The "Rebel" will appear in the next installment. For now, enjoy...
The scene in the hall was quite wild. Thea was in hysterics, bringing the entire household out to see what the commotion was. Cassia hurried out ahead of them, and witnessing her daughter’s state…while in the hands of two soldiers…her eyes grew large with concern. The pair were familiar to her, as were all of Guy’s men. As they lowered their heads respectfully, she questioned them.
“Hugh, Christophe? What goes on here?”
It was Hugh who answered. “My lady, we’ve been ordered to take Mistress Theodora to her chambers for confinement.”
“Why?” asked Cassia.
Thea began to babble, high-pitched and incoherent, and it took but a moment for Cassia to see that she would get no clear information there. Seeing Evelyn, she turned to her, seeking an understanding. When all was quietly explained, Cassia turned to Thea, who had buried her face in her hands. But rather than berating her, as she was sorely tempted to do, she reached out and took her by the arm, forcing Christophe to stand aside.
“I will see to her,” she declared. “You both may return to your duties.”
Hugh relinquished his hold, but his look was rather concerned. “But my lady, Sir Guy gave orders.”
“I am aware of that, Sir Hugh. But my husband has departed the premises, and in doing so, he has left the manor in my hands. You will do as I say and transfer her custody to me.”
Both men were reluctant, but knowing their place, they handed Thea over. With respectful bows, they departed. And Thea fell into her mother’s arms. Cassia allowed the weeping for several moments, and she gently stroked her daughter’s back. But then, she motioned for the housekeeper.
“Marie, please escort Theodora to her room.”
Thea raised her head. She opened her mouth to speak, about to protest, but Cassia hushed her quickly.
“Your father has commanded your seclusion. I cannot go against his wishes. I will come up and speak to you soon.”
Owen, who had come to stand beside Evelyn, shook his head as he watched Thea being led away. At fifteen, the conflicts with his sister had hardly diminished, and he took delight in seeing her so distressed. He smirked, speaking to Evelyn in a low voice.
“When she was a babe, they should have shoved her into a burlap sack and pitched her in the river.”
Cassia turned on him in an instant.
“Would you like to join in your sister’s punishment?”
Sheepish at being overheard, he shook his head. “No, Mama.”
“Then you will be silent unless you can contribute to the situation. I have enough trouble on my hands as it is.” She looked to Evelyn. “Where is Sir Lucien?”
“He departed for the barracks, Mama. He was quite upset as well.”
Cassia turned back to Owen. “Go and fetch him. Tell him I will be in the summerhouse, and that I wish to speak to him immediately. And then return to your squire duties.”
He nodded, hurrying off to do as she said. Evelyn looked at her.
“Mama, is there something I need do?”
Cassia shook her head. She gave a sigh, patting Evelyn’s hand. “No, my darling. You need not concern yourself. All will right itself in due course. Why do you not find a quiet place and busy yourself with a task? That would be the wisest choice.”
Evelyn gave a slight smile, nodding. Mama will set things to right, she thought. If anyone could calm the raging waters, it was she. Her mother possessed a gift that no one understood or could explain…an ability to handle the most chaotic situations and the worst of tempers or tantrums. No one was quite sure how she did it, but they all knew they relied heavily on her to keep some sense of order among everyone.
Hiding in a corner, however, would not suit Evelyn. Her curiosity was too strong, and this drama that was unfolding was too good to miss.
For Cassia, the summerhouse was a refuge…a marble columned rotunda with a wrought iron roof, open on all sides, but so draped in ivy and roses that it provided ample shade and privacy. It was there that she sat, needlework in hand, while she waited for Sir Lucien to arrive.
Her shock and dismay over Thea’s accident had been brief, not out of indifference, but out of necessity. There would be much to do before the night was upon them…before anyone would find a peaceful night’s sleep. Thea was unharmed, at least in the physical sense. But she needed to be calmed, and that could only happen if other matters were seen to first. According to Evelyn, Lucien was on the verge of releasing himself from their engagement. Cassia sighed, knowing that if something was to be done, she would have to do it herself. Guy was an excellent husband and a wonderful father, but his temper often impeded his ability to interact with others. Much as she loved him, at times she was frustrated by his lack of ability when it came to peaceful negotiations. There were times, like now, when a gentle hand was needed.
