She sent an interested, curious glance at the building, then shook her head. ‘We had better go back or we will be late for luncheon, will we not? Perhaps I can look at it tomorrow.’
Pleasure warred with temptation. They could be together safely, surely? He had self-control and familiarity would soon enough quench the stabs of desire that kept assailing him. It was too long since he had parted with his last mistress, that was all that ailed him. The challenge to make Isobel smile, make her trust him, was too great.
‘I am not too busy to walk with you. Or we could ride if you prefer?’
‘Oh, yes. If only it does not rain. I had better get down.’ She lifted her leg from the pommel and simply slid, trusting him to catch her. Obviously his dangerous thoughts were not visible on his face. Her waist was slender between his hands. He felt the slide of woollen cloth over silk and cotton, the light boning of her stays, and set her down with care.
It took him a minute to find his voice again, or even think of something to say. ‘What have you done with your bonnet, you hoyden?’ Giles asked halfway down the hill as they walked back towards the lake. Isobel pointed to where the sensible brown-velvet hat hung on a branch beside the path. ‘And what are you going to say to Lady Hardwicke about your hair if she sees you?’
‘Why, the truth, of course.’ Isobel sent him a frowning look. ‘Why should I not? Nothing happened. We ran, my bonnet blew off, my hair came down. It is not as though we are in Hyde Park. Or do you think she will blame you in some way?’
‘No, of course not. She trusts you, of course—she would suspect no impropriety.’ Now why did that make her prim up her lips and blush?
‘Exactly,’ Isobel said, her voice flat. But when they reached the garden gate and Giles turned to walk Felix back to the stables, she caught his sleeve. ‘Thank you for chasing my nerves away at the bridge.’
‘That is what friends do,’ he said. That was it, of course: friendship. It was novel to be friends with an unmarried woman but that was surely what this ease he felt with Isobel meant.
She smiled at him, a little uncertain. He thought he glimpsed those shadows and ghosts in her eyes still, then she opened the garden gate and walked away between the low box hedges.
* * *
A friend. Isobel was warmed by the thought as she walked downstairs for breakfast the next morning. It had never occurred to her that she might be friends with a man, and certainly Mama would have the vapours if she realised that her daughter was thinking of an architect born on the wrong side of the blanket in those terms.
But it was good to see behind the supercilious mask Giles Harker wore to guard himself. After a few minutes as they walked and talked she had quite forgotten how handsome he was and saw only an intelligent man who was kind enough to sense her fears and help her overcome them. A man who could laugh at himself and trust a stranger with his secrets. She wished she could share hers—he of all men would understand, surely.
He was dangerous, of course, and infuriating and she was not certain she could trust him. Or perhaps it was herself she could not trust.
Giles was at the table when she came in, sitting with the earl and countess, Anne and Philip. The men stood as she entered and she wished everyone a good morning as the footman held her chair for her.
‘Good morning.’ Giles’s long look had a smile lurking in it that said, far more clearly than his conventional greeting, that he was happy to see her.
The morning was fine, although without yesterday’s sunshine. They could ride. Isobel did not pretend to herself that she did not understand why the prospect of something she did almost every day at home should give her such keen pleasure. Perhaps she felt drawn to him because Giles was of her world but not quite in it, someone set a little apart, just as she was by her disgrace. She wanted to like him and to trust him. Could she trust her own judgement?
‘Might I ride today, Cousin Elizabeth?’
‘This morning? Of course. You may take my mare, she will be glad of the exercise. I have been so involved with the endless correspondence that this change in our life seems to be producing that I have sadly neglected her. And it is not as though my daughters enjoy riding, is it, my loves?’
A heartfelt chorus of ‘No, Mama!’ made the countess laugh. ‘One of the grooms will accompany you, Isobel.’
Isobel caught Giles’s eye. ‘I...that is, Mr Harker is riding out this morning, ma’am, I believe. I thought perhaps...’
She feared the countess would still require a groom as escort, but she nodded approval. ‘I will have Firefly brought round at ten, if that suits Mr Harker?’