"Your grace," said William. "I am deeply honored. Will you come in?"
Simon crossed the threshold. "Thank you, Father."
"I am quite surprised by your visit. But pleased, of course."
Almost in sync, they turned to look at Evelyn. She managed a stiff, nervous courtesy, and Simon bowed...while his eyes met hers with a purposeful look.
"Forgive me, your grace," said William. "I must depart for church. If you require anything, my housekeeper will assist you." As he gave instructions, ordering food and drink, Evelyn took a small step forward.
"Will, perhaps I should accompany you to church. I am not inclined to miss prayers."
Simon stepped in her way. He spoke with authority. "I think perhaps on this occasion, you will make an exception." He turned to William. "Do not fear, good Father. I will watch over her."
With an apologetic look to Evelyn, William nodded in compliance.
"Your grace," he said in reply. He left quietly, and as the door closed, Simon turned. He did not look at Evelyn. And yet he addressed her with a firm tone.
"Well, well. Lady Cassia's assumption was correct. You did seek refuge with your brother." Removing his gloves, he dropped them on the table. He sat down in a sturdy wooden armchair, stretching his legs and crossing his ankles. As he folded his arms, his gaze rose. He looked her over. "I see you are quite well." His eyes narrowed, and his expression became serious. "Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for your poor mother and father."
Guilt shined in her eyes. She lowered her head, speaking softly. "William has rushed word to them, your grace. They will soon know I am well."
His tone was stern. "They will not know it for certain until they see you in the flesh. And I intend to present you to them first thing tomorrow."
"But your grace," she protested, "I have come to see my brother. I cannot leave him so quickly."
She wrung her hands. Her voice held a note of concern, as if she feared facing the consequences of her actions. But if she thought to find him sympathetic to her plight, she was mistaken.
"We will depart at first light, and I will have no argument. You may go with dignity, riding upright. Or, you can be bound with rope and carried over my saddle, much like a sack of goods fresh from market. I leave the decision to you."
She lowered her head again. "I will go willingly, your grace. There will be no need to force me."
Looking at her, he almost felt guilty in witnessing her gesture of submission. But he reminded himself that it was inevitable. When they were married, she would have to accept her status. She would no longer enjoy the liberty of being an unwed woman...and the thought made him feel rather sorry for her. Knowing how she had lived an indulged life, free of cares, he could see how the transition would be difficult. He tried to speak gently.
"You have made a wise decision."
A silence fell between them. She seemed unsure of what she should do next. He let out a breath, taking the opportunity to examine her. Her shyness was quite apparent. For a moment, he found her innocence endearing. There was a lovely rose color in her cheeks...a look that was quite becoming.
But had she looked upon another with that same innocent expression?
Since he'd first seen her with Rene, he had tried to suppress his jealousy. But it seemed the more he tried to contain it, the harder it fought to be expressed. Perhaps the time had come to assert his position as her husband-to-be.
"Come here, Evelyn."
He saw how her eyes widened slightly. He could imagine that his command, spoken in his powerful tone, was frightening to her. Perhaps she feared that his demands would be of a lascivious nature. In truth, he was not certain what his actions would be. He only knew he wished to draw her closer, and when she neared him, he found himself at a loss. He felt a great desire to touch her in some way...to relive that feeling of warmth he'd known for those brief moments in the manor hall. But to do so here, in the home of a priest...her brother. It would be most improper. He wanted her to come close. But he needed a purpose...some reason to draw her near. He hastily thought of something.
"Assist me in removing my boots."
She looked quite stunned at his command. And he himself was surprised by the decree that had come into his head. But, unable to think of something better, he held to it. He lifted his foot to her.
"Under most circumstances, my valet would attend to such matters," he said. "But there will be times such as these when I must rely on my wife to serve me."
He examined her, wondering at her thoughts. She always seemed so reluctant to be near him. Was it just her innocence...or was there something more?
"Will you object to your position as my wife?"
There was a hesitation before her reply. "No, my lord."
Her answer might have satisfied him...if it wasn't for the doubts he found swirling around in his head. Did she wish her husband to be someone else? The answer seemed clear enough, and yet he asked the question. He watched as she placed his boots aside.
"Would you be more agreeable if Rene was your lord and master?"
She paused for a moment. And when she spoke, her answer was maddening to him, for it seemed her intent was to dodge his question altogether.
"I do not understand your meaning."
He could not contain his frustration. He leaned forward in his chair, speaking in a calm but bitter voice. "Do not think me a fool, Evelyn. I have seen the way you look at him."
Turning her back, she would not face him. She held herself, clearly taking a defensive stance. For the first time, there was a hint of power in her voice.
"You are mistaken, your grace. Rene of Bergeron is merely a friend...
"He is a deceiver...a charlatan. And you have been nothing more than a pawn in his game."
She shook her head. "You do not know him."
His voice grew stronger, his anger provoked by her stubborn defense of a worthless creature like Rene. And he forcefully declared...
"He is not the cousin of the Baroness!"
Her mouth fell slightly open. He was almost certain she was set to deny his accusation. To keep her from it...to firmly implant the truth in her mind...he spoke quickly.
"Your father and I went to the Chateau LaCroix. The Baron knew nothing of a Rene of Bergeron. While Isabella endures God knows what for her unfaithfulness, her lover...your friend...roams free, indifferent to the destruction left in his wake."
