Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Baron's Lady - Chapter 12, Part 1


Sitting on the edge of his bed, Owen held his foot out so Marcel could assist him with his boot. The old gentleman was dedicated to his duty, but at times, his age slowed his work down. Owen kept his silence on the matter, even when there were times like now when he wished for a valet with a faster approach. The night had found him restless, and now that morning had come, he was impatient to be gone from his chamber.

I will see her at prayer, he thought. I will go to her afterwards, and we shall have words.

He tried to think of what he would say to her. He had, in fact, been thinking of nothing but Isabella since the night before. Good God, that kiss. It was imprinted in his mind now, like a fiery brand, and the heat of it had barely cooled. During the night, his imagination had conjured up smoldering thoughts of what might have been. If she hadn’t pushed him away, how far would they have allowed their passions to go? Just the thought of it made his senses wild with excitement.

But the fact remained that she had pushed him away. She had fled from his presence, and now, it was likely she would try to avoid him. Perhaps she would avoid prayers altogether. The thought of it set his expression into a mask of determination.

If that is her plan, he thought, She does not know me. I am not deterred by such a tactic.

He would simply go and find her, and if she thought to hide behind a locked door, she was sorely underestimating him. She would have to come out at some point, and when she did, he would be there.

At last, Marcel was done, and Owen hurried from the room, pausing for just a few moments to check his appearance in the looking glass. If he was going to pursue a woman, he needed every advantage at his disposal. Seeing himself, he grimaced at his own features. No wonder she had desired escape. His eyes alone, bright blue-grey and so penetrating in their gaze, were enough to intimidate anyone. But nature had made him this way, and he could not change it. Isabella would simply have to adjust to his fierce appearance.

As he neared the chapel, he slowed his pace, adjusting his tunic as he quietly went in. He saw that his mother was there already. Taking the place beside her, usually reserved for his father, he knelt and folded his hands. He greeted her quietly.

“Good morrow, Mama.”

“Good morrow, Owen.”

He waited several long moments before speaking further. It would not do to speak with haste and cause suspicion. When he felt the moment was right, he made a cool and calm inquiry.

“I trust that Lady Isabella has recovered from yesterday’s incident?”

Cassia replied softly. “It appears so. She will be more at ease now that she has departed.”

Departed. The announcement, though softly spoken, felt like a hard punch. He tried to respond with calmness, though it was barely disguised.

“She has gone to Toulon?”

“Yes. Before dawn. She and I agreed it was best that for her safety and ours, she should make an immediate departure. Afternoon will find her in secure company with William.”

Isabella was gone. She had run away, rather than staying to face him.

How very cowardly! He thought. A fast rising sense of agitation gripped him. It threatened to take control of him, nearly causing him to fly into a scene of foolish passion. He felt a terrible urge to break something. If he’d had his sword at hand, he would have taken his displeasure out on some hapless piece of furniture. God almighty, was there no end to the forces conspiring against him?

But he could not go wild at that moment. Not in the presence of his mother, and certainly not in the chapel, with God and everyone else’s eyes watching and judging his every action. Somehow, he managed to maintain his air of calmness and dignity during the ritual of prayer. But once it was done, and he was safely out of sight and out of earshot, he released a sigh of frustration. Pinching the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on, he muttered to himself.

“God help me. I am a fool.”

“Why are you a fool, brother?”

He started at the sound of Evelyn’s voice. Turning, he gave her a brief glance of acknowledgment before answering.

“I cannot talk of it.”

As he walked to an open window, where he leaned on the casement and looked out, Evelyn followed. She asked, with a familiar air of curiosity…

“Pray, why not?”

An irritated sigh escaped him. “It is a personal matter.”

He was not at all surprised when she pressed him for further information.

“You have been quite troubled of late. Are you certain there is nothing you wish to speak of?”

“Nothing,” he said, his answer abrupt. Turning away, he walked down the hall and out a side door leading to the center courtyard. As he sat down in a shadowed alcove, Evelyn soon followed, sitting beside him.

“Owen, forgive me for asking. But…”

“But what?” he snapped.

She looked at him with those gentle blue eyes of hers, so full of both curiosity and caring. And bright little thing that she was, she uncovered his secret with just one question.

“Is a woman the source of your turmoil?”

For a moment, he was angered by her inquisitive nature, which had led to her insight, and he tried to deny her assertion.

“You assume too much, Evie.”

It was useless, he knew. Like their mother, Evelyn did not give up when she was curious about something, and if she felt it concerned the welfare of a family member or friend, there was nothing that would throw her off of the trail. A little smile formed on her lips as she shook her head.

“Owen, do not be coy with me. I can see the answer written in your countenance. You can speak to me of it, if you wish. You know well enough that I am not one to break a confidence.”

