‘You are very agitated for a woman who is merely going to visit a friend for a few days,’ he remarked, cutting through her thoughts and sending her tumbling into unconsidered speech.
‘If I am agitated, then it is because I cannot get free from you. It seems I cannot keep even my secrets—’ She stumbled to a halt.
‘So,’ Giles said slowly, his eyes never leaving her face with its betraying colour, ‘I am right. You have a secret, one greater than the loss of your virginity, one that you would not trust to me even though you tell me you loved me, even though then you had no reason to mistrust me. You are afraid. Is it a secret that lays you open to blackmail, perhaps?’
‘Blackmail?’ Isobel went cold. ‘No, of course not.’ Was that what the prying stranger was about? But who had sent him? ‘You may leap to whatever conclusions you wish, Giles Harker. You have made me so angry I scarce know what I am saying.’
‘No, you are not angry.’ He caught her hands in his and held them even when she tugged. ‘Or, rather, anger is not the main emotion here. You are afraid.’
Unable to free herself without a struggle, Isobel turned her face away. What she was going to do when he left her alone—if he ever did—she had no idea. She dared not let him know where she was going or she might lead him to Annabelle. All she could do was to get to Jane and try, somehow, to work out how to protect her daughter and her friend.
‘Of course I am afraid—I am locked in a room and being manhandled. Am I your prisoner while you interrogate me?’ she demanded. Defiance was the only weapon she had against the fear and the awful weakness of her love for him. And that love would betray Annabelle.
Giles released her wrists and she stood rubbing them, although he had not held her tight enough to hurt. The touch of his hands, the fingers that had orchestrated such pleasure in her, seemed to burn like ice. ‘This has gone too far for me to walk away from it now, Isobel, whether you want me or trust me or not. You are in trouble, more trouble than you know.’
He turned the key in the lock and walked out, letting the door slam behind him. Isobel sank down in the chair behind her, her knees suddenly like warm wax.
‘My lady? I passed him on the stairs and he looked like thunder—are you all right, my lady? I should never have left you alone with him.’
‘I am perfectly fine, Dorothy,’ Isobel said with a calm that was intended to steady herself as much as the maid. ‘Mr Harker and I had unfinished business, that is all. I did not have the opportunity to say everything I wanted to when we left Wimpole.’
She had not convinced her, but there was nothing to be done about it now. ‘Dinner will be here soon and neither of us have so much as washed our hands.’
But what had those parting words meant? How did he know she was in trouble?
* * *
‘Just you stop right there, my bullies.’
The chaise juddered to a halt and Isobel let down the window. ‘Ned! Ned Foster, it is I, Lady Isobel. Please open the gate.’
‘Yes, my lady!’ the big man called back and swung open the heavy gate that barred the entrance into the manor courtyard. Chickens ran flapping in panic as the postilions brought the chaise in and Isobel heard the clang of the gate thudding back into its catches. It felt as though she was in a besieged castle. Isobel fought back the melodramatic image and gathered her things.
She was paying off the men and Dorothy was carrying the bags around to the back entrance as Jane came running down the steps, a big shawl bundled around her shoulders against the raw air. ‘Isobel! I did not dare hope you’d come. How long can you stay?’
‘For as long as it takes,’ Isobel said grimly as she hugged her friend. ‘I am so glad to be here. The weather was bad after Oxford and there was a landslip about sixty miles from Oxford so we had to spend another day on the road. Oh, Jane,’ she confessed as they entered the hallway, out of earshot of the servants. ‘I do not know what is going on here, or who is to blame for it, but I have been so foolish. I fell in love with the most impossible man and I think this is a consequence. I am so sorry.’
‘Foolish to fall in love?’ Jane smiled. ‘That is never foolish.’
‘It is when the man in question is the illegitimate son of the Scarlet Widow.’
Her friend’s eyes widened. ‘Oh, my, I have heard of her. But how on earth did you meet him? Does he know you love him?’
‘Unfortunately, yes. We made love, Jane,’ she added as the drawing-room door shut safely behind them. Best to get the entire confession over as quickly as possible.