I will have more tomorrow. I was short on time today. For now, enjoy...
Owen lifted his head from the table. He watched as, one by one, the other men around him gave reason to depart – as though they had all accepted this mad decision without a fight. The duke was the first to go.
“It is late,” he said. “There has been too much excitement for me this night, and I do not enjoy it so much in my old age. I think I shall retire.”
“As will I,” Lucien replied, rising from his chair. And a moment later, Simon followed with his own departure, leaving Owen by himself. Looking around, he raised his hands in a gesture of astonishment, feeling abandoned in the most literal sense of the word. Letting out a defeated sigh, he rose to his feet. A moment later, his eyes rose towards the upstairs.
He did not want to look in that direction, but he could not help it. The woman who haunted his dreams was no longer just a figment of his imagination. She was tangible, and just a brief distance away. And now, there was no Rene, and no husband for that matter. She was lost and vulnerable. And heaven help him, he was drawn to her more than ever.
A deep feeling of indignity hung over him as he made his way up the stairs.
What have I become? He asked himself. To slink about in this manner, in my own home, hoping to catch a glimpse or hear word of a fallen woman.
The sensible part of his mind knew he was doing wrong. But his impulsive nature was dominant. It moved him towards his parents’ room, where his mother and sisters had closed ranks around Isabella, sheltering her in the master chamber as they consoled her and let her tell her story. Because the heavy door was closed, he could not hear their conversation clearly. But it was obvious they were talking in gentle tones, and every now and then, he heard Isabella’s voice break. Overwhelmed with curiosity, he fought the urge to knock, if only to get them to open the door a little so he might catch a glimpse into the room. And yet, when the door opened suddenly, he backed himself up against the wall. What if he was discovered? If his mother and sisters saw him, they would want to know why he was lurking about, and God forbid they should discover the reason, he would never live it down.
It turned out to be Thea leaving the room, taking Gabriel away, probably putting him to bed. For once, he was glad to see her. She unknowingly did him a service with her brief appearance. Seeing her, he was reminded of the risky situation he had placed himself in, and he felt some sense returning to his mind. If only for a moment.
He would have to be more cautious, he realized. And as he left for his own room, he had a different realization altogether.
It would be impossible to keep away from Isabella. As long as she was nearby, he would want to see her, even if it was only for a brief moment as they passed by in the hall or saw each other across a room. His only hope now was that his father would take charge and do what was needed.
But a short time later, when Owen found himself outside the door again, his hopes were dashed when he heard his father speaking of the decision he had made.
I have decided to give Isabella my aid.
He stood there, disbelieving, wondering what had possessed his father to make such a decision. Had he not been furious just a short while ago?
It seemed the females of the house had banded together to form a power alliance, and with Simon’s encouragement, they had over-ruled the master of the house. He heard his mother say...
She can stay in the tower room. It is secluded and quiet.
Owen bristled at the thought of such preferential treatment. Stepping away from the door, he moved down the hall with an angry stride. She had done wrong, and yet she was being pampered rather than punished. Why? Could no one see how foolish it was to treat her with kindness? It would all be for naught.
They shall see, he said to himself. They will soon come to their senses, and I will come to mine.
He had nearly convinced himself of his own words…until he came to the end of the hall. One direction led to his chamber. The other direction led to a winding staircase, which went to the upper room. Where Isabella was now residing. And he could not help but wonder what she was doing or thinking behind closed doors…
A deep sleep fell over her the moment she lay down. All was pleasant at first. A hot bath was a luxury – one that Gilbert had never thought necessary in their home. The heated water, scented with oil of lavender, had relaxed her so that she had nearly fallen asleep in the tub. Now, resting on a narrow but soft bed, she succumbed to exhaustion.
But horrible nightmares came to her in the night. Lost in darkness, she cried out for help, but her pleas were met only with silence. And then, suddenly, she was standing on a long and narrow road. Ahead of her, she could see a traveling wagon.
“Sebastian!” she cried. He was on the back of that wagon, reaching his arms out and calling desperately for her. Running wildly, she came so close to having him in her arms. Their fingers were so near to touching. But no matter how hard she struggled to reach him, he was kept just out of her grasp.
