With his arms crossed, René stood by the window. By the light of a candle, he surveyed his domain...and he wondered if a man could be more fortunate than he.
A few noble couples were given their own quarters, but all others shared space.
He was the exception.
Sir Guy had given him a guest chamber of his own, and as he looked around at his fine accommodations, he was reminded of a time when such a space would have truly belonged to him.
He shook his head, dislodging old memories. If there was something to dwell on, the present was a much more agreeable matter. A little smile came to his lips.
If there was truly safety in numbers, there was no better place to be than here. In a few days, he would be forgotten by those wishing to see his neck stretched. And now, by some odd stroke of fortune, his identity was that of a hero...not a brigand. Attention would be lavished upon him. Already he resided in an opulent apartment. Other rewards were sure to follow. Fame. Perhaps a bit of fortune. Certainly companionship of the female kind. Isabella was already waiting at the head of the queue with her amorous intentions barely in check.
Isabella was a favorite of his, and she would have his attention when the time was right. But there were others more deserving of his time and devotion.
Sweet, feisty little Evelyn. He could not recall the last time he’d met someone like her. The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement as he recalled her stubborn stance. He had to admire her courage. She wanted to be more than she was. More than a green little maiden...one who feared for her virtue. But such fear was quite unfounded.
She had a father, two brothers, and a very large brother-in-law. René was no fool. He knew that if he was stupid enough to accost her, those men would surely make a hen out of a rooster. He shuddered at the thought of it.
But seduction was not his intention. Nor had it ever been...not with one so young. But perhaps, for the short time they would know one another, they could be companions. He’d never had a female friend that wasn’t a lover, but there was something enticing about having a pretty little lady as his companion. The other ladies would so envy her, and he would delight in teasing them all by focusing his attention solely on her.
Gleefully he rubbed his hands together. His sojourn here was going to be very merry indeed. And when it was time to depart, he would do so with few regrets. One door might close, but another would open. Such was life. From somewhere in his memory came words of wisdom, though he could not recall where he’d heard them.
To regret is to hang oneself with his own noose.
He chuckled at those words. He’d escaped many a noose in his life, and he didn’t intend that to change now.
The household broke fast over a leisurely meal of bouillabaisse, roasted mutton, white bread and ale. Most of the guests were sleepy-eyed from the night before, but René felt energetic...and his attention was drawn not to the meal, nor to the woman at his side, but to Evelyn, who sat only a few spaces down from him.
He and Isabella had been given a place of honor near the head of the table, where they would be close to Sir Guy and his family. When the Gisbornes and Sir Lucien made their entrance, René at once looked for Evelyn...and was stunned by the sight of her.
Maybe it was the color of her dress...a deep shade of burgundy that seemed quite regal. Perhaps it was the upsweep of her hair, pinned into a neat chignon of shining black curls. Or it might have been the way she carried herself with such an air of pride and determination...as if she intended to prove something to him or herself. Whatever the reason, she had a more womanly character about her this morning...and it was very pleasing.
Before the meal began, Guy stood with his goblet lifted.
“Before we break our fast, I would ask all to raise their cups to my honored guest, the good Viscount of Bergeron.”
The guests lifted their glasses high and gave a merry cheer. René smiled, nodding his head in acceptance.
“As he is our honored guest," said Guy, "I will allow him the pleasure of choosing today’s sport.”
Rene smiled, thinking which to choose. “My lord,” he said, “On this fine day, I would take great pleasure in following the falcon.”
The guests applauded his choice, and a murmur of excitement rose among them. Guy nodded.
“Well then, the choice is made. A day of falconry it shall be. But first, let us appease our hunger with this fine meal.”
The feast began. And while René partook of the tangy ale and the fine meal...one of the best he’d had in a long time...he found could hardly take his eyes off of Evelyn. It seemed the interest was mutual, for every now and then, he caught her sending glances his way.
He wanted a few moments alone with her. Last night, their meeting had been rudely interrupted. But perhaps that was for the best, because now...if he was wise about it...he could meet with her in the light of day, in some location that would not provoke scandal.
As the meal ended, the guests stood and gathered in small groups of conversation, deciding who would partake in the hunt and who would remain behind to engage in other activates. While Isabelle was engaged in conversation, he stepped away from her for a moment, approaching Sir Guy. He spoke in a casual tone.
“My lord, before we commence with the hunt, I would very much like to look at your gardens. My dear Mama was partial to all matter of flora and fauna and she bred that same fondness in me.”
Guy shrugged. “If it pleases you, then by all means, explore as you wish.”
Giving a respectful bow, René strolled towards the side door...and as he went, he turned to catch a glance at Evelyn. Her eyes met his. And he knew that it wouldn’t be long before she followed.
In the garden, he plucked a red rose from a trellis vine. Lifting it to his nose, he inhaled its spicy scent, thinking that its beauty and color would suit Evelyn very well.
