Sorry this has taken so long...
Standing upon a stool, watching the seamstress embellishing the hem of her dress, Evelyn trembled with nervous energy. She had attended celebrations before, but none so grand as the one her father had planned to welcome his grandson. All of high or low estate would be there, but more importantly, this would be her first introduction to her future husband.
Guy had sent word to his old friend, the Duke of Larouque, inviting him to attend the party. And in the correspondence he had suggested using the occasion to let their children be introduced. They would arrive in only a few days time, and Evelyn’s imagination was on fire with curiosity.
What would he be like? Not even Guy had met him, despite being very old friends with his father. When pressed for information of the father’s appearance, in order to conjure an image of the son, Guy did not give much detail. All he said was that the Duke was tall and fair-haired, but he could not recall much more than that. It had been too long since they’d seen one another, and his memory wasn’t so clear.
For Evelyn, the vague description made her mind come to life with imaginings of a sly, fine-looking fellow...one with a wicked smile and brilliant green eyes.
Stop that this instant, she told herself. Such imaginings will lead to no good.
Now would be the cruelest of times to stage an act of rebellion...even if it was only in thought. Life was so sweet at this moment. The house was filled with such good tidings, and it would be wrong to destroy the peace.
Looking over to the window seat, she watched a ritual being played out that had become quite familiar of late. Thea was there, with their mother beside her. Cassia was reaching for the baby, and Thea was fretting about it.
“Mind his head,” she told her mother. To which she received a reproachful look.
“My darling girl, I have mothered four children and I will soon nurse a fifth. I am quite adept at handling babies with care. Now away with you. You will be of great interest tonight and you must make yourself ready."
To her mother’s urging she gave a slight pout, but Cassia gave the command a second time, her voice more stern. Reluctantly, Thea went from the room, leaving Cassia wagging her head.
Evelyn smiled at their interaction. It was clear how enamored Thea was of her child. But everyone agreed that she was overly nervous when it came to him. She could hardly bear to give him up to others, even members of the family.
It was all the talk around the shire that Lucien had fathered a fine child, and despite her motherly concerns, Thea was eager to have the local nobility admiring her son. The celebration of his birth was to be a splendid event. It would be a nine day event of tournaments and feasting...of merriment and great exchange between important people. Politics were a matter nearly as anticipated as any leisure activity. Talk of Gabriel’s birth would lead to discussions of proposals and marriages...the joining of families, the gaining of properties and the acquisition of inheritances. Evelyn knew that her own dowry would be the subject of some interest. And her future husband would certainly be at the center of such a meeting. And she wondered...
Would Simon of Larouqe find her pleasing?
She lowered her head, losing herself in deep thought. Her mother and sister had found absolute happiness in their husbands. There seemed to be no reason to think that she should not find the same joy in marriage. But nothing in life was certain. If only she could know something of her future mate. What was his temperament? What were his tastes and pursuits? But more importantly, would he be happy with his betrothed?
“Evelyn, what troubles your mind?”
The suddenness of her mother’s question brought her back to herself. She lifted her head, smiling sheepishly.
“Forgive me, Mama. I did not mean to daydream.”
Cassia smiled. “No harm done, dearest. But pray...tell me what sets your mind to wandering.”
Casting her eyes slightly down, Evelyn gave a small sigh. “Mama, what do you suppose the Marquis will be like?”
She knew it was unseemly to be curious, especially about such things. A lady was not expected to assess her betrothed, but to be entirely gracious and accepting of him in every way. And yet she knew her mother well...that she would not frown on such a matter. As if to give evidence of her understanding nature, Cassia gave her daughter a little smile. Turning to a servant, she handed Gabriel over, instructing him to be cleaned and fed. Then she spoke to the seamstress.
“Will you give us leave for a moment?”
After the woman had gone, Cassia took Evelyn’s hand in her own. She spoke softly.
“Evie, you have not been yourself these last days. I must know what vexes you.”
“I have wayward thoughts, Mama.”
“About your husband?”
Among other things, Evelyn thought. But the subject of handsome thieves was a matter best left in the far corners of her mind. Her future husband was of greater importance. And she did indeed wonder about him. To her mother’s question, she gave a small nod. Cassia sighed, placing a light kiss upon Evelyn’s hand.
“My darling, your concerns are nothing new. Every bride is uneasy at first. We all have hopes and fears, but we must trust in the Almighty to guide us along the way.”
“But will I be happy with him? Will I find the closeness that you share with Papa? And that Thea shares with Lucien?”
Cassia’s smile was confident. “I am sure you will be the happiest of women. Contentment in marriage seems to favor me and mine.”
Evelyn embraced her mother, basking in her love and confidence. Though her mind still swirled with many thoughts, she felt stronger now...more ready to face the task ahead of her. Cassia pulled back, her expression taking on a more serious light.
“Now then...I shall let the seamstress commence with her work. Our guests will soon be upon us and we must be ready for them.”
Evelyn nodded. As her mother left, and the seamstress returned to her work, she felt a new confidence flowing all through her being. Her marriage would be a joy, just as her mother had said. There was no reason at all to think of troublesome creatures such as criminals...no matter how charming and handsome they were.
