The rouncey moved swiftly along. Aided by the smooth gait of the horse and the quiet darkness around them, Rene relaxed. For a time, he lost himself in thought.
In his head, he had counted the number of days that had passed, estimating it to be three or four. It was difficult to be certain, there having been no window in his cell to mark the rising or setting of the sun. The ride to Avignon had taken nearly a day, and after that, he had marked the passing of days by the routine of bread and water given to him twice a day.
He shook his head, wondering why he was even giving thought to his brief time spent in prison. He knew he needed to plot his next move. He had survived on his own all these years. Even in lean times, when he had been without work, he had relied on female companions to aid him. But now, being a Baron with a known name, he would not have the safety of anonymity...of being a nameless wretch who could appear and disappear at will. He had but one choice.
Louis would aid him.
His brother could help him make his way to some distant place. Perhaps he could go to Spain, or Rome. He still held a title, and he was not known in those lands. Even with only a modest sum of money, he could make a new life for himself.
But what would become of Marie?
He had always had a fondness for women. But this one certainly stood apart from the others. Despite having known her only for a few hours, he felt a need to know something of her and her plans for her own welfare. She had aided him, and he knew he needed to return the favor in some way.
“Marie?” he asked.
She sighed. “Yes?” she said, her voice sounding weary.
“When we part company, where will you go?”
Again, she sighed. “I do not know. But you need not be concerned with it. I will manage.”
Those words seemed to say a lot. She was a survivor, much like himself. She had a story, and it was probably an interesting one. Curious, he urged her to speak.
“Tell me, Marie. How long have you managed?”
“Since I was thirteen years old,” she replied, in a matter-of-fact way. And then, in a tone that seemed a bit too casual for his liking, she said, “My father sold me to pay his gambling debts.”
The revelation was shocking. What kind of man would sell his own daughter? It was a revolting thought. And yet, the way Marie spoke, it seemed she was not deeply affected by the crime. He thought to himself...
Perhaps she is making up a tale.
“Surely you jest,” he replied.
Her reply was firm. “I do not.”
So it was true. He had heard many tales from many women. They had confessed to him the cruel circumstances of their lives, but this was truly one of the harshest tales he had heard. As he had with those other women, he offered her his comfort and understanding, speaking gently in the hopes that she would confide in him.
“It must have been a horrific experience.”
He fully expected her to lament. But she surprised him when she scoffed.
“My father was a drunkard. I was glad to be shed of him. His debtor was a jovial fellow, and he treated me well. Unfortunately, he was also a notorious gambler. I was working in the castle to help ease his debt.”
“And where is he now?”
She shrugged. “I am not certain. I have not seen him for many days.”
“Do you fear something has happened to him?”
Her reply was a blasé one. “I am not his keeper. He has provided for me, but I have no claim on him. He is not my husband, and we owe each other no loyalty.”
“But what if he should return and find you missing? Does that not trouble you?”
“Why should it? He has many female companions. One less will not do him harm.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but could find no words. For a few moments there was silence between them. After a time, it was she who posed a question.
“Where will you go?”
His answer was quick. “I will go to my brother. He will aid me.” He had no doubt that with Louis’ help, all would turn out well. Perhaps for the both of them.
“Perhaps he will aid you as well,” he said to her. It was his hope that she would welcome his thoughtful gesture. Instead, he was stung by her rejection.
“I do not ask for your help. I am no damsel in search of a knight.”
Lord, she was a tenacious creature. Clearly, the usual acts of kindness would not sway her. Perhaps it was better to think in a different way...from one survivor to another.
“You are right. You are no damsel,” he replied. “But neither are you a fool. You are intelligent, and so I think you should take advantage of a situation that presents itself.”
There was a long moment, in which he assumed she was thinking over his suggestion.
“There is sense in that,” she at last replied.
He smiled, feeling quite pleased with himself. “Of course there is sense in it.” He felt no need to hide his smugness. And Marie’s sharp reply came as no shock.
“Do not boast, horse thief. Now please, cease your chatter until our journey ends. I am quite tired, and I need to sleep.”
