Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Baron's Lady - Chapter 5, Part 2

The night was alive with the joy of celebration, just as it had been for each ending of day during the gathering. Wine and ale flowed in generous amounts. Supper was a feast of whole roasted pig, sausages, and veal, along with a sallat of lettuce, carrots, and turnips. Bread and cheese were part of the offering, of course, and for those with a penchant for sweetness, there were fruit filled pastries and dark puddings. The guests were enjoying themselves beyond measure, and many of them were now talking of the important pair of guests that were expected. Lady Evelyn’s fiancé, the Marquis of Laroque, and his father, the duke, would be arriving on the morrow, and there impending arrival was generating great excitement.
But Isabella had other matters on her mind.

Somewhere in the midst of the gathering, she had regained some of her good sense. And she had Rene to thank for it.

Watching him from across the room, she saw the way his gaze was fixed on Lady Evelyn. For most of the day, it had seemed, he had been giving her his undivided attention, and if her shy little smiles were any indication, she seemed to be basking in the warmth of his admiration.

Who could truly blame her? Isabella thought. He truly is a marvel of roguish charm.

But such magic was not meant to last. The attentions of a rogue were fleeting. Men like Rene enjoyed “variety” with women. One was never enough. They were, in a sense, hunters who were always on the lookout for a new prize to be found. And once the pretty butterfly was captured in the net, the hunter’s interest was lost. Isabella sighed, coming to terms with a matter she had known for some time, but had refused to face.

She was no longer the lady of the moment. Rene had set his sights on another, and it would not be long before he forgot her entirely. Her heart was heavy at the thought of it, even as she accepted the inevitable truth.

He was nearly everything she had ever wanted in a man. He handsome and clever. Lord knew he was good at pleasing a woman, in and out of bed. But why was he so afraid to be loyal? Why could he not open his heart?

Why could he not be a Gisborne?

Without prompt, her eyes searched the room for the baron. At first she did not see him, and she felt a mild sense of disappointment. Since their return from the ride that morning, they had not spoken. She sensed that he was keeping his distance, but that was not surprising, as she had done the same…except for her eyes. It was impossible, she found, for her eyes not to fall on him. Even when he was at a distance, she found her gaze searching him out, longing for another glance.

Owen looked so much like his father. They shared the same darkness of coloring, and the fierce, serious intensity of their eyes and faces were one in the same. But in many ways, the baron was different. Not just in age, but in physicality. He was lean, but his body was solid with muscle, particularly his arms and legs. Thinking of how well he sat upon a horse…the way his strong thighs gripped his mount…she felt her face flush with heat.

Heaven help me, she thought. I am a base, vulgar sinner.

The baron had only just turned seventeen. In the eyes of society, he was a man fully grown, and he would soon prove his maturity by taking a wife, having a family, and going to war when called upon. But still, he was so young. Only a few years younger than herself, but that was enough. It was indecent to think of him in any terms except that of a respectable neighbor.

Why, then, could she not take her eyes from him as she watched him on the stairs. He descended without hurry, looking about the room. His expression was so serious…so set to purpose, it seemed. There was no trace of the amiable gentleman who had come to aid that morning, and she wondered what had turned his mind to such dark and determined thoughts. Whatever the cause was, hid aloof expression did nothing to lessen his attractiveness. If anything, it only made him more alluring. Seeing him with such a scowl, she felt a flicker of attraction stirring in her soul. And immediately she chastised herself for her wicked thoughts.

Was it not enough that she had let Rene seduce and conquer her?

Thinking of the sins she had already committed in her life, thanks to her own selfish desires, she tore her eyes away from the lure of Owen Gisborne. Moving away from the stairs altogether, and distancing herself from the very space he was near, she immersed herself in conversation with several ladies of her acquaintance. By remaining close to her peers, she hoped to remember something of herself…a part of herself she had lost in recent times. All of these months, because of Rene, she had allowed herself to wander in a dream.

But the time had come to awaken.


“Do you notice anything odd about Owen?”

Guy looked down at Cassia, who was sitting on a bench with Thea. Looking over at Owen, who was standing at a distance, it seemed to Guy that his son was doing nothing of particular interest…just sipping a goblet of wine as he stood with a few friends. Guy shrugged.

“I see nothing out of the ordinary.”

Thea agreed. “Indeed, Papa. He appears as unpleasant as usual.”

Cassia, shaking her head but smiling, looked over at her son. “I must disagree. I think something troubles him.”

Returning his gaze to her, Guy gave her a slight smile. She had something on her mind, it seemed. Something that had sparked her interest, and it wasn’t likely she would give up until she discovered what Owen’s secret was.

“How can you be certain there is something amiss?” he asked.

Her reply was confident. “A mother’s intuition, my love.”

Evelyn, who was standing beside her father, chimed in with her thoughts.

“Perhaps it is the prospect of finding a wife that troubles him. He has had no fortune thus far in finding a lady that pleases him.”

They all heard Thea’s response, which was a loud and rather unladylike snort. Guy looked at his older daughter, waiting to hear what sharp remark she would make. He rarely scolded her these days for her pointed words about Owen. They had become such a part of the rhythm of life, he almost looked forward to each new turn of phrase that she created. Thea did not disappoint.

“I pity the poor soul he chooses. I would never wish to be paired with such a rough-hewn miscreant.”

Guy felt the grasp of Cassia’s fingers as she reached up to take his hand. He didn’t need to look at her to know that she was smiling in that sly little way of hers.

“Trust me, daughter,” she said. “Even rough-hewn miscreants have their finer points.”

Feeling the warmth of his wife’s hand, Guy felt a familiar rush of pleasure. But it was more than a visceral feeling. Being in the gentle company of his wife and daughters, he felt an envelopment of love that only his family provided. When Thea rose to her feet to depart, a feeling of disappointment struck him.

“I must take Gabriel up,” she said. “Papa, please make my excuses to Lucien.”

It troubled him to know that she was still so wary about her son. He could not blame her, of course, but he worried about her desperate need to never let him out of her sight. Sooner or later, she would need to let others care for him, especially when she and Lucien had other children.

“You should let Claudia tend to him. It is her duty, after all.”

Thea shook her head, declining the suggestion. He did not press her on the matter, wishing only to see her content. For the time being, there was no real harm in her actions.

A moment later, Cassia rose to her feet, and seeing her imminent departure, Guy voiced his displeasure.

“Are you to leave me as well?”

The smile had gone from her face, and when she replied, there was a melancholy note to her voice.

“I must go up and say good night to William. He will depart early for his journey.”

She never disguised her sadness about William. Although she was pleased that he had chosen to be a priest, she was unhappy about his being so far away, and in the morning, when he left, she would shed many tears. Already there was a glimmer in her eyes, and he knew that later in the night, he would have to console her while she wept. He welcomed the thought of comforting her, as she had so often comforted him in times of need. And if not for his duties to his guests, he would have taken her upstairs himself. But being the host, he knew he needed to remain. And, he needed to speak to Owen. He turned to Evelyn.

“Evelyn, escort your Mama upstairs.”

He was not at all surprised when Cassia protested.

“Guy, I have Celeste at my side, should I need aid.”

She did indeed have her maid, who was always faithfully close by, and Celeste came to her lady quickly, taking her gently by the arm to support her. But Guy was insistent.

