Foxwood Hall, Yorkshire, 4th November 1533
Isabel looked over her shoulder, her gaze fixing on Thomas. Her eyes darkened, and a look of distaste crossed her face at the memory. "That one incident showed me how little value I possessed as a girl."
"You were just children, Issy," he said, disconcerted by the dangerous glitter of her gaze.
Her expression softened. "I know, but it set a precedent. It was a dangerous combination; I loved him, but I was powerless, weak."
"What do you mean?" Thomas said curiously.
"I loved Hugh, as we all love our siblings; unconditionally and without question. It is not only our blood that bonds us, but shared experiences, common interests. In some ways, the love we feel for our family is the most primitive affection. It's a survival mechanism; in order to continue, to survive and thrive, families must band together, look after one another.
"But it is also one of the most divine, precious relationships anyone can ever experience. The love we feel for our kin transcends any other bond; families do not walk away from one another as easily as a betrayed lover, they do not fall out of love." She looked at Conor pointedly, then back to Thomas. "We are never as blind to the faults of others as we are to those of our family, nor as recklessly forgiving. In the end, this love, the loyalty and allegiance I felt towards my family, helped to destroy me."
She smiled sadly, turning away from the window. A single tear ran down her left cheek, red as the flames which leapt and danced in the grate. The scene was one of horror and beauty, the scarlet tear in stark contrast to the ivory skin it stained. She made no move to wipe it away. "Love will always be a weakness, Thomas. But you must understand that I am weak no longer. I am powerful now. It is I who could destroy you… It is I who will destroy you."
Thomas was frozen to the spot, wanting to put his arms around her familiar body, draw her close, comfort her. But at the back of his brain was another urge, equally strong, to run away, to escape from this madness. Neither voice could overpower the other, and so he remained where he was, staring dumbly into the fire; a living, breathing statute.
The man sat before the flames gazed at Isabel, horrified, his face a riot of conflicting emotions: anger, resentment, love, lust. For a long moment the tear continued to fall. And then, without appearing to make a conscious decision to do so, he had her in his arms, her head gently nestled in the hollow where neck and shoulder fused together; two lovers entwined.
The action was so fast that Thomas' eyes could not follow it; he seemed to disappear, and then reappear beside her. The feeling of fear grew stronger, the sense of being cornered suddenly overwhelming. He knew then that he was trapped; the door behind him was unlocked but he would not leave the room unless they allowed him to.
All of this raced around inside of his mind while they stood there, together, seemingly oblivious to his presence. He felt like an intruder, observing them as he did, a stranger in his own rooms. There was something so intimate in the way that their bodies merged. One large hand cradled Isabel's small head, resting gently beneath the mass of curls, whilst the man's left arm encircled her lithe body - that graceful child-woman's body which he loved so dearly - crushing her against him. Their torsos pressed together, as if they were attempting to fuse their bodies, creating a single entity. Beside her true lover, Thomas was nothing to her.
When Conor spoke, his voice was reverent. "How could you think it was easy for me to walk away from you? You should know that I will always come back for you," he whispered, his cheek resting against the top of her head. He stroked her hair gently, tenderly.
Jealousy began to replace the feeling of fear which had previously overwhelmed Thomas, defeating the part of his psyche which was screaming at him to run away, to escape from there - to escape from her. This man had come into his home, and now he held Thomas' beloved in his arms, usurping him.
Isabel seemed to have forgotten that he was there, that he even existed. When she eventually raised her head from the stranger's shoulder, her expression was unfamiliar. Her face blazed with love and affection. She had never looked at him like that, with such utter adoration. Isabel had always been so calm and reserved. He had wanted her all the more because he knew that she would never truly belong to him. He had convinced himself that he would rather have a small part of Isabel than not have her at all. And now he understood her reticence; her heart had always belonged to another.
"You love him, don't you?"
Isabel looked at him, surprised, as if suddenly remembering his presence. Her long scarlet skirts swirled around her legs as she turned towards him. He noticed that her body remained pressed against the dark haired man's, her back against his torso, head still resting on his shoulder. Her eyes sought out Thomas', exquisite blue and deep brown locking together. Her gaze was steady and her voice strong as she answered. "With all of my heart, Thomas. He is my eternal weakness."
He heard a voice speaking, as if from far away, the sound disembodied and broken. "What about me?" He realised that the words were his own.
A look of anguish marred her beautiful face, and he could see in her eyes that she knew how much she was hurting him.
"I love you, Isabel, with all my heart, body and soul."
