Unmasking a Lord’s Heart (Preview)


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Chapter One

Hyde Park, London—1810

“Bella! Should you go so high?” Grace hissed from the ground below, where she waited with two local girls who had dared Isabella to attempt her current feat of bravery. 

Fourteen-year-old Lady Isabella Collingwood, perched precariously on a branch half-way up the tree, peered down at her best friend with a teasing smile. “Oh, this? It’s only half-way to the top.”

She turned and began scrambling up the branches as quickly as she could, the sounds of her friends’ nervous giggles fading behind her. It was a different world up there. The city faded all around her, leaves and branches clustering around her like a screen, and if she ignored the faint smell of smoke and the clatter of wheels on cobbles in the distance, she could pretend she was in the country climbing trees with her older brother. 

“You’d best hurry,” Grace chimed in again, her voice fainter. “There’s a group of women walking closer, and I think I recognize Lady Ellory.”

Lady Ellory was a notorious gossip, but Bella wasn’t concerned. She didn’t think anyone from her parents’ world would recognize her at present—part of the dare had been to disguise herself as a boy. Her long, awkward limbs were clad in rough-spun trousers; a loose shirt of her brother’s was tucked into the waistband, and she’d been careful to wind her dark blond braid up under a newsboy’s cap. Lady Ellory, in all her glamor and glory, wouldn’t look twice at a lad climbing a tree. 

She ignored her friend. She and Grace Lyndon had been close all their lives. Their older brothers were best friends as well, and their families moved in the same circles, even if Bella’s illustrious father would have preferred they didn’t. Lord Collingwood seemed to think his children above the companionship of the viscount’s children. Simon was a second son, after all, with little prospects, and Grace didn’t even have a title to her name. 

All that didn’t matter to Bella. The parties and the expectations and the “my lord” this and “my lady” that—it was all dreadfully tedious. What interested her was the next adventure, the next rebellion, and the next genuine connection. All the foppery of the London ton made her want to yawn. 

She set her hands to the more slender branches at the top of the tree, steadying herself as the upper boughs bent and swayed under her weight. She no longer attended to whatever conversation was going on beneath her, though if she had she would have wondered why her friends’ giggles had suddenly stilled. Instead, she looked out through the curtain of leaves at the high tops of buildings all around her, row upon row, and the nearer trees of Hyde Park marching along in well-cultivated lines. 

She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and smiled. I should live here, she thought dreamily, like a bird. She would gladly trade a life under the scrutiny of her continually disappointed parents and the harassing eye of society for a life of freedom. She was not a beauty and had never been. Her mother reminded her of it often. 

“Your arms are too long, and your face too plain,” Lady Collingwood would say on occasion. “A girl without natural beauty must be more careful of the way she presents herself. Grace and elegance will cover a multitude of wrongs.”

Or, Bella thought with a giggle, I could just capitalize on the fact I look rather boyish and trade in my petticoats and silks as I am now. No one looked disappointed in my appearance today, after all. 

She knew her friends would be missing her, and so she began to climb regretfully back down the tree, moving quickly over the familiar path she had already taken. A little too quickly. Near the base of the tree, her boot slipped on the rough bark, and she tumbled down to the bottom branch, bruising her hip before catching herself and controlling her fall to the ground. 

Her own squeal of laughter died on her lips as she raised her gaze to see that her friends were no longer the only onlookers at the base of the tree. Lady Ellory and two companions were standing just a few feet off, looking at her with a shock that could only mean one thing: They know who I am. 

In a moment she realized why: her long blond braid had fallen loose of the hat when she tumbled to the ground, and was hanging over one shoulder with incriminating clarity. Lady Ellory gasped and looked away, drawing her friends with her along the path and whispering in a low voice as she walked. 

“What are the chances she’ll forget she saw me?” Bella asked with a forced laugh. 

Grace looked back at her with a pained expression. “It was Lady Ellory, Bella. Everyone will know the truth before evenfall.”

Bella kept up her bravado. “It is no matter,” she said. “It was worth it.”

