Read an Excerpt
February 2nd, 1801the Old 'North Road, Cambridgeshire
The chaise rattled and lurched. It was an almost welcome distraction from the stream of bright and cheerful chatter Isobel's maid had kept up ever since they left London. 'It isn't exile really, now is it, my lady? Your mama said you were going to rusticate in the country for your health.'
'Dorothy, I know you mean to raise my spirits, but exile is precisely the word for it.' Lady Isobel Jervis regarded the plump young woman with scarce-concealed exasperation. 'To call it rustication is to draw a polite veil over the truth. Gentlemen rusticate when they have to escape from London to avoid their creditors.
'I have been banished, in disgrace, and that is exile. If this was a sensation novel the fact that it is completely undeserved and unjust would cast a romantic glow over the situation. But this is not a novel.' She stared out through the drizzle at the gently undulating farmland rolling past the post-chaise window. In reality the injustice only increased her anger and misery.
She had taken refuge in the country once before, but that had been justified, essential and entirely her own doing. This, on the other hand, was none of those things.
'That was the sign to Cambridge we've just passed,' Dorothy observed brightly. She had been this infuri-atingly jolly ever since the scandal broke. Isobel was convinced that she had not listened to a word she had said to her.
'In that case we cannot be far from Wimpole Hall.' Isobel removed her hands from under the fur-lined rug and took the carriage clock from its travelling case on the hook. 'It is almost two o'clock. We left Berkeley Street at just before eight, spent an hour over luncheon and changing horses, so we have made good time.'
'And the rain has eased,' Dorothy said, bent on finding yet another reason for joy.
'Indeed. We will arrive in daylight and in the dry.' The chaise slowed, then swung in through imposing gateposts. From her seat on the left-hand side Isobel glimpsed the bulk of a large brick inn and a swinging sign. 'The Hardwicke Armswe are in the right place, at least.'
As they passed between the gateposts Isobel began to take more interest in the prospect from the window: it would be her home for the next two months.
The tree-dotted parkland rose gently on the left-hand side. She glimpsed a small stone building on the top of one low knoll, then, as the carriage swung round, the house came into view.
'Lawks,' Dorothy observed inelegantly.
'It is the largest house in the shire,' Isobel pointed out. 'I thought it might be a small palace from what Mama said, but it looks curiously welcoming, don't you think? Quite like home at Bythorn Hall.' It was no simple mansion, to be sure, but the red brick looked warm, despite the chill of the sodden February air.
The chaise drew up close to the double sweep of steps that led to the front door. Too soon. Isobel fought the sudden wave of panic. The Earl and Countess of Hardwicke had offered her shelter for the sake of their old friendship with her parentsPhilip Yorke, the third earl, had met her father, the Earl of Bythorn, at Oxfordso they were hardly strangers, she told herself, even if she had not met them for several years.
'Be on your best behaviour, Dorothy,' she warned. 'The earl has been appointed the first Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, so he will soon be the king's representative.'
'Foreign, that's what Ireland is,' the maid said with a sniff. 'Don't hold with it.'
'It is part of the new United Kingdom,' Isobel said repressively. 'You enjoyed the celebrations at the beginning of the year, do not pretend that you did not! I must say I would like to see Dublin when the earl and countess move there in April, but they will have far more important things to worry about then than a house guest.'
In fact it was very kind of Lord Hardwicke and Elizabeth, his witty blue-stocking countess, to give sanctuary to their old friend's disgraced daughter at such a critical juncture in their lives. It might suit the Jervises to put it about that Isobel was helping the countess with her preparations, but she was sure she would be more of a distraction than a help.
She had wanted to flee to her friend Jane Needham's cheerful country manor in the depths of the Herefordshire countryside. It was remote, it was safe and it held warmth and love. But Mama had been adamant: if scandal forced her daughter to retreat from London, then she would do so, very ostentatiously, under the wing of a leading aristocratic family.
