The swaying of the ship was a determent to sleep. So was the snoring that was coming from the corner of the room. Guy looked over at the pallet in the corner where Matilda was sleeping. During these days of their journey, he had found her to be an interesting companion. To pass the time, he had taught her how to play dice and cards, and he was hardly surprised when she was soon beating him consistently. It was further evidence to him of why Cassia was so clever. Clearly, it was an inherited trait. Together, the two of them were changing his ideas about women.
He lay on his back, his eyes open, even while his body and mind longed for rest. The moving of the ship and Matilda's snoring were not the only reasons he lay there, wide awake.
Cassia, he thought, a deep sigh escaping him. He missed her dreadfully. How could he not? There was no one on earth like her. Her laughter, her smile - both given so freely when she felt inclined to express them, and when expressed, both were as brilliant as sunshine. He had known many women, both intimately and non-intimately, and not a one of them could match her. They were all so practiced in their manners and responses, giving such thought to how they should speak and behave. If they had feelings they wished to express, whether happy or sad, they controlled them with an iron will that had been drummed into them from childhood.
What she felt, she did not contain. When she was angry, she showed it. When she was sad, she let her tears and emotions flow without shame. But most of all, when she loved, she loved with her entire heart and being.
Turning to his side, he inhaled deeply and closed his eyes, overwhelmed with thoughts of her. Such delightful, tender, and sensuous memories. The sweetness of her touch and her kisses, and the look of joy in her eyes - the smile on her lips - when she bestowed them on him. Each gesture was a loving gift, given with eagerness. Looking into her eyes, seeing the tender expression on her face, he never doubted that she loved him entirely. He felt a sweet ache in his heart at the thought of it. And in the same measure, he felt the painful impact of her loss.
These cruel feelings were nearly unbearable. He wanted to know the comfort and joy he had found having her beside him in the night. It was frustrating to turn in his sleep and find emptiness where she should have been. He longed for the soft, warm figure that he loved to gather close to himself - the body that eased his loneliness and fed his desires. His heart was filled to overflowing with love, even when they were apart in this way, but his physical being was in such utter misery. Memories would not sustain him for much longer. If they did not reach the coast soon, he feared for the state of his own mind. And once they were on dry land at last, he did not intend to waste any time.
Oh, that I were a hawk, he thought. For then would I fly away to the nest of a dove, and find peace...
Two months later...
The days and months were gone at last. A week aboard a ship, crossing the channel from England to France. And then, the long and tedious journey from the north of France to the south of it - a journey of more than five-hundred miles. All was behind them now. But one obstacle still remained.
They had arrived the night before and taken refuge at an inn. There, they had learned from the innkeeper that Stephen's manor was a mere three miles away, on a small hill overlooking the coast. Guy had not been able to contain his eagerness upon hearing the news. He had nearly rushed from the inn, despite the dark of night, with the intention of departing right then and there. But Matilda had reminded him of certain facts.
"Do not be so hasty, boy. Stephen will not welcome you with open arms. You will likely be met with a sword and a spear."
This was true, he realized. To barge in during the dark of night, without warning? It would be foolish, indeed. It was better to wait until daylight, he knew. And as soon as the first rays of light graced the sky, he departed with Matilda at his side.
For some time they traveled along a road beside the sea. Soon, a modest but handsome manor house came into view, and bringing their horses to a halt, Guy and Matilda looked up at it. She, especially, was rather stunned at the sight of it.
"Quite different from Nottingham, it is."
Guy nodded. It was a pleasant looking domicile built of russet-colored stone, three stories high, but much wider than it was tall. Stately but unimposing, it was surrounded by a wall of yellow stone which separated it from the road and the seashore. He was just about to urge his horse forward when he heard the sound of merry voices. They came from the beach just below. Both he and Matilda were drawn by the sound, and coming to the edge of the road, they saw a young couple and their children playing in the sand. The young woman, with her long blond hair streaming in the breeze, sat at the edge of the water with a babe whom she was holding by the hands. The man was wading knee deep in the surf with a small boy, who squealed in delight as his father dipped him halfway in the water and then picked him up again. It was Matilda who spoke first.
