Chapter 1: Prologue
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.”
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
It was late when they arrived at Locksley Manor. Before leaving Knighton, Guy had instructed that a small bag of Marian’s belongings be packed so that they could be on their way. He had told Edward that he would send for the rest of her things in the coming days.
Marian had barely followed the proceedings, watching in a daze as her horse was re-saddled and led back into the courtyard. She was dimly aware of Guy helping her into the saddle and she held the reins loosely in her hand, allowing her horse to follow Guy’s as a dull despair settled over her.
Upon reaching Locksley, she followed a servant up the stairs and now stared stupidly at the fire dancing merrily in the hearth and tried desperately to ignore the bed with its covers turned invitingly back. How was it, she wondered, that her fate had turned so quickly. Was it possible that just hours ago she and Robin had danced around the outlaws’ campfire? That they had spun and twirled in a giddy display of relief and joy at her narrow escape? Only to now find that she was here anyway? The day’s whipsaw events had left her exhausted and she longed for the peaceful oblivion of sleep. Perhaps, she thought sluggishly, she would awaken in the morning to find this nothing but a bad dream.
Fear penetrated the haze fogging her senses and she was jolted back to reality when Guy entered the room and dismissed the servant with a quick gesture. Marian’s eyes widened and she took an instinctive step towards the door when he strode across the room to sit on the edge of the bed.
Guy kept his gaze down as he wrestled first one boot and then the other from his feet. The emotional upheaval of the day had left him fatigued as well.
She took another step in retreat and his shoulders sagged in reaction. Her anxiety was palpable – a living, breathing thing that swirled around them and seemed to suck the very air from the room.
He dropped a boot to the floor and looked up to find her standing near the hearth, her arms wrapped protectively around her torso.
“I am not… I beg of you, Sir Guy. I am not ready,” she whispered nervously.
Guy closed his eyes, overwhelmed by this display of timidity which was so at odds with her usually fiery disposition.
“I know you are not.” Disappointment made is voice rough. “I will not press you tonight, Marian. Nor even tomorrow.” He cleared his throat once before continuing. “Despite what you may think, I am not an ogre. I will give you some time to make your peace with our marriage.”
He paused and looked at her with a reassuring nod. She blinked rapidly and lowered her head to stare at the floor.
“But Marian,” he continued in a low, warning tone. “I will not wait forever.”
Her hair had swung forward to shield her face so that he could not read her expression but he knew by the stiffening of her shoulders and the tremor that wracked her frame that his words were not welcomed.
His silence seemed to demand a response and she gave a terse jerk of her head in acknowledgement of his words before she moved toward the door. She fumbled with the handle, the lure of freedom from his penetrating gaze making her clumsy and she stiffened as he called her name again.
“Marian.” His voice was a low rumble of sound. “Where are you going?”
“To my… to another…” She drew in a deep breath and forced a steady note into her voice as she tried to project a calmness she did not feel. “To find my chamber and get some sleep, my lord.”
“This is your chamber.”
She whirled around to face him and her eyes darted about the room. Though sparsely furnished and devoid of much in the way of decoration, she knew the manor well enough to know that this was the lord’s chamber. And with the exception of the white chemise and the silver handled hairbrush which the servant had laid out when unpacking the few belongings Marian had brought, if the few pieces of his personal property scattered about were not ample enough evidence that this was Guy’s room, she also knew him well enough to be certain that he would not have taken a lesser room than the master’s chamber.
“No!” she protested. “This is obviously your chamber.”
“It was.” He stood and casually pulled the hem of his shirt from the waistband of his breeches. “Now it is ours.”
Marian’s breasts heaved beneath the bodice of her gown and high spots of color bloomed on her cheeks. “You said that you would not… that we would not…” she stuttered frantically.
“I said that I would not press you tonight to fulfill your wifely duty. But, Marian… you are my wife and you will share my bed.” He stripped the shirt over his head and laid it neatly over the back of a chair. He forced himself to keep his movements steady so as not to convey his own unease with the situation.
He heard her gasp as his fingers moved to the laces of his leather breeches. From the corner of his eye, he was aware that she was pressed against the door and he saw her hand convulse around the knob. He prayed that she would not flee and force him to drag her back into the room, kicking and screaming. He did not want to manhandle her into submission.
He was making everything up as he went now. Improvising and terrified in his own right of destroying everything he had hoped to gain. But he was determined that he would be the master of this home and that they would share a bed beginning tonight. And, he hoped that small intimacy would help them to find a measure of ease and familiarity with one another.
He moved hurriedly now, tearing the laces free and skimmed the leather down his legs until he stood before her clad only in his short braies. He laid the breeches over his shirt and slid under the covers, blowing out the candle on the table next to the bed as he did so and plunging the room into relative darkness.
“It is late, Marian.” He injected a note of sleepiness into his voice and then fell silent, hoping the quietness would ease some of the tension from her frame.
Long moments passed and still she stood, frozen with indecision and fear, unable to make a choice as to whether she should stay or make a dash for freedom. Her fingers were still clamped around the door handle and she held onto it as if it were her only tether to the world.
A whisper of movement had her fearfully peering across the room and in the faint light of the banked fire in the hearth she could see his silhouette as he sat up in the bed.
“For God’s sake, Marian,” he snarled, his patience strained to the brink. “Though you may believe otherwise, I am not in a habit of raping women. Your virtue is quite safe with me.” She saw him scrape his fingers through his hair in a familiar gesture she recognized as one of mounting frustration.
“Now, get into your nightclothes and get into bed.” He lifted his head and even in the darkness she knew his eyes were trained on her. “Or do you require my assistance?”
His implication was all the impetus she needed to get moving.
“Close your eyes,” she demanded as she clenched the chemise protectively against her breasts.
There was a bite of defiance in her tone which he found oddly soothing as he once again settled himself in the bed. He was hard-pressed to obey her order as the rustling sound of fabric drew his gaze back to her. He watched through half-closed eyes as she moved into a dark corner and turned her back in an effort to protect her modesty. She lifted one arm and opened the laces that ran along the side of her gown stripping out of it and into the chemise as quickly as possible. Bending, she gathered up her clothing, unaware that as she crossed in front of the hearth to place the bundle on the chair that she was backlit by the light of the fire.
Guy stifled a groan as every curve of her sweet, young body was revealed through the flimsy fabric of her chemise and he fought the urge to drag her into his arms when she finally drew near the bed.
Marian perched nervously on the mattress for a moment before toeing off her shoes. She drew in a resolute breath and slipped under the blankets, hugging the edge of the bed and keeping as much distance between them as possible. Long, terrifying moments passed but eventually exhaustion caught up with her and she slid into a deep sleep.
Guy was not so fortunate. Lying next to her was sheer torture. His lips curved in a self-mocking smile. For weeks he had imagined this night so differently than it had turned out. When he had left the manor house that morning. Was it just that morning? It seemed a lifetime ago now that he had made his way to the church with all the eager expectations of any groom; anticipating a modest but willing bride. He did not understand how he had gotten it all so wrong, how he had misread her so badly.
He could admit to himself now, here in the darkness, that he was base enough that part of him took pleasure in unnerving her tonight. That same part of him wanted to rage at her for the lies he now understood she had told him. For making him believe that she cared for him and that his advances and proposal were welcomed by her. The sight of her riding off on horseback with his nemesis – with the outlaw she had professed to despise – and the sound of her laughter floating on the same breeze that caught her bridal veil as she flung it joyfully into the air as she escaped… all of that was burned into his memory. Etched onto his soul. He could not deny the burst of satisfaction he felt upon seeing the expression on her face when she found him awaiting her in her father’s study, or that the flare of triumph he experienced in bringing her back here as his wife was a salve to his wounded pride.
His thoughts were a jumble of emotions for her. Hatred warred with love and the desire for revenge slammed up hard against his need to protect her and provide for her. He wanted to own her. Possess her. Mark her with his hands, his mouth, his body, until there was no doubt to anyone who saw her that she belonged to him and only to him.
He knew that his love should be pure and not steeped in desperation. That he should love her enough to let her go; to annul the marriage and set her free. But he needed her in a way he did not understand. That need defined him and enslaved him. He believed she could be his salvation… and yet he knew that in doing so she would consume him and be the instrument of destruction of all of his carefully laid plans and of everything he had worked and suffered for in his life.
Guy turned away from her and stared toward the fireplace until the hypnotic flickers of the dying embers lulled him into a troubled sleep.
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
A faint sound pulled Marian to wakefulness. She dragged her eyes open and peered blearily toward the source of the noise. She felt the now familiar sinking sensation as her surroundings came into focus.
“I tried to be quiet.” Guy’s voice penetrated the gloomy interior of the room and drew her attention. “I am sorry to have awakened you,” he said as he strapped his sword belt around his waist.
“Where are you going?” Immediately Marian wished she had bitten her tongue rather than display any curiosity about his comings and goings.
“To the castle,” he replied as he sheathed his sword in its scabbard.
“What horrific plans could the Sheriff possibly have that require your attention in the middle of the night?” she asked snidely as she sat up.
“The cock has already crowed,” he told her and briefly tipped open one shutter so that she could see the pearlescent light that signaled the birth of a new day. “Tis dawn.” He shrugged into his long leather coat as he came closer to her side of the bed. “I hope to return by midday.” He leaned toward her as if to kiss her and she hastily slid down in the bed and turned her back.
“How and where you spend your day is of little consequence to me.” Her voice was muffled as she drew the blankets up to her chin.
Guy took the rebuff in stride and instead stroked a hand over the top of her head before stepping away from the bed.
“It promises to be a pretty day,” he murmured as he wrapped his hand around the door handle. “I hope you will not spend the whole of it cooped up in this room again.”
As he stepped into the hallway and pulled the door shut behind him, he heard and felt something thud against the wood. He was cheered somewhat by Marian’s display of temper. While he did not wish for a defiant wife, neither did he wish to share his life with the pale wraith with whom he had been living these last two days. Barely a word had been exchanged between them in that time. She had spent the days either sleeping or wrapped in a blanket while staring out of the window, eyes fixated longingly on the tree line that indicated the border of Sherwood.
As the sound of his booted footfalls faded into the distance, Marian flopped back onto the bed and pulled the covers around her more comfortably. Long minutes passed and finally she determined that she was too restless to spend another day in bed, even for the sheer pleasure of defying his suggestion. She opened the bedroom door and called for someone to bring her water with which to wash. It was not in her nature to brood for too long and she was heartily weary of being stuck in one place.
A servant brought a pitcher of warm water and a handful of soft cloths and Marian quickly set about stripping away her chemise and washing away the lethargy of the last two days. After hurriedly bathing and cleaning her teeth, she donned a fresh gown. Moving toward the window, she pushed open the shutters and again found herself staring blindly toward the tree line while idly brushing her hair. Once she had tamed the wavy mass, she gathered it in a tail over one shoulder and secured it with a length of leather cording. Feeling partially more herself, she made her way down the stairs. Slight hunger pangs were making themselves known despite the knot of tension which seemed to be permanently lodged now in her stomach.
As she poked her head into the kitchen in search of something to break her fast, another servant brought a tray with a steaming bowl of porridge and a hunk of freshly baked bread wrapped in a cloth to keep it warm.
“Might I have some honey?” Marian looked up expectantly.
“There is no honey, my lady,” the servant told her. “My lord keeps a simple larder.”
Too busy hoarding his pennies, Marian thought with a slight sneer.
“But I am sure he would be happy t’get you anything you might want, m’lady,” the servant hastened to add as she noted the scowl on her new lady’s face. “After all, the larder and the running of the house will be yours now, won’t it?”
Marian was startled by the woman’s question, having given no thought until now about her new life. Indeed, she had done everything to avoid thinking about it and had done little more than sleep and brood since arriving at Locksley two nights past.
“I… I don’t – that is, Sir Guy and I have not… we have not discussed…”
She forced herself to stop babbling and took a deep breath. “This looks delicious,” she said with a smile. “Thank you.”
The servant bobbed her head in response and left Marian alone with her meal which had now lost most of its appeal. It was only due to the gnawing ache in the pit of her belly that she forced down half of the porridge and bread.
Once she had finished eating, she found her cloak and ventured outside. Guy had been right – it was a pretty day. She wandered about the property taking in the familiar rise of a nearby hill and a field of high waving grass. Her conversation with the servant had stirred up a multitude of emotions. She had often imagined herself to be the lady of this manor – but never like this.
She found herself in the grassy field and sank down to the ground. Pulling her cloak more tightly around her, she stretched out in the soft grass and let the slight warmth of the morning sun help her to escape back into the oblivion of sleep.
When she next awoke, the midday sun was directly overhead. Sitting up, Marian raised her hand to her brow to shield her eyes from the bright glare and pushed herself to her feet. The manor seemed quiet, though she was aware of the servants going about their daily chores. She walked toward the stables and slipped inside. The horses stabled there lifted their heads and her mount whickered a soft greeting.
“Hello, my beauty,” she whispered as she stroked a hand down its nose. The horse butted its head against her torso, searching for a treat.
“Sorry,” she laughed softly. “I do not have anything with me.”
Wrapping her arms around the beast’s neck, she leaned against its sturdy frame and felt a small measure of calmness steal over her. She stayed like that for some time, enjoying the comfort of the horse’s familiar scent until her peaceful reverie was interrupted by the sound of her name being called.
Whirling about she saw Robin standing just outside the back entrance to the stables. The sunlight gilded him in a halo of gold and for a moment she was dazzled by the sight of him.
“Robin!” She rushed forward and fell into his welcoming embrace.
“My God, Marian. I waited for you to return as we planned,” he murmured. “When you did not come, I went to your house and your father told me what has happened.”
“Oh, Robin, you should not be here.” She pulled him into a shadowy alcove in the stable. “He will be back at any time.”
“Good,” he snarled. “I am going to kill him and do not want to waste a lot of time looking for him.”
“No!” she cried. “You mustn’t.” Her fingers curled into his jacket. “Please, Robin.” She was terrified that Robin would be fatally injured and neither did she wish to see Guy harmed. If only he would just let her go, she thought. If only.
“Marian.” Robin pressed his forehead to hers. “What are we going to do?”
She shook her head and tried to swallow past the enormous lump which had formed in her throat. “I do not know,” she whispered. “I do not think there is anything we can do.”
His arms tightened around her. “He has not hurt you, has he?”
“No,” she told him. “He has actually been quite solicitous of me.” She laid her head against his chest and felt the shuddering breath he drew.
“Has he… have you…?” His voice trailed off as he was unable to bring himself to give voice to his greatest fear.
“No.” She could feel her cheeks flush with heat. “No.” Not yet, she thought as she recalled Guy’s words on their wedding night.
“Marian, you cannot mean to stay here.”
“Where else would I go?”
“Come away with me!” He grasped both of her hands in his own. “Just come with me – now.”
“Go away with you?” she asked. “Where? How?”
“Come with me to the forest. We can be together there,” he said as he tugged on her hands and tried to urge her toward the door.
“To the forest?”
“Yes, please, come now. Right now.”
“Robin, what are thinking? I cannot go with you. I am married to Guy.”
He gripped her arms tightly in his hands. “The marriage means nothing to me, Marian. Please say you will come.”
“It means something to the law. It means something to the Church. It means everything to Guy,” she cried passionately.
“You said he has not touched you. We can have the marriage annulled.”
“Are you crazy? He would have to agree to that and he will not! He will not let me go. He would come after me.”
“You sound as though you do not want to be with me,” he growled. “As if you would rather stay here with him!”
“And you act as if I have a choice,” she spat back. “But it is not you who would be branded and judged. It is not you who would be dragged back here to face the wrath of a husband scorned. He will not put up with my running again. He could destroy Knighton. He would destroy me!”
“Here he has power because the Sheriff gives it to him,” Robin said in a controlled voice. “But in the forest – in the forest I rule. You know I can protect you there. He will never find you.”
“I – what are… are you even listening to yourself?” she cried. “Come with you! For how long? As what? As your mistress? Would you make of me your whore?”
“No! Marian, please.”
“Then as what?” she repeated. Hot tears sprang to her eyes. “I cannot be your wife.”
“When the King returns –”
“When the King returns! When the King returns! I am sick of hearing about your precious King! All of this is his fault anyway!” she snarled and yanked herself free of his grip.
“Marian, please.” Robin gentled his voice and reached for her again. “Be reasonable.”
“Be reasonable?” Her laugh was an ugly sound, filled with despair, clogged with tears. “There is nothing sane or reasonable about any of this,” she said bitterly. “Men make all of the decisions and women are left to suffer the consequences.” Once again she pulled away from him and wrapped her arms around herself.
“No!” She held up a hand to block his advance. “The King decided to go off on his holy quest and you could not wait to follow –”
“So, now I am to blame!”
“Yes. No.” Her shoulders sagged in defeat. “It is no one’s fault. Or it is everyone’s.” She scrubbed her hands over her face. “Mine. Yours. The King’s. Guy’s.” She sighed tiredly and drew her cloak more tightly about her. “Every decision we have made has led us to this place,” she concluded. “And I see no way out.”
“If he were dead –” Robin again suggested in a low, controlled voice.
“You would be a murderer,” she said flatly. “And could not live with yourself.” She closed her eyes and lowered her head. “His blood would be on both our hands and I could not live with that.”
“Marian.” Robin pulled her back into his arms. “I love you. You cannot ask me to go.”
Marian took two stumbling steps away from him.
“You must go,” she told him sadly. “Go, and forget me.”
She forced herself to walk toward the open door of the stable.
“Can you forget me?” he called to her retreating back, his voice thick with tears.
She stiffened and sucked in a deep breath.
I must, she thought to herself. I must forget about him and all our plans.
“Goodbye,” she called as she stepped into the sunlight and away from the life she once thought she would live.
Resolute, she did not turn around and instead plodded forward, eyes down, concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other as she walked away. Upon reaching the manor house, she was startled to find Guy standing in the doorway. She looked up and saw that his eyes were fixed on the open field behind the stable and her heart began to pound frantically for she knew beyond any doubt that he was watching Robin make his way toward the tree line that denoted the edge of Sherwood. She stood before her husband in a frozen terror and each second that passed was an eternity.
Finally, she gathered her courage and chanced looking up at him to find that he had returned his attention to her. He said nothing but instead reached out and traced gentle fingers over the tear tracks on her cheeks and there was a marked sadness to his expression when he met her eyes. After a long moment, he stepped back politely and she entered the house, flustered and confused by the feeling of guilt which washed over her as she felt his wounded gaze follow her.
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
Over the course of the next few days, whenever Marian found herself wallowing in self-pity, she threw herself into work. She had walked away from Robin heartbroken, but resolute in the knowledge that they could not be together. Perhaps they had waited too long. Perhaps it was never meant to be.
She knew that for her own sake she needed to begin to find a way to come to terms with the situation in which she found herself. She was a long way from forgiving Guy for his trickery. But she was well-trained to take over the running of his household and found the work a welcome distraction, especially at those moments when she could feel the intensity of his gaze upon her. In those encounters, she knew that it was only a matter of time before he would seek to make her his wife in every way.
And so she set about keeping herself occupied and began by meeting and learning the names of each member of the small staff that served at Locksley. She had long known Thornton, who had first come to Locksley as the manservant to Robin’s father and who had faithfully served the son until his departure for the Holy Land and glory. She quickly came to rely on him and his wealth of knowledge about the estate.
Of the remaining household staff there was a cook, housekeeper and one maid. In addition, there were two stable hands and a steward who oversaw the tenant farms.
Though the manor was in general kept clean, she saw many ways in which to improve things and laid out a plan to thoroughly scour the house from top to bottom. As the staff was small, she literally rolled up her own sleeves and got to work, grateful for the hard physical labor which left her too tired at night to toss and turn.
“I want them all removed and burned.” His wife’s voice carried across the courtyard as Guy rode in one afternoon. He swung down from the saddle and secured the horse’s reins to a nearby rail.
“Once they are all out of the house, we will sweep and scrub the floors, Alyce,” he heard her say to the housekeeper.
“Yes, m’lady.” The housekeeper bobbed her head as he approached and hurried off to carry out her instructions.
“What are you doing?” He watched the maid and two stable hands carry armloads of rushes from the house and dump them onto a fire being carefully tended by Thornton. At least he now knew why no one had come out of the stables to take care of his mount.
“I am burning the rushes.” Marian squinted against the glare of the sun as she raised her head to look at him.
“I can see that,” he murmured. “I am left to wonder why.”
“They are filthy.”
His brows shot up in surprise. “I believe they were laid but a month ago.”
“And it does not take long for them to become soiled,” she said. “All of the dirt that is tracked into the house, bits of food which are dropped... they are likely crawling with vermin.”
He folded his arms over his chest. “Will not the new ones encounter the same fate?” he asked curiously.
“I am not having them replaced.”
His brows lifted again. “It will be cold.”
“I would rather be cold.”
He cast his eyes across the courtyard toward the fire. “Can you not replace them on a weekly basis?” he asked.
“I can, but I assumed you would not wish to incur the expense.”
He nodded and stepped into the house. Turning back, he held out a hand. “Come, I have something for you.”
Marian followed him into the house and gave an approving smile to the young maid, Hannah, who was sweeping the now bare floor. She saw Guy duck into the small room which he used as a study and poked her head through the doorway curiously.
The room was spartan, as was most of the rest of the house. Once the home of the Earl of Huntingdon, Locksley had boasted a collection of expensive, but tasteful décor. Elaborate tapestries hung from the walls protecting the occupants from the damp of the stone walls as well as providing light and color to the room. Like the paintings and other decorative touches, they were meant not only to provide a comfortable and pleasant home but to showcase the family’s status. This room, like the others, was devoid of any such decoration and she could not help but to wonder what had happened to all of Robin’s family treasurers. Sold, she feared, to swell Guy’s coffers.
She was brought back to the present as Guy beckoned her into the room. He pulled open a drawer and withdrew a book and a large ring jangling with at least a dozen keys.
“You should have these things,” he said as he handed the book to her. “This ledger is for the household accounts and the keys are for – well, everything.” He jiggled the keys and made them dance on their ring. “This small key opens the bottom drawer of my desk,” he said as he inserted it into the drawer’s lock. He pulled out a small metal box and flipped back the hinged lid to reveal the coins stacked within.
“You should rightly have control of the household money,” he told her as he handed her the keys. I leave to you how it is spent – just make a note of all expenditures in the ledger.”
He folded his arms across his chest again and cocked his head to one side, making an elaborate show of studying her appearance. She wore a voluminous apron over her oldest gown and a smudge of dirt rode high on one cheek.
“I am not sure that I like my wife dressing as a ragamuffin.” He smirked and reached out to toy with the kerchief she had tied over her dark hair.
“And I do not like having the Sheriff’s lackey as my husband, but I was not given a choice.”
Guy’s hand fell to his side and as the light in his eyes gave way to an icy hardness, Marian realized – too late – that he had meant his words in jest.
“You did have a choice, Marian,” he told her in a tone all the more frightening for its deadly control. “You chose to pretend a fondness for me and a willingness to become my wife. All of which I now realize was simply a way to manipulate me and, I suspect, carry information back to Hood.” His fingers curled into fists by his sides.
“You played a game and, it seems we have both lost.” He stepped away from the desk. “I will allow you to return to your work, madam.” He sketched a formal bow.
“My lady,” he sneered as he left the room.
Marian sank into a chair. She wished that she could recall her words for it seemed they did little more than make a bad situation worse. She felt trapped in this marriage to a man she did not love. She despised what he did and hated how he lived so much of his life, even if she could not quite bring herself to hate the man himself.
For indeed, if she was ruthlessly honest with herself, she would admit that there was something about him which she found enormously appealing. The problem was that every time she had felt a softening toward him, he would do something or be in involved in something which would cause her to harden her resolve against him.
She did not see him again that day until it was time to retire for the evening. He slid into bed, coldly silent, and she knew that things could not continue in this manner else the situation would fast become intolerable.
Sucking in a deep breath, she pulled her courage around her like armor and rolled over to face him. He was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling but she knew from his rigid posture that his attention was riveted to her. She sat up and looped her arms around her up drawn legs and propped her chin on her knees. “My father has many times accused me of having a quick temper,” she murmured.
“Guy.” She turned her head and waited until he was looking at her.
“I often speak without thinking first and my words can be hateful. I am sorry for having been rude earlier.”
“I do not wish to be at odds with you, Marian.” He shifted onto his side.
“I know.” She drew in a deep breath and kept her eyes steady on his face as she continued. “I do not mean to be hurtful now, Guy, but I hate the things you do. I cannot pretend that I am proud to be called Lady Gisbourne.”
His head jerked back as if absorbing a blow. He closed his eyes and gave a terse nod of his head in acknowledgment of her words.
“I understand,” he said gruffly.
“I pray that someday changes,” she whispered. Her hand hovered over his arm for a long moment before she withdrew it and laid back down facing away from him. They lay there a long time, each consumed by their thoughts until sleep finally beckoned.
They were excruciatingly polite to one another for the next two days and each night Marian collapsed into bed thoroughly exhausted. Something was going to have to give, she mused late one morning while in the kitchen with the cook setting the menu for the week. The two women were taking inventory of the larder while Marian made notes of what was needed from the market.
“Is Sir Guy partial to rabbit or pork?” she asked as she asking the cook to prepare a few of her own family recipes.
“I cannot say, my lady.”
“You cannot – why ever not?”
“My Lord Gisbourne eats whatever we serve,” the cook said nervously. “He’s never asked for anythin’ special.”
They were interrupted by the housekeeper who poked her head into the pantry.
“My lady, come quickly,” she said breathlessly.
“What is it, Alyce?”
“The peddler is coming!”
Marian and the cook exchanged grins and hastened to follow Alyce. The peddler’s visit was an event looked forward to by all. Colorful fabrics and threads, pots and pans, exotic spices, silk ribbons and other fripperies competed for attention and the peddler was content to allow his customers to touch and linger, knowing that it only meant increased sales.
Marian stripped off her apron and smoothed her skirts as she stepped outside and peered at the overburdened wagon making its way down the lane toward the manor. As it drew closer, she frowned.
“I do not think it the peddler,” she told the other women and she moved toward the stone fence for a closer look.
“Charles!” she cried as she recognized one of the servants from Knighton. A huge smile wreathed Marian’s face when she caught sight of the young woman perched on the seat next to the driver. “Meg!” Marian pulled the girl into her embrace when she scrambled down from the wagon. “What are you doing here?”
“Your father sent me. He said you would need a lady’s maid.”
Marian smiled broadly, glad for a familiar face. She looked up as Charles jumped to the ground alongside them. “And you, Charles?” she grinned. “I know my father could not live without you. What brings you here?”
“Your father sent you some things, my lady.”
“But…” she looked at him in confusion. “Father has already sent all of my gowns and other things.”
“Yes, my lady, but today he sends this.” The servant swept back the tarp covering the wagon bed to reveal a number of items which to Marian meant home. “He sent you a letter as well, Lady Marian.
She took the proffered note and eagerly broke the wax seal.
Forgive me my shortsightedness. I sent only your clothing and other personal belongings. However, your husband has indicated to me that you might welcome some items from Knighton which may give you some comfort in your new home. I have chosen that which I think will bring you the greatest pleasure. But if you should wish to visit an old man and make him happy, come and take from here whatever you desire. I wish you joy, daughter.
With loving affection, your father,
Marian folded the note and slid it into her pocket to read again later. “Well!” She smiled through the tears shimmering in her eyes. “Let us see what Father has sent to me.”
Guy returned home that evening to a wife who, for the first time since their marriage, was wearing a soft smile.
“My lord,” she greeted him quietly.
“Marian.” Baffled caution colored his tone.
“Supper is ready if you would eat.”
He slowly followed her to the table and at her expectant look, fumbled to pull out her chair so that she could sit. He cast his eyes about warily, bewildered by her sudden willingness to share a table with him.
Marian sent a discreet signal to Hannah who hastened forward with the meal.
“I did not know what you would like.” Marian dished up portions of venison ribs in a broth made of vinegar and red wine and seasoned with sage and pepper.
The look he gave her was so decidedly confused that she hastily bit back a grin.
“Bread, my lord?”
Guy took the heel of the loaf and dug into his meal.
Marian sampled a bite and deemed it a bit bland. She made a mental note to purchase garlic and cloves and perhaps some mace and coriander when she went to the market. She watched Guy eat in silence for the next few minutes and noted with relief that he was well-mannered at table. Unlike so many other men of her acquaintance, he chewed with his mouth closed and did not hunch over his plate as if to ward off thieves. He ate perfunctorily – and made no effort toward conversation.
“Is the venison to your liking, Sir Guy?”
He gave a quick jerk of his chin without ever lifting his head.
“Is it cooked to your taste? I find it a bit bland myself,” she said conversationally.
Guy dropped his fork to the table with a clatter. “Alright, Marian.” He sat back slowly and shot her a wary glance. “What is it you want? Why are you being so… nice?”
Annoyed, she pushed her chair away from the table and stood with her hands planted firmly on her hips. “I wanted only to show my thanks but you are obviously too dim of wit to understand!”
“Your thanks?” His tone was the wary one of a man who recognizes he has done something wrong but is at a loss to understand exactly what.
“You have not even noticed the changes,” she huffed as she flopped back into her chair. “Never-mind.” She waved a dismissive hand. “I am sorry to have interrupted your meal.
Changes? Guy let his gaze wander around the room and at last noted the finely-wrought tapestry hanging on a wall between two windows, a small bench with a colorfully embroidered cushion near the hearth, silver candlesticks on the mantle and other touches meant to brighten a home.
“It looks nice,” he offered cautiously and cast about frantically in his head for something else to say when she did not respond. “I… um… I had forgotten until now how such small things can cheer a room.”
Marian studied him for a long moment. “My father wrote to me that it was your idea.”
Self-conscious under her intense gaze, he simply shrugged and played with his fork. “I wish you to be comfortable here.”
“It was kind,” she offered softly. “Thank you.”
He bobbed his head once in response.
“Go ahead.” She speared another rib and placed it on his plate. “Finish before it is cold.”
They ate the rest of their meal in a silence that was somehow at once comfortable and awkward.
“There is more, if you are still hungry.”
“I thank you, no.” He scraped his chair back from the table and stood, ill at ease.
“It was good,” he finally grunted. Setting down his napkin, he shot another glance around the changed room. “I am glad that you were pleased.” He hesitated for a long moment as if he would say something else before striding off to his study.
