‘How pleasant for you,’ Lady Isobel said, accepting a slice of salmon tart. ‘I wish I had known my grandfathers. And does your mama reside with you?’
‘She lives independently. Very independently.’ Things were relatively stable at the moment: his mother had a lover who was a year older than Giles. Friends thought he should be embarrassed by this liaison, but Giles was merely grateful that Jack had the knack of keeping her happy even if he had not a hope of restraining her wilder starts. To give the man his due, he did try.
‘She is a trifle eccentric, perhaps?’
‘Yes, I think you could say that,’ Giles agreed. How quickly Lady Isobel picked up the undertones in what he said— No wonder she was able to slip under his guard with such ease when she chose.
‘My goodness, you look almost human when you grin, Mr Harker.’ She produced a sweet smile and turned to join in the discussion about the Irish language the earl was having with his eldest daughter.
You little cat! Giles almost said it out loud.
He had succeeded—far more brutally than he had intended—in ensuring he was not going to be fending off a hand on his thigh under the dinner table, or finding an unwelcome guest in his bedchamber, but at the expense of making an enemy of a close friend of the family. Now he had to maintain an appearance of civility so the Yorkes did not notice anything amiss. He could do without this—the tasks he had accepted to help Soane were going to be as nothing compared with the challenge of keeping his hands from Lady Isobel’s slender throat if she continued to be quite so provocative.
She was idly sliding her fingers up and down the stem of her wine glass as she talked. The provocation was not simply to his temper, he feared.
Giles took a reviving sip of wine and listened to young Lizzie lecturing John Soane on the embellishments she considered would make the castle folly on the distant hill even more romantic than it already was.
That was one possibility, of course: wall up Lady Isobel in the tower and leave her for some knight in shining armour to rescue. Which was a very amusing thought, if it were not for the fact that he had a sneaking suspicion that through sheer perversity she would never wait around for some man to come to her aid. She would fashion the furniture into a ladder, climb out of the window and then come after him with a battleaxe.
She laughed and he turned to look at her, the wine glass halfway to his lips. That laugh seemed to belong to another woman altogether: a carefree, charming, innocent creature. As if feeling his regard, she turned and caught his eye and for a long moment their glances interlocked. Giles saw her lips part, her eyes darken as though something of significance had been exchanged.
A stab of arousal made him shift in his chair and the moment was lost. Lady Isobel turned away, her expression more puzzled than annoyed, as though she did not understand what had just happened.
Giles drank his wine. He knew exactly what had occurred; two virtual strangers had discovered that they were physically attracted to each other, even if one of them might not realise it and both of them would go to any lengths to deny it.
* * *
There were people in her bedroom. Voices, too low to make out, a tug on the covers as someone bumped into the foot of the bed. Isobel opened her eyes to dim daylight and a view of lace-trimmed pillow. With every muscle tensed, she rolled over and sat up, ready to scream, her heart contracting with alarm.
There was no sign of the party of rowdy bucks who had haunted her dreams. Instead, three pairs of wide eyes observed her from the foot of the bed, one pair so low that they seemed on a level with the covers. Children. Isobel let out a long breath and found a smile, restraining the impulse to scoot down the bed and gather up the barely visible smallest child and inhale the warm powdered scent of sleepy infant. ‘Good morning. Would one of you be kind enough to draw the curtains?’
‘Good morning, Cousin Isobel,’ Lizzie said. ‘I knew it would be all right to wake you up. Mama said you should sleep in and eat your breakfast in your room, but I thought you would like to have it with us in the nursery.’
The contrast between her own dreams of drunken, frightening bucks invading her bedroom, of the presence of Giles Harker somewhere in the mists of the nightmare, and the wide, innocent gaze of the children made her feel as though she was still not properly awake.
‘That would be delightful. Thank you for the invitation.’ Isobel rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and regarded the other two children as they came round the side of the bed. ‘You must be Caroline and Charles. I am very pleased to meet you.’
Charles, who was four, if she remembered correctly, regarded her solemnly over the top of his fist. His thumb was firmly in his mouth. He shuffled shyly round the bed to observe her more closely. Isobel put out one hand and touched the rosy cheek and he chuckled. She fisted her hands in the bed sheets. He was so sweet and she wanted...