Sitting at the supper table, Simon examined the faces surrounding him. All were filled with warmth and merriment. For a brief moment, he wondered at their tender expressions. Before leaving court, the men had all been in agreement not to further delay the news of impending war. It was better to tell their spouses sooner rather than later, to soften the blow and allow them to adjust to the news.
How strange it was to find all of the ladies so calm. And yet, even as he pondered it, he came to realize that he should have expected as much. When it came to the Gisborne family, there was little that was conventional. And looking around the table, seeing his soon-to-be family members, he realized he did not wish them to be any other way.
He looked at Evelyn, who sat across from him. She was speaking to Thea. They were engaged in animated conversation, and he found it strangely delightful to watch them.
How wonderful it must be to know such closeness, he thought to himself.
She was fortunate to have such love. What would it be like, he wondered, to truly live in the embrace of such a devoted family? Since he had met them, the Gisbornes had treated him with great kindness and generosity. But what would it be like to be one of them...to live and laugh with them, and learn their inner most secrets? His gaze fell upon the mistress of the house. She was the heart of this family. He had sensed that from the first. But where did such a woman come from? She carried herself with the pride and dignity of any noble woman. Her manners and deportment were impeccable. And yet, she was so wonderfully different from others he had known. She was compassionate and loving, but when inclined, she could be quite bold. In her, he could see the genesis of Evelyn. He could now understand how such a spell had been cast over Guy of Gisborne. It was now clear to him how a man, so seemingly dark, could surrender so easily to a woman. And he realized that, just like Sir Guy, his heart was no longer his own.
I have been vanquished by love, he thought. He smiled to himself, silently noting…
Oh, what a sweet conquest it has turned out to be.
He turned to look at Evelyn. When her eyes met his, he felt a tugging sensation at his heart. He suddenly wished she was not sitting across from him, but at his side, where he would hope for a brush of his hand against hers. It would all be accidental, of course. There could be no intentional touching of hands. It was not good form for an unwed couple.
Damn propriety, he found himself silently muttering.
He had to console himself simply with looking at her, taking in her lovely smile and shining eyes. They shared a long, lingering exchange of glances...until they were interrupted by a soft cry from lady Cassia, who dropped her wine goblet on the table.
“Good heavens,” she said. Everyone watched her for a moment. And when she placed her hands on her belly, Guy suddenly came to his feet. Evelyn, Thea, Owen, and even Lucien rushed forward to help, along with Celeste and several other servants. Simon felt the need to rush in as well. But seeing the crowd that had gathered around lady Cassia, he took a step back. It was a sudden scene of madness, but there seemed to be no place for him. He could only observe as Cassia’s loved ones fought to care for her, and even in her current state, she was the picture of a strong mistress. While those around her were chattering with alarm, she calmly gave orders.
“Owen, ride with Lucien to fetch the midwife. Thea, tell Marie to prepare hot water. Celeste, go with Violette. Find clean towels and sheets and bring them up.”
Guy and Evie helped her up the stairs, and Simon followed behind them at a distance.
Good heavens, he suddenly thought. Should I be following them? Is this not inappropriate for a gentleman to be witness to?
He was quite certain it was not his place to be there, watching the first happenings of childbirth. And yet, he could not walk away. There was an odd curiosity and excitement he felt as he observed the rushing about. Everyone seemed so controlled, even in the hurry of things. In a strange way, it reminded him of the first stirrings before a battle. The course of events was running rather smoothly thus far, but he realized it was a deceptive calm. This was merely preparation for the event to come, and even he, novice as he was about children and childbirth, knew the great dangers that were possible. Simon looked at Sir Guy, who held his wife’s hand quite firmly as he guided her towards the bedchamber. His face was filled with great fear and love all at once, and seeing it, Simon could not help but pity him. He stood in the doorway, feeling quite helpless as he inquired...
“Is there nothing I can do, my lady?”
Cassia shook her head. Her calmness astounded him. “No, your grace. It is in God’s hands. And those of the midwife, if and when she ever arrives.”
“I will remain until she comes,” said Guy. With a resolute expression, he looked at her. “Do not attempt to push me out in the hall before the appointed time. You know I will not go.”
She seemed amused by his stern determination. “You have not gone on previous occasions. Why would I expect you now to do otherwise?” She placed a palm on his cheek. “My love, I would have you by my side if I could.”
A look of sadness and frustration passed over Guy’s face as he responded. “Yes, I know. Were it not for the damned women pushing me out, I would not be torn away from you.”
Simon looked at Evelyn, who sat beside her mother, holding her hand. She was just about to speak when Thea came swooping in, followed by Marie, who was in turn followed by two servants girls carrying buckets of water. Celeste and Violette appeared a moment after, carrying armloads of sheets and towels, and in a heartbeat the room was buzzing with activity. Realizing he was probably in the way, Simon stepped out in the hall. He found a chair, but did not occupy it for long. It seemed wrong to sit still and do nothing while such an event was taking place. But what was there to do? He had offered his help, but had been declined. Feeling quite useless, he returned to the doorway of the room to observe, albeit from a distance. It was not long before more persons arrived in the form of Lucien and Owen, who were followed by a stout little white-haired woman and a young girl. The midwife took immediate charge of the situation, and Simon was shocked not only by her forcefulness, but by the reaction of those she gave orders to. She first looked at Owen and Lucien.