Bemused, Marian tore off a hunk of bread and chewed it slowly as she worked on the puzzle that was her husband, for she was not ignorant of the fact that by asking her father to send to her some bits of Knighton, he was attempting to do something which would make her proud to be his wife.
Guy’s duties did not require his attendance at the castle so early the next day. He was surprised – and pleased – when Marian joined him to break their fast and was then quickly flummoxed when it became apparent that she expected him to join her in conversation. Prior to their marriage, most exchanges between them had been the riposte and parry of an argument or debate which he had found at turns to be either stimulating or infuriating. He had little ease in making genial conversation with a woman.
“I am going to the market today,” she announced.
Guy kept his gaze locked on his meal, wondering furtively if such a comment actually warranted a response. He took what he considered the safest route and nodded. But he sensed, rather than heard her long-suffering sigh, and risked lifting his gaze to her.
“If you would tell me what your favorite meals are, I will see to it that the cook adds them to the menu.”
“Favorites?” Confusion was evident on his face and she resisted the almost overwhelming urge to roll her eyes.
“Yes, my lord. It is not a difficult question. What dishes give you the most pleasure?”
He shrugged and spooned up more porridge. “I do not think I have a favorite,” he said at last.
Marian flopped back into her chair. “Everyone has a favorite, Guy. How is it possible you do not?”
He was at a loss to understand why it mattered but he gave it due consideration as it seemed obvious that she was waiting for an answer.
“I am a soldier,” he said at last. He stuffed a chunk of bread into his mouth and chewed, well-satisfied with his answer until it became evident that Marian was not.
“You are a soldier? What does that mean?”
He set down his spoon and gave brief contemplation to eating his morning meal elsewhere in the future. Perhaps the cook could wrap up some cheese and bread for him to take with him when he left the manor.
“It means that food is intended to provide sustenance to the body. A soldier eats whatever rations are provided.”
And, he thought darkly, if he ate with his men he would not be expected to spend his time jibber-jabbering at the table.
“But…” Marian propped her chin on her hand and studied him inquisitively. “You were not always a soldier. What about when you were a child? What meals did your mother serve which gave you enjoyment?”
“It has been many years since I was a child, Marian. Many years since I have had a mother.”
She felt a brief stirring of pity for a man who seemed unable to find enjoyment in one of life’s most simple pleasures and, giving him a sympathetic nod, they finished their meal in silence.
Shaking off the gloom, Guy stood and strapped his sword belt around his waist. Picking up his coat he strode back to the table.
“Purchase what you will at the market,” he told her archly. “Perhaps you will find something that will become my favorite.
Emboldened by the saucy smirk on her face, he risked brushing his lips across her forehead. He bounded out of the manor and toward his horse, buoyed by the startled look on her face.
Finally, he thought. He had a plan.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
It started with a kiss.
Encouraged by Marian’s more welcoming behavior, Guy made the decision to change the course of his marriage.
Thus far, he had been willing – if not content – to allow her to set the pace. He took it as a good omen that she was working toward making the manor her home. But it was her willingness to take his tastes and comforts into consideration which spurred him to push forward. For all that she was willing to assume the role of lady of the manor; he knew that she was far from willing to assume the role of wife. At night she continued to cling to her side of the mattress, her body tense and wary, until she relaxed into sleep. Lying beside her, unable to touch, was a torture. That he knew she was pining for Hood only added to his suffering.
Seeing the other man walking across the field toward the forest in those first days after their marriage, Guy had raced out of the house, intent on ending things once and for all. His first reaction had been the familiar burning rage he always felt upon laying eyes on Robin of Locksley. But when he saw Marian, something changed.
It galled him to know that Marian had been alone in the stable with Hood and he was tormented by the knowledge that the outlaw had her love. Her tear-streaked face as she had walked toward him brought to life the fierce jealousy which always simmered below the surface. But it was the very fact that she was walking toward him which prevented Guy from chasing down the other man. The fact that this time she had not ridden off with Hood, but had instead returned to the manor of her own will. Her slumped posture, but determined stride spoke of her intent to stay, and in that moment, Guy made the decision to let Hood go free.
He did not do it selflessly, or out of love. But rather, his decision was made out of a sense of fair play – something he had long thought dead within him. He made it out of a sense of owing something to her in acknowledgment of the choice she had made. That he recognized there would be no forgiveness from her if he had killed Hood had also kept him firmly rooted in place.
And now it felt as if something important between them had changed. Her gentle teasing over the morning meal, and the fact that her reaction to his kiss was one of being more startled than dismayed, encouraged him.
It was time, he thought, to give her a little push.
It started with a kiss.
Guy’s obvious exasperation with her chatter during those first two shared meals had amused Marian, especially because she knew that he thought he had kept his frustration hidden. He had accepted her gentle jibes with an unexpectedly good nature and she had seen an easing of his usually grim features.
The soft brush of his lips across her forehead seemed a friendly punctuation to the first truly civil exchange between them. So, when he pressed his lips against her cheek before they retired for the evening a few days later, or dropped a seemingly absentminded kiss on the tip of her nose when leaving for Nottingham one morning, she accepted it in the same manner.
So she was unsurprised another day when he lowered his head to hers as they arose from the breakfast table. But instead of a simple peck on the cheek, his lips had fallen in a whisper-soft caress at the corner of her mouth and she felt her heart slam against her breastbone in response. She thought she heard him wishing her a good day through the sudden roaring in her ears and she shook her head to clear it. She watched him walk toward his waiting mount, seemingly unfazed by something that had left her momentarily shaken.
And on the next day – and the day after that – it was the same. An almost kiss, glancing off the corner of her mouth, first one side and then the other. Or, somehow just as unnerving, nothing more than the simple scrape of his roughened jaw against her smooth cheek.
And each time, the same disturbing reaction on her part – breath catching in her throat, heartbeat racing out of control.
She was off-balance. Out of her element. Somehow, something had shifted between them and she found herself ill-prepared to deal with it.
She rationalized that her accelerated heartbeat and inability to breathe properly were simple signs of her anxiety over his sudden attentions. And she viciously squashed the tiny voice that whispered for more. So when two and then three days passed without his attempting to kiss her again, she assured herself that she was relieved.
“I am going to retire for the evening.” Marian set aside her mending and rose from her seat near the hearth. Guy glanced up from reading his steward’s reports.
“Tomorrow is the day you visit your father, is it not?”
“Yes. He misses me and I want to make sure that he is being well taken care of now that I –”
“You do not have to explain, Marian. I know you enjoy these visits with your father.” Guy stood and gestured for her to precede him up the stairs. “I would speak with you on another matter.”
He pushed open the door to their chamber and stepped aside so that she could enter. He followed her into the room and closed the door behind him. Leaning against it, he stared at her for a long moment.
Growing uncomfortable under his steady regard, Marian let out a light laugh to cover her nervousness.
“You wished to speak with me, my lord?”
He blinked and shook his head as if to clear it.
“Yes. Marian, you may have noticed that I have done my best to keep you from the castle and away from the Sheriff.”
“I have,” she nodded cautiously.
“The Sheriff is easily distracted,” he sighed, “and often with him out-of-sight means out-of-mind. That is what I hoped to accomplish by keeping you and your father away from Nottingham.”
Again she nodded. “I understand.”
“But the Sheriff is having guests –”
“The Lord of Wykeham and his wife.”
“Why? What does the Sheriff want of them?” she demanded.
“The reason is unimportant,” Guy said sharply. “The fact that the Sheriff commands your presence is.”
“When?” Marian’s face wrinkled in disgust.
“Two nights hence.” He reached for her hand and drew her close. “Wear something subdued,” he urged. “And do nothing which will draw his attention. He enjoys baiting you.”
“But why?” she cried.
“Because you respond so fiercely.” He squeezed her hand. “He sees you as an adversary and he likes nothing better than to try to humiliate and break anyone who stands in his path. He will do anything; use anyone against his opponent if he thinks it will force them to heel. Do not give him the opportunity.”
“How can you work for such an odious man?” she cried.
He drew himself to his full height. “I have my reasons,” he told her stiffly. “And I am sure you would find none of them to be acceptable.” He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
“Let us just try to get through the evening without giving him cause to humble you.”
Marian opened her mouth as if to argue, but something in his eyes – a look of worry, or weariness – caused her to subside.
“Is my father expected to –”
“No. I have arranged it so that your father’s presence is not required.”
She let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you.” She tightened her fingers around his and offered him a hesitant smile.
Guy’s lips quirked upward in response and the tension between them eased. “I need to go back down and finish reviewing those reports,” he told her as he idly toyed with her fingers. “I shall likely be gone before you awaken tomorrow. Please give my regards to your father.”
He lowered his head to hers and brushed his lips against the corner of her mouth in a lingering caress. She turned her head (away she would vow to herself later) so that when he moved to press his mouth against the other corner of hers, their lips met.
Marian trembled and was dimly aware of an identical shudder passing through his frame as he cupped her face in his hands. His mouth moved against hers, gently at first, nibbling on the soft fullness of her lower lip and then roving over the curved bow of the upper. She wrapped her fingers around his wrists and was unsure whether her intent was to pull his hands away or to keep him close. She lost all track of time and place – her whole world was narrowed onto the joining of their lips.
“Marian.” He groaned her name and wrapping his arms around her, turned until she was trapped between the heavy weight of his body and the thick wood of the door at her back. He lifted his mouth briefly, long enough only for them both to drag air into their lungs before returning to her mouth.
“Again,” he said and deepened the kiss – a slow, wet exploration of her mouth, muffling the moan which slipped from her. He tore his mouth from hers and slid his lips along the column of her throat and laved his tongue over the place where her pulse madly fluttered. Her head fell back against the door and it was the slight pain of that contact which brought her back to her senses.
“My lord.” She arched her back in an attempt to put some distance between them and instead brushed even more intimately against him. “Stop. Please.”
“Marian.” Again, her name escaped him on a long groan and he leaned his forehead against the door, so close that she could feel the moist heat of his ragged breath against her cheek as he fought to bring himself under control. At length his hands fell from her body and he straightened his back. Marian fixed her gaze on the center of his chest and waited for him to step away.
“Guy,” she whispered. “The hour grows late and I am tired.”
“If you wish me to go, you need only release me.”
A hot flush of embarrassment and arousal stained her cheeks as she yanked back her arms which had at some point wound themselves around his neck and lowered her heels to the floor. She knotted her fingers into the fabric of her skirt and stepped away from him.
“It is late,” she repeated, her gaze fixed on the floor. “I am tired.”
Guy reached behind her and wrapped his hand around the handle of the door and pulled. The inward swing of the door, forced her to take a step toward him and once again their bodies brushed.
“Sleep well, my lady,” he murmured against her hot cheek.
And stepping into the hall, he could not help but smile, content to know that her sleep would be as disturbed as his own that night.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
Marian adjusted the heavy basket hanging over her arm as she approached the spice merchant. This was her favorite stall at the marketplace and she always saved it as her last stop. She murmured a greeting to the merchant and inhaled deeply, enjoying the heady aroma of the many exotic spices.
She and the cook had settled on a roast of pork for the evening’s meal. She selected several bulbs of garlic and pointed toward the caraway seed. While the merchant measured out the seed, she lifted a handful of coriander to her nose, inhaling the lemony scent and smiled at the vendor to add it to her purchases. While she waited for the merchant to wrap up her purchases, she decided to have the cook make a pork pie of the leftovers for the next day’s meal and made a mental note to pick up a wedge of cheese before heading home.
She flashed a smile of thanks at the merchant and was tucking away her change when she heard a familiar voice.
“Good afternoon, my lady.”
Marian looked up at the cloaked and hooded figure leaning indolently against the side of one of the stalls and felt a surge of affection for him as well as annoyance at his brashness. She hastily pulled him into a shadowy corner behind the stall.
“You should not be here,” she hissed. “One of these days you will be caught!”
He flashed a cocky grin until she softened and smiled back.
“Truly, Robin, you take too many risks.”
“These people are my friends,” he shrugged.
“Most,” she admonished sternly in a reminder that Guy’s men patrolled the villages surrounding the castle on a regular basis.
He merely smiled again and she sighed, unwilling to argue. They fell into a silence made uncomfortable by the memory of their last meeting.
“What are you doing here?” she finally asked.
“I heard this was the day you usually come to the market. I wanted to see you.”
“Oh, Robin. You… we can’t –” She drew in a deep breath. “Nothing has changed. I am married.”
“You are right,” he told her. “Nothing has changed. I still love you.”
“Well, you should not,” she said petulantly. “I told you before – nothing can come of it.”
“Marian –” He reached for her but she held out a forestalling hand and took a hasty step back.
Robin subsided and gave a terse nod of his head and again, they slipped into an awkward silence. “I understand the Sheriff is expecting guests,” he said at length.
“So I have been told.”
“I assume you will be in attendance?”
Marian nodded, avoiding his gaze.
“Lord and Lady Wykeham?”
“That is what Guy –” She flushed at his sharp look. “Yes,” she amended hastily. “That is what I have heard.”
“Do you know what the Sheriff wants of them?”
“No,” she murmured warily.
“Can you find out?”
“Robin,” she protested. “I–”
“Does your new position as Lady Gisbourne preclude you now from helping our cause?
He spat out her title as if it were foul-tasting.
“Robin…” Marian fell silent, thinking of Guy’s warnings to avoid antagonizing the Sheriff.
Robin’s features twisted into an ugly mask. “Your husband must be a skilled lover to have secured your loyalty so swiftly.”
Anger blazed through her and her fist swung out instinctively. He clamped a hand on her wrist before she could make contact with his jaw.
“I am sorry.” He pulled her close and lowered his forehead to hers. “I am sorry, Marian. I did not mean it. My words were born of jealousy. I cannot bear to think of you in his bed.”
Hot tears burned behind Marian’s closed eyes as he pulled her into his arms. She trembled as she rested her cheek against his shoulder and relaxed into the comfort of his embrace.
“Marian.” His lips brushed against her ear as he whispered her name. He cupped her face between his hands and murmured her name over and over again before lowering his mouth to hers in a lingering kiss.
Marian wrenched free of his arms and stumbled away, shaken back to reality by the touch of his lips. She raised trembling fingers to her mouth and shook her head furiously.
“No. We cannot.” She swiped her fingers across her mouth as if to erase his kiss.
“I know,” he said grimly. “I am sorry. I did not mean… it is hard for me –” He squeezed his eyes closed for a moment before returning his gaze to her. “Again, I apologize.”
Marian swallowed hard and stared at a fixed point somewhere beyond his shoulder.
“I will find out what I can for you about the Sheriff’s plans,” she said tightly as she scooped up her basket. “And I will get word to you.”
He nodded silently, his mouth set in a firm line.
“Goodbye, Robin.” Clutching her basket tightly in her hands, Marian fled.
Guy watched in silence as his wife put the finishing touches to her toilette. She sat patiently while her maid fussed with her hair, pulling it back at the crown and allowing the rest to lay in a dark waving mass down her back. Marian fastened small gold earbobs to her lobes and rose. She smoothed her hands over her skirts and studied her reflection in the dull surface of a mirror.
At last she turned and faced him.
He cocked his head to one side and studied her intently. Shaking his head, he climbed to his feet and paced in a circle around her.
Exasperated, she folded her arms across her chest and tapped her foot impatiently.
“It is no good,” he said, his brows knit into a frown.
“If my appearance does not meet your approval, you have only yourself to blame,” she snapped. “You told me to dress conservatively.”
“Indeed,” he agreed with another glance at her midnight blue gown. “But I was wrong. You are beautiful and all eyes will be on you no matter what you wear.” He smiled as he reached for her hand but she snatched it away with a petulant sniff. He bit back a sigh and straightened his back.
“Shall we, my lady?” he asked in a mildly exasperated tone. He was unsure what to make of her. He could not help but note the change in her temperament over the last days. In his experience, women were prone to mercurial shifts of mood, Marian perhaps more so than any woman he had ever known. But he remembered her teasing smile over the breakfast table and her response to his kisses and so, kept a firm leash on his own temper lest he destroy any progress he had made.
Marian laid her hand into his outstretched one, allowing him to guide her down the stairs and out to their waiting horses. They rode toward the castle in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Ever since her encounter with Robin, she knew she had been out of sorts and short of temper. Even the servants had noticed her ill-humor and had taken pains to move quietly about their mistress.
Seeing Robin had left her in a state of confusion. She could not remember a time when she had not loved him. It seemed that even when she hated him for leaving her to follow the king to war, some part of her must have loved him still. And when he returned those feelings had flared back to life.
And yet, since her marriage to him, Guy had been kind and there were times when she thought that maybe the life she would live with him need not be one of misery. She had been cautiously tip-toeing her way toward getting to know her husband better, allowing her pragmatic side to the forefront as she sought to make the best of the situation and firmly locking away the romantic.
Or so she thought.
But then she had seen Robin and he had kissed her. She had secretly craved that kiss, and hated that in the end it left her feeling vaguely guilty. As if she had somehow betrayed Guy. And that set a flame to her temper, for she told herself there was no need for the feelings of guilt as she had been tricked into a marriage she had never wanted.
But those feelings of remorse persisted and with them her foul mood. Knowing that she would do as Robin had asked tonight and spy on the Sheriff and his guests – and that Guy would most assuredly consider that a betrayal – only served to increase her agitation and sensation of guilt.
The sun was swimming on the horizon when they reached Nottingham castle. As they rode beneath the portcullis, even Marian – consumed by her thoughts as she was – could not help but take note of the change which had come over her husband. A forbiddingly familiar disposition settled over him and his features looked to be carved of granite. He assisted her from the saddle with gentle hands but appeared taller than ever beside her, his posture so erect it seemed his spine might snap from the unyielding stiffness with which he held himself.
He escorted her into the main hall and stood rigidly at her side, making no effort at the small talk which was de rigueur at social gatherings, until his forbidding mien had others leaving a wide circle around the two of them and she could not help but note his restless gaze darting about them as if alerted to some danger which lurked in the shadowy corners of the hall.
Marian held her tongue, distracted for the moment from her own plans for the evening. When they were called to dinner, she allowed her husband to lead her to a chair at the table and was surprised when he did not take the seat next to her. A feeling of disquiet came over her as she watched him take up his usual position just behind the Sheriff’s chair.
As the meal progressed, she observed with mounting dismay as the Sheriff’s master-at-arms made his reappearance. Until that moment, she had not been consciously aware of how different his behavior was at home, but now each forbidding glower, each snarled command which sent servants scurrying out of his path and each display of fawning attention to the Sheriff and his guests increased her confusion.
By the time the meal was over, Marian’s disgust at her husband’s behavior was so complete that she did not worry herself with trivial things like loyalty or betrayal and gladly slipped from her seat the moment she saw the Sheriff lead Lord Wykeham from the hall.
She kept a healthy distance between herself and her prey. Pressing her hands against her skirt to minimize the rustling noise it made as she hurried along the twisting corridors of the castle, she could not help but wish for the less restrictive garb of her Nightwatchman disguise. She peeked around a corner and saw the Sheriff escort his guest into his inner sanctum. She waited a moment or two before edging closer. Throwing a cautious look over her shoulder, she pressed her ear to the door but though she could hear the muffled sound of male voices, she was unable to make out what was being said through the thick wood.
She briefly considered easing the door open ever so slightly but quickly dismissed the idea as too dangerous. A small grin lifted the corners of her mouth as she remembered that there was a second entrance to the room from the servants’ hallways which ran in a warren through the center of the castle. She had only taken a few short steps when she heard the sound of booted footfalls growing closer. Panicked she looked around for a place to hide and threw herself into a small alcove on the other side of the hall and just feet away from the Sheriff’s door. She gathered her skirt close to her body and melted back into the shadows stifling a gasp as her husband’s imposing figure came into view. Holding her breath, Marian pressed her back to the wall and prayed that the darkness shielded her hiding spot.
Guy strode purposely down the hall toward the Sheriff’s office. He wanted this meeting – and this evening – to be over so that he could take his wife and return to the relative quiet of Locksley. The constant need for vigilance of and from the Sheriff’s machinations was growing increasingly exhausting.
He wrapped his fingers around the handle of the door and was about to push it open when he suddenly stopped, his attention caught by an unexpected fragrance in the air. He inhaled deeply and caught the scents of lavender and vanilla and…
He dropped his forehead against the door for a brief moment before turning and looking directly into the gloom of her hiding spot.
“I know you are there,” he hissed, and taking two long strides towards the alcove, he reached into the shadows and yanked her into the light.
“You stupid girl,” he breathed, clamping both hands onto her upper arms and giving her a tiny shake. “What in God’s name were you thinking?”
Marian shook a strand of hair off her face and stood passively in his grip, unable to come up with a plausible lie. She knew there was nothing she could say which would satisfy him. She had been caught and settled into silence.
“Well?” His fingers tightened painfully on her arms as he dragged her up onto the tips of her toes. “We both know the only reason you agreed to marry me in the first place – indeed the only reason you are living with me as my wife today – is to secure my protection for you and your father,” he snarled. His face was so close to hers, she was having trouble keeping it in focus. “Would you jeopardize all of that by this deceit?”
He shoved her away and raked a hand through his hair.
“Did Hood put you up to this?” He shot her a look rife with suspicion and she fought to keep her gaze steady on his. “This is not a game, Marian,” he whispered harshly. “If the Sheriff caught you he would kill you, but first he would kill your father and make you watch. ” He tangled his fingers into her hair and pulled her head back and his pupils were wide with rage and fear. “I do not know how to make you understand. He is not sane. Do not cross him.”
The sound of voices drawing closer to the door, drew their attention. Guy briefly considered grabbing Marian by the hand and running but he knew the chance of them being seen was too great. He looked wildly around for a place to hide her, his gaze lighting on the shadowy alcove, but if the Sheriff happened to see her there. He could not risk it.
No, he thought. Better to hide in plain sight.
“Come with me.” He dragged her down the hall toward a staircase which led to the bedchambers on the next level. “Play along,” he hissed and yanked her into his arms as the door to the Sheriff’s office swung open.
“Come, my love,” Guy dropped a kiss on her lips as the Sheriff and Lord Wykeham stepped into view. “The journey home is long and I have a chamber above.” He began to back up the stairs, tugging on her hand, a suggestive smile on his face.
She could feel the Sheriff’s gaze boring a hole in her back and hoped the shiver which ran through her seemed one born of passion.
“Guy.” She stared at her husband, eyes wide with fear and forced out a giggle. Prayed it sounded convincing. “We should not.”
Guy snapped to attention at the sound of his superior’s voice and scrambled down the stairs.
“My lord.” He carefully positioned himself between the Sheriff and Marian.
“Did you misunderstand my request for you to attend me and Lord Wykeham?” the Sheriff asked in an oily voice all the more alarming for its feigned pleasantness.
“My lord, I–”.
“Now, now, Vasey. Do not be too hard on the boy,” Wykeham interrupted. “I understand you are newly wed, Sir Guy. Is that not right?”
“It is my lord.”
“Well, I can certainly understand the distraction with a bride as appealing as yours,” the other man said with a leering look at Marian. She sidled closer to Guy and laid a calming hand on his back.
“Come now, Sheriff. We understand, do we not? Young love and all that.” He boomed out a lascivious laugh and the Sheriff forced a smile onto his face.
“Of course,” he murmured. “You will want to return to your own lovely wife, no doubt.” He gestured toward the corridor which led to the main hall. “Please, go on ahead. The desserts are undoubtedly already being served. We will join you in a moment.”
The remaining three waited in a pregnant silence as Wykeham touched his fingers to his forehead in a farewell gesture. As soon as he had disappeared from sight, the Sheriff dropped the falsely congenial smile and rounded on his master-at-arms.
“Gisbourne,” he snarled in a menacing tone. “I warned you not to marry but you had to have your leper. He glared at Marian and she fought the instinct to duck behind her husband’s broad shoulders and instead held her ground.
“You have been good for very little since you took her to wife,” the Sheriff continued. “Distracted. Weak. Happy.” His hand flashed out with an unexpected quickness and cracked against Guy’s face. The force of the blow snapped the taller man’s head back and his lower lip split open as the Sheriff’s ring sliced through the tender skin.
Marian gasped and took a step forward but Guy shifted to block her. He raised a hand to his freely-bleeding mouth.
“I apologize, my Lord Sheriff,” he mumbled through a rapidly swelling lip. “It will not happen again.”
“Take your bitch and get out of my sight,” Vasey spat. “You are a disappointment to me and I do not want to see you for the rest of the night.” And with that he strode away, tossing off one final parting shot.
“Be here early in the morn,” he called over his shoulder. “By then I will have come up with a way for you to make it up to me.”
A shudder of revulsion rippled down Guy’s spine. There would be hell to pay. He rubbed the back of his hand over his mouth, smearing blood everywhere.
“Stop.” Marian pulled a handkerchief from the scented hollow between her breasts. “Let me see.” She tugged his collar to draw his face closer.
“I hate that man,” she murmured as she dabbed delicately at the cut on his lip. He said nothing in reply and she chanced a glance upward to gauge his reaction to her words but his expression was closed off.
“I am sorry,” she offered sincerely dropping her forehead against his chest in remorse. “I did not think that–”.
He laid a hand on her shoulder to cut her off.
“I do not wish to discuss it, Marian.” He took the soiled linen from her hand and held it firmly against his lip in an effort to staunch the flow of blood, wincing as the pressure sent a bolt of pain through him.
“But know this. All our lives hinge on my staying in the Sheriff’s good graces. If you value your own skin – and your father’s – you will not try something like this again.”
She gave a reluctant nod.
“I mean it, Marian. I will lock you in our chamber if need be,” he warned.
She nodded again in silent agreement.
“I have had enough of this party.” She tucked her hand willingly into the crook of his elbow. “Will you not take me home?”
He searched her face for some sign of subterfuge and finding only exhaustion stamped on her features, he led her toward the door and home.
Marian slept poorly over the next two nights. Plagued by nightmare images of being forced to watch her father arrested and tortured by the Sheriff’s men, she tossed and turned in bed.
She had spent the days furiously tending to household affairs, finding therapy in a bucket of hot, soapy water and a scrub brush and not even Alyce’s admonitions that it was not fitting for the lady of the manor to be on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor could deter her. She hoped the hard physical labor would be enough to exhaust her into a sound sleep.
Dusk had fallen and the manor was quiet. Guy had not yet returned. The Sheriff had made good on his threats and was keeping Guy on a short leash. Marian had taken her evening meal in the kitchen, as she had done on occasion at Knighton. She had finally made her way to their chamber and found her maid supervising the drawing of a bath.
“Come, my lady. It will do you good.” The girl assisted her mistress out of her gown and into the copper tub filled with steaming water.
Marian leaned back against the rim of the tub, allowing the heat of the water and the fragrance of the bath salts to soothe her frayed nerves. She was dimly aware of the maid bustling about the room quietly, laying a bath sheet over the back of a chair near the fire to warm it and setting a small cake of lavender scented soap on a stool within easy reach before leaving the room. And for long moments, she was content simply to drift in that place that was neither sleep nor wakefulness.
She finally roused as the water grew tepid and heard the door swing open.
“The bath has grown cool,” she said. “I am ready to get out.”
She rose from the tub, stretching luxuriously, enjoying the loose-limbed feel of her muscles after a long, hot soak. Opening her eyes, she let out a tiny shriek.
“What are you doing here?” she gasped as she tried to shield her body from view with her hands.
“Helping my lady from her bath, as instructed.” Guy gave the bath sheet in his hands a demonstrative flap.
“You knew, I thought you were my maid.” Her voice was high with mortification.
Guy relented slightly, holding the sheet high enough to block his view, but not before he seen her every curve and committed them to his memory.
Marian tried to snatch the cloth from his hands but he held fast.
“Come,” he said. “I will help you.”
Furious, but desperate to cover herself, she hastily stepped from the tub. Guy took his time winding the sheet around her, tucking the ends securely between her breasts. He lingered there, and could feel her heart pounding against the backs of his fingers where they rested dangerously close to her breasts.
Her cheeks were flushed – from the bath and, no doubt, embarrassment – and her eyes glinted with annoyance.
She was beautiful.
She wrapped her fingers around his wrist in an effort to dislodge his hand but he merely tightened his grip and pulled her closer.
“I want you,” he murmured huskily. “You know that.”
He slipped one arm around her back and shifted his grip. Tracing his fingers over her skin, he captured a bead of lingering moisture from the hollow at the base of her throat and then traveled back down to lay his open hand over her chest, his fingertips dipping below the folds of cloth to flirt with the soft swells of her breasts. He felt her heart slam once – hard – against the open palm of his hand before setting up a rapid beat.
“I would ask how long you would have me wait.” He lowered his head so that she could feel his breath brush against her cheek. “But I know you would tell me forever.”
Marian tried to swallow past the lump in her throat. Her mind was jumbled with a dizzying array of images. The memory of Guy acting quickly to protect her from the Sheriff’s wrath, despite her betrayal of him was interspersed with flashes of Robin’s smile.
“I love another,” she choked.
“I know you do.” A muscle ticked in his jaw, betraying his frustration, but despite her declaration, his voice was not unkind. “And I know that your life has taken a very different course from the one you had mapped out.”
He pulled her close and nestled her against his chest.
“Shall I tell you something I learned long ago?” His voice was a low, soothing cadence in her ear. “I was quite young, not yet a man full grown, when I came to realize that life is not fair and it rarely leads us down the roads we have plotted.”
“Do you think that this is the life I imagined for myself? To be landless? Powerless? Hated?” He stroked a hand through her hair. “And yet, here I am. And here you are. You may long for another, but the fact is you are not his wife. You are mine.”
“And Marian? Nothing but death will change that.”
She found herself oddly hypnotized by the quiet rumble of his voice and the rhythmic stroking of his hand through her hair and she remained there, cocooned in his arms.
Finally, he tipped her chin back and lowered his mouth to hers. She let out a tiny moan when his tongue slipped between her lips. With an answering groan he wrapped his arms tightly around her hips. The world tilted crazily around her as he lifted her from her feet and she flung her arms around his neck to steady herself.
They tore apart and he tipped his head back to look at her. It was a novel situation for her to be able to look down into his face. Mesmerized by the expression of longing etched on his features, she threaded her fingers into his hair and leaned down to press her lips to his.
