‘Lizzie, it is all right, Mr Harker rescued us,’ a hoarse voice croaked beside him. ‘Come here now, don’t cry.’ Somehow Isobel had crawled up the bank to gather the child in her arms, petting and soothing. ‘There, there. We’ll get you home safe to your mama, don’t worry.’
Giles found his coat and wrapped it round them. Lady Isobel’s hair hung in filthy sodden curtains around her face, her walking dress clung like a wet blanket to her limbs and she was shuddering with cold, but her voice was steady as she looked up at him. ‘Please, go for help, Mr Harker.’ She dragged the coat off her own shoulders and around the child.
He stared at her for a moment, a bedraggled, exhausted Madonna, somehow the image of desperate motherhood and feminine courage. ‘Felix will take all of us at a walk, it will be faster.’ He dragged on his boots and unsaddled the gelding to make room for the three of them. ‘Let me get you up first, then I’ll hand Lizzie to you. Can you manage?’
Lady Isobel let him drag her to her feet, then boost her onto the horse. She ignored the display of bare flesh as her skirts rode up her legs and held out her hands to steady Lizzie as the child was put in front of her. Giles vaulted up behind.
Felix, well trained and willing, plodded up the slope with his burden while Giles tried to hold Isobel and Lizzie steady as their shivering increased. Through his own wet shirt he could feel how cold Lady Isobel was growing, but she did not complain. He could hear her murmuring reassurance to Lizzie, the words blurred as she tried to control her chattering teeth.
‘Thank God you can swim,’ he said as the house came in sight. He steered Felix towards the service wing where there would be plenty of strong hands to help.
‘Then why the hell did you go in?’ Giles demanded, his voice roughened with shock.
‘I th-thought I might be able to reach her if I held on to the bridge supports. She did not c-come up, you see. By the time I had got to the house and brought help she would have drowned. But the bottom shelved and I was out of my depth—as I went down I found her.’ She broke off, coughed, and he did his best to support her until the racking spasms ceased. ‘I untangled enough of the weed to push us up to the surface, but then I could not keep us there.’
Every other female of his acquaintance would have stood on the lakeside and screamed helplessly while the child drowned. ‘Isobel, that was very brave.’
She did not react to the way he addressed her—she was probably beyond noticing such things. ‘There didn’t seem to be any other option—she was my responsibility.’ The retort held a ghost of her tart rejoinders of the night before and Giles smiled with numb lips even as a pang of shame reminded him how easily he had judged this woman.
She seemed to slump and Giles tightened his arms around them. ‘Steady now.’ Isobel let her head fall back on his shoulder and she leaned against him as though seeking for the slight heat he could give her. He wanted to rip off their clothes, hold her against his bare flesh to force his remaining warmth into her. ‘Almost there now, my brave girl.’
As they rode into the yard the boot boy gawped, a scullery maid dropped an armload of kindling, but one of the footmen ran forwards shouting, ‘Here! Everyone—quick—and bring blankets! Hurry!’
Hands reached for Lizzie and Isobel and he let them be taken before he threw a leg over Felix’s withers, dropped to the ground and ran to find the countess.
* * *
Isobel rather thought she had fainted. One minute she was held against Mr Harker’s comfortingly broad chest, and he was calling her his brave girl, the next hands were lifting her down and then she found herself in the countess’s sitting room with Cousin Elizabeth ordering hot baths and towels and more coals for the fire and no recollection of how she had got there.
‘I’m sorry,’ she managed to say when the hubbub subsided enough to make herself heard. Her voice sounded raspy and her throat was sore. ‘The rail on the bridge broke and Lizzie tumbled in. Mr Harker...’
Mr Harker had saved her and the child. She looked at Lizzie, white-faced, her vulnerable, naked body and thin little arms making her look much younger than her years. She wanted to hold her, convince herself the child was safe, but that was not her right. Lizzie had her mother to hold and comfort her. Her mother was with her, every day, saw every change in her growing child, felt every emotion...
‘Mr Harker said you went in after Lizzie even though you cannot swim,’ Cousin Elizabeth said. She looked up from the tub where she was on her knees helping the nursery nurse rub her daughter’s pale limbs amidst clouds of steam. Isobel blinked back the tears that had blurred her vision and with them the pang of jealousy towards the older woman with her happy brood of children all around her. ‘She owes her life to you both.’ The shock was evident on the countess’s strained face, even though she managed to keep her voice steady.