As he slowly came awake, Simon felt the warmth of Evelyn’s soft body against his own. Her back was against him, and he could tell from her gentle breathing that she was asleep. He could not help smiling at the thought of it. After the afternoon they had spent together, it was no wonder she slept so soundly.
In the past, he had thought he would be satisfied with a prim, docile woman for a wife. But now that Evelyn was his, he could not imagine having someone else. She was all that was required, in terms of knowing how to be a proper lady, and yet she was so wonderfully different. It was not in her nature to disguise her feelings, and she had proven that many times over since he had first met her...this day, more than any other.
He strengthened his hold around her waist, drawing her closer against himself, and his body reacted instantly to the intense pleasure the contact brought. He was sorely tempted to coax her from her slumber, using his fingers to stroke her smooth, soft skin and letting his lips follow every place that he touched. With growing excitement he thought of how her hands had quested over his body with such eagerness, rousing his passions to a fever pitch. He loved the sound of her name on his lips, whispered over and over again. She was the sweetest of temptations.
And because of that, he knew he had to go.
There was important business to tend to, and he had to see to it immediately. If he stayed, there was a chance she would wake up, and if she did, he knew he would be tempted to lose himself in her charms all over again. With a sigh of resignation, he removed himself from her warm curves. As he dressed, he reminded himself that they could continue with these sensual delights later. The notion cheered him somewhat, as he thought of the way that anticipation often added spice to an occasion. As he left her sleeping peacefully, he ordered a maid to bring Evelyn food and anything else she needed. Then he left the room, heading off in search of his father.
He found his father in the hall, taking supper. Being quite famished after such an active day, Simon was quick to join him. As he washed his hands with the cleansing bowl, his father spoke calmly to him.
“You appear at last. Did I not state that I wished to finish our conversation as soon as possible?”
After drying his hands in a towel, Simon took his seat and replied matter-of-factly.
“Evelyn was in need of me. She is my primary concern now, and she will come before all other matters. But I am here now, so speak as you wish.” As he hungrily tore into a hunk of roasted pheasant, Basil came directly to the point.
“I told you the contents of the message. Rene Jean-Bastien has escaped. We must act immediately.”
Simon sighed as he sipped his wine. At first, he had been furious to learn of the news. But his anger had been strangely brief, for it seemed that no amount of fury, however spent, would bring an end to the problem. There was but one way.
“We will find him,” he stated. “And this time, I will have him executed on the spot. I grow tired of hearing of him.”
He vowed he would personally supervise the execution, just to be certain there were no tricks. And he was certain that his father would be in agreement. But Basil’s words were shocking.
“I think perhaps he should be kept alive.”
Simon held his cup aloft, suspended by surprise. He started at his father in utter bewilderment.
“For what purpose?” he demanded to know. “To be incarcerated again, only so he might perform some criminal magic that allows his escape? I wish to be done with him, once and for all.”
Now it was Basil who sighed. “Do you truly believe you can be done with him? He has proven, time and again, that he cannot be contained. One might wonder if even death can hold such a man.”
“It would satisfy me to find out,” Simon snapped. Angrily, he used his knife to stab a bit of venison, imagining it to be Rene. Good God, how he despised that man.
Basil stated, “I think perhaps I might have a better use for him.”
Simon looked up. “And what is that?” He was not for certain he wished to hear the answer, which his father gave in much too calm a fashion.
“I will find him, detain him, and put him to work.”
Simon stared at his father, watching as Basil casually drank from his cup and enjoyed his food. He intended no disrespect, but he could not help wondering if the man had lost his senses. Simon’s voice was low but fierce.
“Have you run mad?”
Basil shook his head. “No, I have not. In fact, I am at this moment admiring myself for my cleverness.” There was a tiny smile forming on his lips, but Simon could not find the amusement in any of this. His voice rose with his temper.
“You think it clever to invite a vagabond and known criminal into our household?”
Basil replied with a shrug. “He has proven to be a man of daring deeds and quick mind, much like a fox who cannot be caught by the best of hounds. I will use such ability to my advantage.”
“How do you propose to do that?”
“I will train him as a soldier.”
Simon wanted to laugh at the ludicrous proposition.
“And you believe he will accept such a fate? You do not believe he will find a way to flee and return to his life of crime?”
“If he attempts it,” said Basil, “Then we will follow your line of thinking and have him executed. It will merely be a loss of time, and nothing more.”
Disgusted by the whole conversation, Simon pushed his trencher and cup aside.
“Forgive me, father, but I cannot agree with your plan.”
His father replied in a haughty tone. “It is not a matter for you to accept or refuse, my son. It is my experiment and I shall accept the consequences of it.”
“But I must endure his presence if you allow him here! You will force me to live in the presence of a man I despise?”
Basil returned with a commanding reply. “Better to have him here, where he can be guarded, than to have wandering about with the ability to surface at any moment.”