Guy held himself in check, allowing her to control the kiss until his need grew too great. He carried her to the bed and laid her down in the center.
Marian’s heart was pounding with anxiety as he stretched out next to her.
“Shh.” He leaned down to kiss her again. His fingers played with her hair and stroked over the soft skin of her throat and face, every move meant to soothe her and help her to relax.
She did not understand what was happening to her or why she felt a building need to get closer to him but the urge to take what she wanted was strong and she opened her mouth to his and met him kiss for kiss, some part of her thinking dreamily that she could stay like this with him forever.
She was jolted from her pleasant haze when she felt his fingers playing with the tucked ends of the bath sheet still wrapped around her. Her own hand flew up to cover his and she gave him a panicked look.
“I want to see you.” He tugged insistently at the cloth.
She reluctantly loosened her grip on his hand and rolled her head to the side, squeezing her eyes tightly shut as he peeled the folds of fabric away from her torso. Her skin was berries floating in cream and unable to resist, he lowered his head for a taste.
Marian’s eyes flew open at the first touch of his mouth, unprepared for the electric jolt of sensation which shot through her and the sudden clenching of her womb when he drew the tip of her breast into the wet heat of his mouth. She had no idea that a man would… that this was…
Surely it was wrong for anything to feel so good.
“You are beautiful,” he murmured.
She sank her fingers into his hair in an attempt to pull him away and instead found that she was holding him close. Lost in a haze of sensation, she was slammed back to reality when she felt him tugging at the sheet, completely exposing her body to his gaze. She scrambled for something to cover herself, but he laid a restraining hand over hers.
“Do not,” he breathed.
She burned with humiliation as his hands and eyes swept over every inch of her body.
“Please,” she whispered.
“You are the loveliest thing I have ever seen,” he promised and staring into his eyes, she believed him.
“I do not know what to do,” she finally admitted, her face flushed with embarrassment.
“Just… Will you kiss me?”
She raised a tentative hand to the back of his neck and pulled him down to her. Something about her shy, hesitant kiss set a flame to his needs and he moved over her, crushing her into the bedclothes as his mouth plundered hers.
Frightened by his sudden intensity and her own response to it, she tore away with a gasp.
But he murmured to her softly, each drugging kiss and caress meant to both soothe and arouse and she felt herself giving over to him, as if captured by some spell he was weaving around her.
When he felt her arch against him, he quickly removed his own clothes and stretching out over her - slowly, inch by careful inch – he joined his body to hers. Panting with the effort of his restraint, he buried his face in her hair. His heart pounded in his ears, seeming to echo a chorus of ‘mine, mine, mine’.
She squirmed against the slow, burning invasion of his body into hers. Arching her hips in an instinctive move to dislodge him served instead to have him sliding even deeper and she gasped as a shock of pleasure mingled with the pain. She could feel his responding groan reverberate in his chest and her mouth opened in a desperate effort to drag air into her lungs.
Guy levered himself up onto one elbow and using his free hand, brushed a tangle of hair away from her face. Though he sensed that she wanted desperately to look away, she kept her eyes locked on his.
Lowering his mouth to hers, he began to move. At first, slowly. Gently. Watching her face for signs of discomfort and finding none, he set up a rhythm meant to bring them both pleasure.
Yielding to him – yielding to her own growing passions – her hands moved to his shoulders. Nails digging into the hard flesh, her untutored body responded to his wordless commands. His hands moved over her, calloused fingertips igniting and arousing, pushing her to respond. Pain and pleasure mingled in a cacophony of sensation and her hips arched up to meet his as a fever sparked in her blood.
She did not understand what was happening. She was reaching for something – she was unsure of what – but she knew instinctively that it would end the intense, aching need coiling tighter and tighter within her. Her body rose and fell beneath his as they labored together to find release.
And then at last it hit, like a wave breaking over the sand, radiating to the tips of her toes and fingers and she was dimly aware of his choked cry in response.
Marian was in hell. What else could explain the constant turmoil with which she now seemed to live? She wanted her husband. It was as simple as that.
And as terrible as that. For she did not want to want him. She tried not to.
She told herself that could not deny him his rights, but she would stay detached. And indeed, each night when he reached for her, she tried to stay aloof. But patiently, determinedly, with skilled hands and mouth, he coaxed and cajoled until she found herself giving over to him.
Responding to him.
Reaching for him.
Those hours spent in his arms were a haze of blissful pleasure. But in the morning’s light she was filled with self-recrimination and regret.
She chided herself that it was a betrayal of her feelings for Robin, all the while ignoring the fact that in recent weeks, thoughts of her former love came less and less frequently.
It was a betrayal of her values. For each morning she watched in dread as Guy rode off to do the Sheriff’s bidding. And she knew the people of Nottingham and its surrounding villages were suffering.
She found him to be a great puzzle. She wanted to be able to put a label on him, but she was hard-pressed to be able to pin him down. How could the man who brought her so much pleasure be the same man who inflicted so much cruelty on others?
And what did it say of her that she was able to find such pleasure in him?
Marian was mending the hem of a dress when she heard the quiet commotion outside which signaled Guy’s return. She looked up as he entered the room and gasped at the livid bruise forming on his left cheek.
He shook his head and slumped down into a chair.
“I do not wish to discuss it.” He dragged off his gloves and ran his hands through his hair.
She rose and gave quiet instructions for a maid to bring a basin of cool water and a cloth.
“Did the Sheriff do this?” She dipped the cloth into the water and wrung it out.
He hissed as she touched it to his raw flesh and flinched away. “I told you that I did not wish to speak of it.”
She folded her arms across her chest and waited in patient silence.
“It was Hood,” he said curtly and she wondered if the flush that rose to his cheeks was from embarrassment or anger. More than likely, both.
“What happened?” She soaked the cloth again and held it against his bruised skin.
He sighed and leaned back into his chair. “He and his gang of miscreants set upon us and stole the money we had collected in taxes.”
Marian quickly ducked her head but was unable to hide the satisfaction which glinted in her eyes.
“That pleases you,” he noted irritably.
She shrugged. “I have never hidden the fact that I do not approve of the Sheriff and his overzealous taxing of people who can ill afford it.”
“And do you think that Hood’s thievery helps the people?” His tone was lightly mocking but his eyes were dark with anger.
“I know that it does!” she spat. “I have seen good people go hungry. I have seen children lose their parents. Wives lose their husbands – often under your command. I know that Robin seeks to ease their burden – not to add to it. And I know you are a traitor.” She lashed out, all of her pent-up frustration and anger – with the Sheriff and with Guy’s obedience to his senseless commands – bubbling to the surface in response to his taunting tone.
He laughed derisively. “A traitor! To whom? A King who cares so little for his own people that he has spent only a handful of days in this country since taking the throne?” He settled more comfortably in his chair and peered up into her indignant face.
“In truth,” he sneered, “I do not understand your fealty to a king who has no loyalty to his subjects.”
“Richard is the rightful King of England,” she seethed.
“Perhaps. But he is also a king who cares only for his people as a source of revenue to support his armies.”
“That is not true!” she protested. “Richard is a good king and when he returns –”
“‘When he returns.’ You sound like Hood.” Guy let out an ugly laugh. “Richard has no desire to return and little care for the people of his realm. For God’s sake, Marian, he does not even speak the language! He will not return to England to save your precious peasants,” he shot back. “He will settle – if he ever settles – in his beloved duchy, far, far from these shores.”
“You should not speak so cuttingly of your monarch,” she said in a voice trembling with barely-suppressed indignation. “He is fighting a Holy War –”
“Is he?” Guy cut in. “Is it a holy war? Or is it a war meant only to swell the Holy Father’s coffers and give Richard an outlet for his bloodlust?”
“And I suppose that you would have me believe that John would be the better choice to sit on the throne of England? Your words are not only treasonous, but blasphemous as well!”
“That may be. But as I have no expectation of reaching heaven in the next life, I have found it prudent to see to my needs in this life. And if aligning myself with John can help me achieve my goals, well…” His lips quirked upward in the familiar smirk which she despised and she itched to slap it from his face.
“But Marian, you speak with great authority on something of which you know little. Richard’s armies may well wear a blood red cross on their tunics and shields and may ride beneath the papal banner, but in truth he has given very little thought to God.”
Marian wanted desperately to argue with him but his words had disconcerted her and she was at a loss as to what to say.
“You see, Marian,” Guy propped one elbow on to the arm of his chair and wearily used it to support his head. “You have a fine mind but you are so blinded by loyalty to those you love, that you fail to ask any questions. This is a perfect example. You fight in the name of the King, because Hood tells you that Richard will come back and all will be well for the people of England. But what you do not see is that it is Richard’s unquenchable need for war which has helped to beggar so many of his subjects.”
Nonplussed by his words, Marian sank slowly into a chair.
“You want to believe that Hood thinks only of the people and their needs. But he does not see – or does not care to see – that his grandiose exploits only serve to heighten the Sheriff’s rage. And because Hood takes such pleasure in evading the Sheriff, Vasey must then find another outlet for his anger. And it is the people who suffer again. Hood’s intentions may be to help, but you and I both know that he is in it for the glory as well. He very much enjoys being a living legend and as a result, he does as much harm to the people as he does good.”
Marian’s face was downcast and her fingers tapping against the top of the table betrayed her agitation as his words penetrated. Guy pushed to his feet and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“I think perhaps that you are the only one among us whose motives are pure.” He gave her shoulder an encouraging squeeze. “No matter what you may think, I do not want for you to lose that part of yourself.”
Tears blurred her vision and she blinked to clear her eyes. “What do you want for yourself?” she asked as she studied a whorl in the wood beneath her fingers with an intensity that would suggest it held the answers to all the world’s questions.
“I want land,” he said simply. “And power enough to stop anyone from ever taking it from me.”
He walked away, hesitating as he reached the doorway.
“And I want you,” he said quietly before quitting the room.
She was unsure how long she remained at the table. Her thoughts swirled like autumn leaves in the wind, her mind flitting from one thing to another.
She tried to viciously squash the doubts he had placed in her head about the King for she had placed all of her hopes for England in his return.
And in Robin.
And yet… Guy’s description of Robin did hold some truth. Oh, she still believed in him and what he was doing for the people of Nottingham. But she also knew how much pleasure he took in besting Guy and the Sheriff and she knew that her husband was right when he said that Robin was in part motivated by the adulation tossed his way by the people. And likely by the gang with whom he had surrounded himself.
Robin’s unshakeable faith and loyalty to Richard had fueled her own. And she hated that Guy could so simply lay out a case against him as to shake the foundation of her own devotion.
She felt adrift in a boat with no paddles to safely make her way to shore.
And she was no closer to solving the puzzle that was her husband.
She was stirred from her reverie when Thornton appeared at her side.
She looked up at him with troubled eyes and he gave her a kindly smile.
“How may I be of assistance, Lady Marian?”
“Will you sit with me, Thornton?”
“Of course, my lady.” He perched on the chair recently vacated by Guy and waited patiently for her to speak.
“I…” She paused to clear her throat. “I find that I am much confused, Thornton.” She wiped an imaginary speck from the top of the table.
“What confuses you, my lady?”
“I?” He laid a hand against his chest in surprise. “I do not know what I have done, but –”.
“I do not understand… you and the other servants here at Locksley - why do you not fear my husband?”
“Everywhere else, the people cower in his presence. There is fear in their eyes and in their voices when they speak of him. But not here.”
She looked up, confusion stamped on her features. “I know that you love Robin.”
“My lady, I –”.
“And I know that you and the others have no choice but to serve, but…”
Thornton shifted uncomfortably in his chair, unsure of what to say.
“I have loved the young Master since he was born,” he began cautiously. “As I loved his father. I would have faithfully and happily served him until the day I died.”
Thornton threw a cautious glance over his shoulder and lowered his voice even further. “And if the day comes that Locksley is returned to its rightful owner, I will weep happy tears.”
She smiled in acknowledgment of his words and laid a hand over his companionably.
“Who is my husband, Thornton?” The smile slid away from her face. “He is a mystery to me. Capable of such cruelty and yet here at Locksley… the manor servants, the tenant farmers – you – all seem… content.”
With the exception of the young Master, Thornton was unused to be spoken to with such frankness from a member of the nobility. But his mistress’s face bore such evidence of weary frustration; he was compelled to speak with her as he would his own child.
“I know of the things your husband has done,” he said softly. “And of the reasons many have to fear him. But I have reason to know that he was not always such a man.”
Marian’s brow creased with further confusion and he hurried to continue.
“My lord has a reputation of which we are all aware. But here he has displayed none of the behavior which would cause us to fear. He has been a fair master and has proven himself capable of running the estate. The farms are prosperous and there is no cause – here – for discontent.”
“Perhaps it is as simple a thing that he treats the people of Locksley well because it benefits him personally,” she mused.
“I do not doubt that is part of it,” Thornton agreed. “But I believe there is more to it than that, my lady.”
She looked up curiously.
“I believe that he is content here, my lady.”
She paused to consider his words. Guy was different at home. His face did not bear the perpetual scowl he wore at the castle. And his demeanor – while not welcoming – was not threatening.
“I believe that he is content because of you, Lady Marian.”
Startled, her eyes widened. She opened her mouth to refute his words, but no sound came forth.
“I had cause to speak with Sir Guy before your wedding,” the older man admitted. “I was surprised that he took me into his confidence. He confessed to me that he had committed heinous crimes.” He chanced laying a fatherly hand over hers.
“But he told me that he believed that marrying you would wash away his crimes. He said that your pure heart would cleanse his,” he quoted.
Marian bit her lips as the memory of Guy’s words to her at their wedding sounded in her head.
“I believe that he sees you as his salvation, my lady.”
“Thank you, Thornton.” She forced the words through stiff lips.
Recognizing dismissal in her tone, he rose and giving her hand a gentle squeeze, returned to his duties.
That night, as she listened to the sound of her husband’s steady breathing, she lay awake pondering the events of the day, snippets of conversations flitting about in her head, leaving a dull ache behind her eyes.
She thought of Guy’s stated desire for land and power and though she had heard him say as much on more than one occasion, this time it was the way in which the words were spoken which gave her pause. She knew he craved power but she found it telling that his desire seemed to be rooted in providing him the ability to protect what was his.
But it was Thornton’s words – and the memory of Guy’s voice in the church on their wedding day when he told her that she would wash away his sins – which left her restless and unable to sleep.
Did he truly want redemption, she wondered. And was she capable of turning him toward a new life? Could she be his salvation? And if so, what would that mean for all of them?
We’re getting there. I know that Marian is ping-ponging right now but I cannot see her easily falling in love with Guy or into a life with him. I think she would see it as a battle and would fight it tooth and nail – sometimes senselessly.
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
A low rumble of thunder woke Marian. Rain pelted the glazed glass of the window and as lightning briefly illuminated the room, she was startled by the figure standing near the fireplace. She gasped and groped for the heavy pewter candlestick on the bedside table as a weapon.
Relief rushed through her at the sound of her husband’s voice.
“Guy!” She set the makeshift weapon down. “I was not expecting you home tonight. What time is it?”
“Late,” he muttered. “Very, very late.” He turned his face toward her. “I did not mean to awaken you. Go back to sleep.”
Marian propped herself up against the pillows. “Why did you not stay at the castle instead of traveling through such terrible weather?”
“Because I cannot stand it there.” He spoke so softly she was not sure that she heard him correctly.
“What was that?” she asked.
“The storm caught me unaware,” he replied. He seemed to be struggling with something on his clothing. She squinted through the darkness to better see what was going on. His low string of muttered curses had her flipping the covers back and climbing from the bed.
Shivering, she drew her wrap from the foot of the bed and flung it about her shoulders. Crossing the room, she grabbed the fireplace poker and stoked the dying fire. Fanning the flames to life, she added a few pieces of wood until a small steady blaze was dancing in the hearth. Touching a long taper to the flames, she lit the candles atop the mantle.
“What is wrong?” she asked as he continued to fumble with his clothes.
“I cannot get this bloody thing open!” He snarled as he tore at the clasps running down the front of the short leather jacket he wore.
Marian blinked in surprise. While Guy could be quite rough around the edges in many ways, his manner of speech was ordinarily quite formal. It was unusual for him to express his frustrations through coarse language.
She reached out to help and gasped as her fingers brushed his.
“Your hands are like ice!” she exclaimed. She was abruptly aware of the tremors coursing through his body. “You are soaked!”
“The storm came out of nowhere,” he mumbled and she realized that he was fighting to keep his teeth from chattering. “A bitter wind blew in from the north and the rain was right behind it.”
“You will catch your death in these wet clothes.” She pried open the stubborn clasps and pushed the jacket from his shoulders until it fell onto the floor in a heap. The leather had kept out the worst of the wetness but rain had seeped beneath the collar and the shirt beneath it was damp. She could feel the chill which had permeated his skin through the fine linen.
She unbuckled his sword belt and loosely wrapped the trailing ends around the scabbard before setting it aside. She bent her head and began to work at the cross-lacings of his breeches. The rain had saturated the rawhide strips until they were swollen with moisture and stubbornly knotted.
“I h-have long imagined you eagerly undressing m-me,” he said through a shiver. “But n-not under these circumstances.”
“I need a knife,” she said flatly, ignoring his attempt at humor.
His gaze dropped to where her hands were resting against the front of his breeches and he arched one brow in contemplation of her words. After a moment’s thought, he withdrew a small blade from a sheath hidden beneath his arm and handed it to her.
“Small enough to hopefully minimize any damage you may choose to inflict,” he smirked before another tremor wracked his frame.
Marian took the knife from him and studied it carefully.
“Any other instructions you wish to grace me with, my lord?” She looked pointedly from the knife to the leather ties held in her other hand and then back up into his face.
He laid chilled fingers over hers.
“Carefully, my love.” He gave her a tired smile.
She felt her cheeks heat at the endearment and was grateful for the shadows cast by the dim light. She was aware of his chilled skin beneath her fingers and the ripple of his stomach muscles as she slipped one hand into the waist of his breeches. She sawed through the wet rawhide and stripped the ruined laces free.
“There.” She gave him a gentle push into a chair near the hearth.
“Take off your boots.” She moved away to rummage through a wardrobe for a length of cloth. Turning back she saw that he had made no effort to remove the rest of his clothing. His slumped shoulders and drooping head were evidence of his weariness.
He grunted in surprise when she draped the cloth over his head and briskly used it to absorb the wetness from his hair. His head lolled forward and back under her ministrations and he willingly submitted to her care. At length she set the damp material aside and crouched on the floor to grasp a boot in her hands and he roused himself enough to protest.
“I can do it.”
“It will be faster if you let me help.” Together they pried the boots from his feet and she set them near the fire to dry. Turning back to him, she gathered the hem of his linen shirt in her hands. Sliding the fabric up his torso, she was pleased to note that his skin was warming and the tremors wracking his frame had decreased. Urging him to his feet, she began to push his breeches from his hips until sudden embarrassment at the easy familiarity with which she touched him had her snatching her hands away. She turned her attention to draping his jacket on the back of the chair and spreading his shirt out to dry. She surreptitiously watched him strip the wet leather down his legs. She could not help but note the way the firelight gleamed golden on the well-defined muscles of his chest and abdomen where his braies rode low on his hips and she felt a now familiar throbbing sensation deep within her.
“When did you last eat?” She cleared her throat and resolutely turned her thoughts to more practical matters.
“This morning,” he mumbled. She flinched at the popping sound made by his jaw as he let out a mighty yawn.
“I will go to the kitchen.” Marian turned toward the door, happy for a chore which would get her out of the room for a few moments.
“Do not bother,” he said as he neared the bed.
“You must have something,” she protested. “At least some bread and cheese.”
He swept the covers back and stretched out onto the mattress with a grateful sigh.
“I thank you,” he said through another yawn. “But I wish only to sleep.”
“But–”. Her voice trailed off as she watched the slow rise and fall of his chest indicating his rapid descent into sleep.
Blowing out all but one of the candles on the mantle, she carried the other across the room and set it down on the bedside table. Easing into bed so as not to awaken him, she drew the covers up to his shoulders. Sitting with her back braced against the headboard she studied her husband in the flickering candlelight. She had thought that sleep would bring a softening to his features but his mouth, surrounded by a day’s growth of beard, was set in a grim line. He twitched – as if unpleasantly surprised by something in his dreams and she saw him fist his hands beneath the blanket. A frown drew his brows together and his limbs shifted restlessly.
“Shhh,” she breathed softly. Unable to resist, she smoothed an unruly lock of hair away from his face.
“Marian.” Her name escaped his lips on a barely audible sigh and he rolled onto his side as if pulled toward her by an invisible force. Mesmerized, she threaded her fingers through his hair, lightly scratching her nails against his scalp. His hands relaxed and the grim line of his mouth softened. She marveled at his response to her touch and wondered if the day would ever come when she was not left hopelessly confused by him.
He was home in the middle of the morning – a rarity. He looked up from his study of the household accounts when he heard Marian’s voice. She was deeply in discussion with the housekeeper and he allowed himself the simple pleasure of watching her. She was unaware of his regard and he knew that if she looked toward him she would catch him staring at her like a besotted youth. Even in a simple gown with her hair hanging down her back in a single thick plait, she was the most beautiful thing he had ever laid eyes on.
He waited until she was finished her conversation. Rising from his seat, all of his impatient yearning for her barely harnessed, he went to her.
“My lady.” He wrapped gentle fingers around her wrist. “If you would come with me, I have something to discuss with you. In our chamber.” He tugged her toward the stairs.
Her cheeks flushed, for despite the casualness of his request, his meaning was all too evident and she was wildly aware of her own body quickening in response. Telling herself that she wanted only to avoid a scene, she followed him willingly. A sound from below caught her attention and she glanced over her shoulder. Mortification flooded through her as she saw Alyce and a young maid whispering and giggling behind their hands as they watched their ascent.
He pulled her into his arms the moment the door to their chamber swung shut behind them and lowered his mouth to hers.
“It is the middle of the day, my lord,” she protested with a weak push of her hands against his shoulders.
“Good.” His words vibrated against the soft skin of her throat as he placed a scorching trail of kisses along its slender length. “I want to see you in the light of day.”
He pressed her down onto the bed, tugging the leather cord from her hair and spreading the dark, silken mass over his pillow.
He kissed her again, lips and tongue searching, teasing, and demanding. Annoyance rose within him at her lack of response.
“Marian,” he breathed. “Kiss me.”
She shook her head stubbornly.
“Everyone knows what we are doing up here.” Embarrassed heat stained her cheeks. “It is unseemly.”
“I do not care.” Frustrated – for he saw her protests as merely another excuse – he battled against the ferocity of his own desire as once again he was forced to coax a response from her. She lay beneath him, docile and obedient, neither spurning nor welcoming his advances.
He tore himself away from her in disgust. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he braced his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands.
“Why do you force me to seduce you every time?” His query was muffled behind his fingers.
She lay behind him, her hands lax against the tangled sheets and gave no answer.
“Do you think that I do not know you find pleasure in my touch?” He turned and pinned her with a hard look. “Do you think I do not feel your body responding to mine?” he asked harshly. “Why must I always cajole and coax you?”
He stretched out beside her and ran his knuckles along the smooth column of her throat before flattening his hand against her chest. He could feel her heart thudding against his palm as his long fingers slipped inside her bodice to trace idle patterns over the silken skin of her breast, coming ever closer to the sensitive center with each passing sweep.
“Even now,” he murmured, his mouth a hairs-breadth from hers, “I feel you responding.” He skimmed calloused fingertips over the turgid peak of her breast and her breath escaped on a long, shuddering sigh that stuttered across his lips.
“I know you reach the heights of pleasure,” he whispered hotly against her ear. “Why do you deny it? Do you think that by lying passively beneath me or turning away after you can hide the truth? Why, Marian? You are my wife. Short of death, there is nothing now which will change that.”
She knew the reason well for she grappled with it every time he touched her. It was the loss of her self-control. Each time she lay with him, he stripped it from her more and more easily. Even now, despite her protests and embarrassment, she could feel herself responding, her body softening and liquefying in eager anticipation of the invasion of his. She could barely acknowledge this to herself – let alone tell him – and stubborn pride had her lashing out hatefully instead.
“I am your wife,” she agreed in a voice carefully devoid of feeling. “The laws of this kingdom and the laws of the church give you a right to my body and I will not deny you.” She turned her head so that she was looking directly into his eyes. “And I may be weak and unable to stem my body’s response… but that does not mean that I have to give to you my soul.”
“You may possess me as you do this house, but you have no more right to claim ownership of me than you do this land.” She turned away from him and stared toward the window.
Rage at being so dismissed washed red and hot through Guy. He slowly sat up and raked trembling fingers through his hair. Rising, he clamped his hand around her wrist and yanked her to her feet. She cried out and tried to pry his fingers from her arm but his grip was like iron. She risked looking up and instinctively cringed away. Unfettered fury blazed in his eyes and for the first time she was truly afraid of him.
He practically tore the door from its hinges as he hauled her from their chamber. Down the steps and out of the house, he pulled her along in his wake. She was forced to trot alongside him in an undignified and certainly unladylike manner in order to keep up with his angry strides lest she risk falling, for she sensed that he would rather drag her than allow her to regain her feet.
He tugged her across the front yard, past the drying green where the bed linens were stretched across the closely clipped grass to dry and bleach under the heat of the autumn sun. His grip was like an iron manacle around her slender wrist. She stumbled behind him, her breath escaping her in great pants as he dragged her up the crest of a hill and down the other side. Finally, he came to a halt in the high grass of the meadow at the base of the hill.
“Do you see the creek?” His chest rose and fell rapidly as he sucked much needed air into his lungs. She looked at him stupidly, unable at first to process his question.
“Do you?” he thundered and shook her arm.
“Yes!” she cried. “I see it.”
He stepped up behind her and curved his arms around her waist. His unyielding grip on her wrist made a mockery of the embrace.
“And do you see the wheat field?”
She nodded, unable to speak. The low threatening tone of his voice frightened her. For though she had heard it directed at others countless times in the past, until this moment he had never spoken to her thusly.
“That field,” he murmured silkily, “and all of the property west of it to the boundary lines of the next landholder were once the Gisbourne lands.” His breath was hot against her ear, the words biting with barely leashed rage.
“You lie,” she gasped. “That land belongs to Locksley. It belongs to Robin!”
“Robin, Robin, Robin,” he said mockingly. “You extol his virtues and would make of him a noble and princely creature.” He released her wrist to curl his fingers around her upper arms in a punishing grip.
“But I have known him since we were children. He was then – as he is now – spoiled and full of his own importance.”
“The land you are looking at is my birthright, stolen from me when I was too young to do anything to stop it and handed to your precious Robin on a silver platter.” He pointed toward the fields stretching westward. “But I am no longer a boy and now I have not only reclaimed what once was mine but have taken everything from him.”
She shivered, frightened by the tone of malicious joy in his voice.
“Why should I believe you?” she whispered.
“Oh, Marian.” He turned her and smiled tauntingly. “You are always so sure of yourself – so certain that you know everything.” He dropped his hands and paced several steps away. “You would sit in righteous judgment over me and yet you have lived so sheltered a life… you know nothing of the world.”
“I know this land belongs to Robin,” she insisted stubbornly.
“Robin.” His face contorted and he spat the name as if it left a sour taste. And then as suddenly as it had come on the rage seemed to leave him and he sank wearily down into the tall grass.
“Why do you hate him so much?” she asked.
Guy peered up at her, squinting against the midday sun. “I have many reasons,” he told her, circling back to the beginning. “I hate him because everything has always come to him so easily. I hate him because he has your love and devotion.”
Marian flushed and looked away.
“But first and foremost – and always – I hate him because he stole my birthright.”
“I cannot believe you,” she argued. “I have never heard such a tale – indeed, I had never even heard the name ‘Gisbourne’ until you arrived here with the Sheriff and yet you would have me believe that the very property I am looking at was once your family’s land.”
“And yet, for all your disbelief, it is true.” Guy tore a blade of grass from the earth and twirled it idly in his fingers. “My father was Roger, married to Ghislaine of France. He took up the cross and was rewarded for his service with property and a title.” He pointed with the blade of grass toward the wheat field.
“We – my mother and I – received word that my father had been killed in the Holy Land. I was not yet sixteen at the time – and my mother sought to hold the land for me until I came of age. She took up with Hood’s father – Malcolm of Locksley.”
His fingers betrayed his agitation, tearing blade after blade of grass from the ground.
“I found them on more than one occasion – cavorting in the stables. She let him make her his whore before my father’s body was even cold in some distant grave.”
“Guy,” she protested weakly. Caught up in the story and in the pain so evident in his voice, she sank to the ground beside him. “That is a terrible thing to say.”
“The truth is often terrible,” he pointed out. “I was still grieving the loss of my father while my mother snuck off nightly to meet her lover. Hood’s father,” he spat.
“Robin would have been a child,” she said softly. “He was no more responsible for his father’s actions than you were your mother’s. What has any of this to do with him?”
He suppressed a bitter laugh.
“Everything,” he said finally. “Even then, he was a spoiled, indulged brat. The golden child. Beloved by all. Incapable in everyone’s eyes of doing wrong.” He tossed a handful of grass down. “But in truth, incapable of accepting blame when he was in the wrong.”
Marian forced back her instinctive need to defend Robin for she wanted to hear the rest of the story.
“There was to be a celebration on the night of the harvest.” His gaze unfocused, he stared unseeingly toward the wheat field. “The bailiff of the town hated my mother.”
“Because she was a woman?” he guessed. “Maybe because she was French. But mostly, he hated us for having land which he coveted for himself.” He shook his head, still unable – after all of the passing years – to truly understand the events which were set into motion that night.
“There was an accident,” he remembered. “The village priest was badly injured. I was blamed – though the fault lay with young Robin of Locksley.” Bitterness coated his words. “While my mother fought to save the priest’s life, the bailiff convinced the others that there was no need to wait to mete out my punishment and I was dragged off to be hanged.”
He pinned her with his gaze. “Robin could have spoken up at any point, but he said nothing.”
“If you are telling the truth, it makes no sense to hold the actions of a child against the man he became,” she protested automatically.
“A child less than a handful of years younger than I,” he shot back. “The golden child,” he reminded her. “He would not have been facing the noose and he knew it.”
