Then she saw that the remarkable green eyes were fixed and followed the direction of his gaze, straight to her own reflection in the glazing of a picture. She had been staring at Mr Harker in the most forward manner and he had been observing her do it.
Slowly she made the slight turn that allowed her to face him. Their gazes locked again as she felt a wave of complex emotion sweep through her. Physical attraction, certainly, but curiosity and a strange sense of recognition also. His eyes, so hypnotically deep and green, held an awareness, a question and, mysteriously, a darkness that tugged at her heart. Loneliness? Sadness? The thought flickered through her mind in a fraction of a second before they both blinked and she dismissed the fancy and was back with the social faux pas of having been caught blatantly staring at a man. A man who had been staring at her.
The polished boards did not, of course, open up and swallow her. Isobel fought the blush that was rising to her cheeks with every ounce of willpower at her disposal and attempted a faint smile. They were both adult enough to pass this off with tolerable composure. She expected to see in return either masculine smugness coupled with flirtation or a rueful acknowledgement that they had both been caught out staring. What she did not expect was to see those complex and haunting emotions she had observed a moment earlier turn to unmistakable froideur.
The expression on Mr Harker’s face was not simply haughty, it was cold and dismissive. There was the faintest trace of a sneer about that well-shaped mouth. She was no doubt intended to feel like a silly little chit making cow’s eyes at a handsome man.
Well, she was no such thing. Isobel lifted her chin and returned his look with one of frigid disdain. Insufferable arrogance! She had hardly been in the house five minutes, they had exchanged a handful of words and already he had taken a dislike to her. She did not know him from Adam—who was he to look at her in that way? Did he think that good looks gave him godlike superiority and that she was beneath him? He no doubt produced an eyeglass and studied women who interested him without the slightest hesitation.
‘Shall we go up?’
‘Of course, ma’am...Cousin Elizabeth,’ Isobel said with the warmest smile she could conjure up. ‘Gentlemen.’ She nodded to the earl and Mr Soane who were in conversation, ignored Mr Harker, and followed her hostess through into the inner hall and up the wide staircase.
That snub on top of everything else felt painfully unjust. What was wrong with her that men should treat her so? Isobel stumbled on the first step and took herself to task. She had done nothing to deserve it—they were simply unable to accept that a lady might not consider them utterly perfect in every way.
There was a faint odour of paint and fresh plaster in the air and she glanced around her as they climbed. ‘Mr Soane has done a great deal of work for us, including changes to this staircase,’ the countess remarked as they reached the first-floor landing. She did not appear to notice that her guest was distracted, or perhaps she thought her merely tired from the journey. ‘There was a window on the half landing on to an inner court and that is now filled in and occupied with my husband’s plunge bath, so Mr Soane created that wonderful skylight.’ She gestured upwards past pillared balconies to a view of grey scudding clouds. They passed through double doors into a lobby and left again into a room with a handsome Venetian window giving a panoramic view across the park.
‘This is your sitting room. The view is very fine when the sun shines—right down the great southern avenue.’ Lady Hardwicke turned, regarding the room with a smile that was almost rueful. ‘This was one end of a long gallery running from back to front until Mr Soane put the Yellow Drawing Room into what was a courtyard and then, of course, the upstairs had to be remodelled. We seem to have lived with the builders for years.’
She sighed and looked around her. ‘We had just got Hammels Park as we wanted it and then Philly’s uncle died and he inherited the title and we had to start all over again here ten years ago.’
‘But it is delightful.’ Lured by sounds from next door, Isobel looked in and found that her pretty bedchamber had an identical prospect southwards.
Dorothy bobbed a curtsy as they entered and scurried through a door on the far side to carry on unpacking. Isobel saw her evening slippers already set by the fire to warm and her nightgown laid out at the foot of the bed.
‘Catherine, Anne and Philip will have been sorry not to be here to greet you.’ The countess moved about the room, shifting the little vase of evergreens on the mantelpiece so it reflected better in the overmantel mirror and checking the titles of the books laid out beside the bed. ‘We did not expect you to make such good time in this weather so they went out after luncheon to call on their old governess in Royston.’