Eloping With the Princess excerpt

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Taken from Chapter One…

 

Isabel Crisp had always considered herself the most ordinary of women.Of unknown or undetermined parentage, she relied on the generosity of her uncle, Lord Thornton, to fund her rather mediocre education at St. Bartholomew’s School for Girls. At nineteen, she had long ago made peace with her lack of prospects. After all, if her uncle had intended to withdraw her from school and launch her into society, it would’ve happened long ago.

Apparently, however, her uncle was as disinterested in her future as he was in her education.As for Isabel herself, she hoped one day to find a position as a governess, or perhaps to be allowed to stay on at St. Bartholomew’s as a teacher.

She certainly never expected to be leaving St. Bartholomew’s any time soon, especially not before sunrise. But her aunt, Lady Thornton, had come to retrieve her. They had no sooner stepped outside when something gripped her arm and tugged. Or rather someone. Pain and panic shot through her, and she struggled against the man as he dragged her away from the school and her aunt.

Then the man who had accompanied her aunt came after her assailant, punching him square in the face. The man released her arm and howled in pain. Isabel scurried away. Her heart pounded loudly in her ears, thundered against her chest. Lilith grabbed her and pulled her into the waiting carriage. A minute later her aunt’s companion jumped inside the carriage and yelled to the driver to move.

They rolled forward, away from the school. She rubbed at her throbbing arm where her would-be assailant had grabbed her. Her heart still beat wildly. She put her hand to her chest in a foolish effort to still her heart.

“Did you know that man?” Lilith asked.

Isabel was about to answer when she realized that the question had not been directed at her. She searched the faces of her aunt and her companion.

The man shook his head. “I was hoping you recognized him.”

“Me? No, I’ve never seen him before,” Lilith said. “What does he want with Isabel?”

“I didn’t give him a chance to tell me,” he said. “I simply pulled her free and slowed him down. But it’s obvious she’s in danger.”

Her? Why would she be in danger? She merely assumed that the man had grabbed her because it was so early in the morning and certainly that must be the time when all the criminals were out and about. Her assailant wasn’t the only man she didn’t know. Who was this man who was with her aunt? They quite obviously knew each other, but Isabel had never seen him before. He was a gentleman, that much was blatant, with his perfectly tied cravat and proper speech.

Isabel watched the two of them talk back and forth as if she were invisible. When she could stand it no longer, she finally blurted out, “I am right here. No need to discuss me as if I am deaf or incapable of speaking for myself.”

Her aunt’s companion turned his gaze on her. “Did you recognize him?” the man asked her.

Isabel didn’t answer immediately. She did not know this man. He could very well be a criminal, but that wouldn’t explain why her aunt was with him. Lilith was the only person in the world she’d ever been able to trust. She glanced at her aunt and when Lilith inclined her head gently, Isabel took a steadying breath. 

“No, but I rarely leave the school.” She paused and considered any time recently when she would have been out of school grounds and in a place to meet a stranger, but nothing came to mind. She shook her hands out to calm her addled nerves. “I don’t understand. Why am I in danger?” Then she angled her head to speak directly to Lilith. “And who is that man?” she asked quietly.

The man looked directly at her aunt as if she alone held the answer.

“Do not fret, Squirrel, I will keep you safe.” Lilith patted Isabel’s knee.

Her aunt’s use of the pet name offered a small measure of comfort.

“This is Lord Lynford. He is our escort for the evening.”

Isabel could clearly see that there was more the two of them weren’t saying aloud. Where was her uncle, and why was her aunt with this Lord Lynford? It was on her tongue to ask precisely that, but she instinctively knew they would not answer. Perhaps once she was alone with Lilith she could find out more.

Later on, the man stopped the carriage and gave instructions to the driver. When Lilith questioned him, he simply told her he was bringing them somewhere safe. Lilith argued, demanded even, that he return them to her townhome, but the man refused.

Isabel knew there was no point in her joining in the conversation; neither of them would listen to her. She had no notion of what was happening in any case, and now merely wanted to be out of the carriage so she could move her body around. She was cramped and stationary, and that made her jittery.

Tired of the quiet that stretched in the tiny confines of the carriage, Isabel finally asked one of the questions spinning through her mind. “Lilith, why did you come get me?”

Her aunt smiled slightly. “You have been at the school long enough, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Well, yes, but every time I asked Lord Thornton if I could leave, he refused me,” Isabel said.

“You call your uncle by his title?” Lord Lynford asked.

Isabel frowned at the man. “He insisted on it. I called him uncle once or twice and he said I was not to do so again.”

“He will no longer be insisting on anything,” Lilith said. “He is gone.”

“Gone?” Isabel asked.