“I struggled.” He fell silent and looked off into the distance for a long moment. “I struggled,” he repeated after clearing his throat, “but they were too many and I could not free myself.” He ran his tongue over suddenly dry lips. “A horse and rider thundered into the midst of the crowd, the rider shouting at the men as they slipped the noose over my neck.”
“It was my father.”
Marian bit back a gasp. How was it possible for this story to be truth? It was already too fantastical and yet she had the sense that he had only just begun to tell it. She was drawn in and said nothing as she waited for him to continue.
“Seconds later, my mother raced toward the crowd shouting that the priest would live. And when she saw my father…” He cast his eyes about – at the sky, at the grass, at the winter wheat growing in the near distance – unable it seemed, to focus on any one thing for very long.
“When she saw my father – her face… Disbelief. Fear. I saw all of that in her expression. But not joy. Not happiness that he was alive after all.”
“I am sure that she was just shocked. Overwhelmed.” Marian offered hesitantly.
“I am sure,” he agreed dully. “Eventually, the crowd disbursed and we went to our home.”
“You must have been overjoyed,” she said trying to smile.
“I wanted to be,” he admitted. “But for days after, my parents acted so strangely – whispering their conversations and ceasing to speak when I would enter to the room. My father was quiet and did nothing but sit by the fire and brood. And my mother’s eyes were always sad.”
Guy rubbed an agitated hand over his jaw and mouth. “Two days later, I saw her slipping off into the forest and I knew – I knew that she was going to meet Locksley.” Again he stopped talking and she could see his throat working as he swallowed over and over in an attempt to regain control of his emotions.
“She was not gone much more than an hour before she returned. I stood in the stable doorway and watched her disappear back into the house. I do not know how much time passed – no more than a few minutes – before a group of men, led by Locksley, burst into the house and dragged my father outside.”
“You see, the secret my parents had been keeping was out. My father returned from the Holy Land a leper.”
He was dry-eyed and expressionless now. Marian listened in shocked disbelief as Guy spun out the rest of his tale in a voice steady and detached. She fought back tears as he described the funeral-like procession as his father was led out of the village. Of Roger’s humiliation as he was forced into a shallow grave while his wife declared herself to be a widow. Of the priest – devoid of empathy or compassion, speaking the damning words which would separate a husband from his family. Of a young man’s rage and despair when only moments after his father’s banishment, he learned that his mother was to remarry another. She felt sickness roil in her stomach when he told her of how he had tracked down his father only to be chastised and sent away with the admonishment to be a man and not to do anything which would bring further humiliation on their family.
And she felt a tiny flicker of hope when he described his father’s return to their home one evening. But nothing could prepare her for what was to come.
“I was sitting in a chair by the fire,” he recalled. “My parents were upstairs in their chamber and I remember praying harder than I had ever prayed before that somehow all would be well. And then I heard shouting from outside. A child’s voice shrieking ‘The leper is back! The leper is back!’ ”
“It was Hood.” His face was a carved mask of repressed grief and remembered rage.
“The door was flung open and Locksley burst inside. I wanted him to go – I just wanted him to leave us be.” The words were spilling out of him now, faster and faster. “I looked around for a weapon and snatched a burning log from the fireplace. I wanted only to hold him off – to frighten him into leaving. We struggled and the burning wood slipped and then… and then the house caught fire.”
His eyes were vacant as he stared unseeingly past her shoulder. “Locksley pushed me outside and ran up the stairs.” Traces of the fear and confusion of that terrible evening leached into his voice. “I do not know why I left,” he whispered. “When I tried to return to the house, the others held me back. And then… and then…”
His voice hitched and broke.
“The bailiff was shouting – and some of the men had torches. And suddenly the entire house was ablaze. Robin was screaming for his father – screaming at me to do something. But I did nothing. I let them die.”
She saw his chin wobble for a moment and was moved to lay her hand over his.
“I did. I killed them. I just let them die and did nothing to save them.
Tears flooded her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. “I do not believe that. Guy, you were a boy.”
“I hated them.” He jerked one shoulder in an ill-tempered shrug. “She, for her faithlessness and he for abandoning us – first when he took up the cross – and again when he would not fight to stay with us. I hated them both for their weakness and selfishness.”
“The house was still smoldering the next day when the bailiff made his move. He declared my father’s lands as his own. The priest stepped forward to challenge him and I thought – finally – someone would intervene. But the priest declared that with my father’s death, the lands should revert back to Locksley.”
“The bailiff did not think much of that idea.” Guy barked out a cynical laugh. “He and his henchmen began to immediately make their way about from house to house, threatening to collect taxes and I was run out of the village with nothing more than the clothes on my back.”
His voice took on an almost dreamlike quality. “I remember standing on the edge of the village – listening to the bailiff barking out orders and the angry shouting of his cronies. Listening to the nervous chatter of the villagers and then hearing the high, shrill voice a boy – Hood – declaring that this was his land and those were his people and that he would defend them. And I heard the priest and the others rally around him. Together, they drove the bailiff off.”
Marian’s lips quirked upward in a private smile for she could well imagine those words falling from a young Robin’s lips.
“I returned to the village later that night and approached the priest. I wanted to speak with young Locksley about my lands. They listened to me – quite politely – but then the priest told me that I had no place there and that despite my father’s sacrifices for king and country, the lands would remain part of Locksley in perpetuity.”
Again, that cynical, ugly laugh escaped him.
“Your beloved Robin did nothing. Said nothing. Refused to even look at me. He simply stood there with the priest’s hand on his shoulder and his father’s bow at his side and I was sent once again on my way.”
“Guy, I understand your bitterness.” Her expression and voice were filled with sympathy. “But you cannot condemn a man for his actions as a child…”
“I have stripped myself bare to you,” he said as the rage began to build once again. “And your only response is to defend Hood?” His voice rose in disbelief.
He clamped his hands onto her arms and gave her a hard shake. “Once again, you let your loyalty blind you to the lesson.” He tangled his fingers in her hair and dragged her head back.
“So let me instruct you plainly,” he ground out as he pulled her down into the grass and pressed her into the earth with the weight of his own body. “You told me that I have no more right to ownership of you than I do of this land. But now I have laid out the basis of my rightful claim to this property and by your own calculation that gives me equal rights to all that is you.”
His fingers were like vices around her wrists as he stretched her arms above her head until she was splayed beneath him like a sacrificial offering on an altar. Gone was the man who coaxed a response from her with gentle touches and persuasive kisses and in his place was one who crushed his mouth onto hers and with lips and teeth and tongue demanded that she yield.
Excitement and fear roared through Marian with equal force and she quivered beneath him. Though she tried at first to resist, the empathy and compassion she had felt for him earlier left her stripped of her usual defenses. Her body responded eagerly to his biting kisses and fevered caresses as his passion for her spilled forth wholly unfettered for the first time. She gasped when he yanked the bodice of her gown away. Overwhelmed by sensation, her nipples contracted painfully as they were exposed first to the chilled air and then to the heat of his mouth and she could not help but to cry out.
His head snapped up at the sound of her exclamation and the haze of lust and anger fell away as he took note of the bruises in the shapes of his fingers already blooming on the white skin of her wrists and the red marks caused by his mouth and the scrape of his jaw stood out in stark contrast to the milkiness of her breasts.
He tore himself away and drew his knees up, hiding his face as a litany of muttered words of apology fell from his lips. Marian fumbled to pull her gown back into place. Compassion and unfulfilled desire combined to form an irresistible pull and she crawled toward him. Threading her fingers through his hair she whispered his name over and over.
Finally he raised his head and for a long moment they stared sorrowfully at each other, faces close enough that all they had to do was move a few inches and their lips would meet again. A breeze kicked up, rippling through the tall grass and the spell was broken when she shivered as the cold penetrated her gown.
Guy pulled the short leather jacket from his body and helped ease her arms into the sleeves. Tugging the too large jacket closed around her, he clenched his fingers into the material and pulled her close. Pressing his mouth to her forehead, he muttered an apology against her skin and then scrambling up, he ran like a man possessed.
Marian staggered to her feet and dashed off after him. Calling his name, she tried to catch him but his long-legged stride lengthened the distance between them quickly. Panting, she stood at the crest of the hill and watched him fling himself onto the back of his unsaddled horse, the two of them thundering down the road as if chased by the devil himself.
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
Marian gathered her skirts into her hand and raced down the hill. Reaching the stable, she waited impatiently for her horse to be saddled and brought to her. She shivered as the wind gusted – tearing leaves from the trees and sending them into a giddy dance of gold and red. When her mount was brought out she climbed into the saddle and taking the reins in hand, hurried after Guy.
Horse and rider cantered to the place where the road divided. Pulling back on the reins, Marian brought her horse to a halt. Particles of dust stirred up by a recently passing rider lingered in the air and Marian set off along the road branching toward the east in pursuit. She had not gone far when she once again drew her horse to a stop.
She slumped in the saddle, confused by her sudden need to chase after him. Indeed, she had no idea what she would say if she managed to catch up with him. Leaning forward, she stroked a hand over the silky mane of her horse.
“Come, my beauty,” she murmured. Clicking her tongue, she urged the horse to turn and together they set off at a comfortable trot back toward the fork in the road.
The sound of an approaching horse drew Edward’s attention and he rose to his feet. Curiosity propelled him to the door and a smile wreathed his face at the sight of Marian clattering into the courtyard.
“Darling girl,” he exclaimed as he hurried toward her. Marian slid from the saddle and fell into her father’s embrace.
“What a delightful surprise,” he murmured. “I was not expecting you.”
Marian lifted her head from his chest and offered him a smile. “I am not interrupting, am I?”
“Of course not!” Edward drew her arm through the crook of his and led her into the warmth of the hall. “I am never too busy for you.”
“Well!” she exclaimed as she entered her childhood home. “I see the servants are spoiling you in my absence.” She nodded toward the generous slice of half-eaten current cake resting on a plate near a pile of papers.
“Oh… that is just a little something to tide me over until supper.”
Marian ran a teasing hand over his thickening waist and flashed him a grin but her father was quick to note that the smile did not reach her eyes.
“If you are staying for supper, the better part of the cake remains for dessert,” he offered temptingly.
Marian wandered across the room and stopped near the fireplace.
“I do not think that I will still be here.”
She ran a finger over the edge of the mantle, stopping as she often did to study the miniature portrait of her mother which rested there. She had lost her mother at a young age and had but the haziest of memories. But she remembered her laughter and the feel of being cuddled close in her gentle embrace. And sometimes she was sure she could recall her mother’s fragrance. She wondered what it must be like for Guy. Did he have sweet memories of his mother? Or had they been destroyed by the deluge of bitter revelations which preceded her death?
Aware of his daughter’s agitation, Edward sank into his chair near the hearth and waited in worried silence for her to take him into her confidence. After a short while, Marian settled on the padded stool near his feet as she had often done in the past when she had something on her mind.
“Why have you never told me that my husband’s family once owned property now part of Locksley?” she asked at length.
Edward blinked in surprise.
“I… Well…” He lapsed into a brief silence. “That was a long time ago,” he said at last.
She waited for him to continue.
“Are you saying that you forgot?”
“No,” he said slowly. “But neither is it something that I think on often.”
“Surely when he arrived here with Vaisey, you recognized him.”
“I barely knew him when he was young and he looks nothing like the boy I remember.”
“But you knew the name,” she stressed.
Her father sighed. “Of course. But it did not seem important –”
“Father!” Exasperation colored her voice. “You must realize that much of what motivates Guy stems from his desire to reclaim his family’s land.” Agitation lent a rosy flush to her cheeks.
“Yes, of course, Marian, but at the time of their arrival, there were so many other things going on…” He shook his head. “I was more concerned with dealing with Vaisey’s arrival and the subsequent upheaval and commotion, than I was with wondering about Sir Guy’s motivations for being here.”
Laying a penitent hand on his knee, Marian subsided. Edward patted her fingers comfortingly.
“What do you remember about them?”
“Sir Guy’s parents?”
“Not much,” he confessed. “I know the land was awarded to Sir Roger for his service in the Holy Land. But I did not know him well. Indeed, he was rarely at home.”
“What about Guy?”
Edward cast about in his memories. “He was a tall, skinny boy. Quiet. Brooding.”
Marian rolled her eyes. For while the tall, skinny boy of her father’s memories had grown into a strong, powerful man, she nonetheless recognized the other particular traits of her husband’s which remained to this day.
“He kept to himself.” Edward shrugged as if to say there was nothing in particular about the boy he remembered which stood out in his memories.
“And his mother?”
“I had occasion to meet the Lady Ghislaine on several occasions,” her father reminisced. “She was very kind to your mother.”
“In what way?” Marian wondered.
“I believe they met at the market one morning. The Lady Ghislaine befriended your mother and came to visit her on several occasions when she entered her confinement.”
“Yes.” Her father smiled at the recollection of those happy times when his wife was great with their first – and as it would turn out – only child, and the future seemed filled with endless possibilities.
“Father? You were saying?”
He was drawn back from his memories by the gentle tapping of his daughter’s finger against his knee.
“Lady Ghislaine came to Knighton to spend time with your mother during her confinement,” he repeated.
“What was she like?” Marian found herself fascinated by this hitherto before unknown connection between her husband and herself.
“She was… exotic. Tall. Dark hair and eyes. She carried herself proudly. I believe your husband got his coloring and carriage from her.” He lapsed into silence for a moment before continuing.
“Your mother enjoyed her visits. She brought gifts – for your mother and for you –”
“Clothing,” he said. “Blankets and rattles. Things such as that.” He made the helpless sound of a man who had taken little note of the details of the gifts and instead remembered his wife’s pleasure in receiving them.
“I do not recall the particulars,” he confessed. “She also brought the local news and gossip. She made your mother laugh,” he remembered with a faint smile.
Father and daughter fell into a momentary silence as the laughter of the woman they both had loved rang in their memories.
“Do you recall anything else?” Marian finally asked.
“Not much,” he admitted. “We did not see the Lady Ghislaine again after your birth. We heard that Sir Roger had returned and had been banished as a leper.”
“Did you and Mother not go to her and offer your support? After she had befriended Mother?” Marian’s brow creased in confusion.
“Your mother wanted to but I forbid her.” He held up a placating hand at her fierce look.
“Leprosy is a terrifying disease,” he said in defense of his actions. “I was worried that your mother would become ill – or bring it home to you. At first I demanded that she stay away and then I begged and pleaded until she acquiesced.”
He leaned his head back against the chair as if exhausted.
“It was not much later that we heard of the fire and of her death – along with Sir Roger and Malcolm of Locksley.”
He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Your mother was very upset. She demanded that I take her to the village so that she could pay her respects. She never said it, but I believe she had it in her head to bring both of those orphaned boys back here to Knighton…”
“But Guy was already gone,” Marian guessed. “Stripped of his birthright and banished.”
“Yes.” He gave her a pained look and they both took a moment to think about how the repercussions of that time were reverberating today.
“Up to that point, the relationship between Knighton and Locksley was but that of being cordial neighbors,” he remembered. “But though Robin continued to live at Locksley, he was drawn here time and again until it became as a second home to him. At first, I think, because he reveled in your mother’s kindness and then because you and he… well…” His voice trailed off as he stumbled onto the painful topic.
“And no one ever tried to find Guy or offer him help?” There was a faintly accusing ring to Marian’s tone.
“No,” Edward admitted with a chagrined look. “I never heard of him again – indeed, I had forgotten all about him – until he arrived here with Vaisey.”
Marian rested her cheek against her father’s knees and as he winnowed his fingers soothingly through her hair, she thought about the woman who had befriended her own mother. Her father’s description gave her cause to wish that she could have known her. His remembrances spoke of a kind woman filled with warmth and humor. A complex woman, Marian thought, when her father’s memories were added to those of the son who had both loved and resented her.
And she could not help but wonder what kind of person her husband might be had Ghislaine lived to see him to manhood.
Marian left her father’s house and made another spontaneous decision. Wheeling her horse around, she cantered toward the forest. Entering the misty coolness of Sherwood, she had not ridden far before one of the outlaws melted out of the shadows and stepped onto the narrow path.
Her high perch afforded her the rare opportunity of being able to look down into the big man’s face rather than having to crane her neck back and she smiled at the novelty.
“Can I help you, Lady Marian?”
“I need to see him,” she said simply.
John shook his head and pressed his forehead to the staff held tightly in his hands.
“I think it best if you stay away from each other. You hurt him, my lady,” he said at last as he lifted his head to look into her eyes.
“That was never my intent, John.” Marian met his gaze. “My life has not been under my own control. Surely you know that.”
John’s lips twisted into a sad smile.
“I do.” He curled his fingers around her horse’s bridle and began a plodding walk toward the hidden camp. Upon their arrival, he reached up and lifted her from the saddle with strong hands.
“Be careful with him, my lady.” Tucking her fingers into the crook of his elbow, he led her forward. “When it comes to you, he thinks with his heart, not his head.”
“I know.” Grabbing a fistful of his tunic, she tugged his shaggy head down until she could press her lips to his cheek.
“I am counting on you – and the others – to take good care of him,” she whispered.
The big man nodded and gruffly cleared his throat.
“Off with you then,” he said gruffly. “He is waiting for you.” He gave her a little nudge and she looked up to see Robin standing at the top of a hill. The late afternoon sunlight danced through the leaves, painting him gold and she released a sigh. What was could never be, she thought as she shook off old longings and reminded herself that she was here with a cause.
She gathered up her skirts and climbed the hill aware of his steady gaze and stubborn refusal to meet her halfway.
“Robin.” She reached the apex of the hill and stopped but a few feet from where he stood.
“Marian.” He folded his arms across his chest as an awkward silence fell over them.
“I am surprised to see you,” he said at last. “I thought you felt it best that we not.”
“I know.” Her lips trembled into a smile. “And I know that it is asking a lot but I need to speak with you.”
Torn between wanting her to leave he could wallow in his loneliness and the barely controlled need to snatch her into his arms and never let go, he restlessly shifted his weight from one foot to the other. In the end he capitulated – as he suspected he always would when this woman asked something of him – and looking around, he took a seat on a fallen tree. Glancing up expectantly, he patted the rough bark.
Marian accepted his silent invitation and spreading her skirts demurely about her, she settled down beside him.
“Is that the latest in ladies fashions?” Seeing it as much a brand of possession as her wedding ring, Robin could not help the barbed tone which crept into his voice as he took note of her delicate form swallowed up in Gisbourne’s familiar coat.
She glanced down and ran a hand over the supple leather. “It is a long story having to do with why I am here.”
He turned to face her. Setting his booted feet on the log, he wrapped his arms around his legs and propped his chin on his knees, unconsciously forming a shield between them.
“Well, let’s have it then. What have you come to ask?”
“I have learned that part of the land which makes up Locksley as I know it today was once owned by Guy’s family.”
He sucked in a startled breath.
“Are you asking me if that is true?” he asked at length. Adopting a bored expression, he sought to cover his surprise.
“No. I know that Guy was not lying when he told me thus.”
Robin nodded slowly. “Then what is it you want to know?”
“I guess I am wondering why it is that you never said anything about it to me.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“That is the same thing my father said. So I will tell you what I told him. And that is that it may have taken place in a long-ago past, but surely you realize that the events which occurred then have come around to haunt us in the present.”
He tipped his head in acknowledgment of her words.
“Will you tell me about it?” she asked.
He let out a sigh, not wanting to revisit a painful past. “Ask your questions. I will answer them.”
“You knew Guy when you were boys.”
“How did you get on?”
“Not well, as I am sure you already know.” He rolled his eyes. “He was ill-tempered. Sullen. Morose. Not at all fun to spend time with.”
He shot her a cheeky grin. “Sound familiar?”
She silenced him with a quelling frown.
“What?” he asked after a moment, a smile still playing about his lips. “Do not ask a question if you do not think you will like the answer.” He shrugged. “I am sure Gisbourne had equally little good to say about me.”
Marian arched a brow. “His words painted a picture of a boy who was spoiled, arrogant and cocksure. Sound familiar?”
He touched two fingers to his forehead in a silent salute.
“I was those things,” he acknowledged. “And he was a sad-eyed prig.”
“He had reason to be, did he not?”
Robin huffed out a sigh. “I suppose. Look, it is no secret that we did not get on. We were often forced into one another’s company because our parents… well, they made plans to marry after his father was… Did he tell you about his father?”
“Yes. He told me that he returned from the Holy Land and was banished as a leper.”
Robin’s expression grew troubled. “It was terrible,” he recalled. “People treated Sir Roger horribly. I treated him horribly.”
He scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “I was afraid. Leprosy… what if it spread throughout the village? What if I lost my father to it?” He shook his head in remembrance.
“I wanted him gone.”
His voice trailed off into silence and he stared into the canopy of trees as if seeing the past play out before his eyes.
“My father and his mother made plans to marry after Sir Roger’s banishment,” he continued after a long pause.
“And how did you feel about that?”
“I was… I liked the Lady Ghislaine. She was kind to me. Always had a smile and a sweet treat for me. I liked the idea of having a mother again. I was less happy about taking on such a cheerless, moody new brother.”
“Guy told me that your father and the Lady Ghislaine had been carrying on a secret affair for some time before Sir Roger’s return.”
His head shot up.
“A lie!” he snapped, fire in his eyes.
“He said that they met in secret. That he saw them on more than one occasion slip off and one time he followed them.”
He shook his head in automatic denial but she could see the confusion on his face.
“He told me that he saw them whispering in a stable. Embracing and kissing. Are you saying that Guy is lying?”
“No… I don’t know… No.” He pressed his forehead against his knees. “No. Even he would not tell such a lie about his mother.”
“That is what I thought.”
“My father grieved my mother’s death for many years.” His voice was muffled. “And then eventually he began to smile again and I remember realizing one day that he was happy. In hindsight I can see that the moments he was happiest were almost always those times when the Lady Ghislaine was present.” He looked up; his eyes huge with discovery.
“I just never realized until right now.”
Marian waited in silence as Robin was lost in his memories. At last he shook his head as if to clear it and looked at her.
“It is odd, is it not?” he asked. “To learn such things about your parents so many years later? I worshiped him. Revered him. And after his death, built him up in my mind as being nearly perfect. I never thought of him as a normal man, with faults and desires or wants and needs.
“I admired my father so and could not fathom that Guy did not.” Bewilderment was painted on his face. “I have many reasons to despise Gisbourne – for his treatment of the people of Nottingham. For you.”
She blushed and looked away.
“And I will never forgive him for murdering my father… but at least now I understand the animosity he felt toward him.”
“Guy told me it was an accident – the fire. That he was defending his family when your father burst into the house. That he only wanted to drive him off so that your father would leave the Lady Ghislaine alone. I believe Guy was hoping his parents would reconcile and that his family would be intact again.”
Robin sighed and rested his chin on his knees.
“I find myself filled with ‘if-only’s’,” he murmured contemplatively. “If only Sir Roger had never come back. If only I had never run to alert my father and the other townspeople that he had. If only. If only…”
Marian hesitated before pushing forward.
“The next day – after the fire – Guy told me that he had been banished from the village.”
Robin ran a knuckle under his eye, collecting the moisture which had gathered there.
“He said that his family’s land had been confiscated and made a part of Locksley.”
“The land had reverted to Locksley of which it was originally a part,” Robin corrected with an edge to his voice.
“Had his parents and your father not perished in that blaze, would the land have remained in the Gisbourne family?”
“I… I suppose. I do not know, Marian!” He raked his fingers through his hair. “If my father had married the Lady Ghislaine, I imagine that the properties would have joined again.”
“Did Guy return that evening?”
Robin expelled a long breath. “Yes,” he said at last.
“And was again sent on his way?”
“Yes.” He pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “You have to understand, Marian. Things were chaotic. I did not know which way to turn. Where to go. What to do. The priest… he became my anchor and in those first weeks and months I relied on him – and Thornton – to get me through.”
“And this priest… he was the same one who banished Sir Roger so cruelly – even after the Lady Ghislaine had saved his life?”
Robin flushed with the realization that Guy had told her about his part in injuring the priest with his showboating.
“Yes,” he said in defense of his younger self and in defense of the priest who had stepped into his father’s place and guided him to adulthood. “But he only wanted what was best.”
“Best for whom? Certainly not best for Guy…” Her lips tipped up in mockery of a smile. “Best for the people of Locksley? If that was his intent – all these years later – the people of Locksley and Nottingham are paying for his poor decision.”
He lowered his head.
“I was truly sorry for what happened that night. It was a mistake which I learned from.”
He lifted his head and stared hard into her eyes.
“We both became orphans that night. But the lessons I learned made me a better man. Can you say the same of Gisbourne?” *
She smiled sadly.
“No. I cannot.” She rose to her feet and made her way down the hill where she untied her horse. He followed her and boosted her into the saddle.
“But you had the security of wealth and a home – and more importantly – the love and loyalty of many people to help you grow into the man you have become today. And I am so glad of that,” she said fiercely. “So glad to know you had such support in the wake of those tragic events.”
She settled her skirts around her and gathered the reins in her hand.
“But… can you say the same of Guy?” she asked, reflecting his own words back to him.
Robin shook his head mutely and released the horse’s bridle from his grip. With a heavy heart, he could not help but wonder if it was his punishment for past sins to watch the woman he loved ride out of the forest – away from him – and toward the man who had once – in another life – almost been his brother.
It was dark when she returned to Locksley. She led her horse into the stable and dismounted, handing the reins to the groom who appeared silently upon her entrance. She was relieved to see Guy’s horse contentedly munching from a bucket of oats. The stallion whickered a greeting and she dutifully went to its stall. She smiled as the huge warhorse gently butted its head against her shoulder and running her hands down its powerful neck, was pleased to note that its hide was dry and cool to the touch. Proof that Guy had been home for some time.
With a final scratch of her fingers against the top of the stallion’s head, she left the barn and approached the house. As she entered, Alyce hurried forward to greet her.
“Lady Marian.” Relief was evident in her voice and on her features.
“I am late,” Marian acknowledged. “Has Sir Guy eaten?”
“No, my lady.” The housekeeper slanted a cautious gaze toward the stairs. “He came home about three hours ago and went directly to your chamber,” she confided quietly. “Cook made supper but I was reluctant to disturb him.”
“That is fine,” Marian told her. “Please tell the cook I am sorry for being so late and ask her to send a tray for my lord and me to our chamber.”
“Yes, my lady.” Alyce bobbed her head and turned toward the kitchen.
Marian climbed the stairs to the upper floor and stood outside their chamber for a long moment as she wondered what kind of greeting awaited her. Taking a deep breath, she wrapped her fingers around the latch and pushed the door inward.
The bedchamber was dark with only a low fire burning in the hearth for illumination. She stood for a moment, waiting for her eyes to adjust before closing the door behind her.
“It is late.”
Her head swung toward the sound of his voice and she was just able to make out his shadowy form seated near the window.
“It seems later than it is for the sun is setting earlier and earlier each night. Why are there no candles lit?”
“I like the darkness.”
In spite of his statement, Marian groped on the mantle for a taper and set about lighting candles. As she moved across the room to touch the flame to the candle on the bedside table, she glanced out of the corner of her eye to see Guy lift a goblet to his mouth. Tipping his head back, he drained the cup in one long swallow and reaching for the flagon of wine on the small table beside him, he refilled the cup with a generous portion of the dark red liquid.
“I wondered if you would return.” He stared down broodingly, watching the play of light on the pewter band encircling the goblet in his hand.
“Would you have come after me?”
His eyes flicked up to meet hers and she canted her head to one side, genuinely curious to know his answer.
Guy stared at her over the rim of his cup and the moment stretched out into an almost painful silence.
“I would hope that I would have enough pride not to chase after you,” he said at last. “Or enough compassion not to drag you back to a life you hate.”
“But we both know that I have neither pride nor compassion when it comes to you.” He closed his eyes and lifted the cup to his mouth for another deep gulp.
She swallowed hard.
“Then it is best that I came back of my own free will,” she said airily in an effort to lighten the oppressive mood of the room.
“Where were you?” He refilled his cup yet again.
She ignored him and at the sound of a tentative knocking on the door, hurried to open it. A young maid bustled into the room, straining under the weight of a tray heavy with food.
“Put it over here, please.”
Marian swept across the room to the table at Guy’s side and scooped up the flagon of wine. Ignoring her husband’s low growl, she deftly moved the decanter out of his reach, noting by the lightness of the vessel and the bleariness of his eyes that he had been indulging for quite some time.
The servant hastened to obey and set the heavy tray down with a thud. Young though she may be, it was impossible for anyone not to be aware of the strain of tension which filled the room.
“Will there be anythin’ else, milady?”
Marian shook her head. “No, that is all. Thank you.”
The girl bobbed a quick curtsy and hurried from the room. As the door closed behind her, Marian swept the linen cover from the top of the tray.
“Ahh.” She leaned forward to take an appreciative sniff. Generous portions of beef stew steamed in wooden bowls. Half a loaf of crusty bread was wrapped in a cloth and butter gleamed gold in a crock. She set the meal onto the table and laid the tray aside. Taking a seat across from her husband, she peeled back one corner of a square of cloth and inhaled deeply.
“Gingerbread,” she announced. “Your favorite, I believe.” She offered a smile and reached across the table to hand him a spoon.
He pointedly ignored her and took another sip of wine.
“I asked where you have been.”
Marian set the spoon onto the table and picked up her own.
“I went to Knighton to visit my father.” She lifted a spoonful of stew to her mouth and blew on it before taking a bite.
“Delicious,” she sighed. Determined not to allow things to devolve into another argument she looked up to meet his stony gaze.
“You should eat before your meal grows cold, Guy. The cook has done a marvelous job, as always.”
He picked up his spoon but rather than dipping it into his own bowl, he played with it.
“Knighton was not the only place you visited,” he said as he idly ran his fingers first over the rounded back of the utensil and then into its concave center.
“I know you, Marian. You went to Sherwood. You went to see him.”
Marian met his gaze steadily. “Yes,” she said calmly.
He nodded, his face a mask of indifference but for the muscle ticking madly in his jaw.
“No,” she replied slowly. “I do not think you do.”
“It seems a simple enough matter to deduce, madam.” He set the spoon back onto the table with an audible thump. “You did not believe me and ran to Hood for his version of the story.”
“It is of no matter,” he shrugged as if it were of little consequence to him. “I did not expect you to accept my tale as truth.”
“You are wrong.” She touched gentle fingers to his hand where it laid clenched in a fist against the table. “I believed every word you told me.”
