He stirred slowly, coming awake to a glorious feeling. A warm feminine body was beside him – her back pressed against his chest. His arm was draped over her waist, but wanting her closer, he strengthened his hold on her. Burying his nose in the thickness of her hair, he inhaled deeply, reveling in her sweet essence. He had been without her for so long, and the memory of their separation was all too fresh – still painful. To ease his soul, he needed her as close as comfort would allow. Briefly he wondered if he was clinging too tightly. Perhaps it was cowardly to need a woman as desperately as he needed her, but he could not loosen his hold.
She murmured in her sleep, but did not stir…and he found that for once, he did not mind. He wanted just to look at her, to think of her. In the quiet of the night, holding her soft little body, his mind was in awe of how intensely she affected him. It bordered on obsession, he knew. And he knew he could not help it.
What he felt for her was so deep a feeling, he could not express it. Not in words, and not even with kisses or the joining of their bodies. He could only look upon her, as now, and wonder how he had ever been satisfied with something less. He knew there was no way of erasing every sin he had ever committed. But God in heaven, it tore at his guts to think of all the countless women he had wasted time with. They had not meant much to him then, but now they meant less than nothing, and he wished somehow that he could wipe his memory clean.
But they were a stain that could not be erased. Those thoughts, those dark memories, were only lost when he was with the woman who slept so peacefully at his side. Needing the balm that only she could give him, he leaned down to softly kiss her shoulder. It was incredible that just that tiny bit of affection, that brief contact of his lips on her skin, was enough to bring some sense of calm to his soul.
And to spark his desire.
Lord, he was hungry for her. They had been apart for such a long time, and since his youth, he had never gone very long without a woman. In the past, he had tired quickly of his lovers. But this woman. All she had to do was look at him and his desire was kindled instantly. Just being near her, especially as they were now, his entire being was alive with anticipation.
He heard the happy little sound she made as she woke. He grinned, tenderly nibbling the skin along her shoulder and neck, and he was thrilled when she sighed with contentment, pressing back against him as she stretched.
“Mmmm. What a lovely way to be woken up.”
She turned in his embrace, looping her arms around his neck. They shared soft, tender kisses…passionate, but unhurried. And though he knew words could not quite capture his feelings, he could not fight the urge to try.
“You are so beautiful, Cassia. There is not a one who can ever compare to you.”
She giggled softly, nibbling at his ear. “Continue with this, if you please. I am quite enjoying it.” He allowed it for a few moments. But then he pulled back, capturing her face in both his hands.
“I am being quite serious. You are such a lovely, radiant thing. At times I find it difficult to believe you are truly mine to have and keep.”
Her fingers came up to lightly clasp his wrists. “I feel the same, Guy. Every time I look at you, I feel so blessed. And after what we have endured, it is truly a gift to have this second chance.”
“And we shall not waste another moment of it. Tomorrow, I shall ask your brother for his blessing. We shall be man and wife, even if we must seek out the priest on our own.”
She pulled his face to hers, worshiping him with tender kisses, telling him how much she loved him. Those sweet little gestures of affection were as powerful as more intense displays – perhaps more so, for they reminders to him that it was more than mere lust that sparked the fires between them. He returned her kisses, whispering words he had once thought never to cross his lips.
“I love you. More than words have the power to say.”
She gave him a low, naughty chuckle. And it electrified him. When she moved in an almost feline way, her actions slow and sensual as she hovered over him, his heart began to pound. She straddled him, the softness of her legs and breasts and bottom pressing against him all at once, making him wonder if it was possible to die from love and raging lust all at once. She leaned forward, whispering against his lips.
“Deeds are more powerful than words, so they say. Perhaps we should put such wisdom to the test…
Lying atop him, her arms and legs still around his body, she felt his hands stroking her waist and lower back. With an impish little grin, she giggled.
“Something amuses you?” he asked.
