"Will you marry me?"
Isobel spun around to face Nick with a swish of light silk, impossibly fresh in this dilapidated room. Her presence struck him like a physical blow. She had the same effect on him as always, from the first time he'd met her, eighteen years ago. She remained the only woman he wanted.
Her eyes widened in surprise. "After the last time?"
A small smile quirked his lips. "Yes, even after the last time."
In a quick, sudden movement, Isobel covered her face, her fingers trembling against her closed eyelids.
He longed to go and comfort her, but caution stopped him. She might send him away, and he couldn't bear that. Not after all he'd gone through just to get this far. Isobel had sought refuge in this shabby back parlour rather than see him, but her father, anxious to see the matter settled, had betrayed her whereabouts to Nick.
Abruptly Isobel pulled her hands from her face and went to stand before the window. The scene looked so ordinary; a hot English summer day, a gardener moving among the roses, deadheading and pruning with methodical care. The sun cast heavy shadows on the grass and the bright light enhanced the pinks and creams of the roses.
She faced him again. "Why? Why now, Nick?"
He kept his face expressionless. He'd known something was wrong when he'd seen her briefly in London but, because of his position as jilted ex-fiancé, he couldn't approach her. Her response to him then might have been awkwardness, but he didn't think so. Isobel always exuded grace and elegance. Something else troubled her, something Nick shrewdly suspected she'd told no one.
He moved into the room but stopped, not too close to her. She didn't move away, but he felt the space between them crackle. He was too big for this small room, too big for her. "Perhaps we deserve another chance."
He stared at the clock over the mantelpiece, not at Isobel, not wanting to see rejection on her face, and afraid that he would. This was his last chance with her and he didn't know if he could bear it if she sent him away. Concentrating on the black hands and faded gold face of the perfectly ordinary clock steadied him, and helped him to quell the fierce surge of desire Isobel's proximity always evoked in him. He had to persuade her. Had to. Then he turned on one heel, back to her, the skirts of his formal coat, too heavy for the sultry weather, swinging around his thighs. "Shall we be practical?"
The stillness in this room felt uncanny. So much lay between them, so much to explain and discuss but they needed to start somewhere.
"By all means." Isobel stood with her back to the window, her features cast into shadow by the bright sunshine outside. He didn't need to see her clearly to recall the lucid grey eyes, the tactile silk of her fair hair, her perfect complexion.
"You are notable by your absence in society since Harry died."
"I expected them to forget me."
He frowned. "The gossips still drag up the story from time to time."
Even with her face in shadow, he saw the twinge of regret that touched her face. "Was it terrible? I'm sorry, I did think of you at the time but I had--other things on my mind."
His smiled grimly. "Eloping with another man on the eve of our wedding is about as juicy a morsel as you can throw to the hounds of society. They called you a scarlet woman, when as far as I saw, you'd only behaved in a way true to yourself. I bore the deep sympathy of many women with marriageable daughters of their own." His smile changed to warmth, inviting her to share in the joke.
It worked. He could always make her smile, even if it was tinged with bitterness. "You fought them all off, though."
"I managed. I swore off marriage." An understatement. Nick's bedroom exploits had become legendary in the last few years, but he'd avoided young, marriageable females. Nick didn't want to marry anyone else, or raise hopes he didn't intend to fulfill.
She moved a little, and the tense lines of her shoulders relaxed. "So what changed your mind? And why me?" She made a deprecating movement with her hands, graceful even in her agitation. "I'm sorry, I'm being terribly rude but I need to know."
"I know. And I think we'd better be honest, don't you?"
"Yes. After the last time."
Isobel moved to the big, shabby sofa and sat down, indicating the space next to her with a graceful gesture. With only a slight hesitation, he took it.
He gazed at her, holding his desire under steely restraint. "Why did you do it, Isobel?"
She bit her lip and stared at her hands clasped in her lap. Her knuckles gleamed white with strain. "I was afraid. The night before our wedding, you showed me a degree of ... of passion I wasn't ready for, not at eighteen."
Nick mentally cursed. He remembered the day when, no longer able to control his youthful ardor, he'd tried to make love to her. Too passionate, too clumsy. That day cost him dear. "I was young and eager. I knew I'd behaved badly but when I came to apologize, you'd already gone."
She moved as though to touch him, but withdrew her hand. "That wasn't the only reason I left. Mama never stopped reminding me I'd be a marchioness, what it would mean and how I should behave. I felt so hemmed in by all the rules and conventions, I felt stifled by them."
