She held her bonnet against the breeze. ‘A lazy wind—it does not trouble itself to go around,’ she said. ‘Oh.’ The lakes spread out below them in the valley, chill and grey.
‘And there is the folly.’ Giles pointed to the tower on the opposite hill to bring her eyes up and away from the source of her apprehension. ‘Shall we go and look at it?’
If you fell off a horse, then the best thing was to get right back on, and the narrow bridge where the broken timbers showed pale, even at this distance, was her fall. ‘Of course, if you are too tired...’
Isobel’s chin went up. ‘Why not?’
They followed the path down into the stock ditch and through the gate in the fence at the bottom. Felix’s hoofprints from the previous day were clear in the turf. It had been a good jump, Giles thought as they climbed out at the other side.
Isobel was silent as they walked down the hillside towards the lake. Then, as the muddy patch where they had clawed their way out came in sight, she said, ‘I thought she had drowned. I thought I was not going to be able to save her. What if you had not heard us?’ The words tumbled out as though she could not control them and he saw her bite her lip to stem them. Her remembered fear seemed all for Lizzie, not for herself, and he recalled how she had cradled the child on the bank. For the first time it occurred to him that a single woman might mourn her lack of children as well as the absence of a husband.
‘Don’t,’ Giles said. ‘What-ifs are pointless. You did save her, you found her and hung on until I got there. Now run.’
She gasped as he caught her hand and sprinted down the last few yards of the slope, along the dam, on to the wooden bridge, its planks banging with the impact of their feet. Moorhens scattered, piping in alarm. A pair of ducks flew up and pigeons erupted from the trees above their heads in a flapping panic. Giles kept going, past the break in the rail and on to the grass on the other side.
He caught Isobel and steadied her as she stopped, gasping for breath. ‘You see? It is quite safe.’ Felix ambled in their wake.
‘You—you—’ Her bonnet was hanging down her back and she tugged at the strings and pulled it off. She was panting, torn between exasperation and laughter. ‘You idiot. Look at my hair!’
‘I am.’ The shining curls had slipped from their pins and tumbled down her back, glossy brown and glorious. Her greatest beauty, or perhaps as equally lovely as her eyes. Isobel stood there in the pale February sunlight, her face flushed with exertion and indignation, her hair dishevelled as though she had just risen from her bed, her breasts rising and falling with her heaving breath.
Kiss her, his body urged. Throw her over the saddle and gallop back to the Hill House and make love to her in the room made for passion. ‘You are unused to country walks, I can tell,’ he teased instead, snatching at safety, decency, some sort of control. ‘I will race you to the folly.’ And he took to his heels, going just fast enough, he calculated, for her to think she might catch him, despite the slope.
There was no sound of running feet behind him. So much the better—he could gain the summit and give himself time to subdue the surge of lust that had swept through him. Just because Isobel was intelligent and poised and stood up to him he could not, must not, lose sight of the fact that she was a virgin and not the young matron she often seemed to be.
The thud of hooves behind him made him turn so abruptly that his heel caught in a tussock and he twisted off balance and fell flat on his back. Isobel, perched side-saddle on Felix’s back, laughed down at him for a second as the gelding cantered past, taking the slope easily with the lighter weight in the saddle.
God, but she can ride, Giles thought, admiring the sight as she reached the top of the hill and reined in.
‘Are you hurt?’ Her look of triumph turned to concern when he stayed where he was, sprawled on the damp grass.
‘No, simply stunned by the sight of an Amazon at full gallop.’ He got to his feet and walked up to join her. ‘How did you get up there?’ She had her left foot in the stirrup and her right leg hooked over the pommel. Her hands were light on the reins and she showed no fear of the big horse. Her walking dress revealed a few inches of stockinged leg above the sturdy little boot and he kept his gaze firmly fixed on her face framed by the loose hair.
‘There’s a tree stump down by the fence. Felix obviously thought someone should be riding him, even if his master was capering about like a mad March hare.’
‘Traitor,’ Giles said to his horse, who butted him affectionately in the stomach. ‘Would you care to explore the folly, Isobel?’