“Why did I go to my father and Robin?”
He jerked his head in a terse nod.
“Because I wanted to better understand.”
“You,” she replied softly.
“Me?” His voice was incredulous. “How did speaking with either of them help you to better understand me?”
“You are my husband and yet I feel I hardly know you.”
“And it is important that you do?”
“Of course!” she exclaimed. “I want to understand the man with whom I am going to spend the rest of my life.” She watched his eyes dilate as she finally gave verbal acknowledgment of the lifetime pledge between them.
“I still fail to see how running to Hood helps you to understand me. There is a history of bad blood between us. He and I are enemies,” he reminded her. “He knows nothing about me.” He snatched up the goblet and gulped down half its contents in one long swallow.
“He was present at some of the most important moments in your life,” she shot back as she grabbed the cup and yanked it out of his reach.
“You have had more than enough, my lord.”
Guy rejected the knee-jerk urge to snatch back the goblet. He struggled to gather the tattered remnants of his pride and choosing not to respond to her lowly spoken warning, instead continued their conversation as if it had not been interrupted. “So you did doubt me and raced off to get his side of the story,” he accused angrily.
Marian drew in a deep breath as she strived to remain calm in the face of his antagonism.
“What I believe is that you loved your parents very much,” she said thoughtfully. “Especially your mother.”
Guy swallowed hard and averted his eyes, staring fixedly at a spot on the wall behind her.
“And yet the story you told me does not cast either of them in the most flattering of lights. I do not believe that you would tell me such things about your parents if they were not true.”
She felt his hand tighten even further under her light touch.
“And what did Hood tell you to help you to better understand?” he asked gruffly.
She was silent for a long moment, reflecting on her conversation with Robin, and her husband shifted restlessly as he awaited her response.
“His story did not differ much from yours,” she eventually said. “And he helped me to see you as the young man he knew before tragedy had changed everything in both of your lives.”
“I find it impossible to believe that Hood would willingly say anything that could help you to see me in a more positive way.”
“I do not believe that was his intent,” she said dryly. “However, I do feel that I understand you a little more. Who you were and the things that happened to you as a boy have impacted the man to whom I am married, have they not?”
Guy finally met her gaze directly and she saw an expression of hope cross his face.
“But Guy,” she cautioned gently. “Though I think I understand a little better what compels you to do some of the things you do, that does not mean that I approve.”
“I would have you be proud of me, Marian.” He opened his fist to thread his fingers with hers. “But I fear it is too late.”
“I will pray that is not so,” she murmured and the tightening of her fingers on his seemed to him more binding than any vow spoken in a church.
* Dialogue paraphrased and lifted from the episode “Bad Blood”
Chapter 10: Chapter 9
This chapter is long on exposition. Necessary, I believe to the story and hopefully done in an interesting and entertaining way
They spent the next day apart. Guy did his best to avoid the Sheriff, instead toiling for hours on the training field with his own men. Sweating, despite the chill of the crisp autumn day, he welcomed the mindless rote of performing the same drills over and over again and took relief in the stretch and burn of muscles as he pushed himself to his physical limits and used the punishing exercises to wipe his mind clear of the unpleasant memories dredged up the prior day.
For her part, Marian used the routine of her day to ponder the things she had learned about her husband’s early life and wondered about the rest of his story. What had happened to him next? And how had he come to return to the place from which he had been cast out?
Evening had fallen and the manor house was quiet as all its occupants had retired to their chambers. Seated at the small table near the window, Guy reviewed his steward’s monthly report. Repeatedly dipping a quill into an inkwell, he scratched notations along the edges of the pages. Though intent on his labors, he was nonetheless aware of his wife’s presence as she sat cross-legged in the middle of the bed, brushing her hair. He shifted, settling more comfortably in his chair, pleased by the peaceful domesticity of the scene. For – despite the constant turmoil in which he lived his life – he was a man who, at times, longed for quiet.
He watched from the corner of his eye as Marian rhythmically pulled the brush through the dark waves of her hair and stared hypnotically into the flames flickering in the hearth. He was wholly unaware that – despite her seemingly dreamy absentmindedness – her attention was focused squarely on him and so was startled when she spoke.
“Will you tell me the rest?”
He raised his eyes from his work and blinked in confusion. “The rest of what?” he asked.
“Will you not tell me what happened to you after you left here all those years ago?”
His fingers tightened around the quill, crushing the feathers until they were limp and flattened from the heat and force of his punishing grip.
“I did not leave,” he corrected in a flat voice. “I was banished.”
She lowered the brush to her lap. “Yes.”
“It is an old story and not particularly pretty.” He dismissed her request and pretended to return his attention to his work. He felt her staring at his back and hunched his shoulders briefly in defense.
“Please,” she asked quietly. “I wish to know.”
Guy lay down the quill and turned in his chair. “It is long in the past and means nothing now.”
“You do not believe that any more than I,” she protested. “Please.”
She held out a hand and crooked her fingers toward him. Unable to resist the unusual lore of his wife beckoning him to her side, he rose from his seat and settled stiffly on the bed.
“What is it you wish to know?” His voice was gruff with trepidation.
“Everything,” she murmured. “Where you went. What you did. How you lived.”
“It has been many years,” he protested. “Much time has passed.”
“And I am sure you recall practically every moment of each one of those early days,” she countered. “Please. I would like to know.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and rubbed suddenly damp hands on his sleeves.
“I… I stayed in the area for a little while,” he began tentatively. “I thought that if I could remain nearby – find work and a place to live – I could eventually reclaim the Gisborne land.” He closed his eyes. “But no one would hire me.” He opened his eyes and glanced at her. “It seems that there were many who were more than happy to spread the news of my parents’ deaths far and wide and none who cared to employ the son of a leper and a French whore.”
“Do not!” she exclaimed. “Do not speak of them with such vile words.”
He barked out a disbelieving laugh. “I warned you that the story was often unpleasant,” he reminded her. “And I have only just begun to tell it. Would you rather I stop now?”
“No. But neither would I have you use such foul words. They may not have been free of faults,” she stressed, “but they were your parents and worthy of your respect!”
“These are not my words,” he pointed out. “But rather, they are those of the good people of this shire.”
And with that, so many things clicked into place in Marian’s mind. Guy’s disregard for the people of Nottingham and the surrounding villages, the cold satisfaction he took in their misery – all could be traced back to that time, that turning point in his life. The grudge he held against the very people she fought so hard to protect was one he had held for more than half his life. It was easy for her to imagine him tending it as one would a dying flame – nursing and feeding the embers of his hatred to keep it alive and growing.
She felt despair well up within her and wondered how she could ever hope to turn him from this path he had trod for so long. She swallowed past the lump in her throat and gestured for him to continue.
“In the end, I abandoned the idea of finding a way to stay nearby.”
“Where did you go?”
“I – I just started to walk. I did not have a destination in mind. I took odd jobs where and when I could.”
“And when you could not? What did you do then?”
“I took what I needed,” he confessed. “Vegetables from a field or a loaf of bread from a market stall. Clothing drying on a line. I left here with naught but the clothes on my back – every possession I had once owned was destroyed in the fire.”
Marian’s face was soft with compassion and embarrassed, he looked away.
“How long did you wander?”
“A year,” he shrugged. “Maybe more. I had no way of tracking the days. And then one morning, before the sun arose, I crept up to a chicken coop, hoping to steal some eggs before anyone came out to collect them for the day. But I was caught and dragged off to face the master of the house.”
Guy stretched out on his back and draped one arm over his eyes.
“What happened?” she prodded.
His chest rose and fell on a deep sigh. “He asked me a dozen questions. Who my family was. Where I was from. When had I last eaten.”
“He was kind to you.”
Guy lowered his arm and looked up to see a hopeful smile curving her lips.
“He had me stripped and flogged until I lost consciousness,” he corrected in a voice flat and devoid of emotion. “You are doomed to disappointment if you are looking for a happy ending, Marian.”
He looked away.
“It was late afternoon when I awoke chained to a wall in the stables.” He took up the story again. “When someone realized I was awake, I was taken back up to the house. I was made to stand silently in the center of the room while the master and one of his men circled about me, pushing me to check my balance, peering into my mouth to study my teeth as one would a horse, feinting at me to check my reflexes.” He slicked his tongue around a mouth made suddenly dry by memories of those fear-filled moments. “He offered me a choice. I could take my chances with the local magistrate or, as I had a young, strong back, I could work off my crime in his service.”
“So you stayed.”
“So I stayed.”
“This man,” she asked apprehensively. “He was Vaisey, was he not?”
“No. That part comes later.” He stared toward the ceiling.
“I was put to work in the stables. Currying the horses, cleaning the tack. And doing my best to stay out of the way and beneath the notice of the master and his men.”
He glanced up and saw the concerned look on her face.
“It was not terrible,” he assured her. “For the first time in over a year, I had food in my belly on a daily basis, clean, warm hay in which to make my bed and a roof over my head.” He lay quietly for a long moment, remembering.
“After a short time – with the regular meals and the physical labor – I began to fill out. I reached my full height that year. The master took notice and decided to train me.”
“He and his men were soldiers for hire. From them I learned the art of war – how to wield a sword and accurately shoot a bow. How to launch an attack and when to retreat and regroup.”
“And for whom did you fight?” she asked with a pained grimace.
“Whoever was willing to pay the price. We added our numbers to assist lords fighting border skirmishes with neighboring properties, helped to fight off the Scots when they encroached on English soil and bolstered the King’s numbers in the Holy Land.”
“You sound as though you enjoyed it,” she reproved.
He craned his head back to meet her disapproving gaze.
“I learned that power and wealth are truly the most vital weapons a man can wield. Both can be attained through hard work or right of birth… or at the point of a sword. But it is by the sword that one retains them – and nothing is more important than that.”
“I disagree,” she frowned. “Nothing is more important that doing the right thing. Being a good man. It is the duty of those with power and wealth to protect and provide for those who cannot do so for themselves. That is what is most important.”
“And what reward comes from being a good man?” he scoffed. “Your father is a good man, is he not?”
“The very best.”
“And yet look at him – stripped of his position and power and forced into retirement. By your definition I was a good man,” he spat. “All of my life I had been an obedient son to my parents. I worked hard to learn how to be a fair and just lord to our tenants when I inherited my father’s land.”
He sucked in a deep breath. “My parents were good people. And what did all of that goodness bring to us? Nothing but pain and death!”
“Guy –” she protested.
“No!” He made a slicing motion with his hand. “Tell me – what was my mother’s reward for the nights she spent tending the sick and hungry among our people? What was my father’s reward for his heroics on behalf of an English king?” he snarled. “I already told you how it ended. He – shamed and separated from those he loved and who loved him in return; she – abandoned and disgraced and both burned alive with no one to help them.”
His fists clenched with remembered rage. “I made a mistake which ultimately cost them their lives – but those people of whom you speak – the people my parents protected and provided for – they deliberately fed the fire and sealed my parents’ fate. And when my father and mother were gone, there were none who would stand up on my behalf. And what was rightfully mine was stripped from me and handed on a platter to another and I was forced into exile.”
He looked up at her with eyes burning with remembered hatred and she knew it unlikely that he would ever find compassion for the people of the shire.
“Do not speak to me of duty and honor and of what is right and good.”
He wiped a shaking hand over his mouth and subsided, the fury passing and leaving naught but weariness in its wake. He rolled onto his side.
“And what of you?” He ghosted his fingers over the embroidered hem of her chemise. “Who is a better person than you? And what has it gotten you? Marriage to a man you hate.”
Marian slid down until she was facing him across the pillow. Following instinct, she reached out and touched her fingers to his face.
“I do not hate you,” she whispered.
Guy turned his head and pressed his lips to the center of her palm and with the gentle caress, she felt an answering tug of awareness deep within.
“Wha… what happened next?” She cleared her throat but did not move away.
He blew out a long sigh, exhausted by the emotions churned up by this recitation of his past. He longed to stop but knowing his wife’s stubbornness, realized she would not yield until she had dragged it all from him.
“Our company was hired by a nobleman who had a small property but great political aspirations.”
“Vaisey.” Her hand slid away from his face.
“Vaisey,” he confirmed.
“If he was such a small landowner, why did he require the help of a group of mercenary soldiers?”
“He was seeking to curry favor with another nobleman – one who owned a great deal of property and, more importantly, one who had many contacts at court. This gentleman was embroiled in a dispute with a neighboring landowner and was seeking to bolster the number of men at his disposal. Vaisey hired us and loaned out our services.”
“And you had no objections to be used thusly?”
He shrugged. “It was not up to me to decide but for the master of our company.”
“And how did you come to stay with Vaisey all these long years?”
Guy traced a finger over the back of her hand where it lay loosely fisted on the pillow between their faces.
“As he was climbing the ranks of power, Vaisey was amassing not only a fortune, but also a number of enemies.”
Marian let out an unladylike snort. “I can well imagine.”
He arched a brow and the corner of his lips twitched upward in a crooked smile.
“Yes, well, he concluded that he needed a personal guard. Though I always suspected it had as much to do with his ego as it did his protection.”
“And so you…?”
“I was more educated than most of the men in my company – which appealed to his vanity. And so, he paid my master a goodly sum and –”
She blinked. “He bought you. As one would purchase a horse?”
“Not exactly,” he corrected. “He paid my master for the loss of my services but –”
“How could you let such a thing happen?” Shock colored her voice. “Why would you even consider working for such a… such a…” She spluttered for words. “Such an evil troll!” She punched his shoulder for emphasis.
“Marian, you must understand.” He wrapped his hand around her wrist to stay any further blows. “He was not then as he is now. Conniving, yes. Greedy, certainly. But the madness… that was not in evidence then as it is now. But most importantly, he was offering what I considered a fair wage.”
“Of course,” she hissed and tried to tug her arm free of his grasp. “How could I forget your love for money.”
He bound her close with an arm slung around her waist.
“I did not seek a fortune for fortune’s sake, but because I believed I could amass enough wealth to regain my family’s land,” he reminded her.
She subsided under his fierce glower. In truth, she could not accuse him of flaunting his riches, for he was frugal and careful with his wealth. His wardrobe consisted of a few simple, well made – and well worn – articles of clothing and he seemed in possession of little else beyond the tools of his trade – his stallion, weapons and a few other basic necessities. Indeed, the greatest extravagances she had known him to purchase had been intended for her. The horse he had gifted her with. Her wedding ring.
“That explains why you entered his service,” she said quietly. “But I do not understand why you remain. Guy, he is insane.”
He let out a frustrated sigh.
“I do not know what you want to hear. I was privy to every meeting he held and every word he expressed. Within a few years I began to serve as counsel to him.”
“Then you should counsel him to give up his persecution of the people of this shire!” she interrupted tartly.
“As I said before,” he continued as if she had not spoken. “Back then his madness was not as evident. I stood in the back of rooms in which he met with men of great authority. All that was required of me was to stand as a silent sentry. But in doing so, I was privy to all of their plans and conversations. When Vaisey realized that I was taking in everything that was being said, he looked at me in a different light and began to ask questions of me after a meeting’s end. He wanted to know what I had heard and what I thought it meant. And though I did not open my mouth or contribute in any way to the meetings, I was expected to absorb what was being said and give him my assessment after.”
He gazed at her steadily. “Do you understand what that meant to me? After falling so low, it was gratifying and I wanted nothing more than to please him.”
Marian could easily see it all in her mind’s eye for he was describing what she had witnessed on many an occasion. The sight of Guy looming silently behind his master’s chair, eyes alert and a menacing glower affixed to his face – always a quietly threatening presence – was sadly familiar to her.
“As Vaisey climbed the rungs of power, I advanced with him. Then he came into the favor of Prince John and it was then that I noticed the first cracks.”
“He became more secretive. Consolidating and condensing his power. Calling in markers. Making plots and plans that seemed increasingly less rational.”
“Including plots against King Richard?”
He jerked his chin in affirmation.
“And you did nothing to stop him.” Her face was a picture of disapproval.
“I do not share your sense of loyalty and love for Richard,” he reminded her.
“He is your king and thus deserving of your respect!”
“We have already had this conversation, have we not?” he asked. “And while I am happy to debate with you the king’s merits, or lack thereof, I will merely say again that in John we found a more direct path to power.” He brushed off her concerns and she grumbled quietly for a moment before nodding at him to continue.
“I confess that I was becoming a little alarmed by Vaisey’s increasing unpredictability and began to consider ways to separate myself from him. Though I was far from having enough funds to reach my goal of reclaiming my family’s land, I began to look for an opportunity to take my leave.”
“But here you remain,” she noted.
“Prince John awarded Vaisey the post as Nottingham’s sheriff and I learned that Vaisey should not be underestimated. He may not be sane, but he is shrewd. I realized that he knew all along of my plans to leave, as well as my history with this place and he dangled the new position before me as bait. I had long hoped to return one day and repurchase the Gisborne lands. But never in my wildest dreams could I imagine returning with so much power and authority. Suddenly, I was in a position to come back not only as the master-at-arms for the Sheriff of Nottingham but also as his closest aide and counsel. And the opportunity was there to reclaim those lands lost to me and to seek retribution by snatching up Locksley as well. I could return and hold authority over those who had refused me support and cast me out so many years prior.”
His teeth flashed in a cutting smile.
“It was more than I had ever imagined and there was no force on this earth that could make me turn from him and the lure of power he offered.”
Marian felt a chill race down her spine.
“But now...” He rubbed weary hand over his jaw. “I believe coming here was a mistake. He has lost his grip on sanity. He was often erratic but now he rarely has a lucid thought. This place has made him paranoid. He is suspect of the loyalty the people still display for your father. Enraged by the outright defiance shown by Robin Hood and even more furious with the people’s willingness to hide and support Hood’s antics. Something within him has snapped. He is increasingly unstable and suspicious of everyone around him.”
“Especially me. I have no love for the people of Nottingham. But even I find that I have no stomach for pointless hangings or the torment of children for the sake of a madman’s entertainment. It makes no sense. When the opportunity presents itself I try to distract him or divert his attention, but he is a sadist and enjoys the misery of others too much to stop.”
He smiled weakly. “And I find that I am tired. Tired of the intrigue and tired of dancing attendance upon a maniac.”
“Then leave him!” she cried. “Do not lift your hand again in his service.”
Frustrated, she sat up and drew her knees to her chest.
“Why not?” She spoke rapidly as a plan formed in her head. “I know you have your reasons for hating Robin, but if you were to switch allegiances –”
“No!” he snarled. “I will not.”
“Then if nothing else, will you not consider separating yourself from the Sheriff? At the very least, without his wolf to guard him, it may help to weaken his position in Nottingham.”
Guy pushed himself up beside her. “You are the only good thing that has ever happened to me here.” He toyed with her hand, rubbing his thumb over her wedding ring and stroking her fingers. “There are times when all that I want is to grab you by the hand and take my leave of this shire forever.”
He closed his eyes. “But it is impossible.”
“It is not,” she argued. “Let us do that. We will pack a few belongings and just go.” She would do whatever it took separate Vaisey from his master-at-arms, even if it meant leaving all that she knew and loved behind.
“He will hunt us.”
“Perhaps for a short time,” she said. “But we can hide and after a while, Vaisey will grow bored.”
“And what of your father?”
“We can take him with…” Her voice trailed off. “We will find a way.”
“Oh, Marian. You must understand. There is no way. There is no place I can go – no length of time I can stay away that is safe. He will never stop looking for me.”
“I know he is vindictive but surely –”
He shook his head violently. “I have spent years as the silent watchdog over his shoulder,” he reminded her. “I know too much – for I know everything. He will not risk his secrets. If I were to sever my allegiance to him, he would stop at nothing to see me dead.”
“There is no way out for me but death,” he told her. “And from the moment I showed interest in you, there has been no way out for you either.”
“I am sorry.” He brushed his lips across the backs of her hands. “I was stupid. In my arrogance I thought I had control of the situation – control of him – and that I could do as I pleased. Have what I wanted. I did not think it through. I never considered the consequences.”
His fingers tightened around hers. “He knows that he has only to threaten you and I will do anything he asks. By loving you, I have made you a target. I do not deserve your absolution though in my selfishness I crave it.”
He raised his eyes to meet her gaze. “Can you forgive me?”
Marian saw the despair etched on his face. Shifting closer, she pressed her forehead to his.
“No one should have to apologize for loving another,” she whispered in a tear-clogged voice.
They remained thus, foreheads pressed together and only the ragged sound of their breaths disturbed the quiet intimacy of the moment. Marian edged even closer, surprising them both when she sought his lips with her own. Her kiss was tentative at first, a dry grazing of her mouth over his. A startled murmur of sound slipped from him and sighed over her lips and she was emboldened. Threading her fingers through his hair, she opened her mouth to his.
So startled was he by her kiss, Guy found himself frozen for a moment in time. But the warm, wet invasion of her tongue into his mouth spurred him into motion and he wound his arms around her, toppling her back onto the mattress. Stretching out over her, his body settled naturally into the welcoming cradle of her hips and he tore his mouth from hers to scatter kisses over her cheeks and forehead. Gently biting the lobe of her ear and scraping his teeth along the arched column of her neck, he buried his lips in the notch at the base of her throat.
Marian tugged on his hair, pulling his mouth back to hers and her hips eagerly arched upward to meet the press of his as he ground his body against hers. Hampered by the restrictions imposed by the chemise wound around her legs, a moan of frustration escaped her.
“Wait,” she gasped as she pressed her hands against his shoulders, pushing him away.
Misunderstanding her intent, Guy instantly sat up and swung his feet to the floor.
He raked his fingers through his hair and pressed a fist against his mouth.
“I am sorry.”
Confused, Marian stared at his back.
“Did I… did I do something wrong?”
“Of course not.” He turned and lifted one of her hands with his. Bending low, he pressed his lips to the bruises visible on her wrist.
“You did nothing,” he told her. “As always, it is I who am in the wrong.”
“I do not understand. Why have you turned away?”
He stroked his thumb over the black and blue spot on her wrist. “I promised myself yesterday that I would never hurt you again. And yet here I am today, falling on you like an animal.”
“Is that why you ran off yesterday?” she asked. “Because you thought you had injured me?”
He released her. Grinding the heels of his own hands against his eyes until he saw colored swirls of light against his tightly closed lids, he nodded. Taking a deep breath, he craned his head over his shoulder to meet her gaze with his own.
“I know that I have given you little reason to believe me, but you do not need to fear me,” he told her. “I promise you that I will not force my attentions on you ever again.”
Marian huffed out a disbelieving laugh and sat back on her heels. Now, when she finally wanted him to touch her, he was taking an oath to keep his distance.
“You are my husband,” she told him. “It is your right.”
“I do not want you to accept me merely because it is your duty, Marian,” he ground out. “I want you willing. I want you to come to me.”
“I…” She closed her eyes, unable to believe this turn of events. “I thought that was what I just did.” Bewilderment colored her voice. “Are you… are you rejecting me?”
“No!” He instinctively grabbed for her hands and then immediately withdrew. He crossed his arms over his chest and tucked his fingers against his sides.
“I am not rejecting you,” he told her. “But neither do I want you to come to me because you pity me.”
Marian licked her lips and searched for the right thing to say.
“I do not pity you.” She rose up on her knees behind him and rested her chin against his shoulder. “But rather, for the first time, I feel as though I know you – as though I am coming to understand you.”
He turned toward her and pressed his lips to her temple and a peaceful quiet fell over them. At last, she moved. Sliding her hand over his arm, she tangled her fingers with his.
“Come,” she murmured softly. As she gently tugged his arm, Guy followed her command and swung his legs onto the bed, resting his back on the pillows mounded against the headboard. They stared at one another for a long moment and Marian’s mind was a jumbled whirl of thoughts as she found herself in the curious position of being the pursuer in the face of Guy’s uncharacteristic hesitance.
A furious blush heated her cheeks and drawing in a fortifying breath, she edged closer and pressed her mouth to his in a hard, smacking kiss. When his lips curved against hers, she smiled back and with the breaking of the tension between them, their lips met again and again in a warm, wet, endless exploration of mouths.
Gasping for breath, they tore apart. Impatiently tugging at the hem of her chemise to allow her more freedom of movement, she swung one leg over his and sank down onto his lap.
“Is this alright?” she whispered. She shifted, enjoying the delicious friction of his leather clad legs against the delicate skin of her thighs and his hands clenched convulsively on her hips. She felt a heady surge of triumph and gave into the desire to test her newfound power and though he met her eagerly – kiss for kiss – he made no attempt to wrest control from her.
He groaned deeply when she tangled her fingers in his hair and tugged his head back to bury her mouth against his neck and she chased the vibration along the length of his throat before gently closing her teeth over the tendon standing out in sharp relief as he arched his neck. Her tongue darted out to soothe the small sting and his hips bucked in response, his hands pushing the fine linen of her chemise upwards.
She did not know why the sight of his hands – large and heavily veined – resting against the smooth skin of her thighs should arouse her so, but in that moment she knew that she had never wanted anything as badly as she did him and she wriggled closer, grinding her hips against his in an effort to assuage the building ache.
“Marian,” he rasped and raising one hand, he pushed a tangled fall of hair away from her face.
And then her hands were between them, fumbling with the leather laces of his trousers and tugging his shirt free. Pushing the soft linen up his chest, she twisted and bent low to press a kiss against his torso and felt his stomach muscles contract beneath her wandering mouth.
“Marian.” Again her name spilled from his lips and in that one word she heard pain and pleading.
“Now,” she whispered. Laying her hands over his where they rested against her thighs, she threaded their fingers together and joined her body to his. They moved as one, straining toward completion and with wide-open eyes and a smile on her lips, she leaned forward to kiss him.
Chapter 11: Chapter 10
Marian sat near the hearth. Though she held the mending loosely in her hands, her attention was not on it. The dinner hour had come and gone and once again, Guy had not arrived. Indeed, it had been three days since he had sent a messenger home with word that his duties required his presence at the castle and she should not expect him. As the days dragged on without further word from him her anxiety increased. She had no way of knowing what was going on at the castle and could not help but worry over what kind of trouble the Sheriff was brewing and, more to the point, what role Guy was playing in those plans.
She had noted a palpable tension in the marketplace that morning as people whispered to one another and cast fearful glances towards the gray stone walls surrounding the castle. Merchants and shoppers alike seemed to be in agreement that something was afoot and that likely meant turmoil and misery for the people of Nottingham. Though patrols of soldiers left the grounds and disappeared into the forest and beyond at all hours of the day and night, neither the Sheriff, nor his master-at-arms had been seen in days. Word creeping out from within the castle walls was that the two were barricaded in the Sheriff’s office with only the occasional guard or messenger permitted entry.
Most frightening of all was the eerie silence. Though the familiar sight of Vaisey ranting and raving as he paced about the parapets was a disturbing and frightening image, the unnatural quiet which now engulfed the castle served only to ratchet up the sense of apprehension among the populace to near unbearable levels.
She leapt from her chair when the door was suddenly flung open. A young man she recognized as the son of a tenant farmer stood in the doorframe, eyes wide with worry.
“Riders, milady,” he panted. “Approaching fast.”
Nodding, she set her mending aside. “Thank you.” She forced a note of calm into her voice. “Go home to your family.”
She hastened to a cabinet standing in one corner of the room and, pushing aside bolts of fabric, withdrew her sword from its depths. Sending a reassuring smile toward Alyce and the other servants gathered in the kitchen doorway, she unsheathed the weapon and pressed it along her leg, hiding the lethal blade within the folds of her skirt.
“Come away my lady,” Alyce hissed from the kitchen.
Marian’s hand flashed out in a quelling motion and she peered into the darkness beyond the window, straining to see. The rumble of men’s voices could be heard and she closed her eyes and concentrated in an effort to make out what was being said. Her forehead furrowed in frustration as she was unable to distinguish the voices, let alone what was being discussed. Her eyes snapped open at the sound of horses cantering off and she let out a long breath. Her heart leapt into her throat at the sound of bootfalls rapidly approaching the house and she bit back a gasp as a looming figure emerged from the darkness. She shrank back against the wall – out of sight – her hand determinedly clenched around the grip of the sword. Still peering through the window, her rigid posture relaxed as she was able to make out the blurred features of her husband through the glass.
“Guy!” Relieved, she moved quickly to fling the door open.
Pleasantly surprised by his wife’s eager greeting, a tired smile wreathed his face and he reached out to stroke a gloved hand over her hair in a quick caress. They stared at one another for a long moment before she recovered her wits and stepped back to allow him entrance to the house.
He pushed the door closed behind him and caught the glint of firelight reflecting off the side of Marian’s gown as she moved away. Frowning, he peered closer and saw the sword clutched tightly in her hand. A movement from the other side of the room captured his attention and he swung his gaze toward the kitchen where the housekeeper and several other servants huddled.
“Something has frightened you.” His eyes darted about the room, alert for any threat.
“It was nothing.” She hurried toward him. “Only… you rode up so quickly,” she explained. “Is something wrong?”
He shook his head and reached out to take the sword from her. He studied the blade closely, turning it over and over in his hands, a thoughtful frown marring his handsome features. Fearing that he would recognize the Nightwatchman’s weapon, her breath caught in her throat.
“’Tis a warrior’s blade,” he noted after a long silence. “I shall endeavor never to provoke you into using it against me.” Though his tone was light, his features were rigid. He reversed the sword and offered it to her hilt first. “Milady.” He sketched a formal bow and the look he gave her as he turned away left little doubt that he knew her secret.
Fear coursed through her. Confident that he would never use the knowledge against her, she now worried that it would destroy the contentment which had sprung up between them in recent weeks. Stepping forward, she laid her free hand on his arm.
“Guy,” she whispered plaintively. “I…”
His features softened and he stroked a finger over her cheek as he lowered his head to hers.
“It is more difficult than you might have believed to keep some things hidden in a marriage,” he murmured as he ran his fingers over her gown where it covered her scar in a manner that was at once suggestive as well as a silent apology and she knew then that she had not been the only keeper of her secret. Blushing, she did not resist when he pulled her near.
“Will you put it away?” he breathed against her ear. And, knowing that he was speaking not of the sword but rather asking her to set aside the Nightwatchman for good, she gave a hesitant nod. Balancing her hands on his chest, she rose up onto the tips of her toes and impulsively pressed a kiss to his beard-stubbled cheek, offering up a silent prayer that fate and circumstance would not force her to go back on her word.
