Isobel felt the blood ebbing from her cheeks. That foul slander...and Giles believed it. ‘Yes, I care for her distress,’ she said, holding her voice steady with an effort that hurt her throat. ‘And I am very sorry that she chose such a man to ally herself with. But you must forgive me if I care even more that Lord Andrew mauled and assaulted me, ruined my reputation and that very few people, even those who I thought were my friends, believe me.’
‘Oh, very nicely done! But you see, I have this from my very good friend James Albright, Penelope’s brother—and he does not lie.’
‘But he was not there, was he? He knows only what Penelope saw when she came into my room that night: four people engaged in a drunken romp. Only one of them, myself, was not willing and the other three—the men—were set on giving a stuck-up spinster a good lesson, a retaliation for snubbing their patronising flirtation.
‘That is the truth and if you have not the perception to know it when you hear it, then I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do.’ Isobel turned on her heel. One more minute and she was going to cry and she was damned if she would give Giles Harker the satisfaction of knowing he had reduced her to that. A fine friend he had turned out to be!
‘Who would believe such a tale?’ he scoffed as he caught her by the arm and spun her back to face him. ‘No one there did and they were on the spot.’
‘You think it improbable they would be deceived?’ Yes, after all there was something she could do, something to shake that smug male complacency.
‘Of course,’ Giles began as Isobel threw herself on his chest, the suddenness of it knocking him off balance back against a bookcase full of leather-bound volumes. ‘What the devil—’
As he tried to push her away she used the momentum of his own movement to swing around in his grip until she was pressed by his weight against the books, then she threw her arms around his neck, pulled his head down and kissed him hard, full on the mouth.
For a moment Giles resisted, then he opened his lips over hers and returned the kiss with a ruthless expertise that was shocking and, despite—or perhaps because of—her anger, deeply arousing. Isobel had been kissed passionately by her betrothed, but that was four years ago and she had loved him. The assault of Giles’s tongue, his teeth, the fierce plundering exploration, fuelled both anger and the long-buried desire that had been stirring with every encounter they had shared. When he lifted his head—more, she thought dizzily, to breathe than for any other reason—Isobel slapped him hard across the cheek.
‘Now, if someone comes in and I scream, what will they think?’ she panted. His face was so close to hers that she could feel his breath, hot on her mouth. ‘What will they have seen? Giles Harker, a rake on the edge of society, assaulting an innocent young lady who is struggling in his arms. Who will they believe? What if I tear my bodice and run out, calling for help? You would be damned, just as I was.
‘I do not have to justify myself to you. But I was sitting in my room, reading by the fireside in my nightgown, and three men burst in. I thought I could reason with them. I did not want a scandal, so I did not scream—and that was my mistake. And for that I am condemned by self-righteous hypocrites like you, Giles Harker. So now will you please let me go?’
For a long moment he stared down at her, then those gorgeous, sinful lips twisted. ‘Yes, I believe you, Isobel. I should never have doubted you.’
Kiss me again, a treacherous inner voice said. Listen to your body. You want him. ‘You called me a slut. You just kissed me as though I was one.’ She did not dare let go of her bitterness.
‘I believe you now.’ He looked at her, all the anger and heat gone from his face. ‘I am sorry I doubted you. Sorry I called you... No, we won’t repeat that word. But I am not certain I can be sorry for that kiss.’
‘Unfortunately, neither can I,’ Isobel admitted and felt the blood rise in her cheeks. ‘You kiss very...nicely.’ And as a result her body had sung into life in a way it had not done for a long time. ‘No doubt you have had a great deal of practice. But kindly do not think that is why I...why I did what I did just now. I could think of no other way to prove my point.’
‘Nicely?’ Giles seemed a trifle put out by the description. ‘We will not pursue that, I think. I should not make light of what has happened to you. I was wrong and you have been grievously slandered. What is your family doing about it?’
Isobel shrugged and moved away from him to spin one of the great globes that stood either side of the desk. It was easier to think away from all that intense masculinity. The man addled her brain. She had let herself be almost seduced into friendship and then he believed the worst of her on hearsay evidence. And instead of recoiling from her angry kiss he had returned it. He was not to be trusted. Not one inch.