He gave no immediate reply – trying, for the sake of his pride, to hold back the revelation of his feelings. But he knew she would not give up. And he could no longer keep his troubles to himself. He rubbed his palms against his knees in a gesture of frustration.

“Love is a torment,” he said. “It tears the soul to pieces.”

A quiet moment later, when Evie replied, he was surprised to hear her give a soft little sigh with her words.

“Love can also lift the soul to wondrous heights.”

He looked at her. Seeing the soft, glowing expression of happiness on her face, he couldn’t help but respond with a slight hint of amusement.

“You speak of Simon?”

 Her warm smile and dazzled eyes were her answer. “He is so wonderful, brother. I feel most fortunate to have him for my own.”

To that, he turned his head away, and the smile faded from his lips. Evelyn seemed to sense his gloom. She turned to him, becoming more serious.

“Forgive me. I speak of myself, but you are the subject of interest. Tell me of your lady.”

Sitting up straight, he once again took on a defensive posture.

“If you seek her name, I will not give it. She does not wish it to be known.”
“Very well, then. But tell me something of her. To see you in such a way, I think she must be someone of great worth. Or at least, great allure?”

Evelyn’s curious eyes and gentle questioning were not going to cease. And he felt his defenses crumbling, until at last he conceded to defeat.

“If you insist on hearing me, then we must not speak here. There are too many ears to hear us.”

Her eyes lit up. “Where, then?”

He rose to his feet. “Let us go hawking. We will not be suspected of intrigue if we are occupied in sport.”

“Very well,” she replied. “Matilda would love to stretch her wings, I am certain.”

As she followed him across the courtyard, he was quite sure that she was in anticipation of more than exercising her beloved pet merlin. As their birds were prepared for the hunt, he turned to Evie with a slightly dark look on his face.

“If I confide in you, you must swear to keep my words to yourself. If you betray me, you will never again share my confidence.”

They mounted their horses, and as the caretaker handed them their falcons, Owen felt Evelyn’s harsh stare. Her tone was indignant.

“Owen, I have always kept your secrets. I will not betray your trust now. Do you require a blood oath to prove it?”

He sighed, his tone softening. “No. Forgive me, Evie. I know you are not devious.”

“So, then,” she replied, “Tell me of your lady love.”

He hesitated for a short while, as they rode out to the fields and released their hawks. As they followed the birds, Owen was aware that Evie was waiting to hear his tale, but in her patient way, she did not press him for it. She waited patiently, saying nothing, until at last he began.

“She is a lady of Spain.”

Evie became alert in an instant. Her grin was one of delight.

“A Spaniard? How intriguing!”

From the moment Evie had expressed an interest, it had occurred to Owen that he would have to be careful about revealing certain details to her. She was trustworthy, yes. But what if she were to reveal his secret by accident? It was better that she not know everything specifically.

“I have only come to know her recently,” he said. A sigh fell from his lips as he thought of Isabella. His tone grew soft. “But I feel as though I have loved her for so very long.”

A quiet moment passed, in which he expected to hear her give a response. But she said nothing. He looked at her, and was troubled by the expression on her face…one of absolute delight, punctuated by a very womanly smile.

“What?” he quietly demanded, to which she replied with a shrug.

“It is wonderful to see this side of you.”

Embarrassed, he scoffed at her declaration. “My God, do not tease me. I cannot bear it. I have only just come to terms with my own pathetic weakness over a woman.”

“It is not weakness to love.”

He sighed, a despondent sound. “It hardly matters, either way. I have angered her, and now I fear I have ruined my chances.”

“So then, that is the true source of your distress. Can you not make amends?”

Thinking of the look on Isabella’s face after he had kissed her, he felt his despondency deepening. He had embarrassed her, and as little as he knew about women, he knew enough to know that a lady’s pride was a fragile thing.

“If I offer my apologies,” he said, “She will not hear them. She is a willful creature.”

Evie, ever determined, suggested a solution.

“Perhaps you can offer her a gift to make things right.”

The thought of making an offering as such had not occurred to him, and his mind instantly clung to the idea, taking it in.

“A gift?” he replied.

“Yes, of course. Women are often pleased by tokens of love. I cannot speak for your lady in particular, but I would be very moved by such a gesture.”

A gift, he thought. He wondered why he had not thought of it himself. It seemed like such an obvious solution. But what did one give a lady as a gift? He felt like such a fool for not knowing, after spending all of his life with a mother and two sisters. But his mind was blank on the subject. He turned to Evie, who seemed to read his very thoughts as she spoke before he could.

“If I were a lady with a gentleman seeking my favor, I would find pleasure in flowers. But not all ladies find delight in simple pleasures. Some prefer more valuable things, such as jewelry.”

“And such offerings beget positive results?”

She both nodded…and shrugged. “In most circumstances. It depends on the severity of the wounds inflicted on her heart.”