He sighed. "My mother wouldn't have helped you. She's acutely aware of her station."
"I felt trapped." When she looked at him directly, the intervening years slipped away. Nothing else mattered. Whatever else troubled her they would overcome it together.
His love was enough to sustain both of them. He'd not let her turn him down. "Do you feel trapped now?"
She shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I'm six and twenty now, not eighteen, and my view of the world is more realistic. I could cope."
He grimaced, a wry turn of his mouth. Coping wasn't what he wanted. "I'm sorry you didn't confide in me at the time. I should have asked. I could have reassured you."
Her next words came out in a rush. "Then Harry showed an interest, more than flirtation. He was charming--you remember how charming he was! I thought I loved him. It seemed easier to run away than to face things." She looked up at Nick's face, hiding nothing, tearing his heart apart with her frank confession. "I was wrong."
A slight spasm crossed his face, which he immediately controlled. "The only consolation for me at the time was the thought of your happiness. I told myself at least one of us had our heart's desire." He bit his lip. "How soon did it go wrong?"
Isobel twisted her hands together in her lap. He badly wanted to hold her, but it might scare her off. She behaved like a skittish colt, not at all the warm, loving girl he'd known before her marriage. Had Harry Thoroughgood mistreated her? He wanted to strangle the man, for all he'd been in his grave for the last year. Just over that, in fact.
"Not long after we married. He wasn't a happy man, Nick, and he didn't find what he was looking for in me. When it became obvious to both of us that we'd made a mistake, we decided to make the best of things. So the next year we went to London. I believed we'd live the elopement down, and we started to, didn't we?" New understanding lit her eyes. "Did you have anything to do with that? Our acceptance back into society?"
He shrugged, trying to make light of it. "I told anyone who listened that I held no grudges, and I'd receive you if I met you anywhere." A reminiscent smile curved his lips. "We did meet once. Do you remember?"
A fraught moment, taken out of ordinary time when they'd come face to face in a country dance in a ballroom, two years after she'd jilted him. After a second, he held out his hand, she placed hers in it and they continued the measure. He still recalled the shock her touch had brought him, the moment he realised he still loved her and he always would. None of the other women he'd been with mattered.
"Yes I remember. I was very grateful you acknowledged me. I started to believe everything was going to be all right."
"It wasn't all right." His face went still again, the strong mouth firming.
"Yes, it all went wrong again, but not immediately. I don't know why Harry killed himself, or why he did it in such a way." Her voice shook. "Not really."
There was something else, something she hadn't told anyone. The brief hesitation before her last words made him sure of it. No longer able to fight the urge to touch her, Nick placed his hand gently on hers. She allowed it and he let out the breath he'd been unaware of holding. "I wanted to do something to help after his death, but there was nothing. Your husband left you reasonably well off, and you seem to have kept your fortune out of the clutches of your father, so what could I do? You didn't come back to town afterwards, not once." He'd waited, given her six to mourn her spouse, then a few months longer. Finally, after a year, he was unable to wait any longer and he'd come in search of her.
Isobel swallowed. "I fell into disgrace again when Harry died. They called me dangerous and scandalous." She looked neither dangerous nor scandalous now, dressed as simply as any squire's wife.
She took a couple of breaths, and lifted her face to Nick's, meeting his still, quiet look with one of her own. "So we come to it. Why, Nick? Why do you want me? I'm a social outcast. I'm not a beauty. I don't know if I can give you children. My portion is respectable but not so staggering the fashionable world in the drawing rooms of Grosvenor Square will forget all and welcome me warmly. So why?"
He pressed her hand, still lying under his. He couldn't tell her, not yet. She wasn't ready to receive the passionate declaration of love he wanted to give her. He had to find some other reason, something that would make her believe him. Whatever Harry had done to her went deep, and it would take more than a quiet discussion on a summer's afternoon to solve it. But backing out was unthinkable now. "I want to make everything right. Your elopement was partly my fault, wasn't it? At twenty-two I was too passionate, too frantic for you and I frightened you." He bit his lip. "The thought of that particular piece of idiocy tortured me for years."
She smiled. "You don't have to sacrifice yourself now to repair the damage that was as much my fault as yours."
His responsive smile was warm. He was winning. "It's no sacrifice. You are lovely; I've always thought so. To look at you brings me a great deal of pleasure."
