Giles put the glass down, then spun a chair round and sat by her side, quite deliberately rather too close, to see if he could provoke her into some reaction. He was going to get to the bottom of this curiosity about her, then he could safely ignore her. As good breeding demanded, Lady Isobel shifted slightly on the tightly stuffed blue satin until he was presented with her profile.
Now she was rested from her journey she was much improved, he thought, hiding a connoisseur’s assessment behind a bland social smile. Her straight nose was no longer pink at the tip from cold; her hair, freed from its bonnet, proved to be a glossy brown with a rebellious wave that was already threatening her hairpins, and her figure in the fashionable gown was well proportioned, if somewhat on the slender side for his taste.
On the other hand her chin was decided, her dark brows strongly marked and there was a tension about her face that suggested that she was braced for something unpleasant. Her mouth looked as though it could set into a firm line of disapproval; it was full and pink, but by no stretch of the imagination did the words rosebud or bow come to mind. And she was quite definitely in at least her fifth Season.
Lady Isobel took up the glass, sipped and finally turned to him with a lift of her lashes to reveal her intelligent dark grey eyes. ‘Well?’ she murmured with a sweetness that did not deceive him for a second. ‘Have you studied me sufficiently to place me in your catalogue of females, Mr Harker? One well-bred spinster with brunette plumage, perhaps? Or do I not quite fit into a category, so you must bring yourself to converse with me while you decide?’
‘What makes you think I have such a catalogue, Lady Isobel?’ Giles accepted a glass of claret from the earl with a word of thanks and turned back to her. Interesting that she described herself as a spinster. She was perhaps twenty-four, he guessed, five years younger than he was. The shelf might be in sight, but she was not at her last prayers yet and it was an unusual young woman who would admit any danger that she might be.
‘You are studying me with scientific thoroughness, sir. I half expect you to produce a net and a pin to affix me amongst your moth collection.’
Moth, he noted. Not butterfly. Modesty? Or is she seeing if I can be provoked into meaningless compliments?
‘You have a forensic stare yourself, ma’am.’
Her lips firmed, just as he suspected they might. Schoolmarm disapproval, he thought. Or embarrassment, although he was beginning to doubt she could be embarrassed. Lady Isobel seemed more like a young matron than an unmarried girl. She showed no other sign of emotion and yet he could feel the tension radiating from her. It was strangely unsettling, although he should be grateful that his unwise curiosity had not led her to relax in his company.
‘You refer to our meeting of eyes in the hall? You must be tolerant of my interest, sir—one rarely sees Greek statuary walking about. I note that you do not relish being assessed in the same way as you study others, although you must be used to it by now. I am certain that you do not harbour false modesty amongst your faults.’
The composure with which she attacked began to nettle him. After that exchange she should be blushing, fiddling with her fan perhaps, retreating from their conversation to sip her drink, but she seemed quite calm and prepared to continue the duel. It confirmed his belief that she had been sounding him out with an intention to flirt—or more.
‘I have a mirror and I would be a fool to become swollen-headed over something that is due to no effort or merit of my own. Certainly I am used to stares,’ he replied. ‘And do not welcome them.’
‘So modest and so persecuted. My heart bleeds for you, Mr Harker,’ Lady Isobel said with a sweet smile and every appearance of sympathy. Her eyes were chill with dislike. ‘And no doubt you find it necessary to lock your bedchamber door at night with tiresome regularity.’
‘That, too,’ he replied between gritted teeth, then caught himself. Somehow he had been lured into an utterly shocking exchange. A well-bred unmarried lady should have fainted dead away before making such an observation. And he should have bitten his tongue before responding to it, whatever the provocation. Certainly in public.
‘How trying it must be, Mr Harker, to be so troubled by importunate members of my sex. We should wait meekly to be noticed, should we not? And be grateful for any attention we receive. We must not inconvenience, or ignore, the lords of creation who, in their turn, may ogle as much as they please while they make their lordly choices.’
Lady Isobel’s voice was low and pleasant—no one else in the room would have noticed anything amiss in their conversation. But Giles realised what the emotion was that had puzzled him: she was furiously angry. With him. Simply because he had reacted coldly to her unladylike stare? Damn it, she had been assessing him like a housewife looking at a side of beef in the butchers. Or did she know who he was and think him presumptuous to even address her?