“That will hardly satisfy me. Evelyn, you will accompany her.”

Cassia began the utterance of another protest, but Evelyn gently broke in.

“I will go with you, Mama. I wish to say good night as well.”

He knew it was shocking to display affections openly, but he could not help himself, giving his wife and daughters each a peck on the forehead as they departed, and gently stroking Gabriel’s downy head. As he watched them go, Owen came to him.

“Are they all going, Papa?”

Guy nodded. “Your mama and Evelyn are going to see William, and Thea is putting the baby to bed.”

“Thea is still shaken by traumatic events, I see. Do you suppose she will soon recover from it?”

“I cannot say. But it is my hope that she will. I suppose we should be thankful for the good comte.”

At the mention of Rene, Guy felt an inner sense of discontent and irritability. There was something about the comte that rubbed him the wrong way. And it seemed, judging from Owen’s downturn of expression, that his son’s opinion of the comte was not so favorable either.

“Do you dislike him, Owen?”

Owen seemed to hesitate, but Guy could see the answer in his son’s eyes. He encouraged him to speak, and after a few moments, Owen expressed his displeasure.

“He is too vain, in my opinion. Heroism is a fine aspiration, but once achieved it should not be flaunted. I think he is basking too openly in his moment in the sun.”

Guy smiled at his son’s thoughts, which were his as well. “We are of the same opinion. And it seems as though we are often thus. Like father, like son, so they say.”

Looking at Owen, he saw the attempt of a smile. But there was something unseen…some other thought, perhaps…that made the gesture appear untrue. Perhaps that was what Cassia had suspected.

“Is there another matter that is troubling you? Your mama is concerned.”

Owen shook his head. Rather quickly, it seemed. Was it an attempt to cover up something?

“It is nothing, Papa. I am merely impatient for these festivities to be done. I do not mind the company of my fellow nobles, but I would find more pleasure in my training.”

“Excuse yourself, then. Go to the barracks, and see to the sharpening of blades or some other task. This group will hardly notice that most of the Gisbornes have quit the room. They are too stuffed with food and drink for your absence to come to their attention.”

There was a deep look of relief in Owen’s face. After a firm slap to Owen’s back, Guy watched him go. Something told him there was more to his son’s behavior than he was currently aware of. Perhaps he would speak to Cassia about it before they went to bed. She had started this mystery, after all. Perhaps she would also be the one to solve it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Baron's Lady, Chapter 5 - Part 1

Standing in the doorway of a tower room, Owen watched his brother, who had his head bent over a sheet of parchment. The chamber was small and simply furnished, with only a writing table, a narrow bed with a single trunk at the end, and a washstand. There was a small hearth, but nothing more was needed in such a humble chamber. It was farthest away from the activity of the great hall, and it was always William’s refuge when he visited. Being a solitary person, as he had been since childhood, William Gisborne had little interest in social matters and noisy gatherings, preferring a place of quiet study or contemplation. Such a nature suited his chosen profession perfectly, it seemed.

William had always been studious. It was he who had encouraged everyone, even the ladies of the house, to be committed to reading and writing. It was not considered important, or even fashionable, for a woman to be so educated, but William’s influence on the family…especially their mother…had always been strong. Leaning against the doorframe, Owen at last broke the silence of his observation.

“Mama will miss you dreadfully, you know.”

William glanced up for only a moment, giving a slight smile. He wore a familiar expression of modesty, continuing to write as he spoke.

“She shall have sufficient company in which to find solace, especially now that Gabriel has made his entrance.”

With a snort, Owen stepped forward into the room. William had always shied away from compliments, and when confronted with discussion about his place in the sibling pecking order, he always tried to underplay his importance.

“You are too modest, as you have always been. Even though you are well aware of her preference for you.”

William replied in a calm tone as he dipped his quill pen and tapped it against the inkpot. “Mama loves all of us equally. You know that.”

Owen stepped further into the room, coming to stand by the window. He folded his arms, letting out a breath.

“If that is what you choose to believe, then so be it. It was not my intent to seek you out for an argument.”

There was a moment of silence as William seemed to contemplate what the quiet indicated. If there was anyone Owen felt comfortable confiding in, it was his brother. Despite the differences of their individual natures, they shared as deep a bond as any brothers. He often spoke to William of things that no one else knew of. And yet, being a proud soul, Owen sometimes found it difficult to begin an important conversation. He often relied on William to draw him in, as he did now.

“Tell me then,” William asked, putting aside his pen and paper. “What was your intent in coming to me? And do not say that you came to bid me farewell. I know you too well, brother. What reason have you to tear yourself away from a social gathering?”

Owen stared out the window, thinking of what…or more particularly, who…had caused him to seek his brother’s consolation. His reply was solemn.

“Tonight, I find the company too stifling.”

Folding his hands on the desk, William’s voice held a note of interest.

“Do you? That is unlike you, I should say.”

“I am not quite myself, I fear. Not myself at all.”

Owen heard William’s chair as it scraped the floor. A moment later, he came and sat in the window seat, stretching his legs and folding his arms.

“If you wish to talk, I will listen,” he said. “Is that why you have sought me out?”

Looking at his brother, Owen felt the strength of their family bond, and he knew William to be most trustworthy. Still, he could not help his need for words of assurance.

“If I tell you something, will you swear on oath to keep it between us?”

William chuckled, gesturing to the simple linen alb he wore.

“My holy garments are not a costume, brother. I will soon be a priest, so be assured that I know how to properly handle a confession.”

Several moments went by, until Owen could contain his feelings no longer. He needed to speak of his burden before it ruined his sanity.

“I have fallen in love.”

William blinked, and his expression told of his complete disbelief.

“Surely you jest,” he said. But Owen shook his head in reply.

“I do not.”

William, grasping for words, slowly rose to his feet. “I hardly know what to say,” he replied. With his arms still folded, he took a few small steps away, as it seemed he was trying to recover from his surprise. Despite this, he spoke in a calm tone of voice, and Owen could feel William’s eyes searching him.

“Are you certain you are not merely infatuated? Perhaps your feelings are a temporary madness. It is not uncommon for men to feel such things when it concerns a woman.”

Owen’s reply came quickly. He shook his head.

“I assure you, this is not a passing fancy. I have mulled over these feelings for many long months. I have fought them with all of my strength. But they hold me in a firm grip, forcing me to submit to their will.”

“Who is the lucky lady in question?”

Isabella’s name was on the tip of Owen’s tongue. But he held it back. Not even William, whom he trusted so well, could know that he had feelings for a married woman. It was unthinkable.

“I cannot tell you her name.”

“Why on earth not?”

Thinking of Isabella, knowing that she was another man’s wife, Owen answered with more passion than he meant to display. “Because she belongs to another!”

The outburst felt so awkward…so spontaneous. Part of the trouble of all of this was his inability to control his own emotions. He knew he had always been an impulsive man, but part of becoming a knight was learning how to channel his feelings…of learning to be a master of control and concentration, even in moments of anger or enthusiasm. But Isabella had made all of that impossible. In frustration, he turned away from the window, and took to pacing slowly. William came closer, inquiring.

“Does she know of your feelings? Does she share them?”

With a shake of his head, Owen muttered in frustration.