The expression on her friends’ faces told a different story. 


When Bella appeared in the dining room for the evening meal, she could see that the news of her afternoon exploits preceded her. Lord and Lady Collingwood sat stiffly at the far end of the great oaken table, lips pressed tightly together, anger flashing in their eyes. James, her older brother, looked as though he was doing his best to contain laughter, and when he glanced up at Bella there was sympathy in his eyes. 

“A little late, aren’t you?” Lady Collingwood began as Bella took a seat across from James. “We’ve been waiting to begin.”

Bella glanced at the clock on the wall. “I am only a few minutes late—” she began, but was interrupted before continuing. 

“A lady is never late, even by a few minutes,” her mother snapped. “But then again, what are we to expect from you?” 

Bella dropped her eyes to her plate. She was used to the occasional dressing down from her parents when she did something they considered unladylike, but something felt different about tonight. 

“We heard about your little adventure in Hyde Park,” her father chimed in icily. 

“What were you thinking?” Lady Collingwood added. 

“Come now,” James interjected lightly. “It isn’t as bad as all that. What harm was really done, in the end?”

Bella smiled at him gratefully, but this seemed to only irk her parents more. Lady Collingwood barely constrained her fury as she launched into an explanation of exactly what harm Bella had wreaked on London with her actions. 

“Do you know who I heard the story from?” she gasped. “Not Lady Ellory, nor any of her companions in the park. I heard it from my maid, who had it from another friend whose mistress had been speaking of it. The gossip is all over London, Isabella. Everyone is speaking about how you were caught frolicking in the park dressed as a boy. This is not the sort of thing a lady of means and reputation can get away with.”

“Perhaps if we lived in the country,” her father added, “such childish behavior could be excused. But here in the heart of London it has most certainly been noted. You are only a few years away from your first Season. Do you think gentlemen will line up to dance with a girl who was climbing trees in trousers only a few years before?”

James burst out laughing, but immediately covered his hand with his mouth. Lady Collingwood glowered at him. 

“Go on then, James,” she prodded. “What exactly is so funny about all this?”

“Just…the mental image,” he said, holding back a second laugh and winking at Bella. “And, I suppose, the implication that Bella’s future suitors will have such long memories.”

“They may not,” Lady Collingwood snapped, “but their mothers will. This is no laughing matter. Her reputation will be ruined if she continues in this way. It is likely ruined already.”

“I would think,” Lord Collingwood intoned in support of his wife, “that, considering how close you two are, you would find it in yourselves to put aside your mirth at a time like this. After all, you will not be seeing each other for some years after this most recent escapade.”

His words sank in by degrees. Bella frowned. “What do you mean?”

“We are sending you away,” Lady Collingwood announced, reaching for a sip of wine. “You leave us no choice, Isabella. We sent a post to your Aunt Nellie this very afternoon and have no doubt that she will undertake the task of turning you into a proper young woman—far away from the distractions and scrutiny of London.”

“Aunt Nellie?” Bella asked, incredulous. “Ireland Aunt Nellie?”

Her aunt, who was rumored to be as strict as she was eccentric, had married an Irish man of little consequence and moved away from England when Bella was a little girl. She hardly remembered the woman and she had never visited. 

“Yes of course,” Lord Collingwood sniffed. “My sister has many faults, but she was properly trained in the ways of a lady and is fully equipped to take you under her wing, wayward as you may be.”

“But she lives in Ireland,” Bella repeated. She looked desperately across the table in James’ direction, hoping he would leap to her aid. 

He did, clearing his throat before interjecting, “Surely you are not considering sending Bella all the way to Ireland. Perhaps Aunt Nellie could make a visit here—”

“Nonsense,” Lady Collingwood snapped. “We have allowed this to continue long enough. Isabella is wild and unkempt, wholly unbecoming in everything she does, and undeserving of the title of ‘lady’ that has been handed down to her by her father. I fear that if we do not take drastic action, she will bring all manner of shame down on the head of our family.”

