It was dark when Marian led her horse into the stable at Knighton. A young groom, knuckling sleep from his eyes, stumbled forward to take the reins from her hands.
“Thank you, Robert,” she murmured. “I am sorry to be so late.”
“I’ll take good care of ‘er, M’lady,” the boy said as he led the horse to its stall.
Marian entered the hall, surprised to hear the sound of her father’s voice at this late hour. She had urged Edward out of the castle hours earlier while the crowd was still jeering and laughing over the sight of the Sheriff snarling and flailing about as he dangled from the ceiling by one ankle. She knew the Sheriff’s rage would know no limits once he was cut down and she wanted her father out of his sight and hopefully out of his mind. After settling him comfortably back at home, she had claimed fatigue after a long day and fled to her chamber where she had quickly stripped out of her wedding gown and into clothing more suited to her evening plans before slipping quietly from the house.
As she pushed open the door to her father’s study, her heart leapt into her throat at the sight of Sir Guy seated comfortably in a chair across from her father’s desk. Both men looked up as the door swung in and her father surged quickly to his feet.
“Marian!” he exclaimed. He crossed the room and drew her into his embrace.
“Where have you been,” he hissed in a low, urgent whisper. “Sir Guy arrived over an hour ago. I went to fetch you from your room but you were nowhere to be found.”
“I would wager she was in the forest,” Guy drawled. Marian glanced over her father’s shoulder to see Guy’s lips twisted in a familiar smirk.
“Were you not, Marian?”
She trembled once in her father’s arms and drew in a deep, bracing breath.
“I am sorry I was not here to greet you, my lord,” she murmured in a deliberately even tone as she stepped free of her father’s supportive embrace. “I was not expecting you.”
“Were you not?” he repeated as he lifted a cup of wine from the desk and sprawled indolently in his chair. “I find that odd. I have never been married before but I believe it is traditional for the bride and groom to spend their wedding night in each other’s company.”
Marian laced her fingers together in an effort to hide the way they threatened to shake.
“I see neither bride nor groom, Sir Guy,” she said.
“And yet you are my wife.” He casually hooked one arm over the back of his chair and raised his cup in a mocking toast and she trembled with anger at his insolence.
“I. Am. Not.” Marian carefully enunciated each word as though he were too slow of wit to otherwise comprehend her meaning.
“I beg to differ.” Guy slowly unfolded himself from the chair and stepped forward until he stood towering over father and daughter.
Unnerved by his intimidating proximity, her fist instinctively swung out toward his jaw, falling short of its target when he caught her wrist in an iron grip.
“Not again, my lady,” he growled as he used his hold on her to draw her close until she was pressed against the hard length of his body.
“Sir Guy!” Edward rushed forward and risked laying his hand on the younger man’s arm. “I beg you−”
“Tell her,” Guy demanded as he stared into Marian’s face. “Tell her now.”
“Marian.” Edward began. “Marian.”
She blinked and turned her head at the insistent sound of her father’s voice. Tears sprang to her eyes at the pleading look on his face.
“Father,” she whispered as she shook her head in instinctive denial of the words he had yet to speak.
“Sir Guy is right, my daughter.” Edward’s gaze bored into hers. “You are married.”
“No,” she whispered. “The ceremony was not complete. I left before it… before it…” She swung her gaze back to Guy’s. “I left!” she exclaimed.
“The service at the church was ceremonial only,” Guy told her in a low voice. “Little more than a formality.”
“Father!” Marian turned imploring eyes toward her parent. “Please.”
“Marian…” He shook his head and rubbed a shaking hand over his face. “You and Sir Guy came to me weeks ago and he asked me for your hand. You told me that he had asked you to marry him and that you had given him your consent… and so I gave mine as well.”
She shook her head and tried to step away but Guy’s firm grip on her wrist held her fast.
“Marian. Daughter. Consent and the signing of the marriage contract… the betrothal itself is legally binding. I thought you knew…”
Uncomfortable with the level of hostility simmering between himself and Marian, Guy gentled his grip on her wrist.
