With his hands cupped around his mouth, Rene shouted the warning. He rang the bell at the front gate. With maniacal energy he shouted again, yanking the rope so the bell clanged repeatedly...and then he hurried away from the gate, where the sisters were sure to come. Across from the moat bridge, a giant oak was ablaze. He watched it burn, the flames shooting skyward and lighting the night with an eerie orange glow. The application of the pitch had worked perfectly. Poured over the branches and lit with the spark from a flint, it had ignited fast and burned quickly.
There soon came cries of shock and the sound of people rushing. He slinked away from the scene, moving along the abbey wall. He rounded the corner.
Another tree was there. He scaled it, coming to the top of the abbey wall. From over his shoulder, he took a rope ladder, and hanging a wrung over a raised wall block, he let the rest fall down into the courtyard below. Pursing his lips, he emitted his familiar bird call...and down below he heard her hushed response.
"I am here."
The shine of the moon gave enough light so he could see her silhouette moving. Slowly, she climbed the ladder. When she reached the top, he helped her to stand steady. When she glanced down, she wavered and clung to him in fear. Her voice trembled.
"Oh, Rene. I shall faint from this height."
For the first time that day, he smiled, whispering in her ear. "There is no time for fear, dear Izzy. We must go, quickly." Taking up the ladder, he threw it over the outside of the wall. Isabella clung to him. She shook her head, fearful, insisting she could not climb down.
"I will go first," he said. "If you should lose your footing, I will soften your fall."
He heard her angry whisper in return. "Only you would jest at such a time."
He gently squeezed her hand, a gesture of reassurance. He smiled to himself as he moved down the ladder. She soon followed after him, and at the bottom of the wall, he stepped back to wait for her. When she came close, he reached out to lift her to the ground. Her arms went around his neck. Her breath trembled with relief. But he allowed the embrace for only a moment. Pulling back, he took her by the hand.
"Come. We must away." He hurried her along, moving into the shelter of the woods.
"What of the fire?" she asked. "Will it spread to the Abbey?"
He shook his head. "It is doubtful. The flames are not close enough."
"Where do we go?"
It was a moment before he answered. His tone was uncertain...and yet, determined.
"To find sanctuary...with a friend."
Evelyn sat beside Simon, watching a fool performing juggling tricks. The entertainment was meant to ease the minds of those present, particularly the ladies of the house. By now, word had spread of the men's imminent departure. The news was met with much sadness, but Guy insisted upon spending the next few days in merriment. He had ordered entertainment after supper, and tomorrow, if the weather permitted, they would all spend the day picnicking.
She glanced over at Simon, and a little smile came to her lips. It was amusing to think of him taking on such a venture as a picnic. He seemed to be one who was incapable of leisure. Even on their tour of the grounds, he had been in constant motion, both in body and mind. But perhaps he would surprise her, as he had before. There seemed to be many mysteries about him. Discovering his secrets might prove to be a very entertaining venture.
She leaned in to speak to him. But Oliver, a young footman, appeared behind her. He seemed rather troubled, his voice giving a slight tremble as he spoke in a low voice.
"Pardon, my lady Evelyn. May I beg a word with you?"
She nodded, rising from her chair. Something was amiss if s servant came to her rather than going to her father or her mother.
What on earth could it be? She wondered.
Simon's hand suddenly reached out, gently holding her wrist.
"What draws you away?" he asked.
His expression was one of concern. Since that afternoon, he had occasionally glanced at her with such a look. Wishing to ease his mind, she smiled at him, shaking her head in reply to his question.
"It is nothing of great importance, I am certain."
As she walked away, she wondered...
Does he have suspicions in regard to Rene? It was likely that he did, for he was not a foolish man. But the last thing on earth she wanted was to trouble him further. He had been exceedingly understanding thus far. Most men, particularly ones of his rank, would have long since broken such a vexing arrangement. She recalled the lighthearted conversation they had shared...the sweetness and amusement between them.
I shall be quite troublesome.
I welcome the challenge, my lady.
She could only hope that he truly meant it.
Oh, if only Rene had never come back. He had caused such trouble already. Now, just by being in her thoughts, he was endangering the trust she was trying to forge with Simon. Eager to return to his side, she pressed the footman to tell her of his concern.
"What is it, Oliver? I do not wish to be away for long."
He replied in a hushed tone. "My lady, there is a friar outside. He says he must speak to you, and only you. He says it is of great urgency."
Rene, she fumed in silence. Who else could it be? Oh, he would be the ruin of her! She clenched her teeth in muted fury. For a moment, she considered fetching Simon. He would have no qualms about getting rid of a troublemaker...of that she was certain.
But to do so would only invite further calamity. No, she thought. I will allow Rene one last chance. Just one, and then I will set the wolves upon him. Steeling her nerve, she spoke calmly.
"Where is he?"
Oliver gestured his head towards the front door. "Just outside, my lady. Should I accompany you?"
She wagged her head. "No, Oliver. Thank you. I shall speak to him myself."
Yes, I shall speak to him, she fumed to herself. If I do not strangle him first.
She paused in the vestibule, closing her eyes as she asked herself...
Lord, what madness has possessed me?
To venture out, alone, when it was probable that she would be watched...It was beyond foolish. But what choice did she have? She swore to herself that this time, she would be rid of Rene, once and for all. There was nothing he could say that would soften her heart.