Isobel blushed. "I'm no beauty."
"You're wrong. You are." How could she think she wasn't beautiful when the evidence lay in her mirror every time she looked into it? "Isobel, if you marry me, society will accept you back with open arms. Most of the people who matter, who really matter were only cool to you because of the hurt they thought you brought me. Put that right, and you'll see a change."
"You don't want me," she protested feebly.
"Oh yes I do." He had to know if she'd let him touch her. He leaned towards her, trying to make his movements soft and unchallenging, waiting for any sign of rejection. He slipped his arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer. When she looked up, he examined her face closely before he lowered his head and gently pressed his lips to hers. Isobel lifted her hand and his heart caught, but she touched his shoulder instead of pushing him away.
She felt right in his arms, as she always had. Soft, warm, welcoming, smelling of roses and her own essence. She could drive him wild with need without trying, but Nick kept an iron restraint on his desire. When he tried to deepen the kiss, she flinched. He drew back immediately, but kept his arm around her.
She opened her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm not used to it, that's all." She rested the side of her head against his shoulder.
"I know. We'll take it slowly this time, shall we, Isobel?"
She nodded, moving her cheek against the soft, fine wool of his coat. His heart soared in triumph. He'd won her.
He put a finger under her chin, and tilted it up. "Is that a yes? Will you marry me?"
"You could have anyone you want, Nick."
He gazed at her, drinking her presence in like a thirsty stag at a mountain lake. "No one else came close. We agreed on honesty, did we not? At thirty, I'm too old for an ingénue. I don't want giggles, shyness or silly games. I want a wife. A partner, not a pretty ornament."
When she tried to draw away his arm tightened in instinctive response. He forced himself to relax his hold, but she didn't draw away. Relief washed through him. "An ingénue can grow into a sensible woman. Most of them do."
"I don't want to wait any longer. Besides, my mother's carping about my single state increases every year."
She chuckled. "Yes, it would."
"She says she wants to see me settled before she dies. She's only sixty, for the Lord's sake but don't tell her I told you. She only admits to fifty."
Isobel laughed again. "You think I'll make a suitable marchioness?"
"I think you'll make a perfect marchioness."
He felt her tense against his shoulder and knew what she was about to say, but he had his answer ready.
"I may not be able to bear you children, Nick. I was married to Harry for seven years and there was never a sign of a child." She met his gaze bravely.
Was that what troubled her? Her response to physical contact was to recoil instinctively, without thought. He began to wonder if the trouble between Isobel and Harry hadn't started in the bedroom. Childlessness, her wary response to his approaches--it added up to something else. There had been plenty of rumours about Harry which had only subsided on his marriage. He'd wondered then, but Isobel had seemed tranquilly content when he'd seen her on her first visit to London after her marriage, so he'd dismissed it.
He'd now responded with confidence. "It doesn't matter, Isobel. I have an heir in my cousin Duncan, and he and Mariah have two sons and a daughter. The succession is assured, one way or another. All I want is a wife. I'm not counting on anything else."
He avoided any but the briefest reference to Mariah Seyton. Society knew all about their long-term affair. Duncan and Mariah went their own way in their marriage, and the lusciously blonde Mariah had provided a convenient substitute for Isobel at one time. She gave him uncomplicated release from sexual frustration, so he'd allowed the affair to continue in a desultory way for far too long.
Isobel knew about the affair. How could she not? "Will you continue with your mistresses if I marry you?"
Was she counting on his women to provide physical satisfaction? If so, this would never work. "Would it matter?"
Would she take his mistresses as a relief or a disappointment? Her expression gave him no clue. "I won't insult you by pretending not to understand. I've made it clear to Mariah that any relation other than cousin-by-marriage is not possible between us anymore."
"Even if I refuse you on those grounds?"
He gripped her hand harder. "Don't. Please don't. I've severed intimate connections with Mariah. She and Duncan live at the house for the most part, but they have lands of their own and after the ceremony I'll ensure they leave. I want you to take this seriously, Isobel and the only way I can do that is by convincing you that I want this marriage to be a real one. Will you marry me?"
Relief surged through him, quickly replaced by apprehension. He could make any woman he wished want him, but the stakes had never been as high before. He was wagering all his happiness on this. Living with Isobel without having her in his bed would be sheer torture, but there was something wrong, badly wrong, something she hadn't told him, or, he shrewdly thought, anyone else either. He couldn't live without her. He had to take the chance.