For many long moments, his head remained fixed in his hands, his eyes closed as he tried to think. There had to be a way to both keep and protect her. She was afraid of her husband, as she had good reason to be. But if Gilbert thought to return, he would regret it. The bastard would pay with his life if he dared to threaten Isabella again.
Why did there have to be rules to a marriage – rules that were created by man? Only God could determine what was right and wrong. Surely, God could see into his heart and know that his love for Isabella was pure – that he would commit his life to her, and that she would commit her life to him. Their union would be one of the heart and of the soul, and that was the only thing that mattered.
From nearby, there came the slight sound of footsteps.
“Is is for the best, brother.”
Owen lifted his head at the sound of William’s voice, but he gave him only a moment’s glance, his eyes fixed on the door before him.
“Do not speak to me of what is for the best. You know nothing of love.”
“She will be safer in Spain, Owen. Why can you not see that?”
Owen turned his head suddenly. He had never spoken to William of Isabella’s homeland.
“What do you know of it?” he asked.
Suspicion began to swirl around in his mind. How did William know anything of Spain? And how did he know that she was leaving? Realization suddenly fell on him. Slowly, he rose to his feet. Anger simmered with him as the full realization that William – his own brother – had conspired against him. His voice was low.
“This is your doing.”
William’s expression confirmed it. The guilt was written in his very countenance, and yet he defended his actions with a firm tone, his stance unwavering.
“Come to your senses, will you? Why can you not see that her remaining here puts all of our lives in danger?”
He and William had not quarreled often. In truth, they had never come to blows, their arguments settled rather quickly thanks mostly to William’s diplomatic nature. But this was a betrayal. There was no other word for it. Wounded, furious, he brought his hands up and shoved him backwards, cursing him.
“You are Judas!”
Taken aback, but standing his ground, William answered with a calm but deeply serious reply.
“Do not push me, Owen.”
Every feeling of anger he had ever known seemed to overwhelm him. The world was against him. Even his own brother, his flesh and blood, wanted to keep him from Isabella, and it was all he could do to keep from throttling him on the spot.
“I should break your fucking jaw!”
From the doorway, he heard his mother’s voice raised in shock, scolding him harshly.
Turning, he saw his mother and father standing there. Guy spoke, stepping forward as he looked between the two of them.
“What is this noise?” he asked.
Owen’s furious voice rose, no calmness or reason remaining. “It is the sound of treachery! I will never look upon his hateful face again without seeing his betrayal!”
Cassia sought an explanation as she held Owen back, grasping his arms in an attempt to keep him from striking out, and he spat his words in a rage.
“He is sending Isabella away! She returns to Spain and it is his doing!”
William shouted in reply, defending himself. “I do what is right for this family!”
While Guy managed William, taking him aside to speak quietly, Owen found himself being ushered away by his mother. As they moved into the night air, the flames of his fury were fanned to greater heights, feeling like a child who was being handled after a tantrum, with no regards for the seriousness of his feelings.
“Owen, we must have words,” Cassia began to say. But throwing his arms up in a mock gesture of defeat, he unleashed what he felt in a bitter tirade.
“There is nothing to speak of, is there Mama? My decisions have been made for me – my future decided. I will forget all that I feel and quickly degenerate into a soulless automation. That is what everyone wishes me to be, is it not? A heartless thing meant only to serve and obey? Well then, I hope this pleases you!”
At that moment, he hated himself and the world entirely. Himself for the way he was speaking to his mother, and the world for denying him the simple joy of love. A crushing weight of sorrow suddenly befell him, turning away from the loving eyes of his mother, who drew close to him even as he tried to shun her. To have her sympathy was too much – the pain he felt too humiliating for her to witness. But she would not go. She came to him as he sat in an alcove, her voice as soft as it had always been.
“Owen, this is very difficult, I know. But you must not destroy yourself and your family in this way.”
“Please, Mama. I have no wish to offend, but I cannot bear a parental lecture at this moment. If your desire is to help me, please leave me be.”
He felt her hands on his back, trying to soothe him. But her touch felt humiliating to him. When at last she left him, whispering words of consolation, he slumped forward to hang his head. Misery was a heavy weight. At that moment, he longed for the one freedom freely granted to women – the right to console themselves with tears. He could feel the physical sensations of it. The heaviness of his heart…the burning of his eyes. And yet, he was incapable of tears. For so long, his drilling in the ways of being a knight…in essence, the ways of being a man…had dictated that emotions were a disgrace.
I am not to love, he thought. I am not to feel. I am not to be a living being. God almighty, what do you want of me?
A soft tone spoke to him from the darkness.
He lifted his head at the sound of her voice. “Isabella,” he said, watching her with eagerness as she came closer. Sitting beside him, she looked at him with a familiar sadness in her eyes.
“I overheard your quarrel.” She lowered her eyes – a gesture he was coming to know too well, and one he hated seeing. What troubled him more was the continued sadness of her voice. “The fault is mine, Owen. You must not blame William for these troubles that are born from my mistakes.”
He did not care anymore what was right or wrong. She was his love, and he would no longer allow her to torment herself. He took her in his arms, and was relieved to find that she did not fight him. The feeling of her body against his, her head resting on his shoulder, felt so wonderful – so perfect. He had never been given the chance to do what he was meant to do – to comfort her, to shelter her in his embrace and soothe her with kind words. He relished the chance to do that now.
“Was it a mistake that you sought love? The fault was not yours, Isabella.”
To his surprise, he heard a small, soft laugh escape her. “You once thought quite differently of me,” she replied. “Do you remember?”
