They were crushed into a corner now, his hand under her skirts as she lifted her leg to hook it around his hip to give him access. It was mad, insane, they were both so angry, both so—
The sharp clip of heels on marble was like a bucket of cold water thrown in her face. Isobel gasped, found her feet, pushed at Giles even as he spun round instinctively to shield her.
‘Geraldine,’ Giles said. His mother.
From behind him Isobel could see the dark sheen of black satin, the glitter of diamonds. She pushed her way free to stand at his side and confront the other woman, her chin up.
‘You little fool,’ the Dowager hissed. ‘So you lied to me. You will be sorry for this. Very sorry.’
Isobel simply turned on her heel and walked away. Neither of them made the slightest attempt to stop her.
The passage turned and she jumped at the sight of someone coming towards her, then she saw it was her own reflection in a long glass. Her bodice was awry, her hair half-down, her skirts crumpled. With hands that shook Isobel righted her gown, twisted the loose ringlets back into order, fanned her face with her hands until the hectic colour began to subside, then went out into the ballroom before she had time to think about what had just happened.
‘Mama.’ Lady Bythorn was deep in conversation with the Dowager Lady Darvil, but she turned with a smile that became rigid when she saw Isobel’s face.
‘Are you unwell, my dear? You look quite—’
‘Flustered,’ Isobel hissed. ‘I know. Mama, I must speak with you alone. Urgently.’
‘You have the migraine?’ Lady Bythorn said clearly as she got to her feet. ‘Do excuse us, Georgiana, I fear Isobel is suffering from the heat—we had best go home. Come, dear.’
With a suitably wan smile for Lady Darvil, Isobel let herself be led to the hallway and fanned while their cloaks were found and the carriage called.
‘What is it?’ her mother demanded the moment they were inside. ‘Has someone been referring to the scandal?’
‘No. Mama, the Dowager Lady Faversham found me in the retiring room and said the most horrible things. She blames me for the injuries Mr Harker suffered.’
‘Oh, my heavens! That frightful creature. I knew Frederica Leamington could not be trusted not to invite the wrong sort of people. Did anyone hear her?’
‘Only Pamela Monsom and she is very discreet. There were other people in the room, but they did not hear exactly what she said and when she left I explained that she was upset about Mr Harker’s scars and they were very sympathetic. But they are sure to gossip.’
‘And now your name will be linked with his,’ her mother observed grimly. ‘There is nothing to be done but brazen it out—thank goodness he was not there tonight!’
Isobel bit her lower lip. She did not feel capable of confessing to her mother that Giles Harker had indeed been at the ball. Her body still quivered from his touch and from the anger that had flashed between them.
‘There, there.’ Her mother leaned over in the shadowed interior to pat her hand. ‘It will be all right. That woman has such a dreadful reputation that no respectable person would believe a word she has to say.’
But I do. She said I would be sorry, and she meant it.
‘What the devil are you about?’ Giles planted himself squarely in the corridor to block his mother’s furious, impetuous path. She was quite capable of sweeping out into the ballroom on Isobel’s heels and continuing this scene there.
‘You fool,’ she snapped at him, eyes flashing. ‘You aren’t content with having your face ruined for the sake of that little madam, but now you are getting yourself entangled with her. She’ll be the ruin of you! She’s an earl’s daughter—Bythorn won’t stand for it and he has influence.’
‘And he never slept with you, so you can’t play that card,’ Giles drawled, hanging on to his temper by a hair’s breadth. ‘I am not entangled with Isobel Jarvis—’
‘We were merely continuing an argument.’
‘An argument? I have heard it called many things, Giles, but never that!’
‘I am not having an affair with the girl.’
‘No,’ the Widow said grimly. ‘You fancy yourself in love with her.’
‘I am not in love with her. I am considering strangling her.’
‘Listen to me! I have found you the perfect wife, Giles,’ she said as he turned on his heel.
‘Really?’ he threw back over his shoulder. ‘Some plain daughter of a Cit?’
‘No. Caroline Holt, the daughter of Sir Joshua Holt.’
‘And what is wrong with her? Or the family, that they should consider allying themselves with us?’