Simon pressed his forehead against the door, closing his eyes. He clenched his jaw, and by sheer force of will, eased his breathing. But his heart would not cease its wildness. His limbs and body trembled with intense energy...the same as he felt just before a battle.
What has she done to me?
He moved to the window, throwing open the shutters to find relief with the night air. It cooled his flesh...but did little to ease his mind.
In the past, he’d prided himself on recovering quickly from the distractions of pleasure. It had been months since he’d been with a woman, but he’d not dwelled on the fact, nor had he longed for it...until now.
She was barely a woman, but enough of one to possess the sensual, tender qualities that roused a man’s senses. Through her nightgown he’d felt the warmth of her flesh...the soft, lush curve of her breast pressing on his arm. Her hair had been loose, falling over her shoulders in rich, dark waves. And her scent...Lord, it was so sweet. A light, floral fragrance he could not define. What was it? Rose? Jasmine? Perhaps lavender?
He shook his head, cursing himself for his weakness. For such unleashing of desires and sensations, there would come a time. When they were wed, he would allow himself to know his wife. Until then, he would hold fast to his sense of discipline. Perhaps, in the morning, he would delay in riding about the grounds with Evelyn. Perhaps he would, instead, spend time in a practice bout with Lucien and the rest of Sir Guy’s men.
He was a man of resilience. A soldier. And he would not allow a woman...even his intended...to break his self-control.
Evelyn eventually found rest...only to be roused by the noises of early morning. The servants began their tasks before dawn, although they did so with hardly a sound. But Evelyn knew the movements of her mother’s lady maid. Celeste would be laying out her mistress’s clothes, stoking the fire, and so on. In the chamber next door, there were also the slight sounds of movement...her father, most likely, and his manservant. Guy was often an early riser. And on this day, everyone seemed to follow him. Gabriel woke up first, crying to be fed. His fussing brought Thea awake, along with Claudia, who slept on a pallet in the solar. Cassia rose but moments later, and soon the chambers were full of quiet but bustling activity.
As her maid helped her dress, Evelyn became lost in thought, unable to forget her encounter with Simon. And she was expected to join him soon for a ride. The thought of it made her heart turn over in her chest.
Lord, curse me with the ague, she thought.
Illness would be a grand excuse for being confined to her room, where she could remain alone with her thoughts and avoid Simon altogether.
But then, illness would bring her mother’s concern, and with it, her cures for sickness. As much as she loved her mother and cherished her wisdom, the thought of enduring her medicines was enough to turn her away from feigning poor health.
When they all were dressed, they gathered together in the hall with Guy, Lucien, and Owen to depart for morning prayers...and were met by the Duke and the Marquis.
“Ah, Sir Guy,” said Basil. “Good morning.”
Guy nodded, smiling. “Good morning, your grace. I see you and your son are both early risers.”
While Basil and Guy exchanged friendly words, Evelyn kept her eyes fixed ahead of her, not wanting to look at Simon...and yet, she could not help herself entirely. She could not feel his gaze upon her as she had before. And with a slight flick of her eyes to him, she realized he had his head turned away. He was not making the slightest attempt to look at her...and for a moment, she wanted to know why.
Does he now scorn me? She wondered. Have I offended him in some way?
She shook off the thought, telling herself to be happy that he kept his distance. Perhaps last night had been a momentary occurrence...a brief flame of intense feeling that was now extinguished. And perhaps with the ritual of atonement, all of her sinful feelings would be forgiven. She took comfort in her thoughts...until the Duke approached her. She bowed her head, and gave him a polite smile. He was pleasant and cheerful.
“It would please me to witness my son and his bride together. Come, Simon...escort your lady to the chapel and kneel beside her in prayer.”
Evelyn wilted in disappointment, silently hoping that Simon would refuse the request. But instead he offered his arm, and knowing that all eyes were on them, she placed her hand on his sleeve. As they walked together, she took some consolation in the fact that, all along the way to the chapel, not once did he speak to her or give glance in her direction.
When prayer was finished, Evelyn crossed herself and rose to her feet...and turning to the rear of the chapel, she saw Rene and Baroness LaCroix. Happiness washed over her, even as Simon...who stood at her side...served as a reminder of discretion. But as she observed the Baroness, Evelyn sensed that something was amiss. Isabella held an unrolled parchment in her hand, and as her eyes scanned it, her expression became quite serious. She leaned close to Rene, speaking to him. He nodded. Together, they approached Guy and Cassia...and Evelyn could not be still a moment longer. Her concern grew quickly, but she knew not to act with haste. She looked at Simon, giving him the kindest smile she could manage.
