“Bonne journée, une jolie.”
A criminal had held her hand. He’d kissed it tenderly, pressing soft lips to her skin. He’d bid her good day and called her “lovely one”...and she had allowed it.
The afternoon had passed into evening, and now nightfall had come, but Evelyn could not forget what had happened. She drifted along in a dreamy state of mind, making her way to her bedchamber, clinging to just a thin thread of her common sense.
Do not be so easily swayed, she told herself. A wolf is often disguised in the clothing of a sheep.
But when her heart was still so thrilled, it was hard to keep a logical mind. Looking down at her hand, she almost expected to see a mark there...something to commemorate the bestowing of affection. She shook her head at her own silliness, even as she recalled in detail the stranger who had stolen her senses.
He wasn’t what she’d always imagined a criminal to be like. In the tales of her childhood, bad men were always described as creatures with a distinct characterization. They were swarthy, violent types with wild eyes, or shifty, cowardly little men who relied solely on their wits.
This man was so very different. He was a ruffian, to be sure. He needed a bit of a shave, and those unruly waves of flaxen hair needed a trim. But he seemed so pleasant. It seemed he had no hint of malicious intent…or if he did, he hid it well behind that charming smile. And what confidence he had! His way of speaking, the smoothness in his tone, seemed to suggest that he viewed his predicament as some sort of game. What a cheeky thing he was! She could only hope that his luck would be as great as his bravado, for it would be a great shame indeed for such a free spirit to be ruined.
She smiled to herself, recalling the conversation she’d had with her mother and sister. Thea had made her feelings clear about those who flaunted the law. But their mother was more compassionate. Not that she wanted her children consorting with criminals, but she would be the one to confide in about this incredible bit of excitement. No one else would need to know if it…certainly not her father.
Her smile waned. She had never kept a secret from him before. And yet here she was, contemplating such a betrayal. She crossed herself, closing her eyes as she prayed for forgiveness.
How very wretched am I, she thought. To be corrupted so easily, I am indeed weak. I will do great penance for this wrong. I will give confession of all to the priest and purge my soul of this sin.
Her thoughts were suddenly broken by the calling of her name. With a start she looked to see Owen rushing to her. His expression was full of urgency.
“Evie, come quickly.” He seized her hand, pulling her along. “Mama says Thea’s child comes. You must be there.”
All romantic thoughts and imaginings fled, rushed out of her mind as she was hurried down the gallery. They made their way towards the guest chambers, but before they got there they were met halfway by Guy, who snatched Evelyn’s hand. He instructed Owen.
“Find one of the men and send them to BonChurch to fetch your brother. Your Mama wishes him to be here as soon as possible.”
Owen nodded, departing quickly, and Guy turned back to Evelyn. He pulled her along with him.
“The child comes early. You must sit with your sister and be of aide.”
As she was taken to the room, her heart beat fast with fearful tension. She’d never been witness to a birth. It was expected of her, as a woman, to learn of such things firsthand. But the suddenness of it...being thrust into such action without warning...seemed too much to comprehend. She wished to protest, to beg that she be excused from the task, but there was no time to speak. Her mother appeared in the hall, and before she knew it, she was pulled into the bedroom...and into the midst of her sister’s labor.
The room was warm and dimly lit with candles, the curtain windows drawn to discourage unhealthy spirits. The midwife was seated at the foot of the bed with one assistant at her side while the other girl fetched water and linens. Thea was half-reclined, supported by pillows. Her expression was one of great distress, lifted only for a moment when she saw her sister, to whom she held out her hand.
“Evie. Oh Evie,” she gasped. “I need you.”
Evelyn looked to her mother, who guided her to a seat at the bedside. Her hand was taken, and as Cassia went to the opposite side of the bed, Thea gave a gasp. Evelyn was shocked at the strength of her sister’s grip...and frightened by the sounds she was making. Those sounds would only grow more intense, and linger long into the night to come...
The labor pains were endless now. Evelyn was terrified for her sister, who only managed moments of breath before she was enduring the struggle again. Over and over, Cassia had repeated that this was how it was meant to be, no matter how horrible it sounded. But Evelyn could not help, for the first time, doubting her mother’s wisdom. How could this be the “miracle” of creation?
Suddenly she understood. This shall be my penance. To see my beloved sister in this agony. Heavenly Father, have mercy!
It was physically and mentally exhausting just to watch it, but she could not imagine the torture that Thea must have been feeling. Repeatedly she pressed her sister’s hand to her cheek, closing her eyes and praying to God to end Thea’s suffering.
