The talk veered off into discussion of Irish politics, social conditions and, inevitably, sporting possibilities. Isobel placed her knife and fork neatly on her plate, folded her hands on her lap and watched Giles.
He guarded his feelings well at the best of times, except for his betraying eyes. But now, with his face so damaged and his eyes bruised, she was not at all sure she could read him at all. Except to know he was unhappy. Good, she thought, and went back to chasing a corner of pickled plum tart around her plate with no appetite at all.
* * *
In the general stir at the end of the meal Isobel found herself beside James Albright. ‘I hope you have a safe journey home, Lord James.’
‘Rest assured I will make your innocence known to Penelope and all my family,’ he said. ‘And we will ensure the facts are spread far and wide. Unless, of course...’ he lowered his voice ‘...you would prefer to stay ruined?’
‘Whatever can you mean, sir?’
‘It might widen your choice of marriage partner, perhaps,’ he suggested with a slight smile.
‘Are you suggesting what I think you are?’ Isobel demanded. Marriage? ‘There is no question of a match between myself and...and anyone.’
‘No? Of course anyone would say that, too, and, if...er, anyone’s defences were not down, he would never have got himself into a position where he betrayed his feelings to me quite so blatantly, as I am sure you realise.’
‘As we are speaking very frankly, Lord James,’ Isobel hissed, furious, ‘the feelings betrayed to me were not those which lead to a respectable marriage—quite the opposite, in fact!’
‘Oh, dear. Hard to believe that anyone could make such a mull of it, let alone my friend. He is usually more adroit,’ Lord James observed. Isobel glanced round and found they were alone in the room. His sharp hearing must have told him that also, for he raised his voice above the murmur he had been employing. ‘If I am mistaken in your sentiments, Lady Isobel, then pray forgive me. But if I am not, then you are going to have to fight for what you want. Not only fight your parents and society, but fight Harker as well.’
‘I have no intention of throwing myself at a man who only wants me for one thing,’ she said. ‘And I do not want him at all, so the situation does not arise.’
‘You know him better than that. Try to forgive him for his clumsiness this morning. If his feelings were not engaged he would have been...smoother.’
‘How did you—?’ She took a deep breath. ‘My feelings are not engaged.’
‘I found him in some agitation of mind. He told me he had erred and distressed you—I could fill in the rest. He let himself dream and hope and then woke up to the problems which are all for you, not for him. Giles Harker has a gallantry that will not allow him to harm you, so, if you want him, then you must take matters into your own hands.’
‘Lord James—are you insinuating that I should seduce him?’ Isobel felt quite dizzy. She could not be having this conversation with a man who was a virtual stranger to her.
The unfocused eyes turned in her direction. ‘Just a suggestion, Lady Isobel. It all depends what you want, of course. Forgive me for putting you to the blush, but Giles Harker is an old and dear friend and I will happily scandalise an earl’s daughter or two if it leads to his happiness. I wish you good day, ma’am.’
* * *
With Lord James’s departure the men went back to their meeting and Lady Hardwicke swept up Catherine, Anne, Lizzie and Isobel, ordered them into bonnets, muffs and warm pelisses and set out for the vicarage to call on Mrs Bastable, the vicar’s wife.
‘I have sadly neglected my parish duties these past few days and it is Sunday tomorrow,’ she remarked as she led her party down the steps. ‘What with Lizzie’s drama and all our preparations for the move and the pleasure of having Isobel with us and now Mr Harker’s accident, the Clothing Fund has been sadly neglected.’
‘Was it an accident, Mama?’ Lizzie demanded. ‘Mr Harker, I mean. You said it was footpads who broke his nose and cut his face like that.’
‘It was accidental in that he fell amongst criminals who tried to hurt him,’ her mother said repressively.
‘And Lord James was the Good Samaritan who rescued him?’
‘I rather think he was rescuing himself quite effectively,’ Isobel said, then closed her lips tight when Anne shot her a quizzical glance.
‘And the bad men?’
‘Have been taken up and will stand their trial, as all such wicked persons should,’ her mother pronounced.
‘The wages of sin is death,’ Caroline quoted with gruesome relish.