Sitting on the edge of his bed, Owen held his foot out so Marcel could assist him with his boot. The old gentleman was dedicated to his duty, but at times, his age slowed his work down. Owen kept his silence on the matter, even when there were times like now when he wished for a valet with a faster approach. The night had found him restless, and now that morning had come, he was impatient to be gone from his chamber.
I will see her at prayer, he thought. I will go to her afterwards, and we shall have words.
He tried to think of what he would say to her. He had, in fact, been thinking of nothing but Isabella since the night before. Good God, that kiss. It was imprinted in his mind now, like a fiery brand, and the heat of it had barely cooled. During the night, his imagination had conjured up smoldering thoughts of what might have been. If she hadn’t pushed him away, how far would they have allowed their passions to go? Just the thought of it made his senses wild with excitement.
But the fact remained that she had pushed him away. She had fled from his presence, and now, it was likely she would try to avoid him. Perhaps she would avoid prayers altogether. The thought of it set his expression into a mask of determination.
If that is her plan, he thought, She does not know me. I am not deterred by such a tactic.
He would simply go and find her, and if she thought to hide behind a locked door, she was sorely underestimating him. She would have to come out at some point, and when she did, he would be there.
At last, Marcel was done, and Owen hurried from the room, pausing for just a few moments to check his appearance in the looking glass. If he was going to pursue a woman, he needed every advantage at his disposal. Seeing himself, he grimaced at his own features. No wonder she had desired escape. His eyes alone, bright blue-grey and so penetrating in their gaze, were enough to intimidate anyone. But nature had made him this way, and he could not change it. Isabella would simply have to adjust to his fierce appearance.
As he neared the chapel, he slowed his pace, adjusting his tunic as he quietly went in. He saw that his mother was there already. Taking the place beside her, usually reserved for his father, he knelt and folded his hands. He greeted her quietly.
“Good morrow, Mama.”
“Good morrow, Owen.”
He waited several long moments before speaking further. It would not do to speak with haste and cause suspicion. When he felt the moment was right, he made a cool and calm inquiry.
“I trust that Lady Isabella has recovered from yesterday’s incident?”
Cassia replied softly. “It appears so. She will be more at ease now that she has departed.”
Departed. The announcement, though softly spoken, felt like a hard punch. He tried to respond with calmness, though it was barely disguised.
“She has gone to Toulon?”
“Yes. Before dawn. She and I agreed it was best that for her safety and ours, she should make an immediate departure. Afternoon will find her in secure company with William.”
Isabella was gone. She had run away, rather than staying to face him.
How very cowardly! He thought. A fast rising sense of agitation gripped him. It threatened to take control of him, nearly causing him to fly into a scene of foolish passion. He felt a terrible urge to break something. If he’d had his sword at hand, he would have taken his displeasure out on some hapless piece of furniture. God almighty, was there no end to the forces conspiring against him?
But he could not go wild at that moment. Not in the presence of his mother, and certainly not in the chapel, with God and everyone else’s eyes watching and judging his every action. Somehow, he managed to maintain his air of calmness and dignity during the ritual of prayer. But once it was done, and he was safely out of sight and out of earshot, he released a sigh of frustration. Pinching the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on, he muttered to himself.
“God help me. I am a fool.”
“Why are you a fool, brother?”
He started at the sound of Evelyn’s voice. Turning, he gave her a brief glance of acknowledgment before answering.
“I cannot talk of it.”
As he walked to an open window, where he leaned on the casement and looked out, Evelyn followed. She asked, with a familiar air of curiosity…
“Pray, why not?”
An irritated sigh escaped him. “It is a personal matter.”
He was not at all surprised when she pressed him for further information.
“You have been quite troubled of late. Are you certain there is nothing you wish to speak of?”
“Nothing,” he said, his answer abrupt. Turning away, he walked down the hall and out a side door leading to the center courtyard. As he sat down in a shadowed alcove, Evelyn soon followed, sitting beside him.
“Owen, forgive me for asking. But…”
“But what?” he snapped.
She looked at him with those gentle blue eyes of hers, so full of both curiosity and caring. And bright little thing that she was, she uncovered his secret with just one question.
“Is a woman the source of your turmoil?”
For a moment, he was angered by her inquisitive nature, which had led to her insight, and he tried to deny her assertion.
“You assume too much, Evie.”
It was useless, he knew. Like their mother, Evelyn did not give up when she was curious about something, and if she felt it concerned the welfare of a family member or friend, there was nothing that would throw her off of the trail. A little smile formed on her lips as she shook her head.
“Owen, do not be coy with me. I can see the answer written in your countenance. You can speak to me of it, if you wish. You know well enough that I am not one to break a confidence.”
He gave no immediate reply – trying, for the sake of his pride, to hold back the revelation of his feelings. But he knew she would not give up. And he could no longer keep his troubles to himself. He rubbed his palms against his knees in a gesture of frustration.
“Love is a torment,” he said. “It tears the soul to pieces.”
A quiet moment later, when Evie replied, he was surprised to hear her give a soft little sigh with her words.
“Love can also lift the soul to wondrous heights.”
He looked at her. Seeing the soft, glowing expression of happiness on her face, he couldn’t help but respond with a slight hint of amusement.
“You speak of Simon?”
Her warm smile and dazzled eyes were her answer. “He is so wonderful, brother. I feel most fortunate to have him for my own.”
