As morning sunshine filled her room, Evelyn blinked and yawned, stretching her arms above her head. But rather than getting up, she pulled the covers to her chin, enjoying the warmth she felt...both inside and out.
Thoughts of Simon had filled her sleep. She blushed at the remembrance of his kiss, which had found its way into her dreams...and once there, it had manifested itself into imaginings she dared not speak of to anyone. Not even Thea. Oh, what pleasurable imaginings they were. And wicked. For a moment, she pondered the notion of rushing to confession...to seek forgiveness for such sinful thoughts.
But was there truly a need for that? She sat up, hugging her knees to her chest as she thought.
Simon would soon be her husband. What shame was there in her feelings for him? It seemed right, somehow, that she might long for him this way. A union without mutual affection was no union at all. If such jubilant feelings were wrong, why did she have such trust in them? Why did she have such a buoyant flow of joy in her heart?
Having complete faith in the conviction of her feelings, she threw back the covers and hurried from the bed. As Violette came to assist her, she chose clothing to match her sunny mood...a bliaut of apricot color, and a white under gown to wear with it. She asked Violette to carry the garments to the bathing chamber, and to prepare a hot bath with rose petals. It was her wish not only to look her best, but to feel clean and refreshed as she started the day. Simon would certainly enjoy the scent of roses...at least, that was her hope.
Wrapping herself in her robe, she stepped into the hallway...and heard voices. Looking towards the end of the corridor, she saw her mother speaking to Owen. Their voices were low, but Evelyn could see there was a scolding in progress. She stepped slowly forward, listening. Her mother was speaking softly but angrily.
"I care not for your opinion of her. When one day you are lord of your own manor, then you may determine who remains under your roof. But until that time, you will treat Isabella as you would treat any guest."
Evelyn came near, curious. She knew it was not her business to interrupt, but she was intrigued.
"Mama," she asked, "Is anything the matter?"
Cassia did not take her eyes from Owen as she replied. "Your brother sees fit to insult our guest."
His voice became hateful. "I do not wish to reside in the same house as a whore."
Cassia snatched him by his ear, pulling it viciously so that Owen cried out in pain.
"You will not speak of anyone with such a vile tongue," she said, "And certainly not a friend who is dear to me. Spit another ounce of venom and I shall have you whipped. Do I make myself clear?"
He had little choice but to grumble in obedience. "Yes, Mama."
When she released him, he said nothing...just rubbing his ear. Cassia gave him a slap to the back of the head.
"Be gone," she told him. "And do not let me see you unless you can speak in a civil manner."
As he went, Guy appeared in the hallway behind Cassia. He looked at the departing Owen, and then at Evelyn. Before he could say anything, Cassia spoke. She kissed Evelyn's cheek.
"Go and get yourself dressed, Evie. It will not do to wander the halls in your nightdress."
Evelyn nodded, giving her a little smile. As she passed her father, she stood on tiptoe and gave him a peck on the cheek, bidding him good morning. She noticed that the darkness seemed to be gone from his expression. In the doorway to the bathing chamber, she paused, looking back at her mother and father. Guy stood with his arms crossed...and Cassia had placed a hand on his sleeve.
"You and the others will depart in two days time. Who can say when you will return? I wish these next days to be happily spent. If Owen cannot be civil, I do not want his company."
Evelyn watched, seeing her father give a small nod of agreement. A slight smile came to her lips. He seemed, at the very least, placated. If Owen continued to be foul of mood, it was of little concern. But if her father was calm, there would be peace in the manor, and for that she was grateful. She turned to the bath chamber.
Dearest Mama, she thought. Where would we be without her?
A fierce game of battledore and shuttlecock was in progress on the south lawn of the manor. Owen and Lucien were on one side of the net...Thea and Evelyn on the other. Sitting on a circular bench underneath a large tree, Guy and Cassia...with her seat eased by a velvet pillow...watched in delight as the competition went on. Occasionally, they smiled down at their grandson, who rested between them in a small basket. The valets and maidservants sat on a blanket nearby, enjoying the holiday as much as their masters. Basil and Simon sat in chairs, watching...and Simon's eyes were on Evelyn.
He wondered how a creature could be so enchanting. She was all laughter and smiles as she played the game, moving in athletic but nimble fashion as she ran to and fro, swinging at the feathered shuttlecock. She was very good at the game, silly endeavor as it was. He had intended to spend the day with her, but his thoughts had been towards riding. Instead, she and her sister had announced their desire for this childish pursuit, and everyone was in agreement on it...even his father. For several minutes, Simon had been quite displeased at being outvoted. But then Evelyn had come to him. With those great blue eyes shining, and a sweet smile, she had asked him to sit and watch as she showed her mastery of the game. Her genuine enthusiasm...her desire to please...captivated him. Reluctantly, he had agreed. Now, here he sat. And he found his displeasure slowly ebbing away.