A footman knocked on the chamber door.
“Lady Evelyn, The Earl wishes to speak with you immediately. He awaits you in the solar.”
Claudia had just put the last touches to Evelyn’s hair when the summons came. Rising from her seat to answer the call, she wondered what could be amiss. At so busy a time, she would have thought him very much occupied. To call her to the solar, and with haste, seemed rather strange at that moment. She hurried along the hallway leading to her parent’s quarters, and looking in, she saw her mother and father sitting together. They seemed to be in disagreement on some matter, and she hesitated to intrude on their privacy. But before she had the chance, she was spotted. Her father waved her forward.
Cautiously she stepped forward, looking from one parent to another. “Papa, is something wrong?”
Guy drew his hand over his mouth...a familiar gesture of worry and frustration. He sighed.
“You must replace your Mama as hostess.”
Evelyn’s mouth fell slightly open in surprise. She looked to her mother, who held a hand to her head as she let out a frustrated breath.
“Guy, this is not necessary. I am perfectly fine.”
“You nearly swooned. That is not a definition of fine.”
“I did not swoon. Nor did I come close to it. A slight moment of lightheadedness troubled me, but it has passed. A few moments rest and I shall be very well.”
“I will not allow you to stand for hours in greeting. You will remain abed and be cared for.”
“I am not an invalid, Guy. The child is well, as am I. We will not be confined to a sickbed. My Grandson is to be presented to the gentry and I will not be absent from such an occasion.”
Guy made a sound like a growl, turning away with his arms folded...a clear sign of his temper. Evelyn looked from one parent to another, uncertain of what to do. And then, as she had on so many occasions, Cassia found the resolution.
“I will sit with Thea and the baby, if that pleases you.”
There was a silent moment as Guy contemplated her offer. He sighed...a sound of acceptance, though given with great reluctance.
“It may do for the present. But at the slightest hint of trouble, I will remove you from the party and send the entire lot home.”
Evelyn watched his movement, seeing how he would not turn to look at them. He had given in to his wife, and he was not pleased by it. To show his weakness in front of his daughter only brought him further humiliation, and in an angry display he strode from the room, clapping the door shut behind him in a loud fashion.
Looking down at her mother, Evelyn was given a slight smile and a touch of the hand.
“This will be a good experience for you, daughter. It will aid you for when the time comes to manage your own household.”
Good for the future, perhaps, Evelyn thought. But for the present, it seemed like a daunting task...one she was certain she was not qualified to take on.
But she intended to do her best. She turned to her mother, who seemed to sense her nervousness. Cassia smiled, taking her daughter’s hand.
“Do not fear, Evie. I have great faith in your abilities. You will serve well in my place.”
Evelyn sighed, trying to smile. “I hope so, Mama.”
The hall was ablaze with firelight and full of merry noise. Bejeweled and richly robed figures filled every available space, from the floor below to the gallery above, where they admired tapestries and floral displays while sipping from goblets of wine and ale.
Near the entryway, Evelyn stood at her father’s side. Her hand had been lifted in greeting more times than she could count. Some faces she knew, others she did not. But she managed a proper reply to each of them, and with each introduction, she felt her confidence grow. To think she was an equal to this task...a task her mother would have performed...it was inspiring to the soul. Her expression was cheerful, and more so when she saw that her father seemed quite pleased as well. He looked around at his guests.
“The queue seems to be growing thin,” he remarked. “The last of the arrivals must be upon us.”
A slight commotion near the door...a turning of heads and murmur of voices...caused them both to look and wonder at the commotion. Baroness LaCroix was making her entrance, and as usual, she was turning many a head. But it seemed that on this occasion, it was not her icy blond beauty that drew looks. It was the gentleman on her arm...a gentleman that was not her husband. Evelyn’s eyes shined with curiosity, and she wondered...
Will a scandal be brought upon us tonight?
She looked to her father, wondering what his reaction might be. His expression was unreadable, giving no hint to his thoughts. Perhaps he was waiting for an explanation. She wished to inquire further, but dared not speak out of turn. She smiled politely as the Baroness approached, and as the pair came closer, Evelyn sensed that there was something familiar about the gentleman. She tried not to think of it as Guy greeted the Baroness, who introduced her companion.
“Sir Guy, may I introduce my dear cousin. Viscount René of Bergeron. As my husband is away on business, I must rely on a relation as my companion. I hope this does not offend.”
Guy's expression did not change, but his tone was civil.
“Certainly not." He gave the gentleman a nod. "Welcome, Viscount. I hope your stay is a pleasant one.” He turned to Evelyn. “May I introduce my youngest daughter, Lady Evelyn Gisborne.”
Evelyn smiled sweetly as her hand was lifted. Then, recognition suddenly swept over her. Those eyes. She found herself incapable of words. His voice was rich and smooth.
“My Lady Evelyn. It is a distinct pleasure.”
His lips brushed her hand...and her heart hammered against her ribs. The room seemed to tilt. For the first time in her life, she was certain she might fall to the floor-stones in a faint.