* * *
The earl broke up the meeting shortly before noon. Giles suspected that such a short morning’s work was on his behalf, but he could not feel sorry for it. Between the lingering effects of the doctor’s potions, the pains in his body and his anger with himself over Isobel, it had been an effort to think straight at all, although the other men did not appear to notice anything amiss.
Of all the damnably stupid things to have done. But somehow he had not been able to forget that moment of waking to find her beside him in the big bed. All his good resolutions, all his self-deception that he could treat her as a friend, had fled to leave only a raw, aching need for her.
He could have controlled it, he told himself savagely, as he turned left out of the steward’s room and, on impulse, took the steps up from the basement. He emerged into the grey light of a blustery, cold day that threatened rain before nightfall. Giles jammed his hands into his breeches’ pockets. He would have controlled it if she had not chosen that moment to come to him, her face full of hurt at the way he had coolly ignored her.
That vulnerability, that honesty, the way she confronted him so directly had somehow wrenched equal frankness from him. And because she was older than most of the unmarried girls he encountered, because he had been so open with her, he had let himself believe that they could have an affaire.
And of course she was too innocent to understand where their kisses were leading—even if she was not, it would have been wrong. By his own action he had cleared her name of all disgrace—now she could go back into society, find a husband, marry.
She was a lady and that meant marriage—but not to him, he told himself savagely. Not to him and she knew it, had remembered it when he had blurted out his desire for her. He had thought he had come to terms with his birth and with the limits it placed upon him: it seemed he was wrong.
‘Idiot,’ he muttered, kicking gravel. Of course a woman like her would not offer herself to a man she did not love. She had thought him her friend, nothing more, and he had betrayed her trust. ‘Damnation.’ What had he done?
‘Harker, I could follow you across Cambridgeshire just from the muttered oaths.’ He looked up to find James, his cane in his hand, standing in front of him. ‘What is the matter? Are you in pain?’
‘Not as much as I deserve to be. What are you doing out here?’ Giles took in his friend’s thick greatcoat and muffler. ‘It is no weather for a walk.’
‘I went over to the stables to see how they were progressing in the search for a blacksmith. What’s the matter with you? If you want to talk about it, that is.’
He could trust James, more than he could trust his own sense, just at the moment. ‘Strictly between ourselves I’ve made a mull of things with Lady Isobel. More than a mull. Are you warm enough to walk? I don’t want to risk being overheard.’
‘Of course.’ James fell in beside him as he walked past the stables and the church down the drive to the east. ‘Have you told her you love her?’
‘What? Of course not! I’m not in love with her. I do not fall in love with well-bred virgins. In fact, I do not fall in love with anyone.’ James snorted. ‘I want her, that’s the trouble, and she caught me with my guard down and I damn nearly propositioned her.’
‘Clumsy,’ James remarked. ‘And unlike you. But of course she, being female and having more intuition than the average male, presumably took your intentions to be honourable.’
‘I don’t know what she took them to be,’ Giles retorted, goaded. ‘She knows who I am, so how could she believe them to be anything but dishonourable? And what makes you think she wants me? Your fine understanding of female sensibility?’
‘Not being able to see means I use my ears, my dear Harker. And I listen to the silences between the words as well. You two are, as near as damn it, in love with each other. What are you going to do about it?’
‘Nothing. Because you are wrong, and even if you were correct, even if I was fool enough to allow myself to fall in love, I would do nothing. I am not even going to apologise for what happened between us in the Long Gallery and perhaps that will bring her to her senses. And stop snorting, it is like having a conversation with a horse. I’ll leave as soon as I can.’
‘So you make love to her and then snub her. An excellent plan if you wish to break her heart, although I doubt Lady Isobel deserves that.’
‘Then what do you suggest?’ Giles demanded.