Their time at court had come to its end. Nearly a month, spent partly in hours of useless mingling...and the rest of the time spent around the royal table, listening to the shouts and curses of men as they clamored for a reason to start a war.
Royal spies had learned of a plan to draw Phillip away from his court, to lure him southward and keep him occupied there, while England’s army attacked from the north. But the English Barons were reluctant to act, delaying any attempt at action. Phillip had made the decision to wait...but for how long, he had not made clear. He was confident that the enemy would move, probably sooner rather than later. The men were told to return home, to see to the matters of their families and estates. War would come. They had only to wait for the call to arms.
Upon hearing the news, Guy had wasted no time in ordering the preparation for his return home. In the hall outside his guest chambers, he paced back and forth as his belongings were prepared.
Standing outside his own door, just down the hall, Simon watched Guy closely. There was an energy surrounding the Earl this morning. These weeks at court, he had been bleak in every way possible, always scowling and muttering to himself. He prowled the palace halls and grounds in a way that had others keeping their distance. But now, he seemed filled with eagerness and anticipation. As Simon observed Guy, Basil came from within their shared chamber.
“Home will be a strange sight to see,” he said. “But it will be a welcome one, of course.”
Hardly listening, Simon nodded. “Yes, father.”
He could feel his father’s gaze. Of late, he had often felt those eyes searching his face. A concerned question generally followed, along with words of wisdom. But in this instance, Basil gave no inquiry, perhaps thinking it best not to pry. His only gesture was to give Simon a light slap on the back.
“I will see how the servants progress,” he said.
Simon watched him go. Then, he turned his eyes back to Guy...and his mind to other matters.
Their plan was to return to Guillemot. They had been away for nearly two months, and there would be much to do when they returned. Not only would they need to catch up on matters regarding their estate, but there would be preparations made for the inevitable.
But Simon had no intention of remaining at Guillemot.
For many days, he had struggled with his personal desires. He wanted Evelyn for his own, but circumstances had conspired against him. The arrangements of his marriage had been set in place for many long years. He was to marry Evelyn the day after she turned sixteen, and to alter the arrangement might mean offending Sir Guy and his family. That, he did not want.
But now, war was on the horizon. It would certainly come, perhaps tomorrow...perhaps months from now. He had no way of knowing how much time he would be granted. He only knew he did not want to waste a moment of it. There was a chance that Sir Guy would refuse his request. But it was a chance that Simon was willing to take.
He approached in a cautious way, careful to conceal the tension he felt. He reminded himself that this was not a matter of asking for a lady’s hand and hoping for words of acceptance. They had brokered that deal long ago. Evelyn would be his wife. Of that there was no question. But to go to a man...a father...and ask that he give his beloved daughter in a hurried fashion? What father would look favorably upon that? He kept a calm, quiet demeanor as he came near.
“My lord,” he asked, “May I have a word with you?”
Guy was intensely focused on hurrying the activity around him. He gave Simon only a momentary glance, and a terse reply. “What about?” he asked.
“A personal matter,” said Simon.
Guy looked at him for a long moment. Simon could sense Guy’s awareness...as if he knew what they would speak of. Without saying a word, he stepped into his chamber, and Simon followed. Guy folded his arms, casting his glance outward at some fixed object. Simon realized it was best not to delay the matter any further. He paused only a moment, and made his request.
“Sir Guy, I would like to marry Evelyn immediately.”
Guy slowly turned his glance to look at Simon. There was a curious expression on his face. His mouth was set in a serious line. “Am I to know your reason for this request?”
Simon chose his words carefully. His reasons were many for hastening the marriage, and not all of them were motives the Earl would want to hear...although Simon was sure Sir Guy was aware of them. He certainly could not say aloud how much he desired Evelyn in his bed...that he had lost sleep at night due to lustful dreaming. But his amorous intentions were not his only reasons. There were other, more profound matters at stake, and he spoke of them. Emulating Guy, he folded his arms and adopted a serious stance. His words were bleak.
“My lord, you know very well the nature of war. In all that is uncertain, there is but one assurance. Many of us who venture to battle will not return.”
A silent moment passed, and Guy replied, “Will you come to the point, your grace?”
Simon let out a breath...and said what he had long held back.
“I wish to wed Evelyn as soon as possible...to experience the joy of my marriage, however brief a time I may have to know it.”
Guy’s response was an immediate disgruntled sound. He rubbed a hand over his face. Walking to the fireplace, he leaned a hand on the mantle and stared down at the grate.
