‘But it is quite impossible, of course,’ he said with a harsh edge beneath the reasonable tone. ‘You might be mine, but I can never have you. You do not have to say it. I am who I am—you are what you are. You must forgive me for speaking at all,’ he added with a smile that did not reach his eyes. ‘I have embarrassed you now.’
‘No. No, you have not.’ What did he really mean? What did he want, feel? She did not know, dared not ask. This was not some smooth attempt at seduction, this was bitter and heartfelt—the words seemed dragged from him against his will.
‘I want you as more than a friend. I had hoped that I had hidden it. I knew I should not feel it. But I cannot help it,’ she added despairingly.
‘I should never have kissed you.’
‘Two kisses are not what makes me feel like this.’ She put her hand to her breast, instinctively laying it across the heart that ached for him.
‘You fought very hard against what you feel?’ he asked. His hands had come up to her shoulders. He was holding her so close that her skirts brushed his boots and she had to tip her head back a little to look into his face. The taut lines had relaxed into a wary watchfulness.
‘Not as hard as I should have,’ Isobel admitted. ‘But I was afraid you would think me like the women you have to avoid, the ones who pursue you.’
‘I doubt any of them would stand here, this close, with me looking like this,’ Giles said with a return to the bitterness.
‘I have seen better shaves,’ Isobel admitted, seeing what humour might do. No good was going to come of this, she knew that. How could it? He was, as he said, who he was. But that was for tomorrow. Today she knew only that she was desired by this man. ‘And I could wish your mouth was not so bruised.’
‘Just my mouth?’ He raised an eyebrow and winced.
‘I would like to kiss you,’ Isobel admitted, beyond shame at saying it. ‘But I do not want to hurt you.’
‘Kiss it better,’ he suggested, pulling her closer and bending his head so his words whispered against her lips.
She slid her hands up to the nape of his neck to steady herself and trembled at the unexpected, vulnerable softness of the skin beneath her fingertips. With infinite care she met his lips with her own: the slightest pressure, the gentlest brush. He sighed and she opened to him and let him control the kiss.
This was so much more than that passionate exchange in the library, that foolish tumble in the shrubbery. So much more intimate, so much more trusting. Giles made a sound deep in his throat, a rumble of masculine satisfaction, and she met the thrust of his tongue with her own, learning the taste of him, the scent of his skin, the rhythm of his pulse. Their lips hardly moved as the silent mutual exploration went on, but Giles’s hands travelled down her back until he held her by the waist, drew her tighter against his body.
He was lean and long and fit and Isobel pressed against him out of need and yearning and felt the heat and the hardness of his need for her. She wanted to get closer, to wrap herself around him, but she stopped herself in time, recalling his ribs.
‘What is it?’ Giles lifted his head.
‘Your ribs. Lord James said you had been kicked.’
‘If you can be thinking about my ribs while I am kissing you, it does not say much for my lovemaking.’ Giles bent and brushed his uninjured cheek against hers, his mouth nuzzling at the warm angle of her neck and shoulder.
‘You want to make love to me?’ How brazen she was to ask such a thing. How wonderfully liberating it felt to do so.
‘I would give a year of my life for one night in your arms.’ His voice was muffled against her skin as she lifted her hand to touch his hair.
Isobel gasped. It was all her fantasies about Giles, all her wicked longings, offered to her to take. All she needed was the courage to reach out.
Almost as soon as he said it, she felt him hear his own words. The enchanted bubble that surrounded them shattered like thin glass. Giles’s body tensed under her hands, then he released her and stepped back.
‘I am sorry. I should never have spoken, never touched you.’ His face was tight with a kind of pain that his physical injuries had not caused. ‘I did not mean— Isobel, forgive me. I would not hurt you for the world.’ He turned on his heel and walked away without looking back, up the gallery and into the book room that led to the library.
She stared after him, still shaking a little from the intensity of that kiss, unable to speak, unable to call him back.
He had only wanted a brief amorous encounter and his sense of honour had stopped him before they both were carried away. Isobel sank down on the nearest chair, stared unseeing at a landscape on the opposite wall and tried to tell herself she had just had a narrow escape.