Isabella knelt on the floor of the chapel, looking around at its gleaming white walls. Sir Guy had permitted her the use of the holy room, although she had waited until late afternoon to seek it out. The chapel's leaded glass windows were slightly open, allowing the summer breeze to waft in...along with the sounds of merriment. Lady Cassia had given her invitation to picnic with the family, to join in their merriment as they watched the game being played. But Isabella forced herself to decline.
They were not her family. Though she knelt in prayer, thanking God for the generosity of her neighbors, she could not bring herself to sit among them. This morning, just after she had risen, she had overheard the conversation in the corridor.
I do not wish to reside in the same house as a whore.
How was it possible, she wondered, for a heart already broken to feel such a resurgence of pain? Whore. How she despised the cruel phrase, made up by men who had no understanding of anything beyond their own selfishness. Men were not used as bargaining chips. They did not suffer the attentions of those they despised. In marriage, men were allowed the selection of their mates, no matter how unworthy they might be of her.
Men knew nothing of a woman's heart.
When they were cold and lonely, they often sought private company with the same manner of women they condemned in public. And yet it was acceptable in the eyes of the world. But a woman was forbidden from seeking such pleasurable company. She was to suffer in silence, no matter how isolated she was...not matter how her heart ached for simple human affection.
As she lowered her head, closing her eyes, a tear trickled down her cheek. She would never again be subject to the whims of men. God had shown her the way to freedom in this life. He had guided her here, to the kind embrace of a loving family, who extended their devotion to a friend in need. She would go to Toulon, where she would live a quiet life devoted only to God.
Crossing herself, she whispered a last prayer of thanks for the mercy The Almighty had granted her.
Her gaze was lowered, following the floor as she left the chapel. Lost in thought, she rounded the corner leading to the hall...and collided with someone coming in the opposite direction. She stumbled back and nearly lost her footing. Leaning against the wall, she looked into the face of Owen Gisborne. He was scowling at her, as if she had caused him some kind of offense. His tone was as scornful as his look.
"You might think to hold your head up when you walk."
She shot him a hateful glare. "And you might think to treat others with a shred of decency."
Without waiting for his response, she turned and fled, hurrying up the stairs to her room. Once there, she sank down on the bed, clutching a pillow to her chest. Her cheeks were soon wet, but in anger she dashed the tears away. They were of no use. She gave a shuddering sigh, wishing she were in Toulon already.
As sunset neared its meeting with moonlight, it was generally agreed that the evening was much too lovely to be spent indoors. And in keeping with the day spent in the embrace of nature, supper was a simple meal of bread, wine, and fresh fish roasted over an open fire.
It had been so long since they had spent a day like this. Evelyn wished she could capture the day and hold it forever. She was certain there was a magic spell surrounding them. How else to explain the look that Simon wore? In the short time she had known him, his expression had only softened on occasion. But ever since the match between them, he had benn light-hearted and careless of mood. He had smiled many times, even laughing at a charming story that Lucien shared about Gabriel. How enjoyable his laugh was! A low, soft chuckle that was amusing in and of itself, it made her smile just to hear it.
The night passed much too quickly. When the night bells rang in the distance, Evelyn felt a keen sense of disappointment. The Duke rose to his feet, his words signaling the start of the end to a joyous day.
"It grows late. I would dearly love to remain here, but I fear my age forces me to retire."
"I must retire as well," Cassia said, as Guy rose and helped her to her feet. "The babe has been up far past its bedtime." She placed her hands protectively on her belly.
Everyone slowly followed her lead. Disappointed that the party was disbanding, Evelyn sighed despondently...until she felt Simon's hand touching hers.
"May I escort you to the house, my lady?"
Smiling, she nodded. You need not ask, she thought. He linked their fingers together. Drawing her hand close to his breast, he held it there as they walked together. Eagerly, she waited for him to speak. But he was quiet as they went. Too quiet for her liking. She wished to know his thoughts...his feelings. After a long silence, she spoke softly.
"Today was a most pleasant day. Do you not think so?"
His sigh was a pleasant one. "I must confess, it was very enjoyable."
A little smile came to her lips. "So then, there are things to be enjoyed outside of war and politics."
His slight, soft sound of amusement warmed her...filling her with delight. If only they could be this way forever.
"So I am discovering," he replied. "Sadly, I have had little experience in matters of leisure. My uncle was quite the taskmaster. Not overly cruel, mind you. But dedicated to molding his soldiers into formidable fighters. As he often said...though we are not at war, we must always be prepared for it."
Evelyn sighed. "Yes, I am familiar with such words. Owen is particularly fond of them. I believe he was born with a penchant for battle. It pleases Papa to no end. But not Mama. She abhors the very thought of war."
