Guy watched Cassia as she spread rushes over the floor. He was not sure why he cared to observe her, doing the same mundane tasks that she did nearly every day. Perhaps it was mere boredom that led him to study her. After lying about now for more than a month, the idleness was driving him to near madness. He was sure it was that which drew him to observe.
But there was also the knowledge that under that quiet demeanor of hers, there was a little spitfire. She intrigued him, recalling the way she had boldly handled him on more than one occasion. At first it had left him furious, for no woman had ever spoken to him in such a manner. She was either the bravest woman he had ever met, or the most foolish, and he could not yet decide which. He wondered about her, wishing to ask her questions, to learn something more of her. But he could not bring himself to converse directly with her, unless it was to make demands.
He’d spent most of these last days in sullen silence, thinking about a number of different things. As he so often had, he thought of Marian. She had been in his dreams every night for so long, and always the scene had been the same. He would see her…an apparition, one who always remained just out of his reach, no matter how far or fast he pursued her. When he cried out for her, she never gave him an answer. She would look over her shoulder for a moment, and then flee from him again. But her expression seemed to speak for her, as if to tell him…
This is your punishment, Guy of Gisborne. In dreams, just as in life, I will always be beyond your reach.
But of late, the dreams had undergone a change. He would see her, and call her name. He would pursue her, as he always did. But halfway through his chase he would slow, and then stop, just watching as she fled. After all this time, it seemed his heart was starting to understand the hopelessness of following her. And he was losing the will to continue.
In his waking hours, he found himself thinking more and more about his little nurse.
He had taken to sleeping during the day and sitting up most of the night, preferring her company to her father’s. Robert was quiet, just like his daughter, but his manner was much different. While Cassia seemed rather content in what she was doing, even giving him an occasional smile, Robert showed little hospitality. While he was always thorough in his care, it was clear he was not comfortable with the presence of his patient.
Guy cared not what the old man thought of him. And to avoid those cold looks, he rested in the daylight hours and stayed awake most of the night when Cassia was in the room.
Each night, usually around dark, she came in and brought him something to eat. She would check his ankle with her fingers, testing the soundness of the bone. It was as painful, of course. But of late, he found himself gritting his teeth and biting his tongue, rather than shouting at her. Perhaps it was the touch of her hands that eased his temper. At first, he had been in too much agony and angry despair to take note of it. But in time, his aches and pains had started to ease. The wound on his head hardly bothered him now, although it itched like mad. Cassia assured him it was a sign of improvement, and her words were proven correct when one morning, Robert removed the stitching that had bound the skin. Now, only a long scab remained, and soon that would fade into a simple scar. And as for his foot, he found that it hurt a little less with each day…thanks to the distraction of Cassia’s touch.
He began looking forward to her rituals of care. And watching her now, he felt the need for her attention.
“I want ice for my foot.”
He saw her pause in her work, looking up at him. He knew his command was gruff. And for a moment, he did not think anything of it. But then, he saw something in her look that made him realize his own harshness. He knew he should have tempered his tone of voice. And so he added, almost reluctantly…
“If you please.”
Her expression softened then. As she left the room to get the ice for him, he watched her go.
Whenever she tested his foot, she was always so gentle, and she was quick to re-apply the ice and the linen wrapping. She did so upon her return, and the cold was a great relief to his pain.
But it was the feeling of her fingers against his skin that he found most soothing…and, in a strange way, thrilling. Her hands were so warm, so soft. Each time she brushed her fingers against him, he felt a charge shoot up his knee, through his leg…and more often of late, the feeling spread to his groin. But he wasn’t embarrassed by it. Hell, he was only human. And she was quite lovely to look at, even if she was only a lowly peasant.
What would it be like to have those little hands of hers moving up his leg? Touching his knee, grazing his thigh. Then wandering higher…
“Is something wrong?”
She’d been watching him, it seemed. And to the sudden interruption of his thoughts, he shook his head and groaned.
“I am in pain.”
If you only knew what kind, you would probably run from the room in a fright.
