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.