I am a fool.
Lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, Owen let out a breath. He was lying there, and for the most part, he was alone. His father had not come in yet, and probably would not do so for some time. Most likely, his father and mother were spending time alone. Lucien was asleep on the floor, more comfortable on a pelt than on a bed where he had little space. He was sound asleep. But Owen could not find such rest.
He asked himself. When had he become such a soft-shell? Not so long ago, he had considered himself a man of great discipline and skill. The knighthood was everything to him, as it had been from boyhood. A few short years from now, he would be called Sir Owen, Baron of Gisborne. Perhaps, with any luck, he would find himself being called away to war. Oh, how he longed to prove himself with sword and shield - to ride out on the battlefield, head held high, and charge the enemy with all the awesome might that a soldier possessed. It thrilled him through just thinking about it.
But between visions of charging warhorses and flashing swords, of flaming arrows and lances hammering home - there was Isabella.
Why did she invade his every thought? She was destroying his devotion to his calling, and the destruction was wrought without the slightest effort on her part. He did not need to see her to feel the effect of her presence. She was branding a spot on his mind, and it seemed there was no way to escape it.
At least she was not nearby. She was down at the other end of the hall, where there was not a worry of seeing her by mistake at some point.
But what if, by some small chance, they did encounter one another?
What would she look like without all of her refinement? He had never seen a lady at night, when all of the trappings were gone, and they were just themselves - undefined by what they wore or how they carried themselves. Not that he was ignorant of all things regarding females. Thanks to some of his fellow squires, he had learned something of the female anatomy and what pleasure could be found in it. But women of questionable reputation held no meaning, and they certainly weren’t refined. They came to a man when called upon, or when they were in need of money, and there was no modesty or elegance in their actions.
What would a lady - what would Isabella - look like as she readied herself for sleep?
Heaven help him, it seemed like such a foolish thought. But in some wild part of his mind, he could see himself going to her door. Knocking on it, he would conceal himself in the shadows and wait, watching – himself unseen – while she stepped into the hallway. He had never seen a woman thus, but his imagination painted the picture for him. Golden hair, falling long and soft around her shoulders. A nightdress, long and loose, woven with fine linen that left little to the imagination.
He sat up, running his hands over his face. His breathing had quickened. He could feel the blood pulsing in his ears, and in his lower extremities, he felt an ache born of lustful thoughts.
Why did she have to be everything he wanted in a wife? Beautiful, strong, intelligent. Charming. There were too many words to describe her. But one word stood out above all others.
She belonged to that fat, miserable tub of guts who didn’t appreciate her. And no matter how many dreams he had of Isabella, no matter how infatuated he had become, it was all for naught. She would never be his. And he needed to face the truth of it.
He sighed, and from somewhere within, a bubble of laughter rose up and escaped. But it was a bitter sound.
Damn my weakness, he thought. I have done it. I have let a woman cast a spell on me.
A voice came from behind him.
“You are not abed?”
Turning, he saw his father standing in the doorway. The chamber was dim, lit only by the moonlight from the window, but his father’s presence loomed large in the room. Owen sat up a little straighter. Clearing his throat, he tried to gather himself together.
“I cannot sleep, Papa.”
Guy sat down on the edge of the bed, facing the window as he removed his boots without the aid of his valet. “Something is on your mind?” he asked.
Owen opened his mouth for a moment, wanting so badly to confide in his father. But matters of the heart were not for men to discuss. Forcing his feelings down, he replied in as calm a voice as he could manage. “Nothing of significance.”
“Somehow I doubt that.”
The statement took him by surprise. “Why is that, Papa?” Had his father noticed something? Had he faltered in some way? He started to inquire again. But Guy suddenly ended the subject.
“Never mind,” he said. “It is too late to go into particulars. You should try to sleep, my son. Tomorrow is another long day.” As he fell back on the bed, turning to face the window, Owen turned in the opposite direction, and he grumbled miserably.
“One of too many, in my opinion. They should all hie themselves up and go home. Leave us in peace.”
Guy pursed his lips. “If it was my decision to make, I would rid us of them in an instant. But as it is, we must endure and give the marquis and his father a proper welcome.”
Tomorrow, the marquis would arrive. It was said that Simon of Laroque was a soldier of great reputation. There was nothing he cared for more than serving the crown and honoring the knighthood. Perhaps that was what he needed. A mentor. Someone who could mold him into a fearless, unbreakable warrior. Love had nearly conquered him, as it had conquered his father and his brother-in-law. But he was fiercely determined not to become another casualty. He would win this battle, come hell or high water.