The Earl's Bargain
for a Second Chance
for a Second Chance
Isabella Wilson rushed around her bedchambers, frantic, even though the ball wasn’t for another three hours. She had made her debut nearly a month before, and already she had a reason to be excited about every single event. She had been devastated when her father had forced her to have her debut ball, with her mother ill and being cared for by family in Bath. But now, she was delighted to have wonderful news to share with her mother. She was in love, and she had never been happier.
Luke Pearson was a viscount, and the most handsome man Isabelle had ever seen. He was funny, kind, charming and intelligent, and she felt more at home in his arms than she ever had in her bed at her own home. The two of them had been discussing courtship after their very first dance, two balls after her come out, and Isabella had gotten herself lost in his pale blue eyes as they danced. She was always carefully chaperoned, but it was all she could do to keep from flying into his arms each time she saw Luke.
That evening, she was especially eager to prepare for the ball. She had big news, she was sure of it, as she and Luke had talked of nothing else for a whole week. And even though it wouldn’t be official until that very evening, she couldn’t wait to tell her mother. So, while she still struggled with which gown she should wear, she sat down at the desk in her room and began penning a letter:
It’s happening! I wish you were here. My heart aches with your absence, even in the midst of such a happy season. But currently, my joy is great, and if you cannot be here to witness it yourself, I want to be the one to tell you. Luke and I are ending our courtship tonight at the ball, where he’s going to propose to me!
We haven’t yet decided when we shall seek Father’s blessing, but that is all that remains before we can declare our love to all of London. Father is eager for me to find a match, and thank the heavens, I have. I am beside myself, Mother, and I can’t wait to begin my wedding preparations. I hope that you are well enough to see me get married. But if not, I shall come visit you at your sickbed, so that you can participate in the last fitting for my wedding dress.
I miss you dearly, Mother. I love you with all my heart. At long last, my heart feels truly complete. I cannot wait to begin my new life as the Viscountess Pearson.
All my love,
With trembling hands and a squeal of joy rising in her throat, Isabella folded the letter and scribbled the address on a fresh envelope. She lay the items on the corner of her desk, suddenly inspired for her evening’s attire. She rushed to the wardrobe, pulling out dresses until she found her cream-colored, dark cream trimmed evening gown, embroidered with pearls painted to match the colors of the dress and trim. Then, she called for her lady’s maid, and dressed for the ball.
Luke was waiting for her just inside the lavish blue and purple decorated ballroom when she arrived. She smiled sweetly at him, but he did not return it. He reached for her hand, his expression grave as he led her all the way around the dance floor and to the open balcony off to the side.
“Luke, darling, what is it?” she asked, reaching for his face.
Luke moved back, pushing her hand away from him and shaking his head. He wouldn’t look at her, which was completely unlike him. She was terrified that someone close to him had died, and she was trying to think of how to comfort him.
“Isabella, there is no easy way to say this,” he said. “But we can’t continue our courtship.”
Isabella scoffed, giggling nervously.
“What?” she asked. “If you’re feeling nervous about speaking with my father to get his blessing, we can wait, darling. There’s no rush.”
Luke shook his head, finally looking her in the eyes. He looked hurt and angry, in such a way that it rendered Isabella speechless.
“No,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I cannot marry you, Isabella.”
Isabella felt the world tilt. She reached for him reflexively, but he pulled away again.
“Why?” she asked. “We were so happy. You said you were going to propose tonight. Why are you doing this?”
Luke shook his head again, turning his face away from her.
“I’m sorry, Isabella,” he said. “I must go.”
Luke pushed past Isabella, despite her weak protests. He disappeared into the crowd that was filing onto the dance floor for the first dance set. She stood staring inside the ballroom for what felt like ages, trying to understand. Why had he suddenly ended their courtship? Had she done something wrong? And if so, why wouldn’t he tell her what it was?
She went back inside, searching for him. She wanted to speak to him, to try to work out whatever the problem was. But she couldn’t see him anywhere, and the room felt like it was gradually closing in on her. Devastated, confused, and filled with overwhelming sadness, Isabella fled the ballroom and went to her family’s waiting carriage. Her father wouldn’t miss her for some time, and by then, she would already be back at home, locked away in her bedchambers. She ordered the carriage to take her home, knowing the driver would return to the ball to retrieve her father.