“She is not aware of my turmoil. And I cannot say if she feels anything for me, other than an inkling of friendship. But it is unlikely that I have meaning for her.”

“And how do you know this?” asked William. “Perhaps she has a secret admiration for you, just as you have for her.”

As Owen came to stand before the hearth, he leaned a hand on the mantle, staring into the fire.

“So long as her loyalties remain as they are, she will be unattainable for me. The fates have placed us at a distance, and we must remain so.”

A moment later, he felt William’s hand on his shoulder, and words of kindness followed.

“I wish I could aid you in some way. You have my sympathies, brother. To be the victim of unrequited love…it must be quite painful.”

Such tender feelings, forced to be held within, were indeed painful. And he could see no way to eradicate his burden, other than to hope that in time, and with continued effort, they would fade.

“Yes, it is,” he answered. “But I am nothing if not strong. I will endure this battle, and many more to come, I am certain. But it is my hope that future battles will be fought in the field. I am better prepared to handle them there.”

Laughing quietly, William returned to his desk. “I am not so certain that love is a battle to be easily won,” he said. “But I wish you good fortune in the endeavor.”

Owen sighed, moving towards the door. “I should return to the party before I am missed.” A slight smile came to his lips as he turned in the doorway, looking at William. “Thank you for your time and consolation, your grace.”

William looked up at him, and his eyes shined with mischief.

“You are welcome, my son.”

The corner of Owen’s mouth rose a bit higher. “I will see you in the morning, before you depart.”

William nodded, and in his reply, there was a last hint of brotherly teasing.

“Good night. I hope you sleep well.” Slowly, he looked up at Owen, who rolled his eyes at the jest.

“Doubtful, brother,” he said. “Highly doubtful.” And as he left the room, he heard William’s chuckle in reply.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Baron's Lady - Chapter 4, Part 3

“Are you certain we should do this?”

From his place beside his horse, Owen looked up at her, his brow raised in curiosity. “Do what?”

“You and I, riding out alone,” she replied. “There could be a scandal in the making.”

To that, he snorted. “Nonsense. A lady should not ride alone. I am merely accompanying you as your protector, lest we should encounter wild animals or bandits.”

“Still, will people not talk?”

He turned to one of the grooms. Gossip often began at the lower levels of society, so it was said. But that he intended to stop before it began. There was enough whispering already about the baroness, and there was no need to generate more rumors. As the groom bowed, Owen spoke in a most firm and serious tone of voice.

“Go to my mother. Tell her that the baroness was most disturbed by the fright she received, and she insisted on riding to clear her head. I will escort her and will serve as her guardian.”

As the groom nodded and departed, Owen turned back to his horse. As he sat upon its back, he looked at Isabella with a self-assured expression.

“I am not yet a knight, but I live by my vows of honor. Such is a widely known fact, my lady. So do not fear. You and your reputation are quite safe with me.”

Giving his horse the heel, he moved towards the coastal path, with Isabella riding at a respectable distance beside him. The road beside the sea was a more favorable way to go, rather than the woods and fields where the hunting party would be. The summer sun was warm, but the ocean breeze was cooling, which set them both at ease as they went along. Comfortable now in each other’s company, conversation came more easily than it had before.

“So, my lady,” Owen began. “Tell me. What did frighten you so? I saw the commotion only at a distance.”

He wondered if, perhaps, she would be reluctant to speak of the incident. Recalling how Thea reacted with great theatrics to such situations, he was surprised at the calmness of Isabella’s reply.

“It was a lizard that caused such trouble. I am certain you think me a fool for such hysterics, but creeping creatures simply terrify me.”

“I did not say you were a fool.”

“No,” she said, “But in all probability the thought did cross your mind. It is how men see women, is it not? In your eyes, we are meek and in constant need of consolation and protection.”

He shrugged. “That is your nature, by definition. But there are some who not conform to such a mold. My mother and sister are proof of that.”

Now she smiled, turning to look at him as she spoke of his family with fondness. “They are very fine ladies. As is your younger sister. I understand that her intended husband arrives soon.”

“Yes, indeed. The marquis and his father are expected tomorrow, if all goes well. Evie will make a fine wife. I am sure of it.”

“And what of you, my lord? There is talk that you seek a hand in marriage. Will we soon celebrate another happiness within the Gisborne household?”

The slight uplift of his spirits was dealt a small blow at the mention of marriage. His answer was bleak.

“Not within the foreseeable future, I am afraid. I find the business of selection a most unpleasant task.”

All these months, he had searched for a woman that would suit him, but none had struck his fancy in the way that he had hoped for. There was no buoyant feeling…no sense that the woman he was with was the perfect person. He had little experience with matters of the heart, but he was certain of one thing.

There was no feeling that compared to being with Isabella.

He felt the shock of his own words. With a tiny shake of his head, one he hoped that she did not see, he tried to ignore the feeling of pleasurable tension that she generated between them.

Lord, she is so exquisite, he thought.

Her outer frock was dove grey, but the lackluster color was offset by the rose pink under-dress she wore. And she wore it very well, in his personal opinion. He could not imagine her beautiful body looking wrong in anything.

Clearing his throat, he struggled to focus on the conversation as she asked a question.

“Is it not a simple matter of gaining wealth and property, as most marriages are based on?”

In reply, he tried to sound calm and collected…more so than he felt.

“In technical terms, yes. But I am constantly reminded of my father’s advice - that I should not be hasty in my decision. Marriage is a permanent binding, and my father tells me to choose a bride that pleases more than just my purse.”

“Your father speaks wisely.” She sighed, and a note of sadness came to her words. “If only we women had voice in such matters.”

He knew what she spoke of, even if she did not say it directly.

“You talk of your husband?”

He found himself, for the first time in his life, wishing to hear the thoughts and feelings of a woman. Her plight was such a sad one.

Speak to me, he thought. Let me be the one to whom you unburden the troubles of your heart.

Impatiently, but silently, he waited for her to confide in him. But instead, she backed away from any confessions she might have thought to give.

“Forgive me, my lord. I am out of place to speak of such things.”

Looking at her, he could swear he saw a flicker of fear in her eyes. Husbands expected the utmost respect and humility from their wives, so it was said. Obviously, the Baron LaCroix was no exception. It was clear that even when absent, the man held control over his lady. It was not impossible to imagine the baron using violence to keep his spouse in line. Just the thought of it made the hairs on Owen’s neck rise up in anger.

“How do you speak out of place?” he asked. “You have not spoken ill of him. And if you did, I daresay few could blame you. He is a most revolting fiend.”

In reply, she shook her head. “I cannot give an opinion of that. It would be most improper.”

Riled by the thought of such injustice, words of the knights’ code came to mind.

A knight must fight for the welfare of all.

Perhaps, in this instance, he wouldn’t be fighting for her with a sword and shield. But he could, at the very least, come to her defense with words.

“I shall speak for you, then. Such a base, vulgar man should not be permitted to have a high-born lady of quality.”

He hoped to give her comfort, but his words only seemed to cause a deeper expression of sorrow.

“Perhaps I am not deserving of something better.”

It pained him to hear her say such things. Had her husband treated her so cruelly? Had she truly been brought so low by him? His tone was demanding, spurred on his growing inner anger.

“Why do you speak so meanly of yourself?”

