Do not weep. Do not weep.
As she watched Simon’s figure growing smaller in the distance, Evelyn’s mind told her to refrain from tears. He would be back soon, and they would both rejoice at their reunion.
If only her heart could be convinced.
The tears in her eyes spilled over. She wiped them away, feeling foolish for being so emotional, when she had just assured Simon of the hope that was giving her strength. That feeling had not faded, not in the least. But she felt his absence already. There was a hole in her heart, an emptiness that only he could fill. She wanted to be strong...but her longing for him was already conquering her valiant effort.
As she took in a trembling breath, she felt her mother’s presence beside her. Thea was quick in joining them. They all stood together, teary eyed. Thea held Gabriel against her shoulder, gently rubbing his back. He slept peacefully, unaware of the distress shared between his mother, his grandmother, and his aunt. Thea sighed despondently.
“I do not know how you endure these separations, Mama.”
Cassia sniffled, rubbing away a tear. She hugged herself, resting a protective palm on her belly. “Experience does not ease my suffering, nor will it. Were it not for the perils of the road, and the delicacy of my condition, I would be at my husband’s side. But matters being as they are, I shall live in anticipation of his return.” She turned back towards the house, leaning on Celeste for support.
Thea and Evelyn followed. As they came through the entry way, Evelyn noticed Owen. He was headed upstairs, rather than to the barracks, where he spent most of his waking hours. Seeing him earlier that day, looking so poorly, she had been concerned. Now, she felt she must know what was ailing him so. With a concerned air, she approached him.
“Owen, are you unwell? You seem out of sorts this morning.”
He flinched, as if struck. And he shook his head...but not in denial.
“I am in hell,” he mumbled, leaning a hand on the wall to support himself. His other hand supported his head, which hung heavy. “Plagued by a head that is split in two, and a stomach that seems intent on turning itself inside out.”
She started to ask him a question. But taking his hand from his forehead, he waved her away.
“I beg you...no speaking. No noise. No disturbance. I must find a silent and dark place, or I swear I will die.”
Evelyn watched him go, wondering at his behavior. He was obviously ill, and in need of nursing. But he wanted to be left alone. And now was not the time to start an argument, or to make accusations.
He disappeared into his room, and she moved a few doors down to her own chamber. Violette was not far behind, attentive as always to her mistress. But Evelyn kindly dismissed her, wishing to be alone. In her room, she closed the door and walked to the window seat. Sitting there, pulling her knees up, she looked out on the sunny day. The sky was blue and cloudless...a good day for travel. She hoped that the men would have such weather all along their way.
But what of matters worse than weather? She thought, suddenly fearful. What of bandits? The Duke’s carriage would indeed be a rich target for thieves. And what of wild beasts? They were not unheard of. Wolves, bears...who knew what other manner of hungry animals were lying in wait?
She closed her eyes, shaking her head to lose those dreadful thoughts. Her father, Simon, and Lucien were all competent warriors and huntsmen. Each man was a strong man on their own, but together, they were a force to be reckoned with. They would be safe. She was sure of it.
Her thoughts turned to other matters...the quiet being one of them. It had been weeks since the house was so still. But there was no serenity in the silence...no joy in the calmness. Everything seemed so empty now, as if the very soul of the house had fled. She sighed, trying to recall what she had done in the days before Simon. In former times, when her father had gone to court, she had missed him terribly, but she had occupied herself with various tasks to pass the time. For a moment, she considered going out to the garden or the orchard. But those places held new memories now. A deep meaning that had taken root there, among the trees and fragrant blooms. In the orchard, they had shared their first real kiss. Among the garden flowers, under the evening stars, they had shared a tender and romantic night. Even the great hall would hold reminders of him. He would be everywhere she turned. She sighed, deeply and raggedly. The man she loved had not been gone half a day, and already she missed him.
Lord, she thought. How does Mama do this? How does she not go mad with missing Papa?