He heard a step on the gravel behind him, and he smiled as he turned. In the morning sunshine she was radiant, and with her gaze lowered in shyness, it only enhanced her charms.
Still, he didn’t want to foster improper thoughts. And he would begin by keeping their greeting formal. Rather than taking her hand, he bowed courteously.
She lifted her head long enough to give him a tiny smile. She curtseyed. “Bonjour, my lord. I trust you slept well last night?”
“Quite,” he replied. “But let us disregard titles. I would much prefer to be given my name. Will you do me the honor?”
He offered her the flower. As she timidly accepted it, her reply was softly spoken.
“I shall try...René.”
She said it with a bashfulness that amused him. He felt an odd sensation of feeling for her...a strong desire to set her mind at rest, and he spoke gently.
“Do not fear such an informality. After all, friendships should begin with first names. Do you not think so?”
When she gave no reply, he sighed deeply.
“Perhaps I might earn your confidence in another way, my lady...by allowing you to share in mine.”
Without waiting for her, he began a leisurely walk, certain that she would fall in step with him, which she did almost instantly. To put her further at ease, he clasped his hands behind his back, keeping them there as they strolled along.
“You are no talking fool, Evelyn. You have proven that already. And I trust you will keep your silence when I tell you this.”
He paused for a moment, wanting to test her reaction. Her eyes, her expression, were all eagerness as he spoke firmly and directly.
“Adele is not dead.”
Just as he’d anticipated, she was stunned. She was at a complete loss for words, so he was quick to elaborate on his shocking declaration.
“I released her with her promise that she would give herself to the sisters at the Abbey of St. Victor.”
Evelyn shook her head. Her words tripped on her tongue.
“I hardly know what to say.”
He shrugged. “I could not stand to see her punished. At least not in the way society would prefer.”
“But to allow her to escape proper judgment...it is wrong.”
His reply was firm. “We are not meant to judge. That is better left in God’s hands.”
For the first time since he’d met her, he heard the sound of her laughter. It was only a small gesture, softly given, but it was delightful to hear such a sound from her.
“What a strange moral reproach coming from you,” she said. “A man who I witnessed being chased by hounds. A man who freely and rather proudly admitted to me that he was an accomplished thief...and now, a man who walks in the clothes of a nobleman.” She sighed, shaking her head. “How do I know that this is not some grand scheme formed by a master criminal?”
He was silent for a few moments, contemplating the idea of revealing things he hadn’t spoken of in a very long time. But looking at her, he could see that her mistrust was easing with each passing moment. She needed to know something of him. Something tangible. Something real. And at last he spoke.
“I was born in Nice. My father was a Comte...a man of great wealth and importance.”
Evelyn looked up with a slight grin, as if she’d just been given a clue to a mystery she’d been eager to solve.
“So you are a nobleman. I suspected as much when I saw you so at ease among our company.”
He nodded. “I was born a nobleman. But being the third son, I was considered of small value. My eldest brother was the heir...my other brother the spare. That left me as little more than a male issue meant to hover in the background. I was educated, of course. And indulged upon, as any man of means would be...even a son with no real purpose. Without the burden of being a direct heir, I grew rather headstrong. I enjoyed mischief and merriment without fear of repercussions.”
She laughed again, this time with deeper amusement. “A trait that seems to have remained with you.”
He could not help but smile in reply. “Indeed.”
“So how came you to be a criminal?” she asked. “Surely a man of your rank and means would have no need to turn in such a direction.”
His answer was preceded with a little sigh as his memories came upon him.
“I was a great favorite of my mother. And I cherished her as she did me. So when she was insulted by a favorite bishop of my father, I defended her.”
Her eyes grew large with eagerness. “How did you defend her?”
“I declared the bishop a fat, disgusting prig. I demanded his apology and when he refused, I doused him with his own cup of wine.”
For a moment she brought her hand to her mouth, giving a gasp. “Oh my. You dared to reprimand a man of the cloth?”
“I was thirteen and quite reckless. But regardless of that, I was not content to stand by and see my mother dishonored...even by a man of great importance.”
She lowered her gaze, shaking her head again. “I fear to ask what the repercussions were.”
“The bishop was outraged and demanded my excommunication. My father was disgraced...and I was banished.”
“At the tender age of thirteen?”
He nodded. “A sad fact. And one I am not keen to dwell on.”
“So why confess such a story to me?”
“As I said, you are no talking fool. And though we’ve only known each other a short time, I have a certain sense about you...”
He hesitated, seeing the eagerness in her expression. It was adorable to witness.
“What is it you sense?” she asked.
The corner of his mouth turned up as he replied.
She smiled, dropping her gaze again, and this time, he lowered his head to meet her eyes with his.
“You would not betray me now, would you? Just when we are beginning our friendship?”
Her head rose. Though her voice remained soft, she at last met his gaze with a hint of the boldness he knew she possessed.
“I will not betray you,” she replied. “You have my word.”