She wagged her head. Men, she thought. Brutish, hopeless creatures.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Lucien approaching. And glancing at him, she decided that “Brutish” might not be such a word to apply to every man.
He was not lacking in presence…that much was true. He was quite tall, even standing slightly above Guy, who was not a small man by any means. Lucien was muscular and broad-shouldered. He had the physicality to be a formidable warrior. And yet, she’d never met a Knight of such good temper and nobility. His calming effect on Thea was astounding, and she very much wished him to be a part of the family.
But first, she had to convince him to stay.
He approached and paused just outside the summerhouse entry, bending low in respect.
“My ladyship, you summoned me?”
She smiled kindly, gesturing to the bench across from her. “Sir Lucien, please sit.”
He took his place almost in a cautious manner, and she could guess he was still concerned about repercussions. She kept her eyes on her stitching as she spoke, hoping to create a relaxed air around them, which would be much need after the day’s commotion. Her voice calm as she broached the subject.
“I have been informed of events that transpired today. Will you speak of them with me?” Her mouth took a slight upturn as she raised her eyes. “Or, do you fear speaking of important matters with a woman, as most men do?”
He wagged his head. “No, my lady. I will speak to you, and gladly.”
Cassia put her stitching aside. “So then…tell me. Why are you considering the end of your engagement to my daughter?”
He cast his eyes down. “I do not wish it. But I fear it is inevitable, as I have failed my master for the final time.”
“Failed him?” she asked, intrigued. “In what way?”
“I could not protect his daughter. Had there been a tragedy, ‘twould have been my fault.” He turned his head away. His voice was pained. “Had anything befallen her, I would never have forgiven myself.”
In spite of the sadness evident in his manner, Cassia found herself rather amused. He was a man, but yet so young. And like so many youths, he was inclined to live for the moment and to dwell on immediate events. He did not yet see that life would be full of times such as these, and even the most experienced of men could not be prepared for them.
She folded her hands, resting them in her lap.
“If I may be so bold to say, it is foolish to think one can avoid each of life’s calamities. The path of life has its twists and turns, and we cannot always know what will lie ahead. And while I thank heaven that my daughter was unharmed, you must remember that she has her own mind. The fault must lie with her as much as with anyone else.”
Now his head came up, but his expression was still filled with trouble. “My lord’s eyes look down upon me already. With this turn of events, I fear his gaze may never rise.”
She sighed, her mind taking a turn in a different direction. “Sir Lucien, might I share some matters with you concerning my husband?”
His expression became rather tentative, as if speaking of his lord would be offensive and might cause him further trouble. But she was quick to reassure him.
“Do not fear, Sir Lucien. What I say to you will never go beyond this small space between us. Unless it you who breaks the confidence. You would not dishonor me in that manner, would you?”
As she expected, he vehemently shook his head in denial. She smiled, quite certain that he was trustworthy. And she spoke.
“When Theodora was born, my husband was beyond himself with joy. He loved both of our children, of course. But Thea wrapped him around her tiny finger, and it seemed the affection was mutual, for she was never pleased by anyone but him. He took tremendous pleasure in that. As she has grown, his influence has lessened in some ways, but all the same, it has remained…until recently.”
His eyes grew slightly, as if he were surprised by her sudden pause, and did not understand its meaning. Oh, the thickness of men’s skulls, she thought, realizing she would have to be more direct.
“You have usurped his crown, Lucien.”
Now his mouth fell partly open. “Me?” he asked, stunned.
She could not help but be amused by his expression. Truly, he did not know his own power over his bride-to-be.
“Difficult as it may be to believe, you have taken his place, Lucien. He is no longer that one magician who can cast his spell over Theodora, and he is not at all pleased with the knowledge. In fact, I would say he is quite jealous.”
