As the gentle sounds of Evelyn’s lyre filled the air, Basil whispered to his son, who stood at his side. “It appears that your bride is a very fine lady. Quite splendid, I would say.”
Hearing his father’s approval of Evelyn, Simon gave a slight nod in agreement. She was, indeed, a lovely and talented creature. And judging from the admiring looks given by the guests, they were all equally taken with her. It remained to be seen if she possessed charm and intelligence, for he had not spoken with her yet. But that would come soon enough. When the performance was done, he would be among the first to compliment her. Perhaps that would ease her manner, for he had seen the light of fear in her eyes.
He knew he was not a warm man. Other men found it easy to be gregarious and communicative, but he had never been comfortable with casual conversation. Action, particularly that done with a sword, came to him more naturally. Having spent most of his youth in the house of his uncle...a man with a passion for battle and all things related to it...his conversations had mostly been with other knights or knights in training. On occasion, there had been women brought to them as a reward for their dedication, but such women were not expected to converse.
But Evelyn would be his wife, and though some men wished to instill fear in their mates, he found that to be a foolish notion. What good would a wife be if she cowered at his feet? He needed a partnership that was built on trust, for when he departed to war…and such an event was inevitable…he needed to be certain that matters at home would be attended to. A reliable mate was what he desired, and to achieve such a bond, he would have to learn about her. They would have to converse, despite his uneasiness with such matters. And he began searching his mind for a favorable topic.
But his thoughts were suddenly given pause. His eye caught sight of the Viscount…and from where Simon stood, he could see the soft look on Rene’s face.
Simon felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. He knew a rogue when he saw one, and Rene’s gaze was giving a blatant look of admiration.
Scoundrel, he thought, feeling the heat of his temper rising. Before the night is over, he will know his place.
He could not shed the villain’s blood here and now. But he would certainly protect what was his.
As Evelyn’s performance ended to the sound of enthusiastic applause, Simon moved close to Sir Guy and Lady Cassia, knowing that Evelyn would seek them out. She was smiling as she rose from her seat, graciously accepting pleasantries from her guests. As he drew close to her, and she turned to look at him, he saw her smile dim slightly. But he wasn’t deterred. He stood beside her, looking her over and seeing the way she folded her hands demurely in front of her. He spoke as calmly and gently as he knew how.
“Your talent is very fine.”
She raised her head for a moment, looking at him. He found himself captured by the loveliness of her eyes. Such a soft shade of blue, he thought. She gave him a small expression of pleasure.
“Thank you, my lord.”
He found that her smile, slight as it may have been, was quite pleasant. If only she were more adept at conversation. In his experience with ladies, he’d found that they were usually quite skilled at talking, but she seemed unable or unwilling to do so. For several moments they stood side by side in awkward silence, until a subject at last entered into his head.
“Are you fond of horses?” he asked.
She lifted her head again, only now, there was a light of curiosity in her eyes as she spoke. “Yes, I am.”
He had hit upon something to interest her at last.
“Perhaps on the morrow, if the weather permits, you will do me the honor of riding with me, to give me a tour of the grounds.”
With a slight flush of color in her cheeks, she nodded in agreement. “I would be pleased.”
They had managed a brief conversation, and she had agreed to spend time with him. He was pleased with his progress. But what to do now? Once again he found an awkward silence growing between them.
But they were soon joined by Sir Guy and Lady Cassia. The Countess smiled, her expression warm and welcoming.
"Your grace, how do you find our company? I hope it pleases you.”
Simon nodded respectfully. “Your hospitality is very fine, my lady. And your company as well. Lady Evelyn has offered to show me your estate tomorrow. If that is agreeable to you, of course.”
Guy wore a pleased expression. “I think that would be very well. Some ladies harbor a dislike towards horses. But my daughters are creatures of good taste, having shown a fondness for their animals from an early age.”
There it was again, Simon realized...that look of softness on Sir Guy’s expression. And as the Countess looked at her husband, there was a profound and deep look of pleasure in her every feature. As Guy looked at his wife, Simon saw the reflection of Lady’s Cassia’s expression...full of tenderness and deep affection. For a moment, Simon wondered if they realized how openly their feelings were displayed. But even as he pondered the question, the answer was obvious. He’d heard rumors, from his father and others, that the two were enamored of each other even after many years of marriage. Now, he could see that it was indeed true. And that love seemed to extend to their children, as they spoke of them with great fondness.
“If I do recall,” said Cassia, “Theodora sat upon her first pony at the age of three.”
Guy raised an eyebrow, amusement in his expression. “She sat upon it...and promptly threw a tantrum when she was taken away from it.”
Cassia smiled, holding back a giggle. Then she looked at Evelyn, touching her hand. “Our Evie was never prone to such fits of temper. She has always been a proper young lady. Obedient and lovely.”