Feeling giddy and particularly bold, she rose up and rested her head in her hand, her elbow supporting it on the bed beside him. Looking at him, her eyes sparkled with mischief.
“Do you suppose Marian would have pleased you?”
His expression, at first amused – perhaps thinking she was in jest – changed to one of shock, and then displeasure. His mouth formed a grim line.
“I do not wish to speak of her. Particularly here, in our bed.”
Seeing his discomfort, she was only encouraged to pursue the subject further. Marian of Leaford, even in death, had been a thorn in Guy’s side for much too long. Cassia knew, despite the intense love he felt for her, that he was still haunted by memories of the woman he had once intended to marry.
“We have spoken little of her, Guy.”
He answered brusquely. “And it shall remain that way.”
Sitting up, pulling the sheet around herself and folding her arms, she stared down at him with a look of fierce determination.
“Guy of Gisborne, you underestimate your opponent in this fight.”
She saw how he turned his head away, but she was not dettered.
“She taunts you from the grave, and you cannot deny it.”
“I have forgotten her entirely.”
“You have not. In quiet moments, she will still come to your mind, just as Edwin will surely come to mine.”
Now he turned to look at her, his eyes steely.
“Why are we speaking of these things now? We have shared a night of pleasure, and this talk is putting a blight on it.”
“Exorcise her ghost, Guy. Taunt her memory. Laugh at her. It is the only way to overcome her power.”
He snorted, perhaps thinking her suggestions to be utter nonsense. But knowing she was entirely right, she persisted. Putting her arms around her knees, resting her chin on them, an inquisitive look came into her eyes.
“Do you suppose she would have paraded about naked for you?”
His glance shot up at her. She knew she had his attention now. Suppressing a smile, she tried to pretend that her ponderings were serious in some way. She shook her head in response to her own question.
“I imagine she would have worn a high-necked nightdress even in the heat of summer, fearful of the sin of exposing her nude body, even to her husband. You probably would have fought with her nightly trying to get beneath her garment.”
Looking down at him, she met his eyes and saw how intently he was looking back at her. He was silent, but listening to her every word.
“Do you think she would have ever screamed your name when she found her great pleasure? Or I might say, if she ever found it.”
At last he responded, a slight cringe on his face – but with the hint of a smile.
“My God, Cassia. What respectable woman talks in this way?”
With her lips forming a grin, she leaned down on her elbow again, her head in her palm.
“She would probably have lain beneath you like a slab of stone, never making the slightest attempt to touch you. I wonder if she would have looked at your manhood and fainted on the spot.”
At last he smiled, and he dropped his head, covering his eyes with his hand as if trying to hide. His shoulders were shaking slightly. She had never seen him embarrassed in this way, and it delighted her. He was coming around, able to at last free himself from Marian’s invisible clutches.
“She loved Robin of Locksley. But perhaps it was not because of his heart. It was probably because his endowment was not as impressive as yours, and the smaller size was more suitable to her tastes.”
He fell over into a pillow, trying to smother his laughter. She giggled with glee, leaning over to put her arms around him. In a moment he turned from the pillow and took her gently by the arms, pulling her down for a soft but heated kiss.
“Judas, woman! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“Ha!” she cried. “I find no shame in making my husband laugh and forget his concerns. If it takes a bawdy word or two, then I shall do it gladly. And now, if your thoughts turn to Marian, just think of Robin Hood and his being less than well-blessed by nature. That should certainly set your mind at ease."
He laughed heartily, a merry sound to her ears, and she kissed him sweetly. She wrapped her arms around him, and his twined around her as they shared soft laughter and whispers for quite some time.
They slept once again, close together as they had been each time before. But when Cassia woke, turning her head to glance out the window, she knew that the darkness would not remain for much longer. She was careful in removing herself from Guy’s arms. Several times during the night, she found that when she moved even the smallest distance away…to stretch or adjust her position…he would tighten his hold on her, as if he feared being separated from her. When she was out of his embrace, she crept from the bed and found her discarded nightgown. After she slipped back into it, she sat on the edge of the bed, tying the ribbons…and she smiled when she felt the weight shift on the bed behind her. A moment later she felt his arms around her shoulders, his breath hot upon her neck as he murmured softly.
