Rene felt a slight weight pressing on his chest. Widening his eyes in an attempt to shake off sleep, he glanced down at the petite, blond-haired figure resting on him. Who was she? Had she given her name? He could not recall. Their time had not been spent in conversation...that much he remembered. She was likely one of the wenches who worked at the tavern next door. He recalled something about her being sent to him by her master, but beyond that, his memory faltered.
His head pained him with a dull ache, enough to keep him abed. But his mouth was terribly dry, and his bodily functions could not be ignored. Gently moving from under his companion, he made use of the chamber pot and the wash basin. From the flagon on the bed table, he poured the last of the previous nights wine into a cup, sipping it as he stood by the window. The cool water he'd splashed on his face had helped to revive both his senses and his thoughts.
He had arrived at the inn last night, with a substantial sum of money in his purse. Isabella had provided him with it, gracious thing that she was. Thinking of her, he recalled how she had clung to him and kissed him goodbye. She'd given him a bag of gold coins to provide for himself, and with tearful eyes, she had asked him not to forget her. Were it not for her husband, he might have stayed a little longer. But perhaps it was for the best. Their relationship had been growing too complicated these past several days. It was better to make a clean break...to move on.
Now, if only certain troubles would leave him be.
What had happened with Evelyn? His last memory of her had been the sight of her in tears.
Sir Guy had obviously condemned her in some way, and it had taken all of his discipline not to go to her. But how could he have done that? Considering Guy's threats, it would have been beyond foolish to attempt consoling her. And the Earl of Gisborne was not the only threat to his very existence.
He could not forget the feeling of a knife being held at his throat. What kind of stupid fool would he have been to remain there when his life had been threatened? It was easier to walk away, as he had done countless times before. What difference was there between this situation and any of the others he'd encountered?
A great difference, he silently admitted.
There was a vision in his head that would not leave him. It had been there for many days...ever since he had sat in the crook of an apple tree, and looked down upon an angel.
She was there, in his mind, in all of her loveliness. The dark, lustrous hair that could be likened to black silk...her blue eyes, softly shaded the color of a summer sky. She had all the exquisiteness a man could desire. But there was more to her than physical beauty.
How sweetly shy she was. The blush of her cheeks was so lovely, and the way she turned her eyes from him, trying to hide a dimpled smile...it had touched something tender inside of him.
And yet, however shy, there was a boldness in her that could not be hidden. It sparkled in her eyes. Hells bells, she hadn't been shy about challenging his word. Even though he had sensed fear in her, she had stood her ground. And how could he forget the trick she had played on Isabella? His lip curled in amusement, and he stifled a laugh at the thought of Isabella, screaming like a madwoman when she discovered the lizard on her person. Evelyn had put it there...a childish trick, indeed. And he found delight in that rebellious quality.
He wanted to see her again. It would have to be carefully done, of course, but he was capable of discretion. He hadn't gotten this far in life without knowing how to handle himself. They deserved a proper goodbye. And he was not a heartless rake, leaving a woman he cared about without thought for her welfare. Her father might have disowned her, furious as he'd been. The Marquis might have called off the engagement and left her in disgrace.
Pompous bastard, he thought. She didn't deserve such cruelty...not when it was mostly his fault. He had put them both at risk, fool that he was. If nothing else, he needed to offer her his apologies.
As he dressed, the girl in his bed came awake. She had no modesty, that was for certain. She yawned and stretched as she sat up, giving no thought to the notion that her naked breasts and belly were uncovered. Looking at her, he had a strange desire to have her cover herself. But then, he shook his head at the thought, reminding himself that he was no saint. Who was he to pass judgment on others for their behavior?
After she'd dressed, he put payment into her hand...more than she expected, from the look on her face. He thanked her for her company and sent her on her way. He had no idea why, but he felt a strange need to do something right...something honorable.
Lord, that was a laughable thought. That he, an admitted scoundrel, was considering something of noble intent. Maybe some of Evelyn's goodness had rubbed off on him. Whatever compelled him, he could not be sure. He only knew he needed to satisfy this sudden attack of conscience. He would see Evelyn again. He had caused her much trouble, but somehow, he would make it up to her...
Simon and the Duke stood at table, waiting for their hosts to enter.
Evelyn walked with Thea, Owen, and Lucien. Guy and Cassia followed a few steps behind them. She had thought herself composed and ready, for the day had dawned warm and bright. The rain had gone, leaving a freshness in the air...the herald of a new start to all things in the world. She was determined to begin anew, first by presenting herself in proper fashion to Simon. Thea had always said that darker colors made a woman look more refined, so Evelyn chose a dress of deep emerald green. It was accented with swirls of black velvet on the sleeves and around the skirt hem. It was, in truth, one of her favorite dresses. She had her hair parted, braided, and twisted into a high chignon. To finish, she chose a simple gold hair circlet with a single pearl pendent in the front. It was lovely, but unpretentious. Recalling that first night of the party, when she'd stolen glances at Simon, she recalled how indifferent he had seemed to the wealth surrounding him. She sensed that he was not a man who was impressed with great extravagance. She could not be certain how best to please him. But judging from the short time she had spent in his company, she felt it best to be strong and sophisticated in her character. Examining herself in the looking glass, she had felt as though she'd achieved the appearance of a mature young woman. Despite the nervous flutters in her belly, she had been determined to look him in the eye, without fear and without reservation.
But when she saw him, the breath seemed to flee from her lungs. He was astonishing when dressed in red. It suited him in a marvelous way, accentuating the bronze color of his skin and the soft, russet tone of his hair. And his face...freshly shaven. How handsome it was. She found it impossible to look away, as his eyes seemed to be watching her as intently as she watched him. When he lifted her hand in greeting, she could not help looking at his lips. They were full and soft...and with a sensation of sudden warmth she recalled how they felt against her own.
How she managed to keep her composure, she did not know. When the meal was brought forth, she was aware of going through the motions. Mechanically, she sipped her morning ale and tasted her food. But her mind was consumed by thoughts most brazen.
When would he kiss her again?
Nothing had prepared her for the feeling of his lips on hers. It had been thrilling beyond words...and yet, it had been so brief. His hands had been so warm against her skin. She had been but moments from touching him in return. The initial press of his lips had been shocking. But that shock had instantly turned into something different...something powerful that swept away her fears and inhibitions. She had longed to touch his face, to feel its texture. His skin looked so smooth and warm.
But he'd broken contact, robbing her of the chance to know more of him.
She sighed deeply, lost in her thoughts of him...until she felt an elbow jabbed in her side. With a slight start, she blinked, glancing around. Owen whispered to her.
"Evie, you silly goose. Papa has asked you a question."
Embarrassed, she looked up to see everyone's eyes upon her. For a moment she worried that she had made a fool of herself in some way. But her father's expression was pleasant.
"The weather is very fine," Guy said. "Perhaps this would be a good time to grant the Marquis his tour of the grounds."
She felt her heart skip at the prospect of being alone with him. And she was not certain that it was fear she felt. She nodded her head.
"Of course, Papa. I would be pleased."
Lord, let him look at me. Her eyes drifted to Simon...but his head was turned from her. His reply was cool.
"You are most gracious, Sir Guy."
Disappointment swept over her. Where was the lovely hint of a smile? Where were the warm, tender looks he had given her? It seemed difficult to believe that the gracious gentleman of yesterday and this cool, stoic man of now were one and the same.
She looked away, trying to concentrate on her meal. But she had no appetite, nor the will to pretend otherwise...
Author's Note: Some important stuff coming up. :) I'll have it posted as soon as I can, hopefully by the weekend. Thanks for reading!