Late June, 1213
Sitting at her dressing table, Isabella’s eyes shifted to a nearby trunk. In it, tucked underneath several gowns, was the sheet of parchment Rene had written. The words on it were embedded in her mind. The paper itself was worn from the frequent contact with her fingers. But after months of the author’s absence, she felt the influence of the words fading.
After a journey of nearly four weeks, she and Gilbert had arrived in Calais, where they had remained until the end of March. Her days were spent partly in the tedious company of fellow ladies and their lords, and partly in the great joy of being with her son. Sebastian had grown so, she could hardly believe her eyes, and already he was proving to be an able rider and marksman. It was with reluctance that she left him each evening, turning him over to the care of his nurse. Gilbert chastised her for the tears she shed, but she was quite indifferent to such treatment from him. When they parted ways each night, both of them retiring to separate quarters, she had found much comfort and joy in reading Rene’s letter. When she fell asleep, her mind was filled with memories of him, and her heart was filled with the hope of one day seeing him again.
They had spent several April weeks enduring the journey home, and at last, on the second of May, they had returned home.
But she had been back in Marseilles for more than six weeks. Each day passed, and there was no word from her lover. No appearance, no messages. Not the smallest sign from him. He seemed to have vanished into thin air, and with a heavy heart, she began to wonder if he had forgotten her entirely. Her head was almost convinced of it. But a small, wayward part of her soul hoped she was wrong.
He will return, she told herself. When I least expect it, he will return to me.
She sighed as her hair was tended to by Therese. When it was finally done, she waved her servant away, wishing to be alone. With her arms resting on the table, she slowly lowered her head, closing her eyes. But a moment later, she bolted up.
A bird call. But not from a winged creature. It was a distinctly human sound. Rising from her chair in a swift movement, she took an urgent step forward. Her heart beat wildly in her breast. But then, she paused. An overwhelming sense of pride gripped her.
Who was he to show up so suddenly, and after all this time? He probably expected that she would open her arms to him without question.
Pompous bastard, she thought. Does he think me so weak?
The answer to her own inner question was an obvious one. He knew she could not resist. Whether or not he had missed her was a futile subject to ponder. He was here, at last, and that was all that mattered.
But she refused to go rushing to him in desperation. He had, after all, been away a long time. There would have to be a penance done for his neglect. Stepping forward, she quickly parted the curtains. And there he was, crouched on her balcony. Water dripped from his nose and hair, which was a bit longer than before. His jaw was covered in a light beard, giving him the air of a vagabond. He was soaked through from the rain...and maddeningly gorgeous, especially when he flashed that dashing smile of his.
"Lovely weather tonight, is it not?"
She was torn between two desires – one of which was to slap him for all the heartache he had caused her. But she felt an equal desire to throw her arms around him in a crushing embrace. Doing neither, she chose instead to appear unmoved, looking at him with a frosty expression.
"Oh lovely Baroness,” he pleaded. “Might you spare a meager place on the floor for a drenched, tired, hungry soul such as I?"
When he literarly sat up and begged, looking very much like the scandalous dog he was, she chastised him for his pathetic attempt to sway her…and promptly, she stepped back, allowing him in. As he stood there, soaking wet and offering explanations for his absence, she scowled at him.
"Rene-Jean Bastien, why do you creep about my terrace?"
She instantly felt his eyes roaming over her body, and such blatant admiration stirred warm sensations within her. As he rubbed the towel over his face, he gave her a tender and appreciative smile.
"I missed you, love. And I knew you could not cast me out on a night such as this."
Lord, he knew her so well. It was likely he was aware of the wicked thoughts running through her mind at that moment. But her pride reminded her of the need to resist – if only for a little while longer. She looked at him with a cross expression.
"If you missed me so, why have you not come to see me in nearly two months?"
As he shifted from one foot to another, removing his footwear, he explained himself. "Forgive me for denying you my company. I was employed and quite short on time."
She raised an eyebrow raised in suspicion.
"Was?” she said. “Hearing your words uttered with a past tense, I take it to mean you are no longer earning an honest living? Pray, what mischief caused your termination this time?"
He shook his head. "I assure you, it was but a simple misunderstanding. A navigational error in the home of my employer. Entirely not my fault."
"Oh no?" she replied, her eyes full of skepticism at his words. "Somehow I doubt you were guiltless."
Looking at him, she dared him with a glance, challenging him to tell her a lie. By now, she knew him well enough to know that he was a notorious rascal, and there was little that she wouldn’t put past him. When he shrugged, his answer was proof of her wisdom regarding him.
"Perhaps I pocketed a few baubles."
She replied was a little huff of satisfaction. "So I thought."
His words became strangely defensive, as though he truly believed he had been wronged. "Had my master's daughter not encountered me, I might have escaped undetected."
Curiosity was in her question. "She revealed your crime to her father?"
He shook his head. "Not quite so."
There was a slight pause as she waited for him to reply, and she asked, "What then?"
A smirk formed at the corner of his mouth. Arrogant pup, she thought. It was clear from his expression that he was about to reveal something she would not be pleased to hear.
"She did not see what I had stolen,” he said. “Her interests were of a more...carnal nature."
Her expression grew dark as she took a step towards him. "Have you come to me straight from the bed of another woman?" Knowing his reputation, it had often pained her to think that she was merely another woman lumped together with the many he had known. Responding to her anger, he only sighed.
"Sheathe your claws, ma belle. She was but fifteen. I delight in all women, but I am not an absolute letch. I declined her invitation. But she did not take kindly to my rejection. She told her father a tale of impropriety, and he promptly set a band of mercenaries upon me."
As she watched him drying his hair, she felt a sensation of pity come over her. Stepping forward, she took the towel from his hand. He had said he was tired and hungry from being on the run. Despite his badness, she could not help feeling a need to care for him. But she was careful to control herself, especially with the tone of her voice.
"Remove yourself from those wet things before you catch your death."
He smirked, clearly relishing the opportunity to tease her. When he pulled his wet shirt over his head, reaching out to drop it to the floor, she could not help staring at him. It had been so long since she had seen him, literally, in the flesh. It sent tremors of warm pleasure pulsing through her. True to form, he noticed her admiration and made a sly note of it.
"You wish to admire me, do you?"
Her eyes flashed with an indignant light. She wasn't quite ready to let down her guard, and as if to emphasize it, she threw a coverlet at him, purposely aiming at his head.
"Cheeky bastard,” she cursed him. “Cover yourself. And then go into my dressing room. I will have a meal brought up, but I will not have the servants knowing of your presence."
He shrugged. "It is not as though they are unfamiliar with me."
"Which is precisely why they will not know you are here," she replied. "The last time you visited, I caught two of my maids whispering about you. I had to convince my husband that the pair were plotting against me, telling malicious lies. Fortunately the dolt believed it and had the pair sacked."
Glancing around the room, he seemed to feel a brief moment of concern. "By and by, where is the baron? At tables, or with his mistress?"
She snorted in disgust. Gilbert had left that morning without a word, and she could not have been happier to see him go.
"I know not,” she replied. “Perhaps he ventures between the two. I am only aware that he is not home, and I hardly anticipate his return in the near future."
Rene's expression warmed, knowing the element of danger was removed. "So we are quite alone then?"
His words had a clear meaning…one she felt herself responding to in a very physical way. But she wasn’t quite ready to forgive him. Not yet. With a serious expression, she gestured her head towards a nearby room.
"Into the dressing room, Rene.”
She turned away, holding to the last bit of her self-control – and knowing that it would not last much longer.