“Bella is a bit outspoken, certainly,” James said, looking ill at ease, “but nothing more. She means well. Don’t you, Bella?”

Stop calling her that,” his mother snapped. “Her name is Isabella. Any shortening of her name only serves to reinforce her childish behavior.”

Bella felt tears pricking her eyes. “Father, Mother,” she said, “I can do better, I promise. I don’t need to be sent away.” She had not considered, in all her antics, that they would result in a few years away from home entirely. She would have to leave her friends, the city she knew from childhood, and, worst of all, James. He was her champion in all things, and she would be completely lost without him.

Her pleas fell on deaf ears. “This is too little, too late,” her father intoned, with all the manner and gravity of a judge passing a final sentence. “As soon as we hear back from your aunt, you will be sent away. I suggest you use the intervening time to pack your belongings and bid your friends farewell.”

“We can only hope,” her mother added with a sigh, “that you are a changed girl when you return.” 


Barely a fortnight passed before Bella found herself climbing into a coach one dismal morning, her belongings in chests and bags strapped to the back, her parents watching from the window. James walked her to the carriage, his friend, Simon, loitering in the background. Simon was a gangly lad of James’ same age, handsome and familiar. She’d known him her entire life. He had appeared early for a meeting with James and intercepted the farewell with Bella. 

She blushed at the sight of him, a school-girl’s crush impeding her ability to say more than a few words, but he grinned at her as though she was his own kid sister. 

“Don’t look so glum,” he said lightly. “It won’t be that long, and London won’t forget you. Grace has already assured me she intends to write you every day.”

“And you?” Bella asked, wanting to drag out the goodbye as long as possible. “Will you write?”

Simon shrugged. “If you wish.”

She didn’t expect to hear from him, any more than she expected London to remember her. She knew Grace was a faithful friend, and expected her brother’s regular communication, but beyond that she knew her memory would fade from the ton as soon as she had rolled around the first corner. That was what her parents were counting on, she knew. They wanted all her mischief and wild ways to be forgotten.

It was a full three weeks before she received her first letter from London, ripping it open eagerly in the misty bower of her aunt’s well-tended garden and reading hungrily for news of home. As she expected, James was the first to write. 

Chapter Two

September 2nd, 1810

Dear sister, 

You are sorely missed here. Grace inquires after you whenever I am over visiting Simon, and I have little updates to give her. Aside from Aunt Nellie’s rather brief missive detailing your arrival and safe settling in her Irish manor, there is no news of you. 

I can only surmise, from our shared bond, that your silence means you fell into a perilous situation on your journey across the sea. Did you encounter some foul pirate or sea captain who, upon hearing your sharp wit, decided to take your hands for his collection? I can think of no other reason why you would not have written by now.




September 30th, 1810


You know perfectly well that there was no sea captain, and if there had been I would have taken his hands, not the other way around. I feel well-equipped for such a feat of brutality after reading that novella you slipped into my chest for the ride over. It is good that Father and Mother did not see it. No doubt they would have considered it too gruesome for a young lady of my standing. 

I have not written because I am miserable, and I do not wish to bore you with my misery. 

But you asked, and so you bring this upon yourself. 

Ireland is terrible. Aunt Nellie is fastidious in her attempts to make me better. She wants to change my wardrobe, the way I eat, the way I stand, and the way I talk. She wishes to reform so much of my nature and character that I wonder if it would be easier to simply swap me out for another girl entirely. 

It rains here all the time. Come bring me back to London.



October 16th, 1810

My dear Lady Isabella,

There. I have signed my letter most properly for fear that it will be intercepted by that ogre of an aunt who has taken charge of your upbringing. Your brother was over to see mine the other day, and told me all about the ways in which your aunt is trying to change you. Please don’t change too much. You will always be Bella to me.

It is dreadfully dull here without you. Mother says I am spending more time focusing on what a lady ought to focus on, by which I assume she means I have shown a propensity for the pianoforte now that I am not so distracted from my practice lessons. But I would rather be in the park with you watching you scale a tree any day. I am afraid I am a rather dull girl when you are away. I find myself doing needlepoint and flipping through poetry as though I was any other simpering lass in London, whereas you would have encouraged me out onto some adventure or other if you were here.

