Evelyn held Simon’s arm as they stood in the front courtyard, waiting for Basil’s caravan to arrive. She knew, without looking at him, that he was holding on to every ounce of discipline he possessed, fighting the urge to storm away in defiance.
They had been married for a week, and the days had been spent in such happiness. Now, they were set to face the first great challenge of their union. As the carriage slowly approached, Evelyn held tighter to her husband. Whatever happened, she was certain they would endure and grow stronger. She refused to think otherwise.
The carriage door opened. A footman brought a stool, and a moment later, Basil emerged. The assembled members of the household bowed, including Evelyn and Simon. Then they turned their eyes to the carriage door.
Evelyn felt a strange discomfort come over her as Rene stepped out, and she felt Simon grow tense. As he came forward, there was only silence for what seemed like a long span of time. The two men started at one another, until Simon broke the silence. His words were cold.
“Do not be so foolish to think that you are welcome here.”
Rene said nothing. He stood in silence, returning Simon’s vicious stare. Simon turned his eyes to the young woman who came from the carriage. He looked her over, his glance full of suspicion.
“Who are you?”
It was Basil who answered. “I have brought her to you as a servant.”
Simon snorted. “We have an adequate number of servants. We have no need for another.”
In response to Simon’s petulant behavior, Basil became stern. He looked him in the eye, challenging him. “Your lady is in need of a maid. I have found her one. Will you argue the matter with me?”
Simon slowly shook his head, acquiescing. “No, father.”
“Very well, then. Let us prepare for supper.”
As Basil went in, Rene and Simon exchanged sharp looks. For a moment, Evelyn feared they would come to blows, as meanly as they were looking at one another. But Simon turned away, leaving the scene entirely before any punches were thrown. She met Rene’s eyes, and they shared a long, lingering stare. But she refused to be taken in by him, as she had before. She turned to a page who stood close by.
“See him to the barracks,” she said.
As they went, Evelyn looked at the young lady. She was a pretty young woman, and strangely, it seemed she was not troubled by the angry commotion. Seeing no reason to treat her unkindly, Evelyn gave her a polite smile. She would speak to her soon, but at that moment, she needed to be with Simon. She turned to the housekeeper.
“Marguerite, please show the lady what she needs to know. I will be up shortly.”
As she turned into the house, she had a sudden sense of what her mother must have felt, being pulled in several directions. But she told herself that if her mother could do it, then so should she. And she went in search of her husband.
Simon was nowhere to be found. After making inquiries, she discovered that he had ridden out on his horse. She sighed, recalling how her father had often done the same thing. Now forced to alter her plans, she went in search of her new maid. To be truthful, she was glad that Basil had brought someone for the position. She deeply missed Violette, who had been on her very best friends, and her confidante. And this new young lady looked to be about her own age. It was her hope that they would grow close, and perhaps fill the void that had been left in her life. Simon was her great love, of course. But she longed for a friend. Perhaps she had now found one.
In the master chamber, she found them. Margurite was showing her around, and Evelyn quietly approached them. When they saw her, they curtseyed politely.
“Marguerite,” she said, “Please leave us.”
The housekeeper nodded. “Yes, my lady.”
As she left, Evelyn turned to the young woman, who stood with her hands clasped in front of her. Her gaze was direct. There was no fear in her stance, and Evelyn found that she liked that. It was not her desire to intimidate anyone, and it pleased her to know that they would begin on a comfortable footing. She smiled, speaking in a friendly manner.
“My name is Evelyn,” she said. “What is yours?”
The lady’s voice was soft, but self-assured. “I am Marie.”
“Have you any belongings?”
Marie shook her head. “All that I possess is what I wear, my lady.”
Evelyn looked her over, seeing the simple brown dress she wore. To be sure, the quality of a person’s clothing was a superficial thing. It did not determine their true worth, as her mother had always reminded her. But for the sake of propriety, her new maid would have to be distinguished from the rest of the servants.
“I shall have a seamstress brought in,” she said. “She will create several garments for you.”
Marie replied with a pleasant little smile. “You are most kind, my lady. Rene said you were a generous soul.”
The smile faded from Evelyn’s face. It suddenly dawned on her that her new maid might be a victim of Rene’s treachery, or perhaps she was under his spell. Was that the reason for her coming here?
