The atmosphere during morning prayers was strangely tense. Isabella, kneeling beside Rene at the rear of the chapel, wondered at the tension that felt so thick in the air. Glancing up, she examined several Gisbornes, firstly looking at Sir Guy. He seemed darker of expression than usual, and his gaze seemed to be in search of something, his eyes moving restlessly…his mind clearly not focused on prayers. Nearby, it seemed that Lady Evelyn was distracted as well. Kneeling beside her fiancé, she seemed nervous and uncomfortable. From the expression on her face, it appeared that her mind was as far away from prayers as her father’s was.
Kneeling at the end of the family row, there was Owen. And her eyes lingered on him for a moment. He, too, had an air of distraction about him, and as her gaze ran over him, she had a strange feeling…and a hope, perhaps…that he was fighting the urge to turn his head and look at her. And suddenly, he did. It was only for a moment, but the shock of his eyes meeting hers…across a room full of people, no less…made her turn her head away instantly. There was something about those eyes of his. Something that made her feel so vulnerable. It was the same feeling she had once had for Rene…but on a level so much deeper that it was somewhat worrisome. Bowing her head, she tried to think of something else. Anyone else. And her thoughts turned to Rene.
It was difficult to believe, but reading his body language, it was obvious that he was troubled about something. But what was so dire that it would undermine his great self-confidence? To rattle Rene Jean-Bastien was a tremendous feat, and she had to wonder how it had come to be.
As prayers came to an end and everyone rose, a groom came to Isabella’s side. He handed her a rolled parchment, and as she held it in her hand, she sensed that it was not good news. Opening it, reading the message, she felt a sense of misery come over her as her suspicions were confirmed.
“What is it?” asked Rene, who glanced at the message from where he stood beside her. She sighed in response.
“My husband is returning. I must leave at once.”
“I think it best that I accompany you.”
Her eyebrow rose in curiosity as she looked at him, seeing the anxious way in which he drew close to her.
“You are suddenly so eager to go? Just yesterday you seemed determined to remain here so you could steal a maid away from her new lord and husband.”
With a shrug, he answered in a low voice. “A night can bring many changes.”
He took her arm, taking a few steps away from the small crowd. In his voice, she could hear his concern, and the reason was revealed.
“Last night, I was set upon by his lordship, the marquis.”
Isabella’s eyes widened slightly. “What happened?”
Rene leaned slightly towards her as he replied. “He held a knife to my throat. I was warned to keep well away from the lady Evelyn or face the consequences.”
She didn’t know if she should pity him, or laugh at him. He certainly deserved the angry reaction from the marquis, who had every right to protect his intended from a perceived threat. Shaking her head, she quietly scolded him.
“You were fortunate to escape with your life, you imbecile. It is fortunate enough that my husband does not know of you. But you now take the risk of enraging the marquis as well? Not to mention the Gisborne lot?”
A shake of his head, followed by words of denial, were not convincing.
“I am in no danger.”
A tiny scoff escaped her. Even when he was fearful, it seemed he could not keep from being cheeky, and she fought the urge to admonish him further. But there was no time for such useless action. Gathering herself together, she went to Lady Cassia and politely made her farewells. The countess, as usual, was kind and gracious as always. But Sir Guy, although polite, seemed to have an air of suspicion about him. There was something troubling about the way he looked at both her and Rene, and she was glad to leave his presence so she could commence preperations for her departure.
As she went, she wondered at his odd behavior. Was it possible that he suspected something? Immediately she shook her head, refusing to let her thoughts wander to such a dangerous place. Perhaps it was better that the letter had come. It brought a sense of clarity to her mind, and if there was one thing she had lacked of late, it was the ability to think sensibly. She would remedy that, she vowed to herself. For the sake of her own well-being.
She was leaving.
Owen had been watching the hurried actions of the baroness, wondering what was transpiring, when he overheard his father mention the news to Evie. Isabella’s husband was returning, and she was making haste to return home.
The sting of disappointment was strong – more so than he wished it to be, and for a moment it gripped his very being. Somehow he managed to take steps forward, moving along with the crowd as they ventured towards the hall to break their fast. But with a head filled with thoughts, and a heart full of trouble, he found he had little appetite. To maintain a façade of normalcy, he sipped his ale, and picked at the food in his trencher. But his mind was far away.
He had dreamed of her last night.
Never before had he dreamed so vividly of a woman.
They had walked among the heady perfume of the flowers in the garden. She had smiled at him, and he at her, and there had been such a feeling of joy and light. Leading her to a circular bench under a tree, he had placed her gently on his knee. His arms wound around her tiny waste, and her slender arms came up to slide around his neck. They pressed their foreheads together, looking into one another’s eyes…
But the vision had faded quickly as he woke up, and the effect of his dream had left him fearful of encountering her, for fear that she would somehow see his feelings written on his face. He had been determined to remain far away from her. Until that moment in the chapel, when it was revealed that she was leaving.