“Jealous, my lady? Of me?” He snorted, utterly unconvinced. “Surely you are mistaken.”
“I think not. My husband is of an extremely possessive nature. What he values, he holds tightly to. And as childish as it might seem, he does not take kindly to sharing.”
“But my lady, why should he be this way? This betrothal has been so long in arrangement. It was settled even before the passing of my mother and father, and that has been nearly ten years gone.”
“You do not understand my husband. And you do not understand what it is like to be a father. Perhaps one day, if you have a daughter of your own, you will come to understand what must be endured.”
Once again, Lucien dropped his head. But now, it seemed that he was trying to conceal a look of amused bewilderment. He gave a small sigh. And looking up, his eyes met hers.
“So what must I do?”
She smiled sweetly, with an air of confidence. “Endure, Sir Lucien. In one month, you will be a husband to my daughter. Love and keep her well, and in time, you will be accepted.”
He opened his mouth for a moment, and then closed it. Then he tried to speak again. “My lady, are your certain of this? Of all of it?”
She nodded. “I am.” There was a long silent moment, as it seemed he was absorbing her words. He was starting to grasp that she spoke the truth, and he needed only a slight push further to fully accept her wisdom.
“You have my daughter’s heart. I do not desire it to be broken, and despite my husband’s harsh demeanor, he would not wish it either. When all is said and done, we want only the best for our daughter. Will you honor that wish?”
For the first time, he smiled. Going down on one knee, he took her hand in his own and kissed her knuckles, almost with reverence.
“Countess, you are the fairest and best of ladies. And I would be honored to know you as my mother.”
Smiling down at him, she touched the crown of his head with her free hand. “Thank you, Lucien.” She rose, looking down at him. “Now, if you will pardon me, I must see to my daughter.”
With a nod, he came to his feet. He bowed to her. “My lady.” His expression was glowing with renewed hope as he left her. But she was hardly prepared for a celebration of triumph.
One matter resolved, she thought. And two more remain.
She did not waste time in standing about. Thea might be pacified easily enough. But Guy would be considerably more difficult to calm. He would threaten and fume. No doubt he would be swearing and making threats of violence. It was just his way.
But she wasn’t afraid. Not at all. After nearly eighteen years of marriage, she was quite certain she knew how to soothe the savage beast in him.
There will be peace in the house before bedtime, she thought. Even if I must knock him about the head to achieve it.
As she left the summerhouse, a slight movement of pink silk caught her eye. Turning to look, she could just make out the tip of a feminine shoe peeking out from behind a nearby tree.
“Evelyn Gisborne, bring yourself out from behind that oak tree.”
A moment passed, and sure enough, there was Evelyn. She came slowly out of hiding, her head lowered sheepishly. With one hand on her hip, Cassia eyed her daughter, and with a firm tone, inquired about her attempt to hide herself.
“Young lady, are you attempting to add to my burden of troubles today? Why were you concealing your presence?”
Evelyn glanced up for a moment, and then lowered her eyes again. Her cheeks turned pink, nearly matching her gown. “Forgive me, Mama. I was only curious. I wished to know what would transpire with Sir Lucien.”
Looking at her, Cassia had a sudden urge to smile, for it seemed she was looking upon a younger version of herself. Evelyn was obedient, yes…and kind. There were few so sweet. She was bright, and vastly inquisitive…but therein did lie one of her faults.
“My daughter, there is a danger in being too curious. I was of such a nature when I was a girl, but you must remember that some things are not meant to be heard.”
Evelyn nodded. Her voice was small. “Yes, Mama.”
Cassia leaned forward to give her a kiss on the cheek.
“Go now,” she said. “And please, do not let me again find you hiding and eavesdropping. I have no wish to see you punished. The less trouble, the better.”
With a little smile, Evelyn hurried away. And Cassia headed inside, prepared to take the next steps in seeing the household settled.
