“The Duke of Coldwell? Are you absolutely sure you heard your father correctly?” Esme Montague’s voice came out in a high-pitched squeal. “You cannot have that right, Isabella, truly you cannot.”
“I heard my father as clearly as I hear you now, Esme. The whole thing is true, absolutely true.” Lady Isabella Tate could hear the tremor in her own voice.
She was terrified and had been for three successive days. In all that time, she had had nobody to talk to on the matter, not even her own mother. As always, her mother was of little use when it came to her daughter’s defense. The Countess of Upperton was utterly afraid of her husband, the Earl, and would never have gone against him, even if her own daughter’s life depended on it.
“And when did he say it to you? When did your father tell you that you must marry?”
“On Sunday after church. Really, not an hour after I saw you last, my father sat me down and told me that I am to marry a monster. I do not know how I have managed these last days without you, my dear Esme. I have felt so alone.”
Lady Isabella thought back to the afternoon which seemed to have changed everything in her world. Every Sunday, after church, Isabella took refuge in her own room for the afternoon until dinner was served. It was the only day when her father would undoubtedly be at Upperton Hall all day long, the only day he would not be out somewhere on the estate barking instructions at servants, tenants, and stewards alike.
For Isabella, Sundays had their routines, and she had grown accustomed to them. She always kept a good supply of books in her room and seemed to do most of her reading on that day in particular.
However, on the Sunday in question, she had been in her room not more than ten minutes before there came a sharp knock at the door.
Isabella, who had been reclining on her bed to read, still wearing the fine gown that she had worn to church, hurriedly rose to her feet and straightened her clothing out. She hastily raised a hand to her hair, checking that her dark curls were still neatly tucked away, before calling out that her visitor might enter.
“Isabella,” her father said in his customary tone, a sharp and clipped manner, as he entered the room.
“Papa?” Isabella answered, entirely surprised by her father’s presence.
Isabella could not remember the last time her father had visited her in her own room. She thought, perhaps, that it had been a good many years.
Her brother Anthony, who at just fourteen years was almost six years younger than Isabella, had taken the lion’s share of his father’s attention from the day he had been born. He was, of course, the son her father had always longed for and, from that moment onwards, Isabella had almost ceased to exist.
“I should like you to come down and speak to me in my study as soon as possible, please,” he said in the same gruff tone before smartly turning and leaving the room, shutting the door tight behind him.
Isabella had thought instantly that she had done something wrong and spent the next several minutes racking her brains for what on earth it could be. It had been a long time since Isabella had misbehaved; after all, she was not a child anymore. And yet her father’s tone could only suggest that she was in some sort of trouble.
And so it was, her insides quaking utterly, that she made her way down to her father’s study. As fearful as she felt, Isabella knew that she ought not to keep him waiting long. Nobody who kept her father waiting came out of it unscathed.
By the time she had reached the study door and gently knocked upon it, Isabella could feel a thin film of perspiration, cold and prickly, on the smooth skin of her back. She was truly afraid.
“Ah, good,” her father said the moment he set eyes on her. “Now, come closer. Stand at my desk,” he instructed when she seemed set to loiter by the door as if ready to make a hasty escape.
Without a word, Isabella did as she was told, moving as silently as a ghost to stand before her father who was sitting comfortably on the other side of his desk, his elbows leaning heavily and his fingers pressed together, forming a steeple.
“I have some news for you, Isabella,” he began, and she thought, for a moment, that he smiled.
Perhaps, after all, she was not in trouble. Perhaps this news was even good news of some sort, something to look forward to and be glad of.
“News, Papa?” Isabella said quietly.
“Yes,” her father said, taking his elbows from the desk and leaning back heavily into the high-backed chair. “You are to be married, my dear.”
“Married?” Isabella’s voice was a little louder than ordinarily it might be.
“Yes, married,” her father confirmed in a level tone which suggested she ought not to begin complaining.
“But Papa, I have not met a young man that I wish to marry.”
