As they stood beneath the archway of the manor entrance, Simon turned to look at Lady Theodora. Of all the Gisbornes, he'd expected that she would be calm and composed about this entire situation. After all, one could not lose their good sense in a crisis if they expected to accomplish anything. And from the first, Lady Theodora had seemed quite formidable...in the way she carried herself, and the bold way she spoke. But now, as they stood together, she surprised him with the softness in her tone.
"God speed, your grace. I pray you will find her quickly." She lowered her gaze. "I have often admonished Evie for her childish ways. And time and again, she has reproached me for my tempestuous nature." When she lifted her head to look at him, her eyes were shining with emotion. "But she is most dear to me, despite our differences. If she should not return to us..."
"Do not fear, my lady." He paused, realizing his interruption was rather abrupt. He tried to soften his words. "Evelyn will soon be returned to you. I give you my word."
He left her then, preferring not to linger and see the distress that was evident in her mien. There was something about it that made him uncomfortable...something that tugged at a spot just under his left rib. Sentiment was not a feeling he was accustomed to, and he wondered why it would choose this moment to present itself. He muttered to himself in frustration.
An emotional lot, these Gisbornes are.
He'd never known anyone like them. They battled and loved with equal passion. Now, it seemed that their melodramatic tendencies were becoming an influence. For a moment, he found himself sharing their concern. Beyond the familiar borders of the estate, all manner of man and beast lurked in wait. What if Evelyn was pursued by wolves? They were known to be about. Or what if a band of miscreants saw her riding alone?
He shook away the thought, determined to concentrate on the journey ahead of him. But thoughts of Evelyn pursued him. She was proving to be a most troublesome wench. For one who was supposed to be obedient, she certainly had rebellious tendencies. Wandering the darkened halls in her nightdress and bare feet...befriending rouges...running away from home. And how could he forget her greatest transgression.
She has known the affections of another.
Was it jealousy that stirred in his breast? He thought it impossible to be envious, when he had known his betrothed only a few days. But then, he recalled his nighttime encounter with her. Much as he wished to forget it, he could not help remembering how warm and soft she'd felt in his arms. And she thought to bestow those charms on another?
Never, he thought. Not so long as I breathe life.
Soon enough, he would reveal the truth of the matter...that the man who had charmed her so was nothing more than a liar and a fraud. It would be hurtful, do doubt. But in the end, she would see the benefit.
As his horse was brought to him, he gently patted the animal's neck. Some men sought the company of their fellow human beings, but there was a certain comfort to be found in the companionship of an animal...particularly one who had carried him into a battle, time and again. Octavian was aggressive in a tourney charge or on the field of war, and Simon sometimes wondered if his horse enjoyed the thrill of the fight as much as his master. Whether he took pleasure in it or not, the beast did his duty without hesitation, requiring little in return besides a warm stall, a good grooming, and a bag of oats...along with the occasional carrot. As Simon adjusted the bridle, he spoke quietly to his companion.
"Be thankful you are an equine, my friend. You lead an existence free of complications."
A soft snort was the reply, followed by a snuffling against his master's shirt. For the first time in a long while, Simon found something to amuse him, but he kept his smile slight. He had a mission to undertake. There was little time for frivolity. Mounting up, he took a deep and determined breath. He would find his flighty little bride and return her to her worried family...but before he restored her to them, he vowed to settle a few matters between them.
Obedient, he thought, recalling the word they'd used to so fondly describe her. He snorted, thinking to himself...Not nearly obedient enough.
Toulon was a seaside town, much like Marseilles. It was not surprising that William had chosen to be schooled there, where he could both tend to his studies and satisfy his love of the sea. Just beyond the bustle of the village, where the land knew no commerce and had little habitation, Evelyn stood on the slight ridge above the beach, looking down at the sand below. The shore appeared to be empty, making her fear for a moment that William's housekeeper had been mistaken. He was not here.
What am I to do now? She wondered. Going back to the house was the logical choice. There, she could await his return. But being impatient to find him, she chose to remain where she was, searching her surroundings in the hopes of seeing him. At last, a figure appeared in the distance, emerging from behind a rocky outcrop. She knew that reed-like figure, garbed in simple brown robes. Lifting her skirts, she moved quickly but carefully down the stepping stones set in the bank, calling out to him.
"Will! Oh, Will!"
She saw how he hurried his movements, coming towards her quickly. He was clearly stunned to see her, and yet his smile was welcoming. As they came close, he took her hands in his.
"What on earth brings you here?" He looked over her shoulder, an air of expectancy in his expression. "Where is Papa? Does he await me at the house? And surely Mama did not accompany him, not in her delicate condition?"
Her happiness at seeing him quickly diminished. Her voice grew small as she lowered her head. "Mama and Papa did not accompany me."
"Owen is with you, then?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I came alone, Will." There was a moment of silence as he absorbed her reply. There was a hint of tense amusement in his voice.
"Surely you jest, Evie. A young woman does not travel a distance of some thirty miles without an escort."
She felt a lump forming in her throat. Her relief and happiness at finding him was no more, eclipsed by the circumstances that had brought her to him. Sadness and shame made her silent, and her distress roused his suspicion. His tone was gentle but stern.
"Evelyn Gisborne, what madness is this? You are a sensible girl. You are aware of the dangers that await travelers on the road. What possible reason could you have for such a foolish act?"
