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‘You must allow me to introduce our other guests.’ The earl turned to motion them forward. ‘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 realising 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 over-long. His features were chiselled and Classical and his eyes were green - somewhere, 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 unintelligent – but then, the earl would not employ him and Mr Soane, who had a considerable reputation to maintain, 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 course: she 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 attractive – elegant and charming were the usual words employed to describe her – she 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 gaze 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 unmistakeable froideur.
The expression on Mr Harker’ 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 distain. Insufferable arrogance!