All the consequence of Giles’s lovemaking, if her mother did but know it. It seemed she had no suspicion that anything untoward had occurred, even though they had entered the house together. Perhaps it seemed impossible to Mama that her daughter would even think of flirting with someone in his position, let alone anything else.
‘Here we are. It is a lovely view, is it not? Dorothy, please can you pack all my things as soon as possible—I am sure you can ask for help if you need it. We will be leaving after luncheon, so do not neglect your own meal. But first, please fetch hot water for her ladyship.’
‘Yes, my lady.’ The maid bobbed a curtsy to the countess. ‘I am so glad Lady Isobel is going home, my lady, if I may be so bold.’
‘Thank you, Dorothy. We are all delighted,’ Lady Bythorn said and the maid hurried out.
‘Mama, would you excuse me while I run up to the nursery and schoolroom and say goodbye to the children? I have become very fond of them.’
‘Of course. I will just sit here and admire the prospect from the window and rest a little.’
Isobel dropped a kiss on her mother’s cheek and went out of the door leading to the back stairs. As soon as she was out of sight she ran up to the attics and into the schoolroom.
‘Cousin Isobel!’ Lizzie jumped up beaming from her seat beside Caroline, who had her head wrapped in a shawl and was looking very woebegone.
‘Excuse me, Miss Henderson, for interrupting your lesson, but I have to say goodbye to the children. My mama and papa have come to collect me, Lizzie.’
‘Oh.’ Her face fell. ‘Can you not stay a little longer?’
‘No, I am sorry. I promise I will write to you all. Is Charles in the nursery? I must kiss him as well,’ she said as she disentangled herself from the children’s hugs.
‘If you are all very good, we will wrap up warmly and go out on the leads to wave Lady Isobel goodbye,’ the governess suggested.
‘That will be lovely. Thank you. Now, I will be going to London, so I will send you all a present. Would you like that?’
She left them agog at the thought of gifts arriving when it was not even their birthdays or Christmas and whisked down the stairs and along the passage leading to Giles’s bedchamber. There would be just time, if he was only still there.
Isobel pressed her ear to the panels, but she could hear no voices, so the valet was not with him. Without knocking she opened the door and slipped inside.
‘Isobel!’ Giles strode out of his dressing room and shut the door behind her.
‘Your face—why have you taken the dressing off? The doctor hasn’t even removed the stitches. Oh, it looks so sore!’
‘It looks thoroughly unsightly and will, I hope, convince your parents that no daughter of theirs would look twice at its owner.’ He gave her a little shake. ‘What on earth are you doing here? There will be hell to pay if you are found with me.’
‘I had to talk to you,’ she protested. ‘And I do not know when we could have snatched even a moment alone. Papa intends to return home immediately after luncheon. Giles, what are we going to do?’
‘Nothing, except come to our senses,’ he said, his face harsh. ‘This is a blessing in disguise—the longer we were together, the more chance there was of this being discovered.’
‘But we have no chance to plan now—’
‘There is nothing to plan for. You are not a romantic young girl, Isobel. You knew this was hopeless, just as I did, but we let ourselves daydream and now it is time to wake up.’
‘Just like that?’ She stared at him. The cold, aloof man of their first meeting was back and her tender lover was quite vanished. ‘No regrets, no sadness, just a blessing in disguise? I love you, Giles.’
‘And I let myself think I could dally with an earl’s daughter.’ He cupped his hand around her cheek. ‘Sunshine in February. I should have known there would be a frost to follow. Wake up, Isobel—it is over.’
‘So you really do not love me?’ she asked painfully. He thought of what had happened as just a dalliance? The rain drumming on the window echoed the frantic beating of her heart.
‘I told you that. And you have not fallen in love with me, if you will only be honest with yourself. You had been hurt and rejected by people you thought were your friends. You wanted affection and you wanted to rebel, too.’
‘You think so? After we made love as we have, you can still say it was all a delusion, an act of rebellion? It must have been, because I thought I knew you and now I do not think I do, not at all.’
She turned away, unable to bear his touch any longer, then swung back. ‘Why did you fight for me if I was not important to you?’