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conquer this terrible infatuation, which obscures danger from your sight, and right from your discernment!

Camilla, A Picture of Youth
Fanny Burney

five

Isabella had tried to attend to her mending upon rising, but her mind could not focus on the task before her. Though she had brought her work basket with her to the dining room to allow Mrs. Hammet to clean the front sitting room, she had repeatedly found herself staring in confusion at the sewing in her hands, having again lost count of her stitches. Unbidden, her mind repeatedly returned to Mr. Eldritch's words, inwardly marveling at the fact that the Frenchman had not simply been passing through on his way to a much more interesting destination. Restlessness filled her limbs and she found herself flinging her mending aside, catching up her bonnet in nervous hands as she stood before the dining room windows. The sensation was strong, matched only by the instance in which she had been compelled out of bed in the middle of the night—the night before she'd met Mr. Maçon.

Isabella turned from the dining room windows, regarding the work basket on the center of the table with narrowed eyes. It overflowed with thread, notions, and the petticoat and stockings she knew she needed to mend. But it was no use.

Quickly, before she could allow doubt to cause her to hesitate, she turned from the window and crossed to the door. She ducked her head into the front sitting room but Mrs. Hammet was alone, wiping down the mantel with a rag. "Is Sheil in the kitchen?"

The woman nodded, her face flushed and distracted. Isabella murmured a word of thanks before trotting down the corridor, seeking her former nursemaid. "Sheil?" she called before she'd passed through the heavy door. "Sheil?"

"Yes, child?" The elder woman sat by the hearth, her hands wrapped around a cup of tea. She lifted her head, covered with its customary mob cap, as Isabella stepped through the door.

Isabella paused just within the threshold, unaware of how the restlessness she felt was evident in her stance. One hand extended back to the latch of the door, giving her the look of ready flight, while the other fidgeted at her side, the bonnet dancing from her fingertips. "I believe I'll go to Mousehole," she announced. Her gaze abruptly grew distant, eyes fixed on the rear door that exited to the garden behind the cottage. It was for this reason that she did not note Sheil's darkening expression, which was rapidly curling into a frown.

"Isabella—" Sheil began.

But her charge was speaking, her voice faint, as though she hadn't heard the older woman say her name. "I must go." Sheil's eyes narrowed, a mixture of concern and curiosity crossing her gaze, her lips pressing together as she thought better of the tirade she had been preparing to deliver.

When Sheil finally managed a response, her voice was soft though the concern had not faded from her countenance. "What for, child?"

It was as if the words broke the spell. Isabella shook her head, her eyes clearing as her gaze fell to the bonnet still hanging from her hand. "To the mantua maker. I would like some riband—something to adorn this dull hat."

"I see," Sheil answered slowly, her chin lifting as though to nod—though her head simply inclined at a dubious angle, her brows low over her eyes. Isabella glanced in the older woman's direction, suspicious that the former nursemaid had not spoken to protest.

But when she saw her companion remain silent, Isabella briefly smiled, the quickest motion of her lips. "Shall I fetch you anything from the shops there?"

Sheil shook her head, her brow easing into the benign expression that had graced her features when Isabella first interrupted her tea. "We needn't anything here, child." The words were mild. "Enjoy the fresh air."

Isabella nodded but hesitated, as if uncertain Sheil was truly going to let her go without any further remonstrance. Then, as if thinking better of this uncertainty, she jammed the bonnet onto her head and turned on a swift heel. "I won't be long!"

Sheil listened to the tap of Isabella's boots against the corridor floor, soon followed by the slam of the front door, but the frown did not fade from her brow for several minutes more.

The sky was white, a pall of high clouds concealing any hint of blue from view. Somehow, though, Isabella felt no concern at the lack of sun, a smile fighting to tilt her lips as she turned down the lane that would take her along the jagged coast to town. She could not ascertain what had lightened her spirits so, only that the restlessness that had been coursing through her limbs suddenly felt much lessened. It took all of her effort not to skip down the path like a giddy child, her hands curling into fists at her sides.

Given the high path's exposure to the open sea, Isabella was pleasantly surprised to find the wind was infrequent and weak, her skirts genty stirring about her legs, her bonnet secure on her head with no need of a strong hand to keep it in place. Her gaze turned to the sea, her breath growing even in time with the steady pulse of the waves, her nose filled with the scent of ocean salt and the green richness of blooming things.

