The meeting between Isabella and Owen is coming next. For now, enjoy...
Owen nearly choked on his wine. Everyone looked at each other, stunned by the announcement, but they hardly seemed as shocked as he was. He listened, slack-jawed, as his father fumed and paced back and forth, cursing in a foreign language - as he had always done when he was especially angry. It was his way of disguising the foul words he spoke.
"Dio dannazione! Perché questi problemi vengono alla mia porta? Perché? Che io sia maledetto! Devo soffrire per il resto dei miei giorni? Se prendo quel bastardo, gli spezzon il collo con le mie mani!"
While Guy raged, his fingers furiously rubbing his temples, Owen felt a rush of anxiety. Isabella was here. In the same house. Good God, it did not seem possible. The greatest temptation he had ever faced was now right under his very roof. Words rushed from his lips.
"There should be no debate on the matter. The woman must be returned to the convent at once."
There was a moment of silence, and then – not to his surprise – Thea spoke up against him.
"Baroness LaCroix has been our friend and neighbor for many years. I think we should consider her circumstances before we make a hasty decision."
His angry response was swift.
"She shamed her husband. She dishonored her class, and herself, by committing adultery, and then she escaped from her confinement. Why should we harbor such an indecent woman in our house? We could all be excommunicated...possibly even imprisoned for lodging a convict."
The voice of their mother, always the calm in the center of a storm, was soothing. She spoke in her strong but steady way.
"No matter what she has done, it is not our place to judge her. God will see to that one day. For the moment, I agree with Thea. I believe we should consider being of aid to a woman we have all known as a friend."
Guy stopped in his march, coming to stand at the front end of the dining table. He crossed his arms. His tone was calmer now...his words spoken in English...but his anger had not diminished.
"I am the master of the house, and I say that Owen is correct. Why should we harbor her? She knew the consequences of her actions - the punishment they would bring if discovered. Why should we be of aid to her? Such indulgence may lead to our own ruin."
"Sir Guy, if I may say..." Simon stood, his presence taking charge of the room. He spoke in a commanding voice. "I think perhaps you should meet with the baroness before making a decision to remove her from your house."
Simon’s father, who had been relatively quiet thus far, sighed as he gave voice.
"My son, what possible difference could that make? Sir Guy is correct. To keep her here would bring only shame and dishonor."
Simon’s reply was firm. "I do not condone her actions. But neither do I approve of abuse towards women."
Everyone looked at each other with curious glances. Cassia was the first to respond.
"What abuse do you speak of, your grace?"
Simon's expression became rather grim. "Two days ago, my words kept the baroness from her husband's hand raised in violence. But sadly, words alone could not tame his wrath entirely."
No one gave reply to his declaration. Everyone seemed so interested in what Simon had to say, but Owen could hardly believe how easily they were being swayed. Evelyn, especially, seemed enthralled by her fiancé’s words.
"It is my opinion,” said Simon, “That Lady Isabella has received just punishment, and will continue to endure it. She will be stripped of her title and wealth. Her name will be spoken of with distaste and ridicule. And her husband has seen to it that she does not forget his displeasure. To give her to the law would merely be a way of playing to the crowd. They find base entertainment in the misery of a fellow human being."
Owen watched as Evelyn rose to her feet, standing by Simon’s side. A look of determination had come to her face.
"I agree with Simon," she boldly declared. "Yes, Lady Isabella has done wrong. But there are times when we must remember our humanity. I believe that on this occasion, we should do not what our fellow noblemen expect of us...but what we know is right."
Simon's influence had roused the women of the room. Owen watched in disbelief as Thea rose to her feet, her face and features set with more stubbornness that ever.
"His grace has spoken, Papa. We must not dishonor him."
No one was truly surprised when Guy struck out with a furious hand, knocking his trencher and cup from the table. As he stormed from the room, a tense silence fell. Cassia sighed, pushing her wine goblet aside.
"I shall speak to him later," she said. "But now, I will go to Isabella."
"As will I," said Evelyn.
She went to their mother. Together, she and Thea helped Cassia rise from her chair, and as they went up the stairs, Owen observed the little smile exchanged between Evelyn and Simon. It was unreal. Of all the men he had ever known, the last one he’d expected to falter was the marquis. Simon had let a woman cuckold him. Lord above, had the entire world gone mad?
With a groan, he lowered his head to the table, and he banged his forehead several times, briefly contemplating the thought of knocking himself into unconsciousness. He muttered to himself…
What am I to do now? God, give me strength.
Tears fell down Isabella's cheeks. Sitting on the edge of the bed with her head lowered, she found it difficult to believe where she was and how she had gotten there. At the abbey, she had been isolated from human contact for two days. In a small and Spartan room, she had been expected to contemplate her sinful actions and prepare to do her penance. She had fully expected, at any moment, to be taken from the room and set to some task of hard labor.
