Standing in the hallway, close to the open door of the nursery, Guy listened to Matilda and the young wet-nurse. His children, he was discovering, were noisy and demanding – and it delighted him, for it was a sign of their good health. It mattered not what hour of the day or night it was, for they had no concept of such things. When they were hungry or in need of a change, they let the household know out loud, and such noise was a blessing to be talked about, as the two women did now. Matilda was holding Theodora against her shoulder, walking back and forth with her.
“These wee ones are hardy, to be sure. Bless their little souls.”
Ameile, the wet-nurse, agreed. She was bathing William in a small tub.
“Sir Guy and Lady Cassia should indeed be proud. What a lovely little family they are.”
Guy smiled at hearing his family so praised. He was about to step in for a moment, eager to look at his offspring before heading to his bedchamber. But the change in Matilda’s tone gave him pause.
“My poor Cassia. Such a difficult time she had. So much bleeding and tearing. It is a wonder the poor child survived it. But she has always been a strong one.”
Ameile nodded. Her voice, too, had taken on a somber note.
“I pray for her nightly. One never knows if the childbed fever will take hold. Oft times, the mother does not succumb to it until many days after.”
All at once, Guy’s joy was diminished. The blanket of security he had wrapped himself in – the happiness he had only started to accept – suddenly seemed in peril. Moving away from the nursery, he moved with swift steps towards his bedchamber.
Cassia had always been so hopeful about everything, and he had started to believe it himself. But after hearing what the two women had said just now, a familiar weight of doubt and concern pressed upon him. Only one person could shake away those feelings – the very person who was at the root of them.
In their chamber, all was quiet. The room was lit by several candles and the fire that was burning low. He approached the bed slowly, worried that he might disturb her. All week long, she had spent most of her time sleeping. But when awake, she was too sedate for his liking. To see her so frail and weak was deeply troubling. She was asleep, it seemed. And he did not want to disturb her rest. But he could not help himself. Leaning forward, he kissed the softness of her forehead. Just the thought of her falling prey to illness…or worse, not recovering…was enough to set his heart to quaking with fear.
When he pressed his lips to her cheek, her lashes fluttered and her eyes opened. Seeing him, she gave him a sleepy smile. He tried to smile back. His wanted to disguise his worry from her so she would not be burdened by it. But she seemed to sense that something was not right. She looked at him with a curious, concerned expression.
“Guy, what troubles you?”
He shook his head, trying to smile. But no amount of will could hide the sadness in his eyes…the fear that was barely held in check. Sitting there beside her, he was in anguish.
“Tell me, dear husband. It pains me to see you with such a look.”
For a moment he held back. Then, in a gradual fall of his defenses, he lowered his head until it rested in her lap. He sighed as she ran her fingers through his hair.
“You are unwell, Cassia. And I cannot bear the thought of it.”
He felt her fingers sweeping his hair back from his forehead. Her tone was soft and gentle, as it always was when she was comforting him.
“My love, do not fear for me. I shall recover soon.”
“But how can you be sure?”
Her fingers caressed his cheek. “I feel it in my bones. Just this morning I took a turn about the room without assistance. Could that be the way of an unhealthy woman?”
Hearing that, he rose up to look at her, appalled to hear what she had done.
“It is the way of a stubborn woman. You might rush your own doom by being so foolish.”
She laughed softly…to which he scowled at her, angry that she did not take her illness seriously.
“My distress amuses you, does it?”
She said nothing, only smiling all the more as she touched the cross she had always worn around her neck.
“My grandmother’s cross has always protected me from harm. I do not see why it should fail me now.”
Lowering his head, he frowned, utterly unconvinced. “You make light of your situation.”
She reached out to take his hand, and he gripped her slight fingers as she spoke in her soothing way.
“My love, there must be one of us who is an optimist. And since your thoughts are ever dark, I shall take it upon myself to be of good cheer.”
The cynic within him doubted her pretty outlook on the matter. And his stubborn nature tried to repress any hope that might dare to rise in his heart. But then, he felt her urging him to lift his head. Leaning forward, she pressed her lips to his, her hands soft on his cheeks. He knew this game of hers too well, and he scowled at her.
“You try to use one of your spells on me. You think to distract me from my concerns.”
She only smiled at him. And he tried in earnest not to let her unflinching positivity influence him. But the sweetness of her kisses, placed so gently but firmly on his face and lips, was too much to resist. Gently twining his arms around her, still aware of her frailty, he allowed himself to bask in her love…though he could not help remarking in a cynical way.