“Have you eaten?” she asked at length as she dropped back down onto her heels. He shook his head and began to unbuckle the clasps which ran down the length of his leather coat. She gestured toward the servants still crowded in the doorway and they immediately sprang apart. Returning her sword to the cabinet, she took his coat from him and handed it to Alyce when she approached.
“Have the kitchen prepare something for my lord to eat,” she instructed.
“Yes, milady.” The housekeeper bobbed a quick curtsy and hastened away. Marian led Guy to the dining table and poured spiced wine into two goblets. Offering one to him, she sank down into a chair beside him.
“You rode in as if the devil himself was on your heels.” A troubled frown creased her brow. “Is something amiss?”
He shook his head. “I was simply eager to be home.” He took a healthy swallow from the cup in his hand. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously and opened her mouth to contradict him but the maid arrived with a trencher of food. He fell on the meal hungrily and though she had many questions, did not have the heart to badger him at the moment. She watched him use a hunk of bread to sop up some gravy and stuff it into his mouth. Never had she seen him consume a meal so ravenously.
“When did you last eat?”
He mumbled something around a mouthful of food and swallowed hard, washing it down with a gulp of wine. “I am not sure.” He used his knife to tear a piece of meat away from the bone and popped it into his mouth. “Perhaps two days ago.”
Watching with concern as he devoured his meal, she took note of the three day growth of beard covering his usually clean-shaven jaw and the dark smudges bruising the skin under his eyes. Deep lines bracketed his mouth and it was clear that he had been denied sleep as well as food in the last few days.
His hunger finally assuaged, he leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, heaving a deep sigh as he slipped into a light doze. Marian gestured toward Alyce and gave her whispered instructions. Moving quietly under her lady’s watchful gaze, the housemaid reappeared to clear away the remnants of the meal, taking care not to rattle the dinnerware or bump the table. Marian leaned forward and brushed her fingers over her husband’s hand, and though her touch was gentle, she startled him awake. He bolted from his chair, muscles tensed to combat a perceived threat.
“Shh.” She rose to stand beside him. “I am sorry.” She laid a soothing hand on his chest. “It was not my intent to alarm you.” Tucking her hand into the crook of his arm, she tugged him toward the stairs and up to their chamber where two servants were wrestling a large copper tub closer to the fireplace.
“I thought a hot bath would soothe you.”
He looked down into her earnest face. “I fear that I may fall asleep and drown.”
“I will stay near and rescue you if that is the case.” A dimple flashed in her cheek and his lips curved in response.
“Truly, Marian.” He cast a longing glance toward the bed. “I wish only to sleep.”
She motioned the servants toward the door and spied Alyce climbing the stairs. Reaching out, she took a bucket of steaming water from the housekeeper’s hand.
“Do not bother sending up the rest of the bathwater,” she instructed. “But would you please see to it that water is heated and ready before breakfast tomorrow?”
“Of course, my lady. Will there be anything else?”
“No, Alyce. Thank you. Have a good night.”
Pushing the door closed, Marian turned to find her husband perched on the edge of the bed, his chin tucked against his chest. Crossing the room, she laid a hand on his back. “Why not at least wash up a bit before bed?” she suggested. “You will sleep better.”
Blinking like an owl, he stared at her as if in a stupor. She left his side and poured a measure of hot water into a porcelain basin on the washstand and more into the matching pitcher.
“Guy?” she prompted with an arched brow.
He rubbed his fists against his eyes in a manner much like that of an overtired child and she smiled. He pushed to his feet and stumbled toward her when she beckoned him near and she put a steadying hand on his arm.
“Wash,” she ordered.
While his hands moved obediently to tug on the laces of his shirt, she crossed the room to pull clean linens and a cake of soap from a cupboard. Turning back, she found him stripped to his braes. Setting the length of cloth and soap on the washstand, she changed into her nightclothes and climbed into bed. Sitting in the middle of the bed, she idly braided her hair and looked with appreciation on his tall, leanly muscled physique as he made quick work of his bath. Rolling the soap between his fingers, he scrubbed his hands over his face before spreading the lather over his neck and torso. Rinsing quickly, he ran wet fingers through his hair and dried himself. Striding toward the bed, his momentary burst of energy seemed to fade. He slumped on the edge of the mattress, rolling his head back and forth on his shoulders and she winced sympathetically at the popping sounds amplified by the quiet of the room. At last, he stretched out on his back. Nestling into the bedclothes with a long, loud groan, he reached out and wrapped a warm hand around her ankle.
“Guy.” She threaded her fingers through his damp hair. “Where have you been the last three days?”
He grimaced. “At the castle with the Sheriff.”
“Yes. But what have you been doing that has prevented you from sleeping or eating?”
The notes of suspicion and irritation in her voice had his hackles rising, but the underlying tone of concern did much to soothe him.
“Tomorrow,” he mumbled around a mighty yawn. “Can we not discuss this tomorrow?” Taking her silence for acquiescence, he gave her ankle an affectionate squeeze and, succumbing to the hypnotic winnowing of her fingers through his hair, slipped effortlessly into sleep.
Forcing her anxiety aside, Marian blew out the candle and slid down in bed, moving carefully so as not to awaken her husband. He shifted again, rolling away from her onto his stomach and she followed. She stretched out, crooking her leg over his and her arm over his waist. He stirred and mumbled her name. Cupping her hand in his, he tucked it between his chest and the mattress. Resting her cheek against the smooth skin of his back, she stared into the glowing coals of the fire until, lulled by the steady rise and fall of his back, she slept.
Guy’s rest was disturbed the next morning and he shifted in protest, burying his face into the pillow. The persistent sound of his wife softly calling his name and the gentle touch of her fingers on his shoulder prevented him from slipping back into a deep slumber. In defense, he hooked his arms around her waist and lifted his head to her lap.
“Shh,” he mumbled as he nuzzled his face into the soft fabric of her chemise.
Marveling at the growing ease of affection between them, Marian bowed her body over his and he tightened his arms around her, sighing contentedly as she ran her hands over the muscled satin of his back and pressed a warm, soft kiss against his shoulder blade. They stayed thus for long seconds, enjoying the simple pleasure of the quiet interlude. When she felt his body loosen on a glide back towards sleep, she reluctantly began to rouse him again.
“Guy.” She shifted and rested her lips against his ear. “Guy,” she whispered again. “Come. It is time to rise.”
He grunted a protest, burrowing his face into her belly and she could feel the moist warmth of his breath through her chemise.
“Guuuy.” She sang his name in a voice that was gently insistent until at last he yielded to her call. With a disgruntled sigh, he rolled onto his back. Dragging open heavy lids, he peered around the room, some part of his brain taking note of the sunlight gleaming through the window glazing.
“What is the time?” He blinked at her sleepily.
“Dawn was over an hour ago,” she told him.
He dragged himself from her loose embrace and stood. Raising his arms over his head, he stretched his hands toward the ceiling. Marian rose at the sound of a gentle tapping from across the room. Belting her wrap around her waist, she opened the door to admit Alyce.
The housekeeper bustled into the room carrying a linen draped tray. A blush suffusing her cheeks, she pointedly averted her eyes from the imposing sight of a nearly naked Sir Guy and instead focused all her attention on supervising the steady stream of servants who had followed her into the room bearing buckets of steaming water. When the copper tub was filled and several buckets set near the fire to keep the water warm, the housekeeper shooed everyone from the room.
“If that will be all…?” Her lady smiled and nodded her thanks and the housekeeper left the couple alone.
Marian turned to find her husband rooted to the spot in which she had left him. She returned to his side and touched her hand to his. He turned to her, a fogged look in his eyes and she jostled his hand lightly until she saw his gaze clear.
Having noted that the kitchen had sent up a cold breakfast of bread, cheese and eggs boiled hard, she smiled up at Guy.
“Bath first,” she decided and gave him a gentle push. He stripped and eased himself into the tub. Marian shrugged out of her wrap and perched nearby on a low stool to study her husband’s face. Though the harsh lines around his mouth had softened somewhat and the shadows under his eyes lightened, fatigue was still evident to her critical gaze. She counted on the warmth of the steaming bath and food to alleviate the lingering remnants of his exhaustion. Long moments passed and he slumped deeper into the water, making no move toward bathing. Smiling ruefully, she tapped an insistent finger to the center of his chest.
“Wash,” she ordered when he captured the irritating digit in his wet hand.
Grunting, he opened one eye to peer at her balefully. Unperturbed, she held his gaze.
“My lord.” She patiently held out a chunk of soap and washcloth with one hand and with the sweetest of smiles curving her lips, flicked water at his face with the other.
Wide awake now, Guy pushed himself up in the bath, settling his back against the copper rim. Reaching out as if to take her offerings, he clamped dripping fingers around her wrists and hauled her upright, until she was teetering precariously over the steaming water.
“Guy!” Her voice was a low warning as she strained back against his grip. “Do not!”
“In. Get in.” He braced his feet to gain better leverage and tugged her insistently forward. She shrieked as he ignored her warning and using his superior strength, topped her into the bath.
“This chemise was silk!” she wailed furiously as water sloshed violently over the sides of the tub.
“This chemise…” He cocked his head to the side and studied with interest the way the now translucent silk revealed rather than disguised the curves beneath. “…is in the way.” He cupped the heavy weight of her breast in one hand, flicking his thumb over its distended center.
“Off,” he demanded, giving the chemise an impatient tug.
Lips pursing into a pout, she imperiously batted his hand away.
He tugged again at the offending material and gave a hopeful look to which she responded by lifting her pert nose into the air.
“No,” she sniffed dismissively.
His fingers toyed with the hem of her chemise, flirting with the warm skin beneath. Leaning forward, he rasped his tongue over the exposed length of her throat.
“Marian,” he called, his voice husky with invitation.
Struggling to maintain her aloof countenance, she turned her head and peered regally down her nose at him.
“You know you want me,” he crooned softly as his hands traced suggestive patterns over her thighs.
She stifled a gasp, her eyes fluttering closed as an arrow of pleasure zinged through her. Taking a deep breath in an effort to regain some measure of control, she opened her eyes.
“Well,” she breathed in a carelessly thoughtful tone, “I had thought to take a bath myself after you had finished, but you have fooled around so long the water is cooling even as we speak.” She tapped a contemplative finger against her lips. “It would be a pity to let the hot water go to waste.”
He grinned in happy agreement and together they stripped the chemise over her head, tossing the ruined garment to the floor with a sodden thwack. Her arms wrapped loosely around his neck, she leaned back against his upraised knees. Their bodies undulated together, the water gently lapping in concert with their slow movements as they made lazy love in the quiet of a new morning.
Clean and dry, they dressed and moved to the table to sate other appetites.
“You promised last night that we would talk.” Marian nibbled on a cube of cheese.
Guy dusted a sprinkle of salt and pepper over an egg and popped half into his mouth. Their playful interlude had allowed him to distance himself from the last few days but reality once again intruded. He looked at his wife who was watching him with patient attention and he shook his head in resignation for he knew she would not rest until she was in possession of all the details.
“The Sheriff was… distraught,” he began.
Marian let out a huffing sound. When is he not, she thought with irritation.
“He has lost an item – one of particular importance to him.”
She propped her chin on her hand and met his gaze steadily. “Lost an item,” she repeated.
“Actually, he believes it to have been stolen and I cannot help but agree.”
“And might I be so bold as to inquire as to exactly what this item might be?” she asked testily.
“He has been in a towering rage since he has learned it went missing,” Guy continued as if she had not spoken.
“He is always in a rage,” she pointed out.
“Not like this.” Guy rubbed his fingers over his face as memories of the last three days played out in his mind’s eye. Over the years, he had learned to cope with Vaisey’s mad rages. The sight of the Sheriff pacing about the room, arms waving maniacally, specks of spittle dotting his chin was one that had become almost comforting in its familiarity. But the deadly clam displayed by the man in the last few days had left Guy shaken. One hour had bled into the next with the Sheriff staring into the flames and the unnatural quiet was more disturbing to his master-at-arms than any crazed fit he had ever witnessed.
Guy had spent the days standing alertly in the presence of his master and the Sheriff’s unspoken thoughts were more frightening in their silence than any deranged plan he had ever hatched in the past. For the first time, Guy had little to no idea of what Vaisey was truly thinking and that terrified him.
“You have not said what was stolen.” Dread curled in her stomach. Her husband’s disquiet was a palpable presence in the room and, all appetite lost, she pushed away her plate.
“It is a document,” he told her.
“A document? Of what import?”
“It is a pact of sorts.”
“A pact,” she repeated flatly. “A pact to do what? A pact between whom?”
He lifted his gaze to hers.
“A pact between those who support Prince John.”
“Support his quest to gain the throne?” she clarified.
“That is ridiculous!” she scoffed. “He cannot lay claim to the throne while Richard lives –” Her words broke off and she looked at him with mounting horror.
He cocked his head to one side and waited as the realization broke over her beautiful features.
“It is a pact to kill the King and put John on the throne!” she exclaimed.
He inclined his head in silent agreement. Marian buried her face in her hands as a fresh understanding dawned.
“You signed it, did you not?” Her voice was muffled behind her hands. Though he said nothing, she shook her head back and forth in denial and when she looked up, tears of rage and fear glittered in her eyes.
“How could you?” she demanded.
His face was a stoic mask.
“How could I not?” he countered. “To not sign it would have been akin to signing my own death warrant – or worse – yours.”
She gnawed on her thumbnail. “And it is missing,” she clarified at length, striving for calm.
“And you do not know who has it?”
He leveled a pointed glance at her.
“Robin,” she breathed.
“In all probability.”
“What…” She swallowed hard. “What has been done to recover it?” she asked fearfully.
“Riders have been dispatched to every end of the shire in search of Hood and his gang, but as you know, they are too well-hidden and there are none who will speak against them.”
“What will happen?”
“If Hood has not already sent word to the king, he will do so at any moment. The Sheriff has sent men to watch the ports but it will be impossible to find the messenger. Hood will not send one of his people – they would be too easily recognized.”
He shrugged philosophically. “Eventually, Hood will get word to the king and Richard will do what he will do.”
She agitatedly played with a crust of bread, crumbling it into tiny pieces.
“Are you going to ask me to lead you to Robin?”
He swiped a tongue over his lips, betraying his own disquiet.
“The Sheriff wanted to drag you to the castle for questioning, but I managed to convince him that you know nothing of the outlaws’ whereabouts.”
“And… he believes you?”
His shoulders lifted in a careless shrug. “Vaisey assumes that you have been brought to heel over these last months of our marriage.” His lips curved in a humorless smile. “I see no reason to disabuse him of the notion.”
She worried her bottom lip between her teeth.
“But you,” she said. “Are you going to ask me?”
He gave a sharp shake of his head. “No. Believe me, madam. I am aware of your divided loyalties.”
She waited for him to continue, but he said nothing further and the look on his face told her that he feared testing those loyalties lest he come out on the losing end. And, in truth, she had no assurance to give him for she did not know how to protect one of them at the potential cost of the other’s life.
She stretched out a hand and laid it over his.
“I could speak with Robin.” she began. “I could ask him…”
“No!” He scraped his chair back from the table and leapt to his feet. “If the Sheriff catches wind of you slipping off into the forest, he will… he would…” He shook his head violently. “No! I forbid it!”
“But perhaps I could – ”
“No.” He softened his tone and sat back down. Wrapping his hand around hers, he looked into her eyes.
“What will be, will be,” he told her. “As long as the Sheriff believes you have no involvement with Hood and are loyal to me, you are safe.”
“And if Robin gets word to the King?” she asked worriedly.
“Then you will still be safe because Hood will be sure that Richard knows you have always been a loyal subject.”
“And what of you?” she asked brokenly.
Unable to explain to himself let alone to her the measure of calm which had come over him with the realization that it was all drawing to a head and that one way or another his fate would finally be decided, he pried open her clenched fingers and pressed his lips to the center of her palm. “What will be, will be,” he repeated.
Her fingers curved around the side of his face as he nestled his face into the warmth of her hand and she leaned forward to rest her own cheek against the silk of his hair.
There was a way out of this mess. She was sure of it though she could not yet see the path. There had to be a way to set Guy free of the quagmire in which he lived. She would not allow the vagaries of fate to determine the course of her life any longer. There was a way out – for all of them – she vowed to herself and she would find it.
Chapter 12: Chapter 11
The plan came to her more easily than she would have believed. Stunning in its relative simplicity, she knew one of the most difficult aspects of it would be to convince the others of its merits. More to the point, convincing the various parties to cooperate with one another would require she use every weapon in her arsenal. To that end she enlisted her father’s aid, for she knew that neither party would ignore a summons from Edward of Knighton.
On the appointed day, she waited in her girlhood bedchamber and kept vigil at the window. Her patience was rewarded when she caught sight of movement in the distance. Moments later a figure emerged from the tree line moving cautiously, but quickly toward the house. Though hidden beneath a hooded cloak, there was no doubt as to the person’s identity, for she knew the graceful and limber stride as well as she knew her own.
Robin had arrived.
Marian took a deep breath and wiped suddenly damp palms on her skirt. She had not seen him since that day in the forest – so many weeks ago – and much had chanced since then. She imagined that she had changed in immeasurable ways. She peered into a small mirror hanging on the wall and wondered if she looked different. Wondered if he – who knew her so well – would take notice.
Robin ducked into the kitchen and shot a grin at the cook whose ruddy face bloomed with a delighted smile at the sight of him.
“Something smells wonderful,” he declared as his fingers inched toward a cloth draped plate on the table.
“Tis for later, Master Robin.” The cook gave his knuckles a playful rap with a wooden spoon, playing the game as they had since he was a boy sneaking into her kitchen for a treat.
“Will ye be staying for supper?” she asked.
“I… I do not know.” He cast a furtive glance over his shoulder toward the doorway and the relative safety of Sherwood and she laid a weathered hand over his.
“There are none here who would let harm come to ye,” she said fiercely.
Robin flashed a grateful look and sidled closer. “Is that by any chance… apple cake?” He lowered his voice to a conspirator’s whisper.
“Sure and it might be,” she replied, her native Ireland thickening her voice. “With raisins.”
He heaved an exaggerated sigh of delight. “One of these days I am going to steal you away from here,” he vowed as he pressed a smacking kiss to her cheek.
“Go one with you then.” A pleased flush stained her cheeks. “His lordship is waiting on you.” She laughed and gave him a gentle push out of the kitchen.
Watching him disappear from view, her smile faded. She dusted her hands on her apron and, returning to work, let her thoughts drift back to happier times when he had been a frequent visitor to Knighton. She had oft-thought what a lovely couple he and her young mistress made and had delighted in imagining the beautiful children they would create together. Shaking her head, she gave an onion a violent thwack with the knife in her hand and wondered how things had come to pass that the beautiful Lady Marian had ended up married to the dark and dour Sir Guy instead. Wiping a knuckle under her eye, she blamed the onion for the tears which pooled there and resolutely busied herself in preparing Master Robin’s favorite meal.
As familiar with the layout of Knighton as he was Locksley, Robin made his way to Sir Edward’s study. The older man rose to his feet and greeted him with a hearty embrace.
“My boy! It is good to see you.”
“My lord.” Robin clasped close the man who had become as a father to him. “I debated the wisdom in coming here. More and more riders search the forest every day. I would not wish to bring trouble to your home.”
“You are safe here.” Edward unconsciously reiterated his cook’s words and directed the young man toward a seat.
“Well then,” Robin flopped comfortably into a chair. “Why have you summoned me?”
Robin sat up straight. “What of Marian? Is something wrong?” He bolted to his feet. “If he has hurt her…”
Edward put up a calming hand and began to speak but was interrupted when his daughter appeared.
“I am well, Robin, as you can see.” She held her arms out from her sides so that he could see she had come to no harm.
Robin released a shaky breath and raked her from head to toe with an assessing glance.
She motioned both men back into their chairs and, spreading her skirts carefully around her, sank gracefully onto a low stool near her father.
“I know you have the Sheriff’s pact.” She clapped a hand over her mouth. Her plan had been to work her way up to this point carefully, not simply to blurt it out as she had.
“You… you…?” he blustered. “Pact?” he asked in surprise.
“Oh, Robin. Come now. Guy already told me.”
“Gisborne told you?” he repeated dumbly, shock registering on his handsome face. He could not fathom why or under what circumstances Gisborne would willingly relay such information to anyone, let alone Marian.
Gathering his wits about him, he gave her a searching look. “I am sure he has not told you the whole of it,” he said pityingly.
She pursed her lips and shrugged thoughtfully. “Well… he has told me that it is a pact made and signed by John’s supporters to put him on the throne. And that it has gone missing and he suspects that you are in possession of it,” she finished matter-of-factly.
Fire flashed in his eyes. “But has he told you –”
“That his signature appears on it as well?” She nodded. “Of course,” she said as if there could be no doubt. “That is why I asked my father to invite you here,” she told him. “I need your help.”
He narrowed his eyes. “My help?”
“Yes.” She shot him her most winning smile. “Do you still have possession of it?”
For the first time in his life, Robin hesitated to speak openly with her.
“Why do you ask?” He was unable to mask the suspicion in his voice.
“Oh! For heaven’s sake!” Her hands shot up into the air. “Can you not just answer the question?”
“I fear I cannot, Lady Gisborne.” The emphasis he placed on her title was evidence of the first fissure in his trust of her and she closed her eyes as the pain of it lanced through her.
Turning, she looked toward the man seated beside her. “Father?”
Edward laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and rose to his feet. “I will give the two of you some time alone.” He gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze and graced Robin with a fond smile before quitting the room.
Marian returned her attention to the man she had known since childhood.
“Robin, I will not insult your intelligence by pretending that I do not ask in part because I wish to save my husband.”
He winced as she openly laid claim to Gisborne.
“I am afraid I will never understand, Marian. How can you defend him? After all he has done… all the crimes he has committed? How can you wish to save him?”
“I…” She groped for the words to make him understand though she was not sure that she could make sense of it even to herself. How did one find the words to explain a feeling? How to explain her instinct that Guy was worth saving?
“You love him.” Robin’s voice was flat.
She drew in a shuddering breath. “I… It is complicated.”
“He is not a good man, Marian.” Robin’s expressive features were filled with concern for her.
“There is good in him,” she countered. “You know this. You more than anyone – for you knew him before…” She raised her hands helplessly. “You knew him before everything changed.”
Robin flushed and looked away.
“I do not say this to shame you into helping him,” she said gently. “He has made his own choices and rarely did he make the right one. But Robin, I have come to realize that you and I are the lucky ones.”
“In what way?”
“Despite the losses we have suffered, we have always been surrounded by love, supported by love, guided with love. I look at Guy and I cannot help but wonder – what direction would our lives have taken if we had lost everything and everyone as brutally as he? Who would we be if everyone who had guided our choices was suddenly stripped away?”
Robin watched her carefully but made no reply.
“Guy looks at me and I see that he wants more. He wants to be a man I can be proud to call husband. But he is lost.” Her slim shoulders rose and fell on a long sigh. “He believes that I am his salvation. I did not understand that before but perhaps I am.
She smiled and though tears brightened her eyes, they did not fall.
“You see Robin, you love me. But he needs me.”
Her eyes pleaded with him to understand. For that, in a nutshell, was the answer. Guy’s need of her was a powerful thing. It filled her. Drew her toward him. Gave her a purpose and kindled in her feelings unlike anything she had ever known before. Feelings which confused her. Compelled her. Consumed her.
Throat tight with emotion, Robin swallowed hard and looked away as he drew the tattered remnants of pride and control about him. Time spun out with an aching slowness as bittersweet images of their lives together played in their memories until at last Robin shook himself back to the present.
“Perhaps we should return to the matter at hand,” he suggested gruffly.
Marian nodded and drew in a deep breath. “Now you understand that I have personal reasons for asking about the pact. But I hope you know me well enough to know that I would never do anything that would jeopardize the king’s – or England’s – welfare.”
He studied her face and saw only the clear, guileless honesty he had always known of her.
“I know,” he said at last. “I do trust you, Marian.”
“Good.” Her posture and features softened with the relief of it. “Because I have an idea of how we can use the pact to rid the shire of Vaisey…” She clasped her arms around her legs and graced him with a conspiratorial grin. “But I will need your help.”
Intrigued, he shook off melancholy and leaned toward her. “Tell me more.”
As days had passed without recovering the pact, the Sheriff had grown increasingly unstable. Oft the only person permitted in his presence, Guy bore the brunt of his rages and in the last few days, he had resorted to plying the Sheriff with copious amounts of wine until the man fell into a drunken stupor.
Exhausted, he summoned two servants to carry the unconscious man to his bed and wondered if he would dare hasten the process in the future by adding a sleeping draught to the wine. He hesitated to do so, lest he misjudge the dosage and kill the man instead. Though he would consider himself well rid of the Sheriff, he knew that doing so would mean the decimation of Nottingham and the outlying villages at John’s hands and even he had not lost so much of his humanity as to not give a damn about that.
Freed for at least a short while, Guy dug the missive he had received from Sir Edward from his tunic and called for his horse. As he made his way from the castle grounds, he wondered what his wife’s father could possible want of him.
Dismounting upon his arrival at Knighton, he was admitted to the house by a timid maid.
“My Lord Edward awaits you,” she squeaked. Too young to mask her fear of him, she cringed at the mere sound of his voice inquiring after the master of the house. Not wishing to send her into a frightened swoon, he held his tongue as she led him through the manor. Pointing toward a door at the end of a hall, she darted quickly toward the relative safety of the kitchen.
Laughter emanated from the room the maid had indicated and his spirits lightened at the sound of Marian’s voice. He had not known she would be here but was glad of it and hastened forward, coming to an abrupt halt as he reached the doorway.
His astonished gaze took in the trio seated around the hearth and the first emotion to assail him was a terrible, jealous rage as his wife’s tinkling laughter blended seamlessly with Hood’s hearty guffaw in a painful assault on his ears.
His hand closed instinctively around the pommel of the sword strapped to his waist but the anger quickly faded to resignation. He checked his movement and laid a hand on the doorjamb to support suddenly weak limbs.
For the pretty tableau laid out before him brought home the truth of what might have been if not for his interference. Hood lounged in his chair, one leg tossed carelessly over its arm, as comfortable here as he might have been in his own home. Marian sat at her father’s feet, fingers pressed over her mouth to stifle a giggle as Hood regaled father and daughter with a story. The firelight gilded them gold, but the warmth of the room owed itself more to the open fondness between its occupants than it did the blaze in the hearth.
Merriment shone in Edward’s eyes as he slapped a hand on his knee. “Oh my boy,” he chuckled. “How I have missed this.” He cast an indulgent look toward the two young people. “It is like old times.”
And Guy was made painfully aware of what he, in his selfishness, had stolen from Marian. For, though they had grown increasingly more comfortable with one another, he understood now that she had left this easy laughter behind and guilt swamped him with the realization that it was in these two men with whom her joy and happiest memories reposed.
He took a step backward, eager to leave but his boot scraped on the wooden floor, giving him away. All three heads turned toward him, but it was Marian who held his gaze.
Mistaking the twisted look on his face for anger, she leapt to her feet.
“I beg your pardon,” he said stiffly. “It was not my intention to interrupt. Your father…” His voice trailed off lamely as his hand tightened around the wooden jamb of the door.
“I know.” Pleased to see him, she smiled and moved toward him. “Will you not join us?” She caught his free hand in hers and gave it a little tug.
He gave a terse shake of his head. “No. I do not think –”
“Gentlemen.” She turned toward the other two occupants of the room. “If you will excuse us but one minute.”
She led her husband into the hallway.
Robin made no attempt to hide his study of the couple. He watched with a sinking heart as Marian stepped confidently forward, rising on her toes to get closer to her husband. Though he could not hear their low-voiced conversation, the language of their bodies spoke loudly. Gisborne’s head was bent attentively close to his wife’s. Her murmured tones seemed earnest, but the absent manner in which she toyed with the ties of his shirt and slipped her fingers between the laces to touch the warm skin beneath was the natural and unaffected caress of a lover well known. He watched Gisborne’s rigid posture relax degree by degree under the spell of his wife’s soft words and touch, and the ease of affection shared by the couple was painful to witness.
At last, Marian lowered her heels back to the floor and made as if to step away but found that she was held captive by a lock of hair twined around Gisborne’s finger. He released the curl and both men watched it spring back into place with a bounce. Robin saw the other man stroke a finger over the curve of her jaw and he swallowed back the nausea which rose to his throat at the intimacy implied by the suggestive smile which came over her face. He quickly affected a bored look as she drew her husband into the room.
Edward, who had been aware of all that had transpired, stood. “Welcome, Sir Guy.” He offered his daughter’s husband a polite and careful smile. “Please, join us.”
Awkwardness descended on the room again as it became evident there was no place for Guy to sit.
“My apologies,” Edward spoke quickly and reached for a bell on the table at his side. “I will ring for another chair.”
“Do not bother, my lord.” Guy folded his arms over his chest, the leather of his coat creaking with his movement. “I am comfortable enough.” Leaning against a wall he adopted his usual menacing posture. Marian shot him a pointed look and though he made an effort to relax, he was incapable of fully subduing the glower inspired by Hood’s presence.
Suppressing an exasperated sigh, she again sat near her father. “Father and I asked you both here because I wished to discuss with you a plan I have in mind.”
“A plan,” Guy asked suspiciously.
“A quite good one,” Robin interjected and graced her with an approving smile. That it also served to irritate the other man was simply a bonus.
“You have already discussed this plan with him?” Guy’s voice was rife with accusation, inspiring a full out grin from Robin.
Marian slashed a quelling finger toward Robin and turned her attention to Guy.
“Will you not listen to what I have to say?” she asked.
Guy subsided and sullenly gestured for her to continue.
“In order for my plan to work, I had to make sure that you were correct in your judgment that Robin was in possession of the pact –”
“The pact!” Guy shoved himself away from the wall. “Did I not tell you to stay out of it? To stay away from Hood?” He scraped his hands through his hair. “I told you it was too dangerous. Are you trying to bring the Sheriff’s wrath upon you? If he were to find out –”
“If it is your wish to keep it a secret, my lord, I would ask that you please lower your voice.” Marian resisted the urge to leap to her feet and shout back at her husband. “As for Vaisey… no one is safe from him. Not me. Not even you. You have told me yourself that he has completely loss any control of his senses!”
