Owen felt his sister’s eyes on him. They sat beside each other at the table, and while the other guests were enjoying the wine and food, he found himself hardly touching a bite. Evelyn, ever the curious one of the family, saw his distraction. Her kind blue eyes searched his face.
“Owen, what troubles you so?”
Stiffening his posture, he shook his head in denial. “Nothing at all.”
“Come, brother. Do not attempt to fool me,” she said. “There is something on your mind.”
He knew that she meant well. Unlike Thea, Evelyn did not seek information in the hopes of finding trouble to exploit. Evie was simply inquisitive, and her inquiries were most times meant to be helpful. But in this matter, he felt it best not to confide in her.
“It is nothing, sister.”
A moment passed. But he knew his sister well enough to know that the passage of a quiet moment, however long, did not indicate that she had dismissed the subject from her thoughts. He was not at all surprised when she posed a guess about the source of his distraction.
“It is a woman, perhaps?”
He felt a bolt of nervous energy shoot up his spine. His eyes involuntarily widened a little, reacting to the directness of her question. But he put on a cool, defensive air.
“Do not be ridiculous, Evie. A woman?” He snorted, sipping his wine as he added in a pointed tone, “I am not a romantic fool.”
She was smiling. He could see it from the corner of his eye.
“Perhaps not,” she replied. “But you are in search of a bride, are you not?
He shrugged. “What of it?”
“I thought perhaps you had a lady already in mind.”
He did have a lady on his mind. But not for the reasons she thought of. With a purposeful tone, he tried to turn her away from the subject.
“I will not rush headlong into a decision. I intend to give most careful consideration to my choice of wife.” He waved a hand at her. “Remove it from your thoughts, sister. You know the subject of matrimony is a burden to me.”
Evie smiled and shook her head, but glancing at her expression, it seemed she had at last turned her attention to other matters.
His own thoughts, however, remained firmly fixed.
She sat several seats down and across from him, and his vantage point was quite good. Since the archery tournament, she had changed her hairstyle, sweeping it up into a more formal style crowned by a wreath of red flowers. Her dress had changed as well. She now wore a wine-colored gown of crushed velvet, etched with a pattern of winding vines colored a darker shade of violet. It hugged her slender waist, and accentuated the roundness of her bosom and the fineness of her shoulders. The soft look of her skin, bathed in candlelight, was so beautiful to behold that he found his breath accelerating.
Good God man, he thought. She is only a woman. Do not let her feminine powers of persuasion take control of you.
For a moment, he was resolved to control his unruly feelings. But the moment quickly passed.
The sensations he felt were not restricted to the portions of his body that had always reacted to women. This was different. His mind seemed to be not his own. Had she unknowingly cast some magic curse upon him? Females were rumored to possess fantastic powers of persuasion. Did not the mighty Caesar himself fall under the spell of a woman? Cleopatra, it was said, hid herself in a carpet that was presented to Caesar, and when he discovered her, he was instantly bewitched. Was the Trojan War not started because of a wicked temptress? Did not three brothers…Paris, Hector, and Deiphobus…all love Helen of Troy, only to be destroyed as a result of their ardent admiration?
He shook his head, knowing he would be quite arrogant if he were to compare himself with such figures of history. But then again, a man was a man, no matter the differences in time or place. And women were women. They were all temptresses in their own way. And Isabella was no different.
But I am not so weak as other men, he said to himself. And I will prove my strength.
He would speak to her. They had never shared more than a few polite words, despite being neighbors. What better way to purge himself of her curse than to converse with her, and discover that she was a woman in truth. He would find her incapable of conversation that would hold his interest, and there would be the key to breaking the spell. How could one remain infatuated with someone of an inferior mind?
For some time, he waited for the opportune moment to present itself. After supper, the guests spread out to converse and listen to the minstrels play. Owen managed to keep his attention focused on a conversation with other men, enough to avoid suspicion. But his eye occasionally wandered to the baroness, and when he saw her enjoying a moment on her own, he gathered his courage. Now was the time. Quietly excusing himself, he casually moved towards a nearby hall, where she was examining a tapestry. As he approached, she gave him a little smile.
“Good evening, my lord.”
Politely, he bowed. “Good evening, baroness. I trust you are well and enjoying our hospitality?”
She nodded. “I am. Very much.”
“I see you are admiring our tapestries.”
Turning her attention back to the woven display, she nodded. “I have always found them pleasing. This one in particular. The unicorn is a most interesting creature, do you not think so?”
Her voice, he thought. Why is it so pleasing? Despite the distraction, he managed to reply.
“I suppose it is.”
She reached out to touch the embroidery. “It is said that the beast with a single horn can only be held by a virgin. And some scholars believe they are a representation of Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary.”
Damn, he said to himself. A wise reply. His intention to find fault with her mind appeared to be a misstep.
“I was not aware of such a fact,” he answered her. Looking at her, he saw a lovely shade of pink come to her cheeks.
“Forgive me for my wandering thoughts and ceaseless speaking. I did not mean to go on so.”
Shaking his head, he smiled a little, despite his desire to keep their conversation formal. “No apologies needed,” he said.
She sighed, and her gaze moved away from him as she looked at her surroundings. “I have found great delight and comfort in this house.”
There was a pleasantness in her expression he had not seen before. It made her look more lovely than ever, but he tried not to let it sway him. He focused on the pride she took in his home, and he gave her an appreciative smile.
“We are quite content here.”
“I can see how one would be so. I have found much joy in my visits. I shall miss them very much.”
Miss it? He thought. What is this declaration, and why does it strike me with a strange poignancy? In his tone, there was a touch of eagerness he could not hide.
“You do not plan to soon visit us again?”
This time, when she replied, it was without a smile. There was a light of despondency in her eyes. “Tomorrow, I travel to Calais with my husband. We shall winter there, and spend time with our son.”
He was unprepared for the feeling her words brought. Why was he troubled by the thought of her leaving? They meant nothing to one another. They were barely even friends. And yet he found himself somewhat distraught by the thought of not seeing her for many months. Clearing his throat, he tried to maintain a stoic disposition.
“I wish you a safe journey, then,” he replied.
Her smile was lovely, but rather sad in its way. Why it moved him, he did not know, but it did. She curtseyed respectfully.
“Thank you, my lord.”
As she walked away, his eyes followed her, and he fought a most curious desire to call her back.