He screwed up what he had been writing and threw the paper on the fire. A letter would only do more damage. He had written the words he had wanted to say, the true words. But they were better as ashes—it would do Isobel no good to tell her he loved her.
What was he going to do now? He was not going to marry Miss Holt, that was certain. Somehow he would have to make Geraldine accept that. She only wanted him to be happy and she found his independence infuriating. She wanted to arrange everything to her satisfaction, including his happiness.
He would be happy again, one day, he supposed. One day.
‘Mama. Papa. May I speak with you?’
‘We have been speaking to each other for the last half hour,’ Lord Bythorn pointed out. But he folded his copy of the Morning Chronicle, laid it beside his breakfast plate and waited.
‘I mean, in private. In your study.’ Isobel’s chest felt tight, her breakfast—what little of it she had managed to eat—was sitting uneasily in her stomach and she was all too aware of her parents’ anxious attention.
‘Very well, if you can keep that confounded puppy of yours out of it. It has already destroyed my slippers and it has only been in the house twelve hours.’
‘Thank you, Papa.’ He was making a joke out of it, bless him.
* * *
‘Now, what is this about, eh, Isobel?’ He sat behind his big desk, Isobel and her mother in the two wing chairs in front of it. ‘This looks uncommonly like a confession.’
‘It is.’ Trust, she reminded herself. Too late to back out now. Just trust them, they love you. ‘In the last few weeks before Lucas was killed, we were lovers.’
She heard her mother’s sharply indrawn breath. Her father’s face went blank, then, to her surprise, he said, ‘Shocking, but not so very unusual.’ There was the very faintest suspicion of a smile in the fleeting look he sent her mother. Isobel opened her mouth to blurt out a question and shut it hurriedly.
‘After he died, I discovered I was pregnant.’ This time the breath was a gasp and her father’s face lost its smile as the colour ebbed out of his cheeks. ‘That was why I stayed with Jane. She is not the mother of twins: her daughter is mine. Your grandchild.’
The silence was broken only by her mother’s sob, quickly stifled with her hand. Isobel reached out her own hand, hesitated, then withdrew it.
‘You could not trust us to look after you?’ her father asked with a gentleness that warned her he was keeping a tight rein on his emotions.
‘No,’ Isobel admitted. Only the truth would serve now. ‘I was not thinking very clearly. I wanted Lucas and he was gone—I was frightened that the child would be taken from me. I could not trust anyone except Jane.’ The tears were running down her mother’s face now. This was as bad as she feared it would be—she had hurt them dreadfully. ‘I am so sorry. I did it for the best.’
She turned and this time took her mother’s hand. It stayed in hers and, after a moment, the fingers curled around her own. ‘Her name is Annabelle.’ It was her grandmother’s name.
‘Why now? Why are you telling us now? Is something wrong with her?’ Her mother clutched her hand with a desperate urgency.
‘She is perfect and she is well. No, it is not that. I realised I am never going to marry and have a family. And I saw that I was depriving you of your grandchild and that was wrong. And I have been thinking a lot about trust, these past few days—and I knew I should have trusted you from the beginning.’
‘Who knows about the child?’ her father asked.
‘Jane’s old family retainers, but they would never betray her secrets and they adore Annabelle. The doctor, and he is a family friend.’ She saw their relief and knew she had to shatter it. ‘And the Dowager Marchioness of Faversham and her son, Giles Harker.’
‘What! That wanton creature? How in blazes did she discover this?’
‘She feared I would marry Giles and that there would be a great scandal which would harm him. She uses enquiry agents all the time, it seems, so she set a man to find what secrets I might have. Her intention was to blackmail me into giving up Giles.’
‘Marry him? Give him up?’ Her mother stared, aghast. ‘You are not having a liaison with that man?’
‘I am in love with that man,’ Isobel corrected gently. ‘But, no, we are not lovers and I will not marry him—she is quite right, the scandal would ruin him. He will not admit he loves me because he thinks it would ruin me.’
‘You love him? He is a—’
‘So is our granddaughter,’ Lord Bythorn said and her mother gave a gasp of dismay. ‘Will he and that woman hold their tongues?’