Isabella sat on the edge of her bed, smiling as she combed out her damp hair. As she worked out the tangles in her thick locks, she felt the mattress moving up and down behind her. Sebastian was leaping with delight, holding a wooden sword in his hand. Gilbert had always insisted on strict discipline and proper behavior, allowing no nonsense in his household. But as she watched her son at play, she found great joy in seeing him in so free a mood. He seemed to understand that here, under the watchful eyes of his mother and the kindly Gisborne men, he was allowed to be the boy that he was, and not the perfectly trained machine that his father wished him to be.
After the wonderful calamity at the tug-of-war pit, William had escorted her home. Owen had remained behind with Sebastian to allow him more time to enjoy himself, despite his filthy state. That was perfectly acceptable for a young man, and he had obviously had a grand time. Upon returning home, he had gone on and on about seeing wrestling matches, tournies, and a firewalker, among other things. She turned her head to look at him, smiling.
"Étais aujourd'hui un joyeux jour pour toi, mon amour?" she asked him.
“Was today a joyful day for you, my love?”
He answered mid-bounce, and with great enthusiasm. “Oui, Maman ! Puissions-nous avoir un autre bientôt?"
“Yes, Mama! May we have another one soon?”
She was so happy to see him this way. And yet, she was still his mother. Her kind response was tempered with motherly wisdom.
"Il n’est pas sûr, mon fils. Tu à des leçons, tu te rappelles? Tu les reprendrais très bientôt, j'en suis certain. "
“It is doubtful, my son. You have lessons, remember? You will resume them very soon, I am certain.”
As she put her comb aside, Sebastian came running up to her, placing his arms around her neck. And he uttered a question that surprised her.
“J'aime Seigneur Gisborne. Ne vous l'aimez, Mère? "
“I like Lord Gisborne. Do you like him, Mama?”
Despite the shock of the sudden question, she maintained a calm façade, answering him with a kind but very maternal sort of air.
“C'est une question trop intrépide. Et je pense qu'il est temps pour toi d'être au lit. Viens maintenant. Laisse-moi t’entendre réciter tes prières. "
“That is too bold a question. And I think it is time for you to be abed. Come now. Let me hear you recite your prayers.”
Without fuss or complaint, he did as he was told, going to the side of the bed and kneeling down. He closed his eyes and crossed himself. Folding his hands, he spoke softly and sincerely.
Anges bénissent et les anges garder,
Anges gardien moi alors je dors.
Bénis mon cœur et de bénir ma maison,
Bénis mon esprit comme je parcours.
Guide et protège-moi toute la nuit,
et me réveiller avec la lumière du matin.
Angels bless and angels keep,
Angels guard me whilst I sleep.
Bless my heart and bless my home,
Bless my spirit as I roam.
Guide and guard me through the night,
and wake me with the morning light.
She smiled as she watched him climb into bed, and once he was settled, she bent down and kissed his forehead.
"Bonne nuit, mon fils," she said. "Dors bien."
“Good night, my son. Sleep well.”
He smiled up at her, his eyes closing as the excitement of the day took its toll on him. His voice was sleepy.
"Bonne nuit, Mère."
“Good night, mother.”
She kissed him again, this time on the cheek. She left his side, and after blowing out the tallow candle, she stepped quietly from the room. As she closed the door, she saw William making a quiet approach.
“Does he sleep?” he asked.
She nodded, smiling. “He does. It has been a most pleasant day for him. I am so thankful for that.”
They moved down the hall, speaking in quiet tones.
“The gratitude must be given to my brother,” he said. “Twas his notion that you and your son should enjoy a day of leisure.”
A sigh escaped him. The sound of it was slightly troubling, but she let him speak before commenting. His words were almost ominous.
“There will be few chances for happiness in the long days ahead.”
Isabella’s voice grew concerned.
“Why?” she asked, and William replied with a look of surprise in his expression
“War, my lady. Have you not heard?”
“No, I have not.”
“We have only to await the call to arms. When his majesty beckons, all able-bodied men must go to serve the crown. It is a matter not of if, but of when.”
Nervous words fell from her lips, too quick to be held back.
“Owen will go?”
After a pause, William nodded.
“As he must. It is his duty. Just as it is my duty, being a member of the church, to follow when the time comes.”
“You will go to war?” she asked.
He nodded again. “I will. To act as God’s messenger. To bring solace to the wounded and the dying.”
A look of distress crossed her features. She could not help nor hide her worries. To think of the two brothers, especially Owen, going to war, and the prospect of the nightmare they would be facing. It was terrifying.