When Isabella reached her house, she ran up the stairs, slamming the door closed behind her. She forcefully locked it as tears streamed down her cheeks. She stumbled, blinded by her heartbreak, around her room. She aimed for her bed, but she bumped instead into her desk. Something fell, and her reflexes reacted to catch it. But when she saw what she was holding, she began to sob. It was her letter to her mother, announcing her impending engagement to Luke. Now, no such engagement would ever take place. She felt like a fool, and in her anguish, she ripped up the letter and saturated the pieces with her tears.
Isabella refused to come out of her room for a fortnight after Luke ended their courtship and canceled their expected engagement. She wouldn’t even let Denise, her lady’s maid, enter her room to help her dress or bathe. By the third week, she allowed Denise to draw her a bath, but she still wouldn’t leave her room. Denise spent the rest of that week in her chambers with her, even though Isabella hardly spoke four words to her the entire time.
About one month after Luke broke her heart, Isabella finally ventured out of her room. There had been talk of her getting to go visit her mother in Bath, as her mother was feeling a little better and asking for her. She decided that she would try to get some fresh air and try to not look as though her world had crumbled from beneath her. It was a decision she immediately regretted.
Her father sat at the table in the supper room, reading the paper as usual. She sat without greeting him, which he hardly seemed to notice with his head buried in the paper. She was sipping her tea when she glanced at the page that was facing her. And in big, bold letters was a heading that would send her right back to her chambers for another fortnight:
Viscount Pearson weds Lady Violet Durant in Grand Ceremony.
Isabelle closed her eyes, willing herself to awaken in her bed. However badly her heart had ached before, it was nothing compared to the pain those words brought her. But when she opened her eyes again, the heading remained, taunting her. She didn’t even bother excusing herself as she rose from the table.
Her father took notice of her then, and he gave her a nod.
“Isabella, dear, I’ve been meaning to speak with you,” he said.
Isabella opened her mouth to ask her father if it could wait. But no sound came out, and her legs collapsed out from under her, and she just managed to fall down into her chair.
Her father didn’t seem to notice her distress. He lowered the paper, keeping it so that he could continue reading while glancing up at her occasionally.
“I have some marvellous news,” he said. “I have received an offer for your hand in marriage. It is a very excellent offer, and you should be thrilled.”
Despite having just read the devastating news headline in the scandal sheets, Isabella’s heart rose. She put a hand to her cheek and found her voice, weak though it was.
“Oh?” she asked softly, daring to hope that her eyes had been playing tricks on her after all. She glanced at the paper once more, and sure enough, the words were gone. She didn’t recall her father turning the page, and she even began to smile.
“Yes, oh,” her father said, grinning coolly at her over the top of the paper. “John Bentley called in the day before yesterday. He and I talked at length, and it’s been decided. You shall marry him. In one month, to be precise.”
Isabella felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room. She tried to draw breath and failed as Lord Bentley’s face came to her mind. He was one of her father’s oldest business associates, in every sense of the word. What little hair he had left was turning gray, and his jowls had started to sag before Isabella was sixteen years old. Now, her father was telling her that she was to marry him. And he hadn’t even bothered to mention it to her before making the agreement.
Isabella found new strength, though born only out of her breeding, which taught her that young ladies didn’t have outbursts in public. She rose once more, without a word on the matter to her father, and fled the room. She was sobbing before she reached her bedchambers, and she collapsed once inside, sliding down onto the floor and closing the door with her back. What had she done so wrong to deserve for her life to go so horribly, painfully wrong so suddenly and irreversibly?
Isabella stared out the window of her London townhouse. It was a home she once shared with John Bentley for six of the past eight years of her life, and only then was it starting to feel something like home. She should have been residing at her country-seat, as the countryside was lovely, especially at the beginning of summer. But since John had died, the only thing the country-seat held for her was terrible memories. Memories that now no longer bound her to that dreadful mansion.
