Evelyn’s words were soft with contentment. “Now that all is settled, shall we take our ride?”
Simon held her close. Her head was tucked under his chin, and the sweet scent of violets, emanating from her hair, was alluring. He wanted to be with her, more than anything. A ride together, alone, was an incredibly tempting idea.
But pressing matters weighed on his mind. Dark thoughts hovered, like a cloud, over his present sense of joy. Not wishing to distress her, he spoke in a gentle tone.
“That would be most enjoyable, but I am afraid I cannot. I must speak to my father about a pressing business matter.”
Disappointment was evident in her voice, and more so in her eyes, when she pulled back in his arms to look at him. “Can it not be delayed?”
He gave a small shake of his head. “Regrettably, no. It must be settled immediately.”
Her eyes lowered. Returning her head to his heart, she sighed. And when she spoke, he caught a hint of daring in her tone.
“Are you certain it cannot wait?”
He felt a thrill at the feeling of her hands caressing his back. A sound of delight and amusement escaped him, and he smiled at her boldness. “Stubborn wench. You try to tempt me.” He embraced her more tightly. Then he sighed against her hair. “Forgive me, but I cannot delay. My father awaits, and I cannot disappoint him.”
She sighed. Leaning back in his arms, she looked up at him again. “Very well. I suppose I shall see you at supper, then?” Her eyes were eager and hopeful, and he smiled lovingly.
“Certainly. And if it pleases you, we will take a stroll afterwards.”
At last, the smile returned to her lips, and being so glad to see it, he lowered his head to kiss her. She eagerly returned his affection, making a little sound of pleasure that threatened to overwhelm him. It took all of his discipline not to linger in her arms and deepen the kiss. But he pulled back, and after looking at her for a long moment, he touched her cheek.
“Go riding, even if it must be without me. The fresh air and time away from this wedding madness will serve you well.”
She nodded, giving him a smile. As she left his arms, he watched her go, wishing he could follow her, but knowing that there was something he must attend to.
Something he wished he had tended to weeks ago.
As he made his way to the manor, his mouth became a grim line as he recalled the night of his betrothal announcement.
I should have finished him then and there, he thought. Damn my hesitation.
He had made the mistake of letting his enemy go, and a wave of trouble had been unleashed because of his folly. But that would not happen again. He swore to heaven it would not.
Searching out his father, who had arrived just that morning, he found him in the same chamber he had vacated only weeks ago. As Simon entered the room, Basil looked up at him and smiled.
“I feel I am becoming too aged for all this traveling. I sometimes think I should claim infirmity and secure myself at home.”
Simon gave a little huff of amusement. “I fear you may have yet another journey to make, father.”
Basil looked at him, raising a curious eyebrow. Simon’s expression became deeply serious.
“I require your assistance in apprehending a criminal...”
Rene was in his chambers, preparing a bag for travel. His page had returned this morning, informing him that his letter had been successfully delivered. But that news was hardly comforting. It had been too long since he’d spoken to Evelyn, and with still no response to any of his previous letters, he had made a decision.
He would go to her.
It would be a dangerous prospect, but he had to see her again. Louis had chastised him for being a fool, but he could not shake his feelings for her. Time had only served to sharpen the feelings in his heart, and her refusal to respond to his messages had strengthened his resolve to make things right between them.
From somewhere in the house, there came a commotion. Curious, he ventured into the hall and looked down over the railing, where he saw Louis speaking to a group of men. Rene felt a terrible feeling inside as he came down the stairs, and he fought the impulse to bolt. It would not bode well for him, or for Louis, if he ran, for if these men were ruffians, they would catch him quickly and the penalty he would pay would be a heavy one. As he neared the bottom of the stairs, he looked at Louis.
“Who are these men?”
Before an answer could be given, one of the men stepped forward, looking sternly at Rene.
“You must come with us for questioning.”
As hands took hold of him, Rene looked from one man to another. “What crime am I accused of?” he demanded.
The tallest man, clearer the speaker of the group, shook his head as he answered. “We can tell you nothing.”
As his hands were bound, Rene looked at Louis, who spoke with a determined voice.
“I will fight this, brother. You will not be prosecuted. I will make sure of it.”
As the men walked him from the house, out into the front yard, he saw two men on horseback...and immediately his stomach turned with fear. The Duke and Marquis of Larouqe sat on their horses, watching as he was brought forward. The Marquis moved his horse forward, and Rene prepared himself for whatever punishment Evelyn’s husband had in store. With his hands bound, and men surrounding him, there was little he could do but take it like a man. From his horse, Simon stared down at him with an icy glare. His voice was smoothly menacing.
“Did you think me a fool? Did you truly believe I would not discover your attempted seduction?”
A long moment passed, and Rene sensed a strike coming. He braced himself for it, and the next moment he felt the impact of a boot against his head. His neck whipped aside, his ears ringing as he staggered from the powerful hit. Simon’s words were a low, angry growl.
