But she didn’t melt into his arms; instead she pulled back and looked at him steadily. “It’s true that I do not betray Draven by spending time with you… but I think that in some way, I betray myself.”
Rafe opened his mouth, blinked, and shut his mouth again.
Imogen looked at the dim face of the man sitting on her bed and bit back a smile. Griselda had been absolutely right. The line about betraying oneself had silenced him.
He cleared his throat. “You’re saying that you truly wish to stop our meetings?” He sounded stunned.
She nodded. “As I said, I’m grateful. It was—” she hesitated—”remarkably pleasurable. But I do not care to think of myself as someone who makes love in broom closets and carriages. This has been a valuable lesson.”
“We don’t have to make love in carriages!” he said, a note of hope entering his voice.
“I do not wish to continue having a surreptitious affair.”
Silence. Then: “You appear to find it remarkably easy to forgo the pleasures we have shared.”
“I enjoyed them,” she said. “But if I were ever to embark on another affair, Gabriel, I shall not be the one to chase my partner.”
“My feelings—” He said it through clenched teeth.
But she was smiling at him. “I can tell that your desire is genuine, and I am grateful for it.” It was a dismissal.
“I see.” He rose to his feet, thinking desperately that he ought to rip off the mustache. And yet… he was terrified. He was a paltry man to offer marriage to Imogen. Not much more than her benighted, foolish husband, if it came to that. Draven Maitland hadn’t been a drinker, after all. She deserved better.
“Good-bye,” she said.
“Imogen.” He turned to go and then paused, back to her. “What will you do now? Do you plan to marry?”
“Not in the immediate future.”
Rafe walked into the corridor feeling as if he had been struck about the head. Apparently his plan to prove himself an irresistible lover while pretending to be Gabe so that Imogen would have no recourse but to accept his hand was a failure.
He didn’t feel heartbroken. What he felt was a tremendous, burning wish to take a drink. To retreat into the soft golden hue of forgetfulness that came along with whiskey. In the days when he was drinking, he didn’t care that he wasn’t a fit consort for a woman such as Imogen.
He found himself walking down the stairs. Moonlight filtered dimly into the great stairway that led to the floor below. The great stairs trod by so many dukes who actually—
But he stopped, hand on the door to his study. Like any drunk, he had whiskey hidden there, liquor from the days when he used to have a quiet nightcap, or two or three.
But were all those dukes so worthy of the great stairs? His father, with his second family and his coldness toward his legitimate sons? Peter, who though Rafe loved him dearly, was so hidebound that he didn’t even bother to share the news that Rafe had a half brother? What he remembered of his grandfather was a cold, thin man with a cane and a permanent sneer. It was his grandfather who had arranged his father’s marriage, when his son was a mere lad. Perhaps his father would have been a different man had he been allowed to marry as he wished.
Finally, Rafe did open the door.
He walked into the study, the inner sanctum of dukes, where Peter, and his father, and his grandfather had sat.
He stood for a long time, looking at the two crystal decanters, concealed behind paneling that swung open at his touch. Then somehow a decanter was in his hand, open. The sharp scent of the whiskey lured like a siren’s smile. It was oblivion, that extra cape and mustache that he could wear from keeping the world from judging his impover-ishment. His inability to be a proper duke. The whiskey seemed to call to him, promise him relief from the press of failure, from the sense that Imogen didn’t need him.
Or perhaps it was the other way around, he suddenly thought. He didn’t need Imogen, not for this. And perhaps she had need of him.
God knows, he needed her more than he needed a glass of whiskey.
A moment later he emptied the two decanters onto the courtyard stones, far below the window.
Then he sat down. He knew precisely what to do. He started to make a list. His solicitor, at the man’s earliest convenience. Gabriel.
Raphael Jourdain, Duke ofHolbrook, Comes into His Title
Gabriel Spenser was clearly in love with Miss Pythian-Adams, and when and how that had happened, Imogen didn’t know. It was all one with the lump of dull misery that seemed to have permanently lodged itself behind her breastbone.
She hadn’t even seen Rafe in days because he’d left for London without saying goodbye. Her maid told her that his valet was greatly excited because the duke had visited a tailor and had ordered a wardrobe “fit for a duke.” Even presentation breeches, Daisy said, the morning Rafe was back at Holbrook Court. “And he saw his solicitor in London. Mr. Brinkley says it likely indicates that His Grace means to marry, once the season starts.”
“I’m sure he does,” Imogen said. Her smile felt strange on her face, like a wrinkle before its time.
“We all thought he was to marry Miss Pythian-Adams,” Daisy continued. “But there, she’s made her choice. Mr. Brinkley says that the duke only came back to Holbrook Court for a day or so. He’s off to London again tomorrow perhaps, so Mr. Brinkley thinks he might be courting a young lady even now, before the season begins.”
Imogen blinked away a dimness in her eyes. So Rafe meant to marry. And Gabriel meant to marry. Why, so did she. As soon as she found a man who wanted her for more than a casual kiss and a casual tumble at an inn.
And as soon as she could overcome a growing, desperate sense of grief and loss that threatened to match what she had felt when Draven died. It was a blasphemous thought, and had Imogen’s throat close with tears at the shame of it.
Josie met her at the bottom of the stairs, glowing with excitement. “Rafe has seen Mayne in London, and you won’t believe this, Imogen, but Mayne is getting married!”
Imogen took a deep breath. “Who is he marrying?”
“A Frenchwoman,” Josie said, “with a delicious name that I forgot. She sounds like a heroine in one of my novels. Rafe has met her; he says that she’s exquisite and will keep Mayne in line. Oh, you’re wearing a riding habit. Are you taking Posy out before breakfast?”
In fact, Imogen had thought to ask if Rafe wished to accompany her, but she abruptly changed her mind. “Yes,” she said. “I’m going to the stables now. I’m not hungry.”
She didn’t return until an hour later. She and Posy had galloped along country lanes, ducked under the willows between her land and Rafe’s, ambled through the field where Rafe had asked her to marry him, even if it was only in jest. The mist was gone from her eyes, and her chin was up again.
She would go to London and find a husband who treasured her. Who thought she was interesting and funny, even in the daylight. Who didn’t need to be seduced, but would want to seduce her. Who didn’t need to sneak into her bedchamber, but would ask for her hand in marriage before she even thought he was interested. Who would say that he loved her.
Imogen strode into the entryway and handed her hat and crop to Brinkley. “His Grace would like to see you at your convenience in his study,” Brinkley said. “Shall I inform him that you will join him in, perhaps, an hour?”