You can find Part I on 1st October and Part II on 3rd October posts.
Andrew looked at her. "Don't cry, please. I’ll make sure that nothing bad will ever happen to you. I’ll do my best and help you forget your troubled life. I promise."
"Yes," she said in a voice full of agony and bowed her head to prevent him from seeing the silent tears sliding down her cheeks. "Yes, I believe you."
Andrew brought his mare to a sudden stop, almost colliding with Genevieve's horse. They were by the mossy banks of the stream. He reached across and touched her wet face. "Have faith, my love. I'll always love you and stand by you. These three days, I thought only about you and your future. Our future. Your face didn't leave my mind for one single moment. Nothing in the world matters to me more than you."
"And... I intended to tell you something after reaching my mother's manor. I think I can't postpone it until then." He caught Genevieve's hand and met her gaze. "Dear Genevieve, please, would you do me the greatest honor of agreeing to become my wife? I want to spend the rest of my life making you happy. I'll help you forget all your troubled past. Mother will move soon to my sister's castle. She wants to be close to her little grandsons, so don't worry about having a mother-in-law on your head."
Since she didn't utter a word, Andrew went on assuring her of his most honorable intentions. "The course of our lives depends on your answer. If you agree, we'll both have to leave our clerical life. God will forgive us. God's not spiteful or vengeful, and He doesn't punish those having a pure, honest heart. He can read deep in our souls and can see we still love Him. He's kind and forgiving, and will understand our love for each other is untainted... and He will approve of it."
Caressing Genevieve's hand he continued, "I'm not rushing you. Take your time, my delicate wood anemone. I'm willing to do everything in the world for you."
Genevieve nodded. Her heart drummed in her chest with happiness at his words. Tears of elation welled in her eyes. Despite her happiness, she shivered under the nagging feeling of close danger that gripped her body in its cold claws. An irrational fear clogged her heart.
"Oh, Andrew, I love you too, and yes, I'll gladly become your wife, but what about your family?" Her voice trailed off. She raised her hand and touched his face as if to make sure he was real. "I'm so afraid--”
Andrew brushed his lips across her hand. "No need to be afraid. I'm not hurrying you, my darling. There's no trouble with my family. We'll talk later after we safely reach my house.” He took off a cross that he wore round his neck and held it out to her. Here, wear this cross. The Abbess forced it on me last week. She said she'd be offended if I refused her present. I wanted to return the cross to her, three days ago, but the circumstances made me forget all about it."
Genevieve shook her head reluctantly. Andrew insisted gently. "It doesn't matter that she gave it to me. It can’t harm you. It's a cross, after all. Take it, please, to protect you, my precious wood anemone," he whispered and held out a richly bejeweled cross she recognized at once. The cross the Abbess wore around her neck all the time, until a couple of weeks ago.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end at the sight of the cross Andrew presented her. Genevieve shrugged. “Everything touched by that evil woman bears her demonic seal."
"Nonsense. Please, take it." He punctuated his reassurance with a soft caress on her cheek.
She took the cross from Andrew. As soon as she touched the golden chain a chill pricked the tips of her fingers. The unpleasant coldness spread through her body, making her shudder. Dark feelings passed over her in a dizzy spell. She didn't say anything and slipped the cross around her neck. She trusted him and his judgment, and in view of what he said, the piece of jewelry represented her belief and his love, not something evil.
Andrew turned his horse and headed along the narrow path in silence.
Genevieve pressed a hand to her breast to calm her humming panic. Any other woman would have been thrilled by Andrew's proposal. In her, his words triggered contradictory feelings. On the one hand, it confirmed, once again, his deep love and honest intentions for her. On the other hand her mind returned to a day, years ago, when she talked to the former Abbess, the late and regretted Sister Dominica, about joining the order and Sister Dominica's slight hesitation.
The old woman read her like an open book. Dominica foresaw that Genevieve would be easy prey to her body's desires; that she wasn't made for a life of piety.
"Was my father right when he claimed all his children were seeds of evil? Am I a seed of evil too?" she bitterly whispered to herself.
Doubt swamped her. What was the right thing to do? It was difficult to decide when she'd just tasted the bittersweet savor of love.
What if time and life together turned her and Andrew into another couple resembling her parents? 'The happily ever after,' the blissful ending of the stories Genevieve's mother used to tell her, never came true for her parents, no matter how deep their love had been at first.
