But when her parents turned to look he was gone. Like a dream, she thought. Just like a daydream. Not a memory at all.
‘I have absolutely no expectation of finding anyone I wish to marry, Mama,’ Isobel said, striving for an acceptable mixture of firmness and reasonableness in her tone. ‘I fear it is a sad waste of money to equip me for yet another Season.’ For four days she had tacitly accepted all her mother’s plans, now she felt she had to say something to make her understand how she really felt.
Lady Bythorn turned back from her scrutiny of Old Bond Street as the carriage made its slow way past the shops. ‘Why ever not?’ she demanded with what Isobel knew was quite justified annoyance. She was doing her best to see her second daughter suitably established and any dutiful daughter would be co-operating to the full and be suitably grateful. ‘You are not, surely, still pining for young Needham?’
‘Then there is no reason in the world—’ She broke off and eyed Isobel closely. ‘You have not lost your heart to someone unsuitable, have you?’
‘Never tell me that frightful Harker man has inveigled his way into your affections!’
‘Very well, Mama.’
‘Very well what?’
‘I will not tell you that Mr Harker has inveigled in any way.’
‘Do not be pert, Isobel. It ill becomes a young woman of your age.’
‘Yes, Mama. There is no illicit romance for you to worry about.’ Not now.
‘We are at Madame le Clare’s. Now kindly do not make an exhibition of yourself complaining about fittings.’
‘No, Mama. I will co-operate and I will enter into this Season, fully. But this is the last time. After this summer, if I am not betrothed, I will not undertake another.’
‘Oh!’ Lady Bythorn threw up her hands in exasperation. ‘Ungrateful girl! Do you expect me to wait for grandchildren until Frederick is finally old enough to marry?’
The guilt clutched like a hand around her heart. Mama would be a perfect grandmother, she loved small children. She would adore Annabelle and Annabelle would love her. ‘I am afraid so, Mama. Thank you, Travis,’ she added to the groom who was putting the steps down and remaining impassive in the face of his mistress’s indiscreet complaints.
Isobel followed her mother into the dress shop, sat down and proceeded to show every interest in the fashion plates laid out in front of her, the swatches fanned out on the table and the lists of essential gowns her mother had drawn up.
‘You have lost weight, my lady,’ Madame declared with the licence of someone who had been measuring the Jarvis ladies for almost ten years.
‘Then make everything with ample seams and I will do my best to eat my fill at all the dinner parties,’ Isobel said lightly. ‘Do you think three is a sufficient number of ballgowns, Mama?’
‘I thought you were not—that is, order more if you like, my dear.’ Her mother blinked at her, obviously confused by this sudden change of heart.
One way or another it would be her last Season—either a miracle would occur and she would be courted by a man who proved to be outstandingly tolerant, deeply understanding and eligible enough to please her parents or she would be lying in a stock of gowns she could adapt for the years of spinsterhood to come.
‘Aha! All is explained! Lady Isobel is in love,’ the Frenchwoman cried, delighted with this deduction.
Isobel simply said, ‘And two riding habits.’ She felt empty of emotion. That had to be a good thing. It meant she could lead a hollow life and indulge in all its superficial pleasures for a few months: clothes, entertainment, flirtation. It would satisfy Mama, at least for a while, and it would be something to do, something to fill the void that opened in front of her.
* * *
‘I am not certain I quite approve of Lady Leamington,’ Lady Bythorn remarked two weeks later as the queue of carriages inched a few feet closer to the red carpet on the pavement outside the large mansion in Cavendish Square. ‘She strikes me as being altogether too lax in the people she invites to her balls, but, on the other hand, there is no doubt it will be a squeeze and all the most fashionable gentlemen will be there.’
Isobel contented herself with smoothing the silver net that draped her pale blue silk skirts. A shocking squeeze would mean plenty of partners to dance with, many fleeting opportunities for superficial, meaningless flirtation to give the illusion of obedience to her mother. In large, crowded events she felt safe, hidden in the multitude like one minnow in a school of fish.
Following the scandal of Lord Andrew’s arrest and subsequent disappearance to his country estates, she found herself of interest to virtually everyone she met. Men she had snubbed before seemed eager to try their luck with her again, young ladies gasped and fluttered and wanted to know all about how ghastly it had been. The matrons nodded wisely over the sins of modern young men and how well dear Lady Isobel was bearing up.