“You fear for my brother?” William asked.
For a moment, she attempted to deny what she felt. But it was quite clear he knew her feelings already.
“You love him?”
He was looking at her in such a fatherly way. She knew what words word come. He would be kind, and yet he would be prepared to speak with words of discipline. She saved him the trouble. Looking him in the eye, even as she felt the sting of sadness burning her eyes, she gave an honest but calm and collected reply.
“My feelings for him have deepened. More than I could have ever imagined. But fear not, my lord. I am quite aware of the consequences that come of foolish passion.”
He seemed to be slightly rattled by her statement. She could see in his eyes the conflict that came with his words. He wanted so much to be understanding and kind, and yet he was true to his faith and his duty as a man of God. That duty was not an easy one, and he was clearly torn.
“Lady Isabella, you must know this. I have no ill will towards you…”
She could not hate him for his thoughts and feelings. Her voice was gentle as she answered him.
“You needn’t fear me, my lord. I will not bring shame upon your family.”
Without waiting for a reply, she turned in the opposite direction, making her way towards the kitchen. After lighting a candle, she sat down at the table, losing herself in thought.
For a few moments, she felt overwhelmed with sadness. Such good things had recently blessed her life, and yet, the thought was tempered by the knowledge that her joy was only allowed in small measures. She now had a comfortable home, and yet it was not her own. Sebastian had been returned to her, but he would soon leave again, although she was comforted by the thought that he would not be so far away. But most conflicting of all were her feelings for Owen.
Despite knowing the impossibility of it, she allowed herself to imagine how it would be to live a life with him. So many times, she had thought of the Gisbornes and envied their contented existence, wishing she could know such joy. Now, she had an inkling of what it might truly be like. Owen would not be a perfect husband. Like his father, he could be tempestuous at times. But in his heart, he was loving, kind, and generous. And it was a superficial thought, she knew, but how wonderful would it be to have a husband so handsome? The thought of it brought a smile to her lips.
“You smile, my lady. What a pleasant change from days gone by.”
She jumped, startled by the sudden sound of Owen’s voice. Her heart increased its beats, an effect generated by the brief fright…and the thought of being alone with Owen. She attempted to collect herself and to respond calmly.
“Of late, I have found many reasons to smile. I must give thanks to you for that.”
She had the brief hope that they would carry on a polite and blasé conversation, one that would distract her from the tension she was already feeling in his presence. But in a gesture that seemed too rushed for her liking, even though his movement were not hurried in any way, he came to sit beside her. His words were tenderly spoken, his eyes warm with love.
“I wish for your happiness, Isabella. And I would give anything if you would make mine.”
Lowering her eyes, she shook her head.
Before she could say more, she felt the warmth of his hand covering hers. The sensation of it stole her words, and he spoke with growing fervor.
“You fear love, because you have never known it. You fear the dominance of men, because you have been so cruelly used by them. But I swear to you, if you allow me the chance, I will be everything you desire. I will make you happy.”
It was difficult to remember herself when such powerful expressions were being made to her. For a moment, she yielded to it, replying with a soft response.
“What potion have you taken, Owen Gisborne? All of the right words seem to fall from your lips with such ease.”
Even though her eyes remained lowered, she could tell that he was smiling. It was evident in his tone.
“Perhaps I have suddenly been blessed with my mother’s gift of speech. It seems she always knows just what to say and do.”
Lifting her eyes at the mention of Lady Cassia, she smiled.
“Your mother is a very great lady.”
Pride was in his eyes as he agreed. “That she is. And I know that she would be quite surprised to hear me speak with such feeling as I do now.”
His eyes held hers. A moment passed, and she saw how his features took on an aspect that she would have thought fierce, were it not for the depth of longing she saw in his eyes. There was such passion in his voice.
“I love you, Isabella.”
Pulling her hand away, she attempted to maintain a rational distance between them. But she found her hand quickly reclaimed. His holding to her in that way, so firmly, brought a warm feeling over her entire being, and she felt something profound giving way within her. All that she felt, and all that she had repressed for so long, came together in a rush of soft words.
“If only I had the luxury of deciding my life, I would accept you in a moment.”
She had not meant to openly express such feelings. But the deed was done, and there was no taking it back. She saw Owen’s response to it – the eagerness in his eyes and features. He clasped her hands, drawing her close.
“Would you?” he asked. “Truly?”
A brief moment of sense remained in her. She tried to grasp at it, knowing the firestorm they were quickly generating. It was a weak gesture, but she tried to pull back from his hold, which seemed to be growing more fervent by the moment.
