her, Lucy was gone. She had searched all the nearby shops to no avail.
Turning away from the governess in disgust, Lord Hartleigh began snapping orders to his household. He dispatched a dozen servants to comb the streets, then called for his carriage, his hat, and his cane. When the door finally closed behind him, the remaining inhabitants commenced to whispering among themselves; all but Miss Carter, who, teary-eyed and red-faced, scurried to her room.
It served him right, he thought as the carriage made its way down the street. This was what came of being so hasty as to hire a governess for his young ward. Yet Miss Carter had not seemed the least bit flighty—and she had come highly recommended. Even Aunt Clem had agreed with his choice of governess for Lucy. Well, actually, she had said, "I suppose she'll do—but it won't do, you know, Edward." Whatever "it" was. Clem had a tendency to fix you with her eye in that all-knowing way of hers and then utter cryptic pronouncements in the tone of a sybil.
Life certainly had changed when one must go to Aunt Clementina for advice, he thought ruefully. There was a time when he'd made his way across the Continent, close to Napoleon's forces, in search of information which would save English lives. But twice he'd endangered his own. He would be dead now if it hadn't been for Robert Warriner. Instead, it was Robert who was gone. News of his death had been delivered a month ago by the housekeeper's husband, along with a letter...and a seven-year-old girl.
The letter was short, and he had read it often enough to know it by heart, especially the closing lines:
It is rather a great favor I ask, my friend. But the doctors have no hope for me, and Lucy will be left alone in the world. Our housekeeper and her husband have offered to take her in, but they are hard-pressed to care for themselves, and I cannot place such a burden on them. For old times' sake, then, will you watch over my daughter as though she were your own?
Watch over her. And now the child was lost in the middle of a busy and dangerous city. Oh, Robert, forgive me, he thought.
"Mademoiselle Latham, you must trust me. I do not cut the gowns simply à la mode. I cut pour la femme. But see, how can you judge?" Nudging her recalcitrant customer along to the dressing room, Madame Vernisse continued in that sing-song of hers. "First you must try it on, and then we shall see what we shall see."
Although she obediently followed the modiste into the dressing room, everything within Isabella cried out for escape, and she had the mad urge to dash back out of the room, the shop, and London altogether. Back to Westford and the home she and her widowed mother had made with quiet, sensible Uncle Henry Latham. Life in Westford might be dull at times, and Aunt Pamela's social climbing a source of embarrassment, but there at least Isabella was not the object of constant scrutiny and speculation. Why, Lady Delmont had stared at her quite rudely, and for no other reason than that Isabella was Maria Latham's daughter. Well, let her stare. Mama may have disgusted her family by marrying Matthew Latham—a mere cit—but she was Viscount Belcomb's sister, nonetheless. And unlike her brother Thomas, Maria Latham was quite plump in the pocket. Isabella raised her chin a little as Madame Vernisse slipped the blue silk gown over her head. And when the modiste stepped back with a little smile to admire her handiwork, Miss Latham bravely looked into the mirror.
It was lovely. It was also a trifle...shocking.
"Madame Vernisse, are you certain...?" She motioned vaguely toward her bosom, an alarming expanse of which was in public view.
"It is perfection on you," the modiste replied. "Of course the fashion is much more décolleté than this—but as I tell you, I do not cut just for the fashion; I cut also for la femme."
It was amazing what a new frock could do. The elegantly cut gown clung to her slim figure, calling attention to previously well-concealed curves. The rich blue deepened the blue of her eyes and made her complexion seem creamily luminous. Even her dingy blonde hair had taken on a golden luster. She looked, in fact, almost pretty. Not that it signified how she looked. After all, this was her two cousins' first Season. Isabella need only look well enough to appear with them in public.
Thinking of the coming months, Isabella suddenly felt weary. She would have much preferred to stay quietly in the country with Uncle Henry and Aunt Pamela Latham, her late father's brother and his wife. It was, as Mama had said, a great bore to go where one was not welcome. But Aunt Pamela wanted her eldest daughter, Isabella's cousin Alicia, to have a London Season; it was hoped the girl would find herself a titled husband. And so Mama had been persuaded to write to her estranged brother, the viscount, with a simple proposal: The Lathams would be pleased to finance a Season for the viscount's daughter, Veronica Belcomb, if, in return, Alicia Latham was also provided entry into Society. It was a bitter pill for the Belcombs to swallow, but they had little choice, as Aunt Pamela well knew.
"Barely a feather to fly with," she'd said. "Veronica's dowry is nothing to speak of—and what good is even that, I ask you, when they can't afford a Season for her?"
The blue gown was gently removed, and an emerald-green gown took its place, to be in turn replaced by a series of walking dresses, and a deep forest-green riding habit.
"You see?" said Madame Vernisse. "The colors of the sea, and of the cool forest. And so your hair glows and your eyes sparkle. Was I not correct?"