A slight feeling of disappointment came over him. After a moment, he could feel Evie’s eyes on him, searching his face.

“Have you told her how you feel for her?”

His mind flashed instantly to the moments in his chamber. How it felt to hold her soft, warm hand in his. The way she had looked into his eyes. He had seen something in her gaze – something that told him she desired him, even if she was afraid to admit it. But in his state of desire, he had moved too hastily.

“I have not told her in so many words,” he said.

“You should tell her, then,” said Evie, who seemed to be growing excited with every passing moment. “For a woman, there is no greater gift than the knowledge that she is loved.”

“But what if she does not reciprocate my feelings? What then? Am I to suffer this torment for all eternity?”

“I do not know what to tell you of that. Although, time if often a great healer. Perhaps before you come to her bearing gifts, you should allow her time to calm herself. That may be wise, I think.”

His mouth turned up in a slight smile. Like their mother, Evie had a gift for lifting spirits and giving sage advice. He was certainly feeling a greater sense of hope now, and he let out a slow but steady breath.

“You have given me much to think of, dear sister. Now, I suppose, I must be off in search of a gift.”


Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Baron's Lady - Chapter 11, Part 2


The house was quiet, as it had been all morning. The day being a Sunday, most of the servants were enjoying the day of rest, and with all of the soldiers and squires away at court, the activity level was minimal. Finding himself at a loss, for there was no one to spar with and no soldierly duties to perform, Owen was not quite sure what to do with his time. But his mind was quite occupied.

Walking along a raised footpath that skirted part of the manor, his ear was caught by the soft sounds of feminine happiness. Looking out across the yard, he saw them gathered together like a small flock of lovely and colorful birds. His mother was there, of course. Wearing an amethyst-hued gown, with her hair neatly bound and accented by a jeweled band, she had the regal appearance of a queen surrounded by her faithful subjects. He was glad to see her looking so happy. With her husband gone away to court to discuss rumors of war, she had every right to be unhappy. But like the strong-willed woman she was, she was soldiering on…and keeping up the spirits of those around her.

Thea and Evelyn were among her followers, along with their lady-maids. While Thea showered Gabriel with love and attention, Evelyn and the others conversed with Cassia as they plucked petals from various flowers. They were all smiling, all careless and joyful. Even Isabella.

It had been a long time since he had seen her expressing such delight. And it suited her so well. She was always a beauty, but when she was happy, it gave her an indescribable radiance. The way she touched her fingers to her lips…the way she lowered her head, indicating a sense of shyness. She always seemed so wary about conveying her joyful feelings.

He sighed, as a slight pain of remorse struck him.

Why should she not be wary? He thought. Think of what the world…and I…have done to her.

He had not abused her, as her husband had. He had not seduced and abandoned her, as Rene had. But he had sided with the world’s opinion of her. Just like the rest of an unforgiving society, molded by rules and values they would never dare to question, he had acted with cruel and hasty judgment towards her. And yet, with the help of his family’s love and understanding, she was rising above such adversity. He admired her for that…for her strength, her courage. Another sigh slowly escaped him as he turned away from the scene.

What a relentless master love was. Its hold had not ceased, despite his desperate attempts to be free of it. He had tried so hard to lose the deep feelings of his heart, telling himself that Isabella had become unworthy of his devotion.

But those feelings had simply gone dormant, momentarily faded by the anger he had felt. Now that the anger had dissipated, they sprang to life even stronger than before. His longing was deeper now, punctuated by the realization that Isabella was not the paragon he had imagined her to be…and he had been a fool to think of her as such. She was, as she had so boldly said to him, a human being with a heart and a soul. And she deserved a happy life, just as much as anyone else.

If only he could give her the love and devotion she craved. He wanted to, badly. But what hope was there now? They were hardly on civil terms. And considering the way she had confronted him last night, it was doubtful they would ever reconcile.

He needed to think. A good ride would most likely clear his head and give him some peace of mind. Perhaps he would even go to the village and see what activity was to be found there. Sunday was a day of rest, but also one of celebration.

Riding along the path to town, he was soon lost in thoughts of her. He could remember so well the moments they had once shared, even though it now seemed like ages ago. For a brief time, he had seen the clouds lift from around her. Of his own power, he had given her a respite from the sadness of her life, and she had responded as a bloom would respond to sunshine. In permitting himself to be good to her, he had seen the real woman behind the mask that society forced her to wear. How lovely she was – so sweet, so bright and clever, with a slightly bawdy sense of humor. And who would have ever guessed her to be of Spanish descent? There was a story to be told there, and perhaps not a happy one. Good heavens, it seemed as though her entire life was shadowed with misery. He sighed, thinking of how he had only added to the list of sorrows heaped upon her.