Her eyes shifted. Judging from the rapid rise and fall of her chest, her breathing had accelerated. He could see her grasping for some sense of reason...some way to avoid the pain of the revelation she'd been hit with. But truth was often a cruel thing, sparing no one...not even an innocent girl. As she walked away from him, slowly moving to a chair in front of the hearth, he waved away the housekeeper as she brought the tray of food and wine. As he filled a goblet for himself, he looked over to where Evelyn sat. She was leaning forward, with her hand pressed against her lips. Watching her, he found it difficult not to feel pity for her. Compassion was not a feeling with which he was comfortable. But there was something about Evelyn that was bringing out the empathy in him. Lord, it was a horrible thing to admit...that despite his upbringing, despite his being one of the finest soldiers in the King's army...he was, when all was said and done, only a man. He had his weaknesses, like any other.
Thinking on it, he decided to himself that, if there was only one person allowed to view this flaw of his, it might as well be her. She would soon be his wife, after all. But how did one act with a woman in need of consolation? He knew little about female needs and behavior.
Men did not shed tears. They did not ponder treacheries in an attempt to understand their meaning. They acted on their anger and moved on. And sometimes, they drowned their troubles with wine. Perhaps she needed to embrace a different ideal...one that would encourage her strength.
"When the soul is purged of weakness," he said, "Pain is often an unfortunate consequence."
To that she gave no response. He let out a breath, thinking of what he should do. Looking down at the wine, he picked up the flagon and filled a goblet for her. Picking up his own cup, he moved to her side. Saying her name, he held the drink out to her. When she waved it away, he became insistent.
"I will have no quarrel. You have received a shock. Do as men do and dull your sorrow with drink."
With reluctance, she took it from him. Holding it with one hand, she used her other to wipe a tear from her eye. Her tears were expected...but her silence surprised him. He looked down at her, curious.
"You say nothing."
She sighed. "I have no wish to cause you offense. I am aware that men are often troubled by the sorrows of a woman."
There was truth in her words. And yet, despite his own reservations about sentiment, he felt the need to offer her a small kindness.
"Perhaps on this occasion, one can make an exception."
She gave a small shake of her head. "That is good of you to say. But I have caused more offense today than ever in my life. Dramatics will only affirm what a fool I have been."
"You wish to conceal your feelings?" He pulled an empty chair close to hers. Sitting back, he sipped his wine. "I find that difficult to believe, considering the passionate nature of your family. Judging from your actions, you are a true Gisborne."
"Yes, I am a Gisborne," she said, with an air of pride. "And yes, we are passionate. Mama has always encouraged our independence." Her spirit seemed to dampen slightly. "But such fervor is not acceptable in polite society. For the sake of decorum, I have always tried to suppress the nature that flows in my blood."
"You have no wish to mirror your sister, then?"
For the first time, she smiled. It was small, but it was not a forced politeness, such as she'd given before. This was a genuine look of amusement...and he found himself pleased that it was given to him.
"Theodora has never permitted herself to be molded," she said, "Even if society dictates it to be done. She is fortunate to have such a tolerant husband."
Her pleasant look faded. She turned away, lowering her head to cast her eyes on the floor. Her voice was small.
"Do you now regret your choice of wife?"
He took another sip of wine, turning his eyes to the fire. "Except for myself and your family, no one knows of your indiscretion. And I have no intention of feeding the gossip mill. So I see no reason to alter our arrangement."
Glancing at her, he saw a look of relief in her expression. Now that she knew Rene's true nature, perhaps she was prepared to turn her feelings in the proper direction. Suddenly, he had a mental picture of Evelyn with Rene. The kiss they had shared had been chaste...but it had been a kiss, none the less. Another man's lips had pressed to her cheek.
A man, indeed, he said to himself, fighting the urge to snort in disgust. Rene was nothing. A criminal...a vagabond. She needed to know the kiss of a real man...the only man who mattered.
"Close your eyes, Evelyn."
At first, rather than closing, her eyes grew large. He could read the nervousness there...the uncertainty of his intent. But in a calm, gentle tone, he asked again. She hesitated for another moment, before doing as he requested.
He rose from his chair, placing his cup on the mantle. He took her cup from her hand...noting her slight start when his fingers brushed hers. Putting her cup aside, he came to stand before her. Gently, he pulled her to her feet. He lifted her chin with a bent finger, examining her. What a soft, lovely countenance she had. He'd noticed it from the very first. Cupping her face gently, he lowered his head. Her lips were soft and warm against his, with a hint a wine lingering there. She made the most delightful little sound...one that roused something primal within him. He was tempted to deepen the kiss, to linger in the moment and explore the sweetness of her. But gently, he broke away. She was a girl. Her first kiss had to be tempered, despite his desire for so much more.
Her hands were clenched, her arms held slightly up, as if she'd been preparing to reach for him. For a moment, her eyes remained closed. Then they fluttered open, and she stared up at him with a look of astonishment. He looked down at her, speaking in a soft tone.
"It is late, Evelyn. Perhaps it is best that we retire."
A look of shock passed over her...and he could not help being amused by it. Innocent as she was, it seemed her thoughts could not help taking an indecent path. He was quick to settle her mind.
"I am certain your brother has a chamber for you. I will speak to the housekeeper and arrange a place for myself. The morning will arrive quickly."
He left her then. He had no doubt that her senses were roused...as were his own. And in such a state, it was best to be away. He had made his point. She would cease to think of Rene.
Now, he had only to gather himself together...somehow.