‘Oh, yes. She had no other motive than to protect her son, she will wish me no harm once Giles has convinced her I am no threat to his standing or his career.’
‘Hah!’ Lady Bythorn said, swiping ineffectually at her eyes with a tiny scrap of lace.
‘Mama, he saved my life when I would have drowned. He was scarred defending my honour.’
‘True enough,’ her father admitted. ‘Can we see Annabelle? Or must you keep her from us?’
‘No! Of course I will not. But we cannot acknowledge who she is, you must see that. Her prospects are good now—her birth seems perfectly respectable, she will grow up without any stain, a Needham. And her supposed father was Lucas’s half-brother, after all.
‘But we can visit. She calls me “Aunt,” so it is only natural that you should take an interest in her. Jane can visit us here and bring the children.’
‘Oh, yes.’ Lady Bythorn brightened, sat up and rubbed her palms over her wet cheeks. ‘My granddaughter! Oh, my goodness.’
‘And what of you, Isobel?’ her father asked.
She shook her head. ‘I cannot marry. I cannot hide this from my husband and even if I did find someone, I dare not risk Annabelle’s reputation by telling him before I am wed.’ She added, ‘I will finish this Season, I do not wish to cause any further talk.’
‘Oh, my dear.’ He sighed and shook his head, but when he looked at her there was a smile lurking under the heavy dark brows. ‘But thank you for my grandchild.’ As she got up he rose too and came round the desk to embrace her. ‘I had hoped, after Needham’s death, you could have found a good man who would love you.’
‘I did, Papa,’ she said. ‘But it seems I cannot have him. I must write to Jane.’
* * *
The Season was in full swing now. Isobel hurled herself into it as though the sea of frivolity and pleasure could wash away the pain and the longing. Only her parents’ delight in hearing about Annabelle kept her spirits up and the arrival of some portrait sketches that Jane had asked the village schoolmaster to make had them in a frenzy of planning for a visit just as soon as the summer came.
Taking tea after dinner a week after her return, Isobel overheard her father in conversation with their host. ‘...remodelling the entire West Wing of the Priory,’ Lord Roehampton said. ‘Got a very promising young architect working on it—Harker. But I was forgetting,’ he added, lowering his voice. ‘He’s the man who stood up for Albright over that wretched business your daughter fell victim to. Good show, that. His mother’s a menace in society, but he can’t help that and, to do him credit, he stands by her. Loyal, as I said to Lady Roehampton when she was cavilling about employing him. The man’s got the instincts of a gentleman.’
‘Yes,’ Lord Bythorn said slowly. ‘It seems he has.’
Isobel stared at her father, a hope forming in her mind so improbable, she hardly dared try to think it through. As the three of them sat in the carriage on the short ride home through the streets of Mayfair she said abruptly, before she could give herself time to lose courage, ‘Papa, if Giles Harker came to you now and asked for my hand in marriage, what would you say?’
‘My love, he would not do such a thing. He knows it would cause a scandal. I think I’ve discovered enough about the man by now to know he won’t hurt you,’ her father said gruffly.
‘But if he did, would it cause a scandal if you said yes?’ she asked. ‘I know it would if you forbade the match and we ran away together. But if it was seen that you approved, would that not make all the difference?’
‘Isobel!’ her mother interjected. ‘You cannot marry a man born out of wedlock.’
‘Why not? I am not going to marry any other man and it seems to me that if it does not hurt anyone else, then I may as well be happy as not! It is not as though I wish to be received at court again or spend my time at Almack’s. Papa—if you gave us your blessing, would there be a scandal? One that would hurt you and Mama, be difficult for Frederick at school? One that would ruin Giles’s business?’
Her mother moaned again at the word business, but her father said, after a pause, ‘You heard me talking to Roehampton? I must confess, I see Harker in a different light now, with all that has happened. No, I do not think it would cause more than a seven-day wonder, not if I gave it my blessing and your mother received him. You have enough of a reputation for eccentricity already, my dear.’
‘Oh, Papa!’ She launched herself across the carriage and hugged him, squashing his silk hat. ‘Thank you!’