“Are you aware of the burden you put upon me?”
Such a question was rather unexpected. Simon examined Guy, curious. “My lord?” he inquired.
Guy replied in a quiet, gloomy tone.
“For nearly twenty years, I have often attempted to quiet a small voice that whispers at my ear...reminding me of the inevitable. I have been aware, from the moment they came into this world, that my daughters would be lost to me. Theodora was first, of course. I was able to endure that sorrow because of its gradual nature, and I thought to find the same unhurried progress in losing Evelyn. Now you come to me and ask me to make haste in giving her up?”
Simon found it difficult to respond. He knew how deeply Guy of Gisborne cared for his family. He had seen, firsthand, how tightly knit the Gisbornes were. But he knew that his own ambitions, however painful they would be to endure, would be for the best. He answered, and though firm, he tried to be kind.
“Forgive me, my lord. I sincerely have no wish to cause you grief. But if my future is to be fleeting...God forbid...then I must prepare for it.”
Several long, tense moments passed as Simon waited for a reply. At last, Guy inquired...
“Do you love her?”
Simon’s answer came instantly. “Yes.”
“Do you truly love her?”
With a nod, Simon answered firmly. “I do.”
For a few moments more, Guy remained leaning on the mantle. Then he pushed back. He turned, making his way back towards the hall, and he gave his answer as he went.
“I must consider the matter.”
He disappeared from sight, leaving Simon to wonder if he would ever truly understand Guy of Gisborne.
It was nearly noon before they were set to depart. Simon mounted his horse, preparing to leave without an answer from Guy. He had not seen him for some time. Had he made his decision? And if so, when would he give it? As he waited, none too patiently, Simon made a decision of his own.
He would see Evelyn, and soon. There was, of course, the business to be done at Guillemot. But he would see it done quickly, and then he would return to the Gisborne estate. Whether as a mere visit, or as a precursor to their marriage, it mattered not to him. He would return to her, one way or another.
As he gathered his reins in his hands, he heard his name called from afar. Turning his head, he saw Guy approach on his great black stallion. He rode up beside Simon.
His words were spoken quietly...but they were powerful and direct.
“You will wait until a fortnight passes. I will approve of nothing less. Go home, see your affairs settled...and then, return to Evelyn. She will be waiting for you.”
With that, he turned his mount away and followed his caravan towards home. For a moment, Simon sat in quiet contemplation and slight awe, absorbing what had just happened. He slowly moved his horse towards his father’s carriage, where Basil was watching from within...his hand holding the curtain back as he examined Simon’s expression.
“Has Sir Guy given you his decision?”
A hint of a smile graced Simon’s face. With a glimmer in his hazel eyes, he gave his reply.
“We are to prepare for a wedding. In a fortnight, I shall be a married man.”
In disbelief, Evelyn stared at Violette’s extended hand...and the rolled parchment in it. It could not be. Nearly a month had passed since the first message. For weeks, she had dreaded the arrival of another letter from Rene...and now, her fears had come true. With a tense hand, she took the message from Violette, dismissing her with a wave. Finding a chair, Evelyn slowly sat down. After a nervous outlet of breath, she unrolled the message and began to read.
Rene had gone home. Judging from his signature, he had reclaimed his status. And he was expressing his gratitude to her.
After a few moments, she lowered the paper to her lap...trying to comprehend the enormity of the information.
What a great turn of fortune for Rene. Despite all that he had done, she could not help feeling for him. He was a libertine and a criminal. But he was also an ordinary human being, with wants and needs. After roaming about for so many years, scraping by as would any stray dog, he had been granted a second chance. And she was glad for him.
But why did he insist on praising her so, and with such romantic undertones in his language? It was discomfiting, to say the least...and she could not allow her soft-hearted nature to sway her. That mistake she had made before, and she refused to do so again. As before, she took the letter to the fireplace, and cast it upon the burning embers.
This is how it must be, she thought. Simon is to be my husband...and the only man who shall have my loyalty.
As the paper turned to ashes, she heard the sound of heavy steps rushing past her door. Curious, she went to the doorway and looked out in the hall. Emile...her father’s steward...was heading to the master chamber. Evelyn knew her mother was resting there. And if Emile was hurrying to her, then she knew that something important was happening. She slipped from her room and followed him. She stood outside her mother’s room, listening.
“My lady,” Emile said, “The master’s caravan approaches. He should be home within the hour.”
A flood of joy and excitement came over Evelyn. As she flew back to her room, Violette met her in the hallway, approaching her lady with a concerned look. Evelyn wore a great smile as she took the maid’s hands in her own.