The midwife’s voice, urgent and commanding, rose above everything.
“The head comes! Bear down once more!”
Evelyn watched, cringing, as Thea pushed with all of her strength, shaking with the effort. Moments later she fell back in exhaustion. Evelyn was certain her sister had succumbed to it all, that she had endured too much and lost her senses. She was certain of the worst...until a loud wail pierced the air. And the midwife’s excited shout accompanied it.
“You have a boy, my lady! A fine, stout son!”
All at once, the air in the room changed. While the baby wailed in protest, furious at being forced into the outside world, his noise cast a spell of joy over the entire room. Cassia began to laugh, and Evelyn quickly found herself doing the same. It seemed as if the entire night had not been. All they could think of was the moment...the rapture of a new life brought before their eyes. Thea struggled to sit up, and with Evelyn and Cassia’s help, she rose up to greet her son. She wept as the babe was placed in her arms, and she spoke softly through her tears.
“Mon amour, mon amour.” She gently kissed the top of his head. “Mon darling, vous êtes l'enfant plus beaux jamais né.”
He quieted at the sound of her voice, and Evelyn reached out to touch his tiny foot, marveling at its delicacy.
“He is perfect, dear sister.” She looked to their mother, who was stroking the damp hair of the babe’s head. “Mama, you were not mistaken. He truly is a miracle.”
Cassia softly laughed. “A miracle he is, indeed. And so large. It is no wonder he wished to enter the world before his time.”
The midwife gently took the baby away to clean and swaddle him. While the servants helped to bathe Thea and make her more comfortable, Cassia turned to Evelyn.
“Find your Papa and Lucien. I am certain they are close by, most likely right outside the door. They are surely beyond themselves with worry, so let us not burden them any longer. Go, my darling, and spread the word.”
Evelyn needed no encouragement. She rushed from the room, a bounce in her step, flinging open the door and announcing the news to her father and brother-in-law, who were indeed waiting just outside.
“A boy!” she cried, throwing her arms around her father. “A boy, Papa!”
Guy was stunned, his expression one of disbelief. Lucien, who had been sleeping in a nearby chair, started from his slumber and jumped to his feet. Evelyn rushed to him without hesitation, embracing him as he tried to bring himself awake.
“You have an heir, Lucien! A beautiful, healthy son!”
He quickly came to life, rushing into the room, with Evelyn and Guy following behind. As they entered, the babe was just being returned to his mother, who looked up with a joyful expression. In his eagerness, Lucien did not hesitate. He came to his wife, kissing her repeatedly, seeking assurance that she was well. She replied with only a smile...and placed their son in his arms.
He held him close, beaming with pride.
“My son,” he declared. He was in awe as he walked back and forth. His voice overflowed with joy, his tone almost giddy as he carefully adjusted his embrace. “What a weight he is!”
Cassia came to him, smiling as she gently took her grandson in her arms. Guy came to stand by her side, looking down with a proud grin. When Lucien leaned in, clearly eager to be close to his son again, Guy reached out and gave him a hard slap on the back.
“It seems you have truly proven your manhood. ‘Tis a fine lad you’ve created.”
Cassia looked up at him, smiling, but with her brow raised slightly. Her eyes flashed with indignance.
“The deed was not entirely his.”
She went to the bedside to sit beside Thea, returning the baby to her. With a loving hand, Cassia stroked her daughter’s hair.
“Our darling daughter endured much to bring such a joy to our lives. Her chore was most valiantly done.”
Guy came forward. “You are right, of course.” He leaned down to kiss the top of Thea’s head. “My heart swells with pride to have a daughter with such strength.”
Evelyn observed it all, wondering how life could be any sweeter. And with a knock on the door, her question was soon answered.
“Mama! Papa! We have come!”
It was Owen...and following behind him was William. Seeing her brother, gone from them for so long, Evelyn rushed to him with open arms. There were loving embraces and words passed all around. Cassia silently wept as she kissed William’s cheek. Pressing her hands to her mouth, she tried to stifle a soft sob. As William and Owen admired their nephew, Guy came to Cassia’s side, putting an arm around her.
“Beloved, do not weep. This is a happy occasion. There is no reason for tears.”
“I know,” she replied, rubbing the tears from her cheeks as she tried to compose herself. “But to have all of my family here with me. I am overwhelmed.” She leaned her head against his chest, taking a shuddering breath. “It seems that only yesterday I held my first child in my arms. And now my darling has a darling of her very own.”