"Stephen," she said. "With his lady, and his little ones."
"But where is Cassia? Why is she not with them?"
He slid down from his horse, and Matilda followed. If only to take him arm and stop him for a moment.
"Let me preceed you," she said. "You will frighten the wee ones if you appear too suddenly. They may think you are the devil himself."
It was difficult to respond in any way that was calm. His instinct was to rush down the hill and snatch Stephen by the collar, demanding to know where Cassia was. Or why could he not run to the manor itself in search of her? There would likely be guards and dogs ready to meet him, he knew. If he wanted to find Cassia, he had to proceed with caution. So he waited for a few minutes, watching Matilda as she made her way down to the beach. He observed the ceasing of activity among the family. He saw the look of shock on Stephen's face, and then the awkward embrace he shared with his aunt. Clearly, he had not expected to see her again. And he certainly had not expected to see Guy, who found he could not wait any longer. Moving down the hill, he approached with a cautious but determined air.
When Stephen saw him, his expression became dark. Taking up a nearby sword, he pointed it at Guy, and after a long moment, he turned to his wife.
"Rosalyn, please take the children back to the manor. I shall follow you shortly."
The lady nodded, gathering her children and departing quickly. Stephen watched them go...and then turned back to examine Guy.
"Why are you here, Gisborne?"
It was Matilda who answered. "Do not be thick-headed, boy. You know very well the reason."
"Where is Cassia?" Guy demanded. "I have come for her."
Stephen sneered. "You have come for a married woman?"
"She is married no longer," was Guy's reply. "Edwin Middleton is dead. He was killed in the battle over Nottingham Castle."
Slowly, Stephen lowered his sword. Though the light of mistrust was still in his eyes, he took a step back, a look of shock coming over his face. Matilda looked at Guy, and then at Stephen. She placed her hands on her hips.
"So, boy? Will you leave an old woman to die of starvation and weariness? Or will you invite me to your home and see my weary bones rested?"
Guy waited, the tension growing thick. Stephen said nothing. He remained silent as he truged up the hill, and Matilda and Guy followed close behind...
Riding upon the property, his first instinct was to look for her. He could not help himself. He hoped to see her walking nearby, perhaps among the wide expanse of green lawn or in the nearby fields. When his eye did not find her there, he found himself looking up at the windows, hoping to see her face.
Where is she?
She was near. He could sense it. It was all he could do to keep from jumping down to the ground, running like mad through the front doors and calling out for her. A groom came rushing forward at the sight of the visitors, and though he hesitated at Guy's dark appearance and Matilda's strong presence, Stephen gestured for him to take the horses. He turned his attention back to Guy.
"Let us go inside and speak plainly to one another."
Guy nodded, allowing Matilda to go before him. They walked through the arched doorway, following Stephen into the great hall. A lady, garbed in a housekeeper's garments, came forward to meet them.
"Beatrice," he said, speaking in French. "This dear lady is a relation of mine. She is my Aunt Matilda. See that she has anything she requires."
There was a moment of awkwardness between the servant and Matilda, who was so used to managing all things for herself.
"How I am to manage this?" she said. "I speak no French."
Stephen replied, "She speaks some English. I am sure you will comprehend one another."
Matilda snorted in disapproval, but her expression softened as she looked at Guy. She reached out to lightly tap the side of his face with her palm.
"You are nearly there, boy. Do not let this one sway you from your mission. You can never underestimate the stubborness of a DeWarren."
After shooting a withering look at Stephen, she turned away. Guy watched her go, a slight smile briefly curling his lips. But then he looked away at the hall, examining it. To one side of the room was a narrow set of stone steps leading to the second story, and he wondered...
Is she in one of those upper rooms?
His heart beat fast at the thought, making him long to rush up the steps two at a time, tearing through the passageways until he found her. Only the sound of Stephen's rough command kept him from following the impulse.
"Come, Gisborne. Do not stand about like a bit of furniture. You will not find her wandering by, if that is your hope." He sighed. "I fear she keeps very much to herself, almost always remaining in her room. It has been rare to see her outside of it."
