‘You had an education that fitted you for this work, then?’ Lady Isobel asked, her tone still inquisitorial, as though she was interviewing him for a post as a secretary. Her hands were white, her fingers long and slender. She ran one fingertip along the back of the knife lying by her plate and Giles felt a jolt of heat cut through his rising annoyance with her, and with himself for allowing her to bait him.
Stop it, there is nothing special about her. Just far more sensuality than any respectable virgin ought to exude. ‘Yes. Harrow. Oxford. And a good drawing master.’
Lady Isobel sent him a flickering look that encompassed, and was probably valuing, his evening attire—from his coat, to his linen, to the stick-pin in his cravat and the antique ruby cabochon ring on his finger. Her own gown and jewellery spoke of good taste and the resources to buy the best.
‘What decided you on architecture?’ she asked. ‘Is it a family tradition?’
No, she quite certainly did not know who he was or she would never have asked that. ‘Not so far as I am aware. My father was a soldier,’ Giles explained. ‘I did not realise at first where my talents, if I had any, might lie. Then it occurred to me that many of the drawings in my sketchbooks were buildings, interiors or landscapes. I found I was interested in design, in how spaces are used.’ His enthusiasm was showing, he realised and concluded, before he could betray anything more of his inner self, ‘I wrote to Mr Soane and he took me on as an assistant.’ He lowered his voice with a glance down the table. ‘He is generous to young men in the profession—I think his own sons disappoint him with their lack of interest.’
And now, of course, many of his commissions came from men he met socially, who appreciated his work, liked the fact that he was ‘one of them’ and yet was sufficiently different for it not to be an embarrassment to pay his account. Giles was very well aware that his bills were met with considerably more speed than if he had been, in their eyes, a mere tradesman. And in return, he stayed well clear of their wives and daughters, whatever the provocation.
‘So, have you built your own house, Mr Harker?’
‘I have. Were you thinking of viewing it, Lady Isobel?’
‘Now you are being deliberately provocative, Mr Harker.’ Her dark brows drew together and the tight social smile vanished. ‘I am thinking no such thing, as you know perfectly well. This is called making polite conversation, in case you are unfamiliar with the activity. You are supposed to inform me where your house is and tell me of some interesting or amusing feature, not make suggestive remarks.’
‘Are you always this outspoken, Lady Isobel?’ He found, unexpectedly, that his ill temper had vanished, although not all his guilt. He was enjoying her prickles—it was a novelty to be fenced with over dinner.
‘I am practising,’ she said as she sat back to allow the servants to clear for the second remove. ‘My rather belated New Year resolution is to say what I mean. Scream it, if necessary,’ she added in a murmur. ‘I believe I should say what I think to people to their faces, not behind their backs.’
Ouch. There was nothing for it. ‘I am sorry that you may have overheard some ill-judged remarks I made to Mr Soane earlier, Lady Isobel. That is a matter for regret.’
‘I am sure it is,’ she said with a smile that banished any trace of ease that he was beginning to feel in her presence. If she could cut with a smile, he hated to think what she might do with a frown.
‘However, I do not feel that any good will be served by rehearsing the reason you hold such...ill-judged opinions.’ Giles took a firm grip on his knife and resisted the urge to retaliate. He had been in the wrong—not to feel what he did, but to risk saying it where he might be overheard. Now he must give his head for a washing. He braced himself for her next barb. ‘You were telling me about your house.’
Excellent tactics, he thought grimly. Get me off balance while you work out how to knife me again. ‘My house is situated on a small estate in Norfolk. My paternal grandfather lives there and manages it for me in my absence.’ It was also close enough for him to keep an eye on his mother on those occasions she descended on the Dower House of Westley Hall for one of her outrageous parties, causing acute annoyance and embarrassment to the current marquess and his wife and scandalised interest in the village. When she was in one of her wild moods he was the only person who could manage her.
‘He died before I was born.’ It had taken some persuasion to extract his grandfather from the head gardener’s cottage at Westley and persuade him that he would not be a laughing stock if he took up residence in his grandson’s new country house. ‘My grandfather lives with me. His health is not as robust as it once was.’ Stubborn old Joe had resisted every inch of the way, despite being racked with rheumatism and pains in his back from years of manual labour. But now he had turned himself into a country squire of the old-fashioned kind, despite grumbling about rattling around in a house with ten bedchambers. Thinking about the old man relaxed him a little.