Evelyn was smiling at the compliment. They were all wrapped up in a pleasant glow of togetherness...and Simon felt terribly uncomfortable by the tide of sentiment. He felt a desperate need to escape the situation, and he prepared to make his departure...until he saw the approach of the Viscount and the Baroness.
Without conscious thought he took a slight step forward, moving slightly closer to Evelyn. Speak out of turn if you dare, he thought. I would welcome the chance to cause you bodily harm.
It turned out to be the Baroness who spoke first, complimenting Evelyn on her talents.
“I do wish I had such an ability. Unfortunately, I was never gifted with a musical ear.”
Rene smiled, speaking sweetly to her. “You have other talents, cousin.”
Simon watched the two of them closely...particularly Rene. It seemed that the Viscount’s eyes lingered on his cousin for several moments too long. You have other talents, cousin. Simon held back a snort of contempt. Cousin indeed, he thought, with a dawning awareness. He did not have confirmation of his suspicions...yet. But there were ways of drawing out information. He looked at Isabella.
“Baroness,” he said. “I understand your husband is away for a period of time.”
There was a moment of surprise in her expression. It came and went quickly, but was not unnoticed by Simon. The Baroness nodded in reply to his question.
“Yes, he is busy managing his estates. His business often keeps him from home.”
Her eyes shifted slightly, her discomfort with the conversation quite apparent. Simon could not say if anyone else noticed it. But he saw it clearly, and to further confirm his suspicions, he inquired further with a pointed remark.
“You must be quite lonely at times.”
He saw the color brighten in her cheeks. But her voice remained calm.
“At times, I do find myself so. But I find comfort in friends and neighbors.”
“And in family,” said Rene. “One must not forget the value of our blood relations.”
Audacious bastard, Simon thought. Here this man stood, spouting the ideals of family, when it was likely he was nothing more than an opportunist. Why and how, he could not be certain yet. But he intended to find out.
“I take pride in saying that I think of you as family,” said Evelyn. “You have done such a wonderful deed for us. Do you not think so, Papa?”
“Undoubtedly,” said Guy. “We shall be forever grateful to him.”
Simon saw the slight overcast that came across the Earl’s expression. Did Sir Guy harbor doubts as well? It seemed there was quite a mystery to be solved here.
But certain facts were becoming quite clear to him. The Viscount had ambitions. Possibly indecent ambitions. And it seemed that Evelyn, young and naive as she was, had been taken in by him. Examining her expression, Simon could see the enchantment in her features when she looked at Rene.
His hand went to his side, gripping the handle of his dagger. Who this whelp bedded and lied to was of little importance. But if he thought to charm Evelyn with more than a smile, he was stupidly mistaken. And there were ways of dealing with fools.
For the remainder of the evening, he kept Evelyn within his line of sight, even as he conversed with Lucien, Owen, and a few other men. And he was careful to observe the actions of the Viscount. Rene kept a distance from Evelyn, but Simon suspected it was not his intention to do so. The Baroness seemed to cling tightly to him, perhaps concerned that he would stray in search of a new conquest. Perhaps she sensed, as he did, that there was an attraction between the Viscount and Lady Evelyn.
With impatience, he waited for the night to come to its end. As the guests drifted towards the stairs and their various resting places, Simon watched Rene. He took notice of the room he entered…and slipping into his own chamber, he waited for the house to quiet.
Moving with stealthy steps, he found his way to Rene’s door. He listened for movement. Hearing only silence, he carefully wedged the door open, peering in to look for signs of wakefulness. All was dim and silent, the room lit only by a single wall sconce. The figure in bed was laying still, his lips slightly parted as he breathed deeply. And in one swift move, Simon stepped forward to clamp his hand over Rene’s mouth. His other hand gripped his dagger and brought the blade to the Viscount’s neck. His voice was low and dangerous.
“Move, and the blade will find its mark.”
Rene nodded. Simon could sense his terror, but he did not alter his tone.
“I know not your exact scheme, brigand. But do not covet that which is mine. Bed any whore you please, but you will keep your distance from Evelyn. Is that clear? I do not wish scandal brought upon Sir Guy and his family, so this incident will remain within these walls. Do you understand?”
Rene nodded again, and before lifting the blade, Simon uttered a final admonition.
“Heed my warning, Viscount. And consider yourself fortunate. Few men I’ve encountered have been granted a second chance.”
He took the blade away. When he removed his hand from Rene’s mouth, he heard him gasping for air. He was slightly disappointed not to hear weeping, but maybe he had lost control of his bodily functions. Simon thought to himself…
The stench of his own piss should serve as a proper enough warning.
And he slipped quietly out of the room.
And he slipped quietly out of the room.