Rene watched the slight sway of Lady Evelyn’s stance, noting how she reached for her father’s arm to steady herself. Seeing it, he tried his best to contain his amusement. Her reaction was priceless...her face flushing a soft shade of pink. But it would not do to have her faint before the masses and embarrass herself or her family. He gave his remark an air of concern.
“I think the heat is too much for Lady Evelyn.”
Guy nodded. “Perhaps it is.” He looked around for aid, finding William and calling him over. Without taking his eyes from Evelyn, Guy introduced him. “Baroness, you know my eldest son.” He glanced at Rene, then at William again. “William, this is Viscount Bergeron. He is a cousin of the Baroness.”
Rene nodded respectfully. His eyes briefly met Evelyn’s as her brother led her away, and he smirked. Then he felt a pull on his arm from Isabelle. He moved away with her, and he heard her barely suppressed giggle.
“It appears you do not know your own strength, cousin. You cause a young lady to swoon at the sight of you. Terrible fiend.”
His mouth formed a crooked grin. He shrugged. “Yes, well...she is but a child. A susceptible creature.”
Isabelle spoke in a hushed tone, leaning her head towards him so that only he might hear.
“From the looks being cast in our direction, many a grown woman might be as susceptible as Lady Evelyn.” She smirked in triumph. “My heart fills with delight at their envy.”
He saw the way she lifted her chin. Vain, proud creature, he thought. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have given her pretentious nature a thought. But this was no ordinary occasion.
“Be sure to contain your delight, Izzy. Remember that we play a deception, and entertaining as it may be, it is still a game of risk.”
She gave a tiny huff. “Do not pretend to be a wary man, Rene. You are one who has a passion for risk.”
“That is true,” he said. “But even the most daring of men must occasionally rely on their common sense.”
He knew she did not like being reprimanded. But it was necessary, and whether or not she cared to admit it, she knew he spoke the truth. Still, he could hear the displeasure in her voice.
“Yes, yes. I know how to comport myself. Now let us see this child they all speak of. And then we can commence with more pleasurable activities.”
“Wine, women, and song,” he said with a smile.
She laughed softly, and he felt the pressure of her breast against his arm. A subtle gesture, but full of meaning. She was claiming him, and if he had been a man of different disposition, he might have been offended by it. It wasn’t favorable for a woman to be possessive. They were supposed to be prim and docile...much like Lady Evelyn.
The Countess Gisborne and her daughters were seated beside a large cradle, which was placed to one side of the room so that guests could pass and give their homage to the babe. As he and Isabelle approached, Rene cast a glance at Evelyn, who sat at her sister’s side. His mouth curled in amusement. What an adorable child she was, so delightfully girlish in her lavender dress and with her hair pulled back in a thick braid, which was itself entwined with ribbon. Even at a slight distance, he could detect the coloring of her cheeks. She was flustered, the poor thing. But she was doing her best to look dignified. It was true that she knew his real circumstances...that he was not who he appeared to be. And perhaps she had the intention of revealing the truth. But she would not expose him here at this moment. She was a lady, and to disrupt a special occasion would bring shame upon her family. She would not make such a mistake.
With confidence in her discretion, he made his approach with Isabelle. She introduced him, and all the while he watched Evelyn, who refused to meet his eye. Her back was rigid, her head held high and dignified. For a moment he took his attention from her, giving her mother and sister their due attention. He smiled, looking from one to the other.
“Beauty is most certainly a family trait,” he said. “And may the child live a long and prosperous life.”
The Countess gave him a sweet smile and a nod of the head. She seemed to be a lovely woman, both in her physicality and her demeanor. Lady Theodora, on the other hand, did not seem quite as gracious. Though she was polite, there seemed to be an air of haughtiness about her.
Like father, like daughter, he realized.
So whom did Lady Evelyn favor? At this moment there would be no way of knowing. He saw her rise, in a quiet way, and quit the room. Maybe he would follow her and make a proper introduction. She did, after all, harbor a secret with him, and he hoped she would keep it. Perhaps it was time to put his powers of persuasion to good use.
He waited briefly, allowing an appropriate amount of time to pass. Lady Theadora had the baby taken from the room, proclaiming that he had been admired enough for the night. The pre-dinner entertainment commenced as Isabelle walked the room with him, introducing him to several people. Most of them expressed genuine delight in meeting him. Others pretended to be familiar with his family name, and he wanted to laugh at such a blunder.
As he walked away from a young baron and his wife, Rene spoke under his breath to Isabelle.
“Methinks I am not the only charlatan. They claim to have heard a name that was born entirely of your imagination.” He scoffed, shaking his head in amusement. “The nobility is the same as it ever was.” Looking down at her, he watched as she lifted her pomander to her nose. These were her people...not his. And though he was enjoying himself thus far, he saw no reason to remain fastened to her side the entire night.
