Hello, dear readers. I've finally gotten my writing groove back on track, and here is the newest Gisborne story. This is the introduction, so it will be a little longer than the posts that follow. I will try to post at least once a week, if time permits. Also, this isn't the absolute final edition of the story. It will have some tweaks made before it's published, you're getting a first look. I hope you enjoy it!
Owen raised himself up in his boots, trying to look a little taller. He was not a short young man…not by any means. At roughly six feet tall, his height was considerable, compared to some. He only wished he could match his father’s impressive stance. Guy of Gisborne was a man of great height and breadth, and his presence was always felt when he entered a room. Owen was hopeful that one day, he would achieve such greatness. He had always favored his father in looks, sharing his dark hair and grey eyes. And he was, after all, a Gisborne. He was a baron, and the heir to a handsome estate. What woman would not want his favor?
Owen looked around at the many guests in attendance, all of whom were there to celebrate his sister’s wedding. That morning, Theodora had married Sir Lucien Caier de Neuville, and the celebration was continuing long into the night. The entire manor was alive with merriment, and Owen stood among a small group of fellows, admiring the many young ladies that were present.
He had not decided on a bride. His sisters had been matched with their husbands since childhood, but he had the luxury of selecting his wife. It was a decision he intended to consider carefully, but he knew there were several years yet before he had to make a definite choice. He was nearly seventeen, but still a squire. Marriage would not be a requirement until he achieved knighthood, and that would not be until his twenty-first year. There was plenty of time to choose…and plenty of time to appreciate all of the feminine beauty that surrounded him.
He felt a light jab in his ribs. Looking at the man next to him, he saw his brother-in-law smirking. Lucien stood head and shoulders above most men, but his striking physicality stood in contrast to a friendly and jovial soul. Owen was his squire, but it was a position he took pleasure in. They were very close, sharing many a confidence and frequently jesting with one another.
“I see your eyes are wandering,” said Lucien. “Do you spot a lady fair among the crowd?”
Owen shrugged. “I am in no rush to choose. And besides, I am yet young. When it comes to female pursuits, I am in no rush to form a permanent attachment.”
Lucien’s amber eyes shined with masculine playfulness. “You wish only to dip your wick, eh?”
Owen grinned. “Something to that effect.”
Lucien might have spoken with a lewd tongue, but it was common knowledge that he was deeply in love with his new bride, and when he spoke in such a bawdy manner, it was only to keep a manly presence among other men. He was smitten with the woman he had married. No one dared tease him about it, of course, out of respect for his pride. But Owen was quite certain that when it came to men who fell in love, he and most of his comrades shared the same thought.
Not all men were doomed to fall in love with their wives. But it seemed that the ones who did were bound to lose their sense of self. Oh, they would keep up appearances, of course. They would manage their estates and serve their sovereign when called upon. Such men would still act as men when it came to hunting, hawking, and other sports. But behind closed doors, they would become helpless creatures indeed. Lucien was one of those unfortunate souls. How else to explain his total devotion to someone like Thea? He shuddered at the thought of it. And Lucien noticed.
“Something troubles your mind?”
Owen shook himself from his thoughts. “Nothing of consequence,” he replied. “Besides, I have no wish to offend.”
In response, he was given a hard slap to his back. Lucien smiled. “You are among family here. Speak!”
With a shrug, Owen expressed his thoughts. “Can you really love a woman like my sister? She’s a shrew.”
Lucien chuckled. “To you, perhaps. But to me, she is a gift. And besides. What is life without an occasional challenge?”
Owen’s shrugged. “She will certainly provide you with that.”
He and his older sister had always been at odds. It was horrible to admit, and he never would have said so out loud, but he and Thea were very much alike in their personalities. Their quick tempers and bluntness of opinions had often caused them to butt heads. It was a fortunate thing, then, that they had a source of calm to ease such tempests.
Owen glanced over at his beloved mother. Cassia Gisborne was the strongest woman he knew, and yet she managed to have a gentle, calming influence on those around her. His younger sister, Evelyn, was very much like her, and it was certain that one day, Evie would make a most lovely and suitable wife. It was an unspoken truth among everyone, but no one was more influenced by Lady Cassia than her husband. She and Guy stood together, talking. It was clear to see, watching them, that their conversation was an intimate one. Whatever they spoke of, it was a subject meant for only the two of them, as was evident from the way they looked at one another.
