The housekeeper called out to Evelyn, who was just coming in from the garden.
“My lady, you must come and see!”
Evelyn handed her basket of freshly clipped red roses to a passing servant, who curtseyed and carried them away. Evelyn followed Marie up the stairs, asking no questions. These many days past, they had all been running about so hurriedly that there was little time for hesitation.
The entire estate was alive with activity, more so than usual. Additional servants had been brought in to help with tasks. They were kept busy making grapevine wreaths, into which they wove ivy and rosemary. Baskets were woven for centerpieces and filled with wildflowers, as well as herbs to ward off evil spirits. The floral arrangements were bright and bold, with flowers chosen for their striking colors. Bright blue irises, blood red roses, orange tiger lilies, and numerous other flowers were gathered in spectacular arrangements.
But grandest of all was the clothing being tailored for the occasion...brocades and velvets in bright, jewel-tones colors. Evelyn had not seen her wedding gown yet. It was to be a surprise gift from her mother and father. Thea had been handed down their mother’s wedding dress, and Evelyn had decided long ago that she wasn’t jealous in the least. She looked forward to having a new wedding gown that she could give to her own daughter one day. As she came up the stairs with Marie, she felt a sudden giddiness and anticipation, sensing that she was about to experience one of the greatest moments of her life.
In the doorway of her bedchamber, she stopped suddenly. With a gasp, she pressed her hands to her mouth. The sight of her wedding gown, newly arrived and laid out on her bed, made her tremble with awe and excitement, and she rushed forward to examine it. The bliaut was sapphire blue silk with gold accents and trim, so beautiful that she was almost afraid to touch it. The under gown was purest white, with roses embroidered in pale pink, and the sleeve hangings were made of delicate white lace. With her hand she covered her heart, feeling its excited beats.
“Oh, Mama,” she said. “I knew that it would be lovely. But I never imagined it would be as beautiful as this.”
Cassia, who sat in the window seat, brought a handkerchief to her eye. She dabbed away a tear, trying to smile.
“You will be a most beautiful bride,” she said.
As she wiped her eye a second time, Evelyn went to her. Her mother had been very emotional of late. Cassia kept insisting that it was merely a part of her condition...that she had been prone to tears during all of her pregnancies. But Evelyn was certain there was more to it than that. She took her mother’s hand.
“Do not cry, Mama. This is to be a happy occasion.”
With a soft sigh, Cassia kissed Evelyn’s hand. “I am very happy, my darling. Do not mind the foolishness of an elderly expectant mother.”
Evelyn smiled. She started to say something, but a knock on the door...and a baritone voice...kept her from it. Guy came into the room, holding a small wooden box in his hand.
“Under the current circumstances, emotions are expected to run rampant, are they not?”
Coming to his side, Evelyn leaned against him. She felt his arm around her and a kiss on the top of her head. These last several days, she hadn’t seen much of him. They had all been so busy with the wedding preparations, there had hardly been time to think, much less share quiet moments together.
“A cart has just arrived from Guillemot,” he said. “The Duke has sent a various assortment of goods in anticipation of the wedding feast. Peacocks, doves, geese, quail...along with numerous other offerings. When all is said and done, we shall have enough food to feed the king’s army.”
Evelyn had only heard a portion of his words. Those referring to Guillemot. Which, in turn, made her think of Simon. There had been no word from him. In the rare moments of quiet, she had prayed for a message. Why had he not written her? Were it not for the distraction of the activity around her, she was certain she might have gone mad.
Her father must have sensed her feelings, for he blessed her with words she’d been waiting so long to hear.
“I have word they should arrive in only a few days.”
Her head lifted quickly, her eyes growing bright with eagerness as she looked up at him. He gave her a little smile, and leaning back in the embrace, he handed her the box he’d been holding.
“This is a gift from your betrothed.”
She eagerly reached for it. But, as if to tease her, he pulled it back. His smile grew.
“I think you should first sit, daughter.”
She hurried to the window seat, placing herself beside her mother, who smiled with delight as she observed them.
“Close your eyes,” said Guy.
Evelyn did so, reluctantly. She waited for the box to be put in her hands. But there was nothing.
