He stared at her, every bone in his body aching to go to her, to hold her, every instinct shouting at him to tell her... What? That he loved her? Damn James for even suggesting it. Of course he was not in love—he simply could not afford the luxury of hopeless emotion. But he did not want to hurt Isobel. ‘I am very sorry, too,’ he said, staying where he was. ‘I never wanted to wound you.’
‘I might be wrong, of course. I might not be. I thought perhaps...you...’ Saying it brought the colour up under the delicate skin of her cheeks, soft pink to match her gown. He thought he had never seen her look lovelier or more courageous.
‘No,’ he said and kept his voice steady and regretful. He did not know what he felt, but surely it was only desire and friendship and liking. The emotion was stronger than any he had ever felt for a woman, but that was simply because he had never saved the life of one before, never fought for her honour, never met a woman like Isobel.
Isobel valued honesty above her own pride, but he could protect her from herself. ‘No, I do not love you, Isobel. And that is a mercy, is it not? We could not possibly marry.’
‘If you had not cleared my name and restored my reputation, and we did love each other, then perhaps we might have done.’
Hell, she’s been talking to James, the interfering romantic idiot that he is.
‘But not if I do not love you,’ he pointed out. It felt like turning a knife in his chest, the pain of denying her, the knowledge that he was hurting her. ‘And I do not think you love me, either. You feel desire, as I do, and it is easier for a woman to accept if you dress it up as love.’
‘Do not patronise me! If I desire you I am not such a hypocrite as to pretend it is something else,’ she flashed back at him. Her eyes were very bright, although if it was because they were full of tears, she did not shed them and he dared go no closer to see, in case she should read in his face how much he cared and took that for love. ‘But you want me.’
‘Oh, yes, and you know that too well for me to attempt to deny it. I want you so much it keeps me awake at night. So much that I ache and I cannot concentrate. But, Isobel, I might be many things, but I do not seduce virgins.’
‘No,’ she said, and smiled wryly. ‘I am sure that you do not.’
‘You will forget me soon enough,’ he offered, flinching inwardly at the banality of the words.
‘You think so? I thought we could talk this through with honesty, but it seems I misjudged you. Goodnight, Giles.’
She removed the key from her bodice, unlocked the door and walked away, leaving him, for once in his life, unable to think of a word to say.
* * *
Giles did not come back to the saloon afterwards. Isobel smiled and nodded to Cousin Elizabeth to reassure her that her mission to thank him had been successful, stayed to drink one cup of tea and then made her excuses and went up to bed.
He said he did not love her, but then he would say that whatever he felt, it was the honourable course of action in his position. And he said he wanted her—although he was quite correct and she hardly needed him to tell her that. If they made love, it would be hard for him to hide his true feelings, she was certain. She could try to seduce him, and if he made love to her then he would be trapped between a rock and a hard place—to marry her would be, in his eyes, dishonourable, but then not to marry her after sleeping with her would be equally bad.
And to put Giles in that position would be very wrong of her whether he loved her or not. Isobel wrestled with her conscience while Dorothy brushed out her hair and helped her into her nightgown. ‘I cannot do it.’
‘What, my lady?’
‘Never mind. Something I had been wondering about.’
‘You look sad, my lady. Aren’t you pleased that Lord James knows the truth? It will be all over town in a twinkling, then you can go back and do the Season, just like all the other young ladies.’
‘I do not want to, Dorothy.’ It was the first time she had said it out loud, but it sounded so right. She had tried hard to please her parents, but the thought of entering the Marriage Mart again with this aching in her heart was agony. How could she even contemplate marriage to another man? She had thought she would never get over Lucas’s death. Now that she had and had found Giles, it was impossible to believe she would recover from it. It must be love, she thought drearily. But love should make you happy, not confused and angry and scared.
‘Now, my lady, that is foolishness indeed!’ Dorothy bustled about tidying up until Isobel thought she would scream. ‘All young ladies want to get married and have children.’ An ivory hairpin snapped between Isobel’s fingers. ‘You had a nasty time at that horrid house party and then you almost drowned and then there’s the shock of poor Mr Harker coming back with his face all ruined. No wonder you are feeling out of sorts, my lady. You’ll find a nice titled gentleman with a big estate and live happily ever after with lots of babies.’