The hard knot of misery inside her was untwisting, painfully, as hope warred with apprehension. I am his, he wants me, he likes me, but he does not believe he loves me? ‘And what you feel for me is not love?’ she asked.
‘I do not think I know how to fall in love,’ Giles said flatly. ‘I have been with more women than I care to admit to you, Isobel. And I have never felt more than desire and a passing concern for them, pleasure in their company.’
How carefully he guards his heart, she realised with a flash of insight. He knows he is ineligible for any of the women he meets socially, so he does not allow himself the pain of dreaming.
‘You think it is hopeless, then? My love for you, your...feelings for me?’ Yes, she thought as she said it. Yes, I do love him.
‘Of course it is hopeless. Even if I was a perfectly respectable second son, say, earning my own living as an architect, your father would consider it a poor match. As it is, he would never permit you to ally yourself to me. And you deserve a man who loves you. We can be strong about this, Isobel. Avoid each other, learn to live our separate lives.’
‘Will you not even try to find some way we can be together?’ Isobel scrambled out of the chair and went to stand in front of him. The heat of the fire lapped at her legs, but every other part of her was cold and shivery. ‘If we talk about it, perhaps we can see some way through.’
‘No. It would be wrong to wed you.’
‘I am of age, I can decide who to marry. Love grows. I would take a risk on yours.’
‘Your father would cut you off,’ Giles said. ‘Disown you.’
‘Do you want my money, then?’ she jibed at him, wanting to hurt him as he was so unwillingly hurting her.
‘No—but I do not want to deprive you of it.’
‘As your wife I would hardly starve,’ she pointed out. ‘And I am not at all extravagant. We would not be invited to all the most exclusive events, so that would be a saving in clothes—’
‘Do not jest,’ Giles said, shaking his head at her. But she could see the reluctant curve of his mouth. Misery and pessimism did not come easily to him. ‘A scandal would affect my business and then how could I support you?’
‘You are imagining the worst.’ Isobel shook his arm in exasperation. ‘What if marriage to the daughter of an earl was good for your business? I would keep the other women at bay, I would entertain, I know all the people who might commission you. You say you do not think you will ever fall in love—well then, why not take the nearest thing to it?’
‘Stop it, Isobel.’ Giles put both hands on her shoulders and looked down into her face. ‘You are talking yourself into an emotion you do not feel. I will go back to London. In a week or two you will go home and take part in the Season and you will find an eligible, titled husband and live the life you were born to live.’
‘No. I will not,’ she stated with conviction. ‘I was waiting for a man to fall in love with. One who loved me. One I could confess my secret to and who might accept me despite it. I do love you, I know that now—this could not hurt so badly if it was simply desire. But I cannot believe that after Lucas, and now you, that I will find a third man to love, and one who feels the same. So I am resolved to give up on the Season. I will become a spinster, a country mouse who will dwindle quietly away as a good daughter and sister. One day, no doubt I will be an aunt and much in demand.’
‘You are talking rubbish.’ Giles’s voice was rough. ‘What secret?’
‘That I am not a virgin.’ There was the other thing as well, the thing that tore at her heart, but she could not tell him that, however much she loved and trusted him. ‘Lucas and I were lovers in the weeks before he died, you see. Men seem to place such importance on that, in a bride. I could hope that someone who loved me would understand, but not a man who was making a marriage for other reasons. I could lie, I suppose, and hope he would not notice. I could pretend to be ignorant and innocent—but that is hardly the way to begin a marriage, by deceiving one’s husband.’
She shrugged, his hands still heavy on her shoulders. The truth, but not the whole truth. But Giles, of all men, would not understand why she had done what she had done, why she had made the dangerous, desperate choice that she had.
He stood there silent and she wondered if she had shocked him. Was he like all the rest, the respectable ones who would condemn her for the sin of loving? ‘I have disappointed you,’ she stated, unable to wait for the condemnation on his tongue, the rejection on his face.
‘Then you misjudge me,’ Giles said. ‘You were in love with him. He was a fortunate man. I can feel jealousy, I will admit that. But how can I condemn you? But you are right about one thing—it would have to be a deliberate act of deception to pretend to your husband that you are completely unawakened. Even holding you in my arms, kissing you, I felt the sensuality, the awareness of your own body’s needs and of mine.’