Page 22 of Rumors

He opened the door and looked out. ‘It is safe to leave.’

‘Thank you,’ Isobel murmured and brushed past him without meeting his eyes.

That was, of course, the best possible outcome. All he had to do now was to maintain a civil distance. He could only hope he was imagining the expression in her eyes and that he could ignore the nagging instinct that he should be protecting her from whatever it was that caused it.

* * *

‘You’re not having anything to do with that man, are you, my lady?’ Dorothy set the breakfast tray across Isobel’s lap with unnecessary firmness. ‘You go vanishing goodness knows where yesterday when you should have been resting and I worry you were with him. He’s too good looking for any woman to be around—it shouldn’t be allowed. You can’t trust any of them—men—he knows you’re grateful for him saving you and the next thing you know he’ll be—’

‘I told you, I had a nap in one of the other rooms, Dorothy.’ Isobel made rather a business of wriggling up against the pillows and setting the tray straight on her knees. ‘Will you please stop nagging about it?’

‘What your sainted mama would say if she knew, I do not know.’

‘And how could you?’ Isobel said between gritted teeth. ‘There is nothing to know.’

‘He’s no good, that one. He’s not a gentleman, despite all those fine clothes and that voice,’ Dorothy pronounced as she bustled about, tidying the dressing table. ‘They don’t say much in front of me in the servants’ hall, me being from outside, but I can tell that there’s something fishy about him.’

‘Dorothy, if Lady Hardwicke trusts Mr Harker sufficiently to entertain him in her own home, with her daughters here, I really do not feel it is your place to question her judgement.’

‘No, my lady.’

‘And one more sniff of disapproval out of you and you can go straight back to London.’

Silenced, the maid flounced out, then stopped to bob a curtsy in the doorway.

‘May I come in?’ Cousin Elizabeth looked round the door and smiled when she saw Isobel was eating. ‘It seems everyone is much recovered this morning, although I have forbidden Lizzie to leave her room today.’

‘How is she?’ Isobel’s sleep had been disturbed by vivid dreams of loss, of empty arms and empty heart. She felt her arms move instinctively as though to cradle a child and fussed with the covers instead.

‘She is fine, although a trifle overexcited. What would you like to do, my dear? Stay in bed? I can bring you some books and journals.’

The sun was pouring through the window with a clarity that promised little warmth, but exhilarating views. ‘I thought I might take another walk, Cousin Elizabeth. If you do not require me to assist you with anything, that is. Perhaps Anne or Philip might join me?’

‘Of course, you may go and enjoy this lovely weather, just as long as you do not overtire yourself.’ She looked out of the window and nodded, as though she could understand Isobel’s desire to be outside. ‘Philip would join you, but his father has sent him to his studies—his tutor’s report on his Latin was very unsatisfactory, poor boy. And Anne has fittings with the dressmaker all morning—I declare she has not a single thing fit to wear for her come-out.’

‘Never mind. I do not mind exploring by myself,’ Isobel said. ‘It is such a sunny day and who knows how long the weather will hold at this time of year.’

‘Do you want me to send one of the footmen to go with you?’

‘Goodness, no, thank you. I will probably dawdle about looking at the view and drive the poor man to distraction.’

The countess smiled. ‘As you wish. The park is quite safe—other than the lake! Mr Harker and my husband will be in a meeting this morning.’ She delivered this apparent non sequitur with a vague smile. ‘And now I fear I must go and have a long interview with the housekeeper about the state of the servants’ bed linen. Do not tire yourself, Isobel.’

* * *

Isobel came down the front steps an hour later, then stopped to pull on her gloves and decide which way to go.

Over to her left she could glimpse the church with the stables in front of it. Time enough for viewing the family monuments on Sunday. A middle-aged groom with a face like well-tanned leather came out from the yard and touched his finger to his hat brim.

‘Roberts, my lady,’ he introduced himself. ‘May I be of any assistance?’

‘I was trying to decide which way to walk, Roberts.’ Isobel surveyed the long avenue stretching south. It would make a marvellous gallop, but would not be very scenic for a walk. The park to the north, towards the lake, she did not feel she could face, not quite yet. To the east the ground was relatively flat and wooded, but to the west of the house it rose in a promising manner. ‘That way, I think. Is there a good view from up there?’

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