“Must you go so soon?”
She smiled, leaning back against him. And she sighed. “The moon is low in the west. The servants will be up soon…and I must be in my chamber before the house begins to stir.”
Despite the words of caution, despite the knowledge that their night was at its end, neither was willing to go. Guy was more vocal in his displeasure, grumbling his protest softly against her skin.
“I can hardly endure these separations.”
He rocked her back and forth in his embrace, as if seeking comfort from the motion. She turned in his arms, pressing her cheek against his shoulder, her arms clinging to him. She tried to sound more cheerful than he.
“I will not be so far away. We will share company in the afternoon and in the evening.”
His whisper had an urgent note to it. “That will hardly suffice.” She heard him sigh. Then, he held her back slightly to look in her eyes. “Will you come to me again? Tonight?”
Her answer was instant. “Of course. And every night, if I am able to manage it.”
He let out a ragged breath. “I can hardly wait until we are wed.” He kissed her firmly…and then he smiled. His eyes were shining with amusement. “I think it is time you made an honest man of me.”
She giggled, kissing him back, wishing she could stay…but knowing she could not. Before temptation could lure her back to his bed and his willing arms, she pulled away and rose to her feet. He followed her to the door, his fingers linked with hers, unwilling to let her leave until the last possible moment. Just before she slipped out, he grazed her cheek with his fingertips.
“Good night, my beloved.”
She clutched his hand, pressing it against her face for a long moment…and then she left, taking great caution to move as silently as she had only a short time ago.
She slept quite late into the day...and cursed herself for it. She had wanted to see Guy at breakfast, before Stephen took him out on their journey to meet the tenants and examine the property. But as she lay in her bed, thinking on the night that had just passed, she smiled sheepishly, thinking perhaps that meeting him so soon again would not be wise, particularly if others were watching them.
She had a strange wish to be a little bird at that moment, so she might discreetly follow along with Guy and Stephen and hear their conversation. Guy had said he would seek Stephen’s blessing today, and she prayed that her brother would be rational. He had his reasons for not liking Guy, but surely he would not deny her the happiness of being with the man she loved.
At her request, the maid prepared a bath and brought her a tray of food, and soon she was left alone with her thoughts. Rosalyn had said that Stephen would take her feelings into consideration. And he had made Guy his second Steward, which made her think he was at least trying to be reasonable.
But she was well aware that marriages were not meant for love. A lord based his allowance of marriage on what he thought to be the best situation for the parties involved. It mattered not that she was Stephen’s sister. She could only pray that he would allow his heart, and not his pride, to ultimately affect his decision.
Later that afternoon, impatience gnawed at her as she took a long turn around the property with Rosalyn. Matilda was familariazing herself with the garden, particularly the herb patch. The children, escorted by their nurse, were at a distance ahead. Cassia and Rosalyn walked side by side, observing them. Stuart ran far ahead, as fast as his little legs would carry him. Then he came running back, a wide smile on his face.
“Mama…Auntie…I can run fast!”
Rosalyn gave him a loving smile, reaching down to smooth his flaxen hair. “We see, ma petit. But be careful. Do not fall.”
He gave a little giggle…and ran full speed ahead down the path.
“He is a fine boy,” Cassia said. “So handsome, and so full of energy.” She smiled, watching Stuart as he bravely managed the few steps leading down a section of the path. “He reminds me of Stephen’s temperament when we were children. He was always bold and gregarious.”
Rosalyn beamed with pride. “My son will make a fine knight one day.”
Cassia’s smile waned. “I must confess. If I have sons, I hope that their ambitions do not venture towards warfare. I can recall too clearly how painful it was to see Stephen and Edwin gone to seek such glory. I would prefer that my sons look to commerce, or agriculture…perhaps even the clergy.”
