Isabella sighed, bored with watching the archery tournament. It was part of a series of events, held over a two-day period, to celebrate the announcement of Lucien and Thea’s coming child. But neither the sunny afternoon, nor the cheering crowd, could keep her attention for more than a few moments. No one seemed to notice her distraction. Gilbert was happily partaking of their host’s hospitality while noisily cheering on his favorite archer. She was glad to have his attention so diverted – particularly when her own thoughts were so very far away.
She tried not to look conspicuous. This she did by making brief attempts to concentrate on the happenings around her. Sir Lucien, Guy of Gisborne, and his two sons were competing against a number of men, both noble and commoner alike. Sir Guy looked very well, of course. And his sons matched their father in athletic form and ability. Owen, in particular, looked dashing in a white shirt, dark-red tunic, and black breeches. What was it about the baron that caught the eye? She knew she was not the only female to notice it. Like his father, Owen Gisborne had a way about him that could not be defined…except to say that it was difficult to take one’s eyes away from him. But at that moment, there was another on her mind. And he was a far greater source of distraction than any Gisborne.
Rene had left the chateau, and his position as a stable-boy. Where he had gone, she did not know for certain. She only knew that he was gone, and her life felt emptier now than ever before.
Rumors of the affair had been exchanged between several of the servants. But in a blessed turn of luck, she had discovered just who it was in particular that was generating such gossip. She had gone to her husband straight away, alerting him to the presence of several troublemakers who wished to slander the LaCroix name with false rumors and accusations. In her heart, she knew she was doing wrong. But when Gilbert dismissed the accusers, she chose not to dwell on her own transgressions. She considered herself fortunate to have escaped discovery, and she was thankful for it.
But in the aftermath, Rene chose not to endanger her by staying. She could not forget their last night together. It had been so bittersweet. Even now, she recalled every moment…
Their second night together had easily eclipsed the first, and when the morning had broken, she knew that her vow of forgetting him would be impossible to keep.
It was not love. She had not forgotten herself so badly as to become a complete fool. But now that she had been with him, she felt a helpless need to keep him. He fulfilled her desires, not just of the body, but of the soul. It was immoral and unwise to be so taken with him, but she could not bring herself to end the affair. When the time came, and circumstances forced them both to face their farewell, she could hardly bear it. As dawn approached, they stood near the terrace doorway, sharing an embrace. As he prepared to leave her., she expressed her deeply felt pain.
“My only happiness will be torn away with you.”
Tears spilled from her eyes. She knew she was a desperate fool, but her heavy heart overwhelmed her pride. He smiled at her, speaking so gently that it only pained her more deeply.
“Is this the same gentle lady who feared me not long ago?”
As her frown deepened, she lowered her head, muttering sadly.
“Do not tease me now. I cannot endure it.” She felt his hands touching her face, gently forcing her to raise her head and look at him. He brushed the tears from her eyes.
“Do as I do,” he replied, “And find solace in dreams.”
She clasped his hands, pressing their warmth firmly against her skin. “Will I ever see you again?”
Taking her hands in his own, he kissed her fingers. “Perhaps one day, our paths will cross again.”
When he kissed her, she cried and tried to hold to him, but he gently extracted himself from her arms. Before she could delay him further, he moved to the balcony railing, where he looked at her one last time. He threw a kiss to her, and then he was gone. And she buried her face in her hands, weeping…
Isabella shook her head, bringing herself back to the present. She tried to smile at Lady Cassia, who was looking at her with an air of concern.
“Isabella, are you well?”
She nodded, brushing away a tear that had escaped her eye. “Forgive me. My mind was drifting to past events best forgotten.” Taking in a calming breath, she tried to direct the subject on a different path. Looking at the players on the field, she gestered her head towards the Gisborne men. “Your family is looking well today. And performing well, if I may say.”
Cassia smiled proudly. “They are all competitive creatures. Even dear William. Even he, on occasion, commits the sin of pride. But, I suppose they cannot help such weaknesses. They are men, after all.”
A slight smile came to Isabella’s lips. Lady Cassia had a lovely sense of humor. She was, indeed, a lady. But she expressed her opinion quite freely at times, almost as freely as a man was permitted to. She was fortunate to have a husband who allowed her such a liberty. The thought of it brought a slight twinge of envy to Isabella’s senses. But she suppressed her feelings, for she knew that her own misfortunes were not the fault of Lady Cassia or anyone else. Slowly letting out a breath, she remarked on a particular member of the Gisborne family.
“Your younger son seems quite intense in his concentration and strong in his display. He seeks to impress.”
Cassia replied with a nod. “He does indeed. In recent days, he has made know to his father and myself that he intends to find a bride. I wonder if, perhaps, there is a lady among us whom he favors.”
With a wry expression, Isabella replied. “Whomever he chooses, she will be a fortunate lady.”
To have a Gisborne for a husband, she thought. She will be a most fortunate lady indeed.
His shot hit the target dead center. Stepping back to take another arrow from his quiver, Owen glanced over at the box where his mother, his sisters, and several of their friends were gathered. Without hesitance, his glance fell on Isabella. She was stunning in a dark shade of violet, and with her hair gathered in a mass of golden coils at the base of her neck, she looked so very regal.
Infatuated, he silently said. I am infatuated. He knew now that to deny his attraction was to lie to himself. But it was a secret admission. No one could know that he thought of her on a daily basis…that in looking at other ladies, he found each of them lacking in some way. They did not have her eyes, nor her smile. Not a one of them carried themselves with the proud dignity that the baroness possessed. And none among them had her inner strength.
It was no secret that the baroness was unhappy with her husband. But she soldiered on gracefully, as a proper wife was meant to do. Gossip still persisted that she was not as faithful as she appeared to be, but Owen wondered if there was some doubt to the rumors. There had never been proof of her wrong-doing, so who was to say what was true and what was not?
He sighed, wondering at his own foolishness. For a moment, he was able to focus on his goal of showing off his expertise in archery. Secretly, he hoped that the baroness was watching and admiring him. In reality, they could never be anything to one another. But in secret, he could seek her favor, and imagine that she returned it with passionate eagerness.