With a calm tone, she said, “We cannot change the fates design. Some are destined for happiness. Others are not.”

She would not be rallied to his cause with force. Speaking as a man, with a man’s tendency to give voice with power and passion, would only make her back farther away. He had never attempted it before, but perhaps he needed a softer touch. He thought of his mother then. Oft times, she had used humor to bolster the spirit of he and his siblings. Suppressing his anger, he took in a deep, calming breath. After a few moments, a smile slowly came to his lips.

“Mama would heartily disagree with you. She has always insisted that each man, or woman, is the commander of his or her own destiny. She is quite the romantic, my dear mother.”

Looking over at Isabella, he witnessed the gloom fading away, replaced by the lovely light of joy. She smiled…a most beautiful sight to his admiring eyes.

“Perhaps there is some truth in what she says. After all, I have never known such a happy family as yours. Do you think your mother and father would consider adopting a daughter?”

Her jovial question made him grin, and he replied with his own sense of humor.

“Apologies, my lady. But two sisters are more than enough for me.”

When she softly laughed, he couldn’t help but be pleased by the lovely sound. As they rode along, happy in one another’s company, he felt a light-heartedness that had long been absent from his life. He was a knight in training, which was a most serious business. It required a man of intense devotion, and there was little allowance for frivolity. But in Isabella’s presence, such ambitions somehow seemed less important.

As they came to the edge of a high ridge, overlooking the ocean, Isabella took in a deep breath. She sighed, and a thoughtful look came over her face.

“The world is more than we know. It is vast and unexplored. Were I free to choose my own path, I would fly as far and as fast as the falcons do. And never would I return from whence I came.”

She looked so far away as she gazed out upon the sea and sky. But after a moment, she seemed to remember herself. Lowering her head, she gathered the reins in her hands, turning her horse.

“Forgive me for daydreaming, my lord. Perhaps it is best if we return now.”

It was so disappointing to hear her say that. Stay, he thought. Why return now? The words nearly fell from his lips. But he caught them before they could slip out. Turning his own horse, they began the walk back to the house. He wanted to linger for a while yet, knowing that when they returned to the house and the guests, he would no longer be the sole focus of her attention. She would return to her friends and her cousin, and he would return to his family and his fellow squires and soldiers. They would, perhaps, share a few polite words with one another. But they would not be as they were now…together, just the two of them. It pained him to think of losing that closeness. But if all they had were these last minutes, he would spend them in pleasant conversation, rather than melancholy contemplation.

“If you had wings,” he asked, “Where would you fly?”

With a smile, she answered without hesitation.

“To the land of my ancestors, in Spain. My grandmother was a great Spanish beauty, and my father had a deep fondness for his homeland, so much so that my parents recently returned there. My father is in his final years, you see, and he wishes to pass from this world in a place that is dear to him.”

“So you would gladly leave France behind?”

She nodded. “I would. There are few pleasant associations to keep me here.”

What of me? he silently asked her…but then, he retracted such a thought. Who was he to her? Nothing more than an acquaintance, of course. A neighbor. They were barely even friends. But why could they not me more to one another?

He shook his head to dislodge such foolish thoughts, even as he spoke to her in as kind a way as he knew how.

“Perhaps so,” he replied. “But be assured, my lady, that you will always be welcome in the Gisborne family.”

Her only reply was a smile, but it was enough. That lovely expression would remain with him through the long evening to come.

Monday, February 20, 2012

I'm going to Disney World!

For those who haven't heard the news, I have been hired by the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Needless to say, I'm very excited to be working for this company, and I'm especially excited to make the move to a sunnier climate. Due to the move, which will be in early March, I won't be able to participate in this years RA Fanfest, but I promise I will try to stop by all the blogs and see what everyone is posting.

Have fun, everyone!

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Baron's Lady - Chapter 4, Part 2

Owen lifted his goblet to his lips…but paused just before it reached his lips. Beside him, he heard Thea speaking to a friend.

“God sent him to us. I swear it.”

With a slight curl of his lip, Owen sipped his morning ale. From the moment the day had dawned, everyone he encountered had talked of nothing but the comte and his heroism. The guests were chattering endlessly about it. His mother and sisters were all aglow, with Thea now more protective than ever about Gabriel. Not even Claudia, their long-time nurse, was permitted to touch him. Evie seemed especially taken with Rene. She could not take her eyes from him, although she tried her best to disguise her admiration.

Rene, Rene, Rene, he said to himself, sneering slightly. Before the day is done, I shall run mad from hearing that name.

The hero himself, who now sat at an honored place near the head of the table, seemed rather pleased with the attention he was receiving. No humbleness could be detected in that glowing expression. And sharing his accolades, at least in spirit, was Isabella.

Owen observed them, sitting beside one another. With every compliment bestowed on Rene, Isabella’s eyes shined with pride and pleasure. She was reveling in the adoration as much as Rene himself, and with each laugh and delighted expression, Owen fought to suppress a growing sense of resentment. All he could think of was one of his knightly vows, and he repeated it silently to himself…

A man of honor must despise pecuniary reward.

Thus far, the rewards were not financial. Rene was merely being praised for his good deed. But how long would it be before there were tangible blessings heaped upon him? And with each acknowledgement, Isabella would be there with her full support and attention. Why would she not be? Rene was her cousin, after all. They were family. It was only natural that she would be glad for him.

But seeing their shared happiness, hearing the repeated acclaim, Owen found his temper rising. When Guy rose to his feet and commanded the attention of everyone, Owen could sense there was an announcement coming…one he knew he had no desire to hear. Guy lifted his goblet.

"Before we break our fast, I would ask all to raise their cups to my honored guest, the good comte."

Eagerly, everyone lifted their goblets…except for Owen, who kept his cup considerably lower than the others. He bristled as he listened to the exchange of pleasantries.

"As he is our honored guest, I will allow him the pleasure of choosing today's sport."

Rene stood, smiling. "My lord," he replied, "On this fine day, I would take great pleasure in following the falcon.”

Everyone applauded - all but Owen, who pushed his wine goblet aside. Rising from his chair, he excused himself and departed for the stables. A good ride was what he needed. Anything was better than remaining where he was, drowning in the wake of another man’s popularity. It was enough to make one sick.


Isabella stood with the ladies of the party, all of whom were deciding who would join the hunt and who would remain behind engaging in other activities. Those that remained would be playing a game of lawn skittles. Such a plan held no interest for Isabella. Though she was not fond of hunting, she did enjoy riding. And if Rene wished to go falconing, she would accompany him. The thought of it made her smile.

But suddenly, she sensed that he was not among the group of men, who were discussing the hunt. Looking about, she caught sight of him just as he slipped away through a side door, which led to the rear yard and the gardens. A strange feeling came over her then. It was the second time he had disappeared in such a way. Somewhere deep inside her, she knew what had led him away. But as before, she quieted her voice of reason. Until she saw it with her own eyes, she refused to believe it. Politely excusing herself, she followed the direction that Rene had taken, and venturing outside, she looked for him.

It did not take long. At a distance, she saw him with Lady Evelyn, slowly walking across a graveled path. They were doing nothing to raise suspicion. They were simply strolling at a slow pace, and talking. But seeing them together – seeing how they looked at one another, her heart seized for a moment. It mattered not that Lady Evelyn was an innocent. Nor did it matter that she was betrothed to another. She had captured Rene’s attention. And soon, Isabella feared, his attention would turn to her entirely.