Her voice broke in anguish. "Oh, Will! I have disgraced our family and myself! I cannot right the wrong I have done!" She leaned against him, pressing her cheek to his shoulder. She felt the gentle drumming of his hand on her back.
"Wrong?" he asked. "What possible crime could you commit? Never before have you erred. I do not think you capable of it."
Her tears rendered her speechless, and she sniffled into the cloth he handed her. As he took her by the wrist, leading her away, he spoke in his familiar gentle tone.
"Come, sister. We will return to the house so you might collect your senses. Then we shall speak of this horrendous offense of yours."
Evelyn watched as William scribbled out a note on a sheet of parchment. His movements were hurried as he created the message, informing their mother and father of their daughter's whereabouts. Dusting it with pounce, and blowing on it gently to remove the excess powder, he rolled and bound it. Handing it to a page, he gave his instructions with a firm tone.
"Make haste with this. It is of utmost importance. Deliver it promptly and you shall be well rewarded."
Evelyn lowered her eyes to her bowl of pottage. After calming herself, and taking a seat beside William at his dining table, he had listened quietly as she told him all. Now, as she ate, she could feel William's eyes looking her over. His tone was calm, though concerned. He gave a small shake of his head.
"I am at a loss, Evie. Am I to act as a priest, hearing your confession without passing judgement? Or should I act as your brother, and scold you for your improper behavior?"
She kept her eyes cast down. "My day has been most trying, Will. Please do not speak harshly."
He sighed. "You must know that such a request is very difficult. Mama and Papa must certainly be beside themselves with worry."
Her conscience nagged at her. The first moments of passion and shame had driven her flight, making her blind to the dangers beyond the enclosed safety of the estate. Only when she neared Toulon did her good sense return, making her aware of her mistake. But having traveled so far, the thought of trying to return had become a frightening prospect. Now, in the security and comfort of her brother's home, other worries came to her. William was right. Their mother and father were surely in a state of turmoil at this moment. Guilt weighed heavy on her heart, and she grasped for some way to ease the pain.
"Your message will set their minds to rest," she softly said.
William's tone became stern...almost fatherly. "You know that will not suffice."
She took in a shuddering breath. "How can I face Papa? You were not there. You did not witness the shame in his eyes when he looked at me. He might never again think of me as he did before." It grieved her deeply to recall her father's words...his look of deep pain and disappointment. William's words, spoken softly, only bent her heartstrings further.
"Papa loves you very much, Evie. You must know that he favors you above all of us. Despite his anger, I am certain he grieves for you now, as any father would if his child were to go missing. And Mama's heart is breaking at this very moment. Will you allow it to continue?" He paused, his decision clear. "You must return home and relieve them of their distress." She looked up at him, concerned. "But what of his grace? He will certainly learn of my offense to him. And if he chooses to break the match, Papa will be terribly dishonored. I fear I have destroyed all hope for a proper marriage."
He wagged his head. "You cannot be certain of it. And until the moment of truth is upon you, you must hope for the best...even as you prepare yourself for the worst."
Wiping a tear from her eye, her shoulders slacked in despair. "Will, how can I have such a man as my husband? He is so serious in his manner. He seems so cold."
"You have lived such a sheltered life, Evie. Mama and Papa have been abundant in their affection to you, as they have been with all of us. But you know not what a gift it is to be so loved."
As the housekeeper cleared the food away, William poured a cup of ale for himself. He offered her a cup but she declined it, watching him as he sipped. He was preparing a tale for her...she could see it in his eyes.
"I have not had the pleasure of meeting your betrothed, but I have learned of him through Papa. The Marquis knew his mother only briefly. When Simon was seven years of age, he was sent to live with his uncle. He was groomed as a soldier in training. His destiny was to be a warrior, and he was bred with such a temperament. You cannot expect such a man to be soft-hearted."
She felt a pang of sadness at hearing that. It certainly explained his manner, helping her to understand how he had come to be as he was. But others had endured suffering, as he had. Other men had survived the pain of a cruel upbringing, and they had kept their sense of kindness.
"Rene bore a similar tragedy," she said. "His family abandoned him many years ago, and his temperament is so..." She halted her speech, realizing that she came close to revealing too much. What she had said gave William concern, and he looked at her with a curious expression.
"How do you know this?"
Her answer was brief, spoken quickly. "He admitted me into his confidence."
"And then he took advantage of you."
Her anger, spurred by his accusation, caused her voice to rise. "It was not an act of sin. I know it was not. He bid me farewell, and his gesture was one of kindness."
"But he is not your husband, Evelyn."
She held herself defensively, clamping down on the wish to shout in defense of herself and Rene. He was her friend...a person most dear to her. Why could no one understand her feelings?
William, seeming to sense her frustration, rose to his feet.
"Perhaps this conversation should have its end. The matter is no longer important. Your day has no doubt been vexing, sister, so perhaps you should rest. I must journey to church to prepare for Vespers."
He called for the housekeeper, instructing her to show Evelyn to a bedchamber. She lovingly kissed his cheek, and followed the servant. As she was guided away, there was a knock on the door. Evelyn gave it little thought...until she heard the deep voice that spoke.
"I am Simon Jean-Carre, Marquis of Laroque. And I have come to collect Lady Evelyn."