Before he could think further, his thoughts were broken by the sight of a white rouncey and rider coming down the path towards him. It was a familiar figure, an elderly gentleman named Llewellyn who was a merchant who lived nearby, and seeing Owen, he waved his hat, slowing down to talk.

“Good day, young baron. A lovely afternoon, is it not?”

Not in a particular mood for company, but knowing his place, Owen responded politely. “That it is.”

“Are you venturing to town?”

Owen nodded. “I am. My day presently lacks excitement.”

“You will find it in droves, then. It seems the Sheriff is searching for a certain wayward lady that escaped the confines of St. Victor’s abbey.”

“What lady?”

“Why, the Baroness LaCroix, of course! Have you not heard the story?”

The smile quickly faded from Owen’s face. Feeling a sudden anxiety in his heart, he nonetheless managed to maintain a cool fa├žade.

“I have heard talk of it. But I have no wish to engage in idle gossip.”

Llewellyn drew closer, speaking with a hint of excitement in his tone.

“Well, it is rumored that the baron heard of her escape and wants her found and arrested. The Sheriff is taking the search door to door. They are even searching carts on the road. It is rumored she had aide in her escape, and her accomplice may be trying to smuggle her out of town.”

Gripping the reins of his horse, Owen fought the urge to make a mad dash for home. That would certainly arouse great interest, which would lead to gossip, and possibly to much trouble. Maintaining his air of calm, he gave a seemingly quiet reply.

“An interesting story, it seems. I think, then, I shall avoid the village altogether and find occupation elsewhere. Such excitement is not the sort I crave. Good day to you.”

Without waiting to hear the response, he turned his horse in a different direction, one that would lead off the beaten path, but still take him home. And once out of sight of the main road, he gave his mount the heel, urging him to make swiftly for the manor. It was more than Isabella who would be in danger if she was discovered. The entire family would be at risk, and without the protection of his father and the other soldiers, he knew he was the only they had. He had to think and act quickly. Riding past the stables, he crossed the yard and came dangerously close to where the women were gathered. Startled by his sudden appearance, they all cried out in dismay and anger. But he silenced them with his words of warning.

“The sheriff will soon be here.”

The cries quickly turned to gasps. As they rose to their feet, Cassia was the first to speak.

“Why?” she asked. “For what reason?”

“They are looking for the baroness.”

Everyone looked at one another – then at Isabella. Cassia took Isabella by the hand, pulling her along.

“We must get her away from here at once,” she said. But Owen stopped them.

“You cannot go by road. They are searching carts and wagons.”

A wave of panic came over them, their faces a shared mask of fear and uncertainty. Assuming the mantle of a soldier in charge of his men, thinking quickly, he first looked to Evelyn.

“Evie, take her to the cottage. Wait there until I come and fetch you. Go!”

Without hesitation, Evie took Isabella by the hand and hurried away with her. The little cottage, his parents’ private lakeside retreat, would offer safety. There were so few who knew that it existed.

“I will go along,” said Thea, who started to follow. But Owen stopped her with a stern tone of voice.

“No, Thea. I need you here.”

As was her way, she gave him a dark and challenging look.

“Whatever for?”

“I require your foul disposition to aide me.”

He was not all surprised when she argued with him, looking at him in her usual belligerent way.

“I am not of a foul disposition.”

His voice rose in anger. They had always fought and argued over petty matters and differences. But this was no brother and sister squabble, and he shocked her with the power of his command.

“I will not have a quarrel! Papa left you all in my charge and you will do as I say!”

For the first time in their lives, he saw a hint of fear in her eyes, and it made her compliant. But being Thea, she managed a tone of stubborn pride.

“Fine, then. What am I to do?”

*****

They had not long to wait until the law was on their doorstep. Taking on a cool but defiant air, Owen stood in the open doorway as he met the Sheriff and his small band of men. When they gave their reason for coming, Owen gave them his darkest look…something he had learned well from his father.

“You offend my family’s honor with such accusations.”

Sheriff Laffitte was not an impressive man. Neither short nor tall, fat nor skinny, he had much that was mediocre about him. With a less than imposing physique and a slightly pointed and balding head, he did not have the appearance of authority. But his attitude, along with the stalwart men who followed him, gave him all the intimidation he required to do his duty. He looked at Owen and replied to him with as authoritative air.

“Forgive me, baron, but we have our orders.”

Taking a moment to appear indignant, taking in a slow breath through his nose and releasing it in a huff, he stepped back to let them pass.

“Fine, then. Have your search, but do not expect to find more than a nearly empty house being desecrated on the Sabbath.”

A few men went began their search on the main floor. Sheriff Laffitte and the others headed upstairs, and as Owen followed along behind them, he looked up at the gallery. Thea appeared, just as he had directed her to.

“Sheriff Laffitte? What brings you to our door?”

