“I wonder what it could be,” Evelyn worried out loud.
Marie reached out to touch her hand. “The Duke is most likely offering a scolding. I would not be fearful.”
After all had been settled, Evelyn and Marie had taken up their painting again. But Evelyn found it impossible to concentrate. A troublesome feeling was brewing in her heart. Of late, life had been so joyous. Her married life was turning out to be the greatest happiness she had ever known. She was learning to love Guillemot and its residents, especially Marie.
But she could not shake a sense of foreboding. Life was a series of hills and valleys, and after being up for so long, there was sure to be something coming that would bring everything falling down.
The door opened, and Evelyn feared to look. Somehow, she knew that Simon was there. She could feel his presence in the room. And then his voice fell on her ear, softly. It was a softness that pierced her heart.
“Marie, I would like to speak to my wife alone.”
Evelyn felt a stinging in her eyes as she watched Marie rise, curtsey, and depart. Slowly, Evelyn rose to her feet. She closed her eyes for a moment, praying that she was wrong. Turning to look at Simon, she gave a soft cry of distress when she saw the parchment in his hand.
“Oh Simon, it cannot be...” Her hand came up to cover her mouth.
Without answering, he slowly closed the door. Each movement that he made...turning his eyes to her, moving with slow steps as he came towards her...only confirmed her worst fears. She could find no resolve to hold to as he came to stand in front of her, and she broke into tears. If not for the support of his arms, she would have fallen to the floor. He whispered soothing words, but they only caused her to weep with deeper heartache.
She hardly noticed when he picked her up, carrying her to their bed, where he held her for the longest time. Even after her initial outburst had softened to gentle gasps and sniffles, heartbroken tears continued to spill down her cheeks. She wept against him. They had been married less than a month. How could fate be so terribly cruel?
“How can they take you from me?” she muttered. “We have had so little time.”
He stroked her back and shoulders, soothing her. His voice was gentle and soft.
“It is how it must be, my darling. God knows, if I could somehow alter this, I would in a moment. But you must have courage.”
She pressed her head closer to his heart. Her voice trembled. “I am aware of my duties as your wife. I am meant to accept your sacrifice to the crown.” Rising up, she touched her hands to the sides of his face. “But I cannot pretend to be strong. How can I be, when my soul is torn apart at the thought of losing you?”
Without hesitation she pressed a heated kiss to his mouth. She ran her fingers through his hair, desperate to commit the feeling of him to memory. What if they never had such moments again? What if they were parted forever, never to experience the joys of a long life together? The very thought of it terrified her, and between heated kisses on his lips and face, she whispered frenzied questions.
“How far away will you go?” she cried. “When will you leave me?”
He returned her passions, slowly at first, but then with a growing intensity that soon matched her own. “We must go to Paris,” he whispered, as his kisses traveled from the warmth of her lips to the softness of her cheek, down to her slender neck. “In two days, perhaps three.” As his hands circled her waist, he grasped her firmly and pulled her tight against his body. Holding her close, he fell down to the bed with her.
“Simon, Simon. I love you so.” Tears spilled down the corners of her eyes. She wanted to forget the crushing misery. It would consume her soon enough. All she wanted now was to lose herself in the love of her husband. And for once, he was as impatient as she. He cursed his own hands when they could not move fast enough for his liking, and she found her own fingers troubling, for they were trembling with anxiety. Between the struggle to free themselves from their clothing, they shared deep, hungry kisses, and when at last they were both nude, it was only moments before they were fully joined. With her arms clinging to him and her legs drawn tightly around his waist, she welcomed the surging strength of his body. His movements were swift and powerful, filling her completely. He slipped nearly out of her before thrusting in again, and each time she gripped him firmly with her inner muscles. When the end was upon them, they shared a fierce and possessive kiss, each of them desperate to imprint themselves on the other. As his body shuddered, and he poured himself into her, she wept silently, praying.
Merciful God, bless us with a child.
