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…