As he felt the pressure of her weight leaning against his back, his smile deepened. He hardly knew this woman. And yet, he felt like he had known her all of his life. Was it really possible to have so instant a connection with someone? It seemed impossible. But it could not be denied.
Was Evelyn his destiny...or was it someone else?
Rene brought the rouncey to a stop in front of the stables. He looked across the way at the house, thinking what a welcome sight it was. Sighing deeply, relieved that he had made it home, he turned his head slightly. He spoke in a hushed tone.
“Marie,” he said. “We have arrived.”
He felt her stir. After a moment, she mumbled in a sleepy voice.
“Thank heavens.” Sliding from the horse, she stood stretching her limbs as Rene dismounted. He examined her as she stood looking up at the house.
“Impressed?” he asked, as he released the horse into a fenced pasture. “I suspect you thought me to be of humble origin.”
“Avignon Castle is much grander in scale.”
He shook his head, unable to contain his amusement. “Mademoiselle Marie, you are a cheeky wench.” He took her by the arm, carefully leading her up the gravel drive. As they neared the manor, her voice took on a concerned tone.
“Are you certain your brother will allow me here?”
Rene nodded. “I have no doubt about his hospitality.”
“He takes in criminals and runaways on a frequent basis, does he?”
“Hardly that,” he replied with a grin. “But he is my brother. He is a generous soul, and he will not turn us out.”
At the door, the night watchman came to stand before them. He pointed a spear at them, ordering them to identify themselves. When Rene spoke, the guard knew him instantly, and he fell to one knee.
“My lord,” he said. “I did not realize it was you.” He bowed his head for a moment, and then he looked up again. “How did you come to be free?”
Rene bid him to stand. “It is a long story, Gerard. I must see my brother.”
Gerard nodded. “Of course, my lord.” He opened the front door, allowing Rene and Marie to pass. As they crossed the threshold, they were greeted by a footman, who was quicker to recognize his master than the night watchman. As the servant hurried off to fetch Louis, Marie turned to Rene.
“So, you are a nobleman. Should I address you as such?”
“Rene will suffice.”
“I am not certain I am comfortable with first names. Particularly with a man I hardly know.”
“Call me Baron, then. As opposed to horse thief?”
She smiled. “Very well then...Baron.”
He returned her lovely smile. He was about to speak when Louis appeared on the stairs. His brother stood there staring, clearly shocked. As Louis slowly came down the stairs, he looked from Rene to Marie, and back again.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Rene shook his head. “I could not sit in that hellish hole. I freed myself...with the aid of my companion.” He looked to the woman at his side. “This is Marie.”
Louis looked her over, and politely, he bowed to her. “My lady,” he said. And then his eyes quickly shifted back to Rene.
“I must talk to you immediately,” he said. But Rene held up his hand.
“Soon, brother. Soon. But first I must be shed of these clothes, and my belly demands food.”
Louis replied impatiently. “It cannot wait. We will talk while you bathe and eat.”
“If you insist,” Rene replied. “But please, see that Marie is cared for.”
Louis nodded. He called for the footman, who led Marie away. And then he took Rene by the shoulder, leading him up the stairs.
“Have you gone mad?” Louis demanded, as they entered his chamber. Rene blinked, stunned and confused by his brother’s angry tone of voice.
“Not that I am aware of,” he replied. But Louis was not amused.
“I told you I would take care of your situation. I was preparing to strike a bargain with a friend who would aid me in securing your freedom. Now you have destroyed everything.”
“You expected me to sit in that place? I think it is you who has gone mad.”
Louis’ eyes were dark with anger. “Are you so blind? Do you not see that by coming here, you endanger my household? Possibly even my life? If you are discovered here they will imprison us both.”
Rene understood his brother’s anger, and he did not blame him for it. But he had no alternative, and he pleaded earnestly. “I will be gone tomorrow, brother. But I ask you. House me for one night.”
Many long moments passed between them, and Rene wondered if he had misjudged his brother. But then Louis’ expression softened slightly, though it remained stern.
“I will let you stay. But at first light, you will leave. I will think of a place to send you, but you must go without an argument. Is that understood?”
