‘Let me help you into the bath.’ Lady Anne, who had been peeling off Isobel’s sodden, disgusting clothes, pulled her to her feet and urged her towards the other tub set before the fire. ‘Papa insisted on sending his valet to look after Mr Harker. Tompkins went past just now muttering about the “State of Sir’s Breeches” in capital letters. One gathers that Mr Harker’s unmentionables may never be the same again.’
As Anne must have intended, the women all laughed and Isobel felt herself relax a little as she slid into the hot water. To her relief Lizzie began to talk, her terrifying brush with death already turning into an exciting adventure. ‘And Mr Harker galloped up like a knight in shining armour and dived into the lake...’
He must have done—and acted without hesitation—or neither of them would be here now. He might be a rake, and an arrogant one at that, but he had been brave and effective. And kind in just the right way: brisk and bracing enough to keep them both focused.
Isobel bit her lip as Anne helped her out of the tub and into the embrace of a vast warm towel. She was going to have to thank Mr Harker, however hard that would be. ‘Sit by the fire and let me rub your hair dry,’ Anne said as she and the maid enveloped Isobel in a thick robe.
Finally Lizzie was bundled off to bed. Her mother stopped by Isobel’s chair and stooped to kiss her cheek. ‘Thank you, my dear, from the bottom of my heart. Will you go to bed now?’
‘No. No, I want to move around, I think.’ She was filled with panic at the thought of falling asleep and dreaming of that black, choking water, the weed like the tentacles of a sea monster, her fear for the child. As Lizzie had slid through her hands she had thought she had lost her. She shuddered. To lose a child was too cruel and yet they were so vulnerable. No, stop thinking like that.
‘If you are sure.’ The countess regarded her with concern. ‘You are so pale, Isobel. But very well, if you insist. Perhaps you could do something for me—I know my husband will have said all that is proper, but will you ask Tompkins to tell Mr Harker that I will thank him myself tomorrow? For now I must stay with Lizzie.’
‘Yes, of course. As soon as I am dressed,’ Isobel promised. Anne pressed a cup of tea into her hands and stood behind her to comb out her hair.
‘Mr Harker is very handsome, don’t you think?’ the younger girl remarked as soon as they were alone.
‘Oh, extraordinarily so,’ Isobel agreed. To deny it would be positively suspicious. ‘Although I find such perfection not particularly attractive—quite the opposite, in fact. Do you not find his appearance almost chilly? I cannot help but wonder what lies behind the mask.’ What was he hiding behind that handsome face? Puzzling over his motives kept drawing her eyes, her thoughts, to him. He had courage and decision, he was beautiful, like a predatory animal, but he was also rude, immoral...
‘How exciting to have your come-out in Dublin,’ she said, veering off the dangerous subject of rakish architects. ‘And with your papa representing his Majesty, you will be invited to all the very best functions.’
The diversion worked. Anne chatted happily about her plans and hopes while Isobel let the strength and courage seep slowly back into her as the warmth gradually banished the shivers.
* * *
Mr Harker’s rooms would be on the north side of the house, judging by his appearance en route to the plunge bath. There were three suites on the northern side and the westernmost one of those belonged to the earl. So by deduction Harker must be in either the centre or the eastern one. Isobel hesitated at her sitting-room door and was caught by Dorothy as her maid bustled past with an armful of dry towels.
‘Lady Isobel! How did you get yourself dressed again? You should be in your own bed and wrapped up warm. Come along, now, I’ll tuck you up and fetch some nice hot milk.’
‘I would prefer to warm myself by exploring the house a little and for you to see what can be done with my walking dress. I fear it must be ruined, but I suppose it might be salvageable.’
There was a moment when Isobel thought Dorothy was going to argue, then she bobbed a curtsy and retreated to the dressing room with pursed lips, emanating disapproval.
Isobel’s footsteps were muffled as she crossed the landing. Somehow that made the nerves knotting her stomach worse, as though she was creeping about on some clandestine mission. But she had to thank Mr Harker for saving her life and she had to do that face-to-face or she would be uncomfortable around him for her entire stay at Wimpole. It did not mean that she forgave him for that kiss, or for his assumptions about her.
It occurred to Isobel as she lifted her hand to knock on the door of the central suite that this visit might reinforce those assumptions, but she was not turning back now.