“Marian.” He took a deep breath in an effort to modulate his tone. “We…”
“No,” she insisted. She flung her head back and stared at him defiantly.
“The marriage is based on a lie,” she spat. “You lied to me about the king’s return!”
“Do you not understand?” he asked. “The moment we gave our consent and the marriage contract was signed, we were wed. The moment our betrothal was made public, we were wed. In the eyes of the law we have been husband and wife for weeks now. The wedding today was little more than the Church’s blessing and that was given once we spoke our vows before the priest.”
“You lied to me!” she insisted. “You… are… a… liar!”
“Yes!” he roared. “I lied to you by omission today.” He raised a fist and pressed it to his lips as he strove to regain his calm.
“I believed the Sheriff when he told me the king had returned. And when I realized that he had lied to me… to everyone, I came to Knighton to tell you the truth.”
He released her wrist and paced away from her to stare into the fire glowing in the hearth.
“I arrived to find you were indisposed but your father assured me that you were looking forward to coming to live with me as my wife and God help me, I wanted to believe him so I spoke no more.”
He turned and moved until he was once again standing directly before her.
“Marian.” He reached out to tuck a curl of her hair behind her ear but dropped his hand back to his side when she flinched away from his touch.
“Even if everything I said was not true. Even if we were not already legally married, I do not see that you have any choice other than to become my wife. What I said when I asked you to marry me holds true. There is no other way for me to keep you and your father safe from the Sheriff.”
“I do not understand,” Edward interrupted tentatively. “Why does Vaisey show so much interest in an old man and a girl?”
Guy dragged his gaze away from Marian to look at the other man.
“He is jealous.”
Marian let out a disbelieving laugh. “Jealous?” she mocked. “Of what?”
“Your father is still very much loved by the people of Nottingham and the surrounding villages. The Sheriff does not like that.”
“But… why?” she cried out. “It is obvious that the Sheriff does not care to have the love of the people, else he would not treat them so abominably!”
“You are right,” Guy agreed as he returned his gaze to her. “The Sheriff cares not for the people other than for what they can give him in taxes and services. But neither does he care to see that their loyalty remains with the former Sheriff. He sees it as a threat to his authority. And you…” His voice trailed off.
“What about Marian?” Edward asked with concern evident in his voice.
“She has openly defied the Sheriff on more than one occasion,” Guy said. “He sees that too as a threat to his authority. He fears that the people may rally behind the two of you and he will not allow that.”
He bent his knees slightly to bring his face closer to hers. “He would kill you both first.”
Edward drew in a shaking breath. “But as her husband, you can protect her from the Sheriff’s wrath?”
Marian ducked her head at the sound of her father’s voice and she knew there would be no relief for her on his part.
“Yes.” Guy promised. “You would both have my protection. And what is more, the Sheriff would not make a move against Knighton.”
“Knighton?” Edward asked. “Even if Marian and I were both dead, he would have no claim on Knighton. It would pass to my brother’s son.”
“The Sheriff would burn Knighton Hall and all of its outbuildings to ashes just for the pleasure of it,” Guy told them. “He would lay waste to its fields and render the land useless for years to come if only for the amusement it would bring him.”
Edward let out a choked cry and Marian’s shoulders sagged in despair.
“So I am to be punished,” she murmured as helpless tears sprang to her eyes.
“Is it such a punishment?” Guy asked. “Until today you had led me to believe otherwise with your pretty words and flirtatious ways.” Again he lifted a hand and when she would have jerked her head away, he gently but firmly knotted his fingers in her hair.
“You humiliated me today, Marian.” He tugged her head back until she met his gaze.
“So you are punishing me.”
“No.” He gave an irritated shake of his head. “I do not see it as such and I would not have you think so either. But I do have my pride.”
“I do not love you,” she cried in frustration. “Why do you want me?”
“For the life of me, Marian, at this moment, I am not certain. But know this. I will have you.”