Cassia reached out her hand to brush William’s hair from his forehead. It fell back, the way it always did…the way that Guy’s always did. All of the children favored him in looks, and the thought of it might have made her smile…were it not for the pain weighing down her heart.
Faith had often been her strength. But lately, she’d found her spirit unbearably tested. William seemed to be improving. The evil that persisted in his body was being expelled little by little, and when he was awake, he seemed to be in good spirits. But in quiet moments, like now…when he was lying so quiet and still…old memories tempered her hope.
Poor Rosalyn. Her dear sister-in-law. Her closest friend. She’d fallen into the same kind of stillness after the birth of her third child. Not more than a day later, mother and babe had been buried together. Cassia recalled the words of the priest who had spoken over the grave. He spoke of “God’s will”…that it was a blessing to be released from this cursed life, and admitted to the glory of heaven. But looking at her firstborn child, she could not see how it was the will of the Almighty to take anyone from the world so soon. And not him…not her beloved son. He was such a ray of sunshine, filling their lives with laughter and joy. To think of losing him…
She forced her eyes away from him, taking in a deep breath. For him, I must be strong, she thought. I will not weep…for if I do, my tears will be endless.
Her thoughts were suddenly broken, as a familiar hold pressed her shoulder. Without conscious thought, almost without pause, she turned her head and pressed her lips to that strong hand. But the distraction could not keep her eyes from falling back to William, even as she inquired after her husband.
“Was your bath made ready? Forgive me for not seeing to it properly…”
He broke in gently. “Have no concern over it. When I found you not there, I was quite certain of the reason.”
She wished to speak. But a swell of emotion rose in her throat. She forced it down, silently ordering herself to maintain her stoicism. Guy had endured a month at court and a long journey home. The last thing he needed was a wife plaguing him with her worries.
But in spite of her struggle to conceal her feelings, he was not tricked. This she knew, even without looking at him. They had always been able to read one another so well, despite each of their occasional attempts to hide their own concerns. When she felt his arm move around her shoulders, and heard him speak in a low, soft tone, it was nearly her undoing. He was looking at her, studying her. She could feel his eyes.
“Beloved, tell me truly. How many nights have you passed as thus, awake with your fears?”
She took in another breath, struggling to keep her composure. Her voice wavered slightly, but she gave what she thought to be a calm enough reply. “I am quite well, my love. Do not be concerned.”
He gave a sigh of his own. But the sound was one of resolution. Though she was not certain of his intent, she knew he had come to some kind of decision, and he was not one to be swayed when his mind was made up.
“I see I must assert my power as your husband.” With his arm around her, he forced her to her feet. “Come.” He made a motion for the chambermaid.
To be plucked from William’s side was not an idea that sat well with Cassia. Despite the strength of Guy’s hold, she felt she must protest.
“But Guy, I…”
“She will see to him. I will have no argument. Come.” He instructed the servant to look after William…that they would be in the very next room, and to inform them immediately of any concerns. She was ushered into the dark and empty guest chamber, where he made her sit beside him on the bed. He forced her to turn to him, though her head remained lowered. As he spoke to her, his deep tones were soft but firm.
“I will not permit you to be so careless with your own well being. This night, you will sleep and unburden your mind.”
Her resolve crumbled. She made one final attempt at strength, but it failed under the great weight of all that she felt. Guy was correct in assuming that she’d endured many sleepless nights. For too long she had shouldered great fear and sadness, as well as her responsibilities. She’d endlessly worried about her son, and suffered with missing her husband during his absence…all while overseeing a household and three other children. And it was all too much to endure. With a sudden intake of breath she began to weep, falling into Guy’s arms. As his hands gently rubbed her back and his words tried to comfort her, she only cried harder, the torrent of her feelings unleashed and now allowed to flow freely. As he drew her back against the pillows, lying with her, she curled against him and took comfort in his strength.
It was a long while before she became calm again. Guy was silent, allowing her to regain her bearings in her own time. When at last her tears ceased, she wiped the dampness from her cheeks. He held a handkerchief out to her, and when she’d composed herself, she leaned back into his arms, calmer…but still in great need of his consolation.
“I hope you forgive my outburst of tears.”
He scoffed, but with a hint of amusement in the sound. “Woman, do not be absurd. You are permitted to weep when such strain has been thrust upon you.”
She pressed her cheek firmly against his shoulder, sniffling one last time. In that taking of breath, she inhaled his clean and masculine scent, and with the warmth radiating from his body, she found herself enveloped with a sense of calm.
“I have missed you, Guy. I daresay that some wives take pride in managing a household whilst their husbands are away. But I confess, I was not keen on forging my way alone.”
“You cannot do without me, then?”
