The house was quiet, as it had been all morning. The day being a Sunday, most of the servants were enjoying the day of rest, and with all of the soldiers and squires away at court, the activity level was minimal. Finding himself at a loss, for there was no one to spar with and no soldierly duties to perform, Owen was not quite sure what to do with his time. But his mind was quite occupied.
Walking along a raised footpath that skirted part of the manor, his ear was caught by the soft sounds of feminine happiness. Looking out across the yard, he saw them gathered together like a small flock of lovely and colorful birds. His mother was there, of course. Wearing an amethyst-hued gown, with her hair neatly bound and accented by a jeweled band, she had the regal appearance of a queen surrounded by her faithful subjects. He was glad to see her looking so happy. With her husband gone away to court to discuss rumors of war, she had every right to be unhappy. But like the strong-willed woman she was, she was soldiering on…and keeping up the spirits of those around her.
Thea and Evelyn were among her followers, along with their lady-maids. While Thea showered Gabriel with love and attention, Evelyn and the others conversed with Cassia as they plucked petals from various flowers. They were all smiling, all careless and joyful. Even Isabella.
It had been a long time since he had seen her expressing such delight. And it suited her so well. She was always a beauty, but when she was happy, it gave her an indescribable radiance. The way she touched her fingers to her lips…the way she lowered her head, indicating a sense of shyness. She always seemed so wary about conveying her joyful feelings.
He sighed, as a slight pain of remorse struck him.
Why should she not be wary? He thought. Think of what the world…and I…have done to her.
He had not abused her, as her husband had. He had not seduced and abandoned her, as Rene had. But he had sided with the world’s opinion of her. Just like the rest of an unforgiving society, molded by rules and values they would never dare to question, he had acted with cruel and hasty judgment towards her. And yet, with the help of his family’s love and understanding, she was rising above such adversity. He admired her for that…for her strength, her courage. Another sigh slowly escaped him as he turned away from the scene.
What a relentless master love was. Its hold had not ceased, despite his desperate attempts to be free of it. He had tried so hard to lose the deep feelings of his heart, telling himself that Isabella had become unworthy of his devotion.
But those feelings had simply gone dormant, momentarily faded by the anger he had felt. Now that the anger had dissipated, they sprang to life even stronger than before. His longing was deeper now, punctuated by the realization that Isabella was not the paragon he had imagined her to be…and he had been a fool to think of her as such. She was, as she had so boldly said to him, a human being with a heart and a soul. And she deserved a happy life, just as much as anyone else.
If only he could give her the love and devotion she craved. He wanted to, badly. But what hope was there now? They were hardly on civil terms. And considering the way she had confronted him last night, it was doubtful they would ever reconcile.
He needed to think. A good ride would most likely clear his head and give him some peace of mind. Perhaps he would even go to the village and see what activity was to be found there. Sunday was a day of rest, but also one of celebration.
Riding along the path to town, he was soon lost in thoughts of her. He could remember so well the moments they had once shared, even though it now seemed like ages ago. For a brief time, he had seen the clouds lift from around her. Of his own power, he had given her a respite from the sadness of her life, and she had responded as a bloom would respond to sunshine. In permitting himself to be good to her, he had seen the real woman behind the mask that society forced her to wear. How lovely she was – so sweet, so bright and clever, with a slightly bawdy sense of humor. And who would have ever guessed her to be of Spanish descent? There was a story to be told there, and perhaps not a happy one. Good heavens, it seemed as though her entire life was shadowed with misery. He sighed, thinking of how he had only added to the list of sorrows heaped upon her.
Before he could think further, his thoughts were broken by the sight of a white rouncey and rider coming down the path towards him. It was a familiar figure, an elderly gentleman named Llewellyn who was a merchant who lived nearby, and seeing Owen, he waved his hat, slowing down to talk.
“Good day, young baron. A lovely afternoon, is it not?”
Not in a particular mood for company, but knowing his place, Owen responded politely. “That it is.”
“Are you venturing to town?”
Owen nodded. “I am. My day presently lacks excitement.”
“You will find it in droves, then. It seems the Sheriff is searching for a certain wayward lady that escaped the confines of St. Victor’s abbey.”
“Why, the Baroness LaCroix, of course! Have you not heard the story?”