Rosalyn looked sympathetic. But as always, her compassion was tempered by her aristocratic upbringing…her total devotion to the rules of society and of her status.
“If only it could be our decision to make, dear sister. Sons shall follow their fathers. It is a fate that we mothers cannot change.”
Cassia sighed. “Perhaps. But it is my hope that my husband directs our children on a more peaceful path in life.”
“Does Sir Guy speak to you of his wishes for the future?”
She shrugged. “At present, we would be grateful just to begin our lives together. He seeks my hand, Rosalyn. He told me he would speak to Stephen today.”
Rosalyn took her hands, joyfully squeezing them. “Oh Cassia, that is splendid news.”
“Only if Stephen accepts us,” Cassia replied. She lowered her eyes, coming close to tears. “Without his consent, Guy and I can make no such plans.”
Rosalyn gathered her in her arms, and Cassia leaned on her, grateful for the small comfort.
As they turned back to the house, a footman appeared from within. He gave a bow to Rosalyn.
“My lady, the master returns.”
Cassia felt her insides quiver with nervousness, wondering what news Stephen would bring. Rosalyn gave her hand a gentle pat, and together they walked in, the nurse following behind with the children.
They waited near the staircase, and at the sight of Guy walking beside Stephen, Cassia’s heart beat fast. When he walked through the door, he remained at a polite distance as Stephen came forward to greet his wife and children, and to give Cassia a peck of the cheek. But her eyes remained on Guy, as his eyes were on hers. She found it difficult to restrain herself. She wanted to rush to him, to throw her arms around him and kiss him. But such behavior was not permitted, and this they both knew. He appeared cool and restrained, the way she had often seen him in those days when he had carried out his duties in Nottingham. But she knew he must have been eager to speak to her, to tell her what had transpired between himself and his new lord and master. And he was eager to express his affection. She could see it in his expression as he came close. It was in his eyes, which darkened in color as he took her hand, pressing his lips lightly to her knuckles.
“My Lady Cassia.”
He was not even permitted to give her his arm to escort her to the table. They had to walk side by side, as if they were mere acquaintances and nothing more. And when they spoke, it was in quiet tones and short sentences, as if they carried on a small and simple conversation of little importance.
“I spoke to Stephen.”
She tried to keep her voice calm, though she was trembling with anxiety.
Guy sighed. “He is withholding his decision until tomorrow.”
Her heart sank, and she fought the urge to curse. “This is maddening,” she declared. “He knows my feelings, and yours. And yet he remains so deliberately stubborn.”
“I know,” he sighed. “I assure you, I was not at all pleased to hear it. But for one more day, I shall maintain my civility and exercise my patience.”
“Will you tell me more of your conversation? Tonight?” Her voice held a note of promise, of anticipation…and his was the same in reply.
“I look forward to it.”
She smiled, and though she dared not look up at his face…she would find it difficult to look away if she did…she knew he was smiling too.
When she made her way to his room that night, she found him standing before the fire with his arms crossed. She had not expected to him this way, looking so lost in thought, and for a moment, she hesitated to approach him. But he sensed her presence quickly, and turning to her, he gave her one of his lovely smiles. He held out his hand to her. Hurrying to him instantly, she slipped her palm into his. But rather than kissing her right away, he drew her against him, holding her close. She rested her head against his chest, wondering at his curious behavior.
“You look so pensive, my love. What is on your mind?”
He rested his head against hers. “I was just thinking of today. Of all that your brother and I discussed. There is much responsibility in the position he has given me. It would be quite a pity if the duty were to be given to another. And I will let it go to another, if he does not give his consent tomorrow.”
She leaned back in his arms, looking up at him. “Guy, tell me truly. Did Stephen give any indication as to how his decision might go?”
