‘Cousin Elizabeth.’ On an impulse Isobel shut the connecting door to the dressing room and went to catch the older woman’s hand so she could look into her face. ‘I know you wrote that you believed my account of the affair—but was that simply out of your friendship for Mama? You must tell me honestly and not try to be kind. Mama insisted that you would never expose your daughters to a young woman who had participated in a veritable orgy, but I cannot help but wonder if you perhaps think that there was no smoke without some flicker of fire?
‘Do you believe that I am completely innocent of this scandal? I feel so awkward, thinking you might have reservations about my contact with the girls.’ She faltered to a halt, fearful that she had been gabbling. Guilt for sins past and hidden, no doubt. But this scandal was here and now and the countess, however kind, had a reputation for strict moral principles. It was said she did not even allow a beer house in the estate village.
‘Of course I believe you would never do anything immoral, Isobel.’ Her conscience gave an inward wince as the countess drew her to the chairs set either side of the fire. ‘But your mother was so discreet I have no idea exactly what transpired. Perhaps it is as well if I know the details, the better to be prepared for any gossip.’
Isobel stared into the fire. ‘When Lucas died I was twenty. I stayed in the country for almost a year with my old school friend Jane, who married Lucas’s half-brother. You will recall that he drowned in the same accident. Jane was pregnant, and their home was so remote: it helped both of us to be together.
‘I wanted to remain there, but Mama felt strongly that I should rejoin society last year because I had missed two Seasons. I hated it—I was older than the other girls, none of the men interested me in the slightest and I suppose I allowed it to show. I got a reputation for being cold and aloof and for snubbing gentlemen, but frankly, I did not care. I did not want to marry any of them, you see.
‘Mama thought I should try again this year and, to ease me in, as she put it, I went to the Harringtons’ house party at Long Ditton in January. I knew I was not popular. What I did not realise was that what might have been acceptable in a beauty with a vast fortune was merely regarded as insulting and irritating in a tolerable-looking, adequately dowered, second daughter of an earl.’
‘Oh, dear,’ Lady Hardwicke murmured.
‘Quite,’ Isobel said bitterly. ‘It seems that instead of being discouraged by my snubs and lack of interest, some of the gentlemen took them as an insult and a challenge and resolved to teach me a lesson. I was sitting up reading in my nightgown late one night when the door opened and three of them pushed in. They had all been drinking, they had brought wine with them and they were bent, so they said, on “warming me up” and showing me what I had been missing.’
A log collapsed in a shower of sparks, just as one had in the moment before the door had burst open that night. ‘I should have screamed, of course. Afterwards the fact that I did not seemed to convince everyone that I had invited the men there. Foolishly I tried to reason with them, send them away quietly before anyone discovered them. They all demanded a kiss, but I could see it might go further.
‘I pushed Lord Halton and he collapsed backwards into a screen which smashed with the most terrific noise. When half-a-dozen people erupted into my room Halton was swigging wine from the bottle where he had fallen, Mr Wrenne was sprawled in my chair egging on Lord Andrew White—and he had me against the bedpost and was kissing me, despite my struggles.
‘One of the first through the door was Lady Penelope Albright, White’s fiancée. No one believed me when I said I had done nothing to encourage the gentlemen, let alone invite them to my room. Lady Penelope had hysterics, broke off the engagement on the spot and has gone into such a decline that her parents say she will miss the entire Season. Lady Harrington packed me off home at dawn the next day.’
‘Oh, my dear! I could box Maria Harrington’s ears, the silly peahen. Had she no idea what the mood of the party was? I suppose not, she always had more hair than wit.’ Lady Hardwicke got to her feet and paced angrily to the window. ‘And what now? Do your parents think this will have died down by mid-April when we go to Ireland and you return home?’
‘They hope so. And I cannot run away for ever. I suppose I must face them all some day.’ Isobel put a bright, determined smile on her face. The thought of going into society again was daunting. But she could not live as a recluse in Herefordshire, she had come to accept that. She had parents and a brother and sister who loved her and who had been patient with her seemingly inexplicable desire to stay away for far too long.