The smile quickly faded from Owen’s face. Feeling a sudden anxiety in his heart, he nonetheless managed to maintain a cool façade.
“I have heard talk of it. But I have no wish to engage in idle gossip.”
Llewellyn drew closer, speaking with a hint of excitement in his tone.
“Well, it is rumored that the baron heard of her escape and wants her found and arrested. The Sheriff is taking the search door to door. They are even searching carts on the road. It is rumored she had aide in her escape, and her accomplice may be trying to smuggle her out of town.”
Gripping the reins of his horse, Owen fought the urge to make a mad dash for home. That would certainly arouse great interest, which would lead to gossip, and possibly to much trouble. Maintaining his air of calm, he gave a seemingly quiet reply.
“An interesting story, it seems. I think, then, I shall avoid the village altogether and find occupation elsewhere. Such excitement is not the sort I crave. Good day to you.”
Without waiting to hear the response, he turned his horse in a different direction, one that would lead off the beaten path, but still take him home. And once out of sight of the main road, he gave his mount the heel, urging him to make swiftly for the manor. It was more than Isabella who would be in danger if she was discovered. The entire family would be at risk, and without the protection of his father and the other soldiers, he knew he was the only they had. He had to think and act quickly. Riding past the stables, he crossed the yard and came dangerously close to where the women were gathered. Startled by his sudden appearance, they all cried out in dismay and anger. But he silenced them with his words of warning.
“The sheriff will soon be here.”
The cries quickly turned to gasps. As they rose to their feet, Cassia was the first to speak.
“Why?” she asked. “For what reason?”
“They are looking for the baroness.”
Everyone looked at one another – then at Isabella. Cassia took Isabella by the hand, pulling her along.
“We must get her away from here at once,” she said. But Owen stopped them.
“You cannot go by road. They are searching carts and wagons.”
A wave of panic came over them, their faces a shared mask of fear and uncertainty. Assuming the mantle of a soldier in charge of his men, thinking quickly, he first looked to Evelyn.
“Evie, take her to the cottage. Wait there until I come and fetch you. Go!”
Without hesitation, Evie took Isabella by the hand and hurried away with her. The little cottage, his parents’ private lakeside retreat, would offer safety. There were so few who knew that it existed.
“I will go along,” said Thea, who started to follow. But Owen stopped her with a stern tone of voice.
“No, Thea. I need you here.”
As was her way, she gave him a dark and challenging look.
“I require your foul disposition to aide me.”
He was not all surprised when she argued with him, looking at him in her usual belligerent way.
“I am not of a foul disposition.”
His voice rose in anger. They had always fought and argued over petty matters and differences. But this was no brother and sister squabble, and he shocked her with the power of his command.
“I will not have a quarrel! Papa left you all in my charge and you will do as I say!”
For the first time in their lives, he saw a hint of fear in her eyes, and it made her compliant. But being Thea, she managed a tone of stubborn pride.
“Fine, then. What am I to do?”
They had not long to wait until the law was on their doorstep. Taking on a cool but defiant air, Owen stood in the open doorway as he met the Sheriff and his small band of men. When they gave their reason for coming, Owen gave them his darkest look…something he had learned well from his father.
“You offend my family’s honor with such accusations.”
Sheriff Laffitte was not an impressive man. Neither short nor tall, fat nor skinny, he had much that was mediocre about him. With a less than imposing physique and a slightly pointed and balding head, he did not have the appearance of authority. But his attitude, along with the stalwart men who followed him, gave him all the intimidation he required to do his duty. He looked at Owen and replied to him with as authoritative air.
“Forgive me, baron, but we have our orders.”
Taking a moment to appear indignant, taking in a slow breath through his nose and releasing it in a huff, he stepped back to let them pass.
“Fine, then. Have your search, but do not expect to find more than a nearly empty house being desecrated on the Sabbath.”
A few men went began their search on the main floor. Sheriff Laffitte and the others headed upstairs, and as Owen followed along behind them, he looked up at the gallery. Thea appeared, just as he had directed her to.
“Sheriff Laffitte? What brings you to our door?”
As they came to the top of the stairs, the Sheriff bowed to her. “Lady Theodora. We are here on a matter of business.”
“What business is that, my lord?”