“I cannot think of myself.”
His words were strong. “Why can you not? You deserve a peaceful, contented life, free of fear. I could give you that, and so much more.”
If only I could fully accept him, she thought. Oh, how loved I would be!
But thoughts of Sebastian were secure in her mind. She had nearly lost him once, all because of her own weakness. It was the one fragment of reason she could cling to, and she held to it tightly. Somehow, she managed to loosen Owen’s hold, slipping away from him even as he followed closely after. With her eyes cast down, she came to stand before the window. A sad note punctuated her words.
“What good is there in dreaming of such things? I cannot be your wife. And even if by some miracle it became possible, how long would it be until you were lost to the chaos and violence of war?”
The thought of his loss in battle was growing foremost in her mind, more so than other thoughts - of not being permitted to love him because of societal scorn. But it seemed he was deaf and blind to all realties, except that of his desire for her. In a moment he was standing just behind her. Placing firm, gentle hands on her shoulders, he whispered soft and tenderly, his lips near her ear. His touch – his nearness, were intoxicating enough. But his words only heightened the sensations he was stirring within her.
“And what if I was not? What if I had a profound purpose that drove my survival? If you were mine, there would be nothing to keep me from returning to you.”
She could not help herself. Turning to him, surrendering to her need for just a moment, she welcomed the slow but intense sensation of his arms gathering her to him. Her eyes closed, and she felt the soft warmth of his lips pressing to hers. Long moments of feeling, rich with passion, passed between them. The intensity was too much. He knew just how to touch her, his fingertips brushing her skin with just the right firmness, stimulating wild sensations that set her head to spinning.
Oh God, she silently gasped. If only he belonged to me. If only he were my husband…
The temptation was overwhelming, the desire a burning torture that she longed to satisfy, so very badly. But clinging to a thin thread of control, she broke the kiss. It was painful to lose the sensation, and Owen made a sound of distress that was nearly her undoing. She wanted so much to indulge in the fierce heat of the moment. But to keep herself from it, she pressed her cheek against Owen’s shoulder, closing her eyes as she struggled to catch her breath. His hold on her was fierce, but she welcomed it. His words were rushed, his breathing as wild as hers as he spoke.
“If only you were mine to have…”
Taking in a steady breath, she tried to calm her pounding heart.
“In another life, Owen Gisborne, I would be yours without hesitation.”
“You will be mine, Isabella. One way or another.”
His masculine arrogance was overwhelming. And she no longer had the defenses to fight it. She sighed, defeated. But for the first time, happily so.
“It seems you are determined to love me, no matter the consequences.”
There was amusement in his tone. “Love always finds a way. It is more determined than you, stubborn thing that you are. And it is certainly more determined than a Gisborne.”
There was such a gentle, loving feeling flowing between them. She could not recall ever feeling so alive and content, and she replied with a wit she had rarely been able to express.
“A Gisborne. A most formidable opponent.”
A soft chuckle escaped him. She looked up, seeing the wondrous light of love in his eyes, in every line of his expression. They shared another kiss, this one more sweet and tender than before. But in the cloudiness of her mind, she was still aware of the need for reason. Despite the whimper of protest he uttered, she pulled away from him.
“We should cease before we are discovered.”
His look was both endearing and arousing. Such a childish expression, not having what he wanted. And yet, it was a look that made her heart swell with love and longing. What a thrill it was to be longed for. To be loved. She made attempt at consoling him with gentle words of affection.
“Were it not for certain circumstances, I would remain here with you.”
He drew her closer once more, pressing a small but sweet kiss to her lips, which she eagerly returned. He whispered softly to her.
“Good night, my love. Many times, good night.”
“Until the morning, then,” she whispered back, extracting herself from a hold he seemed determined to keep on her. But she made her escape, being careful to move quietly as she entered the bed chamber. Sebastian was sound asleep, and she was happy for it. It would not do for him to see the overwhelming joy that had come over her. She was careful to see that the door was bolted, uncertain as to why she felt the need for such security. Owen was not likely to come in, despite the obvious eagerness he had to be with her. He cared for her too deeply to take such a risk, especially with regard to Sebastian. Perhaps it was merely the feeling of temptation she was trying to keep out, for it was overpowering in its strength.
Lying down beside Sebastian, she tried to calm the wild feelings of her heart, making a brief attempt at sleep. She tried to think of other things, but it was no use. All she could think of was Owen. She was madly in love, and for once, she reveled in the feeling, unashamed of the happiness that seemed to be within her grasp.