Is it true that you tried to run away from your aunt’s home? I heard it from Simon, who heard it from a friend. See, even now you are causing little ripples of delicious gossip in the ton. I shall ask James about it when I see him next. 

Tell me everything about your world. I miss you terribly. 

Your own,



October 18th, 1810


I should not be hearing about your runaway escapades from Simon! I’m your brother, after all. Apparently, his friend knows a friend of Aunt Nellie’s in Ireland, and told us that you made it all the way to the wharf before Aunt Nellie found you and convinced you to come home. 

Tell me, what exactly was your plan? Father and Mother would certainly have taken one look at you and sent you back on the next ship. 

I wish I could bring you some comfort, though. If you had to run away, it must mean that you are miserable indeed, as you claimed in your last letter. I hope you find something to enjoy over there, and I will try to visit you soon. 

Everyone here is quite excited about the upcoming season. Simon is making waves with some of the prettier girls, although that’s nothing new. Father says nothing will come of it, since all Simon’s flirtation won’t shift him from the position of second son. The girls may all like him, but their fathers won’t. That’s what Father says, but I disagree. Simon is a good friend, and an honorable man. Any woman worth her salt will see that in the end. 

For my own part, I haven’t found anyone to catch my fancy. I should, though. I can see how nervous it makes our parents that the heir is not yet settled. They would be happy with any titled woman, regardless of whether or not she was pretty or kind or witty. I’m weary of it all. 



November 1, 1810


I did try to run away, but I was largely unsuccessful. I don’t think my heart was really in it. You’re right, Mother and Father would just send me back again. 

Aunt Nellie is not all that bad, in her heart. She seems kind enough, just so serious all the time and strict about what I do. I feel I never do anything right. I am stiff when I should be graceful and eager when I should be restrained. They will never make a lady of me.

Please give the enclosed letter to Grace when you see her. Aunt Nellie does not wish me to correspond too often, and so I have taken to tucking some letters into others. 



November 25, 1810


Why have you not written me back? A full month with nothing from either you or Grace seems dreadful indeed. It is dreary going into the depths of winter, when I am not even permitted the freedom of the misty moor, without your words to bring me comfort. 

Tell me of London, and of all the silly girls chasing after you and Simon. I am in dire need of distraction. 



January 3, 1811


Now I am truly despairing. What sort of brother leaves his sister without correspondence for such a long period of time, and through the holidays! I was forced to endure a rigid Christmas party at Aunt Nellie’s side, preened out like a peacock in a fancy silk gown that made it hard to breathe. 

The whole affair seemed as though it was fashioned for torture, and when it was done, I could not help thinking about last Christmas, when you got me that little wooden music box as a present and we made ribbon chains for the tree. Tell me what the house is looking like now, and what it looked like at Christmas. 

I received a strained letter from Grace a while back, but she seemed as though she was concealing something. Tell her that if she has fallen in love with some young lad in for the season, she should be more sensible. We are still girls, after all. 



January 29, 1811


Now I am angry. You have gone silent, and so have Mother and Father, not that they were ever true fonts of knowledge. Tell me what I’ve done wrong this instant. It’s cruel of you to ignore me this way. 



February 11, 1811

Lady Isabella, 

No doubt you are surprised to receive post from me, even though I know I promised you letters when you left London last fall. In truth, I hardly thought you’d expect to hear from me with all the letters James wished to send. 

It is on his behalf that I write. Please, prepare yourself. He wished me to break the news to you—not Grace, and not your parents. They are all overcome at present, and unable to do the information justice. 

Bella, your brother was taken ill this winter. At first it seemed a passing sickness, but it took a dreadful turn one night and by morning he had passed. His last words were for you. I was at his bedside, and he asked to see you instead. I do not think, in the heat of the fever, he remembered that you were across the sea from him. 

I am broken-hearted to be the one to convey this news to you, but I must. James was my dearest and truest friend. He was a man unlike any other, and the world is a worse place without him. 