John had fallen suddenly ill two years prior, and he had died shortly after. Isabella had been every bit the dutiful wife, even producing an heir and a daughter for her husband. But there hadn’t been a single moment in her marriage to the viscount where she had been happy. Not only was her marriage to John arranged, but he had been terribly verbally abusive. The only solace she took from the horrible marriage was the fact that she was a widower, and she now possessed the London townhouse and Bentley Manor in the country.
John Bentley had treated her like a prisoner during the tenure of their marriage. She had had no illusions that the aging viscount loved her in any way when her father forced her to marry him. In truth, she hadn’t cared whether he did or not, as her heart had still been broken over Luke. But she realized, too late, that some part of her yearned for a sense of contentment in her marriage. And yet, no such feeling ever came. On the best of days, Isabella cried herself to sleep each night. On the worse, she couldn’t muster one single tear.
John had even cut her off from her friends back in London. He had brought her to the country-seat that now belonged to her, telling her father stories of the love and happiness he intended to lavish upon her when they reached there. Instead, however, he had all but locked her away in her chambers, refusing to even let her see her own mother. It was as if, since he couldn’t love her, he was determined to make her forget what love felt like. Even the love of her own family. He had never physically stricken her. But sometimes, Isabella wondered if his abuse and isolation of her wasn’t worse, in ways.
However, Isabella did gain two rays of joy in her life. Indeed, Andrew and Emma were the only reason she had survived as long as she did in such a miserable marriage, in such an unhappy home. John had treated her slightly better during her pregnancies, and he had been thrilled when she bore him a son as his first child. Eighteen months later, Emma was born, and John seemed moderately pleased.
However, his apparent favoritism was noticed by his whole family. Especially little Emma. Isabella had always told herself that John at least loved his children, in his own way. But now that he was deceased, Isabella wondered if that was true. Even Andrew, his heir, was likely just a means to carry on John’s title and fortune. Isabella didn’t think John was ever capable of love. And she was glad that she no longer had to pretend to be happy with him.
She glanced over at where Andrew, now six years old, and Emma, who was four-and-a-half, sat in the floor, playing with their wooden toys. Andrew resembled his father, whereas Emma looked like her mother, but they both wore identical expressions of boredom. There would never be anything in the world more important or precious to her than her dear children. And yet, she found herself failing them, even though she didn’t grieve her husband’s death. They stayed inside all the time, when they should have been playing outside and enjoying the summer. She knew she needed to stop feeling sorry for herself and focus more on her children. Perhaps, if she could do that, she could finally find the contentment she had hoped for at the beginning of her miserable marriage.
“Lady Bentley?” the butler said from the doorway.
The children lost interest in their toys, whipping around to look at the butler as though his entrance was the most interesting thing they had seen in ages. Isabella’s heart ached as she realized that it likely was.
Isabella rose and approached the butler with a small smile.
“Yes?” she asked.
The butler held out a letter to her, bowing as she took it.
“This just came for you,” he said.
Isabella glanced at it, smiling when she saw that it came from her mother. She smiled at the butler, a bit more sincerely.
“Thank you,” she said. “That will be all.”
The butler bowed again and then vanished from sight. Isabella returned to her seat, breaking the seal on the letter, and pulling out the page inside. The letter was short, but it brought Isabella comfort, nonetheless:
My darling, it has been ages since I’ve seen you. I miss you dearly, and I long to hold my sweet grandchildren in my arms again. They must be growing like mad, and I miss the chance to spoil them. Charles and I would like to invite you to bring the children and come and stay with us for a while.
I know things have been difficult for you as of late, darling. I love you, and I want to help you. Please, consider our invitation. We both miss all of you.
All my love,
Isabella looked up at her children, who were watching her with wide eyes. It had been a good while, indeed, since they all saw her mother, and her mother’s husband of three years, Charles. They hadn’t seen those two since John’s funeral, in fact, and Isabella was ashamed. John had kept her away from her family enough throughout their marriage. Now that he was gone, she saw no reason why they couldn’t go.
Later that evening, Isabella took her two very sleepy children upstairs to their room. They each had their own beds, but little Emma had been sleeping fitfully in hers since her father died. Andrew had taken to just letting her sleep with him, and Isabella was proud of her son. He was a terrific big brother to Emma, and she thought that it might help him feel a little better to let his sister sleep with him, as well.