He nearly grinned at his own wicked thoughts. But a moment later he felt a different kind of reflex, when her nail accidentally brushed the sole of his foot. His leg jerked, and he gave a little cry of surprise, to which she gave him a curious look. And then she grinned as she realized what she had done.
“Sir Guy of Gisborne has ticklish feet? Well my, oh my, the little surprises that life brings.”
He felt his face flush with shame. Not since he was a little boy had anyone tickled his feet, or for that matter, even known of the embarrassing ailment. He tried to withdraw his foot from her reach, but she smirked as she reached out and stroked his sole again. Giving another little shout of protest, his temper suddenly flared at the weakness she had found in him.
“Do not do that again!”
She withdrew her hand, the smile falling away from her face. Now came that familiar look of displeasure in her eyes. It was a look she had worn several times. It was a scolding look – one he had grown accustomed to, and in a strange way, almost fond of. But as he looked at her, he saw a change in her eyes. They flashed with a furious light, and it intrigued him – until she proceeded to take her anger out on his foot, which she wrapped more tightly than ever she had before, to the point of making it uncomfortable. Her hurried and roughly-handled mannerisms amused him. But when she suddenly left the room, and did not immediately return, he felt a twinge of regret.
But it was only a twinge. A slight sense of remorse, which he tried to push away quickly.
Hadn’t he spent enough time wallowing in guilt over a woman? And what had it gotten him other than months of living in hell? Crossing his arms over his chest, he was damned determined not to give in to his remorse. But as time crept by, and she did not return, he found the silence and the empty room too much to endure. He opened his mouth to call her name. But he hesitated briefly.
I will not cry out for her like a fool. I do not feel that remorseful at hurting her feelings.
“Cassia DeWarren!” he called at last. It wasn’t a furious shout, but neither was it kind. He hoped he didn’t sound either too demanding or too soft. Somewhere in the middle was what suited his current mood. And would she answer at all? Would she pull one of her little tricks and say nothing, leaving him stranded? It would be just like her, the little hardhead that she was, to teach him a lesson in obedience that he didn’t want to learn. With each passing moment, he grew more and more frustrated that she did not return. Growing angry, he was about to call out and demand her presence. But she suddenly appeared in the doorway. And she had brought something with her.
“These are for you to use. A woodcarver made them for us to serve patients.” She brought him a pair of crutches, and at the sight of them, he balked.
“You will have me hobbling around like a cripple?”
Her voice rose sharply. “You will use them or you will be a cripple!”
As before, the sudden rise of her voice took him by surprise. But this time, there was no soft apology afterwards. With her brow set sternly, she came to him and yanked away the blanket that covered him. Tossing it aside, she took firm hold of his arm.
“I have let you lay about long enough. Your muscles will soon suffer from ill use.”
With a strength he had never seen in a woman, especially one of her slight stature, she hefted him to a sitting position. Her manner was almost rough, as was her way of speaking. It was the first time he had seen her so unkind, and it left him at a loss. He looked perplexed as she ranted, yanking his arm around her shoulders to support him.
“The sooner you are up, the sooner you shall heal. And then you can return to your precious sheriff and your vile treatment of all of mankind. The only gratitude my father and I request is that you never make us lay eyes on you again. Now put your foot on the floor and stand!”
Forceful as she was, he found himself doing exactly what she said, and without argument. He was too stunned to fight her. And in a moment he found the crutches under his arms. His one good foot was on the floor…his bad foot was lifted instinctively. The poles supported his weight. And he was standing on his own, for the first time in more than a month. He could feel his leg wavering slightly, his arms shaking a bit as his body adjusted to the strange distribution of weight.
“Now you will walk.” She spoke firmly. And he gave her an odd look. She had forced him to stand, and he had managed. But now she was demanding that he walk as well?
“How in the name of all that is holy am I supposed to walk with these blasted things?”
She grumbled impatiently. But she showed him just what to do, how to lean just so and move properly. He could hardly believe what he was doing, hopping around on one leg like a fool. But he was moving, and the accomplishment outweighed mere pride. Besides, who was there to see it? Robert was asleep in the next room. And as for Cassia…
He examined her, having a strange desire to see a look of pride in her eyes - pride at how far she had brought her patient in his healing. He cursed himself for his thoughts, his pride not yet willing to extend the smallest amount of thankfulness to her. Gratitude had never been one of his strong points. Hell, he could not recall the last time he had given anyone the smallest bit of praise.
