As dawn approached, the silence of the house was broken by a sudden shout.
“Mon Seigneur ! My lady ! Il est une nouvelle!”
“My lord! My lady! There is news!”
From his bed, Owen heard the sound of the housekeeper’s voice in the corridor, followed immediately by a rush of footsteps from several directions, and then an excited chattering spoken in French. Stepping out into the hallway, Owen saw his mother standing just outside of Evelyn’s door, her hands covering her mouth. From a distance, it was difficult to tell if she was happy or upset. But once she lowered her hands, it was clear that she was smiling, and happy tears were coursing down her face. As Owen approached, he saw his father coming from the opposite direction, hurrying to his wife’s side. He looked down at the message in her hand as she spoke the news.
“Evelyn is safe, praise God. She arrived in Toulon yesterday, and William is sending her home first thing this morning, which means she should arrive this afternoon.”
There was a collective sigh of relief, and happy chattering all around. But the mood quickly changed to the kind of energetic tone that often punctuated a busy morning. Owen felt a shift in the atmosphere of everything as his mother began pointing out things that needed to be done. They would all need to be ready for Evelyn’s return, and there needed to be a special meal and small celebration for the marquis. It was he, after all, who was bringing Evelyn home, and they had to give him a proper welcome.
It was wonderful to see his mother set to a purpose again. And he was happy to see a sign of relief in his father’s expression. But there was still a light of sadness in Guy’s eyes, especially when Cassia turned away from him in her hurry to see everyone to action. They were still at odds, it seemed. But Owen found he was not so worried about that now. They would soon make amends, if he knew them well enough. Evelyn was on her way home, and soon, life would soon be back to normal.
If only everything was as it should have been.
This was not a day he wished to be sociable. And he knew his mother and father would expect him to help, in some way, with the homecoming preparations. Thinking quickly, he approached his father.
“Papa, perhaps I should go and keep watch for Evelyn’s approach. I think Mama would want to know the moment Evelyn is returned home.”
Guy nodded, opening his mouth to speak, but Cassia spoke first from within Evelyn’s chamber.
“You think quite wisely, son. Go and keep watch.”
With a nod, Owen departed, and a short time later, he was sitting atop the outer wall surrounding the manor, feeling the warmth of the sunny morning as he tried to gather together his recently rattled senses. He was grateful for this solitary task of waiting for his sister. He needed this time alone, away from everything, so he could evaluate all that had happened.
Why had Isabella done it? Her husband was a horrible brute, yes. But wasn’t it worse to throw away her life and her reputation for a few moments of pleasure? He shook his head, thinking what a fool she was…even as his conscience dwelled on other questions.
What will become of her now? He wondered. Where is she at this very moment?
All night long, those same questions had crept into his mind, even as he tried to hold tightly to his anger. Isabella LaCroix was immoral and indecent. She was the antithesis of what a wife and mother was supposed to be, and he was still fuming with anger at the thought of her deception.
But thinking of Gilbert LaCroix and his often foul behavior, Owen could not help but wonder what the man’s reaction had been to his wife’s infidelity. It was safe to say that he had probably punished her severely for her misdeeds, and even while Owen tried to tell himself that Isabella only had herself to blame…
Her suffering is her own fault, he said to himself. What reason is there to feel pity for her…
He realized that what he felt was not just resentment. Not just anger. Under the darker feelings, there was a place in his soul that pitied her. No matter what she had done, it was not right that she be a victim of her husband’s violence. No woman deserved that. Not even Thea, whom he often found to be an intolerable nuisance, was deserving of abuse.
Thoughts of the possibilities…imaginings of what Isabella might have endured, or would endure, tried to work their way into his mind. But he shook his head, too fearful of letting his thoughts wander into such a dark place. It was not his duty to save her, and besides that – what could he do for her now? What could anyone do for her? It was out of his hands, and he decided at that moment to dwell on it no longer. In time, he was certain he would forget that she had meant something to him, if only for a brief time. Memories would fade. New ones would be created with someone else.
That was what he needed to do - what he had intended to do, before he had let Isabella overwhelm his every thought and feeling. If he chose a wife, and quickly, he would both see to his personal duty and provide himself with a new feminine distraction. Surely there was someone out there who was just as beautiful…just as sensuous and alluring, with the same soft laugh and lovely smile.
