‘Fast is almost as good as slow,’ Isobel murmured, kissing her way up from the tender skin just below his armpit to his collarbone. ‘Giles, do you regret that your mother kept you instead of finding you a home where you would grow up with a family you thought were your own?’
‘What on earth makes you ask that?’ He sat up and struck a light for the candle beside them. Isobel rolled on to her back, her hair a tangled, wanton mass of shifting silk on the pillows. Giles bent and kissed her between her breasts.
‘I don’t know. Do you regret it? It cannot have been easy, being known as the Scarlet Widow’s illegitimate son. It sounds as though you were bullied at school and there are some in society who shun you.’
‘I would probably have been bullied anyway,’ he said with a shrug. ‘I was far too pretty—a real little blond cherub until I started to grow and my hair darkened. And if Geraldine had tried to give me away my grandfather would have had something to say about it, so I would have ended up with him and been an illegitimate gardener’s boy instead of having the education and the opportunities I have had. No, I do not regret it. I know who I am, where I came from. I am myself and there is no pretence, no lies.’
‘You call your mother by her first name?’
‘The last thing she wants is an almost-thirty-year-old man calling her “Mama.” It makes people do the arithmetic and I doubt she’ll admit to forty, let alone fifty.’
‘I suppose her position protected her at the time, made it easier for her to keep you.’
‘No.’ At first he had assumed that, but with maturity had come understanding. ‘It was anything but easy. I picked up some of the story from her, some from my grandfather, but she kept me when it would have been an obvious thing for her to have pretended she was with child by her late husband. All she had to do was to apparently suffer a miscarriage late on, then retire from sight to recover, give birth and hand me to Grandfather.
‘But she brazened it out and never pretended I was anything but my true father’s son. I remember that whenever she is at her most outrageous. She is a very difficult woman.’
‘She must have loved him very much,’ Isobel ventured. She was pale and seemed distressed. Perhaps this was bringing back memories of her fiancé’s death.
‘She had been in a loveless, if indulgent, marriage to a man old enough to be her father for four years. She must have needed youth, heat, strength.’ Had it been love? Or, as he suspected, had Geraldine simply needed to feel the emotion as she did with every lover since? It was such an easy excuse, love. But how did you learn to feel it genuinely?
‘My father was young, handsome, off to fight in his scarlet uniform. Perhaps he was a little scared under all the bravado. By all accounts it was not some wanton seduction by an experienced older woman or some village stud taking advantage of a vulnerable widow.’
‘How brave she was.’
‘It cut her off from her own family, from her in-laws and, for a long time, from society. But she fought her way back because I think she realised that my future depended upon it.’ Giles got out of bed and began to dress. ‘Not that she was ever the conventional maternal figure. And the shocking behaviour is probably a search for the love and affection she experienced for such a short time. Not that she would ever talk about it.’ What had she felt when she heard of his father’s death in battle? He had never wondered about that before. Now with someone to care about himself, the thought of his mother’s pain was uncomfortably real.
Isobel still looked pensive. ‘Giles, what are we going to do?’
‘I am going to my own bed and you are going back to sleep. And check the pillow for hairs when you wake.’ He rummaged under the bed for a missing slipper, determinedly practical.
‘Our hair is close enough in colour for Dorothy not to notice. You have had a lot of practice at this sort of thing,’ she said slowly. ‘Only I presume it is suspicious husbands you need to deceive, not protective ladies’ maids.’
‘Complacent, neglectful husbands—a few in my time,’ he confessed. ‘I do not make a habit of it. Are you jealous?’
‘Of course.’ Isobel sat up straight and shook her hair back. It seemed her brooding mood had changed. The sight of her naked body filled him with the desire to rip his clothes off and get back into bed again.
‘Yes, of course I am jealous even though I have no right to be,’ she said with a half smile. ‘My brain is all over the place—I am not thinking straight. When I asked what we are going to do, I did not mean now. I meant afterwards. In the morning.’