Evelyn looked at her father’s chair, which sat empty at the head of the table. It struck a tender, delicate chord in her heart, for there was great meaning in his absence.
Cassia had been in her room all afternoon, resting. Just before supper was served, Guy made a brief appearance in the hall, requesting a meal to be brought to his room. A moment later he had departed, and had not been seen since. Evelyn, and the rest of the household, knew this ritual well. The lord and lady of the house were secluded in their chambers together, and they would not be seen again until morning. It was their way...their ritual...to spend many hours alone, to ease the pain of separation before Guy departed on a journey.
Evelyn sighed, mindlessly stirring her bowl of soup. At dawn, Simon would depart. Who could say how long he would be away? The duration of his stay at court was dependent on the whims of King Phillip, who could keep his subjects gathered for as long as he wished.
Simon’s voice broke her reverie.
He was seated beside her, and she looked at him. There was concern in his eyes...a softness in his features that pulled at her heart. After tonight, she would not look up to see him gazing at her, his handsome face and beautiful green eyes full of tenderness. She felt as though she would break down in tears on the spot. The gentleness of his voice was nearly too much.
“Are you unwell?”
She fought the urge to cry out. Yes, I am unwell. How can I be otherwise? But instead, she answered as calmly as she could, even managing a little smile.
“Mama and Papa’s absence saddens me, that is all.”
She looked away, worried that he would see the pain shining in her eyes.
They had spent the remainder of the day riding, and she had listened quietly as he talked of cities he had seen on his many journeys. He took her by surprise that afternoon. Usually so reserved, he suddenly came to life when he spoke of his travels. In his twenty-three years, he had seen more parts of the world than she would ever know, and she could hear in his tone the anticipation of future endeavors. He was ever a man of loyalty, of duty. His service to his king and country were at the core of his being.
So where did she factor in his heart?
He cared for her. He had made that quite clear. But would he think of her when he was away? Or would his return to the high aristocracy, a circle of power and politics, turn his thoughts to matters more important than her?
He was so warm and compassionate. There seemed to be little left of the aloof creature that had stood in the hall before the gathered masses, announcing his vow of loyalty to her as if he had repeatedly practiced the speech before hand. She had not doubted his word then, and she was even more certain of it now, for she sensed that she had become more to him than a contractual obligation. For that, she knew she should have been grateful. It was a rare thing for a woman to be more to her husband than mere chattel...more than just the mother of his heirs.
But she wanted his feelings to be deeper.
She thought of her mother and father. Right now, they were spending every last moment together. She knew, without seeing it or hearing it, that her mother wept.
Mama always weeps for him, she thought, Just as he grieves for her.
Her father made no secret of his feelings. He abhorred the thought of leaving his beloved, even for a short while. Were it not for the possible threat of treason, he would have ignored the invitation to court and remained at home, taking pleasure in the love of his wife and family, who were more important to him than his duties to the crown.
But Simon was not such a man. His loyalty was first and foremost to his sovereign, and despite his growing feelings for her, he would do his duty with little hesitation. It broke her heart to think that his feelings for her might fade, even a little, when he left.
She was shaken from her thoughts when Lucien rose to his feet.
“It grows late,” he said. “We must journey at dawn, so I will say good night to you all.”
Thea rose at his words, bidding all at the table a good night as she took her husband’s arm. Simon stood next, and Evelyn felt a sharp pain in her heart, wishing so much to delay the inevitable. If she let him go now, he would leave her at her door, perhaps with a kiss. He would say good night, and she would go to her bed, where she would have to endure sleeplessness...and eventually, the cruel coming of dawn. It was too much to bear. Reaching out, she grasped Simon’s hand, uncertain of what to say to him...but unable to let him go. She searched her mind for something, some reason to keep him.
“Simon, will you walk with me? Please?”
He seemed curious, offering her a slight smile. Before he could question her, she found her incentive.
“It seems to be a clear night. Before I go to bed, I would like to look at the stars.”
His smile grew. “And you would like me to accompany you?”
She felt a great sense of relief at his question. He would not leave her yet. And she replied, with a loving expression...
“I would be so pleased.”
The night was clear and without a moon, allowing the stars to shine brightly. Walking side by side, Evelyn and Simon moved in silence, neither knowing just what to say. Looking to the sky for inspiration, she spoke softly.
“I have always loved the night. The moonlight when it shines, and the brilliance of the heavens when filled with starlight, like now.”
“There is something of you in those stars,” he declared. “Are you aware of it?”
A smile came to her lips. Warmth flooded her. “You flatter, my lord. To compare me with such a wonder.”
“Tis more than mere compliment,” he said. “You play the lyre, do you not? Are you not familiar with its place in the heavens?”