Guy shook his head. “I am afraid not. He was quite stoic in all that he said and did. Your brother has a true soldier’s disposition. He hides his thoughts and feelings quite well when he wants to.”
Cassia sighed. Still holding Guy’s hand, she went to the edge of the bed and sat down with him. He put his arm around her, drawing her to his side.
“Beloved, are you certain of leaving your newfound relations? It troubles me to think that I will separate you from a family you have only just come to know.”
She buried her head against his chest as she replied. “You will be my family, Guy. You and our children.”
“I know. And the notion of a family…our family…is something I dream of. But all the same…”
A sudden pounding on the door interrupted their conversation. And then a raised voice made them both give a start.
“Gisborne! I want to speak with you, immediately!”
Guy looked at her, putting his finger to his lips. Taking her by the hand, he led her to the side door. Once she had slipped out, he walked calmly to the chamber door and unlatched it…and Stephen did not waste a moment rushing in.
“Is my sister here?” Instantly he began looking about, moving quick through the room.
Guy shrugged, his expression above suspicion. “Not that I am aware of, my lord.”
“Are you certain?”
“Quite certain, I think. Unless she is hiding here without my knowledge.”
“Well she is not in her room.”
Raising an eyebrow, Guy gave Stephen an odd look. “Forgive me, my lord, but I do not understand.”
“Never mind, Gisborne. Forget my intrusion.”
He swept from the room as quickly as he had come in. Guy closed the door behind him…and he grinned, quite entertained by this little game of cat and mouse. If he knew Cassia, she was already well away from danger. And even if, perchance, she found herself cornered, she was clever enough to wiggle her way out. She had encountered more formidable beings than Stephen DeWarren. Hells bells, she had taken on him and been victorious. That in itself was a feat worth a heap of rewards and recognition.
Slipping out the door of the opposite room, Cassia wound her way down the back stairs, through the servants’ passageway and into the kitchen. Stephen would no doubt come looking for her, and if he found her in the kitchen, it would provide a credible alibi. Taking an apple from the larder, pouring herself a goblet of wine, she sat at the table to wait, and it wasn’t long before she heard the commotion of a search. She sighed, taking a long draught of her wine. Then she heard her name being called…and she called back, not hiding the displeasure in her voice.
“I am in the kitchen, and I am quite well.”
She turned her head to see Rosalyn, Matilda, and several servants. All were standing there, looking at her. And coming up behind them, Stephen. Sighing, she shook her head.
“Is it such a crime to appease one’s hunger at this hour? I hardly think it necessary to send the entire household to find me.”
Stephen came forward, his face full of concern. “You worried me, Cassia. I did not find you abed, and I thought…”
Rising fast to her feet, she spoke before he could. “I am not your ward. And I do not appreciate being treated as such.”
She brushed past him, not caring that everyone was watching.
“Cassia, come back at once!” he demanded.
She heard him, but heeded not. She heard him telling everyone to return to their beds, and then he called out to her again as he followed her. But she paid him no mind, calmly returning to her own room and her own bed. She closed the door and locked it, not wanting to see him. But she soon heard a gentle rapping at the door. She heard his voice slightly muffled through the panels.
“I want to speak to you, if you please.”
“Who is it?” she asked, standing with her arms folded.
“You know who it is. It is Stephen.”
“Who is it?” she repeated.
“It is Stephen, Cassia. Open the door.”
“I ask again, who is it?”
There was a long silence…and then he replied, “It is I. Your brother.”
She opened the door to him, but only a space. And she glared at him.
“Are you certain you are my brother, or are you my jailer? Of late, I have a hard time distinguishing between the two.”
“May I come in?” he asked, his tone more gentle than she had heard it before. “I do not wish to converse in the hallway.”
She considered his request for a moment…and then she stepped back. But instantly she turned away from him, her arms folded defensively. “It is your home. You will do as you please with or without my consent.”
