The tang of perspiration was on his lips. His heart was thudding from exertion...the rush of victory flooding his veins. As he stepped back from his father's embrace, he looked around at the faces observing him. How shocked they were that he'd beaten their best knight. One woman in particular...a dark-haired beauty holding a child in her arms...looked to be growing angry. He deduced that she was the defeated man's wife, and she was not pleased that her husband had been bested.
But if she thought to be offered his sympathies, she would be disappointed.
To lose is to learn, he thought. So is the nature of defeat.
But he could see...in some of their expressions...the first signs of delight. He had made a great impression with his skills. Sir Guy slowly rose to his feet. His expression was unreadable, but Simon was not surprised. From what he'd been told, Guy of Gisborne was not a man who was easily impressed. It would take more than one tourney victory to win this man's favor...and that was a challenge he welcomed. Guy bowed in respect, and Simon repeated the action. Then he extended his hand.
"My lord," he said. "At last we meet."
Guy accepted the handshake. Folding his arms, he examined Simon closely. "Quite a remarkable display of skill, your grace." He looked to the Duke, and Basil's smile was grand.
"My son has ventured to battle time and again. No man can hope to defeat him." His expression was full of pride as he spoke, and Simon listened patiently as he had so often done. The old man liked to talk...to tell of all manner of things involving his heir's accomplishments. To please his father, he proclaimed words that he and many of his fellow knights lived by.
"I find small joy in eating, drinking, or lying with women. When I see my enemy fall in trenches or to the grass, and hear the cries of the defeated, my blood surges with pride."
Lucien, who had removed his own helmet and stood just behind them, spoke in bold agreement.
"I would mortgage my estates to afford the cost of setting out to war."
Simon turned to look at him, offering a slight smirk. Lucien had not been easily beaten. But even when he had taken his defeat, it had been accepted graciously. There was respect to be given to so noble a knight, and he could already sense they would get along well. Turning his attention back to his audience, his attention was drawn to the young lady sitting just behind Guy. Just like Lucien's wife, this girl was a dark-haired beauty. But she was younger. And if one could tell her demeanor from her actions...the way she fixed her eyes on her folded hands, the way her face glowed with a blush...she was the very picture of a fair maiden.
This, he realized, was his intended. The thought brought him no extreme of feeling...neither excitement about her beauty nor disappointment at her tender age. Women had always been secondary to his military duties. But he was aware that this particular woman was of greater importance than those who had come before. She would run his household and serve as his partner at social functions. But more importantly, she would provide him with heirs....the continuation of his bloodline. To a woman of such significance, he could not give greeting in his current state, reeking of dirt and sweat. He turned to Guy.
"My lord Earl, I would beg departure for a short while. Perhaps until tonight when we dine? I should like to see to some matters of personal maintenance."
"Certainly," said Guy. "One of my valets will see you to your room."
He snapped his fingers, and a groom quickly appeared. Simon bowed to his audience. As he turned to leave, he caught the glance of the gentleman and lady sitting at the far end of the box. The woman smiled at him...but the man at her side gave him something of a scornful glance. It wasn't quite a dirty look, but neither was it pleasant. As he departed, Simon wore a pensive look.
Discourteous wretch, he thought. I shall be wary of that baggage in the future, for clearly he will be no friend of mine...
Much as he reveled in the grit and grime of battle, he found great pleasure in being bathed. While he hung his head, a maid poured hot water over his back and shoulders. She washed and rinsed his hair, and scrubbed his skin with a rough cloth, easing his weary muscles. For the most part, his time with women was spent sparingly. They could be a man's greatest distraction if he let them be...but they did have their usefulness.
As the maid's hands worked on him, he tried to imagine his wife seeing to a duty such as this. Lady Evelyn seemed like such a shy, delicate creature. He couldn't see her being bold enough for such a task. Such a thought elicited a sigh as he imagined the inevitable...their wedding night. He'd never bedded a virgin before, and he wasn't particularly fond of the idea. When he spent time with a woman, he wanted to share pleasure equally. What pleasure could be there be in deflowering an innocent? She would likely be terrified of everything he did, and when it was over she would shrink away in tears.
As he waved the maid away, he leaned back against the rim of the tub, sighing as he ran his fingers through his hair. There was always the prospect of having a mistress to satisfy his needs, but they were little better than wealthy whores in his opinion. This he knew from experience, and quite frankly, he was ready to be done with them.
He would school his young bride when the time came, and perhaps she would grow accustomed to his attentions and manage to please him once in a while...she might even produce a few sons for him, if all went well.
He knew all too well that a man did not get to his station in life by avoiding the difficult. The difficult was to be welcomed, and if there would be a challenge in molding his bride, then so be it.
As he stood, his manservant came forward with a towel to wrap around his waist and another to pat him dry. He cracked a slight smile as he tried to envision Lady Evelyn performing this service to him. How red-faced and shamed she would be at seeing him nude in the broad light of day.