“Stubborn wench, forcing hope upon me. What sort of man am I to be so easily defeated?”
She only laughed softly, resting her head on his shoulder.
The familiar cries could be heard from the room down the hall. Guy stirred, lifting his head at the sound. He had grown accustomed to such noises in the night. But what he could not adjust to – what troubled him more than the sounds of his children - was the knowledge that Cassia would wake up the moment she heard them. Despite his protests, she would rise and go to them immediately, without waiting for their nurse or Matilda to tend to them.
He and Cassia were allowed to share their bed again, though they merely slept in it and nothing more. Intimacy was not permitted so soon after the birth, a fact which Guy understood and accepted. He was just glad to have her at his side. But always at some moment during the night, he would feel the weight of the bed shift. She always tried to slip away quietly, perhaps hoping that he would not notice. But he did notice. Occasionally he would just let her go, pretending to sleep so she could have her way.
He understood why she did it. She was fearful of losing the bond with her children, as she had confessed to him on many occasions. They had hired a young maid, Claudia, to help care for the babies. Matilda was not pleased with the idea at first, but eventually she acknowledged that it was better for all that she have a helpmate. Eventually, the two became quite friendly with one another. But Cassia was mournful at the idea of someone else looking after her son and daughter. At times she wept bitterly over the idea of it, not caring that such a practice was common for women of her status. Despite everyone’s urgings that she should allow Claudia to see to her duty, she often rose during the night to see to their nursing herself.
She was going now. He saw her slipping from the bed, putting on her robe. Leaning over, he reached out to grasp her hand.
“You must rest,” he insisted. “Claudia is capable of seeing to them during the night.”
She sighed. “I know, but I must go to them. I cannot help my feelings.”
She would go, no matter what he said. And as he had done so many times before, he rose and put on his own robe, following her down the hall.
Claudia was there at the cradle, picking up Thea…the shortened name they now called her by. While Cassia took William in her arms, Guy came to Claudia’s side.
“We shall take them in with us,” he said to her. “Go back to bed.” Taking Thea, he put her against his shoulder, following Cassia out. He had grown confident in handling his daughter. More so, he supposed, than a man was supposed to be. But he found pride in the task. And pleasure.
Back in the room, he sat beside Cassia on the bed, watching as she put William to her breast. They had performed this ritual many times before, and it never ceased to amaze him. It was quite moving to behold her with their children, loving and nursing them. She spoke quietly over the sounds of the baby suckling.
“Many men would find this practice revolting to witness.” Looking up, she smiled at him. “I am pleased that it seems you do not.”
He smiled back at her, pride in his eyes. “Most men find the entire matter of children and motherhood to be revolting. But I find it quite fascinating. Of course, no one must ever know of this. You will not let on, will you wife?”
Cassia laughed softly as they switched children.
“I will say nothing, my love. I promise. But if you think to disguise your affection for your children, you will not succeed in that. It is clear already that you adore your offspring.”
It was true, of course. While she nursed, he held William up, looking at him.
“Do you suppose they know who I am?”
Cassia smiled. “If they do not now, they will in time. But I think they are becoming familiar with you. Thea quiets when you speak to her, and William watches you with curious eyes. I think he studies you.”
Guy smiled at the thought that he might be a source of interest, and not fear, to his children. He hoped it would always be so, for he was finding that fatherhood was fast becoming a role he enjoyed very much.
It was late in the night, once again. The children were with them, as before. But while William had been sleeping peacefully – both babies had been lying on blankets between them - Thea had been in a constant state of displeasure that Cassia could not seem to calm. She had been fed and cleaned, but still she was unhappy, her little face red as she fussed. Simply out of ideas about what to do, distressed at not being able to comfort her daughter, Cassia turned to Guy.
“Perhaps if you hold her for a moment, she will be calm.”
His eyebrow lifted in surprise. “You think so?”
Cassia shrugged. “There is no harm in trying.”
Taking Thea from her, he held her up for a moment, about to position her in the crook of his arm. But she was suddenly quiet, her eyes fixed on his face.
“Well, well,” Cassia remarked, a grin spreading across her face. “It seems I am not the only one capable of magic.”
Guy continued to look at his daughter, his love for her growing with each passing moment. She had changed so much already, and she was only six weeks old. Her newborn redness was gone, replaced by a lovely pale-pink complexion and rosy cheeks. Her eyes were blue, framed by long black eyelashes. Her hair was growing as well. Soon she would have a head of thick black hair, as he had. He smiled proudly as he examined her, remarking on her looks.