But despite himself, he could not help what he felt…the need to acknowledge her in some way. And he found he did not like that look on her face. That air of contempt. Though he had caught that look on occasion, it was not the softer, gentler look he had grown quite accustomed to. He wanted to bring the softness back to her features. But he couldn’t bring himself to thank her up front. He tried to keep an edge to his voice.
“You are kinder than you should be. Even when you scowl in that way, it fails to hide your generous nature.”
She did not look up, but he heard her give a little huff, as though she doubted his sincerity.
“Take care, my lord. You are not given to compliments, and you might strain yourself with the effort.”
Despite his best effort against it, a smile broke on his face. “You are a sharp-tongued little witch, aren’t you?”
She sighed. “Only when the occasion calls for it, my lord. And forgive my manner of speaking, but with you, the occasion is called for more often than not.”
A bubble of laughter came up in his throat, but he swallowed it down before she could hear it. It was difficult to recall the last time he had truly been amused by something. But in her strange way of doing things, Cassia had managed to bless him with a few moments of joy. Not so long ago, he would have enjoyed seeing distress or fear in her eyes. But looking at her now, he realized that it was something he was unlikely to ever see. And strangely enough, he was pleased by the fact. There was something to be said about a woman who carried herself so bravely.
A sudden thought of Marian came to him. She had possessed such spirit and courage, just like Cassia. They even shared a familiar stubbornness in their loyalties. But Marian’s loyalty had been to her king, her country…and to Robin Hood. The man she had loved all along.
You are despicable, Guy of Gisborne.
Even after all this time, it still tortured him to think of those words. And looking at Cassia, he wondered if she would soon turn on him as well. Was he a fool to think there was such a thing as a truly noble woman?
Then his thoughts drifted to a small while ago, when she had first come to him with the crutches, her expression furious and almost disgusted. She had been ready at that moment to wash her hands of him, and she had told him so. But in that same dark look, he was sure he had seen a glimpse of pain. Was she truly tired of him, or was she guarding herself against hurt feelings? Did she really care what he thought, or was she just pretending?
It had been so long since he had considered how his words and actions affected someone else. Except for Marian, of course. He had treated her like the most precious of gems, and in the end it had all been for naught.
If he showed Cassia that same kindness…if he opened himself up to her, would she turn out to be an illusion as well?
He thought about each night that she had spent at his side. When he ranted and raved, she was always there. Even when she left him alone as a means of scolding him, he could always be sure that she would soon return to make sure he was taken care of.
If she is an actress, he thought, She is a damned good one.
Did he dare to hope? Was it truly possible that someone could have real feeling for him? Part of him wanted desperately to believe it. But another side of him still doubted it, fearing that the growing little flame of hope would soon be dashed. He had to know, one way or the other. And the only way was to draw the answer out of her.
Weary from his movements around the room, he made his way back to the bed, sitting on the edge. And he looked at her, his expression suddenly dark.
“Why are you so quick to be rid of me?”
Her eyes grew large at his question, but he didn’t let her wounded look deter him. “Have you no loyalty for your lord and master?”
She opened her mouth a little, but before she could answer, he grasped her collar and yanked her close, his voice dark.
“Are you a follower of Robin of Locksley? How do I know you are not one of his outlaws?”
He saw her face grow red with fury. The rage in her voice was shocking.
“How dare you accuse me of associating with him!”
He kept her arm tight in his grip. “Answer me! Are you one of his harlots?”
She yanked her arm away…and then he felt his neck whipped to the side as she slapped him hard across the face. But her reply stung and shocked him more than the blow.
“Damn you, Guy of Gisborne! And damn Robin of Locksley with you! You are bastards both, and I hope you rot in hell!”
Guy sat in utter shock. Had she just cursed both him and Robin of Locksley to hell? She dared to put both of them in the same category of worthlessness? What in God’s name had prompted such an outburst of hatred?
