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.