She flinched, as if his words were physical blows raining down on her beautiful form, her exquisite face, as if the man from her dreams had returned to hurt her. Her companion's arms tightened around her, lovingly, protectively, as if he was trying to shield her from the battle which raged inside of her. She appeared to draw strength from him. Her face became impassive, her eyes distant and cold. "Then you'd better become heartless."
Tears burned at the back of Thomas' eyes, the pressure building, a dam just waiting to burst. And then they were falling down his cheeks, scalding his skin as they spilled. He stumbled blindly backwards, his hand fumbling for the doorknob.
But the stranger got there before him, blocking his path. "I can't let you do that," he whispered in his Irish burr, a dangerous note creeping into his voice. He almost sounded apologetic, as if he already regretted what he was about to do. He leaned towards Thomas, tenderly, like a lover leaning in for a kiss, his lips grazing the side of his neck. His breath was hot on his skin. Thomas' heart beat faster, sweat breaking out on his forehead, and his legs trembled. He felt the man's lips part… and then Isabel was beside him, turning his face away from Thomas, her eyes pleading.
The dark-haired man tilted his head to one side, confusion and disbelief evident in his eyes. He shook his head, almost imperceptibly, a look of horror scarring his beauty. "No." His voice was hoarse, ragged. "Do not ask me to place his soul at your feet."
She turned her gaze away from him, her eyes seeking Thomas'. "I must confess a second weakness, my love," she murmured, her lips shivering down his throat. "Let me show you the darker side of me."
Thomas opened his eyes slowly, staring at the embroidered tester above his head. His body felt weak, and when he attempted to gingerly lift himself into a sitting position a sudden wave of dizziness overwhelmed him. Black spots danced before his eyes. He began to fall back onto the pillows, but a strong arm held him upright.
Isabel had appeared beside him. His mouth opened in a silent scream of horror, the memory of what had happened flooding back.
And then he was once more floating in a sea of red, bobbing lazily in the gentle stream. The most beautiful, warm sensation spread throughout his body, sending tingles of pleasure coursing through his limbs. An electric current seemed to flow through him, emanating from a point in his neck.
As he drifted once more into unconsciousness he felt Isabel's silken cheek against his ear. "Sleep now, my love," she whispered tenderly.
When Thomas awoke the next morning the weak winter sun was already high in the sky. Ice frosted the inside of the window panes, and his breath painted cold images in the air. Grey shadows fell across the floor, like long fingers reaching towards him. He pulled the covers more tightly about his shoulders, trying to escape from the memories which plagued him. He felt sick with fear, his body exhausted. He wanted to run away, to escape the ghost which lingered in his room, an invisible reminder that she had been there, although his body remained anchored in place, his limbs unresponsive and wooden.
Her eyes… her eyes had changed, when she had spoken to him. It was an almost imperceptible transition. Yearning had burned in them, temptation and hunger. Isabel's whole body had been transformed, her attitude becoming predatory. He remembered feeling cornered, turning around as if to run away from her. A hard body had slammed into the back of him - not Isabel, it couldn't have been Isabel, it was so strong - too strong. But it was her. Her lithe arms were wrapped around him from behind, as if she were holding him in a tender embrace. Her soft cheek rested on his neck, her lips shivering down his throat.
And then the pain came, the pain which started in his neck, followed by a sensation of warmth, like falling asleep on a summer's day, the gentle embrace of the sun lulling him into slumber. His legs didn't want to hold him up anymore, but he remained standing, her arms cradling him close to her body.
Thomas' hands gingerly strayed to his neck, scared of what he would find. The skin was smooth and unbroken. No trace of her deadly kiss lingered.
He remained in his bed for hours, feeling too numb to move, until eventually the fear overcame him. He swung his legs to the side, using the bed post for support as he levered himself to his feet. He began to pace from side to side, bare feet thumping dully on the wooden floor.
Thomas considered running outside, telling everybody what had happened. But what would he show them? How could he explain when he didn't understand himself? He had thought that he knew what she was - a tragic ghost, an angel, or a golden enchantress, something good and pure - but confusion now held him in its dangerous embrace.
And there was something else, something deeper. He couldn't betray her. She was addictive, magnetic. How could he hurt something so lovely? It would be criminal to see that delicate beauty exposed to the harsh glare of judgement, like throwing a flower into a fire and watching the petals curl in the flames.
His feet stopped pacing, resigned to his fate. He would wait for them. The thought filled him with fear, but the longing to see her again was far greater. He knew that she would not have abandoned him. She would come.