* * *
‘Cousin Elizabeth, I would like to speak to Mr Harker alone after dinner, if you will permit. He will not let me thank him properly for what he did—perhaps if I can corner him somewhere I can say what I need to.’
The countess put down her hairbrush and regarded Isobel with a frown. ‘That will be all, Merrill.’ Her dresser bobbed a curtsy and went out, leaving the two women alone in the countess’s bedchamber.
‘He has certainly put you in his debt and a lady should thank a gentleman for such an action, I agree,’ Lady Hardwicke said, a crease between her brows. ‘But a tête-à-tête is a trifle irregular.’
‘I have been alone with him before,’ Isobel pointed out.
But the countess was obviously uneasy. Perhaps she suspected, just as Lord James did, that there was something more between Isobel and Giles. ‘A walk or a ride in the open are one thing, but in the house... Oh, dear. Perhaps one of the downstairs reception rooms would not be so bad—if you can persuade him to stand there long enough to be thanked! But for a man determined on escape there is a way out of all of them into another room. Unless you speak to him in the antechapel—there is no way out of that except into the gallery of the chapel and no one could object to a short conversation in such a setting.’
‘Thank you, Cousin Elizabeth. Now all I have to do is lure him in there.’
Isobel left the countess shaking her head, but she did not forbid the meeting.
Giles schooled his face into an expressionless mask when Isobel, assisting the countess at the after-dinner tea tray, brought him a cup. He wanted to look at her, simply luxuriate in watching her, not have to guard every word in case he made things even worse.
He braced himself for murmured reproaches, or even hostility. ‘Have you formed an opinion on the crack in the antechapel wall?’ she asked without preamble. ‘It sounds quite worrying, but perhaps the earl is refining too much upon it.’
‘What crack?’ It was the last thing he expected to hear from her lips. Giles put the cup down on a side table and the tea slopped into the saucer.
‘Oh, he was saying something about it before dinner. I understood that he had asked you to look at it.’ Isobel sat down beside him in a distracting flurry of pale pink gauze and a waft of some delicate scent. Now he did not want to look at all: he wanted to hold her, touch her. Did she not realise what she was doing to him? Was she trying to pretend nothing had happened in the Long Gallery?
‘I was not aware of it,’ he said, forcing his brain to deal with structural problems.
‘Perhaps he did mention it and the blow to your head has made you forget it,’ she suggested.
That was a disturbing thought. His memory was excellent, but then, he had believed his self-control to be so also and that episode with Isobel had proved him very wrong on that score.
‘Or perhaps he meant to ask you, then decided it was not right while you feel so unwell,’ she said with an air of bright helpfulness that made him feel like an invalid being patronised.
‘I will go and look at it now.’ Giles got to his feet and went into the hall. He took a branch of candles from the side table and opened the door into the chamber that led to the family gallery overlooking the chapel.
Once the room had been the State Bedchamber, but the great bed had long been dismantled and was somewhere up in the attics. Giles touched flame to the candles in the room and began to prowl round, trying to find cracks in the plaster, not think about Isobel’s soft mouth, which seemed to be all he could focus on.
There in the left-hand corner was, indeed, a jagged crack. It would bear closer investigation in daylight, he decided, poking it with one finger and watching the plaster flake.
‘Is it serious?’
‘Isobel, you should not be in here.’ In response she closed the door behind her, turned the key in the lock and slipped it into her bodice. ‘What the devil are you doing?’ Behind him was the double door into the gallery pew. Short of jumping fifteen feet to the chapel’s marble floor, he was trapped, as she no doubt knew full well.
‘I need to talk to you.’ She was very pale in the candlelight and the composure she had shown over the tea cups had quite vanished. Giles saw with a pang that her hands were trembling a little. She followed his gaze and clasped them together tightly. ‘About this morning.’
‘I am sorry— I allowed my desires to run away with me. I had no right to kiss you, to hold you like that. It will not happen again.’
‘That is a pity,’ she said steadily. ‘I would very much like you to do it again. I think I am in love with you, Giles. I am very sorry if it embarrasses you, but I cannot lie to you, I find. Not even to salve my pride.’