‘Shall I help choose?’ Both heads nodded as one—this was obviously the solution to an intractable problem.
‘Come along, then.’ Isobel put down her napkin. ‘And wrap up warmly.’
The farmyard was enclosed, with high arches in the walls to east and west. The walls kept out the wind and the stall-fed cattle and the horses kept the barns and stables surprisingly warm, so it was no hardship to sit on a bale outside the cowshed while the children brought out the kittens and puppies for inspection.
‘I think the little boy with the white tip to his tail,’ she said to Nathaniel. The pup was big and bold and looked as though he would cope well with the rough and tumble of life with Nathaniel. ‘And the black-and-white kitten with the white tip for Annabelle—and then they will match.’
Delighted, the children reached for their new pets and Annabelle promptly had her knuckles swiped by the mother cat who had stalked out to see what was going on. Isobel hauled the crying child onto her lap and hugged her and the kitten equally while she wrapped a handkerchief around the scratched hand. ‘It is all right, she was only cross because—’
‘What a charming picture. Maternal love. I thought that must be the secret, from the timing of things.’ The deep, familiar voice cut through the sounds of the farmyard, the child’s sobs, the barking of the sheepdog on its chain.
Isobel froze and Annabelle stopped wailing to inspect the new arrival.
‘Go—’ With an effort Isobel moderated her tone so as not to frighten the children. ‘Nathaniel, Annabelle, go inside and ask Cook to find a proper bandage for Annabelle’s hand and tell her I said you may have a slice of cake each.’
They ran, tears and strange men forgotten, before she changed her mind about cake directly after breakfast. Isobel stood up, the kitten unregarded in her hands. ‘You are not welcome here, Giles. How did you get in?’
‘The brawny yokel outside is guarding the front gate, but he does not appear to have the wit to work out that there is a perfectly obvious track leading to this one.’ Giles strode across the straw-strewn yard and stopped by the mounting block.
‘What do you want?’ Isobel demanded.
‘To discover if what I suspect, what my mother believes she has discovered, is true.’
‘Your mother discovered? So this is blackmail?’ Is it a secret that lays you open to blackmail, perhaps? Giles had asked. He knows, she thought, a sort of bleak misery settling over her, eclipsing even the fear.
‘It would have been if I had not caught Geraldine in time and made her tell me exactly what she had discovered about you. She’s as protective as that mother cat and has about as many scruples.’
‘What do you think you know?’ Isobel asked. Her lips felt stiff, the question almost choked her, but she had to know what she was fighting.
‘That you have a love child whom you gave away to your friend to raise as her own.’
‘I did not want to let her go!’ The kitten gave a squeak of protest and Isobel set it down next to its mother who promptly began to wash it. ‘It was the only thing to do. I suppose you think I have no courage because your mother kept you.’
‘I have to thank her for that,’ Giles said.
‘It seems she had no scruples about shaming her family or taking you from your grandfather’s care. You grew up with a mother who had a scandalous reputation, and, apparently, she had no concerns about bringing you up to have to fight every day of your life because of who you are.’
‘She gave me life and she gave me, I hope, some of her courage. But she had to fight for so long that she does not know how to stop. When I discovered that she had found out something to your detriment and was coming here to threaten you with it, I stopped her.’
‘How? Are you telling me you can control that woman?’
‘Oh, yes. She believed me when I told her that if she tried to hurt you I would take her back to the Dower House, lock her in and keep the key. I have done it before when she went beyond the limit and I’ll do it again if I have to.’
‘Then I must thank you for that, at least,’ she threw at him. ‘But if you have the situation under control, what are you doing here?’
‘I wanted to make sure you were safe here, that her agents had gone. I knew you had a secret before she discovered what it was.’
‘How?’ She had been so careful...
‘Just putting together things that you said. I realised it was something here, in Herefordshire, something to do with Needham.’ He took a step towards her, then shook his head and turned back to hitch one hip on the mounting block. ‘I must have gone over every word you have said to me, Isobel. Every silence, every moment when there was such sadness in your eyes. Until I realised she was on your trail all I wanted to do was protect you by keeping away.’