I love her.
Leaning back against her chamber door, closing her eyes, Isabella sighed. Why did he have to say such things? She wished she hadn’t heard the words that Owen had said to his brother. And yet, she had heard them. But why did she have to feel a response to them?
Slowly walking the floor of her room, she pressed her fingers to her lips as tension spiraled all through her. His words were unnerving to hear. Spoken to William, Owen’s passionate declarations had sounded so genuine and heartfelt, and though she had tried to turn away from the conversation, she had found herself riveted to her spot just outside the window. Hearing him declare his love again, this time confessing it to his brother, she felt the weakness within her – the vulnerable place in her heart – daring to believe it was real.
But how could it be?
Coming to stand at the window, staring out at the setting sun, she let her mind drift back to the few happy times that she had shared with him. It seemed so long ago. So long that it was difficult to remember just what they had spoken of. But she had not forgotten his gallantry. He had been so charming, and so kind, unlike the other guests who had left her with hardly a second thought. And when Gilbert had sent the sheriff to look for her, Owen had risked the safety of himself and his family to keep her from harm. In her heart, she wished to believe that he had done it for her - as a way to express his growing devotion. But then, that night, he had kissed her. A tumult of long suppressed and powerful feelings had swelled up inside of her, and heaven help her, she had wanted him. But a flash of memory had come to her, seizing her in a grip of fear. She had felt such an intensity of passion with Rene – and the remembrance of it was frightening. As well as shameful. She had allowed a man to draw her into a trap, and in the process she had ruined her life. Only now, here at the parish, was she starting to regain some sense of stability. If she let Owen sway her, and in the end he turned out to be as untrue as Rene, there would be nothing left for her. Her second chance would have been for naught, and what would become of her then?
And what if Owen truly loved her? In truth, did it really matter? She was no longer a woman who held value to a man in terms of marriage. Even if, by some miracle, he defied convention and intended to seek her hand, it would lead to his ruin. His reputation would be destroyed, and if they had children together, those children would never be accepted as legitimate heirs. Bastards, they would be called, even if they were born in wedlock. All because Owen Gisborne had fallen in love with a “fallen woman,” as William Gisborne had put it. And he was right. She was a fallen woman, and she could not allow a good man to destroy his life by continuing this foolish pursuit.
When she next encountered Owen, she would tell him plainly that he was a fool. Perhaps if she was forceful enough, it would strike at his pride and make him see the truth. It would be hurtful. At the thought of breaking his heart, she felt a powerful sting of remorse and self-loathing, but she knew she had to do it. It was the only way to save Owen from himself.
Early the next morning, Owen left for home. He had promised his mother that he would not be gone for more than a day or two on his visit, and he wanted to keep his word. Besides, his father had left him in charge, and though he had left the ladies under the supervision of a steward, he felt it best if he saw to their protection himself. Riding away from the parish, he sighed deeply. If only he could be traveling with Isabella at his side, he would be the happiest man on earth. But it seemed his attempt to win her was failing. If only there was a way to reach her.
He realized now that the bracelet had been too grand a gesture. William was right in saying so. But how could he have known that she would take it as a sign of some attempt to “buy” her? That had never been his intent in any way. When he had seen the bauble in the marketplace, his thought had been directed towards Isabella’s status as a lady. He had always seen her in such finery, and he thought she might enjoy a reminder of the precious things she once possessed. But thinking back on his offering to her, he now realized it was likely a reminder of what she had lost. And she had lost so much.
A sudden flash of inspiration hit his mind. Perhaps what was lost could be returned. He was, after all, a man of some influence and power, young though he was. Maybe the key to Isabella’s heart could be found not in material possessions, but in things more worthwhile.
Spurred to action by his thoughts, he urged his horse to greater speed. Once at home, he had plans to organize and things to negotiate. When all was said and done, Isabella would not be in doubt of his feelings for her. And perhaps, she would finally return those same feelings to him. She could not guard her heart forever. He loved her, and one day soon she would love him. It was inevitable. He was a Gisborne, after all. And when they wanted something, they went after it until they succeeded in the pursuit. Owen felt a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth.
My dear Isabella, he thought. You will love me some day. It is your destiny, and you will not escape it.
Several days passed, in which life at the parish seemed to return to a normal routine. At first, Isabella had expected to have another encounter with Owen, and she had prepared herself on just what she would say to him. But when he left early on that one morning, the chance to confront quickly and directly had slipped away. In the days that followed, there had been no visit from him, and no word or message. William did not mention him, and she sensed that he wished it to be that way. He did not say so in words, but Isabella felt that William Gisborne was more wary than before, and she could not blame him for his change of demeanor. Being a man of the church, he was bound to certain rules and values that he did not take lightly. To think he had a brother who was determined to defy such authority, it must have been terribly upsetting.