“That is of little matter to me, Isabella,” he said dismissively.
“You do not care who it is I marry, Papa?” Isabella said, sensing already that she was tiptoeing onto dangerous ground.
“On the contrary, Isabella,” her father said, his watery dark eyes fixed on her in a way which made her shrink a little. “I have very carefully picked the most suitable husband for you. He is wealthy and titled, and I am content that he shall be able to look after you very well for the rest of your life. He will, in fact, be able to pick up where I am soon to leave off.” He attempted a smile and, in doing so, reminded Isabella of a hunting animal of some sort; a wolf, perhaps.
“And might I ask, Sir, who it is I am to marry?” Isabella said, careful to moderate her tone just enough to put her back in the realm of the dutiful daughter, however much her instincts told her that all was not well.
“You are to marry the Duke of Coldwell,” her father replied with a certain amount of relish.
“The Duke of …?” Isabella could not finish; her throat had gone dry, and her tongue felt glued to the roof of her mouth.
“Coldwell, yes, that is right.”
“But Papa, is he not a good deal older than I am?”
“He is but eight and thirty, Isabella. Eighteen years between man and wife is nothing to be squeamish about, is it?” Isabella could sense that her father was beginning to lose patience with her.
“No, perhaps that is not something to be squeamish about, Papa,” she said and could hardly believe that she continued to speak. “But there is the matter of him being a reclusive monster, renowned throughout the county for being such; that might well be something to be squeamish about, might it not?”
“How dare you?” Already, her father was rising to his feet behind his desk.
“Papa, please,” Isabella said beseechingly, holding both hands out before her and hoping that it would placate him. “I only speak so because I am afraid.”
“You have nothing to be afraid of,” her father said, mercifully retaking his seat behind his desk. “I have spoken to the man on many occasions, and I do not find him a monster myself.”
Isabella could not take that as any kind of reassurance. Her father was not a good or kind man, and so any recommendation from him was to be viewed with the utmost suspicion, especially regarding another man’s character, not to mention his appearance.
“I see,” Isabella said quietly, her mind racing as she thought how best to proceed.
“And as I have already said, he is a wealthy and titled man. A Duke, no less. There, you will have married very well indeed, will you not?”
“Forgive me, Papa, but is there no other man in the county you might have settled upon as a husband for me? Is there no other who has come to your attention in that regard?” Isabella felt desperate.
“None who has the resources of the Duke, I am afraid,” he responded, flapping his hand dismissively. “And so, I cannot settle for any man other than the Duke, for he is the only one who is content not only to forego any dowry I might be expected to make but to make a settlement upon you instead.”
Isabella swallowed hard; at that moment, she knew there would be no escape for her. Although the thing was hardly mentioned, Isabella was very well aware that her father’s estate, the grand Earldom of Upperton, had been failing for many years.
And, above all things, her father was a proud man. He believed wholeheartedly in the aristocracy and the maintenance of family lines and titles, blood, and wealth. More than anything, the Earl of Upperton wanted to hand down a fine and thriving estate to his son. All that mattered to the Earl was his son, and Isabella knew it.
There would be nothing that she could say now to save herself because her father would always put Anthony and his happiness before Isabella and her own.
“Oh, my dear Isabella,” Esme Montague said the moment that Isabella had finished telling her every part of the conversation she had had with her father. “It would seem that you were not at all mistaken.” Tears shone in Esme’s eyes.
“No, please do not cry, Esme. If you cry, then I shall cry. I shall be sunk then, and I do not want to be sunk,” Isabella said bravely.
“Forgive me; I shall be brave for your sake.” Esme dabbed at the corner of her eye with a neatly embroidered handkerchief. “After all, it is you who has an ordeal ahead, not me.”
“Perhaps it shall not be such an ordeal, after all, Esme,” Isabella began with false hope. “Perhaps the man will be very different upon meeting. After all, all we have to judge him on is what we have heard over the years. Neither one of us knows him since nobody knows him. Perhaps he is not a monster.”