As the door to Thea’s room was slowly opened, Cassia could hear the soft mewling sounds coming from within. The hysterics had ceased, but that hardly meant that all was well. Thea lay on her bed, facing the window, and as Cassia approached, she turned to see who had come. When she saw her mother, she sat up and reached out her arms as a fresh wave of tears filled her eyes. She buried her head against Cassia’s breast.
“Oh Mama,” she cried. “This is so unkind. I am being cast as a criminal and the judgment is more than I can bear.”
Cassia let out a weary breath. And while she gave comfort, so too did she feel a growing sense of frustration. After a brief allowance of tears and muttering, she pulled back and took Thea by the arms.
“I love you, child. But for heaven’s sake, compose yourself. Is this how you intend to be as a wife? You will shame Sir Lucien with such ninny behavior.”
“But Mama, he is to leave me. He said as much to Papa. He said he should find another husband for me.”
“You will not have another. Lucien has given second thought to his decision.”
Thea’s eyes grew slightly. “You have spoken to him?”
“Yes,” said Cassia. “And he will not go.”
Thea cried out in delight, throwing her arms around her mother’s neck. Tears of sadness became tears of relief and joy. “Oh Mama, thank you!”
“Do not begin celebrations yet,” Cassia warned her. “Your Papa is not yet calm, nor is he likely to be anytime soon.”
Reminded of her father’s anger, Thea’s face grew somber…her voice became low.
“Oh Mama, never have I seen him in such a state. It was frightening.”
“And why do you think he was in such a temper?”
Thea became almost childlike, avoiding her mother’s eyes and picking at a wrinkle in the bed linen. Guilt shadowed her movements and tone. “Because I disobeyed him,” she answered. And Cassia replied rather forcefully.
“And because you might have lost your life! Can you begin to see what that would have done to him? And not only to him, but to me. To all of us. How could you be so thoughtless?”
“I am sorry. Truly I am. I was only excited by my new pet…” She suddenly recalled another player in the drama…a principal member of the cast, and one most dear to her. “Oh Mama! Papa said he would have my horse killed! Please do not allow it!” She was about to grow excited once again, but Cassia kept her from it with a firm tone of voice.
“Calm yourself. I am certain your father will not act once he has eased his temper.”
Her words were interuppted by the toll of the evening bells. It was time for nightly mass. She had to wonder what commotion might surround the service tonight. Would Guy appear? There was no way of knowing. Everyone would be expecting to see him there, at her side…and everyone was certainly curious as to what his actions would be. But in all likelihood, he would not be seen until late in the night. When he was angry, he often isolated himself, and she was sure he was doing so somewhere on the grounds.
She turned her attention back to Thea. She took a kerchief from her sleeve and wiped her daughter’s eyes.
“Prepare yourself for mass. Seek repentance for your misdeeds. And beg forgiveness from your father. He will not reveal his anger while in the sanctity of the church.”
With a grateful nod and a small smile, Thea moved from the bed. Cassia left her, moving into the hall and heading down the corridor.
The ritual of evening prayer was uneventful…and Cassia was slightly disappointed by it. Guy did not appear. Though she had not wanted mass to be tainted by the whispers that his presence might bring, she had hoped to at least be certain of his whereabouts by seeing him there. But he did not show, and neither did he make an appearance at the dining table.
Where on earth has he gone to? She wondered. As she listened and watched a minstrel play, her sharp eye caught a distant movement across the hall. He glided by rather swiftly, heading upstairs without being seen by anyone else but her. She sat for several moments, not wanting to indicate that she’d seen him. And when the moment was right, she quietly removed herself from the table.
Quietly she slipped into their bedchamber. There he was, sitting in a chair in front of the window, a goblet in his hand. She stepped slowly forward, her voice softly breaking the silence.
“You were not at mass.”
He took a swallow of wine. “No, I was not.”
“Might I inquire as to why?” She was quite certain she knew the answer already, but she wished for him to speak to her so she might judge his state of mind.
“I had no wish to be examined by curious eyes,” he replied.
She came close to his chair, standing just being him. “Will you speak to me?” She watched as he took down more wine, and answered in a gruff tone.
