The golden limestone wall, so familiar, came into sight...and lying behind it was the Gisborne estate. Evelyn took in a deep breath, trying to undo the nervous knot that had formed in her belly. Pulling the reins, she brought her horse to a halt. She felt Simon’s eyes upon her. He was examining her...probably wondering if she thought to bolt. For a moment, she closed her eyes.
God, give me strength, she silently prayed.
A sudden voice broke her thoughts. It came from somewhere high and near. Looking up and about, she saw a familiar figure at a distance, sitting atop the wall. Owen called out to her.
“Evie! Thank God. You return at last!” He jumped down from his perch. As he approached, Evelyn could see his stern expression. His tone was almost fatherly in its way...which was typical of him when he was concerned. Rather than expressing his worry for her, he was trying to play the dominant older brother.
Dear Owen, she thought. He has missed me. It gave her some comfort, but it did little to alleviate her tension.
“The entire household has been in turmoil,” he declared. “Mama has sent me to watch for your arrival. I have been on this bloody wall half the day, waiting for you.”
Simon, who had been quietly sitting by, leaned slightly forward. Evelyn watched the slight lift of his chin...and a strange thrill came over her at hearing him speak in his masterful way.
“Waste not a moment more, young Owen. Make haste, and tell them that we approach.”
Evelyn watched Owen’s expression as it softened into submission. If there was one thing that pleased him, it was being dutiful to his betters. Being a squire, he was eager to prove himself to those of higher rank, and he bowed in obedience. As he hurried away, Evelyn turned to look at Simon. He met her gaze, saying nothing. And yet, there was a telling gleam in his bright green eyes. He had guided her here. And now, she had to complete the journey on her own. Breathing deep, closing her eyes, she recited a phrase that was familiar to her...words she’d heard from Owen time and again. She spoke the words softly to herself, aloud.
“We must persevere to the end in any enterprise begun.”
A moment of silence passed, followed by Simon’s voice, giving her comfort.
“To live by the code is to live wisely, my lady.”
She wished to reply. She longed to linger, if only to allow herself more time for preparation. But in her heart, she knew that to delay was to make her chore more difficult.
I will persevere in the enterprise, she said to herself. And determined to make good on her vow, she urged her horse forward, passing through the stone arch that led to the manor.
Simon rode at her side, and as they approached, they could see the members of the household hurrying from within. At the forefront was her mother, with Celeste and Thea both making attempts to slow her progression, for the sake her of her delicate condition.
The moment had come, and Evelyn prepared herself for it with a final deeply drawn breath. Simon dismounted beside her, coming to assist her. As he helped her down, she gave him a nervous smile. He had been so noble through all of this, and she wished so much to thank him. But there was little time for words of kindness. He had hardly set her to the ground before her mother was there, holding tightly to her.
“Evie! Oh, my darling!” Her hold was fierce, but Evelyn welcomed it...and she was not at all surprised to find herself suddenly grasped by the shoulders, pushed back slightly by her mother’s hands. Cassia’s words became scolding.
“Oh Evie, how could you be so foolish? Do you know what heartache you have caused me? I should punish you severely for scaring me so!”
For a moment, Evelyn feared it as a true threat...until she found herself in another close embrace. She felt her mother’s kiss on her cheek.
“Thank God you are safe.”
Evelyn pressed her cheek against her mother’s shoulder. She felt the sting of tears in her eyes as guilt washed over her.
“I am sorry, Mama. I never meant to frighten you so.” A sudden realization came over her. She put her hand over her mouth, giving a gasp. “Oh, Mama. The babe.”
What if she had worried her mother so terribly that it had caused harm to her unborn child? She broke into French, unable to help herself in her sudden sense of panic.
“Oh, je ne jamais pardonnerait moi-même si elle venait à nuire à cause de moi! Pardonnez-moi!”
Before she could go on, she felt her mother’s hand upon her cheek.
“Hush, my darling. This child has endured many a crisis of late with only an occasional twinge. I feel it must certainly be a female to have such tolerance.”
Evelyn gave her a little smile. She was soon greeted by everyone, who welcomed her home with happy faces and words of greeting. But there was one notable absence. She turned to her mother, seeking explanation.
“Where is Papa?”
Cassia’s expression became solemn. She held Evelyn’s hand. “He is in the solar. He wishes to see you in private.”
Evelyn felt her heart race with apprehension. She turned to look at Simon, who stood quietly by. He was such a pillar of strength and wisdom. He had been by her side, guiding her home and encouraging her to face her time of trial. Now that she was here, she should have been prepared to stand on her own. But she was suddenly troubled by the thought of being without him. His presence gave her strength, and she wasn’t quite ready to relinquish him yet. Timidly, she made request of him.
“Your grace, would you be good enough to escort me to my father?”
