Two years ago, Isabella Harrington defied her parents and society, and ran off with her lover to Milan. They thought they'd conquer the world at the gaming tables. But her dream of happily-ever-after led to nothing but debts and a shattered heart.
Abandoned and left on her own in a foreign city with little but her wits and skill, Isabella managed to survive. Survive and thrive, commanding the cards until she won enough to send for a very particular matchmaker.
Isabella needed a way back into the society she shunned and what better way than through a proper, aristocratic marriage? And this matchmaker of note would be her key back home to England.
Traveling the Continent, Jonathon, Duke of Strathmore, agreed to meet the mysterious Miss Harrington. Wary of the rumors surrounding her, a woman who vanished from London with only scandalous tales left in her wake, he hadn't counted on the intriguing Isabella to thoroughly capture his attention.
Will a game of cards change both their fates? Will she become a mistress or a duchess?
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“Merciless animals stalk and devour their prey,” Isabella Harrington muttered. She watched a large, ragged dog slip down an alleyway across from her townhouse. He was surely hunting and some poor creature would soon meet its end.
Isabella now understood just how merciless Manning Bradford, like the wild dog, had truly been. He’d left her injured and beaten. If not in body then in spirit and heart.
His vicious words still taunted her, and when he left her, alone in a foreign city, only then had she seen that she’d never been his love. She was simply, always, his prey.
The lesson had been hard learned and hard lived.
But that lesson also taught her, prepared her, to relinquish the young girl Isabella had been for the woman who refused to allow the mistake of loving Manning Bradford to define her life.
The bracelet pinched her left wrist. She’d fastened it too tightly. Again. Isabella pushed and pulled the offending gold and peridot adornment but refused to loosen it. No, she wore it to serve as her reminder, a reminder of the man who gave the piece she once considered beautiful, but now saw as a testimonial to her own weakness.
Thirteen months since he’d left. Thirteen months living alone. The man she’d trusted with her future, her life, gone.
Loneliness and hurt clung to her like the stench of cheap tallow candles clung to her parlor walls. Isabella wanted nothing more than to be able to go back to her youthful self and choose differently.
She’d spent months wrenching herself free of the muck and mire. Months wallowing in self-pity, but needing to survive.
Survive was all she’d done.
The pungent scent of lemon oil permeated the front parlor, almost but not quite strong enough to hide the tallow used in their candles. The mixture of lemon and tallow made her stomach churn.
Turning from the window, she let the curtains fall and quickly crossed her small parlor to the nook beside the fireplace and retrieved the bottle of lemon oil. Isabella splashed some onto the rag and, with an energy born of nerves, wiped down the mantle.
She pressed hard into the wood, moving the rag over it again and again, trying to wipe her mind clear from her past as she did so. She rubbed the oil into the wood until only the scent of fresh polish filled the room. Until her stomach calmed and the sickening scent of tallow faded.
Just as she’d done the day she realized she hadn’t enough money to live out the month, as she realized she’d nowhere to go, as she’d forced herself out of bed to wash away the tears she’d shed over Manning, now Isabella forced herself to take the next step forward.
She ignored the nerves dancing through her, squashing them until all that remained was her pride, her determination, and her will to not merely survive, but to thrive. This was her fresh start, and she’d not allow anyone to hold her back, not any longer.
The front door creaked open and she heard, her one manservant, Nicolo usher her guest into the foyer.
This was it, the first step in reclaiming her life and in putting the mistakes of her youth behind her. Isabella nearly laughed at that — she’d experienced more in the previous two years than most young women of her stature experienced in their entire lives.
And she would create a life where she held her head high with pride and dignity against all the gossips and vicious stories. End this cold and lonely existence.
Isabella smoothed a hand down her gown. With her chin high, as regal as her respectable upbringing taught her, she watched Mrs. Camilla Primsby enter the sparsely furnished parlor. Mrs. Primsby was the tool Isabella planned to use as her reintroduction to proper society. She was well known for her successful — and more importantly discreet — matches.
So much so that at no small expense, won from many nights spent at the Milanese gaming tables, Isabella sent for Mrs. Primsby. If she were to polish her tarnished reputation, to salvage what was left of it, she needed someone of Mrs. Primsby’s esteem.
Still, she found it difficult to trust her future to such an unknown quality. Isabella had heard much about the renowned matchmaker before she’d left
However, Isabella had spent the last thirteen months and ten days trusting no
one save herself. London
“Signora Primsby,” Nicolo announced with a bow.