She was distracted from this reverie by the vibration of approaching horse hooves, the sensation subtle but unmistakeable. It took all of her will not to turn and determine if it was him, forcing her gaze to remain focused on the horizen, her breath steady though she could feel the beat of her heart in her chest. Later, she would wonder that she didn't grow tense and nervous, her heart racing, her breathing labored. Instead, contrarily, she grew relaxed, her shoulders easing away from her ears, her gloved hands unfurling at her sides.

Only when she knew the rider was nearly upon her did she step from the path; the ground swelled slightly on either side of the well-trod lane, the grass still damp with dew, young crocuses spearing up from the earth. She heard the rider slow and turned her head, looking over her shoulder with an unsurprised gaze. This calm flickered for only a moment at seeing the same expectation in his countenance, as if he had known he would encounter her on this path, on this day.

"To the market again?" He called, his voice almost playful as he tugged at the reins, drawing his horse to a halt. An involuntary shiver traced a path down her spine though she had expected the lilt and tenor of his voice. Had she not replayed their conversation in her mind many times since their first encounter, his cultured accent echoing in her head as she drifted into fitful sleep?

What she did not expect was the charming smile which curved over his lips, his pale features transformed from merely handsome into dangerously enchanting. Isabella forced her gaze from his face, glancing over the fine cut of his navy coat and buff-colored riding trousers, his black boots gleaming with polish, before her eyes dropped to the stooped horse beneath his frame. A frown crossed her brow, responding with the first question that entered her head. "Could you not find a better horse than Mr. Moorland's old mare?"

As the words left her lips, she realized the impudence of the query, heat flaming in her cheeks as her gaze abruptly dropped to the ground; she pretended intense fascination with the grass at her feet and the hem of her walking gown grown damp with dew. Despite this false focus, her frown remained, unable to forget her confusion in her embarrassment. If he was as wealthy as Mr. Eldritch suspected, could he not have hired the finest steed?

Fortunately, Mr. Maçon simply laughed, the sound ringing out as he swung down from the saddle. "She's all that could stand me." Isabella's gaze reluctantly lifted from the soft grass and violet crocuses, lips slightly parted with surprise that he was not affronted at her question. His black eyes sparkled as he glanced back to the horse, briefly lifting the reins with a helpless gesture. "I have not your talents for enchanting beasts of burden."

Her cheeks flamed only brighter at his reference to their prior encounter, her hands again curling into nervous, embarrassed fists. She knew not where to look, no ready response at her lips. Ultimately, it was of no import that she could not gain her wits for the mare had turned her head, almost as if aware they were speaking of her, and gently nosed at Isabella's closed hand.

Mr. Maçon's laugh was uproarious and Isabella's cheeks burned more hotly, her lips tightly pursing as annoyance joined her embarrassment. What could she have thought in journeying out on this day? What could she have sought in hoping to see him again?

Before she could find an excuse to be on her way, he was dipping into a deep bow, doffing his hat as he asked, "May I please introduce myself?" Isabella's lips parted, thinking to protest his assumptions regarding her talent with animals, a ready excuse on her tongue. Misunderstanding her intention, he quickly added, "I realize there is not the proper means of introduction—" A note of uncertainty had entered his voice and she could not help her eyes widening in surprise, her anger and embarrassment replaced entirely by wonder that he should assume she would forebear to deny him anything someone so mannered requested. He clasped his hat in hands that looked as if they longed to fidget, his gaze darting from her features, to his feet, to the reins he still negligiently held.

"If you wish," Isabella finally allowed with the slightest nod.

His smile of relief inspired one of her own and Isabella inwardly cursed to feel her cheeks warming again, wondering at his affect on her person. "I am Edward Maçon—from Châteauroux as you know."

"And I am Isabella Swan." She lifted her chin, recalling Sheil's admonitions of the day before. She was not ashamed.

Mr. Maçon swept into another bow. "It is a pleasure."

Isabella curtsied before nodding towards the road, indicating her destination. "I am not going to the market today but to the mantua maker."

He regarded her with a steady, thoughtful gaze before his lips barely parted to murmur, "Que vous alliez vêtue ainsi qu'une princesse…" Isabella's eyes flared wide; though she could speak only passable French, she understood it well. And though Renée had forbade her daughter from reading some of the books packed into Charles' study at the rear of the house, Isabella had often snuck into that dusty room during the many hours when Renée was preoccupied in the garden or the kitchen. She had never failed to be fascinated by that shadowed space; by the ancient leather chair with its high tufted back; by the massive walnut desk with its calfskin blotter, stained blue black in spots from spilled ink; by the colorful rug that covered the floorboards, worn and faded with time; and by the shelves of books purchased by the Swan family over the decades.