As they came to the top of the stairs, the Sheriff bowed to her. “Lady Theodora. We are here on a matter of business.”

“What business is that, my lord?”

Owen broke in to answer. “They are in search of Isabella LaCroix.”

“And they think to find her here?”

Sheriff Laffitte tried to explain himself, cooly but politely. “We must explore all possibilities, my lady.”

Owen watched as Thea put on her most indignant air. She looked at him, and then at the Sheriff again.

“I find such accusations shameful and appalling. We are an honorable family.”

Laffitte nodded. “You are indeed, my lady. But we must do as the law requires.”

As he moved on, sending his men to search, Thea and Owen followed along, with Thea expressing her outrage with every step.

“How dare you bring such offense upon our house! To assume that we associate with criminals? If my father were here, he would have you all chased off by hounds. And if I had my way, the hounds would eat your livers!”

With a cluck of his tongue, Owen pretended to scold her.

“Thea, let us not be grotesque.”

She gave a snort as she replied. “Of course not, brother. A simple matter of the dogs tearing away their flesh and drawing copious amounts of blood would suffice.”

Owen suppressed the slight smile that threatened to escape his lips. He had told Thea to do her best to be tempestuous, to aid in making the Sheriff and his men feel as unwelcome as possible. It was not a far reach for her, to be sure. But for the first time, he appreciated her unflinching ways.

From room to room, they searched and of course, found nothing. Thea ranted all the way, and when they neared Guy and Cassia’s bedchamber, Thea opened the door willingly.

“Search, if you must. Upset and disturb my poor mother who is nearly nine months with child.”

By this point, Leffitte seemed quite troubled, even as he slowly entered the chamber to continue his search. In the solar, sitting in a chair, was Cassia. Looking up, she politely acknowledged the guest before her.

“My lord Sheriff? What a surprise to see you here.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but Thea boldly interrupted. “He thinks we are harboring criminals, Mama. Owen and I have told him there are none, and that he is offending us with his outrageous claims, but he seems not to care whom he offends.”

As Owen watched the scene unfold, he noticed the expression on the sheriff’s face. Clearly, he was uncomfortable with what he was doing, and Thea’s intimidation tactics were having the desired effect. And he went from looking troubled to quite horrified when Cassia suddenly doubled over. Owen and Thea both hurried to her side, and Thea put an arm around her shoulders.

“Mama, what is it?” she asked.

Cassia gasped. “A sudden pain. It may be the baby.”

Rising up, Thea took a step towards Leffitte, her eyes blazing.

“My God, do you see what you have done?”

Owen reached out to grasp her by the shoulders, pulling her back. “Thea, you tend to Mama. I will have words with our honorable man of the law.”

Walking from the room, with Leffitte following at what seemed to be a hurried pace, he turned to him as he closed the door. Leffitte was all apologies.

“Forgive me, baron. We were merely doing our duty.”

“Well you have done your duty,” Owen said with a sneer. “You have searched our house, turning it upside down, and have found nothing. Now do something honorable this day and get out.”

With a nervous nod, he answered. “Farewell, baron.”

Owen watched him go, waiting until a proper amount of time had passed. Then, he returned to the room, where Thea was holding Cassia’s hand. He came to her, knowing that his mother’s pain had been an act, but concerned for her all the same.

“Are you all right, Mama?”

She nodded. “I am, Owen. And you were quite impressive and commanding. You reminded me very much of your father.”

“Thank you, Mama.”

Thea came to his side, looking at him with a slight smile. A rare thing to share between them.

“Yes, brother, I must agree. You were quite the master of the house.”

He returned her pleased expression. “And you were quite the spitfire, sister. For once it was not a determent.”

“I must ask you, Owen. Why the sudden desire to help Isabella?”

That is not for you to know, he thought. No one could know of his feelings for Isabella…not when he was just grasping the reality of them for himself. He searched his mind for a swift response.

“I will be a knight one day. It is my duty to aid those in need.”

Now, it was Cassia who seemed curious. She looked at him with large, questioning eyes.

“Suddenly you find kindness in your heart for Isabella?”

Taking in a deep breath, he replied…

“We all have our off days, Mama. Now if you will pardon me, I must go and fetch Evelyn and Isabella.”

Before they could question him further, he left the room. It was much too soon for questions of any sort regarding he and Isabella. Especially considering he had so many questions of his own that needed answers.

*****

Owen purposely avoided supper that evening. When his mother questioned the reasons for his avoidance, he stated that he had much on his mind and wished to be alone. She complied with his wishes, but had a meal brought to him…which he hardly touched. He just wasn’t hungry. Instead, he spent the evening sitting in front of a low fire, sipping a goblet of wine, and doing as he had told his mother he was. Thinking.

Now that a search had begun for Isabella, she would need to be hastened away to Toulon as soon as possible. Word had still not come from William, but the fact of the matter was that she was no longer safe here. In a day, perhaps two, she would be gone.