“Evelyn was never yours to have. You should have heeded my first warning, but fool that you are, you could not leave well enough alone. Now you will rot in prison.”
Despite his intense pain, Rene lifted his head, glaring up at Simon.“For loving a woman? I am to be jailed for the feelings of my heart?”
“You will be jailed for adultery,” Simon snarled. “And for the seduction of an innocent. And whatever crimes you have committed in your worthless life, they will come to light in the stinking walls of a prison cell.”
“Take him,” said The Duke.
Rene found himself unceremoniously dragged along, and a moment later he was tossed into the back of a jailer’s cart. There was no consideration for his newfound rank, but he didn’t expect it. All he could do was maneuver himself into a sitting position, and as the cart jostled away on the road, he could do nothing but rack his brain and try to think of a way to get out of this mess. He recalled his words to Evelyn, spoken on the first day they had met, and despite his precarious situation, he found a little smile coming to his lips.
Milady, I am the finest kind of criminal. Wiley and quick as a fox. I have been pursued countless times since I was a lad of thirteen. Six years have gone since, and they have not got hold of me yet.
If Simon of Larouqe thought he had won this game, he had sorely underestimated his opponent. This was not over yet...not by any means.
Evelyn’s room was lit by a candle in a wall sconce, and the fire in the grate. Wearing her nightgown, she stood staring at her wedding dress, which hung in the wardrobe. In the morning, she would be a bride. The prospect was both thrilling and terrifying. All day long, guests had been arriving and last minute preparations had been made. Now, at last, the house had grown quiet. All was as it should have been, but for one thing. Simon had not returned.
He had departed that morning, with his father, to tend to one last matter of importance before their wedding. He had promised to return as soon as possible, but as the night had worn on, she grew more and more concerned. Where could he be?
A light tapping came on the door. She smiled to herself, hopeful, and creeping softly to answer the summons, she found the housekeeper waiting.
“My lady,” said Marie, “The Duke and his son have safely returned. The hour is late, but I thought perhaps it best to tell you.”
Evelyn sighed with relief, giving her a grateful look. “Thank you, Marie. Sleep well.”
The housekeeper curtseyed, smiling in a motherly way. She departed, and Evelyn watched her go. All day long, she had asked to be summoned at the moment Simon returned, and at times she felt she was demanding too much of the servants who were already burdened with many duties. But there had been no fuss from any of them...only the generous, kind words she had always received from those who served the household so dutifully. She would miss the familiar faces when she left for her new home, and her heart pained at the daunting prospect before her.
She shook her head, refusing to dwell in sadness. There was a bright new destiny ahead of her, and she intended to journey towards it without a backward glance. Simon and Guillemot were her future, and it was best to concentrate her thoughts on them.
From her spot in the doorway, she could hear the soft sound of voices, which grew slightly louder as they ascended the stairs, though they were still hushed. Her heart thudded as she spied him, looking worn from the road. His hair, though short in the fashion that he kept it, was delightfully mussed. His clothes and boots were spattered with mud. She sighed, wondering how a man could look more attractive that he did at that moment. Lord, it was a shameful thought, but she wished they were married already so she could go to him. It would be so wonderful to take him in her arms right now and welcome him home...to kiss him and tell him how much she had missed him while he was gone. There was a deep desire in her heart to care for him, as her mother had often cared for her father. She thought of the times she had seen them together after her father had returned from a journey. Her first actions, after tender kisses and embraces, were to demand that he be bathed, fed, and rested. If only she were Simon’s wife already, Evelyn would have hurried out and bestowed those generous gifts to him.
But one solitary night remained, and it was best to endure it and see it over with as quickly as possible. She turned towards her bed.
Another soft rap came on the door. Curious, she went to open it...and her heart thudded at the sight of Simon standing there. Seeing the smoldering look on his face, she wondered if it was literally possible for someone to melt. His voice was silky smooth.
“I gambled on the prospect that you would not yet be asleep.”
She smiled at him, struggling with the urge to throw her arms around his neck and bring his lips to her for a kiss. But with the possibility of eyes watching them, she knew they had to exercise restraint.
“I can hardly sleep,” she whispered, “Particularly when my husband-to-be is away.” Warmth filled her as she softly said, “I have missed you, Simon.”
His hand sought hers. For a long moment, he held it in both his own.
“I long for the moment when I will bid you sound sleep as I hold you to my heart.”
Shivers ran all through her body when he pressed his lips to her palm. She could feel the warmth of his breath against her skin, and her senses reeled from the sensation. He whispered words infused with longing.
“Good night, my darling.”
Slowly, he released her hand, his fingers lingering on her skin for a long moment. It was possibly the most difficult thing she’d ever had to do, but she whispered good night and slowly closed the door.
As she drifted back to bed, she knew she would find little rest between now and sunrise. Tomorrow, Simon would be hers and she would be his, and the moment could not come soon enough.