Isabella nodded agreement, but her mind was on her family and its problems. And when her ever-restless maid, Polly, offered to run some errands while the fittings continued, Isabella dismissed her with an absent nod. To soften the blow to the Belcomb pride, Maria Latham had proposed herself as chaperon. This would save Lady Belcomb the embarrassment of being seen too much in public with a girl whose father was engaged in trade. And, of course, it would save her ladyship the expense of a new wardrobe—for it was one thing to take advantage of her only chance to see her daughter properly launched; it was quite another to be beholden to the Lathams for the very clothes on her own back. And so the offer was accepted, and Lady Belcomb had little to do but tolerate the three Lathams under her roof and smooth the way for her sister-in-law—whom society had not seen in twenty-seven years. The rest would be up to Maria.
It was unfortunate that Mama and Uncle Henry had both insisted on Isabella's coming to London as well. Of course, it was too much to expect her languid parent to be in constant attendance on a pair of "tiresomely energetic schoolroom misses," even though she had proposed herself as nominally their chaperon. The real task would fall to Isabella. And after all, they were under tremendous obligation to Uncle Henry, for had he not welcomed them into his home after Papa died, and helped them rebuild the fortune Matt Latham had speculated away? She came back to the present with a jolt when she heard the modiste's voice at her ear.
"So, mam'selle, I think we have done well for today. And by the end of the week, we shall have the others ready as well. Bon. It is a good day's work, I think." Nodding approval at her own artistry, Madame Vernisse was so pleased with herself that she even condescended to help Isabella back into her somber brown frock, although the modiste did frown as she fastened up the back and tactfully suggested that it be given—as soon as possible—to Polly. Then she hustled out of the dressing room, and promptly began scolding her assistants, who weren't looking busy enough to suit her.
Several pins had come loose from Isabella's hair, and she stopped to make repairs before leaving the dressing room. As she glanced in the mirror, she was a little disappointed to see a dowdy spinster again, and sighed. A tiny sigh echoed it, and she looked around quickly. No one was in the room but herself. Then she heard it again. It seemed to be coming from a pile of discarded lining fabric that had fallen into a corner. Evidently it had been a busy day for the modiste; normally, the shop was scrupulously tidy.
Cautiously, Isabella stepped toward the fabric. It moved slightly, and emitted a whimper. As she moved closer, she saw a tiny hand clutching a red ribbon. She lifted a corner of the fabric to find a little girl, asleep. As Isabella gently smoothed the tousled brown curls away from her face, the child, who had somehow managed to sleep through the earlier chatter in the dressing room, awoke to the caress.
"Mama?" she whispered. Then, when she realized that this was a stranger, the tears welled up in her eyes. "She's gone away," she told Isabella, and began sobbing as though her heart would break.
When Madame Vernisse re-entered the dressing room to see what had become of her latest client, she was shocked to find that young lady seated on the floor, cradling a little girl in her arms.
"And so your name is Lucy, is it?" Isabella inquired, some minutes later, after the child had been comforted and her tears bribed away with sweets. "Is that all of your name?"
"Lucy Warriner," the girl answered.
"Oh, blessed heavens. It is milord 'Artleigh's ward," cried Madame Vernisse. "They will be frantic for her. I must send someone immediatement. Michelle! Michelle! Where is that girl when you want her? Not here. Never here. Where does she go, I ask?"
"Polly will be back in a moment," Isabella replied, calmly. "We'll send her." Turning back to Lucy, she asked, "And how did you get lost in the dressing room?"
"Oh, I didn't get lost," the child replied. "I excaped."
"What did you escape from?"
"That lady. Miss Carter. My govermiss."
Suppressing a smile, Isabella continued, "I should think Miss Carter would be worried sick about you, Lucy. Don't you know it's wrong to escape from your governess? She's there to take care of you."
"Papa took care of me. He didn't get a govermiss. Even after Mama went to heaven, he took care of me himself. I don't need a govermiss. But I miss my papa." As tears threatened again, Isabella gave up her questioning and offered hugs instead.
When another quarter hour had passed and Polly had not yet returned, Isabella determined—despite Madame Vernisse's vociferous Gallic protests—to escort the child to the earl's house herself. So it was that she emerged from the mantua-maker's shop with Lucy's hand in hers and nearly collided with a very tall, very well-dressed, and very angry gentleman.
"I beg your—" he began, irritated. His eyes then fell upon Lucy, who was attempting to hide in Isabella's skirts. "Lucy! What is this?" He glared down at Isabella from his more than six-foot height. "That child is my ward, miss," he growled. "I assume you have an explanation."
Stunned by this unexpected rudeness, and not a little cowed by his size, Isabella stared, speechless, at him. She felt Lucy's grip on her hand tighten. This was the girl's guardian? The poor child was terrified of him.
"Perhaps you would be kind enough to release her," Lord Hartleigh continued, reaching for Lucy's free hand. Lucy, however, backed off.