Sitting at the table on a late afternoon, Isabella took up a quill and dipped it in an inkwell. On the parchment before her, she began to compose a letter. Her fingers trembled slightly at first, but she willed herself to be calm. With what she was about to do, there was no way of knowing the outcome. But it might have been the only move she had left to play. Placing the pen to paper, she began to write.
My dearest Papa and Mama,
I feel as though a lifetime has transpired since I have written you, and longer still since I have beheld you. For too long, my life in France has separated us. But circumstances have now been altered, and I write to you in the hope that we may soon be together again. I am widowed…
Isabella paused at the writing of an untruth. God forgive me, she said to herself. But she could not bring herself to hurt and shame her family with the true matter of things. She had made the decision to write to them, and she prayed they would respond kindly. Gilbert had never permitted her to contact them. He had considered their marriage a financial negotiation, and after the deal was settled with the signing of the marriage contract, he no longer considered her family to be part of the bargain. She had no way of knowing if they were even alive to receive the message. But if they were, she intended to seek them out. Perhaps they would be the source of a new life entirely, one that even the church could not provide. If they welcomed her return, she would find a way to go back to them. And she would take Sebastian with her. Somehow, she would have her son back, even if she had to steal him away.
The thought of him gave her courage. He was safe and secure where he was at the moment, but that was not enough. He was her son. Her only child. And if she had to lie or steal to have him back, she would do it.
Taking a deep breath, she started to continue the letter. But the noise of an outside approach caught her ear. Setting the pen back in the inkwell, she rose to her feet and moved towards the window, looking to see who it was that came to call. She saw William approaching a gentleman on horseback. And that gentleman, who looked to be a messenger, had a second horse tied behind his own. Suddenly, Isabella recognized the animal, and she took in a gasp of surprise.
No, she thought. It cannot be.
Hurrying to the door, she opened it and looked out at the golden mare. She knew her own beloved horse. Stepping down from the front stoop, she spoke aloud in a stunned voice.
“That is my Elinor. I would know her anywhere.”
Isabella saw the mare’s ears perk at the sound of the name. She wanted so much to rush to her pet and greet it lovingly, but she waited. Looking to William, she wondered if he might send the gift away, for that was certainly what it was. A gift. And from whom, she was quite certain she knew. In her mind, she knew it would be best to turn the gesture away and pretend it had never been made. But this time, the temptation was too much to resist. She watched, nervously, as William spoke to the messenger and then sent him on his way. And when he came to her, handing her the reigns, she let out the breath she had been holding. She looked at William, expecting words of caution and admonition, even if they were softly spoken. But he said nothing. He turned away and went into the house, and as Isabella watched him go, she felt a shove against her back. With a smile, she turned to her horse, who clearly knew her mistress and sought her attention.
“My lovely one,” Isabella said softly. “I have missed you too.”
Standing in the barn, Isabella happily ran a brush over Elinor’s back. For several days now they had been reunited, but it felt like their separation had hardly been. It felt so wonderful to ride again, and with the one companion who had been her constant in days gone by. Wrapped up in her task, she did not see the figure approaching the doorway. She did not see him lean a shoulder against the frame, folding his arms as he watched her. It wasn’t until he spoke, startling her with the sound of his voice, that she looked up.
“You are pleased to have her back, I take it?”
Seeing him, Isabella felt a nervous tremble run up her spine. Standing there as he was, looking at her with those piercing eyes, she found it hard to answer calmly.
“Yes, I am.”
There was a heavy tension in the air. She knew that the moment had come. She had rehearsed the speech she would say to him, and she had hoped that when the time came, she would have the strength to say what needed to be said. But now that he was standing before her, she found that anxiety taking the words before she could make them. How could she not have feelings for him, when he might offer her all of things she so desperately wanted? Love, more than anything, was what she craved, and he seemed to be intent on giving her. And yet, he might lose everything in the process. She felt like she was being torn in two. A frown came to her lips, and she saw his dark response to it. She heard it in his voice.
“You are happy with my gift, and yet you are not pleased to see me.”
She sighed, and taking a deep breath, she prepared herself to strike the neccesarry blow.
“My lord, I thank you for returning Elinor to me. But you must know that…”
Her voice failed her. Closing her eyes, she turned her head away for a moment.
“I must know what?” he asked.
She felt a stinging in her eyes, and sadness reduced all of her many prepared words down to a small statement.
“It is better not to love me.”
Waiting for his response, she hoped he would turn and walk away. And yet she feared the thought of it. Waiting for his reply, she at last heard it, given in a stubborn and bold way.
“Forgive me, my lady. But I alone shall decide who I will and will not love.”
He did turn and walk away then, and as she watched him go, she leaned against the door frame, too stunned to speak.