“You should go and circulate among your peers, Izzy. I am sure you will have much to talk about.”
She made a face...a pouty expression he knew well. She was such a needy creature, but now was not the time to indulge her. Besides, he had other things on his mind, and her presence would only be a hindrance. As he gently removed her hand from his arm, he gave her a crooked smile.
“Run along now...cousin.”
Her lips were pinched in a sign of displeasure. And to alleviate it...to keep it from becoming an impending difficulty...he leaned close and whispered a naughty promise in her ear.
That did the trick. Her attempt at being sour was quickly thwarted, as evidenced by the little grin that spread across her lips. She gave him a knowing look as she left him...and a moment later, he stepped out in search of his shy little maiden.
Evelyn walked along the gravel path that lined the side of the manor. Her face was no longer flushed, thanks to the cool night air. Her hands were no longer trembling. But her mind rushed with thoughts and fears.
Why was he here? And what game did he play at, dressing as a nobleman? She recalled his confession of being sly and crafty. Was it his intention to perpetrate his crimes on her family?
Oh, these worries were too much! She would go now and confess all that she knew. It would bring her punishment, she knew. But better to endure punishment than to let her home and family be put in danger.
“I will slay the serpent before it corrupts,” she thought. "No knowledge of sin shall destroy our paradise.”
She took a step forward, determination in her movement...and she was rendered frozen by the sound of a voice.
“A fine evening here. Do you not think so, my lady?”
He stood in a lazy fashion with a shoulder leaning against the stones of the house, his arms folded.
“Do not fear. My intentions towards females have not changed since last we met.” He looked down at himself. “Although, my wardrobe has vastly improved, I must admit.”
She was not accustomed to being alone with a man, and though this was the second time they’d met in private, she was no better prepared than before. But it would not do for him to see her fear. She tried her best to sound valiant and assertive.
“What is your intent here, sir? If you seek means of supporting your crimes, you will be sorely disappointed.”
He shrugged, speaking carelessly. “My needs are fulfilled at the moment, thanks to the generosity of my cousin. Isabelle is a lovely woman.”
Now he righted himself, drawing closer. She wanted to step away from him, for his approach seemed predatory. But she stood her ground. And when he spoke, his tone had a surprising gentleness to it.
“Come now, Lady Evelyn. Let us make an attempt at friendship. After all, you have been kind enough to maintain your silence. Methinks that makes you a tender-hearted person. Will you now turn on me and prove me mistaken?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but wasn’t certain what to say. Then a question came to her.
“What of your pursuers? Do you not fear discovery? Is it foolish to believe you will not be found.”
He shrugged. “My former employees are true nobles. In their eyes, a servant and a bit of furniture are one in the same. I doubt that their recollection of me is very keen. And now that I am transformed into something respectable, they will be none the wiser. My cousin has given me much to be grateful for.”
She struggled with the decision of whether to trust his word or to call him out for his dishonesty. Wasn’t it right that she should be suspicious?
“If the Baroness is your relation,” she said, “Then there is nobility in your blood. So what need have you to be a thief?”
He seemed to hesitate, as if seeking the right reply. And the one he gave was hardly an answer.
“It is a complicated matter...”
His pause took her quite by surprise. His eye rose from hers to looking over her shoulder, as a quizzical expression came over his face. She glanced back to see what so interested him, but there seemed to be nothing there. Was he playing a game of distraction? She turned back to look at him.
“Something interests you?”
His eyes were still fixed on some point. His tone grew quiet. “There, among the trees. I think perhaps I spy one of my own.”
She turned to look again. Now she saw the subject of interest. Someone...it was difficult to discern who in the darkness...was slinking through the grove of trees. Covered in a cloak, the person seemed to be moving at a hurried pace. Another criminal, she thought. This I will not stand for. She took a quick step forward.
“I shall call someone instantly!”
He placed a hand on her arm, stopping her. “Be still and quiet. Time is of the essence when dealing with the criminal element. And why make a grand noise? I think in this case, it is better to act with stealth.”
She wondered what he might do...what she might be made to do...as she watched him disappear into the darkness. Was he conspiring with another? Was she a fool not to go rushing into the house right then, to warn everyone of the danger they were in. Oh, why was this trouble being thrust upon her?
A shocking sound broke the silence...the sound of a baby’s cry. Her heart turned over in her chest, and without thinking she rushed forward into the dark.
By the moon’s light she could see that the Viscount was holding a young woman at bay. A closer look at her face revealed one who was familiar...disturbingly so.
“Adele,” she gasped, shaking her head. But the sound of the crying came again, stealing her attention. It came from a basket that was lying nearby, and rushing to it, kneeling down, she picked up the baby...and realized it was her nephew that she held in her arms. She held him close and shushed him, even as she turned to confront his would-be kidnapper.
