The unmistakable creak of the door in the next room jerked Isobel out of a bemused contemplation of two satyrs and a nymph engaged in quite outrageous behaviour in a woodland glade. She had heard nothing—no sound of hooves approaching the building, no footsteps on the stairs. The wind perhaps...but there had been no wind as she walked up the hill. The consciousness that she was not alone lifted the hairs on the nape of her neck.
‘I know you are in there, Isobel.’ Giles Harker’s sardonically amused voice made her gasp with relief, even as she despised herself for her nerves and him for his impudence.
‘How did you know?’ she demanded as she flung the door wide.
He was standing hatless in the middle of the room in buckskins and breeches, his whip and gloves in one hand, looking for all the world like an artist’s model for the picture of the perfect English country gentleman. He extended one hand and pointed at the trail of small footprints that led across the room to the doorway where she stood.
Isobel experienced a momentary flicker of relief that she had resisted the temptation to investigate what was on the table. ‘Good morning, Mr Harker. I came up here for the view, but I will not disturb you.’
‘I thought we were on first-name terms, Isobel. And I am happy to be disturbed.’ Was there the slightest emphasis on disturbed? She eyed him warily. ‘It is an interesting building, even in this sorry state. Whether I can save it, or even if I should, I do not yet know.’
So this was what he was about, the rescue of this poor wreck. ‘It is charming. It is sad to see it like this.’
‘It was built as a prospect house and somehow was never used very much for forty years. Soane had suggestions for it some time ago, Humphrey Repton countered with even more ambitious ones. His lordship points out that it cost fifteen-hundred pounds to build, so hopes that I, with no previous experience of the place, will tell him what can be done that will not cost a further fifteen-hundred pounds.’ He smiled suddenly and she caught her breath. ‘Now what is it that puts that quizzical expression on your face?’
‘It is the first time I have heard you sound like an architect.’
‘You thought me a mere dilettante?’ The handsome face froze into pretended offence and Isobel felt the wariness that held her poised for flight ebb away as she laughed at his play-acting. Surely he was safe to be with? After all, he had let her sleep untouched when she was at her most vulnerable yesterday and the moment when they had stood so close and she had thought he was about to kiss her had been as much her own fault as his. But it had troubled her sleep more than a little, that moment of intimacy, the sensual expertise she knew lay behind the facade of control.
‘I knew Mr Soane would not associate with you, nor the earl employ you, if that was so. But you are the perfect pattern of the society gentleman for all that. You should not object if that is all you are taken for.’
‘Appearances are deceptive indeed. You should look out for the glint of copper beneath the plating when you think you are buying solid silver,’ he said with an edge to his voice that belied the curve of his lips. He turned to the table before she could think of what to reply. ‘You are that impossibility, it seems—a woman without curiosity.’
‘Your papers? Of course I was curious, but curiosity does not have to be gratified if it would be wrong to do so.’
‘Even if these are simply sketches and elevations?’
‘For all I knew they might be the outpouring of your feelings in verse or love letters from your betrothed or even your personal accounts.’
‘I fear I am no poet and there is no letter from a patient betrothed, nor even—do not think I cannot read that wicked twinkle in your eyes, Isobel—billets-doux from females of quite another kind.’
‘I have no idea what you are talking about,’ she said repressively. ‘Tell me about this house. Or is it not a house?’
‘A prospect house is a decoration for a view point, not for living in. As was fashionable when it was built, this room was designed as a banqueting chamber. It is rather splendid.’ He swept a hand around the space which was perhaps twenty feet square. ‘Repton’s plans would make this open for picnics. He proposed moving the pillars up from the front portico to frame the opening and turning the ground floor into an estate worker’s cottage.’
‘Oh, no.’ Isobel looked around her at the wide fireplace and the walls that had once been painted to resemble green marble. ‘I love this as it is. Could it not be repaired?’
‘I share your liking. But I fear the initial building was so poorly done that repair or alteration may be a positive money pit for the earl.’