Moliére's Tartuffe was wedged on the highest shelf along with several other books and leaflets in French, one of many items Renée had brought to Cornwall from France after marrying Charles. Despite her mother's attempts to prevent the curious eyes of an impressionable child from seeing that which she should not see, Isabella had first read it when her hair was still in plaits—and several more times since given she'd understood little of it as a child.

"You think me…extravagant?" she whispered, barely able to meet his gaze. She was suddenly hot with confusion, unable to understand how her simple walking gown, white muslin trimmed at the throat and sleeves with the narrowest strip of lace, could have called that play to mind.

But Mr. Maçon was shaking his head, a flash of regret crossing his features as he spoke, "You speak French."

"A little," Isabella's confusion shifted to dismay, wondering that he should be surprised by this truth. But then, as she inwardly acknowledged that only the gentry in the area could claim to know the tongue, her irritation subsided. "My mother was French," she finally allowed, raising her head to regard him with a wary stare.

Mr. Maçon nodded sharply, his dark head briefly bowing before he gestured to the path before them. Isabella examined his features, searching for the mockery or amusement she was certain must accompany his surprise at learning she understood a foreign language. But his countenance was clear, indicating nothing more than politeness.

He only spoke again when she had preceded him down the path, his voice sincere as he apologized, "I beg your pardon, Miss Swan. It is unforgiveable—a lapse of judgement on my part, perhaps…" The words trailed into silence and Isabella found herself examining his features, longing to understand what he'd meant in making the reference.

But no explanation was forthcoming, his expression inscrutable, gaze trained on the road as he accompanied her along the Coast Path, the old mare sedately following. When he finally spoke, it was not in reference to the banned play. "From where did your mother hail?"

"Near Paimpont, in Brittany," Isabella answered, then added with a slight frown, "It is likely miles from Châteauroux."

Mr. Maçon nodded. "This is true. I have only been as far west as Tours." He glanced in her direction. "There is a magnificent cathedral there." Before she could respond, he was speaking again, as if intent on changing the topic of discussion. "And you have family there?"

Isabella's gaze fell, her own curiosity easing at evidence of his. "I believe so. But after my mother and father passed, we were unable to get any letters through."

Mr. Maçon ducked his head, the grimace twisting his lips indicating his contrition—as well as annoyance with himself. "I do beg your pardon—again," he wryly added. Then, more soberly, "I am very sorry for your loss."

Isabella tilted her head, brown eyes steady and only slightly sad as she regarded him. "It was some time ago. It will have been nine years this coming summer." As her gaze returned to the road, she added, "You are kind but there is no need to be sorry."

His pale features furrowed with a frown. "I must, at the very least, be sorry their lives were not longer," he protested.

Isabella nodded, "Certainly." She was then silent, her gaze drifting to her feet, thoughtful. She realized they were walking quite slowly, the mare tugging at blades of grass behind them, but she could not bring herself to examine why. When she finally spoke, she strived to convey lightness in her tone, intent on belying any bitterness that might be thought to underlie her words. "But are our years not always limited?"

Mr. Maçon's expression abruptly shifted from contrition to unabashed surprise and curiosity, lips slightly parted as he stared at her with disbelief. Isabella's gaze fell at his reaction, uncertain whether she'd offended him with her philosophical acceptance of her parents' death. She added, the words determined, "I can also be gladdened they lived at all, and that they had one another while they were alive."

He remained silent and she went on, her mind suddenly filled with the memory of that summer day, of Sheil's reddened eyes and tear-stained cheeks. "I told my nursemaid—many weeks later, of course," she paused. "They could not be happy apart. 'Tis much better they be together in death." She turned her gaze back to the road, her voice matter-of-fact. "Father was often gone on the Continent and Maman could not abide his long absences."

"He was in the military," Mr. Maçon presumed.

She nodded, "With the 32nd Regiment." She did not add that given all of the foreign conflicts, the spans of time in which he'd been home were rare; she suspected her father had loved the excitement and purpose of being commissioned in the army, however much it had taken him away from his wife and daughter.

"And his family?" Mr. Maçon enquired.

Isabella shook her head. "My grandfather died before I was born, and my grandmother passed while I was still an infant."

"And your father was the only child," he concluded.