“Marie, what is the nature of your relationship with the baron?”
Marie hesitated, but only for a moment. “Marquess, am I permitted to speak frankly?”
Evelyn felt a tremor of fear pass through her body, wondering what horrible thing she would hear. But she nodded.
“Please, do speak.”
“The baron and I are acquaintances,” Marie replied. “We have spent time together. But you have my word that our relationship will not interfere with my duties.”
Evelyn was pleased that Marie sought to be a loyal servant. But her memories of Rene, and the trouble he had brought to so many, remained fresh in her mind. She feared now for the heart of another young woman.
“Marie, I am aware that we are strangers. And I know not what Rene has revealed to you of his past. But I feel that I must warn you of his nature...”
Before she could go on, Marie spoke in a quiet, firm tone. There was no hint of shyness in her words.
“I am quite familiar with him, my lady. But please, do not be concerned. I am capable of guarding my heart. I am not swayed by him, nor will I be.”
Evelyn smiled, pleased by Marie’s spirit. She was fond of her already.
“I am relieved to hear it,” she said. Taking her by the arm, she led her to a table in the solar. “Tell me something of your history,” she said, and as they sat, she offered her new companion a goblet of wine. “I wish to know the lady who will be in my service. And if you will share your story with me, I will share mine with you.”
Marie smiled sweetly. “I would be pleased, my lady...”
During supper, and even during evening prayer, Simon hardly spoke a word. She understood his displeasure, being forced to reside in the same house as his enemy. And she knew that it must have been very difficult for him to be pressed under his father’s thumb, although Basil was by no means a tyrant. Simon had his reasons for being unhappy, but she wished he would speak to her. It was not until much later, when they were preparing for bed, that she at last gave voice to her concerns.
“Do you intend to be cross from this day on?” she asked, as Marie helped her remove her garments. Simon sat in a chair before the fire, looking morose. He grumbled his reply.
“With him under my roof, I might very well be.”
She sighed. “Only think of him when you must. Once you have left the training field, put him out of your mind.”
“That is easier said than done,” he answered.
She let him brood while she finished undressing. After she had slipped into her nightdress, she sent Marie away with instructions to have a bath prepared for Simon. At first he made a fuss, declaring that he was not in the mood for it. But she would not take no for an answer. Coming up behind his chair, she placed her hands on his shoulders.
“It will ease your body and mind,” she insisted. “As your wife, I must insist.”
He looked back at her, wearing a hint of a smile. “You would give me orders?”
Running her fingers through his thick hair, she smiled back at him.
“When it comes to what is best for my husband, then yes. I will give orders.” She leaned down, kissing him sweetly on the lips. And he responded softly.
“Then I will obey...”
As he sat in the tub, she massaged his back and shoulders. She could tell by his occasional sighs that he was pleased. But she could not resist teasing him.
“Is your mood improved?”
He replied warmly. “Very much so. Did you know that I once imagined you doing this?”
She dunked the washcloth in the water, and taking it in hand, she wrung the water over his shoulders. She smiled. “Is that so?”
“Yes, it is so,” he replied. “But I never thought I would find this much pleasure in it.”
“Time changes all things, so it is said. What we once might have turned away from, we learn to embrace.”
“That is indeed true.” He took her hand, kissing her palm. “I have just thought of something. Something I never imagined I would do.”
He was up to something. She could tell by the sound of his voice, and it made her smile. “Pray, tell me.”
He answered, “This.” And he yanked her down into the tub. She gave a shriek as she landed on her bottom, and then she laughed.
“Fiend!” she cried, splashing water at him. “You have ruined my night dress!”
With a wicked chuckle, he gathered her against himself. “I will buy you another. Although I must say...” He looked down at her thin garment, which now clung to her in damp fashion. He wagged his eyebrows at her.
“I prefer you in nothing at all.”
He kissed her, long and deep. And she whispered against his warm mouth. “You are shameful.”
“You have made me what I am,” he replied, his hands and lips softly exploring her. “The blame is yours. Entirely yours.”
