‘Good morning. I apologise for my appearance.’ Giles walked into the room with a deliberation that Isobel realised must be the only alternative to limping. She found she was on her feet and sat down again. He did not spare her a glance.
Giles had discarded the swathes of bandage, although there was a professional-looking dressing across his injured cheek. The swelling around his nose was less, although the bruising was colourful. He sat down next to his friend and touched his hand briefly.
‘Mr Harker, you should go back to bed immediately! What can you be thinking of?’
‘Lady Hardwicke, I assure you I am quite capable of working with the earl and his advisers.’ He accepted a cup of tea from Anne and reached for the cold meats.
The countess shook her head at him, but did not argue further, apparently recognising an impossible cause when she saw one. ‘Benson, please tell his lordship that Mr Harker will be joining him and Mr Delapoole after breakfast.’
Isobel ate in silence, almost unaware of what food passed her lips. Giles not so much ignored her as managed to appear not to notice her presence. When he rose to leave she got to her feet with a murmured excuse to her hostess and followed him out, padding quietly behind him until he reached the Long Gallery.
‘Giles! Please wait.’
He stopped and turned. ‘Lady Isobel?’ The beautiful voice was still slightly slurred.
‘Don’t. Don’t be like that.’ She caught up with him and laid her hand on his arm to detain him. ‘Why are you angry with me? Because I have not thanked you for what you did for me? Or because I slept in your room? I am sorry if it was awkward with Tompkins. If you had to give him money, I will—’
‘What were you doing in my room? In my bed?’
‘I was not in it, I was on it.’ She knew she was blushing and that her guilty conscience was the cause. She desired him. She had lusted after him. ‘I was worried about you. I came to your room to make certain you were all right. You were thirsty so I gave you something to drink. You were drugged and I thought someone should watch over you. The bed was wide. I only expected to doze, not sleep so soundly that anyone would find me in the morning.’
‘A pity you did not turn up the lamp and see at once just how repulsive I look now: then you could have fled there and then and not waited until Tompkins and daylight revealed the worst.’ His bloodshot eyes fixed her with chilly disdain as she gaped at him. ‘You have had time to pluck up the courage to look at me. Pretty, isn’t it?’
‘You thought I was repulsed? Giles, for goodness’ sake! No, it isn’t pretty, it is a mess. But it will get better when the bruises come out and the swelling subsides. Your nose will be crooked, but surely you are not so vain that will concern you?’
‘And the scars?’ he asked harshly.
‘Will they be very bad? The stitches will make it look and feel worse at first. My brother had them in his arm last year and they looked frightful. But now all there is to show is a thin white line.’
‘Isobel, I am not a sixteen-year-old boy needing reassurance.’ Giles turned away, but she kept her grip on his sleeve.
‘No, you are a—what?—twenty-nine-year-old man in need of just that! Physical imperfections are no great matter, especially not when they have been earned in such a way. You will look so much more dashing and rakish that your problems with amorous ladies will become even worse.’
‘Then why did you look at me as you did this morning? Why did you flee from my room?’ he demanded.
‘Because it was my fault, of course! You had been hurt, you must have been in such pain, and it was all because of me. I know you felt you had to defend your friend’s sister, but if I had not told you my story you would never have known. I was angry with myself, so I shouted at you.’
‘Of all the idiotic—’
‘I am not being idiotic,’ she snapped, goaded. ‘You could have been killed, or lost an eye.’
‘Isobel, I could not let them do that to you and not try to defend you. How could I not fight?’ Giles turned fully and caught her hands in his. The chill had gone from his expression, now there was heat and an intensity that made her forget her anger. But with it, her vehemence ebbed away.
‘You hardly know me. We have been friends for such a short time,’ Isobel stammered.
‘Friends? Is that really what you think we are?’ She could see the pulse beat in his temple, hard, just as her heart was beating. ‘I saved your life—that makes you mine. I want to be so much more than friends with you, Isobel, did you not realise?’
‘You do? But—’