Her heart was broken. And it was all his fault.
Owen stood at the gate, looking back at Isabella. Everything that Evie had told him had been wrong. His gift had been rejected…his admission of love scorned. And worst of all, he had found he was the instrument of his own misery.
Isabella had overheard his cruel insult. She had taken it to heart, and the poison of his words had done their evil work. He wanted to go to her and tell her how horrendous he felt about what he had said. How, if he could only take it back, he would in a moment. But he could clearly see that any attempt to approach her, even with the best of intentions, would only push her further away. His only hope now was that she might find some small measure of forgiveness in her heart. Perhaps she would never love him now. But he would give anything to erase the pain he had caused her, and the guilt he now felt. It was overwhelming.
Forcing himself to step away from the gate, and from the sight of Isabella, still kneeling in tears, he turned…and came face to face with William.
“Owen,” he said, “What a pleasant surprise.”
Owen wanted to smile…to pretend that all was well. But what he felt was too much to contain any longer. Passing by William without answering, he meant to depart as quickly as possible. But just as he reached his horse, he paused at the sound of his brother’s voice.
“Where are you going?” William asked. “You have just arrived, have you not? And judging from the look on your face, something is certainly amiss. What are you about, Owen?”
For a moment, Owen thought to flee from the situation entirely. But if he ran, he knew he would not escape his torment for long. He had to confess what he felt…all of what he felt…to someone, before it consumed him entirely and drove him mad. But before he could utter a word, William clapped him on the shoulder.
“Come in the house, brother. You cannot rush off while you are in such a state as you are. You might run your horse into the ground or be thrown from it. How will I explain that to Mama and Papa?”
He allowed William to lead him inside, and without waiting to be told, Owen slumped into a chair in front of the hearth. He dropped his head into his hands, tugging at his hair.
“I am going mad, William. I am standing near the brink, and I swear that one more push and I will tumble down into the dark abyss.”
William took a seat, pulling it close. “Come now. It cannot be as bad as that.”
“It is as bad as that.”
“So what is it then? Could it be this woman you mentioned previously?”
Owen slumped back in his chair, his arms dropping to his sides. He sighed, staring up at the ceiling, and after a long moment of silence, William spoke in a quiet, serious tone.
“Tell me the truth, brother. Is Lady Isabella the one you love?”
How could he deny it? It must have seemed so obvious to someone like William, who had always been able to read people so well. Sitting up, but keeping his head turned away, he sighed.
“Yes, she is.”
He rose to his feet. There would be a lecture now. Of that, he was certain. William was soon to be a priest, after all. It was his duty to question everything that was a possible sin, and when such a flaw was discovered, it was his obligation to point it out and try to correct it.
“Owen,” he said, “Surely you must know the ramifications of that.”
Turning towards a nearby window, he folded his arms, letting out a heavy breath.
“Ramifications? You think I have not considered such things? I tell you, I have lost many nights struggling with this.” Turning back, he walked back and forth, running his hands through his hair. “I have been at war with myself since before I confessed to you that I was in love. When I discovered that Isabella had taken a lover, I tried to convince myself that I despised her. I wanted that to be the weapon of destruction that ruined my feelings for her.” But not even that could change what I feel. I am in love with her, William. So much so that it is driving me mad.”
“Does she know how you feel?”
Owen sighed. “Yes. In a moment of carelessness, I confessed it to her. But my timing could not have been more wrong.”
“How do you mean?”
“Before she came to you, she and I had a moment that went awry. I thought to make amends by offering her a gift. But she mistakingly assumed that I wished only to buy her favor. Now I fear that she will never have faith in my words."
“What gift did you give her, if I may ask?”
Taking a seat in the chair once again, Owen took the braclet from his vest, handing it to William, who looked at it with a shocked expression. Taking it in his hand, he examined it with a distasteful look.
“Good God, Owen. This is a gift to offer to an intended bride or a favorite mistress. It is not suitable as a peace offering.”
Owen’s expression grew angry. “Well how in hells hump am I to know such a thing? Evie said I should offer a gift, and a merchant suggested it!”
With a curious look, William asked, “Evie knows of your feelings for Isabella? Who else is aware of this?”
With the change of subject, Owen’s voice became calmer once again.
“Evie knows only that I am in love. She does not know to whom. There is no one else that knows. Except for Lucien, perhaps. I mentioned to him that I had troubles with a woman, but I did not elaborate.”
With a sigh, William returned the braclet to Owen. Then, with a shake of his head, he spoke quietly.
“You have dug a deep pit, brother. One that is in danger of collapsing on you.”
“Do not preach to me,” Owen replied. His look became grim. “I do not need a sermon.”
Despite the warning, William’s tone became serious…his words those of a priest.
“Isabella is an unfortunate woman. My heart goes out to her for her suffering, especially that wrought by her husband. But she willingly chose to lie with another man. Yes, she is doing penance for her sins, and I believe she is sincere in her regrets. But that does not change the fact that she is a fallen woman. And you cannot be with her.”
Leaning forward, Owen looked at his brother with a stern expression and a determined glint in his eye.
“I love her, William. That will not change. No matter what the world may think of her. No matter if they think me a fool and condemn me for what I feel. She is the woman I want, and I will not have another.”
“But you say she has no faith in you,” said William, growing as determined as his brother was to make his point. “She does not feel as you do. What use is there in loving a woman who does not return you feelings?”
Owen shook his head. “There must be a way into her heart. I must find the key to unlocking the door.”
“It is a foolish quest. One that may put your very soul at risk.”
Standing up again, resuming his walk across the floor, Owen felt the challenge of his brother’s warning. And it only made him more determined than ever to fight for what he wanted most. He turned to the fire, looking into the flames.
“Without love, a soul is useless,” he said. “I once thought it madness to believe such a thing, but I now understand what Papa feels for Mama, and what Lucien feels for Thea. My soul demands satisfaction. It demands Isabella.”
He heard William let out a sad-sounding breath. A moment later, he turned to see him standing close by.
“God be with you, then. I cannot stop you from what you will do. I can only pray that the path you choose is the right one.”
“It will be the right one,” Owen declared. “You will see.”