Lady Isabella’s Ogre

A Novel

about the book | excerpt

She’s one of London’s beauties.

Lady Isabella Knox enjoys her independence. She collects strays—dogs, kittens, runaway brides—but she has no intention of collecting a husband.

He’s London’s ogre.

Major Nicholas Reynolds returns from the Battle of Waterloo a hero. He’s had enough of soldiering; all he wants now is a bride . . . but his scarred face sends young ladies fleeing—literally.

When a slip of her tongue brands the major an ogre—and his chances of marriage disintegrate—Isabella sets out to undo the harm she inadvertently caused. How better to revive the major’s marriage prospects than for the two of them to indulge in a make-believe flirtation? They both know it’s not real, so where’s the danger?

But Isabella is soon in over her head—and so is Major Reynolds.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

“THIS IS A respectable establishment. It’s not for the likes of you.”

Lady Isabella Knox, sister of the Duke of Middlebury, paused in the act of removing her gloves. She looked down at her dog. Rufus cocked his head and gazed back at her with mismatched eyes. His tail wagged, brushing the muddy hem of her walking dress.

“I beg of you, don’t turn me away.” The speaker was tearful, young, and well-bred.

“The Hogshead will take you.” The landlady’s voice came clearly from the taproom, cold and dismissive.

“Oh, but, please—” The girl’s entreaty ended on a sob.

Isabella pulled one kidskin glove off, finger by finger. She glanced at the half-open door to the taproom and then at the staircase, at the top of which a comfortable and very private parlor awaited her. Curiosity is a sin, she told herself.

She heard brisk footsteps behind her: her maid, Partridge.

“Fresh air,” Partridge muttered, shutting the parasol with a snap. “Dirt and puddles and yokels gaping—”

Isabella raised a finger. “Hush a moment, Partridge.”

“I beg you, please . . .” The girl sounded so like her niece Felicity that Isabella made up her mind. She stepped towards the taproom door. Rufus followed, his claws clicking briskly on the flagstones.

“A fine thing it would be if I let you put up here, with her Ladyship in the house—”

Isabella laid her hand on the door. It swung open at her touch. She took in the taproom with a glance: the low, beamed ceiling, the wide fireplace, the landlady in her white apron and widow’s cap, and the girl, pretty and tear-stained, with a portmanteau at her feet.

The landlady drew herself up, stout and starched, and then sank into an obsequious curtsy. “Your Ladyship.”

“Mrs. Botham.” Isabella looked at the girl. Yes, very like Felicity. Dark-haired and slender and scarcely out of the schoolroom. “I couldn’t help but overhear. Pray, don’t turn this child out into the street on my account.”

The landlady straightened. Her face was round-cheeked, her complexion florid, her expression righteous. “The Hogshead will do very well for her.”

Isabella looked at the girl’s clothing—the green sarcenet pelisse, the straw bonnet trimmed with ribbon, the jaconet muslin gown, all neat and well-made. “Do you think so?”

She spoke gently, but the color in Mrs. Botham’s cheeks heightened.

The girl curtsied. “Ma’am, if you please, I don’t wish to put up at the Hogshead.”

“I should think not.” There was nothing common about the girl’s vowels, or her curtsy. “Where is your maid?”

The girl flushed. “I don’t have one, ma’am.”

“I run a respectable establishment—” Mrs. Botham began.

“Precisely.” Isabella pulled off her other glove. “Which is why this child must stay here.”

The girl cast her a grateful glance.

“Unfortunately I don’t have suitable accommodation, your Ladyship.” The landlady’s smile was polite and insincere.

“I find that hard to believe,” Isabella said, beginning to lose her temper.

“Nothing suiting the young person’s requirements.”

The girl flushed again. “I can’t afford a room,” she whispered. “I thought . . . I thought I could sleep in the servants’ quarters, but—”

“No money and no maid?” Isabella looked at her. “You are in a predicament, aren’t you, my dear?”

Tears welled in the girl’s eyes.

“You may share my maid’s bedchamber,” Isabella said. She heard Partridge sniff behind her, and ignored it.

The landlady inhaled, swelling in her starched apron. “I won’t have a fallen woman in this house!”

“I’m not, ma’am! Indeed, I’m not!”

Do I care whether she is or not? Not when the girl was so young and so clearly in need of aid. “A truckle bed in my maid’s room,” Isabella said briskly. “And refreshments in my parlor.” She folded her gloves and waited for the landlady to protest.

Mrs. Botham inhaled again, her apron swelling, but uttered no sound.

“Come along, my dear.” Isabella smiled and held out her hand to the girl.

“My portmanteau?”

“One of the servants will bring it up, won’t they, Mrs. Botham?”