In her presence, how could he be anything but delighted?
"In!" called the footman, who was playing umpire. The shuttlecock had gone within the point line on the men's side...giving the ladies the score. Evelyn and Thea voiced their delight. But Owen protested.
"It was out," he insisted. "No point."
The umpire shook his head. "Apologies, my lord. But it was in."
"It was out," Owen declared, his tone growing stronger.
Thea shook her head in dismay. "For heaven's sake, Owen. Be a man of good sport. The point belongs to us."
Lucien shrugged, looking at Owen. "Tis' only a point," he said, giving a good-natured smile. "What say we let them have it."
Everyone watched, waiting to see what Owen would do...and he promptly threw down his paddle, storming away. Thea threw her hands up in disgust.
"Why am I not surprised?" she said.
Players and spectators alike remained hushed and still, wondering what to do. Simon wore a curious expression...as he found several eyes looking towards him. Lucien took a bold step forward, wearing a playful smile. He held out his arms in a grand gesture.
"Your grace, it seems I am at a disadvantage. Would you be so good as to assist me?"
Simon shook his head...and Thea turned to Evelyn, nudging her in the ribs.
"Perhaps he fears us," she teased. "Evie and I are quite a formidable team."
Simon looked at Evelyn, who was grinning playfully and whispering with her sister.
The challenge was deliberate...and Simon found it hard to resist. He had not played at anything since his childhood, and those memories were dim and distant. But competition was a delightful venture...one that he knew well and found pleasure in. So what if it was played with a battledore and not a lance or sword? It was a simple, childish game, and he was certain a swift victory would be his.
How wrong he was.
Evelyn and Thea had not exaggerated about their abilities. They were fierce players, and more than once, Simon found himself swinging at air as the shuttlecock flew past him. He had not counted on such a challenge...nor had he anticipated the physicality of the game. His blood flowed fast as his heart rate increased. The ladies teased him when he was forced to remove his outer garments. Playing in only his breeches and undershirt, he found the comfort did little to improve his skill. In the end, it was Evelyn and Thea who claimed victory. As they held their joined hands in the air, all those who were watching applauded. Evelyn came to him, wearing a shy but mischievous little smile. Her face was flushed. Her hair was slightly unkempt. There was a sheen of sweat on her brow...and he felt a sweet sensation at the sight of her. Lord, he had never imagined a disheveled woman would look so tempting. The corner of his mouth rose.
"You are a masterful player, my lady."
Her smile grew. Shyly, she lowered her eyes for a moment. "I am happy to see you are not upset. Like Owen." She lifted her gaze back to his. "He has always been quick to anger."
"I do not see the point in being angry. Not when my opponent is a worthy one. Your victory was nobly won."
Joy was in every line of her face. His heart was still beating fast. But now, it was her nearness that excited him. Their eyes were held in a fixed stare. He fought the urge to bring his palm to her cheek...to draw her sweet lips to his and relive the pleasure of yesterday. He had left her quickly last night, fearing the loss of his self-control. Lord, she seemed to take possession of him...and each time they were so close, as now, he felt his resistance slipping further and further away. If it wasn't for the presence of those around them, he would have drawn her against him then and there. Damn the fact that they were both in a state of untidiness. It only made him want her more.
Sweet heaven, he thought. If we were already wed...
The lustful thought was interrupted by Thea, who broke in with a jovial tone of voice.
"Well played, your grace. One day soon, we must engage in another game."
Simon nodded...without taking his eyes from Evelyn. "I look forward to it, my lady."
Thea smiled, pulling on Evelyn's sleeve. "Come, Evie. We must gather ourselves together. Let us go and dress for supper."
Evelyn nodded in agreement. But rather than rushing away with Thea, she remained there, before him. There was an expectant light in her eyes...a longing, and he knew for certain that if he kissed her right now, she would melt into him just as she had last night. Dear God, how he wanted that. But he knew he could not cross that line. Not yet.
But he needed something of her. He could not let her slip away without just a small gesture of affection. Taking her hand, raising it gently, he pressed his lips to her fingers. His tone was warm and tender.
"I shall see you soon."
He grasped her hand for a long moment, reluctant to let go. As she pulled her hand away, he thrilled to the feeling of her soft fingers sliding over his. As she left, his gaze followed her every move, appreciating the gentle sway of her hips and longing for the moment when she would return to him.