It was too dark to fully examine his face, but she knew from the sound of his voice that he was smiling. Smug devil that he was…that he’d always been…he thrived on being needed, and such acknowledgement made him cheeky. It was one of his most attractive qualities, and she was only too happy to further his sense of self.
“Thus has it always been, and will always be. I need you near, particularly in times of trial…”
Knowing what she referred to, he shushed her gently. “Let us speak of it no more. Not tonight. The morning will come soon enough with its difficulties.”
He kissed her softly, once…and then again. As their lips touched, she closed her eyes. And once shut, she found them too heavy to open. Already weary from sleeplessness, and now spent from her tears, she turned in his arms and moved so that her back was against him, settling into a few stolen hours of peace.
When Guy awoke, it was to the feeling of his wife pressed against him. For a moment his mind questioned it, having been without his mate for so long. To convince himself of her substance, he buried his nose in her hair to take in her sweet essence… and his entire body trembled with pleasure. He ached for her, and yet, he was aware of his own selfishness. Their son was in much greater need of her. It was his boy he should have been thinking of. But Guy needed her just as much. Since he’d become a father, he’d been forced to curb his lustful wishes…and not necessarily by choice. Managing an estate and a growing family was difficult at times, and for both he and Cassia, time together was a luxury they did not always have. Even at night, when they looked forward to the privacy of their bedchamber, they were not always left in peace. He could not count the number of times she’d been called away to see to something in the night…to answer a child’s cries or to look after them when they were ill. Sometimes, just when they were about to be affectionate, there would be a little knock at their door. Owen was most notorious for such interruptions. It was odd, but the child who was usually so bold had a great fear of monsters lurking in the night. Once he was convinced of such a creature, his nurse could not persuade him to return to his own bed, and the only remedy for his fear was his mother’s arms.
At times such as those, he found his old sense of impulsiveness returning. Cassia was needed by everyone, especially her children. But Guy felt a certain sense of supremacy when it came to her, and he might have boldly demanded his rights as a lord and husband…were it not for her tender influence. She tried as often as she could to give her attention to him. Now and then they would steal away together, and he craved those times more than anything in the world. When he needed her, she was always there…just as she was for everyone she loved.
But she was no deity, though he’d often compared her to one. She was very much a mortal woman, with her own feelings and needs…and limitations. He thought of his words to her that afternoon…how he had talked of making demands of her. Then, he recalled the scene of just a few hours ago. Her tears had been difficult to witness, for he could hardly bear the notion of her suffering. To see her so vulnerable, so fearful, it brought a terrible sense of guilt upon him.
It was true that old habits and ways were not easy to change. But he reminded himself that he was not who he once was. That selfish good-for-nothing from Nottingham was no more. For the love of Heaven, he was the Earl of Gisborne. This was his manor now…his lands and tenants. His brother-in-law, once the master and owner of this vast estate, had moved on to a separate property that was closer to court. Stephen DeWarren had willed the manor to his sister…and by law, it now belonged to Guy, who was not ignorant of the value such holdings brought. Nor was he ignorant of its expectations.
I am older and wiser, he thought. I am capable of being altruistic. Cassia made a sudden little noise in her sleep that was something like a moan of pleasure…and there was something about the sound that thrilled him. He smirked, reminding himself that his thoughts had been decent only a moment before. I can be considerate, he said to himself. I can…even if she makes it nearly impossible.
A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts, and it was strangely welcome. It gave him reason to make good on his vow, as his thoughts were refocused on more important matters.
As he rose, Cassia came awake beside him. She was quick to rise and come to his side as he opened the bedroom door. The chambermaid stood there, candle in hand, whispering.
“My lord, my lady, master William is awake. He asks for you both.”
Guy breathed a sigh of relief, as did Cassia, that it was not an ominous tone with which the servant spoke. Leading Cassia in, he stood in quiet observance as she sat down on the bed beside their son. William’s voice was soft, but he wore a slight smile.
“Mama, I woke and you were not here. I wondered.”
Guy watched, with a slight smile, as Cassia took William’s hands and kissed them. He had a fond memory of her doing that very same thing when the children were very small and learning to walk. When they would stumble, she would always give them a thorough looking over, and then she would kiss their little faces and hands. He wished he could give such love openly, but it would not do. Cassia was there to dispense the needed affection. Though he kept his tone gentle, there was a slight sternness there as well…as if to encourage his son to try and get better, if only for the sake of his mother. He took a slight step forward, folding his arms.
“Your Mama was resting. She has been much concerned for you.”
If there was one thing William took joy in, it was pleasing his mother. His eyes widened a little as he looked from one parent to the other. His voice was weak, but he tried not to show it.
“I am not so unwell, Mama.”