“Beg pardon, my lord. I must have a word with some of our guests.”
She moved away from him, not seeing the furrowing of his brow as he watched her go.
As she made approach, Rene and the Baroness departed...but before they moved from the room, Rene turned his eyes to her for a moment. He gave her a slight smile. But in that gesture, there seemed to be a hint of regret. He turned away, leaving with the Baroness...and Evelyn’s heart sank. She turned to her father.
“Papa, is something wrong?”
Guy lifted his chin a slight degree, gesturing to the departing couple. “The Baron of LaCroix returns home this evening. His wife departs immediately to welcome him, and the Viscount accompanies her.”
Evelyn wanted to cry out in despair. No! She thought. He cannot go. Not so soon. She wanted to rush after him...to plead with him not to leave. And were it not for the presence of judging eyes, she would have done it. He was so dear to her. He could not go...not without saying farewell.
She would wait until everyone was at table. Then she would slip away for a moment while they were all distracted, and seek him out...
Evelyn stood beneath the archway leading to the courtyard and stables. From her vantage point, half-concealed in shadow, she could see the Baroness’ grooms preparing her carriage for departure. And close by, Rene stood with his horse, adjusting its bridle while a stable hand prepared the saddle.
She wanted to weep at the thought of his departure. He had been so wonderfully different from anyone she’d known before. Who would she seek out for a witty remark and a comforting smile? Oh, it was so unjust! She had a terrible urge to take up a stone and hurl it at him, to punish him for hurting her so...for allowing her to lose the company of a dear friend.
As she watched him, she saw his head turn slowly...and his eyes met hers. They stared at one another for several long moments. He glanced about, looking for anyone who might be watching. Then he was moving towards her. She stepped back into the shadows. A moment later he was standing in front of her, and she swallowed the lump in her throat.
“You are leaving,” she said.
He nodded. “I must. My stay here is no longer appropriate.”
Her voice cracked with despair. “Why?”
He shook his head. “Being here has clouded my judgment. I must move on lest someone grows curious about my true circumstances.”
“But where will you go from here?”
“Have no fear, mon ami. My cousin has provided for me thus far, and she will continue to do so.”
He pressed a finger to her lips, shushing her. He smiled, speaking softly. “It is unfortunate, but we must say farewell. And if you will allow it, I wish to leave you with a remembrance of me.”
She felt her heart flutter as he drew closer to her. He leaned in close, and she closed her eyes in anticipation. Then his lips brushed her cheek. The gesture was so light and soft...like a butterfly’s wing. He smiled in that wonderful way of his.
“Your first kiss, I presume. It is a chaste gesture, but one I hope you do not soon forget.”
Evelyn parted her lips to speak...but before she could utter a word, a burst of movement flew before her eyes. Rene was thrown back against the opposite wall.
“Papa!” Evelyn cried.
He held Rene by the shirt, pressing him to the stones of the house. Guy’s lip curled in anger as he drew his face close to Rene’s.
“You dare to touch her? MY daughter? A woman promised to another?”
Stunned and frightened, Evelyn stepped forward. “Papa, please...”
His eyes were fierce as he punched a commanding finger at her. “You will be silent!”
She shrank back, her eyes wide with disbelief. Guy turned back to Rene, pressing him hard against the wall.
“Your benefit to my family is your only salvation here and now. Were it not for the memory of that deed, you would be without the use of your limbs. And seeing how I have left your extremities unbroken, I suggest you make haste and be gone from my sight.”
He shoved him hard towards the front walk, and Evelyn watched helplessly as Rene hurried towards his waiting horse. Behind her, Guy’s voice spoke in quiet fury.
“I never thought to know such shame. Not from you, Evelyn.”
She turned to him, the sting of his words cutting her to the quick. His face was dark with rage...his jaw clenched. But then, his expression began to change. The harsh lines began to soften. His grey eyes...a moment ago burning with anger...dimmed, as sorrow eclipsed all emotions in his expression. She felt her own eyes burn with tears, for he had never looked at her with such a look of pain. Her father, whom she loved so dearly, suffered from a heart that was breaking...and she had caused it. Tears spilled down her cheeks as she made a small, nervous step towards him. She reached her hand out to touch his arm. But he pulled away, refusing her gesture. He turned his back on her, walking away...and slowly, she fell to her knees, weeping.