Isobel felt the colour mount in her cheeks. No wonder he was wary of female attention. If his mother was notorious, then he, with his looks, would be irresistible to the foolish girls who wanted adventure or a dangerous flirtation. Giles Harker was the most tempting kind of forbidden fruit.
‘Of course,’ she said steadily, determined not to be missish. ‘You are not at all eligible. I can quite see that might make for some...awkwardness at times. It will be difficult for you to find a suitable bride, I imagine.’
‘Again, you see very clearly. I cannot marry within society. If I wed the daughter of a Cit or some country squire, then she will not be accepted in the circles in which I am tolerated now. There is a careful balance to be struck in homes such as this—and I spend a lot of my time in aristocratic households. We all pretend I am a gentleman. A wife who is not from the same world will not fit in, will spoil the illusion.’
‘It will be easier as your practice grows and your wealth with it.’ Isobel bit her lip as she pondered the problem. ‘You could wed the daughter of another successful professional man, one who has the education and upbringing to fit in as you do.’
Giles stopped in the act of rapping a handful of papers on the desk to align them. Isobel’s reaction to his parentage was undeniably startling—it was almost as though she understood and sympathised. ‘Do you plot all your friends’ lives so carefully for them? Set them all to partners?’
‘Of course not. It is just that you are a rather different case. Unusual.’ She put her head on one side and contemplated him as though trying to decide where to place an exotic plant in a flower border or a new ornament on a shelf. ‘I would never dream of actually matchmaking.’
‘Why not? It seems to be a popular female preoccupation.’
Now, why that tight-lipped look again, this time accompanied by colour on her cheekbones? ‘Marriage is enough of a lottery as it is, without one’s acquaintances interfering in it for amusement or mischief,’ she said with a tartness that seemed entirely genuine.
‘You are the victim of that?’ Giles stuffed his papers into the saddlebag he had brought up with him.
‘Oh, yes, of course. I am single and dangerously close to dwindling into a spinster. It is the duty of every right-thinking lady of my acquaintance to find me a husband.’
There was something more than irritation over being the target of well-meaning matchmaking, although he could not put his finger on what it was. Anger, certainly, but beneath that he sensed a deep unhappiness that Isobel was too proud to show.
‘Ah, well,’ Giles said peaceably, ‘we are both safe here, it seems. The Yorke girls are well behaved and well chaperoned and there are no eligible gentlemen for the countess to foist upon you.’
‘Thank goodness,’ Isobel said with real feeling. ‘But I am disturbing you when you have work to do. I will go on with my walk now I have admired the view from up here.’
‘I do not mind being disturbed.’ He thought he had kept the double meaning out of his voice—he was finding her unaccountably disturbing on a number of levels—but she bit her lower lip as though she was controlling a sharp retort. Or just possibly a smile, although she turned abruptly before he could be quite certain. ‘Where are you going to go now?’
‘I do not know.’ Isobel stood looking out of the window.
‘The avenue running north from here is pleasant. It skirts the wood.’
‘And leads to the lake.’
‘That frightens you?’
‘No. No, of course not.’ The denial was a little too emphatic.
‘Then you did not dream?’ Giles buckled the saddlebag, threw it over his shoulder, picked up his hat and gloves and watched her.
‘No...yes. Possibly. I do not recall.’
‘I will come with you,’ he said. ‘I have been sitting too long.’
‘But your horse—’
‘I will lead him. Come and see the best view of the Gothic folly.’
Isobel followed him down the stairs and out into the sunshine, allowed him to take her hand as they negotiated the mud and then retrieved it as she fell in beside him. They walked beneath the bare branches of the avenue, Felix plodding along behind them, the reins knotted on his neck, the thin February sunlight filtering through the twigs.
Afterwards Giles found it difficult to recall just what they talked about on that walk. His memories seemed to consist only of the woman he was with. Isobel seemed to be interested in everything: the deer grazing in the park, the lichen on the tree trunks, the view of the roofs of the Hall, complex and interlocking, the reason why he had named his horse as he had and what an architect must learn. He made her laugh, he could recall that. She stretched his knowledge of botany with her questions and completed his verse when he quoted Shakespeare. But under it all there was still a distance, a wariness. She was no fool, she knew she was playing with fire being with him, but it seemed, just now, as if she was suspending judgement.