Isabella tucked them in, smiling down at them.
“How would the two of you like to go and visit Grandmother and Grandfather?” she asked. She didn’t feel odd about calling Charles the children’s grandfather. They had never met her own father, and Charles loved them as though they were his own flesh and blood.
Andrew lit up immediately.
“Oh, can we, Mother?” he asked.
Emma frowned, having been too young when she last saw her grandparents to remember them. But at her brother’s enthusiasm, she also smiled and nodded.
“Can we?” she asked.
Isabella smiled again and nodded.
“We sure can,” she said.
Andrew pumped his fist in the air. Emma mimicked him, and Isabella laughed again.
“Would you like a bedtime story?” she asked.
“Emma understood story time. She grinned, pointing to the book on the bedside table.
“That one, Mama,” she said.
Isabella smiled and nodded, sitting in the chair as Andrew got Emma to lay back and nestle into the bed, as he was. She opened the book, which was a story about a princess who found herself in a serious predicament. The children were very invested in the story, but she could see them growing sleepier with every page. Isabella enjoyed reading to the children just as much as they enjoyed her doing the reading. She cherished every minute she got to spend with them. And now, she would get to spend time with her entire family, something she had longed to do for quite some time. For the first time since she married John, she felt hope, and a little excitement of her own.
When she finished the book, Emma was already fast asleep. Andrew was close, but as she closed the book and put it back on the shelf, Andrew stirred and held up his hand.
“But what happened?” he asked.
Isabella hid a smile, thinking her son was sleep talking.
“What happened with what?” she asked.
Andrew pointed toward the bookshelf.
“At the end of the story,” he said.
Isabella walked back over to the bed, so she didn’t have to speak loudly enough to wake Emma.
“The prince rescued the princess,” she said.
Andrew nodded, rubbing his eyes.
“I know that part,” he said, yawning. “But what happened after that?”
Isabella smiled softly.
“Then, they lived happily after together,” she said.
Andrew nodded again with a dreamy smile.
“So, did they have more princes and princesses?” he asked. “Did they get married and live in a big palace? Did the prince get to defend his castle from bad monsters and robbers?”
“I’m sure they will have lots of princes and princesses,” she said, touching his nose gently. “Now, I know a little prince of mine who needs to close his eyes and go to sleep, just like the princess.”
Andrew yawned again and nodded.
“I’m gonna dream about fighting dragons to protect my castle,” he said with a sleepy grin.
Isabella giggled and nodded once more.
“Very well,” she said. “That’s perfectly fine. So long as you’re asleep and dreaming. We shall depart for Grandmother’s first thing in the morning.”
Andrew’s grin widened, even as his eyelids continued dropping.
“I can’t wait to see Grandmother and Grandfather again,” he said.
Isabella tucked the blanket back around her son, kissing both him and her daughter on the tops of their heads as she did so.
“Nor can I, my darling,” she said. “Nor can I.”
She blew out the candle and was heading to the door when Andrew spoke again.
“When will we get there, Mama?” he asked.
Isabella thought for a minute.
“It will take about four days,” she said.
Andrew yawned for the last time.
“Maybe we’ll meet a princess who needs rescuing…” his voice trailed off as sleep finally claimed him.
Isabella smiled fondly into the room as she closed the door. A strange thought struck her then, after her son’s last words. Maybe this is a chance for this princess to find a rescue from this dark, dreary tower…
Luke Pearson tapped the ball down the long green alley that comprised the pall mall court at the back of the residence he had adopted in Bath eighteen months prior. He played alone, which allowed him to hone his skills. Sadly, his skills had always been lacking, and he found that terrible players practised terribly. But he enjoyed his one-man competitions, nonetheless. The fresh air was always cathartic, and he got a good chuckle when he grossly missed the round metal hoop that indicated a score. As he had just then.
He pulled a pre-cut cigar from his pocket, lighting it with a match and puffing on it before he strolled down the court to fetch the rogue ball. He would head in soon to check for letters from his steward, who was flawlessly running his country-seat estate in his stead. But he knew there was not likely to be any pressing matters there. So, for the time being, Luke smoked his cigar and took another sloppy shot at the hoop.