Owen broke in to answer. “They are in search of Isabella LaCroix.”
“And they think to find her here?”
Sheriff Laffitte tried to explain himself, cooly but politely. “We must explore all possibilities, my lady.”
Owen watched as Thea put on her most indignant air. She looked at him, and then at the Sheriff again.
“I find such accusations shameful and appalling. We are an honorable family.”
Laffitte nodded. “You are indeed, my lady. But we must do as the law requires.”
As he moved on, sending his men to search, Thea and Owen followed along, with Thea expressing her outrage with every step.
“How dare you bring such offense upon our house! To assume that we associate with criminals? If my father were here, he would have you all chased off by hounds. And if I had my way, the hounds would eat your livers!”
With a cluck of his tongue, Owen pretended to scold her.
“Thea, let us not be grotesque.”
She gave a snort as she replied. “Of course not, brother. A simple matter of the dogs tearing away their flesh and drawing copious amounts of blood would suffice.”
Owen suppressed the slight smile that threatened to escape his lips. He had told Thea to do her best to be tempestuous, to aid in making the Sheriff and his men feel as unwelcome as possible. It was not a far reach for her, to be sure. But for the first time, he appreciated her unflinching ways.
From room to room, they searched and of course, found nothing. Thea ranted all the way, and when they neared Guy and Cassia’s bedchamber, Thea opened the door willingly.
“Search, if you must. Upset and disturb my poor mother who is nearly nine months with child.”
By this point, Leffitte seemed quite troubled, even as he slowly entered the chamber to continue his search. In the solar, sitting in a chair, was Cassia. Looking up, she politely acknowledged the guest before her.
“My lord Sheriff? What a surprise to see you here.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but Thea boldly interrupted. “He thinks we are harboring criminals, Mama. Owen and I have told him there are none, and that he is offending us with his outrageous claims, but he seems not to care whom he offends.”
As Owen watched the scene unfold, he noticed the expression on the sheriff’s face. Clearly, he was uncomfortable with what he was doing, and Thea’s intimidation tactics were having the desired effect. And he went from looking troubled to quite horrified when Cassia suddenly doubled over. Owen and Thea both hurried to her side, and Thea put an arm around her shoulders.
“Mama, what is it?” she asked.
Cassia gasped. “A sudden pain. It may be the baby.”
Rising up, Thea took a step towards Leffitte, her eyes blazing.
“My God, do you see what you have done?”
Owen reached out to grasp her by the shoulders, pulling her back. “Thea, you tend to Mama. I will have words with our honorable man of the law.”
Walking from the room, with Leffitte following at what seemed to be a hurried pace, he turned to him as he closed the door. Leffitte was all apologies.
“Forgive me, baron. We were merely doing our duty.”
“Well you have done your duty,” Owen said with a sneer. “You have searched our house, turning it upside down, and have found nothing. Now do something honorable this day and get out.”
With a nervous nod, he answered. “Farewell, baron.”
Owen watched him go, waiting until a proper amount of time had passed. Then, he returned to the room, where Thea was holding Cassia’s hand. He came to her, knowing that his mother’s pain had been an act, but concerned for her all the same.
“Are you all right, Mama?”
She nodded. “I am, Owen. And you were quite impressive and commanding. You reminded me very much of your father.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
Thea came to his side, looking at him with a slight smile. A rare thing to share between them.
“Yes, brother, I must agree. You were quite the master of the house.”
He returned her pleased expression. “And you were quite the spitfire, sister. For once it was not a determent.”
“I must ask you, Owen. Why the sudden desire to help Isabella?”
That is not for you to know, he thought. No one could know of his feelings for Isabella…not when he was just grasping the reality of them for himself. He searched his mind for a swift response.
“I will be a knight one day. It is my duty to aid those in need.”
Now, it was Cassia who seemed curious. She looked at him with large, questioning eyes.
“Suddenly you find kindness in your heart for Isabella?”
Taking in a deep breath, he replied…
“We all have our off days, Mama. Now if you will pardon me, I must go and fetch Evelyn and Isabella.”
Before they could question him further, he left the room. It was much too soon for questions of any sort regarding he and Isabella. Especially considering he had so many questions of his own that needed answers.