She shook her head in denial. No, she thought. I cannot give in to such fears.

Summoning her courage, she made a silent vow to herself. She would not let him see the hurt that his wavering attention was causing her. She was not so weak as that. Moving to approach them both, she put on a smile and gave kind words of greeting

"There you are, cousin. We were all beginning to wonder at your disappearance."

Both turning to her, they each offered a smile. Evelyn politely curtseyed, and Rene offered his arm.

“We were just partaking in a stroll before the hunt,” he said. “Come, and walk with us.”

Smiling, she placed her hand on his arm, and gladly. They walked for a short distance, talking of the hunt. But then, suddenly, she felt something on the back of her neck. Stopping dead in her tracks, she reached up to touch her own skin at the nape of her neck.

"What is it?” she cried. “What is it!”

Rene reached up to pluck the thing away. He presented it to her, and seeing that it was a lizard, she screamed.

In her head, she knew she was being foolish. But the sight of such creatures had always petrified her, and she could not help her feelings. Rene seemed to find amusement in it, as she heard him laughing, even as he tried to comfort her. Then, a powerful voice spoke. Sir Guy approached, along with the hunting party and several concerned ladies.

"What calamity befalls us now?" Guy demanded.

Isabella wiped tears from her eyes as several ladies came to comfort her. They seemed to think it was the creature that had caused her distress. They did not seem to realize that it was Rene’s jesting that was troubling her.

"A moment of feminine hysteria, my lord,” he said to Guy. “Brought about by a very dangerous and evil lizard."

Most of the men chuckled, shaking their heads. But Rene’s laughter hurt most of all. Why did he seem to enjoy making a fool of her? When he asked Guy for permission to let Evelyn show him the falcons, she did not ask him to wait for her. He was clearly more interested in the lady Evelyn.

So be it, she thought. Let him contend with Guy of Gisborne, if he chooses so foolish a path.

The ladies led her one way, and the hunting party went another. But half-way back to the house, she calmly removed their concerned hands. They looked at her with worried eyes and expressions, but she kindly dismissed their concerns.

“I will be well,” she said. “I assure you. I need only a few moments to myself.”

It took some more convincing, but at last, they left her to her thoughts. Taking to a nearby bench, close to the garden, she felt the heaviness of her own heart, and sadly, she asked herself…

Isabella LaCroix, how could you allow yourself to become such a fool?


From his vantage point, standing in the stable doorway, Owen watched the scene unfolding. The shrieks of a woman had brought him forward to the doorway…until he saw that Rene was there, with Isabella. It was she who was screaming so. But why was Evelyn there with them? And why were his father and the hunting party gathered around, seemingly in amusement? As Owen watched, everyone slowly dispersed. Those who were going out for the hunt mounted their horses and departed. Several ladies, who appeared to be comforting Isabella, took leave of her and returned to the house. And Isabella was alone. Just as she had been last night.

For a moment, he tried not to think of it. Returning to his mount, and the riding preparation that had been interrupted, he meant to see his horse saddled so he could be on his way. But as he stood there, about to swing himself up into the saddle, he gave pause.

Isabella was alone. Again. Why did the thought of it bother him so?

He recalled the many times he had seen her in states of sadness. In the presence of her husband, she had always looked so forelorn, no matter how hard she tried to present her peers with smiles and laughter. Last night, when Rene had left her alone, all of the joy that had briefly lit her features had drained instantly. Now, it seemed, the comte had abandoned her once again, seeking out more favorable company with the nobles who went on the hunt. What sort of man, especially one who was a relation, would so easily leave a woman’s side?

A manner of man that is of the lowest kind, he answered himself.

She was not his wife, nor his betrothed, and therefore she was not his responsibility. But there were vows of honor that needed to be kept.

A knight must eschew unfairness, meanness and deceit He must respect the honor of women.

He was only a knight in training. But he had always been loyal to his vows. And he would keep to them now.

Turning from the mounting block, he walked to the bench where Isabella was sitting. As he approached, he saw that she had lowered her head. Was she in tears, he wondered? If so, he was not sure what was to be done about that. Giving comfort was something women excelled at. His mother had always been most proficient in the art of it. As he drew near, he held to the hope that such gentleness would not be required of him. Although, he was sure he could at least manage some words of consolation. Coming to stand before her, he spoke as gently as he was able to.

“My lady,” he said. “Are you well?”

She seemed startled by his approach. Rising to her feet, she made a visible attempt at gathering herself together.

“My lord Gisborne,” she replied, cutseying. “I am quite well, thank you. If you will excuse me, I must rejoin the ladies.”

She turned to go. But seeing that she was departing so hastily, a reply fell from his lips without thought.

“Must you go?”

When she paused, looking at him with a surprised expression, he fought for a way to amend his question. Why had it passed his lips in such a tone? It sounded quite like a plea, begging her not leave. What reason could there be for such a feeling? Clearing his throat, he struggled for words.

“I thought you might be in need of company, as I see you are quite alone. Perhaps you might join me on a ride? But if you would rather not, I will not take offense.”

Turning away, he meant to leave before he made a complete fool of himself. But the sound of her voice caused him to turn back.

“I would be most pleased to share your company, my lord.”

A slight smile had formed on her lips. And he found himself smiling too. Why did he find it difficult to maintain his usual stoicism when she was near him? He tried to temper his softer expression with a cool tone of voice.

“You may ride Mama’s horse. It has been many months since she has been properly ridden, due to Mama’s condition. The stable hands have exercised her in the fields, but it will serve her well to have someone sitting upon her back again.”

“I would be honored to ride such a fine animal,” replied Isabella. “If you are certain your mama would not mind.”

Owen snorted. “Certainly she would not. She would be most pleased.”

Reaching out, he offered her his hand, and with a smile, she accepted it, letting him assist her. The softness of her skin, pressed firmly to his, sent a thrill up his arm. She managed the mount easily, and he found that somewhat disappointing.

What would it be like to place my hands at her slender waist, to lift her from the ground and feel the weight of her in my grasp?

He shook his head at his wayward thoughts, hoping she didn’t see the heated look in his eyes…

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Baron's Lady, Chapter 4 - Part One

Isabella introduced Rene, watching with great interest as Sir Guy and Lady Evelyn studied him. Their reactions were quite different – one not so surprising, the other quite unexpected. Sir Guy was his usual, stoic self, his expression unreadable except for a slight speck of curiosity in his grey-blue eyes. But Lady Evelyn looked quite stunned. She seemed to sway slightly, her cheeks turning a deep shade of pink. Clearly, she was overcome by the sight of a man such as Rene, who remarked on her reaction with an amused smile.

"I think the heat is too much for Lady Evelyn,” he said.

Guy nodded. "Perhaps it is."

Looking around for aid, he called William Gisborne to his side. Without taking his eyes from Evelyn, Guy introduced him. "Baroness, you know my eldest son." He glanced at Rene, then at William again. "William, this is Comte Rene of Bergeron. He is a cousin of the baroness."

Isabella nodded respectfully, noting the expression on Evelyn’s face as her brother led her away. Giving Rene’s arm a slight tug, she moved away with him, and a sly smile came to her lips as she thought of the alias that she and Rene had created for him.