“Perhaps he is not a monster in his ways, my dear,” Esme said gently.
“But he is very likely to be a monster in his appearance, is he not?” Isabella said, her hope dying. “Is that not what the entire county says about him? That he is too repulsive to be out in society, and so he has shut himself away all these years in that dreadful, overgrown estate.”
And it was true, that was exactly what the people of the county said of him; those who were inclined to gossip, at any rate.
It was said that the Duke had been disfigured many years before, so badly that nobody could look upon him without fear. And because of his disfigurement, the Duke had hidden himself away, refusing all company, intent to see out his years alone.
As children, Isabella and Esme had often told stories of this monster. He had been a feature of their lives, dropping in and out of their world on a whim, making an appearance whenever they felt the need to frighten themselves in that childish, excited way of young girls.
And all the county knew that his estate, the Duchy estate of Coldwell, was a place out of bounds to all. Its very perimeter was so overgrown with the tallest trees and the densest, sharpest hawthorns, that the hall seemed almost as a fortress, a place from a dreadful fairytale that ought never to be entered by any good soul.
Isabella had seen great swathes of the perimeter for herself over the years, the dense greenery so commonplace to her that it was almost beneath notice. It had been that way for as long as she could remember.
“I wonder why it is that the Duke has never taken a wife before?” Esme said, breaking the silence.
“If he is so disfigured, then I hardly think that there would be a woman who would marry him,” Isabella answered and shuddered involuntarily.
“But so many women, as you now well know, do not have a choice in these matters. So many women of our class are simply forced to marry a man of their father’s choosing, and so it would seem unusual that the Duke has not sought to find a wife by these means before.”
“Perhaps he has not yet met a man who is so close to financial penury that he would consider selling his own daughter. For, in the end, it is nothing more and nothing less.”
“And your father is such a man, is he not?” Even after all these years, Esme still spoke with caution when she spoke of Isabella’s father.
“Oh yes, he is such a man,” Isabella said with such an open display of distaste that Esme seemed taken aback. “And not only is he a man lacking funds, but he is a man who cares only for his son. I am nothing more than a commodity to be bartered. I am something to be used so that my spoiled little brother can live the full life of an Earl when the time comes. My life is sacrificed to his, is it not?”
“I know it is often so, my dear, but I think this is the cruelest case of such a thing I have ever seen.” Isabella’s open hostility in talking of her father had given Esme the confidence to speak fearlessly herself. “For not only is your father bartering you away as so many fathers have done over the years, but he is bartering you away to a monster, one that the rest of the county would fear to set eyes on.”
“And there is not one thing I can do about it,” Isabella said with a sigh, blinking hard lest the tears finally fall.
And she was determined, above all things that she would not cry about it. Crying would do her no good whatsoever, and she knew it.
“Can your mother not be petitioned to help you?” Esme said in a tone which suggested that even she did not believe such a thing would come to pass.
“I think you know my mother as well as I know her, Esme. She is a weak creature at the best of times, but really, when it comes to something of such magnitude, I cannot think for a moment that she would open her mouth to speak once on the subject.”
“Then it would seem that there is nothing to be done,” Esme said, her voice full of pain at the thought that she was soon to lose a friend.
“Unless, of course, I think of something,” Isabella said doubtfully. “Unless I think of something very soon.”
The only person in all the world who knew of Isabella’s plan was Esme. The two had walked the perimeter of the Upperton Estate and talked the whole thing through.
Isabella had known it would not do to talk in the house, even if they assumed themselves to be alone in the drawing room. Her father’s servants lived in fear of the Earl, either fear of his wrath or fear of dismissal, without reference, on a whim.
As such, many of them had turned to taking little stories to the Earl about this, that, and the other, in hopes of somehow generally keeping themselves safe. Isabella did not blame them for it as she did, in part at least, empathize with them.
And so it was that she and Esme had put together a daring plan for escape as they had walked alone on the estate in the cool, early spring air.