A week passed. They were days that, at first, were filled with tension. Evelyn waited for the inevitable confrontation between Simon and Rene. She was grateful that Basil was keeping Rene occupied in the field, putting him through a rigorous training regimen. Evelyn was surprised to hear only good reports from Basil, although Simon refused to believe it. He was determined to believe that it was only a matter of time before Rene revealed his true colors. Simon and his father often exchanged harsh words about it while they were at table, but he honored her request by not speaking of Rene when they went to bed at night. When they were alone, they concentrated only on one another. Once the door of their chamber closed, the troubles of the day were quickly forgotten, swept away by more pleasant thoughts and occupations.
Aside from her husband and the presence of Rene, Evelyn was occupied with learning how to be the Marquess of Guillemot. It was a daunting task. Just memorizing names was a difficult undertaking, along with learning the exact layout of the house.
She was glad to have Marie at her side.
They had formed an instant friendship, and Evelyn was delighted with Marie’s spirit and bawdy sense of humor. At first, Marie had refrained from saying too much, as she voiced concern about her proper place as a lady’s maid. But Evelyn, hungry for the sisterly affection she had always known, encouraged her to speak freely. And once she was permitted, she sometimes made remarks that were rather shocking. But Evelyn welcomed such lightheartedness and humor. It helped to ease the burden of her new life, and she was grateful for it.
As it turned out, there was an added benefit to her budding friendship with Marie, who was not secretive about her relationship with Rene. Try as she might, Evelyn found it impossible not to wonder about him. After all, he had been a part of her life, for better or worse. There were so many questions she wanted to ask of him. Why had he suddenly decided to be a soldier? What were his intentions with Marie? And most of all, why was he being so obedient?
“It is not in his nature to be docile,” she told Marie. They sat in the garden, painting with watercolors. She sighed as she wet the tip of her paintbrush. “I am curious to know why he has yet to dare a meeting with me, or why he has chosen to stay here. I find it rather odd.”
Marie smiled, applying her own paintbrush to her canvas. “A rogue he may be, but he is a wise one. There is security in remaining here, where he is free from pursuit and trouble.”
“Tell me truly, Marie. Do you have feelings for him?”
Marie was silent for a moment, her expression showing a look of consideration. She shrugged. “To be truthful, I find him quite endearing. He is a man, but he has the spirit of a boy. I do not believe him capable of absolute maturity.”
“And that attracts you to him?”
“I have little faith in the loyalty of men. I have no foolish hopes of him becoming more than he is. Therefore, I am free to enjoy the pleasure of his company without the trappings of commitment. There is a certain freedom in such a way of living.”
A smile came to Evelyn’s lips. “Some time ago, Rene told me something very similar. It seems your philosophies match.”
Marie made a soft sound of amusement. Evelyn, looking at her work, noticed that after a few moments, her companion had not said anything. She looked up, seeing that Marie’s eyes were focused on something. Or someone, as it turned out to be. She turned to look, and they saw Rene, slowly making his way in their direction. Evelyn’s smile turned to a look of concern.
“What does he mean, coming to us in such a fashion?”
Marie shook her head. “I do not know. But I am here, if you should require assistance in being rid of him.”
Evelyn gave her friend a grateful smile. But as Rene approached, she put on a stoic face, concentrating on her artwork. When he came to stand near her, she kept her eyes on her canvas, even as he spoke with a quiet request.
“Evelyn, may I speak to you?”
Her answer was immediate and firm, knowing that Simon would have wanted her to be nothing less.
“No, you may not speak. And you have no right to address me so informally. I am the Marquess of Guillemot.”
She was not the least bit surprised when he disobeyed her. It was so very typical of him. His voice held a familiar note of sincerity.
“Forgive me, my lady. I beg you. Allow me a few moments.”
Against her better judgment, she looked up at him. He was a rather poor sight, dirty and disheveled from his practice bouts. In spite of herself, she felt a twinge of tenderness for him. She knew, from first-hand observance, how hard Simon and Basil pushed their men. Sighing, she turned to Marie.
“Marie, please leave us. If you would, take everything to the solar. We will continue working there. I will follow shortly.”
She curtseyed. “Yes, my lady.” As Marie gathered the materials, departing with a pointed look at Rene, Evelyn turned to him.
“Speak,” she ordered him. “I have important matters to attend to.” She started walking away, knowing he would follow. It was better to have him do that than to sit in a secluded place with him.
“I wish to make peace,” he said.
She sighed, but said nothing. He sounded so honest, so sincere. But how could she know if he spoke the truth? She knew his history too well.