Simon pushed back from the table. “It is a mistake, father. And I cannot be held responsible for my actions if you allow him here.”
He rose from the table, infuriated. Never in his life had he been so angered by his father’s actions. They had occasionally disagreed on matters, but this felt like a betrayal, and he could not stand to remain in that room with him for one more moment.
As he entered the room, he saw Evelyn seated at a small table. She was all dignity and properness, sitting with her back straight and a dignified expression on her face as she ate her meal. When she looked up, seeing him, she brightened instantly.
“There you are,” she said. Rising to her feet, she came to his side. “I was wondering where you had gone to.” Reaching up to touch his face, she pulled him down to place a soft kiss on his lips. Her sweet affection soothed him, but only for a moment. When she pulled back, her smile began to fade as she saw the look in his eyes.
“Simon, what is it?”
He took her hands in his own. He tried his best to remain calm, even as his frustration threatened to overwhelm him.
“Evelyn, there is something I must tell you. It is not pleasant, and it will perhaps anger you, but you must know of it.”
Her blue eyes widened slightly, but she looked at him with complete trust and love.
“Very well,” she replied. “I will listen.”
He kissed her fingers, grateful for her calmness. Taking her hand, he led her to the bed, where he made her sit. As he took to walking back and forth in front of her, he tried to think of a way to simplify the facts. But the matter of Rene was so very complicated. When he arrived, he would bring with him a sort of history that could be quite damaging. Simon knew that the only way to avoid disaster was to tell the truth. All of the truth. Looking at her, he saw how her eyes were set on him, waiting for him to speak. He took a deep breath, and began.
“My father has made a decision on a certain matter. A matter which involves many things, but particularly, you and I.” For a moment he hesitated, hating the mere mention of a certain name. But it had to be said. “It is about Rene.”
He saw the way Evelyn’s mouth opened slightly in surprise. But she said nothing, allowing him to speak.
“He is...” He stopped himself from bringing up the immediate concern. There was so much of the story to tell. He sighed, speaking low...more to himself than to her...with his eyes cast away. “Before I talk of the present, I must talk of the past.” After a moment he returned his gaze to her, though it occasionally drifted as he moved to and fro.
“On the night of our betrothal, I observed you and Rene. It was clear to me that there was feeling between the both of you. Your feelings, I could see, were quite innocent. But his feelings...” A surge of anger rose up within him, momentarily stealing his speech. He willed it down, forcing himself to continue. “I took great offense to his blatant admiration of you. And later that night, I saw his mistake corrected.”
He saw the stunned look that came to her face. In a low, quiet voice she asked, “What passed between the two of you, Simon?”
His reply deflected her question. “The details are not important,” he said. He felt her eyes examining him, and he bristled at the question that followed.
“Was it your actions that caused him to leave so suddenly?”
He shook his head. “I cannot be certain of that.” That, he knew, was not the truth. But he went on before she could inquire further.
“After he departed, and even after he left Isabella in the care of your family, I was happy to forget him. And I was successful in extracting him from my thoughts...until I learned of his letters to you.” He paused as he came to the matter that could be a point of contention between them.
“I had him arrested, Evelyn. It was my intention that he would remain locked away for the rest of his days.”
He waited, thinking she would perhaps become angry, not just for his concealment of the information, but because of his malicious intent towards someone she had once cared for. She surprised him when she calmly rose to her feet, and with her hands clasped together, she walked a small distance away, as if she needed to contemplate what he had told her.
“Why do you reveal these things to me?” she asked. “When you learned of his letters, I swore that they meant nothing to me. And you swore to forget them. Why do you make confessions that are best left unspoken?”
“I want no secrets between us, Evelyn. Especially when I know that Rene...” He paused again. She turned to him, an anxious look in her eyes.
“Rene, what? Tell me.”
He sighed, feeling his anger rising again. “My father is bringing him here. He is bringing Rene here, and I can do nothing to stop it.”
“Why does he bring him here?” she asked, taking a returning step towards him. “For what purpose?”
He took to pacing again, too agitated to remain still.
“I do not pretend to understand his reasoning. He has come to the conclusion that Rene is somehow capable of redemption. That his gift for survival somehow earns him clemency after a lifetime of wickedness.”
He waited for her to say she agreed with him. But when she said nothing, he turned to look at her. She had turned her head away. She seemed to be lost in thought, and a feeling of dread came over him.
“You are in agreement with my father?” he asked. “You believe that Rene is capable of change?”
Looking at him, she answered in a quiet and tender voice. “I believe in God’s law...that no man is beyond redemption. But...”
For a moment he became furious, incensed by the thought that she might disagree with him...and blinded with anger at the thought that she might feel sympathy for a man he detested. He took an angry step towards her.
“But what, Evelyn? Do you still harbor affection for him? Tell me the truth.”
