“Your lady appears troubled. You should say something to her, and with some degree of pleasantry.”
It was a reprimand, but Simon was not surprised by it. Several times in the past few days, his father had spoken of Evelyn with much fondness. It seemed he had a tender spot for her. Now he was displeased by what he considered to be cool disregard. Simon spoke in defense of his actions.
“I am merely thinking of formality, father. One must keep a sense of decorum when in the presence of their host.”
Basil’s tone lost none of its edge. “Yes, but you might at least grant her a friendly look. From the way you hold yourself, one would assume you did not care for her at all.”
Simon sighed deeply, saying nothing.
But his father’s assumption could hardly have been more wrong. In truth, it took great discipline not to look at Evelyn. Each time he saw her, she seemed to grow more beautiful. In this morning’s light, she looked so womanly...so regal. It was difficult to remember that she was still a young maiden. She was still an innocent, and he had to behave in the proper fashion.
If only she didn’t make it so difficult. Just a few days ago, he had thought himself the most disciplined of men. But just a short time in her company was proving otherwise. Last night, he had admitted to himself his concern for her feelings. He cared for her a great deal already. And there was not so great a shame in that. After all, she would be his wife, and it was his duty to protect and honor her.
But he had not counted on being so attracted to her.
Kissing her had ignited a fire within him. It had taken every ounce of his will not to pull her closer and press himself against her...to draw her deep into a kiss that would leave no doubt of the passion he was starting to feel for her.
But, somehow, he had managed to refrain.
Until they were wed, he had to maintain a certain distance. They could walk together, talk together...even share an occasional tender moment. But he could not allow himself to be swept away by feelings that, even now, were threatening to break his self-control. He spoke to himself, repeating words from the code as he fought to strengthen his resolve.
In giving and receiving love's solaces, let modesty be ever present.
He would not be controlled by his baser masculine instincts. And what was a tour of the grounds, after all?They would be on horseback, which would keep them a safe distance apart.
His father’s voice, again spoken in a quiet but forceful way, broke his thoughts.
“Decorum is one matter. Deliberate indifference is another.”
Simon felt a nagging at his conscience, knowing his father spoke the truth.
Finishing the last of his ale, he pushed back from the table. He was aware that he was being watched as he approached Evelyn’s chair. As he paused just at her side, she looked up at him.
Sweet heaven. Those eyes. His senses reeled at the beautiful blue clearness...and the anticipation he read there.
“My lady,” he said. He offered her his hand.
Her soft palm graced his without hesitation. As she rose to her feet, decorum dictated that she place a light hold on his arm. But for a brief moment, he could not relinquish her hand. A pulse of heat flowed from where their palms touched. Looking into her eyes, he could see that she felt it too. Somehow, he managed to release her hand. He placed it where it ought to have been, resting on his sleeve. As he guided her from the hall, he found that her presence...warm and close by his side...was already working its magic on him. He wanted something more than politesse allowed.
“Where shall we begin, my lord?”
He was so lost in his thoughts that her question startled him. He breathed deep, inhaling through his nose and letting it out again. He would be civil. But devil take it, his soul was demanding something more, and it would not relent.
“Perhaps we should begin with first names,” he replied. “Evelyn.”
He looked at her. Her expression warmed, softening into a tender smile. Lord, how was it possible for such a simple gesture to be so powerful? His defenses were helpless against it. The corner of his mouth rose. She gave no answer to his reply. Instead, she curled her arm around his, just as she had done the morning before. As they walked together, he welcomed the feeling of her slender figure pressed against him.
This shall suffice, he told himself. For now...
Simon had worried about what would transpire when he was alone with Evelyn, but he quickly found that no moments of temptation transpired, as they became involved in an engaging conversation.
He had expected small talk. But when Evelyn made a statement about his horse...how beautiful she thought the beast to be...they were soon having a deep discussion about a subject they both enjoyed. There was little time for heated moments when such simple pleasantry flowed freely between them.
They traveled the hills and valleys for most of the morning. Compared to Simon’s own lands, the Gisborne estate was rather moderate in size. But he marveled at the abundance of life within its boundaries, and he found many pleasant surprises along the way.
