‘Why, Giles? Why did you care so much? Are you—?’ Isobel broke off, her courage almost failing. But she had to know. ‘Are you telling me you love me after all?’ she asked flatly.
‘No,’ he said, his face tight and stark. ‘Nothing has changed, Isobel. I care for you, I want to keep you safe. And I am every bit as ineligible for you as I ever was.’
Her pride would not let her weep or plead. ‘What a good thing,’ she said. ‘Of course, I have realised that I do not love you—it was a foolish infatuation when I was lonely and miserable. Now I am doing the Season and looking for a husband—I will be delighted if I never see you again.’
‘I was a foolish infatuation, was I, Isobel? In that case either your acting skill is incredible or you have equally good powers of self-deception. You fell in love with me and I believe your current protestations as much as I did those at Oxford or at the ball.’
‘I am not a good actress, merely someone telling the truth,’ she said forcing the words out between numb lips. ‘I needed what you could give me at Wimpole. I needed heat and warmth and...affection.’ One brow slanted up satirically at the euphemism. She felt her cheeks burn red. ‘You do not care for me now, so why are you concerning yourself? I told you at Oxford that I did not want you.’
‘On the contrary, at Oxford you told me I had betrayed your trust and your feelings.’ He stood up and took one step towards her before her upflung hand stopped him.
‘I would say anything to get rid of you,’ she threw at him, desperate to hang on to the last shreds of her self-control. ‘I do not want you, I do not need you—all I need is your silence and for you to keep your blackmailing mother silent also.’
‘So the little girl is your daughter and your friend is raising her as the twin of her son.’ He glanced down at the Border Collie puppy that was attempting to chew the heel of his boot, picked it up by the scruff and handed it to Isobel. She caught it up without taking her eyes from his face and clutched the warm squirming bundle to her bosom like a shield. ‘She has your eyes. May I see her?’
‘No! I have told you, I do not want anything more to do with you. Go back to London and marry a wife your mama will buy you. She will purchase your heirs in the same way as she bought your accent and your education and your smooth society manners.’
‘No one controls my life.’ There was anger in his voice. ‘Not since I was a child. Do you condemn my mother for wanting the best upbringing she could get for me? What do you buy for your child, Isobel? Do you pay for her clothes and her nurse? Will you pay for her governess? Will you search for the right husband for her when she is old enough to make her come-out, even if you do it from behind the walls of your own home? Or will you wash your hands of her and leave it all to Mrs Needham so you can walk away and find this husband you seek?’
‘Between us Jane and I will do everything we can for the children. I thought this would be best for Annabelle. I did not want her to grow up as...’
‘A bastard?’ Giles enquired in a tone that made her wince. ‘I manage.’
‘I do not want her to have to manage. And it is different for a woman and you know it,’ she threw at him.
‘Isobel, are you all right?’ She turned and there was Jane, a shotgun in the crook of her arm. ‘Don’t you dare lay a finger on her,’ she said fiercely to Giles.
Giles took a reckless step towards the woman with the gun. A woman who Isobel knew was perfectly capable of taking a shot at a cattle thief. And now it was the children under threat. ‘There is no call to shoot anyone.’
‘None at all if you leave,’ Jane agreed. ‘And are silent about this.’
‘I will tell no one,’ Giles said. Then, ignoring both Jane and the gun, he went to stand in front of Isobel. He lifted the puppy from her arms and set it down before catching her hands in his. ‘Isobel, I thought you loved me.’ He spoke directly to her as though they were alone, so close she could feel his warmth, smell his familiar scent of clean linen and citrus and something that was simply Giles.
‘I—’ She stared into the green eyes and the farmyard seemed to vanish. Jane, the animals, everything faded away and there was only the two of them, handfast. She could not lie to him, not about this. ‘Yes, I love you. I try not to, but I cannot lie to you about it.’ And in his eyes she thought she read an answering love and all the doubt and fear vanished. ‘I love you, I trust you and I am sorry that my faith in you wavered for a while.’
She waited for the words, but they did not come, only a shadow that clouded the clear green eyes and a twist of the mouth that she so much wanted to kiss. ‘Do you truly not love me?’ she had to ask at last when he did not speak. ‘Can I be so wrong in what I feel from you?’