The next installment is with my Beta and will be up soon...Enjoy!
The stables came into sight...and Evelyn wished they could turn back. She had only just begun to enjoy René’s company, and now she would be forced to share him with others. It seemed terribly unfair. After all, the two of them had a special connection, more now than before. She knew it was an unseemly feeling to have, but she felt that he was her friend now, and that others had not earned the right to be close to him. They did not know him as she did. And more importantly, no one else shared a secret as they did. Not even his cousin, the Baroness, knew what had happened with Adele.
And yet, the Baroness was his one remaining relation...or so it seemed. As Isabella saw them and made her way in their direction, Evelyn felt a pain of sadness in her heart. No matter what confidence he shared with her, it could not compare to the intimacy shared by blood. The Baroness was permitted to be near him for good lengths of time...to talk to him as she pleased...even to place her hand upon his arm when they were together. Evelyn knew it was wrong, but she could not help feeling the sting of envy when, upon seeing René, Isabella smiled warmly and hurried to his side.
“There you are, cousin. We were all beginning to wonder at your disappearance.”
Evelyn met Isabella’s eye. They both exchanged polite smiles and curtsies, and then Isabella touched René’s arm. As they walked together, Evelyn fell in slight step behind them. She tried to tell herself not to feel what she was feeling...a terrible, gnawing pang of jealousy. She wished at that moment for a measure of Thea’s bold nature. Her sister would have had something daring to say...something that asserted her control over the situation.
As her eyes followed the ground in front of her, Evelyn spotted a lizard crawling along the pebbles of the walk. She knelt down, scooping up the little beast. She’d never been afraid of creeping creatures. Most ladies ran in fright from them.
Her gaze rose, looking over the Baroness’ proud stance. What would it be like to see her squirm and squeal in fright? For a moment she shut her eyes, seeking forgiveness for her wicked intentions. Looking down at her closed hand, she contemplated the naughty trick she thought to play.
I shall open my hand, she thought, And perhaps he will make his escape. Where he chooses to land is no fault of mine.
The creature did make his escape...leaping right onto Isabella’s shoulder. The Baroness didn’t notice it, of course. But Evelyn could not contain her smirk, knowing it was only a matter of time until the discovery was made. And it came much sooner than Evelyn expected.
The lizard crawled from silk to bare skin, and Isabella shrieked.
“What is it? What is it! Help! Something attacks me!”
René spotted the lizard and snatched it off...but Isabella’s reaction to seeing the creature was more crazed than having it on her person. She screamed and dashed away, flailing her arms in disgust and horror. As René tossed the lizard aside and came to her aid, trying his best to console her, Evelyn at first felt a bubble of laughter rising inside of her. But it was tamed when Isabella started to cry. Her hysterics brought on the attention of those awaiting the hunt, and soon they were all surrounded by curious guests. Guy stepped to the front of the crowd. His brow was crinkled in frustration, brought on by the possibility of yet another crisis.
“What calamity befalls us now?” he demanded.
René stepped away from Isabella as several ladies took over the task of consoling her. He smirked as he looked at Guy.
“A moment of feminine hysteria, my lord. Brought about by a very dangerous and evil lizard.”
Most of the men chuckled, shaking their heads, while the women clucked their tongues and fussed over Isabella’s frazzled state.
Evelyn watched in silence, and a horrible thought suddenly came to her. What if, as the hostess, she was expected to escort the Baroness back to the house? She would have to remain with her to offer consolation, while the men and a few of the bolder ladies went out on the hunt.
Oh bother, she thought. Why did I not control my impulsiveness? Now I shall suffer for my foolish behavior.
She tried to prepare herself for the task, certain that the command would come at any moment. And she would have no choice but to obey it.
But then, like a sweet soothing breeze, René’s words swept over her.
“My Lord Earl, might I solicit Lady Evelyn to show me your collection of feathered beasts? I am quite eager to meet them before we commence with the hunt.”
She knew her father would not refuse René’s request, and she was delighted when Isabella was escorted back to the house to recover from her ordeal. With René and the other guests following, she took great pride in showing off the mews that housed her father’s prized collection of hunters. Her own cherished pet was a Merlin she called Matilda, and the bird rested proudly on Evelyn’s fist as they ventured out on the hunt.