"It appears you do not know your own strength, cousin. You cause a young lady to swoon at the sight of you. Terrible fiend."

His mouth formed a crooked grin. He shrugged. "Yes, well...she is but a child. A susceptible creature."

Isabella spoke in a hushed tone, leaning her head towards him so that only he might hear.

"From the looks being cast in our direction, many a grown woman might be as susceptible as Lady Evelyn." She smirked in triumph. "My heart fills with delight at their envy."

Even as she said the words, she felt a slight sense of trepidation – a small warning voice telling her of the risk she was taking. But she hushed it quickly. With Rene at her side, she was the subject of great interest - and for once, envy. How delightful it was to be on the arm of a man whom other women were admiring. She expected Rene to gloat, being the rascal that he was. But to her surprise, his tone took on a note of caution.

"Be sure to contain your delight, Izzy. Remember that we play a game of deception, and entertaining as it may be, it is still a game of risk."

She gave a tiny huff. "Do not pretend to be a wary man, Rene. You are one who has a passion for risk."

Rene was silent for a moment before he replied.

"That is true," he said. "But even the most daring of men must occasionally rely on their common sense."

She knew he was right, but his sudden expression of morality goaded her. After all that he had done, the wild life he had lived, he dared to speak of common sense? She replied with a haughty expression and a note of displeasure in her voice.

"Yes, yes. I know how to comport myself. Now let us see this child they all speak of. And then, we can commence with more pleasurable activities."

He answered with one of his sly little smiles. "Wine, women, and song.”

She laughed softly, recalling the last few days they had spent together. The pleasure of having him back went so much further than having him in her bed. They shared food and conversation, talking of their lives and their hopes, sharing intimate thoughts and feelings. At first he had resisted the idea of joining her for the Gisborne celebration, but she had pleaded with him not to go. When at last he had consented, she had willingly put coins into his palm so he would have the means to appear as a nobleman. Briefly, when he had departed to purchase new garments, she had worried that he would not return. But when she arrived at the Gisborne estate, Rene was there, waiting for her – riding a fine horse and dressed in handsome garments. Then, as now, she told herself that as long as they proceeded carefully, no one would know their secret.

Now, with her arm linked in his, they made their way towards the corner of the room where the newest Gisborne was resting in a cradle. Seeing Gabriel, sleeping so sweetly and peacefully, it reminded her very much of her own son. She felt a pang of sadness and longing in her heart, and as Rene flattered Lady Cassia and her daughters, she turned her eyes away from the sight of the delicate newborn. The night was meant to be a pleasant one. She wanted no painful reminders of what was lacking in her life. She wanted only to be happy – to find some pleasure, and only Rene could give her that. When Thea had the baby taken upstairs, Isabella pulled at Rene’s arm, silently encouraging him to move away.

As a minstrel played music, prior to the call to supper, Isabella walked the room with Rene, introducing him to several people. Most of them expressed genuine delight in meeting him. Others pretended to be familiar with his so-called family name, and both she and Rene wanted to laugh at such a blunder. As they walked away from a young gentleman and his wife, Rene spoke under his breath.

"Methinks I am not the only charlatan. They claim to have heard a name that was born entirely of your imagination." With a snort, he shook his head in amusement. "The nobility is the same as it ever was."

She examined him as she lifted her pomander to her nose, wishing there was some way she could set his mind at ease. Clearly, he was restless. He had once been a nobleman, but his free spirited life was what he preferred. Seeing the way his eyes scanned the room, she wondered what he was thinking of. There was something on his mind…something of significance. But before she could question him on it, he turned to her.

"You should go and circulate among your peers, Izzy. I am sure you will have much to talk about."

The thought of his leaving surprised her, and it struck her with a painful feeling. What reason was there behind his sudden abandonment? As he gently removed her hand from his arm, giving her a crooked smile, a sting of pain pierced her heart. But he only responded with amusement.

"Run along now...cousin."

She pressed her lips together, visually expressing her displeasure. But when he leaned close, whispering in her ear, she felt a familiar rush of excitement.

“If you are good,” he said, “Perhaps I will reward you later in the evening.”

It was impossible to remain passive or cross when he spoke that way. She smiled at him, seeing the promise in his eyes. But too soon he moved away, leaving her standing by herself. Once again, he had left her. And a familiar ache began to grow in her heart.


From across the room, Owen watched her. He observed the parting between Isabella and the comte. Wherever Rene was going, it mattered not. He had left her side. Left her alone, in fact. The moment of opportunity had arrived, and carefully, he moved towards her.

When he had been introduced to Isabella’s cousin, a tumult of emotions had swelled up inside of him. Joy at seeing her again. A sense of uneasiness at seeing her with a man not her husband. And then, even upon hearing the man presented as her cousin, he could not quell his deep feeling of jealousy. Seeing her with another man, he was overcome with envy.

Now, as he slowly moved towards her, the feeling of jealousy had eased. He had gained control of his senses. But he was unsure of exactly what to say. He was not even quite sure if he should approach her. She had not invited him with a word or a look, and making an approach might have seemed too forward…as if he was in romantic pursuit of her. He laughed at himself for such a thought.

How is this a romantic pursuit? He asked himself. I am merely being a generous host. It is ill-mannered to allow a lady to be without company.

Holding to that justification for his actions, with his hands clasped behind his back, he came near her…just as she turned in his direction. For a moment they were nose to nose. She gasped in surprise. And then she smiled, softly laughing in at their near collision.

Heavens, he said to himself. What a pleasure to the eyes and ears.

“My lord Gisborne,” she said. “Forgive me.”

Her sweet expression and lovely smile, and the hint of embarrassment in her eyes, somehow made it easier to speak to her. Buoyed by their mutual loss of composure, he returned her smile.

“No apologies, my lady. I should have bettered my approach.”

“Quite my fault, I assure you. My cousin has gone to seek fresh air. He will return shortly.”

A quiet moment passed between them. He struggled for some topic of conversation, but he could only think of how perfectly her dress matched her eyes…and how perfectly the material fitted her form. Being so close to her, he caught a trace of the sweet floral scent coming from her. Lord, it stirred something strong within him. He was almost glad that she found something to speak of, as it saved him from the foolish thing he was surely becoming in her presence.

“Your nephew is quite handsome,” she remarked. “You and your family must be very pleased.”

With a smile, returning his senses to a more proper state, he nodded.

“We are indeed. And this news you may not have heard, for you have been away long. But you can see, of course, that my mother is also with child.”

Isabella’s eyes shined with wonder.

“I did indeed notice, and it is joyous news! It seems that heaven shines a glorious light on the house of Gisborne. May I wish you and yours every happiness.”

He smiled, nodding. And then, again, a moment of silence. But in that moment, they looked at one another with expressions of shared pleasantry. The awkwardness gone, they began to slowly walk alongside one another.

“I trust your journey to Calais was a happy one?” he asked.

Glancing at her, he saw the joy fade from her expression. The change was in her tone as well.

“Such a long journey has many difficulties and little pleasure. But any unpleasantries were worth enduring to see my son. He has grown so, I can hardly believe he was once a babe like your nephew. Such years pass much too quickly.”

