‘Marry her? Are you insane?’ Giles slammed to a halt. ‘Isobel is the daughter of an earl.’
‘And so? She’s a second daughter, she’s perilously close to being on the shelf and she’s had a brush with scandal. From what my sister tells me she was only doing the Season reluctantly in any case. Perhaps her father would be delighted for her to marry an up-and-coming architect with society connections, a nice little estate and a healthy amount in the bank.’
‘You are insane,’ Giles said with conviction.
‘All right.’ Albright shrugged. ‘Go right ahead and break her heart because you won’t risk a snub from the Earl of Bythorn.’
‘Snub? I’d be lucky if he didn’t come after me with a brace of Mantons and a blunt carving knife. I would in his shoes.’
‘Coward,’ James said.
‘I am trying to do the honourable thing,’ Giles said between gritted teeth. ‘And that includes not knocking your teeth down your throat. You’re the only man who can get away with calling me a coward and you know it.’
‘If you want to do the honourable thing, then you want to marry her,’ Albright persisted. ‘Let’s go back inside, it is raw out here and it must almost be time for luncheon.’
‘Of course I do not.’ Giles took the other man’s arm and steered him down a path towards the back of the house. ‘I am not in love. I have never been in love, I do not intend on falling in love. I intend,’ he continued with more force when that declaration received no response, ‘to make a sensible marriage to a well-dowered young woman from a good merchant family. Eventually.’
‘That’s three of you who’ll be unhappy then,’ James retorted as they went in through the garden door. ‘Give me your arm as far as my room, there’s a good fellow.’
* * *
Lord James was particularly pleasant to her over luncheon, Isobel thought. Perhaps he was trying to make up for the misunderstanding over the house-party incident. Sheer stubborn pride made her smile and follow all his conversational leads. She wished she could confide in him, for he seemed both intelligent and empathetic and he knew Giles so well. That was impossible, of course—he would have no more time for her foolish emotions than Giles had and, besides, she could not discuss Giles with anyone.
She had bathed her red eyes and dusted her nose with a little discreet rice powder. Giles would never guess she had been weeping, she decided, studying her own reflection in the overmantel glass.
‘You think this new census is a good idea?’ he was saying now in response to Lord James’s speculation on how accurate the results of the government’s latest scheme might be. He sounded not one wit discomforted by what had occurred that morning. Isobel tried to be glad of it.
‘What do you think, Mr Harker?’ she challenged him, frustrated by his impenetrable expression. He was treating her as though she was unwell, fragile, which was humiliating. It seemed to her that when he spoke to her his voice was muted. His face, when their eyes met, was politely bland. But she knew him too well now to believe he was indifferent to what had passed between them that morning. There were strong emotions working behind the green, shuttered eyes.
‘I think that it will all depend on the competence of the parish priest entrusted to fill in the return in each place,’ he said now. ‘Better if each person was questioned individually. Or every householder, at least.’
‘You think that would expose more of the truth?’ Isobel asked. ‘That people would reveal their circumstances honestly?’
‘Perhaps not,’ Giles said slowly. ‘And perhaps it is a mistake ever to ask for too much honesty.’ Isobel had no difficulty reading the meaning hidden in his words. He had been honest about his desires, had led her to the point of seduction and now he was regretting it.
‘Sometimes people do not know the truth because they are too close to it,’ Lord James observed, making her jump. She had forgotten that she and Giles were not alone. ‘The observer often sees more of the picture, don’t you think?’
‘So gossips and old maids like to say in order to justify their meddling,’ Giles said harshly.
Startled, Isobel glanced between the two men. Albright’s mouth twisted into a wry smile, but he did not appear to feel snubbed by what had sounded like a very personal remark. Giles, on the other hand, looked furious with his friend. Something had passed between them that morning, it was obvious.
The earl looked up from his plate of cold beef, unconscious of the undercurrents flowing around his luncheon table. ‘The census? Very good idea in my view. I’d be glad if they did it in Ireland, then I might have a better idea of what to expect of conditions and problems there. I may suggest it when we see how this works out.’