The landlady smiled tightly and nodded.

The girl clutched her hand. “Come upstairs and have a cup of tea,” Isabella said as they exited the taproom, Rufus following closely at their heels. She ignored Partridge’s silent disapproval. “And do tell me your name, my dear.”

The girl’s hand was small and warm. “My name is Harriet,” she confided as they climbed the staircase. “Harriet Durham.”

* * *

“Tell me, my dear . . . how is it you’re in such a fix?”

Harriet’s cheeks colored. She looked down at her cup. “I’m running away.”

“Running away?” Isabella sipped her tea and studied the girl’s face. She could discern no boldness. Harriet had soft brown hair and soft brown eyes and an air of timidity. Her expression when she glanced at Rufus was wary. Surely not the type of girl to run away? “From your parents?”

“My parents are dead.” Harriet looked up from her study of the teacup. “I live with my grandfather.”

“You’re running away from him?”

“Yes.” Harriet shivered. “And from Major Reynolds.”

“Major Reynolds?” Isabella lowered her cup. “Who is he?”

Tears filled Harriet’s eyes. “I’m to marry him.”

“And you don’t wish to?”

Harriet shivered again. She shook her head. “No.”

Isabella placed her teacup on the little cherrywood table beside her. The tabletop gleamed and the parlor had a pleasing smell of beeswax polish. Mrs. Botham kept a very clean—and extremely respectable—establishment.

“Did you tell your grandfather that you don’t want to marry Major Reynolds?”

Harriet nodded. “He said I was being foolish. And he shouted at me and—” She groped for her handkerchief. The tiny lace-trimmed square of fabric was sodden.

Isabella picked up her teacup and sipped, while Harriet wiped her eyes. “How old are you, my dear?” she asked once the girl had composed herself.

“Seventeen.”

Felicity’s age. Too young to be in the world alone. “Where are you going?”

“My Aunt Lavinia.” Harriet’s smile was tremulous. “Only I hadn’t realized that the stage would be so slow, or that it would cost so much to take a room at an inn.”

Isabella placed her teacup on its saucer. She reached down to pat Rufus. His eyes opened, one blue, one brown, and his tail gave a thump on the floor. “Where does your aunt live?”

“Penrith. In the Lake District.”

Isabella frowned. “My dear child, do you realize how far that is?”

“Is it very distant from here?” Harriet twisted the handkerchief.

Isabella looked at the tears shining in the girl’s eyes and decided not to answer that question. Instead she asked, “Is your aunt expecting you?”

Harriet shook her head.

“But you’re certain she’ll give you refuge?”

“Oh, yes.” Harriet nodded. “She said that I was always welcome to stay with her, only . . . only my grandfather wouldn’t let me speak her name, or write to her, or . . . or—”

“How gothic!” Isabella said lightly, to forestall more tears. “What did she do to incur such wrath?”

“She married Mr. Mortlock. Grandfather said he wasn’t good enough—and Aunt Lavinia told him he was a tyrant and married Mr. Mortlock anyway!” Admiration was patent in Harriet’s voice. “Only Mr. Mortlock died, which Grandfather said served her right, and so now she lives alone.”

“How long ago was this?” Isabella asked.

“When I was a child.”

The girl was still a child. Too young to be forced into marriage—and too young to travel halfway across England on her own. Isabella glanced out the window at the roofs of Stony Stratford and the deepening dusk and made up her mind. It’s not really meddling. I’m merely helping her on a path she has already chosen. “I shall take you home with me,” she said. “To London. And then—”

“London? Oh, no!” Harriet dropped the handkerchief in her agitation.

Rufus opened his eyes again. His ears pricked. He lifted his head and looked at Harriet.

“Why ever not, child?” Isabella said, resting her hand on Rufus’s head, feeling the warmth and smoothness of his coat.

“Because Major Reynolds is there!” Harriet’s face twisted. “If he should find me—”

“Major Reynolds won’t find you,” Isabella said firmly, “because you shall be at my house, quite snug and safe. And once we’ve received an assurance from your aunt that she’s expecting you—for she may be away, you know!—then you shall travel to stay with her.”

“But Major Reynolds—”

Isabella looked at her with some amusement. “Is he such an ogre, child?”

“An ogre?” Harriet shuddered. “Oh, yes. Yes, he is!”

“Then I promise to keep you safe from him.”

“He’ll be very angry.” Harriet blinked back tears. “My grandfather has announced our engagement.”

Isabella experienced a moment’s misgiving. If the engagement had been announced in the newspapers, then the scandal . . .

I should restore her to her grandfather.

The girl was as young as Felicity, with no parents to dote on her. Even so, I should . . .

