‘Excellent, my lady. There’s very fine prospects indeed. I’d go round the house that way if I was you.’ He pointed. ‘Don’t be afeared of the cattle, they’re shy beasts.’
Isobel nodded her thanks and made for the avenue of trees that ran uphill due west from the house. At the first rise she paused and looked back over the house and the formal gardens.
Why, she wondered, had Cousin Elizabeth made a point of mentioning where Giles Harker would be that morning? Surely she did not suspect that anything had transpired between them beyond his gallant rescue?
And what had happened? Gi...Mr Harker seemed to accept that she was not some airheaded flirt. She was, she supposed, prepared to believe that he suffered from an irritating persecution by women intent on some sort of relationship with a man of uncannily good looks. But that kiss in the shrubbery, the look in his eyes as they stood at the door of his room, those moments made her uneasily aware that she could not trust him and nor could she trust herself. He was a virile, attractive male and her body seemed to want to pay no attention whatsoever to her common sense.
There was something else, too, she pondered as she turned and strode on up the hill, her sturdy boots giving her confidence over the tussocky grass. There was another man behind both the social facade and the mocking rake, she was sure. He had a secret perhaps, a source of discomfort, if not pain.
Isobel shook her head and looked around as she reached the top of the avenue and the fringe of woodland. The less she thought about Giles Harker the better and she had no right to probe another’s privacy. She knew what it was to hold a secret tight and to fear its discovery.
To her right was an avenue along the crest, leading to the lake and, beyond it, she could see the tower of the folly. To her left the view opened out beyond the park, south into Hertfordshire across the Cambridge road. A stone wall showed through a small copse. She began to walk towards it, then saw that it was the building she had noticed from the chaise when she had first arrived. As she came closer to the grove of trees it revealed itself as a miniature house with a projecting central section and a window on either side.
It was set perfectly to command the view, she realised, but as she got closer she saw it was crumbling into decay, although not quite into ruin. Slates had slipped, windows were broken, nettles and brambles threatened the small service buildings tucked in beside it.
Isobel walked round to the front and studied the structure. There was a pillared portico held up by wooden props, a broken-down fence and sagging shutters at the windows. The ground around it was trampled and muddy and mired with droppings and the prints of cloven hooves.
And through the mud there were the clear prints of a horse’s hooves leading to where a rope dangled from a shutter hinge: a makeshift hitching post.
Giles Harker’s horse? Why would he come to such a sad little building? Perhaps he was as intrigued by it as she was, for it had a lingering romance about it, a glamour, as though it was a beautiful, elegant woman fallen on hard times, perhaps because of age and indiscretion, but still retaining glimpses of the charms of her youth.
But he was not here now, so it was quite safe to explore. Isobel lifted her skirts and found her way from tussock to tussock through the mud until she reached the steps. Perhaps it was locked. But, no, the door creaked open on to a lobby. The marks of booted feet showed in the dust on the floor. Large masculine footprints. Giles.
With the delicious sensation of illicit exploration and a frisson of apprehension that she was about to discover Bluebeard’s chamber, Isobel opened the door to her right and found the somewhat sordid wreckage of a small kitchen. The middle door opened on to a loggia with a view of the wood behind the building and the door to the left revealed a staircase. The footprints led upwards and she followed, her steps echoing on the stone treads. The door at the top was closed, but when she turned the handle it opened with a creak eerie enough to satisfy the most romantic of imaginings.
Half amused at her own fears, Isobel peeped round the door to find a large chamber lit patchily by whatever sunshine found its way through the cracked and half-open shutters.
It was empty except for a wooden chair and a table with a pile of papers and an ink stand. No mysterious chests, no murdered brides. Really, from the point of view of Gothic horrors it was a sad disappointment. Isobel cast the papers a curious glance, told herself off for wanting to pry and opened the door on the far wall.
‘Oh!’ The room was tiny and painted with frescoes that still adhered to the cobwebbed walls. A day-bed, its silken draperies in tatters, stood against the wall. ‘A love nest.’ She had never seen such a thing, but this intimate little chamber must surely be one. Isobel went in, let the door close behind her with a click and began to investigate the frescoes. ‘Oh, my goodness.’ Yes, the purpose of this room was most certainly clear from these faded images. She should leave at once, they were making her feel positively warm and flustered, but they were so pretty, so intriguing despite their indecent subject matter...