“Cassia, do not be a child.” He stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. “I came here to speak to you, and to offer an apology.” He approached her, but she sat on the bed and faced the window, giving him her back.
“Speak if you will. Apologize if you must. It does not mean I will hear a word of it.”
He walked back and forth, his hands clasped behind his back.
“You are angry with me, and you have every right to be. But I have my reasons for all that I do. You are my sister, and I cannot help being protective.”
She rose to her feet, coming to stand before the window, her back still turned to him in silence. Still he spoke.
“I made Gisborne my steward as a favor to you. I am aware of your feelings for him, and for that reason I am willing to allow him to stay here. But you cannot know how difficult it is for me to fully accept him.”
Now she turned to him, furious.
“He is not the man you knew all those years ago! You do not know him as I do!”
Stephen did not answer. He crossed his arms, continuing to pace back and forth. Now Cassia came close to him, sitting on the edge of the bed as she looked at him.
“I love him Stephen, and he loves me. Whatever his past actions, they are simply that…past actions. He is the only man I wish to call my husband. And you know I will do anything to be with him.”
“I know that very well!”
His shout took her by surprise…and his next words nearly knocked her down. “And that is why I am allowing the union.”
She clutched the bedpost for support, completely stunned. “Are you in earnest? Will you truly not stand in our way?”
He replied quietly, keeping his eyes on the floor. “In the morning I shall make the announcement.”
Clearly, he was not pleased with his own decision. But he had consented. He had given his blessing of marriage...and she was so ecstatic, she leapt up and threw her arms around him. At first he was reluctant to embrace her, but she was too happy to care. She clung to him all the same, tears of joy sliding down her cheeks.
“Thank you, brother. I cannot tell you what this means to me.”
At last he put his arms around her. His voice was sad, and he sighed.
“You are my sister. I cannot pretend to understand your feelings for that man…but I do not wish to battle with you. We have been too long apart for such pettiness.”
She kissed his cheek, hugging him even tighter. After several moments he withdrew himself, holding her slightly away. He placed a kiss on her temple…and left the room, saying nothing more.
When he was gone she jumped on her bed and fell back on it, bouncing like a giddy little girl.
Sitting in his chair by the fire, Guy tried his best to be patient. He had poured a goblet of wine and sat sipping it, trying to relax as he waited for her return. He was certain that she was simply being cautious, biding her time until she could make her way back to him, and he told himself that at any moment she would come slipping in like she had before. He longed to see her there, looking so soft and beautiful in her white nightgown.
But as the minutes went by, he found himself rising from the chair to walk back and forth, occasionally straining his ear in the hopes of catching the sound of her footsteps falling on the hall floor. But except for the crackling of the fire, all was silent. He began to wonder if she’d been detained in some way. Perhaps Stephen had caught her in the hallway and ordered her back to her room. But if he’d done that, then wouldn’t he be here flying into a rage? His curiosity and concern became too much at that moment, and setting his wine goblet aside, he moved to his door and eased it open. Peering out into the hall, all was dark silence…and he made the decision to go in search of her. If she couldn’t come to him, he would go to her. Perhaps it was a foolish thing to be slinking about in the dark as he was, boyishly eager to be with the woman he loved. But he had hardly seen reason since those first yearnings he’d had for her, and there was no point in being sensible now.
In the gallery between the guest quarters and the family apartments, he paused at the glow of a candle across the way. Stephen was leaving Cassia’s room. It seemed it was just as Guy had suspected…her brother had sent her to her chambers and probably ordered her to remain there. His eyes narrowed bitterly, feeling a surge of anger at the baron’s treatment of his sister. Brother he may have been, but he was treating her more like a ward. Stephen had been treating her as such ever since Guy had first known him…and he was growing tired of such disregard. Although he had never been a man of easy temper or great patience, for Cassia’s sake he had tried to tolerate Stephen’s overbearing ways.
