‘Thank you, ma’am, it suits me very well. Shall I meet you on the steps at that hour, Lady Isobel?’
‘Thank you,’ she said demurely and was rewarded by a flickering glance of amusement. Was she usually so astringent that this meekness seemed unnatural? She must take care not to think of this as an assignation, for it was nothing of the kind. Friendship, she reminded herself. That was what was safe and that, she had to believe, was what Giles appeared to be offering her.
‘Mama, I have been thinking,’ Lady Anne said. ‘With Cousin Isobel and Mr Harker here we might have enough actors to put on a play. We could ask the vicar’s nephews to help if we are short of men. Do say yes, it is so long since we did one.’
‘My dear, it is not fair to expect poor Mr Harker to add to his work by learning a part. He and Papa are quite busy enough.’
‘You have a theatre here, Cousin Elizabeth?’ Isobel asked, intrigued.
‘No, but we have improvised by hanging curtains between the pillars in the Gallery.’
‘That was where we had the premiere performance of Mama’s play The Court of Oberon,’ Lizzie interrupted eagerly. ‘And then it was printed and has been acted upon the London stage! Is that not grand?’
‘It is wonderful,’ Isobel agreed. Many families indulged in amateur dramatic performances, especially during house parties. She caught Giles’s eye and smiled: he looked appalled at the possibility of treading the boards.
‘Perhaps on another visit, Lizzie,’ the countess said. ‘I am writing another play, so perhaps we can act that one when it is finished.’
‘The post, my lord.’
‘And what a stack of it!’ The earl broke off a discussion with his son to view the laden salver his butler was proffering. ‘And I suppose you will say that all the business matters have already been dispatched to my office? Ah well, distribute it, if you please, Benson, and perhaps my pile will appear less forbidding.’
‘Feel free to read your correspondence,’ Lady Hardwicke said to her guests as her own and her daughters’ letters were laid by her plate.
After a few minutes Isobel glanced up from her mother’s recital of a very dull reception she had attended to see Giles working his way through half-a-dozen letters. He slit the seal on the last one and it seemed to her, as she watched him read, that his entire body tensed. But his face and voice were quite expressionless when he said, ‘Will you excuse me, Lady Hardwicke, ladies? There is something that requires my attention.’
Isobel returned to her own correspondence as he left the room. It was to be hoped that whatever it was did not mean he would have to miss their ride. She told herself it was not that important, that she could take a groom with her, that it was ridiculous to feel so concerned about it, but she found she could not deceive herself: she wanted to be alone with Giles again.
The earl departed to the steward’s office, Philip to his tutor and Cousin Elizabeth and Anne for a consultation with the dressmaker. Isobel followed behind them a little dreamily. Where would they ride this morning? Up to the folly and beyond, perhaps. Or—
‘Lady Isobel.’ Giles stepped out from the Yellow Drawing Room. ‘Will you come to the library?’
It was not a request; more, from his tone and his unsmiling face, an order. ‘I—’ A footman walked across the hallway and Isobel closed her lips on a sharp retort. Whatever the matter was, privacy was desirable. ‘Very well,’ she said coolly and followed him through the intervening chambers into the room that was one of the wonders of Wimpole Hall.
But the towering bookcases built decades ago to house Lord Harley’s fabled collection were no distraction from the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Isobel could not imagine what had so affected Giles, but the anger was radiating from him like heat from smouldering coals.
‘What is this autocratic summons for?’ she demanded, attacking first as he turned to face her.
‘I should have trusted my first impressions,’ Giles said. He propped one shoulder against the high library ladder and studied her with the same expression in his eyes as they had held when he had caught her staring at him in the hall. ‘But you really are a very good little actress, are you not? Perhaps you should take part in one of her ladyship’s dramas after all.’
‘No. I am not a good actress,’ Isobel snapped.
‘But you are the slut who broke up Lady Penelope Albright’s betrothal. You do not deny that?’ he asked with dangerous calm.
When she did not answer Giles glanced down at the letter he held in his right hand. ‘Penelope is in a complete nervous collapse because you were found rutting with Andrew White. But I assume you do not care about her feelings?’