“No.” She rose and went to his side. “We cannot keep going like this,” she told him. Ignoring the others, she caught his hand in hers. “The pact is our best leverage against him. If we do not find a way to stop him now, we will never do so.”
“Marian, it is suicide…”
“We are all dying under his hand, Guy.” She gave him a level look. “You, as much as any of us. Do you not wish to find a way to end it? Will you not at least listen to what I have to say?” she asked again.
Her husband subsided and leaned back against the wall. The arms he crossed over his chest now seemed more a defense than aggression and his face was taut with worry.
“I will listen.”
Marian folded her hands before her and closing her eyes, blew out a long, slow breath. Opening her eyes, she shrugged her shoulders and gave him a tiny smile.
“It is simple really. Robin is in possession of the pact.”
She leveled a warning look at her husband when he stirred restlessly.
“Even more importantly, no one outside this room and Robin’s gang knows for sure that he has it.”
Guy shot a look toward the younger man. “You have not yet gotten word to the king?” he asked doubtfully.
Robin’s jaw tightened. “No. Your men have been watching us too closely and frankly I was unsure who to trust with so vital a piece of evidence. I could not risk having it fall into the wrong hands.”
Guy turned away from Hood dismissively and returned his attention to his wife.
“You help get the pact out of the shire where it will be safe from the Sheriff and then we go to Vaisey and use it as leverage to force him out of office.”
“And exactly how do you plan to do that?”
“By telling him that we will not hesitate to present it to Richard if he does not agree to our terms.”
“And pray, what are those terms?” Guy asked tersely.
“That he quit Nottingham for good and gives up his plans to install John on the throne.”
“And you really believe that Vaisey will just agree to go along with this?” His voice rose incredulously.
Robin bristled and swung his foot down to the floor.
“I told you he would not listen,” he said scathingly. “I do not know why we have even brought him into this conversation,” he cried. “What has he done to earn our trust? What makes you think he will not turn on us? He is a coward!”
Guy stiffened. “Unlike you who cowers in the forest hiding behind the very peasants you purport to protect?”
Robin snarled and rose slowly to his feet, fists clenched at his sides. “This from a man who proudly struts about in his role as Vaisey’s enforcer with no regard for the people abused and murdered along the way.”
Guy took a menacing step away from the wall and Marian leaped forward. Arms outstretched, she moved between the two men. The air was thick with the long-standing animosity between them and she hoped to regain control of the situation before it erupted into violence and destroyed any hope she had for ending the Sheriff’s reign of terror over the people of Nottingham.
“Hold!” Edward’s unexpected roar shocked the other occupants of the room into silence. “Now.” The older man modulated his voice. “We will have a reasonable discussion.” His tone rang with paternal authority and brooked no opposition causing the other men to respond with mumbled apologies and guilty expressions.
“Robin, please take your seat.”
Robin dropped back into his chair and Marian could not help but wonder if his slouched position was a sheepish response to her father’s admonition or if he was being deliberately insolent in the face of the rigid pose Guy had again adopted from his place near the wall.
“Marian trusts Sir Guy,” Edward told Robin. “And I think that you and I are both aware that he would do nothing which would endanger her,” he said pointedly. Unable to dispute Edward’s claim, but equally unable to forget the suffering Gisborne had inflicted on the people of the shire, Robin gave an ill-tempered shrug in response.
“Sir Guy.” Edward turned his attention to his daughter’s husband. “I appreciate your concern on my daughter’s behalf,” he said. “But as anyone who knows her well is aware, she is obstinate and will do as she pleases.” Guy muttered something about obedient women which drew a frown from his wife and a genuine laugh from Robin.
“He will need more than luck to achieve that goal, eh Edward?” he asked with the confident ease of one who was regarded as family.
Guy bristled at the intimacy implied by Hood’s familiarity, but held his tongue. Edward silenced Robin with a look and turned his attention back to his son-in-law.
“Assuming Marian’s role in this plan can be kept from the Sheriff, do you have any other objections?”
“It is my hope that the participation of all involved can be kept confidential, Marian. Our safety hinges on it.”
“Someone will have to approach Vaisey with our terms,” Robin pointed out reasonably.
Guy cupped an elbow in one hand and rubbed the other hand over his jaw. The scraping sound of his palm over his bristled cheek seemed overly loud in the silence which followed Hood’s dour prediction.
“It will not work,” Guy asserted at last.
“Why not?” Marian asked from her perch near her father’s chair. “If we can guarantee that the pact will not fall back into Vaisey’s hand and wield it over him as a dangling sword…”
“On another man, perhaps it would be an effective weapon. But not against the Sheriff.” He barreled on before the others could voice any dissent. “The strength of your plan lies in the ability to use the threat of turning the missing pact over to the king as intimidation to force Vaisey to go along with your demands.”
“Exactly,” she agreed.
“For all his faults, Vaisey is not a coward. He will not concede to the threat. He will not give in to it. And the fact that he has lost his grip on his sanity means he will be all the more vicious in his efforts to cling to his power. He will use his position and the forces which support him to compel the return of the pact – or die trying.”
“I would welcome that last part.” Hood’s teeth flashed in a predatory smile.
“And will you welcome it still when Prince John’s army descends on the shire to destroy Nottingham and its people?” Guy countered in a gravel-voiced reminder of that which had kept Vaisey safe to date.
Silent dejection settled over the room.
“The plan is not wholly without merit,” Guy commented eventually.
“Do tell,” Hood drawled.
Ignoring the other man’s sarcasm, Guy began to think aloud. “Vaisey may not be coward enough to submit to the threat, but there may be a way around him.”
“What are you thinking?” Marian asked.
“I am thinking that there is one person in this entire state of affairs who truly is a coward,” he mused, causing the others to perk up and lean forward.
“John,” Hood breathed. His eyes locked on Guy’s as comprehension dawned and his lips tipped upward in a cunning smile. “Yes, of course.”
“You suggest we use the pact as leverage against the prince instead of Vaisey?” Marian confirmed.
“It makes perfect sense,” Robin murmured. “John lusts for the throne and would do anything to ascend to it, but only so long as others will take all of the risks for him.”
A flush of excitement stained Marian’s cheeks. “And since the pact is written proof of his plans to displace the king –”
“To murder the king,” Robin corrected with a sharp look towards his long-time nemesis.
“Will the threat of the pact being turned over to Richard or his supporters be enough to coerce John to give up his schemes?” Marian wondered.
“John craves power,” Guy said slowly. “But he also craves the wealth and luxuries afforded him as Richard’s heir. If Richard were to find out about his brother’s plots against him, he may well decide to disinherit John and remove him from court and a seat of power.”
“So, we need to convince John that it is in his best interests to abandon his attempts to gain the throne through his murderous schemes rather than risk being disinherited entirely,” Marian finished.
“But will he agree to remove Vaisey from his position here and appoint a new Sheriff?” Edward wondered as he brought the conversation around to the topic which directly impacted their lives and all who lived under Vaisey’s thumb.
“Even if he did agree to remove Vaisey from his position, what is to stop him from appointing someone cut from the same cloth?” Robin asked with a veiled look at Gisborne. “Or worse?”
“I have no craving for the power – or the responsibility – that comes with such an office,” Guy responded to Hood’s less than subtle barb. “But it is not enough to simply remove Vaisey from office.” Guy pushed away from the wall and began to pace the small confines of the room. “As long as he lives, he is a threat. Pushed from power, he will stop at nothing to punish those who crossed him. We will never be safe.”
“I agree,” Hood chimed in and the surprise of that easy agreement registered on the faces of both men.
“You mean to murder him?” Marian bit her lip.
“Surely you do not pity him, Marian,” Robin asked.
“No.” She sucked in a breath. “No. He has courted his own fate and the world will be a better place without him. But we cannot do so without bringing destruction upon Nottingham.” She reminded them of their earlier conversation.
“Can we not wrangle assurance of the safety of the people of the shire from John as well?” Edward suggested.
“John will not sign Vaisey’s death warrant,” Guy mused slowly. “He will not put his name to anything, but we might convince him to lift his protection and look the other way.”
Silence fell over the room. Edward summoned a servant who brought wine and for a few moments the four sipped from their cups in quiet contemplation of the enormity of what they had proposed.
Marian stared into the blood red depths of her cup before finally venturing to give voice to the as-yet unasked question. “But how… That is who…” Her words trailed off as she looked to the others.
“I will do it.” Guy cleared his throat and took a deep swallow from his cup.
“Pardon me,” Robin interrupted. “You have been his right-hand for so long. How do we know that you will be able to go through with it?”
A troubled frown marred Marian’s brow. “Guy. It is…” Concern was evident in her voice. “For good or for bad, he has been the central figure in your life for many years.”
“No one else can get close to him and I have reasons of my own for wanting to see Vaisey dead,” he murmured as memories of years of mental and physical torture played in his mind’s eye. “If sparing Nottingham from the insanity of his rule also means my own freedom from his control…” He paused. “I will not fail,” he vowed.
Once again the room was plunged into an ominous silence as the enormity of what its occupants had planned sank in. Long moments passed without a word between them as each was lost in thought. At last Edward stirred.
“I think it time we table this topic for the night.” He stood and stretched. “I wish to sit near the fire for a short time and rest these old bones.”
Pushing away from the spot where he had stood as if a sentinel, Guy took the few steps needed to reach his wife’s side.
“I am for home,” he told her and held out his hand. “Are you ready?”
She laid her hand in his and allowed him to draw her to her feet. “Will you not stay for supper?” she asked softly. “The cook has prepared quite a feast,” she told him. “Roasted pork with a white leek sauce and a spinach tart,” she said enticingly.
“And apple-raisin cake for dessert,” Robin chimed in. “Darling woman,” he sighed cheekily. “She remembered all of my favorites.”
Marian’s hand tightened around Guy’s as she silently encouraged him to ignore the younger man’s needling. “Stay,” she whispered. “Sup with us.”
Guy jerked his chin in acknowledgment and Marian smiled brightly in response. “I shall check on supper,” she said. Tucking her hand into the crook of her father’s arm, she led him from the room. Stopping in the doorway, she turned to face Robin and Guy.
“Tis been a long afternoon filled with harsh words and dark topics. I believe we would all benefit from a more pleasant hour at table.” Though her smile was winsome, a warning tone sounded in her words.
An awkward silence fell between the two men as father and daughter left the room. Both eager to quit the other’s company, neither man wanted to be the first to move towards retreat. They eyed one another balefully. Though still sprawled indolently in his chair, Robin watched Guy with an expression of utter mistrust. For his part, Guy had drawn himself upright in some vague attempt at using his superior height to intimidate the other man.
They shifted uncomfortably, both gazing with growing frequency toward the doorway, looking beyond it toward a potential path of escape or hoping for Marian’s return to ease the growing strain.
At last, Guy could stand it no longer. “I do not understand.” He broke the crushing silence between them. “Why have you agreed to this? You have only to hand the pact over to Richard and you would gain everything you want. The king would be safe. John would be neutralized and Vaisey and I would be tried and put to a traitor’s death. There would be no need for any of this subterfuge.”
Robin expelled a long and weary sigh. “I have been asking myself that very question all day,” he admitted. “The simple answer is that Marian asked it of me.”
“What of her? If I was dead then you… then things might return to the way they once were between you,” Guy pointed out hoarsely.
Robin looked away. He knew that no matter what happened in the future, things could never be as they once were. Marian was lost to him and the best he could hope for would be to maintain their friendship.
“She believes there is something worth redeeming in you, Gisborne. This is your chance. Do not prove her wrong.”
Guy’s rigid posture broke. Shoulders slumping, his head fell forward and he closed his eyes. A wave of relief crested over him as understanding dawned that with her plan, Marian had chosen him and their marriage as her priority and he trembled under the weight of that realization. Hope washed over him and with it he felt renewed.
Robin looked away for a moment, uncomfortable to witness such emotion from the other man. When Guy at last straightened, it was as if he had shed a decade’s worth of strain and in his features Robin saw an echo of the boy he had once known and a glimpse of all that might have been had fate not intervened.
Strength of purpose shone in Guy’s eyes and rang in his voice.
“I will never again disappoint her.”
Robin rose from his chair and moved toward the other man. Though they would never be friends, the pair clasped hands out of a mutual love for Marian, memories of a shared past and a commitment to seeing the job done.
Chapter 13: Chapter 12
Two days later, the conspirators again met.
“I was beginning to worry.” Marian looked up as her husband entered the room, rain dripping from his leather coat. She rose and helped strip him of the sodden material and directed him to a chair near the hearth.
“Miserable out there,” Robin commented in a surprisingly companionable way.
Guy merely grunted and, accepting a length of cloth fetched by his wife, scrubbed it over his wet hair. He took the cup of mulled wine she offered with a grateful smile. Sipping the warm concoction, he let out a contented sigh.
“I was delayed leaving the castle,” he said at length. “I could not get away from Vaisey.”
“He will not be looking for you again today?” Marian confirmed anxiously.
Guy shook his head. “He drinks himself into a stupor every evening now,” he said. “There is the devil to pay along the way but once he is carted off to bed, no one hears a peep from him until morning.”
“Sleeps soundly, does he?” Robin asked with a wicked smile.
“It is like trying to waken the dead.” A predatory look came over Guy’s face. “’Twill be a most helpful thing,” he mused contemplatively as he stared into the ruby depths of the cup in his hand.
“So it could be as simple a matter as tiptoeing into his chambers and…” Robin made a slashing motion across his neck and the wolfish grin on his face was mirrored on Guy’s.
A pained grimace crossed Marian’s face. Though she was glad of the cessation of outright hostility between the two men, she was not sure how she felt about them having reached a meeting of the minds over their plans to murder the Sheriff – no matter how justly he deserved it.
“First things, first.” Marian redirected the conversation to something less grisly. “We need to discuss how best to get the pact out of the shire and – most importantly – we need to find someone we can trust to keep it safe. Someone the Sheriff would never suspect.”
“It is glaringly obvious that I would have no such trustworthy acquaintance.” Guy set his now empty cup aside and laced his fingers over his stomach, leaning back comfortably in his chair.
“I may know someone,” Robin offered. “A brother – trained at the Fountains Abbey. Tuck is his name.”
“A priest?” Marian asked. “I have not heard you speak of him before. How do you know him?”
“I met him only once –” Robin replied.
“And based on one meeting, you would trust him with something so important?” Guy interrupted disbelievingly.
“I found him to be a man of strong conviction.” A touch of indignation at having his judgment questioned colored Robin’s voice. “He has become increasingly disillusioned with the corruption found in the Church and was not hesitant to speak of it. As a result, he has been kicked out of the abbey for his flagrant disobedience.”
“I can see how that would appeal to you,” Marian said slowly. “But how can you be sure that we can trust him with a thing so important as protecting the pact?”
“I met him on the north border of the shire,” Robin murmured. “He and I were there for the same purpose – to check on a small group of people who had been burned out of their homes under Vaisey’s orders.” He kept his gaze trained on the liquid gleaming in the cup in his hand but was aware of the uncomfortable way in which Gisborne shifted in his seat. And while he did not mind the other man’s discomfort and, indeed, believed it well-deserved, he knew it was time to set such things aside if they were going to make this plan work.
“Tuck was there to minister to the people. He said Mass for them in the forest and brought them what food he could. Together with the provisions and funds that John and I brought, we were able to give them some comforts to last them at least a short while,” Robin reminisced. “He and I sat up all night talking.
Robin looked up and made eye contact with the others. “I found him to be quite outspoken and passionate. He believes that time is running out for an England under the heel of John and those who would serve him. He believes strongly that something must be done now to stop the corruption. He thinks not only as a servant of God but also as a warrior. He holds no loyalty towards John. Indeed, I think he holds loyalty to none but God and the people. I know that he believes so passionately in his cause that he does not fear men like Vaisey. ” He took a deep breath.
“I am convinced he would do anything to stop the pain and suffering of the people of England,” Robin finished as he drained the wine from his cup.
A silence fell over the room as the others absorbed what Robin had told them.
“It could work,” Guy mused. “I am sure that the Sheriff and Prince John know nothing of this man. Indeed, I have never heard his name mentioned until now.”
“Then they would certainly never look to him to find the pact,” Marian stated.
“If I can divert the guards who patrol the north border, do you think you can get the pact to this priest?” Guy asked.
“Yes. I am sure that I can.”
Guy thought for a moment. “Then be prepared to move in three days’ time.”
“Three days?” Marian asked. “Why not sooner?”
“I have learned that Prince John is to be a guest of the Lord and Lady Wykeham.” Guy told her.
“Well that works out nicely, does it not?” Robin mused. “I confess I have wondered how you would arrange to be gone for as long as would be necessary to travel all the way to London and back,” he said. “It is a much easier ride to Wykeham’s estate.”
Guy inclined his head in acknowledgment. “And there are fewer prying eyes in Derby than there are at court. With luck, I can be there and back in less than two days.”
“So quickly?” Marian asked.
“The prince will either agree to our terms or he will not.” Guy shrugged as if it were a matter of little consequence. Marian fought hard to suppress a shudder for she knew that if John proved unwilling to go along with their plan, her husband would not likely return from Derby.
“How will you arrange to be away for even so short a time?” she asked in a voice carefully controlled so as not to reveal her anxiety. “Will Vaisey not be looking for you?”
“I had thought to drug his wine with a sleeping potion. It should be enough to keep him out for most of the time I am away. ” He directed his attention towards Robin. “I will need to depend on you to secure it for me before you leave for the north.” Guy’s face was a study of calm and not even a flicker of his lashes betrayed his distaste in relying on the younger man for anything. “There are none in the castle whom I would trust.”
Robin nodded his agreement and rose to his feet.
“If that is all, then I will be on my way.” He took his cloak from Marian with an appreciative smile and fastened it over his shoulders. “I will be expecting clear passage through the north border three evenings from now,” he said pointedly.
“You shall have it.” Guy vowed.
“Excellent. I wish you good luck on your business.” Robin hefted his bow and quiver of arrows.
“And you,” Guy said stiffly.
Robin rolled his eyes. “My lady.” He lifted Marian’s hand in his and pressed a lavish kiss to the soft skin.
“Good night, Robin,” she said pointedly ignoring his cheeky grin and her husband’s bristling reaction.
Robin laughed out loud and disappeared into the damp gloom of the evening and Marian turned to lean against Guy’s unyielding frame until she felt him relax into her embrace.
Men, she thought privately, were exhausting at times.
Later that evening, Guy climbed into bed with a contented sigh. The days had been growing increasingly difficult and it was a simple pleasure to stretch out on the mattress. Rolling onto his stomach, he wrapped his arms around a pillow and nestled his cheek into its softness. He watched his wife putter about their chamber. His gaze followed her as she splashed water on her face and when she lifted her hands to fashion her hair into a single thick braid, he noted with sleepy interest the lift of her breasts and the way the firelight highlighted her body through the fabric of her chemise.
He watched her move about, blowing out candles as she went and allowed his eyes to drift closed when she disappeared from view. He was dimly aware of her movements behind him and the dipping of the mattress beneath her slight weight as she slid into the bed alongside him.
Though she knew from his relaxed breathing that her husband was drifting pleasantly in that place somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, Marian leaned toward him and brushed her lips over the bare skin of his shoulder. Lifting her head, she waited expectantly for him to roll towards her. Her eyes widened when he did nothing more than expel a sigh and snuggle more deeply into the bedclothes. Leaning forward again, she pressed her mouth between his shoulder blades and trailed her lips along the shallow indentation which ran the length of his spine, flicking her tongue out when she reached the hollow which formed at the small of his back, pleased to note the way his muscles rippled in silent response.
Reversing direction, she traced a path upward and buried her lips in the crook of his neck. Sliding an arm around his waist, she slipped a hand between the mattress and the flat plane of his stomach and her mouth curved upward in a pleased smile when she felt his abdominal muscles quiver in time with the rapid thrum of his pulse beneath her lips.
Guy rolled over and, stuffing the pillow behind his back, studied his wife in the dim glow of the bedside candle as she stretched out atop him. Stacking her fists on his chest, Marian rested her chin on them and returned his steady gaze with a soft smile on her lips.
He reached out to push a wisp of hair away from her forehead and traced a line along the silken skin of her cheek and jaw.
“You are so beautiful.”
Marian turned her head and pressed her lips fervently into the palm of his hand and then leaned down to lay an open-mouthed kiss against his chest. Turning her head, she rested her cheek against his heart, listening to the steady beat.
“Promise me you will be careful,” she breathed.
“I will.” His hand skimmed over her back in soothing strokes. “And will ask the same of you.” He twined his hand around her braid and tugged gently until she lifted her head.
“Do nothing which will draw his attention while I am gone,” he cautioned with a penetrating look. “You must promise, for I cannot do my job if I am worried about you.”
She swallowed and nodded.
“I promise,” she whispered.
“Good.” And tightening his hand around the back of her neck, he drew her down to meet his kiss.
Chapter 14: Chapter 13
The moon was high overhead as Guy made his way home. Restraining the urge to hurry, he held his mount to a walk, giving the beast a break from the punishing pace he had first set as he sought to put distance between himself and Lord Wykeham’s estate.
“Not far now,” he murmured as he took in the increasingly familiar landscape surrounding him. Hunger gnawed at his belly. His business with the prince concluded, he had hurried toward home and Marian without stopping even to assuage his hunger. Two days and one night away and he could not wait to return. Amused by his newfound domesticity, he huffed out a quietly self-mocking laugh. His stomach growled again and seeking to distract himself, he cast his thoughts over the events which had transpired during his audience with John.
Dismounting, Guy handed the reins to a waiting stable boy. He dug his fists into the small of his back in a useless effort to alleviate the soreness earned by long, tension-filled hours spent in a saddle. He laid a hand on the pommel of his sword and then furtively felt for the knife hidden beneath his tunic. Somewhat reassured that he had the means of protecting himself if the need arose, he strode toward the keep with a confidence he did not fully feel and waited while his presence was announced. Once inside, a heavy oaken door swung open admitting him to the comfortably appointed chamber where Lord Wykeham and his royal guest enjoyed their midday meal.
“Ah, Sir Guy,” the prince crowed. “So good to see you.” His tone dripped with false delight.
“To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?” Wykeham asked through a mouthful of food.
“I would have a word with His Highness,” Guy stated as he straightened from the deep bow he had sketched upon entering the room.
John waved a negligent hand as he assessed the platter of food before him for the choicest bit. “Well?” he asked with a touch of impatience at Guy’s silence. “What is it? Speak, man.”
“I would beg a moment’s privacy, Your Highness.”
John’s gaze settled on Guy’s face for a long, calculating moment before shifting toward his host. “You will excuse us, will you not, my lord?” he asked with oily smoothness.
Wykeham’s mouth opened to protest the eviction from his own table, but the objection died quickly on his lips at the look in the prince’s eyes. Heaving himself from the table with ill grace, he quit the room. John waited a moment and then jerked his head toward Guy. Interpreting the gesture correctly, Guy strode across the room and quickly yanked open the door, causing Lord Wykeham to stumble back in surprise. Cocking one brow, Guy inclined his head politely and waited for the other man to scuttle away.
“I trust you bring me the long-awaited news that Vaisey has secured the signatures of all who would support my cause.” A cunning smile curved the prince’s lips and he used a jewel encrusted dagger to tear a piece of quail meat from the bone. Popping the morsel into his mouth, he met the other man’s look expectantly.
“The signatures have all been obtained,” Guy confirmed. “Unfortunately…”
John’s face lost its self-satisfied smirk. “Unfortunately, what?” he demanded.
“Unfortunately, my Lord Sheriff is no longer in possession of the pact, Your Highness.”
“No longer in possession…” John leaned back in his chair and shoved the trencher of food away. “I think it best you explain yourself, Lord Gisborne, and quickly!”
“Lord Vaisey has lost possession of the pact.”
“And what is being done to recover it?” the prince asked in a softly vicious tone.
“Riders have been dispatched to all corners of the Nottinghamshire and beyond in search of it.”
“And that is all?” John slammed a hand down onto the table. “Do you understand what will happen if those papers fall into my brother’s hands?” he roared. “He may already have them,” he said, his voice dull with horror at the thought.
“I can assure you that he is not.” Guy told him.
“Hood! Surely he had something to do with this!”
“I can also assure you that the outlaw is not in possession of the pact.”
Eyes narrowing, the prince pushed himself to his feet.
“How is it that you stand before me so calmly in the face of this disaster?” he asked suspiciously. “By what means do you speak with such assurance?”
“Neither the king nor Hood have it,” Guy told him flatly.
The prince’s shoulders sagged with relief and he slumped back into his seat. He closed his hand around the jeweled stem of the chalice closest to him.
“You have it,” he breathed.
John glared at the other man over the rim of the chalice he lifted to his lips. Taking a bracing gulp of wine, he lowered the cup back to the table.
“Enough with the riddles, my Lord Gisborne.” His voice lashed out like a whip. “Speak plainly. Do you know where the pact is?”
“I do not.”
The prince hurled the chalice across the room where it clattered against the stone wall, its ruby red contents spraying over a delicately wrought tapestry hanging nearby.
“But speaking plainly,” Guy continued on as if the eruption of violence had never occurred. “I can reassure you that it has not fallen into Richard’s hands. Nor will it as long as certain demands are met.”
“Demands?” John asked in a voice all the more menacing for its surface calm. “Whose?”
“Mine, Your Highness.”
“Yours?” the prince repeated in astonishment. “You would dare to make demands of me? Does Vaisey know you are here?” he asked. “Has he put you up to this?”
“No, Highness,” Guy told him. “I can say with complete certainty that the Sheriff is unaware of my presence here.”
A momentary look of confusion crossed John’s face before being replaced by a look of calculation. “You seek to disengage yourself from Vaisey,” he said knowingly. “You are looking to ally yourself with me directly.” A laugh escaped the prince’s mouth. “Ha! I must say that I did not think you had it in you, Lord Gisborne. You always struck me as such a toady. Who knew that so much cunning lay beneath all that bowing and scraping?”
The prince looked around the table, regretting the loss of the wine he had flung across the room. He waved an imperious hand toward a flagon waiting on a side table.
Guy moved the few necessary steps to reach the smaller table and poured a generous measure of wine into another chalice. With his back to the other man, he closed his eyes and drew in a bracing breath. Clearing his face of all expression, he carried the cup across the room. Stopping a few paces from the table, he ignored John’s outstretched hand and lifted the cup to his own mouth.
“Hmm.” Guy allowed an approving hum to escape his lips. “My Lord Wykeham sets a fine table.”
“You forget yourself, my lord,” John breathed harshly. “One word from me and you will be swinging from the gallows.”
“I think not, Your Highness.” Guy crossed his arms over his chest and studied the golden chalice in his hand with a nonchalance intended to set the other man on edge. “For you see, one word from me and you will be facing the king’s court on charges of treason.”
“It pleases me to remind you that your name is on that pact,” John hissed.
“Indeed it is.” Guy raised the chalice in an insolent salute.
“You would not risk Richard knowing of your own treason.” John leaned back with a knowing smile. “What do you want? Money? Land?”
“You are wrong, Highness.” Guy dropped his feigned indifference and straightened. “I seek neither. And, indeed, I would risk all to free myself from being in service to you or the Sheriff. Even if it means turning over evidence to the king of my own treachery.”
John braced his hands on the edge of the table and leaned forward. “I do not believe you,” he said at last. “I know you to be too self-serving to risk your life without the promise of personal gain.”
“Try me,” Guy challenged. “And we will see which of us is the more faint of heart.”
“What is to stop me from summoning my guards and having you killed right here and now?”
“Nothing but this. The pact is not in my possession, nor can it be found anywhere in Nottinghamshire. You are welcome to scour all of Europe for its whereabouts. But know that if any harm should befall me or mine at any time, I have left orders that the pact be given immediately into the hands of the king himself.” He moved closer, the dull thud of his sword against his leg a reassuring constant. Leaning down, he braced his hands against the white cloth covering the table and met the prince’s gaze with his own.
The two stared at one another for agonizingly long seconds before John slumped in his seat.
“What is it you want?” he asked in a low voice.
“I want Vaisey removed from office in Nottingham and a new sheriff appointed in his place,” Guy began.
John barked out a bitter laugh. “And I suppose you would like to take over for the Lord Sheriff?”
“No. Of course, I have some thoughts as to who should, but we will save that for another time.”
“Fine,” John snapped. “But I would not close your eyes to sleep at night, my Lord Gisborne,” he said slyly. “Vaisey will not stand to see you overturn his position. And after all, who knows better than we the extent of his madness. I think him quite capable of anything.”
“Vaisey will be taken care of,” Guy stated flatly. “And you will allow it. You will tell your army to stand down and leave Nottingham unmolested.”
John’s chest rose and fell as he fought down the urge to call out to the guards he knew waited just outside the door.
“Have I your word, Your Highness?”
Closing his eyes, the prince entertained a fantasy of seeing Gisborne dragged out in chains. But he was at heart a cowardly man and would not risk all he had worked so hard to obtain in order to protect the likes of Nottingham’s mad sheriff.
“Do what you will with Vaisey. I care not.” He reached out and tore loose a handful of glossy purple grapes with barely restrained violence. Drawing in a deep breath, he fought for calm. “If that is all…” He popped a piece of fruit into his mouth with a show of deliberate indifference.
“Unfortunately it is not, Highness. I would have one other thing of you.”
“Speak then and get out of my sight!”
“You will give up your schemes to gain your brother’s throne.”
“You go too far and forget to whom you speak!” John raged. “I will bow to no man’s purpose but my own!”
“You will bow to this man’s purpose,” Guy vowed. “I am determined, Highness and will have my way or die trying.”
“Then you will die,” John declared brazenly.
“And in a matter of days your brother will have written proof of your treachery and everything you have worked for will be gainsaid.” A taunting smile crossed Guy’s face. “Do you suppose that you will face your executioner’s axe with courage?” he asked. His expression changed to one of puzzlement. “Perhaps you think Richard will show you a brother’s mercy. I suppose it is possible,” he mused wonderingly. Tapping a finger against his chin, he turned a thoughtful gaze on the other man. “Though, I confess that I have some difficulty imagining you living out the rest of your life imprisoned and without the benefit of your many servants and the comforts of your riches. But you must forgive me,” he smiled winningly. “For I am sure you will meet your fate – whatever it may be - with the dignity fitting a man of your stature.”
