‘There is absolutely nothing wrong with Miss Holt who is tolerably pretty, intelligent and twenty-three years old. What is wrong with her father is a series of investments that have gone badly wrong, an estate mortgaged to the hilt and four unmarried daughters on his hands.’
Giles turned round fully to face his mother. ‘So Caroline is the sacrificial lamb. You buy her for me, Holt pays off the debts and the other girls can enter the Marriage Mart with some hope of attracting respectable husbands. Provided they aren’t seen with their brother-in law, that is.’
‘Exactly. And you get a well-bred wife who will be grateful for all we have done for her family.’
‘How did you find her?’ he asked even as he wondered how he was managing to keep his temper, and the urge to storm into the ballroom and drag Isobel out of it, under control.
‘I have excellent enquiry agents.’
Of course, Geraldine had always prided herself on being able to find out anything about anyone. It was how she made such good choices in her lovers, avoided blackmailers, kept away from men with wives who had connections that would be dangerous to her and always found the right place to invest her money.
‘I hope you have not made the Holts any promises.’ His body was throbbing with frustrated desire. He felt as though he had been kicked in the gut and he had an overwhelming need to break something. ‘Because I am not marrying the girl, for which she should be profoundly grateful. I have told you before, there is nothing you can buy me, least of all a wife.’
A dismissive flick of Geraldine’s hand was all the acknowledgement she gave that she had heard him. ‘Caroline Holt is not going anywhere far from her home in the wilds of Suffolk,’ the Widow said with a thin smile. ‘She will wait until you come to your senses about the Jervis chit.’
‘My senses are perfectly in order, ma’am. My refusal to marry Miss Holt has nothing to do with Lady Isobel.’
‘Liar!’ she threw at him. ‘She ruined your looks and yet you lust after her like a—’
‘Mother,’ Giles said. It stopped her in midrant. He never called her that unless he was deeply angered and she knew it. ‘I have it on good authority that a broken nose and a couple of scars gives me an interesting air of danger. Really, I should thank Lady Isobel.’
The Widow took a deep breath. ‘I would sacrifice everything for you, Giles. I would do anything to ensure your future.’
It was guilt, he knew, although she would never admit it, or probably even recognise it. Her actions had made him a bastard—now she would fight tooth and nail to force society to accept him.
‘I can look after my own future,’ he said, not unkindly. He hated it when her voice shook like that. ‘Society accepts me for who I am and I make my own way in it. Go back to Carstairs and stop plotting: I’ll not have Lady Isobel insulted.’ Knowing Jack Carstairs, her current youthful lover, he would be scouring the house trying to discover where Geraldine had got to, well aware that he would probably have to extricate her from some scrape or another when he did find her.
Giles walked away with the firm intention of getting drunk. Behind him he thought he heard Geraldine repeat, ‘Anything,’ but he was not certain. Besides, there was no need to worry—there was nothing that she could do to harm Isobel. He was her only dark secret and Geraldine would not risk involving him in further scandal.
* * *
‘Who is your letter from, Isobel?’ Lady Bythorn glanced up from her own correspondence. ‘You’ve been staring at the same page for minutes. Is the handwriting bad?’
‘No. No it is from Jane Needham. I am just...thinking.’
We are all in the best of health and the children are flourishing despite being cooped up with the dreadful weather, Jane had written. Nathaniel wants a puppy and Annabelle wants a kitten, so I foresee scratches all round before much longer. The oddest thing happened the other day: there was a stranger staying at the Needham Arms—we heard all about him because, as you know, we hardly ever get any strangers in the parish and the rumour was he looked like a Bow Street Runner. Which is pure fancy of course, because no one here has ever seen a Runner!
But he came to the house asking for you and when I saw him and told him he was mistaken, that you do not live here, he just brushed it aside and said he’s heard you stayed here sometimes. I demanded to know his business and he said he had been sent by a distant relative of yours, a sea captain, who was estranged from the family and was trying to make contact again, but who did not want to go directly to your parents. It sounded the most perfect nonsense to me and I said as much and he bowed himself off. But the thing that worries me is, when Molly went out for firewood yesterday afternoon she found him talking to the children in the yard—they had gone to look at the puppies.