“Dead, my dear.” There was much left unsaid in that one statement. Isabel had known from nearly the moment she’d met her uncle’s wife that theirs had not been a love match. Thornton was a cruel man, and he’d done little more than parade Lilith about on his arm, relishing the way her stunning beauty made others look at him.

Isabel nodded but did not speak. Thornton was dead. He was her only family member save Lilith, but that was only by marriage. She was alone in the world. She’d always felt as much, but now it was truth. The realization swam through her, but she felt nothing. Not relief, not sadness, not even indifference. It was as if Lilith had said something as simple as she’d started growing cabbage in her garden.

The carriage rolled to a stop.

“Who lives here?” Lilith asked after peeking out the curtained window.

“Viscount Ellis,” the man said, then he held his hand out to them to assist them down from the rig. “Ladies.”

The servant who opened the door bowed to the man. “Your Grace,” he said as he gave them entrance. Lord Lynford had moved farther into the house and was speaking quietly with the butler.

“Who is that man?” Isabel whispered.

Lilith rolled her eyes so slightly that Isabel wasn’t even certain it had happened. “I already told you. Gabriel Campbell, Duke of Lynford.”

No, that was merely the man’s name. She wanted to know who he was. “Why are you with him?” Isabel asked.

“’Tis a long story,” Lilith said.

“This way.” Lord Lynford angled his head.

Lilith matched the duke’s stride and said something quietly to him as they were led through the foyer and down a corridor. He quipped back to her. Though Isabel couldn’t hear their precise words, she was not so green to not recognize that something simmered between the two of them. Of course that would not be surprising. Her aunt was beautiful, stunning, and likely turned the head of every man when she entered a room. She and the handsome Lord Lynford would certainly make a striking couple.

The butler led them into a study, and a man immediately stood from behind a large mahogany desk. Though he quite obviously belonged in this room, there was a boyish charm about his wry grin that made him appear as if he’d snuck into his father’s study.

“Have you been traveling about London picking up stray women all night, Lynford?” His brilliant blue eyes sparkled as he spoke.

“Not precisely,” the duke said.

The man Isabel presumed was Lord Ellis stepped around his desk. He glanced at Lilith. “Lady Thornton, a pleasure to see you again.”

Lord Lynford tried to introduce her. Isabel vaguely heard him refer to her as Miss Crisp. Isabel knew it was unbecoming and impolite to stare, but she seemed to be caught up in the appearance of Lord Ellis. With his cropped brown hair and chiseled jawline, he was the picture of a fine gentleman, right down to the aristocratic line of his nose and the white of his cravat. Although he wasn’t as tall as Lord Lynford, his broad shoulders spoke of masculinity, and the way he moved revealed his athleticism. He was nothing short of dashing.

“We used our Christian names at St. Bart’s so I’m accustomed to that. Isabel is fine,” she said.

“Very well,” Lord Lynford said with a nod. “Isabel is in need of protection.” He stepped closer to Ellis and lowered his voice. “We could discuss this in private, if need be.”

“Unnecessary. I trust your assessment. Who is she?” Lord Ellis asked, never taking his piercing gaze off her.

Isabel coughed gently. “She is Lord Thornton’s niece. I can speak for myself.”

That wry grin from earlier blossomed into a full smile. He gave her a sharp nod. “Duly noted, Lord Thornton’s niece. I shall address you directly in the future.” He turned back to Lord Lynford. “Now then, am I to understand that we do not know why she is in danger?”

“You believe me to be in danger still?” Isabel asked, her heart ticking up a beat. “I thought that man was merely a criminal taking advantage of my being out at such an early hour.”

“We do not know,” Lilith said. “And I certainly did not intend for us to intrude upon you so early in the morning; it is not even fully light out yet. If you would kindly lend us a carriage, we shall—”

“Lilith, you are not going anywhere,” Lord Lynford said. “We’ve discussed this.”

“No, you made demands. Not the same thing,” Lilith said.

Isabel watched the two of them stand off and didn’t know what to think. She was potentially in danger, though she couldn’t fathom why. She knew next to no one, considering she’d spent so many of her formative years at St. Bart’s. Though something must be causing Lilith to be alarmed, else she would not have taken Isabel away from school before dawn.

“Ellis,” Lynford said. “Perhaps you could show Isabel to a room, assuming you are able to accommodate us?”

“Of course,” Lord Ellis said.

Lilith gave Isabel an apologetic look.

She would have been satisfied with someone simply pointing her to the nearest room, although she couldn’t very well return to bed at this hour. She supposed some women would. She’d heard that genteel ladies often did not arise until noon, but she was not accustomed to keeping such hours. Not only that, but she wasn’t ready to end the conversation with Lilith and Lord Lynford. She wanted answers. Her aunt’s tight lipped expression clearly revealed that she would not be providing any more answers, at least with Lord Lynford within earshot. So Isabel followed Lord Ellis out of the room.