The thought of it pained him. Just as he was realizing what a chance he had nearly lost to know the woman he loved, she was being separated from him. He wished with all of being that he had more time.

“Good evening, baron.”
The sudden interruption of his thoughts startled him. Turning his head, he saw Isabella standing in his doorway. His heart did several wild leaps in his chest. But somehow, he managed a calm response.

“Lady Isabella. Good evening.”

It was a long moment before either of them said anything. It was she who broke the brief silence.

“I thank you for today. For what you did.”

How soft and sweet her voice was. So different from the night before, when she had railed against him and all of manhood. He wanted to invite her in, to ask her to sit and share his company. He wanted her to be near him. But he hesitated, and answered her in a quiet tone.

“Consider our debts settled by it.”

A second silence fell. He waited for her to say something. Turning his head, he saw that she was walking away. And he could not help himself. He rose to his feet, calling out to her.

“Lady Isabella?”

She paused just outside the doorway. But she remained turned away from him, showing only her profile. Turn, he thought. Look at me. Taking several steps forward, he paused in the center of the room. He spoke gently, almost pleadingly.

“We were nearly friends at one point. Must we continue now to see one another as enemies?”

At last, she slowly turned. There was something about her at that moment. Something that took his breath away. Perhaps it was the way she looked at him. Her expression was tender, free of the darkness with which he had seen yesterday. This was the Isabella he remembered. The one who looked at him with a soft light in her eyes…and warmth in her tone.

“I do not wish it so.”

Come to me, he wanted to say. But still he restrained his growing passions.

“Perhaps we should do as friends do. Let us shake hands to seal the bargain.”

Extending his hand, he silently begged for hers. At last, she slowly reached out. When their fingers touched, he felt a pulse of incredible heat that traveled up his arm. Clasping her hand in his, he marveled at the delicate softness of her skin…even as he felt her gently attempting to pull her hand away. Her voice was a whispered protest.

“I should go.”

“Why should you go?”

Slowly, her eyes lifted to meet his. Captured by her gaze, drawn to her with an attraction he could no longer deny, he reached for her. Desire claimed his senses, allowing thoughts for only the feeling of her soft, warm body against his and the honeyed taste of her kiss. He could feel her response growing -the change from tension to ease, as her form molded to his for a few long and glorious moments. But suddenly her form became rigid. He felt her pushing at him, trying to fight, but he held fast to her, hoping she would not end this sweet torment. But in a moment she ripped herself away, and his entire being cried out in protest. His mind rushed to catch itself from the dizzying heights to which it had ascended. As he stood there, his heart racing – his breathing rapid, he stared at her with his feelings in his eyes and written boldly on his face. Looking at her, he saw the longing in her eyes. And the shame. She turned and fled, rushing down the hall. And driven by impulse, he dashed after her.

“Isabella!” he called. “Wait!”

He hoped to catch her before she escaped. But she was too swift of foot. Before he could reach her in time, she had sheletered herself behind her locked chamber door. Lifting his hand, he was a moment away from knocking…but something held him back.

Knocking would do nothing. She would not answer it. And even if she did, what then? Did he expect that she would open the door and invite him in? Did he think he would find his way into her bed? Leaning his head against the door, closing his eyes, he sighed in dismay. Had he just ruined what little progress they had made? God in heaven, he prayed he had not. But he could no longer deny it. He wanted her more than anything. He vowed to himself that somehow, he would have her. But not like this. Not through his own impulsive and destructive behavior. There was a better way. There had to be.

Walking away, he thought of what the dawn might bring. They had to face one another sooner or later, and he would sit her down and talk to her, calmly. She was afraid of her feelings. But they were feelings she could not deny. He had felt the need in her – the desire she had for him. One way or another, they would settle this matter between them. It was how it had to be.



