Owen felt Evie’s eyes upon him. They stood in front of the house, waiting for the arrival of their father, Lucien, and Simon, who were expected back from court at any moment. While Thea and their mother spoke quietly, anticipating the return of their husbands, Evie seemed quite interested in her brother’s stern look.
“Owen,” she asked, “Is something amiss?”
For several days now, since his return from Toulon, he had often seen her looking at him with that expression of curiosity everyone knew so well. Until now, she had kept her questions to her herself, perhaps knowing his dislike for uninvited inquiries. He replied in a firm but gentle tone.
“Nothing to concern yourself with.”
From the corner of his eye, he saw the sly little upturn at the corner of her mouth.
“You seem tense. Perhaps your lady is the cause of it?”
He sighed. “My dear little sister, you are far too curious about my relationship. You have your own love, after all.”
At the mention of Simon, he saw the flush of color that came to Evie’s cheeks. Her smile grew. She cast her eyes down in a shy way, and it amused him to see her so obviously smitten. But his smile was brief. He thought of Isabella, and it troubled him to think that he might never see such a look of love on her face. But as quickly as that moment of sadness came upon him, a moment of determination overcame it. Recalling when he had last seen her, when he had watched her taking such joy in the return of her beloved horse, he thought of the happiness in her eyes and manner. The walls around her heart were not as strong as she wished them to be. With time and persistence, he would find a way to win her. He was certain of it.
The sound of a traveling party was heard at last. Owen saw the way his mother and sisters perked up in anticipation, their eyes searching the road.
One day, he thought, When I return from a journey to some far away place, Isabella will anticipate my return with such eagerness.
The carriage and horses turned into the drive, and while the ladies stepped forward in preparation for a greeting, Owen remained a few steps back, watching. It seemed that Simon and his fearsome white horse were not among the party, but Guy and Lucien were out in front, and when they descended from their mounts, they were quickly gathered in the loving arms of their spouses. His father, clearly not concerned with who was watching and what they thought, kissed his wife repeatedly and held her close. It was not so strange to see his mother and father expressing such love, but for the first time, Owen felt a strange kind of envy stinging at him. It was punctuated further by the sight of Lucien and Thea sweetly greeting one another, and sharing the happiness of their little family being together again. Lucien took his son in his hands and lifted him gently up in the air, looking up at him with a tender smile, and Owen turned his head away. He was happy for them, of course. But he could not help wondering if he would ever know such happy fulfillment. For a moment, he lost himself in his melancholy thoughts. But they were quickly broken when his father approached him. Owen checked his posture and steeled his expression.
“Papa,” he said. “Welcome home.”
Reaching out, Guy patted him on the back. “My son. I see the manor is still standing. From what your mother has told me, you have done very well in my absence. That pleases me greatly.”
Owen nodded, trying to smile a little as he replied. “Thank you, Papa.” Guy took a step away. But Owen stopped him. “Papa, might I speak to you in private?”
“A personal matter.”
Guy let out a weary sounding breath. His tone, as always, was pleasant but firm. “Unless it is a matter of grave importance, it must wait until after supper. I am weary from the road, and I have not seen your mother in four weeks.”
Nodding, Owen accepted the terms. What he wished to speak of made him slightly anxious and uncertain, so the delay would allow him a bit of time to prepare.
“I will wait, then. I merely wished to share certain thoughts that have been on my mind.”
Guy clasped him gently on the shoulder. “After supper, we will speak. You have my word.”
He stepped away to greet Evie and Thea, and Owen took in a deep breath, calming himself. Isabella was unaware of it, but he had something quite grand in mind for her. Something that would surely convince her of his true feelings. As everyone moved back into the house, there was a sudden commotion of sorts about Evie and Simon. It seemed that their wedding day was being moved up, although the reason was not immediately explained. That news, Guy explained, would come during supper. Whatever the reason, Owen was not particularly interested, although he was happy to see the look of stunned delight on his sister’s face. He had his own personal matters to attend to. Matters that would soon unfold…hopefully, in his favor.
In the bathing chamber, the servants departed to leave their master and mistress alone. As Guy sat in the bath, relaxing in the steaming water, Cassia sat on a stool just at the edge of the tub. With a wet rag in hand, she scrubbed his back, and he made a contented sound.
