‘Lizzie!’ Isobel cast off her bonnet and pelisse as she ran. ‘Help! Help!’ But even as she shouted she knew they had seen no one at all in the broad sweep of park, let alone anyone close enough to help.
Could the child swim? But even if she could, the water was cold and muddy and goodness knew how deep. There were bubbles rising, but no sign of Lizzie. Isobel ran to the edge, waded in and forced her legs, hampered by her sodden skirts, through the icy water. She couldn’t swim, but perhaps if she held on to the bridge supports she could reach out a hand to Lizzie and pull her up.
Without warning the bottom vanished beneath her feet. Isobel plunged down, opened her mouth to shriek and swallowed water. Splinters pierced her palm and she lost her hold on the wooden supports. The light was blotted out as the lake closed over her head.
* * *
Giles cursed under his breath and held the grey gelding to an easy canter up the sweeping slope. Had he completely misread her? Had Lady Isobel simply chanced to come upon him in the shrubbery and lost her balance as she maintained? He had thought it a trick to provoke him into kissing her and that her protests had been merely a matter of form. But now his smarting cheek told him her protests had been real enough. So had her anger last night. He had let his desires override his instincts and he had completely mishandled the situation.
Bastard. He had learned to accept and ignore that word, to treat it with amusement. But for some reason it had stung more from her lips than the flat of her hand on his cheek had done
He should seek her out and apologise. Hell. If he did, then she would either slap his face again or she would be all too forgiving and...and might kiss him again with that delicious mixture of innocent sensuality and fire.
No. Too dangerous. Concentrate on work and forget one provoking and unaccountably intriguing woman who, it was becoming painfully clear, he did not understand. She was no schoolroom miss—she would soon forget it, or at least pretend to.
He reined in as the grey reached the earthworks that marked the base of the old windmill. From here there was a fine view north over the lakes to the Gothic folly and, stretching south along the edge of the woodland, an avenue of trees leading to his destination, the Hill House.
The avenue stretched wide and smooth, perfect for a gallop. Giles gathered up the reins, then stopped at the sound of a faint shriek. A bird of prey? A vixen? He stood in his stirrups and scanned the parkland. There was nothing to be seen.
‘Help!’ It was faint, but it was clear and repeated, coming from the direction of the lakes. A woman’s voice. Giles dragged the gelding’s head round and spurred down the slope, heedless of wet grass, mud and thorn bushes. The deep stock ditch opened up before them and the grey gathered his hocks under him and leapt, then they were thundering down towards the lake.
As Giles reined in on the flat before the dam he could see no signs of life—only a bonnet and pelisse lying discarded at the water’s edge.
There were footprints in the mud, small woman’s prints, and a disturbance, bubbles, below the centre of the bridge where the rail was broken. Giles flung himself out of the saddle, wrenched off his coat and boots and strode into the lake. The muddy water churned and two figures broke the surface for a few moments, the larger flailing desperately towards the bridge supports, the smaller limp in her grasp before they sank again. Lady Isobel and Lizzie.
It took a dozen strokes to reach them. Giles put his head down and dived under, groped through the muddy water and touched a hand, so cold that for a moment he thought it was a fish. He kicked and broke the surface hauling the dead weight of both woman and child after him.
‘Take her,’ Isobel gasped as they broke the surface and she thrust the child’s body into his reaching arms. When he tried to take hold of her too, she resisted. ‘No, there’s weed tangled round her. I couldn’t... You’ll need both hands to pull her free.’
Treading water, Giles wrenched and tugged and the slight body was suddenly floating in his arms. ‘Hang on!’ he ordered Isobel as though he could keep her afloat by sheer force of will. He towed Lizzie back to the shore, dumped her without ceremony and turned back to Isobel. She had vanished.
Numb, shaking with cold and fear for Isobel, Giles launched himself back into the water in a shallow dive. She was beyond struggling now as he caught one slender wrist and pulled her, gasping and choking, back to the surface again.
As soon as they reached the shallows she managed to raise herself on hands and knees and shake off his hold. ‘Go and see if she’s breathing. Help her—I can manage.’
Giles stumbled to the shore and dragged Lizzie farther up onto the grass, turned her over his knee and slapped her hard between the shoulder blades. ‘Come on, breathe!’ She coughed, retched up quantities of muddy water, then began to cry.