In their particular case, he could understand the idea of love. It had always seemed to him that fate had intended them for one another. They were, after all, his mother and father, and he could not imagine two people being more perfectly matched. That was how it was meant to be.
He was glad for their happiness, of course. But he couldn’t imagine himself being so content. Not in terms of devoting himself to another person. His devotion had always been to the knighthood…to the code shared by his brothers in arms. He could think of nothing nobler than giving his heart and soul to the crown.
But his heart and soul were one matter. The rest of his being was an entirely different issue. Of late, there seemed to be a war raging between his noble ambitions and his baser human instincts. And he secretly feared that his instincts were gaining the upper hand.
As a boy, it had been a simple matter. Girls were the enemy. He had been polite to them, but only to a point. Now that he was a man, things had changed considerably. As before, women were to be admired for their beauty, and treated with the utmost respect. In looking for a bride, a man was expected to choose a mate of the finest pedigree. But manhood had taught him that not all women were perfect. Sometimes, what appeared on the surface was only a polished veneer.
As his gaze drifted over the crowd, it came to stop on a familiar face. A neighbor, she was, and a friend of the family. The Baroness LaCroix seemed to be all that a man could desire. For a woman, she was rather tall. It was impossible to tell, due to her long flowing gown of burgundy velvet, but he was sure her legs were long. Lord, there was something arousing about a woman with long, shapely legs. His experience with women was limited to the occasional soft company that visited the barracks, but it had been a thorough education, and he had quickly made his mind up about his favorite female feature.
As for the rest of the baroness, there was nothing to find fault with. She was slender, with nicely rounded hips and a small but pert bosom. At first glance, with her blonde hair and fair skin, she had a delicate appearance. But it was off-set when one actually met her. Her eyes were a deep shade of brown, and they looked upon a speaker with a direct and almost fierce gaze. She moved and spoke with a most confident air. She was, indeed, a glorious sight to behold.
But she was a forbidden temptation. She was a married woman, to begin with. But if the rumors were true, she was not at all pleased with her husband, and was seeking company elsewhere. Looking at the portly baron, who was standing a considerable distance away from his wife, one could almost pity Isabella for being shackled to him. He was, in truth, an uncouth and slovenly fellow.
Lucky bastard, Owen thought, To have a woman like that in his bed.
He shook his head to regain his senses. It was wrong to have lustful thoughts about such a woman. After all, lust was a sin. His own brother, a respected student of the church, had written sermons on the evils of fornication and other vices.
No one knew the truth of the matter, and so they were all polite to Isabella when in her presence. But secretly, she was the subject of many a whispered conversation. Looking at her, it wasn’t hard to believe that she could entice any man she set her sights on. She was the ultimate temptress. His gaze was fixed on her, and he could not look away. As she conversed, she smiled softly, and he found himself imagining what it would be like to kiss her. Her mouth looked so soft and sensual, her full lips a delicate shade of rose color.
He chastised himself for his immoral thoughts. Good God, man, he told himself. Come to your senses.
Even if the stories about her were only hearsay, it was better not to think of her. A man of honor tried to avoid such dubious company.
But being honorable was not always easy. His mind had perfect intentions, but his body and mind were in constant rebellion. And as far as temptations went, Lady Isabella was proving to be a real danger to his good sense. He moved out of her line of sight, determined to put such a woman far from his thoughts.
Isabella sipped her wine, only half-listening to the conversation among her circle of friends. Unlike many of her female companions, who gathered at these celebrations solely for the purpose of socializing, her own reasons were of a much more personal nature.
A steward appeared at her side. “More wine, my lady?”
Smiling, she held out her cup to be filled, thanking the young gentleman. It wasn’t customary to be gracious to a servant, or even to acknowledge their presence. But in the Gisborne home, there were many things that defied convention.