Guy offered René the use of one of his best falcons, but as the journey commenced, René and Evelyn became so engaged in conversation that the pursuit of game became secondary. He told her of mischievous tricks he’d played as a boy...of standing on the battlements of his manor and tossing fruit at passersby. She told him of her short time with Thea under the tutelage of Duchess Jeanne-Thérèse Lalande...and how it had nearly ended in disgrace for the family.
“Thea was an impossible pupil. She refused to be disciplined. In fact, she was quite hostile with our benefactress. And in the end, we were both sent home before our schooling was completed. Mama and Papa were quite angry, of course...and ashamed. But they have never been capable of lasting anger where Thea is concerned. So they settled on a governess to complete our education.”
René shook his head and chuckled. “How fortunate you are to have such understanding parents. They obviously care very deeply for you and your siblings.”
She sighed. “If only everyone could know such love.” She stole a glance at him. His expression had hardly changed, losing little of its sunshine. But she sensed that he was disguising what he felt, and she wished for him to speak of it. Perhaps he needed encouragement to do so.
“What a pity that your own father was not so kind,” she said.
He looked at her with a crooked grin. “I hold no anger towards him. I think perhaps I should be grateful to him for granting me such freedom...the freedom to make my own way in the world.”
“But such freedom has its price,” she replied. “You were fortunate to find kindness in your cousin.” Her jealousy was again stoked by the thought of Isabella. But she maintained her dignified air, for fear of offending him with her selfishness. She tried to sound composed. “She must be quite fond of you. To take in a poor relation...in essence, rescuing you from a dire fate. You must be very grateful.”
From the corner of her eye she saw him nod. He seemed to hesitate, as if to contemplate her words.
“Indeed,” he at last replied. “She is the kindest and best of ladies.”
She knew it was not her place to question a gentleman, particularly on so personal a matter. But she found she could not help herself.
“Will she provide you with some means of living? Surely you wish to return to a more stable way of life.”
He shrugged. “I am not so certain of that. There is a grand kind of freedom in a vagrant existence. No rules, no boundaries. No expectations.”
“And no certainty. No knowledge of what trouble the next day might bring. And what of the moral implications? Surely you must feel some sense of remorse from your misdeeds.”
His expression became dim...almost gloomy, as if he was becoming displeased.
“Our conversation has taken a strange turn, Evelyn. I am not certain I am comfortable with it.”
She turned her head away, shameful of letting her emotions get the better of her. He had a right to his privacy, and she knew it was improper to pry into a man’s affairs. Her face flushed with shame.
“Forgive me, my lo-” She paused. “I mean, René. I did not mean to be so bold.”
She did not look at him, for fear that she had caused him offense. But in his reply, she heard his familiar tone of lightness and mirth. When she dared to look at him, he was giving her a sly little smile.
“I am not offended by boldness, my lady. In fact, I quite encourage the practice.”
Warmth flooded through her soul, making her smile a giddy smile...until her father approached on his dapple-grey. She immediately checked her posture and composed her expression, giving herself a dignified air as he came to ride beside her. His eyes were kind, but his expression was stern.
“You fall behind on the hunt, daughter. Have you lost interest?”
She shook her head. “Forgive me, Papa. The Viscount and I were engaged in conversation.”
René might well have been a guest of honor, but Evelyn knew she was nearing a dangerous line. Her attention had lingered too long on a man who was not her betrothed, and her father’s look made her quite aware of her mistake.
“Save such tête-à-tête for The Marquis,” he said. His tone was firm. “He shall be upon us very soon, most likely on the morrow.”
She lowered her gaze as she replied, “Yes, Papa.”
Guy moved ahead, though he glanced over his shoulder at the two of them. Evelyn was careful to maintain her serenity for the remainder of the expedition. But while her demeanor was calm, her heart was all a flutter...her mind in a whirl.
Her betrothed, Simon of Laroque, would make his appearance in just one day...maybe less. He was a man of wealth and prestige. He was considered to be a very good match for a woman such as she.
But how could any man compare to the one who already had her heart?