He was being evasive, and though she understood his reason for it, she could not help being slightly bothered.
“You know very well what.”
“There is nothing to speak of,” he snapped. “What is done is done.”
She sighed in frustration. It was tempting to demand answers…to engage in an all out shouting match. It would not be the first such incident for them. But in this case, she decided that more subtle approach was needed. It was a bit of a bluff, but it might just do the trick.
“Very well then,” she replied, her voice calm, feigning indifference. “If you will not confide in me, I shall leave you in peace.” She turned to go…and was satisfied when he at last came around to speaking.
“She might have been killed today and I would have been responsible.”
Turning back, she returned to her place behind his chair. She let out a soft sigh at his statement.
“I seem to be noticing an overflowing of nobility this day. First Lucien, blaming himself for giving the horse. And now, you wallow in guilt as well. For what reason do you find yourself at fault?”
“I should not have allowed her to ride. Had I stood my ground, there would not have been an incident.”
Now she smiled, touched by his fatherly concern. “My love, I do not wish to make light of your imperfections. But when it comes to Thea, your will has always had the consistency of plum pudding.”
His answer was an indignant snort.
“So the blame is mine, then. I have indulged her too much, and it will lead to her ruin.”
“Guy, do not speak with such gloom.” Coming around the chair, she removed the cup from his hand. Putting it aside, she did as she had done so many times before, settling herself into his lap and leaning against him. “I have spoken with her, and I feel she may be ready to turn over a new leaf after today. And Lucien swears he will honor and protect her. I see no ruin in her future. Only health and happiness, if you will allow her that.”
He turned his head away at the mention of Lucien’s name. He pursed his lips in disgust. “Lucien. A more unworthy man there cannot be.” He would not look at her, but she was not deterred in her course of action, which was to convince him of where he was wrong.
“Guy of Gisborne, you are too cruel. Our daughter is fortunate to have a man of such heart and nobility.”
He said nothing, and to that, she responded with a series of direct questions.
“Is he not a Knight of skill and daring?”
Guy did not answer. Cassia knew of Lucien’s skill as a fighter, for they had all seen him compete in games of combat. Guy’s silence confirmed what she already knew.
“Does he not come from a distinguished bloodline?” she asked.
Again he did not reply, but he did not need to. All of these things were well known already, by both of them. The true reason for Guy’s dislike was obvious, and she needed only to hear him admit it. She pushed with a final question.
“Tell me honestly, Guy. What great fault do you find in him?”
At last he responded, though he did not look her in the eye. Mindlessly picking at the arm of the chair, and sounding almost childish in his tone, he finally spoke.
“He is a bloody thief.”
She smiled, knowing just what he meant by the insult. She softened her voice slightly, a sense of compassion in her words as she asked, “One who will steal your daughter?”
He gave a brief pause before answering. “Yes.”
Her heart filled with tenderness for him. The revelation of his feelings was so bittersweet, for she understood them as well as he did and felt them just as strongly. Putting her arms around him, she pressed her cheek to his, and she sighed.
“My darling, I love her as you do. But she is a woman, and we must allow her to go free.”
Several long and silent moments hung between them. She could sense his thoughts…that time was moving much too fast. She often dwelled on the thought herself, though she tried not to let it burden her heart. Every moment of their lives together, both the good and the bad, had been precious to her. She had tried her best only to think good thoughts…to enjoy each moment as it came. It was her decision to let the future write itself. But Guy was not so inclined to be upbeat. He never had been, and now it seemed the subject was taking a different turn, coming around to a matter of a more personal nature. As she leaned back slightly, examining him, he cast his eyes down again. His outlet of breath had a slightly ragged sound to it…and hinted at sadness he seemed unable to conceal.
“How did this come to pass?” he lamented. “It seems that one moment, I watched my children crawling about or taking their first steps. I watched them at play and at lessons. Now, here I sit…an elderly man, looking helplessly on as they prepare to flee the nest.”
