Giles laughed, a crow of laughter. ‘I should think so! You? A nun?’
‘I was speaking in jest.’ How attractive he was when he laughed, his handsome head thrown back, emphasising the strong line of his throat, the way his eyes crinkled in amusement. Isobel found herself smiling. Slowly she was beginning to see beyond the perfect looks and the outrageous tongue and catch glimpses of what might be the real man hiding behind them.
There was that suspicion about secrets again. What would he be hiding? Or was it simply that his faultless face made him more difficult to read than a plainer man might be? ‘I thought about a convent the other day when I was reflecting on just how unsatisfactory the male sex can be.’
‘We are?’ He was still amused, but, somehow he was not laughing at her, but sharing her whimsy.
‘You must know perfectly well how infuriating men are from a female point of view,’ Isobel said with severity, picking up the trailing skirts of her riding habit to keep them out of the thick dust as she went to examine one of the better-preserved panels more closely. Surely they could not all be so suggestive? It seemed they could. Was it possible that one could do that in a bath without drowning?
‘You have all the power and most of the fun in life,’ she said, dragging her attention back from the erotic scene. After a moment, when he did not deny it, she added, ‘Why is the thought of my being a nun so amusing?’
Giles’s mouth twitched, but he did not answer her, so she said the first thing that came into her head, flustered a little by the glint in his eyes. ‘I am amazed that the countess allows this room to be unlocked. What if the girls came in here?’
‘The whole building has been locked up for years. Lady Hardwicke told the children that they were not to disturb me here and I have no doubt that her word is law.’
‘I think it must be, although she is a very gentle dictator. So—will you recommend that the place is restored?’
‘I do not think so.’ Giles shook his head. ‘It was badly built in the first place and then neglected for too long. But I am working up the costing for the earl so he has a fair comparison to set against Repton’s ambitious schemes.’
‘But that would be such a pity—and you like the place, do you not?’
‘It is not my money. My job is to give the earl a professional opinion. I am not an amateur, Isobel. I am a professional, called in like the doctor or the lawyer to deliver the hard truths.’
‘But surely you are different? You are, after all, a gentleman—’
Giles turned on his heel and faced her, his expression mocking. ‘Do you recall what you called me when I kissed you?’
‘A...bastard,’ she faltered, ashamed. She should never had said it. It was a word she had never used in cold blood. A word she loathed.
‘And that is exactly, and precisely, what I am. Not a gentleman at all.’
‘But you are,’ Isobel protested. He was born out of wedlock? ‘You speak like a gentleman, you dress like one, your manner in society, your education—’
‘I was brought up as one, certainly,’ Giles agreed. He did not appear at all embarrassed about discussing his parentage. Isobel had never heard illegitimacy mentioned in anything but hushed whispers as a deep shame. How could he be so open about it? ‘But my father was a common soldier, my grandfather a head gardener.’
‘Then how on earth...? Oh.’ Light dawned. His eccentric mother. ‘Your mother?’ His mother had kept him. What courage that must have taken. What love. Isobel bit her lip.
‘My mother is the Dowager Marchioness of Faversham.’ Isobel felt her jaw drop and closed her mouth. An aristocratic lady openly keeping a love child? It was unheard of. ‘She scorns convention and gossip and the opinion of the world. She has gone her own way and she took her son with her.’ He strolled back into the large chamber and began to gather up the papers on the table.
‘Until you left university,’ Isobel stated, suddenly sure. A wealthy dowager would have the money and the power, perhaps, to insist on keeping her baby. Not everyone had that choice, she told herself. Sometimes there was none. ‘She did not want you to study a profession, did she?’ She made herself focus on the man in front of her and his situation. ‘That was when you went your own way.’
‘Perceptive of you. She expected me to enliven society, just as she does.’ He shrugged. ‘I am accepted widely—I know most of the men of my age from school and university, after all. I am not received at Court, of course, and not in the homes of the starchier matrons with marriageable girls on their hands.’