There was great pathos in her voice, even while she tried to disguise it, and there was something about her pain that moved him. He tried to console her.

“Perhaps one day soon, you will be blessed with more children.”

It was his intention to offer her comfort. But the look of sadness only deepened in her expression. When he spied tears shining in her eyes, he cursed himself. He was unsure of what he had said wrong, but somehow, he knew it was his fault.

“Forgive me, my lady,” he said. “I have offended you in some way.”

To his surprise, she did not weep. The tear was brushed away, and she tried to smile as she shook her head.

“It is nothing. Merely a sad thought that passed through my mind.”

He sensed that it was much more than that. But before he could inquire about it, there came a cry of distress from across the room. He and Isabella turned their heads to look, and they saw Thea clinging to her mother’s arm. She was weeping, but what she was crying about, it was unclear. Whatever it was, it seemed to be more than her usual hysterics.

“What could be amiss?” inquired Isabella.

Owen shrugged. “Let us go and see,” he replied, and together, they approached the scene along with the other guests who were growing curious. As they drew near, he heard the cause of her distress.

“Gabriel is gone! I fear someone has taken him!”

Cassia tried to calm her, speaking firmly but gently. “We will find him, Thea. Come, quickly.”

As she and Thea hurried upstairs to search, along with their maid servants, the men came together to formulate a plan of action. Isabella offered her help, and Owen accepted instantly. But as they turned to depart, there came another cry from across the room. And this was a sound of joy.

“Papa! Lucien! I have him!”

It was Evelyn, coming from an outer side door. In her arms she held the baby, and as she hurried forward, Thea came rushing back down the stairs. Lucien was holding his son, and as Thea eagerly took the baby to her breast, weeping with relief, the rest of the family searched for an explanation. Lucien was stern in his demands.

"Where was he? Who carried him off and why?"

Everyone seemed to speak at once, demanding answers of Evelyn. Guy’s eyes were fierce.

"Speak up, daughter. We will know this deviant and have them dealt with on the spot."

Evelyn replied, "The criminal has fled, Papa. But the comte has given chase."

"Comte Rene?" asked William.

Her answer to William's question was given with an air of distraction.

"Yes, brother. It was he who spotted Adele. Were it not for him, she might have been gone with Gabriel before anyone knew of her crime."

Thea spoke through furious tears. "A servant tried to take my son? Where is she? I will have her head for this!"

Guy took her by the shoulders, turning her over to her mother, and Cassia led her away. As they went, Isabella turned to Owen, and they both breathed a sigh of relief.

“God be praised,” she said.

Owen nodded. The rush of excitement had brought a beautiful flush of color to Isabella’s cheeks, one he couldn’t help but notice, even under the current circumstances. He started to speak to her, to thank her for her concern about his family. But another commotion rose in the room, one that she turned her head to investigate.

It was Rene, returning from outside. Guy was the first to approach him, followed by Lucien and William. Owen hung back, watching as the guests gathered around the comte. Isabella, seeing Rene, left Owen’s side. He watched her go, only half-listening to the story Rene was telling the family and the guests.

"Forgive me, my lord earl. But the woman cannot be brought to you."

Guy narrowed his eyes, his expression dark. "Why not?"

"She fell as I gave chase and struck her head upon a jagged stone. She is dead, my lord."

Isabella and the other guests gave gasps of surprise and began an excited rush of chatter about the events. Owen hung back, watching as everyone praised Rene for his heroics. He was glad that Gabriel was returned to them, and safely. But with that moment now past, his happiness was replaced with a now familiar feeling.

A sharp sting of jealously.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Baron's Lady - Chapter 3, Part 2

Owen looked down at his nephew, who rested in a cradle next to Thea’s bed. The baby was only a day old, but already he had taken the house by storm. Everyone was remarking on what a beautiful child Gabriel was, but it seemed to Owen that the boy was rather odd looking. He was bright red and wrinkled, with a slightly pointed head, and a tuft of hair that stood up in a most unruly fashion. Still, he was a male child. He was Lucien’s heir, and Guy of Gisborne’s first grandchild. So, despite the baby’s strange appearance, Owen was pleased to have a new family member. On such an occasion, he found it much easier to manage kind words with Thea. He looked over at her.

“For once in your life, you have done a good deed. I congratulate you.”

From her place in bed, Thea huffed. “Praise indeed.”

Stepping back from the cradle, he allowed everyone else in the room to continue admiring the newborn baby.

“I think I will depart before we exchange words,” he said to Thea. “Rest well, sister.”

Lucien spoke up from where he stood beside the bed. “I will join you presently.”

Nodding, he left the room, thinking that it would likely be a while before Lucien would break away from his newborn son. It was to be expected. So Owen would allow him that time.

As he walked away, he let a slight smile creep across his face. In truth, he was delighted to be an uncle. To think there would be a future soldier he could help to mold and shape. The prospect of being a mentor thrilled him, and buoyed by the thought, he went out to hone his fighting skills.


In the training fields, where the soldiers were hard at practice, Owen stared at an animal carcass hanging from a rope. Staring at it, he gave a disgusted curl of his lip.

“What is this?” he asked, looking at Lucien, who only grinned.

“Do you sicken at the sight of it? I would think a young hunter such as yourself would be used to the sight of a slain deer.”

Owen snorted. “I kill them for sport or for meat, but I do not linger to see the carnage that brings them to my supper table.”

“This is not a buck or a doe. Not in this event. Here, it is human flesh and blood.”

With a raised eyebrow, Owen gave a skeptical look. “Have you gone mad?”

Lucien suddenly became quite serious. Removing his sword from its scabbard, he held it tightly. His tone became stern. “In war, there will be no wooden figure to swing at in practice. Your opponent will be flesh, blood, and bone. You must prepare yourself for the thought of stabbing or slicing into your enemy.”

There was something disturbing about the thought of taking his sword to something tangible, and imagining it to be someone he would have to dispatch. For the first time since his training had begun in earnest, he was hesitant to engage in an action.

“I hardly see how this will prepare me,” he said.

“Attack it.”

He hesitated. “What?”

Lucien moved with lightning speed, decapitating the deer with a clean blow. Turning to Owen, he bellowed an order.

“Do as I say! Use your sword and lay into your opponent!”

With a nod, and a summoning of his will, Owen rushed forward with his sword. With a sideways swing, he slashed it open, and the blood and innards tumbled out. Lucien slapped him hard on the shoulder.

“Excellent, brother. Well done.”

Owen tried to smile. But suddenly, he felt a strange sensation in his belly. In his mouth, he felt a tingling and a watering. He could not stop the violent upheaval of his stomach, and turning away, he vomited in the grass. A sense of shame came over him, and he heard Lucien chuckle.

“Are you well?”

Owen waved Lucien off. “Of course I am,” he said.

“I was much the same when first I attempted such practice,” Lucien said. “It will fade with time.”

There was a jingling of reins and the snorting of a horse. Looking up, Owen saw his father. Quickly, he wiped his mouth and stood up straight.

“Is something amiss?” asked Guy.

Owen shook his head. “No, Papa. We are training.”

Guy lifted his chin. “It would be wise to steel your stomach, boy. The battlefield is not the place for the faint of heart.”

Taking a bag of water from Lucien, Owen nodded. As he washed his mouth, spat, and then sipped to quench his thirst, he felt disgusted with himself. Watching his father leave, he gave a sigh of self-loathing.