“You tried to steal my sister’s child. How could you do such a thing?”
Adele’s head dropped. She began to weep, and as Rene loosened his hold, she sank to the ground. He looked from her to Evelyn.
“Obviously you are familiar with this woman.”
Evelyn nodded. “She works in the kitchens.” Suddenly she recalled a recent conversation she’d heard fragments of. One of the servants had miscarried a child. Could it be that this was the person?
Looking down at Adele, seeing the way she wept so hysterically, the answer was clear. She looked up at Rene.
“She lost her child. So she thinks to have my nephew for her own. And she will be punished for it.”
Rene said nothing. To Evelyn’s surprise, he knelt down beside Adele and put a hand on her shoulder.
“Her punishment will be death,” he said, “And that not done quickly. Or mercifully.”
Adele crawled forward, clutching at the hem of Evelyn’s dress.
“Oh My Lady, have pity. I beg you. Do not let me suffer torture!”
The tearful pleas cut Evelyn’s heart to the quick. And yet, as Gabriel whimpered in her arms, she was reminded of the tragedy that might have befallen her family. Thinking of that, her anger threatened to overwhelm any sense of pity she felt.
But before she could speak...to condemn Adele to her fate...Rene spoke in a calm voice.
“Lady Evelyn, perhaps you should take the child indoors. This night air cannot be good for him, and I am certain he is already missed.”
She wondered what he would do with Adele. Would he let her go? Would he bring her to the manor to face punishment? She wished to linger on these details. But the baby was of greater importance. If his absence was known already, the entire household would be in chaos. And poor Thea would be beside herself with terror. Leaving Rene to deal with Adele, she held Gabriel close to her chest and hurried back towards the house.
The moment she neared the threshold, she saw the first signs of chaos. The guests were all mingling in a noisy fashion, many of them shaking their heads and wringing their hands. She could hear Thea’s cries of panic coming from up in the gallery. And Guy was storming towards the door with Owen, William, and Lucien following behind him. She hurried towards them.
“Papa, Lucien!” she cried. “I have him!”
She placed the baby in Lucien’s arms, and a moment later Thea came flying down the stairs. She rushed forth to seize her child, clinging madly to him as her tears of panic became tears of grateful joy. As she peppered Gabriel’s face with kisses, Lucien put his arm around her shoulder and heaved a sigh of relief. His brow became stern as he looked at Evelyn.
“Where was he? Who carried him off and why?”
She started to speak, but her father gave her no time. As Cassia came to his side, they both drew close to Evelyn, and Guy’s eyes were wild.
“Speak up, daughter. We will know this deviant and have them dealt with on the spot.”
“The criminal has fled, Papa. But the Viscount has given chase.”
“Viscount Rene?” asked William.
At the mention of his name, Evelyn wondered where he was and what he had done with Adele. Her answer to William’s question was given with an air of distraction.
“Yes, brother. It was he who spotted Adele. Were it not for him, she might have been gone with Gabriel before anyone knew of her crime.”
Livid, Thea spoke through her tears. “A servant tried to take my son? Where is she? I will have her head for this!”
Guy took her by the shoulders, turning her over to her mother. Cassia led her away. Evelyn stood in one spot, looking between her departing mother and sister, and the circle of her father and brothers. They would form a party, they said...to bring the fugitive to justice.
While they discussed their plan, Evelyn cast her eye upon the door.
Where was he? She wondered. When would he return?
A thief he might have been. And a deceiver. But those offenses seemed so unimportant to her now. He had saved a most precious member of her family, and for that alone he was deserving of forgiveness.
Perhaps he was not so very bad after all.
She thought of his words regarding Adele...his compassion for her. It was the kind of tenderness her mother would have shown. And she marveled at the thought that a man would show such feeling. She’s never known such a man before. Not even Lucien, who had such a kind heart, would have shown the mercy that the Viscount bestowed upon Adele.
Viscount indeed, she thought. For the first time that night, she felt a genuine smile on her lips. He was a rascal through and through. It was doubtful that his title was genuine.
Or was it?
He was a man of many secrets, and she found herself wanting to know him.
If only he would return...and at last, he did.
He came in quietly, as if returning from a simple stroll. The guests did not take particular interest in him, except to nod to him in greeting. Guy was the first to approach him, meeting him halfway across the room. Unable to resist, Evelyn drew as near as she could, being careful not to seem too eager. She heard the Viscount say in a low voice...
“Forgive me, my Lord Earl. But the woman cannot be brought to you.”
Guy narrowed his eyes, his expression dark. “Why not?”
“She fell as I gave chase and struck her head upon a jagged stone. She is dead, my Lord.”