CONTAINS ADULT CONTENT
It was nearly dark when they came in sight of the cottage. Bringing her to his manor house was not an option. At the manor, there was too great a risk of discovery, for surely Edwin would come looking for her there. Here, in the seclusion of his father’s hunting cottage, no one would be the wiser. He stopped, looking at it in the fading light of dusk. With its drab grey stones and dense woodland surroundings, it looked dark and dreary. But he was certain that with a good fire in the hearth and human habitation, the gloom would fade away soon enough. He leaned down to speak in her ear.
“Cassia, we have arrived.”
She made no sound, no movement. He smiled as he realized she was asleep. She had suffered such a painful loss. It was no wonder that she sought comfort in rest. From now on, he intended to see that she would always know comfort and happiness, and never would she would want for anything.
The house was not grand in scale compared to some places, it being only a hunting lodge. The generous living space made up most of the floor-plan, with a separate bedroom attached to one side if the house. It was not difficult to navigate, even in the growing darkness, and Guy carried her to the master chamber. As he put her down on the bed, she made a soft murmur, resting her head on the pillow and sinking slightly into the soft feather mattress. He could not help but wonder if she had ever rested in such a grand bed before. He thought of the bed he had rested in while recovering from his injuries…how the straw stuffing had nagged him at times, prodding its jagged pieces into his flesh. Cassia and her father would never have known the difference, having been used to nothing better. But she would have better now…that he was certain about.
Better than what Middleton can provide for her, he added in thought.
Edwin Middleton did not deserve such a woman. Looking down at her, he felt a deep sense of possessiveness gripping him. He reached out, touching her cheek, and the feel of her soft skin sent his senses reeling. He knew that at such a time as this, it was wrong to desire her so. She needed to be left in peace. She did not need pressure from him and his lustful advances. But even as he told himself to go, he found it impossible to leave her side. He had to be near her, even if the notion of it was purely selfish.
Going to the other side of the bed, sitting down carefully so he would not disturb her, he removed his boots and his tunic, leaving on his other clothes. With a slight barrier of garments between them, perhaps his passions would not be so easily aroused. It was his intention just to hold her in his arms while they slept. Nothing more, at least for now. He crawled into bed beside her, sliding an arm over her waist, drawing her to his side. For some minutes, all was chaste and serene.
But then, she turned in her sleep. Where she had rested on her back before, she now rolled and pressed her body against him. Her arms clung to him, her head snuggling against his chest. His reaction was instant and overwhelming…a strong surge of lust that coursed through him like a bolt of lightning. Good God, it had been so long since he had held her this way. Sensuous memories were overwhelming him, threatening to ruin his good intentions. Just the slightest thread of control remained in his mind, and he closed his eyes against the sight of her. He took a deep breath, hoping it would help to calm his wild impulses. But in breathing in, he took in the intoxicating scent of her, and it was too much.
If he remained with her this way, so close, he would not be able to resist. And at that moment, what she needed was distance and time to heal. Near impossible as it was, he loosened her hold and moved away from her, keeping to the opposite side of the bed. As he turned his back to her, he sighed in frustration…wondering when in the hell he had become such a decent man.
In the days that followed, Cassia kept to her bed, unwilling to rise. Guy came and went in a regular pattern, leaving early in the morning and returning late in the evening. He had his duties to the sheriff, of course. But when he was about, he inquired after her on a regular basis. He brought her fruit and bread, trying to encourage her to eat, but she had no appetite. He brought her clothes, knowing that he had snatched her away from home with only the dress on her back. But she remained in the clothes she had worn, lacking the energy to do anything but think.
Guy seemed troubled by her manner, but he said nothing. There was no anger in him – no insistence that she reply to his questions or give in to his urgings to eat. She had never seen this side of him before – so kind, so attentive. During the night, as he slept silently beside her, she began to think about how much he meant to her. He was trying so hard to please her, to see that she was protected and cared for. He was allowing her to grieve as she needed to, and she loved him for that. It was something that Edwin would not have done, and the thought of it angered her. He claimed to love her, and yet, he seemed intent on controlling every aspect of her life – even her feelings.
Guy was not perfect, by any means. But thinking of him, she could imagine a lifetime of love and pleasure, and not just in the sense of physical intimacy. Their personalities were so similar, and yet so different. They balanced one another so perfectly. They matched. Letting out a sigh, she realized that she would never love anyone as much as she loved him, and somehow, she knew that he loved her in equal measure. He had not said so in words, but she did not need them. She felt it in her heart. She felt it in the devotion he had shown her.