Monday, May 14, 2012

The Baron's Lady - Chapter 11, Part 1

More to come this weekend. Some important developments ahead. For now, enjoy...
*****
Guy felt a hand shaking his shoulder. At first he dismissed it, thinking he was imagining the sound of a servant calling his name. But the nagging was persistent, and slowly opening his eyes, he saw that Owen’s valet was standing beside the bed. Raising his hand to shield his eyes from the light of the raised candle, Guy grumbled darkly at the middle-of-the-night disturbance.
“This had better be necessary.”
Marcel’s whisper was spoken with a slight nervousness. “It is in regards to master Owen, my lord. He has been ill. I think perhaps you should see him.”
Groaning softly, rubbing his eyes to rouse himself from sleep, he waved the old servant away so he could quietly and carefully remove himself from the bed without disturbing Cassia. Looking over at her, he saw that she was sleeping peacefully, and he was glad for it. In a very short while, he would be leaving for court. It was a difficult task to face for the both of them, but she seemed to be taking it especially hard. They had always dreaded times of separation, but tonight she had wept bitterly in his arms, eventually crying herself to sleep. Thinking of her distress, worrying about its effect on her condition, he was relieved that Marcel’s appearance had not broken her rest. If all went as he hoped, he could tend to the matter of Owen and return to her quickly. Daylight would come soon, and he wished to spend the last hours of the night beside her. Lighting a candle, he quietly slipped from the room.
As they walked down the hall, Marcel spoke in hushed tones.
“Forgive the assumption, my lord, but I think master Owen may have partaken of too much wine.”
Guy sighed. “We shall see. And if it is so, we will act accordingly.”
Approaching the door to Owen’s chamber, he could hear already the sounds of a hangover. Quietly entering, he saw it confirmed with the sight of Owen lying on his stomach, his head hanging limp over the edge of the bed. He was muttering and moaning, obviously in great pain. Guy turned to Marcel.
“Go and wake Celeste. Tell her to fetch a vial of feverfew from her lady’s medicine box, and bring it to me. Then, go to the larder and find a jar of honey. Bring it, along with a spoon.”
Marcel nodded, and while he fetched the requested items, Guy went to Owen, shaking his head as he looked down at his wayward son. Reaching down to grasp him by the shirt collar, he lifted him to a sitting position, setting him back against the headboard. His head lolled forward, but Guy lifted it back again – and gave Owen’s cheek several firm but gentle slaps. Owen managed to focus his eyes, looking up at Guy.
“Papa,” he muttered. “I think I may die.”
Guy replied with a snort. “You may wish for the relief of death, but you will not get it. And when you discover what you have done to yourself, you will only suffer more. It will not be pleasant to wake to utter shame and humiliation.”
I know of it all too well,he thought, recalling days past when he had drowned his troubles in drink. Looking at his son, he felt a slight sense of anger – both at Owen, and at himself. Had he failed in some way as a father? Had he not raised his sons to act with honor and decency? It troubled him to think he might not have been strict enough in enforcing proper conduct.
And yet, thinking back on the past, Owen had always been so dedicated to his codes of chivalry and knighthood. But here he was, evidently a victim of his own weakness. Had all of his bold talk and bravado been nothing more than a front?
He shook his head, chasing away such a thought. There was no one as dedicated to his duty as Owen. And despite everything, he was still as human as the next man. He had made an error, and he would soon be paying the price for his mistake. That was punishment enough.
Marcel came back a moment later, and Guy turned to him, speaking in a low voice.
“Mix a portion of the feverfew in a cup of water, and see that he drinks it. Then feed him several spoons of honey every hour or so for several hours. Make sure he is presentable when he comes with the others to see us off. I will not have his mother seeing him in such a wretched state.”
With a nod, Marcel turned to care for Owen, and Guy left him in the servant’s capable hands.
At his bedroom doorway, he saw Cassia just sitting up and looking around. The light of his candle was dim, but he could see the first signs of worry on her face. Her voice was soft with sleep.
“Is something the matter, Guy?”
Coming to the bed, he shook his head in reply. “Nothing of great importance. Owen is feeling a bit unwell, but Marcel is caring for him.”
Snuffing out the candle, he settled back into bed.
“Are you certain he is all right?”Cassia asked.
He moved closer to her. Taking her hand, he kissed her fingers. “He is fine, beloved. I assure you. Now, let us go back to sleep. There are several hours yet until dawn.”
She gave him no argument, settling herself against him, and she was soon asleep again. Stroking her hair, he let out a slow breath as he stared up at the ceiling. He could not go back to sleep now, thinking of Owen and the condition he was in.
There was something troubling the boy. Something more than mere anger at being left behind while the other men went to court. If not for the matter of his departure, he would sit Owen down and discuss it, man to man. But such talk would have to wait. Right then, he wished only to enjoy the peace of silence and the presence of the woman in his arms. They would be away from one another for many weeks, and he wanted to commit every last moment to memory.
*****
The daylight burned his eyes, forcing him to squint. It made the pain in his head even worse, nearly crippling him. It was all he could do to stand there, watching as his father departed with the other men. As soon as they were gone from sight, he turned back to the house, crossing the hall in a rush to be back in his bed chamber.
Lord, help me, he muttered to himself. Relieve me of this torture, and I swear I will never drink again.