“I admittedly do not have guests often. My apologies if I am a terrible host,” Lord Ellis said as he led her up the staircase.

 “I can’t say that I’ve ever truly been a guest, so I won’t have much previous experience by which to measure by your hosting skills.”

He chuckled. “Ah, then I have ample opportunity to impress you.”

She smiled in spite of herself and the awkward situation.

“Yes, well, here we are.” He opened a door to their right and stepped inside.

She followed suit and stared in surprise at the sight that greeted her. She forced herself to close her mouth. “I don’t understand,” she said with a shake of her head. “Is this some sort of jest?”

His brows rose. “Is the room not to your liking?”

“No, you misunderstand. I expected to be shown to a servant’s room. This”—she stepped farther into the room, but was careful to keep her feet on the hard floor and not tread directly onto the very expensive and plush rug—“is too much. It is unnecessary for me to have so much opulence.” She backed up, trying to leave the room, but he stopped her with a hand against her back.

“Miss Isabel, you are a genteel lady, but more so than that, you are my guest. Sending you to the servant’s quarters is completely out of the question.”

She eyed the room again, taking in everything before her. A massive four-poster bed, carved ornately with cherubs and flowers, sat in the center of the room. Luxurious sheets and coverlets in soft shades of powdery blue piled atop it, beckoned her with softness and warmth. A huge armoire in matching carved mahogany sat in the corner and was flanked by a dressing table and a small writing desk. Near the fireplace, an upholstered chair promised a perfect place to curl up with a book. The entire wall opposite her boasted near floor-to-ceiling windows that likely offered a brilliant view of either the viscount’s gardens or the city, depending on what the morning light would reveal. She was far more accustomed to her own small bed in the room she shared with three other girls at St. Bart’s.

“Certainly when you visited your uncle, he did not require you to sleep in the servant’s wing,” Viscount Ellis said, his voice reminding her that she was not standing here alone.

“What?”

“When you visited your aunt and uncle, your room?”

She shook her head. “No. I never…that is to say, I stayed at St. Bartholomew’s.”

“What about holidays and end of term?” he asked.

Yes, she was familiar with this sentiment. She’d experienced it often at school, when all the other students would return to their families’ homes and she’d stay at St. Bart’s. They’d all pitied her. Even the ones who weren’t treated all that well by their relations, even they had looked upon her with sadness. Poor Isabel. Unwanted Isabel. She saw the same thing reflected in Viscount Ellis’s eyes. She turned her gaze back to the large windows even though it was too dark for her to see anything. At least she didn’t have to indulge his pity.

“Uncle Thornton was a busy man. At least that is what he told me.” She’d made so many excuses for that man that she’d forgotten half of them. Why did she even bother? He’d been a wretched uncle, doing little more than paying for her schooling. “He was not overly affectionate. It was best for me to stay at the school, and I preferred it that way.” There, he couldn’t pity that. He might not understand it, but he couldn’t feel sorry for her if she had chosen the isolation.

He leaned casually against the wall. “Did the other students stay at the school, too?”

“No, not often. Occasionally one of them would, but for the most part, it was just me.”

“Did you not get lonely?” he asked, pushing himself off the wall.

“I am rather accustomed to my own company.” She smiled. “In truth, I often prefer the silence of my own thoughts. And there were a couple of stray alley cats that would allow me a scratch behind the ears every now and again.”

The viscount rocked back on his heels. “I see. Well then, consider this a little holiday.”

She glanced at the room and all the open space. She could positively dance in the area near the windows, it was so large. She offered him a frown. “You do not have a smaller room?”

“Might I give you a piece of advice?” he asked.

“Of course, my lord.”

“When someone offers you something”—he leaned a little closer as if they were conspiring in some secret plan— “such as a nice room to stay in, it is customary to simply say thank you.” Then he smiled at her, and the warmth in that grin radiated through her.

“Yes, of course. I did not mean to be so rude. Truly, I meant no offense.”

“Isabel, relax. And enjoy yourself. Ring that bell over there”—he pointed to the long rope hanging beside the bed—“if you need anything at all.” He turned to go, then paused. “And please call me Jason. Lord Ellis seems so formal.”

“Lord…er, Jason, thank you. It is a lovely room.”

He chuckled and stepped out.

Now that she was alone, she again scanned the room. Yes, she could most certainly enjoy herself in here. It was luxurious, but she knew that her future did not hold such grandeur. Although perhaps wherever she found employment, the family would give her a lovely little room in which to stay. So she would allow herself one day to revel in the luxury, but she couldn’t afford to get used to this.

 

Copyright © 2017. Robyn DeHart. All Rights Reserved.


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