Simon took a step forward. For a moment, she thought he would decline, as she saw him look from one person to another. It was impossible to read his thoughts. Did he wish her to go alone? Was he afraid to show his gallantry in front of others? Mentally, she prepared herself for the possibility of his rejection. But then, he offered her his arm. If she’d been bold enough, she would have given him a kiss of gratefulness. Instead, she placed her hand on his sleeve, allowing him to guide her into the house. As they ascended the stairs, she looked down to where her hand rested on his arm. It seemed too distant a gesture...too detached. They had shared pleasant and close conversation, even exchanging moments of amusement. They had shared a kiss. She longed to know that closeness again, in some way. She knew it might be too bold, but she could not help herself. Removing her hand, she twined her arm around his. Using his strong figure for support, she leaned against him...and she was overjoyed to find him allowing it.
“Thank you, my lord, for all you have done," she said. "I shall be greatly indebted to you.”
His tone was cool. “It is merely a duty, my lady.”
How she wished he would call her by her name, as he had done yesterday. Why did she feel that he was once again growing distant? She sighed as they came to the top of the stairs...and her thoughts turned to her father. He was waiting for her, just beyond the door. She wanted to hold fast to Simon, but she could feel him gently extracting himself from her hold. With a nod of his head, he left her. She looked at the door, feeling her heart beating fast. There was no escaping this. She closed her eyes, uttering a last entreaty for strength. With a nervous hand, she reached for the latch.
The chamber was dim. Most of the curtains were drawn, allowing little illumination, which added to the somberness of the room. Evelyn stood just inside, afraid to move further. Her father sat in his chair, facing the window. She was certain he was aware of her presence, for she saw him turn his head slightly, as one detecting a noise. She waited, hoping he would give her greeting, or at least call her forward.
He said nothing.
Her heart was crushed by his silence. But somehow, she managed to speak.
“Papa, I am here.”
She waited...and at last, he replied, though it was only with a word.
Her name was spoken quietly and calmly...and it struck her heart in a most painful way. Tears welled in her eyes. There was a hint of sadness in his tone. He was ashamed of her still...she was certain of it. Her steps felt leaden as she slowly moved forward, approaching his chair. At his side she knelt down, sitting on the floor. She lowered her head, unable to look up at him. She felt the lump grow larger in her throat as his voice came in a low, soft tone.
“You have caused us great pain, Evelyn.”
She was deeply cut by the tranquility of his voice. It wounded more deeply than angry words ever could. Tears spilled down her cheeks.
“Forgive me, Papa.” Sorrow stole her ability to say more. Silently she wept...and she hardly heard him when he spoke to her.
“Why do you kneel so at my feet?”
She lifted her head, uncertain of his meaning.
“You are a Gisborne. A woman of rank. And I will have no daughter of mine kneeling as if lowborn.”
Slowly she rose, coming to stand before him. Unable to stifle her emotions, her voice broke.
“Oh Papa,” she cried. “I so very sorry.”
He shushed her, and gently took her hand. “We will speak of it no more. You are my daughter, Evelyn. There is nothing in this world that will ever diminish my love for you.”
Every bit of worry, every measure of tension, melted instantly away. She felt herself crumbling, not with pain, but with liberation from her fears. Her tears, given full sway, came fast and furious. Placing herself on his knee, she put her arms around his neck and pressed her head against his shoulder, weeping. She felt like a child again, letting him hold her as she spoke between intakes of breath.
“I was so afraid. I thought you might never forgive me.”
She felt the gentleness of his hand on her back, soothing her...just as he had always done when she was in need of comfort. His voice was kind and gentle.
“It is I who should beg forgiveness. It was wrong of me to judge you so harshly.”
She shook her head. “No, Papa. I was foolish in my feelings for Rene.” She sniffled, trying to calm herself, even as her tears continued to fall. She took a deep breath in an attempt at calm speech. “I allowed him to rob me of my good sense.”
Guy spoke quietly. “You are now aware of his crimes?”
“Yes,” she replied. “The Marquis told me all. I will never again be so unwise.”
His gave a soft sigh. “We grow and progress by fault, daughter. Some lessons are difficult, and quite often painful. But they must be learned all the same.”
His wisdom, his soothing voice...both were so comforting. She longed to remain in his embrace, recalling how, as a child, she’d so often fallen asleep in his arms. But he shifted his weight, urging her to straighten her stance. He reached up, brushing the moisture from her cheeks.
“Go now, and rest yourself. I believe you are in need of it.”
She nodded and smiled. Leaning forward, she embraced him again and kissed his cheek. “I love you, Papa. I love you very much.”
His voice took on a masterful but teasing note. “That is enough of that. If one were to hear this conversation, they would think me softhearted.” He scoffed...but the corner of his mouth rose. She loved him more than words could say, and she leaned in again, bestowing him with another kiss to his cheek. She bid him good night and left him, exuberant in her certainty that all the world was right once again.