The third part of this chapter will be posted early next week, and will have some important developments in the story. Until then, enjoy...
From the battlements of the manor, Isabella watched the activity of the duke’s servants, who were rushing back and forth as they unloaded the carts and the carriage. Unlike most of the other guests, who had clamored for a position up front to witness the proceedings, she chose to watch at a distance. Who would notice her absecence? Certainly not Rene, who seemed blind to the fact that Lady Evelyn’s fiancé was almost upon them. Somehow, she doubted that the marquis would tolerate such behavior.
Perhaps it would do him good to be pummeled, she thought.
She did not hear the door to the roof as it was opened. Lost in thought, she did not see Owen coming up from below, nor did she see him as he stood still for a moment, watching her. Only the slight creek of his boot, given as he took a step back, alerted her to his presence. She turned suddenly, alarmed for a moment. But she quickly recovered, offering him a pleasant smile.
“Good day, my lord.”
He bowed respectfully. “Lady Isabella.” Rising, he took a few steps forward, but stopped short of coming too near her. There was a hesitance in his tone and manner. “I was not aware you were here. Forgive me if I disturbed you.” He turned to leave, but she spoke to keep him from going.
“No apologies,” she replied. “I was merely watching the activity from a more peaceful vantage point. I found the excitement a bit too much.”
He seemed to relax slightly, the sternness of his expression softening a bit. Moving to the wall, he still maintained a certain distance from her, but his tone was cordial. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back as he looked out over the grounds.
“As do I. I am not one who delights in social functions, although I am aware of my duty to endure them.”
His reply amused her. They had much in common, it seemed.
“Have you already met the marquis and his father?”
“The marquis has not yet arrived,” he replied. “He will be here shortly. But I have met the duke, and he is a personable gentleman.”
She nodded, and then turned her gaze back to the activity below. But it was less interesting to her now that Owen was so near. She had avoided him last night, and this morning. But there was no hiding from him now, unless she dashed away like a shy and unschooled maid who was afraid to be in a man’s presence. Why did he make her feel so unsure of herself? It was ridiculous to feel such things at her age. Taking in a deep breath, she willed herself to be calm and sensible, and to break the tension that was growing in the quiet, she thought of something to converse about.
“Will you participate in today’s games, my lord?”
She saw the way he lifted himself on his toes for a moment. There was something in that gesture that she found rather adorable, though she was not sure why.
“I will, indeed,” he replied. “As Lucien’s squire. He gave me leave to sit with my family and enjoy the joust, but I prefer to be on the field, even if I am not yet riding on a charger with a lance in my grip.”
“Will you be playing in the foot races beforehand?”
He shrugged. “I have not yet decided.”
It was impossible, she realized, to stand in his presence and not be moved. How could a woman not be captivated? Stealing a glance at him, she found herself charmed by the way his black hair curled slightly at his temples and forehead. A slight breeze ruffled his locks, and the sunshine lit his grey-blue eyes in such a beautiful way. Pulling her eyes away, she tried again to reign in her wild thoughts and feelings. But a wayward thought escaped her mind, and fell from her lips before she could retrieve it.
“Have you a lady to champion your efforts?”
A flush of warmth came to her cheeks, especially when she saw Owen turn his head to look at her. She grappled for words to correct her error.
“Forgive me. I speak out of place.”
He drew closer now, and the movement caused her heart to increase its beats. His voice was soft and deep.
“In truth, I do not have a fair lady to cheer me on to victory. Perhaps you would do me the honor?”
For a moment, she could find no words. There was something so disarming about his presence…especially his smile, slight as it was. But her hesitation to reply seemed to dissuade him. He took a slight step back, a slight expression of embarrassment on his face as he turned his head away.
“I speak too boldly.”
She spoke quickly. “Not at all, my lord.” He turned his eyes back to her.
Good heavens, she thought. Why do his eyes move me so?
It was all she could do to maintain a calm, collected aspect. Somehow, she managed a polite and dignified continuation of her reply.
“I would be pleased to give you my support. It would be the least I could offer as a reward for your kindness to me.”
The slight smile returned, and there was a tenderness in the gesture that warmed her heart.
“It is a gentleman’s duty, my lady.”
He was standing so close to her. Much closer than he should have been. She could feel his eyes on her, and the tension was so that it stole breath. But they both seemed to come to their senses. As he took a step back, so did she. He turned away, retreating rather quickly.
Once he was out of sight, she wavered slightly. Going to the battlement, she leaned against the stone, trying to collect herself. For a few unguarded moments, she let the power of temptation overwhelm her. It felt so glorious to share an attraction as powerful as the one she felt with Owen. Feeling it, she recalled the great passion she had shared with Rene.
Shame came over her in great waves. Dropping her head in her hands, she cursed herself for her weakness. How could she allow herself to be so easily tempted? Tears pooled in her eyes.
God help me, she silently wept. I am a vile, sinful creature.
Owen decended from the roof entrance, rushing away from the place where he had met with his latest failure.
“God, I am helpless!” He cried aloud.
A passing servant stopped, staring at him, but he gave her a dark look that sent her scurrying away.
All morning, he had kept out of Isabella’s way, purposely keeping his distance so they would not encounter one another. It had worked, it seemed. They had not spoken, and he only saw her from occasional glances out of the corner of his eye. He attributed it his eye wandering, and nothing more. Even when everyone went out to meet the duke and offer greeting, he avoided gazing at the crowd, for concern of seeing her. When the formalities were done, and it was understood that the marquis would not be immediately arriving, he went up to the roof to escape the noise and excitement.
Only to find her there.
Her presence overwhelmed him from the first glance. For a moment, he had the will to retreat. But then she smiled at him. She spoke in that soft, sweet voice. And he was lost. She had drawn him in, and he was powerless against her allure. A brief conversation they had shared, and when she spoke, she somehow managed to draw him closer than ever by stroking his pride. When she had inquired about his participation the footraces, it had seemed to him that she wanted to see him compete. He had given her a chance to retract her offer of encouragement…her offer to champion him, as she had described it. But rather than backing away, she had become even more enthusiastic, telling him how honored she would feel to be in his cheering section. Then, like the bewitched and helpless creature he had become, he had let her draw him close to her person. They had stood so incredibly close, their bodies nearly touching. He had been a moment away from reaching out for her. Somehow, he knew that to kiss her would be to lose himself entirely to her. By some miracle, he had managed to break away. But now, God help him, he was more tormented than ever. Feeling as though he stood at a great presepice, he quickened his pace towards the barracks.
The knighthood, he said to himself. It is my only salvation.
Isabella was here, and until she left, he would find no peace. But perhaps in his squire duties, he would find some measure of escape…