Rene nodded. As he peeled off his stench-ridden shirt, a group of servants came in. One came with a tray of fruit, while two others rolled in a wooden tub, and two more brought buckets of water. As they warmed the water by the fire, Rene hungrily bit into an apple, while Louis quizzed him.
“Who is the woman?”
Rene smiled. “She is an opportunist, brother. A clever, sharp-tongued little witch. She led me out of the castle...only to demand that I bring her with me on my escape.”
Louis gave him a shocked look. His eyes grew wide with disbelief.
“So you were duped? And now you are saddled with a bit of female baggage? Good God, man. Why do you not think with the correct head? It is your stupidity with women that brought you this trouble to begin with.”
Ignoring the comment, Rene stripped off the rest of his clothes and sank into the bathwater. As he started to scrub himself clean, he commented on Louis’ remarks.
“She is no Evelyn, I assure you. She is a saucy wench...too saucy to make a proper wife. But she would make a delightful mistress, if I was so inclined.”
“And you are not?”
Rene shook his head. “I will not lie. The idea of her company is tempting. But if what she has told me is true, she had been ill-used by men in the past. I could not, in good conscience, treat her in the same manner.”
Louis gave a loud snort. “If you have found your conscience, you must be under the spell of a witch.”
With a chuckle, Rene finished his bath and stood, taking a towel from the servant. As he dried himself and put on a loose shirt and breeches, he looked over at Louis.
“What room is she in? I will speak to her before I sleep.”
Louis rolled his eyes. “She is in the chamber at the end of the hall. Do what you will with her. I am going back to bed.” He turned to go, but Rene called to him.
“Will you keep her here? Take her on as a maid, or give her some other task? I owe her an occupation, if nothing else.”
The reply was a grumble, and a dismissive wave of the hand. But Rene smiled as he watched Louis depart, knowing that his brother would do what was right. In the morning, all would be settled. When all was said and done, he and Marie would go their separate ways. He could not guarantee that she would accept whatever role Louis offered. And he could not force her into a new servitude. But at least, for tonight, he could be sure she was settled and content.
At her door, he gave a light tap. “Marie, it is I. Are you awake?”
From within the chamber, he heard her soft reply. “Yes. Come in.”
He slowly pushed open the door. At first he did not see her, but he heard a sloshing noise coming from within, and thinking nothing of it, he stepped further into the room. “I wished to know if...”
He paused in shock as he saw, from behind a screen, her nude silhouette. She was stepping out of a bathtub, and though she was behind a screen, there was no disguising her feminine attributes. When she stepped out from behind the screen, she was wrapped in nothing more than a towel, and he turned away quickly.
“Good God,” he uttered. He had seen women in much less, but with her, it seemed somehow wrong to look. But she only laughed at his shyness.
“Come, come, Baron. Do not play innocent. My body is surely not the first one you have ever seen.”
He stammered for words. “Of course not,” he replied. “But...”
“But what? I am no blushing maiden, and you are no innocent schoolboy. Let us not play a charade.”
From the corner of his eye, he dared to take a peek, and saw that she had slipped into a linen shirt. It came just above her knees, revealing her long and shapely legs. He felt a lump of heated tension rise in his throat.
“What is it that brings you to my door?” she asked, as she toweled her hair dry. Then she added, with a sly little look. “Should I guess at your reason?”
What a naughty-minded little minx she was. But he reminded himself that this was her way. It was doubtful that she knew how to behave as a lady should...and as tempting as her innuendo was, he would not take advantage of it.
“I merely wished to inquire about your welfare,” he said. “Are you comfortable?”
She ran her fingers through her hair. “Quite.” She reached for a pear from the bowl on the bedside table. As he watched her sink her teeth into the flesh of the fruit, he felt a strong surge of lust. It was wrong to feel such things for her, but a long time habit was difficult to break. He knew his thread of decency was a thin one, but he managed to hold on to it.
“If you are content, then I shall leave you.”
He took a few steps away...but the sultry sound of her voice made him pause.
“Is that truly what you wish to do?”
Lord, he wished he could give in to temptation. But not here. Not now. And not with her. He forced himself to move to the door. He bid her farewell as he left.
“Sleep well, Marie.”
He heard her soft reply. “Good night, Baron.”