‘Well, I am very disappointed in Mr Harker,’ Lizzie announced darkly. ‘He had better not try to knock down my castle.’
‘I believe he is going to see what can be saved of the stonework to go to strengthening the Gothic folly,’ her sister soothed. ‘I expect that is what he is doing today. I heard him say something to Papa about good dressed stone not going to waste.’ Lizzie subsided, somewhat mollified.
‘Is Cousin Elizabeth coming down to breakfast or have I missed her?’ Isobel asked. ‘I was going to ask her if I might ride this morning.’ If Giles was not at the Hill House, then she would ride over the entire estate to find him, if necessary.
‘Oh, Mama left early to drive into Cambridge to take Caroline to the dentist,’ Anne said. ‘I know it is Sunday, but she woke with the most terrible toothache. Mama says we can all go to evensong instead of matins. But I know she will not mind you taking her mare. Benson, please send round to the stables and have them saddle up Firefly for Lady Isobel.’ As the butler bowed and crooked a finger for a footman to take the message, Anne added, ‘I do not think this sunshine will last—my woman predicts a storm coming and she is a great weather prophet.’
* * *
The sky was certainly dark to the west as the groom tossed Isobel up into the saddle of the countess’s pretty little chestnut mare. ‘Shall I come with you, my lady? She’s a lively one.’
‘No, thank you. I can manage her.’ She held the mare under firm control as they crossed in front of the house and then gave her her head up the hill towards the derelict prospect house.
Giles’s big grey was tied up outside and whickered a greeting as Isobel reined Firefly in. A movement caught her eye and she glanced up to find Giles sitting at the window over the portico. One foot up on the sill, his back against the frame, he turned his head from the distant view he had been contemplating and looked down.
‘Isobel. You should not be here.’ But he smiled as he said it and a tremor of remembered pleasure ran through her.
She brought the mare up next to the grey and slid down to the steps, managing to avoid the mud. ‘But we need to talk,’ she said, tilting her face to look at him as she tied the reins to the same makeshift hitching post.
‘Come up, then.’ Giles disappeared from sight and met her at the top of the staircase.
‘This feels so right. So safe,’ she said and walked into his arms without hesitation. ‘I do love you so, I know that now.’
Giles’s reply was muffled in her hair, but she heard the words and the happiness was so intense it made her shiver. ‘Last night was very special for me, Isobel.’ Then he put her away from him and the look on his face turned the frisson into one of apprehension. ‘But I have been up here for hours thinking—without any conclusion other than this is wrong and we must part.’
‘No! No,’ she repeated more calmly as she walked past him into the chamber. ‘We are meant to be, meant for each other. I refuse to give up.’
‘There is no way. We cannot change who I am and that is that.’ The bruises on his face were yellowing now, the swelling subsiding. Isobel stood biting her lip and looking at his profile as Giles stared out of the window, his mouth fixed in a hard line.
‘Your nose is not so very crooked,’ she said after a moment. ‘It is not as bad as when it was so swollen. Now it just looks interesting. Perhaps this—us—is not so bad either if we give it time and think.’
‘The only thing that would make our marriage acceptable is your ruin, and you know it as well as I do. And there is no alternative for you other than marriage.’
‘Then what is to become of us?’ she said, her voice cracking on the edge of despair.
‘We will learn to live without each other,’ Giles said harshly. ‘Just as you learned to live without Lucas when he died.’
‘I would not call it living,’ Isobel whispered. At first, despite the bitter grief, it had been bearable. That year when she had been with Jane, their pregnancies advancing together, the month after the births when she could hold Annabelle, truly be a mother to her—that had been a time of happiness mixed with the mourning. It was only after she had returned home, doubly bereaved of both fiancé and child, that Isobel had plunged into deep sadness.
‘I do not think I realised how depressed I was,’ she said, looking back over the past four years. ‘Even when I felt better I did not want to mix socially, look for another man to love, because I did not believe there was one. I could not see what the future held for me. Now—’