“I always thought it would be my son who would resemble me. But here I am, looking at the female version of a Gisborne.”
Cassia smiled. “A beautiful creature, to be sure.” Looking down at William, who was now awake and looking about with seemingly curious eyes, she picked him up and kissed him, cradling him gently in her arms. Leaning over to look at him, Guy beamed with pride.
“Our son is the epitome of his mother. The picture of perfection.” He moved to put Thea back down, but in an instant she was protesting, her face pinched in anger as she started to cry. “Our boy is so much calmer, it seems, than this little mite.” When he picked her up again, the crying ceased. And both he and Cassia chuckled, amused by the insistance Thea seemed to have for her father’s attention.
“Your daughter is fascinated with you, Guy of Gisborne. I think she will soon have your wrapped around her finger.”
The corner of his mouth rose high. “I never envisioned myself becoming so attached to a female child, but how can I help it? She is enamored of me, it seems. T’would be a lie if I said I did not find it quite flattering.”
“How can anyone not love these beautiful cherubs? One day, our son will grow into a handsome man and be the envy of his fellows. And our daughter will have every knight in the land seeking her favor.”
Guy’s face suddenly lost its glow of joy. His expression became more serious.
“I will not permit her to marry.”
Cassia, looking at him, seemed unsure if was in jest or not. There was a curious but amused smile on her face.
“You will not permit her?”
Shaking his head, he put Thea against his shoulder, feeling a sudden wave of protectiveness.
“I do not think I shall ever allow Thea to marry. No man will ever do for her, of that I am certain.”
Laughing softly, Cassia moved closer to him, leaning against his side. William had fallen asleep again in her arms.
“I am certain that when she comes of age, our daughter will have much to say to the contrary. She will look to her father to find her a reasonable match, and I am sure you will do your very best to make her happy.”
To that he only grumbled…and Cassia smiled at his protective nature.
“Whomever she does marry, they will have quite a fearsome father-in-law to contend with. I do not envy them that.”
Now it was he who smiled. “I shall be fearsome,” he announced, unafraid to admit his feelings. “The man that attempts to take my daughter from me shall have to prove himself ten times over, and even then I may not be convinced of his worth.”
To his proud and defiant words, Cassia only giggled. And he grinned, unapologetically.
Another long day was done.
It had mostly been a routine one, except for an interesting piece of news that Stephen had shared. He was soon to take charge of a garrison. He would house a small group of knights and see to their training, and he would need Guy’s assistance in the duty, for it was not a one-man job. Though he had masked his expression with a look of calm, Guy felt a thrill at the prospect of preparing young soldiers for their duties. It had been so long since he had engaged in anything related to the knighthood.
He was thankful for the important tasks of household management that he did, for he knew he did them well, but he could not help his longing for action. He was a knight, after all. And one day, William would look to him for influence. He was quite eager to begin this new servitude, for it would benefit not only himself, but those he held dear. The future held much promise, it seemed, and he was delighted by the thought of it.
Before retiring for the night, he ventured into the nursery to look at his children. William was lying on his back, kicking his feet and making happy noises as he gummed a silver rattle. Guy had not dealt with many children up-close before, but he could not recall seeing a happier child than this one. William was always smiling, and he only cried when his basic needs were not met, which was a rare thing. Matilda and Claudia were always nearby, and of course Cassia was a constant presence. They all adored the jolly little infant, who now sprouted a head of thick black hair that curled in places. Guy picked him up, kissing the top of his head, smiling at the tight grip his son kept on his toy. For one so small, William was quite strong, and it made his fatherly heart swell with pride.
But Thea was not so happy. She was red-faced, bellowing as her nurse walked about the room with her. As Claudia turned, she saw Guy watching.
“Oh, good evening, Sir Guy.”
He put William back down in his cradle. Stepping forward, he examined the distressed face of his daughter. “What has troubled her this time?”
Claudia sighed. “She has just been changed, my lord. I am afraid it does not please her.”
He smiled as he reached for his daughter. Holding her up so they were eye to eye, he made a mock attempt at being stern with her.
“My lamb, you are truly your mother’s child. So headstrong. You should learn to be a proper lady and be calm and quiet.”