Perhaps it was unwise to remain alone in this way. Perhaps it would be better to commiserate with someone who understood her suffering. She rose from her seat and left her room, moving toward her mother’s chambers.
She knocked, and a moment later she was surprised by the sound of Thea’s voice, bidding her to enter. When she came in, she found Thea and their mother on the bed together, resting against the pillows. Thea was leaning on Cassia’s shoulder. They were both sniffling, and teary eyed. Evelyn was hesitant to add her own misery to theirs...and yet, she was hungry for their comfort. She took a small step back.
“I am sorry to disturb you,” she said, turning away. But Cassia called her back.
“Evelyn, do not go. Come, my darling, and sit with us.”
She needed no encouragement. She crawled into the big bed, moving carefully as she found a place beside her mother. It was just the three of them. Her, Thea, and their mother... huddled together and bonding over their shared heartaches.
This, Evelyn realized, was the source of her mother’s strength...to rely on those they loved. Not to suffer in solitude, as men would do, but to find solace in one another, assuring themselves that soon, their men would return to them, safe and sound.
Simon looked around at the colorful circle of nobles gathered together. With a deep sigh, he brought his goblet to his lips, sipping his wine as he went through the motions of being a court member. His expression was calm, belying the edginess he felt bubbling inside. They had all been summoned here to discuss the possibility of a conflict. And yet, here they stood...partaking of wine and food, conversing gaily amongst one another. Minstrels played while eligible young maidens danced, displaying their charms for the eager men who might be seeking a bride. It was all a haughty show of grandeur...and it bothered Simon to no end. He clenched his jaw to keep from cursing.
But Sir Guy had no qualms about speaking his mind. His face was dark with anger, and he stood with his arms crossed, muttering his displeasure.
“Bloody foolishness. If there is to be a war, why can it not be discussed without this useless display of show? My remaining years are few, and yet I must give a portion of them to this?”
Simon was not surprised by Guy’s reaction. From the moment they had set out, he had been this way...ill of mood, saying very little except when prodded, or when he failed to contain his temper, as now. The other court members were careful in approaching him, if they tried to approach at all. Their questions were mostly met with silence and frosty looks. Simon understood Guy’s anger. The earl had a family at home, one he had been forced to leave behind. The wife he loved most dearly was carrying a child, and he could not be there. It was no wonder that he chafed in angry helplessness. Looking around at their fellow nobles, Simon felt a similar sense of unhappiness.
There were many ladies present, and not just those seeking attention in the hopes of finding a match. Many of the women were wives who had accompanied their husbands. Seeing some of the couples together, he could not help wishing that Evelyn was among the ladies in attendance.
Her image came to him at that moment. He envisioned those exquisite, almond-shaped eyes...such a lovely shade of blue. He could see the elegance of her face, oval-shaped and pale, and the petite mouth. What soft, rose-colored lips she had. Sweet, tender lips...far better to taste than any wine. And the thought of it sent a surge of heat through his blood.
But there was more to his excitement than the memory of her beauty. He loved the remembrance of her soft voice...especially her laugh. He had always thought of life as a serious business, seeing no need or reason to partake in levity. But being around Evelyn, his eyes been opened to something new. She was warm and vibrant. She was a proper lady, and yet she possessed an unbridled spirit, unafraid of finding joy and expressing it.
What a joy she would be at this moment. He could imagine her at his side, looking so elegant and regal, carrying herself so proudly. She would put all of these women to shame. If they could see her in all of her beauty and delightfulness, it would make him the envy of all men. They would wish for such a bride.
Bride, he thought, his bright mood dimming. It would be nearly two months more before he could call her that. She would turn sixteen in late September, and they would be married a fortnight after. It seemed like such a long time to wait.
And what if, in that span of time, other events transpired?
The thought of it rattled him to the core. This pretense that surrounded him...this putting on of airs...would soon give way to real matters. If the call to arms came, he would have no choice but to answer...and in answering, he would prepare to give his life.
He had long been ready to find honor in death, should it be required of him. But he had never counted on a desire to live...a need to love.
