“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.