‘It was the right thing to do, for my friends and for any lady who had been betrayed in that way.’
‘Gallantry, in effect. Just like rescuing two drowning people from the lake. I thought I was your friend.’ It sounded forlorn, but however much it hurt her pride, she could not help herself. ‘You said I belonged to you.’
‘It was wrong of me to think I could make a friend of an unmarried lady and what I said about you being mine was foolish sentimentality.’
‘So there is nothing between us?’ It was like sticking pins into her flesh, but she had to have the truth from him. ‘You were gallant and then deluded. We made love, but that was merely lust.’
‘I admire your courage and your generosity, your wit and your elegance. I was privileged to share your bed, and my lips will be for ever sealed about that. You need have no fear I would ever give the slightest hint that so much as a kiss had passed between us.’
Isobel stared up at the scarred, battered face and tried to find her friend, her lover, her love, somewhere behind the hard mask. But there was nothing, just a faint pity, the hint of a smile. ‘I trusted you, Giles.’
‘I never lied to you. I never told you I loved you. I am sorry it went as far as it did.’
‘But not as sorry as I am, Giles.’ Isobel turned on her heel and walked out. She wanted to hesitate at the threshold, to stand there a moment, for surely he would call her back, but she made her feet keep walking, closed the door behind her with care and went back to her own room. He did not speak.
* * *
Her mother, hair tidied and complexion restored with the judicious use of rice powder, was sitting with her feet on a stool while Dorothy bustled about packing.
‘Isobel dear—have you been crying?’ Her mother sat up straighter and stared at her.
‘No... Well, a little. I was upset at leaving the children, they are very sweet. I suppose it has made my eyes a trifle watery, that is all. There is the gong—shall we go down?’
They descended the stairs arm in arm again. Her mother had relaxed now, Isobel sensed. Her unaccountable daughter had yielded, the Season could be exploited in every possible way and, by the end of it she, Isobel, would have come to her senses and be betrothed to a well-connected, wealthy man who would father a brood of admirable children. All would be well.
Cousin Elizabeth and her three eldest children were already in the dining room. Lord Hardwicke and her father followed them in and then, on their heels, Giles entered.
Lady Bythorn took one look at his face, gasped audibly and plunged into conversation with Lady Anne. Cousin Elizabeth frowned, more in anxiety about the effects of leaving off the dressing than from any revulsion at the scar, Isobel thought. Her father stared, then resumed his discussion of tenancy issues with the earl. Giles, apparently oblivious, thanked Lady Caroline for the bread, passed her the butter and addressed himself to his meal.
‘Some brawn, my lady?’ Benson produced the platter. Isobel stared at it quivering gently in its jelly and lost what little appetite she had left.
‘Thank you, no, Benson. Just some bread and butter, if you please.’
It was strange, she thought as she nibbled stoically through two slices of bread and butter and, to stem her mother’s urgings, a sliver of cheese. She had not expected a broken heart to feel like this. She was numb, almost as if she no longer cared. Perhaps it was shock; they said that people in shock did not feel pain despite dreadful injuries.
Over the rim of her glass she watched Giles and felt nothing, just a huge emptiness where only a few hours ago there had been a turmoil of feelings and emotions. Hope, love, desire, fear, uncertainty, happiness, confusion, tenderness, worry—they had all been there. Now, nothing.
She found she could smile, shake her head over Cousin Elizabeth’s praise of her courage in rescuing Lizzie, tell her mother of the interesting recipe for plum jam the vicar’s wife had given her. When her eyes met Giles’s down the length of the table she could keep her expression politely neutral, even smile a bright, social smile.
It was only as they were gathered in the formal elegance of the Yellow Drawing Room to make their final farewells that Isobel realised what she felt like. She had visited Merlin’s Mechanical Museum in Princes Street once and had marvelled over the automata jerkily going about their business with every appearance of life and yet with nothing inside them but cogs and wheels where there should have been a brain and a heart and soul.
She shook hands, and exchanged kisses, and smiled and said everything that was proper in thanks and when she saw a shadow fall across the threshold, and Giles stood there for a moment looking in, she inclined her head graciously. ‘Goodbye, Mr Harker.’