Evelyn jumped, startled by the sound of her father's fist slamming the table. He stood up. As he took to stalking back and forth, he fumed in a foreign tongue.
"Dio Dannazione!a me perché provengono questi problemi?Per quale motivo? Sto maledetto a soffrire per il resto dei miei giorni? Fottuto inferno! Se trovo che bastardo io personalmente romperà suo collo!"
Evelyn heard Simon's hushed question, spoken with a curious...almost an amused note, as he inclined his head to her. "I see Rome has influenced your father's speech."
She sighed, a despondent sound. "He rarely speaks the language. He talks so when he is particularly upset. When we were children, he spoke in such a way as to shelter our ears from unfit language. But clearly, some words cannot be disguised."
Her understanding of Italian was not very adept, but there was little need for translation. Anger was anger, in any language.
She and Simon had returned to the hall in a quiet manner, giving the pretense of a few stolen moments together. After the evening's entertainment was done, Simon had approached Guy and quietly requested an audience with only family members present. With a curious light in his eye, Guy had dismissed the servants and performers, as well as the members of his garrison who were ever present. The family had gathered together, listening as Simon broke the news.
Now Guy was in a rage. From what little Evelyn could understand, her father had a desire to see Rene's neck broken. She looked to Simon, who sat beside her. He seemed to be deep in thought, perhaps forming his own plan.
So much for a planned holiday, she thought, lamenting the next few days she had hoped to spend happily with Simon. Now, here they were, wrapped in yet another web of trouble.
As Guy walked the floor in anger, his fingers furiously rubbing his temples, Owen spoke up. His brow was furrowed, his mouth set in a serious and stern line.
"There should be no debate on the matter. The woman must be returned to the convent at once."
Thea, ever at odds with whatever Owen had to say, gave her own opinion.
"Baroness LaCroix has been our friend and neighbor for many years. I think we should consider her circumstances before we make a hasty decision."
"She shamed her husband," said Owen, his eyes cast on Thea with a harsh light. "She dishonored her class and herself by committing adultery, and then she escaped from her confinement. Why should we harbor such an indecent woman in our house? We might all be excommunicated...possibly even imprisoned for lodging a convict."
The voice of their mother, always the calm in the center of a storm, was soothing to Evelyn's ear. Cassia spoke in her strong but steady way.
"No matter what she has done, it is not our place to judge her. God will see to that one day. For the moment, I agree with Thea. I believe we should consider being of aid to a woman we have all known as a friend."
Guy stopped in his march, coming to stand at the front end of the dining table. He crossed his arms. His tone was calmer now...his words spoken in English...but his anger had not diminished.
"I am the master of the house, and I say that Owen is correct. Why should we harbor her? She knew the consequences of her actions...the punishment they would bring if discovered. Why should we be of aid to her? Such indulgence may lead to our own ruin."
"Sir Guy, if I may say..." Simon stood, his presence taking command of the room. He spoke in a commanding voice. "I think perhaps you should meet with the baroness before making a decision to remove her from your house."
Basil, who had been relatively quiet thus far, sighed as he gave voice. "My son, what possible difference could that make? Sir Guy is correct. To keep her here would bring only shame and dishonor."
"I do not condone her actions," Simon replied. "But neither do I approve of abuse towards women."
Everyone looked at each other with curious glances. Cassia was the first to respond.
"What abuse do you speak of, your grace?"
Simon's expression became rather grim. "Two days ago, my words kept the baroness from her husband's hand raised in violence. But sadly, words alone could not tame his wrath altogether."
No one gave reply to his declaration. Evelyn looked from one face to another, seeing their expressions as they realized what Simon meant. His words continued to hold them in thrall.
"It is my opinion that Lady Isabella has received just punishment, and will continue to endure it. She will be stripped of her title and wealth. Her name will be spoken of with distaste and ridicule. And her husband has seen to it that she does not forget his displeasure. To give her to the law would merely be a way of playing to the crowd. They find base entertainment in the misery of a fellow human being."
Galvanized by his chivalry, Evelyn rose to her feet, standing by his side.
"I agree with Simon," she boldly declared. "Yes, Lady Isabella has done wrong. But there are times when we must remember our humanity. I believe that on this occasion, we should do not what our fellow noblemen expect of us...but what we know is right."
Simon's influence roused the women of the room. Thea rose to her feet, her face and features set with more stubbornness that ever.
"His grace has spoken, Papa. We must not dishonor him."
Guy reached out with a furious hand, knocking his trencher and cup from the table. As he stormed from the room, a tense silence fell. Cassia sighed, pushing her wine goblet aside.
"I shall speak to him later," she said. "But now, I will go to Isabella."
"As will I," said Evelyn. She went to her mother. Along with Thea, they helped Cassia rise from her chair. As they walked with her towards the stairs, Evelyn looked back at the men. The duke's expression was unreadable, as if he were quite uncertain what had happened. Owen was sitting with his arms folded, frowning with displeasure. And Simon was standing in observance. His arms were folded, much like Owen's. But his stature was one of confidence. He turned to look at Evelyn, giving her a slight smile. She smiled back...a look of adoration...and followed her mother and sister upstairs.
Tears fell down Isabella's cheeks. Cassia sat beside her, holding her hand. Thea, holding Gabriel, sat beside Evelyn in the window seat. Together they watched and listened as the she spoke in a trembling voice.
"I have destroyed everything. My marriage, my status. And now, I shall never again see my son."
