The house was gloomy, the atmosphere bogged down by a cloud of tension and sadness. What a difference from recent days, when all had been so careless and joyful. A flicker of hope, given by Simon’s departure to Toulon, did little to brighten the mood. He had brought up the possibility that Evelyn had sought refuge with William, and with his leaving on a mission to bring her home, everyone was waiting nervously to see if that was indeed where she would be found.
Owen could not sleep. The unhappiness of the house was too much, and his heart felt heavy seeing his mother so distressed. Seeing her as she was, so bereft and afraid, it seemed to put all of life askew. She was the pillar of strength that everyone relied on. It was upsetting to watch her as she kept vigil in Evelyn’s room, her eyes fixed on the night sky as she stared out the window. Not even her loved ones could bring her comfort, and that was especially troubling to witness. Owen had never seen his mother and father at an emotional distance before. Their union had been a constant source of strength for everyone…a rock of stability in a world full of turmoil.
But as he observed them that night, he saw subtle signs of tension between them. There were none of the little touches of affection that usually passed between them. His mother, especially, seemed to be avoiding eye contact with his father, whose expression grew more and more morose as the night wore on.
At nightly prayers, Owen saw that his mother was not in attendance, and her absence was keenly felt. It was too much. As he left the chapel, he quietly made his way to his parent’s bedchamber door. They would be there, together. Even if he did not speak to them, perhaps he would hear them in conversation with one another, and their being together would grant him the reassurance he needed at that moment. Approaching the room, he saw that the door was slightly open. But as he neared, he heard no talking. Not the deep tones of his father, nor the soft tones of his mother. Stepping closer, glancing in through the opening, he saw that his father was quite alone. Guy was sitting in his favorite chair, looking out the window, as he often did when he was deep in thought…or troubled. Owen knew that his father preferred solitude when he was in such a mood, and for a moment, it was his impulse to turn and go. But his need for company was great. There had been too much distance and tension that day. He missed the closeness that had always been so strong in their family. And, he felt, perhaps his father needed consolation as well. With the exception of his wife, Guy of Gisborne was not a man who was keen on voicing his troubles to anyone. But as Owen recalled his mother often saying, no man was an island. Gathering his courage, he stepped quietly into the room.
“Papa?” he asked. “Are you quite well?”
There was no answer. Guy remained still, not even turning his head. But Owen was not discouraged. He tried again.
“Is there something I might do?”
“No. There is not.”
Guy’s quick, brusque answer was not off-putting. Owen had, after all, known his father all of his life, and such a tone was nothing strange. Ordinarily, he would not have pressed any further. But beyond the uncomfortable tension of their family troubles, there were other matters…troubling matters…that were weighing on his mind. His father was certain to have some of the answers to his questions. Buoyed by the thought, he advanced further into the room, coming to stand beside his father’s chair.
“Papa, I do not understand all that has happened today. I feel there is an element to all of this that I am not aware of.”
For a moment, Guy remained silent. But then he looked up, staring at Owen for a moment. Using his booted foot to retrieve a second chair, he pulled it forward and to one side. Owen sat down across from him, and they leaned towards one another.
“You will soon hear word of certain events that have happened. And you are a man now, Owen, so I believe you are old enough to know the ways of the world…the unpleasantries that often unfold around us.”
Owen braced himself, nodding. “Yes, Papa.”
A silent moment passed before Guy spoke. “Rene of Bergeron and Baroness LaCroix are lovers.”
The words seemed to ring untrue, as if they were spoken in jest. Surely his father was mistaken. Owen gave his head a slight shake, returning the question. “Lovers?”
Guy sighed deeply. “Yes. It seems that they are of no relation, as they claimed to be. They were masquerading as such, to cover up their adulterous relationship.”
An adulteress. Owen found himself reeling from the shock - his mind struggling to comprehend the meaning of it. He could not find it in his thinking to consider Rene. Only one name registered in his stunned mind.
Isabella. The woman he had endlessly dreamed of, imagining how he would one day have her for himself, but knowing that it could never be. He had so admired her strength – her courage in the face of adversity. But she had succumbed to temptation, and in the worst way possible. She was not the woman he had imagined her to be. Not in any way.
The scope of such a revelation was staggering, and he struggled with the reality of it. Slowly leaning back in his chair, he willed himself to speak calmly. The news was shocking. It was scandalous, to be sure. But he could not let his tone, nor his actions, reveal the tumult he was beginning to feel. If he let his father see how this news was about to turn him inside out, it would lead to his own ruin. Sitting up straight, he tried to project the proper reaction…one his father would expect, but not be suspicious of. To be certain the attention was deflected away from himself, he grasped for something on which to focus his ire. The offense to his family, the scandal that Rene and Isabella might have caused them all, was enough reason in and of itself to darken his mood. There was, in truth, no need to pretend.
“She has been lying in sin with a man not her husband, and she dared to bring him into our home?”
