I have to fine tune the next part of this, so I will have it posted soon. For now, enjoy...
He felt as if he’d been slapped across the face.
As he slowly made his way to the barracks, Owen could not cease his thoughts on what had just happened. No longer could he think of the match with his sisters, or his anger at what a horrible day it had been. All he could think of was the sight of Isabella’s face – and the backhanded tone she had taken with him.
Never had he heard her speak that way. And the way she looked at him, as though he were the very devil himself. He had always had a fondness for the dulcet tones in which she spoke – the soft, sweet way in which she had conversed, never raising her voice. The ideal way for a lady to speak. But there had been nothing soft about her rebuke.
Had her cruel experience affected her so deeply? Or had his angry words turned her against him? Surely, she was not taking her anger out on him just because he was a man. Then again, she had good reason to be angry at all men in general. But what had he done to deserve such antipathy? Just because he had spoken one short, harsh sentence, she felt the need to snap at him so? He did not wish to care what she thought, but the question had implanted itself in his mind and now it would not be quieted.
The barracks were empty that afternoon. The men, given their holiday, had all gone their separate ways, and so he was quite alone. Needing something to occupy himself, to find distraction from his thoughts, he sat on a bench and took out a sharpening stone. Taking his dagger from his belt, he mindlessly honed the blade as he wondered what evil deed he had done to deserve such torment. He sighed deeply.
Isabella LaCroix, he thought, Be on your way to my brother, and free me from your grasp forever.
Isabella lifted her head from her arms. She had rested for what she thought would be just a brief time. But looking out the window, she saw that the sun was setting already. Had she really spent the entire afternoon asleep? After the confrontation with Owen, she had come back to her room, and despite her own efforts to be brave, his cruelty had undermined that quite effectively. Brushing her fingers across her face, she hoped her appearance wasn’t too hideous as she answered the door. Lady Thea was there, along with a serving wench, who was carrying a tray of food.
“Lady Isabella,” Thea said, “My mother has sent a meal for you.” Motioning for the servant to enter, she followed and sat on the edge of the bed, placing her hands in her lap. “We had hoped to see you at supper, but you were understandably absent.”
Isabella slowly took a seat beside her. She lowered her eyes, feeling shameful for having disappointed Cassia.
“Please offer my apologies to your dear mother. She has been more than kind.”
Thea’s tone was soft and sweet as she spoke of her mother, a tender little smile on her lips. “Yes, she is the finest of ladies.”
Isabella could see a daughter’s love and devotion written in that expression. But it changed to something less affectionate and more cynical when she spoke of her brother. The smile lessened.
“I cannot have the same admiration for Owen, who I sometimes believe was left at our doorstep by mistake.”
It was tempting to smile, or to express agreement with such a declaration. But Isabella held her tongue. Whatever her thoughts on the baron, she knew it was best to take a neutral position on the subject. She lowered her eyes, speaking in a low voice.
“The baron is a man of the sword and shield. One does not expect a soldier to have a sunny disposition.”
A huff escaped Thea’s lips. “That is a common belief. But one not altogether true, in my experience. My dear husband is as fierce a warrior as one might find, and yet he treats his fellow human beings with kindness and dignity. And if you require further proof that good men do exist, there is my sister’s soon-to-be husband.”
Thinking of Simon, Isabella recalled how he had made an attempt to defend her from Gilbert. And then, he had graciously spoken on her behalf, using his power and influence to see that she would have the protection of the Gisborne family. He was one of many that she now owed a debt to.
“His grace is a fine example of a chivalrous man,” she softly said. “Your sister is most fortunate.”
Isabella felt a sense of pain at her own words. She was surrounded by women who were loved, and even while she was glad for them, she could not help the feeling of sadness and envy that tugged at her heart. Lady Thea seemed unaware of the effect her words were having, as she continued speaking of her sister.
“Evelyn is indeed lucky. And I am most happy to see her so content.”
With her eyes still lowered, Isabella replied softly. “The Gisborne ladies are blessed with love. Your mother and father have created a joyful legacy.”
“Dear Mama and Papa,” said Thea, a joyful and romantic note in her voice. “They are quite the pair of turtledoves. Inseparable. One could not exist without the other.”
Isabella could contain her feelings no longer. Her words were filled with sorrow.
“I shall never know such love.”
She had not intended to burden anyone further with her troubles, but her heart seemed to speak for itself. Thea, seeming to realize what she had unintentionally done, reached out to touch Isabella’s hand.
“Forgive me. I did not intend to cause you pain.”
Raising her eyes, Isabella saw the concern in Thea’s expression, and suddenly she felt like the most selfish of women. These dear ladies had done so much for her already, and here she sat, encouraging them to console her even more. Reaching deep down inside herself, she found a small measure of courage, and taking a deep breath, she tried to smile
“No apologies, my lady. I am stronger than my appearance suggests. With the grace of God, and the kindness of your family, I will find my way again.”
Now with a happier expression, Thea patted Isabella’s hand. “I am certain you will. And dear William will offer you a safe haven. If ever there was an opposite of Owen, it is my eldest brother.”
