Guy took a ragged breath, looking at the manor looming before him. It had always been such a welcome sight...the only true home he’d ever known. The gravel drive, edged with primrose, had always held special meaning for him...a path leading to a loving sanctuary. Even through times of turbulence, joy abounded within the manor’s stone walls.
But now, trouble pressed heavily upon him. Scandalous whispers would soon flourish because of Rene and Baroness LaCroix, but they were the least of his concerns. Evelyn would be most distressed to learn of this news, and with a heart already wounded, how would she bear it?
He felt a sharp pain, born of guilt, lodged in his breast...and he did not know how to ease it.
Cassia was right, of course. His treatment of Evie had not been just. His youngest daughter had always been so devoted, so adoring of him, even long after her childhood. Thea had clung to him as a little girl, but she had grown independent, even distant, as the years went by. But Evelyn had been ever faithful and true, always attempting to please him as best she could...and at her first error in judgment, he had treated her with utmost cruelty. His anger over Rene’s disgraceful behavior had rendered him blind, not letting him see that his daughter was merely a pawn in a cruel game. He gave another deep sigh at the thought of it. And the sound drew Simon’s notice.
“My lord, are you well?”
Frustration tinted Guy’s response. “No. I assure you I am not.”
“But the treachery has made itself known. The revelation to Evelyn will be difficult, but it must be done.”
Given with an outlet of breath, the reply was bitter. “You know not the impediments, your grace. Fatherhood and marriage carry complexities you have yet to understand.”
Evie would not be the only female in need of conciliation. Until he made amends with his daughter, Cassia would not be pleased. And if there was an aspect of his life he wished to do without, it was the prospect of an unhappy wife. It was not often that she was truly angry with him, but when such unpleasantness unfolded, all of life seemed unbalanced. Though she was more capable of controlling her temper than he was, she could be just as passionate. There seemed to be progressions of her dark moods, one usually proceeding the next. He thought of her warning expression...used mostly on the children. Her right eyebrow would lift slightly. Her hands would settle on her hips, or her arms would cross. Such a warning was usually enough to discourage bad behavior, and as effective though it was, he could not help being amused by it at times. Less amusing were her bursts of outrage when the offense was more serious. He had committed such errors only rarely...the household objects launched in his direction being more than enough to keep him from such foolishness.
Then there was the silent treatment. He shuddered at the thought of that brutal hush she could inflict on him. Only twice could he recall her being so incensed as to stop speaking to him, and the remembrance of it was deeply painful.
He shook his head. Giving his horse his heel, he advanced forward up the walk, intent on seeing to the matter of peacemaking. Rene was gone, and God willing, he would be forgotten quickly. But even with that burden behind him, there was still the matter of Evelyn. He was not certain how he would set things right with her. In all of his years as a parent, he had never sought forgiveness from one of his children. What father on earth would be brought so low as to admit being in the wrong?
I shall admit to it, he decided. I do not lack the courage to acknowledge my errors, and they shall know it.
As he dismounted, he gathered his nerve with the setting of his shoulders and a deep intake of breath. He would seek Cassia’s advice on the matter. In witnessing his attempt to do what was right, she would be happy with him once again. She would comfort him. She would bolster his courage, and then, she would counsel him in his effort to heal his bond with Evie. As he crossed the threshold, with Simon in step behind him, he felt almost hopeful...until Thea came hurrying to him. Both her look, and her words, were fearful.
“Papa, we cannot find Evelyn.”
Guy gave his head a slight shake, not understanding. His feeling of hope was snuffed out, eclipsed by a quickly growing sense of dread.
“What do you mean you cannot find her? She must be about.”
Thea wagged her head. “We have searched everywhere. A groom said she departed for a ride. But she has not returned, and Mama has sent the men to look for her.”
He moved quickly, crossing the hall. “Where is Owen? And Lucien...has he gone as well?”
“Yes, Papa.” Thea followed behind, along with Simon. “Owen and Lucien rode out together, along with the Duke.”
