‘How mysterious! Or perhaps you are simply missing your mistress.’
‘No.’ He made himself smile at the jibe. ‘It is a secret, but I will tell you when I get back.’ He would have to do that, for she needed to know that the insult and the calumny had been answered. Giles lifted a hand to touch her cheek, pale and sweetly curved, but she flinched away as though she feared even that caress.
He wanted to protect her, needed to possess her. It seemed his wants might be satisfied, but never his needs. Nor should they be, of course, he thought with a stab of regret.
Behind them the library doors opened and he let his hand fall away as Isobel pretended a renewed interest in the globe.
‘Ah! There you are, Harker.’
‘Excuse me, Isobel my dear—a matter of urgent business.’
‘But of course. I hope your journey to London is uneventful, Mr Harker.’ Isobel smiled politely and turned from him. ‘I will see if they can spare me a groom—the morning is too fine to waste the opportunity of a ride.’
In the silence that followed the swish of her skirts through the door the earl strode across the room and half sat on the edge of the big desk.
‘London? I need you here, Harker. My steward tells me that my banker is due the day after tomorrow to discuss how the financial affairs of the estate will be handled in my absence in Ireland. I need to confirm the figures Soane left with me for the further building work and to make a final decision on the Hill House and the other matters you were looking into for me. I must have the funds and authorities in place to allow matters to proceed without my agents having to endlessly send to Dublin for my agreement on every detail.’
‘I will be back by then, my lord.’ He could be in London by that night, have a day to do what he had to do and a day at most to travel back. ‘I assure you of it.’
‘You are certain? You will forgive me if I press you, but it would be extremely inconvenient if this were delayed and Delapoole had to return to town.’
‘My word upon it, my lord.’
‘Excellent. I will let you get on then. Safe journey, Harker.’
* * *
Giles walked up the steps into Brookes’s, one hand unobtrusively under Lord James Albright’s elbow. It was all the guidance his friend needed, other than a murmured word now and again to help him orientate himself in the blurred world he refused to allow to defeat him.
‘Good evening, my lord, Mr Harker.’ The porter came forwards for their hats and canes.
‘Evening, Hitchin. Lord Andrew White in?’
‘Yes, my lord. He is in the library with Mr Wrenne and Lord Halton, I believe.’
‘Excellent,’ James remarked as they made their way down the corridor. ‘Three birds with one stone. I’ve never felt so helpless before—I wish I could get my hands on that swine White myself.’
‘I’ll hold him for you,’ Giles offered with a grin as he opened the library door. The room was empty except for the three men lounging in deep leather armchairs by the fireside. They looked round as the friends entered and Giles saw the mixture of wariness and defiance on White’s face when he realised who his companion was.
He guided James’s hand to rest on the back of a chair, then walked across. The three got to their feet to face him. ‘Harker. Do they let you in here? I thought this was a club for gentlemen.’
‘Quite patently it is not,’ Giles countered. ‘They appear to have admitted the three of you and you are lying scum who think nothing of assaulting a lady and blackening her reputation. Or perhaps you crawled in here through the sewers like rats?’
‘Wrenne, be so kind as to pull the bell, will you?’ White drawled, but Giles could see the wariness in his eyes. The beginning of fear. ‘Get a porter to throw out this bastard.’
‘And what about me?’ James asked. ‘Do you expect the porters to expel two club members on no grounds whatsoever?’
‘This is damned awkward, Albright.’ White’s bluff tone was at odds with the look of dislike he shot at James. ‘Your sister took exception to a situation that was completely misinterpreted, made a scene, accused me of lord knows what, broke off the engagement— If I had been permitted to come and explain at the time, this could all have been put behind us.’
‘You could hardly blame Penelope for her reaction,’ Albright said with dangerous calm. ‘You were found in another woman’s bedchamber.’
‘All a bit of fun that got out of hand. If Penelope had been a bit more sophisticated about it, we would still be betrothed.’
‘And what a pity that would be,’ James remarked. ‘This is bad enough, but at least she discovered that you were a philandering cheat before she was irretrievably tied to you.’