‘No. But it all ended badly—I thought he felt the same for me, but it is quite obvious that he does not, and, in any case, there is no way we can ever be together. His mother sees me as a threat to him and I think she must be behind whatever is going on here. But how she ever found out, I do not know.’
‘You did not tell him?’
‘That I had a child? No. He knows that Lucas and I anticipated our marriage, but that is all.’ Isobel paced to the window and stood staring out at the darkening gardens. ‘Perhaps I am worrying unduly after all, for unless one of your people betrays us, there is no reason anyone might suspect Annabelle is not exactly who you say she is.’
‘And I trust them implicitly,’ Jane said, nodding. ‘There might be a danger if she resembled you closely, but as it is, she is very obviously a Needham. It is seven months since you saw her, isn’t it? She is growing.’
‘Yes.’ It seemed like seven years. ‘May I see her now? I did not want to speak of this unless we were alone, but now, I cannot wait. Is she much changed?’
‘I think she is perfect, but you will judge for yourself.’ Her friend’s smile was warm and once again Isobel was filled with gratitude that Jane had taken her child, loved her like her own and yet was prepared to share her so unselfishly. ‘She is bright, quick and very lovely. Come and see—they are in the kitchen with old Rosemary, hindering her efforts to make cakes.’
Isobel almost ran down the stone-flagged passageway and into the kitchen. Two small children were perched on the edge of the big table, legs dangling, their eyes glued to the big bowl of fruit cake mixture the cook was stirring.
‘More plums,’ Nathanial demanded, but Isobel could only focus on the little girl.
She scooped her up, warm and sweet and slightly sticky around the mouth from stealing batter. ‘Surprise!’
‘Aunt Ishbel,’ Annabelle said with a crow of delight and a kiss. She had never been able to get her tongue around Isobel’s name.
‘How pretty you look—and how sticky you are.’ Isobel whirled her round in her arms and everything in the world was right again. Then she stopped at the sight of their reflection in the battered mirror propped at one end of the dresser. Annabelle, female to her chubby fingertips, examined her own image with interest. Two heads of tumbled hair, soft and slippery, sliding out of its pins, but Annabelle’s was blonde while Isobel’s was brown. Two rather determined little chins, but very different noses. Two pairs of wide grey eyes.
‘Pretty,’ Annabelle said with a crow of delight.
‘Pretty,’ Isobel agreed. Oh, thank you, Lucas, for giving me this child. And anyone who saw them together would not pick up any significant likeness, she was sure. She turned to see Jane smiling as she watched them.
‘She grew so quickly,’ Jane said. ‘One minute she was still a chubby little baby and the next, there she is—a little girl. Now I think we can see what they will be like when they grow up. They are both going to have the Needham height, don’t you think?’
‘Yes,’ Isobel agreed, swallowing the tears that threatened to well up. It was ridiculous to weep because she was so happy to be here and it would frighten Annabelle. ‘I cannot believe how she has grown.’
She had dreamed of the experiences she and her ‘niece’ would share as Annabelle grew up. They would go shopping together, she would be there at her first parties, her first dance. She would hear her whispered confidences about first love.
‘Isn’t it bath time?’ she asked, grinning at little Nathaniel as he stuck out his lower lip mutinously. ‘Come along, I’ll tell you stories about Wimpole Hall where I have been staying and about London and I’ll tuck you up in bed.’
‘Cake,’ Annabelle said. ‘Cake and bath and stories and bed.’
‘Bath and bed and stories now, cake in the morning,’ Isobel countered, holding out her hand to the little boy. ‘How many stairs is it up to bed? I’ll wager you cannot count them yet.’
‘I can!’ He was off at a run and Isobel followed him, her cheek pressed against Annabelle’s soft one. Oh, Lucas, what a lovely child we made. I’ll protect her, I promise. Even if the danger was from the man she now loved.
* * *
‘Come and see the kittens.’ Annabelle stood beside the breakfast table and hopped from one foot to the other while Isobel spread honey on her last piece of toast. ‘Mama says I may have a kitten.’
‘A puppy,’ Nathaniel contradicted.
‘Both,’ Jane said, rolling her eyes. ‘But by the time they decide which they are going to have they’ll be grown cats and dogs.’