‘Oh, you wretch,’ she sobbed, her fingers tight on the hard muscle of his shoulders as she arched, seeking his touch. ‘You torturer.’
‘Touch me,’ Giles said, bringing her hand to clasp around him. ‘Take me with you.’ Then he held nothing back, his body at her mercy, his hands demanding, demanding, until Isobel lost all sense of what was her and what was Giles and surrendered to the mindless oblivion of pleasure.
She came to herself to find him slumped across her, relaxed into sleep. ‘Giles?’
‘Mmm.’ His lids fluttered, the dark lashes tickling her cheek, then he was still again.
Isobel tugged the greatcoat more securely over them, curled her arms around him and lay, cheek to cheek, thinking. Nothing lasted for ever. She had him now and for a few days and precious nights even though she did not have his words of love. She would not waste those moments by anticipating the inevitable parting; she would live them and revel in them and then do her best to live without him. I will not pine. I will find some purpose, some joy in life. I will not allow something so precious to destroy me. In the distance thunder rumbled.
* * *
An hour later they approached the house from different directions, Giles from the western drive, Isobel retracing her route, bringing Firefly across the wide sweep of gravel before the house to the stables. They met, as if by chance, outside the stable arch.
‘Mr Harker! Good morning.’ Isobel let the groom help her dismount and waited while Giles swung down from the grey. The sound of bustling activity made her look through into the inner yard where the back of a chaise was just visible.
‘Visitors,’ Giles observed. ‘Have you had a pleasant ride, Lady Isobel?’
‘Very stimulating, thank you. But I fear it is about to rain.’ She caught up the long skirt of her habit and walked with him across to the front door. Benson opened it as they approached and Isobel stepped into the hall to find the callers had only just been admitted. A grey-haired man of medium height with a commanding nose turned at the sound of their entrance, leaning heavily on a stick. Beside him a thin lady in an exquisitely fashionable bonnet started forwards.
‘Isobel, my darling! What good news! We had to come at once even if it did mean travelling on a Sunday.’
She stopped dead on the threshold. ‘Mama. Papa.’ Her mother caught her in her arms as Isobel felt the room begin to spin. There was a crash of thunder and behind her the footman slammed the door closed on the downpour. No escape.
‘Darling! Are you ill? You have gone so pale—sit down immediately.’
‘I...I am all right. It was just the shock of seeing you, Mama. Thank you, Mr Harker.’
Giles slid a hall chair behind her knees and Isobel sat down with an undignified thump. ‘Lord Bythorn, Lady Bythorn.’ He bowed and stepped away towards the foot of the steps.
‘Wait—you are Harker?’
‘My lord.’ Giles turned. His face had gone pale and the bruises stood out in painful contrast.
‘Lord James Albright tells me that you were injured standing with him to bring to account those scum who compromised my daughter. And I hear from her own letters that you rescued Isobel and young Lizzie from the lake.’
‘The lake was nothing—anyone passing would have done the same. And Lord James is an old friend, my lord. I merely did what I could to assist him.’ Giles made no move to offer his hand or to come closer. Isobel realised her mother had not addressed him and she was looking a trifle flustered now. Of course, they knew who he was, what he was, and Giles had expected that, should he ever meet them, he would receive this reaction.
‘You have my heartfelt thanks.’ The earl paused, a frown creasing his brow. ‘You are a resident in this house?’
‘I am undertaking architectural work for the earl. Excuse me, my lord. Ladies.’ He bowed and was gone.
‘Well, I’m glad to have the opportunity to thank the fellow in person,’ her father said, wincing from his gout as he shifted back to face her. ‘But I must say I’m surprised to find him a guest in the house.’
‘Lady Hardwicke always gives rooms to the architects and landscape designers,’ Isobel said indifferently. ‘The earl works so closely with them, I believe he finds it more convenient. I met Mr Soane when I arrived, but I have not yet met Mr Repton.’
‘Soane? Well, he’s a gentleman, at least. I hear rumours of a knighthood,’ her father said. Isobel opened her mouth to retort that Giles was a gentleman, and a brave and gallant one at that, then shut it with a snap. To defend him would only arouse suspicion.
‘The man looks a complete brigand with his face in that state,’ her mother remarked with distaste.