‘And you beat them—five of them?’
‘Almost. It turned nasty by the end, but then the noise brought out a crowd from the nearby ale houses and, er, another place of entertainment and they soon worked out who the aggressors were and the odds against us. White, Wrenne and Halton have been taken up by the watch for assault and affray and their two thugs proved to be wanted by the magistrates already.’
‘But Giles—how badly is he hurt?’
‘Sore ribs where he was kicked. He was kicked in the head, too, I suspect, so he is probably concussed. The broken nose. Bruises and grazes all over. But that will all heal.’
A chill ran down her spine. What was Albright not saying? ‘And what will not heal?’ Isobel demanded bluntly.
‘Oh, it will all knit up again. It is just that his face...there was a broken bottle.’
It seemed it was possible to become colder, to feel even more dread. ‘His eyes?’ she managed to articulate.
‘His sight is all right, I promise. As to the rest—I couldn’t see well enough to judge.’
‘No, of course not. Thank you for explaining it all to me so clearly.’
‘Harker said you were not a young lady to have the vapours and that you would want the truth whole.’
‘Indeed, yes. Please, allow me to pour you some more tea. Or would you prefer to go to your room now?’ Giles expected her to be strong and sensible and so, of course, she would be.
* * *
The evening seemed interminable. The doctor came and went after speaking to the countess, the earl and Lord James. Dinner was served and eaten amidst conversation on general matters. The explanation that Mr Harker and Lord James had been set upon by footpads was accepted by the younger members of the family and everyone, once concern for Mr Harker’s injuries had been expressed, seemed quite at ease. The earl was delighted with his intellectual guest and bore him off to the library after dinner to discuss the rarer books.
Isobel thought she would scream if she had to sit still any longer with a polite smile on her lips, attempting to pretend she had nothing more on her mind than helping Lady Anne with her tangled tatting. She wanted to go to Giles so badly that she curled her fingers into the arm of the chair as though to anchor herself.
Finally Cousin Elizabeth rose and shooed her elder daughters off to their beds. ‘And you too, Isobel, my dear. You look quite pale.’
‘Cousin Elizabeth.’ She caught the older woman’s hand as the girls disappeared, still chattering, upstairs. ‘How is he? Please, tell me the truth.’
‘Resting. He is in some pain—the doctor had to spend considerable time on the very small stitches on his face, which was exhausting for Mr Harker of course. He will be able to get up in a day or so.’
‘I must see him.’
‘Oh, no!’ Lady Hardwicke’s reaction was so sharp that Isobel’s worst fears flooded back. ‘He needs to rest. And, in any case, it would be most improper.’
‘And those are the only reasons?’
‘Yes, of course.’ But the countess’s gaze wavered, shifted for a second. ‘Off to bed with you now.’ As they reached the landing she hesitated. ‘Isobel... You have not become unwisely fond of Mr Harker, have you? He is not...that is...’
‘I know about his parentage. I hope we are friends, ma’am,’ Isobel said with dignity. ‘And he helped Lord James clear my name, so I am grateful and anxious about him.’
‘Of course.’ Reassured, Cousin Elizabeth patted her hand. ‘I should have known you would be far too sensible to do anything foolish. Goodnight, my dear.’
Anything foolish. She is worried that I have become attached to him in some way. And I have. I desire him, I worry about him. I want to be with him.
At her back was the door to his room. In front, her own with Dorothy waiting to put her to bed. Isobel walked across the landing and laid her right palm against the door panels of Giles’s room for a moment, then turned on her heel and walked back to her own chamber.
‘What an evening of excitements, Dorothy,’ she remarked as she entered, stifling a yawn. ‘I declare I am quite worn out.’
* * *
Half an hour later Isobel crept out of her room, her feet bare, her warmest wrapper tight around her over her nightgown. At Giles’s door she did not knock, but turned the handle and slipped into the room on chilly, silent feet.
There was a green-shaded reading lamp set by the bed, but otherwise the room was in darkness, save for the red glow of the banked fire that was enough to show the long line of Giles’s body under the covers. His left arm lay outside, the hand lax, and the sight of the powerful fingers, open and still, brought a catch to her breathing. It was unexpectedly moving to see him like this, so vulnerable.