But enough was enough. In the morning, the baron would make his decision about the marriage. If he allowed it, then all would be well. But if Stephen refused it, then by God, he would take Cassia and run with her to find the nearest priest.
Let not that which has been joined together by God be parted by man. So said the scriptures, and so it would be.
He waited a few long minutes, giving Stephen ample time to reach his bedchamber. When he was certain all was safe, he moved to her door and stole into her room, latching the door behind him. He turned to see her sitting up on her bed, a slightly stunned expression on her face…but she was quite pleased to see him, judging from her little smile. He wondered at her happy mood, if she had been confined to her quarters. But he could not help smiling back at her.
“I waited for you,” he said in a whisper, crossing the floor quickly. “But patience has never been one of my strongest virtues.” On the edge of her bed she rose to her knees, holding her arms out, and he hurried to her embrace. The warmth and softness of her body never ceased to temper any ill feelings he had. Stephen was instantly forgotten. The thought of all other things was replaced by the contentment of having her in his arms. Then she spoke, softly and tenderly, her tone full of great joy.
“He said yes, Guy. He is allowing our marriage.”
He pulled back for a moment, his eyes widening slightly in surprise. “Are you quite certain?”
She nodded, clutching the back of his neck to pull him close for a kiss. Winding his arms around her, they fell down on the bed together, embracing and sharing small heated presses of their lips.
“He is not altogether pleased with himself,” she said between kisses. “But it matters not. He has given his blessing.”
His words were muffled slightly, his lips exploring her neck. “Thank God for that.”
“No more sneaking about like criminals in the night. Now we can be together just as we wish to be.”
He raised himself up, looking at her. “As often as we wish to be?” He stroked her cheek, and smiled at the daring look in her eyes…the crooked little grin she wore.
“Very often, I hope.”
He brought his lips to her ear. “Believe me love, if I had my way, we would hardly set foot outside our bedchamber.” He felt her shiver when he placed a kiss just behind her ear…and his heart beat fast with delight when she giggled.
“You are a brazen, debauched man,” she whispered, laughing softly at the same time. “And I never want you to change. Stay just as you are, you wicked beast.”
She clung to him tightly, and as he put his head upon her shoulder, a deep feeling of tranquility came over him. For the first time in his life, he looked to the future with a complete sense of hope. There was no fear, no despair. He closed his eyes against a wave of great emotion that came over him. He loved her so very much, and at last he knew that she truly was his…and that she would always be.
“My Cassia,” he whispered. “My love and my life.”
After the wedding announcement was made the next morning, the manor became a whirlwind of activity. The happy couple, having been openly introduced as being engaged, would have enjoyed some time to themselves, but the chaos of nuptial planning left little time for anything else. They would be wed in a fortnight, which meant that every moment was precious. Cassia was immediately summoned to make decisions about her bridal attire, leaving Guy to begin his new duties as steward. To say the least, it was a hectic time.
But they continued their late night meetings…neither of them willing to relinquish what time they could manage together. The only trouble was how quickly the nights passed. Guy in particular was growing frustrated with the limitations.
“Nine days feels like an eternity,” he lamented, as they strolled through the garden one evening. “I shall be very glad when we can be done with these formalities and nocturnal meetings.” Then he gave her a wicked little smile. “Not that I mind our little meetings. I just wish we did not have to be so secretive.”
The happy look faded from her expression, becoming more solemn. She sighed. “Guy, I think it best if I keep to my own bed for a time.”
He paused in their walking, making her turn to look at him, and his face was full of disappointment.
“Why?” he asked.
She hesitated for several moments. But after a bit of prodding from him, she made him bend down so she could whisper the reason in his ear, and then her face flushed pink with embarrassment. His own expression was one of shock, for as many women as he’d known, he’d never dealt with their womanly troubles before. The subject made him quite uncomfortable. But when he saw the mortified look on Cassia’s face, he tried his best to be understanding.
“You are a woman, after all. Do not be ashamed. We shall wait until the time is right.”
