The heat soothed his body, but the more he relaxed physically, the more his imagination could work and the worse the pain in his heart was. The gentle lap of the water made him think of Isobel’s caressing fingers, the silence gave her voice space to echo in his mind. I love you, Giles.
He had done the only thing he could for her and her daughter, he told himself for the thousandth time. He had left her, he had silenced his mother and he had refused to tell Isobel what was in his heart. Cruel to be kind. The easy cliché mocked him. Cruel to be perhaps less cruel in the long run, that was the best he could hope for.
Before Isobel had come into his life he had never felt lonely. Now he ached with it. Here at Wimpole, as the bustle of the family’s preparations for their departure to Ireland gathered momentum, he could have company every hour of the day and evening if he chose. But he knew he would feel this alone in the midst of thousands without Isobel.
It seemed that to deny love, the emotion he had never believed he could feel, required as much courage and resolution as facing a fellow duellist. The pain certainly lasted longer, bad enough to force him to admit that the emotion was true and would never leave him. He loved her. He could admit it now he was no longer a danger to her, now he would never see her again, except, perhaps, across a crowded ballroom.
He wanted to write to her, tell her how he felt, tell her why this was so impossible. He wrote the letters every night and every morning burned them. How long was it going to be before he could shake off this sensation that without her he was merely a hollow shell, going through the actions of life? Or perhaps he never would be free of it. Perhaps the heart could not heal as the body did.
But doing the honourable thing, the right thing, was never going to be easy. He was not a gentleman, but, for Isobel’s sake, he was going to behave like one. He could cope with physical pain, he just had to learn to deal with mental torment, too, or go mad.
A ripple of water splashed his face and his floating body rocked. Someone else had got into the pool. Lord Hardwicke or young Philip, he supposed, opening his eyes and staring up at the vault of the ceiling, wishing they would go away. The other bather said nothing. Giles raised his head and saw something on the curving edge at the end of the pool.
A small black-and-white puppy was sitting on its haunches watching him. Its tongue lolled out, its tail thrashed back and forth—it was obviously delighted to see him. A long blue leash curled onto the damp brown marble where it had been dropped.
Giles surged to his feet, turned and found Isobel, as naked as a water nymph, her wet hair on her shoulders, standing behind him.
‘Isobel.’ She smiled, that warm, open trusting smile. ‘No! No, go away, damn it! I do not want you.’ And he turned to forge his way through the water to the steps.
‘Giles.’ Her voice stopped him for a second, two, three, then he summoned up all his will and began to walk away again. ‘Giles. Please. If you feel anything at all for me, answer one question.’
He should keep going, deny his feelings for her sake, but he found he could not lie to her. ‘What is it?’ He did not turn around: to see her face, those wide eyes, would be too much to bear.
‘If you had not only my father’s agreement, but his blessing, his public acceptance, would you marry me?’
‘If wishes were horses, beggars might ride,’ he said, still looking at the steps that rose out of the water, then twisted steeply to the changing area. Escape. His voice was choked in his throat.
‘It is not a wish, it is a fact.’
It could not be. It was impossible. He was dreaming.
‘Giles,’ the voice from his dreams persisted, ‘I wish you would turn around. I am trying to propose to you and it is very difficult talking to the back of your head.’
That brought him round in a spin that created waves. The puppy retreated with a yap of alarm as water sloshed over the sides. The naked nymph was still there, her wet hair almost black, plastered over the curves of her breast. Not a dream, not an hallucination. The real woman.
‘Isobel...’ He sank his pride and tried an appeal. ‘This is not fair. Not to you, not to me, to pretend this is possible.’
‘I have only ever lied to you to protect my daughter,’ she said, her gaze locked with his. ‘I swear on her life that I am not lying to you now. I am not delusional. My father accepts I will marry no one else, ever. I told my parents all about Annabelle, you see, so finally they understand. And once my father thought about it, once he began to hear about you from other people, he realised that he respected you.’
She made no move to come closer to him, only waited patiently, watching his face as he worked painfully through what she was telling him. ‘You told them about Annabelle—risked that, for me?’