For several long moments, they held tight together, unmoving. When he slipped out of her body, she felt the loss deeply. She whimpered in protest, but he silenced her with a gentle kiss. Exhaustion overtook them both, and they soon fell asleep, holding each other closely.
The sky outside the window was dark when Evelyn awoke. She quickly realized that the bed was empty, and for a moment she was fearful. But then she saw a shadowy movement in the room. Looking towards the foot of the bed, she saw that Simon was sitting on the floor in front of the hearth. Without hesitation, she slipped into her wrapper and went to him, sitting beside him on the soft animal-pelt rug. He put his arm around her, and she leaned her head firmly against his chest. She sighed, a deeply sad and painful sound.
“If only I could go with you.”
He brushed his nose through her hair, nuzzling her. His reply was fast and firm. “War is a hell you cannot imagine, Evelyn. Your eyes must never see bear witness to such horrors.”
She felt the weight of sorrow pressing on her heart. Now she understood the great pain her mother must have known each time she had to say farewell to her husband. No lessons could have prepared her for the intensity of the heartbreak she was now feeling.
“Simon, will you grant me a request?”
He gave a soft sigh. “Anything within my power, I will give to you.”
“Before you leave me, I want you to take me home to my family. Papa and Owen will depart for battle, and Lucien. I want to see them one more time.”
It was maddening to think that her beloved father and brothers might be lost as well, along with her husband. It was too much to imagine. If she remained here, even with the friendship of Marie, she was certain she would not be able to endure the emotional burden of being separated from Simon. And what if she turned out to be with child while he was away? She needed to be with her family. There was no other way.
“We will leave at first light,” Simon promised. He gathered her in his arms, gently laying her down on the rug. This time, they loved one another with great tenderness, creating memories of love that would endure far into the future. Memories that they could both cling to, should their time together be fated to soon come to its end.
At dawn, Basil departed with Rene and the other soldiers, bound for Paris. Simon and Evelyn, along with Marie, set out for the Gisborne estate. It was to be a long journey, fraught with many tears. Marie tried her best to offer comfort, but Evelyn could find little to ease her heartbreak. It was not until they neared Marseilles that she was able to find a measure of consolation.
Seeing the site of her childhood home, perched on the hill in all its stateliness, she pressed her hands to her mouth. She had almost forgotten, until now, how much she loved looking at it. It was difficult to sit still as they approached the house. Simon, riding alongside the carriage, looked at her through the window opening. Seeing her expression, he was pleased by the change in her demeanor.
“How wonderful to see your smile,” he said. “I have missed it.”
She had found little to smile about over the last few days. But now that she was near her family again, there was at last a reason to rejoice. As the carriage came to a stop, she looked at Simon. He seemed to sense her urgency, and he smiled.
“Go to them. Let decorum be forgotten, if only for one day.”
From the window, she could see all of the familiar faces she had grown up knowing. But her family stood out from all the others. Without pausing to make the proper gestures of etiquette, she rushed into the first pair of arms that she could reach, and her eyes filled with tears as her father held her close.
“Oh Papa,” she cried. “I have missed you so.”
Guy held her tightly for a moment, and then he urged her towards her mother. Cassia kissed her cheek, hugging her in a loving embrace. Evelyn shared similar affections with the rest of her family, including William. It was a delightful surprise to find him there, along with Lady Isabella. She was hardly recognizable in her simple woolen garments.
“I am in your brother’s service,” she explained. “My life now belongs to his parish, and I will accompany him in his aide to the crown.”
Evelyn was too happy to question such daring. She kissed Isabella’s cheek, happy to see another familiar face. Seeing Owen, who was standing nearby, she wondered if he was pleased by something more than the return of his sister. But it did not matter. She was with her family once again, and when Simon joined them, they were both swept into the house in a gesture of great love and welcome.
The women were gathered in the master chamber. While Evelyn held her baby brother, Cassia and Thea were seated on the floor with little Gabriel. Celeste was near them, while Marie and Violette sat nearby, conversing quietly. Evelyn had hardly had time to know her youngest brother, and she took joy in holding him now. She held him upright, letting him stretch his little legs. He was not content to lie on his back or on his belly, nor was he happy to sit on his bottom. As small as he was, and even though he was barely two months old, he seemed determined to raise himself up. He pushed his feet against the tops of Evelyn’s legs, and she smiled at his constant effort.