Perhaps, she thought, it was time that she returned his generosity.
The next morning, she awoke to the sound of birdsong. Blinking, she squinted for a moment at the bright sunshine falling on her face. When her eyes adjusted to the light, she looked out and saw a little bluebird perched on the window ledge. The little fellow seemed to be heralding a new day…and indeed, for a few moments, it made her feel quite happy to wake to such a lovely sight. But as she grew more alert, looking around the room, her spirits fell slightly as she saw she was quite alone.
Guy had left for Nottingham again, probably before dawn. She felt a slight ache of sorrow that he had not stayed. But she understood that he had his duties. What troubled her now was the thought that he still remained distant. During the night, she had come awake several times only to find his back to her. She remembered a promise he had made to her on the day after their arrival here…that she would have distance and time to bereave the loss of her father. But it was surprising to think that he had gone so far as to not even touch her. In truth, she was not emotionally healed enough to play the lover, and so in part, the distance was a relief. And yet, there was a certain part of her that wanted just to be held and comforted. Sadness still prevailed in her heart. She knew she would never truly recover from her father’s death. Until the time came to reunite with him in heaven, she would always long for his comforting presence.
She knew that Guy was allowing her time to heal, but she was tired of losing herself in mourning. She needed to heal her broken heart by filling it with love…and Guy was all she had left now. When he came back, she intended to welcome him.
To the eyes of the nobility, she knew this house must have seemed simple, even unworthy in its way. But to her, it was a small piece of heaven. All of her life she had resided in wattle and daub dwellings, without much light nor space, and dirt floors to walk on. But now, her feet walked across a smooth stone floor, and through the large window openings, light abounded. Even the kitchen, which was housed in a small room behind the cottage, seemed grand to her. She had never cooked in one before. Meals at home had always been done on the hearth. It would be delightful to make a good meal here, with plenty of room to work and a real brick oven to bake with.
Not far from the house, she was pleasantly surprised to find an orchard. It was teeming with apple, pear, and fig trees, and the basket she had found in the kitchen was soon full. Once she had brought them to the kitchen, she set out again to see what else there was to be discovered. Happily, she found wild strawberries growing in abundance near the house, and a walnut tree that provided a small harvest of nutmeats. The bread that Guy had brought before would serve well to make a complete meal, and she intended to present one to him upon his return.
Around the house, there were wildflowers growing everywhere, but the soft purple of lavender caught her attention right away. The delicate flower had always been her favorite, particularly because of its many uses. Cooking with it gave food some delightful flavor, and the scent was wonderful in a bath, but it had been especially dear to her and her father for its healing properties. The oil helped to heal burns and cuts, and it soothed headaches by rubbing it on the temples. Having found this treasure from nature, she gathered up many basketfuls and brought them to the kitchen, where she set about working.
Aside from her hunger, the desire to set herself right with a good bath was overwhelming. In her despair over her loss, she had not cared so much about her appearance. But as memories of her father came to her again and again, she thought of what he would say if he knew she was being so slovenly. As poor villagers, they did not have much of anything and had no need to impress, but he had always encouraged his children to take pride in themselves. Guy did not seemed troubled by the way she looked…but then again, he was not the perfect model on keeping up appearances. Either way, she intended to see to herself again from this day on. It was what her father would have wanted, for her to keep her strong sense of self. To honor his memory, she would do just that.
In the servants quarters she found some materials for soap making. Sesame oil, potash, alkali and some lime…all she had to do was mix them all together and boil them, and then pour them in a mold. Some of the lavender mixed in would give it a pleasant scent.
After the soap molds had cooled, she brought in a bucket of fresh water from the well and bathed herself. Slipping into one of the dresses that Guy had left for her, she sat before the front room hearth with her basket of lavender flowers beside her. On her other side was a small bowl of sliced apples, which she planned to roast and share with Guy when he returned.
It was near sunset when he returned with a sack of goods, along with a few pheasants he had taken from the smokehouse at the manor. They would have a fine meal this night…and God willing, there would be other pleasures that went beyond dining. He wanted her back in the truest sense. Lying beside her at night, trying to ignore his physical desires, he thought he would soon go mad. He would have to proceed with care and delicacy, for he knew that she was still in mourning, but he could not pass another night at her side without having her for his own. Entirely his own.