And it was daring too, for it would require a certain amount of lone travel, something that Isabella had never done before. Furthermore, it would also require reliance on a long-forgotten family member who may, or may not, be on Isabella’s side in the thing.
Isabella knew that she would have to put her plan into action almost immediately. A second interview with her father had left her in no doubt that there was not a moment to waste.
“Now that you have had a little time in which to digest the information I gave you last week, I think it is time to discuss the practical arrangements for the wedding,” her father said matter-of-factly.
Their second discussion on the matter did not take place in his study but in the drawing room with her mother in attendance.
The Countess of Upperton sat meekly at one end of a pretty, lemon yellow couch, perched as if she dared not relax entirely. It was a demeanour so often used by Isabella’s mother that she thought it must be, more than anything else, habit.
Whilst Isabella knew that there was much to pity in her mother’s circumstances, she thought that there was more to pity in her own at that moment. The fact that her mother, she knew, would say nothing in her defense, made her quietly angry. Would there ever come a time when her mother would raise her head up for the benefit of her firstborn child? Isabella very much doubted it.
“I see,” Isabella said, knowing that there would be little argument to be had.
“You are to marry the Duke of Coldwell four weeks from now and so, I assume, there is much for you and your mother to discuss regarding preparations.” He smiled in a manner which seemed to jauntily dismiss what he likely thought of as the fripperies of female life.
Isabella wanted to scream; she wanted to stand up and overturn the oval mahogany table and listen to the satisfying smash of the teapot and crockery as everything hit the floor.
Why on earth would her father think that she would be excited about such preparations? He was condemning her to marry a monster, surely it mattered not what she wore. And if this Duke, this ruined, recluse of a man, saw fit to purchase a bride he had never met, she thought it unlikely that he very much cared what she wore either.
“I cannot think that there will be much to prepare,” Isabella said although she was careful to keep her tone respectful.
“Well, there will be your gown, my dear,” the Countess piped up meekly with a frozen smile on her face.
“Oh yes, my gown.” Isabella returned the frozen smile with one of her own. “Well, I am happy to leave such excitement to you, Mama.”
“As long as you understand that you will be well turned out on that day. I will not have you giving Elliott Covington any reason to turn you away at the last minute. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Papa,” Isabella said.
She wondered at the idea of having to make herself beautiful for a man whose face, it was said, was so disfigured that he could not be seen out in society. And yet still it was Isabella, the powerless woman, who had to make herself pleasing. It was she who must hope that the monster would find her attractive. How she despised the world she lived in.
Isabella had the beginnings of an idea and, as she let the remainder of the dreadful meeting wash over her whilst she kept silent, she knew that she would have to work on her plan immediately.
Although she had much of her plan worked out before she had seen Esme, to speak it out loud seemed to polish it and make it something more achievable in her eyes.
Isabella had a plan to run to Ireland.
The Countess of Upperton had, Isabella knew, an aunt who lived in Ireland. It was an aunt whom Isabella had the vaguest recollection of meeting once when she was a little girl. The lady had seemed quite elderly to her then, but she supposed that it was a facet of youth. When you were little, everybody seemed so much older.
Isabella could barely remember the woman’s face but had a general impression that she had been very kind and sweet. And, with no other family to speak of who would not give her away immediately, Isabella could think of none other to run to.
From the moment she had hatched the plan, Isabella had been in a highly agitated and nervous state. She had first to discover the exact whereabouts of her great aunt, which necessitated a clandestine search of her mother’s papers.
With a household full of quiet, nervous servants, to find an opportunity to search her mother’s room was no easy task. Her heart had thundered throughout the entire thing, and she wondered how, in the end, she would manage to go through with her plan if this simple task made her so nervous.
With the address secured and high hopes that her aunt had not moved to some other place in Ireland, there were other plans to make. Esme had procured a timetable of sailings from Liverpool to Ireland and had secretly passed her the paper, which had been folded so many times it was almost unreadable when she had opened it out. Still, she could see that there were regular sailings from Liverpool to Ireland and the timetable, tucked away inside her velvet drawstring purse, gave her quiet fortitude.
