While she ate she contemplated just how maddening he was. He was arrogant, self-opinionated, far too aware of his own good looks, shockingly outspoken and did not do his robe up properly. He was, in fact, just like the drunken bucks at the house party, only sober, which was no excuse, for that meant he should know better. He also made her feel strangely unsettled in a way she had almost forgotten she could feel. There was no doubting that his relaxed, elegant body would strip to perfection, that his skin would feel—
Isobel bit savagely into a slice of toast and blackcurrant conserve. What was the use of men except to make women’s lives miserable? She contemplated Master Charles, chubby-cheeked, slightly sticky already, full of blue-eyed innocence. Little boys were lovely. She felt a pang at the thought of what she was missing.
Kind fathers and husbands like her own papa, or Lord Hardwicke, were obviously good men. Lucas had been almost perfect. But how on earth was one to tell what a candidate for one’s hand would turn out to be like? Most males, by the time they turned eighteen, appeared to be rakehells, seducers, drinkers, gamblers...
Perhaps she could become an Anglican nun. They did have them, she was sure, and it sounded safe and peaceful. A mental image of Mr Harker, laughing himself sick at the sight of her in a wimple, intruded. She would look ridiculous and she would be quite unsuited to the life. Besides, she would not be free to travel, to visit Jane and the children. An eccentric spinster then. She had enough money.
Only she did not want to be a spinster. She would rather like to fall in love again with a good man and marry. Her daydream stuttered to a halt: he would doubtless want children. But where did she find one she could trust with her heart and all that was most precious to her? And even if she did find this paragon, was he going to want her when he knew the truth about her?
‘More coffee, Cousin Isobel?’
‘Thank you, Lizzie.’ Her mind was going round in circles. Isobel forced herself into the present. ‘At what time shall we go for our walk?’
‘Shall I meet you in the garden at ten o’clock?’ the girl suggested. ‘I must explain to Miss Henderson, my governess, that I am going on an educational nature expedition with you.’
‘There are the lakes—we will see all kinds of wild birds,’ Lizzie said with irrefutable logic. Isobel found herself experiencing a pang of sympathy for the unfortunate Miss Henderson.
* * *
A visit to Lady Hardwicke’s unusual semi-circular sitting room, almost next to her own, reassured Isobel that her hostess did not require her assistance, and that Lizzie was permitted to escape from French conversation for one morning.
Isobel snuggled her pelisse warmly around herself as she stepped out into the garden that lay between the north front and the parkland. It wanted at least fifteen minutes until ten o’clock and there was no sign of Lizzie yet. The bleak, wintry formal beds held little attraction, but the shrubbery that lay to one side behind the service wing looked mysterious and worthy of exploration.
A glimpse of a small domed roof intrigued her enough to brave the dense foliage, still dripping on to the narrow paths after yesterday’s drizzle. The building, when she reached it down the twisting paths, was small, low and angular with an odd dome and no windows that she could see. It looked vaguely classical, but what its function might be, she had no idea. The gloomy shrubbery seemed an odd place for a summer house. Perhaps it was an ice house.
Isobel circled the building. Under her boots the leaf mould yielded damply, muffling her footsteps as she picked her way with caution, wary of slipping.
The sight of a pair of long legs protruding from the thick clump of laurel bush that masked the base of the structure brought her up short. The legs were visible from midthigh, clad in brown buckskin breeches. The polished boots, smeared with mud, were toes down—their owner must be lying on his stomach. As she stared there was a grunt from the depths of the bush—someone was in pain.
A keeper attacked by poachers? A gardener who had fainted? Isobel bent and pushed aside the branches with her hands. Even as she crouched down she realised that gamekeepers and gardeners did not wear boots of such quality. She slipped, landed with an ungainly thump, threw out a hand and found she was gripping one hard-muscled, leather-clad thigh.
‘Oh! Are you all right?’ The man was warm at least—perhaps he had not lain there very long. There did not seem to be any room to move away now she was crouched under the thick evergreen foliage.
The prone figure rolled over and she went with him in a tangle of thin branches to find herself flat on her back, her body pinned under the solid length of a man who was quite obviously neither fainting nor wounded, but very much in possession of his senses. All of them.