Owen purposely avoided supper that evening. When his mother questioned the reasons for his avoidance, he stated that he had much on his mind and wished to be alone. She complied with his wishes, but had a meal brought to him…which he hardly touched. He just wasn’t hungry. Instead, he spent the evening sitting in front of a low fire, sipping a goblet of wine, and doing as he had told his mother he was. Thinking.
Now that a search had begun for Isabella, she would need to be hastened away to Toulon as soon as possible. Word had still not come from William, but the fact of the matter was that she was no longer safe here. In a day, perhaps two, she would be gone.
The thought of it pained him. Just as he was realizing what a chance he had nearly lost to know the woman he loved, she was being separated from him. He wished with all of being that he had more time.
“Good evening, baron.”
The sudden interruption of his thoughts startled him. Turning his head, he saw Isabella standing in his doorway. His heart did several wild leaps in his chest. But somehow, he managed a calm response.
“Lady Isabella. Good evening.”
It was a long moment before either of them said anything. It was she who broke the brief silence.
“I thank you for today. For what you did.”
How soft and sweet her voice was. So different from the night before, when she had railed against him and all of manhood. He wanted to invite her in, to ask her to sit and share his company. He wanted her to be near him. But he hesitated, and answered her in a quiet tone.
“Consider our debts settled by it.”
A second silence fell. He waited for her to say something. Turning his head, he saw that she was walking away. And he could not help himself. He rose to his feet, calling out to her.
She paused just outside the doorway. But she remained turned away from him, showing only her profile. Turn, he thought. Look at me. Taking several steps forward, he paused in the center of the room. He spoke gently, almost pleadingly.
“We were nearly friends at one point. Must we continue now to see one another as enemies?”
At last, she slowly turned. There was something about her at that moment. Something that took his breath away. Perhaps it was the way she looked at him. Her expression was tender, free of the darkness with which he had seen yesterday. This was the Isabella he remembered. The one who looked at him with a soft light in her eyes…and warmth in her tone.
“I do not wish it so.”
Come to me, he wanted to say. But still he restrained his growing passions.
“Perhaps we should do as friends do. Let us shake hands to seal the bargain.”
Extending his hand, he silently begged for hers. At last, she slowly reached out. When their fingers touched, he felt a pulse of incredible heat that traveled up his arm. Clasping her hand in his, he marveled at the delicate softness of her skin…even as he felt her gently attempting to pull her hand away. Her voice was a whispered protest.
“I should go.”
“Why should you go?”
Slowly, her eyes lifted to meet his. Captured by her gaze, drawn to her with an attraction he could no longer deny, he reached for her. Desire claimed his senses, allowing thoughts for only the feeling of her soft, warm body against his and the honeyed taste of her kiss. He could feel her response growing -the change from tension to ease, as her form molded to his for a few long and glorious moments. But suddenly her form became rigid. He felt her pushing at him, trying to fight, but he held fast to her, hoping she would not end this sweet torment. But in a moment she ripped herself away, and his entire being cried out in protest. His mind rushed to catch itself from the dizzying heights to which it had ascended. As he stood there, his heart racing – his breathing rapid, he stared at her with his feelings in his eyes and written boldly on his face. Looking at her, he saw the longing in her eyes. And the shame. She turned and fled, rushing down the hall. And driven by impulse, he dashed after her.
“Isabella!” he called. “Wait!”
He hoped to catch her before she escaped. But she was too swift of foot. Before he could reach her in time, she had sheletered herself behind her locked chamber door. Lifting his hand, he was a moment away from knocking…but something held him back.
Knocking would do nothing. She would not answer it. And even if she did, what then? Did he expect that she would open the door and invite him in? Did he think he would find his way into her bed? Leaning his head against the door, closing his eyes, he sighed in dismay. Had he just ruined what little progress they had made? God in heaven, he prayed he had not. But he could no longer deny it. He wanted her more than anything. He vowed to himself that somehow, he would have her. But not like this. Not through his own impulsive and destructive behavior. There was a better way. There had to be.
Walking away, he thought of what the dawn might bring. They had to face one another sooner or later, and he would sit her down and talk to her, calmly. She was afraid of her feelings. But they were feelings she could not deny. He had felt the need in her – the desire she had for him. One way or another, they would settle this matter between them. It was how it had to be.