She adored the Gisborne home. There were certainly dwellings that were larger, and more lavishly appointed, and while the Gisborne estate was by no means small or plain, it was without the austerity of other manor houses. When walking through its doors, a guest felt an immediate sense of warmth and serenity. The floor rushes were always fresh, scented with varieties of dried flower petals and chamomile leaves, which gave a sweet air to the rooms. An army of servants was on hand to cater to every whim, and their duties were performed with the utmost respect and kindness. This was to be expected, of course, from any underling. But Guy of Gisborne’s servants seemed genuinely pleased with their duties, perhaps because their master did not allow them to be abused, and their mistress treated them with great kindness.
Turning her head, she set her gaze on the lord and lady of the manor.
They were, each in their own way, rather unusual. Guy of Gisborne was, in a word, animale. It was a bold description, perhaps. But Isabella could not think of a better way to depict the man who walked with such a predatory stride. When surveying his domain, he had a raptor-like quality, not just in the way he both held his head and turned it, but in his very direct and piercing gaze. His pale blue eyes looked most intently upon a speaker, often causing them to look away. There were only a select few who did not feel intimidated by him…and only one person who could soften the fierceness of his features, seemingly without effort.
Lady Cassia was not, at first glance, an extraordinary beauty, although she certainly possessed several fine qualities. Her hair was thick and wavy, its shade a lustrous chestnut brown, and it contrasted in a lovely way with her creamy complexion. But it was her eyes, perhaps, that were her most stunning feature. They were dark and deep in their color, and when she smiled, her eyes shined with a marvelous and joyful light. And it was that light that transformed her into a most exquisite creature.
Cassia was a woman who was loved. When she smiled, it was clear that her happiness came from within. She had the deep devotion of her children, who were fiercely protective of her. For her generosity and kindness, she was near and dear to her friends, and her servants. But most of all, she had the love of a husband who absolutely worshipped her.
Guy of Gisborne drew near his wife, and as Isabella saw his approach, she turned her eyes away. Her smile faded. It was sometimes difficult to watch Sir Guy and Lady Cassia together, particularly on a happy occasion such as this. They often shared certain looks when they were together…looks that were subtle, for the sake of decorum. But there was no mistaking the powerful meaning behind each shared glance. One had only to watch Sir Guy’s expression, and it was clear to see how besotted he was. How they were. As passionately as he looked at his wife, she was equally enamored with her husband. And the thought of it tore at Isabella’s heart.
She thought of them as kind and gracious neighbors, and Lady Cassia was one of her good friends. But how could she not feel envious of them? Especially when she thought of the beast she was chained to. With a despondent sigh, she took another sip of wine.
A close friend, Lady Emmaline Beauchard, was seated beside her. At twenty-three years old, Emmaline and Isabella were the same age, and they shared much in common…most notably, a dislike for their husbands. While Isabella’s husband was fat and slovenly, with a quick temper and a taste for drink, Lady Beauchard’s husband was fashioned like a reed, with a demeanor that was nearly as stiff. Beyond his duties to the crown, his time and attention were devoted to his prized Arabian horses, and there was little else that gave him joy. Hearing her companion’s little sigh of displeasure, Lady Beauchard whispered to her friend.
“Isabella,” she asked, “Are you unwell?”
Isabella, taken from her thoughts, tried to smile. “I am perfectly well, Emma. Only lost in thought.”
Her confidante examined her with soft hazel eyes. “I know a look of sadness when I see it, my friend.” Lowering her voice to a whisper, Emma spoke of the trouble she knew Isabella was thinking about. “He sits a great distance away, and yet he still burdens you.”
They dared not say names out loud. It was audacious enough that they should speak of their husbands in a negative way.
“If only we had the freedoms that men have,” said Emma. “You and I would certainly be happier for it.”
In the corner of Isabella’s mouth, a tiny smile formed. “Were I granted the gift of choice, I would use a most discerning eye.”
She and Emma shared a laugh. In private moments, they had often spoken about what they dreamed of, particularly when it came to men. They both knew that there was no hope of finding another mate. It just wasn’t done, not even if, heaven forbid, they were to become widowed. But no one could keep them from imagining the joy of something better.
As Isabella turned her attention away from Emma, her eyes fell on the face of young Owen Gisborne. For a few moments, her attention was held by his striking profile. He was every bit his father’s son, right down to the angular facial features and the black, unruly waves of hair that fell over his forehead. Like his father, he had a proud air about him. He was arrogant, even. All of his features might have come together to make him a sensual, alluring creature…were it not for the fact that he was only a boy. He was not yet seventeen, and hardly enough of a man to consider him in any way.
