Several moments of quiet passed as Cassia finished nursing the baby. While she readjusted her gown, Guy held Evelyn. He fixed his gaze on her, losing himself in his thoughts. Cassia softly nudged him.
“Guy, is there something on your mind?”
He shook his head to focus his attention, and he smiled at her. “Nothing significant,” he replied. He turned his eyes back to Evelyn. “A sense of wonder, perhaps. Seeing this, I am reminded of how fortunate I am.”
Leaning back against the pillows, he put his arm around her, drawing her against his side. She replied in a weary but contented voice.
“We are indeed blessed. Life has been kind to us.”
A soft rumble of amusement escaped him. And as quickly as Cassia had closed her eyes, she opened them again, a curious little smile on her face. “Something amuses you?”
“I was thinking of someone, but I dare not cause offense by speaking his name.”
“You have piqued my curiosity, husband. Now you must tell me.”
“I was thinking of William Briewere.”
“A horrible, awful man,” she replied. “Why would he now enter your thoughts, and after so long a time?”
“I was thinking how very enraged he would be to see me so content. My bliss was always his displeasure...my despair his joy. How maddening it would be for him to witness my happiness.”
“He bears witness to it from hell, and that is as it should be.”
They had rarely spoken of his former master. It was too solemn a subject to revisit. And, it brought other memories back to life...memories that were too unpleasant to bring into conversation.
And yet, he thought of them often. It was not his intention to revive old ghosts, but they came to him on occasion, and most times, there was nothing that prompted them. They simply appeared. He sighed, wishing he could somehow erase that corner of his mind. Both Briewere and Nottingham were part of his past, and there he wanted them to remain.
“His punishment is right,” he said. “God has seen to that. And as I live my life, with every happy moment that passes, I will be grateful to The Almighty for both his judgment, and his mercy.”
He turned his head to look at her, and saw that she had fallen asleep. Easing himself from the bed, with Evelyn still in his arms, he rose to his feet and placed the baby in the cradle. He left his wife and daughter in peace, and while they rested, he would busy himself with plans of celebration. Another Gisborne has arrived, and he intended to give his new daughter a spectacular welcome.
The feasting and festivities lasted for seven days. There was great admiration for Evelyn, but also for her mother and father. A healthy child was cause for celebration, and Guy found himself awash in praise. As much as he loved his family, he was equally fond of being among his peers. His neighbors spoke well of him...particularly now that he had sired another offspring. Standing in a circle of men, late into the seventh night, he listened to a fellow baron’s praise of him. Andre DuBois, Baron of Delemont, wore a grin of admiration.
“Four children, Gisborne. All born healthy. What a virile piece of manhood you are.”
Another nobleman, this one a comte, nodded in agreement. “Here, here,” he said, raising his cup, and they all drank from their wine goblets. “But let us hope that your next child is a boy. One can never have enough male issues, eh?” He elbowed Guy in the ribs, and with a slight smile, Guy replied.
“Indeed.” Inside, he felt a pang of guilt at agreeing with such an untruth. But he kept silent on the matter. He needed the good opinion of his friends and neighbors. And in time, his sons would benefit from his reputation as a man’s man.
Still, he felt the need to make a remark...to offer some defense of his daughters, whom he loved most deeply. He chose his words carefully, keeping his tone cool as he shrugged.
“Sons are preferred by all men. But daughters serve their purpose.”
“This is true,” said Andre. “Among the nobility, they serve as symbols of fertility and grace.”
“Unlike the peasants,” the comte sneered. “What is a peasant girl, other than a brood mare?”
Andre nodded. “All peasants are animals. But they serve their purpose as well.”
“And their purpose is to serve,” said Guy, “Which is what God intended them to do.”
A laugh went up among them. Guy managed a slight smile...but underneath, he felt a terrible sense of guilt. He glanced about, hoping that Cassia was not near. These conversations were supposed to be kept between men, and it was better for women to keep their distance. Casting his glance about, he searched the room for her. She had been nearby not so long ago. He had made it a point to keep her within his line of sight, even while conversing with his fellows. After Evelyn’s birth, Cassia’s health had been slower to improve than he would have liked, although she insisted...in her usual stubborn way...that she was quite well. But he had seen that something was amiss with her, even though she tried to hide it. Several times, twice in the last few nights, she had retired early with the explanation that the excitement of the festivities was too much for her. But he knew that to be a falsehood. She had always taken much joy and pleasure in playing the hostess, and to hear her make such a pretext, it was troubling. Excusing himself from his guests, he began a calm but purposeful walk through the room, looking for her. But not seeing her, he deduced that she had left the party altogether. She was either in their bedchamber, or in the nursery, and as that room was nearest the top of the stair landing, it was where he ventured first.