“Papa is coming home! And Simon will surely be with him! I must hurry and prepare for their arrival!”
She took Violette by the hand and pulled her along, trembling with anticipation.
As Violette helped her change into a better dress, Evelyn found herself biting back the urge to demand more speed in the preparations. She felt the same intensity of excitement she’d known as a child, when she had waited impatiently for her father to return from a journey. She smiled to herself as she remembered how, on more than one occasion, she had slipped away from her nurse to run down the road and meet his carriage half way. If only such behavior was not forbidden, now that she was a grown young lady. What a sight it would be if Simon saw her acting with such abandon. She shook her head.
No, she thought. I will maintain my senses. I am a child no longer, and I will not act as one.
When at last Violette finished her work, having placed a band of violets around the crown of her lady’s head, Evelyn rushed from under the maid’s hands. In the hall, she saw Celeste assisting Cassia, and it gave Evelyn pause. Her mother had grown larger in the last month, so much so that she had spent most of her time off of her feet. Active as she liked to be, Cassia was finding it difficult to do much more than take short turns around the house. Evelyn and her mother had always been close, but these past weeks they had spent nearly every day together. She came to her mother’s side, concerned. While Celeste held one hand, Evelyn held the other.
“Mama, should you be about? Perhaps you should wait in your room where you will be more comfortable.”
Cassia shook her head. “No, my darling. I have not seen your father in many weeks. I will be there to greet him as soon as he arrives.” She smiled at her. “You will do the same for Simon, will you not?”
Evelyn could not keep from returning the gesture. She felt so blessed to have a mother who understood her feelings. Her mother was not dismissive or scornful, as many others would be. Feeling an overwhelming sense of happiness and love, she kissed her mother’s cheek, and Cassia’s smile deepened as they helped her down the stairs.
Everyone was soon gathered outside to await the arrival. Cassia sat in a chair, with Thea and Owen standing beside her. Evelyn was close to them, and her eye became fixed on her brother. Lately, there seemed to be a change in him. Isabella was gone now, escorted to Toulon by two of their most trusted servants. Evelyn had expected Owen to be very happy at her departure, as bitterly as he had complained about her presence. But since she had left, he had become almost a different person, going about his duties and actions in a strangely quiet way.
She shook off her suspicions, thinking that his business was his own. Her attention was distracted by Thea and Gabriel, who was gumming a little stuffed toy that his mother had made for him. Evelyn smiled, reaching out to stroke his downy head.
“Lucien will be so happy to see you both,” she said. “And he will be so surprised to see how his son has grown.”
Thea smiled proudly, placing a kiss on Gabriel’s head.
The sound of hounds came from afar. All heads rose, looking towards the road. Evelyn’s heart beat fast with anticipation as her eyes searched the horizon for the first glimpse of a familiar white steed. It was a black stallion that first greeted her eyes. Lucien was beside him, and she smiled at the sight of them, particularly her father, who had chosen the freedom of his horse rather than the confines of the carriage. She could guess his reasons for it. Not only was the weather very fine, but his horse was swifter...allowing him to near his loved ones that much sooner. He rode up and quickly dismounted, handing his horse off to a groom. His first gesture, of course, was to his wife. They embraced in full view of everyone, speaking sweet words to one another. Lucien kissed Thea and their son, remarking with pride on the weight his son had gained. While they shared those tender moments, Evelyn looked to the road again. Her heart sank as no white stallion appeared.
Why does he not appear? She wondered. Is he delayed in some way?
As her father came to her, she tried to smile. He gave her a kiss on the forehead, and as she looked up at him, she could see an odd glimmer in his eyes. There was something he was about to tell her. He started to speak, but she hurried with her question before he could begin.
“What is it, Papa? Has something happened? Why is Simon not with you?”
He hesitated for a moment before he replied. “The Marquis and his father have returned to Guillemot.”
She was certain her heart had truly been crushed, for she could feel the pain in her breast. Tears of disappointment burned her eyes, but she tried to look away so her father would not see them. When he reached out to gently lift her chin, she was not sure what he meant by the gesture...until he spoke again. His eyes seemed sad. And yet, there was a slight smile on his lips as he answered.
“They will return to us in a fortnight. A short time for a bride to prepare, but I am certain you will manage.”
The earth seemed to roll underneath her feet. But there was hardly time to recover from the shock of the announcement. Events were suddenly thrown into a swift pace, and she had no choice but to move with them.