To that, he turned his head away, and the smile faded from his lips. Evelyn seemed to sense his gloom. She turned to him, becoming more serious.
“Forgive me. I speak of myself, but you are the subject of interest. Tell me of your lady.”
Sitting up straight, he once again took on a defensive posture.
“If you seek her name, I will not give it. She does not wish it to be known.”
“Very well, then. But tell me something of her. To see you in such a way, I think she must be someone of great worth. Or at least, great allure?”
Evelyn’s curious eyes and gentle questioning were not going to cease. And he felt his defenses crumbling, until at last he conceded to defeat.
“If you insist on hearing me, then we must not speak here. There are too many ears to hear us.”
Her eyes lit up. “Where, then?”
He rose to his feet. “Let us go hawking. We will not be suspected of intrigue if we are occupied in sport.”
“Very well,” she replied. “Matilda would love to stretch her wings, I am certain.”
As she followed him across the courtyard, he was quite sure that she was in anticipation of more than exercising her beloved pet merlin. As their birds were prepared for the hunt, he turned to Evie with a slightly dark look on his face.
“If I confide in you, you must swear to keep my words to yourself. If you betray me, you will never again share my confidence.”
They mounted their horses, and as the caretaker handed them their falcons, Owen felt Evelyn’s harsh stare. Her tone was indignant.
“Owen, I have always kept your secrets. I will not betray your trust now. Do you require a blood oath to prove it?”
He sighed, his tone softening. “No. Forgive me, Evie. I know you are not devious.”
“So, then,” she replied, “Tell me of your lady love.”
He hesitated for a short while, as they rode out to the fields and released their hawks. As they followed the birds, Owen was aware that Evie was waiting to hear his tale, but in her patient way, she did not press him for it. She waited patiently, saying nothing, until at last he began.
“She is a lady of Spain.”
Evie became alert in an instant. Her grin was one of delight.
“A Spaniard? How intriguing!”
From the moment Evie had expressed an interest, it had occurred to Owen that he would have to be careful about revealing certain details to her. She was trustworthy, yes. But what if she were to reveal his secret by accident? It was better that she not know everything specifically.
“I have only come to know her recently,” he said. A sigh fell from his lips as he thought of Isabella. His tone grew soft. “But I feel as though I have loved her for so very long.”
A quiet moment passed, in which he expected to hear her give a response. But she said nothing. He looked at her, and was troubled by the expression on her face…one of absolute delight, punctuated by a very womanly smile.
“What?” he quietly demanded, to which she replied with a shrug.
“It is wonderful to see this side of you.”
Embarrassed, he scoffed at her declaration. “My God, do not tease me. I cannot bear it. I have only just come to terms with my own pathetic weakness over a woman.”
“It is not weakness to love.”
He sighed, a despondent sound. “It hardly matters, either way. I have angered her, and now I fear I have ruined my chances.”
“So then, that is the true source of your distress. Can you not make amends?”
Thinking of the look on Isabella’s face after he had kissed her, he felt his despondency deepening. He had embarrassed her, and as little as he knew about women, he knew enough to know that a lady’s pride was a fragile thing.
“If I offer my apologies,” he said, “She will not hear them. She is a willful creature.”
Evie, ever determined, suggested a solution.
“Perhaps you can offer her a gift to make things right.”
The thought of making an offering as such had not occurred to him, and his mind instantly clung to the idea, taking it in.
“A gift?” he replied.
“Yes, of course. Women are often pleased by tokens of love. I cannot speak for your lady in particular, but I would be very moved by such a gesture.”
A gift, he thought. He wondered why he had not thought of it himself. It seemed like such an obvious solution. But what did one give a lady as a gift? He felt like such a fool for not knowing, after spending all of his life with a mother and two sisters. But his mind was blank on the subject. He turned to Evie, who seemed to read his very thoughts as she spoke before he could.
“If I were a lady with a gentleman seeking my favor, I would find pleasure in flowers. But not all ladies find delight in simple pleasures. Some prefer more valuable things, such as jewelry.”
“And such offerings beget positive results?”
She both nodded…and shrugged. “In most circumstances. It depends on the severity of the wounds inflicted on her heart.”
A slight feeling of disappointment came over him. After a moment, he could feel Evie’s eyes on him, searching his face.
“Have you told her how you feel for her?”
His mind flashed instantly to the moments in his chamber. How it felt to hold her soft, warm hand in his. The way she had looked into his eyes. He had seen something in her gaze – something that told him she desired him, even if she was afraid to admit it. But in his state of desire, he had moved too hastily.
“I have not told her in so many words,” he said.
“You should tell her, then,” said Evie, who seemed to be growing excited with every passing moment. “For a woman, there is no greater gift than the knowledge that she is loved.”
“But what if she does not reciprocate my feelings? What then? Am I to suffer this torment for all eternity?”
“I do not know what to tell you of that. Although, time if often a great healer. Perhaps before you come to her bearing gifts, you should allow her time to calm herself. That may be wise, I think.”
His mouth turned up in a slight smile. Like their mother, Evie had a gift for lifting spirits and giving sage advice. He was certainly feeling a greater sense of hope now, and he let out a slow but steady breath.
“You have given me much to think of, dear sister. Now, I suppose, I must be off in search of a gift.”