Suddenly, he turned his head, meeting her eye. She quickly looked away, hoping that he hadn’t seen her staring, and she chastised herself for having such immoral thoughts.
Theodora and Lucien rushed, hand in hand, through the crowd of well-wishers gathered in the courtyard. Flower petals, tossed into the air, slowly showered down on them. Lucien assisted his bride into the open carriage, and then he stood, holding a small velvet purse. Emptying the contents into his palm, he pitched the coins aloft as the guests cheered, and a moment later, the coach departed.
Lady Cassia, watching through tears, clung close to her husband. As she dabbed her eyes with a kerchief, she stole a glance at him. Her heart swelled, moved by the expression on his face.
He was trying so hard to be cool and composed. This was indeed a happy occasion. But the joy expressed was intended to be about the gaining of finance and security…not about love. It was what marriages were supposed to be about. Guy of Gisborne had chosen his daughter’s husband long ago, and by all accounts, he had chosen well. Sir Lucien was a knight of great wealth and reputation. Both he and his bride were young and healthy, so it was expected that they would soon have a family. There was little more that a father and mother could hope for.
Cassia was pleased by her new son-in-law’s status, but his goodness of heart made her happier than any amount of money or property he possessed. He genuinely loved Thea, and though it was painful to lose her eldest daughter, Cassia was joyful for them both. She knew that Guy was happy too. But at that moment, such a feeling was buried deep in his heart. Right then, despite his attempts to hide it, he was overwhelmed by despair. Gently, she clasped his hand, and in a soft voice, she tried to console him.
“She will not be far away. The Chateau de Neville neighbors us. It is less than a half-day’s ride from here.”
In response, he looked at her and tried to smile. But he did not speak. Seeing the lump in his throat, she realized he was doing all that he could to keep his composure.
My darling husband, she thought. What a wonderfully soft-hearted creature you are.
She did not tell him so. Not when there were so many eyes watching and ears listening. But he was in need of consolation. It would not do, of course, for him to be seen accepting her comfort. But there were ways around such rules.
A soft sigh escaped her. “My heart is heavy as well,” she said to him. It was not a complete untruth. She did feel a certain sadness that their beloved first-born daughter was now a woman grown and married. But Guy felt it more keenly than she did. He cared very deeply for his family, and it showed in his expression as he looked at her. But it was Evelyn and William, standing near them, who first voiced their concerns. Coming forward, Evelyn took Cassia’s hand. In her gentle way, she inquired after her mother’s health.
“Mama, are you all right?”
William looked over his sister’s shoulder. “You look quite sad, Mama. Is there anything we might do?”
Cassia smiled at their sweetness. She stroked Evelyn’s hand, and touched her palm to William’s cheek.
“I will be well,” she replied. Turning to Guy, she looked up at him, speaking softly. “But I would be more agreeable if I could escape the sea of humanity for a time.”
He met her eyes, and they needed no words. They knew each other so well, each able to read the other, as though their thoughts were written on one another’s faces. Guy turned to Owen, who was standing beside him.
“My son, your mama needs a moment of peace. We will both retire for a rest, so I must insist that you stand in my stead. See to our guests needs.”
Owen nodded eagerly. “Of course, Papa. I will organize a fox hunt. I am sure our guests will be most eager for it.”
Guy gave him a hard slap on the arm, and as she so often had, Cassia observed their “affection.” Such gestures between them were not unusual. She only wished there could be something softer between a father and son. With her daughters, she shared an openness of caring and love, frequently sharing embraces and kisses. But such tenderness was not to be expressed among men, except perhaps with William. He was a deacon of the church, hoping to soon be ordained as a priest, and it was perfectly acceptable for a man of the cloth to be gentle in nature. But it was not so with other men, particularly those like Owen, who lived and breathed the knighthood. Saddened by the thought of it, as she had often found herself to be, she let out a long, soft sigh. Guy, sensing her trouble, drew her closer to his side. He looked down at her.
“Perhaps we will go for a ride, so we might enjoy the morning air.”