“Count to ten,” he said.
Confused, Evelyn opened her eyes. And then she heard her mother laugh.
“Oh Guy, do not tease her so.”
Evelyn saw the mischievous look he wore when he at last handed over the box. She smiled, and looking down at the gift, she felt giddy with anticipation. Lifting the lid, she took in a breath of absolute shock.
“Mama! Oh, Mama! By all the stars in heaven!”
Her fingers caressed a necklace, the likes of which she had never seen. It was a double strand of pearls, with each pearl connected by clasps of gold. In the center of the strand was a large sparkling sapphire, surrounded by a webbing of gold. It was breathtaking.
She had hardly recovered from the shock when a servant came to the door. It was a page, who bowed respectfully.
“My lord, The Marquis has been seen near the village. He will arrive shortly.”
Evelyn rushed to her feet, clinging to the jewelry box. She looked to her mother, and they shared delighted smiles. When she looked at her father, he was wearing a curious expression.
“Well. It seems your betrothed is full of surprises. Come. Let us welcome him back.”
He turned away, and Evelyn threw her arms around her mother, kissing her cheek.
“He has come back to me, Mama!”
Cassia nodded, and gave Evelyn a gentle push, even as she smiled.
“Hurry then, Evie. Make yourself ready for him.”
Evelyn needed no encouragement. Celeste, who had been standing nearby, came to help her mistress. Violette came to Evelyn, and together they hurried to prepare for Simon’s arrival.
At long last, a familiar white charger appeared at the end of the drive. Evelyn fought the urge to go bounding forward, to rush to him in all of her excitement. There was so much she wanted to say to him...so much she wished to know. But most of all, she wanted to throw her arms around him and feel his strong body against her own. He seemed to be taking his time in his approach, or perhaps it was her eagerness to see him that made her feel that way. When at last he came near, it was all she could do to remain still and poised, as she knew she was expected to be. He looked down at her with those maddeningly beautiful eyes of his.
“My lady Evelyn,” he greeted her, with that voice that made her shiver all over. “What a pleasure to see you again.”
She curtseyed, lowering her head. “My lord.” When she looked up, he was dismounting. She waited, trembling with anticipation, as she watched him make his greetings to everyone. And then, at last, he came to her. When he took her hand, her nerves were thrilled by the feeling of his skin against hers. It had been much too long since she had known his touch, and she could not contain her delight. No matter what decorum dictated, she hadn’t the will power to behave entirely.
“I am so glad to have you back.”
She felt her face flush with hot embarrassment. The bold words had slipped out before she could catch them. But to her relief, Simon did not seem bothered by her audacity. He seemed rather amused, giving her a slight smile, and when he offered his arm, she took gladly took it. She expected him to lead her inside. But he surprised her when he turned to Guy.
“My lord, will you permit Lady Evelyn to accompany me on a short walk? I have been on horseback all day and my limbs are in need of movement.”
With a nod from Guy, they turned and walked away from the house. He seemed to be leading her towards the garden, and she was happy to be returning there with him. She had spent many days there, thinking of him, while he was away. How wonderful it felt to be returning there with him.
As they walked along, she could feel a sense of tension between them. For a moment, she wondered if she had been too audacious in her welcome of him. Perhaps, despite his smile, he had been somehow bothered by her behavior.
“Forgive me for speaking too soon of my own feelings. I should have inquired about your travels. Was your journey...”
Her words were suddenly silenced by the heated press of his lips to hers. For a moment she was stunned. But then she melted against him, bringing her arms up to twine around his neck. When they parted for a moment, she was breathless with joy, and she smiled up at him. His eyes were full of tenderness, and he gathered her close in his arms. As she leaned her head against him, holding him with a fervor that matched his, she felt her feet leave the ground for a moment.
“Oh Simon,” she sighed, free now to express all that she felt in her heart. “I have missed you so.” Closing her eyes, she pressed her cheek firmly against his shoulder. She could not be certain, for the sound was very low, but she thought she heard a sort of growl coming from him. There was something thrilling about the sound. His words filled her with a wild feeling.
“I have thought of you every day, Evelyn. Every moment, to be truthful. You have changed the very nature of me.”