As he came in the house, nearing the kitchen, he caught the scent of a sweet spice in the air. She was up and about, and cooking? He was pleasantly surprised by the notion. Carrying in the game birds and the small sacks of flour and salt he had obtained, he approached quietly, putting the goods down in a chair without making a sound. Her back was turned to him, allowing him to watch her as she stood over a table, cutting apples. He looked at her, seeing her plain woolen dress, thinking of how ill it suited her. In his haste, he had taken it and one other from one of his servants so Cassia would have something to wear. But she should have been wearing velvets or silk, with jewels around her neck and rings on her fingers…fitted like the very fine lady he knew her to be. There should have been a maid doing this kitchen work, while she saw to more leisurely tasks. It bothered him to see her working this way, although she did not seem to be troubled by it. He scowled slightly, and found he could no longer be silent.
“Cassia, you should not be doing the work of a servant.”
She jumped slightly, turning to see him there. To his comment, she gave him a curious look.
“A peasant, a servant. We are one in the same, Guy of Gisborne. We are born for this manner of duty.”
He wagged his head, frowning. “I should have found a youngster to bring here for you, to work so you should not."
For the first time in many days, she offered him a smile, and the sight of it warmed his heart. He had missed that lovely expression on her face. She came to where he stood, seeing the things he had brought.
“I need no one to manage small tasks here. When you are gone on your business, the work gives me needed occupation. And I see you have brought fresh meat, among other things. These shall make a fine meal, if you will please skewer them and fit them on the turning spit.”
His eyes widened slightly. “Me?”
She smiled in amusement. “Of course. What else will you do with yourself while I prepare the meal? Stand about with that scowling face of yours, watching me as you do?”
Her smile was infectious, causing him to return her smile.
“Your mood pleases me. I am happy to see the sadness gone from your eyes.”
She lowered her glance for a moment, letting out a sigh.
“I cannot mourn forever. And if I look on things in an honest manner, I know now that my father is at peace. He suffers no longer, and I am grateful for that.”
A moment of silence passed. Her head remained lowered, and reaching out his hand, he intended to tilt her face up to look in her eyes. He would kiss her softly. And then…
She turned away at that moment, thwarting his efforts.
“Will you skewer the birds for me?” she asked.
He felt a moment of great disappointment. But he also felt a great need to please her – to see the continuance of pleasure in her expression and manner. If doing this one kitchen task made her happy, what would be the harm in trying his hand at it? It was not as if he had a house full of people watching, wondering why he was debasing himself with woman’s work.
Going to the fire, he picked up the metal spit and stared at it. He looked back and forth between the spit and the pheasants, wondering what on earth he was supposed to do. He felt like a great fool for just standing there, and his pride kept him from asking Cassia for help. But in that way she had of doing things…seeming to sense his confusion…she came and showed him, without patronizing him, how to set things right.
“Now, just sit there and turn it. And do not stop, or the meat will burn.”
Doing as she said, he soon found his arm growing weary…and the heat from the fire was almost more than he could bear.
“This fire is intolerable. I shall be as cooked as the pheasant before all is said and done.”
She only gave a little laugh, and commanded him to keep turning.
He did as she said, and all the while he silently spoke to himself.
Soon there will be other hands doing this, as they were meant to. And Cassia…my Cassia…will never set foot in a kitchen again.
“I am not so indecent as a cook, am I?”
At the table where they sat, he saw her smile as she delicately pulled at slivers of the meat. The birds had roasted to a golden brown and tasted delicious, and he could not help being proud of the effort he had made. Along with the fresh bread, the fruit and nutmeats, and the goblets of wine, it was a generous and satisfying meal they were both enjoying.
But soon enough they were finishing the last of it. And as they did, a great tension began to fill the air. Night was upon them. The candles had been lit just at dusk and were now the only illumination, giving off a softly sensual light…and looking at Cassia, Guy knew she felt the tension as much as he did. He could tell it by way she occasionally glanced up, and there was a lovely coloring in her cheeks. The time for their reunion had come, and they were both keenly aware of it. Only one question remained.
Who would make the first gesture?
She slowly rose to her feet and he watched in anticipation, wondering what she would say or do. He was disappointed when she picked up the trenchers and took them away. As she took the scraps outside to dispose of them, he sat waiting for her return.
Reaching into the purse on his belt, he shuffled around for the little object he had brought from home, along with everything else. He clenched it in his fist, feeling quite nervous at what he was about to do. He recalled the last time he had made such an attempt…and how it had only brought him heartbreak and humiliation. And he could not forget that she had a husband already.
Legally, he reminded himself.
