It was too late to back away now: the carriage door was opened, a footman offered his arm. Isobel put back her shoulders, told herself that the shivers running down her spine were due entirely to the February chill and walked up the steps with a smile on her lips.
‘My dear Isobel! The cold has put roses in your cheeks—let me kiss you.’ The entrance hall seemed full of people, but Lady Hardwicke’s warm voice was an instant tonic, lifting spirits and nerve. ‘What a perfectly ghastly day, yet you have made such good time!’
Caught before she could curtsy, Isobel returned the embrace wholeheartedly. ‘Thank you, ma’am. It was an uneventful journey, but it is a great relief to be here, I must confess.’
‘Now please do not ma’am me. Call me Cousin Elizabeth, for we are related, you know, although rather vaguely on your mother’s side, it is true. Come and greet my lord. You are old friends, I think.’
‘My lord.’ This time she did manage her curtsy to the slender man with the big dark eyes and earnest, intelligent face. Philip Yorke was in his mid-forties, she recalled, but his eager expression made him look younger.
‘Welcome to Wimpole, my dear Isobel.’ He caught her hands and smiled at her. ‘What a charming young woman you have grown into, to be sure. Is it really four years since I last saw you?’
‘Yes, sir. After Lucas...after Lord Needham’s funeral.’ As soon as she said it Isobel could have bitten her tongue. Her host’s face clouded with embarrassment at having reminded her of the death of her fiancé and she hurried into speech. ‘It is delightful to meet you again in happy circumstances—may I congratulate you upon your appointment to the lieutenancy?’
He smiled in acknowledgement of her tact. ‘Thank you, my dear. A great honour that I can only hope to be worthy of.’ Behind him one of the two men standing beside the butler shifted slightly. ‘You must allow me to introduce our other guests.’ The earl turned to motion them forwards. ‘Mr Soane, who is doing such fine work on the house for us, and Mr Harker, who is also an architect and who is assisting in some of Mr Soane’s schemes for improvements in the grounds. Gentlemen, Lady Isobel Jervis, the daughter of my old friend the Earl of Bythorn.’
‘My lady.’ They bowed as one. Isobel was fairly certain that she had shut her mouth again by the time they had straightened up. Mr Soane was in his late forties, dark, long-faced and long-chinned, his looks distinctive rather than handsome. But Mr Harker was, without doubt, the most beautiful man she had ever set eyes upon.
Not that she had any time for handsome bucks these days, but even a woman who had vowed to spurn the male sex for ever would have had her resolution shaken by the appearance of this man. He was, quite simply, perfection, unless one would accept only blond hair as signifying true male beauty. His frame was tall, muscular and elegantly proportioned. His rich golden-brown hair was thick with a slight wave, a trifle overlong. His features were chiselled and classical and his eyes were green—somewhere, Isobel thought with a wild plunge into the poetic, between shadowed sea and a forest glade.
It was preposterous for any man to look like that, she decided while the three of them exchanged murmured greetings. It was superfluous to be quite so handsome in every feature. There must be something wrong with him. Perhaps he was unintelligent—but then, the earl would not employ him and Mr Soane, who had a considerable reputation to maintain and who had worked for the earl at Hammels Park before he succeeded to the title, would not associate with him. Perhaps he was socially inept, or effeminate or had a high squeaky voice or bad teeth or a wet handshake...
‘Lady Isobel,’ he said, in a voice that made her think of honey and with a smile that revealed perfect teeth. He took her hand in a brief, firm handshake.
Perfection there as well. Isobel swallowed hard, shocked by the sudden pulse of attraction she felt when she looked at him. A purely physical reflex, of course—she was a woman and not made of stone. He would be a bore, that was it. He would talk for hours at meals about breeding spaniels or the importance of drainage or the lesser-known features of the night sky or toadstools.
But the perfect smile had not reached his eyes and the flexible, deep voice had held no warmth. Was he shy, perhaps?
The two architects drew back as the countess gave instructions to the butler and the earl asked for details of her journey. Isobel realised she could study Mr Harker’s profile in a long mirror hanging on the wall as they chatted. What on earth must it be like to be so good looking? It was not a problem that she had, for while she knew herself to be tolerably attractive—elegant and charming were the usual words employed to describe her—she was no great beauty. She studied him critically, wondering where his faults and weaknesses were hidden.