She smiled at him. “That would be lovely.”
They rode out together, Guy on his black stallion and Cassia on her grey mare. Once out of sight of the manor, they left their horses behind, choosing to enjoy a long and leisurely walk. Reaching up to lift Cassia from the saddle, he kissed her lips as he set her on her feet. There was a sad glint in his eye, even as he expressed his gratitude to her.
“Thank you for creating such a ploy to grant me my freedom.”
“It was equally desired by me,” she replied, taking his arm. “Today has been trying for us both.”
As they walked, heading towards a sunny spot that overlooked their estate, Guy grumbled. “How I do loathe weddings.”
Despite the surliness of his tone, a slight smile remained on her lips. Leaning into him, she spoke with a tone of amusement.
“Surely, husband, you do not loathe the thought of all weddings. I would hope that at least one would remain a happy event in your memory.”
Looking up at him, she saw how his expression softened and warmed, and he put his arm around her waist, drawing her closer.
“I think of that occasion as the most blessed day of my life. Especially when I recall our wedding night.”
She felt the strengthening of his hold on her, and it gave her a warm thrill, even as she playfully scolded him. “Naughty wretch.”
Such playfulness never ceased to delight or…or to stir her senses. His bawdiness had grown more subtle over the years, but their desire for one another had never waned. If anything, their love was deeper now than it had ever been, although its expression was not as volatile as it had once been. In those first days, although he had been the happiest of men, Guy had always lived with a sense of fear. There had been little hope of convincing him that calamity did not wait around every corner. Time had gradually mellowed him, allowing him to spend more time enjoying life rather than worrying so. And yet, he still had his melancholy moments, particularly when it came to his daughters.
As they came to their favorite spot, where a fallen tree provided a comfortable resting place, he sat down, and she placed herself on his knee. As she leaned her head against him, he sighed deeply. His tone was mournful.
“Our nuptials are the only ones to bring joy to my heart. It pains me to think that Evelyn will one day marry. I have just lost one daughter. How can I bear to lose another?”
She saw the way he lowered his head. They had been through such scenes countless times of late, and she had spent many a day and night trying to comfort him about the inevitable loss of his beloved daughters. But she had brought him here to take his mind off of that matter.
“What of Owen?” she asked.
He lifted his head. Seeing the slight look of confusion in his expression, she realized she had chosen the right approach for a change of subject. Guy shook his head. “What of him?” he replied.
Pressing her cheek against his breast, she kept her tone light. “He will one day marry as well.”
Guy’s tone of response pleased her. His heart was soft for his daughters, but it was full of pride for his sons. Owen, especially.
“Yes, of course Owen will marry,” he said. “But he will remain at home. And, God willing, he will be blessed with many heirs. That is certainly a drop of sweet in much that is bitter.”
Sitting up a little straighter, she felt a sudden weight on her heart. It was not a heavy burden, but it was enough to dim the brightness of her mood. While Guy’s spirits seemed to have lifted, she felt her own spirits sinking.
“Perhaps so,” she replied. “Although I must confess, my thoughts of Owen have brought me much concern of late.”
His arms gathered her closer. She had brought him here to soothe him, but now it seemed that their roles had reversed, and in truth, she was glad of it. When he urged her to share her troubles, she did so gladly. His voice was warm and gentle. He placed a soft kiss on her temple.
“Tell me your thoughts, my love.”
She felt fortunate to have a husband who asked of her thoughts and feelings, and she was glad now to confide in him. Giving another small sigh, she spoke of their youngest son.
“I fear his nature, Guy. He has never been a boy of great warmth or tenderness.”
For the first time in many days, there was a note of amusement in Guy’s tone. He had not always been swift to correct Owen’s behavior, which was sometimes more aggressive than it needed to be. Guy seemed to take pride in his son’s brash tendencies. As he pressed his cheek against her hair, he spoke proudly of Owen.
“He is a young man, beloved. And one day soon, he will be a knight of fearsome ability. I find great pleasure in such a prospect.”
She felt him becoming more at ease. But she felt herself growing tense, and a hint of frustration found its way into her words.
“He is passionate about his duties, yes. But will he express such passion for the woman he chooses?”
