Foxwood Hall, Yorkshire, 4th November 1533
Isabel paused in her recollections. The ghost of a smile sat on her lips. "Do not pity me, Thomas. I was not unhappy. In so many ways I had everything that a child could want - a loving mother in Ayleth, a father I revered. I was given everything I desired. No was not a word I understood."
"Nor ever has been." The dark-haired man spoke for the first time, a wry smile animating his face. It was a face of unparalleled beauty, burning with fire and intensity.
Isabel flinched at the sound of his voice. Pain registered in his eyes, and all too quickly the happiness faded, replaced once again by the inanimate mask.
"And yet you denied me, Conor. Time and again, when I sought you out, begged for your forgiveness, no was the only word on your lips." The emotion in her eyes was raw and savage, so at odds with her delicate refinement.
"I would deny you no longer."
Her gaze darted to Thomas. "Then you must give me a token of your sincerity."
Conor's eyes flashed, but her finger was on the rich red lips which would seek to protest.
"For I have been denied for too long to simply accept your pretty words, my love."
"I would give you any token but the one which you seek."
"I will accept nothing less."
Every word she uttered was a seduction, the velvet of her tongue caressing Thomas' ears. How could any man deny her? When she whispered to him, her tongue flicking against his ear, all but drawing blood, he would give her his soul if she asked it of him. But this man, he could see, would refuse her.
Isabel laughed, and there was a harsh, raw sound to it, like the tang of torn flesh. "And yet you will deny me. I can see it in your eyes."
Conor tugged at her jewelled crucifix, crashing her against him. Her pale breasts pressed against his chest, spilling from her crimson gown. He twined his fingers in her long curls, their faces only inches apart. "I beg you not to ask so much of me."
Thomas had asked her, on that first sweaty night, if she loved anyone. If she had ever loved anyone. And she had smiled sadly, her eyes confessing a thousand truths. Tonight, again, a thousand truths were in her eyes, a thousand more written in her touch.
And if she loved him, what might this man whisper in her ear? For surely he wished to reclaim such a treasure. What man would not wish Isabel, the most divine of women, in his bed and by his side? Thomas could imagine them together, razor-toothed and laughing.
There was something lovely, beautiful even, about the synchronicity of their movements, the way their eyes flicked across the room towards him in perfect tandem. They raised their glasses at the same time, gulped down red wine as if their very lives depended on its haze. But their gazes did not dull.
She seemed to have grown blind to Thomas. "Isabel," he called across the room to her, barely loud enough for her to hear. Only to see if she would still come.
Isabel hesitated only a moment, her head cocked. And then she smiled at Thomas, began to move towards him. But Conor did not smile so fast. He wrapped his arm around her neck, stopping her, bringing her close a moment, his lips moving quickly. Yet Isabel's smile did not drop, and she shrugged him away. They walked over to him in perfect step: Isabel gliding; Conor on the prowl. She tempered his jaggedness with her porcelain smoothness. Her fingers, laden with rings, caught at her bejewelled cross as she stopped, looking at Thomas as though his presence confounded her. Her tongue searched for his name, catching upon it as though, for a moment, it had been lost to her. Was he so easily forgotten?
"Dearest Thomas," she murmured, enveloping him in rich, expensive scents, like an overripe flower dusting him with sticky pollen, its cloying aroma overwhelming him. Her mouth felt wet against his cheek, smelling sweetly of wine. He felt her nails caressing his throat, digging into his jaw as she turned his face towards her, demanding his attention. "Dearest love."
"Oh, but he is lovely," Conor murmured, shouldering her aside. There was something undeniably dangerous about his black eyes. He held Thomas' face in his hands, thumbs rubbing across his cheekbones. His lips curved. "Would Ari not adore him? He is beautiful and talented, and I cannot help but think, my love, that he would taste utterly divine." Conor laughed cruelly, piercing a hole in Thomas' guts.
Isabel's thumb brushed across Conor's lower lip. She let him pull her close, standing on tiptoe so that her mouth was beside his ear. "I find that those most beloved of others often do."
Conor's eyes flashed sharply, and he pulled away from her as if her hot breath had burned his neck. There was a moment's hesitation, a brief satisfaction in Isabel's smile.
Conor took a menacing step towards her, turned away again, looking at her over his shoulder. The air vibrated with a frisson of tension. Thomas physically recoiled from it, for it was like standing between two gladiators, titans of the underworld, not knowing who would move first, or what they would do next. He was frozen to the spot, desperate to escape, transfixed.
He was roused from his reverie by the sound of Isabel's melodic voice. For a moment she faltered, as if she wanted to stop. The action was reminiscent of that brief second when a person lost their balance, the second where it still seemed possible to regain their footing, to stop the inevitable. And then she hurtled forward, unable to stop herself, dragged back into her memories, forced to confront the past.