She shook her head. They were in the garden now, walking slowly. As they came to an alcove, he paused.
“Here,” he said. “We have found a seat. Sit beside me, and I will tell you of it.”
She did not hesitate. He seemed eager to please her. She wondered...and hoped...if he wished to take pleasure in these last hours together. Sitting beside him, she moved close, enough so she could feel the warmth flowing from him. When he began, his words were enthralling, spoken with such eloquence and beauty. With a poised hand, confident in the story he was telling, he gestured towards the night sky.
“It is perhaps difficult to see without the aid of a chart. But there, in the southern sky, is a collection of stars called Lyra, which represents the lyre played by Orpheus.”
Evelyn smiled. “Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope.”
There was a note of surprise in his voice. “You know of the tale?”
“Only vaguely,” was her reply. His surprise was not unexpected. Men were the recipients of nearly all learning. Though she was eager to know more of everything the world could offer, her education had been quite limited. But now, looking at Simon, she saw the opportunity to share the wisdom of men.
“I would dearly love to know the tale,” she said. “Will you tell it to me?”
For a moment she waited, anticipating his answer. Then, his arm went around her shoulders. She melted against him as he leaned back into the alcove. Her head came to rest upon his shoulder. She closed her eyes, listening to the soothing sound of his voice as he told her the story.
“Apollo gave his son a lyre as a gift. Orpheus played it so well that the wild beasts, the rocks, and even the trees were charmed by his music. He fell deeply in love with nymph called Eurydice, and they married, but their wedded bliss did not last long. One day, Eurydice was wandering in the fields with other nymphs when she was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus. He was struck by her beauty and pursued her, but as she fled, she was bitten by a serpent in the grass and died from its poison.”
Evelyn gasped, lifting her head. “Oh, how sad,” she cried, looking at Simon. His expression was rather concerned, and so was his reply.
“The tragedy to come is more so. Shall I spare you the rest?”
She shook her head, answering quickly. “No, please...tell me more.”
“Very well,” he replied. She returned her head to his shoulder, and he began again.
“Orpheus was devastated by his loss. He decided to seek out his wife in the underworld, and gained an audience with Pluto and Persephone. The king and queen of the underworld, like all others, were charmed by his music and granted him permission to take Eurydice back to the land of the living with him. They summoned Eurydice, who was among the ghosts who had but newly come, and walked slowly because of her injury. Orpheus received her, but on condition that he must not look back until he had emerged from the valleys of Avernus, or else the gift he had been given would be taken from him.”
She tensed, preparing herself for the worst. He paused, as if to gauge her reaction, but went on.
“Up the sloping path, through the mute silence they made their way, up the steep dark track, wrapped in impenetrable gloom, until they had almost reached the surface of the earth. Here, worried that his wife's strength might be failing and eager to see her, he looked behind him, and Eurydice immediately slipped back into the depths. Orpheus stretched out his arms, straining to clasp her and be clasped, but he found only air. Eurydice, dying now a second time, uttered no complaint against her husband. What was there to complain of, that she had been loved? Giving a last farewell which hardly reached his ears, she fell back again into the same place from which she had come.”
Tears welled in her eyes. Whether from the sadness of the story, or his masterful telling of it, she was uncertain of the cause. She only knew she was deeply moved, and mesmerized.
“According to Ovid, Orpheus was so heartbroken that he rejected every woman he met from that day forward. One day, a group of Thracian women, infuriated by his rejections, hurled rocks at him. The rocks, tamed by the sound of his lyre, at first fell harmlessly at his feet, but the shrieks of the infuriated women soon drowned out the music. The women dismembered Orpheus, throwing his lyre and his head into the river Hebrus.”
He paused in his telling. Thinking he had finished it, she reached up to wipe a tear from her eye. “That is perhaps the saddest story I have ever heard.”
There was a hint of amusement in his voice. “There, you are wrong,” he replied. “You see, the Muses gathered up his limbs and buried them, and Orpheus went to the underworld to spend eternity with Eurydice. And Jupiter himself cast the bard's lyre into the sky.”
A deep sigh escaped her. “How very beautiful and romantic.”
He matched her sigh with his own, and his words took on a tender nuance. “Love defies all things, so say the ancients.”
Quiet fell over them. She closed her eyes again, basking in the tender silence...until she felt the warmth of his breath. It rushed against her temple, rapidly. Slowly raising her head, she soon felt his breathing against her ear, and shivers rippled over all of her skin. He whispered words to her...but not ones she was prepared to hear. His words were soft and strained, as if he fought to say them.
“It grows late,” he said. “We should return to the house.”