He shook his head at his own foolish musings. They hadn't even met properly and already she was worming her way into his thoughts.
Damned female, he said to himself. But it was not an angry thought. It was simply an acknowledgement of fact. If he let himself be affected by something so simple as a woman, what kind of soldier would he be? His emotions were better reserved for more important occasions, such as the battlefield.
He sighed, wishing it was his gambeson and mail being fitted to him now, rather than a tunic and close-fitting surcoat. These social occasions were so wearisome. These were not his neighbors, but one group of nobles was no different from the rest. There would be gaiety and conversation, of both significant and mundane matters. Food and wine would be in plentiful supply, as well as all manner of entertainment.
So be it, he thought. As with all matters of importance, he would see to it without complaint. He and his father would not remain here more than a few days...perhaps a week at most. He would court his bride and become familiar with her. And then he would return to his estates, and more importantly, to his garrison. It was almost certain that during his absence, they had lost some of their sharpness. He would see that corrected the moment he returned. But for now, he had a duty to perform.
His manservant brought forth a carved jewel box. A gold signet ring was placed on the little finger of his left hand. A silver cross and chain was draped around his neck. When at last he was ready, his man retrieved another jewel box...this one smaller but no less elaborate. It was held aloft, carried with pomp and circumstance, as the servant followed Simon out to meet the gathered masses.
Looking down from the top of the steps, he saw the familiar collection of multi-colored bodies, gathered together and awaiting his entrance. With a powerful stride he descended the stairs. As he'd anticipated, when all heads turned to look at him, the room became hushed. It was to be expected, of course. Except for his father, Simon knew he probably outranked all members of this gathering. But while some men preferred to gloat about their prominence, he did not feel the need. He knew who he was, and he saw no reason to make an exclamation about it.
Only one person needed a declaration of his status...a show of his wealth and position. He looked for Evelyn, and saw her standing at her father's side. The Earl and his Countess were seated in two matching chairs, placed on a dais, with their family around them. Guy and Cassia rose to their feet as Simon approached, and as they all bowed to him, he bent low in return. Then, Guy extended his hand to his youngest daughter. Evelyn lightly placed her palm in his, and was brought to stand before her betrothed.
Simon took a few moments to examine her. She was a beauty, as he had managed to notice briefly at the tourney. But she was even more so upon closer examination. Her eyes were a soft shade of blue, accenting a delicate oval face. Her nose was slightly long but slender...not at all unattractive. Her hair was very dark, a rich and lustrous color. The figure she possessed was slender, but not so childish as he'd first thought. There was a small but nicely rounded bosom there, a slender waist, and slightly rounded hips. He had to admit, she did not lack in her feminine attributes. When her hand was placed in his, he noticed the soft slenderness of her fingers. Already she was distracting him, and they hadn't even spoken yet. Perhaps that was what was needed...a voice to break the silence. And he felt fortunate to have a speech already prepared.
"A true lover considers nothing good except what he thinks will please his beloved."
Motioning for his servant, he had the jewel box brought forward. It was opened, and from it, he took out a sparkling gold and sapphire ring. The guests murmured with excitement as he placed the ring on Evelyn's finger.
"I give you this ring as a symbol of my affection. I pledge to you my fidelity and devotion. I promise you my hand, my heart, and a share of all my possessions."
Still retaining her hand, he clasped it gently between his own. When he pressed his lips to her fingers, the guests applauded in delight. Their approval was but a backdrop to his presentation...his display of worthiness given to his bride. And judging from her expression, it had worked exceedingly well. She was speechless. Her eyes were fixed on his...and for a moment, he found himself unable to look away. The spell was only broken by the approach of the Earl and Countess.
"We are honored to receive you into our family," said Guy, giving Simon a strong slap on the back. "May you find much happiness in your new life." Then he turned to Evelyn, placing his palm on her cheek. "And may my daughter find the joy she so truly deserves."
As Guy placed a gentle kiss on Evelyn's temple, Simon watched the scene before him. He noted the change in the Earl of Gisborne's expression when he looked at his daughter. His features, which had seemed so harsh, became soft and kind. And just for a moment, there seemed to be a touch of melancholy in his eyes. It vanished as quickly as it had come. The softness soon faded as well, replaced with that solemn expression of his.
But if the Earl was determined to conceal his feelings, the Countess was not. He felt the twinge of a smile on his lips as he watched Lady Cassia kiss her daughter's cheek and embrace her. It was clear where Evelyn had inherited her looks, for Gisborne's lady was certainly a lovely woman. She was radiant, even being heavy with child as she was. Such a sign of health would, God willing, bode well for Evelyn one day. Watching the exchange of affection between mother and daughter, he smiled politely, waiting for the proper moment to speak.
But when the Countess came to him, placing her hands on either side of his face, he was taken aback. Her lips pressed softly to his cheek, and as she stepped back from him, smiling, he could find no words for a reply. She seemed unfazed by her actions.