When the desire for a drink became greater than his desire to keep missing the hoop, Luke gathered up the mallet and the ball. He handed them to a nearby footman, who took them to the shed behind the grand Bath townhouse. Then, Luke went back inside, pulling his scotch and a glass from the cabinet in his monotone, black cherry colored study as he took a seat at his desk. He stared at the walls, which were blissfully bare of portraits of any relatives since it was his one place to escape. He despised London in its entirety, and his country-seat was filled with too many bad memories.
He had spent nearly eight years married to Lady Violet, just as his father had wished. Both their fathers, in fact, had pressed for the marriage, having made the arrangements, and signing all the legal paperwork behind the backs of their own children. Luke had been horrified by the idea, especially since he had loved another at the time. But Violet, however, had become terribly depressed, practically from the very moment she became Lady Violet Bentley. With her dark hair and olive complexion, and dark green eyes, she had been a beautiful woman. But there had never been even a spark of romance between them. Violet’s endless depression had been a terrible testament to that fact.
She had passed away a year and a half prior. She fell suddenly ill and remained locked in her chambers, wasting away, and refusing to see her own husband. It was true that Luke felt no love for her, but she had been his companion for nearly a decade. And it was his duty to see that her needs were met. Yet, she had shut him out completely, until she drew her last breath. Thinking back on all the tears she used to cry and all the days she spent not bothering to get out of bed, Luke sometimes caught himself wondering if the illness hadn’t been, in its way, a mercy to her.
He rubbed his face, feeling pity for himself as much for Violet as he looked at the papers and ledgers on his desk. He hadn’t been thrilled in the marriage, either, but he would have never forced Violet to marry him, had there been any option. But even though he didn’t notice her absence, except in the way one gets accustomed to seeing someone every single day for years, and then suddenly doesn’t anymore, he still felt heaviness.
As he dropped his hands from his face, he noticed a tilting stack of letters sitting on his desk. He smirked, wondering if the butler had started making a game of seeing how many could fit on one stack, before beginning a new one. He supposed he should take that as a hint to start reading through some of them. He rifled through them, tossing out those that were either too old to bother answering, or had been addressed by the infrequent house calls some of his business partners made.
Toward the more recent section of the stack, he saw two envelopes with familiar penmanship scrawled across them. He smiled to himself. He was sure he knew the contents of each letter, even before he read them. He decided to open the one from his mother first, to leave the more pleasant letter for last. He certainly wasn’t disappointed.
She was rather direct, imploring him to consider reentering society again. He shuddered, setting aside the letter, and shaking his head. The last thing he wanted was to mingle with women who might have the idea of marrying a wealthy widower earl. He suspected that might be what his mother was intending for him to do. But there was no way he would ever put himself in a position to end up in another loveless marriage.
The second letter, however, made him smile. He eagerly opened it, anxious to see what his aunt Daphne, Lady Easton, had to say. It had been too long since he had seen her, and she had been a great comfort to him over the years. He read her letter, finding its contents far more pleasing than that from his mother:
My Darling Nephew,
I hope this letter finds you well, Luke. Darling, you keep yourself hidden away, and I miss you terribly. I apologise for having not made the trip to Bath recently, but affairs here at our country-seat have kept both your uncle and me quite busy. I think about you every day, however, and I would love to see you.
Thus, I am formally inviting you to come to a summer house party I am hosting here at our country home. It would mean the world to me if you would agree to come, darling. It is sure to be a fun, lovely affair, and getting to see you would make the evening just perfect.
And do not fret, my dear. I have no intention of inviting your mother. I want you to feel comfortable and enjoy yourself, and I have no doubt that your mother would make the evening unpleasant. I love you, darling, and I hope you will accept this invitation.
Luke held onto that letter, looking it over as he sat back in his chair. He hadn’t seen his aunt in ages, and he loved her dearly. She was, in many ways, more of a mother than his own mother had ever been. And she knew that Luke and his mother didn’t get along well, as evidenced by her saying that she wasn’t inviting the countess to her summer house party. He knew that Daphne truly had his best interest at heart, and that she loved him just as dearly as he loved her. He set the letter aside at last, considering her invitation.