"And yet it is an inevitable occurrence...one that must be endured, despite any misgivings."
"Yes. That very notion is what motivates her desire for days such as this. She wishes us to experience much joy in this life. For as she often reminds us, our earthly days are few."
"Your mother is a very fine lady. As wise as she is beautiful...and I see her in you."
She laughed softly. "Bonne cieux! I could never hope to attain such perfection. Papa declares her to be an angel sent from heaven, and I am inclined to agree with him."
As they crossed the threshold of the manor, they were bathed in soft light. In the hall, the night candles were burning, lending a gentle glow to everything around them. Evelyn looked up at Simon...and found he was looking at her. His countenance was warm and tender.
"One day, my lady, our children will look upon you with the same love and reverence."
Together they stopped at the foot of the stairs. Their eyes met. She felt the soft stroking of his fingers on the back of her hand...thrilling her through. She longed to touch him, to press herself against him...to kiss him. His eyes were full of longing. He wanted to kiss her. It was written in every line of his face.
But he would not kiss her here. There were too many eyes watching. She knew it to be true, seeing how his eyes shifted upwards, looking towards the upper hall. She turned to look, and standing there, watching them with a curious expression, were her mother and father.
"We are under scrutiny," he said. Still holding her hand, he led her up the stairs. He gave a low outlet of breath. "The concerns of a mother and father are many."
She was nagged by a sense of frustration. "What possible concerns could they have? You will be my husband. Is it wrong that we might share closeness?"
He gave a slight smile. "Perhaps right or wrong is not truly the concern. Through the eyes of a parent, matters are seen quite differently. Despite your blossoming womanhood, you are and always will be their child."
But I am not a child, she silently protested. It was difficult to contain her frustration. But she kept it muted, aware that such a protest might only emphasize what she fought to deny. She fell into silence, too troubled to speak. As they came to the top of the steps, Guy and Cassia met them. Evelyn tried to hide her displeasure, but found that her heart was too heavy. Cassia reached out to her, placing a hand on her cheek.
"Are you well, my love? You look so forlorn."
She shook her head, muttering a quiet reply. "I am only tired, Mama."
"Then perhaps you should hurry to bed," said Guy. He gave her a gentle kiss on the temple. He looked to Simon. "See her to her room, your grace."
Simon lowered his head respectfully. "Good night, my lord. Good night, my lady."
Cassia nodded to him, and she and Guy left to find their own chamber. Evelyn remained silent as Simon walked her to her door. At the threshold, he lifted her hand, placing a sweet kiss on her fingers. His gesture was polite and respectful...and Evelyn found his civility maddening. His words were even more so.
"Sleep well, my lady."
She saw the longing in his eyes...and yet he turned from her. She could no longer contain her feelings. Taking a small step forward, she called out to him.
He turned back to her. His eyes were alight with curiosity...and expectation. She found the words difficult to say.
Her words faded, as well as her courage. Slowly he returned to her, standing so near she could feel his warmth. She could not raise her head to look at him. His voice fell soft on her ear.
She closed her eyes, struggling with her heart's desire. But the battle was already won. The words came of their own volition. "Will you kiss me good night?"
Slowly, she lifted her head to look at him. Though he gave no reply, his answer was plain as day. Tilting her head in anticipation, she gave a sigh of pleasure as his lips found hers. A strange boldness gripped her. He had before been the one to initiate their kisses, but somewhere in her heart she felt the burning desire to return his affections with her own. Recklessly, she let her tongue touch the seam of his lips. His reaction was swift and exhilarating. His lips parted, and for a few delicious moments they tasted one another. She held fiercely to him, drunk on the sensation of his kiss and the feeling of his arms wrapped tightly around her. He tore his lips away, trailing kisses down her cheek and jaw. He pressed his mouth to her neck. She could feel the warm rapidness of his breath. And suddenly he spoke.
"Evelyn, we must cease."
She could hardly breathe. Her body felt as though it were afire. But as his words slowly registered in her mind, she felt a sense of dread wash over her. What had possessed her? How could she have been so brazen, and right out in the open? Closing her eyes, she buried her head against his shoulder, mortified at her own behavior. She muttered shamefully.
"You must think me a most shameless creature."
His arms still held tightly to her, as though he could not let her go. And his words were a balm to her soul.
"You are no more shameless than I. We cannot help our feelings."
He managed to pull away. Taking her face gently in his hands, he looked into her eyes. "I have never wanted a woman as I want you. But I will not shame you with my lustful impulses. You are a maid, and I will have you pure for our wedding night."
He allowed her one last, lingering kiss...one not of desire, but of sweetness. And then, he departed, leaving her uncertain of how she would ever find sleep that night.