He would know the answer to this mystery, and immediately. Reaching for his crutches, he was ready to attempt a walk across the floor and into the main room to find her. But he gave pause for a moment. In her raging frame of mind, she would probably launch something at his person in an attempt to wound him, and in his inept state, he would probably not be able to defend himself. No, he would wait a little longer to pursue answers from her. But he would learn something about all of this somehow. From someone.
He heard the sound of Robert’s voice coming from the next room. In reply, it was not Cassia’s voice he heard. It was that of the old woman, Matilda. And he listened to their conversation.
“Her hatred for Robin of Locksley will never cease, you know. You cannot expect it to. She has every right to blame him.”
“Twas’ not Robin’s fault that the men of Nottingham followed their king to war.”
“They did not follow their king, Robert DeWarren. They followed Robin Hood. And because of him, you lost your son. And Cassia lost both her brother and her husband. Her heart was twice broken, and such a cruelty may never be undone.”
She is a widow.
The notion was an utter shock to his brain. He was glad to hear Matilda asking Robert to accompany her home. They would be gone for some time, thank God. But he was pleased to hear the sound of Cassia’s voice bidding them both a safe journey. She had not gone far, so it seemed. That was good. He would go after her now before she had a chance to escape. Reaching for his crutches, he hobbled into the front room, where he found her sitting in front of the fire. She must have sensed his presence, for even though she did not turn to look at him, she cursed him with vehemence.
“Do not speak to me.”
There was so little furniture in the room. Only a large side table, a spindle, and two chairs in front of the hearth. He limped over to one and sank down in it, exhausted from the effort of moving. But he was not too tired to forget what he had come in search of.
He wanted answers.
“Why did you not say you were a widow?”
“What business is it of yours?”
There was such loathing in her voice. And he did not like it.
He was accustomed to others not liking him. No one thought of him favorably, and he had learned long ago not to be hurt by such disdain for his person. Why, then, did he feel such a troubling sensation about Cassia? Perhaps, he realized, it was because they shared something of a common loathing for a certain outlaw.
“So,” he said, “You despise Robin of Locksley, do you?”
Silence was the reply. He ground his teeth, feeling frustrated by her lack of response. The stubborn witch knew just how to get his gile.
“Is it true that you blame him for the death of your brother…and your husband?”
Still she said nothing. And he had grown tired of the silence.
“You will answer me!”
“Yes! I blame him for everything! Are you now quite satisfied?”
He looked at her, taking in the sight of her in the light of the flames. How appropriate it was that firelight brought out a beauty in her that he had only briefly noticed before. She was full of fire, this woman – that, he had learned from the start. But he had never dreamed that he would share such a kinship with her.
“You have suffered much because of him.”
Her eyes were on the fire, but she answered. “Many have suffered because of him. Even you, my lord.”
“Do not call me that!”
At last she turned to look at him. Her eyes were narrowed, her anger at him still quite evident. He tried to soften his tone.
“I call you by your name, so you will call me by mine.”
Her look turned to one of curiosity…a look that was much more preferable than her look of disdain. One of her little smiles would have been a great gift at that moment, but he did not want to push too hard. It was enough for the moment that she was not throwing him out entirely. After the way he had handled her just a little while ago, he wouldn’t have blamed her. He watched as she turned her attention back to the hearth. And he found himself watching her again, enjoying the way her lean little figure was bent over the fire. She looked so soft and feminine, bathed in the glow of firelight.
What would she do if he went to her right then, pushed her to the floor and kissed her? It had been too long since he had known the sweetness of a woman’s mouth. He hadn’t properly kissed a woman since Marian, and she had never been truly willing. She had never been soft and yielding when he pressed his lips to hers. He recalled the way she grew tense at the feeling of his hands upon her. He silently cursed himself as he reflected on it. What a fool he had been not to see that her hesitation hadn’t been born of girlish naiveté, but of contempt for his touch.
There had been other women since her, but kitchen maids and serving wenches didn’t spend much of their time with kissing. And suddenly he wondered…
How sweet would it be to have a woman like Cassia in his bed?