“Do you see those stone arches there?” said Evelyn, pointing out ahead of them. “Do you see how they come from the hills, and lead down to the manor? They are aqueducts.”
Simon raised an eyebrow in surprise and interest. “Are they? The same structures such as the Romans had?”
Evelyn nodded. “The very same. When William first journeyed to Rome, along with my father, they studied ruins of the city. William was fascinated by their architecture. He convinced Papa to have such a system built. There is a great spring in the hills, and the aqueducts bring the water to us in abundance.”
He looked upon the structures with wonder. Not even on his own grand estate did he have such a luxury as that. It was marvelous.
Never had he seen so many varieties of flora and fauna. An enormous flock of sheep followed their shepherd in one meadow, while horses grazed in another...proof of their quantity of livestock. The estate had a fine stock of honeybees as well, and their falconry was most impressive. After returning to the house for a small midday meal, they walked the grounds just outside the manor. Evelyn took a great delight in showing him the garden...and he found himself delighting in listening to her.
She pointed out a row of small, bushy shrubs, with feathery grey-green leaves. “That is southernwood. The leaves are used to cure fevers. And this is wormwood. It has many uses, but Mama values it most as a repellant for fleas.”
Coming to a collection of beautiful purple-blue blossoms, she leaned in to smell the flowers that grew tall and elegant, nearly waist high.
“Ah, the iris,” she sighed. “A most lovely flower. Its roots make a very good ink. It has the aroma of violets.” She smiled, looking up at him. “I always found that rather amusing...that an iris smells of violets. Do you not think it so?” She plucked a bloom, holding it to her nose. “Mama finds this flower to be most versatile. The leaves serve purpose in making rush-mats, or in patching thatched roofs. And, not only is it fragrant and pleasing to the eye, but it yields a dark blue liquid that does well in spot removing. It is also a salve for teeth and gums, and a dye for cloth.”
He was captured by her descriptions, and the lovely, intelligent way she spoke. Her sudden halting took him by surprise. A blush came to her cheeks, and she looked away.
“Forgive me. I feel I speak too much. You must think me a long-winded school mistress.”
He shook his head. “Not at all,” he said, giving her a pleasant look. “Continue the lesson, if you please.”
With a smile, she turned her attention to shining green shrubbery, running her fingers over the leaves. “A shame the peonies do not bloom all year round. When mixed in wine or ale, they make a useful agent for keeping away bad dreams.”
Wishing to encourage her, he pointed to another flower. “What is that one?”
She answered with enthusiasm. “That is a gillyflower. It makes a delightful spice for meals. And those around it are violets, of course. They provide a lovely oil for a bath.”
He took in a breath of the clean, scented air. “Everything seems to have a distinct purpose here. A reason for being.”
“This is all Mama’s doing.”
Her smile was one of love and pride. It was the look she always seemed to have when speaking of her mother. It touched him deeply.
“She comes from a long line of healers. I hope to one day be as wise as she. And as worldly. Mama and Papa have traveled quite often. To Rome, as I have said. To Spain. Even to Greece.”
They came upon the orchard. Evelyn pointed to a great tree, heavy with round, golden fruit.
“Have you ever partaken of an orange?” she asked.
He shook his head. How delightful her eyes and features were. She was so eager, so joyful, as if she wanted nothing more than to please him. She pulled a fruit from the tree, and requested use of his dagger. As she sliced the fruit in half, and then into quarters, he watched the delicate dance of her fingers. He was entranced...and all the while, she seemed completely unaware of how her movements were affecting him. The scent of orange filled his nostrils, giving him a momentary distraction. She handed him a slice of fruit. He held it to his nose, delighting in the delicious smell.
“What a delightful fragrance,” he said.
She smiled. “Wait until you taste it. But do not eat the outer layer. That is called the rind.”
He tasted it, and a pleasant smile came to his lips.
“Good?” she asked.
He nodded. “Delightful. Very sweet. I must say, I have known nothing like it.”
I have known nothing like you, he thought. His lips nearly formed the words...but she spoke first, and he became quiet once more, listening to her...