‘I’m going to Herefordshire to find out what is going on. But I’ll see Geraldine first and make damned certain she stops this nonsense.’
‘The best of luck, old chap,’ Carstairs said with a rueful grin.
* * *
Isobel got down from the chaise at the Bell in Oxford at seven in the evening, nine hours after she had finished reading Jane’s letter at breakfast that morning. They had made better time than she had expected, but even so she felt exhausted already and there were another fourteen or fifteen hours travelling ahead of her.
‘Looks a decent enough place,’ Dorothy conceded with a sniff as one of the porters came forward, touched his forelock and took their bags.
‘We will require two adjoining bedchambers and a private parlour,’ Isobel said. ‘The quieter the better.’
‘Yes, ma’am, there’s just the thing free, if you’ll come this way.’
‘And hot water and tea and a good supper,’ Dorothy chimed in, clutching the dressing case that she insisted on keeping with her even though Isobel had brought no jewellery.
‘We’re famous for our suppers, at the Bell.’ The man halted. ‘Just mind this chaise coming in, ma’am.’
The vehicle with four horses sweating in the traces swept into the yard and pulled up in front of them. Isobel stepped back to take a new path to the inn entrance.
The door opened in her face, the porter hurried forwards. ‘Here, mind the lady!’ Dorothy took her arm and a tall figure dropped down onto the cobbles.
‘What the devil are you doing here?’ He slammed the carriage door shut and confronted her, for all the world as if he had a right to know of her movements, she thought, feeding her temper to keep the treacherous delight at seeing him at bay.
‘Never you mind my lady’s business and watch your tongue, you rogue.’ Dorothy planted her hands on her hips and confronted him, bristling. ‘A respectable lady ought to be able to travel the country without being accosted in inn yards by the likes of you!’
Heads were turning, more carriages were pulling in. ‘I think we would draw less attention if we go inside,’ Isobel said, tugging at her stalwart defender’s arm. ‘Come, Dorothy.’
‘I’ll have them fetch the parish constable, I will,’ the maid scolded as she marched into the inn on Isobel’s heels. ‘I told you he was no gentleman. What’s he doing here, I’d like to know!’
‘I, too, would like to know what Giles Harker is doing in Oxford,’ Isobel said with feeling. She felt queasy with surprise and nerves, her pulse was all over the place and her thoughts were in turmoil. After that initial shock, the delight of thinking that, somehow, he had come for her, common sense reasserted itself.
What was Giles doing here? It was too much of a coincidence that they should both find themselves in an Oxford inn. Had she been wrong and he was the one behind the mysterious stranger who was probing the secrets of Longmere? But if that was the case it could only be out of some twisted desire to hurt her, to expose her secrets, and surely she had done nothing to deserve that? It was hard to believe she had been so far awry in her assessment of his character.
‘Welcome, my lady.’ The landlord appeared and ushered them farther in. ‘If a nice pair of rooms with a parlour on the quiet side of the house is what is wanted, we have just the thing. If you will follow me, ma’am.
‘I’ll have hot water sent up directly, my lady, and supper will be on the table within the half hour. Here you are, ma’am.’
‘That looks very satisfactory, thank you.’ He could have shown them into a prison cell for all Isobel cared, or noticed. The man bowed himself out and Dorothy threw herself dramatically in front of the door, her back pressed to the panels.
‘He’ll not get in here, the vile seducer!’
‘Oh, for goodness’ sake, Dorothy, Mr Harker is no such thing, although what he is doing here I have no idea.’ A rap on the door made Dorothy jump. She emitted a small scream and flung it open to reveal a startled maid with a jug. ‘Your hot water, ma’am.’
‘Thank you.’ Isobel waited until the girl had gone before she turned back to Dorothy. ‘There is no need for alarm. Please be less melodramatic! There is absolutely no call for all this shrieking—oh!’ She pressed her hand to her thudding heart as the door swung open on the knock and Giles stepped into the room.
‘Lady Isobel. Will you join me for supper?’
‘Certainly not. I have no intention of dining with a man in an inn, and most definitely not with you.’ She looked at him with painful intensity. The scars were paler and thinner now. His expression was politely neutral, but his eyes were wary. As well they might be, she thought as she strove to settle her breathing.