I asked permission to travel to you in person with this news, but your parents did not think it best for you to be distracted from your current duties and requirements. While I might disagree with their reasons, I will not disobey. In the absence of my company, please accept my correspondence. This time, it is not lightly given. Feel free to write to me with any questions you have about James, and I will do my best to answer. 

Grace sends her love. She is at present too overcome to write, but that will change soon. I saw a litter of unsent missives on her floor when I went to visit last night, and believe she wishes to write…only she cannot find the words.



March 20, 1811

Lady Isabella, 

I have heard nothing from you since my last letter, although your Aunt Nellie responded quite kindly that the news was received. She says you have taken on the proper mourning and are keeping to yourself. 

I imagine the last thing you wish to do at present is write to your brother’s friend, when in reality you are missing your brother more than life itself, but I wish to remind you that I am here in the event that you should need my friendship. I have always viewed you as a sister. If anything so heartbreaking were to happen to Grace, I would wish her to have solid companionship and comfort. 



March 28, 1811


James would never have called me Lady Isabella. 



April 8, 1811


Ah! She lives! 

It is good to know that my letters have not fallen on deaf ears after all, even if it is a travesty to cause a poor mail carrier to travel all the distance from Ireland to London for the sake of delivering a single sentence. 

I have noted my mistake in calling you Lady Isabella and shall henceforth call you Bella. This is, of course, how I would have referred to you in person, but a letter feels as though it requires something more formal, does it not?

Please tell me how you are doing, if you can spare the ink. 



April 13, 1811


Did you know that it is not ladylike to weep, or to show overdo emotion? There is a very proper list of dos and don’ts that I am to adhere to per Aunt Nellie’s requirements. I must dress the right way to show enough sadness for James’ passing, but not to seem too dramatic. I must appear below-stairs whenever sympathetic visitors come to call, even when I want to scream and throw things at their heads. I must speak of James enough, but not too much. 

I must not cry. It ruins my complexion. 

I don’t know who to speak to about him. It is ghoulish that he should be taken from me while I am in this terrible place, when I could not give him a proper goodbye. 

I am furious with Mother and Father for sending me away. I am furious with James for getting sick. I am furious with you for writing me about it. 

I shall never recover, and I do not wish to.



April 24, 1811


If you do not know who to talk to about James, look no further than myself. If you wish to cry, or scream, or throw things, just slip away to a room and do thusly. When you see me in person again you can even hurl something at my head. I am very light on my feet, and likely no damage will be done. 

Did James ever tell you about the time we found a frog in the creek behind my family summer home and squired it back to London for a bit of fun with his tutor? It took some effort to keep the poor thing alive, but we managed it well enough, and the pay-off was tremendous. Mr. Grant was always going on about how we should conduct ourselves with propriety and grow up to be gentlemen deserving of the titles that had been bestowed upon us. 

During one of these long talks, we slipped the frog into his desk and waited. I suppose we just wanted it to jump out and surprise him. Unfortunately, it was damp enough to ruin a manuscript he had been working on for years with a collection of short and dreadful love poems dedicated to a “Miss M.”

I was a bit chagrined, yes, but for the most part I thought the joke had gone over well enough. Not James. He insisted that we apologize to Mr. Grant and confess the harm we had done. After taking the three strokes of cane upon his hands, he encouraged the flustered old man to undertake the writing of poems again. 

He was far too good-hearted for pranks, I think. You were always a bit better at mischief, if I remember correctly. 



May 6, 1811


I’m not sure if I should be horrified or flattered by your comment that that I was always better at mischief. But you are right about James. He had a good heart. 

That’s why I did half the mischievous things I undertook, after all. I just wanted to make him smile. I wanted to make him laugh. 

I suppose I also wanted to make my parents angry, but that is neither here nor there. I know you told me that story to make me feel better, and I’m afraid it did. I wonder when I will stop feeling guilty for smiling. Your letter is the first thing that has made me smile since James died, and that makes me want to burn it. 