All thoughts of avoidance fled. He knew, in the back of his mind, that he should have been glad to be free of the source of his current madness. But the thought of her going was somehow more maddening that the thought of her staying to torment him with her presence. From the corner of his eye, he saw servants bringing down her belongings to be loaded on the carriage. When the lady herself followed behind, he felt a jolt at the sight of her. His impulse was to rise up and go to her, to at least say farewell and wish her a safe journey. But he feared that if he made such an attempt, he would say so much more than he meant to. And at that moment, he knew he had not the calmness of mind to master his feelings. He needed distance at that moment. Making an excuse to his mother, who had been watching him with interest, he left the table and headed towards the barracks, hoping to find distraction in his soldierly duties.
But the further away he went, the more it seemed that her presence followed him. It was inescapable. And he needed to yield to it for a moment, or he felt he would go mad. Taking a sudden turn in his path, away from the direction of the barracks, he ascended a winding staircase that eventually led to the roof. It was a cool but sunny morning, and he needed the relief of fresh air and sunshine. He needed to have one last look at her. It was a desperate, pitiful thing for a man to be so helpless. But at least he would have the consolation of knowing that she would not see his suffering, or hear of it from the lips of others, for no one would see him at such a distance.
When he reached the roof, he went to the battlements to look down, and his eyes caught sight of her in an instant. Without the concern of others watching, or the fear that she would see him in observance, he was free to look as he pleased. Placing his hands on the stone, leaning forward, he sighed. Even in informal traveling garb, she looked radiant. Under her black cloak, her dress was a pale shade of blue, and the color suited her so well. Lord, he loved to watch her move…the way she swayed so gracefully with each step. It would be the last time he would delight in her beauty for who knew how long. He found himself wishing that she would look up. At that moment, he had no thought for anything else. Not his pride, not propriety. He wanted just to see her face one more time.
Raise your eyes, he silently asked of her. Look to me.
His silent plea went unanswered as she stepped into her carriage, never seeing how he watched her with such longing. He stepped back, not wanting to see the sight of the vehicle growing smaller on the horizon. Isabella was no longer a part of his life, even in the sense of being a mere houseguest. She was returning to her world, and he would return to his.
This is as it should be, he told himself. It is better this way.
It was for the best. He was certain of it. Even if he doubted the very words he was telling himself.
Watching from the carriage window, Isabella was perplexed when she saw Rene coming in her direction, moving at a rather hurried pace. Opening her door, she gave him an odd look as he drew near, sensing that he had found even more trouble for himself.
“What calamity have you created now?” she asked.
His answer was slightly rushed, as if had been in some kind of physical altercation. “I think I had best be on my way. Guy of Gisborne may soon set his hounds upon me.”
Lord, he was the greatest fool. She was not sure just what he had done, but she was not sure she even wanted to know. He was born to be trouble. And she had certainly had enough of that. Taking her coin purse from her belt, reaching out to snatch his hand, she forcefully pressed the bag into his palm. He looked at it for a moment, and then he looked at her.
“What is this?” he asked.
Her reply was quick and firm. “Traveling expenses. I think it best that you delay your departure no longer.”
The corner of his mouth rose in a crooked smile. “You would be rid of me?” he asked.
Lord, she thought. Why did he have to possess such a face? After all he had done, she still found him as adorable and charming as ever. But now, her common sense prevailed. They had both risked more than enough already, and to tempt fate again was beyond foolish. She was all seriousness as she answered his question.
“My husband has returned. Thus, we must no longer be associated with one another, or we both risk certain danger.”
He sighed, and for once, he seemed to respond in a reasonable way.
“Perhaps you are right, Izzy.”
For a moment, she thought he would act with decency – something highly uncharacteristic of him. But then he smiled in that way of his.
“I shall miss you.”
It was tempting to find delight in his pretty language. But she knew him well enough now to take what he said with a measure of caution.
“I hardly feel the truth of your words.”
He sighed, still smiling. Leaning into the carraige, he pressed a kiss to her cheek.
“Let us part on friendly terms, my love. Our time was never meant to last. But the hours we spent together will live always in my heart.”
The feel of his lips on her cheek was only mildly thrilling. And in truth, she was glad not to feel something more. They would part on good terms, and her heart would not suffer long for the loss of him. She gave him a brief but warm farewell.
“Goodbye, Rene Jean-Bastien.”
He smiled at her one last time. With a wave of his hat, he turned his horse and rode away, and she turned to face forward in her seat. With a tap to the roof, signaling the driver, the carriage began to move. Rene was gone. The Gisbornes were back to their lives. And she was returning to hers…whether or not her heart and soul were prepared for it.
Standing in her bedchamber, Isabella watched as her things were brought in and arranged in their proper place. After the brief freedom she had enjoyed, it felt as though she was returning to a prison. Only hours after her return, Gilbert had arrived home. And as she had anticipated, he was not particularly interested in what had transpired during his absence. He showed only remote interest in the events of his neighbors, and she was glad to escape to her bedchamber, where she would not have to tolerate his presence.
I shall have a hot bath, she thought. Perhaps that will allow me some peace of mind.
Gilbert’s voice, raised and furious, came suddenly from downstairs.
Good God, she thought. What has angered him now?
Rising to her feet, she took a deep breath to gather her strength as she went to see what he was about. Stepping out into the gallery, she looked down at the hall below.
Something went cold inside her. Sir Guy and Simon of Laroque were standing near the bottom of the steps. Though she was uncertain of the reason for their presence, she felt a sudden sensation of terror…