‘I wanted to make sure you were all right.’ Her voice trailed away as she stared at him in the morning light and the colour ebbed out of her cheeks, leaving her white. ‘Of all the insane things to do, to tackle five men like that!’ She sounded furious.
‘Insane? I did not have a great deal of options. I could have run away and left James, I suppose.’ Damn it, he had fought for her and she was calling him an idiot?
‘That is not what I meant.’ Isobel slid from the bed and he turned his head away and tried to push himself upright, humiliated to find himself too weak to sit up and argue with her.
‘Sir, you shouldn’t try to sit up,’ Tompkins said. By the sound of it he was trying to envelop Isobel in Giles’s robe.
‘Pillows,’ Giles snapped, mustering his strength and hauling himself up. ‘And a mirror.’
‘Now I don’t think that would be wise, sir.’
‘Your opinion is not relevant, Tompkins. A mirror. At once.’
‘Sir.’ The valet piled pillows behind him, handed him a mirror and hovered by the bedside, his face miserable.
‘Unfasten this bandage.’
‘Sir—’ Giles lifted his hand to try to find the fastening and the man shook his head and leaned over. ‘The doctor will have my guts for garters, sir.’
The process was unpleasant enough to make him feel queasy. When the dressing was finally unwrapped Giles lifted the glass and stared at the result. His nose had been broken, his mouth was bruised, but down the right side of his face where he had expected to find a single cut on his cheek, perhaps reaching to his cheekbone, were two savage parallel slashes from just above his eyebrow, down his cheek to his jaw.
‘The swelling and the stitches made it look worse than it is, sir, I’m sure.’ Tompkins rushed into speech. ‘The doctor’s very good, sir, lots of tiny stitches he took. Lucky it missed your eye, sir. A miracle, the doctor said that was.’
A miracle. A miracle that had changed his face for ever in seconds. Giles stared back at familiar eyes, a familiar mouth, eyebrows that still slanted slightly upwards. As for the rest... He had always taken his looks for granted. His glass had told him he was handsome. Some women called him beautiful. It was nothing to be proud of: his looks came from his parents and good fortune and had proved enough of a nuisance in the past. He would get used to the changes.
He had forgotten Isobel until she stammered, ‘No... Giles...’ She fled for the door, wrenched it open and, with the barest glance around to check outside, ran from the room.
So this new face sent a courageous young woman fleeing from the room in revulsion, a young woman who was not a lover, but who had called him her friend. That hurt, he discovered, more than the injuries themselves. ‘Put back the bandage, Tompkins,’ he said harshly. ‘Then bring me hot water, coffee, food.’
‘But, sir, you should be resting. Her ladyship told Cook to prepare some gruel.’
‘Tompkins, I have a job to do and I cannot do it on gruel. His lordship requires my attendance today. Either you bring me proper food or I will go down to the kitchen myself and speak to Cook. And send for the doctor. I cannot go about looking like an Egyptian mummy.’
The valet left, shaking his head. Giles lay back against the pillows and told himself that it did not matter. He would heal in time and scars and a crooked nose were not the end of the world. But he could not forget the look on Isobel’s face when she had stared at him, appalled. That felt as though something had broken inside him.
By breakfast Isobel was no nearer overcoming the guilt. Giles’s beautiful face was scarred for life and it was her fault. He had done it for her. The shock of how injured he was, her own helplessness, had made her angry—with herself as well as, irrationally, with him.
She should not have shouted at him, she thought penitently as she looked across the table to where James Albright sat, coping efficiently with bacon and eggs after a few moments’ discreet exploration of the table around him with his fingertips. Giles had fought for him, too.
Cousin Elizabeth pressed Lord James to stay on, but he shook his head. ‘You are very kind, but I will leave after luncheon if that is convenient. I must go and tell my family the truth of this matter.’ He smiled in Isobel’s direction before turning back to his hostess. ‘I am sorry to trouble you for so long, but my groom tells me that one of the horses has cast a shoe and they must send to the village blacksmith. I thank you for your hospitality under such trying circumstances,’ he added.
‘Helping an injured man, and one who is a friend of the family now, is no hardship, Lord James. And I know Mr Harker insisted that you bring him, although what on earth he was thinking about, I cannot imagine. Surely he did not think that he would be in any state to work with my husband and his advisers today—’ She broke off and stared at the door. ‘Mr Harker!’