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.
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.