“I had almost forgotten the pleasure of a hot bath. And the joy of your hands on me.”
He expected to hear her respond in a warm way…the loving, tender way she always responded to him when she welcomed him home. But he heard sadness in her voice.
“I am certain that bathing and other pleasures were the least of your concerns. With talk of war occupying your time.”
Turning to look at her, he saw the way she frowned, and the sorrowful light in her eyes. Taking her hand, he tenderly kissed her fingers.
“Beloved, do not trouble your mind with such things. There is not yet a certainty of war.”
She shook her head. “I am not a fool, Guy. Kings desire war. It is their life’s ambition to conquer lands and reap the benefits of them. You are well aware that men wait with great impatience for a battle to begin. You yourself were once a man who desired such power and wealth.”
“But I am no longer that man. Do you think I am happy at the idea of leaving my family to champion the cause of the king? Or that I cherish the prospect of my son riding into battle? The thought of it terrifies me.”
“And yet we must prepare for such an event. And I must prepare for the prospect of losing both of you, as well as Lucien.”
When she looked away, he saw a tear slip from her eye, and it cut him to the quick. Taking her hands in his own, he applied a gentle pressure to them, trying through touch to offer her hope and strength.
“Cassia, please do not have such dreadful imaginings. It pains me to see you so distraught. Let us speak of happier things.”
“Such as?” she asked, sniffling. Reaching up, Guy brushed his finger across her cheek to remove the teardrop that had escaped.
“Our daughter’s wedding is a more pleasant subject. The thought of nuptial planning must certainly bring you happiness, as it does for all women.”
As he rose from the bath and took the towel from her hand, he saw a brighter expression coming to her face.
“That is a bright spot in much that is dark, tis’ true,” she replied. “Pray, why did Simon make the decision to move with haste? Is it the prospect of leaving for war that moves him to wed so soon?”
The corner of his mouth lifted. “As always, my love, you manage to strike the nail directly on the head.”
Her astuteness had always been one of her best qualities, and one that never ceased to amuse him. But the delight soon lessened. As he dressed, he could feel her eyes searching him, but he found it hard to disguise the slight sorrow in his voice.
“He is very much in love with Evelyn. And I feel certain he will be a good husband to her. As Lucien is to Thea.”
“And as you are to me,” she said. Her words were clearly meant to comfort and please him. But the grim line of his mouth remained as he made the last adjustments to his evening attire. It wasn’t until Cassia rose from her seat, coming to him and putting her arms around his waist, that he felt the heaviness of his heart lessening. Pressing her cheek against his shoulder, she tried to sound more cheerful than before.
“Do not be in despair over losing Evie. She will be happy, and that is what matters most of all.”
He sighed, feeling lighter of mood now that Cassia was in his arms. For weeks he had been away, and he was tired of dark thoughts and mournful feelings. He wanted to hear her laugh and see the wonderful light of joy in her eyes.
“In truth, I have given much thought on the matter of Evelyn’s marriage. And it occurred to me that a positive side might be found in all of this.”
When she lifted her head from his shoulder, looking up at him, he was delighted to see the smile he so cherished.
“Guy of Gisborne has a positive thought? I am curious to hear it.”
Now it was he who smiled. “Evie will go to her new home with her husband, and Thea will eventually return home with Lucien, where she belongs. With our daughters away, there will be a considerable lack of chaos in the house.”
“So, what of it?”
His grin became mischievous. “There will be more time for you and I.” Leaning gently into her, he kissed her lips as he heard her giggle.
“Have you forgotten, husband, that we will soon have another child on our hands?”
Reaching out to touch her belly, he replied with a shrug. “The babe will have its nurse to see to it, for a few years at least.” His eyes rose from her stomach to her face. His hands caressed her shoulders as he smiled. “In the meantime, you and I might share company as we used to.”
A little laugh bubbled up and out of her. Taking his arm, she walked with him to their bedchamber. “The days of newlywed madness are far behind us, Guy of Gisborne.” As she settled herself on the bed, he eagerly found his place beside her. There were a few hours yet before they were expected for supper, and being both relaxed from the bath and worn from his journey, he wanted to savor a rest and the closeness of his wife’s company. Gently adjusting his position beside her, he pressed his head to her shoulder, delighting in the feeling of her fingers caressing his hair as she talked softly…and with a hint of amusement in her words.
