Isobel clutched the draped brocade at the window while Peter, the brawniest of the footmen, backed out of the carriage, supporting a tall figure. At least he is alive. Only then could she admit to herself the depth of her sudden irrational fear. With the thought her paralysis ended. It was Giles and he was injured. His head was swathed in bandages, his legs dragged as the men held him. ‘Giles.’ She brushed past Anne, uncaring about the other girl’s startled expression, and ran through the anteroom into the hall.
‘I can walk upstairs perfectly well,’ he was saying to the footmen on either side of him. ‘I do not need carrying up in a chair, I assure you.’ His voice was slurred. As she ran forwards she saw his face was bruised. He did not seem to hear her, or see her.
‘Leave him.’ Cousin Elizabeth caught her arm while she was still yards away. ‘He is hurt, but the last thing he needs is women fussing over him. Peter and Michael will get him upstairs. The doctor has been sent for. I will go and have Mrs Harrison gather up salves and bandages and plenty of hot water.’
‘It is nothing mortal, I assure you, ma’am,’ an unfamiliar voice said behind her. ‘He is in a great deal of discomfort, but there are no deep wounds. Sore ribs, broken nose, bruising, cuts—so my doctor tells me. He should not have travelled today, but he said he had given the earl his word he would be here tomorrow and he’s a stubborn devil.’
‘You are Lord James Albright?’ Giles had vanished unsteadily around the turn of the stair. The man who stood to one side, leaning on a light cane, wore thick spectacles on a pleasant face that showed both bruises and a graze along the jaw. When he held out his hand to her she saw his knuckles were raw. ‘You have been in a fight? Is that what happened to Giles...Mr Harker?’
‘The same fight,’ he said with a grin. ‘I might be nearly as blind as a bat, but when you put a big enough target in front of me, I can hit it.’ As she took his hand he closed his fingers around hers, as if to detain her. ‘I think you must be Lady Isobel?’
‘Then I have an apology to make to you on behalf of my sister.’
‘There is no need. I understand why she thought as she did. But why have you and Giles been fighting?’
‘Is there somewhere we can sit and talk?’
‘Of course, forgive me. Lady Anne, do you think a room could be prepared for Lord James, and some refreshments sent to the South Drawing Room?’
‘Yes, of course. I’ll arrange that and then go and help Mama.’ Anne hurried away.
‘Through here, Lord James.’ Uncertain how much assistance he would need, Isobel laid her hand on his arm and guided him to where she and Anne had been sitting. ‘Are you in need of any medical attention yourself?’ The bruises seemed alarming as he settled into the armchair with the last of the fading light on his face.
‘It is nothing some arnica will not help,’ he said with a smile, then fell silent as the tea tray was brought in, candles lit and the fire made up.
Isobel served him tea, then forced herself to wait patiently while he drank.
‘You are wondering why I am here and what Harker and I have been doing,’ James Albright said after a minute. ‘He came to London yesterday to tell me the truth of what occurred when my sister’s engagement was broken. At the time Penelope was adamant that she did not want any action taken against White, that in drink and high spirits he must have been entrapped by—forgive me—a designing female. She just wanted to put it all behind her.
‘But once I heard the truth, that he had not only been unfaithful to my sister but had plotted to assault another woman in the process, then I knew I must challenge the three men involved. My family honour was involved twice over—once in the insult to Penelope and secondly in the role we unwittingly played in your disgrace.’
‘But, forgive me, you are—’
‘Almost blind. Quite. But, as my second, Harker could legitimately take up the challenge on my behalf. He would have called them out in any case, but that would raise questions about his, er...relationship with you. This way we both achieved satisfaction and the matter appeared to be entirely related to the insult to my sister.’
‘His relationship with me?’ What had Giles said to this man? What relationship?
‘You are friends, are you not?’
‘Oh. Yes, of course.’ Isobel’s pulse settled back down again.
‘We challenged them and they apparently decided it would be easier if we suffered an unpleasant accident and fell foul of some footpads. Foolish and dishonourable, and even more foolish in practice. They thought that two large bully boys would make mincemeat out of one blind man and an architect with a pretty face. Unfortunately for them they were not at school with us. I learned to defend myself in a number of thoroughly ungentlemanly ways and Giles, when he is angry, fights like a bruiser raised in Seven Dials.’