“I am a weakling in his eyes.”

Lucien snorted. “Nonsense. Your father thinks very highly of you.”

Now it was Owen who scoffed. “I cannot manage a simple drill without sickening. What pride is there in that?”

Lucien clapped him on the back. “Take heart. You will soon have a warrior’s disposition. You are your father’s son, after all.”

Such words felt like small consolation. It seemed, indeed, to make the mortification worse. Swallowing his pride, he returned to his drilling, while a frown froze on his lips. There were times, like now, when he felt like such an incompetent youth. And he wondered if he would ever be the kind of man his father was.

After the morning drilling was concluded, just before the noon-day meal, Owen went to the outdoor basin to wash up. Just as he began scrubbing his face, he heard the sound of his mother’s voice, calling out to him. He bristled at the thought of her approach. As much as he loved her, there were times when he dreaded a meeting with her. But out of respect, he did his best to hide any small animosity he had towards her. As he pumped water into the basin and submerged his head, he felt her approach.

“Owen, are you well?”

Wiping his face with his hands, sluicing the water back through his hair, he nodded. “I am fine, Mama. Why do you ask?”

“Your papa said you had taken ill.”

He sighed, and tried to give her a calm look. She being with child, it was important that she not be stressed. Guy had given explicit orders regarding it, and Owen did his best to comply, even though he knew his mother’s stubbornness. Regardless of what everyone said or did, Cassia Gisborne was a woman with a mind of her own. All that one could do was try to do what was best for her.

“It is nothing, Mama,” he said. “Do not be concerned.”

He saw a familiar spark of stubbornness in her eyes. She reached up and touched his face with both hands, and she gave him a motherly smile.

“I am your mother. Until you find a wife to see to your welfare, it is my duty to be concerned for you. And even then, do not trust me to cease my mothering entirely.”

She tweaked his chin, and he tried his best not to smile. He was an adult, and if he showed too much enthusiasm for her coddling, it would be unmanly indeed. He opened his mouth to utter a protest. But before he could speak, a footman interrupted them. With a bow, he approached Cassia with a parchment in his hand.

“My lady, a message for you from the Chateau LaCroix.”

The Chateau LaCroix. Instantly, Owen felt a rush of energy shoot up his spine. He could feel his ears literally straining for information that might be spoken. Cassia took the message from the footman’s hand.

“Bonne nouvelle, j'espère?” she asked.

“Good news, I trust?”

The footman replied, “Le baron est absent, mais sa dame seront présents.”

“The baron is absent, but his lady will be in attendance.”

Cassia nodded in reply. “Merci, Gerard.”

As the footman bowed, then departed, Owen watched his mother as she looked over the note in her hand. He could not resist asking her about it, although he did so in a calm and rather blasé tone.

“The baron and baroness are returned from Calais?” he asked.

Cassia nodded. “It appears so. But as to the baron’s absence from our festivities, one can only speculate the reason.”

Owen gave a snort of distaste. “I, for one, am glad not to expect him. His body odor is foul, his manners are horrendous, and his breath smells of something lying in a state of decay.”

She shook her head, smiling at his outspokenness.

“You sound exactly like your father,” she said. “You both have the same inflection in your voice when you speak. And when you turn your head in a certain way, I could almost believe I am looking at Guy of Gisborne.”

Reaching up, she patted his cheek.

“But you are your own man, of course. And I would have it no other way.”

After a soft kiss to his cheek, she left him. He watched her go. And after a moment, his thoughts turned to the message that had just come.

The baroness was coming.

He had thought of her so many times. Some days, time would pass as usual as he went about his regular routine. But other days, something would trigger a memory of her. A shade of green would make him recall the color of her eyes. Seeing a gathering of ladies at a tournament or social event, he would find himself looking for her face. It seemed like such an innocent diversion he had created for himself…a harmless way to partake in pleasant thoughts, especially when his day had not gone especially well. What harm was there in thinking of someone who was unattainable, particularly when they were nothing more than a figment of his imagination?

But now, she would be tangible. He would see and hear her. Perhaps they would even speak to one another. The thought of seeing her again…it sent a rush of anticipation flooding through his soul.

Until later that evening, when he stood before the looking glass, examining his reflection.

His mother was right about his appearance, of course. He resembled his father in every way, right down to the aquiline nose and piercing eyes. A fearsome facade had always been an attribute that he took pride in having, for it suited a man who would one day make warfare a life-long ambition. But looking at himself now, he felt a strange discomfort with his physicality. Never before had he wished for an appearance that was more favorable. But now, seeing himself, he wished his coloring was less dark. Raven black hair was acceptable, of course, but it was more fashionable to be fair-haired. And while a harsh appearance did bode well for a future warrior, it did little to charm those of a more gentle nature.

He sighed at the thought of it. Over the last several months, he had been introduced to several potential mates. They had all been lovely in appearance, but his discomfort had been evident with each meeting. What did one say to a woman? Despite advice given to him by his mother and sisters, he had never quite grasped the concept of conversing easily with a female. His mother had encouraged him to compliment a lady’s looks, even if she was not a woman of extraordinary beauty. But he found it difficult to utter such soft words. And when speaking to ladies, he sensed that his appearance put them off in some way. Thea had often accused him of being an unfeeling brute, and for once, he wondered if it was at all possible that she was right. But how was a man to be a man if he was soft-spoken and gentle?

Enough, he thought. I am done with such foolishness.

The business of women was so complicated. Too complicated. It was enough to drive a man to lunacy. Isabella was beautiful, and intriguing, and the only woman to ever linger in his thoughts for so long. But it was madness to cling to such thoughts and feelings about a married woman.

Madness, he thought. That is this feeling that has claimed me. And I must not be conquered by it.

After a bath and a shave, his valet helped him dress in his finest. There would be many ladies coming to stay for the celebration. Surely, there would be a suitable candidate among them. After all, what could be so difficult? If he went about his choosing in a practical way, he could find a mate. And she would not come with complications – like a husband. He shook his head and laughed at himself, wondering how he had allowed himself to be so befuddled by a woman.


As the guests arrived, Owen kept company with Lucien and with William, who had arrived a few days before, just after Gabriel’s birth. Owen examined the young ladies in the room, as he had often done. He intended to be done with the business of choosing a wife, hopefully within the few weeks that the guests would be staying.

But his wayward eye kept drifting towards the front doors, where his father and Evie were greeting guests. Evelyn was playing hostess for the night, while their mother and Thea kept near the baby, and Owen could not keep from examining the guests as they arrived. He told himself he was simply curious about who would be seen at the celebration and who would not. But in his heart, he knew the truth.

All afternoon, he had told himself that he would avoid her at all costs. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized how impossible it would be. She would be here – in the house. And she would be staying. There was no way to avoid her entirely. But perhaps if he limited himself to brief glances, that would be enough to satisfy him.

A flurry of energy seemed to suddenly flow through the room. All heads seemed to turn at once, looking towards the couple who were making their entrance.

It was the baroness. Dressed in emerald green silk, with her blond locks gathered up and threaded with silver twine, she was easily the most beautiful woman in the room. But it wasn’t her beauty that drew so many stares.

It was the mysterious stranger on her arm.