May 11, 1811


James would not begrudge you a smile. If you are holding yourself aloof from such pleasant emotions because you think it honors him, you are wrong. He would hate the dismal rules of mourning your aunt is inflicting on you. Go on, Bella, smile every once in a while, and trust that James is smiling too. 

Grace said she received a letter from you last week. I’m glad you are both writing again. She has been inconsolable without you. I tell her that you will return soon enough, but I admit it does seem like a long time to wait. 

I saw your parents at an event last night. They seem quite happy with your current situation, although they are still grieving the loss of James. There is some cousin or other who shall inherit in his stead. Though, this seems to give your father no lack of anxiety. I hope that his fears shall be assuaged in time. For now, he is still the earl, after all, and there is no need to concern himself overmuch with the future. 

What are you learning over there in Ireland? Have they made you into a fine young lady yet?


Chapter Three

Four years later, Ireland, 1815

The horse surged beneath Bella, churning along the open space of the moor in a burst of wind and spirit. It was as close as she came to freedom these days, riding on horseback. She had agreed to everything Aunt Nellie required of a proper lady mounted upon a steed—riding attire, her legs properly arrayed in a side-saddle, a bonnet upon her head—but she had gathered enough skill over the years to make such annoyances minimal. She could still ride like the wind, even side-saddle. She could still feel the open air take her breath away. 

At the bottom of the hill, she reined in hard, turning her horse homeward through the orchards at a trot and then a walk. By the time she reached the stables, she could breathe easily again, the adrenaline fading from her veins. She slipped off the horse and walked inside, stepping into her aunt’s drawing room as the morning sun filled it with warm, golden rays. 

“Good morning,” she said, smiling at her Aunt Nellie. 

The older woman was arrayed in one corner of the room, dressed in layers of lace that climbed up her neck and ended in a strict collar beneath her perpetually lifted chin. Her greying hair was tucked primly back into a bun, and atop her head, a duster was pinned tidily in place. 

“Good morning,” she said, surveying Bella’s appearance. “I see that you’ve been out riding. Heavens, child. You ought to go up and change before they serve tea.”

Bella put a hand to one of her escaped strands of hair and tucked it behind one ear. “It was windy today.”

“And you were likely riding raster than was necessary,” her aunt corrected her. Aunt Nellie was sharp enough to see through Bella’s excuses, but she was not unkind. Her eyes were warm with affection as she nodded at a nearby letter on the stand. “And Miss Lyndon has sent you a letter. You may take it upstairs with you while you change for tea. I have something rather pressing to speak about when you return.”

The headstrong girl who had come to Ireland five years earlier would have run over to that letter at once and snatched it up, greedily devouring the contents and rereading every word. Bella was no longer that girl. She smiled at her aunt and walked carefully across the room to the letter, picking it up and tucking it away with a small bow of her head before making her way back upstairs. 

She could hardly remember the Bella she had been before Aunt Nellie, before her separation from her family and friends, and before James’ death. Her time away from London had changed her in more ways than one. 

In her room, she plucked the bonnet from her head and tossed it aside, changing into a pressed white linen gown that had been left by her lady’s maid on the bedspread. Bella could have waited for the servant to appear and assist her, but the fine little buttons and confusing stays did not overwhelm her as they once had. She fashioned the garment on with steady fingers, slipped into a pair of silk shoes, and brushed out her long dark-blond hair. 

The woman looking back at her in the mirror had left behind the awkward angles and sharp gangly limbs of a child for a slender form, high cheekbones, and an elegant expression. She pinned her hair back from her face in a simple fashion—more than that she could not manage without her lady’s maid—and pulled out a few loose curls to frame her bright blue eyes. 

Aunt Nellie said she had grown into a pretty woman, after all, but Bella could not believe as much. Certainly, she had become more polished, and could pass easily as a fine lady of London, but she did not consider herself beautiful. Her parents’ ridicule still rang in her mind after all these years, reminding her that she was no beauty and must rely on propriety alone to propel her into the center of society. 