Isabella nodded. “Thank you, my lady.”
“I will leave you now,” said Thea, rising to her feet. “My darling Gabriel is in the hands of his nurse, but I wish to see him before he falls asleep. Good night.”
As she left, Isabella watched her go, and she could feel her sadness returning. Still, she managed to say farewell, waiting until the door had closed before she allowed tears to form in her eyes.
Lady Thea was, at that moment, on her way to see her son. She would cradle him. She would kiss him softly, expressing her deep love for him. Isabella feared she would never again know the feeling of loving her child…of holding him in her arms. Of truly being a mother. Lying down on the bed, she wept bitterly over the loss gradually crying herself to sleep.
The next morning, Isabella found herself at Lady Cassia and Sir Guy’s bedchamber door. It was not her intention to disturb them, but she could remain passive no longer. They had promised to send her away, but she had not yet heard word on when she would depart. If she was to go soon, she wished to know. And if she was to remain in their home for some duration of time, she wished to have an occupation. Reaching up her hand, she knocked softly. A moment later, a young maid answered, and Isabella asked to speak to the lord and lady. The servant directed her to a seat in the solar, where she waited for admittance. And while she waited, she could hear a soft conversation between Guy and Cassia. It did not seem to be anything deeply private, so she allowed herself to hear the tender way they spoke to one another. It was odd to hear Guy of Gisborne speaking in such a loving, gentle way. And yet, it was not so surprising. Everyone knew of the deep feelings he had for his wife, and it was touching to hear him expressing them.
“Perhaps I should remain with you,” he said, “In the event that you are in need.”
Cassia replied. “You are so dear, my love. But I have endured this discomfort before. I will be quite well, I assure you. And there are more than enough souls present to care for me, should I require it.”
“Yes, but they cannot care for you as I do.”
Isabella heard Cassia respond with a little laugh, and then there were words spoken too softly to hear. Isabella sighed, feeling both envy and delight at hearing the closeness and love the two of them shared.
When the maid came to retrieve her, she started slightly as she brought herself to her senses. Following the servant into the chamber, she saw the two of them there – Lady Cassia sitting up in bed, with her feet propped up on a pillow, and Sir Guy standing beside her. Isabella felt the scrutiny of his gaze as he looked at her, which was contrasted sharply by Cassia’s welcoming smile. Guy silently left the room, and Isabella could feel a sense of great tension as he passed her on his way out. A frown tugged at the corners of her mouth. It was quite clear that he was not happy about her presence, and she felt a sting in her heart thinking of it. But Cassia was pleasant as always. She patted the bed space beside her, bidding Isabella to come to her side.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked, as Isabella took a seat and answered quietly.
“I did, my lady. Thank you.”
“I sense that is not altogether true.”
Looking up, she saw that Cassia was studying her. But fearful of causing her more worry, Isabella tried to smile.
“Do not be troubled by me, my lady. You are far too concerned for me already.”
“So then, Isabella. Tell me. What did you wish to see me about?”
She hesitated for a moment before offering her question, hoping she was not trying the patience of her benefactress. But Cassia’s sweetness gave her courage.
“Might I inquire as to the time of my departure for Toulon? I do not wish to be a burden longer than is necessary.”
Cassia took up the stitching across her lap, working on it as she answered. “I have written to William. The moment he returns my correspondence, we will see you on your way.”
With a nod, Isabella expressed her gratefulness, rising to her feet as she did so.
“Thank you, my lady. I will leave you to your work.”
She meant to leave. But Cassia called her back before she had stepped too far away.
“Do not depart so hastily. Keep company with me whilst I am confined to my bed with swelling feet.”
The lady of the house looked rather becoming as she sat there, with the lovely sight of her round belly and her elevated feet. There was something about her that was so welcoming – so nurturing. It was easy to be drawn to her company. Still, Isabella hesitated.
“I have no wish to be a bother.”
“So you have said,” Cassia replied. “But I desire your presence. And while you stay with me, you will be of aid.”
Swayed by the kindness, and longing for companionship, Isabella returned to the bed and took a place next to Cassia, who handed her a pile of socks that required mending. Taking a needle and a spool of thread she was offered, she expressed her thanks as she began working.
“I am happy to be of service to you, my lady I can hardly begin to repay the debt I owe.”
Cassia smiled. “This is one way to begin, then.”
They worked quietly for a few moments. Then Cassia spoke up with a cheerful note to her voice.
“By and by, I have news that might please you.”
Isabella smiled and listened, even as she wondered what possible news could shine a happy light on her life. But Cassia’s words proved to be an incredible shock.
“My husband spoke to yours yesterday. He discreetly made an inquiry as to the welfare of your son.”
At the mention of her child, Isabella’s eyes grew wide with excitement. Her words rushed out. “How is he? Is he well? Has Gilbert harmed him in any way?”
Cassia’s reply was soothing and calm.
“Guy learned that your son is well. Sebastian remains in Calais and is continuing his schooling.”
Lowering her head and shoulders in relief, as tears came to her eyes, Isabella took Cassia’s hands in her own, kissing them gratefully.