The doors opened, footmen came down the steps, and Dorothy began to gather up their scattered shawls and reticules as Isobel tied her bonnet ribbons and strove for poise.
It was too late to back away now: the carriage door was opened, a footman offered his arm. Isobel put back her shoulders, told herself that the shivers running down her spine were due entirely to the February chill and walked up the steps with a smile on her lips.
'My dear Isobel! The cold has put roses in your cheekslet me kiss you.' The entrance hall seemed full of people, but Lady Hardwicke's warm voice was an instant tonic, lifting spirits and nerve. 'What a perfectly ghastly day, yet you have made such good time!'
Caught before she could curtsy, Isobel returned the embrace wholeheartedly. 'Thank you, ma'am. It was an uneventful journey, but it is a great relief to be here, I must confess.'
'Now please do not ma'am me. Call me Cousin Elizabeth, for we are related, you know, although rather vaguely on your mother's side, it is true. Come and greet my lord. You are old friends, I think.'
'My lord.' This time she did manage her curtsy to the slender man with the big dark eyes and earnest, intelligent face. Philip Yorke was in his mid-forties, she recalled, but his eager expression made him look younger.
'Welcome to Wimpole, my dear Isobel.' He caught her hands and smiled at her. 'What a charming young woman you have grown into, to be sure. Is it really four years since I last saw you?'
'Yes, sir. After Lucas after Lord Needham's funeral.' As soon as she said it Isobel could have bitten her tongue. Her host's face clouded with embarrassment at having reminded her of the death of her fiance and she hurried into speech. 'It is delightful to meet you again in happy circumstancesmay I congratulate you upon your appointment to the lieutenancy?'
He smiled in acknowledgement of her tact. 'Thank you, my dear. A great honour that I can only hope to be worthy of.' Behind him one of the two men standing beside the butler shifted slightly. 'You must allow me to introduce our other guests.' The earl turned to motion them forwards. 'Mr Soane, who is doing such fine work on the house for us, and Mr Harker, who is also an architect and who is assisting in some of Mr Soane's schemes for improvements in the grounds. Gentlemen, Lady Isobel Jervis, the daughter of my old friend the Earl of Bythorn.'
'My lady.' They bowed as one. Isobel was fairly certain that she had shut her mouth again by the time they had straightened up. Mr Soane was in his late forties, dark, long-faced and long-chinned, his looks distinctive rather than handsome. But Mr Harker was, without doubt, the most beautiful man she had ever set eyes upon.
Not that she had any time for handsome bucks these days, but even a woman who had vowed to spurn the male sex for ever would have had her resolution shaken by the appearance of this man. He was, quite simply, perfection, unless one would accept only blond hair as signifying true male beauty. His frame was tall, muscular and elegantly proportioned. His rich golden-brown hair was thick with a slight wave, a trifle overlong. His features were chiselled and classical and his eyes were greensomewhere, Isobel thought with a wild plunge into the poetic, between shadowed sea and a forest glade.
It was preposterous for any man to look like that, she decided while the three of them exchanged murmured greetings. It was superfluous to be quite so handsome in every feature. There must be something wrong with him. Perhaps he was unintelligentbut then, the earl would not employ him and Mr Soane, who had a considerable reputation to maintain and who had worked for the earl at Hammels Park before he succeeded to the title, would not associate with him. Perhaps he was socially inept, or effeminate or had a high squeaky voice or bad teeth or a wet handshake
'Lady Isobel,' he said, in a voice that made her think of honey and with a smile that revealed perfect teeth. He took her hand in a brief, firm handshake.
Perfection there as well. Isobel swallowed hard, shocked by the sudden pulse of attraction she felt when she looked at him. A purely physical reflex, of courseshe was a woman and not made of stone. He would be a bore, that was it. He would talk for hours at meals about breeding spaniels or the importance of drainage or the lesser-known features of the night sky or toadstools.
But the perfect smile had not reached his eyes and the flexible, deep voice had held no warmth. Was he shy, perhaps?
