James shouted again, there was a thud and swearing, a fast-moving shadow and pain in his face, sharp and overwhelming. Giles’s fist connected with the chin of the man in front of him and he saw him fall. As he went down the alleyway was suddenly full of figures and the flare of light.
James was there at his side, gripping his arm, and a stranger who seemed strangely blurred, stood close, a torch in his hand. ‘Gawd! They’ve made a right bloody mess of you, guv’nor.’
‘Made more of a mess of them,’ Giles said, his voice coming from a long way away. Then there was silence.
* * *
Giles had believed her. Isobel hugged that to herself through the rest of the day and into the next, allowing his faith to warm her like a mouthful of brandy. He believed her and he would convince Penelope’s family of her innocence. Somehow that was less important than Giles’s acceptance, although it should not have been.
She could not deceive herself: Giles Harker aroused feelings in her that no unmarried lady should be feeling—anger and exasperation amongst them. But there was more, something between friendship and desire that every instinct of self-preservation told her was dangerous.
Perhaps it was simply desire. Isobel sat and sorted tangled embroidery silks for the countess without taking conscious note of the vivid colours sifting between her fingers. He aroused physical feelings in her and that, of course, was wrong and sinful.
If she was the unawakened innocent that he believed her, then perhaps she would not have recognised this ache, this unsettled feeling, for what it was. Or she would have been shocked at herself and put it out of her mind, convinced that she was simply attracted by a handsome face and fine figure.
But she was not innocent and not a virgin. She had made love with her betrothed twice and, although Lucas had been almost as shy and inexperienced as she, it had been intense and pleasurable and had left her body wanting more. In her grief, and through the heartrending decisions to be made after his death, those feelings had vanished. Unaroused and unimpressed by the men she met when she returned to society, Isobel had assumed that passion had died for her.
But it seemed that desire had only been sleeping and all it had taken was a kiss from the right man to awaken it. Giles Harker had not been the first man to kiss her since Lucas Needham’s death, but he was the only man who made her feel like this.
What did that mean? Isobel held up two hanks of orange silk and tried to focus on whether they were exactly the same shade. She knew how she felt: happy and apprehensive, warm and slightly shaky. Very restless. Her lips retained the feel of his, her tongue the taste of him.
Isobel shifted uncomfortably in the deep armchair. He was a rake, he had behaved disgracefully as well as heroically, and he made her want to cross verbal swords with him at every opportunity. She knew, none better, the dangers of giving in to physical passion—she should find an excuse and leave Wimpole before she was tempted any further.
Coward, an insidious little voice murmured in her head. Why not enjoy being with him, even snatch a few kisses? You are far too sensible to—
‘Cousin Isobel, you are wool-gathering!’ It was Anne, laughing at her. Isobel looked down at her lap and found greens carefully paired with blues, the orange arguing with a rich purple and pinks looped up with grass-green.
‘So I am! Listen—is that a carriage arriving?’ They were in the South Drawing Room and the sound of wheels and of the front doors opening came clear in the still of the house.
‘Who on earth can that be?’ Anne glanced at the clock. ‘Past three. Too late for a call and we are expecting no one for dinner.’
‘And Mr Harker is not due back until tomorrow.’ Isobel dumped the silks unceremoniously into their basket and went to peep out of the window. ‘Very unladylike of me, I know! Now who is that? I do not recognise him.’
‘Neither do I.’ Anne came to look over her shoulder. ‘The groom is helping him down, even though he is quite a young man. I do believe he is blind—see his stick? But we do not know anyone who is blind, I am sure.’
‘It must be Lord James Albright. Mr Harker mentioned that he had a blind friend of that name. But...’ Her voice trailed off. If James Albright had heard from Giles of her innocence and had called to tell her so, surely he could not have arrived so speedily and uninvited by the Yorkes? Unless he had met Giles in town and had set out that morning without pausing to write.
‘What on earth is going on?’ Anne tugged her hand. ‘Come on, we will find out better from the hallway—see, four footmen have gone out and Mama!’
‘They are helping someone who is sick or injured,’ Isobel said. Her feet did not want to move. Her stomach was possessed by a lump of ice. It was Giles, she was certain, and something was horribly wrong.