Caroline beamed and dragged the wrapper off the end of the bed. ‘You’ll need to put this on because the passageways are draughty. But there is a fire in the nursery.’
The children waited while she slid out of bed, put on the robe, ran a brush through her hair and retied it into a tail with the ribbon before donning her slippers. ‘I’m ready now.’
‘We can go this way, then we will not disturb Mama.’ Lady Caroline led her out of the door on the far side of the bedchamber, through the small dressing room and out of another door on to what seemed to be the back stairs. ‘We just go through there and up the stairs to the attic—’
There was the sound of whistling and the soft slap of backless leather slippers on carpet. Across the landing a shadow slid over the head of the short flight of stairs that must lead to the suites at the back of the house. Someone was coming. A male someone. Trapped in the doorway, with a chattering seven-year-old in front of her, a small boy hanging on to her skirts and Lizzie bringing up the rear, Isobel just had time to clutch the neck of her wrapper together as Mr Harker appeared.
He stopped dead at the sight of them, his long brocade robe swinging around his bare ankles. His face was shadowed with his unshaven morning beard, his hair was tousled and an indecent amount of chest was showing in the vee of the loosely tied garment. He must be naked beneath it. ‘Good morning, Lady Isobel, Lady Lizzie, Lady Caroline, Master Charles. I hope you do not represent a bathing party.’
Cousin Elizabeth had said something about a plunge bath in this area, so that was presumably where he was going. He might have had the decency to have turned on his heel the moment he saw them, Isobel thought, resentment mingling with sensations she tried hard not to acknowledge. Now she was in the position of having to exchange words with a scarcely clad man while she was in her nightwear. The fact that her wrapper was both practical and all-enveloping was neither here nor there.
‘We are going to the nursery for breakfast,’ she said, her gaze, after one glimpse of hair-roughened chest, fixed a foot over his head. ‘Lead the way, please, Caroline.’
‘Good morning, Mr Harker,’ the children chorused. Isobel scooped up little Charles as a shield and they trooped across the landing, past the architect and through into the sanctuary of the door to the attic stairs. She was furiously aware that she was peony-pink and acting like a flustered governess. All her anger-fuelled defiance of him over dinner was lost in embarrassment.
They climbed the stairs and Caroline took them around the corner and on to a landing with a skylight overhead and a void, edged with rails and panelled boards, in the centre. As she tried to orientate herself Isobel realised it must be above the inner hallway her room opened on to, with the snob-boards to prevent the servants looking down on their employers.
‘Papa had Mr Soane make him a plunge bath in the old courtyard that used to be behind the main stairs.’ Lizzie waved a hand in the general direction. ‘I think it would be great fun to learn to swim in it, but Mama says it is for Papa to relax in, not for us to splash about.’
Now I have the mental picture of Mr Harker floating naked in the warm water... Thank you so much, Lizzie.
‘Here we are. This is where Caroline and I sleep, and here is Charles’s room and here is the nursery. Nora, we have brought Lady Isobel, I told you she would like to have breakfast with us.’
A skinny maid bobbed a curtsy. ‘Oh, Lady Lizzie! I do hope it is all right, my lady, I said you’d be wanting to rest, but off they went...’
‘That is quite all right. I would love to have breakfast here.’ The children and their staff appeared to occupy this entire range of south-facing rooms with wonderful views over the long avenue and the park towards Royston. A pair of footmen carried in trays. Charles twisted in her arms and she made herself put him down.
‘I told them to bring lots of food because we had a special guest. Those are my designs for the tower—Mr Soane says I show a flair for the dramatic,’ Lizzie pronounced, pointing at a series of paintings pinned on the wall. ‘I expect I get that from Mama. She writes plays, you know and sometimes when we have a house party they are acted in the Gallery. Papa says she is a veritable blue-stocking. We will go for a walk this morning and I will show you the tower.’ Lizzie finally ran out of breath, or perhaps it was the smell of bacon that distracted her.
‘That would be very pleasant, provided your mama does not need me.’ Isobel sat down at the table. ‘It would be wonderful to get out in the fresh air and it looks as though the morning will be sunny, which is such a relief after yesterday’s drizzle.’ And there was the added advantage that if she was out of the house she would be at a safe distance from Mr Harker’s disturbing presence.