The two architects drew back as the countess gave instructions to the butler and the earl asked for details of her journey. Isobel realised she could study Mr Harker's profile in a long mirror hanging on the wall as they chatted. What on earth must it be like to be so good looking? It was not a problem that she had, for while she knew herself to be tolerably attractiveelegant and charming were the usual words employed to describe hershe was no great beauty. She studied him critically, wondering where his faults and weaknesses were hidden.
Then she saw that the remarkable green eyes were fixed and followed the direction of his gaze, straight to her own reflection in the glazing of a picture. She had been staring at Mr Harker in the most forward manner and he had been observing her do it.
Slowly she made the slight turn that allowed her to face him. Their gazes locked again as she felt a wave of complex emotion sweep through her. Physical attraction, certainly, but curiosity and a strange sense of recognition also. His eyes, so hypnotically deep and green, held an awareness, a question and, mysteriously, a darkness that tugged at her heart. Loneliness? Sadness? The thought flickered through her mind in a fraction of a second before they both blinked and she dismissed the fancy and was back with the social faux pas of having been caught blatantly staring at a man. A man who had been staring at her.
The polished boards did not, of course, open up and swallow her. Isobel fought the blush that was rising to her cheeks with every ounce of willpower at her disposal and attempted a faint smile. They were both adult enough to pass this off with tolerable composure. She expected to see in return either masculine smugness coupled with flirtation or a rueful acknowledgement that they had both been caught out staring. What she did not expect was to see those complex and haunting emotions she had observed a moment earlier turn to unmistakable froideur.
The expression on Mr Harker's face was not simply haughty, it was cold and dismissive. There was the faintest trace of a sneer about that well-shaped mouth. She was no doubt intended to feel like a silly little chit making cow's eyes at a handsome man.
Well, she was no such thing. Isobel lifted her chin and returned his look with one of frigid disdain. Insufferable arrogance! She had hardly been in the house five minutes, they had exchanged a handful of words and already he had taken a dislike to her. She did not know him from Adamwho was he to look at her in that way? Did he think that good looks gave him godlike superiority and that she was beneath him? He no doubt produced an eyeglass and studied women who interested him without the slightest hesitation.
'Shall we go up?'
'Of course, ma'am Cousin Elizabeth,' Isobel said with the warmest smile she could conjure up. 'Gentlemen.' She nodded to the earl and Mr Soane who were in conversation, ignored Mr Harker, and followed her hostess through into the inner hall and up the wide staircase.
That snub on top of everything else felt painfully unjust. What was wrong with her that men should treat her so? Isobel stumbled on the first step and took herself to task. She had done nothing to deserve itthey were simply unable to accept that a lady might not consider them utterly perfect in every way.
There was a faint odour of paint and fresh plaster in the air and she glanced around her as they climbed. 'Mr Soane has done a great deal of work for us, including changes to this staircase,' the countess remarked as they reached the first-floor landing. She did not appear to notice that her guest was distracted, or perhaps she thought her merely tired from the journey. 'There was a window on the half landing on to an inner court and that is now filled in and occupied with my husband's plunge bath, so Mr Soane created that wonderful skylight.' She gestured upwards past pillared balconies to a view of grey scudding clouds. They passed through double doors into a lobby and left again into a room with a handsome Venetian window giving a panoramic view across the park.
'This is your sitting room. The view is very fine when the sun shinesright down the great southern avenue.' Lady Hardwicke turned, regarding the room with a smile that was almost rueful. 'This was one end of a long gallery running from back to front until Mr Soane put the Yellow Drawing Room into what was a courtyard and then, of course, the upstairs had to be remodelled. We seem to have lived with the builders for years.'
She sighed and looked around her. 'We had just got Hammels Park as we wanted it and then Philly's uncle died and he inherited the title and we had to start all over again here ten years ago.'
'But it is delightful.' Lured by sounds from next door, Isobel looked in and found that her pretty bedchamber had an identical prospect southwards.