Her eyes widened in shock at his accusation. “I have told you the truth!” she insisted. “Must I tell you again that I have no great feelings for him?” When he did not reply, her voice filled with determination. “Very well then!” she declared. “I will say it once more! Rene Jean-Bastien is nothing to me. You are my husband, and the only man who has my heart.”
“Why then do you sympathize with him? Why do you not accept him for the deviant that he is?”
“Simon, you must understand...”
“I understand that you are too calm about his coming here, and it causes me to wonder if there is more to your feelings than you care to admit!”
In an instant, he regretted the charges he was hurling at her. The pained look in her eyes, the absolute shock...as if he had physically struck her. And worst of all, her eyes shined with tears. He hated himself at that moment, and when she turned away from him, he was taken aback by the animosity in her voice and in her movements.
“I will not hear more of this.” In a furious stride she made her way towards the door. He followed quickly, concerned of her intent.
“Where are you going?” he demanded, and her answer struck him cold with fear. She reached for the door latch, intent on leaving.
“Guillemot is a large house. I am not yet familiar with it, but I am certain I will find elsewhere to sleep.”
He pushed his hand against the door to prevent her from opening it. He was stunned that she would take such an action against him, and he was not about to let it happen.
“Do not go,” he pleaded.
She moved away from him, refusing to look at him. Her voice was both pained and furious.
“I will not share a room with a man who wrongly thinks me deceitful.”
They were treading ground that he was not altogether comfortable with. Sentiment and soft words were difficult to express, but he knew he had to try. “I do not think you deceitful,” he said.
Her voice rose. “If that is true, then why do you speak to me with such suspicion?”
“Because my jealousy has spoken for me!”
The sudden outburst took them both by surprise. He had not meant to shout, but it came from somewhere within himself, and could not be contained. As he looked at her, he saw the anger drain from her face, replaced by a look of bewilderment. But on his own face, he felt a rising flood of shame. He could not look at her now, having admitted such a weakness as jealousy. Moving across the room, he pulled out a chair and sank into it. Without turning to her, he muttered...
“Go, if you must. I will not force you to endure the company of a man so small.”
He waited to hear the opening and closing of the door behind him. But there was only silence for several moments after. Nervous curiosity gripped him. He wanted so badly for her to stay. And yet, he could not blame her if she chose to leave. Tension built within him as he waited for her decision. He thought he heard her drawing near, but he feared to look. Then, he heard her soft voice close behind him. It had lost its edge, becoming once again the sweet and tender voice he knew and loved so well.
“I do not think it small of you to admit such feelings.”
Only from her lips could such words touch his heart. She accepted him, even in this state of unmanly vulnerability. He had given her the chance to flee, to seek a hidden place and pour her heart out over his unkindness. And perhaps, for a few moments, she had considered it. But she had returned to him now. And in her words, she proved her incredible dignity and grace.
“You are my husband, Simon. No matter who may come into our lives, no matter what may happen, my heart is yours...and only yours. It will never beat for another.”
He felt her hand upon his shoulder, and then her slight weigh as she leaned on him. Without a moment more of hesitation, he reached up to clasp her hand in a firm but gentle grip.
“Forgive me, my darling.” He kissed her soft, slender fingers, placing his palm against his cheek. Her arms wound around his neck, and she placed her cheek against his. She spoke softly to him.
“You need never doubt that I love you, husband.”
He sighed, now a sound of contentment...his anger and jealousy vanquished by her tender affections and words. “I do not doubt it,” he replied. And then his voice took on a teasing note. “But I certainly would not object to hearing it said, quite often, so I do not forget.”
Her sweet sound of amusement warmed his heart and stirred his senses.
“Then I shall say it frequently,” she declared, “Simply to remind you.”
The afternoon was warm and sunny. Rene looked up at the smiling sky, visible through an opening in the trees surrounding him, and he had to smile along with it. He sat on the bank of a creek, fishing pole in hand. The creek ran through shady woodland, not far from the small abode where he now sought refuge.
How fortunate am I? He said to himself. And then he answered himself instantly. Very fortunate.
The dwelling was a place he knew well. It was a one room house made of stone, built for him and his brothers as a sort of gaming lodge for children. They had sometimes camped there overnight, and it’s location beside the creek made it a delightful retreat from the world. Best of all, in their youthful opinions, had been its long distance from the main house. It was several miles away, and far off the main path. Sitting there now, Rene found amusement in the idea that it now served as a genuine hiding place.
Louis was making arrangements to set him up in a better place, much farther away, but for now, this was his sanctuary. And to be truthful, he rather liked it. He had the basics of living, and Louis was within riding distance if he cared to visit. He didn’t expect to be here for long, but for the moment, he was content to spend his time relaxing.
