The summer breeze was pleasant...the sky blue and pure. And everything was tranquil. It had been quite some time since she’d enjoyed a peaceful day, and with all of the guests occupied in one way or another, Cassia had chosen to steal time for herself. Accompanied only by her maidservant, Celeste, and one of the family wolfhounds, she sat herself among her beloved lavender fields. As she made her healing oils, the sound of a horse’s approach made her smile. She did not have to look to know who it was. She’d given instructions not to be disturbed, and only one person would overrule her command. Without looking up, she greeted him.
“Hello, husband. How did the hunt fare?”
She heard the jingling of his spurs as he dismounted. He made a snapping sound with his fingers...a signal of dismissal given to Celeste, who took her leave and departed with the guard dog following her. He had sent her companion away, so he was either seeking intimacy or consolation on some matter...perhaps both. As he approached, she heard him give a weary sigh...and there was her answer.
“I know that sound,” she said. As he sat down next to her, she leaned over to kiss him. “What is on your mind, Guy?”
He leaned down, pressing his cheek to her belly. “If only we knew from the first the great troubles that lie in wait, we would never leave such a haven as this.” He sighed again. “I no longer have the strength for it. Healer that you are, create some potion that will ease my way.”
She smiled and laughed. “I fear no such magic has yet to be found.” Setting her flowers and medicine jars aside, she ran her fingers through his hair. “What vexes you, Guy? Tell me.”
Again he sighed. “What are your thoughts on the Viscount?”
“The Viscount?” she asked. For a moment she considered his question. “My love, I must be truthful. I have granted him only a passing interest in my mind. I have been much concerned with Thea and Gabriel...and William.”
William had departed at sunrise that morning, needing to return to the duties of his parish. They had all bid him a fond farewell, with her anguish as a mother bringing tears to her eyes. But there was little time to grieve the loss. With a daughter in need of consolation, an expectation of impending company, and a houseful of guests, there was much too much to think of.
“What are your thoughts on him, husband? I am aware of his worth in regards to our grandson. But I sense that your opinion of him is changed in some way.”
He hesitated for a moment before answering. He sat up, and taking her hand, he brushed the top of it with his thumb. “I observed him in conversation with Evelyn. They seemed very much engaged in their discussion, even exchanging smiles and occasional laughter.”
“And? What is it you suspect him of?”
He let out a breath. “There is something unsettling in his manner...something of a...”
Again he hesitated, and she prodded him for an answer. “Something of a what?” she asked.
“A carnal nature.”
Now she smiled, laughing softly. “Surely you jest.”
“I do not.” His expression grew serious, and to ease his manner...the familiar manner of his temper rising...she drew his arm around her. She felt his body ease as she leaned back against him. He wrapped his arms around her, resting his head on her shoulder.
“A man knows such looks,” he said. “Even when they are given in a subtle manner.”
“Those that are familiar with such looks have often given them,” she said with a smirk. “Is it not so?”
Such playful reminders of what he had once been...his sordid past...would have, in times gone by, made him scowl in shame. She had always been able to relieve him of such darkness by showering him with affection. But now, there no need for such soothing. Of late, such teasing more often elicited a smile rather than a frown. Peeking up at him, she saw the corner of his mouth rise.
“Tis true,” he said with a sigh. “One scoundrel can detect another. But let me remind you...” He became serious once again. “I am a reformed scoundrel, converted by you into a respectable husband and father. And if Rene of Bergeron thinks to sway my innocent child, he shall suffer a father’s deepest wrath.”
She could not keep her amusement from showing. His protectiveness had always been so endearing...never failing to delight her. Her eyes twinkled with merriment.
“You will be discreet, will you not? No breaking of bones within sight of our guests? They may not look favorably on such a show of brutality.”
Their foreheads touched, their noses brushing together. He chuckled softly, pressing his lips to hers.
“I make no promises, wife.”
Early the next morning, just after Mass, a rider came pounding down the road towards the manor. His simple garments were those of a groom, and after sliding fast from his mount he bore the news of the party that was soon to arrive.
Evelyn’s maidservant seized her by the hand, sweeping her up the stairs to her room, where she was fitted with the very best dress she had...a gown of midnight-blue silk embroidered with silver threads. Her hair was formed into thick clusters and pinned back…her head crowned with a pearl-rimmed cap. Around her neck was placed a silver chain with a ruby pendent, and she’d hardly gathered breath before she was rushed downstairs again. All of the guests were gathered, including Rene, who said nothing as she passed...but she could feel his eyes on her. All of their eyes were on her, and she felt her heart pounding madly beneath her ribs.
This is too much, she thought to herself. I cannot do this.
She wanted to run and hide. She wanted to weep with fear, knowing that her entire future was about to be presented to her. She knew it was her duty, as a daughter, to be a smiling and joyful bride. But she was terrified, and she could not hide it. Her only comfort was her mother’s hand, which clasped hers in a firm but gentle grip. Guy led the way as the entire household stepped out in welcome.
