For quite some time, Evelyn sat quietly before the fire. She closed her eyes, pressing her fingers to her lips. They tingled so strangely...and yet, it wasn’t unpleasant. It was wondrous and thrilling...and the sensation seemed not content to remain on her lips. Tingles traveled everywhere, into places she’d never felt such stirrings. She held herself tightly, trying to suppress the wild feelings. But the effort only heightened the sensation all the more. She recalled how it felt to be held in his arms. Good heavens, what would it be like to feel his kiss and warm embrace both at once?
She felt herself becoming both giddy and terrified. These feelings were like nothing she’d known before, and somewhere in her mind she knew they were just the start of something more. She thought of her sister and the conversation they’d once had. No wonder Thea seemed so intent on making her listen, despite her protests. There was a wild delight in learning of these feelings...as if she’d been granted knowledge of a very great secret. Was this was just a taste of things to come? Though her heart beat fast with anxiousness, she could not help but wonder when such a moment would come again.
Simon, she thought, as a soft sigh escaped her. Why had her feelings changed so suddenly? Perhaps this was how it was meant to be, after all. Perhaps she had been the greatest of fools not to see it from the first. Or perhaps, she had simply been outwitted by the most clever...nay, the most devious...of men.
Her delight faded as memories came fast upon her. From that moment when she’d first set eyes on Rene, her senses had flown. He’d openly declared himself to be a rogue...a skilled thief who stole hearts and coin in equal measure. And like a simpleton, she had allowed herself to be bewitched.
The squeaking of the door, coming from behind her, shook her from her thoughts. She turned to look, seeing William as he returned from church.
“Evie,” he said. “The hour grows late. You should be abed.” He handed his cloak to the housekeeper. “Where is the Marquis? Have you settled him in a chamber?”
The servant nodded. As she departed, he came to stand beside Evelyn. She stared into the fire, having barely heard him speaking. His entrance had roused her somewhat, but her thoughts quickly returned to all that had happened. It took William’s hand on her shoulder, gently nudging her, before she found her voice.
“I have been blind, Will.”
He reached out, offering her his hand, and she took it gladly.
“I defended a man who was not worthy of defending.”
“You speak of Rene?” he asked.
She nodded. “I would not like to dwell on details, brother. I wish only to say that my eyes have been opened. I see his deception clearly now...and I see my duty before me. I will go home at first light. And I will see everything settled.”
William leaned down, placing a gentle kiss on top of her head.
“My dear little sister...ever sensible and intelligent. I wondered where you had gone to. Mama and Papa will be most pleased to see you returned.”
I hope so, She thought. I truly do hope so.
The dawn had yet to break, but Simon rolled over and sat up, rubbing a hand over his face. The bed was too narrow for a man of his size. The floor would have been preferable, but at the risk of insulting his host, he had used the bed and rested himself as best he could.
But being a soldier, having been accustomed to rising at strange hours and surviving on little sleep, the few hours of rest he’d managed would suffice. He got up and went to the basin, where he doused his face with water. Running his hand over his jaw, he frowned at feeling the stubble already forming. He wasn’t content with having his face unshaven. Even during times of war, he kept a grooming regimen. But there was little that could be done about it under these circumstances.
Striking a flint with his dagger, he created a spark to light the tallow candle at his bedside. It was still very early, but he would go now to fetch Evelyn and see her ready to depart. He would get her home as quickly as possible. His mission would soon be accomplished, and his life could return to some sense of normalcy...if there could be such a thing again, now that she was in his life.
Her chamber was just across from his. Impatient to be on their way, he gave only a light rap on the door and a moment of pause before opening it. Holding up the candle, he let the light fall over the occupant of the room. And he found his mouth curling in odd amusement at her pose.
She was on her side, with her knees bent. One arm was dangling over the edge of the bed, while the other arm was wrapped around a pillow, where her cheek was firmly pressed. The coverlet was twined around her in an odd fashion, wrapped around her chest and middle, but with her lower legs and feet exposed. He’d thought surely that proper ladies were proper in every way...even in their sleep. He’d expected to find her seeking repose in some elegant and angelic fashion. And yet, this strange sight was somehow very fitting for her. He was half tempted just to sit and watch her. But knowing that he must see to his duty, he reached out and shook her shoulder. She mumbled in her sleep, opening her eyes a fraction. Suddenly she bolted up with a gasp, clutching the blanket to herself. He found her reaction rather amusing. He kept his voice low.
“You had best get used to the sight of me in the morning. It will soon be a part of the everyday. Come now, make yourself ready. We must go.”