Guy chuckled lightly. “It is perhaps difficult to hear, my love. But passion is not a requirement of marriage. Although, I have been glad to find it in ours.”
He had, indeed, become lighter of mood, as she could tell from his words and soft tone of voice. But she could not share in his amusement about Owen and the subject of matrimony. It was not a woman’s place to question such matters, and this she knew. But Guy had never chastised her for voicing her opinion. He had often said that he expected such behavior of her, and that to find her docile and quiet would cause him great concern. There would be no need for that now, as her feelings rose and demanded voice, although she spoke calmly at first.
“I am aware that marriages are not made for love,” she replied. “They are made for financial gain, and for the assurance of the male lineage.”
Guy nodded, his reply matter-of-factly spoken. “That is how it is, yes.”
She could contain what she felt no longer, and her voice rose in defiance.
“It is a most foolish thing!”
He lifted his head, the movement quickened by the suddenness of her outburst. But the corner of his mouth rose. She knew he reveled in her outspokenness, and she could see in his eyes that he was quite delighted at that moment. But pleasing him was not her present intention. The aching in her heart was quite real.
“It pains me to think that my future daughter-in-law may not know the happiness that I have known. How can we be certain that Owen will provide his mate with the love she deserves?”
She lifted her head to look at him, and there was still amusement shining in his eyes. His reply was calm, his intention clearly meant to soothe her.
“He is not a monster, my darling. He is not incapable of feeling.”
“I am aware of that,” she replied. “He has his rare moments of goodness, although he would swear by oath that he is incapable of such actions. But I want him to be a good husband.
Guy laughed again, kissing the top of her head.
“Whomever Owen chooses, we must accept it. It is not our life to live. It is best left in the hands of fate.”
She scoffed. “Fate is not always to be trusted.”
He chuckled again, kissing her forehead and cheek. Despite her attempts to remain passive and sullen, she soon found herself smiling. When he was being so amiable, so delightfully sweet, how could she remain melancholy? And how, under his loving influence, could she not return his fervent affections?
The carriage hit a hole in the road, rattling the passengers inside the vehicle. One of them, being quite heavy in size and deep in sleep, hardly noticed the jostling. The other rubbed her shoulder, which had taken the brunt of the impact when she collided with the inner wall of the carriage.
At home, a favorite mare was preparing to foal, and Isabella very much wanted to be there to see it. It was her hope that the event had not occurred in her absence, but if perchance it did, at least she could take comfort in the knowledge that the mare’s caretaker was very capable. Thinking of that nice young gentleman, she smiled to herself.
Rene Jean-Bastien had such a gift with horses. And with people. He had an uncanny way of putting one right at ease, whether or not one wanted to be at ease with a common stable-hand. Recalling how, at first, she had dismissed him as nothing more than another lowly servant, she felt a slight sense of remorse. Despite her initial coldness towards him, he had never played the submissive worker. He was respectful, of course. But when he spoke to her, it was always with an air of such pleasantness, such warmth and kindness, that she could not help warming to him. They had never gone beyond exchanging a few words of politeness, mostly relating to the well-being of the horses. But a few moments in Rene’s company was preferable to the endless hours spent with the man now sitting beside her.
Gilbert snorted in his sleep. Isabella glanced at him for a moment, but when he reached down to scratch himself, she turned her head away in disgust.
Dear God, she silently prayed. Let him soon be gone away to his mistress.
It did not trouble her that he preferred the company of his mistress, although she sometimes wondered how any woman could tolerate his boorish company, let alone lying with him. She shuddered at the thought of it, recalling the horror of her wedding night, and the memory gave her even more cause to hope for his departure.
As the carriage slowed, Isabella heard Gilbert make a grumbling sound. She senses, without looking at him, that he was waking up, and it was her hope that he would refrain from speaking to her. But a severe pinch to her upper arm proved her wrong.
“Addle-headed dolt,” he muttered. “Why did you not wake me?”
Wincing at the pain of his correction, she still managed to give him a demure and proper response. “Forgive me, my lord. I thought it best to let you sleep.”
He grumbled a cold reply. “Do not attempt that which you were not meant for. Thinking is a masculine endeavor.”
