‘The middle of the Season seems an unusual time to be taking a long coach journey, Lady Isobel,’ Giles observed. ‘Your admirers will be missing you.’
She did not attempt to cover her snort of derision. ‘I hardly think so. A friend needs me for a few days, then I will be returning.’
‘A friend in Oxford?’ He leant a shoulder against the door frame and frowned at her.
‘No. If that was the case I would hardly be staying in an inn.’
‘Where my lady is going is none of your business,’ Dorothy interjected. ‘Shall I go and get a couple of pot boys and have him thrown out, ma’am?’
‘I do not think that is necessary, thank you, Dorothy.’ Isobel doubted two lads would be capable of ejecting Giles in any case. She knew he was strong and fit, but now he looked leaner—and tougher with those scars and his dark brows drawn together into a frown. ‘Mr Harker will be leaving immediately, I am certain.’
‘If I might have a word with you first—alone.’ He straightened up and held the door open for Dorothy.
Isobel opened her mouth to protest, then thought better of it. If five minutes of painful intimacy meant she discovered what he was about, then it would be worth it. ‘Dorothy, go downstairs, please. No,’ she said as the maid began to launch into a protest. ‘Either you go or Mr Harker and I will have to. I wish to speak to him confidentially.’
‘But, my lady—’
Giles bundled the maid out of the room, closed the door and locked it before she could get another word out.
‘It is a strange thing if a lady may not visit a friend without being waylaid and interrogated,’ Isobel snapped.
‘Yes. I wonder that you stand for it,’ he said musingly, his eyes focused on her face. ‘I would have expected a cool good evening on seeing me and then for you to refuse to receive me. It is very shocking for us to be alone like this.’
‘I am well aware of that, Mr Harker! I want to know why you are here.’
‘In Oxford? Why should I not be?’
‘In Oxford, in this inn, at this time? I was foolish enough to fall in love with you, Giles Harker. Even more foolish to trust you. This is too much of a coincidence for my liking.’
‘That trust certainly appears to have vanished. Isobel, you know full well you could trust me to take only what was offered to me.’
‘I am not talking about—’ She could feel herself growing pink, whether from anger, embarrassment or sheer anxiety she could not tell.
‘Yes, sex.’ She was blushing, she knew it, and it was more from desire and anger at herself than embarrassment. ‘I am talking about the way you abandoned me, washed your hands of me the moment my parents appeared.’
His eyebrows rose. ‘You wanted me to treat you as a friend in front of your parents? You wanted to risk your reputation by acknowledging a liaison with me?’
‘No, I did not want that and you know it! But there was no word of affection or regret, no acknowledgement that I was distressed or of what we had shared. You had your amusement—and yes, I am aware of your self-control, I thank you—and then, when it all became difficult, you shrug me and my feelings aside.’
Giles pushed away from the door, all pretence of casualness gone. ‘Isobel, I only did what was practical. It would not have helped to have drawn out our parting, merely added to your unhappiness.’
‘Practical? Giles, there was nothing practical about my feelings for you.’
‘Was? Past tense?’ He came so close that the hem of her skirts brushed his boots, but she would not retreat. ‘I thought that when you loved, you would love for ever.’
‘Then I cannot have been in love with you, can I? Just another foolish woman fascinated by your handsome face.’
‘We did not make love until after this.’ He gestured towards his scarred cheek.
‘Guilt, then. Gratitude. Lust. Call it what you like. It was certainly lust, those few mad moments in the passageway at the Leamingtons’ ball!’ Only her anxiety for Annabelle and Jane, only the price of misplaced trust, kept her from falling into his arms. ‘What do my feelings for you matter? I want to know why you are here. Are you following me?’
‘No,’ Giles said. ‘I am not following you and our meeting here is a genuine coincidence.’ Truth? Lies? How could she tell? She had thought he had fallen in love with her and he had not. Obviously she could not understand him at all.
If she did not love him, he would not make her so angry. If she only dared trust him—but he would be disgusted when he realised she had given away her child, had not had the courage to raise her as his own mother had raised him. Whatever she thought of the Scarlet Widow, the woman’s fierce love for her son could not be mistaken.