She had never counted on seeing Rene again. Sitting there, she could still recall the words he had spoken to her.
"Oh, Izzy," he said softly. "Forgive me. I never wished for this. I will make it right. I swear it."
With nothing left to lose, she had done as he had told her to. His escape plot had gone off without a hitch. He had succeeded in breaking her out of the convent. But she had not expected that he would lead her to the Gisbornes. And then, to have him dash away like the slippery fox that he was. Once again he had lifted her up, only to let her fall. At that moment, she wished she could somehow disappear from the world. She felt so undeserving of the warmth and comfort that Lady Cassia and her daughters were offering her. Cassia sat beside her, holding her hand. Thea, holding Gabriel, sat beside Evelyn in the window seat. They watched and listened as the she spoke in a trembling voice.
"I have destroyed everything. My marriage, my status. And now I shall never again see my son."
She broke into sobs, crying against Cassia's shoulder. But nearly as quickly as she leaned on her, she pulled away.
"Oh Cassia, forgive me," she cried. "I grieve on the shoulder of an expecting mother. I am the lowest of women to burden you so."
She felt the warmth of Cassia’s gentle hand, and knew the sweetness of her smile. "You have just cause for your unhappiness. To hold it within would be unwise."
"But to unburden myself to you, in your condition..."
Cassia responded with an amused expression. There was a sparkle in her dark eyes. "You speak as my husband speaks. He seems not to understand that after four children, I am hardly delicate. I like to think I am quite resilient."
For the first time in days, Isabella felt a sense of amusement coming over her, and a small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. Cassia called for her maid-servant, Celeste, telling her to fetch clean garments and have a bath prepared for their guest. As she left, Evelyn rose to her feet. A thoughtful expression crossed her features. She crooked her finger to her chin, thinking.
"Mama," she said, "Perhaps we could send her to stay in Toulon."
Cassia looked at her, saying nothing. She seemed to be considering the thought. Isabella looked from one face to another, wondering at the plot they were hatching. She found it incredible to see women conspiring so, and on her behalf. Evelyn, it seemed, was particularly enthusiastic.
"She could claim sanctuary if she were to live at William's parish. He could find her an occupation, something that would not be too difficult."
Thea spoke up. As she rested Gabriel against her shoulder, rubbing his back, she looked at her sister with a doubtful eye.
"Evelyn, a noblewoman cannot work as a servant."
Isabella spoke up. "I am a noblewoman no longer.”
They all turned to look at her. She drew away from Cassia. Righting her posture, she reached up to wipe the tears from her eyes. A sudden feeling of courage came over her. Perhaps it was the comfort that the Gisborne ladies offered, or their obvious bond of womanhood. Whatever the reason, she felt a new kind of strength beginning to grow in her heart.
"I have made a shambles of my life. But I yet live. If I must lower myself to the position of a servant, I will do so. It will be my penance for the sins I have committed." She lowered her head, and a moment later, Evelyn came to stand before her.
"Do not fear, my lady. My brother is the same as he ever was...noble and kind. He will see that you are well cared for."
Their eyes met. Isabella smiled, and her eyes shined with grateful tears. If anyone had reason not to like her, it was Evelyn. The young lady had obvious had feelings for Rene, and if circumstances had been different, they might have been rivals for his affection. And yet it seemed there was no bitterness in Evelyn’s eyes. Taking her hand, she placed a light kiss on Evelyn’s fingers.
“You are lovely and gracious, my lady. Thank you.”
Evelyn returned the smile with her own, and in that moment, they became friends. She turned to her mother.
"I shall speak to Simon," she declared. "He will be glad to know we have come to a swift conclusion."
Cassia nodded. After Evelyn left, Thea soon departed as well, expressing the need to put Gabriel to bed. When she had gone, Isabella turned to look at Cassia. There was so much she wished to say her…so much she was grateful for. And things that caused her concern.
“Your husband will not be pleased to have me here. And I cannot blame him for it.”
“Do not fear. I will speak to him. And despite his display of temper, I am certain he will act with integrity. He does not always wish the world to know it, but he is a good man.”
Overcome, Isabella felt tears forming in her eyes again. When Cassia embraced her this time, she welcomed it, grateful for the comfort that she had thought to never have again.
He knew she would come to him. It was only a matter of time.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Guy was all too aware of his own weakness when it came to her. He could not recall the last time he had won a serious argument with his wife – and in most cases, she turned out to be in the right. But this matter was like nothing they had fought about before. As he sat on a garden bench, still feeling the anger throbbing in his veins, he suddenly sensed her presence. Turning his head, he saw her standing a few steps away. He held up his hand, as if to deflect the words he knew she would speak. He spoke in a low, angry growl.
“Do not come to me in your usual way, attempting to lull me into compliance. You invite damnation on our house by sheltering that woman.”
