‘And there I was imagining it renovated and turned into a little house. I love looking at houses,’ she confessed. ‘I think I must be a natural nest-builder.’ She could imagine herself, an almost-contented spinster, in a little house like this. But she would be alone with a cat, not with the sound of a child’s feet running towards her—
‘You found the painted room.’ He strolled past her and into the little chamber she had been examining. Isobel shook off the momentary stab of sadness and followed. She would not be a prude, she would simply ignore the subject matter of the tiny, intricate scenes that covered the mildewed walls. ‘The frescos are in the Etruscan style,’ he explained. ‘I think this room was intended for trysts, don’t you?’
‘Or as the ladies’ retiring room,’ Isobel suggested.
‘So prosaic! I hoped you would share my vision. Or perhaps you have examined the designs and are shocked.’
It rankled that he should think her unsophisticated enough to be shocked. ‘Your vision is of a history of illicit liaisons taking place here?’ Isobel queried, avoiding answering his question.
‘Do you not think it romantic?’ Giles leaned his shoulder against the mantel shelf and regarded her with one perfect eyebrow lifted.
‘Thwarted young lovers might be romantic, possibly, but I imagine you are suggesting adulterous affairs.’ She could easily imagine Giles Harker indulging in such a liaison. She could not believe that he was celibate, nor that he repulsed advances from fast widows or wives with complacent husbands, however much he might protest the need to keep young ladies at a safe distance.
‘Not necessarily. How about happily married couples coming here to be alone, away from the servants and the children, to eat a candlelit supper and rediscover the flirtations of their courtship?’
‘That is a charming thought indeed. You are a romantic after all, Mr Harker. Or a believer in marital bliss, perhaps.’ She kept her distance, over by the window where the February air crept through the cracks to cool her cheeks.
‘Giles. And why after all? An architect needs some romance in his soul, surely?’
‘Yesterday your views on the relationships between men and women seemed more practical than romantic.’ Isobel picked at a tendril of ivy that had insinuated itself between the window frame and the wall.
‘Merely self-preservation.’ Giles came to look out of the window beside her, pushing the shutter back on its one remaining hinge. ‘How is it that you have avoided the snare of matrimony, Isobel?’
Surprised and wary, she turned to look at him. ‘You regard matrimony as a snare for women as well as for men? The general view is that it must be our sole aim and ambition.’
‘If it is duty and not, at the very least, affection that motivates the match, then I imagine it is a snare. Or a kindly prison, perhaps.’
A kindly prison. He understood, or could imagine, what it might mean for a woman. The surprise loosened her tongue. ‘I was betrothed, for love, four years ago. He died.’
‘And now you wear the willow for him?’ There was no sympathy in the deep voice and his attention seemed to be fixed on a zigzagging crack in the wall. Oddly, that made it easier to confide.
‘I mourned Lucas for two years. I find it is possible to keep the memory of love, but I cannot stay in love with someone who is no longer there.’
‘So you would wed?’ He reached out and prodded at the crack. A lump of plaster fell out, exposing rough stone beneath.
‘If I found someone who could live up to Lucas, and he loved me, then yes, perhaps.’ He would have to love me very much indeed. ‘But I do not expect to be that fortunate twice in my life.’
‘I imagine that all your relatives say bracingly that of course you will find someone else if only you apply yourself.’
‘Exactly. You are beset with relatives also, by the sound of it.’
‘Just my mother and my grandfather.’
Which of those produced the rueful expression? she wondered. His mother, probably. He had described her as eccentric.
‘If this paragon does not materialise, what will you do then?’ Giles asked.
‘He does not have to be a paragon. I am not such a ninny as to expect to find one of those. They do not exist. I simply insist that I like him and he is neither a rakehell nor a prig and he does not mind that I have...a past.’
‘Paragons of manhood being fantastic beasts like wyverns and unicorns?’ That careless reference to her past seemed to have slipped his notice.
Isobel chuckled. ‘Exactly. I have decided that if no eligible gentleman makes me an offer I shall be an eccentric spinster or an Anglican nun. I incline towards the former option, for I enjoy my little luxuries.’