They could hear the approach of the party...the clattering of hooves and rumbling of coach wheels, the baying of hounds and the sound of trumpeters announcing the arrival. Riding out in front were two flag bearers, and for Evelyn they symbolized the importance of her future family. Her fiancé was the son of a Duke, which meant that someday she would be a Duchess. She had been schooled for her high position, but seeing these symbols before her, she wished with all her heart to remain as she was…The Earl of Gisborne’s child, content in her role as a quiet and obedient daughter.
But she knew there was no returning to the safety of her girlhood. Her journey as a noblewoman was set, and it began with the halting of the gilded carriage.
A footman descended from his perch at the rear. He placed a stool on the ground before the doorway of the carriage. As he drew back the velvet curtain, an aged but stately gentleman emerged. Stepping down to the ground, his deportment was regal…his stride strong, giving no hint of age despite his crown of snow-white hair. He was not so very tall, but he carried himself with such pride that his height seemed more than it was. Basil Jean Carré, Duke of Laroque, had arrived, and everyone bowed in great respect.
As Evelyn rose to her feet, she waited with great trepidation for another figure to emerge from within the vehicle. As Guy and the Duke shook hands, the Duke’s servants began rushing to their duties of unloading the carriage...but no one else came forth. Evelyn looked at her mother, who smiled, but was clearly just as uncertain about the situation.
As Guy and the Duke approached Evelyn and Cassia, they both took on a dignified air. Cassia’s hand was lifted...introductions were made, small pleasantries exchanged. And then the Duke was standing before Evelyn. She dropped a deep curtsey, and upon rising, her knuckles were brushed with a polite kiss.
“My lady Evelyn,” he said. “You are a true beauty. My son will be very pleased with so fine a bride.”
“Tell us, where is the Marquis?” asked Guy. “We expected to welcome you both this morning.”
The Duke began walking with Guy, as Cassia and Evelyn fell in step behind.
“Simon will be along shortly,” was his answer. “He insisted on seeing to a matter of personal importance, but he will not be long in coming.”
Evelyn felt the weight of trouble ease, but it did not dissipate entirely. The Marquis would arrive before the day was over, and her heart still trembled with anxiety at the thought of meeting him. But at least their first introduction had not been rushed. The meeting with the Duke had been a sort of practice. And Basil of Laroque had kind eyes, as well as a warm, pleasant voice, and if the Marquis was anything like his father, he could not be so very bad.
There was still time to prepare, and when at last she met her intended, she swore she would be ready.
In the family box, Evelyn sat between her mother and father. Now and then she peeped around to Rene, who sat at the far end next to the Baroness LaCroix. They were honored guests, but it seemed to Evelyn that they had suddenly been put at arm’s length. Isabella didn’t seem to mind. Having recovered from her trauma, she watched the joust with great enthusiasm, reacting with great dramatics when two knights clashed with lance and shield.
Lucien was the favored contender among the knights. Thea, with Gabriel bundled and resting in a sling against her, sat beside her mother. Her expression was filled with deep concern for her husband, but she declared repeatedly that no one could best him.
Cassia’s eyes were on Owen, who was acting as squire for Lucien. She squeezed Guy’s hand.
“Someday soon, we will watch our son in such a fight as this.”
She said nothing further, but Evelyn knew her mother’s feelings on games of combat. She despised them, fearing their obvious dangers, and Evelyn understood, for she herself did not enjoy the violence and noise. But they were a ritual of noble society that one could not escape, and all they could do was shut their eyes and endure.
Another knight rode upon the field, mounted on a fine white charger. The challenger sat strong in the saddle, clearly a man of considerable height and breadth. His colors were green and gold, but Evelyn did not recognize the crest on his surcoat, and with his helmet visor down, it was impossible to know who he was.
The two soldiers lined up in their positions. The crowd became hushed as the lances were prepared. Then the horses cantered towards each other, gathering speed as they came closer and closer. The green knight’s lance rammed Lucien’s shield with a violent crash and splintering of wood...and a collective gasp came from the family box as Lucien was thrown from the saddle. He hit the ground hard but was on his feet in an instant, for already his opponent was upon him. Again and again their swords and shields met with brutal force, with neither fighter willing to back down. On went the raging battle for what seemed like an eternity...until a second of hesitation from Lucien allowed the green knight the advantage. He hooked Lucien’s ankle and dropped him to the ground, jabbing his sword-tip to within a hair’s space of his opponent’s throat.
A roar went up among the crowd, and their cheers only grew louder as the green knight offered his free hand to Lucien and brought him to his feet. As their horses were led from the field, both men walked towards the family box...and Evelyn was stunned when the Duke rose to his feet. There was a warm smile spreading across his face as the green knight stepped up before him, and when the soldier removed his helmet, the ladies in the box softly gasped. His hair was soft brown and slightly curled. His face was so very masculine...a jaw that was nearly square, a strong chin that had a slight indention, and a straight nose just above full, sensual lips. His eyes were his most striking feature...a deep shade of green with flecks of gold.
He bowed before the Duke, and the two men shared a strong embrace. Basil clasped the knight’s shoulder, turning to face Guy and his family.
“Guy of Gisborne, may I present my son...the honorable Simon Jean Carré, Marquis of Laroque.”