“Oh, my lady! I cannot tell you what a burden you have just lifted from my shoulders.”
Cassia allowed the praise for a moment. But exchanging one grip for another, she gently squeezed Isabella’s hands.
“Come, let us be gloomy no longer. Let us talk of more pleasant things.”
For the first time in days, Isabella felt a genuine smile, and a real sense of hope. She sighed as she diligently worked on the sewing, a note of sadness in her tone, but not as heavy as before.
“I hardly know where to begin,” she said. “My life has been so dark of late.”
“Be happy, then, for this new beginning.”
She was happy for this second chance. But she was still quite aware of the mistakes she had made. How fortunate she had been to have a friend like Cassia Gisborne – and how unworthy she felt of such loyalty.
“Why are you so kind to me?” she asked, her voice soft with self-deprecation. “I am hardly deserving of it.”
Cassia spoke firmly. “You are imperfect, as we all are. But you are not beyond redemption.”
“If only the rest of the world thought so. There are many who would see me condemned for the rest of my days.”
It was Owen she thought of at that moment. And somehow, her thought seemed to speak to Cassia, who inquired with a curious expression.
“You speak of my son?”
Isabella shook her head, wondering how on earth Cassia had so easily read her thoughts, and she prepared to deny it. But Cassia just smiled.
“Do not fear. I am not offended. My son takes after his father, and he can be quite difficult at times. But under the most rigid surface, there is often a surprising tenderness to be found.”
Isabella felt a certain doubt about that statement. But as the morning went on, and they began a long an intimate conversation, Isabella learned much about Owen and the rest of the Gisborne family. Talking to Cassia was such a wonderful experience. How good it felt to have a real conversation with another woman – one who was not afraid to talk of all manner of things. At times, Isabella found herself smiling with amusement at the slightly bawdy things that Cassia had to say. And she found herself opening up about her own experiences, particularly those with Rene. It was so comforting to know that she could speak of such things and not be judged, and she felt that a part of her soul had started to heal, thanks to Lady Cassia’s tender counsel.
Just after the noon church bell struck, there was a knock on the door. A moment later, Thea and Evelyn appeared, each of them going to their mother and giving her a kiss on the cheek. Then, Thea turned to Isabella.
“Lady Isabella, join us for a stroll.”
A slight sense of trepidation came over her. She had felt so secure and happy in Cassia’s company. It made her hesitant to leave it – especially knowing that outside the main bedchamber, the cruel world still existed, along with its judgmental minds. She shook her head at Thea’s invitation.
“Thank you, but I think it will be wiser if I remain here.”
Thea shook her head stubbornly.
“Nonsense. We must insist that you come with us. The sun will benefit your body and soul.”
Isabella politely denied her again, answering in a meek tone. “I cannot be seen in my state. I will cause a great offense.”
Evelyn came forward, taking her by the hand.
“What offense will we find? And if you are timid because of your injuries, disguise them.” She took a scarf from her arm, giving it to her. “I have brought you this. With the linen shadowing your face, no one will take notice. And besides, who will be watching? It will be only the three of us together.”
As Isabella reluctantly took the offering, she looked with uncertainty at Cassia, who just smiled.
“Go, my lady. It will make me happy to know you are out and about.”
With a sigh, Isabella gave in. “If it pleases you, my lady, then I will go.”
Thea and Evelyn were quite pleased as Isabella joined them. As they went, she hoped that her pleasant experience with Lady Cassia would sustain her throughout the day – and serve to aid her in the event of hostile encounters that might be lying in wait.
Of all places to end up, Isabella had not expected to find herself in the family box on the training field, watching the soldiers and squires at work. Anxiously she sat there, hoping that Owen was too occupied with what he was doing to notice her. She could not help watching him as he aided Sir Lucien or drilled himself with his sword and shield. Looking at him, it was hard to imagine he had once been a tiny boy who had clung to his mother’s skirts. Cassia had told her that until his second and third years, he had followed her everywhere and always sought her attention more than any other. But soon after the age of four, his behavior had changed dramatically. Isabella had been entertained by stories of Owen and his often bad behavior.
But seeing him now, it was difficult to find such amusement. He was only seventeen years old, but he was very much an adult. With an adult’s thoughts and sensibilities.
And an adult’s physique.
She felt shameful for allowing herself to look at him in such a way. Such impetuosity had brought her only great trouble before. But how could she not notice him as he clashed with other men, hefting his sword and shield with ferocity. His skin was dark from the sun…his body lean, but solid with muscle. On the outside, at least, there was nothing left of a boy. He was a man. A soldier. A splendid sight.
And he was looking at her.
Suddenly seeing that his eyes were meeting hers, she turned her head away.
I cannot desire him, she reminded herself. I have nearly destroyed my life once. I cannot allow it to happen again.
Making her excuses to Lady Thea and Lady Evelyn, she left the box and made her way back to the manor. To avoid her own self-destructiveness, she would seek solitude. Unless Lady Cassia requested her presence, she would hide herself away and wait until word came from Toulon. It was cowardly, perhaps. But it was how it needed to be.