"Yes. Mr. Eldritch—he's one of the village councilman in Mousehole—heard tell of a brother to my grandfather living in the north. But there were no responses to his letters." Sensing his next question, she added, "And with all of the upheaval on the Continent, it's unlikely any of his letters reached their destination in France. I've no notion of whether my mother's relations are still living, and they likely haven't the means of reaching me if they do."

"Very true," Mr. Maçon nodded, black eyes thoughtful. "You seem quite reconciled to your circumstances."

A frown darted across Isabella's brow, not quite certain as to his meaning—or how to respond. "I cannot imagine my life otherwise." His expression was musing, dark brows drawn slightly together beneath the brim of his hat, and she was not certain whether she detected dubiousness there. Thinking of Sheil's words again, she added, "I have all I need and want for nothing."

"Even frills from the mantua maker?" he teased, his sudden smile so bright that she couldn't think to be defensive or angry in response.

"Perhaps the occasional frill," she allowed, ducking her head to hide her smile, knowing the brim of her bonnet would conceal her features.

His laugh was soft in response and she felt her cheeks warm; but she sensed he was not laughing at her, the sound simply amused rather than cruel, his black eyes sparkling as her gaze darted up to meet his own. "It appears we are nearing our destination," he noted, bringing her attention to the fact that they were approaching the outskirts of the village. They had moved so slowly that she had not grown breathless while climbing the hill that rose before the town, distracted from noticing her surroundings by his presence yet again.

She hesitated as they reached the crest of the hill, hands nervously clasped before her as she faced him, words of farewell ready on her lips. But she found she couldn't speak, gaze darting away from his steady stare, lips parted but silent. Isabella didn't know whether to be pleased or displeased that he was not making his own excuses and continuing on his way; and of course the docile mare did not tug at the reins or stamp her hooves with impatience, simply lowering her head to a copse of grass and pulling a few blades free.

The village unfolded below in the cradle of the harbor, fishing boats bobbing in the distance, a breeze stirring loose tendrils of hair not caught beneath her bonnet.

Isabella knew she should behave as she had at their first encounter, but she could not bring herself to part from his company. "So it is." She forced her gaze back to his, tilting her head. "Where are you destined for today?"

He bowed his head, acknowledging her acceptance of his continued company. "Simply returning to the coaching inn," he answered as they resumed their slow stroll down the path towards the village below. "I've been abroad on my search and have tired Mr. Moorland's mare—though I suspect we've given her a bit of a rest this last mile."

"Ah, yes," Isabella nodded. Cottages sprang up on either side of the lane, soon blocking their view of the blue gray sea, while the ground beneath their feet transitioned from dirt and gravel to uneven cobblestones. "I'm sure he's grateful for the income—Mr. Moorland is ever sentimental about his horses." The road forked into two before them and Isabella bit her lip as she remembered darting down Talskiddy Lane rather than risk remaining in Mr. Maçon's company when they'd met before. Like that day, there were few people passing on the narrow streets, barely wide enough for a carriage. Most of the fishermen would be out on the bay, and the farmers would be in their fields. A few elderly men loitered before the door of the King and Hare, the local public house, their mouths pursed around pipes, their conversation falling silent as Isabella and Mr. Maçon passed. She ignored their stares.

"Which I'm sure you appreciate," Mr. Maçon's tone was teasing again, but she felt no embarrassment this time at his words. Her lips merely twisted into a wry smile, refusing to rise to his baiting. While she still wondered how he had witnessed her with Raginnis' bull when she had been so certain she was alone, at least he didn't appear to think less of her for the childish errand.

A pack of children raced by, laughing and breathless, their boots tapping against the cobblestones; it was difficult to tell who was being chased, all of their faces flushed and smiling.

"Here is the haberdasher, which means we are nearly to the mantua maker," Isabella noted, lifting her head to the signs swinging above, jutting at right angles from the shops marching along the lane. Though the haberdasher and mantua maker had separate exterior doors, they were joined inside given many of their supplies were the same, as were their patrons.

"Then I will continue on my way to the coaching inn." Mr. Maçon drew to a stop before the shop entrance, his gloved hand tightening around the reins of his hired horse. "Miss Swan, it was a pleasure to meet you," he bowed, doffing his hat with his free hand.

She curtsied as he rose to his full height, unable to bite back the smile forming upon her lips. "Mr. Maçon," she acknowledged with a nod.

"Til we meet again," he smiled.

Though she had resisted blushing for the last few minutes of their journey, she could not help the warmth that flooded her cheeks at these words.