Indeed he did remember. The thought of how he had once been, of how he had so cruelly condemned her for her sins, was a painful barb in his heart.
“It is a shameful recollection, one I shall always regret. Can you forgive me for being a fool?”
“There is nothing to forgive.”
“A bold untruth,” he replied, the corner of his mouth rising a little. Leaning back in the embrace, he looked down at her face. Reaching out, he gently touched her cheek. “My father once warned me to beware of regret – that one day, if I was too reckless in my actions, it would find me in a vulnerable moment and strike me without mercy. It has struck me now.”
Taking her hands in his, he pressed his lips to her fingers, his eyes lowered. Thinking of his past behavior, his heart was heavy with remorse.
“I have loved you for so long, Isabella. But I was such a proud fool. I wasted such precious time, denying what I felt, believing I could suppress the desires of my heart. All that time, I could have known the joy of being with you. Of loving you. And you loving me in return.”
Softly and tenderly she replied, trying to soothe him.
“If you erred in some way, your kindness has long absolved you of any wrong-doing. You have shown me such devotion and caring. You have given me much, including my son. For that alone, I will always love you.”
His heart swelled with joy – and sorrow. She was confessing her love, as before. But in her eyes, he could see such turmoil. It made his heart ache, broken as it was already, and his voice was a tremble of despair.
“You love me. But still you will leave me.”
Her own voice wavered too. “It is the only way, Owen.”
Bitterness and pain tinged his reply.
“The only way is to send a man into the depths of despair? To take away his very hope of happiness?”
Her fingers touched his cheeks, caressing him, his every nerve thrilled with the softness of her touch. She pressed a soft, light kiss to his lips.
“If you love me,” she said, “ You must endeavor to live a life that is full. Find a kind, gentle lady to be your wife. One who is young, and virtuous – untainted.”
The thought of someone else, of anyone but her, was a thought so abhorrent that he shook his head, and he began the utterance of a protest. But she pressed a finger to his lips, speaking firmly, even as a tear spilled from her eye.
“You must create many children to bear your name, and eventually, grandchildren. And build a glorious career in your service to the king.”
“I am to build such a life without the woman I love? The only one I have ever loved?”
“This is how it must be, dearest Owen. If you promise me you will do these things, you will have made my happiness. Is that not what you want for me?”
Taking her in his arms, wondering if it would be the very last time, he took a deep and ragged breath.
“Will you at least permit me to see you away on your journey? To bid you farewell?”
A sad sigh escaped her as she answered. “I would have no one but you, Owen Gisborne.”
Before she could reach the side door, on her way back into the church, she felt the last of her strength failing her. Tears fell freely as she slowly moved inside, not truly thinking of where she was going or what lay around her. All she could think of was how much she hated herself for what she had just done. She had wounded the man who loved her – the only man to truly desire and cherish her. She longed to return to him, to tell him she would stay with him and be his. Only one thought kept her from it.
He will be better off without me, she reminded herself. He does not need an outcast-a whore- for a wife.
His love for her would not protect him from scandal. If he took her as his bride, he would endure the scorn of his neighbors and friends. If they had children, they would be born into a world that shunned them from the first moment they drew breath. Owen was determined to love her, but how long would his love last when all of the world turned against him? It crushed her to think of him growing cold one day, the burden of scandal too much for even him to bear. And what of Sebastian? Her sweet, precious son. Would he grow to hate her too?
She would not put passion before principle. Not this time. Not ever again.
She moved towards the small room where she would sleep – a storage room, essentially, the only private space other than the confessional. Sighing deeply, her heart a heavy weight in her chest, she reached out for the door latch.
Her head was thrown back suddenly, a hand clamped over her mouth. She tried to scream, but found herself smothered into silence. A low, menacing voice growled in her ear.
“Your husband wishes his hands to be clean. But I do not mind soiling mine.”
She felt herself being dragged along the floor, the stranger’s arm tight around her waist and his hand still clamped tight over her mouth. Hardly able to breathe, but terrified for her life, she fought with every ounce of her strength, trying to flail herself in any way to escape his hold. Her nails desperately clawed at the hand that silenced her. Her foot connected with a tall taper and it clattered to the ground, the noise ringing in her ears. Her only hope of survival was that it would be heard, for now she was outside the church, dragged into the darkness. In a moment the stranger was upon her, his knees on either side of her body, his weight pinning her down. Her eyes wide with fear, she stared into the face of her killer. By some miracle, she felt one of his fingers slip just so on her mouth, and she seized the chance, sinking her teeth into his flesh. He shrieked in pain, and Isabella screamed. But her attacker silenced her with a strike, rattling her head and causing stars to flash before her eyes. Suddenly his hands were at her throat, squeezing. She felt blackness coming over her – the world fading away.
She barely heard the sudden shout of rage. All she could do was gasp for air as she rolled over on her stomach, free of her captor’s hands. She heard the struggle, the sound of two men in fierce hand to hand combat. Turning her head, still weak from the attack, she saw Owen fighting. Like an enraged animal, he countered every move of his enemy and struck with brutal force. Forcing his opponent to the ground, his hands grasped the man’s jaw. There was a last, desperate struggle. Then, a sudden and violent snap. Isabella stared in disbelief, seeing her attacker’s head slump to the side, his eyes suddenly still with death.
Suddenly, the reality of what had happened fell over her. Gilbert had sent someone to kill her. He had failed. And Owen had just saved her life. Overcome, she began to shake all over, even as Owen came and gathered her in his arms.
“Good God, Isabella,” he gasped, holding her in a tight embrace. “Are you all right?”
She shook her head, unable to answer…too overwhelmed to speak.