Glancing around the room, he felt a brief moment of concern. "By and by, where is the Baron? At tables, or with his mistress?"

She snorted in disgust. "I know not. Perhaps he ventures between the two. I am only aware that he is not home, and I hardly anticipate his return in the near future."

René's expression warmed, knowing the element of danger was removed. "So we are quite alone then?"

A moment of silence passed, one in which he hoped she might smile or soften further. But still she was still quite serious in her demeanor. She gestured with her head.

"Into the dressing room, René."

As she turned and walked away, his amusement only deepened. Her manner seemed cold, but he knew her well enough. If she was truly spiteful, she would not have let him in. The line he had to walk would have to be a fine one, but if he treaded it carefully, Marie-Isabella Lacroix would soon be eating from the palm of his hand.

*****

A little more than a half-hour had passed. While his clothes hung from a peg, slowly drying, he sat before a blazing fire, partaking of bread and wine. Wrapped in a black silk robe, courtesy of the absent Baron, he chuckled at the voluminous amount of material.

"You might possibly fit three of me in here. Your husband's girth is astounding."

She made a dismissive sound. "I would rather not speak of him. It is enough that I endure his presence in the brief periods of time that he is here. When he is not about, I have no wish to be reminded of him."

René shrugged. "Whatever your prefer, love. I am content to speak of other things. Or not to speak at all."

Leaning in, intent on kissing her, he was not so surprised when she turned her head away. She had always been highly self-respecting and stubborn. Obviously, her pride was still sore. It would take a bit more persuading to win back her favor...and it was her pride that he aimed directly for.

"You are a beautiful and intelligent woman, Izzie. You deserve far better than him."

At the uttering of her pet name, she finally looked at him, though it was only for a moment. He knew she was trying to avoid his gaze. She was doing her utmost not to soften, but he knew her better than she knew herself. Like any woman, she would eventually succumb to the need to open herself, be it emotionally or otherwise. She would speak, and he would listen. It was something he had long-ago learned about the female species. They had a deep desire to be heard. And unlike most men, he was aware that patience...just letting them say what was on their mind...was the key to winning their affections. Her head lowered, as her tone became sad.

"Why has love forsaken me, René? Why can I not have what certain others are granted?"

From the inflection in her voice, he sensed that there might be a specific others in her meaning. "Do you speak of someone in particular?" he asked.

She sighed. "A neighboring family. One I have known for many years." Picking up her wine goblet, she took a deep drink before continuing. "Are you aware of the Gisbornes?"

He was silent for a moment, recalling the pretty young Gisborne he'd seen earlier that day. But he kept the brief recollection to himself, giving the baroness his full attention, except to make a small remark.

"I have heard the Gisborne name, but I've not been formally introduced. What of them?"

She sighed. "They've been given quite a bounty of happiness and good fortune. There are many who envy them and their little paradise. It is whispered that Sir Guy and his Lady are quite mad for one another, even after being wed for nearly twenty years. And their offspring are all of robust health. They live well and happy, which is more than some of us can say."

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