As far as making her way from her home in Hertfordshire to Liverpool, Esme had been of great assistance. Being free to make inquiries, Esme had sought out the best route to take.
“You will have to travel post-chaise from St Albans. There will be several changes to make on the journey, and it will take some days, but you will be in Liverpool before anybody thinks to look for you there,” Esme had said with some excitement.
Esme was the finest friend she had ever known. Despite the sadness that she was about to lose her friend to another country altogether, Esme was still determined to help her. She would rather see Isabella hundreds of miles away than have her in the same county, desperate and afraid in a marriage she did not want.
“St Albans?” Isabella said, wondering how best to get there.
After all, she knew she could not take one of her father’s carriages, nor could she risk having a horse saddled on the pretense of taking an early morning ride.
Whilst this would not have been entirely out of the common way, Isabella knew that there was too much at stake to have a curious servant wonder why it was she was taking a small bag of belongings on her early morning ride. It simply could not be done.
“I can think of no other way of secretly going to St Albans but to walk there,” Isabella had said when the two of them had discussed the problem at length.
“It is but four miles away, and it would, in the end, very likely be the best solution,” Esme said thoughtfully. “But I do not think that it would be wise to walk it in daylight. You risk exactly the same exposure as you would in taking the horse, would you not?”
“Yes, any number of people might see me making my way. And any of the servants might see me leaving Upperton with a bag.”
“As uncomfortable as it might be, I think you might have to leave in the middle of the night. You must be ready to make your way silently out of Upperton Hall and into the darkness. It fills me with dread on your account, my dear, but I think it is the only way.” Esme looked dreadfully concerned.
“It is the only way, Esme.” Isabella reached for her hand and squeezed it hard. “Whatever am I going to do without you?”
“You cannot think of that now; you must not.” Esme blinked hard, and Isabella knew she had tears pricking her eyes. “You must think only of the plan and how best to execute it. The two of us will be friends always, have no doubt of that. Wherever you are in Ireland, I shall write to you every day.”
“At least we shall have that, Esme,” Isabella said brightly. “Which is likely more than I should be allowed if I am to stay and marry the monster.”
“You think it is likely he would not allow you to even correspond with me?” Esme seemed surprised as if she had not previously thought of such a thing.
“It is not a risk I am prepared to take.”
“No indeed, nor shall you take it.” Esme became practical once more. “For you shall have courage and execute your plan perfectly.”
And yet, in the middle of the night, as Isabella crept down the main staircase with her small bag of possessions, she did not feel at all courageous; she felt terrified.
She had decided to come down the main staircase rather than using the back staircase, the narrow staircase used by the servants. Isabella thought it more likely that she might run into one of the servants at that hour than a member of her own family.
And the butler and housekeeper would never allow the rest of the staff to wander at will through the main part of Upperton Hall until it came five o’clock in the morning and their work began.
Still, despite the fact that she could not imagine who she would happen upon in the middle of the night on the main staircase, Isabella held her breath. She felt a little lightheaded, and her hands were cold and clammy, her grip on the small bag of possessions slipping just a little.
She had an awful feeling that the bag would slip from her grasp altogether and fall noisily down the rest of the staircase, alerting the whole household to her escape. But, in the end, it had not.
When she reached the bottom of the stairs, Isabella paused in the darkness, her eyes straining to see by the thinnest shards of moonlight. Her eyes began to slowly adjust to the gloom, and she could see no sign that she was anything other than alone in the great hallway.
And yet, she had the most awful feeling.
Isabella waited just a moment longer, determined not to panic or rush things. She could hear nothing, nor see any movement in the darkness. Quite why she had a prickling sensation at the back of her neck, she could not say, although she assumed it must be on account of her heightened excitement and nerves.
