* * *
‘I do not care any more, so I have suddenly become attractive,’ she said wryly to Pamela Monsom who stopped for a gossip when they met in the ladies’ retiring room. Pamela had been one of the few friends who had stood by her in the aftermath of the scandal, writing fiercely to say that she did not believe a word of it and that men were beasts.
‘It is not just that,’ Pamela said as she studied her, head on one side. ‘Although you are thinner you also look more... I don’t know. More grown up. Sophisticated.’
‘Older,’ Isobel countered.
‘Oh, look.’ Pamela dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘See who has just come in!’
‘Who?’ Isobel pretended to check her hem so she could turn a little and observe the doorway. ‘Who is that?’
The lady who had just entered was exceedingly beautiful in a manner that Isobel could only describe as well preserved. She might have been any age above thirty-five at that distance—tall, magnificently proportioned, with a mass of golden-brown hair caught up with diamond pins to match the necklace that lay on her creamy bosom.
She swept round, catching up the skirts of her black gown, and surveyed the room. The colour was funereal, but Isobel had never seen anything less like mourning. The satin was figured with a subtle pattern and shimmered like the night sky with the diamonds its stars.
‘That, my dear, is the Scarlet Widow,’ Miss Monsom hissed. ‘I have never been this close before—Mama always rushes off in the opposite direction whenever she is sighted. I think she must have had a fling with Papa at some point.’ She narrowed her eyes speculatively. ‘One can quite see what he saw in her.’
For the first time in days Isobel felt something: recognition, apprehension and a flutter very like fear. The wide green eyes found her and she knew Pamela was right: this was the Dowager Marchioness of Faversham, Giles’s mother.
The lush crimson lips set into a hard line and the Widow stalked into the room.
‘She is coming over here!’ Pamela squeaked. ‘Mama will have kittens!’
Isobel found she was on her feet. Her own mother would be the one needing the smelling bottle when she heard about this. ‘Lady Faversham.’ She dropped a curtsy suitable for the widow’s rank.
‘Are you Lady Isobel Jarvis?’ The older woman kept her voice low. It throbbed with emotion and Isobel felt every eye in the retiring room turn in their direction as ladies strained to hear.
‘Then you are the little hussy responsible for the damage to my son’s face.’
‘I shall ignore your insulting words, ma’am,’ Isobel said, clasping her hands together tightly so they could not shake. ‘But Mr Harker was injured in the course of assisting Lord James Albright to deal with his sister’s errant fiancé who had assaulted me.’
‘You got your claws into him, you convinced him that he must defend your honour and look what happened!’ The Widow leaned closer, the magnificent green eyes so like Giles’s that a stab of longing for him lanced through Isobel. ‘He was beautiful and you have scarred him. You foolish little virgin—you are playing with fire and I’ll not have him embroiled in some scandal because of you.’
No, I do not want to feel, I do not want to remember... ‘I should imagine that Mr Harker has far more likelihood of encountering scandal in your company than in mine, ma’am,’ Isobel said, putting up her chin. ‘If a gentleman obeys an honourable impulse on my behalf I am very grateful, but as I did not request that he act for me, I fail to see how I am responsible.’
‘You scheming jade—’
‘The pot calling the kettle black,’ Isobel murmured. Her knees were knocking, but at least her voice was steady. She had never been so rude to anyone in her entire life.
‘I am warning you—keep your hands off my son.’ By a miracle the Widow was still hissing her insults; except for Pamela beside her, no one else could hear what they were talking about.
‘I have no intention of so much as setting eyes on your son, ma’am, let alone laying a finger on him,’ Isobel retorted.
‘See that is the truth or I can assure you, you will suffer for it.’ Lady Faversham swept round and out of the room, leaving a stunned silence behind her.
‘What dramatics,’ Isobel said with a light laugh. ‘I have never met Lady Faversham before and I cannot say I wish to keep up the acquaintance!’
That produced a ripple of amusement from the handful of ladies who had been staring agog from the other end of the room. ‘What on earth is the matter with her?’ Lady Mountstead demanded as she came across to join them.