His chest puffed out at the words, misunderstanding her meaning. “I am sure that you did. But I will not be leaving this house without the wife I was promised! You belong to me! By rights!”
He lunged for her then. They always did. She stepped to the side, and he plunged through the open doorway and into the entryway beyond.
Where the women were waiting.
Isabel followed him into the foyer, watching as he straightened, as he took in the three women standing there like well-trained soldiers, a wall of defense between him and the door to the house. Certainly he’d never seen any women like this before.
Of course, he would never realize that he was looking at three women.
Isabel had always found that men tended to see only what they wanted to see.
She watched as his gaze shifted from the cook, to the stable master, to the butler.
He turned on Isabel. “What’s this, then?”
The stable master slapped her coiled horsewhip against one thigh, the thwack of the leather causing Asperton to flinch. “We do not like you raising your voice to a lady, sir.”
Isabel watched as the angled notch at his thin throat quivered. “I—I am …”
“Well, one thing you are not is a gentleman, if the way you came lunging out of that room is any indication.” The cook indicated the receiving room with her large, heavy rolling pin.
He looked to Isabel again, and she gave a little feminine shrug.
“Surely you were not lunging after Lady Isabel in such a manner.” This from the butler, who, perfectly pressed and cravatted, lazily investigated the edge of the sabre she held. Isabel did her best not to look at the empty spot on the wall from which the ancient—and likely very dull, indeed—sword had come.
They really did have a flair for the dramatic.
There was a long moment of silence as Isabel waited for a sheen of perspiration to take up residence on Mr. Asperton’s brow. She watched as the rise and fall of his chest quickened, and only then decided to intervene.
“Mr. Asperton was just leaving,” she said, her tone infused with helpfulness. “Were you not, sir?”
He nodded nervously, mesmerized by Kate’s horsewhip, moving in slow, threatening circles. “I—I was.”
“I don’t think he’ll be returning. Will you, sir?”
He did not reply for a long moment. Kate dropped the soft leather of the whip to the ground, and the sudden movement shook him from his trance. He snapped to attention and shook his head firmly. “No. I shouldn’t think so.”
The tip of Jane’s sabre hit the marble floor, sending a powerful clang through the large, empty space.
Isabel’s eyes widened, her voice lowering to a whisper. “I should think you would want to know such a thing, sir.”
He cleared his throat quickly, “Yes. Of course. I mean—no. I shan’t be back.”
Isabel smiled then, wide and friendly. “Excellent. I shall bid you adieu, then. I feel confident that you are able to find your own way out?” She indicated the door, now flanked by the three women. “Farewell.”
She returned to the receiving room then, closing the door firmly behind her and moving to the window just in time to see the maypole of a man hurry down the steps of the Park and clamber onto his horse, riding away as though the hounds of hell were upon him.
She released a long breath.
Only then did she allow the tears to come.
Her father had wagered her away.
The first time had hurt the most. One would think she would be used to such treatment by now, but the truth of it surprised her, nonetheless.
As though, someday, it all might be different. As though, someday, he might be other than the Wastrearl.
As though, someday, he might care for her.
As though, someday, anyone might care for her.
For a moment, she allowed herself to consider her father. The Wastrearl. A man who had left his children and his wife tucked away in the country and returned to London to live a profligate, scandalous life. A man who had never cared: not when his wife had died; not when his servants, unwilling to go another day without pay, had left their positions en masse; not when his daughter had sent letter after letter asking for him to return to Townsend Park and restore the country house to some semblance of its former glory—if not for her, then for his heir.
The one time he had returned…
No. She would not think on it.
Her father. The man who stole her mother’s sprit. Who had robbed her brother, an infant, of a father.
Had he not deserted them, Isabel would never have taken responsibility for the estate. She had risen to the challenge, doing her best to keep the house standing and food on the table. While not fruitful, the estate had been able to just barely sustain its inhabitants and tenants while her father had spent every last penny of the income from its lands on his scandalous activities.
There had been enough to eat, and the Wastrearl’s black reputation had kept curious visitors from arriving on the steps of Townsend Park, allowing Isabel to populate the house and its servants’ quarters however she wished, away from the prying eyes of the ton.
But it did not stop her from wishing that it had all been different.
Wishing that she had had the chance to be everything daughters of earls were born to be. Wishing that she’d been raised without a care in the world. Without a doubt in her head that it would someday be her day to sparkle; that she would one day be courted properly—by a man who wanted her for her, not as a spoil from a game of chance.
Wishing that she were not so very alone.
Not that wishing had ever helped.