"Your grace, I can hardly express my delight in meeting you at last. I hope you consider staying with us for an extended period of time."
Simon fought for a proper response...but his tongue failed him. Thrown off guard by the gesture of affection he'd received, he was glad when his father stepped forward and clapped him on the back. Basil began a jolly conversation, most of which Simon did not hear. He needed a moment to clear his head, and excusing himself, he stepped away from the crowd.
Out on the gravel walk in front of the manor, the night air served him well. With the calm and quiet to aid him, he forced the trivial matter from his mind. But as he turned back to the house, another matter presented itself.
In his line of sight was the same gentleman and lady he had seen earlier in the day at the tourney. Both were engaged in conversation, smiling and laughing. Recalling that the pair had shared the Gisborne viewing box, he wondered if they were of some relation to Evelyn and her family. If not that, then they were certainly of great importance. Either way, he had not forgotten the look of disdain the man had given him. Such a look was in need of explanation, and he would have it now.
Seeing Owen Gisborne, he approached the young Baron. The lad seemed like a jovial soul, and his abilities as a squire were quite impressive. When Owen saw Simon, his face brightened. He bowed deeply in respect, and Simon extended his hand in greeting.
"Baron," he said, "I wonder if you might satisfy my curiosity on a certain point."
Owen smiled, eager to please. "Certainly, my lord. What is it you wish to know?"
Simon looked towards the couple in question, lifting his chin in a gesture. "Who are they? Are they of some relation to you and yours?"
Owen shook his head. "No, my lord. The lady is the Baroness LaCroix...a neighbor of ours. And the gentleman is her cousin, Viscount Rene of Bergeron. He was of great assistance to my family, particularly to my sister Theodora. A worthless peasant attempted to steal my nephew, and the Viscount hastened to his rescue."
Simon nodded, taking in the piece of information. But there seemed to be some bit of the story that was missing. For a man he had never met, what reason was there for such a look of disrespect?
There was but one way to know. He turned back to Owen.
"Would you do me the honor of making an introduction?"
With a smile, Owen pardoned himself from his peers. Simon walked with him, striding over to where the gentleman and lady stood with a small gathering of other guests. They all turned at his approach, and as he came to stand before them, they bent and curtseyed respectfully. Owen introduced each lord and lady, all of whom greeted him politely. But when it came to the last of the men, Simon saw only a false expression of politeness...a slight smile that was clearly not genuine. Owen introduced him to the offender.
"Your grace, may I introduce a most honored guest...Viscount Rene of Bergeron."
Simon shook Rene's hand. But the moment their grips were locked, he knew he had made not a friend, but an enemy. The contempt was there in Rene's eyes, and were it not for the company around them, Simon would have called him out at that very moment. But considering the circumstances, he chose a calmer, more subtle approach.
"Does something trouble you?"
Rene gave him an odd look. "I beg your pardon?"
"You look rather displeased, Viscount. Is your mind burdened by trouble in some way?"
Rene shook his head. "Nothing of significance, your grace. A trivial matter, I assure you."
Simon nodded, believing not a word of it. He felt his ire rising, but like the disciplined man he was, he kept his temper in check.
"I understand you were of some assistance to the Lady Theodora."
Rene gave a slight smile. "Indeed," he replied. Isabella placed her hand on his arm.
"My cousin was very heroic, your grace. I am proud to call him family."
There it is, Simon thought. Observing Rene's expression, he saw how it softened for a moment with the attention of the Baroness. Jealousy was his grounds for disrespect. He thought himself deserving of complete adulation for his good deed, and now that he had a competitor for the attention of the masses, he was not pleased. Ordinarily, Simon would not have stooped to something so low and petty as jealousy. But this brigand had drawn his blade first. And so he would return the challenge.
"How very intriguing," he said. "I'm afraid I cannot aspire to such gallantry...except on the battlefield. And in the company of his majesty, of course. He has been an honored guest at my father's table on numerous occasions."
The response was what he anticipated. The guests drew a fraction of a space closer, their eyes widening slightly...clearly interested. His closeness to royalty was a matter of great fascination, for although all nobles traveled to court at times, it was doubtful that any of them had managed a private audience with the King himself. Clearly, Simon could see they were all at his command...all but one. Rene was growing more and more displeased, which Simon found to be quite satisfying. He could not hold a blade to his competitor's neck, but this would do very well for the moment.
As for the rest of his audience, they were eager to hear more...but he felt he had spoken enough for one night. He excused himself, moving off to rejoin Sir Guy and his family.
Later, when they dined, Simon proudly took his place near the head of the table, along with his father. Simon made a mental note of where the Viscount and Baroness were situated. They were placed further down in the seating arrangement...a clear sign that their status had changed. And Simon found the notion extremely pleasing. He managed to contain his smile, but his mind was brimming with satisfaction.
Rene of Bergeron, he thought, You must now learn a harsh truth...that there is but one guest of honor here, and your moment of glory has passed.