Stephen crossed the wide expanse of the hall, across the rush strewn floor to step upon a dais. He sat down in an ornate wooden chair, looking every bit the proud lord of the manor. Guy followed, growing frustrated at the delay.
"Where is she?" he demanded.
A serving boy came near, pouring a goblet of wine and handing it to Stephen, who answered in a gruff tone.
"Why should I tell you?"
"Would you rather I beat it out of you?"
Stephen replied with a cold sneer. "You threaten me, Gisborne? In my own home? You are a greater fool than I thought."
"I have come on a journey of more than a thousand miles, Stephen DeWarren. Will you deny your sister the right to see me now? Why do you think she keeps to herself, as you say she has? She is waiting for me, and I will find her one way or another."
The two men stared long at one another. Guy could see the conflict in Stephen's eyes. He was a man of pride - one who had always sided with Robin Hood and Edwin Middleton in his dislike for the Gisbornes. But he loved his family. And he was deeply protective of his sister.
"How do I know you will honor her as you should?" he asked. "How can I be certain you will not ruin her as you ruined Lady Marian?"
Guy was shocked into silence by the reminder. Stephen spoke coldly.
"It is known that Marian took her own life because of you."
Guy found it difficult to control his temper at such an insult. It was all he could do to keep from lashing out with his fists. But he clenched his hands tightly, keeping them at his sides.
"What happened with Marian was a mistake...a horrible crime I shall live with until my last hour of life. On the day of judgment I shall pay the price for not doing more to save her. But Cassia is everything to me. I love her more than I have ever loved anyone, and I would gladly give my life for her."
The two men studied each other, and Stephen's eyes remained suspicious. When he summoned another servant, Guy felt certain he was about to be dismissed.
If they try to remove me, I will fight them each and every one, he thought wildly. When a maid appeared, he prepared himself to do battle. He watched as Stephen turned his eyes to the servant.
"Fetch Lady Cassia. Tell her she has a visitor."
The maid shook her head. "Lady Cassia has gone walking, my lord."
Stephen looked at her, troubled.
"My lord, she did not say."
A troubled look came over Stephen's face. "Find her," he demanded. "Gather all the servants and conduct a search."
At the tone of Stephen's response, Guy's blood ran cold. He watched as the Baron headed off towards the Great Room, and he followed fast behind him.
"Conduct a search? What for? What concern is there over a simple walk?"
"Cassia never goes for a walk. She has not set foot outside this house since I brought her here."
Guy felt fear rising in his heart. "Where do we begin?" he demanded.
"Search the shore, Gisborne. I will go to the village, and the servants will search the house and the grounds. She had talked before of running away. Let us hope you have not come this far only to come too late."
For some time he rode along the seacoast, his eyes searching in every direction. But he had seen no one. Down below, where the grassy bank of land dropped off and led to the beach, the waves were gently rushing in and out. Other than the ocean and the gulls screaming overhead, there were no other signs of life, and part of him said to leave here to look elsewhere. But another part of him...a stronger kind of sense...told him to go on. Then, just as he was about to turn back, he spotted something.
Footprints in the sand.
For one moment he sank with relief, knowing he must be on the right path.
Leaving his horse behind on the bank, he walked down the sandy slope that led to the shore. He cupped his hands around his mouth, calling out for her...and he heard no response.
They had to be her footprints, as strongly as his instincts were telling him so. Looking ahead, he could see how the beach ended in the distance, changing from soft sands along the water to a rising green slope, which eventually led to a narrow ledge of rock that jutted out over the cove. Following the footprints, he saw how they suddenly ended at the bottom of the embankment...and looking up, he spotted a young woman sitting high above on the rocky ledge. He knew that dark-haired figure. He had found her at last, and he rushed forward to reach her.
Sitting at the edge, looking down at the waves below, she could see the rocks jutting up at the bottom of the cove. They would bring an instant end, and a new beginning...if she chose. More than once in the last two months, the thought of it had briefly crossed her mind. But again and again, she had turned away from the idea.
All along the journey from England, she had hoped and prayed that he would suddenly appear...that he had somehow survived the destruction of the castle, and would come for her. At the manor, she had found herself staring out the window each day, looking for that imposing dark horse with its dark rider, galloping forth to claim what belonged to him. Despite her misery, she clung to hope of their reunion.