His criticism stung, but the hurt was only momentary. She was accustomed to his cutting remarks, and when he got out of the carriage and left her behind, she was happy to see him go. Leaning out, taking the hand of a groom who assisted her, she stepped down with a weary sigh, and turning her head, she observed the stable-hands tending the carriage horses.
There he stood, loosening the harnesses. His head was turned away from her, so it allowed her a moment to observe him. He was young. Eighteen, if she remembered correctly. His features were quite fine. He was of middling height, with a muscular but lean figure, and a face that was boyishly handsome. With his blonde hair and green eyes, and a lovely dimpled smile, it was impossible not to notice him. Or to be drawn to him.
Oh, I am a fool, she thought. To crave the company of such a man.
It was the height of impropriety to think of keeping company with a man of such low status. But all she wanted was to spend a few lingering minutes with him. There was something about him that was so alluring. Would it be so wrong to inquire about the horses, particularly the mare? Surely there was no harm in that. But she knew she would have to maintain a certain demeanor – cool, calm, and if possible, indifferent to his delightful smile and charming nature. Approaching him, she saw him turn his head to look at her. And the moment he did, speaking to her in that warm way, she felt her resolve slipping.
“Good day, my lady. I hope your journey was tolerable.”
She felt a desire to tell him how miserable the trip home had been. It would be such a pleasure to unburden her thoughts and feelings to someone. God knew, she had much on her mind as far as troubles went. But he was not her friend, nor her confidante. In response to his question, she nodded, but gave no reply, except to question him.
“Has the mare foaled yet?”
He shook his head. “No, my lady. But I anticipate it will be very soon. Tonight, perhaps.”
Again she nodded, and again she posed a question. “You will inform me of it immediately?”
His smile was pleasant, as was his reply. “Of course.”
Oh, those eyes. That face. He was too tempting. Turning away from him, she walked into the manor, where the servants were bustling about as they saw to the lord and lady’s arrival. She turned to her lady-in-waiting.
“Therese, please draw me a bath. My poor muscles are in need of a hot soaking.”
“Yes, my lady.”
As she approached her dressing table, she paused suddenly. There, lying in the center of the table top, she saw a single red rose. Her room was often filled with flowers, as she found great joy in their scent and beauty. But this was altogether different. It had been placed there, deliberately. Who would have left such a token? Certainly not the servants. What cause did they have to do such a thing? As she pondered the mystery, a most daring possibility came to her mind.
Surely not, she thought. He would not be foolish enough to make such a gesture.
Her face flushed red as she realized there was little doubt that it was he. Who else would have the gall to do such a thing? With a slightly trembling hand, she seized the flower and stowed it in a drawer. Turning quickly, she hurried toward the stairs in an angry fashion.
Now she would speak to him. How dare he be so bold? And what did he mean by such a gesture? It was common knowledge that red roses were a symbol of love and passion. If anyone had seen the token Rene had left, they would surely have suspected something. What right did a common stable-boy have to play such a game of risk? It was infuriating to imagine what might have happened.
In the front courtyard, the carriage and horses were being taken away to the stables. Isabella spotted Rene as he walked with the other men, and turning to a passing groom, she ordered him to fetch Rene. When he came to her, she allowed him only a few polite words before she chastised him.
“You summoned me, my lady?”
“How dare you!” she snapped.
He raised an eyebrow in curiosity. “How dare I what, my lady?”
He dared to play innocent, when his hint of a smile and the gleam in his eye told her the very truth? It was difficult to hold back her urge to slap him. Her voice rose in anger.
“You know very well what I speak of! How dare you invade the privacy of my chamber and leave such a gift?”
Looking at her, his tone became soft. “Forgive me, madam. I thought perhaps it might bring a moment of pleasure to your day.”
“It is not your place to see to my happiness!” she scolded him. “Either remember yourself or I will have your employment terminated. Is that understood?”
He lowered his head. “Yes, my lady.”
She sensed that her attempt at discipline had done little to move him or strike the proper cord of fear. Never in her life had she known such an incorrigible rascal. She did not know whether to be angry or amused, but it seemed the latter was gaining sway over her, and that would not do at all. Before the wrong response broke from her lips, she turned and walked away, determined not to let him see the effect he had on her.