He rarely spoke about growing older. It seemed that for her sake…and perhaps for the sake of his pride…he did not make it a habit of conversation. But she knew that it bothered him immensely. Just a few days ago, she had caught him examining the age spots that were developing on his hands. She’d pretended not to notice, and she’d managed to distract his attention with something else. Now, in a gentle way, she did so again.
“You are hardly an elderly man. You have the strength and spirit of one half your age.” She reached up to touch the hair by his ear, the neatly trimmed sideburns that added such character to his face. “Look at these lovely streaks of silver. They make you so very distinguished.”
He gave a slight movement of his head, as if he intended to avoid her touch…and yet, there was something untrue in the action. She had felt him tremble slightly at the brush of her fingertips. Still, he pretended to be unmoved, muttering at her compliment.
“Distinguished is a polite term for aged.”
She smiled, brushing the back of her fingertips of across his cheek. “Aged as a fine wine might be. Better now than before. And all the more appealing, in my eyes. This face seems only to grow more handsome with time, and I shall never tire of feeling it against my lips.” She kissed his cheek, even as he made a weak attempt to turn his head away.
“Do not try to tempt me, woman. My mood is yet dark.”
It was a game now, to see who would have their way, and she was determined to have hers. She pressed another kiss to his cheek, speaking softly but firmly. “Come now. There has been enough darkness in you today. I am in need of warmth and affection.”
She kissed his jaw and neck. He groaned softly. Her grin was one of triumph, for she knew he would not last much longer.
“Do not fight me, husband. You will not be the victor.”
At last he turned his head to her. There was a laugh on her lips as he kissed her eagerly, and as she pulled back to look into his eyes, she smirked, declaring her victory over him.
“Did I not tell you?”
He held her waist in his hands, pulling her close. “Conniving wench!” he declared, his face breaking into a grin. “You know my weaknesses too well, as you always have.”
“This is true,” she replied. “And it has always pleased me to exploit your weaknesses to my heart’s content. Because, as it is said…to the victor go the spoils.”
His reply was a soft rumbling of laughter. As his hands ran up and down her back, and her fingers rubbed the back of his neck, the sounds of mirth became sounds of pleasure…until there was a knock on the door. For a moment they both ignored it, too content with each other. But when the sound came again, Guy burst out in frustration and fury.
“God’s teeth! Must I always be bothered at the worst of times! Go away!”
He tried to return to her kiss, but she was slipping away to answer the disturbance. He held her wrist in an attempt to keep her.
“Ignore it. It cannot be of much importance.”
She shook her head, smiling. “One can never be sure.” She kissed him firmly on the lips. “I will not be long, I promise.”
At the door was Thea’s young lady-maid. She seemed rather nervous as she curtseyed…probably rattled by the sound of Guy’s voice raised in anger. She spoke shyly.
“Forgive the disturbance, my lady. Mistress Theodora has sent me. She begs for an audience with the Earl. She says it is most important.”
For a moment, Cassia considered allowing Thea to come and see her father. But after all that had happened, she decided against it. She loved her daughter, but Thea had caused enough trouble this day, and it might do her well to spend the night with a head and heart filled with concern. Cassia looked at the maid.
“Tell my daughter that we shall speak to her in the morning. The Earl is still out of sorts, and he wishes to pass the remainder of the night undisturbed.”
The maid curtseyed again. “Yes, Countess.” She scurried away, and Cassia closed and bolted the door. When she turned back to the room, Guy had removed his shirt and was taking off his boots. He glanced over his shoulder at her.
“What passes? Has another child lost their senses and done something foolish?”
She smiled as she removed the jeweled comb and the pins that had held up her hair. “Thea asks for you. She wishes to seek forgiveness. But I think it can wait until the morn.”
Guy came to her and she turned her back to him, silently asking him to untie the bindings of her dress. He paused after the first tie was loosened. Reaching out to move her long mass of hair, exposing the softness of her neck, he kissed her there. His arms went around her waist.
“You are right, of course. It is best to let her wait for an audience. And in the meantime, I think you and I should pursue more worthwhile causes…”