At the sound of his voice, she quieted. Placing her against his shoulder, he went to the window and looked out, waiting for Thea to fall asleep, as he knew she would. She was a tempestuous creature, demanding of attention, and when she felt she was being ignored, she wailed with a lung-power that was both impressive and maddening. Many a sleepless night had been attributed to her, but Guy secretly found it delightful. His daughter had the true nature of a Gisborne, and he completely adored her.
It wasn’t long before she was asleep…he knew it from the sound of her breathing. Handling her with great delicacy, he placed her in her bed. After bidding pleasant dreams to both of his children, he crossed the hall to his own bedchamber.
Cassia was lying in bed, seemingly asleep. He could not blame her for being exhausted. Not only was she a mother, but of late, she had taken up the duty of caring for the sick, both at home and around the estate. He was not pleased with it at first, fearing that she would put herself at risk for catching the illnesses she treated. But she scoffed at his worrying, insisting that she had spent most of her life exposed to all manner of sickness. She had not caught her death yet, she said, and so she was not afraid.
Her work sometimes left her quite worn out, but she insisted it was a happy exhaustion. It pleased her to do good, and he knew that the tenants thought her to be an angel in disguise. They always spoke so fondly of her, and it made him proud…almost giddy…to know that at the end of every day, he was coming home to be with her. She was his, and his alone, and he wondered if any man had ever been as content in marriage as he was.
After his valet helped him remove his boots, he dismissed the help. It had been a long day, and he wanted no company other than his wife. He moved about the room and blew out the candles, leaving only the light of the fire. Going to the bed, he sat down to remove his clothes, tossing them over a chair. He slipped under the sheet, moving against his wife’s side. Putting his arm around her, he put his head on his pillow and closed his eyes.
“Working your magic on our children once again, are you?”
The sudden sound of her voice brought his eyes open. He looked over at her.
“I thought you were sleeping?”
She shook her head. “I am not in need of sleep.”
For a moment he studied her, noting the inflection in her voice. Then, underneath the covers, he felt the sensation of her foot against his leg.
“Your feet are cold,” he said.
She smirked up at him. “That is why I put them there. They are in need of warmth.”
The way she was looking at him, he suddenly realized what was on her mind. She was amorous…he could see it in her eyes. And it thrilled him along every nerve he possessed. But it seemed too good to be true. The very last thing he had wanted was to hurt her in any way, and for the sake of her health, they’d refrained from full marital relations these past three months. She’d found ways to please him without resuming the deepest intimacy. But while it satisfied his basic needs, he missed the intense emotional and spiritual bonding they had shared before.
But now, here they were together. She was looking at him with such clear intentions…and he prayed that it wasn’t just his imagination.
She slinked her arms around him, moving herself so that her body lay pressed against his. They were breast to breast, nose to nose. Her voice was soft and warm.
“I was thinking, my love, that we are mother and father. But we must not forget that we are also husband and wife.”
His breath quickened as he spoke. “Are you certain?”
Her answer was a seductive, loving smile. “Quite certain.”
He was thrilled for a moment. But then his expression fell. “What if I should harm you in some way?”
Her smile became one of amusement.
“There is no danger. It has been nearly twelve weeks since the children were born. I have been walking daily, regaining my strength and energy. I feel fully restored to my previous state of health. And I have missed you very much.”
He smiled, his eyes shining with love. “As I have missed you.”
She kissed him then, and as he kissed her back, he gave a silent plea of thanks that his beloved was returned to him…returned to him, body and soul.
They lay blissfully content and entwined, as they had been so many times before. Her head rested against him, her fingers gently stroking his skin.
“Are you aware, husband, that most couples do not occupy the same bed night after night?”
He gave her a curious look. After this pleasurable reunion they had just shared, what sort of question was this she was asking? From the teasing note he heard in her voice, he sensed she was in a playful mood.
“What of it?” he asked.
She turned on her stomach, leaning on her elbow as she smiled at him.
“Do you not think we should set an example for our children? Should we not let them observe us a traditional mother and father?”
He pursed his lips in disgust. “Surely you jest. We have never slept apart unless circumstance called for it. It would be nonsense to break such a habit now.”
She shrugged. “I would like to try it, just once.”
For a moment, he thought she was just talking nonsense. But he watched with a troubled look on his face as she slipped into her nightgown.
His reply was stern. “I would not like to try it.”
Her response was a grin as she slipped away from him, a playful look in her eyes.
“Let us experiment, my love. Let us see if we are capable of managing on our own.”