Cassia stood there, her hands protectively holding her belly. Just looking at her, he already felt a crack beginning in his resolve. Thinking how all of this madness might be putting a burden on their unborn baby, he felt a slight sense of guilt. But in the same train of thought, he hated himself for being so soft. He reminded himself that he had every reason to be furious. The reputation of his family was at stake, and his wife was standing before him, looking as if she had no hand in what was happening. Her delicate condition was just another part of her influence.
Christ, he thought. Even our child is being used against me.
“Guy, I do not welcome such trouble,” she said. “It was left here without invitation. But what would you have me do? Turn her out to fend for herself? She has nowhere to go.”
He loved her more than life itself. But at times like this, he wanted to take her by the arms and shake her. His fury was expressed in his words. He could not help the frustrated shout of anger that flew from his lips.
“God almighty, woman! You cannot save every soul that wanders astray! Isabella has chosen this fate for herself, and she must face the consequences of her actions!”
“I want to help her, Guy.”
Even in the face of his wrath, she was unyielding. At times he wondered if she was even human, she was so damn fearless.
“And just what do you intend to do?” he demanded, almost afraid to know what her answer would be. And the reply stunned him.
“I am sending her to Toulon.”
He slowly stood, taking a step towards her. A slight sneer curled his lip. “You would curse our son with the burden of caring for a whore?”
In a gesture he knew well, she took her own little step forward, challenging him. Her eyes glittered with determination.
“Do not utter such a foul word to me. I was once cursed with such a title and I will not hear it used now to describe Isabella.”
The recollection of days gone by struck him cold. It was not a widely known fact that they had consummated their love affair long before their marriage. Only some people had known of it in Nottingham, and no one in France was aware of it at all, to the best of their knowledge. But he could not forget the cruel words said of her by those who had been aware of the fact. It pained him, even now, to think of it. And it angered him that she would speak of herself in such a manner.
“I cannot believe you would compare yourself to a scheming adulteress.”
She scoffed. “Between you, myself, and Isabella, we are none of us perfect. Nor have our actions always been entirely honorable.”
Oh, what a sharp-tongued witch she was. She was using his past misdeeds against him, and it was as effective as it was infuriating. Moving past her, he snorted in displeasure.
“Now you hurl at me the past with all of its sordid connotations?”
Calm as ever, she answered firmly. “I will send Isabella to a man of the church. William will see to it that she does penance for her sins, but he will not be cruel to her. Whatever her misdeeds, she is not deserving of hate.”
He turned quickly, facing her. His voice rose. “And I suppose I have no say in the matter? I am to be cuckolded in my own home?”
In reply, she sighed. She was being calm all through this argument. It was something she occasionally did when they had a disagreement – taking the passive aggressive approach. Sometimes, it was more effective than an all-out shouting match.
“I leave the decision to you,” she said. “And I trust you will act as your conscience dictates.”
Going back to the bench, he sat down on it with a curse uttered under his breath. Lying down on his back, he threw his arm over his eyes, grumbling his displeasure.
“Some days I long for the times when I was not familiar with my conscience. It was a time less complicated.”
Again she sighed. And again she spoke softly, with calmness. “I do not have the will to fight with you, husband. So I will leave you to your thoughts. I am going to bed.”
Without more to say, she quietly departed…leaving him to fight a battle with himself that he knew he had already lost.
For some time, he avoided going back to the house. But eventually, driven by weariness and the inevitable need to see how she fared, he found his way to their bedchamber. Francis, he loyal valet, came to him instantly. But he waved his man away, in too dark a mood to have the company of anyone but his wife. With a grumble, he sat down on the edge of the bed, muttering to himself as he removed his shirt.
“I think perhaps I have gone mad.”
“Am I to know why?” she asked.
Tossing his shirt aside, he sat there for several moments, his back to her. After a time, giving a deep sigh, he replied…
“I have decided to give Isabella my aid.”
A moment of silence passed between them, in which he knew that she was probably delighting in her victory over him. But it did not show in her voice, which was kind and gentle when she spoke.
“You act with wisdom and generosity, and I am glad.”
“Against my better judgment,” he spoke over his shoulder. “My opinion of her is unchanged. But because she is dear to you, I will see to her welfare.”
She said nothing at first. It wasn’t until he turned to adjust himself in bed, when he leaned back against the pillows and let out a long, frustrated breath, that she spoke up. Moving closer to him, she rested her head against his shoulder.
“I hope you are not angry with me. I do not wish to belittle you or bully you into a decision. I only wish for the decent thing to be done.”
He slowly let out a weary breath, tired of fighting. He put his arm around her, drawing her closer.
“You are right, of course,” he said. “It is braver to do what is right, rather than what is popular.”
“And I believe that God rewards us for such bravery.”
His reply came straight from the heart…a declaration of pure love. “Your happiness is my reward.”
She snuggled against him, placing a soft kiss on his skin. “It will all turn out well in the end, my love. You will see.”