Edwin Middleton was her husband by law, but it was not a true marriage. How could it be? There was nothing of substance between them. No real feelings. And if there were any feelings, they surely could not compare to the emotional connection between himself and Cassia. Their feelings were wildly strong – true and deep. Such emotions mattered more, so much more, than the words written on a piece of parchment.
He took a long drink of wine, gathering his courage as he watched her come back inside. She wiped her hands and face with a towel, handing it to him so he could do the same. And then she let out a little sigh.
“It grows late,” she said. “I think a good sleep will be well for both of us.”
She looked at him for a long moment…and he wanted to speak, to say something grand and romantic.
But the words would not come. There was a look of disappointment in her eyes, even as she gave him a little smile. She turned to go. But before she could leave, he reached out to grasp her hand.
“Do not go yet.”
For a moment she seemed surprised. Then her eyes took on a loving, sensual light, as if she knew just what he was thinking of, and had been thinking of it too. She leaned forward as if to meet his lips with her own. He burned with the need to kiss her. But first, he placed the little object in her hand. She seemed shocked by the strange and sudden movement, the feeling of something he had given her. He watched as she opened her palm…and he felt his pulse race as she took in a breath, staring at the emerald ring.
“I do not want you as a mistress, Cassia. I want you entirely as my own. I want to marry you."
The words came out in a rush, as if they had been fighting to escape his lips for a long time, and were finally free. He looked up at her, waiting for her reply, half mad with impatience…and fear. There was hesitation in her words, and it frightened him.
“Marry me,” he said again, almost demanding it. He was terrified that she would refuse. He feared that she would remind him of the legal impediment that existed, and which could not truly be denied.
But he could not bear to face rejection…not from her. He clutched her free hand in both his own.
“Say you will be mine. Tell me you love me and will stay with me always.”
Tears began rolling down her cheeks, and his fear grew to near frenzy. Her voice was low. She shook her head. Then she lowered it, looking at the ring she held in her palm.
“Oh Guy,” she said.
Looking up at her, his eyes were wild with fear. “Do not speak of him. Do not think of him. Think only of you and I, and all that we might be to one another.”
“It is not him that I think of. I think only that I am but a poor peasant, with nothing to offer. No dowry, no lands. Not even simple status. You are not meant to have such a lowly wife.”
He rose to his feet, gathering her in his arms.
“I care nothing about status or rank. I need no lands, no dowry. It is only you that I want.”
She said nothing, only weeping silently. And he could bear the tension no longer. Taking the ring from her, he quickly put it on her finger…and in his mind, they needed nothing more. She wore his ring, and for him their bond was sealed. She looked up at him, a little smile coming to her lips. Though her eyes still shined with tears, they were full of joy…and he could read in them the answer he’d been waiting for. He let out a trembling breath of excitement and relief, so glad to have her as his own…truly his own. And he claimed her with a kiss.
He meant it to be tender. But it fast ignited into a fire of passion as he held her against his body. Their embrace became fierce, their mouths hungrily seeking one another, as some wild part of his mind feared that this was all an illusion. This woman he held in his arms…this beautiful, passionate, incredibly loving creature could not really be his. He was not a man to be so blessed by fate. And yet she was here with him, clinging madly to him, returning his kisses with a fierceness that matched his own.
But what if she was just a dream? What if she were to suddenly fade away, leaving him here with no one who cared for him? Abandoned, hopeless. All alone, as he had been so many times before. Desperation gripped him. If, by some merciless stroke of fate, he were to lose the one great thing he had ever possessed, she would know how he had cherished every moment they had shared together…how very much she meant to him. Pulling back from their kiss for a just a moment, his breathing was hectic…his voice trembling with intense emotion.
“I love you.”
Looking deep into her eyes, he saw her love for him reflected back. She gave him another of her little smiles…and when she whispered his words in return, the dam that had held back his passions crumbled.
Overwhelmed with need, he pressed her back against the window casement, resting her bottom on the stone ledge. With their mouths still fused together he lifted her skirts, running his hands along the backs of her thighs, grasping her just behind her knees. Pulling her forward, he pressed himself against her body, groaning with pleasure at the contact, and without hesitation her legs wrapped around him to hold him in place. He wanted to take her ferociously, to pour into her every ounce of feeling he possessed. She was making soft little moaning sounds as he kissed her, urging him on.
With the slightest thread of self-discipline, he kept himself from it.
She was no longer his mistress…some momentary vessel to satisfy his lust. She was his heart and soul…his very essence, and he would not consummate their love in this way, up against a slab of stone like some common doxy.