“Mama, look at how he makes such a valiant attempt to stand. I feel it will not be long before he is taking his first steps.”
Cassia sighed. “He is growing much too quickly already.” Sitting on the floor with Thea, they watched as Gabriel tried to keep his balance while sitting up. Now and then he teetered slightly, but his mother and grandmother were quick to catch him. Evelyn smiled at the sight of them.
“The children will bring us much joy while the men are gone.”
“I am going with your father,” said Cassia.
Evelyn’s eyes grew wide with shock. She and Thea stared at one another. Handing Philippe over to Celeste, Evelyn went to stand by her mother’s side. “You will go with him, Mama? How is that possible?”
Cassia’s words were calm and direct. “The army is making its headquarters at Palais de la Cite. I will go there.”
Thea, looking equally stunned, inquired with an intense but curious look. “Mama, can you do that?”
Cassia reached for Gabriel, picking him up and holding him close. “I will not remain isolated here,” she replied. “I will not be hundreds of miles away from my husband. Celeste and the others will care for the children. But I must be with your Papa. Our remaining years are dwindling, and I will not lose a moment of that time.”
At that moment, Evelyn worshipped her mother more than ever before. As Gabriel’s nurse took him away for a changing, Evelyn knelt down beside her mother, hugging her tightly. If her mother was so determined, she saw no reason why she could not be too.
“Oh Mama,” she cried. “I must accompany you. I must. Please do not deny me.”
Thea grew excited, coming close to join them. “I will go as well. I will not leave Lucien.”
Cassia kissed Thea’s cheek. She took a hand of each daughter, holding them firmly. As she rose to her feet, Evelyn and Thea stood with her. Cassia’s expression grew quite serious.
“I will not deny you, my darlings. Either of you. I understand your desire to be with your husbands. But you must know this. This is not a journey of leisure. Even in the relative safety of a castle, you will see things that will shock and sicken you.”
Thea nodded. “Yes, Mama. We are aware of what awaits.”
“You will perhaps be witness to the happenings of death,” said Cassia. “Perhaps, even the death of those you love.”
Evelyn looked down, speaking quietly and softly. “I know, Mama. But if God chooses to take those that I love, I would want to know that I spent every last moment with them. I could not bear to learn of their loss after weeks, perhaps even months, of remaining here with my worries.”
“Quite right,” Thea replied. “I must be with Lucien, even should the worst come to pass.”
Cassia smiled, softly cupping each of their faces. “My brave darlings.” She embraced them both, kissing them on their foreheads. She rose to her feet, eyeing her daughters with a look of great purpose. “We have much work to be done,” she said. “And firstly, we must inform our men that they will not journey to Paris on their own.”
“Papa does not yet know?”
From down below, the trumpet sounded for supper. Cassia squeezed Evelyn’s hand. “He will know it now. Come.”
Evelyn and Thea looked at one another, and they both felt a twinge of fear at the thought of what her father would say. Evelyn wondered what Simon would think of this. But there was little time to ponder it, as Cassia ushered them both from the room.
“This is nonsense,” said Guy, walking along the length of the dining table. His response was as expected. He was angry, of course. But Evelyn knew that her mother’s response would be just as strong.
“It is how matters will be,” Cassia replied. “My mind is set.”
Evelyn stood beside her mother, along with her sister and with Isabella. The four of them, together, were a formidable presence in the room, and as he had done so many times before, Guy left without saying a word. Evelyn saw the way the other men looked at them, especially at Cassia. Would they dare to challenge the lady of the house?
It became quite clear that they would not. Their silence said so. Evelyn felt a strange sense of triumph as her mother declared...
“Come, ladies. We must prepare for the journey.”
Evelyn, Thea, and Isabella followed behind her, leaving the men behind in stunned silence.