She looked down at Rufus. He glanced up at her with his mismatched eyes and thumped his tail on the rug again, content, trusting.

“Tell me about Major Reynolds,” Isabella said, giving her own handkerchief to Harriet.

“He’s a soldier.”

Isabella suppressed a smile. “Yes, my dear, I had gathered that. Is he a friend of your grandfather’s?”

“Oh, no. Grandfather had never met him until we came to London.” Harriet unfolded the handkerchief. “It’s my first Season, you see. Grandfather was so pleased when Major Reynolds asked permission to pay his addresses.” More tears welled in her eyes. She dabbed at them with the handkerchief.

“Is the major very old?” Isabella asked. “What’s his disposition?”

“Old? Oh, yes, ma’am. He’s quite as old as you.” Harriet’s cheeks colored. “I mean, he’s much older than you. He’s as old as my father . . . that is to say, as old as my father would be if he were alive.” She bit her lip, and looked down at the handkerchief she clutched.

That settled it, Isabella decided. She wasn’t about to allow this child to be married to a man old enough to be her father.

“And as to his disposition, he looks so . . . so stern, and . . . and—”

“I collect he’s quite an ogre,” Isabella said lightly, to avert more tears. “Is he ugly, too? I’m persuaded he must be!”

Harriet shivered. “His face is quite scarred, ma’am. And he shouts and—”

Isabella’s eyebrows rose. “Major Reynolds has shouted at you?”

“No, ma’am,” the girl said, earnest and wide-eyed. “But he’s a military man, so I know he will.”

Isabella suppressed another smile. “You have experience of military men?”

Harriet nodded. “They stomp and they have loud voices and they’re always angry and—”

Isabella had a moment of enlightenment. “Your grandfather is a military man?”

“A colonel, ma’am.”

A maid tapped on the door and entered, bobbing a curtsy. Rufus sat up, alert. “Just seeing to the shutters, ma’am.”

They sat in silence while the maid placed more wood on the fire, lit the candles with a taper, and then busied herself closing the shutters against the dusk.

“Then it’s settled,” Isabella said briskly, once the woman was gone. “You shall travel with me to London tomorrow and stay until we know that your aunt is ready to receive you.”

Harriet gripped the handkerchief tightly. “And your husband, ma’am? Are you certain he’ll allow it?”

“I have no husband. A widowed cousin keeps house with me in London. She doesn’t often venture out, and will be pleased to have your company.”

The girl’s eyes widened. “No husband?”

“Yes,” Isabella said, smiling. “I know it’s odd, but I find it very comfortable to live without one!”

* * *

“How is the child?” Isabella asked later that evening, as she sat in front of the mirror brushing her hair. The bedchamber was more shadows than candlelight.

“Asleep.”

Isabella laughed. “Partridge, such disapprobation in one word!”

Partridge sniffed, and said nothing.

Isabella laid down the hairbrush. The silver back glinted in the candlelight. “You may tell me that I’m meddling, Partridge, and you would be quite right.”

Partridge silently folded the day’s clothes.

She was meddling, quite dreadfully, but Mrs. Botham had annoyed her, with her bristling, pious indignation. “She reminds me of Felicity.” Isabella ran a fingertip over the silver crest on the hairbrush. I will stand in her mother’s stead for a while. “We shall keep her reputation intact, until her aunt can claim her.”

Partridge sniffed again.

Isabella turned to look at her. “You think I should return her to her grandfather? You are perfectly correct, my dear Partridge. Only I fear he has already disowned her.”

Partridge said nothing.

Isabella turned back to the mirror. She picked up the hairbrush again. A strand of hair was caught in the soft bristles. She pulled it out and wound it meditatively around her fingertip, where it gleamed like gold thread in the candlelight. Yes, she would take the place of Harriet’s mother for a few days—although no one would think the girl her daughter. Harriet was dark and dainty; she was tall and fair. The goddess of the harvest, an admirer had once likened her to. He’d even penned a poem. To the harvest goddess with her corn-ripe hair . . .

Isabella snorted under her breath. She leaned closer to the mirror, but the light was too dim to discern the faint lines she knew were at her eyes. And I am merely twenty-nine. Too young to be Harriet’s mother.

“She won’t be with us long,” she said aloud to Partridge. “She shall write to her aunt tomorrow—and to her grandfather, to inform him that she is safe in a respectable household.”

And Harriet must write to Major Reynolds, too, to beg his pardon for jilting him. One must be polite, even to an ogre.

Partridge finally broke her silence: “She’s not one of your strays, Miss Isabella. I hope you don’t live to regret this.”

Isabella met her own eyes in the mirror. So do I. “Nonsense,” she said, with a light laugh. “What can possibly go wrong? No one will ever know!”