‘I cannot allow myself to love you, Isobel. There is no future for us. Nothing has changed except that now I know you are too vulnerable with this secret to risk the slightest breath of scandal. The secret is safe, I promise you. There will be no risk, Isobel, because this ends here. This is where we part.’
‘I know.’ She had faced that finally on the long drive. There had never been any hope because a scandal would ruin him, would break her parents’ hearts, might even compromise Annabelle’s future in ways she could not foresee. ‘I know that. I give up.’ Her voice cracked and she controlled it somehow. ‘I just need you to tell me how you feel, Giles.’
‘No.’ His face was stark as he bent his head. ‘No, I will not say I love you, Isobel. Only that I care too much to make this worse than it already is.’ The kiss was gentle, achingly tender. His lips lingered on hers and she could taste the heat and the passion that he was holding in check, feel the tremor that ran through him when she raised her arms and curled them around his neck to hold him for just a moment longer.
‘Goodbye, Isobel.’ He turned and strode out of the yard and when she sank down onto the bale, her legs too weak to hold her, and looked around, she was alone. Jane had gone. Distantly there was the sound of carriage wheels, then silence.
Something wet touched her hand and she looked down. The puppy that had been chewing Giles’s boot was licking her hand. It wasn’t the pup Nathaniel had chosen, but a skinny little female with a comical white patch over one eye. Isobel scooped her up and the puppy licked her nose.
‘Hello,’ Isobel said, her voice sounding thready in her own ears. Then she got up and walked inside with the dog in her arms. ‘One more day and then we are going to London,’ she said to it as it wriggled.
‘Isobel.’ Jane stood just inside the empty kitchen and hugged her and the pup together. ‘Oh, my dear.’ When Isobel just shook her head she said, ‘I would not have shot him, you know. Not the man you love.’
‘Thank you,’ Isobel said, her smile hurting. ‘I will go home tomorrow. May I take the puppy? I don’t expect trying to housetrain a dog in a post-chaise is easy, but I will manage. We will be fine.’
‘Of course you will,’ Jane said and her face showed that she knew it was not the puppy that Isobel was talking about. ‘Come and let Annabelle choose a name for it.’
* * *
A puppy in a post-chaise was certainly an excellent distraction. Maude, as Annabelle inexplicably named the black-and-white bundle, proved to be ravenously hungry and ate and drank everything put in the dishes on the floor for her—with inevitable consequences. Jane had the foresight to give them a small sack of sawdust and a large roasting dish, so Dorothy climbed out to empty it at every stop, complaining vociferously.
But Isobel would not let her chastise Maude, even when she started to chew shoes and the edge of the carriage rug. ‘She’s only a baby, Dorothy,’ she said, picking up the puppy and receiving a wet slurp on the nose for her pains. With a contented sigh the little dog went to sleep on her lap, worn out by her adventure.
Which left all the stages from Gloucester still to sit through. They would not arrive in London until past ten that night after a six o’clock start in the morning. Dorothy started to doze, wedged in one corner against the jolting, but Isobel sat upright, cradled the puppy on her lap and let her mind wander where it might. She was too tired and too hurt to try to think sensibly. And besides, what was there to think about?
Other than Annabelle, she realised with a smile that faded as the guilt took over once more. Her parents would adore her and yet they would never know they had a granddaughter.
She realised she was about to drift off, and did not fight it. It would bring dreams, she supposed, but dreams were all she had left now.
Trust...I trust you. The words she had said to Giles. But it was not his face in the dream, it was her parents, watching her anxiously. She woke, but the image did not fade. They had trusted her when she had fled to Hereford, loved her enough to leave her there a year when she wrote and begged not to be asked to come home. They had believed her when she was sent home in disgrace after the house party when virtually no one else had. If she could trust anyone, she could trust her parents, she realised. Perhaps, after all, some good could come of this unhappiness.
Isobel curled into the corner of the chaise and went back to sleep.
* * *
‘God, she has courage, my Isobel,’ Giles said to himself as he sat at the writing table in his inn bedchamber.
Isobel, so frank, so brave, so direct with the truth and with her love. She had known he would never act on his true feelings, never show her what was in his heart. The most she could hope for was his flirtation and his idle, thoughtless kisses. So she had shown him what love was.