With a childish giggle she moved towards the door, and he sat up, motioning for her to return.
“Enough foolishness, wife. Come back to your husband.”
She giggled again, and vanished. He called out to her, mildly irritated.
“Cassia Gisborne, return to me this instant!”
There was no answer. Sitting back, crossing his arms, he waited and hoped that she would come back quickly. When she did not appear, he debated with himself for several moments about going after her.
I will not play this game, he thought. I will not.
Even as he said it, he knew it was a foolish ambition. His pride held little sway over his love and desire for his wife, and in a moment, he was taking up his candle and setting out in search of her.
After a brief search, he found her in an empty bedchamber at the end of the hall. She was lying with her back to the door – he could not see her face. But he knew well enough that she was not asleep. And he was certain she was smiling. Coming forward, he stopped just near the bed, trying to look serious.
“Enough of your games, woman. Return to our bed this instant.”
Turning over, she lay there with her elbow supporting her head, looking at him with mischief in her eyes. Her hair was falling around her shoulders, and she gave him an enticing smile.
“I think I shall remain here for the night. I have often wondered how it would be to have an entire bed to myself.” Flattening herself out on the bed, she stretched her limbs. A smirk came to his lips as he moved closer, his knees touching the mattress. She had snared him into her game, and now he was entertained by it. And aroused.
“I would like to continue this argument in our bed. Come, let us go.”
With a naughty gleam in her eye, she remained where she was, staring up at him. She was challenging him…teasing him. And he could not resist her. Putting his candle down, he hesitated for a moment – and then he lunged for her. She giggled, trying to slip away, but he was able to get a grip on her foot. Dragging her forward, he seized her by the waist and picked her up, settling her over his shoulder as she squealed in mock protest. She was laughing as he carried her from the room.
“I am afraid I must insist, madam, that we continue our sleeping situation as it is. I am old and set in my ways, and I cannot alter my habits now.”
Her giggling went on as he carried her back into their room, and the joyful sound of her laughter only quieted when he put her down on the bed and moved himself over her, kissing her lips and neck. Her words were soft and tender when she found her voice again.
“Would you suppose it indecent if we were to go on a picnic tomorrow?”
He smiled at her proposal. When they were together in this way, he knew the very nature of her thoughts. A picnic, indeed. He could not help teasing her.
“Why on earth would you want to go on a picnic? Tomorrow is the Sabbath.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “What of it?”
“Would you rather not spend your day in holy worship?”
She lifted her head and gave him an indignant look…to which he smirked. And in response she gave him a fist to the shoulder.
“Worship indeed,” she replied. “I shall find quite enough of that in church. But after that, I want to be with you, and you alone. Do you know how long it has been since we have been absolutely without company?”
“Too long,” he replied. “In all honesty, I cannot recall the last time.”
She answered for him. “Not since our honeymoon trip. That is how long it has been. And as much as I adore our children and our family, I feel a great need to have my husband all to myself, even if it is only for a little while. No servants nearby. No family just down the hall. Only you and I, alone.”
When she was being this way, so eager for him, he adored her more than ever. He threaded his fingers through her hair, gently cradling her head in his hands as he gazed at her. The corner of his mouth rose up. A wicked gleam shined in his eyes.
“You shall have me to yourself. And perhaps we will spend more than an afternoon together.”
She smiled, inquiring with great interest. “More than an afternoon?”
He brought her lips to his, kissing her repeatedly between the words he spoke.
“Perhaps we shall slip away early in the morn, before anyone has the chance to encounter us.”
She grinned, returning his kisses. “We shall cause a scandal with such behavior.”
Gently he rolled her to her back. “Yes, I am certain we will cause a great affront.” His lips traveled a path downwards.
“People shall talk, you know.”
His voice was a heated whisper against her skin.
“Let them talk. I have been the ill subject of many discussions. It is of little consequence to me.”
She giggled, her hands ruffling softly in his hair.
“Wicked man. I thank the maker that you are not so decent as some. What a dull existence that would be.”
He chuckled, continuing to worship her with his lips, his touch, and all the love he had in his heart.
Once, a long time ago, wickedness had held a truly evil connotation when attached to his name. But now he took it as the best of endearments, because he knew it was born of pure love. Her passionate kisses, her sweet embraces…each adoring look and loving word were a reminder to him of how very fortunate he was. He was deeply loved, and for the first time in his life, he felt entirely deserving of that love.
At long last, Guy of Gisborne had found peace.