“We may injure ourselves if we act as we once did.”
A grin spread across his face at her meaning. They had been such wild and passionate lovers in their younger days, and he often recalled those times with great fondness. But now, he found no need to be so urgent in matters of love.
“We will take our time, then,” he said, with a sly note to his tone. “Because as I have learned during these many years, time slips away much too quickly. We must savor every moment.”
Her soft laughter thrilled him through. “You are as bad as ever, you heavy-headed brute.”
The amusement faded from his voice as he lifted his head, looking down at her.
“Heavy-headed?” he asked, feeling a slight sting of hurt at the thought that he might have caused her discomfort. She almost looked serious, but he could not be certain.
“Your thick skull can be a burden to my shoulder at times.”
It seemed she was not in jest, and he frowned. “For how long have you secreted this complaint?”
“I think from the very first night we slept with one another.”
“And you choose now to reveal it?”
“We have been wed for nearly twenty years. I thought it was time you knew the truth.”
For a moment, he was bewildered and rather upset that she had kept such a thing from him. But then, she smiled in a way that vanquished all ill feelings he might have had. It was her way of telling him something he did not want to hear, but with such softness and love that he could not remain angry for long. His frown faded away, his mouth curling into a loving smile as he leaned his head close, softly brushing her lips with his. Lying on his back, they shifted themselves so that her head now rested on his shoulder. He lovingly teased her.
“You are a cruel witch. As you have always been.”
“Yes,” she replied, caressing his shoulder with her cheek. “But you love me.”
He sighed, so content when they were close together. “I do. Very much. And I have missed you all these weeks. The company of men, particularly soldiers, is absolutely dreadful.”
From the sound of her amused response, he knew she was smiling.
“Each time you go to court, you never seem to find pleasure in being with your comrades.”
He snorted, thinking of all the rowdy noblemen crowding the court.
“What pleasure is there in other men? They are foul, loathsome creatures. Animals, most of them, content to spend their time brawling or whoring, or eating and drinking until they lose what little sense they possess. I am far too old for such foolishness.”
“So you prefer the company of your wife, then? What would the king say to that?”
“If he had a wife as divine as I have, he would understand.”
She made a soft little noise. A moment later, he could hear the rhythmic sound of her breathing, telling him she had fallen asleep. He had thought of speaking to her about Owen, continuing the brief conversation they had started before, but such talk could wait. Moments such as this, ones he had dreamed of and desired for weeks, were too precious to waste. Kissing the top of her head, he closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift away as he fell asleep.
Supper was a long and merry affair, with the subject of Evie’s nuptials the main topic of conversation. But Guy had not forgotten his promise to Owen, and though it was near midnight when the house finally quieted, he found his son waiting patiently for him in the solar. Owen was staring out the window when he came in, his expression marked with concentration. Hearing the enterance, he turned. Taking a place in his favorite chair, Guy looked at him.
“I am very proud of the manner in which you handled matters during my absence, Owen.”
Owen nodded, a slight smile on his face. “Thank you, Papa.”
“So then, what did you wish to speak to me about?”
Starting to walk slowly back and forth, folding his arms, Guy could see a familiar behavior in the motion, one he often used himself when both conversing and thinking. Owen even raised his eyebrow slightly, as he often did. He even used the same tone, his deep voice smooth as he spoke in a thoughtful manner.
“During your absence, I did much thinking in regards to Lady Isabella. I now admit that my treatment of her was not entirely just, and I would like to propose a way of making amends.”
Guy felt a realization coming over him. He could not be certain, but he saw before him a sight he had never thought to see. His son was in love. It was so obvious now, watching Owen’s manner and hearing the sound of his voice. He was in love with Lady Isabella. Guy felt a multitude of emotions welling up inside of him, but he maintained a cool facade as he replied.
“I am curious to hear of it.”
Owen stopped. Looking up, he met Guy’s gaze with his own.
“I propose we bring Isabella’s son here, to our home. I wish to make him a page.”