She broke into sobs, crying against Cassia's shoulder. But just as quickly as she leaned on her, she pulled away.
"Oh Cassia, forgive me," she cried. "I grieve on the shoulder of an expecting mother. I am the lowest of women to burden you so."
With a smile, Cassia patted Isabella's hand. "You have just cause for your unhappiness. To hold it within would be unwise."
"But to unburden myself to you, in your condition..."
Cassia responded with an amused expression. There was a sparkle in her dark eyes. "You speak as my husband speaks. He seems not to understand that after four children, I am hardly delicate. I like to think I am quite resilient."
Isabella gave a little smile. Cassia called for Celeste, telling her to fetch clean garments and have a bath prepared for their guest. As she left, Evelyn rose to her feet. A thoughtful expression crossed her features. She crooked her finger to her chin, thinking.
"Mama," she said, "Perhaps we could send her to stay in Toulon."
Cassia looked at her, saying nothing. She seemed to be considering the thought. The idea sprouted more fully in Evelyn's mind.
"She could claim sanctuary if she were to live at William's parish. He could find her an occupation, something that would not be too difficult."
Thea spoke up. She rested Gabriel against her shoulder, rubbing his back. She looked at her sister with a doubtful eye.
"Evelyn, a noblewoman cannot work as a servant."
"I am a noblewoman no longer," said Isabella.
They all turned to look at her. She drew away from Cassia. Righting her posture, Isabella reached up to wipe the tears from her eyes.
"I have made a shambles of my life...but I yet live. If I must lower myself to the position of a servant, I will do so. It will be my penance for the sins I have committed." She lowered her head in shame.
Evelyn came to stand before her, looking at the once proud Baroness LaCroix. Not so long ago, she had felt such jealousy of this woman. And she had sometimes felt the return of unpleasant feelings, though they had not been given voice. Now, she could only feel pity. Strange, it seemed, how circumstances could change so quickly. In a gentle voice, she offered her comfort.
"Do not fear, my lady. My brother is the same as he ever was...noble and kind. He will see that you are well cared for."
Their eyes met. Isabella smiled, thanking Evelyn for her graciousness. Evelyn returned the smile with her own, and in that moment, they became friends. She turned to her mother.
"I shall speak to Simon," she declared. "He will be glad to know we have come to a swift conclusion."
Cassia replied. "Be certain he informs your Papa as soon as possible. If he does not hear good news soon, I fear he will go mad."
Evelyn smiled, stepping from the room. She did not have to search for Simon, for when she turned from closing the door, he was waiting there for her. He gave her a curious look.
"We have settled the matter," she told him.
He raised an eyebrow in interest. "So soon?" He offered her his arm, which she took gladly. They walked along the hall, taking their time as they conversed.
"We will send Isabella to Toulon," she explained. "William will see to her welfare, under the protection of the church, of course. It will not be so strict as the abbey, but I believe she will be set on the proper course."
He made a sound of uncertainty, and remarked. "Let us hope that this time, she remains on said course."
Evelyn gave a nod. Then, her thoughts turned to him. He was a man of power and great influence. He could have condemned Isabella. And yet he had granted her protection. She looked at him, studying the masculine beauty of his face.
"Simon, why did you defend Lady Isabella? Your word could have easily returned her to the convent...or worse."
There was a hint of amusement in his response. "Would you rather I had done so?"
She smiled, his teasing reply warming her. "Certainly not," she said. "But other men would have had no qualms about doing so." Twining her arm more tightly around his, she pressed herself as close as decency would allow, wishing to share a deeper connection with him. "I am curious to know your thoughts, Simon. Please tell me why you acted so."
"I live by the code, Evelyn. It is imprinted on my soul. There are those who would twist such a set of laws to their own advantage...perhaps even ignore them altogether. But I would dishonor myself if I were to do so."
"You would protect a woman, even at the risk of your own reputation?"
"I would," he replied.
They came to a pause. He turned to her, looking deep into her eyes. She felt a familiar stirring in her soul. Her heart beat faster. His hand gripped hers, warm and strong.
"For any woman, I would give my protection." He reached up, placing his right palm on her cheek. "For you, I would give my life."
She felt a weakness in her knees. Were it not for his left hand, which had slipped around to press the small of her back, she was certain she might have fallen. As he brought his face close to hers, she closed her eyes in anticipation. When his warm lips pressed to hers, she eagerly reached up to put her arms around his neck. Her fingers came up to play with the soft waves of his hair. Something inside of her came unfurled. She wanted more than this. There was warmth and excitement in his gentle kiss, but there was a strange hunger growing within her. But she knew not how to express it. The feeling was wild and wicked, and while a tiny portion of her brain wondered at her wantonness, her body ached with a nameless need. A whimper of frustration escaped her. She longed for more. If only Simon knew of her feelings.
His hand moved gently from her cheek, coming to hold the back of her head...and then, she felt a bolt of sensation as his tongue lightly touched her lips. Of its own volition, her mouth opened slightly, as if to gasp in shock. But the gasp became a heated sharing of breath...a heated kiss that ended much too soon. He broke the connection, and she trembled as he pulled her close. She could have sworn that she heard him groan in frustration. His cheek was pressed against her hair, his lips near her ear. His voice sounded rough...almost angry.
"What you do to me, Evelyn."
Had she done something wrong? She started to ask. But he pulled away, bidding her a soft good night as he left her.