Finally, she stepped off the bottom stair and crept silently across the tiles of the entrance hall. The only thing she could hear was the rustle of her own gown as its hem slid across the floor. She paused for a moment, thinking even that amount of noise was too much. Isabella was but three strides away from the great door.
Her heart was beating so hard, and her breathing was so ragged, but she knew she must go on. She must get out of that house. Finally, she made to take the final steps, knowing that she could wait no longer.
“I think you forgot something.” The voice came from behind her, and Isabella almost screamed.
“Anthony?” she said and turned slowly in the darkness.
“Yes, it is.” Isabella and her brother had never been friends, and she wondered if there was any way to appeal to his better nature. “Surely you will need your timetable of the sailings from Liverpool to Ireland.” She could hear the amusement in his young voice; how cruel he sounded.
As he took a few steps towards her, Isabella could see that her brother was holding the much-folded little timetable in his hand. In her heart of hearts, she knew that he was not about to hand it to her and that he was there simply to cruelly taunt her.
“Anthony, you have been through my things to find that, have you not? You have been into my purse,” Isabella said reproachfully.
“Sister, I do hope you are not about to try to teach me about the rights and wrongs of such a thing when you yourself are clearly nothing more than a liar and a cheat who would see your family struggling in the dirt rather than do your duty.”
Isabella knew that her escape had been thwarted. There would be no appealing to her brother’s better nature, for that young man of just fourteen years did not have one. He was nothing more than a younger version of their dreadful father, and she knew it.
“So, you would also see me married to a monster to ensure that you have every luxury in life?” Isabella said, staving off feelings of pure hatred.
“It is your duty.”
“And what is your duty towards me? Or does nobody in this dreadful house have a duty towards my safety and happiness at all?”
“You are but a woman, Isabella. You do not have any right to expect such a thing,” he spoke with casual haughtiness.
He really was a very self-important little man.
“Then you will see why it is that I must leave,” she said and reached for the timetable, despite the fact that she knew he would withdraw it the moment he saw her move.
“You are not going anywhere, Isabella. I will not allow it.”
“You are but fourteen years, and you do not have a right to allow or disallow anything in my world,” Isabella said angrily.
“Why do you not understand that, regardless of your greater years, you are nothing in this household? I will one day be Earl of this great estate, and you will be nobody. You are below me, beneath me, and you always will be.”
Isabella turned and ran for the door. However, just as she reached for the great bolts which had been thrown across dutifully by the butler, she felt her brother seize her mercilessly by the hair and pull her backward.
Isabella did not scream for she did not want to alert anybody to the struggle which was taking place as she bravely fought off her brother. However, her brother yelled and barked until footsteps could be heard coming from all around.
The hallway quickly began to fill with worried-looking servants, none of whom would have done a thing to rescue her from her brother’s cruel treatment. And then, worst of all, she heard the booming voice of her father bellowing from the top of the great staircase.
“What on earth is going on?”
“A Beauty for the Scarred Duke” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
As young girls, Lady Isabella Tate, daughter of the Earl of Upperton, and her friend, Esme, told each other terrifying tales of the monster. But not just any monster. This monster was alive and living in his old mansion behind a tangle of overgrown hawthorn trees in the very same county. This monster was none other than Elliot Covington, the Duke of Caldwell.
The Duke of Caldwell, scarred for life in a fire which claimed the lives of those dearest to him has been hiding in his mansion for almost eighteen years. He knows he is a figure of fear and speculation in the county and chose many years before to live a life of self-imposed isolation. But he is the loneliest Duke in all of England. When the Earl of Upperton sells his daughter off as a bride for the disfigured Duke, Isabella has never been more terrified. Due to marry a man she has never met and always believed to be a monster, she truly believes her life is over.
But is life with the Duke really something to be afraid of? Will Isabella be able to get past her own prejudice and see the man beneath the scars? And will the Duke be able to let go of the pain and guilt that has swallowed him whole for almost two decades and find a new life with a new love?
“A Beauty for the Scarred Duke” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.