Picking her up, he carried her from the room. The small servants’ bedchamber was nearest, just across the hall. It would have to be there, for he couldn’t wait much longer, and from the desperate little pleas she was making in his ear, neither could she. She whispered to him.
“Oh Guy, please love me now.”
Within several strides they were within the bedchamber, and they tumbled down upon the feather mattress as they moaned together in their eagerness. Too impatient to fully undress, pausing only to remove his boots, he quickly unlaced himself. Joining her on the bed, settling himself between her legs, he pushed into her with a strong thrust. She took in a sharp breath at his rough entrance, and he paused for a moment, concerned. But when he looked at her, seeing the delicious little smile she gave him, it was all the encouragement he needed. While their mouths became as one, gasping hotly together, her hands on his backside through his trousers, holding him tightly as his muscles flexed with each movement. Tearing her mouth away she gave a fierce whisper in his ear, pleading for him not to cease. He was mindless with desire as he drove himself into her, his hands gripping the soft flesh of her bottom. His mouth fell open against her neck, his breath heaving with each lunge of his hips. As she threw her head back, crying out in her fervor, he felt the end building. It was coming upon him much too quickly. He tried to hold it back, never wanting this mad pleasure between them to cease. But when she cried out his name, her own release sending her over the edge, it was his undoing, and with a harsh cry he erupted within her.
Panting wildly, still fully clothed except where their bodies were joined, they lay tightly intertwined, neither willing to release the other. For many moments they remained so, their hearts pounding. Neither was capable of words as they struggled to breathe. After several moments, Guy lifted his head from her shoulder, looking at her intently. He could see in her eyes that she still burned for him, as he still burned for her. Their explosive joining had been too rash. And it had hardly taken the edge off of their hunger for one another. He longed for the feel of her soft skin against his. He wanted to explore the loveliness of her body with his fingertips. And he needed to feel her hands on him, the wonder of her touch unleashing deep emotions that he had never known with anyone else.
He rolled to his back, still holding her, and he raised himself to a sitting position. She moved her legs so they were wrapped around his waist, and draping her arms around his neck, she kissed him softly. As he tasted her sweet lips, his fingers pulled at the front laces of her gown, eager to free her from the confines of her clothing. Gladly she lifted her arms as he pulled the dress over her head, tossing it aside. Her shift quickly followed, and seeing her nude beauty, he was seized by a wave of lust that made him pull her close, kissing her deeply. She eagerly opened her mouth to him, whimpering with excitement. It made him wild, and his mouth plundered hers. He was ready to forget the matter of undressing altogether. But she pushed at his shoulders, making him release her from his kiss for just a moment. She pushed him back slightly to clutch at the hem of his tunic. Without hesitation he worked himself out of it, along with his undershirt, and he was rewarded with the feeling of her hands on his bare skin, grazing his shoulders and his chest. Snaking his arms around her, he pulled her body against his, groaning at the thrill of her soft breasts pressed against him. Then he felt her hands dipping down, running along his abdomen and then lower, slipping into his open breeches, and he gasped against her mouth as he felt her fingers touching him. Mad with impatience, he struggled out of his trousers, kicking them to the floor. At last they were both completely bare, fully exposed to each other in every way. Eagerly she pushed herself down and he thrust upwards, joining their bodies again.
His hands moved wondrously, exploring the smooth plane of her back and the beautiful slopes of her shoulders. His lips sought her neck and traveled down to her breasts, his hands palming the soft skin as his mouth taunted the rose-colored peaks. With his hot mouth he teased her until she was pleading with him, begging him to end the delicious torment. His hand traveled down her belly, the way her fingers had just done to him, and he touched her sensitive little bud, making her gasp with fevered desire. She cried out with pleasure, and as she was trembling with completion he continued his hard movements inside of her. They rocked together again and again, desperate for one another until at last they reached the greatest heights of ecstasy, their sounds of joy in unison as they fell back to earth together. And still it was not enough. It would never be enough, for either of them.
He slipped from the warmth of her body, but kept her in his arms as he fell to his back. Though not completely satisfied, they were both exhausted from their spent passions. Content enough for the moment to give in to their weariness, they adjusted their positions for comfort, but still held fast to one another as they drifted towards sleep.
Guy fought hard to stay awake, unwilling to lose a single moment of time, even for the sake of rest. But fatigue proved stronger than his will. Before slipping away, he softly declared his love for her again, and he smiled when he heard the faint whisper of her love in return.