They continued on in silence, and he expected her demeanor to change with his attempt at consolation. But she continued to frown, and he knew there was something more that troubled her.
“Beloved, what is wrong? I do not like to see you forlorn.”
She sighed, her tone sad. “I was hoping to be with child. And this means I am not.”
It was a long moment before he replied, and when he did, it was with his own outlet of breath. “I see,” he said gently. After another brief pause, he tried to change his tone to a more pleasant one. Gathering her in his arms, he rested her head on his breast, stroking her back. “Do not be distraught, my love. We will have children soon enough. I am certain of it. And what is more, they will be born in wedlock. I am sure that thought has crossed your mind at times. And while you wait and hope for our own children, you can take delight in your niece and nephew. They are quite fond of you, from what little I have observed.”
Now she smiled…he could hear the change in the little sound she made as she leaned against him. And then he found himself being the one who frowned.
“I fear they do not feel the same about me. Stuart, in particular. He flees when I look at him.”
She chuckled. “I have seen that. And I think perhaps he’s not certain what to make of you. You can be quite intimidating, you know.”
“Yesterday, he gave my leg a swipe before he ran away.”
Cassia pulled back in his arms, looking up at him. “Really? He must have been trying to test himself. Mock charging, like young animals do. I would not be surprised if he makes more attempts. And when he does, you should encourage him. Come down to his level in some way. Let him see that you are not so frightening.”
It was a strange thing to imagine a child not being afraid of him, and he had to wonder if Cassia would be right in her suggestion. He had spent so many years being a monster in many a youngster’s eye, and he was quite uncertain if he could shake the reputation, even now. But when he thought about his own children to come, he decided that he should attempt to right those past wrongs. And what better way to learn than to interact with a child who was at hand. When Stuart came along the next time, Guy vowed he would be ready. Even if he looked foolish in his attempts…even if he failed in some aspect…he would try and learn for Cassia’s sake, and for the sake of the family he wanted to have someday. He had failed in so many aspects of his existence thus far, but his future with his wife and family was a precious gift. They would be his chance to start his life all over again, and he didn’t intend to let this opportunity pass him by.
Over the next week, Guy was quite busy as he helped to settle several property disputes that had come about with some of the tenants. The matter of getting to know his soon-to-be nephew was quite far from his mind, as he was rarely in the house before dark, and the children were already in the nursery when he returned.
While Guy was quite occupied with his work, the house continued to be a hive of constant preparations. Additional help had been brought in to assist with the numerous tasks to be done, and each member of the house had their own jobs to do. Only the children were exempt, and Stuart took the opportunity to run from room to room, bouncing on beds and ducking under tables to watch all the activity. There was such a feeling of joy and lightheartedness all around them – and in his heart, Guy was fearful of it.
He had spent nearly all of his adult years in darkness, dispensing punishments for the sake of his duty, and trying appease the guilt he had always carried about his mother’s death. He feared that this great happiness was too good to be true. And he feared the loss of it.
One evening, on his way back from a tenant’s farm, he passed the church where he and Cassia would be wed, only five days hence. He found himself drawn to the quiet temple in a way he had not been before. In former days, he had avoided any and all places of religion unless he was required to be there. Guilt had often been his companion when he set foot upon a sacred place, and many times he had thought it certain that the eyes of a higher power were looking down on him with scorn. Anger and doubt had struck him at other times, making him wonder if there truly was a God when all he saw around him and felt for himself was misery. But now he felt that the time had come to seek a reconciliation with his maker. Standing in the silent chapel, looking up at the light streaming through the stained glass, he was humbled. Kneeling at the altar, he closed his eyes and bowed his head, saying a silent but sincere prayer.
Merciful Father. Grant me forgiveness for those sins which I cannot undo. Give me the courage to do what is right, to live one day at a time and to enjoy each moment. Let me trust in you to make all things right if I surrender to your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you forever in the next. Amen.