She might wish to be removed from the Marriage Mart, but not under these humiliating circumstances. And London, which she enjoyed for the theatres and galleries, the libraries, the shops, would become a social minefield of embarrassment and rejections.
‘That is very brave,’ the countess said. ‘I could call out all those wretched young bucks myself—such a pity your brother is too young to knock their heads together.’
‘I would certainly not want Frederick duelling at sixteen! It is not as though I feel any pressing desire to wed. If I had found a man who was the equal of Lucas and this had caused a rift with him, then I would have something to grieve over, but as it is...’ As it is I am not faced with the awful dilemma of how much of my past life to reveal to a potential husband.
Isobel stared into the fire and finally said the things she had been bottling up inside. She had tried to explain at home, but it seemed her mother would never understand how she felt. ‘I suppose I should be fired up with righteous indignation over the injustice of it all. I was so hurt and angry, but now I feel no spirit for the fight any more. What does it matter if society spurns me? I have not felt any burning desire to be part of it for four years.’
She bit her lip. ‘The men believe I am putting on airs and think myself above them, or some such foolishness. But the truth is, even if I did wish to marry, they all fail to match up to my memories of Lucas. I still remember his kindness and his intelligence and his laugh. People say that memory fades, but I can see his face and hear his voice.’
‘But you are no longer mourning him, only regretting,’ the countess suggested. ‘You have accepted he is gone.’
‘Oh, yes. I know it, and I have accepted it. There was this great hole full of loss and pain and now it is simply an empty ache.’ And the constant nagging doubt—had she done the right thing in those months after Lucas’s death? The decisions had seemed so simple and yet so very, very hard.
‘I do not want to go through that again. Or to settle for something less than I felt for him.’ Isobel turned, reached out to the older woman. ‘Do you understand? Mama does not, she says I am fanciful and not facing up to reality. She says it is my duty to marry.’
‘Yes, I understand.’ Lady Hardwicke gave her hand a squeeze. ‘But I should not give up on men quite yet,’ she added with a shake of her head. ‘Do you mind if I tell Anne in confidence what happened at the house party? She is almost eighteen now and will be making her come-out in Dublin. She might pick up something from gossip in friends’ letters and I would have her know the truth of matters. It will serve as a warning to her.’
‘To fawn on young gentlemen in case they turn on her?’ Isobel enquired.
‘To lock her bedroom door at night and to scream the moment she feels any alarm,’ the countess said with a smile.
‘No, I do not mind.’ Isobel returned the smile. The older woman was right to reprove her for that note of bitterness. If she became a sour old maid as a result of this, then those rakes would have made her exactly what they jeered at her for being.
‘I will have tea sent up and hot water. Relax and rest until dinner time, then you will feel strong enough to face at least some of my brood. Charles and Caroline must have nursery tea and wait until the morning to meet you, but I will allow Lizzie and Catherine to have dinner with us, and Anne and Philip will be there, of course.’
‘And the architects?’ Isobel asked with studied nonchalance.
‘Yes, they will join us. Mr Soane will travel back to London tomorrow. It is never easy to persuade him to stay away from his wife and his precious collection of art and antiquities in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but Mr Harker is staying. I confess, I wish he were not quite so good looking, for the girls are all eyes and attitudes whenever they see him, but to do him credit, he gives them not the slightest encouragement, which is just as well, considering who he is.’
She swept out, adding, ‘Do not hesitate to ring if you need anything, my dear, I am so pleased to have you here.’
Isobel sank back into the chair, puzzled. Who Mr Harker is? He was an architect, but so was Mr Soane. Architects of good breeding—or even the sons of bricklayers like Mr Soane, if they were cultivated and successful—were perfectly acceptable socially, even at the dining table of an earl. Mr Harker’s accent had been impeccable, his manners—if one left aside his hostile gaze—without reproach, his dress immaculate. He was a gentleman, obviously, and as eligible as a houseguest as Mr Soane. But who was he? Isobel shrugged. ‘Why should I care?’ she asked the crackling fire. ‘He is insufferable whoever he is.’