He left her, allowing her the time to prepare. As he went, he thought about his own declaration. She would indeed see him every morning, just as he would see her. He found a strange kind of pleasure in the prospect. And somehow, he found little embarrassment in admitting such a feeling...so long as no one else knew of it.
I have declared it to myself, he thought, And that will suffice.
They departed just as the sun was coming up. They rode for a long while with neither saying a word. Occasionally, Evelyn stole a glance at him. Last night, he had grown warm and kind right before her eyes. And his kiss...she could not forget the delight of it. But now, in the light of day, he was serious and aloof once again. She turned her eyes back to the road ahead. Perhaps it was better not to think of him...but to think of those who awaited them at the end of their journey.
She was certain that her mother would receive her with tears and open arms. There would be words of correction as well, of course. But forgiveness and understanding would be given unreservedly. The thought of her mother’s arms, warm and gentle...of her voice so soothing, whispering loving words...was nearly enough to calm her worries.
But what of Papa? She thought. Perhaps he would forgive. But would he ever look upon her in the same way? To lose his love and respect, even in only the smallest measure...her eyes burned with tears at the thought of it.
“Gather your courage, my lady.”
Simon’s voice was sudden. She turned her head to look at him, seeing how he kept his eyes forward. But there was a change in his countenance...the same softening she’d witnessed last night. And his tone, though not particularly gentle, was not harsh. It was strong... heartening.
“Fear is but a feeling. You must master it, just as you master feelings of anger, or sadness, or hunger.”
He was speaking as a soldier. She knew something of warriors. Her father, after all, commanded a garrison. And Owen was always speaking of the “code” he was expected to follow as a knight in training. It seemed rather amusing to her that Simon would impart such wisdom on her, as he had done last night. A little smile formed on her lips as she lowered her head, replying with modesty.
“I do not think myself capable of such courage.”
“Because you have little practice,” he said. “You have rarely left the sanctuary and comfort that lies beneath your mother’s wing.”
She could not deny such a truth. Even now, she longed for her mother’s guidance and wisdom. Thinking of it, her sense of protectiveness was roused. Her voice rose slightly in defense of herself.
“My mother is a very great lady. Is it wrong that I should love her so? Did you not feel the same about your mother?”
It was a long moment before he answered. His words were spoken in a quiet, serious way.
“I have only distant memories of her. She was stricken with smallpox, along with both of my brothers, when I was a boy.”
Evelyn turned her eyes away, ashamed that she had touched upon such a tender subject. William had told her something of Simon’s mother. But this was most unexpected...and terribly sad.
“Pardon,” she gently said. “I was not aware of it.”
He said nothing in reply. And for a good deal of time, as they rode along, she remained quiet, fearful that she had wounded him in some way. But soon, her curiosity began to grow. He was such a puzzlement. At times, he seemed so cold. And yet he was capable of tenderness. Was it possible there were remnants of a boy in him...a boy who had known love, but had lost it too soon? There was a possibility that exploring the matter further would anger him. But her curiosity overwhelmed her. With trepidation, and a soft voice, she made her inquiry.
“Do you not think of her at times? Surely there must a part of you that recalls her presence.”
His answer was abrupt. “I have never spoken of it, nor shall I now. It is best left in the past.”
She lowered her eyes. “Forgive me for broaching the subject.”
For a moment, she thought he meant to say no more. But she was surprised when he spoke again, sounding rather philosophical about a subject so dark.
“Death comes to us all. I find no reason to grieve when one is taken from this world and admitted to the life to come.”
Taken aback by such a declaration, she could not help responding with an urgency in her tone.
“That is not as it should be. Yes, death is imminent for us all. But God has blessed us with life. It is a most generous gift, one we must repay by living our days to the fullest. When it ends in an untimely way, there is no wrong to be found in mourning.”
She expected him to respond in an angry or dismissive way. But he surprised her with a slight smirk, and a light-hearted reply.
“The wisdom of your mother, I take it?”
A shy little smile came to her lips. Her words had come in a rush, urged by her inner passions. She had not meant to speak so freely. But it seemed that Simon was amused by her momentary loss of control. His expression was almost cheerful, and she could not help returning his mood in kind.
“My mother’s wisdom is a part of me, ‘tis true,” she said. “But remember that my brother is a man of the cloth. Enlightenment flows not only in my blood, but is pressed upon my mind. You have fair warning, my lord.” Looking at him, her eyes shined with mirth. “As a wife, I shall perhaps be troublesome. Do you feel fit for the task?”
His answer was warmly amusing. “I welcome the challenge, my lady.”