Watching her, seeing her stoke the logs in the fire, he felt a fierce wave of heat surge through his blood. Only one thought kept him from going to her…from acting on the impulse to press her down on the floor.
She is a widow.
The idea that she was no innocent…that she had once belonged to a husband…still had a great hold on his mind. The woman before him was truly that. A woman. She was not a simple maiden. There was much more to learn about her. And he intended to satisfy his curiosity.
“What was your husband’s name?”
She paused in her actions, but did not look at him. It was a long moment before he got his answer.
“Edwin,” she replied.
He knew he had no right to pry, but he was too curious. “What of him?” he asked. “What sort of man was he?”
He wanted to know, and he intended to press for information, even if it made her uncomfortable. He was glad, then, when she answered his question without much hesitation, although she still kept her eyes from him.
“He was a sword maker. The Middleton men were all fine craftsmen of the blade. My brother was apprentice to Edwin’s father.”
A sword maker, Guy thought. Such men of talent were of great value in society, even though they were without rank. He could now see what a great loss it must have been for Cassia. Not only had she lost a husband, and a chance for a home and family, but with her husband’s death, she had lost her chance for something better in life. To be a merchant’s wife would have been something of value. Not so high a place as a noble, but not so poor a position as she was in now.
That point of curiosity satisfied, he now found another matter creeping into his thoughts…one of a much more personal nature. As before, he knew he should not ask it. And as before, he did so all the same.
“Did you love him?”
She turned to him, wide-eyed with surprise at his question. He looked into those eyes of hers…so dark, so beautiful.
And so lonely.
Why had he not seen it before? Maybe he had been too busy trying to find fault with her. Or perhaps he’d simply refused to let himself see deeper into her soul. But now that he knew these things about her, everything seemed to change. She was young and beautiful. It was ridiculous to have thought her unwed at her age. Or widowed, as the case was. To his question, she gave a tiny shrug of her shoulders.
“He was my husband. And in the short time we had together, he was kind and generous. So yes, I loved him.”
There was something in her answer that he did not like. It would have been more tolerable if she had spoken ill of her late husband. If she had told a story of a cold, cruel man who cared little for his mate, it would have given him something to use as leverage. He could have told her how she was better off without such a man. And if only her lost mate had been a villain, perhaps the feeling of resentment growing in his heart would not be as strong. Silently he muttered to himself.
You are such a fool, Gisborne. What right have you to envy a man you never knew?
But then he thought of her soft little hands touching someone else…her sweet voice whispering in someone else’s ear. These last weeks, he had grown so accustomed to her. At times, he had wondered what had first possessed him to wish her away. Now, as he sat watching her, he imagined her gentle attentions being bestowed on another…and it sent a fierce wave of jealousy through him.
Another man had already claimed her, when he’d been toying with the notion of keeping her for himself. It brought a deep scowl to his expression, and he directed his questioning along a more inappropriate path.
“Did he please you?”
If she had jumped up and slapped him a second time for such a question, it would not have surprised him. But his jealousy was stirred, and he had to know.
What did he manage to do for you, Cassia, in just a fortnight?
His eyes held hers, urging her to tell him what he wanted to know. But she turned her back to him. Her reply was cool.
“That is hardly something to discuss with a man not my husband.”
Husband. Just the mention of the word made him burn with envy. But in that same moment of spite, a sense of opportunity arose.
A lovely, vulnerable woman like Cassia, left alone for all these years. It seemed so wrong. What she needed was companionship. A little smirk rose in the corner of his mouth as he imagined what kind of companionship he could give her.
Perhaps it was better that she was no simpering virgin. They were more trouble than he cared to tolerate. He’d occasionally thought about making her his own…and now that he knew there was no need to school her in matters of the flesh, the idea of having her was more enticing than ever.
She would probably be more than willing. He recalled how he had once imagined her submitting in fear to him. But now, that thought was almost laughable. She wouldn’t tremble with fear. Not her.
She would tremble with a feeling much more profound and pleasurable. And if he had anything to do with it, she would soon lose any lingering memories she had of another man. From this day on, he would be the only man she would think of.