“Be gone, be gone,” she told them. “You have done your part. Now make yourself scarce. You are naught but a waste of space now.”
Simon found himself being looked over. She gave a little snort and commented on him.
“You are a fair one, boy. But not fair enough to be permitted here. Take yourself away and find some occupation besides lurking in doorways.”
She hurried into the room, followed by her young helper. When Cassia saw the midwife, she smiled with relief.
“Louisa, I am most glad to see you.”
Louisa smiled proudly. “Of course you are, love. But no time for talk. Come, we must bring this babe into the world.” She turned to Guy. “Say farewell to her, my lord. I must begin my duties and I cannot be cursed by your masculine presence.”
Guy was reluctant to loosen his grip on Cassia’s hand, but she kissed his cheek and reassured him.
“Go now, my love. All will be well.”
Evelyn spoke up, offering him comfort. “Do not worry, Papa. We will take good care of her.”
Louisa added with an indignant snort. “Of course we will care for her! I have not brought you an ill child yet, have I? I intend for your fifth born to be as robust and healthy as those who came before. Now go.”
Simon watched as Guy was ushered into the hall. When the door was closed against him, Guy stared at it for a long moment. Then he turned away, going to a chair near Simon. As he sank into the seat, he mumbled aloud.
“I am too old for this.”
Uncertain of what to say, Simon kept silent. But Guy spoke again.
“One day, your grace, you will be in such a position as this. I advise you to be prepared for it, for never in your life will you know such apprehension.” He ran a hand over his face, giving a tense groan. Lucien came to stand near them. He leaned against the wall. His sigh was heavy.
“I would rather face an enemy on the field than to endure such a wait as this.”
Owen, who was standing further back from everyone else, spoke with an anxious tone.
“Papa, do you think I should go to Toulon and bring William? Mama will wish to have him here.”
Guy shook his head. “Not while the rain persists. Your mother would not want you traveling in such conditions.
For a few moments, Owen walked back and forth with his arms folded, until he could no longer contain his anxiety.
“Forgive me, Papa, but I cannot remain here. Feminine concerns bother me terribly. I shall be in my chambers. Please send for me the moment you learn anything.”
As he left, Lucien watched him go, and he commented with a slight smirk.
“He needs a woman.”
Simon couldn’t help but smile at the comment. “You wish him subjected to the enigma that is woman? How cruel a fate for him.”
Lucien chuckled. “It is an inevitable fate. One we must all accept, if we are to secure our legacies.”
Guy lifted his head, looking at his son-in-law.
“You know well enough, Sir Lucien, that matters are not so simple. When it comes to having a woman, there are complications that go far beyond the bringing of heirs.”
They all fell silent, knowing what he meant, but not daring to say it. Among their fellow men, it was not appropriate to speak openly of love. Certainly, it would not do to admit that they were all hopelessly devoted to their mates. In truth, it was common knowledge to all, but it was an unspoken truth.
Simon leaned back in his chair, resting his head against the wall. He was aware that soon enough, it might very well be Evelyn on the opposite side of a door, bringing a child into the world. Like Sir Guy and Sir Lucien, he would one day be sitting in this way, hoping and praying that his wife and child would survive the dangers of childbirth. A realization came to him then. He had much in common with these men...more in common than just being a nobleman and a soldier.
Somehow, he had become a part of a family.
Phillip Auguste Gisborne was small, but judging from the strength of his lungs, he was robust and healthy, just as Louise had said he would be. His birth occurred in a rather short span of time...just under six hours, and for his relieved parents, his arrival was bittersweet.
Cassia looked down at her newborn son. Now that he had been given his first feeding, he was much calmer. He opened his little mouth wide, yawning, and seeing it, she began to cry.
“Beloved,” Guy said, “What is it?” He was sitting beside her in their bed. Everyone had gone, leaving them in peace. As he looked at her, it became clear that her tears were those of sadness. He brushed her hair back from her forehead, and drew her closer to his side.
Cassia muttered sadly. “Oh Guy. This will be our last. I will never be a mother again.”
He kissed her temple. Pressing his cheek to her hair, he spoke gently.
“My love, do not be sad. We will have no more of our own, but we will have the joy of many grandchildren. Already we have Gabriel, and I am certain he will not be the last for Thea and Sir Lucien.”
She sniffled, saying nothing.
“I am not altogether happy with the thought of it, but Evelyn will soon be married. She and Simon will certainly have children of their own. And though I am not pleased with losing Evie, I look forward to the prospect of grandsons. And granddaughters, of course.”
At last, she managed something of a smile.
