She rapped briskly. A voice within, somewhat smothered, called ‘Come!’ Isobel rapped again. The door opened with a impatient jerk and Mr Harker stood on the threshold, a towel in his hand, his damp-darkened hair standing on end. He was in his shirt sleeves, without his neckcloth. Like this he seemed inches bigger in both height and breadth.
‘Do not call me—’ She took a breath, inhaled the scent of sandalwood and soap and moderated her tone. She was here to make peace, she reminded herself, not to lash out to prove to herself just how indifferent she was to him. ‘I have a message from the countess and something I wish to say on my own account. Lady Hardwicke wants very much to thank you herself, but she feels she must be with Lizzie today and she hopes you will understand if she does not speak with you until tomorrow. I think you may imagine her emotions and will therefore forgive her sending a message.’
He tossed the towel away towards the corner of the room without taking his eyes from her face. ‘I do not need thanking and certainly do not expect her to leave the child in order to do so. How is Lady Lizzie?’
‘Much better than one might expect, after that experience. She will be perfectly all right, I believe.’ She could turn tail and go now. Isobel took a deep breath instead. ‘And I, too, must thank you, Mr Harker, on my own account. I owe you my life.’
‘I was in the right place to hear you, that is all. Anyone would have done the same.’ He frowned at her. ‘You should not be here.’
For him to be preaching the proprieties was intolerable! ‘Please, do not be afraid I have come with any improper purpose, Mr Harker. Surely even your elevated sense of self-esteem would not delude you into thinking that after this morning’s experiences I have either the desire or the energy to attempt to seduce you.’
The acid in her tone made him blink and the sweep of those thick dark lashes did nothing to moderate her irritation with him. ‘Rest assured,’ she added rather desperately, ‘I have no intention of crossing the threshold. Your...virtue is perfectly safe.’
He studied her in silence for a moment. Isobel pressed her lips together to control the other things she would very much like to say on the subject of men who made assumptions about ladies with no evidence and then discussed them with their friends and then ravished them in wet shrubberies and made them feel...made them...
‘What a relief,’ he said finally. ‘I was about to scream for help.’ She glared at him. ‘However, I believe I have an apology to make.’
‘Oh? So you are sorry for that outrage in the shrubbery, are you?’ It was very hard to hang on to a sense of gratitude when the wretch stood there, the gleam in his eyes giving the lie to any hint of penitence in his voice.
‘I am sorry for coming to an incorrect conclusion about your intentions. I cannot be sorry for the kiss, for I enjoyed it too much.’
‘If that is intended to flatter, Mr Harker, it failed. I imagine you enjoy virtually any kisses you can snatch.’ She should turn on her heel and walk away, but it was impossible to leave him before she had made her indifference to him clear beyond any possible doubt. It was very strange—the last time she had felt this stubborn and light-headed had been after an incautious second glass of champagne on an empty stomach.
‘I do not find you in the slightest bit attractive and, even if I did, my upbringing and my personal standards would prevent me acting in any way that might hint at such foolishness,’ she stated, crossing her fingers tightly in the folds of her skirt. ‘If your delusions about your personal charms have suffered a correction, I can only be glad of it for the sake of other females you may encounter.’ It must be the effect of expressing her irritation so freely, but she was feeling positively feverish. Isobel shivered.
Instead of taking offence at her lecture, or even laughing at her, Harker took a step closer, his face serious. ‘Why are you not in your bed, Isobel?’
‘Because I do not need to mollycoddle myself. And grateful as I am to you for rescuing me, I did not give you the use of my name.’
‘If you desire to thank me for getting wet on your behalf, I wish you will let me use it. My name is Giles and I make you free of that,’ he said as he lifted one hand and laid the back of it against her cheek. ‘You are barely warm enough, Isobel. I am sorry for this morning, and last night. I have become...defensive about single ladies. I was wrong to include you with the flirts and, worse, upon no more evidence than a very frank stare and a willingness to stand up to me.’
Somehow his hand was still against her cheek, warm and strangely comforting, for all the quiver of awareness it sent through her. If her limbs felt so leaden that she could not move, or brush away his hand, then at least she could speak up for herself. ‘Surely you are not so vain as to believe that good looks make you somehow superior and irresistible to women? That every lady who studies your profile or the width of your shoulders desires you?’ Oh, why had she mentioned his shoulders? Now he knew she had been looking.