Just a short post today. More to come tomorrow!
Evelyn felt a breathless sense of déjà vu. Only this sense of bewilderment was different. It was more potent than her meeting with Rene. She’d been dazzled by him, to be sure. He’d stolen her senses. But Simon...
She grappled for the words to describe what she now felt. When Simon’s fingertips had touched hers, heat had spiraled up her arm. The warmth had spread through all of her limbs, and even now, as she stood within the circle of her family, her entire being seemed aflame.
Good Lord, she thought. What I would give at this moment for a cool breath of air.
Her thinking was muddled, but she tried to focus on the company around her...particularly Thea. Since the tourney, she had made her feelings about Simon abundantly clear. Evelyn heard her give a sigh of displeasure as she spoke, yet again, about her future brother-in-law.
“What a rotter you have been paired with, sister.”
With her mind still awhirl, Evelyn could not decide on a reply. But her mother seemed quite taken with Simon. She had said so at the tourney, and she expressed her approval now, wearing a little smile.
“Oh Thea, how can you say such a thing? He is all that one could hope for in a match.”
Thea scoffed. “He strides like the cock-o-the-walk. No doubt he sees in Evie a child bride, fit to be molded into a subservient creature who will follow his every command.”
Owen, who stood between Guy and Thea, shrugged as he sipped a goblet of ale.
“For what other purpose does one acquire a wife?”
Evelyn saw her father crack a slight grin. Cassia sighed, though her expression remained light. But Thea, ever at odds with her brother, snorted in disgust.
“Owen, you were born a swine and grew only larger.”
His expression grew serious. “A wife has no say in matters of finance or business. She cannot go to war, nor can she debate on political matters, so what purpose can she have except to serve her husband?”
Thea narrowed her eyes at him, her voice becoming cross. “God intended woman to be a helpmate...not a servant.”
Owen, being slightly taller, leaned in as he spoke...using his height to pose his challenge. “And what a benefit she proved to be. Because of woman, mankind was banished from Eden.”
“Temper, temper,” Guy interrupted, his tone calm but firm. “This banter is amusing in its childishness, but I think our guests may find it distasteful in tone and subject.”
Owen and Thea both apologized, though that did not keep them from exchanging looks of disdain. Guy departed, with Owen following, to join a discussion among a group of guests. Thea departed as well. She had managed to part briefly with Gabriel, leaving him in the hands of their old nurse, Claudia. No one else was to be trusted, and even she was not to be left with him for long.
Evelyn watched them go, noting that Simon and the Duke were among the men that her father and brother joined in conversation. Her gaze fixed on her betrothed for a moment, and instantly she felt her face grow warm. She drew closer to her mother...and Cassia instantly sensed her daughter’s discomfort.
“Darling, what is it?”
Knowing that other ears were listening...even private conversations had a way of being heard among the nobility...Evelyn lowered her voice to a whisper.
“Simon troubles me, Mama.”
Cassia smiled, speaking softly and gently. “Does he?”
Evelyn gave a little nod. She lowered her eyes. It felt shameful to be so cowardly, but she could not help her feelings. And she knew her mother would not scorn her for it.
“His manner is so unsettling. And his gaze...it overwhelms me.”
Cassia’s smile deepened as she took Evelyn’s hand. “My darling girl. You are yet young. You know not the ways of men...their mannerisms in particular. ‘Twould be improper, here and now, to offer you an explanation. But be assured that one day, you will understand such a look and welcome it.” Gently, she placed her palms on Evelyn’s face, lifting her gaze to meet her own. “I love you, Evie. And your father loves you. He would not force you into a union with one whom he did not trust.”
Evelyn tried to smile. “I know, Mama. But at times, I feel uncertain of so many things.”
Cassia leaned in, kissing Evelyn’s cheek. “You must find your courage, Evie. It will be your greatest weapon in times of trial.”
She knew her mother spoke wisely. What would be, would be, and someday soon, she would not have her beloved mother to turn to for every concern. She sighed, despondent at the thought. Then her mother took her gently by the arms, urging her to right her stance.
“Begin your pursuit of courageousness here and now,” said Cassia. She signaled for a maid, instructing her to bring Evelyn’s lyre. Evelyn’s eyes grew large at the prospect of playing before all of their guests, but Cassia patted her hand gently. “Help the Marquis to see that you are more than a beauty. Allow him to see and hear your accomplishments.”
Evelyn’s heart beat fast, and as Cassia moved away to speak to Guy, Evelyn closed her eyes and tried to breathe deeply. Then a voice came from behind her.
“Mon ami, are you well?”
She turned to see Rene, who was smiling, but with a slight expression of concern. She felt a wonderful sense of relief at having him near. Somehow, his confidence had a healing effect, and she returned his gesture of friendship with a smile of her own. She lowered her eyes for a moment.
“I must confess, am I not as well as I would hope to be. I must express my musical abilities for our guests, and my heart is wild with fear.”
His words were kind. “Do not be afraid. I believe you will do very well.”
She looked up, smiling at him. “If only I could borrow your confidence, I would be very well indeed.”
He shrugged. “Play for me, then.”
“For you?” she said, stunned. And he nodded.
“When you perform, act as though you play for an audience of one.” He gestured to himself. “For moi.”
She took in a breath, still held back by her fear...but feeling its grip slackening under Rene’s support. Then he spoke low and soft, leaning slightly closer to her.
“I would be deeply honored by the gesture.”
She looked up at him. Those eyes were so beautiful...so full of a certain something she could not describe. And she found herself having a terribly selfish thought.
If only it were he to whom I was betrothed.
It was a thought so shameful, she almost hated herself for it. Her father had chosen her husband, and she knew that in thinking of another, she was being dishonorable. But she could not help it. Rene was so wonderfully charming and delightful. It was difficult not to smile when she thought of him. But Simon was so much the opposite. He stirred feelings within her that she did not understand, and she wasn’t certain she wished to. Her feelings for Rene were so much simpler, even though she knew that such thoughts were wrong.
But in that same moment, she found herself realizing that her thoughts were just that...her thoughts, and not her actions. It was impossible to quiet the mind when it was intent on being so active. And what was the harm in thinking of Rene? He was a rascal, but he was also a good man, and here he was at her side, offering her such kindness and understanding.
When her lyre was brought forth, she turned to look at Rene...and seeing his familiar smile, she felt her anxiety melt away. For him, she would give a marvelous performance. Her family would be pleased, and hopefully, Simon would be as well. But it was Rene she truly wished to delight.
How right he had been in his description of himself.
Wiley and quick as a fox...
Walking to the stool that had been placed in the center of the room, she sat upon it and prepared to play. And a little smile rose in the corner of her mouth.
All that I need, I take. Food, money…and many a heart. Is yours spoken for?
It was spoken for. She had given it to him. She had lost her heart to a true knave.