“Hate me, if you will,” he said. “But you must know that it was never my intention to hurt you. I know now that it was wrong to pursue you as I did, and I pray that one day, you find it in your heart to forgive me for any harm I may have caused.”
It was the last thing she wanted to do, but she stopped. They looked at one another, and in his eyes, she saw a look that she had not seen before, at least not in him. He meant what he said. And as she read his expression, full of hope and earnestness, she felt her hostility fade away. He was not the devil incarnate. What use was it to continue treating him as thus? She sighed, a sound of resignation.
“Let us leave the past behind us, Rene. It is best that we no longer speak of it.”
He nodded. “Yes, my lady.” There was a look of such relief on his face, it tempted her to smile at him. But such gestures of affection were meant for Simon. She turned away from Rene, intending to go into the house. But he called to her one more time.
She knew she should not, but she turned to look at him.
“Does he make you happy?” he asked.
Her answer came swiftly, and with great pride. “Yes, he does. He is my husband. And he is my life, just as I am his.”
He smiled at her. It was a lovely, unselfish gesture. And his reply equaled it.
“I am glad.”
She held back her smile, despite its attempt to break free. But she allowed herself to give him a pleasant look. They had made their peace, and she was content. Only after she was in the house, and out of sight from him, did she allow herself to smile.
As she neared the stairs, she heard Simon’s voice from outside. And it was raised in anger.
“You dare to speak to my wife?”
In an instant, she was hurrying back outside. Simon had come up on his horse. He was now dismounted and heading straight for Rene. Rene did not appear to be concerned, but she stepped between them all the same, trying to calm Simon down.
“Simon, it was nothing,” she said, placing a hand on his arm. But he took her by the shoulders, carefully but firmly pushing her aside.
“Stay out of it, Evelyn!”
Rene rushed forward, coming to Evelyn’s defense. He was prepared to fight. She could see it in the angry way he moved.
“Do not raise your voice to her, you swine!”
Simon barked at him. “I will take no orders from a spineless whoremonger!”
Rene shouted back. “Self-centered bastard!”
Evelyn gasped when Simon planted a swift fist to Rene’s mouth. There was a moment that felt suspended in time, as all things seemed to stand still. Then, to Evelyn’s shock and horror, Rene flew at Simon like a wild beast, enraged. She cried out as the two men crashed to the dirt, grappling and swinging in animalistic combat. Despite Rene’s smaller size, he was not easily conquered, landing an especially hard strike to Simon’s nose. They kicked, jabbed, and slammed each other against the ground, while a crowd gathered around them. It was Basil and a fellow knight who finally broke them apart, succeeding only by the greatest efforts of strength. Basil gave Simon a hard shove.
“Take yourself off and find your senses,” he demanded. He turned to Rene, giving him a disgusted snort. “You, return to the barracks at once.”
Slowly, the injured parties moved away. Simon cursed, spitting out the blood that had drained from his nose. He turned and stormed into the house, and Evelyn quickly followed. He would be in a black mood now, no doubt about that. But she was his wife, and she would see to his healing, whether he wanted it or not.
She found him in their chamber, being tended to by his valet, whom she quickly dismissed. With a cloth in hand, and a washbowl in reach, she began tending his wounds...despite his instance that she leave him be. Perhaps knowing that he was in a poor condition, he relented quickly. But still fresh from his battle, he was not kind in his manner, even for her.
“Do not lecture me,” he snapped. “I have no patience for it.”
She took the wet cloth and wiped the blood from his mouth and chin. “I have said nothing.”
He eyed her suspiciously. “But you think to scold me. Do you not?”
Her reply was a slight shake of the head. “I have said nothing, and I will say nothing. Not if it leads us into a quarrel.”
She wanted to say many things to him, some of them in the form of reprimands, but now was not the time. Later, when they were both calm, they would have a discussion about this. At that moment, he needed only to have his wounds mended.
When there was a knock on the door, he cursed out loud, but shouted for the person to enter. It was his valet, who stood just inside the doorway.
“My lord, your father wishes to speak to you immediately.”
Simon grumbled. “I will be there shortly.”
He moved from under her hands, pausing at the doorway to give her a sharp look. She sighed as she watched him go, wondering if she would ever comprehend the foolishness of men.