“Where is your Mama?”
“In your chambers. Celeste and Claudia have been with her, as well as I. She wishes to conduct a search of her own, but we will not allow it for the sake of the babe. She is quite upset, Papa, and it concerns me.”
As they ascended the stairs, he felt the weight of fear growing fast over him. He opened the door to his bedchamber...and his heart was crushed by the sight of Cassia, who paced the room as Celeste and Claudia attempted to console her. She looked up at hearing their entrance. Her eyes met his...and her look struck him cold with fear. Turning away, she sat down on the edge of the bed, holding herself. He fought the urge to rush to her, to gather her in his arms and whisper words of comfort in her ear. In front of watching eyes, especially Simon’s, it would not do to display such passion. But he could not refrain from all that he felt. He went to her side, placing a hand on her shoulder. She stiffened at his touch, and it cut him deeply. Difficult as it was, he maintained his stoicism, quietly gathering information.
“Cassia, what has happened? A groom said Evelyn departed on a ride. Did he tell in which direction she traveled?”
She did not look at him. Her voice was calm, but cold.
“He was not clear on her intended direction. But he declared her eyes to be shining with tears.” For one moment she turned to look at him. Her gaze was pointed, silently accusing him. Then she turned away again, seeming to say without words...
You have done this thing. Our daughter has fled, and you are to blame.
It tore at his insides to imagine that she thought so ill of him. He felt so helpless at that moment, knowing that he’d caused her such pain. Her calmness was unnerving, for he knew she was containing herself only while within view of others. Even in times such as these, she gave the appearance of a true noblewoman...collected, calm and sensible, as she was expected to be. But he knew her too well. When they were alone, she would unleash her fury on him...and the thought of it terrified him.
Simon, who had been standing quietly by, came forward.
“My lady, might I make an inquiry?”
Guy stood, turning from everyone. He hung his head mournfully, saying nothing. But Cassia spoke quietly.
“Of course, your grace. Please speak.”
“Is there a particular place your daughter may be fond of? A place of sanctuary in times of trouble? Perhaps there is a relation she may turn to.”
A moment passed. Cassia lifted her head. She rose slowly to her feet. Guy turned to her, watching her expression as a light of hope crossed her features.
“Of course,” she declared. “Why had I not considered it sooner?”
She seemed to speak only to herself for a moment. Guy came to stand behind her, wondering at her sudden change of manner. He meant to speak, but she did so first.
“She might very well go to her brother. Dear William has always been her companion, ever since they were children.” She turned to Guy, her look fierce and determined. “You must go to him instantly and fetch her home.”
He nodded quickly, prepared to rush to the task. But Simon spoke up.
“Forgive me, Sir Guy. But perhaps you should remain here, to see to your wife and family. With your permission, I will travel to your son’s parish. I will bring Evelyn home to you.”
Guy and Cassia looked at one another, neither speaking. Guy gave a small nod, granting his permission. Cassia turned to the other occupants of the room.
“Claudia and Celeste, please leave us.” As they went, Thea came to her mother and embraced her. Cassia kissed her cheek. “My darling, please escort his grace downstairs. Direct him and see that he has all he requires for his journey.”
Thea departed with Simon, and as they went, Guy turned to his wife. His heart sank at the light of harshness in her eyes. He tried to comfort her with reassurance, speaking gently as he placed a hand upon her cheek.
“I am certain the Marquis is right. Evelyn is with William, and she is well. She will soon be returning to us.”
Her sudden movement, thrusting his hand back to him, lashed his heart. Her dark eyes were brimming with tears.
“What if he is mistaken? What if our daughter wanders lost and finds herself in danger? There will be no words of consolation I will hear from you then.”
She fled from his attempt to reach for her, escaping into the next room and slamming the door shut. He went to it, reaching for the handle...but he paused. Resting his head against the door, he closed his eyes, praying that he hadn’t destroyed everything in the world that he held dear.