‘That is certainly what is expected of ladies, yes,’ he said, his own temper rising. He’d be damned if he was going to flirt and cajole her into a sweet mood, even if Lady Hardwicke noticed their spat. ‘Certainly unmarried ones—whatever their age.’
Her chin came up at that. ‘A hit, sir. Congratulations. But then a connoisseur such as yourself would notice only ladies who offer irresistible temptation. Not those who are on the shelf and open to advances.’
She turned her shoulder on him and immediately joined in the laughter over some jest of Philip’s before he had time to react to the emphasis she had put on some of her phrases. It took a second, then he realised that she was quoting him and his conversation with Soane a few minutes earlier.
Hell and damnation. Lady Isobel must have been outside the door. Now he felt a veritable coxcomb. He could have sworn he had seen the glitter of unshed tears in her eyes. Now what did he do? His conscience stirred uneasily. Giles trampled on the impulse to apologise. It could only make things worse by acknowledging the offending words and explaining them would simply mire him further and hurt her more. Best to say nothing. Lady Isobel would avoid him now and that was better for both of them.
‘Dinner is served, my lady.’ There was a general stir as the butler made his announcement from the doorway and the party rose. Giles made a hasty calculation about seating plans and realised that ignoring Lady Isobel might be harder than he had thought.
‘We are a most unbalanced table, I am afraid,’ the countess observed. ‘Mr Soane—shall we?’ He went to take her arm and the earl offered his to Lady Isobel. Giles partnered Lady Anne, Philip, grinning, offered his arm to fifteen-year-old Catherine and Lizzie was left to bring up the rear. When they were all seated Giles found himself between Lady Isobel and Lizzie, facing the remaining Yorke siblings and Mr Soane. Conversation was inevitable if they were not to draw attention to themselves.
Lizzie, under her mother’s eagle eye, was on her best behaviour all through the first remove, almost unable to speak to him with the effort of remembering all the things that she must and must not do. Giles concluded it would be kinder not to confuse her with conversation, which left him with no choice but to turn and proffer a ragout to Lady Isobel.
‘Thank you.’ After a moment she said, ‘Do you work with Mr Soane often?’ Her tone suggested an utter lack of interest. The question, it was obvious, was the merest dinner-table conversation that good breeding required her to make. After his disastrous overheard comments she would like to tip the dish over his head, that was quite clear, but she was going to go through the motions of civility if it killed her.
‘Yes.’ Damn it, now he was sounding sulky. Or guilty. Giles pulled himself together. ‘I worked in his drawing office when I first began to study architecture after leaving university. It was a quite incredible experience—the office is in his house, you may know—like finding oneself in the midst of Aladdin’s cave and never knowing whether one is going to bump into an Old Master painting, trip over an Egyptian sarcophagus or wander into a Gothic monk’s parlour!
‘I am now building my own practice, but I collaborate with Soane if I can be of assistance. He is a busy man and I owe him a great deal.’
Lady Isobel made a sound that might be interpreted, by the wildly optimistic, as encouragement to expand on that statement.
‘He employed me when I had no experience and, for all he knew, might prove to be useless.’
‘And you are not useless?’ She sounded sceptical.
‘No.’ Hell, sulky again. ‘I am not.’ Deciding what to do with his future during that last year at Oxford had not been easy. It would have been very simple to hang on his mother’s purse strings—even her notorious extravagances had not compromised the wealth she had inherited from her father, nor her widow’s portion.
Somehow the Dowager Marchioness of Faversham kept the bon ton’s acceptance despite breaking every rule in the book, including producing an illegitimate child by her head gardener’s irresistibly handsome soldier son, ten months after the death of her indulgent and elderly husband. She was so scandalous, so charming, that Giles believed she was regarded almost as an exotic, not quite human creature, one that could be indulged and permitted its antics.
‘I work for my living, Lady Isobel, and do it well. And I do not relish indolence,’ he added to his curt rejoinder. He would have little trouble maintaining a very full, and equally scandalous, social life at the Widow’s side, but he was not prepared to follow in her footsteps as a social butterfly. Society would have to accept him as himself, and on his own terms, or go hang if they found him too confusing to pigeonhole.