When she woke, it was a bright and sunny morning. But it hardly seemed to matter. Her eyes were swollen, made so by the tears she had wept during the night. Of all of the things she had lost, nothing cut more deeply than the thought of never seeing Sebastian again. As she bathed her face, fresh tears came to her eyes. But she knew that it would serve no purpose to remain in dreary solitude, feeling sorry for herself. How would that help her, or her son?
Looking around the tiny room, she noticed several things almost immediately. On the small table, there was a tray of fruit and a flagon of ale, along with a goblet. And at the foot of the bed, there were two dresses. They were not extravagant garments, but she was grateful to have anything to wear at all. She could only imagine what Gilbert had done with all of her fine things. Lady Cassia, generous soul that she was, must have ordered the food and clothing brought to her. She did not know how she would begin to pay the family back for their incredible kindness, but she vowed that somehow, she would find a way. And she would begin by offering the lady of the manor her help. If there were chores to do, she would offer to assist with them. She had never worked before, but she was willing to learn. If servitude was required of her, in order to do penance for her sins, she was prepared to accept it. She was able to dress herself without the aid of a servant, as the simple dress had its ties in the front, and she found a strange satisfaction in thinking she had done something without assistance for the first time in her life. It was a mundane task, to be sure, but she needed to find some sense of satisfaction, and if it came from this, then so be it. After a cup of ale and a sweet, crunchy apple, she felt prepared to face the day ahead. Stepping outside her door, she took a step towards the stairs leading down to the second story. But her foot came to a pause when she heard voices raised in somewhat angry tones. It was Lady Cassia’s voice she heard first.
"I care not for your opinion of her. When one day you are lord of your own manor, then you may determine who remains under your roof. But until that time, you will treat Isabella as you would treat any guest."
It was Evelyn’s voice that Isabella heard next, speaking in her usual gentle tones.
"Mama," she asked, "Is anything the matter?"
Cassia answered, "Your brother sees fit to insult our guest."
Hearing it, Isabella felt a sharp pain in her breast. From the moment Gabriel had discovered her treachery, she had known that the world would condemn her. But there was something especially hurtful in hearing Owen speak of her with cruelty. She could hear the hatefulness in his voice.
"I do not wish to reside in the same house as a whore."
Crushing humiliation overwhelmed her, and she desperately wished to turn back to her chamber, close herself in, and allow herself to fall apart. But Lady Cassia’s words, spoken with authority, gave her pause.
"You will not speak of anyone with such a vile tongue," she said, "And certainly not a friend who is dear to me. Spit another ounce of venom and I shall have you whipped. Do I make myself clear?"
Isabella heard Owen grumble in obedience. "Yes, Mama."
"Be gone," Cassia told him. "And do not let me see you unless you can speak in a civil manner."
The men of the world had turned against her. But a few of the women, at least, were still human beings with hearts and souls. It hurt to know that Owen was not the man she had thought him to be. But then again, none of the men in her life were ideal. Perhaps the notion of being a nun – of ridding herself forever of men – was not such a horrible prospect after all.
His day was getting worse with each passing moment.
His mother and father had declared the next two days to be a holiday, and Evelyn and Thea had started a game of battledore and shuttlecock. He and Lucien had partnered with them, taking on the roles of the opposing team. Owen had not truly wished to play at first, but he had thought perhaps a game would take his mind off of more distressing matters. Besides, it would feel good to beat Thea, who had been giving him evil looks all morning. She deserved to be put in her place.
But all of the family seemed to conspire against him. Even Lucien, who agreed with the call of the game that they said was Owen’s error. Frustrated already, and short of temper, he had left the game in a fit of anger. All he wanted now was to get away from everyone. He was not quite aware of where he was going at that moment. He only knew he wished to be gone from all of the world.
Turning the corner that would lead past the chapel and out to the stables, he collided with the last person he wished to meet. As they both fought to regain their footing, angry words spewed out of his mouth before he could think to control them.
"You might think to hold your head up when you walk!"
Her hateful retort shocked him.
"And you might think to treat others with a shred of decency!"
For a moment, he found himself staring at her face. And shock of a different sort suddenly came over him. The evidence of her husband’s anger was there, on her face, fading though it was. But it was enough of a sad sight to leave him speechless, and a feeling of guilt began to grow within him. He felt the hard shove of her hand as she pushed past him, and he found he could do little more than stand and watch her go.