He will come, she told herself. Soon, he will come.
Her one small light of happiness was her newfound family. Rosalyn was warm and gracious, welcoming her instantly and trying her best to make her feel wanted. She would sit with her for hours, usually with her children in tow. Little Katherine was a quiet and sweet baby, and young Stuart was one of the few reasons she found to smile. At nearly three years old, he was a bundle of energy that kept his mother and the servants quite on their toes. He had a particular habit that Cassia couldn't help but be amused by. When his mother scolded him, he would put his little hands on her face and whisper...
Mama, I must tell you. I do not like that.
Rosalyn always succumbed to his sweetness, and left the real discipline up to others, usually to his nurse, but even she was not always immune to his charms.
When she wasn't entertaining Cassia with the children, Rosalyn often talked of the places they could visit if they chose, and quite often she would bring small gifts. She even called in a seamstress and had a whole wardrobe of ornate clothing tailored. Cassia graciously accepted the gifts, and stood for the fittings, not wanting to hurt her sister-in-law's feelings. But in truth she cared little for the grandeur of her new life. Because of Stephen's status, she was now a woman of rank, and she had to learn how to act as one. Along with her new garments, there was a long list of rules and matters of behavior she now had to learn.
But titles meant little to her. All she could think of was the short time she had shared with Guy...how those few days they'd had together, at the cottage, had been some of the happiest moments she had ever known. Tears came to her eyes as she recalled the wonderful sound of his voice.
Why did it seem so much clearer at that moment? A strange sensation came over her. She turned her head to listen, hearing a deep, familiar tone that calling her name. She knew that sound...knew it as well as she knew her own voice. And yet she refused at first to believe it. Her head was playing tricks on her...her memories of his long gone presence still reverberating in her anguished mind. She sat up straight, facing the wind. And then she heard her name again, this time louder, clearer...and drawing closer. She looked around, her eyes searching for the source of the sound. And then she saw the dark figure rushing towards her, just like a storm cloud coming forth.
A tempest on the horizon.
Just as she rose to her feet, she was swept off of them. Powerful arms wrapped themselves around her. The solid wall of a chest crushed against hers, stealing the breath from her lungs...and an anguished voice spoke in her ear.
"Cassia! Thank God I have found you, at last!"
For several moments she was stiff with shock and confusion. She leaned back in his arms, her hands searching his beloved face, feeling the rough texture of his unshaven jaw line. Was he real, or some desperate figment of his imagination? She searched his beautiful eyes, seeing the shine of tears in them...and a wild, desperate light. He grasped her by both arms, shaking her.
"You frightened the hell out of me!"
A moment later he was kissing her, his breath coming in ragged gasps. And she suddenly realized it was no dream.
"Guy! Oh, Guy, is it really you?" She threw her arms around him, clinging tightly to his neck, running her hands through his dark hair...and as if to answer, as if to convince her of his substance, he kissed her again with a long hot press of his mouth on hers. When he broke away for a moment to take in a breath, she clutched his face in her hands and peppered it with small and urgent kisses, wanting to feel every scrap of skin she could touch. An excited little laugh escaped her as she kissed him.
"I knew you would come, my love! I knew it!"
He fought her for dominance, rushing his lips hotly over her face and neck. Suddenly he clutched her tightly and pressed his cheek against her breast, his arms locked around her, while her hands held him firmly in place, stroking his hair. His voice was ragged, full of pain.
"My God, Cassia. When I saw you sitting there, so close to the edge..."
She burst out a bold response, the swelling of emotions coming out in a spirited way she could not help. She gave him a slight shove to the chest.
"If you had come sooner, I would not have been there!"
Resting his head against hers, she heard the rich and beautiful sound of his laughter. He brought his lips to her and kissed her firmly, speaking breathlessly against her mouth.
"You will never be without me again. I swear it."
She buried her head against his chest, weeping wildly with joy. She felt the brush of his chin against her temple, and she closed her eyes against the tide of emotion welling in her heart. He held her safe and secure in his arms as he rocked her back and forth, and she heard him whispering with a trembling voice.
"My beloved. I shall never lose you again."