‘He was injured in the fight defending Lord James and, by extension, me.’
‘Well, he might be less of a menace to women now he has lost his looks. The man was a positive Adonis, so I hear—and there are enough foolish ladies with the instincts of lightskirts to encourage men like that,’ Lady Bythorn added with a sniff.
‘Perhaps he is only a menace to married ladies,’ Isobel said sweetly, her hands clenched so tightly that a seam in her glove split. ‘Cousin Elizabeth has no qualms about allowing him to socialise with her daughters or myself. Suitably chaperoned, of course.’
‘I am glad to hear about the chaperonage, at least! But that is all academic—I expect your woman can have your things all packed by the time we have finished luncheon.’
‘Well, of course.’ Her mother beamed at her fondly. ‘Now everyone knows the truth of what happened, there is no reason for you to be hiding in the country. You can come home and do the Season just as we planned.’
‘But—’ Isobel could hear Cousin Elizabeth’s voice coming closer. And the butler and footmen were still standing in the background, having stood to attention with blank faces throughout Lady Bythorn’s opinions on Giles’s morals. This was no place to start arguing with her parents about her future.
‘Margaret! Bythorn! What a pleasant surprise.’ The countess sailed into the hall, beaming. ‘You’ve come to collect dear Isobel, of course. We are going to miss her sadly.’ She ushered them towards the Yellow Drawing Room. ‘Margaret, would you like to go up with Isobel to her room? I will ring for her woman to bring you whatever you need after your journey. You must have set out at the crack of dawn to make such good time.’
‘I will go up in a moment, Elizabeth—it is so good just to see Isobel again! We left as soon as we received Lord James’s letter and put up overnight at the Bell at Buntingford. I could not wait to get my dear girl home again. Thank heavens we have not missed anything of the Season.’
‘I imagine Isobel is more glad about the restoration of her reputation than the opportunity to take part in social events,’ Cousin Elizabeth said with a glance at Isobel. There was understanding in the look and a kind of rueful sympathy. She, at least, had some inkling of how reluctant Isobel was to plunge back into the social whirl that she so disliked and the imagination to understand what gossip and snide remarks would still follow her.
‘I would prefer to stay here, Mama,’ Isobel said. She folded her hands on her lap and sat up straight, as though perfect deportment would somehow be a barricade against this disaster. If she let her shoulders droop, if she relaxed in the slightest, she did not think she would be able to stop herself either sobbing in despair or running to find Giles.
‘Stay here?’ said Lady Bythorn, turning her gaze on Isobel. For a moment she thought there was hope, then her mother shook her head. ‘But you cannot impose on Lady Hardwicke’s hospitality now it is not necessary. Really, Isobel, it is about time you shook off this pose of indifference to society. We should never have allowed you to stay with Mrs Needham for over a year in that remote place as we did. I declare you came back a positive stranger to us.’
‘I am sorry, Mama.’
‘It would be best for you to go back to London, Isobel,’ Cousin Elizabeth said. ‘We will miss you, but there is the risk that rumours may begin again if you do not make an appearance. It might seem that you have something to hide after all.’
So there was no help there. Where else could she go? If she ran away to Jane and Annabelle, then Papa would fetch her back and she did not think she could face him meeting his granddaughter all unawares. Without her allowance she had no money. To throw herself into Giles’s arms would be to embroil him in a scandal that might wreck his career.
It seemed very hard to think coherently. Isobel felt she was running through a darkened house, banging on doors that all proved to be locked, twisting and turning in a maze of corridors.
She had thought she had a few more precious days with Giles—now those had been snatched away from her. She had to speak to him. When he left the hall he had turned towards the stairs. He must have gone up to his chamber to change.
‘Mama, shall I show you to my rooms? I can set Dorothy to packing.’ From somewhere she dredged up the courage to smile and stand and pretend composure.
‘Of course.’ Her mother linked arms with her as they went up the stairs. ‘Now, you only have to overcome this indifferent shyness you seem to feel and all will be well. The country air has done you good—your cheeks are rosy, your lips look fuller and there is such a sparkle in your eyes.’