There was a powerful urge within Owen – a great desire to give his horse the heel and set off at a gallop. His horse would not mind the pace. Samson was used to such action. In truth he seemed restless, probably not understanding why he and his master were not moving with greater speed. Owen gave the horse a pat on the neck, attempting to soothe him.
“We must be calm, my friend. You will have a proper run soon enough.”
He smiled to himself, imagining how he and Isabella would enjoy a pleasant jaunt through the countryside. She was a skilled horsewoman, which pleased him greatly. Her affection for horses was deep, if her love for her own was any indication. Some women complained of a horse’s smell or their sometimes temperamental nature, but he sensed that Isabella shared his admiration for one of God’s most noble creatures. Perhaps, one day, they would raise a collection of their own. Perhaps they would have a large family to share in the task, and a dynasty would be made. Anything was possible.
From within the coach, which was slowly moving along beside him, his mother spoke to him.
“Having happy thoughts, my son?”
It was difficult to suppress a smile, born equally of being caught in an unguarded moment, and the simple joy of thinking of the woman he loved. His reply was given with a twinkle in his eye.
“A true knight conceals his feelings, Mama. An essential rule of conduct, necessary for battle.”
He witnessed the slight shake of her head and the slight roll of her eyes. But her lips had formed a tiny smile as well, one that amused him to no end. She seemed intent on feigning innocence – an attempt to conceal the truth about her part in this matchmaking scheme. The given alibi was her eagerness to see William again after a considerable separation from him. But he knew her well. Some way, somehow, she had discovered his feelings for Isabella, and in her eagerness for all things romantic, she desired to aid in a happy ending for them both. Of course, she was moved by other motives as well.
She wanted him to be married, and more so, she desired more grandchildren. Few things pleased her more than being with children, babies in particular. He could recall her absolute delight when Thea had been expecting, and she often spoke at length about her hopes for Evie to become a mother. Family mattered more to her than anything. And because of Isabella, he felt a deep longing for a family of his own.
Soon enough, and God willing, he thought, I will be at work on mine.
At last, the village came into view, and the church was at its very border – the first thing to be seen. And just behind it, there was William’s property.
Isabella is there, he thought, his excitement heightening by the moment. She is there, waiting for me.
He felt a pleasant constriction in his chest at thought of her. Spurred to action, his urged his horse to move at a faster pace – a walk of purpose. Thinking it would be well to impress, he sat taller in the saddle, hoping she would take notice of the impressive figure of a man that was soon to be her prize.
A multitude of thoughts ran through his mind as he dismounted, tying his horse to the hitching post. Dreams of future plans, of marriage vows and a wedding night - a most intoxicating prospect – made him more eager than ever to see her, and he hurried on as William appeared from within.
He was, at first, too absorbed in his happy thoughts to take notice of his brother’s expression. But with each step closer, it was becoming clear that something was wrong. William’s disposition had always been serious in nature, though his heart was kind. But this was something more. Something troubling, even though his greeting was given with his usual calm and kindness.
“God be praised, you have arrived safely. Welcome, brother.”
There was a note of concern, even anxiousness in William’s voice, even though it was obvious he was trying to disguise it. Watching him, curious, Owen observed William with suspicion as he approached their mother and father’s coach. Looking back at the front door, he wondered…
Why does she not appear?
A few anxious moments passed, until he could be silent no longer.
“What goes on, William? Where is Isabella?”
William, helping their mother step down, answered in a way that seemed hesitant – as though he wished to avoid something. Owen felt his tension growing, his temper rising. But holding to his self-discipline, his voice was demanding but calm.
“Why do you hold your tongue?”
Cassia, looking between them both, stepped aside to let Guy descend. “What is wrong?” she asked.
After a moment more of hesitation, William replied at last.
“The Baron LaCroix was here.”
A blow to the gut could not have had such an impact. Fear wrapped a hand tightly around his vitals, stealing his voice for a moment. He swallowed the sudden knot that had formed in his throat. “Where is Isabella?”
William spoke quietly. “Owen, there is something you must know…”
“Where is she?” he demanded.
A small sigh fell from William’s lips. “She is in the church.”
He rushed away, panic making his steps swift. What if she was hurt? What if Gilbert had harmed her in some way? I will kill him, he thought, rushing through the garden gate. I will break his neck and then…
Before he could finish his dark thought, he came into the church and paused. There she was, kneeling in prayer at the altar. Crossing himself, quietly nearing her, he spoke her name softly. At first she seemed not to hear him. But then, she turned her head, raising her eyes to him – eyes that were full of sadness. She turned her head away again, giving him the sense that she wished to avoid looking at him, and there was something in that gesture that struck him cold with dread. Kneeling down beside her, he dared not embrace her, as he so badly wanted to. But his feelings were clear, expressed in the sound of his voice.
“Are you well? Did he hurt you?”