A frustrated groan escaped him. He pressed his palms against his face, wishing to God that some foreign object would come along and hit him in the head, if that would be the only way to knock Isabella out of his mind.
A sound of horses - of clopping hooves and jangling gear, came faintly from nearby. Turning his head, he saw the pair coming down the road…Evelyn and Simon, riding side by side. Physically gathering himself together with a deep breath and the running of his fingers through his hair, he jumped down from his perch to meet them.
“Evie! Thank God, you return at last! The entire household has been in turmoil. Mama has sent me to watch for you. I have been on this bloody wall half the day, waiting for you.”
He tried to sound stern. She had, after all, caused a lot of trouble in the last twenty-four hours. Never mind the fact that he was relieved to see her. But he wanted her to know that she had caused them all pain, and he gave her a fatherly look. To which she only smiled. Looking at her, he saw that she seemed more content than troubled, which was odd considering all the chaos she had caused. But looking more closely, he saw a change in the way that she looked at Simon. No longer did it seem that she feared him. Quite the contrary. Her eyes seemed to shine with warmth and admiration for him. And that was as it was supposed to be. Simon replied…
“Waste not a moment more, young Owen. Make haste, and tell them that we approach.”
Owen bowed respectfully, departing to see to the marquis’s request. Simon was a good man, one who was deserving of great respect and admiration. He was glad to rush to the house, to tell the housekeeper the news, and then, to see his mother rushing for the yard with a look of great relief and happiness. It pleased him to see her free from her burden of worry, and such a sight was a sign that life would soon return to normal.
Having made his welcome to Evie already, he saw no reason to interrupt the reunion of his mother and sister. Needing some activity to occupy his thoughts and his time, he felt it best to bury himself in his training. As he neared the path that crossed the yard and led to the barracks, Lucien appeared from within the house, and he called out to him.
“Owen, have you heard the news?”
In reply, Owen nodded. “Yes, I know. Evie is home.”
Lucien shook his head. “That is very fortunate, of course, but that is not the news I am speaking of. I have heard tell of Lady Isabella.”
The last thing he wanted to talk about was Isabella, but to avoid rudeness with someone he respected, he answered with a question and a hint of interest.
“What of her?”
Lowering his voice, Lucien spoke in a conspiratorial sort of tone.
“Her husband has had her confined to a convent.”
For a moment, Owen said nothing. The mystery that had plagued him all night and all morning was solved, and thinking of Isabella’s fate, he began to feel a sense of pity coming over him. But he shook it off, forcing his expression into a mask of solemnity.
“Is that so? Well, it is better than death, I suppose. Come, let us get to work. We have neglected it for far too long.”
As they headed for the barracks, he kept the seriousness of his expression in check. Isabella had been assigned to her fate, and that was that. Now it was time for him to do what he needed to do. He needed to move on, and in time, he was certain he would forget that any of this had ever happened.
Over the next two nights, romance seemed to bloom among the couples in the house. Not even the recent rumors of war, and the impending journey to court that the men would make, seemed to spoil the happy mood.
The lord and lady of the house had obviously made up. The familiar looks and affectionate gestures between them were there once again, and in a similar pattern of behavior, Lucien and Thea were quite expressive in their fondness for one another, along with the love they had for their son.
And then there was Evelyn and Simon.
While the marquis appeared to be as serious as usual, there was a subtle hint of softness in his expression that could not be disguised. Now and then, as everyone watched the evening’s entertainment, Simon even gave the occasional little smile. It was easy to see that he was warming up to his fiancé, and looking at Evelyn, one could clearly see that her affection for him was growing. How and when it had happened, no one was quite certain, but it seemed better not to question it. All was right with the world, so it seemed. And when Evelyn departed for a brief time, followed by Simon not long after, everyone assumed that they were stealing some time alone.
It wasn’t until Evelyn and Simon returned, and Evelyn whispered in her mother’s ear, that the romance of the evening was broken. Cassia’s look of shock drew Guy’s attention, and when she leaned towards him to softly tell him something, his stunned expression drew the attention of everyone else in the room. They watched, looking at each other in confusion, as Guy dismissed the entertainment and all of the servants, leaving only the immediate family, along with Simon and his father, who had remained behind when the other guests had departed. Guy came to stand before them, and announced in a low, barely repressed tone of anger.
“Isabella LaCroix has just been left on our doorstep.”