They'd also married, against the will of others, because they were madly in love. Their love turned sour over the years, quenched by a life of difficulties and want, ending in the tragedy that brought her to live at the abbey.
Thinking back over her life, starting with her childhood days, Genevieve concluded she brought only misfortune to the people around her; above all to the ones she cared about: her family and her few friends, old Bertha, sister Benedicta, Francesca and Ryan. All dead.
Andrew was the first and only man she'd ever loved. For his own good she had to reject his proposal. She must tell him she changed her mind. He'd never know the way her skin tingled under the warm touch of his hand. How her heart quickened at hearing him call her my wood anemone. He'd never know her love for him was the most beautiful thing to have ever happened to her.
If only everything hadn't been so complicated.
No, she couldn't risk his life too. Her presence next to him and her feelings for him might become a curse bringing him an undeserved death. God would punish him because of her. For loving her. A knot tightened in her chest. If something bad happened to Andrew it would be solely her fault.
She wouldn't let it happen. If love meant sacrifice, she must do it. For Andrew's sake, she ought to accept even the bitter sacrifice of her one and only love.
When they reached the manor house, she would find a moment to talk to Andrew's mother and tell her she decided to join another abbey. It might upset and distress Andrew. He’d recover after a while, understand and forgive her, and in the end forget her. Genevieve didn't doubt that such a piece of news might bring Andrew's mother great relief. Her son wouldn't leave his clerical life, bringing shame and dishonor on all his kin, at what he intended to do -- leave his priesthood and marry a nun.
Genevieve shook her head in deep thought. Was she the Genevieve who years ago made up her mind never to love and trust a man? The Genevieve who took vows of celibacy? The one who considered God her bridegroom? Yes, she was probably all those Genevieves, adding to them the Genevieve who discovered love, the special feeling enlightening the spirit. Something she, no doubt, didn't deserve.
Andrew's horse neighing nervously startled Genevieve back to reality. She followed Andrew's disconcerted gaze and waited.
He narrowed his eyes as if to guess the right way to follow. They'd been riding in darkness for about an hour, and Genevieve couldn't break free from the nagging sensation they had lost their way.
The mist had cleared a bit. Dismayed she discovered they were back at the stream, a clear sign they'd moved in a circle. It meant they’d wasted precious time. The Abbess might have already noticed her disappearance. The thought that the nuns wouldn't leave the abbey to go down to the village and ask the villagers to start a search party until morning calmed Genevieve a little.
Andrew dismounted his horse and helped her climb down too. He knelt by a hollowed oak tree, that stretched its branches over the water, and washed his face in the cool waters running between the grassy banks.
Genevieve moistened her lips and brow. The whisper of threat enveloping them became almost palpable, no matter how hard she banished the thought from her mind. She sighed, a barely audible sound of distress, still loud enough for him to turn a concerned look to her. A sickening sense of inevitability gripped her heart, warning her about the menacing stillness closing in on them. It had to do with the Abbess, no doubt.
Andrew pulled her to his chest. "Do you regret you've come with me?"
Passion smothered Genevieve's doubt and guilt. "Never," she answered, aware of her body's response to his touch, and she succumbed to his embrace.
The moonlight bathed his face in silver light. Andrew lowered her wimple, and his fingers threaded into her curls. She swayed, enveloped by the dizzy sensation of drowning in the tumultuous ocean of his gaze. The tenderness of his touch raised in her the wish they had lived in another time and been simple, ordinary people. She longed to feel the warmth of his lips on hers. How much she'd have liked to live the rest of her life beside him and bear his children. A dream not likely to ever come true for her. Why not let the feeling lurking in the pit of her stomach take over and consume her whole being?
Aware of the track of her thoughts, she shifted uneasily, a hot flush warmed her cheeks. Drawing in a deep breath in spite of herself, calming the gnawing unease in her mind and the thought of Sister Dominica guessing she was the dough of a sinner, Genevieve repeated, "Never."
With her eyes closed and their bodies touching she became, for the very first time, simply a woman. She melted in his embrace in spite of the invisible vicious threat breathing around them. Aware they might never be alone again, she fought hard to silence the voice of conscience berating her.
"Oh, God. Please forgive me," Andrew muttered under his breath when he bowed his head to kiss her. Their lips met in a passionate first kiss.
End of Prologue