Stepping out into the night, she looked around...and there he was, at a distance, standing at the corner of the house. The night torches were not especially bright, but she did not need illumination to know it was him. She advanced quickly, her voice an angry whisper.
"How dare you show yourself here? Remove yourself this instant or I shall have you arrested for trespassing!"
He brought his finger to his lips, trying to shush her. Oh, the audacity! she thought, growing angrier.
"Do not tell me to be quiet! I should box your ears here and now, you degenerate! You are fortunate I do not scream like a madwoman and set the entire household upon you!"
He broke into her rant, speaking quickly. "I need your help, Evelyn."
His request gave her pause, if only for a moment. Her declaration was firm. She narrowed her eyes at him. "I will not help a criminal."
"But you will help a noblewoman in need of aid."
Her tongue faltered, not understanding his meaning...until he stepped back, turning his attention to someone in the shadows. The figure slowly came forward. Evelyn gasped.
"Baroness LaCroix. Good heavens!"
Even in the flickering shadows of torchlight, she could see the change in Isabella's features...the abuse she had endured. It pained her to witness it. She could not find words.
"Evelyn," said Rene, "I am on the run. I can fend for myself. But Isabella has no refuge. No one to care for her. I beseech you to help her."
She reclaimed her voice. Her anger rose again, and she glared at him.
"How can you place such a weight on my shoulders?"
"Because I know you are a true lady," he whispered, a plea in his voice. "You are good and kind. I beg of you, please help her."
A moment of silence fell...and was promptly broken by an unexpected male voice.
It was Simon calling. Evelyn felt her heart race with fear. She looked at Rene, and Isabella. All three looked at one another...and then Rene was gone, fleeing into the darkness. Isabella took a small step back, and Evelyn turned to face Simon, who was approaching quickly. He came to her, placing a light but firm hold on her arm.
"Evelyn, I can be silent no longer. First your tears in the garden. Now you wander away under strange circumstances. I demand to know..." He looked over her shoulder, and his mouth fell slightly open. He closed it. And cast his eyes directly on her.
"What goes on here?" he demanded.
She looked into his eyes, fearful. "Simon, please do not be angry. 'Twas not my fault."
Isabella stepped forward. "She speaks the truth, my lord. She did not know I was to be left here."
"Left here?" he demanded. "How?"
"Rene granted me my freedom."
At the mention of Rene, Simon's eyes glittered with rage. He moved towards Isabella.
"He steals you from the abbey, risking your life for a second time. And then he abandons you here, setting the weight of responsibility on the Gisbornes?"
Isabella lowered her head, saying nothing. Evelyn watched as Simon looked at the Baroness. He turned away, growling in a rage of frustration. He soon took to pacing back and forth. If he wished, he could order Isabella away, or have her detained and sent back to the convent. Who could blame him for his anger? If he chose to give such an order, there would be no changing his mind.
But would he send her back?
She had seen his expression upon looking at the baroness...at seeing her face in its current state. He had pity for her suffering. But would he let his compassion cloud his judgment?
He stopped, gripping the back of his neck.
Her senses were heightened, waiting to hear what he would say. She took a slight step forward. Without turning, Simon spoke in a firm tone.
"Take Lady Isabella to your room, using the servant's stairway. Then, make haste and return to me."
For a moment she was stunned. But there was no time for dallying in wonder at his actions. Others would soon wonder where they had gone. Taking Isabella by the hand, she pulled her along. As they carefully entered the house through a rear side door, the baroness spoke quietly.
"The marquis is a surprising man. He risks much in allowing me here."
Moving up the servant's stairway, Evelyn kept her eyes and ears open for anyone who might cross their path. She replied in an urgent whisper.
"We are all at risk, Baroness. You, above all. We must pray that no one else discovers your presence."
The baroness paused suddenly, bringing Evelyn to a halt. They looked at one another, and Isabella's eyes were full of fear.
"Will your family turn me out?"
Evelyn found it difficult to answer. "I do not know for certain."
They looked at one another for a long moment. Remembering where they were, Evelyn turned her thoughts back to her mission. Moving once again, she entered the hall leading to her room. It was blessedly quiet and empty. Moving swiftly to her door, she opened it and led Isabella in. As quickly as they had come, Evelyn prepared to leave.
"I must go," she said. "Stay here. Rest, if you wish. I will return soon."
Isabella nodded. Evelyn took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. Then she turned, slipping back into the hall. She leaned against the door, crossing herself. God had granted her many favors of late. She could only hope he would continue being so generous.
Simon was waiting for her when she returned. As she approached him, a wave of feeling came over her. A memory came to her of the first time they had met, just a week ago. How wrong she had been to fear him...to think him cold and unfeeling. She had misjudged him so grievously. His selflessness overwhelmed her, and as she came to his side, she lowered her head.
"Forgive me, Simon."
His voice was gentle and calm. "What offense have you given that warrants an apology?"
"I feel that somehow, I am at fault. Had I been more diligent from the first, Rene might have turned his attention elsewhere. He would not have returned." She raised her eyes to him. "And you would not be risking scandal."
He reached out, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. His warm touch sent shivers down her spine. How she adored the sound of his voice...so soothing, and yet so confident and strong.
"We did not ask for this trouble, Evelyn. But we will shoulder it."
A torrent of emotion came over her. She wished so much to tell him all that she felt for him...the love that was growing strong in her heart. Words of sweetness formed on her lips. But before she could speak them, he took her hand.
"Come," he said. "We must return to the hall."