He could feel her trembling, and he held her closer, kissing the top of her head as he spoke soothingly to her.
“He is dead. He cannot hurt you now.”
Her head was pressed against his shoulder, her arms clinging to him, and he ran his hands gently up and down her back. What if he had not heard her cries for help? Good God, it tortured him to think of what might have happened.
Looking up, he saw William rushing towards them, with their mother and father right behind. Guy was the first to speak, looking between the lifeless figure on the ground and the sight of Isabella, who was clinging to Owen.
“What goes on here?” he demanded.
Owen’s reply was a disgusted snarl. “That filthy animal attacked her. He was sent by Baron LaCroix.”
Slowly, with a look of horror in his eyes, William knelt down to examine the body. He crossed himself.
“Good God, Owen. You have done murder.”
The reply was furious. “Do not preach to me! I was defending her and myself, and I would do it again if it needed to be done!”
It was William’s voice that now grew dark, rising in anger.
“Do you see now why she must go? What will it take to make you see the danger she is in?”
Before they could quarrel further, Cassia stepped forward. “That is enough, William.” Kneeling down beside Isabella and Owen, she reached out her hand to touch Isabella’s shoulder. “When morning comes, we all will put this entire matter behind us.”
Owen detected a note of finality in his mother’s voice – an inflection he knew well. She had made a decision on something. He saw the way she looked up at Guy, and how Guy looked back at her in return. Their minds were as one, the both of them thinking the other’s thoughts.
“Cassia, take her into the house,” Guy said, his deep voice commanding, yet quiet. “William, escort them, if you will. I would speak to Owen.”
As Isabella was taken from his arms, Owen felt his inner rage overwhelming him, fighting for compete control. Isabella had nearly been murdered, and at her husband’s doing. There would be blood. Fucking hell, there would be a slaughter, if he had his way. Rising to his feet, his saw his father standing before him, probably prepared to stop him from taking action. But no one would stand in his way. Not even Guy of Gisborne. Owen’s words were cold, dark, and firm.
“I will see him dead.”
A flash of shock passed over Guy’s face. It was there for just a moment, but Owen knew that his father was troubled by the harsh declaration. Looking down at the still form of Isabella’s attacker, neither of them spoke. With one another’s help, they moved the body far away from the church, leaving it in a ditch and covering it with brush. Crouched down, his hand partially covering his mouth, Guy looked deeply disturbed by what they had just done. Owen could see the weight of fatherly concern pressing on him. It was in his voice.
“Will you foul your hands with a man’s blood a second time?”
Owen’s words grew strong. Thinking of Isabella, recalling the sight of the monster who had pinned her down and nearly strangled her to death, he could find no pity. And thinking of the beast who had sent the killer, he felt a burning hatred in his entire being. He answered his father’s question without hesitation.
“I will defend the honor of the woman I love!”
There was silence for a moment as Guy rose to his feet, turning away. Folding his arms, staring out across the distance, he glanced back at Owen as he spoke with a tone of caution.
“These things are not to be done without thought, Owen. If you do this, you will one day answer for it.”
“My conscience will be clear when I stand in final judgment. God sees not as man sees, and he will know that my actions are just.”
Owen could see the inner war his father was fighting. There was only one way to sway him – one way to convince him that this justice needed to be done.
“You would act as thus for Mama,” he said. “You cannot deny it.”
Such words were daring, he knew. Too daring, perhaps. His father had every right to turn and strike him for being so bold.
And yet, Guy remained still and silent for what seemed like a long time. At last, he turned. His grey-blue eyes were deeply serious.
“We will speak of this to no one,” he said.
For a moment, Owen felt a kind of elation, though it was tempered by the seriousness of the matter at hand. He started to speak, but Guy gave an admonition that silenced him.
“You will have my aid in the deed. But to seal the bargain, you will do as you know you must.”
The ultimatum struck him cold with dread. For a moment, he was unsure of what to say. They stared at each other for many long moments, until Owen felt a great need to be away. He needed time to think. And though he had left Isabella in his mother’s capable hands, his worry over her welfare suddenly rushed to the forefront.
“I will see to Isabella,” he said, moving towards the house.
Outside her door, Owen paced back and forth, his hand repeatedly coming up to cover his mouth – a nervous gesture he knew he had inherited from his father. His mother was in the room with Isabella, and no doubt she was using her gifts of healing to set things right. He thanked God for her, the angel that she was. But he wished desperately to be in that room. He wanted to be the one to comfort Isabella, to offer up his strength and courage, to assure her that no one would ever hurt her again.
The door opened at last. He drew close to his mother, his words rushed in urgent concern.
“Is she well?”
Cassia answered in her calm way. “She will recover. I have given her something to aid her in sleep.”
He nodded, feeling a brief moment of relief. But seeing his mother’s eyes on him, he could feel words of counsel coming on. She would speak, and he would listen, despite his reluctance to do so. Deep down in his heart, he knew that what she would say would be right.
“If you love her, Owen, you will let her go.”
The truth was painful, a crushing weight in his chest. To save her, he would have to set her free. If he kept her, fate would find a way to take her from him. The proof of it had been seen in the vicious attempt on her life. He would let her go. But not until tomorrow. For a few hours more, he would be with her.
“I will watch over her tonight,” he said. “My mind is set on the task, and I will not be swayed.”
Moving past her, ignoring the teary expression on her face, he slipped into Isabella’s room and bolted the door behind him.
Isabella was lying on her side, seeming to be so peaceful in sleep. But how long would the effect of his mother’s potion keep her from thoughts of her attack? Sooner or later, such recollections would surely haunt her mind. She would suffer. Perhaps she would become terrified in thinking that her husband would send someone else to succeed where one criminal had failed. Taking a step forward, he paused just before the bed, looking down at her. How would she respond if he slipped into bed beside her – if he took her in his arms and let her rest against him, securing her against the terrors that haunted her.
No, he thought. I cannot sleep. Not when danger may be waiting just outside.
Pulling himself away from her, he came to stand before the window, where he folded his arms as he stared out at the moonlit night. No one would dare to harm her. Not while he stood vigil, and he would remain on guard for as long as it took.
As soon as the arrangements were made, she would depart for Spain. He felt a sharp stab of pain strike him, just under his left rib. How would he endure her departure? He had never imagined having such love for a woman – the kind of love his mother and father knew. His mother had always hoped for this, and where he had once scoffed at such sentiments, he know knew the depth and power of love, and he wanted nothing more than to lose himself in the madness. But fate seemed to be conspiring against him. He had found the love of his life, only to have her torn away so cruelly. What had he done to deserve such anguish?
Shaking his head, he felt his deeply rooted sense of stubbornness rising up to aid him. His mind began to whirl with desperate thoughts. For her safety, he would send her away to Spain, where Gilbert would never find her.
But I know where I send her, Owen thought. One day, I will return to her. There, it is not known what a sullied name she bears. We will find one another again.
Hope suddenly blossomed in his heart. Though they would be parted, it would not be forever. War was looming, but surely God would protect and keep him so he could return to the woman he loved. Folding his hands in prayer, he begged the almighty for guidance and protection in the face of danger – for the chance to live. To love. Turning, he looked at Isabella, speaking his thoughts in a barely audible whisper.
When the war is over, my love. When the war is over.