Guy leaned forward, rubbing his hands over his face as he let out a ragged, weary sigh.
“Yes, that is the long and short of it. She is a liar and a whore, and she will be punished as she deserves to be. She and her lover were nearly the ruin of your sister. We must pray to God that Evelyn has been found safe with your brother, and that the marquis has not considered himself disgraced by these shameful events.”
Casting his eyes aside as his thoughts rapidly turned to his own feelings, he still managed to give attention to the conversation with his father.
“Simon is a good man, it seems.”
Guy nodded in agreement, sitting up. Leaning his head back against the chair, he stared up at the ceiling. “Yes. I will sleep peacefully knowing that I am giving my daughter to a man who has concern for her welfare.”
Owen cleared his throat. His hands gripped the arms of the chair as he tried to maintain a calm aspect in front of his father. Recalling his initial reasons for seeking out his mother and father, and still feeling the apprehension of that dillema, he tried to steer the conversation towards it.
“You still seem quite troubled, Papa. You are concerned about Evelyn, I take it?”
Guy’s voice became brusque once again. “My concerns are not for you to be bothered with.” A small sigh escaped him, and then his tone softened slightly. “It is late. You had best go to bed.”
I will make haste, Owen thought. Anxiety was quickly rising in his mind and soul, threatening to overwhelm him. He had to escape to the solitude of his bedchamber before he lost complete control of his senses. As he walked from the room, he gave his father as calm a farewell as he could manage.
“Good night, Papa.”
If Guy responded, Owen barely heard it. Certain words from his father kept running through his mind as he made his way to his bedchamber. Once there, he went to the window and threw open the shutters, breathing in the cool night air, trying to find relief from the wildness of his thoughts.
A liar and a whore.
Good God. He had nearly been bewitched by a devious sinner. Had every word she’d spoken, every sweet look she’s bestowed on him, been a lie? He recalled the soft, sweet feelings there had been between them…and the painfully delicious sensations of desire he had felt in her presence. Never before had he felt such a reaction to a woman. The memory of it still made him burn, even now. And his desire fed his anger.
How could he have been so blind? He might have succumbed to the wiles of a temptress, and then he too would have been a victim of her wickedness. Lord, what a weak-minded fool he had been. She had betrayed him. All the times she had smiled at him, and spoken to him with such tenderness, it had all been a charade…a false front to distract him from the truth of her nature. Her devious, sinful nature. He wanted to hate her for it. He felt he should hate her for it. He should have listened to his first instincts, and fought harder to resist the wicked temptation of her. Had he been wiser, he would not be spending his energy now in a haze of furious regret.
And yet, he could not forget her seductive allure. Even now, his mutinous memory refused to abandon recollections of her. Lord, he could almost smell the sweet, spicy scent of her…the scent of orange blossoms and gardenias. For a few moments, he lost himself in the remembrance of what full, sensuous lips she had. Her eyes were so exquisite…pools of warm, green color that beckoned him, rendering him helpless.
He ran his hands through his hair, whispering curses to himself. Even now, when he had reason to rid himself of Isabella altogether, he could not escape her.
God in heaven, he muttered. I am glad she is gone. I am glad I shall never again set eyes upon her. Love is a pitiless trap that nearly ensnared me, and I will never be so ignorant again.
Rising from his chair, Guy slowly walked the length of the room. The candles had all been extinguished, except for the one remaining on the bedside table. In the hearth, the fire was low. The bedclothes had been turned down, and the servants had long ago been dismissed. All was as it should have been – the same as it was each night. Save for one great difference.
The bed was without both of its occupants. One of them was down the hall in another room, refusing to go from the place where she sought comfort and consolation. The other was hoping…nay, praying, that his mate would change her mind – that she would come to him so they could share their worries together. They were both suffering, both fearful. But his greatest fear was that she meant to punish him even more harshly. He was heartsick at the thought of her keeping him at a distance. In all of their years together, they had not slept apart unless outside circumstances had forced them to. Now, she was intent on tormenting him with her absence, deliberately hurting him in an effort to make him pay dearly for his mistake. And she had succeeded. He was miserable, afraid, and exhausted. He wished to lose himself in sleep. But looking at the turned down bed, he could not bring himself to go to it. How could he sleep without his wife at his side?
Covering his face with his hands, he prayed that all was not lost. His sweet Evelyn would be found, and she would be returned to them safely. But most importantly, his beloved wife would forgive him. She had forgiven him for so many mistakes he had made before. Thinking of her bitter words to him, he felt a crippling pain. With tears in her eyes, she had sworn that she would never forgive him if something happened to their daughter. She had never looked at him with such coldness, and it tore him to pieces to think that he might have ruined everything.
Surely, she would find it in her heart to grant him absolution for this. Without her love and approval, he was nothing – a shell of a man, useless and broken. Returning to his chair, he waited impatiently for the dawn, hoping that sunrise would see his peaceful world restored. Happy - as it was meant to be.