At this Isabella found her tongue. "I will be happy to— if in fact you are her guardian, and if you would calm yourself. You're frightening her."
Hearing the commotion, Madame Vernisse hurried to the entrance. "Ah, milord 'Artleigh. You have arrived at the bon moment. We have found your ward!" she cried triumphantly.
"So I see," he snapped. "Then perhaps you would be kind enough to tell your assistant to let me take the girl home."
Madame Vernisse looked from one to the other in bewilderment. "But milord—"
"Never mind," said Isabella. She was shaking with anger, but endeavored to control her voice as she bent to speak to the little girl. "Now, Lucy, your guardian is here to take you back home."
"I don't want to," Lucy replied. "I excaped."
"Yes, and you have worried Lord Hartleigh terribly. You see? He is so distraught that he forgets his manners and blusters at ladies." This last caused the earl's ears to redden, but he held his tongue, sensing that he was at a disadvantage. "Now if you go nicely with him, he'll feel better and will not shout at the servants when you get home."
"You come, too," Lucy begged. "You can be my mama."
"No, dear. I must go back to my own family, or they'll worry about me, too."
"Then take me with you," the child persisted.
"No, dear. You must go back with your guardian. You don't want to worry him anymore, do you? Or hurt his feelings?"
The notion of this giant's having tender feelings which could be hurt was a bit overwhelming for the child, but she shook her head obediently.
Isabella stood up again. Reluctantly, the little hand slipped from her own, the brown curls emerged from their hiding place, and Lucy allowed her guardian to take her hand.
"I'm sorry I worried you, Uncle Edward," she told him contritely. "I'm ready to go home now." As they began to walk to his carriage, she turned back briefly, to offer Isabella one sad little wave good-bye.
The missing Polly reappeared in time to see the earl lift Lucy into the carriage and then climb in himself. "Oh, miss," she gasped. "Do you see who that is?"
"Yes. It is Lord Hartleigh. And it is time we went home."
"A spy, you know, miss," Polly went on, hurrying to keep up with her mistress, who was clearly in a tizzy about something. "They say he was a spy against those wicked Frenchies. And they caught him, miss, you know, and threw him in prison, and he nearly died of the fever there, but he got away from them. And then came back half-dead. Laid up for months, he was. And all for his country. He's a real hero—as much as my Lord Wellington—but it's a secret, you know." She sighed. "Lor', such a handsome man. The shoulders on him—did you notice, miss?"
"Handsome is as handsome does," snapped her mistress. "Do hurry. I promised to be home for luncheon."
Lord Hartleigh had ample time to consider his behavior during the silent ride home. After all, one could not expect Lucy to speak. She was always sad and withdrawn, and speaking to her only made her sadder and more withdrawn. It was only at Aunt Clem's that the child had shown any sign of animation. But Lucy had not been the least shy with that strange woman at the dressmaker's. Good heavens, she'd even asked her to be her mama! As he recalled the scene, he was filled with self-loathing. What an overbearing bully he must have looked!
His manners that day had been abominable: Cold and impatient with Miss Carter, he had gone on to make a complete ass of himself at the modiste's. But he had been turned inside out by worry—and guilt. That hour he'd spent searching the shops had seemed like months. Robert had trusted his child to him. And after less than a month, this trusted guardian had proceeded to misplace her. I take better care of my horses, the earl thought miserably.
He glanced again at Lucy. She was the image of her father, with her hazel eyes and curling brown hair, but she had none of his spirit. Not that her recent losses weren't enough to stifle the spirit of even the liveliest child. Pity for her welled up in him, and he felt again the same frustration he'd felt for weeks: He could not make her happy. Why had she run away? And what was so appealing about this dowdy young woman that Lucy wanted to go away and live with her?
Of course, that fair-haired young woman had not been the dressmaker's assistant; he should have known it as soon as she opened her mouth. He'd seen her before...at one of those dreary affairs to which Aunt Clem was forever sending him in search of a suitable wife? Or had it been somewhere else? No matter. He should have known by her dignity and poise that she was a lady. But he'd been too distraught to think clearly. He smiled ruefully. Distraught and blustering. Just as the young lady had explained so patiently to Lucy. He had simply reacted—out of fear for Lucy's safety and, it must be admitted, hurt pride. It was not agreeable for a man who'd taken responsibility for the safety of whole armies to discover that he could not adequately oversee the care of one little girl. Nor was it agreeable to see the way the child had clung to that woman, or the reluctance with which she had come to him.
But it was to be expected, was it not? Lucy wanted a mama; so badly that she would pick up strange women on the street. Well, if a mama was what was required, he would supply one. It was not pleasant to think of, but when before had he shunned a dangerous mission?
Dangerous. That was it. The woman he'd seen early the other morning, dashing across the meadow on that spirited brown mare. Good God! Lord Belcomb's niece.
Looking up timidly, Lucy saw that her guardian's face was turning red. Fearful of a scolding, she shrank further into her corner.