‘Are you our Cousin Isobel?’ Lizzie was wide-eyed with excitement at being allowed to a grown-up party. Isobel felt her stiff shoulders relax. He was not here and the children were charming.
* * *
Giles Harker straightened up from his contemplation of the collection of Roman intaglio seals in a small display table set against the wall. Lady Isobel had entered without seeing him and he frowned at her straight back and intricate pleats of brown hair as she spoke to Philip and Lizzie. She was a confounded nuisance, especially in a household presided over by a lady of known high standards. Lady Hardwicke’s disapproval would blight his chances of commissions from any of her wide social circle. She might be a blue-stocking and a playwright, but she was the daughter of the Earl of Balcarres and a lady of principle.
The Yorke daughters were charming, modest and well behaved, if inclined to giggle if spoken to. But this distant cousin was another matter altogether. At his first sight of her a tingle of recognition had gone down his spine. She was dangerous, although quite why, Giles would have been hard pressed to define. There was something in those wide grey eyes, her best feature. Some mystery that drew his unwilling interest.
Her frank and unabashed scrutiny had been an unwelcome surprise in an unmarried lady. He was used to the giggles and batted eyelashes of the young women making their come-outs and made a point of avoiding them. His birth was impossibly ineligible, of course, even if his education, style and income gave him the entrée to most of society. But he was unmarriageable and dangerous and that, he was well aware, was dinned into the young ladies he came into contact with.
Yet those very warnings were enough to make some of them think it irresistibly romantic that the illegitimate son of the Scarlet Widow was so handsome and so unobtainable.
For certain married ladies Giles Harker was not at all unobtainable—provided his notoriously capricious choice fell on them. Something the son of the most scandalous woman in society learned early on was that one’s value increased with one’s exclusivity and he was as coolly discriminating in his sins as his mother was warmly generous in hers. Even in her fifties—not that she would ever admit to such an age despite the incontrovertible evidence of an adult son—her heart was broken with delicious drama at least twice a year. His remained quite intact. Love, he knew from observation, was at best a fallacy, at worst, a danger.
Lord Hardwicke and Soane straightened up from their litter of plans, young Lord Royston blushed and the countess smiled. ‘Come in, my dear. Philip, bring that chair over to the sofa for Cousin Isobel.’
Giles watched as she walked farther into the room with an assurance that confirmed him in his estimate of her age. ‘Thank you, Lord Royston,’ she said as he brought her chair. ‘And you are Lady Lizzie?’
‘I think I must be Cousin Isobel to you and Philip, for your mama assures me we are all related. Will you take me and introduce me to your sisters?’
Giles let the lid of the display table drop for the last fraction of an inch. Lady Isobel turned at the small, sharp sound. There was a friendly smile on her lips and it stayed, congealed into ice, as her gaze passed over him without the slightest sign of recognition.
A most-accomplished cut direct. It seemed an extreme reaction. He had sent her that chilling look in the hall out of sheer self-defence, as he did with any over-bold young woman who seemed interested. Mostly they took the hint and retreated blushing. This one seemed to have taken deep offence instead. She turned back and went to take her seat, sinking on to it with trained elegance.
For the first time in a long time Giles felt a stirring of interest in an utterly ineligible woman and it made him uneasy. That meeting of eyes in the hallway had been astonishing. He had intended to warn off yet another wide-eyed virgin and instead had found his snub returned with interest and hostility. Why she was so forward, and why he was so intrigued, was a mystery.
The earl began to pour drinks for the ladies without troubling to ring for a footman. Giles strolled over. ‘Allow me to assist, sir.’ He took the two glasses of lemonade for the youngest girls, noting how tactfully their father had used wine glasses to make them feel grown up. He came back and fetched the ratafia for Lady Anne and Lady Isobel, leaving the earl to serve his wife.
‘Lady Isobel.’ He proffered the glass, keeping hold of it so that she had to respond to him.
‘Thank you.’ She glanced up fleetingly, but did not turn her body towards him. ‘Would you be so good as to put it on that side table, Mr Harker?’ He might, from her tone, have been a clumsy footman.