How could he leave this life, when he was just discovering what joy there was to be found? He had found it in Evelyn. They had only just begun to know one another. Would he be forever denied the promise of her smile and touch? It tore at him to think that he might never again know the sweet intimacy of her company...or discover the bliss of their marriage bed. He had imagined it night after night, thinking of how he would school her in the ways of pleasure.
If he was called away, there was no promise of his return...no guarantee that he would come home to her and begin their life together.
He wanted to know his wife...to love her, even if he was only permitted a brief span of time. He wanted Evelyn, and he did not want to wait.
A knock came on Evelyn’s door. She came to her feet quickly, full of expectation. It had been nearly a fortnight since Simon had gone. She had kept busy with various projects...weaving rush mats, helping her mother make medicines, and sewing clothes for the new baby. It had not kept her from thinking of him, but it had quickened the passage of time. And over the last several days, she had taken to hoping of some word from him. Her father had sometimes written a letter home while he was away. It would be no great expense for Simon to write her, and when she heard the rapping at her door, her heart went wild with anticipation.
“Come in,” she called.
When the door opened, it was Violette. In her hand was a rolled parchment...but from the look on her face, it was clear that something was amiss.
“Ma Dame, alors que je marchais, un garçon m'a approché. Il disait qu'il était un valet, travaillant pour son maître. Il m'a demandé de vous remettre ceci. Il m'a dit que c'est très urgent.''
“My lady, while I was walking, a boy approached me. He was a groom, he said, working on behalf of his master. He requested that I give this to you. He said it is most urgent.”
Evelyn’s eyes filled with curiosity.
''Urgent? A-t-il donné le nom de son maître?''
“Urgent? Did he name his master?”
Violette shook her head as she replied. ''Non, ma Dame. Il m'a seulement dit de vous donner ceci, à vous et à personne d'autre.''
“No, my lady. He said only to deliver this to you, and no one else.”
With a cautious hand, Evelyn took the parchment, feeling a strange stirring of tension as she accepted it. Looking at Violette, she tried to put on a careless face.
''Merci, Violette. Je suis certaine que cela n'a pas grande importance. Alors, s'il vous plaît, ne dites rien à Maman ou qui que se soit d'autre. Je ne désire pas éveiller de la curiosité pour rien.''
“Thank you, Violette. I am certain its significance is small. So please, say nothing to Mama or anyone else. I have no wish to rouse curiosity over nothing.”
Violette nodded and curtseyed. As she left, Evelyn examined the message in her hand. Carrying it to her bed, she sat down with it. This was not from Simon. She knew, without opening it, whose hand had written to her. Taking a deep breath, closing her eyes, she tried to still her beating heart. And then, pulling the cord loose, she opened the message...and with a sharp intake of breath, she began to read...
My dearest Evelyn,
Words cannot fully express what I wish to convey. But you must know that I painfully regret any heartache my actions may have caused you. You must believe that my feelings for you were, and shall always be, more pure and sacred than any feelings I have ever known. Your tender influence has touched me deeply, forcing me to reexamine certain aspects of my life, some of them long forgotten. Wherever my path may lead me, please know that my thoughts will turn to you often. I shall always think of you with great fondness, high regard, and deep affection.
Your humble servant,
For a moment, she started at the paper in disbelief. How had he sent this? Was he near? Oh Lord, if he dared to make another appearance...
She rolled the parchment up, clutching it in her hand. He wanted her forgiveness. He had dared to write her a letter filled with heartfelt sentiments. Troublesome sentiments. If Simon were to discover the letter, she hated to imagine what he would think. He had been so understanding thus far. But how could she expect him to accept this?
She could not risk it. She would not.
Crushing the message in her fist, she hurried over to the hearth, where there was a fire burning low. For a moment, she held the paper suspended in front of her...and then she threw it into the flames. The edges turned black, and Evelyn watched it burn. She told herself she was happy to see it turn to ash.
Why, then, did her heart suddenly feel so heavy?