She left her toilette and walked back to the window for better light as she opened Grace’s letter. The sight of the return address, so familiar, made Bella’s heart ache. There was a time, years ago, when she received letters from two people at that home, but now she could only ever expect Grace to write, and that happened with less and less frequency. 

My dear Bella, the letter began, I hope this missive finds you well. As I mentioned in my last letter, the plans for my upcoming Season are in full swing at last. For the most part, I find all the excitement to be quite enjoyable, but it feels empty without you here. Shouldn’t we be starting our Season in concert?

She had a point. Bella wondered why she had not yet heard from her parents. She was a girl of nineteen now, and fully fit to handle the pressures of her first Season. If they waited much longer to introduce her to society, she would be considered an old maid and tossed to the first old viscount who was willing to take her. There was a time when all this would have angered Bella and driven her to some show of drama, but such times were long past. London held too many ghosts for her now. She knew she would have to return one day, but she wasn’t sure she was ready. 

Grace’s letter spilled into a variety of paragraphs detailing her preparations and the latest gossip of the ton. The letter was long, and on occasion made Bella smile, but she did not overlook the glaring absence in the text when it came to a close. There was no mention of Simon. 

She folded the letter carefully and set it aside, trying to force away the feelings of anger and disappointment that came with thoughts of Mr. Simon Lyndon. Don’t dwell on him, she scolded herself. He is not worth it. 

She met Aunt Nellie downstairs and took a seat across from her as the maid brought in a tray of tea. Aunt Nellie nodded for Bella to go ahead and serve it herself, as she had been taught, and she complied. Years ago, a simple morning tea ritual like this would have reduced Bella to tears as she tried to sit up straight, make easy conversation, manage the heavy pot of tea, keep her chin tilted at an attractive angle, and smile with just the slightest curve to her lips. Now, these things came naturally to her. 

“It was brisk on the moor today,” she said, making the sort of light conversation Aunt Nellie liked to hear from a young woman. “I found it quite invigorating.”

“I wondered if you would regret leaving your cloak behind,” Aunt Nellie answered, taking the cup and saucer offered her. 

“Not at all,” Bella assured her, watching a cloud of cream bloom in her dark tea. “Brisk, but not unpleasant.”

“Isabella, I’ve something to speak with you about,” Aunt Nellie began. She drew herself up quite straight, as though she was sitting with her back against a wooden rod. “I received a letter from your parents yesterday. I would have shared the contents with you earlier, but they required some thought on my part.”

Bella took a sip of her hot tea, letting the familiar floral taste reassure her. Her parents never wrote her personally anymore, choosing instead to communicate their wishes through her aunt. She had long since given up any feeling of bitterness around this arrangement. Bitterness makes for a sour companion, Aunt Nellie always said, and a lady cannot afford to appear disagreeable. She must find ways to account for the failings of those around her. 

“How pleasant,” Bella answered at last. “What news of London?”

“Very little of London, but quite a bit regarding our mutual future,” Aunt Nellie said. A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “They have determined that it is time at last for you to return to London. They are happy with my reports of your progress, and rightfully concerned that you will miss out on some excellent opportunities should you wait another year for your official introduction into society.”

Bella almost dropped her teacup, but training stopped her. She felt suddenly flushed, and there was a buzzing sound in her ears. “Go back?” she asked. “To…to London?”

“Yes of course,” Aunt Nellie said briskly, “where else? That is where your family lives, is it not?”

Not all of them. She had not seen her family home since James…

“I don’t understand.” She invoked the phrase Aunt Nellie suggested when trying to stall for time. “This all seems rather sudden.”

“To me as well,” her aunt smiled kindly. “For they have asked me to accompany you back to London. I would not have minded a bit more warning so that I could close up the house here properly and update your wardrobe, but as it is, my steward will have to tend to things in Ireland and I will find you a tailor in London as soon as we arrive.”

Bella nodded calmly, even though inside she wanted to scream. After all this time, and all their silence, her parents were snapping their fingers and calling her back to their side like a hunting hound. She was not ready. 