William, Thea, and Owen were all asleep. Someday soon, the boys would move into their own chambers. But for now, they all kept each other company in the same room. As he entered, Claudia rose to her feet in a sleepy fashion, but he gestured her back to her bed. Looking about in the dim candlelight, he saw that Cassia was not there. She was in their bedchamber, then. He would go to her and seek an explanation. But before departing, he went to the cradle to look at Evelyn. She was sleeping peacefully, her tiny fists curled and resting near her face. He smiled at the sight of her, and he fought the urge to reach down and pick her up.
She was nearly three weeks old, and only days ago had he and Cassia allowed her to be moved to the nursery. After the fright she had given them at her birth, they had both been nervous over her well-being, each of them making frequent trips to her cradle during the night. But gradually, their fears had eased, as she was proving to be a perfectly healthy child, if her appetite was any indication. Her cries, frequent though they were, seemed to be quieted quickly by nothing more than her basic infant requirements...a feeding, a dry, clean bottom, and an occasional gesture of affection. She showed no signs of illness or trauma, and so they became content in letting the nursemaid take charge of her. Seeing her now, softly making suckling gestures in her sleep, he left her in peace.
Slowly entering his bedchamber, he saw her instantly. She was in bed, wearing her nightdress, with her back to him. Was she ill? Was she exhausted? Or perhaps, she had heard something that was not intended for her ears?
Curse my tongue, he thought, and he searched his mind for the proper words to soothe any hurt feelings or fits of anger.
On the other hand, what if she had not heard his words? What if she was unwell? The thought of it gave him a slight chill of fear, for he always worried over illnesses that might befall the people he loved most...particularly his wife.
He shook his head, trying to calm his fears. In all likelihood, she was simply weary, and sought their bed for rest. It was logical, after all. She had only recently given birth, and was still in recovery. He hoped it would be that circumstance, and not the others, that plagued her. Lack of rest would be the easiest matter to tend to, for he was certain he could find some way to soothe her. In a soft voice, he spoke her name. If she was asleep, he had no wish to disturb her.
“Cassia, are you awake?”
She gave no reply. He took a small step forward, saying her name again. This time, she responded with a low spoken but sharp answer.
Slowly, he came around to her side of the bed. Looking at her face, he thought he saw a trace of redness around her eyes. But she turned her head away. Stung by her reaction, he gently reached down to place a hand on her shoulder.
“You are unhappy,” he said. “Does the fault lie with me?”
She let out a sigh. “Your boorish rhetoric pains me, Guy. But after these many years, I have grown accustomed to it.”
So, she had overheard his conversation. Why, then, did she not confront him in anger? Was she purposely holding back, just to punish him?
“Why do you turn away from me?” he asked. “Must I plead for your forgiveness? If so, then I beg for it now.” Sitting down beside her, he leaned down and pressed his lips to her cheek. And immediately, he raised his head, alarmed at the heat he felt rising from her skin.
“Cassia, you are feverish.”
She shook her head. “It is nothing.”
Now it was he who shook his head, not with calmness, but with the first feelings of panic. His voice rose slightly.
“You say a fever is nothing? Are you mad? You of all people should know the dangers of illness.” He looked around the room. “Where is Celeste? Why is she not here to tend to your needs?”
“Guy, please do not act rashly. I am merely overwhelmed, nothing more. I asked Celeste to leave me so I might sleep.”
He looked down at her, angry at her for not taking better care of herself. “Cassia, you are a stubborn wench, as you have always been. You have risked your health too many times. But on this occasion, I will not allow you to be complacent.”
She reached out, taking his hand. Her touch had always calmed him, even in the worst of times. It worked its magic now, if only briefly.
“Have Beatrice brew a tea,” she said. “Bring me a cool, damp cloth to bathe my face. And then, return to our guests.”
Rising quickly, he fetched a cloth from the washstand and dunked it in the basin. “I will not return to our guests,” he said. Bringing the damp cloth over, he gently bathed her face and neck. “They are all stuffed with food and getting drunk on wine. My presence is not necessary.”
She gave him a little smile, clutching his free hand, while the other continued to cool her skin with the cloth. “You fret too much.”
“And you, not enough.” Leaning down, he kissed her on the forehead. Looking into her eyes, he saw how they shined with love for him, despite the grief he had caused her only moments ago. Now that he had found her to be unwell, he was seized by an even greater sense of guilt. His voice wavered slightly.
“Forgive me for what was said tonight. There is much posturing that goes on among men. You must know that I meant none of it.”
Her eyes were growing heavy as she replied softly. “I know, Guy. Now please, have Beatrice fetch my tea.”
He nodded, reluctant to leave her, but willing to do what was needed to care for her. He hurried off, determined to return to her side as quickly as he could.