Her voice broke, but Guy only chuckled at her flow of emotion.
And in the midst of all the excitement, the baby began to cry. As Cassia turned towards the sound, returning to her place at Thea’s side, Guy let out a deep sigh, punctuated with a tone of amusement.
“Come gentlemen. While the ladies and children swim in a river of tears, let us celebrate with the flowing of ale.”
As they left, Evelyn rose from her seat to express her joy in her own way, throwing back the curtains to let in the morning sunshine. It wasn’t long before the bells were ringing in the chapel below, telling the glorious news to all who could hear.
Rene put his arm behind his head, staring at the ceiling of the Baroness' chamber. Two nights had passed since he’d come to her, and he was beginning to wonder if he’d stayed too long. It wasn’t in his nature to remain in one place. And now that he was a hunted man, his personal philosophy took on a truer meaning. But looking down at the woman draped across his mid-section, he found himself wearing a slight smirk...and considering her company for one more night.
Isabelle was luscious in every way. She was both soft and firm in all the right places, and her energy in the sport of love matched his own. But what appealed to him most of all was her sensibility about their relationship. It was true that she wanted affection, but she wasn’t interested in making a catch. She adored him, as she’s confessed many times before. But she wasn’t in love. She was a woman with lustful appetites, and he was more than happy to fulfill her desires.
But he couldn’t remain in her service beyond another day...maybe two at most. She would be angry about his desertion, but what else was he to do? It was tempting to consider staying, knowing it would be easy to take advantage of her wealth, as well as her body. Heaven knew she had no qualms about that. But her husband would have his guts for garters if he discovered their amour, and the last thing he needed was another bounty on his head.
Isabelle came awake with a soft little moan, stretching in a contented and lazy way. She rubbed her cheek against his belly, snaking her arms underneath his back to cling to him.
A knock on the door came, and at first they both ignored it. But when it persisted, she raised her head and her voice in an angry fashion.
“Be gone! I asked for no disturbance!”
A servant’s voice came from the other side. “Apologies, Baroness. I have an important message.”
With a disgruntled noise, accompanied by a few low-spoken curses, she rose from the bed and threw on her wrapper as she went to answer the door. A few harsh words were spoken, she was handed a rolled parchment, and she examined it as she returned to the bedside.
“It seems the Gisbornes have no end to their good fortune. They have been blessed with a grandson. Sir Guy announces a celebration feast on the morrow and requests the attendance of all neighbors.”
Rene sighed, sitting up. “Then my time in your company has come to its end.” He started to throw back the sheets, but she reached out to touch his arm, giving him pause. She looked at him with pleading eyes.
“No. Do not abandon me so quickly.”
He sighed again, adding a slight smile of amusement to his expression. “What will you have me do if I am not warming your bed? Surely you do not expect me to remain here while you fulfill your social obligations.”
Her reply was quick. “I would have you at my side.”
His smiled remained, but he shook his head. “That is preposterous.”
Dropping the parchment to the floor, she reached out to brush her fingers over his arm, admiring the muscular strength. He knew she wished to tempt him with her touch, which he did not truly mind. Her words, following after her touch, concerned him more.
“You are not unfamiliar with these gatherings...with the customs and manners of nobility. Must I remind you of that?”
For the first time, his smile faded. A slight frown took its place as he answered her.
“I need no reminder of my upbringing.”
For a moment neither of them spoke. Then her voice became very soft, beseeching him. She leaned her head against him, pressing her cheek to his breast.
“Please Rene, will you do me this favor? I have no wish to appear on my own.”
His slight darkness of mood quickly lifted. When a woman spoke in this way...in a sense, begging for his favor...he found it difficult to say no. Still, he let her continue with her plea for just a few more moments, if only for the pure enjoyment of it. Even more enjoyable was the feeling of her fingers as they stroked his skin, enticing him.
“I will call you my cousin, attending with me in the place of my absent husband. None will be the wiser.”
He let out a breath, the last of his resistance fading. It would be pleasant to attend a feast and festival. It had been years since he’d enjoyed such a social occasion, and he had to admit, he’d always found pleasure in them. He gave it another moment of consideration, letting her add a bit of honey to sweeten the deal.
“If you grant me this wish, I will favor you with coin and jewels. It will keep you company when you leave me, which I know you will soon do.”
Smiling now, he consented to her request without reply. She lifted her head to see his expression, and pleased to see that she had gotten her way, she made sure to reward him in the most pleasurable way possible.