Before he could say more, he began to cough, a rough and violent sound. The maid came with a cloth for his mouth, as Cassia fetched a cup of water, and Guy moved back, allowing them space as they tended to him. He felt helpless, unsure of what his role should be…and yet, he knew of one contribution he might be capable of.
He slipped quietly from the room, returning a short time later. Cassia was behind a folding screen with William, watching over him as he made use of the chamber pot. As Guy waited, his hand slipped into his pocket to grasp the jar of camphor. If there was a time to take a leap of faith, there was no better time than the present. But he would do so in private…not in the presence of a servant who might be too curious about what he would attempt. He turned to the girl, and with a gesture of his head, he silently dismissed her. When he was certain she was long enough away, he took the container from his pocket. As Cassia helped William back to bed, Guy came to sit beside her…and slowly, he slipped the jar into her hand. For a long moment she looked at it. Then she turned to William, who was struggling for breath and cringing.
“Mama, may I have tea? It helps me feel better.”
Cassia tried to smile. “Soon, darling. I promise I will make it for you. But first, there is something I must apply to your chest. It is a healing salve, and if it pains you in any way, you must tell me instantly.”
William nodded, his trust in his mother unwavering. With a cautious hand, Cassia opened the jar, and with slightly unsteady fingers, she began rubbing the medicine on his throat and chest. Almost before she’d finished, he remarked at the odd sensation it produced.
“It is cold, Mama.”
She removed her hand, her expression troubled. “Are you in pain? How do you feel?”
“Not so troubled to breathe. Not nearly so bad.”
Guy could not remain silent, his own worry and curiosity overtaking him. “But do you hurt?”
William shook his head, giving a little smile. “I like it, Papa. It feels good.” His smiled lessened, and he wrinkled his nose. “But the smell is horrid.”
Seeing the face he made, Guy was amused. And Cassia was happy just to know that in a small way, their son felt a little bit better.
“I shall remedy the scent with something,” she said. “I promise. But praise God if you feel a difference for the better.”
William’s thoughts seemed to change direction quickly, seemingly spurred on by the positive tone of his mother’s voice.
“When may I go outside again? I miss the sea.”
Guy wanted to laugh. As he’d learned over the years of being a parent, children saw everything in black and white. William saw his mother’s hopeful smile and felt the slight comfort that the medicine brought him. Now he assumed that all would be well in a short matter of time. He talked of his favorite place in the world, which was the ocean. He loved to swim, and more than that he loved to fish. He wasn’t quite old enough to manage a boat, but he was skilled with a rod or a spear, and if he’d had his way he would probably have camped on the beach permanently. It was almost hurtful to disappoint him.
“Do not be so hasty, my son. We must be certain that you are fully recovered. The fish will be there still when you return.”
William sighed. “I hope so.” His tone was glum, his face equally so. But there was only light and hope in the eyes of his parents.
Summer was on the horizon, but already, the warmth drew four eager children to the seashore.
William, with spear in hand, stood knee-deep in the turquoise waters. Many weeks had passed since his illness had turned for the better, but this was the first day Guy and Cassia had permitted him to venture beyond the grounds of the estate. He reveled in the return of his personal freedom, and the rest of the family was glad to share in his happiness.
Not permitted to wander out too deeply, Owen happily stomped about in the shallow waters. Nearby, Thea and Evelyn worked together on a sand castle. As they created towers, dug moats, and shoveled out trenches to let in seawater, Guy and Cassia sat nearby, watching. Cassia wore a joyful expression, observing the rare occasion of their children in peaceful co-existence. She sighed, a happy sound.
“Oh, the miracles the Lord doth bring.”
Guy smiled at her remark. “I suppose we’d best savor such a moment. Much like a rainbow, it will be a fleeting joy.”
He turned to look at her, and she at him. Her look was so pleasant, so soft and full of happiness. In spite of decorum’s notion that affection should not be on public display, he found he was too happy at that moment to care. He leaned in to steal a kiss…but a sudden commotion made them turn to look. It happened so quickly they hardly had time to react, as they watched Owen charging at full speed towards his sisters’ project. Destruction was his intent. But he did not count on Evelyn, who was not about to see her art ruined. She was rarely aggressive, but it seemed this occasion called for a strong defense, and with a forceful shove of her hands she knocked Owen backwards into the water. He landed on his back in the wet sand, stunned…and then he sat up, wailing loudly. But there was little reaction from his siblings. William paid no attention as he concentrated on his fishing. Evelyn went back to her project with Thea, who snorted with a remark, “Horrid brat.”
Guy and Cassia both sighed. He watched as she went to Owen and helped him up, and he listened as she scolded him for his malicious intent…even as she checked him over for injuries.
The moment of peace had been more fleeting than they’d expected. And there was no hope of knowing when, or if, it would return again.