“I must confess, I am pleased at the prospect of many grandchildren. Perhaps even Owen will one day grant us the gift of his family.”
Guy smiled, kissing her cheek. “Perhaps,” he replied.
Cassia looked up at him. As her eyes met his, her lips formed into a sly little bow of amusement.
“Do you know what pleases me most?”
Seeing her teasing expression...one he had seen so many times before...he dared to inquire, “What pleases you?”
There was a twinkle in her eyes as she answered.
“I find great delight in seeing you as a grandfather. You have always been a dutiful and loving father, but there is something very darling about you as a grandfather.”
He sighed deeply. But he smiled. “I cannot deny that I have grown soft in my old age.” He brought his face close to hers, whispering. “But please, do not tell anyone of my weakness.”
She could not suppress her grin. “I hate to disappoint you, my love, but I have a feeling that many already suspect it.”
He gave a little scoff. “Well then,” he said, “At least allow an old man his delusions.”
Cassia responded with a soft laugh. And Guy kissed her, ever so sweetly.
The fortnight was nearly over. Two days more, and he would be wed.
As he stood in the barn, assisting a stable-hand in the grooming of his horse, Simon found himself humming. Of late, he had felt a greater sense of contentment than he’d ever known, and strangely enough, he was not ashamed of it. What reason was there to conceal his feelings, when everyone around him was also reveling in joy?
Sir Guy and Lady Cassia were overwhelmed with happiness at the healthy arrival of their son. Lady Thea and Sir Lucien were all a flutter over Gabriel, who had given them his first genuine smile. Even Owen, who had recently been quite grim, seemed to find a degree of pleasantry. The morning after Phillip’s birth, Owen had made another inquiry about departing for Toulon, and when he was granted permission, he seemed strangely eager to depart. But of all the happy faces around him, none pleased him more than Evelyn.
The time they could manage together had grown more limited these last few days. Not only did she have the business of preparing to be a bride, but she had dedicated herself to looking after her mother and newborn brother. There were plenty of others to help, of course, but Evelyn seemed to take pleasure in doting on them. The only lengthy amount of time they had was at prayer, mealtimes, and during the night’s respite of entertainment, and even then, they were not alone. Beyond a few polite words, there was little private conversation shared between them. He might have been highly frustrated by their lack of togetherness, were it not for the stolen moments they managed.
The corner of his mouth rose as he recalled the times they had met each other in passing. When she was with someone, it usually being her sister, he was granted a tender smile. But if, perchance, he found her alone, she was not shy about coming into his arms. The kisses and embraces they shared were brief but deeply passionate, and he found himself dearly hoping for “accidental” meetings. More than that, he found himself becoming impatient for the days to come, when they would not have to restrain their growing desire for one another. Lustful thoughts often came over him when they were forced to part. He found himself thinking that, were it not for the restraints put upon them, he would have pulled her into the nearest room to delight in a heated tumble.
Only a few days more, he reminded himself, And then we will be denied no longer.
He sighed, trying to turn his mind to other matters. Such thoughts of Evie were powerful and stimulating, but also frustrating. Performing a task, either in the field or elsewhere, helped to ease his mind. He concentrated on running the brush over Percy’s neck. As he worked, his eye caught sight of someone just outside the stables. It looked like a young groom, or perhaps a page. Clearly, he was a servant, judging from his clothes. But there was something odd about him. It might have been the way he stood, keeping himself behind the trees, as if to avoid being seen. From the way he kept turning his head, it was quite obvious he was waiting for someone.
Why would a servant be lurking in such a fashion?
There was something unsettling about the boy. And, recalling the trouble that had often found its way to the Gisborne estate, he decided that this problem would end before it had the chance to start.
He was careful in his approach. Walking in the opposite direction, away from the suspicious stranger, he made a long circle around until he was behind the boy, who was completely unaware of anything. With the silence of a stalking cat, Simon came upon his prey. In a swift leap he pounced, clamping his hand around the boy’s mouth to keep him silent.
“Be still or I will silence you permanently. Understand?”
The boy nodded, and Simon slowly removed his hand. Turning him around, he took the young man by the shirt and looked him in the eye. His words were fierce.
“Why do you lurk about, boy? Speak up, or I will see you horse whipped for trespassing!”
The youngster, so much smaller than Simon, was petrified. “Please my lord, do not hurt me! I am only a messenger doing my duty!”
Still holding the boy’s shirt, Simon gave him a slight shake. “What message do you bring, and for whom?”
“I bring a message for the lady Evelyn! My master instructs me to give it to her maid servant first, and she will deliver it! I beg you, my lord! Do not harm me!”
Simon clamped his hand back over the boy’s mouth. Knowing he would get nowhere with threats, weak as this youth seemed to be, he spoke as calmly as he could.
“I will not do you harm. Understand?”
After a nervous nod, Simon released his hold.
“Speak,” he demanded. “Name your master.”
With a gulp of anxiety, he gave his answer.
“My master is the Baron of LeFontaine. Lord Rene Jean-Bastien.”