One other note caught Luke’s attention, and he grabbed it, his memory jogging. It was a note written by his own hand, and it had a time written in big numbers and underlined. At the top, his cousin’s name, John, was written just as big. He had agreed to receive John for drinks that very evening, and he had two hours to get ready. He restacked the letters almost just as they were in case the butler was making a game out of the stacking, and then he rushed to his chambers, grabbing Lyle on the way, to dress for his cousin’s visit.
He was just descending the stairs when the butler entered the grand hall. Behind him was a grinning John, who the butler announced as Luke approached.
“Good evening, Cousin,” John Davis said, shaking his head to rid his brown eyes of a strand of dark brown hair.
Luke offered his hand, smiling at his cousin and gesturing for him to follow.
“Good evening,” he said. “Come. Let’s take our drinks in the parlour.”
John nodded in agreement.
“We could hang from a tree, so long as there are drinks,” he said, waggling his eyebrows.
Luke laughed. His cousin was a respectable man, and a shrewd businessman, but he did enjoy a drink. Luke ordered the servants to make a tray of meat, cheese, and cakes, then fetched the scotch from the cabinet at the back of the room. While John made himself comfortable, Luke poured their drinks. Then, he served his cousin his drink and put the bottle of scotch on the table before moving a small, hard-backed chair closer to the black sofa where John sat, and toasted his cousin with his own.
“It’s good to see you,” he said, sipping his drink with his cousin.
John nodded, setting his drink aside.
“It’s been ages since I’ve seen you,” he said, his expression becoming more serious. “How are you faring?”
Luke shook his head, taking a big sip of his drink.
“I’m fine, Cousin,” he said. “Please, let’s not talk about dark things. I want our visit to be a happy one.”
John looked wary, but he eventually nodded.
“Very well,” he said. “What plans do you have for the summer?”
Luke shrugged, preparing to say he had none. But then, he thought about his aunt’s letter, and he smiled softly.
“Aunt Daphne has invited me to a house party at her country residence,” he said.
John’s face lit up, and he lifted his glass in the air again.
“That sounds lovely,” he said. “Are you going to attend?”
“I’m of two minds about it,” he said. “I would love to see Aunt Daphne again. However, I am not thrilled about the notion of mingling with those stuffy ton citizens.”
John laughed heartily, nodding.
“I admit that some of the ton people are quite insufferable,” he said. When Luke gave him a wide-eyed look, he laughed again. “All right. Most of them are. But sometimes, the parties are nice. They all occur with copious amounts of spirits, at least.”
It was Luke’s turn to laugh.
“To hear you talk, one would think that you think of nothing but alcohol,” he said.
John blinked rapidly, pretending puzzled.
“Doesn’t everyone?” he asked, sniggering.
Luke chuckled again.
“Not the stuffiest of them,” he said.
“And they’re the ones who need it most,” he said.
The men shared a laugh, and Luke poured them both another drink.
“Seriously, Cousin,” John said as they toasted nothing in particular again. “You should really consider attending the party.”
Luke shrugged again and sighed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “If it were just a visit with Daphne and Isaac, I would do it without a thought. But a party? I’m not sure I’m ready for all the socialising that would be required.”
John looked him over for a second before putting his drink down.
“Luke,” he said. “I do understand wanting to avoid some of the ton people. But you had friends once, people who cared about you and enjoyed your company. And Daphne isn’t likely to invite too many people you find insufferable.”
Luke nodded slowly, thinking about what she had said about his mother.
“You’re right about that,” he said.
“Your marriage to Violet robbed you off so much,” he said. “Your father was horrible for forcing you into that marriage. And while I do not celebrate her death, I think that you should celebrate this second chance at a happy life. You deserve to be happy again, Cousin. And I don’t think you’ll find any happiness by keeping yourself locked away behind walls, far away from those who truly love you.”
Luke rolled his eyes, but there was no malice. His cousin spoke the truth, and he knew it. Luke had once had a small circle of close friends, but they had grown apart in the years since he married Violet. And his friends aside, he had always been close to Daphne and Isaac. Even when he was keeping to himself in the country-seat, Daphne wrote to him at least twice a week, and she called in every chance she got.
“You’re right, Cousin,” he said. “I think a trip away is just what I need.”
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