Panic gripped her. How could he leave her now? Turning to him, she could hardly see his face in the darkness...but she could sense his struggle.
“Please, Simon. Stay with me.”
She heard his outlet of breath. There was a plea in his tone. “Evelyn...”
He was denying himself what she knew he wanted...what they both wanted. Blast your principles, she thought. Reaching out, she grasped his face firmly in her hands...and drew his lips to hers. It took only a moment to gain the reaction she craved. He was soon kissing her back with great abandon. She felt the strength of his arms as they wrapped around her, and she pressed herself against him, thrilling at the wild waves of pleasure it brought to every part of her body. She could feel his power, his strength...and the rapid rise and fall of his chest. His excitement was undeniable.
But he wrenched himself away. Grasping her by the shoulders, his words rushed in a flow of struggling breath and acute frustration.
“Evelyn, you play with fire!”
Stunned by the sharpness of his voice, she lost her ability to speak. He was angry. Truly angry. She felt a lump forming in her throat, fearing that her thoughtlessness had ruined their last hours together. But when he spoke again, his voice was calmer, though clearly his frustration had not ebbed.
“You set a fire in my soul, Evelyn. Each time I kiss you, a primal part of my being is unleashed...and you cannot fathom the danger of it.”
He released her, setting her back a distance. He turned away from her. She watched as he ran his hands down his face, in a clear attempt to gather his senses. She hardly knew what to say to him. But when he rose to his feet, she found her voice. She reached out, clasping his hand.
“Please, Simon. Do not go.”
She heard him make a sound of frustration. He reminded her, again, of the lateness of the hour. But she did not relinquish her hold.
“Stay with me, for just a few moments more. I promise not to forget myself. Tell me one more tale. Just one, and then, I shall go willingly.”
She feared that he might refuse, and she could not bear the thought of his going. Perhaps tomorrow, in the harsh light of day, she would have the strength to endure their goodbye. But not tonight. Not when they were alone in this haven, with the tranquility of the night settled over them. She wilted with relief when he slowly returned to her side.
“Do you know of the princess, Andromeda?”
Wagging her head, she smiled, relieved beyond words that he had chosen to stay...and closing her eyes, leaning her head against him, she listened as he began the story.
Mid-way through his story, Simon paused. He had been going on, he realized, without allowing Evelyn to speak. To be truthful, it was what he intended. Moments of silence were a danger...to himself, and to her, for if he let a silence fall, he knew what would come next. Lord, it had already happened once, and if he let it happen again, he wasn’t certain he could control his actions.
But his pause was triggered by a sense that something had changed. Evelyn seemed to lean more heavily against him. And, after a time, he had noticed that she was hardly making a sound. He looked down at her, seeing the reason for her silence...and he smiled.
She was asleep.
He attempted to wake her by saying her name, whispering it several times. But when she was unresponsive, he became hushed. Looking at her, he resisted the urge to wake her up. Instead, he adjusted her position so she became cradled in his arms. How lovely she was. The starlight was dim, but he could make out the delicate shape of her face, so peaceful in sleep. It was tempting to lean down and taste the sweetness of her lips, for the memory of that last kiss was still fresh in his mind. But no. He would not ruin a beautiful and tender moment such as this. He had fought his selfishness and won, and he would not betray himself, or her, with a stolen moment of passion.
Placing one arm under her knees, and the other beneath her back, he cradled her gently and rose to his feet. She was so light and slender in his arms. Walking along, he felt no strain from the weight of her. Only a heartfelt wish that he could keep her in his embrace.
Soon, he told himself. Someday soon.
Crossing the threshold of the house, he was quickly greeted by several servants, including Evelyn’s maidservant. He shushed the girl when she began to ask questions...and ignored the curious eyes of the others.
“Your lady has exhausted herself. I will not disturb her now, so take me to her chamber. You will see to her there.”
The maid looked stunned, but with a stern look, she did as he requested. He turned a blind eye to those who looked at him. They were servants, and their opinions were of no matter.
He carried her up the stairs, following the girl down the hall to Evelyn’s chamber. She opened the door for him, and leading him into the room, she gestured towards the bed, where the covers were already turned down. Gently, he deposited her on the soft sheets. To his amusement, she instantly turned on her side and adopted a curled pose, much like the one he had witnessed not long ago. It was so difficult to leave her, and he could not keep from at least touching her one last time. He found a sense of mourning coming over him as he realized they would not be this way, alone, for a long time to come. Reaching out, he brushed a loose curl of dark hair away from her forehead. He longed for more...so much more.
But the maid was standing nearby, as if to remind him of his limitations.
I need no reminder, he thought. And I shall never forget this moment. Not so long as I live.