She slowly shook her head in reply. “The sheriff ordered him away. He was enraged at the command, but he could not harm me. I am under the protection of sanctuary.”
Relief washed over him, a small smile of hope coming to his lips. “Praise God,” he said, crossing himself again. Looking at her, hoping to see a light of happiness coming to her eyes, he saw that her sadness was firmly fixed. Perhaps she required encouragement, something to alleviate her fears. He tried to sound hopeful.
“I thought I would not see you again for a very long time,” he said. “Fate seems to have shined a light on us.”
No words. Only the same silence. And seeing how she seemed to be struggling with something within herself, he urged her to speak.
“Isabella, what is it?”
Rising to her feet, she turned towards the door that opened to the rear courtyard. He followed, waiting for her to speak. As she sat down on a bench, moving in a slow manner that unnerved him, he took a place beside her.
“Owen," she said. "I am leaving France.”
He shook his head, hoping he had midheard her. “Leaving?" he asked. "To go where?”
“I am returning to Spain.”
Leaving? He thought. This cannot be. He shook his head again, in denial.
“Surely you jest.”
Her voice seemed so calm, so sad and hopeless – as though she had been assigned a fate, and was accepting it easily. The way her head was lowered, it was clear she had done just that.
“It is for the best. I can no longer put the Gisborne family at risk. You have done too much for me already.”
It was too much for him. Reaching out, gently but firmly clasping her arms, he made her look at him. “You cannot go. There must be another way.”
Her eyes were shining with tears now. “What way would that be, Owen? There is no life for me here. If I stay, I continue to risk my life and the life of my son.”
“He will be protected. I have promised you that!”
“Until when?” she cried, her voice rising, growing stronger. “Until the day he learns the truth about his mother? Gilbert will not rest until he has destroyed me, and he will use Sebastian to see it done. I must not allow that. I will not allow it!”
“You must not fear your husband. So long as Sebastian remains in my family’s custody, we will not allow his mind to be poisoned. I swear it on my life!”
“You are a dreamer, Owen Gisborne. But you must awaken now.”
Her tone had become soft again. But suddenly, there was a firmness in her manner that terrified him.
“I must awaken to a life without you? Is that how it must be?”
“It is the only way, Owen. When I am gone, you will forget me, as you must. You will find a proper lady – a wife who will ensure your legacy with the birth of noble sons. A woman who will not bring shame upon your house…”
“I do not want someone else!”
She would not relent. He could see it in her eyes. But his frantic mind refused to accept the defeat, his heart torn at the thought of losing her. He would convince her.
“You are wrong, Isabella. I cannot forget you. I have tried. A more impossible task could not be put before me. I love you, and I know that you love me. You have confessed it to me, and you cannot deny it."
“I do not deny it. But love is not enough.”
“Do not say that!”
She is slipping from my hands, he thought. But I cannot let her go.
Words would not convince her to stay. And in his mind, he knew that it was wrong to have such selfish feelings. But desperation held him firmly in its grip. Pulling her close, he kissed her. She could deny him in words, but how could she deny the physical passion they had for one another? She could not. Her very being said so, her response to him instant and strong as she wound her arms around him and kissed him back. For a few extraordinary moments, he felt he had won. She would not leave him. They were two souls intertwined, as they were meant to be.
But then, he felt the sensation of her hands pushing at him. Fearful of parting from her, afraid that it would summon the coming pain of her loss, he tried to hold her closer, hoping she would give in. But she was stronger than he had hoped, pushing him back with an anguished rush of words.
“Please stop, Owen. I cannot endure this torment!”
Taking her face in his hands, he pleaded with her. “It is a torment to love me?”
“Yes!” she cried. “If I could change things in a moment, I would. You would have my heart, my body, my soul. But it cannot be, Owen! And we must face the truth of it!”
She ran from him then…just as she had that first time. He rushed after her, as before. But he would not let her hide now. Even when she closed the door to him, he stood before it in a stubborn stance, refusing to leave. Staring at the heavy door, knowing that she was listening on the other side, he called out to her.
“You will not be shed of me!”
Looking about, seeing a chair nearby, he pulled it close and sat down, vowing that he would not move from the spot. She would have to come out sooner or later, and he would be there when the door opened. Somehow, he would make her see reason. There was no use fighting him.
Leaning forward in his seat, his head fell into his hands. How had things changed so? His hopes had soared to such heights. But just as rapidly as they had risen, they had descended to earth, and the pain of it was unbearable.
There must be a way, he told himself.
He would reason with her, if that was the only way. Never in his life had he truly attempted a compromise. His way had always been to fight his way through life – to have his way by force. How else was a knight to be? A tough, uncompromising nature was the way of a warrior. But God in heaven, it was a thousand times more difficult to find words than it was to heft a sword or swing a fist.
But he would try. For her, he would do anything...