It had been several days since his arrival, and as expected, a party of lawmen had come just yesterday to question Louis. They had done a search of the entire estate, inside and out, and they had questioned all of the residents. To say the least, it had been a tense day, as they had stayed from early morning until night. But this morning they had moved on in their search. Rene had remained hidden, even after Louis had sent a servant to bring the news of the party’s departure.
He turned his head at the sound of an approach. Looking up, he saw the page again, and nodded when the boy bowed to him.
“My lord,” said the page. “The Comte wishes you to come to the house.”
So soon? Rene asked himself. He had thought it would take longer to be summoned, but he told himself not to dwell on small details. He was a smart man, and he knew that the wisest thing he could do would be to count his blessings.
As he entered the house, moving towards the stairs that would lead him to Louis’ quarters, he caught sight of Marie. She was busy working with the housekeeper, polishing furniture, and she did not see him. He smiled at the sight of her. She seemed happy enough with her new servitude. He had not seen much of her over the last few days, as she had been busy with her chores, but he thought of her quite often. He liked her, bold little thing that she was. It was a pity that they could not know one another better. Perhaps in another time, and another place, they might have meant something to each other.
He shook his head to lose his wistful thoughts. What good would it do to form such an attachment? She would go her way in the world, and he would go his. It was best not to dwell on it.
Opening the door to his brother’s room, his eye first caught sight of Louis. But as the door was fully opened, and he stepped inside, he saw that his brother was not alone. Shock came over him as he saw before him a familiar figure. Basil Jean-Carre, Duke of Laroque, was standing there, looking at him. Going on instinct, Rene attempted to flee...but was stopped by his brother’s hand. He fought the hold, but Louis had always been stronger. Holding Rene by the collar, Louis spoke words of calm.
“Settle down, brother. There is no danger.”
Rene became wild-eyed. “No danger?” he cried, pointing at Basil. “This is the very same man who saw to my imprisonment, and you tell me to settle down?”
“He comes to make a proposition.”
Rene battled his brother’s hand, and finally Louis relaxed his grip. Rene took a cautious step towards the door, prepared to run if he thought it necessary. “What is this?” he demanded. He looked from one man to another. “Have I been made a pawn in some deception?”
Looking at Louis, he felt a terrible pang of betrayal and anger. “Have you deceived me, brother?”
Louis shook his head, but it was Basil who answered. He stood with his arms folded, examining Rene with an inquisitive look.
“Your brother has not deceived you, boy. He has protected you, as would anyone loyal to their blood. It is doubtful, however, that he can forever guarantee your safety. But I might.”
A moment of silence passed. Basil took a step towards Rene, who took a step back. Basil spoke in a calm, even tone.
“I am a fighting man by profession. My soldiers are among the best in the king’s army, and I am forever in search of new prospects.”
He suspected the Duke’s intention. Still, he could not be certain without asking. “Am I to believe that you see, in me, such a prospect?”
“I see a man of intelligence and cunning,” said Basil. “A soldier is required to have more than brawn. He must have an excellent mind as well...a gift of tactics and quick thinking. I see such promise in you.”
Rene scoffed. Nothing was so simple...certainly not in his experience. People always had ulterior motives, especially when they held such high position as Basil of Laroque. Rene eyed him suspiciously.
“You would have me believe that the same man who condemned me to prison would now offer to be my savior?” He snorted in contempt and disbelief. “You play at some game, my lord.”
In reply, Basil shook his head. “I assure you, I do not. But if you require proof of my honesty, allow a few days to pass while you consider the matter. I will reside here, partaking of your brother’s hospitality, and you shall find that no lawmen or soldiers will descend upon you while I await your decision. If, however, you make the choice to refuse my offer, your fate will be quickly decided...and I can assure you, it will not be a pleasant end.”
Resentment filled Rene’s tone. “So then, I am to choose my fate? By imprisonment, with the possibility of execution...or as a soldier, to die on a field of war?” He was a moment away from cursing the Duke. But Basil remained calm, confident in his power.
“I leave the decision to you, baron. I would make certain to give it ample thought.”
Without further comment, he left the room, followed by his manservant. After he had gone, Rene turned on Louis, giving him an angry shove.
“Traitor! You lured me into a trap!”
Almost before the words were out of his mouth, a punch to the jaw knocked him to the floor. Louis stood in fury over him.
“Ungrateful lout! You are fortunate he did not take you off immediately! And how dare you accuse me of treachery, when you come to my home and put my entire existence in jeopardy!”
Rene held his mouth, making the attempt to stand up as Louis continued to rage at him.
“He came here, searching for you. If I had not allowed him to discover you, he would have hunted you down like a dog. What certainty do you have that your luck would continue? And what certainty do you have that your reckless, deviant behavior would not come back to destroy me, as well as yourself? Think on that, you worthless, self-centered fool!”
Shocked, Rene watched Louis leave, and he jumped at the sound of the door slamming in anger.