* * *
The clock in the inner hall struck seven as Isobel reached the foot of the stairs. Where was everyone? There were no footmen to be seen and the doors ahead and to the right were closed, giving her no clues.
‘If you say so...’ A low masculine rumble. At least two of the party were down already, she realised with relief. It was always so awkward, standing around in a house one did not know.
Isobel followed the voices into the front hall and realised they came from the rooms to the left of the entrance. The cues lying on the billiard table in the first hinted that perhaps some of the gentlemen had only recently left. The conversation was clearer now, coming from the room beyond. The door stood ajar.
‘...pleasant young lady, she will be companionship for Lady Anne, no doubt.’ That was Mr Soane. Isobel stopped in her tracks. Was he talking about her?
‘She is a good six years older than Lady Anne,’ Mr Harker replied with disastrous clarity. ‘One wonders what she is doing unwed, although I imagine I can hazard a guess. She has too bold an eye—no doubt it attracts the wrong sort of attention, not honourable proposals.’
‘You...’ Isobel bit back the words and applied her eye to the crack between door and hinges.
‘You think she might prove to be an embarrassment?’ the older man asked. He sounded concerned. ‘I have seen the lengths you have to go to to prevent young ladies from becoming...um, attached.’
‘I have no intention of allowing her to so much as flirt with me. She was staring in the most brazen manner in the hall—presumably she thinks it sophisticated. That, or she is on the shelf and signalling that she is open to advances.’
Harker was strolling around the room, looking at the pictures that hung on the panelling. For a moment the exquisite profile came into view, then he vanished with a flick of dark blue coat tails.
You arrogant, vain swine! Isobel’s fingers uncurled, itching to slap that beautiful face.
‘I do hope not.’ A slice of Soane’s long, dark countenance appeared in the slit, furrowed by a frown. ‘Lady Hardwicke would be most upset if there was any untoward flirtation. You know her reputation for high standards.’
‘And it would rebound on you by association, Soane, as I am your protégé. I have no intention of risking it, have no fear. It is hardly as if she offers irresistible temptation in any case.’ Both men laughed, covering Isobel’s gasp of outrage.
‘A pity gentlemen cannot have chaperons in the same way as the ladies,’ Soane remarked. ‘Being a plain man myself, I never had any trouble of that kind. Find yourself a wife, preferably a rich one, and settle down as I have, that is my advice, but I have no doubt you enjoy your freedom and your dashing widows too much, eh, Harker?’
‘Far too much, sir. Besides, finding the right wife, in my circumstances, will take more application than I am prepared to expend upon it just now.’
As if anyone would have you! The words almost left Isobel’s mouth as the sound of their voices faded away. Her vision was strangely blurred and it took a moment to realise it was because her eyes had filled with tears of anger and hurt. It was so unjust to be stigmatised as a flirt, or worse, simply for staring at a man. And then to be labelled as on the shelf and too ordinary to offer any temptation to a connoisseur, such as Mr Harker obviously considered himself to be, was the crowning insult.
It took a few moments to compose herself. Isobel turned back the way she had come, unwilling to risk walking into them again. Was that cowardice or simply the wisdom to keep well away from Mr Harker while her palm still itched to slap him?
There was a footman in the hall when she emerged. ‘May I help you, my lady? The family is in the saloon, just through here, ma’am.’
Ushered back through the inner hall, Isobel found herself in a pleasant room with a large bay window. It was curtained now against the February darkness, but she assumed it would look out onto the gardens and park stretching off to the north.
The earl was poring over what looked like architectural drawings with Mr Soane and a fresh-faced youth was teasing a giggling girl of perhaps twelve years—Lord Royston and Lady Lizzie, she guessed.
The countess sat on a wide sofa with Lady Anne and her fifteen-year-old sister, Catherine, who were making a show of working on their embroidery.
Mr Soane must have come through a connecting door, but there was no sign of the viper-tongued Mr Harker. Where was he? Isobel scanned the room, conscious of butterflies in her stomach. The evidence of nerves gave her another grudge against Mr Perfection.
The children saw her first. ‘Ma’am.’ Philip bowed. ‘Welcome to Wimpole Hall.’