As he reached the stairs, Evelyn tried to ask him what was wrong, but he waved her away. All he wanted was to hide from the world, and it seemed he could not get to his room fast enough. At last he reached his door, and entering, he was blinded by the light coming through the window. Rushing forward, he quickly closed the curtains, immersing himself in darkness. Turning to his bed, he fell down on the mattress and clutched his pillow to his face. He wanted only to sleep – to lose his senses completely and hope that his misery would soon pass.
But a knock on the door dashed that hope. Just the noise of the knock was painful to hear, and he replied to it with an angry shout.
“Go away!”
There was blessed silence for a moment. Until the door slowly creaked open. There were soft footsteps – the sound of slippers moving across the floor. He prayed it was not his mother or his sisters coming to look in on him. The last thing he wanted was questions from his mother, or a lecture from Thea, who would probably take delight in seeing him brought so low. Even Evelyn, sweet as she was, would be intolerable company. He wanted no company of any kind, but there was someone in the room. And he sensed that it was neither his mother, nor his sisters. Slowly opening his eyes, he saw Isabella standing there. Placing a cup on the bedside table, she looked at him for a fleeting moment. Why did it seem to him that there was hesitance in her glance?
“Your mother asked me to bring you this,” she said. “It will ease your symptoms.”
She turned away quickly, seemingly in a hurry to be gone. What was her urgency, he wondered? Other than the fact that she should not have been in his room for any good reason. Why did he feel like there was something more to the situation? There was something he felt he should know, but his foggy mind could not decipher what it was. Lifting his head, watching her as she left, he started to call her back – wanting to ask her questions. But a sharp pain stole his ability to think or speak. He let her go, and lost himself in sleep.
Later that afternoon, he woke up with a horribly sour and dry taste in his mouth. His limbs ached. His eyes felt gritty. But his headache had eased, thanks to his mother’s medicine, which Marcel had administered to him sometime earlier. Now, he needed to get himself together properly, if only for his own comfort. If there was one thing he despised, it was being slovenly.
He was glad his family had the luxury of an indoor bathing chamber. Summoning Marcel, he ordered a bath was soon sinking into hot water that eased the ache of his muscles. After a wash of his hair, a scrubbing of his face, and a cleaning of his teeth, he felt a hundred times better.
Physically better.
But his mind was a jumble of troubling thoughts. There was little he could recall about the past night. How he had gotten from the barracks to his room, he could not exactly recall. But he could remember certain moments – moments in which someone had helped him to his feet, and supported him as he struggled to keep his balance. Suddenly, the identity of his helper came to him.
Isabella.
Now he understood her awkward behavior from this morning. At least, he understood some of it. Obviously, she had been uncomfortable in his presence because she had witnessed him in a state of drunken stupidity. But had he done something he should be ashamed of? He had a nagging feeling that he had done just that. Lord, if only he could remember what it was, he could find a way to make up for it.
As he dried and dressed himself in a loose shirt and breeches, he thought of the significance of Isabella’s help. She had done more than simply helping a drunken fool to bed. She had kept him from total humiliation. He shuddered to think what might have happened if someone had found him there, lying in a stupor. Good lord, what if his mother had found him that way? What a disgrace that would have been.
In the hall, heading towards his room, he heard a movement in the nearby stairwell – the one leading up to the tower chamber. Before he even saw her, he knew who it was. And he waited, feeling a sense of anticipation – almost a sense of hope. A moment later, she was there, standing just a small space away from him. Their eyes met. She stared at him for a moment…and promptly turned back. But he wasn’t about to let her go so quickly. Taking a step forward, he called to her.
“Lady Isabella?”
He saw her pause on the step, but she did not turn. He sensed he had but only a few moments in which to speak. If he did not act quickly, she would flee, and he needed her to hear what was on his mind. For a moment he struggled, unsure of himself.
“I think perhaps…”
The exact words were hard to find. He had rarely apologized for anything before, and it was difficult to recall just how to go about it. Still, he tried.
“Last night, you assisted me when I was in a shameful condition. I believe I am in your debt.”
A long moment passed. He waited, wondering if she would accept his apology, or if she would even respond. When she turned, rather abruptly, he was glad that she wasn’t running away. But the look in her eyes stunned him. When she advanced a step towards him, he could almost feel the hostility emanating from her soul.
“There is no debt. My assistance was intended to benefit your mother. To protect her from the shame of seeing her son in so foolish a condition.”
He nodded. “All the same, I must express my gratitude.” He was hoping to soften her mood with pleasantness. To his surprise, the darkness of her expression only grew.
“You play a farce, Owen Gisborne. But I am not a fool. You may think me only a worthless whore, but you know nothing of me. I am a human being. I have a heart, and feelings.”
The angry passion of her words left him incapable of a reply. Though he tried to form some sort of response, she silenced his effort with a swift and fiery effort.
“I have a spirit and a will of my own, and I am no longer the possession of any man. The liberty you took with me last night will never happen again. Mark my words.”
Liberty? He thought. What liberty had he taken? Racking his brain, he tried to remember…and a flash of memory suddenly came to him. Taking a quick step forward, he intended to say something about the kiss he now remembered so clearly. But Isabella was swift in her escape, hurrying away before he could stop her.