His admission stunned her. “Have I done that?” she asked.
He nodded. “You have.” Leaning back in her arms, he smiled down at her. “My interest in politics waned considerably while I was at court. When compared with the joyful madness of the Gisborne household, I found matters at court to be strangely dull.”
Her mouth curved up in delight. He pressed his forehead to hers in a gesture of sweetness. Feeling bold, she clasped his face and kissed him. “You have brought me such happiness,” she said. “There will be no greater joy for me than to have you for my husband.”
His expression slowly changed, becoming solemn. She felt a sense of dread coming over her.
“Evelyn, there is something you must know.”
When he took her hand, leading her to a garden bench, she felt a desperate need to pull away from him, knowing that if she allowed herself to be seated, something bad was sure to follow. He pulled her to the bench, despite her reluctance. She saw the troubled look in his eyes, and heard the ominous tone of his words.
“While at court, there was a great amount of heated discussion.” He paused, seeming hesitant to speak. But after a moment, he went on. “We think it possible that a conflict is in the near future. Nothing is certain...”
“A military conflict?”
He gave a slight nod. “Yes. I tell you this because I do not wish you to be unaware. But please, do not be overly concerned.”
She lowered her head, not wanting his eyes to distract her. He was attempting to soften a subject, perhaps hoping that her youth would render her blind to the truth of the matter. But she knew more than he realized.
“I am not ignorant of these things, Simon. I know the wanderlust that is in a soldier’s blood. You desire glory on the battlefield. When there is a hint of battle in the air, you come alive with the hope of joining the fight.”
He seemed intent on soothing her fears. “There is little that is definite,” he said. “We...”
She broke off his words, shaking her head sadly. “I have always known what comes of journeys to court.” Turning away, she tried not to let him see the sad shimmer in her eyes. “Mama has never shielded me from the truth of these matters. You are a servant of the crown, and when the time comes, I must give you to his majesty without question.”
“Evelyn, listen to me.” He gently clasped her arms, turning her to face him. “I am a servant to the crown. And not so long ago, that was my only ambition. But you must know that since I’ve found you, I desire something more from this life.”
She felt his hand cupping her cheek. His eyes brightened with a strange kind of fire. She felt the increasing rhythm of her heart as his words fell over her, softly and tenderly.
“I love you, Evelyn. The feelings I have for you are more than strong. They have come to dominate me so that I hardly know myself as I used to. I only know that I want to be with you.” He kissed her, his lips warm and firm against her own. His lips traveled over her cheek, and he uttered soft words against her ear. “If I am to die, I wish to carry beautiful memories with me.”
His confession of love flooded her heart. And his talk of such sacrifice nearly broke it. To silence him...to keep him from uttering such terrible things, she placed a long, hot kiss on his mouth. Her breath quickened with urgency and longing. Her words held a hint of command.
“Do not talk of dying.” She leaned her head against his shoulder, giving an involuntary shudder. “I cannot bear to hear of it.”
She was surprised to hear him make a sound of amusement. Raising her head, looking at him, she saw that the corner of his mouth had risen.
“You Gisborne ladies are a stubborn lot,” he said. “Must you always have your way?”
His smile was catching, and she returned the expression. “In regards to the one I love most, the answer must be yes.”
Drawing his face close to hers, he replied with a little sigh of mock defeat. “Very well, then. I consent.” His smile was grand...his eyes full of fire, and he kissed her sweetly, talking between repeated brushes of his lips to hers. “We will not speak of dreadful things. We shall live only in the moment.”
With a joyful little noise, she sought another kiss. But a sudden gust of wind blew through the garden walk, carrying leaves and blowing them in all directions. They turned their heads away until it had passed. Looking up at the sky, they saw that it had grown ominous with clouds.
“We had best go in,” said Evelyn. “I sense a storm brewing.” She turned to him, and he turned to her. She sighed, her heart overflowing with happiness, and it was reflected in her voice. “I might have remained here for hours with you.”
He smiled, stealing one last kiss before he took her hand. “We will be soaked to the skin if we tarry much longer.” Standing up, he pulled her along with him. They rushed for the front door of the house, making it safely under the cover of the archway just as the rain came pouring down.