“Of course,” he continued in the same contemplative tone. “There is always the chance you could beg for a mother’s intercession on your behalf. Poor Eleanor.” Guy heaved a sigh. “To be torn between sons.” His eyes widened mockingly. “Whichever one of you do you suppose she will choose to champion?”
John slumped in his chair and rubbed a shaking hand over his face.
“You are Richard’s heir,” Guy reminded him. “Right now you enjoy all the pleasures to be had as the king’s beloved brother. I have seen to it that you will find no other path to the throne. Will you risk all of your wealth and privileges for the momentary pleasures to be had venting your revenge on me?” he asked in a silken tone.
“Why the sudden change of heart?” Defeat slurred the prince’s voice and Guy bit back a victorious smile.
“Let us just say that I have grown sick of selling my soul to men who would trample on it for a pound sterling. I would pledge my allegiance now to my family and be left in peace.”
“Your family? So it is your pretty bride to whom I indebted for this change in circumstance,” John spat venomously.
Guy’s entire body went on alert. He withdrew the dagger concealed within his tunic and leaned menacingly close.
“If you so much as breathe her name or give her any cause for grief, I will make it my life’s mission to end yours.” Guy’s breath wafted across the prince’s face, the heat of it at counterpoint to the iciness of his gaze and John shrank back in abject fear. “In fact, you should probably pray that she does not so much as catch a cold.”
Straightening, Guy sneered down at the other man from his towering height.
“I would recommend that you ask your priest to offer a number of Masses for my lady’s continued good health, Your Highness,” he growled. “It is at her behest that I control my baser instincts and without her guidance I would be as a beast unleashed.
A sudden change came over Guy’s demeanor. “Take heart, my prince!” he said bracingly. A sunny smile lit his face. “Remember. I too have personal reasons for wishing to keep your brother in the dark about my own involvement in this matter. Be of good cheer and consider us united of a purpose – to live our lives in peace and prosperity.”
He lifted a derisive brow. “Are we not of a like mind, Highness?”
John’s body quivered with barely suppressed rage. Gnawing on a thumbnail, he nodded in dismal agreement. “Be gone now,” he demanded. “I would not see your face, nor hear your name mentioned in my presence again.”
“It is my fondest desire to accommodate you, sir.”
Brushing back the leather of his coat, Guy laid a hand on the pommel of his sword, the threatening gesture at odds with the jovial tone of his voice. And refusing to offer the courtesy of a bow, he turned his back on the other man and left the room buoyed by a confidence he had not enjoyed an hour earlier.
Guy considered now the state of his personal finances. Careful spending had allowed him to amass a small fortune which he had intended for use in purchasing back the Gisborne lands. But those plans would need to be set aside now.
Though he took no personal pleasure in it, he had done what he could to neutralize the threat against the king for Marian’s sake. But Richard was a man who thrived in battle and Guy had little doubt that when this war ended, the king would find another. And there was no guarantee that Richard would not fall on some foreign battlefield. As long as Richard remained childless, John remained his rightful heir and the chances that John would ascend to the throne sooner rather than later were strong.
And when that time came, Guy knew he and Marian could no longer safely remain in England.
So he would take a portion of his fortune and purchase some land elsewhere. Perhaps in France, he thought. He wondered if Ghislaine would approve of that. And he would make plans to spirit Marian out of the country and to safety immediately upon word of Richard’s death.
But that day was not here yet, he thought as he crossed the boundary-line that denoted Locksley land. He was determined to make his plans and then set them aside and enjoy his life with Marian.
Of course, there was still Vaisey to contend with. His brow wrinkled in distaste of the task which lay ahead. He gave brief consideration to turning about and going directly to the castle to see the plan through to its end but decided instead to wait until the next morning. Tonight, he would stretch his aching body out in his own bed and bask in his wife’s company.
At last, horse and rider crested a hill and Guy could see the manor house of Locksley. The stallion, sensing home, picked up its pace and within a few moments they were cantering into the courtyard. Stabling his horse, Guy stripped the saddle from its back and ran a hasty cloth over its hide. Scooping up a measure of oats, he set the wooden bucket into the stall and ran his hand over the stallion’s powerful neck in a quick and careless caress before exiting the building.
Smoke puffed lazily from the chimneys and a faint light glowed in the windows downstairs. Guy felt some of the tension lift from his shoulders as he pictured Marian dozing in the chair by the hearth. The thought that she might have tried to wait up for him in the hope that he would return home that evening pleased him enormously.
He pushed through the door, the eager greeting dying on his lips at the sight which awaited him. Wide-awake and seated at a table, Marian had indeed been keeping vigil for him, but with a most unwelcome guest. For seated uncomfortably close beside her was Vaisey. She shot her husband a veiled look.
“There you are, Guy.” She struggled to greet him cheerfully. “The Sheriff has been awaiting you this evening.”
Guy snapped to attention and inclined his head toward the other man.
“My lord?” he intoned respectfully. “What is amiss to draw you out here so late in the evening?”
“I have been looking for you for two days.” Vaisey’s voice was low and threatening. “Where have you been, Gisborne?” Guy felt a shiver of fear race down his spine. Something had gone wrong for it was obvious to him that for the first time in weeks, the Sheriff was relatively sober and clear-eyed.
It seemed to Guy that a million thoughts fluttered through his head all at one time and he fought for control. Chief among those thoughts was the fact that Vaisey was entirely too close to Marian for Guy’s comfort.
“In Derby, my lord,” he replied cautiously.
“Indeed, my lord,” Guy kept his voice was steady and calm.
Vaisey’s eyes narrowed.
“And what were you doing there?”
Guy blinked and adopted a quizzical expression. “I was there on your orders.” From the corner of his eye he saw Marian’s eyes widen but she gave no other indication of her surprise at his answer.
“On my orders?” A look of confusion crossed the older man’s face.
“Yes, my Lord Sheriff. You instructed me to leave for Derby two days ago. Do you not remember?”
Guy’s mind was racing now, in an effort to stay ahead of Vaisey and not trip over a lie. He cautiously moved closer to the pair seated at the table.
“Marian, our guest looks thirsty. Why have you not offered him a drink?” He injected a stern note into his voice and shot her a warning glance.
“Of course.” Interpreting her husband’s meaningful look, Marian began to rise to her feet.
“Stay where you are, girl!” Vaisey’s hand shot out and he yanked her back into her seat.
Guy stiffened and though his hand itched for his sword, he made no move for it. Not while the Sheriff remained in such close proximity to Marian.
“Have I offended you in some way, my lord?” he asked, adopting the submissively respectful tone he always used when speaking with the Sheriff.
“Every day, Gisborne,” Vaisey muttered. “Every single day.” He shot the younger man a challenging look. “Tell me about your business with Wykeham.”
Guy’s chest rose and fell on a long sigh and he lifted his hands in supplication.
“I was there by your orders,” he repeated. “Prince John is his guest. The prince wrote to you asking for the status of our… progress,” he said cryptically as though Marian were unaware of the existence of the pact. “You sent me to Derby to assuage his concerns while we continued to work on the… on the situation.”
Again a perplexed look came over Vaisey’s face and for a moment he seemed to Guy an old and vulnerable man.
“I… I do not recall.” The Sheriff rubbed fretful fingers across his brow. The days and weeks of the recent past were a blur of alcohol-infused rages while awake and terrifying dreams in his sleep. His hand shook as he lowered it to the table.
He looked up at his master-at-arms. Though Gisborne’s face bore the same combination of obedience and patience – along with a barely concealed sneer of haughtiness and disdain – there was something alarmingly off-putting in his manner. Vaisey cared not if he had Gisborne’s respect as long as he had his loyalty. He could not put his finger on what was different, but something in the other man’s demeanor had the hairs on the back of his neck rising in warning.
“I do not believe you,” he breathed at last. “I have no recollection of sending you to Derby, nor would I ever send you to intervene on my behalf with the prince.”
“My Lord Vaisey.” Guy raised placating hands. “You have not been yourself of late,” he began in a conciliatory tone.
“Do you want to know what I believe?” Vaisey clamped one hand firmly around Marian’s arm and watched with amused interest as Gisborne twitched in response.
“Gisborne!” he rapped out sharply demanding the other man look at him.
“I asked you a question.”
Vaisey noted the way Gisborne’s chest rose and fell as he drew in a calming breath and the Sheriff made no effort to hide the amusement he felt at the younger man’s display of discomfort, just as he took sadistic pleasure in the tension evident in the slender arm held in his relentless grip.
“My lord?” Guy finally dragged his gaze away from his wife.
The sheriff leaned forward. “I believe that you went to Derby in order to distance yourself from me. Did you lay all the blame for the missing pact at my feet?” His voice lashed out like a whip.
“Of course not, my lord.”
“You went to the Prince to offer him your fealty, did you not? What is it, Gisborne? Do you want to be Sheriff?” he spat.
“No!” Guy shook his head, struggling to maintain a submissive tone. Things were escalating too quickly. He had to find a way to get Marian free from the Sheriff.
“If you went on my orders, why was your wife unaware of your whereabouts?” Vaisey’s hand moved suddenly to tangle in Marian’s hair. She winced as he gave the delicate strands a painful tug but refused to cower away from him.
“My husband tells me little of his duties on your behalf for he knows I do not approve,” she said scornfully.
“Oh, is that so? Sparing the leper the finer details so she will love you, eh Gisborne?” Vaisey gave his fingers a vicious twist and Marian could not help the tiny cry of pain which escaped her lips.
At the end of his tether, Guy’s hand flew to the pommel of his sword and he unsheathed the weapon. Taking a threatening step forward, he pointed the lethal blade at the Sheriff.
“Please take your hands off my wife.” The politely worded request was a low snarl of warning.
“No.” Vaisey leapt to his feet and yanked Marian out of her chair. Guy surged forward, coming to an abrupt stop as a glinting flash of metal caught his eye. A small sheath dangled emptily from the sheriff’s belt, the lethal blade of his dagger pressed just beneath Marian’s breast. Her hand was wrapped around the sheriff’s wrist in an effort to pry the knife away from her body.
“Drop it,” Vaisey ordered. At Gisborne’s hesitation, he moved the knife closer to Marian, the tip of the blade catching menacingly on the delicate fabric of her gown.
The sword fell from Guy’s suddenly nerveless fingers. Once again he raised his hands in a placating gesture.
“Easy. Please. Just… do not hurt her.”
Vaisey smirked, pleased by the desperately pleading tone of the other man’s voice. Now, perhaps, he would get the answers he wanted.
Heart in his throat, Guy chanced looking at his wife. Her back to Vaisey, she met her husband’s anguished gaze with utter calm and, to his shock, a hint of mischievousness. Her eyes widened purposefully. A small smile touched her lips and he tensed, ready for he knew not what.
Marian’s fingers tightened around the sheriff’s wrist. She raised her leg and slammed the hard sole of her booted foot into his kneecap. Vaisey’s painful cry mixed with the sickening sound of crunching bone. She tore herself free of his grasp and as he staggered back, Guy rushed forward.
Wrapping his hand around the Sheriff’s throat, Guy shoved him against a wall. Vaisey gasped – in pain and in an effort to draw air into his lungs. His hands flailing out in desperation, he sliced the dagger across Guy’s arm. The blade bit through the leather surcoat, drawing blood from the wound and a soft, gasping cry from Marian’s lips.
Guy grabbed Vaisey’s wrist with his free hand and smashed it into the wall repeatedly until the dagger fell from the older man’s nerveless fingers with a dull clatter. Guy used his superior height and strength to cage the other man and his fingers tightened threateningly around his neck.
“Have you lost your mind, Gisborne?” the Sheriff gasped. “Remove your hands at once!” Impatient bravado colored his voice.
“I worried that I might have some regret. But you dare come into my home and touch what is mine?” He pressed his thumb against the other man’s windpipe and watched with satisfaction as wary concern replaced the bluster. “You put your hands on my woman? Perhaps I should thank you for making it easier.”
“You do realize that there are none who will miss you?” he continued in a conversational tone which frightened Vaisey to his core. “The people of Nottingham will celebrate when you are gone.” He let out a snarl as the Sheriff began to struggle in earnest for his freedom.
“You… you would not… dare,” Vaisey gasped. His hands flew up and he scrabbled to pry Guy’s implacable grip from his throat. “The prince… Nottingham will…” He gagged and coughed. “Nottingham will be obliterated and she will hate you for that forever.” He reminded the other man of the safeguards he had put into place to protect himself.
“Ahh. But you see, unfortunately you were right, my Lord Sheriff.” Guy leaned close and lowered his voice to a whisper. “I did go to see John for my own purpose. And he has been persuaded to lift the protection he has offered you,” he said with a terrifying smile. “Hell is waiting for you, Vaisey,” he continued quietly. “I am sure that I will one day see you there, but until then…”
Straightening, he tightened his grip punishingly. Unrelentingly. He was dimly aware of Marian standing close by. Though he imagined that she wished to turn away from the Sheriff’s desperate struggle for life, she remained nearby, a steady presence.
Guy felt the life ebb from the Sheriff as his face turned red, then blue and his eyes bulged from their sockets before rolling back in his head, but he did not loosen his grip even when the other man’s body sagged limply beneath his hands.
“Guy.” Marian laid a cautious hand on his back. “Guy, it is over. You can let go now.”
He turned his head toward her and blinked dazedly before easing Vaisey onto the floor. Staring at the lifeless body, a shudder rippled down his spine and he bent at the waist to brace his hands against his knees.
“Guy.” Marian crowded close and wrapped her arms around him, laying her cheek against his back. “I will not pretend that I am sorry to see him gone.” Her voice was muffled against the leather of his coat. “Not when he has brought so much misery to others. Most especially you,” she whispered, and her arms tightened fiercely around him.
Taking a deep breath, he looked over his shoulder to meet her gaze.
“But I am truly sorry that we made you do this,” she lamented as she felt him shiver in her embrace. “It was unfair and I fear too much to ask of you.”
Guy turned and lifted a hand to her cheek. Threading his fingers through her hair, he watched the firelight tease out red and gold highlights in the silken strands.
“Do you want to know what I am feeling?” he asked.
“Yes.” She cupped her hand over his. “Tell me. Please.”
“I feel… free.” He drew in a deep breath before expelling it on a long sigh of satisfaction. “For the first time in a long time… since before my father left us behind to go off to war, I feel free.”
He smiled and shrugged.
“And I thank you for that,” he whispered.
A brilliant smile broke across her face and then she was leaping up to wrap her arms around his neck. He banded his arms around her hips, lifting her from the ground. Peppering kisses over her face, he spoke of his love for her and spun her about in giddy circles.
At last they came to a stop, dizzy with relief and their lips met in a long sigh of a kiss. Her hands slid from his shoulders and her expression sobered when she encountered bloodstained leather.
He glanced down, the ache making itself known now that he was reminded of the wound. “It is not bad,” he assessed as he flexed his arm.
“Sit down.” She urged him toward the table, intent on stripping off the blood-soaked coat so that she could see how much damage had been done, but he held out a forestalling hand.
“Marian,” he asked. “Does anyone know that he was here?”
Her husband’s urgent tone caught her attention.
“I do not think so.” She cast a glance toward the back of the kitchen where the servants’ quarters were housed. “He arrived here after I had dismissed the staff for the evening and just before I was about to retire to our chamber. Why?”
“I think it would be better if no one knew of our involvement in his death,” he warned.
“You did gain John’s cooperation,” she asked. “You were not just saying that were you?”
“No,” he said reassuringly. “I was able to persuade John to see things our way. But still, I think it best that no one know about what happened here tonight. He had many supporters,” he reminded her.
She nodded and creeping quietly toward the kitchen, listened intently to the sounds of the house. Miraculously it seemed that no one else had been awakened during the confrontation with Vaisey and she whispered a quick prayer of thanks for thick stone walls before returning to her husband’s side.
“What do you propose we do?”
Guy hoisted Vaisey’s corpse from the floor and draped it over his shoulder with a grunt.
Sweaty and out of breath from his exertions, Guy dragged himself up the stone staircase. Once inside their chamber, he collapsed into a chair as Marian stoked the fire. Pouring water into a metal basin, she set it on the hearth to warm.
“Come.” She laid a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Let us get you out of these filthy things.” He had wrapped Vaisey’s corpse in his leather surcoat before lowering it into the grave and now she pulled at his dirt-crusted tunic and trousers.
“You will have to wait until tomorrow for a bath,” she commented as she set his boots aside and tugged the tunic over his head. “But we will see what we can do to get you cleaned up.”
She set a candle down on the table near him and had him rest his arm on the rough wood. Taking up a cloth, she dipped it in water and began to dab at the blood encrusted wound.
“I am sorry,” she murmured. The dried blood gave way beneath her ministrations and fresh blood began to flow freely again. He shook his head and grunted as she continued to clean the wound. Finally satisfied that she had thoroughly removed any dirt from the wound, she studied it closely for a long moment.
“I am not sure, but I think it may need to be sewn.”
Guy glanced down at the angry slash across his bicep. “It is not that deep.” He shook his head tiredly. “Just wrap it.” His jaw made a popping noise as a deep yawn wracked his frame.
Dipping her fingers into a pot of salve, she smoothed the thick ointment over the wound.
“Will you tell me what happened with John?” She wrapped a length of cloth around his bicep and secured the ends in a tight knot. Lifting the basin of warm water to the table, she soaked a clean cloth and soaped it.
Guy closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair and as he basked beneath her attentions and the gentle bathing she gave him, he spoke to her in minute detail of his audience with the prince.
When he was finished, he opened his eyes and it was all he could do not to leap up and shout with joy at the obvious approval which shone in hers.
When she had rinsed away the last of the soapy residue on his chest and arms, he rose and crossed the room. Stretching out on the mattress, he let out a low groan of contentment and watched his wife strip out of her garments and into a clean chemise. Standing next to the bed, she pulled a brush through her hair.
“So?” she asked suddenly, startling him out of a light doze. “I am your woman, am I?” she asked, referring back to something he had said earlier.
He pushed himself up onto one elbow. “You are my wife,” he said simply, and reaching out with the other hand, he tugged her onto the mattress beside him.
Marian plumped the pillow beneath her cheek and regarded him closely. “I am,” she confirmed, and cupping a protective hand over the slight swell of her stomach, she smiled a private smile, drawing a puzzled look from her husband.
“And do you think that someday you will be able to say that proudly?” he asked with an unaccustomedly boyish shyness.
Marian shifted closer and pressed her lips against the bandage which stood out with a stark white brilliance in the dimly-lit room. Resting her cheek against his shoulder, she snuggled close.
“Someday is closer than you may think.” Hiding a delicate yawn behind one hand, she drifted into sleep.
Guy tugged the blankets around her shoulders and, craning his head, brushed his lips over her brow. Wrapping his arms around her in a protective embrace, he reflected that though he may one day follow Vaisey into hell, he could live with that thought.
For he knew that he had found heaven here on earth.
Chapter 15: Epilogue
A sound from across the chamber drew Marian’s attention. Setting aside her sewing, she rose and crossed the room. Perched on the edge of the mattress, she smiled down into the blue eyes which were trained intently on hers.
A joyful smile broke over her face. “Did you sleep well, my darling?”
She reached out with eager hands and lifted her son from the nest of pillows which had kept him from rolling off the bed while sleeping. Cradled in his mother’s arms, the baby instinctively turned his head toward her breast and let out a whimper.
“Are you hungry, Henry?” she cooed as she returned to her chair. Sinking down, she cradled the babe in one arm, and expertly loosened the laces of her bodice with the other hand. As soon as her breast was bared, the babe eagerly began rooting. He latched hungrily onto her nipple and was soon nursing so greedily, milk dribbled from the corner of his mouth to slide down his neck.
“Slowly, love,” she laughed as she used a soft cloth to wipe away the trail of milk. Leaning into the cushioned back of her chair, Marian relaxed and smiled down into her baby’s face. Though she knew many other women of her rank made use of a wet nurse, Marian enjoyed this quiet time with her child. The babe suckled contentedly, making humming noises in his throat as his tiny fingers kneaded the plump softness of her breast in rhythm with the tugging of his mouth.
Marian ran a finger over the satin of his cheek and traced the dark wing of his brow before swirling her fingers into the wispy curls of hair atop his head. Her lips quirked upward in an adoring smile and she marveled that the dangerous path she had begun to follow so long ago had led her to this place of peace and contentment.
Upon Vaisey’s death, arrangements had been made to have Edward reinstated to his former position as Sheriff until a permanent replacement could be appointed. During the time he was back in office, he had moved swiftly to undo the damage wrought at the hand of his predecessor. And at long last, Richard had ended his campaign in the Holy Land. Though Robin continued to hold out hope, Marian now knew that Guy was correct in his assessment of the British monarch. The King would never settle in England. Held hostage for two years, first by the Duke of Austria and then the Holy Roman Emperor, a ransom had been raised to free the monarch – again on the backs of the English people. Upon gaining his freedom, Richard did not take up his place at court but instead was once again waging war – this time to reclaim the lands of his duchy in Normandy lost to the French king during his captivity.
The high regard Marian had once held for her king had been destroyed, but she was grateful that he had not forgotten those who had remained loyal. Under Richard’s order, the taint of outlaw had been lifted from Robin and his gang and he had returned in triumph to his position as the Lord of Locksley.
As the Earl of Huntington, Robin was in a position to keep a wary eye on John – though it seemed the King’s younger brother had deemed Nottingham and its people too troublesome with which to bother. They were thankfully left to their own endeavors and free, finally, of the machinations and intrigue of the court.
His belly full, Henry was now more interested in playing than in taking sustenance. He tangled tiny fingers in his mother’s hair and let out a gurgling laugh as she freed her hair from his playful grasp. Marian bent low to press her lips against his forehead and giggled when he blew out a milky bubble.
“Finished my little lord?”
Henry reached out to tap his hand playfully against her nose and offered her a gummy grin in response.
“Indeed you are.” She tugged her bodice back into place and rose. Lifting the baby to her shoulder, she began to pace the room. She rubbed and patted his back and at length was rewarded with the sound of an expulsion of air from his tiny frame.
“Very good,” she murmured against his ear and felt a rush of love sweep over her as the baby nestled his face into the crook of her neck. She closed her eyes and cuddled him closer as she enjoyed the feel of each little puff of breath against her skin.
A squealing sound from outside drew her attention and Marian wandered toward the window where she was greeted with the sight of her nearly three year old daughter lugging a protesting kitten from the barn. Even from this distance, Marian could hear its plaintive mewls for freedom.
“Papa!” The little girl hurried across the field to the place where her father stood currying his horse. Climbing over the rail that separated the tiny girl and the huge war horse, Guy set aside the curry brush and crouched down to rescue the kitten from his daughter’s desperate embrace.
“Gently, Amelia,” he admonished.
Marian smiled as father and daughter bent their heads over the kitten, identical hanks of glossy black hair swinging forward to obscure their faces. Cradling the frightened creature in one hand, Guy ran a single finger over its fur. Marian watched as the kitten’s back arched in response and it butted its head against Guy’s cheek and she felt an answering tug deep within her, for she knew well the pleasure to be found beneath her husband’s touch.
As if he felt her gaze upon him, Guy glanced up and a quick grin slashed over his face. Squinting against the sun, he murmured something to their daughter and pointed toward the window.
Amelia let out a shriek of happy laughter. “Come see my kitten, Mama!” She reached out with pudgy hands for the kitten she was determined to make into a pet and the skittish animal bolted up Guy’s chest. It perched on his shoulder and Guy grimaced as tiny needle-sharp claws dug into his skin. The little girl squealed and flung herself toward the kitten as it scurried down his back and raced away with an indignant squawk toward the relative safety of the barn. Guy reached out with one hand and snagged his daughter by the hem of her dress. Shrugging off the abandonment of her erstwhile pet, Amelia launched herself against her father’s back and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.
Guy let out an exaggerated choking noise and staggered to his feet. Amelia clung to him like a burr and her shrieks of laughter elicited a pained wince from her father.
“Will you not come down and rescue me, my lady?” he called out with a glance back up at the window.
Marian grinned and pressed a kiss against the top of Henry’s head. “Shall we save Papa from your sister?” Settling the baby against her hip, she made her way down the steps. She stopped for only a moment when she encountered her father sleeping in his favorite chair. She reached out with her free hand to adjust the lightweight blanket draped over his legs and felt a pang of sorrow penetrate her mood as she took note of shadows under his eyes and the increasing fragility of the skin stretched over the bones of his face and hands. Age, it seemed, was catching up with her father and once again he had relinquished his position as Sheriff to another man. At least this time his successor – while unlikely ever to be revered in the way Edward had been – seemed to be a fair-minded man thanks to Robin’s interference when it came time to appoint her father’s replacement.
Shaking off the morose thoughts, she traced a loving finger over her father’s hand before continuing on toward the door. She stepped across the threshold and paused for a moment to lift her face toward the warmth of the spring sun.
“Mama! Look at me!”
Marian opened her eyes to the sight of her daughter pinned between the upper rails of the fence and Guy’s broad chest. Currying brush in hand, she was awkwardly grooming Guy’s horse. Marian’s breath caught in her throat at the sight of the tiny hands so close to the huge beast. But she was aware of Guy’s strong arm wrapped tightly around their daughter, while the other hand kept a firm hold on the horse’s bridle. And the stallion, showing a long-suffering patience, stood quietly beneath the young child’s clumsy ministrations.
“I brushing my horse, Mama,” Amelia announced as her mother approached.
“So I see,” Marian said. “But it is Papa’s horse, is it not?”
“No!” The little girl dropped the brush and leaned precariously forward in an attempt to fling her arms possessively around the stallion’s neck. “Amelia’s horse!”
Guy let go of the bridle to wrap both arms firmly around his squirming daughter and the horse, having had enough of her attention, sidled away from the fence and out of reach.
“Come back!” Amelia’s fingers opened and closed rapidly and she stamped an indignant foot against the rail upon which she stood.
“Amelia,” Marian admonished quietly. “Behave.”
Amelia turned up a face with a mutinous expression so similar to the one he often saw his wife wear, that Guy was hard pressed not to laugh. Instead, he cleared his throat and schooled his features.
Taking heed of the displeasure evident in her father’s low- voiced warning, the little girl subsided. Turning awkwardly on the rails of the fence, she leaned toward him and pressed her forehead against his.
“Sorry,” she said as she offered her sunniest smile to her father.
Marian rolled her eyes at her daughter’s flirtatious behavior.
“Take him my love,” she said to Guy as she jostled the baby on her hip and reached for their daughter with the other hand.
They made the exchange with practiced ease. Guy dipped his head toward her and with their children sandwiched between them, gave her a lingering kiss. She smiled and rubbed her cheek contentedly against the bristled roughness of his jaw much as the kitten had, then lowered Amelia to the ground and led her by the hand across the grass. He turned his attention to his son who was staring at him with serious intent. The baby thrust three fingers into his mouth, furiously working his gums against his knuckles. He looked at his father with wide-eyed solemnity for a long moment and then his eyes suddenly crinkled with glee and he laughed out loud as if amused by some private joke.
“Da!” he exclaimed as he patted slimy fingers against his father’s cheek. “Da! Da! Da!” He proudly chanted one of the few words that made up his limited vocabulary.
Guy settled the baby more comfortably against his chest and took a look around. The early afternoon sun slanted over the fields where tenant farmers worked, cultivating the tender shoots just emerging from the ground. Birds chattered in the trees overhead and he was dimly aware of the tinkling sounds of the shared laughter of his wife and daughter. In his arms, his son babbled away nonsensically, endlessly amused by the sound of his own voice.
“This is not the life I thought I would ever have, Henry,” Guy confided in a whisper against his son’s temple.
Upon his reinstatement as the Earl of Huntingdon, Hood had offered the Gisborne lands to Guy. An attempt, he said, to right a long-ago wrong. A gift, Robin had then insisted, when Guy refused the offer, to commemorate the birth of Marian’s first child. A legacy to be handed down to the son they would one day have. Despite Marian’s urging, Guy refused to accept, standing fast to his decision even in the face of his wife’s confused displeasure.
“This is what you have always wanted, Guy,” she had reminded him. “You are allowing your pride to stand in the way. I thought you had moved beyond your hatred of Robin.”
But it was neither pride nor hatred of the other man which prevented Guy from accepting the offer. Indeed, a truce of sorts had sprung up between the two men and while he knew they would never consider the other a friend, they had developed a cautious and grudging tolerance of one another.
No, his reasons for turning down the offer were inexplicable even to himself. He could not find words to make sense of it but was plagued by the feeling that happiness could not be found in a place where so much tragedy had occurred.
Edward’s failing health provided the answer of where they would live and they had settled into Marian’s childhood home. Though he would never himself bear the title of Lord of Knighton, and though he sometimes still struggled with the transition from his life as a soldier to the life he was now living, he had pledged to protect the land and serve as its caretaker. He would manage the estate and its finances until the day when his son would claim his inheritance.
And if the time came that he had to whisk his family to the safety of the property he had purchased in France, then Guy had made arrangements with Hood to safeguard Knighton until such time as it was safe for Henry to return to England and reclaim the estate.
Life was not perfect, but he knew himself to be graced with so much more than he deserved, for his crimes while serving Vaisey had been many. The people of the shire had long memories and the tenants of Knighton were justly cautious in their dealings with Guy. But their beloved lady’s open affection for her husband did not go unnoticed and his love for Marian and the patient humor he displayed with his high-spirited daughter and tiny son were remarked on by many.
Guy’s gaze tracked over the rolling green hills and golden fields of Knighton and he watched idly as smoke curled lazily from the kitchen chimney of the manor house into a stunningly blue sky. He felt the sweet weight of his son in his arms as the baby plopped his head comfortably on his father’s shoulder and plugged a thumb into his mouth. His gaze settled on his wife, skirts billowing around her as she sat on the grass listening to their daughter’s cheerful chatter while the little girl tucked spring blossoms into her mother’s dark curls. And with a moment’s sudden clarity, Guy realized that though this life may not have been the one he had long believed he would have, it was a life for which he was profoundly grateful.
For he understood now that it was not power and wealth which he had been seeking during all of those wretched years, but rather, he had been looking for a place for himself.
A place which could not be measured by the accumulation of gold or the boundaries of an estate, but one which was found in the sound of his children’s happy laughter and in the warmth of Marian’s love.
A place to call home.