“My dear,” her aunt said gently, as though noticing Bella’s silence for the first time, “is something amiss? I thought this news would make you happy. It has been so long since you were in London.”

Bella felt a little breathless. “Nothing is amiss. I am only taken aback, that is all. I did not expect this news to come so suddenly”

“For my part, I think it is a bit overdue.” Aunt Nellie looked at her carefully, with a calculating expression that made Bella feel as though the other woman saw right through her. Aunt Nellie was always very careful not to criticize Bella’s parents, but it was apparent that Aunt Nellie thought Bella’s exile had been too drawn out. 

Bella set her cup down carefully, and crossed her hands in her lap. “What do I need to be ready, Aunt? Shall I begin packing at once?”

“Your lady’s maid will tend to most of that,” Aunt Nellie explained. “Although it is helpful if you give her advice and direction along the way, I’m sure. But dear… there is nothing else you require to be ready for the Season. You have come so far since you first arrived in Ireland. You are a fine lady now.”

Bella nodded. 

Her aunt smiled. “I wish you wouldn’t look so frightened, dear. This is going to be an adventure. You shall get to see Miss Lyndon again, and all your other companions. You will be the jewel of the Season, I am certain, returned in high style with your beauty and your elegance to speak for you.”

“Thank you, Aunt,” Bella said, forcing a smile. The thought of Grace was indeed a relief, but it reminded her of Simon. If she was to see Grace, then there was always the possibility of running into Simon as well, and that would not be pleasant. Perhaps I shall be fortunate, and he will be away on business in the Continent, she hoped. “I am not frightened. Only thoughtful. I want to make my family proud.”

It wasn’t until after she left the parlor and slipped back upstairs to her own chambers that she let herself feel the weight of the moment for the first time. London. The thought of going home made her hands feel suddenly sweaty with anxiety. She could hardly remember her parents, nor the place she had left behind. 

Memories for her were muddled moments, textures, and sounds. She could feel the bark underneath her hands as she scrambled up the tree, remember fragments of the harsh words her parents had thrown her direction, and smell, as if from a great distance, the pipe smoke on her brother’s clothes. 

Everything else about London had come to her through Simon’s letters, and then, later, through Grace’s. Bella sat down heavily on the end of her bed, looking out the window at the greening hills of Ireland and wondering how it had come to feel like such a home to her. She had despised the moors when she first arrived, despised them as vehemently as she had despised Aunt Nellie’s harsh rules and requirements. 

But after James’ death, Ireland had become increasingly familiar to her, a place of safety and predictability in a world that seemed to her suddenly dangerous. Aunt Nellie, though strict, was kind. She knew who she was there. 

In London, nothing was certain.

“Lady Isabella.” There was a crisp knock on the door and, after Bella bid the servant enter, her lady’s maid appeared. “I’ve heard the news, my lady,” the woman said brightly, dropping into a quick curtsy. “Your aunt has sent me up to begin laying out your things. It will take us a few days to finalize the packing, but I want to get a start if there are things that need pressed or laundered.”

“Thank you,” Bella said, rising from the bed and gathering her wits about her again. “Shall we go through the wardrobe first and determine which dresses I ought to bring with me?”

The servant looked confused for a moment, and then said gently, “But, my lady, you’ll be bringing them all.” She paused and added, “You’re moving to London for good now, aren’t you?”

I am, Bella realized, nerves skittering as the news sunk in at last. I’m moving to London for good.

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Juliette Harcourt’s hopes are dashed when her long-awaited suitor, Nicholas, returns not with a proposal, but with news of his engagement to another. Heartbroken and reeling from disappointment, Juliette crosses paths once more with Alexander, the Marquis of Cavendish, a man she shared a fleeting encounter with a year ago in the secrecy of an orangery.

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One thought on “Unmasking a Lord’s Heart (Preview)”

  1. Hello, my dear readers! I hope you have enjoyed this little prologue and you are eagerly waiting to read the rest of this delightful romance! I am waiting for your comments here! Thank you so much! ♥️

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