‘It is from the Bible, it was mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon,’ Caroline protested. ‘Mr Harker is very brave, isn’t he, Cousin Isobel?’
‘Very, I am certain.’
‘And he was very handsome. Miss Henderson said he’s as handsome as sin. But will he still be so handsome when they take the bandages off?’
Lady Hardwicke’s expression did not bode well for the governess, but she answered in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘He will have scars and his nose will not be straight. But those things do not make a man handsome: his morals and character and intelligence are what matter.’
She pursued the improving lecture as they made their way across the churchyard and through the wicket gate into the vicarage garden. Isobel brought up the rear, her mind still whirling from that extraordinary conversation with James Albright.
Had he really meant that Giles was in love with her? Worse, he seemed to believe she shared those emotions.
* * *
The vicar’s wife was grateful for help with the results of a recent clothing collection and, after serving tea, set her visitors to work that was familiar to Isobel from her own mother’s charitable endeavours.
Isobel helped sort clothing into a pile that would be reusable by the parish poor after mending and laundering. The remaining heaps would be organised by the type of fabric so that when they had been washed the parish sewing circle could make up patchwork covers, rag-rugs or even suits for small boys from a man’s worn-out coat.
It was worthy work and the kind of thing that she would be organising if she married a wealthy landowner, as she should. Lord James had spoken of marriage. An architect’s wife would not have these responsibilities, although Giles had said he had a small country estate, so perhaps there were tenants. What would the duties of an architect’s wife be? Not organising the parish charities, or giving great dinner parties or balls, that was certain. Nor the supervision of the staff of a house the size of Wimpole Hall, either. Not any of the things she had been raised to do, in fact.
This was madness. She would not marry save for love—on both sides—and Giles Harker wanted one thing, and one thing only.
‘Cousin Isobel, you are daydreaming again,’ Anne teased. Isobel saw she was waiting for her to take the corners of a sheet that needed folding. ‘What on earth were you thinking of? It certainly made you smile.’
‘Of freedom,’ Isobel said and took the sheet. They tugged, snapping it taut between them, then came together to fold it, their movements as orderly as a formal minuet.
‘Goodness, are you one of those blue-stockings?’ Anne put the sheet in the basket and shook out a much-worn petticoat. ‘I do not think this is any use for anything, except perhaps handkerchiefs.’
‘Me, a blue-stocking? Oh, no. And I was not thinking of freedom from men so much as from expectations.’ Anne looked blank. ‘Oh, do not take any notice of me, I am wool-gathering.’
‘I think everyone is behaving most strangely,’ Anne said and tossed the petticoat onto the rag pile. ‘There is the fight Mr Harker was involved in—and Lord James. I do not believe for a moment that it was simply bad luck with footpads, do you? Then you are daydreaming all the time and Mama is lecturing and there are peculiar conversations that seem to be about one thing, but I don’t think are, not really. Like you and Mr Harker talking about the census and honesty.’
‘Well, you know why I am here,’ Isobel said. ‘I have a lot on my mind, so I suppose that makes me seem absent-minded. And men are always getting into fights. It was probably over a game of cards or something. And I expect Cousin Elizabeth has a great deal to worry about with your father’s new post, so that makes her a little short. And as for peculiar conversations, I cannot imagine what you mean.’
Anne looked unconvinced, but went back to sorting shirts while the countess tried to persuade the vicar’s wife that she could take over judging the tenants’ gardens for a prize, as Lady Hardwicke did every year.
Isobel picked up some scissors and began to unpick the seams of a bodice, letting Mrs Bastable’s protestations that she knew nothing about vegetable marrows and even less about roses wash over her head.
Was she falling in love with Giles? Had Lord James, with whatever refined intuition his blindness had developed in him, sensed it when she could only deny it? Had Lord James really been serious when he had told her to take the initiative? Now Giles was no longer in shock, half-drugged and in so much pain, he would not take the first step—whatever his feelings, his defences were up.
I don’t want to fall in love with him! That can’t be what I feel. She had not felt like this over Lucas, so torn, so frightened and yet so excited. But then, Lucas had been completely eligible, there had been no obstacles, no secrets. No reasons to fight against it. Or was she simply in lust with the man and finding excuses for her desires?